31 March 2013

Responses on free will

There are two topics that seem to reliably bring people of strong opinion out of the woodwork every time they're brought up: feminism, and to a much lesser extent free will. I got quite a few comments on my post last week in which I took Jerry Coyne to task for overstating the implications of a recent study on decision-making. Rather than try to respond to each one with a separate comment (since many of them touch on similar issues) I thought I'd just consolidate my responses in a new post.

If there's any confusion about where I stand on free will, reading that post as well as this one – which was heavily influence by this post by Sean Carroll – ought to clear the air. The following quoted sections are some of the more notable excerpts from comments I received:
Yes, the processes going on in the brain that lead to an action (which we could call a "decision") is a real process, but could another "decision" have occurred given the same state? If not, then even though we cannot predict every "decision," we could not have chosen otherwise. This is what I think Coyne means when he says free will is an illusion. Not that the process we call a "decision" does not occur, but that since it could not have occurred otherwise it was not free.
I've never quite understood the notion that we are choosing, yet we could not have chosen differently. It seems clear to me that to say that we could not have chosen differently is exactly the same thing as saying that we could not have chosen at all, the undeniable implication of which is that all human volition is illusory – we are automatons. This renders moral responsibility and, quite frankly, the entirety of human experience as illusory since all consciousness itself is no more than a set of deterministic processes. I simply don't see a way to avoid that conclusion. To add to the weirdness, if human experience is illusory, then the entire concept of something being illusory is illusory. The whole picture isn't just completely useless, it's absurd.

The problem I have with it is that it confuses levels of description. Some things might be viewed as "fundamental", like quantum indeterminacy or the neurological structure of the brain; others might be viewed as "emergent", like rational volition (or baseball, to use Carroll's example). There may be no model of particle physics that gives us free will. But according to model-dependent realism, it's pointless to ask what is "real" – only what is the more useful description.  Where hard determinists and compatibilists seem to part ways is that compatibilists view free will as a valid description of reality – an emergent construct – while hard determinists argue that if it's not fundamental in some way, it's not real at all. But as I explained above, you can't arrive at such a conclusion without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That's the reason why when Dan Dennett talks about free will, he does so using the framework of evolution rather than, say, quantum mechanics.
The fact that it may provide a useless model of human behavior doesn't make it untrue. I think our ability to choose *IS* more illusory than consciousness, because it's already known that we are conscious of our choices after the choice is done.
The experiments in question (which were the subject of the post) are only able to predict simplistic decisions with accuracy not much better than a coin toss. All this does is show that certain mechanisms of choice may be subconscious – not that there is no real choice at all. That brings me to another issue, though, which I think reveals more of the inevitable confusion hard determinists bring upon themselves. If hard determinism is true, then it does not matter whether the mechanisms of "choice" appear in the conscious or subconscious mind. The conscious mind is just an illusory construct, only giving us an illusion of awareness and volition. On hard determinism, the subconscious and conscious minds are functionally identical, since they can both be described with deterministic processes. These types of experiments cannot even in principle support hard determinism, since hard determinism holds that even mechanisms about which we may be consciously aware are still wholly deterministic.

From my perspective, that's a huge hurdle for hard determinism. It's rooted in counterfactual claims ("I could not have chosen differently") that can never be falsified. It cannot be scientific, nor can it be a valid basis for understanding human behavior. What good is it then, aside from armchair philosophical masturbation?
If it could be demonstrated that, say, a fifth of time when we think we are able to choose freely we are actually not able to choose freely, all without showing anything in particular about the other four fifths of the time when we think we are able to choose freely, we would have good reason to think that we are wrong at least some of the other four fifths of the time about which we don't have as direct evidence.
In every case, the hard determinist will appeal to underlying processes – but where in the neurological complexity of the brain is there "free will"? I can't help but think that this is confusing compatibilism with libertarian free will. Libertarian free will would say that free will, probably due to substance dualism, exists in the brain in some underlying, fundamental way. Compatibilism views free will as an emergent construct of more fundamental processes – something that's absolutely necessary to understand human behavior, and thus as "real" as anything else in the human experience.

Now, a common straw man leveled at compatibilism is the idea that biological or environmental influences don't affect our behavior. X process in the brain or x environmental factor influences our behavior, thus we're not really making "free" choices. This is only a problem for one who subscribes to libertarian free will. To suggest that we make decisions free of influence – right down to the chemistry in our brains – is obviously incoherent. But to say our choices are influenced by factors we cannot control is hardly the same as saying we do not choose at all.

It's not just worth pointing out that these Libet-style experiments are both unimpressive in their accuracy (60%?!) and dramatically simplistic, but that they don't demonstrate that the person was not actually making a choice. At best, it simply demonstrates that subconscious processes occur that direct or influence our conscious choice. If experimenters were able to predict decisions 100% of the time, or if they were able to predict complex human behavior rather than simplistic either-or decisions, I might be more impressed. But remember – since hard determinism holds that consciousness itself is every bit the illusory construct as choice, it wouldn't matter whether we were aware of any decision-making processes in the brain or not. It just drives home the fact that hard determinism is unscientific and devoid of any pragmatic utility.
I don’t think that determinists are reductionists and deny anything that compatibilists believe; I think that they simply don’t deem it free will. I can’t for the life of me think of one tangible, empirical difference, even in principle, between determinism and compatibilism. So the compabilist says we make choices and determinists agree, we make choices like a computer makes choices by following a certain path determined by its code, but it’s all determined by the underlying structure. So the determinist asks, where’s the 'free' part?
I don't think it's that simple; I think the hard determinist is essentially defining the very concept of choice out of existence, and with it the entirety of human experience. I suppose we could call it semantics, but I think it's worthwhile to do as model-dependent realism suggests and call into question how we define what is real in the first place. If we don't "really" make decisions, then there is no "we" at all – we've defined ourselves as no more than a collection of particles in this or that quantum state.

Over on the aforementioned post by Sean Carroll, I found a couple of comments I liked quite a bit:
Every claim that “I did something,” or that “you do something,” presupposes free will lest those claims make no sense. When I say, “I made a sandwich,” I claim that I am the cause of the sandwich and that I alone am the cause of that sandwich. Free will is when the agent is the sole cause of something, in the sense that without that agent’s acting, the something would not have happened. Most human beings are causal agents such that they choose something without there being any prior cause compelling them to do it.
This is as silly as arguing that computers cannot add numbers. At a certain level, they can't. They can only manipulate electrons so that the relationships between the original and final voltages and currents can be interpreted as adding two numbers. There is nothing that "adds" in a computer circuit any more than in a mechanical adding machine.
This goes to show why levels of description and the concept of emergent properties are so important. Consciousness itself is unquestionably a structure that arises from deterministic processes. However, those underlying processes do not act causally in the environment with which I interact. Understanding that phenomenon requires a new level of description – the rational self. The rational self simply cannot be understood without acknowledging that we are casual agents for a future that, at least in the only frame of reference that is meaningful to us, is indeterminate. That makes our choices as real and valid as any other facet of the human experience.

29 March 2013

Frans de Waal: Has militant atheism become a religion?

Frans de Waal is a powerful voice for the nontheist community, having long advocated that morality is not some sort of veneer plastered over a darker nature of humankind but a fundamental part of our social, cooperative nature. He's often spoken directly against the notion that some sort of deity is needed to provide a grounding for moral values, and he backs up his claims with decades of research on primate behavior. I've read several of his books (Our Inner Ape, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, and The Age of Empathy) and they're all fantastic.

But despite being an outspoken advocate of a naturalistic theory of moral evolution, he's also prone to some peculiar comments deriding the poorly-named "new atheists" like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc., for their outspoken anti-theism. In an otherwise exemplary essay he wrote for the New York Times in 2010 entitled Morals Without God?, he states,
Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.
De Waal isn't the first to misunderstand the use of the word "brights" (it's meant to counter the notion that atheists are miserable, hateful people -- not to deride believers' intelligence), though that's not entirely his fault; it's a stupid and unnecessary label that, since it was so easily misunderstood, quickly fell out of favor. But he continues,
While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion?
He's conflating open criticism with insults; calling an idea delusional, stupid, or absurd is not the same thing as criticizing an individual.  And finally,
And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
There are those (Sam Harris, Michael Shermer) who argue that science can ground moral values. While I think that science can certainly inform and guide moral values, I think morals are ultimately grounded in our common humanism. And in my reading of the popular "new atheist" writers, that's precisely what I've gathered to be the common theme -- not that science in itself provides a grounding for moral values, but that religion is essentially a failed science that must be replaced with a rational, evidential view of morality.

It seems that de Waal has parlayed that article into a full-length book entitled The Bonobo and the Atheist, and while I'll reserve judgment for the whole shebang, an excerpt published for Salon indicates that he'll be repeating and expanding upon some of those misguided views. But rather than just repeat my criticisms, I'll instead highlight some of the areas in which I actually agree with de Waal.

Commenting on atheism in the public forum, he calls out the facade of debates and the contrived antagonism that accompanies them:
As if eager to provide comic relief from this mismatched battle, American television occasionally summarizes it in its own you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up way. “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News invited David Silverman, president of the American Atheist Group, to discuss billboards proclaiming religion a “scam.” Throughout the interview, Silverman kept up a congenial face, claiming that there was absolutely no reason to be troubled, since all that his billboards do is tell the truth: “Everybody knows religion is a scam!” Bill O’Reilly, a Catholic, expressed his disagreement and clarified why religion is not a scam: “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.” This was the first time I had heard the tides being used as proof of God. It looked like a comedy sketch with one smiling actor telling believers that they are too stupid to see that religion is a fraud, but that it would be silly for them to take offense, while the other proposes the rise and fall of the oceans as evidence for a supernatural power, as if gravity and planetary rotation can’t handle the job.
On this, I think de Waal is right: it's a circus. Those kinds of staged, combative arguments are unlikely to persuade anyone. It makes for passable entertainment, but it's hardly the kind of irenic dialogue that we ought to be having. But de Waal loses me on his next point:
All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical. Nothing new about the first, but atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay? In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion?
Whenever I hear criticisms about the tone of anti-theists like this, I don't really ever hear any constructive suggestions on how we ought to approach criticism of religious ideas -- especially ironic here, since de Waal says he doesn't view religion as above criticism. The mindset instead seems to be that we ought to just be extra nice and shut up about it. Let the believers have their beliefs. After all, what does it hurt? I mean, besides the rights of gays, women, and minority religions; besides the teaching of science in public schools; besides gargantuan tax breaks for sprawling churches; besides perpetuating ignorance about sexuality; besides telling children they'll burn in hell if they don't get their theology correct... the list goes on and on.

Dan Dennet once said that there isn't really any nice way to tell someone that their most cherished beliefs are nonsense, and I think he's right. While I do think the staged antagonism can become a bit too theatrical for its own good, to suggest that our indignation isn't justified or that criticism of religion itself is a sort of dogmatism (what creeds does atheism hold about which one can be dogmatic?) is sorely misguided, and disappointing to hear coming from someone who is otherwise a powerful voice against the dogma of religion.

Some more responses to de Waal:
PZ Myers
James Croft
Jerry Coyne

26 March 2013

Gay marrige flow chart

h/t Deity Shmiety:

Jerry Coyne: missing the mark on free will... again

I like Jerry Coyne and I agree with him often, but whenever he starts ranting about the non-existence of free will, I have to part ways with him. He decries the compatiblism to which I subscribe, essentially arguing that all choice is illusory. 

In a post yesterday, he talked about a recent study in which, like Libet's experiments in the 1970s, researchers were able to predict subjects' decisions before the subjects were aware of making them. Coyne makes much ado of this, touting it as strong evidence that we aren't really in control of our perceived volition. But, as usual, the devil is in the details.

While I'm not going to rehash all my arguments regarding free will, I do want to summarize – I think that Jerry's position, and indeed that of all "hard determinists", is rooted in a fallacy of composition. Quarks, atoms, molecules, and neurons don't have free will; we are made of those things, ergo we do not have free will. But as is often the case in reality, a construct (like the brain) can exhibit properties not present in its constituent parts.

Then there is the question of whether choice is "real". Of course it's real. But it's here where I invoke Stephen Hawking's model-dependent realism – the idea that there is no model- or theory-independent means of understanding reality. Under model-dependent realism, it's pointless to ask what is "real", only what is the more useful description. Sean Carroll, who nicely encapsulates my position in an essay called Free Will is as Real as Baseball, has this to say:
We talk about the world using different levels of description, appropriate to the question of interest. Some levels might be thought of as “fundamental” and others as “emergent,” but they are all there. Does baseball exist? It’s nowhere to be found in the Standard Model of particle physics. But any definition of “exist” that can’t find room for baseball seems overly narrow to me. It’s true that we could take any particular example of a baseball game and choose to describe it by listing the exact quantum state of each elementary particle contained in the players and the bat and ball and the field etc. But why in the world would anyone think that is a good idea? The concept of baseball is emergent rather than fundamental, but it’s no less real for all of that.
Likewise for free will. We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients. That’s the “variety of free will worth having,” as Daniel Dennett would put it.
While Sean doesn't use the term model-dependent realism, that's the concept in a nutshell and I think it applies perfectly to our ideas of free will. Reductionism can equally be used to argue that consciousness, the self, and virtually every aspect of our human experience is illusory as well, but obviously that's not a very useful description.

So, on to Jerry Coyne's latest post. He concedes toward the end of the article that "the decisions are not readable with 100% accuracy". Uh, yeah, that's an understatement. The actual accuracy was about 60% – not much better than a coin toss. And a coin toss is exactly what it was, since the subjects were only making a simple "add or subtract" decision – hardly representative of the complex decisions we make every day. 

But even to the extent that the scientists were able to accurately predict the subjects' decisions, they did so by inferring it based upon subconscious brain activity. In other words, the process of decision making, as with virtually all cognition, may involve processes of which we are not consciously aware. So what? In no way does that undermine the reality that we are indeed making a conscious choice. Jerry, like Sam Harris, makes a big deal of the fact that much of our brains' operations are processes over which we have no conscious control. But it's a non sequitur to suggest that because we don't consciously control the processes in our brains that we have no control over our actions at all.  Sean Carroll, again:
If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? What we are trying to do is to construct an effective understanding of human beings, not of electrons and nuclei.
I think Jerry overlooks the fact that we are our brains. Our ability to choose is therefore no more illusory than consciousness, self, or anything else encompassed by the human experience. To appeal to reductionism to undermine the reality of choice results in an absurd and ultimately useless model of human behavior.

21 March 2013

The best evidence for the existence of God is...

I spied the following comment over at Wide as the Waters:
By far the strongest argument for design is the lack of randomness the universe possesses. If I throw a ball up in the air it will consistently, predictably, and reliably come back down to the ground every time (unless I threw it past escape velocity, but I’m not that strong of course). Atheism and random forces producing random rules and ‘code’ does not predict this. Heck, trying to model the universe by writing code requires a lot of effort and may lead to the presence of random errors and bugs (the software may crash due to a mistake in the code, the ball may get lost from time to time, etc…). Indeed, writing such elegant and consistent code to consistently and reliably produce such predictable outcomes without crashing and giving errors requires a very deliberate effort. Yet the universe is able to reliably produce predictable outcomes to experiments. It follows very complicated/sophisticated yet consistent and reliable rules, interdependent rules that reliably harmoniously work together to reliably produce often simple outcomes to a given experiment. That’s not chance, that’s design. Chance predicts nothing. Let me see chance model the universe on a hard drive without the deliberate effort of an intelligent designer.

This was my reply. Feel free to add to it, make suggestions, point out my errors, etc.:
Of course atheism doesn't "predict" a universe with a "lack of randomness"; atheism is descriptive, not normative. Perhaps you mean "materialism".

But here's the problem: since we already observe the universe as it is (laws, life, etc.), no one can make a "prediction" about it. At best, you might be able to make a post-diction. But in the case of the argument for design, you're simply advocating a tautology – you can't "predict" anything by simply asserting that the laws of the universe must have required a designer. The very concepts of randomness and chance are products of the laws of the universe – it's nonsensical to talk about the laws themselves arising from chance or randomness. Perhaps they simply ARE, and didn't "arise" from anything at all! We. Don't. Know.

We also don't know whether the laws of physics or various constants could be any different or, if they could, how different they could be. You can't talk about chance or randomness without having some sort of value or range of probability, and for that to apply to the universe itself you'd need to know how many possible variations of the laws and constants there could be. Good luck.

tl;dr – The argument from design requires the assumption that the universe had to have come from something else. That's simply not supported by modern physics. It may have, and it's certainly possible, but it's also possible that the universe is enclosed and, like most conceptualizations of God, simply IS.

An assumption of materialism is what has illuminated our understanding of the universe. Sure, it could be wrong; maybe supernatural explanations will at some point become necessary. But there's not yet a shred of evidence to that effect. Supernatural hypotheses can yield no falsifiable predictions about the observable features of the universe – only assert tautologies based on what is already known. As such, they're epistemologically useless.

Are non-believers doing good in the world?

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my occasional offhand mention that my older brother is a devout Christian. I've had several discussions/debates with him over the years, and today I was thinking about one comment he made in particular. The discussion was way back in the days of MySpace blogs, so it's long gone -- I'll have to settle for a paraphrase. It went something like this:
Even the average fundamentalist, by virtue of their charity works, is doing more good in the world than atheists -- who seem to spend most of their time decrying religion. Until they do good works themselves in equal or greater measure, they aren't in a place to criticize believers.
I ought to mention that my bro is a pretty theologically liberal believer, definitely more along the lines of Francis Collins or Kenneth Miller than some total loon like Ray Comfort or even a loon in respectable clothing like Michael Behe. But I don't think this attitude is all that rare to find among defenders of the faith; even if religion isn't true, it at least motivates people to help others. What are atheists doing to help others? Where do they get off just attacking people's beliefs if they aren't actually a force for good themselves?

My first thought is that it seems peculiar to single out charitable works as the lone measure of how one does good in the world. Surely money and time given to charity is a measure of doing good, but there are many other ways to do so. If we ponder for only a few moments how science has transformed medicine, communication, transportation, and standards of living in just the last century, I'd argue that supporting science education and/or just being a scientist can contribute greatly to a better world. Scientists develop treatments and/or cures for diseases, pioneer ways to grow more nutritious crops to wipe out famine in third-world countries, improve the efficiency of agriculture... the list is practically endless. There are surely many, many, many other ways to do good in the world than science and charity – whether by vocation or by simple acts of kindness. But even if we were to take that rather arbitrary concept of charity, is there really any basis to say that atheists, agnostics and/or the religiously unaffiliated are less charitable than anyone else?

It's worth noting that there is no shortage of charities that are secular. These aren't necessarily "atheist charities" (atheism isn't normative, so I don't know why one would exist) or "humanist charities" (humanism is normative, and there are some great humanist charities), and I'm sure that religious and non-religious people alike donate to secular charities such as the Red Cross.

But what about explicitly humanist charities? You've got the Foundation Beyond Belief, which acts as a liaison to secular charities worldwide. Last year, they raised over $42,000 in just a few months. The Foundation also sponsors Volunteers Beyond Belief and the Humanist Crisis Response. You have the aptly named Humanist Charities, which is an arm of the American Humanist Association. There's also the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Sam Harris' Reason Project, and many more.

Now, consider that non-believers make up less than 10% of the American population and I think it's inarguable that religion is very far from having some sort of monopoly on charity or good works. They do seem to have monopoly on homophobia and creationism though (among many other despicable things), which brings me to my point: we don't need religion. It's antiquated and useless. We don't need it for moral guidance or to be kind and charitable. Time and again it's ridden the coattails of science as naturalism has illuminated our understanding of the world while religion has done nothing but either deny science or continuously amend its theology to accommodate our evolving knowledge. The tide is turning as more and more people in the industrialized world – especially young people – are turning away from religion. It's about time.

17 March 2013

We are fine-tuned for the universe

In his recent debate with Alex Rosenberg, William Lane Craig said that the existence of a fine-tuned universe was a "prediction" that could be made by theology – as in, if there were a God, we'd expect to find a universe fine-tuned for life. And here we are! Checkmate, atheists!

Boys and girls, that's a tautology. Of course we observe a universe with life – here we are! The question is, How could we discern between a designed universe and a chance universe? I think there are some ways, but theists don't seem to care much for them.

It doesn't seem obvious to me that the universe was fine-tuned for life simply because life happens to exist. The universe is for the most part an unfathomably vast frigid, lifeless vacuum. Over billions of years matter from the Big Bang clumped together, eventually forming stars. Those stars burned for billions of years. Some just died. Others collapsed in on themselves, forming black holes. Still others exploded in supernovae, seeding small parts of space with heavy elements. Over billions of years, remnant elements formed new stars, planets and solar systems. Most of them are far too cold, too hot, or too volatile to host life as we know it – save perhaps for some extremophile bacteria.

A fine-tuned death for anything nearby
Some 13.7 billion years into the existence of the known universe, humans evolve. For most of our 200,000 years on this planet, we are killed by disease, disasters, predation, famine, exposure, infection, starvation, cancer, malnourishment... the list goes on. Less than 1/3rd of the Earth is dry land, and only a fraction of that land is habitable. Of the Earth that is covered by water, only about 3% is the kind we can drink.

So here we are on a knife's edge of survival, using human ingenuity to stave off the indifferent cruelty of nature. It wasn't any god that taught humanity how to survive – we figured it out over two hundred thousand years of trial and error. We're now poisoning the planet at a prodigious and unsustainable rate; if we don't annihilate ourselves through nuclear conflict, we still run the risk of destroying the only cosmic home we have.

Somewhere in the universe, more stars are exploding; more stuff is being sucked into massive black holes; more gas giants are being formed, as are rocks either too close or too far from their suns. All this happens has the universes' expansion accelerates toward a slow and unremarkable death as suns die and planets go barren.

All this is made worse by the simple fact that had God created the universe, there's no reason why he'd have to fine-tune it at all! We could be designed to life in the vast icy voids of deep space, or to comfortably live in gas giants, or to lounge idly on the event horizons of black holes. God could design us to live anywhere, in any condition at all.

Is this really a universe designed with life in mind? The far more parsimonious explanation is simply the inverse: We adapted to the universe. We were designed by the blind watchmaker of evolution to survive as best we can against the innumerable forces eager to kill us or just make our lives really miserable. If the universe were designed for life by God, he did a pretty horrible job.

14 March 2013

Physicist Brian Greene on materialism

"I believe that a physical system is completely determined by the arrangement of its particles. Tell me how the particles making up the earth, the sun, the galaxy, and everything else are arranged, and you've fully articulated reality. This reductionist view is common among physicists, but there are certainly people who think otherwise. Especially when it comes to life, some believe that an essential nonphysical aspect (spirit, soul, life force, chi, and so on) is required to animate the physical. Although I remain open to this possibility, I've never encountered any evidence to support it. The position that makes the most sense to me is that one's physical and mental characteristics are nothing but a manifestation of how the particles in one's body are arranged. Specify the particle arrangement and you've specified everything."
Excerpt from The Hidden Reality

On the sacrifice of Jesus Christ

How do you kill God? If Jesus died, then he wasn't God. If Jesus didn't die, then he wasn't a sacrifice.

13 March 2013

William Lane Craig: the gift that keeps on giving

I know there's been a lot of William Lane Craig around here lately, and I swear the aforementioned posts I've drafted (see previous post) have absolutely nothing to do with Craig. But earlier today, as I do occasionally, I hopped over to Reasonablefaith.org and read the "question of the week". And man, to use Craig's words, I can't make this stuff up. The things he says range from insidiously misleading to flagrant inanity, and they just keep on coming.

This week, the question was in regard to a fact-check of his recent debate with Alex Rosenberg, written by the Indiana University Philosophical society. Specifically, the reader inquires about their response to Craig's assertion that the cause of the universe (sigh) is personal:
We have to be especially wary of the fallacy of equivocation here. Craig uses 'immaterial' to mean 'outside the universe' (like God), but he also uses it to mean 'not spatially extended' (like ordinary human mental states). But my mind is in the universe; more specifically, it's in the United States. My present hunger, for example, isn't nowhere. (Nor everywhere!) It's at the particular place where I am. But this means that we don't know of any minds that are nonphysical in Craig's sense, and it isn't obvious that there could be such minds. Likewise, minds as we know them are all temporal; it's not clear that we have any coherent idea of a thought or sensation existing outside time itself.

Craig's response is astounding – as in, it's astounding that an adult human actually believes this stuff.

First, as an aside, he once again falsely states that Bart Ehrman agrees with his "three facts" (down from four, apparently) about the Resurrection. This garbage was thoroughly and incisively rebuked by an intrepid Youtuber in the video "William Lane Craig misrepresents Bart Ehrman". Let's be abundantly clear: Craig is lying. There's simply no excuse for someone who regards himself as "a philosopher of religion" (more on that in a bit) to continually misrepresent one of his interlocutors.

But I digress. Craig's real zinger is this:
By “immaterial” I mean neither “outside the universe” nor “not spatially extended.” I am using the word in the ordinary language sense to mean “not material” or “non-physical.” So we do know of minds that are non-physical, namely, our own!
What? Even if one subscribes to substance dualism (which is masterfully debunked here), as Craig clearly does, its validity is about as far from being well-established as one can get. Every iota of evidence we have from neurology suggests that the mind is a product of and is wholly dependent upon the physical brain. (Steve Novella, a neurosurgeon, has quite a few excellent posts on the topic on his blog Neurologica, such as this one.)

But I can do even better. Even if substance dualism were a well-established, scientifically valid theory of mind, we still have no evidence whatsoever that a mind can exist independently of space, time, matter, energy, and for that matter physical brains. Even if you think that the mind runs on the brain like software running on hardware, there's not a shred of evidence that the software can run independently of the hardware. So Craig most clearly is begging the question by assuming the existence of non-physical minds capable of transcending known reality simply because he must assume as much to establish the existence of his personal God.

Then Craig resorts to a tired and rather pathetic attempt to shift the burden of proof:
If the blogger thinks that there cannot be such a mind beyond the universe, then he had better have some argument for that conclusion; otherwise he is just begging the question in favor of atheism. He raises the question whether it makes sense to speak of an atemporal mind, since all the minds we are acquainted with are temporal. But then the blogger has the burden to show that temporality is an essential property, rather than merely common property, of minds.
Atheism, or even materialism for that matter, does not rest on the assumption that all these "non-physical" analogs of physical things – time, causality, minds, whatever – cannot exist. Of course it's possible. But in Craig's own words, possibilities come cheap. To be an atheist, one only has to hold that belief in a deity is evidentially and rationally unjustified. NOT that God's existence is impossible, or that substance dualism can be conclusively disproved, or anything like that. Craig is the one asserting a theory of mind that requires substance dualism to be true, so the burden of proof is squarely on him.

In fact, I think the whole "you can't disprove x" charade is so transparently small-minded that I almost feel embarrassed for apologists like Craig. That's because it's always possible to define something in such a way that it is beyond our epistemic horizon and then claim it cannot be disproved. I could speculate, for example, that there exists a universe that has completely different laws of logic, mathematics, and physics. It's possible, and you can't disprove it! But so what? It's completely unfalsifiable and therefore irrelevant to any valid model of reality. Mere possibility is not something to be impressed by.

Craig then descends into another misleading charade regarding the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, but lord knows I don't need to rehash that again.

I am particularly amused though by Craig's apparent offense at being referred to as an "apologist", to which he responds by calling himself a "philosopher of religion". Golly, where would anyone get the idea that he's an "apologist"?


12 March 2013

All quiet on the blogging front...

Just a quick update here regarding the relative sparsity of updates after the deluge over the last couple of weeks.

Long story short, one of my co-workers decided to leave abruptly – as in, not giving us two weeks notice. We're in the process of opening a second location as well as having a full slate of clients. End result is that I have been working double shifts to pick up the slack until we can hire a new trainer, and finding a new trainer is difficult; it's rare that someone is qualified, experienced, and totally cool with getting up at 4:00 a.m. every day.

So I'm writing this blog as my sleep-deprived ass is about to crawl into bed before more double duty tomorrow. As you might imagine that leaves little time for blogging. But, I have a couple of posts drafted and I'm really happy with them. In the meantime, please do check out the other content I've posted recently if you haven't already.

I'll leave you with this thought – and I don't have any science to back me up on this one, but it's an old-fashioned hunch: Do something creative. I think it's supremely important. It helps you manage stress, learn new things, and give back to others. Play an instrument, write poetry, start a blog on whatever topic, write a book, learn to sing, plant a garden, write code for a video game mod, learn to draw or paint, whatever. It doesn't matter what it is, and it doesn't matter if you're any good at it; it's the journey that counts. Personally, in stressful times like this – especially since my girlfriend is overwhelmed at her job as well, leaving us little time together – playing guitar has helped keep me sane. Don't just assimilate content – create it!

08 March 2013

William Lane Craig's argument from intentionality

Here's a quote from William Lane Craig's opening statement in his debate with Alex Rosenberg. I haven't watched the debate (really, how many of his debates are worth watching anyway?), but from the buzz on the 'net I hear this is one of eight arguments Craig presented. And just... wow. This is one of the most colossally inane arguments I have ever heard:
God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness in the world. Philosophers are puzzled by states of intentionality. Intentionality is the property of being about something or of something. It's signifies the object directedness of our thoughts.

For example, I can think about my summer vacation or I can think of my wife. No physical object has this sort of intentionality. A chair or a stone or a glob of tissue like the one like the brain is not about or of something else. Only mental states or states of consciousness are about other things. As a materialist, Dr. Rosenberg [the interlocutor] recognizes that and so concludes that on atheism there really are no intentional states.

Dr. Rosenberg boldly claims that we never really think about anything. But this seems incredible. Obviously I am thinking about Dr. Rosenberg's argument. This seems to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of atheism. By contrast, on theism because God is a mind it's hardly surprising that there should be finite minds. Thus intentional states fit comfortably into a theistic worldview.

So we may argue:

1. If God did not exist, [then] intentional states of consciousness would not exist.
2. But intentional states of consciousness do exist!
3. Therefore, God exists.

Craig's most obvious gaffe is a fallacy of composition. He argues that mundane physical objects like chairs and stones cannot exhibit intentionality, and calls the brain a "glob of tissue". Maybe he missed every biology class ever, but the brain is a complex network of over 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. Of course it is trivially true that a synapse cannot exhibit intentionality, but the brain is no more a synapse than it is a "glob of tissue". It is a highly complex aggregate of parts – and an aggregate of parts can exhibit properties not present in its constituents.

Whether in physics, chemistry, biology, or whatever else, we observe precisely this phenomenon. Actin and myosin cannot throw a baseball, but muscle tissue composed (in part) of actin and myosin (and connected to a brain and skeleton) certainly can. Atoms cannot make stupid arguments, but William Lane Craig, who is composed of atoms, obviously can.

But even leaving aside the glaring fallacy of composition, this is still one of the worst arguments I've ever heard any apologist make.

Craig's first premise is a bald assertion rooted in an argument from ignorance which is itself based on the above fallacy of composition. I feel that theologians resort to this tactic often – to discuss phenomena that are difficult to explain in intuitive ways, and use that as a springboard to claim that "naturalism" or "materialism" in principle cannot explain them at all. That's clearly a non sequitur.

Craig's claim that theism entails intentionality is not an explanation, but just another assertion. He didn't bother to explain how intentionality arises from theism; he just claimed it does. Even if God is "a mind", that doesn't explain how intentionality arises in humans. How can an infinite mind (inferred from his example of humans having "finite minds") have intentional states at all? And how can a disembodied mind exist? And doesn't Craig always argue that actual infinites are impossible... which would render an "infinite mind" nothing more than an abstraction?

Further, it's impossible to ascertain the probability of supernatural occurrences. Probability assessments require us to have a quantifiable range of variables; since God can contravene the laws of physics, saying that intentionality is more probable on theism than atheism (a claim he made later in the debate) is the equivalent of saying, "Naturalism cannot explain it, but theism can because it's magic!"

I tend to be puzzled by the use of this type of argument. If theists believe that God designed the universe with life in mind, why does life require supernatural intervention to produce consciousness? Why wouldn't God design the physical brain itself to be sufficient to produce conscious states?

p.s. – I haven't seen anyone else point out the fallacy of composition, but there's a very thorough and altogether excellent rebuttal of Craig's argument from Philosotroll.

p.p.s. – On reflection, I still think the ontological argument is the worst argument for God. But this is a close second.

07 March 2013

David Marshall's definition of "faith"

I wanted to post my response to this on David Marshall's blog Christ the Tao, but I got a 505 error and it deleted my whole comment. Argh! Ah well. I think it's worth sharing here, anyway. Longtime readers of this blog (both of you!) might recall that Marshall threw a fit over my unimpressed review of one of his chapters in the book True Reason. Since then, I've often seen him make much ado about what he describes as "the" Christian sense of the word "faith". He summarizes in a recent blog post:
Genuine faith in the Christian sense is that act of mind and will by which we discover all that we ever can come to know.  Faith means trusting, and holding firmly to, what we have good reason to believe is true, in the face of trial.  In that sense, no science, no history, not even the most platitudinous reasoning, would be possible without faith.
I'm not sure what compels Marshall to assume this definition is ubiquitously held by Christians, but whatever. The problem with this definition is that it erroneously and needlessly conflates the concept of a provisional assumption with religious faith.

Epistemological humility – the idea that we could be wrong – is a necessary component of any reasonable epistemological framework. The alternative is rigid dogmatism, in which claims of absolute truth are asserted with absolute certainty and it's decided that no amount of yet-unknown evidence can even in principle undermine the validity of a belief. Provisional assumptions allow us to hold varying degrees of confidence in our knowledge depending on the evidence available while also allowing us to amend or even discard our current knowledge should sufficient evidence arise.

Let's take a simple proposition – I exist. My sensory perception gives me reasonable grounds to make this assumption, as does my consistent interaction with the physical world and other rational agents. Now, it's possible I do not exist. Perhaps I am the alter-ego of a dreaming alien, or a mere computer simulation in some vast Matrix-like computer network. But given that I have never seen, and likely in principle could not see, any evidence of such things, I'm justified in holding a very high degree of confidence in the assumption that I exist.

Another proposition might be the sun will rise tomorrow. This provisional assumption can also be held with a very high degree of confidence due to thousands of years of human experience as well as mountains of astronomical data collected on the Sun and Earth. Perhaps there is some yet unknown physical law that will cause the Sun to implode in the next 20 minutes. Given our thorough knowledge of these subjects – right down to the forces in quantum mechanics – such an event is so improbable that colloquially we deem it "impossible". We don't need "faith" that the sun will rise; we have overwhelming evidence that it will.

This is nothing like belief in the supernatural, for one extraordinarily important reason: the provisional assumptions of empirical experience are buttressed by a methodology that allows us to discern the validity of one or more alternative possibilities. If new evidence arises, it may force us to reconstruct or even discard our current models of reality. That's the caveat of an evidence-based world view – it's contingent on evidence!

But with religious claims to knowledge – Jesus is God, Muhammad is God's prophet, Buddha experienced enlightenment, whatever – there is no methodology by which to ascertain the validity of alternatives. This is precisely why religion's growth is accompanied by more and more schisms, while the growth of science is accompanied by a growing consensus. Science, being evidence-based, has a methodology for identifying and discarding erroneous claims. And while theologians talk of "evidence for God", absent any methodology to weed out invalid claims the faithful are left with nothing more than tautologies that can hardly be called "evidence" at all. The only way to find out whether you're wrong is to die.

05 March 2013

Atheism, agnosticism, and the burden of proof

A big part of the confusion in "Does God exist?" debates over who exactly has the burden of proof lies in the fact that there exists such a vast pantheon of god-concepts. Debating William Lane Craig about the existence of God, for example, would take a very different form than debating Deepak Chopra about the same subject because they both have such wildly divergent conceptualizations of what God is supposed to be.

I think the whole agnosticism vs. atheism definition thing has been best summarized by the following graph, courtesy of the mighty Bud Uzoras of Dead Logic:
A/gnosticism deals with knowledge. A/theism deals with belief. It's that simple. They are not mutually exclusive positions.

As an atheist, my degree of agnosticism varies depending on the god-concept being presented. I also think that most reasonable people would concur that we ought to value epistemic humility – just a fancy way of saying "there's a lot I don't and possibly can't know, so I could be wrong". I think most reasonable people would likewise concur that accordingly, we cannot be "absolutely certain" about anything. But we can be reasonably certain, often to a degree of very high confidence.

So with that said, I consider myself a strong atheist with regard to the Christian conceptualization of
God. In my view, that God is:
  • Based upon a text of dubious historical authenticity that is replete with a self-defeating and logically absurd theology (at least as it is generally interpreted)
  • Ascribed with logically contradictory and/or incoherent properties
  • A failed hypothesis in explaining any known natural phenomenon
In the spirit of epistemic humility, it's possible I could be wrong. Unlikely though I think that may be, it's in principle possible that I have not properly understood the arguments or overlooked some crucial evidence. But barring such improbable scenarios, I am reasonably certain that such a God does not exist.

But let's say we define God differently. Let's say that since the principles of logic are derived from observation of physical reality, there's no reason why a God who exists beyond our reality ought to be bound by such laws. Personally, I'm inclined to believe that if there is a God, that's a more apt description. However, such a being is in principle permanently beyond our "epistemic horizon"; we cannot use science or logic to infer anything about this being, including its mere existence. So I can't say that I am reasonably certain such a being doesn't exist – I must hold a higher degree of agnosticism. But I can also say that such a God, while certainly possible, is essentially irrelevant to the human experience because it is unknowable. Absent any evidence or relevance to my existence, I can see no reason to hold a positive belief in this being – so I am a weak atheist with regard to this nebulously defined deity.

Atheism is strictly descriptive, not normative. It's not a philosophy or a world-view. And although it's closely intertwined with metaphysical naturalism, it is not the same thing. But while we may, in a broad sense, define atheism as a lack of belief in gods, I think most of us do take a bit stronger stance with regard to clearly defined concepts. Where does that leave the burden of proof? That depends. Supernatural things can always be defined in a way that they are epistemically useless, like the aforementioned nebulous God. Saying something like "I saw a miracle, and you cannot prove I didn't" is nothing more than defining the supernatural in a manner that permanently escapes rational scrutiny – it's defining the concept into irrelevance. The inability to conclusively disprove some abstract, nebulously defined concept does not give us sufficient grounds to deem it worthy of consideration – the burden of proof is quite clearly on the theist. But if I argue the points I listed above regarding the Christian God, then clearly the burden of proof is on me to justify those points through evidence and argument. That sort of contextually specific "strong atheism" is something that I think we non-believers ought to be more than happy to embrace.

You weren't born an atheist

A meme that I see popping up in gnu atheist circles with some regularity goes something like this:

It's rooted in the idea that we're all born without a belief in gods, and hey, atheism is a lack of belief in gods too! Ergo, babies are atheists.

Well, no. One of the objections theists employ to counter the "lack of belief in gods" definition of atheism is the notion that all sorts of things lack a belief in god -- animals, babies, rocks, mulch, whatever. The appropriate counter to that asinine argument is that it's a given when we are describing a belief or lack thereof that we are discussing rational agents with the ability to comprehend and accept or reject certain beliefs. If we were at a party and you asked me who was single, I would presume that it wouldn't be necessary to mention that the lamp, the cat, the baby and the food are all unmarried.

If anything, we were all born agnostics. And on a great many things, including the existence of nebulously defined or epistemologically obscure deities, we still are or ought to be.

04 March 2013

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 10/10)

This ten-part series ends with a criticism that is so flagrantly dishonest, so blatantly a massive straw-man, that I'm frankly astonished that even someone as odious as William Lane Craig would be willing to lie so unapologetically just to make himself look good in front of a small audience of his minions.

The objection, so we're told, is from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins:

As was the case with Craig's simpleminded critique of TGD that was published in the unintentionally funny book True Reason, Craig seems to be counting on his audience not actually have read the book for themselves. Well, I have read the book, and I'm just... astounded by the dishonesty on display here.

The most obvious point to make is that nowhere in The God Delusion does Dawkins so much as mention the Kalam. He does talk about some of the more traditional formulations of the cosmological argument, but it's the height of dishonesty for Craig to claim that Dawkins does not dispute the premises of an argument he does not even discuss.

Regarding the version of the cosmological argument Dawkins does address (along with the "unmoved mover" and the "uncaused cause"), this is what Craig left out:
All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.
Dawkins does not spend much more time on cosmological arguments; he makes his point and then moves on. He doesn't need to spend any more time on them, because he's right. Saying that God doesn't need a cause because he doesn't begin to exist is nothing more than a rhetorical trick to grant the appearance of justifying an arbitrarily terminated regress. The fact is, even if we granted all the fallacious premises of the Kalam and took the further unjustified step of deifying and anthropomorphizing the "uncaused cause", we would still have no independent justification for asserting that God did not begin to exist – not the least of which is due to the paradoxical nature of claiming that a being can be timeless and changeless yet still do anything. One can certainly speculate about such things, but it cannot be empirically or logically demonstrated that God's eternal existence necessarily follows over the virtually infinite number of alternatives. 

Craig says, dishonestly,
Dawkins doesn't deny that the argument successfully demonstrates the existence of an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, spaceless, timeless, and unimaginably powerful personal creator of the universe.
That's like me saying that since Dr. Craig has not personally commented on each and every one of my posts in this series, he doesn't deny that I have demonstrated that the Kalam is fallacious and that his Christian faith is rationally unjustified. 

Of course Dawkins never conceded any such thing, and for Craig to claim as much is flagrantly false and unbecoming of someone who postures as a distinguished academic. But then, anything more than posturing from William Lane Craig would require a miracle that in itself would provide better evidence of the divine than the amateurish sloppiness of the Kalam.

Previous: Part 9

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 9/10)

This next one is another objection to the conclusion; it says that the qualities ascribed to God – timelessness, changelessness, etc., are only negative attributions that are also true of nothingness.

In his response, Dr. Craig yet again erroneously conflates "coming from nothing" with "coming into being without a cause". I've already discussed the perspective of modern physicists on this topic, so no need to rehash it.

Otherwise, I'm rather unpersuaded by this rebuttal. He fudges when he talks about the causal power of this "entity" who brought the universe into existence – the Kalam, even if it weren't riddled with fallacies, could not be used to infer that this cause must be any sort of conscious entity.

But for me, the biggest problem here is that Craig doesn't seem pay any mind to the paradoxes he is conjuring up. If a being is timeless and changeless, it is by definition non-functional. Any sort of act or decision, for example, would constitute both a change in its conscious state and a sequence of temporal events. So, how can God exist in this logically self-contradictory way? Craig doesn't say. This just further goes to show how nonsensical it is to cantilever intuitive assumptions derived from observation of physical reality into untested – and perhaps untestable – supernatural realms whose existence is speculative anyway.

Previous: Part 8
Next: Part 10

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 8/10)

Craig's wrap-up of these purportedly awful objections begins with the objection that theists are guilty of special pleading.

Craig's right on one point – the Kalam's first premise clearly states that only "things that begin to exist" have a cause. But I feel that this betrays yet another critical weakness of the Kalam.

Let's say that I granted the entire argument. I ignored the equivocation, the question-begging, and the fallacy of composition and fully concurred with the argument as Craig has presented it. There is still absolutely zero independent justification for saying that the "first cause" must be supernatural, that it is eternal, or that it is some anthropomorphic deity.

Imagine, for example, that the universe is in an infinite state of expansion and contraction, as in Neil Turok's model. Because entropy only increases within the universe, time would essentially "reset" at every boundary condition. In other words, there would be no "absolute time" or "master time" over the expansion and contraction; time could still only be said to exist within the physical universe. The observable universe would still be finite into the past, have a beginning, have a cause, and yet there would be absolutely no kind of deity or "eternally existing cause" whatsoever.

I also think Craig's arguments are spurious regarding the nature of God. Craig has argued that God exists in "A-Theoretic" time, and that he exists eternally. Yet he also argues that a past-infinite is impossible. Why does he think, then, that a past-infinite is acceptable with regard to God? Sure as heck sounds like special pleading to me.

More on this in the next objection.

Previous: Parts 6 & 7
Next: Part 9

03 March 2013

My deconversion story on "A Tippling Philosopher"

Johno Pearce, author of the excellent blog A Tippling Philosopher, has reposted (with my permission) my account of my time in the church as part of an ongoing series on deconversions. If you found my story thought-provoking, by all means check out the others he has documented:


The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (parts 6 & 7/10)

I'm going to simplify and make this one a two-parter, because Craig attempts to answer the objection I'll present to #6 in his response to #7. It's the question, does anything really "begin to exist"? Here's the vid:

Craig just absolutely loves this one, saying it's his favorite bad objection. He starts off saying something perfectly sensible:
Just because the stuff of which something is made has always existed doesn't imply that the thing itself has always existed.
He's right! And I don't think that anyone would actually dispute that point. Craig doesn't source any of these "bad objections" except the last one, but I'm willing to bet based on the formulation I have seen that he's just straw-manning the shit out of this one. Of course nobody is stupid enough to assert that they always existed, save perhaps for the silly nihilist argument he describes.

The relevant point is that Craig is equivocating. When he says the universe "began to exist", he means that the universe was created ex nihilo – out of absolutely nothing. Not "formed from pre-existing matter and energy" or some such thing; God didn't mold the universe from some sort of clay – he spontaneously willed the universe into existence.

Well, it's safe to say that nobody has ever observed anything, ever, beginning to exist in that sense. All we have ever observed are things being formed from extant matter and energy. The fact that we observe this process within the physical universe is an insufficient grounds to affirm that it must also apply to the universe – again, because that requires us to make the unjustified assumption that any sort of cause can in fact transcend physical reality. Craig seems to have no trouble making that assumption, but he's never given a shred of independent evidence for it.

But it turns out Craig has an answer to this charge of equivocation, which he outlines in part 7:

Craig claims that by clarifying that "began to exist" simply means "came into being", he's eliminated the equivocation.

All Craig has done is play semantics – he swapped out one term ("begins to exist") for another ("came into being"), even though they mean the exact same thing. For some reason, Craig thinks this eliminates the problem, but all he's doing is restating the equivocation: "coming into being from a prior physical state" is not the same thing as "coming into being out of absolutely nothing" or "coming into being from a non-material state".

There's a common theme among all the objections so far: that there's a distinction between the natural and the supernatural. We simply do not know if natural forces like causation or beginnings have supernatural counterparts. Craig tries very hard to obscure the fact that the Kalam requires us, not merely speculatively but as a matter of objective fact, to assume that indeed these natural forces do have supernatural counterparts.

The problems should be obvious. Firstly, speculative things like "non-physical causality" or "coming into being from non-material states" cannot be used as the basis for a logical proof. The premises in a sound deductive argument must be unequivocally true – not speculative, not merely possible, not "true in one meaning of the term but false or speculative in another", but well-established empirical facts.

Secondly, when speculating about the existence of unverifiable supernatural counterparts to causality, beginning, existence, or whatever else, there's nothing to stop the theologian from defining the terms however they want. What does "causality" mean when there is no space, time, matter or energy? Obviously, it means whatever the theologian wants it to mean. We've never observed an "efficient" cause bringing something into being without a material cause, but Craig has to assume that this is possible for the Kalam to be true. Assuming that an efficient cause can transcend reality just so you can prove the universe had an efficient cause is clearly begging the question, as discussed in part 2.

Previous: Part 5
Next: Part 8

02 March 2013

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 5/10)

In this objection, we're back to the whole "what is nothing" hoopla:

I'm going to grant Dr. Craig that if indeed the objection means to define "nothing" in the same terms as he does, it's a nonsensical objection. Absolute nothingness, which I like to call "Nothing" with a capital "N", is indeed devoid of any properties whatsoever; that's the whole point! The question, then, is whether the objector, whoever s/he was, meant Nothing in that sense, or "nothing" in the sense used by physicists like Alexander Vilenkin, Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss – empty space, or even the absence of space itself.  Craig does not say.

Nonetheless, Craig missteps on a couple of points.
To say that the universe was caused by nothing is to say that the universe had no cause.
Craig makes this mistake often – interchanging the terms "without a cause" and "coming from nothing".  But they are not the same thing. Not only do we have an example of virtual particles emerging from "something" (a quantum vacuum) without a cause, but Alexander Vilenkin, in describing a quantum-tunneling model of the past boundary of the universe, has this to say in his book Many Worlds in One:
If there was nothing before the universe popped out, then what could have caused the tunneling? Remarkably, the answer is that no cause is required. In classical physics, causality dictates what happens from one moment to the next, but in quantum mechanics the behavior of physical objects is inherently unpredictable and some quantum processes have no cause at all.
Craig's foray into a passage from Plato's Timaeus fails as well. Imagine ancient times, when humans thought the Earth was flat. There were two possibilities: that the Earth went on forever, or that it had a boundary or "edge". But we now know there was a third possibility – that the surface of the Earth is finite, but has no boundary or edge. Similarly, a picture of the universe in classical physics gives us two possibilities – the observable universe is past-eternal, or it has a beginning. But quantum mechanics reveals a new possibility: that the universe is finite, but has no boundary – much like the surface of the Earth.

This is precisely what Stephen Hawking and John Hartle describe in their "No Boundary Proposal". We know that, at least in the formulation of General Relativity, the universe has a past boundary at the Big Bang – the so-called "cosmic singularity". We know the observable universe could not have gone infinitely into the past, though it could be part of a cycle of infinite expansion and contraction [1]. The "boundary" could be merely an artifact of our limited understanding, and a quantum theory of gravity will erase it. It's also possible, along the lines of the model proposed by Borde, Guth and Vilenkin, that the boundary is a "closed spacelike hypersurface"[2] that is spaceless and timeless, springing the universe into existence uncaused.

We do not know, of course. What we do know is that Plato didn't know anything about quantum mechanics or cosmology, and we ought to be mindful of that fact when considering the relevance of his existential musings. 

Previous: Part 4/10
Next: Parts 6 & 7/10

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 4/10)

In the his fourth response, Craig responds to the objection that the Kalam commits a fallacy of composition – because causality applies to objects within the universe, it must also apply to the universe.

Yet again, Craig does a fine job of illustrating what the basic fallacy is, which makes it all the more baffling that he commits them so frequently and so flagrantly.

He acknowledges that the argument as I laid it out above would be "manifestly fallacious". He then claims that the real reasons he thinks "everything that begins to exist has a cause" is for the following reasons:

1. Something cannot come from nothing
2. If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn't come into being from nothing.
3. Common experience and scientific evidence confirms the truth of (1)

Where Craig goes wrong with regard to (1) is when he says the following:
If you deny premise one, you've got to think that the whole universe just appeared at some point in in the past for no reason whatsoever.
In his examples justifying (2), Craig falters by conflating "without a cause" with "coming from nothing". They're not the same thing. I'll have more to say on that later in the series.

Being someone who studies cosmology and often makes a show of citing physicists, Craig ought to know better. No non-believer claims that the universe came from nothing – at least not in the sense of "absolute nothing" Craig uses. Further, it's nonsensical to say that the universe would have "appeared at some point in the past" because, if the universe did not exist, then there was no time in which it could begin to exist*.

But the bigger obstacle for Craig is that modern physicists believe the universe could exist uncaused. These include Alexander Vilenkin's quantum-tunneling model, the Hawking-Hartle No Boundary Proposal, as well as a litany of possibilities from String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity. Even if the observable universe has a beginning at the Big Bang, a theory of quantum gravity may show that the universe evolved from a prior state that was timeless and causeless. The fact that we do not yet know demonstrates two things: that we must remain agnostic regarding the origin of the universe, and that there is insufficient evidence to claim the universe requires an external cause.

So, does Craig commit a fallacy of composition? Yes. That's because even if we're so kind as to grant him the straw-man arguments he laid out above (1-3), those principles are still inferred purely on the basis of observation of physical reality. Craig's own third proposal – that scientific evidence confirms the truth – backfires, because science is rooted in epistemic naturalism. Craig still has not given us any reason to believe that anything inferred by observation within the universe must also apply to the universe.

*Notably, Craig gets around this much in the same we he tries to dodge the causality dilemma: by proposing the existence of a speculative non-physical time [1]

Previous: Part 3/10
Next: Part 5/10

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 3/10)

Well, what a coincidence! The next objection is almost exactly my criticism in the previous post – that Craig is assuming that causality transcends space and time (something that is speculative at best) in order to establish the existence of a supernatural cause for the universe.

It's not just begging the question, since Craig is assuming at least in part what he is trying to prove. It's also equivocation, because while Craig uses the word "cause" interchangeably between the first premise and the conclusion, it simply cannot mean the same thing. There's another equivocation fallacy related to the idea of a "beginning", but that's for a later post. So, does Craig refute my objection from the previous post? Let's find out:

Craig does a fine job of illustrating exactly what the equivocation fallacy, but then tries to appeal to Aristotle's "Four Causes" to counter the equivocation charge, stating that he means an "efficient cause". Funny though how he never actually says that in any of his debates.

Oh, where to begin. As I mentioned in the previous post, Aristotle's Four Causes are archaic and not particularly relevant to our modern, scientific understanding of causality. But I'll bite just for the sake of discussion.

If Craig really means that "everything that begins to exist has an efficient cause" as he claims here, then he's demonstrably wrong – virtual particles begin to exist, but have neither an "efficient" nor "material" cause. There are also countless examples – stars, galaxies, planets, natural geological formations, etc. – of things that could be said to begin to exist with a "material" cause but not an "efficient" one, at least as he defined it in his example.

But finally, even if we grant him his definition, he's still wrong for the reason I outlined in the previous post: Aristotle nonetheless inferred the existence of his "Four Causes" from observation of physical, temporal reality; it still requires an unsubstantiated assumption to claim that any type of cause is transcendent of physical reality. It's speculative – not an established fact regarding the nature of causality.

So, is he really equivocating? Yes, because even granted the definition "efficient cause", he still failed to specify that he intended to include a speculative "supernatural efficient cause" with his use of the term. The fallacy becomes obvious if we simply re-word the first premise precisely as Craig defined it:

1. Everything that begins to exist has an efficient cause, which may be natural or supernatural

Well, obviously the truth of this premise has not been established, so the argument is unsound.

Previous: Part 2
Next: Part 4

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 2/10)

The second objection is that the Kalam is question-begging, i.e. it's circular reasoning. I've argued this myself on many occasions, so let's hear Dr. Craig put us atheists in our place:

Craig quite correctly states that one is only committing the fallacy of begging the question if the only justification for a premise is that one already assumes the truth of the conclusion, and then he claims that since he has given other reasons for believing that "everything that begins to exist has a cause" he his not guilty of the fallacy.

However, Craig is omitting an important detail – one which actually comes up again in this series, so I'll have more to say about it later.

"Causality" is a well-defined physical concept in science. Even if one is using the archaic Aristotlean notion of "Four Causes", Aristotle nonetheless inferred the existence of those four causes purely from the observation of physical things.

But if the universe had not yet "began to exist", in what sense could causality have been said to exist? Surely it cannot be the physical, temporal concept with which we are all familiar – since by definition in the argument, nothing physical or temporal existed. So we must be talking about some sort of non-physical or supernatural causality. Now, it's certainly possible that causality can transcend the physical universe, but that's no more remarkable than saying that it's possible we are all plugged into the Matrix and all reality is an illusion. As Craig himself has said, possibilities come cheap.

The question then is why we should assume that causality indeed does transcend the physical universe, because clearly such transcendence is necessary for the Kalam to be true. Unfortunately for Craig, the only reason to make such an assumption is to justify the conclusion of the Kalam! Craig is quite obviously guilty of begging the question.

This illustrates a crucial difference between the Kalam and the old "Socrates is mortal" argument that everyone learns in high school: we actually have robust empirical evidence that all men are mortal and that Socrates was a man. We do not have a shred of evidence that causality can transcend the physical universe – it's purely speculative, and most certainly not a well-established empirical fact about the nature of causality. And one cannot use a speculative assumption as a premise in a logical proof.

Previous: Part 1
Next: Part 3 

01 March 2013

The ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument – a response to William Lane Craig (part 1/10)

It's rather annoying, and probably telling, that Youtube user "drcraigvideos", whose channel basically acts as a soundboard for all things William Lane Craig, rarely if ever allows comments on videos s/he posts. I mean golly, we wouldn't want something like discussion getting in the way of perfectly good religious proselytizing, would we?

The video I'm going to talk about in this series is from a lecture Craig did at Biola University in 2010 called, "Objections So Bad I Couldn't Have Made Them Up!", which is a response to various objections to the Kalam found on Youtube. Stifling of dialogue aside, drcraigvideos was kind enough to post each of the ten objections in a playlist, so to keep these posts short and readable I'll just have one for each of Craig's responses. Are these objections really as awful as Craig thinks they are? Are we unsophisticated village atheists being schooled by Craig's profound knowledge again? Or is Craig glossing over some important information and using wordplay to craft persuasive-sounding but ultimately unsound arguments? And who wants to take three guesses at which of the two I think is the case?

Anyway, here's the first mercifully short video.

This isn't really an objection to the Kalam; it's more of a commentary on Craig's intellectual integrity. Craig, in one of his debates, used the word "cocksure" to describe the supposed certainty of atheists. Funny. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, clearly delineates himself as an agnostic atheist; he even uses a handy seven-point scale, which he calls the "spectrum of theistic probability", and rates himself a six: "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

Craig, on the other hand, claims that no amount of evidence can undermine the "Witness of the Holy Spirit". On his website, he says,
... even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness.
What could possibly be more "cocksure" than any position that by definition is not amenable to evidence or argument? What could possibly be more arrogant or narrow-minded than a failure to concede even the possibility that contrary evidence could undermine the validity of one's beliefs?

This doesn't address the Kalam, but it certainly makes me wonder why Craig bothers debating atheists. What's the point in engaging in discussion and debate if you've already decided that nothing your opponent can say can even in principle cause you to question your beliefs? It makes the whole charade seem rather masturbatory, no? If you want a platform for dogmatic monologues, better to skip the facade of a "debate" altogether. 

Next: Part 2

What's so advanced about Pantheism?

This has been popping up in my Facebook ad column:

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia defines pantheism thus:
Pantheism is the belief that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent God, or that the universe (or nature) is identical with divinity. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal or anthropomorphic god.
Deepak Chopra is a pantheist, and he's frequently yammering about the patriarchal god of Western monotheism being a narrow and primitive understanding of God:
God is the evolutionary impulse of the universe. God is infinite creativity, infinite love, infinite compassion, infinite caring.[1]
I believe that spirituality can take hints from modern science to actually support the existence of God. Some of these hints have emerged from quantum physics, which long ago showed that the seemingly solid, convincing world of matter and energy actually derives from a highly uncertain, invisible realm that existed before time and space. Is this the domain of God? If so, it can't be the God of Genesis, a human-like figure sitting above the clouds who created heaven and earth in seven days. I think a new and expanded spirituality can deliver a God that is the same as pure intelligence, creativity and consciousness.[2]
I'm gonna ignore Chopra's absurd abuse of quantum mechanics for the moment. Once you've realized that a Creator is fraught with logical paradoxes and is not supported by science, pantheism might seem like an appealing alternative. And hey, Einstein was some sort of pantheist, and he was smart! Ergo, being a pantheist is smart. I can logic!

First, it's worth noting that there's nothing particularly new about pantheism. From Wikipedia:
Although the term "pantheism" did not exist before the 17th century, various pre-Christian religions and philosophies can be regarded as pantheistic. They include some of the Presocratics, such as Heraclitus and Anaximander.[15] The Stoics were pantheists, beginning with Zeno of Citium and culminating in the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. During the pre-Christian Roman Empire, Stoicism was one of the three dominant schools of philosophy, along with Epicureanism and Neoplatonism.[16][17] The early Taoism of Lao Zi and Zhuangzi is also sometimes considered pantheistic.[14]
But the bigger issue to me is this: if you're just going to make God synonymous with the laws of the universe, the vacuum energy, the 1-dimensional vibrating strings of string theory, whatever – then what has been added to our understanding of the universe? "God is infinite love". What the hell does that even mean? Our understanding of the natural world is in no way demonstrably enhanced by altering the definition of these terms to deify them.

Pantheists will always be able to say that their version of God is compatible with science, simply because the pantheistic God literally is everything. But as the old chestnut of scientific wisdom goes, a theory that can explain everything cannot explain anything.