31 May 2013

Stephen Pinker on the decline of violence

In case you don't want to bother reading Stephen Pinker's excellent but extremely long and detailed book The Better Angels of Our Nature, here he touches on the major ideas in lecture form. It's still a relatively long lecture, but it's definitely quicker than the book!

30 May 2013

What's the big deal about materialism anyway?

I'm not gonna lie – visiting Randal Rauser's blog has certainly brought lots of topics to the forefront, as my recent spate of posting goes to show. Most recently the topics of naturalism and materialism have come up – and while it's not exactly anything new, I still find it frustrating that some folks who criticize atheism, naturalism and materialism don't seem to really understand what atheists, naturalists and materialists tend to actually believe.

Specifically, the criticism seems to be that calling oneself an atheist commits you to the position that the material world is all there is, to the exclusion of any and all supernatural or dualistic possibilities. There is so much about the world that remains unexplained, and so much we likely haven't even discovered that will need explaining, that it's absurd to assert that there's nothing more to reality than material "stuff". Right?

That door would seem to swing both ways: you might say, "You can't prove that there won't be a material explanation for anything and everything!" Both assertions are trivial, because we're fully aware that there's a lot of stuff we don't understand or could potentially discover, and it's entirely possible that some supernatural explanation could enter the picture at some point.

BUT... We have pretty damn good reasons to think that supernatural explanations aren't relevant.

The first is a conceptual problem. Take, for example, the dualist theory of the mind. Supposedly, the mind exists independently of the brain and interacts with it somehow. This is usually rooted in an argument from ignorance – the dualist will describe some "mystery" of consciousness, like subjectivity or intentionality, implying that a dualist hypothesis can explain this mystery while materialism cannot. But in order for it to be a non-trivial explanation, the dualist has to define what the non-physical mind actually is, how it exists, and how it interacts with the physical brain. Until these things can be done, dualism can't actually be tested – and if it can't be tested, there's no way to know for sure whether it's right or wrong.

Meanwhile, the materialist explanation of the brain has worked profoundly well. In the book The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen details the empathy pathways in the brain and how they affect our ability to experience and conceptualize empathy in highly specific ways. Damage one part of the brain, and you can't feel empathy at all; damage a different part, and you can feel empathy but it won't be triggered by facial expressions; damage another part, and you can feel empathy but be clueless as to how to act on it (the natural response is physical mimicry, like when we assume a slouched posture while comforting a grieving friend).

Examples like this abound. You can lose the ability to recognize faces, or preserve that but lose the ability to remember names. Your sexual orientation can change, and you can even lose the ability to conceptualize the left or right side of anything (it's called hemispatial neglect). All of this clearly points to a causal relationship between the brain and the mind. A dualist will inevitably try to dismiss it all as correlation, but there's a problem: there are exceptions to correlations. For example, let's say there's a correlation between eating fast food three times a week and being obese. It doesn't follow that everyone who eats fast food three times a week will be obese, because there are lots of other causal factors at work.

But in the case of the brain, it's always the case that damages will produce specific responses depending on the area of the brain damaged. It's not as though you can damage one part of the prefrontal cortex and be fine, while another person equally damages the same part and suffers severe disability. We can use our growing understanding of the brain to predict states of subjective awareness, sensations, emotions, and thoughts. That's pretty powerful evidence of a material aspect of the brain. To paraphrase Stephen Hawking: science wins because it works.

There's a bigger issue though, which is that there's nothing in science or materialism that in principle rules out supernatural explanations. To expand on the example a few paragraphs up, the dualist has to answer questions like this:
  • How does the mind exist without the brain?
  • What is the mind made of?
  • If the mind exists independently of the physical universe, what laws govern its properties and behaviors?
  • What is the mechanism by which the mind interacts with the brain?
  • How could a dualist theory be tested? What predictions can it make?
The last two are really important. If the idea isn't testable, not even in principle falsifiable, then we can never know if it's true or not. But materialism doesn't have to presuppose that the mind can't exist independently of the brain or be made of some yet-unspecified stuff. The interesting thing to consider though is that if dualists can describe what the mind is made of, they'll be describing simply a different kind of material substance, just as matter and energy are both material but very different. If they can identify the forces that transmit mind-brain interaction, they'll have identified the material description of this phenomenon.

In other words, such things would simply be part of our growing understanding of reality. But as long as these concepts are defined in such a way as to permanently keep them beyond the purview of investigation, then they're just positing an idea that is irrelevant. It might be true, but with no means to verify it, it might as well not be true. And that's precisely the position that those who object to materialism find themselves in. They recognize the overwhelming success of material explanations, but they still feel a need to cling to supernatural things – generally because it's hard to reconcile their theology without it. But they then define the supernatural in such a way that we can never really know whether it exists or not. It can never be tested or add any non-trivial information to our understanding of reality. In that case, even if the supernatural does exist, we'll never be able to know – in which case it might as well not exist.

28 May 2013

Tragedies that don't hit close to home

So recently, as you have no doubt heard, here in my home state of Oklahoma there was a massive tornado that leveled a good chunk of the town of Moore. The dead are estimated at 24. Lots of people are homeless. There has been a huge outpouring of support from all over the nation, right down to the usual Facebook "support" with lots of "thoughts and prayers" and out-of-state friends replacing their avatar with a picture of the state with the word "home" in the middle. The President pledged aid.

And yet, I've felt mostly detached from it all, and I wasn't totally sure why until I talked with a client of mine tonight, who works as a nurse. She's around death all the time. She told me that she cried the first time a patient died, but that now she just goes on with her day – so much so that she feels bad for not feeling bad. Families grieve, and she steps into the hallway and converses normally with co-workers. She shrugs her shoulders, "People die."

I think that's because she's around death all the time. In our culture, we try to keep it out of our conscious. We avoid talking about it. Doctors give exaggerated prognoses for terminally ill patients to spare they and their families the hardship of facing death. We avoid death so intently that a lot of people have to be talked into writing a will, which is a pretty important thing to do since you're gonna die no matter what.

When the tornado hit Moore, I wasn't really that upset. Don't get me wrong – I sympathize with those who have lost homes, limbs, pets, or loved ones. It's tragic and I'm sure it's extraordinarily hard for them. But natural disasters happen all the time. Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards... shit happens. And a lot of times, people die. A heat wave hits, and a dozen people die of heat stroke. A tsunami hits and homes are destroyed and people drown. An earthquake levels homes and crushes people – or devastates an entire nation (remember Haiti?). It's just the way it is. 24 were killed in Moore. Well, fun fact: there are 7 billion people on this planet. 24 people doesn't even qualify as a drop in the bucket. Disasters happen. People die.

I don't know if that makes me cold, or what. Generally, I view myself as a very empathetic person. If I were to lose loved ones, pets, or my home in such a way, I know it would be horrible. It's not that I don't feel for them. It's just that in the big picture, the occasional tragedy is just the card our indifferent planet deals us. I see it in the news, and I say to myself, "Man, that's awful". I send a small donation to the Red Cross, and I get on with my life.

26 May 2013

The ontological argument, dualism, and the nature of mathematics (in one post!)

That's right – this one post is gonna have all that stuff. I've probably bitten off more than I can chew, but I think it's all connected and I want to explain why.

One of the biggest semantic puzzles in philosophy seems to be the nature of existence. For example, does the number 1 exist? In what way? Does it exist as a material object? Are our thoughts non-material objects, and for that matter what the hell is a non-material object? Philosophers have been entertaining themselves for centuries with this kind of stuff.

It has implications for lots of subjects. In my ongoing chats with Randal Rauser, we've touched on the old ontological argument for God's existence. The ontological argument, though there are several different versions, essentially relies on the notion that "existence" is a possible property of a concept. If we can conceive of something (we'll call it x), then it's (presumably) greater for x to possess the property of existence than the property of non-existence. So if God is by definition a "maximally great" being, then by definition God has to exist.

To explain why that's complete and total nonsense, I'll talk about math.

In the book Where Mathematics Come From, Lakoff and Nunez propose a way of thinking about math that takes into account our modern understanding of cognitive science, which the great philosophers of antiquity obviously knew nothing about. They call it the "embodied mind theory of mathematics".

Here's the gist of it: let's say we have a handful of drinking glasses, like this:
This is what Ernst Zermelo and Abraham Fraenkel call a "set", forming the basis of Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory – widely considered to be the foundation of modern mathematics. According to the embodied mind theory, the number 4 is a cognitive abstraction – that is, an abstract representation of this particular set of objects. The number 4 isn't actually an "object" at all. It doesn't exist independently of the human mind. Rather, the human mind creates the number 4 as a representation of an observed set of objects.

I'm going to spare expounding on the complete detail of this theory of mathematics – you'll just have to read the book for yourself – suffice to say I think this is a logical way to think about mathematics that fully takes into account our best understanding of cognitive science. I find mathematical realism (the predominant view), which would say that the number 4 is an object that exists independently of the brain, to be nonsensical in light of that modern scientific knowledge.

The Platonic form of realism says that the number 4 exists as an "abstract object", which brings me to dualism – the belief that the mind exists separately from the brain, as opposed the materialistic monist view which says that the mind is the product of the brain. For the record, if you want to understand my views on dualism, there's a phenomenal video here (it's two parts, totaling about 20 minutes) that concisely and thoroughly demonstrates the incoherency of dualism. For this post, I just want to pull some talking points from that video about the concept of abstract objects, and the idea that there can be such a thing as "non-physical objects".

Non-physical stuff

There are a couple of problems with the concept of non-physical objects. Firstly, it simply does not follow that just because we cannot describe an abstraction the way we describe a material object that it exists as a non-material object – rather than, as in the case of consciousness, a representational process. Secondly, the very term "non-physical substance" is loaded; if it actually lacks any physical properties at all, then the dualist has a tough task ahead to explain what it is and how, specifically, it interacts with physical matter (like our brains). Lisa Randall had some great comments to this effect in her book Knocking on Heaven's Door (emphasis mine):
"Clearly people who want to believe that God can intervene to help them or alter the world at some point have to invoke nonscientific thinking. Even if science doesn't necessarily tell us why things happen, we do know how things move and interact. If God has no physical influence, things won't move. Even our thoughts, which ultimately rely on electrical signals moving in our brains, won't be affected."
"If such external influences are intrinsic to religion, then logic and scientific thought dictate that there must be a mechanism by which this influence is transmitted. A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic--or simply not care."
Randall is specifically talking about God here, but I think her comments apply equally well to the idea of a non-physical consciousness. What properties of this non-physical substance allow it to interact with and influence physical forces? How does it work? Dualists paint themselves into a corner by proposing a concept that from the outset defies empirical investigation – problematic for something that is supposed to explain empirical facts about the world.

Abstractions and the ontological argument

Fortunately, there's a much simpler way to think about abstractions, which – like the embodied mind theory of mathematics – comports with cognitive science. They're not "objects" at all, but representations. A digital photograph of a lake, for example, doesn't possess any of the properties of the lake and, if broken down will be revealed to be a collection of data compiled in electronic circuitry. Perhaps not a perfect analogy (since a photograph is visual rather than conceptual), but it's not a lake or anything like a lake; it's an arrangement of data which forms a representation of the lake.

This has important implications for the ontological argument. The argument begins by introducing the concept of a "maximally conceivable being". This raises an obvious question: conceivable to who, or what? Clearly, the question implies conceivable to the human mind. This means that, like the number 4, this concept is a cognitive abstraction that exists in the human mind as a representation – in this case, as a representation of some possible thing (since unlike the set of glasses, God has not been empirically observed). It doesn't exist independently of the human mind as some "non-physical object". And here's the really important part: given that it does not actually exist independently of the mind, any "properties" this conceptual being has are themselves conceptual abstractions – not "non-physical objects".

This all comes back to Immanuel Kant's objection to the ontological argument: objective existence (or more colloquially, actual rather than conceptual) is not a property of something. Rather, you have to objectively exist in order to have objective properties in the first place. If something doesn't exist as an object but rather as a conceptual abstraction, its properties are also abstractions. Religious philosophers who use the ontological argument are counting on a great deal of semantic obscurity around the major concepts like "existence" and "properties" to slip the argument past credulous listeners. Theologians have to redefine the key terms into absurdity rather than comporting with scientific knowledge to make the argument work, and that's as clear indication as any that the ontological argument is a really, really bad one. 

Hopefully the dots are connected between those disparate subjects. If I was all over the place, well, I haven't quit my day job!

Randal replies, and so do I – it's gettin' REAL

Randal opted to offer a reply to my reply in its own blog post, which is a pretty good idea since Disqus annoyingly lacks a "compose" feature and lengthy comments often get buried beneath the mire.

By now, it's been quite some time since there's been any discussion or progress on the moral law, to my frustration since that's precisely the topic on which I originally challenged Randal. It seems like a lot of this is stemming from my dismissive comments toward the ontological argument, and dammit, I'm starting to think I might have to post something (again) explaining why I think the ontological argument is so incredibly stupid, with Plantinga's version taking the cake as the most semantically confused garbage of them all – a version Randal refers to as "a brilliant piece of metaphysics". Well, to borrow a page from professional philosophers, I suppose that depends on how you define "brilliant". For now, though, we'll just have to agree to disagree to avoid yet another massive tangent.

Randal's central concern though, reflected by his high opinion of Plantinga's ontological argument, is that either I'm being dismissive of things that I do not understand or I'm not being charitable enough regarding the circumstantial conditions affecting what it is ir/rational to believe. He explains:
I worry about the lack of epistemic nuance in Mike’s statement here. Sure, people sometimes endorse “stupid arguments and absurd beliefs”. However, there is also a real danger that we end up reasoning like this:
     (1) It would be stupid or absurd for me to believe p.
     (2) Therefore, it was (or is) stupid or absurd for x to believe p.
Needless to say, (2) does not follow from (1). And yet I hear quite often from gnu atheists, skeptics and others a distressingly dismissive view of the doxastic attitudes of others based, it seems to me, on something like this inference. One often sees this in the so-called “chronological snobbery” where folks who lived before us are written off as dupes and morons. The fact is, however, that shifting times or doxastic communities (or other contextual cues) inevitably shifts the boundaries of what it is rational and irrational to believe.
I understand where Randal is coming from, but I think his concern is a bit misguided. In my previous reply, I used the example of Isaac Newton, widely considered to be one of the most brilliant human beings who ever lived, spending the majority of his life as an alchemist. I'm sure Newton had his rationalizations, but that doesn't change the fact that alchemy – like phrenology, astrology, homeopathy and any number of other pseudosciences – was utterly and profoundly wrong.

It's also important to understand that I did not say something like, "believing in the ontological argument shows that you are stupid". I think it's a stupid argument, but the point of my Newton example is to show that very smart people can believe some really stupid stuff. The people who are young-earth creationists or homeopathic advocates are not cretins; their arguments are complex and will often confound and confuse people without the relevant academic training. But the sophisticated veneer of those beliefs and the general intellect of their subscribers does not change the fact that young-earth creationism and homeopathy are really, really, really stupid. Michael Shermer touched on this issue in his terrific book The Believing Brain. Smart people aren't necessarily less likely to believe stupid things; what often ends up happening is that they are really good at conjuring up complex rationalization for those stupid things.You can be very smart and still be ignorant, deluded, or just plain wrong.

Randal's glad to see I understand the value of philosophy, but still has some reservations about my dismissive 'tude:
I would like Mike to provide some examples of philosophers engaging in “almost purposefully esoteric obfuscation”. (And I’d like him to explain what almost purposeful means.)
Plantinga's take on the ontological argument is a great example, actually. William Lane Craig helpfully summarizes Plantinga's argument as follows, from the book Reasonable Faith:
1) It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2) If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3) If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4) If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5) If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6) Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Premise 1 is mostly uncontroversial, if only problematic in terms of quantifying the term "maximally great" (since "great" is qualitative). But the real headaches begin with the term "possible world". To echo Craig's own explanation, saying something "exists in a possible world" simply means that it's possible that it exists; it's little more than a semantic device. The result is that premises 1 and 2, for example, are redundant – as are premises 4 and 5. The entire argument could simply be restated around the third premise, liberated from such semantic obscurity, by saying: "It is possible that God exists; ergo, God exists". If you think that sounds like some serious question-begging, you'd be right! As stated, this argument is a complete non sequitur. The argument needs to be reformulated to state the real premise of the ontological argument, which is that existence itself is a property – so it is greater for some conceivable being to possess the property of existence than non-existence. I think that's incredibly dumb, but I'll have to save that for another post.

As to what I mean by "almost purposefully", I mean that Plantinga (and Randal, for that matter) is smart enough to know better. When the best a philosopher can offer in an argument is to confound and confuse with esoteric semantic devices, we laypersons need not be impressed. If you can't state your case concisely, without drowning in semantic obscurity, I don't think I'm obligated to pay much heed to your arguments. It's especially frustrating when that semantic obscurity becomes a wall erected to dismiss those who refuse to indulge it. That's why I find it frustrating when a discussion about the existence of objective moral values gets drowned in digressions about what mathematical objects are or philosophies of the mind. Certain facts are uncontroversial: the subjective nature of our intuitions, the poor reliability of claims of special revelation, etc. We don't need to dive head-first into epistemological foundations just to broach the subject of whether something supposedly integral to the human experience actually exists. 

Lastly, Randal objects to my point that philosophy is impotent without science:
Here’s the problem, briefly. Jones says “science is defined as p.” P is a philosophical assertion about the nature of science.  If Mike is correct then the truth of p will be determined at least in part by the deliverances of science. But this is viciously circular since “the deliverances of science” is already determined by whether or not one accepts p and thus the truth of p cannot be decided by the deliverances of science.
This kind of argument could essentially be used to dismiss all of science and, not coincidentally, is exactly what Intelligent Design advocates use to support their creationism. Provided you reject a proposal about the nature of science (like the ID advocates' insistence that science ought to include supernatural explanations for observed phenomena), you can reject the conclusions of science as well. This strikes me as absurd, primarily because it would allow anyone to insist that their own subjective paradigm of reality is the correct one. Stephen Hawking is frequently paraphrased: science wins because it works. It provides us with reliable descriptions of reality which maintain their reliability independently of any individual's subjective experience.

I've mentioned often that I'm a big fan of Hawking's model-dependent realism. This simply says that we don't have direct, objective access to Absolute Reality*. We merely have models that can describe reality with varying degrees of reliability. Among the least reliable of those models are those constructed by our brains in subjective experience. While we can garner a great deal of practical information, we can't learn anything beyond our very limited frame of reference. Worse, we're prone to a litany of biases and errors that cloud our cognitive models with erroneous data.

Science gives us a way out. It gives us a means to construct models whose reliability can be established independently of subjective experience. That's a big deal and it has tremendous implications for philosophy. Hawking takes it up a notch: he says that it's meaningless to talk about what is "real", only which models are more useful. I think he's right. The word "real" is one that's been drowning in philosophical semantics for centuries and will probably never emerge with any new-found clarity. So sure, you can reject a certain premise of what science is or what it does, and subsequently reject any conclusions that science draws. But you'll just be drowning in your own irrelevance with a primitive and often unreliable model of reality.

And, this was a much longer post than I'd intended and I totally forgot to remind you to make a sandwich. Since you read all that (I mean you did, right? You'd never just skim, would you? What is this, the internet?), go ahead and have a cookie. I hope you now realize why this title was also an amazingly brilliant pun. Also, I haven't proofread this yet, so if there are any glaring typos... well, just a wait a little bit.

*Hawking's proposal that we don't have access to an absolute objective reality isn't just a bald assertion; it's an evidence based argument. That's because we each observe other rational agents who often give us different accounts of reality. We  give conflicting accounts of the same circumstances, and independent evidence (videos, pictures, audio recordings, DNA evidence in crimes, etc.) may demonstrate that we don't remember past events correctly. If we all had access to Absolute Objective Reality, we would all give the same accounts of all circumstances and remember details precisely. These inaccuracies show that our brains aren't showing us reality as it objectively is, but constructing a model based on sensory data that allows us to function in our human frame of reference.

A-Rausing converstion

Yes, I know. That title is the greatest pun in the history of humankind. You can deliver my honorary plaque later this week.

Anyway, the mighty Randal Rauser offered a commentary on our conversation on his blog, which you can read here. My reply is right there at the top of the comments, but here it is anyway. Randal's subsequent response is one I'll respond to in my own blog post.

Since I pinned our whole conversation to my blog (which I enjoyed thoroughly), I think that I'll let my arguments there speak for themselves. But I would like to comment on a couple of points specifically.
If you want to talk about “red flags”, anybody without formal
philosophical training who dismisses as “profoundly stupid” a nine
hundred year old family of philosophical arguments that are still
defended and discussed with great seriousness by professionally trained
analytic philosophers today, says more about their own ignorance and
(sorry, but I have to say this) arrogance, than they do about the alleged collective stupidity of all those philosophers.
There is no shortage of stupid arguments and absurd beliefs that have survived for centuries, or longer, nor of ridiculous ideas that have been entertained by some of history's brightest minds (Isaac Newton, for example, spent most of his life as an alchemist). Given that the majority (70%+) of academic philosophers accept or lean toward atheism, I think it's a safe bet that few of them are impressed with the ontological argument. I'm sure there are people who think it's great, and that's fine. Personally, I think there are some fairly good and complex arguments for theism, and some really mind-numbingly stupid ones; for my money, the ontological argument definitely falls in the latter category. As to whether you were defending the argument or simply describing it during the course of your exchanges with Johno, I'll leave that open for the sake of charity.
Speaking of charity,
Third, the root of the problem emerges when Mike D basically dismisses the entire discipline of philosophy as “bullshit”.
That's not just an overstretch as josephpalazzo said, but a complete misrepresentation. I love philosophy. I engage in it and read it often. I think it's supremely important. Even when someone like Stephen Hawking says "philosophy is dead" I recognize that when he proposes model-dependent realism he's proposing a philosophical idea. Even in the post you reference (the summary; the other one is just a copy & paste job of our conversation) my objections to your argument are philosophical. It wouldn't make much sense for me to talk about the isolation objection to coherentism and the epistemic value of science in one breath and then dismiss all of philosophy in the next. In fairness to you, I fluctuate between colloquial hyperbole and and academic specificity somewhat arbitrarily, so I don't blame you a bit for the confusion.
BUT... I'm also a firm believer that to be a good philosopher, you must also be a good scientist. I think that in a perfect world they wouldn't even be separate disciplines. Science is a methodology for comprehending what reality is and how it works. Philosophy essentially establishes propositions, based upon rational introspection, that attempt to deal with problems of defining, perceiving, interpreting and communicating reality. But in order to understand which propositions might actually be correct, you need science – because philosophy without science is confined to rational introspection, and science has often showed our cognitive models of reality to be primitive and incomplete. The door swings both ways, of course – the best scientists have a good grounding in philosophy, too. Lisa Randall's book "Knocking on Heaven's Door" comes to mind as a terrific example.
Furthermore, in all the exchanges I've read and personally had with philosophers over the years, much of it is drowned in semantics and almost purposefully esoteric obfuscation. I will always love philosophy, but the most profound and challenging insights I've read in philosophy have almost always come from scientists.
So I'm definitely, definitely not dismissing the entire discipline – quite the opposite. It's just my opinion that there is a lot of absurdity and semantic nonsense that gets batted around as profound by people who ought to know better, and a resistance to discard useless philosophical ideas made irrelevant by advances in science (see the book "Philosophy in the Flesh").
Lastly, regarding the existence of the moral law. The point I made in our conversation is that if such a moral law exists, it is either objectively accessible to us or it is irrelevant to the human condition. I often say on my blog that the only thing worse for religion than a God who probably doesn't exist is a God who might as well not exist. I believe the same is true for an objective moral law. If the only way to access it is via subjective intuitions, unverifiable claims of special revelation, or necessarily biased interpretations of scriptures, then you just have a cacophony of people who are certain they are right no matter how much their ideas oppose each other.

25 May 2013

William Lane Craig delivers a whopper on dualism

Man, this guy is a gold mine. From a recent Q&A:
As I contemplated Libet’s results, it struck me forcefully, this is exactly what the dualist-interactionist would expect. The soul (or mind) does not act independently of the brain; rather, as the Nobel Prize-winning neurologist Sir John Eccles put it, the mind uses the brain as an instrument to think. So, of course, the soul’s decisions are not simultaneous with the conscious awareness of them. How could they be? Given the soul’s reliance upon the brain as an instrument of thought and the finite velocity of the transmission of neural signals, of course there is a time lag between the mind’s decisions and the awareness of them

HHhhhwwwwhhat? Okay, let's say the soul acts on the brain like software on hardware. Why couldn't decisions be simultaneous with conscious awareness, since the soul is (presumably) responsible for conscious awareness as well? Why would there be any lag at all? Why would the "lag" be 550 milliseconds instead of 140 (or whatever)? Remember, in Libet's experiments the signal occurred before conscious awareness. Craig seems to be inadvertently suggesting that the soul is subconscious, since that is what he claims triggers the neural signals. I don't think ol' Bill thought about this one too hard.

Interestingly enough though, if this weren't the comical post hoc rationalization it obviously is, it actually would have made a valid falsifiable claim for the theory of substance dualism. Dualists could have predicted that the soul produces a "lag" on the brain within an estimated time frame, and bam, Libet's experiments would have provided real theoretical evidence for dualism instead of the usual philosophical bullshit.

Why didn't they do that? Well, because there's exactly zero independent evidence that "souls" actually exist (much less how they interact with matter), and everything we've learned about neurology overwhelmingly supports the materialist paradigm – that the mind is what the brain does. Neuroscientist Steve Novella expounds:
In science theories are judged not only by how well they fit the data, but by how useful they are as predictive models – and the materialist position that brain function is the mind has been fantastically successful.
There does not appear to be any intrinsic limit to our ability to map and alter anything considered to be part of our subjective experience. Damage or alteration to the brain can change your sexual identity, your moral decision making, your personality, your ability to even think about the world. Patients with non-dominant hemisphere strokes, for example, often have what is called neglect – they do not know that the left half of the world even exists. There is no model inside their brain for the left half of their body or the world, so they cannot even think about it.
Non-materialists often dismiss this as mere correlation, but that is not fair, in my opinion. The correlation is incredible, and predictive. To give just one more example, synaesthesia is the phenomenon of different sensory modalities mixing together, so synaesthetes will smell color or perhaps perceive numbers as having a physical texture. There is evidence for more robust neural connections and activity between the relevant brain areas in synaesthetes. That is a pretty compelling neural correlate.
Further still, the arrow of temporal correlation, which should go from cause to effect, seems to go from brain activity to subjective experience. Studies so far show brain firing happening prior to awareness of the subjective state.

This is the part where Bill Craig would say something like, "This doesn't show that a non-physical substance isn't acting on the brain!" and you deliver yourself a Class 4 facepalm.

24 May 2013

My conversation with Randal Rauser, in a nutshell

I could hardly blame anyone for not reading the entire lengthy conversation between myself and Randal Rauser that constituted the previous post, particularly given today's micro-second attention spans (thanks, cats on the internet). For those of you who read it, I hope you enjoyed it (and your sandwich).

But for everyone who lacks either the time or the inclination to sift through all that stuff, here's my summary of the basic points being argued. Bear in mind that I'm representing Randal's points as I understand them, and I should allow for the possibility that I haven't understood him as he intended. If there are any doubts, you'll have to just read his comments for yourself.

Randal's premise is that an objective moral law exists. This law is as much a part of reality as anything else we experience, crucial to our understanding of human nature, and evidence that God exists (because as the old argument goes, you can't have a moral law without a moral lawgiver).

To support his premise, he appeals to our rational intuitions about what is good or evil. While he seems to accept (as any rational person must) that we don't always intuit this law precisely, he nonetheless asserts that our intuition of moral 'law' reflects an ontological reality. In his words:
[Our] moral perception of basic moral facts is among the most secure things we know and is no less "nebulous" than our rational intuition of mathematical facts.

My objection is rooted in something called (deep breath) the isolation objection to coherentism. Coherentism is a branch of philosophy which states that a belief is epistemically justified if it is internally consistent. The isolation objection basically states that a belief can be internally consistent, yet still not actually reflect reality. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
There is an obvious objection that any coherence theory of justification or knowledge must immediately face. It is called the isolation objection: how can the mere fact that a system is coherent, if the latter is understood as a purely system-internal matter, provide any guidance whatsoever to truth and reality? Since the theory does not assign any essential role to experience, there is little reason to think that a coherent system of belief will accurately reflect the external world. A variation on this theme is presented by the equally notorious alternative systems objection. For each coherent system of beliefs there exist, conceivably, other systems that are equally coherent yet incompatible with the first system. If coherence is sufficient for justification, then all these incompatible systems will be justified. But this observation, of course, thoroughly undermines any claim suggesting that coherence is indicative of truth.

Still with me?

Here's the problem with Randal's argument: science has often shown that reality is counter-intuitive. What philosopher could have ever arrived at the bizarre nature of subatomic particle behavior – quantum entanglement, wave/particle duality, quantum uncertainty, etc. – by any process of "rational intuition"? Our brains essentially give us a model of reality. This model can be said to be dependent on our subjective frame of reference. That is to say that the reason you can't get to quantum uncertainty by way of rational intuition is because we don't exist on a quantum scale. The models our brains construct are reliable enough, but imperfect – prone to biases that cloud our judgment and incapable of intuiting reality in frames of reference beyond our own.

The problem Randal faces is that since reality can be (and often is) counter-intuitive, and since our "rational intuitions" can only give us a tiny slice of the pie of reality, you simply cannot use logical inference to prove that an objective moral law exists. Even if the logic of the argument is air-tight (internally coherent), it may not actually reflect reality. It's entirely plausible that instead of reflecting some "moral law", our moral intuitions reflect traits selected for by evolution intermingled with our complex interdependent social hierarchies. How could we know which proposition is true (if either)? Obviously our intuitions alone cannot tell us, so we need a methodology that allows us to test the their validity by examining data and making falsifiable predictions – something like, oh I don't know... science.

Toward the end, I got the impression that Randal thought I was arguing that I could categorically conclude that there is no moral law. I don't think I can do that. However, I think that if there were a moral law, then it would be objectively accessible to us – that is, it could be understood using the tools of science. It's possible that a moral law exists, but if it's not objectively accessible to us then it might as well not exist. I don't believe in a moral law because I think:
  1. There's no evidence that it exists in the first place
  2. Morality is better understood scientifically 
  3. If it does exist, no one seems to know how to objectively access it
The last point is not trivial. Unverifiable claims of special revelation and biased interpretations of holy books are really all theists have. That's why some of them hold picket signs extolling their certainty of their moral superiority. But given the lack of independent evidence for an objective moral law, theists have to reason about morality the same way the rest of us do: subjectively, socially, and contextually. See? We may disagree, but we're not that different after all.

23 May 2013

A conversation with Randal Rauser

I've been told by several readers I ought to visit Randall Rauser's blog. After he recently did a book with Jon Loftus, I finally got around to visiting his blog and perusing some recent posts. The fact that he seemed to be defending the most profoundly stupid apologetic argument ever devised – the ontological argument – in several exchanges he's had with my blogging comrade Jonathan Pearce, coupled with his background in philosophy (I've generally found philosophers to be better at bullshitting than imparting any meaningful knowledge) raised some red flags. But I took a stab at it to see what all the fuss was about.

My take on this discussion is that I asked a pair of rather simple questions – for evidence that an ontological moral law really exists, and more importantly how it could be objectively known by us mere humans – and he basically drowned the discussion in obfuscations and digressions. But obviously, the only other person who's as biased as I am about this conversation is Randall. So, I'm posting the discussion here for your dissemination. The original post can be found here. It's all rather long, so if you're going to read it all you might want to whip up a sandwich first.

21 May 2013

When disaster hits, don't be a dick

Maybe it's because I have lots of atheist friends on Facebook, or maybe it really is becoming more prevalent; either way, I'm seeing lots of snarky comments in the aftermath of the devastation in Moore, OK about how stupid and pointless it is to offer prayers in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

While I don't personally know anyone who was hurt, killed, or had their home destroyed (Tulsa is a good ways from Moore), I'm only a couple degrees of separation from those who have. And yes, lots of people are talking about "sending prayers".

Yeah yeah, I'm an atheist and I think praying is stupid. Like George Carlin said – what's the point of praying if God's just going to do his will anyway? And what good is a Divine Plan if every asshole with a two-dollar prayer book can come along and screw it all up? You gotta love the selective believer logic which says that God isn't at fault for not stopping a massive tornado from wreaking havoc, but it was totally God who stopped a beam from falling on the family dog or some little kid who barely made it out alive.


To my knowledge, no one is saying something like, "Hey, don't send money – just pray! What people really need are lots of prayers!" What I've seen instead is an outpouring of empathy and condolences. For believers, saying something like "You are in my prayers" is simply a way of expressing those feelings. It's not a call to stop volunteer aid and/or donations in lieu of divine magic.

So in the aftermath of all this, don't be a dick. When someone religious uses the word prayer in an expression of empathy, fucking let it go. Don't use it as a springboard to mock people for their belief. There's a time and a place for mockery, but this ain't it.

p.s. – Props to my buddy Mike (pictured) who is at ground zero helping those in need after the school at which he works was leveled.

p.p.s. – If you're looking for a non-religious charity, the Foundation Beyond Belief has one here:

Repeating wrongness

The other day, the popular Facebook page I Fucking Love Science posted this picture:

Aside from basically being meaningless drivel, the more glaring problem is that Albert Einstein never actually said this. His Wikiquote page keeps a healthy list of quotes frequently misattributed to him (there are many), but new ones like this seem to pop up all the time. And yet, at the time of this writing, the picture had over 10,000 shares.

On a more personal note,  an alert reader called my attention to a statistic I had used in the previous post – that Christians are over-represented in the prison population. It's a statistic that's been bandied about for years, and I'd never heard it challenged, but it turns out even the crack team at Friendly Atheist was aware of the dubious validity of the statistics.

It reminds me of the time that I hastily reposted a survey on religion and sex conducted by Darrel Ray, the results of which formed the basis of the book Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. Problem is, the study upon which the book is based was both unpublished and poorly conducted. I ended up retracting my earlier post, and this is despite the fact that I think there are lots of good reasons to think that in many cases, conservative religious views of sex can have a profoundly adverse effect on sexual health. But if there's a study to demonstrate that, it wasn't the one Darrel Ray did.

I'd like to think I use my rational faculties as best I can, but the reality is that none of us are immune to errors like these – in my case, good old fashioned confirmation bias. We're more likely to trust sources that align with our views and, in many cases, can get lazy about double-checking the sources for ourselves. 

19 May 2013

Tim Lambesis of As I Lay Dying... the ultimate "backsliding" Christian?

If, like me, you grew up in the youth group culture of the 1990s, you've probably heard the term "backsliding" to denote those who fell back into the worldly ways of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Y'know, because you're either a pious, chaste Christian or a self-loathing angry hedonist – no middle ground!

Anyway, if you haven't caught the story in the news yet, here it is: Tim Lambesis is the singer for the mediocre metalcore band As I Lay Dying and the vastly more awesome Austrian Death Machine. He's now facing serious charges after allegedly meeting with an undercover cop who was posing as a hitman, whose services he (Lambesis) solicited to have his estranged wife killed.

According to the prosecution, Lambesis met the officer (whom he knew only as "Red") and gave him his wife's name, the security codes to her house, told the 'hitman' a time to do the deed (when he had the kids, so he'd have an alibi), and when asked if he wanted her killed replied "yes".

The initial defense is that it was a setup. It's hard to believe, even if it was a setup, that he'd be so easily duped into saying he wanted his wife killed and giving this stranger the security codes to her house. And now, in a move that really smacks of desperation, the defense is trying to blame steroids. It's incredibly stupid because not only is there scant solid evidence that so-called "roid rage" even exists, but even if it did it would lead to impulsive behavior – not a clandestine meeting with a hitman. 

It's all interesting because Lambesis, along with his bandmates in As I Lay Dying, has always been an outspoken devout Christian. The band itself isn't what you'd call "Christian rock" in that unlike say DC Talk or Jars of Clay, ministry isn't really the point of their music – they're just Christians in a band, not a "Christian band". As part of the most recent defense, Lambesis' lawyer said that he "lost God".
According to NBCSanDiego.com, the lawyer added, “It has been a terrible tragedy. He was a very caring, gentle man [before taking steroids] and we need to get him back.” Lambesis reportedly ballooned in size from 170 pounds to 220 pounds and in his lawyer’s words “was not the same person. He was irritable and lost God.”
I want to be clear here – Lambesis is both innocent until proven guilty and solely responsible for his actions. He is not representative of any other believers. Still, I have to sort of chuckle at the pathetic plea for sympathy from his lawyer on account of him having supposedly "lost God".  It doesn't matter what he believes about God, and I personally couldn't care less whether he has "Jesus in his heart" or not.

This is all just an anecdotal example of something I've harped on a lot in the past – Christians don't live better lives than non-believers. They're not happier, they're not less likely to be criminals, they're actually more likely to get divorced than non-believers, they're not less likely to suffer from depression or other mental illnesses, etc. etc. One of the big "sells" of Christianity is that your life sucks. You're being seduced by "the world" or "the flesh" and you won't be truly happy until you have Jesus. The reality is that believing in God doesn't make a lick of difference, and Christians are every bit as screwed up as the rest of us.

15 May 2013

10 more things atheists wish Christians knew about them

The other day I came across this great video: an interview with Neil Carter, who participated in an interview at a church in Jackson, MS, in conjunction with the "National Interview an Atheist at Church Day", which is apparently a thing. The longer interview is here, but I enjoyed this excerpt in which he lists 11 things atheists wished Christians knew about them.

If you don't want to watch the whole video, they are:
  1. We have morals, too!
  2. You don't know us better than we know ourselves
  3. We don't deep down believe in your particular god (sorry, Ray Comfort)
  4. We don't hate your particular god 
  5. We don't all disbelieve because something bad happened to us
  6. Believing isn't a choice
  7. Most of us used to be Christians, too
  8. Quoting the Bible doesn't work like a Jedi mind trick
  9. We don't worship the devil
  10. Hell doesn't scare us; to us, it doesn't even make sense
  11. We aren't all anti-theists
The last one is sort of soft-ball accommodationism, but I think that's a good list. But over the last couple days several things popped into my head that I thought would make fine additions to that list. So without further ado, here are....

10 More Things Atheists Wish Christians Knew About Them

1. We don't think that nothing created everything

With a nod to the odious Ray Comfort, who uses this canard often, the most common "zinger" used against atheists is something like this: "If there's no God, then where did the universe come from?" as though it's a foregone conclusion that God must have created the universe.

The simple fact is that most atheists are agnostic regarding the origin of the universe. I don't know where it came from – or if it's even sensible to ask if it came from anything else at all, much less assume that it did. It's not a coincidence that when we look at some of the foremost cosmologists of our day – Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth, Alexander Vilenkin, Brian Cox, etc. – they are overwhelmingly non-believers. That's because the origin of the universe – or even whether the universe had an origin – is considered an open question in science. We simply do not know. 

In fact, if there's any truism in physics, it's that we're more aware of our ignorance than we've ever been. It's possible, per Stephen Hawking, that the universe has no beginning nor is infinite in the past – that it simply "is". It's possible, per Guth and Vilenkin, that the universe emerged from a "quantum tunneling event" in what they call a "closed spacelike hypersurface". Oy. That's heady stuff. And that's okay! We don't have to have the answers. It's perfectly fine to admit there are big questions to which we do not know the answer. Being that the origin of the universe is perhaps the biggest question of all, we owe it that much more humility. 

2. Atheism is not a worldview

Many Christians seem to view atheism as another "channel" on the television of beliefs. But, as the saying goes, saying atheism is a religion is like saying "off" is a television channel. Atheism simply means that one does not believe in the existence of a god or gods. It says nothing about morals, meaning, cosmology, philosophical realism, or whatever else. As my blogger-in-crime Michael Hawkins often emphasizes, atheism is not normative.

Where, then, do atheists get things like morals, meaning, or their views on various philosophical issues? The answer is from subsets of those disciplines. For example, most modern atheists are humanists. All humanists are non-believers, but not all non-believers are humanists. All materialists are atheists, but not all atheists are materialists. Get it?

An atheist might likewise believe in a humanistic view of morality, or they might be moral nihilists (among other possibilities). You can't know just from someone saying they are an atheist whether they believe in objective moral values (a la Sam Harris), moral relativism, or moral nihilism. Since atheism is strictly descriptive, not normative, you can be an atheist and still take on any of these particular views.

Saying "I'm an atheist" is similar to saying "I'm a theist". A "theist" could be a Christian, a pagan, a Wiccan, a deist, a pantheist, a Buddhist, a Taoist, a Muslim, whatever. "Theism" isn't normative, either. So when someone says they're an atheist, you have to talk to them to understand their views on particular issues – and since we don't have some unifying doctrine or dogma, don't ever assume that one atheist's views is representative of others.

3. Atheists aren't (usually) certain that no God exists

Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive positions. Often, when an atheist "concedes" that they're not 100% certain there is no God whatsoever, Christians pounce: "Aha! You're really an agnostic!" (Case in point: Alister McGrath) The vast majority of atheists, though, are agnostic atheists, as this handy chart from another blogging compatriot of mine, Bud Uzoras, illustrates:
That's because a/theism deals with belief, while a/gnosticism deals with knowledge. We've heard the arguments for God's existence. Many of us used to be religious. And ya know what? We're not convinced. But any intellectually honest person will admit they can be wrong, simply because there is much that we do not and perhaps even cannot know (see #4).

Our degree of agnosticism tends to vary depending on the belief itself. For example, I'm quite confident that the god of Christianity is a fabrication of human minds, for a litany of reasons one can easily find throughout the archives of this blog. But I can't know for certain that no God of any kind exists. Perhaps there is a God that is so powerful that it defies human comprehension. In that case, God might exist but his/her/its existence is irrelevant to me. Or perhaps there is some argument for pantheism or heck, even Christianity, that I haven't given due consideration. My belief is based upon the best evidence available to me, and I've found the "God hypothesis" to be logically self-defeating and explanatorily vacuous. But I've never claimed to be absolutely certain of anything.

4. Atheist don't think they know everything

Continuing along that spectrum of a/gnosticism, most of us readily accept that the universe is filled with innumerable mind-boggling mysteries. There is much that we not only do not understand, but in fact may never understand. However, we also recognize that to use those gaps in our knowledge as places to insert a god is to commit the fallacy of an argument from ignorance

To me, the notion that "atheists think they know everything", coming from Christians, seems like the epitome of irony. It's Christians who, in my experience at least, often insist that they know God created the universe, that God is the absolute moral arbiter, that their interpretation of their religious text is the one correct one out of literally tens of thousands of denominations, that the creator of the universe speaks to them and gives them sage advice, and that our entire 14.8 billion-year-old and unfathomably vast universe was created with them in mind. That, to me, seems to demand far more hubris than atheism.

5. Atheists find meaning in the same things you do

Christians often speak as though without God, nothing matters. Take for example this comment from a lengthy discussion on Facebook:

 I've never quite gotten why it's so difficult to communicate this concept: sure, in the sense that Christians often talk about it, we don't believe in meaning. We don't believe the universe was put here with us in mind, or that human life possess some objective intrinsic value. But it doesn't follow that because we don't believe in objective meaning, that we cannot find both subjective and shared meaning. Atheists tend to believe that our lives are what we make of them. We have one chance to live, and we can spend it being bitter and destructive or sharing in peace and happiness. We find meaning in the same things that Christians do – in time spent with family and friends (and pets!), in wondrous admiration of nature, in enjoyment of the arts, in helping others, and all the myriad of other ways we can enjoy life.

And I'm not sure why that should be such a mystery. How we choose to treat others directly affects us. If we are dishonest, cruel and manipulative, we'll be ostracized and marginalized. And even we're able to stay a step ahead of the most direct consequences to such behavior, we'll have missed out on a litany of opportunities to experience friendship, knowledge, and happiness.

Rabbi Harold Kusher, author of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has often expressed similarly pragmatic views: a man who always cheats on his girlfriends and wives might get away with it, but he'll never know the joys of a committed and loving relationship. Those who manipulate or exploit others might elude justice, but they'll never know what it is to have loyal and trustworthy friends.

In other words, we have all the reasons in the world to value this life. We don't need the promise of another one.

6. Atheists value your religious freedom

Reading the excellent blog Friendly Atheist, whose staff does an outstanding job of documenting the struggles of non-believers across the country, I'm often astounded at how easily the most simple message in the world is lost on many Christians: You don't get special privileges because of your beliefs.

Story after story finds children coerced by public school staff into sectarian prayer; state legislatures trying to erect monuments to their religion at courthouses or in schools, and insisting on leading hearings with Christian prayer; or even ostracizing soldiers who fail to conform to Christian beliefs. When we non-believers stand up to this kind of behavior, we're often branded the enemy of religious freedom and scorned as though we want nothing but atheism everywhere. Well, okay, we do want that, but we want it by people's own free will – not through legal coercion. What we want is simple – to get rid of religious privilege. No one's belief, particularly when tax dollars are involved, deserves special treatment. Our schools, our courthouses, our government and our military are mandated by the Constitution to be secular. Secular doesn't mean anti-religious or atheistic; it just means free from sectarian religious influence.

I'll never forget the uproar that happened when peaceful Muslim citizens in New York City wanted to erect a community center a few blocks from 9/11 Ground Zero. There was outrage and protest from Christians, who shouted that Muslims were the enemy. But across the atheist blogosphere was nothing but support for the freedom of those Muslims to build their community center within their legal rights. We want religious equality – not religious privilege, for ourselves or for anyone else.

7. Atheists get through hardship the same way you do

I frequently encounter Christians who have a difficult time so much as fathoming how any atheist can get through a difficult time – loss of a loved one, a failed relationship, tragic illness, whatever. When I was a Christian, I had the same thoughts. God was such a central part of my reality that I couldn't imagine how anyone could go through tough times without ending up on a ledge somewhere.

In the years since my deconversion, I've gone through plenty of tough times. And what I have found is that aside from abandoning my once frequent prayers, nothing else really changed in how I deal with hardship. I find solace in friends and family, sometimes seeking their counsel and other times just needing a shoulder to lean on. I spend time with my own thoughts, and let my toughest emotions run their course – as I've learned from experience they do. I try to gleam positive things from the experience, growing wiser and more resilient with each challenge.

Truth be told, I think that this is exactly how Christians get through tough times. I think that what Christians claim to be God's "voice" is little more than self-talk. They rely on the support of their families and friends, and they try to make the best out of bad situations. Whether God's voice is real or not doesn't really matter, as long as it's telling you the right thing.  

8. We don't have "faith" 

Much along the lines of confusing atheism with a world view, Christians have often (in my experience, at least) claimed that atheists have faith in one thing or another. They say we have faith in evolution, in scientific authorities, in the non-existence of God, or in materialism. I think a far more simple and accurate description of what we have are provisional assumptions.

That means that we've made certain assumptions based on our assessment of the evidence available to us. We've heard the arguments for God's existence and found them unpersuasive, so we operate on the assumption that no God exists – provisional, though, precisely for the reasons outlined in points three and four above.

I wrote some time back, for example, about why I subscribe to the view of ontological naturalism. Even many atheists are hesitant to subscribe to this philosophy, which is the belief that the material is all that exists. Christians often counter that we can't disprove the existence of the supernatural, so it's irrational to hold a positive believe in materialism (I know that's oversimplifying a bit, but it'll have to do for the space here). But when you view ontological naturalism as a provisional assumption based on the best evidence we have, and therefor an assumption that could be demonstrated as wrong, it's clear that it doesn't require "faith" – at least not in the sense of religious faith.

9. We've heard that one

I have an FAQ here on my blog, part of which is as follows:

I have an argument that totally undermines atheism. What do you have to say about that?
Please, use the search button. And the "New to the A-Unicornist?" tab at the top of the page. I've spent years talking with theists. I've read many apologetics books and heck, as a believer I spent many years making and defending those arguments. So before you trot out the cosmological argument, or the design argument, or the objective moral argument, or quote your holy book of choice, or say that atheists can't have any meaning in their lives and expect me to discuss it with you... use the search button. The archives are full of topical posts on just about every subject imaginable, many of which have very lengthy discussions in the subsequent comment threads. I'm not going to rehash the same arguments for every new visitor who comes along.
Often Christians who are new to the blog will find an old post and trot out their favorite apologetic arguments or even some Bible scriptures as though I've never heard them before. I have. Not only that, but practically every non-believer I know is intimately familiar with a great deal of Christian apologetics and Biblical exegesis. Being that many atheists come from a religious background, we're often quite knowledgeable about scripture, religious philosophy, and Christian culture. Give us the benefit of the doubt and listen to what we have to say (or read, as it were) for a bit first before electing to enlighten us.

10. We live normal, happy lives – and we're not that different from you

It may seem like we're "them". The unsaved, the unholy, the worldly, the god-haters... but the truth is that we just don't believe in the supernatural stuff that you do. We believe in lots of the same things that you do – like the importance of family and friends, in treating others as we would like to be treated, in the awesomeness of Star Trek, in the lameness of Nicki Minaj. In all seriousness though, it's important to remember that we have much more in common than we disagree about. We're sharing a small patch of earth on a tiny planet in a microscopic speck of the universe, and our needs, interests and values are often aligned.

We're not bitter at the world, resentful toward Christians, or angry at anything more than injustices that we think are well-justified in getting angry about. We're nice people who eat Chinese take-out and go to baseball games; who have friends, parents, and children of our own whom we love dearly; and who want a better world for all of us. We may not always agree on the best way to get there, but the sooner we stop fearing each other, the sooner we can get there together. 

13 May 2013

A theologian speaks on evolution – profundity does not ensue

It's perhaps not particularly well known that the theologian William Lane Craig is what biologist Larry Moran would call an IDiot – an advocate of Intelligent Design Creationism. In fact, he's a fellow at the ironically named Discovery Institute, along with a litany of other theologians, lawyers, and lots of other people who aren't, golly I dunno, biologists. He took a crack at debating Fransisco Ayala, who is notable for being both a biologist and an evangelical Christian (and a darling of the John Templeton Foundation). I didn't watch the debate because, well, I don't give a shit what a theologian thinks about biology. But sometimes (well... lots of times) they make such stupid remarks that I can't resist the urge for rebuke.

Which brings me to my recent visit to Reasonablefaith.org, Craig's website. In a recent "Question of the Week" segment, he's asked to clarify his view of evolution. He doesn't specifically mention Intelligent Design, but he lays his cards on the table pretty clearly:
I am not yet convinced that the mechanisms posited by the current evolutionary paradigm are adequate to explain the biological diversity that we observe today.
This should be interesting!
 You might think that if we could show that random mutation and natural selection could explain, say, how a bat and a whale evolved from a common ancestor, that would certainly show the power of these mechanisms. Think again! A bat and a whale are both mammals, which is just one of the groups of the phylum Vertebrates. Even the evolution of a bat and a whale from a common ancestor is an utter triviality compared to the vast range of the animal kingdom. Such a demonstration would do nothing to explain, for example, how a bat and a sea urchin evolved from a common ancestor, not to speak of a bat and a sponge. This represents an extrapolation of gargantuan proportions. Indeed, it represents an enormous leap of faith in the efficacy of the Darwinian mechanisms.
Actually, all it requires is a study of molecular genetics, which acts as a virtual mirror-image of the fossil record in showing the evolutionary relationship of animals. This produces the well-known phylogenetic tree of life, which shows precisely how animals evolved from common ancestors dating back hundreds of millions of years, including how bacteria, jellyfish and mammals all evolved along different lines.
So, I ask, where is the evidence for the extraordinary extrapolation the current paradigm involves? Michael Behe says that “the evidence for common descent seems compelling,” but “. . . except at life’s periphery the evidence for a pivotal role for random mutations is terrible.” Now if he’s wrong about this, then what is the evidence? I’m genuinely open to it. But what is it? When I, as an objective observer, look at the evidence, it seems to me that we haven’t been shown any good reason to think that the neo-Darwinian mechanisms are sufficient to explain the evolution of the extraordinary diversity of life that we see on this planet during the time available.
What Craig is saying is that even if evolutionary theory explains tons and tons of stuff, there's still lots of stuff it hasn't explained. Which is, of course, quite true! But the fact that Craig thinks this is a a boon for his theology just betrays his ignorance of how science actually works.

Science is not in the business of proving things. Instead, science accumulates evidence that explains known facts. A theory, like evolution, makes falsifiable predictions – not necessarily about past events (since they already happened, obviously), but about what we will discover. Kenneth Miller did a great video about one example that could have falsified evolution: the fusion of Chromosome-2. Perhaps a better-known and simpler example is that if we ever found human remains in the Cambrian sediment layers, evolution would be falsified.

But like most theories, evolutionary theory is incomplete. A great deal remains to be understood, and like a proper theologian Craig pounces on such gaps as places to insert his God, and charges that those of us who think evolution will probably fill in those gaps as having "faith in Darwinian mechanisms".

However, Craig overlooks the fact that any theory which competes with evolution must not only be falsifiable (ID is not, since you can always claim after the fact that God would design something just-so regardless of what it looks like), but it must account for everything for which the theory of evolution already accounts. And man, that is a ton of stuff. Evolution elegantly explains so much that it is the unifying theory of all modern biology and sits atop a veritable mountain of supporting evidence from the fossil record, molecular biology, homologies, genetics... the works. The evidence is so overwhelming and the facts explained so innumerable that we're justified in our confidence that evolution will most likely be able to fill in those gaps. That's a provisional assumption based on an abundance of evidence – no faith required.

So sure, it's certainly possible that evolution isn't true; perhaps some other yet-unknown theory both accounts for that which evolution already explains and accounts for that which evolution cannot yet explain. But Craig, like most IDiots, insists that in order to be accepted as true evolution must absolutely and thoroughly explain every possibly detail of biology throughout all of history and disprove the possibility of supernatural intervention. That's why he's a theologian and not a biologist – biologists usually have to understand how science works.

Speaking of divine intervention, it should come as no surprise that Craig's view of life includes precisely such a magical mechanism that by definition cannot make falsifiable predictions:
It seems to me that so-called progressive creationism fits the evidence quite nicely. Progressive creationism suggests that God intervenes periodically to bring about miraculously new forms of life and then allows evolutionary change to take place with respect to those life forms. But as for grand evolutionary change, this would not take place by the mechanisms of natural selection and mutation undirected by God. Rather we would need miraculous interventions of God in the process of biological evolution to bring about broad evolutionary change.
It's the old macro-vs.-micro evolution canard in a slightly less flagrantly idiotic disguise. But one has to wonder: Craig and others like him spend so much time extolling the elegance with which the universe is designed by God, so why, then, does God need "miraculous interventions" at all? Why couldn't he have just designed the universe to work without his intervention? 

p.s. – It occurred to me that this could actually be a great way to make a falsifiable prediction using Intelligent Design. Craig asserts that a certain level of diversity and complexity is allowed within the parameters of biological evolution, but that others require a miraculous intervention. So, ID 'theorists' could pinpoint precisely the point along the continuum of complexity in which the mechanisms of mutation and adaptation are no longer sufficient, then predict the moments when there was a dramatic change in complexity – i.e., the spontaneous emergence of a new species. If ID is true, this would help us find and identify new species.

07 May 2013

It's... alive!

If you've followed this blog for any significant length of time, you've undoubtedly noticed that I tend to go in spurts. I'll be churning out blasphemous content practically daily, and then... nothing. Well, this is one of those 'nothing' times.

Part of it is old-fashioned writer's block. I've got a post drafted about the nature of apologetic arguments, but y'know, inspiration isn't exactly overflowing. I find myself caring less about apologists, anyway.

The other part of it is that I'm spending lots of time with my girlfriend and with my guitar. My two favorite things! I also nabbed a new guitar and amp this week, which means even writing this took an unusually high degree of self-motivation.

In any case, I'm sure inspiration will strike soon. In the meantime... well, I dunno. Karate.

Oh, and on another note, my blog is right around the 300,000 view mark. That's pretty pathetic, actually – Jerry Coyne has something like 20 million views and over 18,000 followers. He's a blue whale in the Atlantic (or wherever blue whales are) and I'm a bluegill in the pond at the neighborhood park. But still, I'm always kind of amazed that anyone cares about what I think. After all, I'm not a professional philosopher or physicist or a former pastor. I'm just a regular guy who used to be religious and is now an atheist. So, thanks for reading and especially a big thanks to those who contribute.

01 May 2013

The dark pit of MLMs

I have a friend, whom I'll call Robocop for privacy purposes, who some time ago got pulled into an MLM. It seemed pretty innocuous at first, but as time has gone on I've been reminded more and more why I really, really hate MLMs – it's no exaggeration to say that they destroy lives.

So the MLM that Robocop has gotten into sells what I'll call Product X. Product X, so the claims go, is not like similar products you can find for significantly less money in the store; rather, it has a myriad of health benefits that might range from lifting your mood and helping mental focus to putting cancer in remission. As with most such products, a search through Google Scholar will reveal a paucity of data supporting such grandiose claims.

Then there are the promises of wealth. Robocop has heard one pitch after another telling him about the high life he'll live as a successful entrepreneur. There are pamphlets with pictures of big mansions and expensive sports cars, all with the clear message that this is the lifestyle you can live by selling Product X.

But then comes a problem – after you've made your investment in Product X and you have a stash in your house, to whom are you supposed to sell it? Remember, it's "not available in stores". So instead, you sell it to friends... friends who quickly get annoyed with you pushing your overpriced miracle product on them. It's worse than that, though – part of the idea behind MLMs is that you, to use the exact words this company used with my friend, "build a sales team". That means that you get cash for signing up other people who will theoretically sell this product.

In the case of Product X, Robocop insisted it wasn't technically an MLM for reasons I can't recall. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a fucking duck. And this duck has quacked its way into Robocop's personal life in big ways. Recently, Robocop invited me and my girlfriend over for dinner. However, it wasn't just going to be dinner – it was also going to be a sales pitch. It's to the point now that whenever Robocop calls or texts me or invites me to some party at the Detroit police station, it's inevitably laced with some spiel about Product X.

Understandably to the rest of us, Robocop's friends are a bit put off by the whole thing. They just want to hang out with their friend without getting roped into some MLM. But Robocop isn't taking it very well, as evidenced by Facebook posts that include being upset that his friends won't "take an hour of their time to support my business" (i.e., come to the events that are more than obviously designed to rope you into an MLM), and complaining that people are being negative. These are laced with threats of cutting certain people out of his life entirely, and are inevitably followed with comments from his new friends in the MLM saying that he has a "new family".

Promises of riches, cutting out friends and joining a new "family"... sounds vaguely cultish to me. Perhaps what I find most interesting about MLMs is that nobody ever really buys the product. Instead, you make money by signing other people up as your "sales associates" or whatever bullshit term they have for it. Sure, you might sell some of the product, but it's highly unlikely for it to be your sole source of income. Eventually, the bottom drops out – you have an unsold stockpile of Product X in your pantry, and you've run out of people to make into "sales associates". You're left with no money and a bunch of ticked-off friends. MLMs are scams, full stop, and they really do destroy lives.