28 June 2013

It's been a week from heck!

Just a quick update:

I was punched in the face last week with the news that one of our recently-hired a.m. trainers was leaving (voluntarily). Actually, I wrote a post about him... he was the God guy. The uber-Christian who said goodbye by saying, "Have a blessed day!" or "Be blessed!" My girlfriend and I refer to him as "every hour on the hour" because that's how often he said he prayed for his ex-wife to "get right with God" before they got divorced. Personally, I'm totally shocked that prayer didn't work.

Anyway, he was making about an hour drive to work every day, and working at a church in a Tulsa suburb at night. That's rough when you have to be at work at 5:00 in the morning. He just spread himself too thin, and something had to give. We hired a new trainer, and although he's got a degree he has zero experience. So that means the other evening trainer and I have both been working mornings while the new guy "shadows" (or we shadow him, and give him pointers afterward). So basically I'm majorly sleep deprived and ready for the week to be over.

Two things have gotten me through the week. One is my ridiculously gorgeous and amazing girlfriend. Several nights while I stumbled in the door at nearly 10:00 at night, she had dinner and a kiss (or several) waiting for me. I am definitely dating up.

The other thing is my totally sweet new guitar, which unfortunately I haven't had much time to play because of work. But hot damn is it a nice guitar.

Honorable mention goes to the cat.

I did manage to get a couple of posts drafted, so expect some stuff over the weekend. Until then... I'll be praying for you every hour on the hour.

22 June 2013

My theory is scientific, but don't expect me to do science

Back in the Dover trial when Intelligent Design advocates had to square off against some actual biologists, one of the biggest hurdles the IDer's had to face is that they hadn't actually produced any scientific research. Here they were, claiming that they had a scientific theory that deserved equal time with evolution in public school classrooms, and when they were challenged on what empirical evidence they had for their theory, they produced a whole lotta nothing. Kenneth Miller, the savvy evolutionary biologist from Brown who served as the key witness in the Dover trial (and whom, I ought to mention, is a Christian), has frequently taken IDer's to task over their failure to produce research. He did it at the trial, much like he did here while discrediting one of the key concepts in ID:

The point about research is a big one. Science is a methodology for understanding reality. It's the most successful such methodology we've ever developed, and its tremendous success is evident simply in the fact that you're reading this on a computer screen instead of hand-written parchment.

The scientific method is empirical, and it must be replicable. From the almighty Wikipedia:
To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.[2] The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses."[3]
Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, giving them the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established (when data is sampled or compared to chance).
I thought that was all pretty uncontroversial. We all learned some basic outline of the scientific method in grade school, but it goes something like this:
  • Observe data
  • Develop theory to explain data
  • Use theory to generate testable hypothesis
  • Record data from experiment
  • If the hypothesis is successful, let other scientists replicate the process

This topic arose today in another discussion on Randal Rauser's blog following his review of a book extolling near-death experiences, and it's frustratingly typical of theists. They want it both ways – to use words like "evidence" and "science", but then squirm at the suggestion that scientific claims need to follow the scientific method.

A word on near-death experiences (NDEs)

The fact that people have NDEs is uncontroversial. The data, if we follow the method above, is that people have these experiences and describe them in specific ways. The theory that follows attempts to explain the data. In this case, the theory is that people experience NDEs because at the moment of death their souls become disembodied and they remain conscious. We can call this the "disembodied soul theory of NDEs", which I'll call soul-theory for brevity.

Next, we use the theory to generate a testable hypothesis. How might the soul-theory be tested? Well, your guess is as good as mine. One thing's for sure: those who advocate it have utterly failed to postulate any testable hypothesis. And guess what? If it ain't testable, it ain't science.

Now, if on the other hand NDEs can be explained by brain activity, there are certain things we might expect. We might expect cultural influences to provide stark differences in the nature of NDE reports; we would not expect to find any evidence of consciousness when a person's brain was completely inactive; and we would expect to be able to reproduce some or all of the phenomena associated with NDEs under laboratory conditions. Well, we've done all of those things!

What is science? Baby don't hurt me. Don't hurt me no more.

This all brings me to Randal's assertion that the soul-theory of NDEs ought to be taken seriously as a science. His evidence consists of "popular anecdotes of a light at the end of a tunnel and one’s life flashing before their eyes". Anecdotal evidence has another name: hearsay. The reason why case studies, anecdotal reports and hearsay are not taken seriously as science is because such evidence is prone to a litany of very human biases and errors. Data can be unintentionally misrepresented, patients can form false memories, and details may be filled in by others as the story is told – not unlike a psychic doing a "cold reading".

Randal gives the example, from the book, of Pamela Reynolds – a relatively famous case. Randal claims that "This is one of many powerful cases that are particularly resistant to naturalistic analyses". I think Randal's suffering from a limited imagination. But even the most charitable account of Reynolds' case must admit that her story is purely anecdotal. Staffers could have "helped" her fill in details; she could have confused various time frames, and even formed false memories. While her story may be superficially compelling, there is simply not enough data – nor any controls – that enable her story to constitute scientific evidence of soul-theory.

When I challenged Randal on these matters, he responded as follows:
Whether you call it "science" or not is a matter of social conventions as to how "science" is defined. The real question is whether NDEs provide evidence for the survival of the person apart from the body which would in turn falsify naturalism (or at least materialism; naturalism is sufficiently amorphous to survive just about anything).
I am not sure what you call a "pseudoscience". The careful documentation of medical case histories? That's pseudo-science? Or just the careful documentation of medical case histories that differ with your received view of the world?
What I am calling "pseudoscience" is the posturing of anecdotal evidence, case studies, and hearsay as compelling evidence that NDEs are best explained by disembodied souls experiencing consciousness and the continued evasiveness in suggesting that this "disembodied mind theory of NDEs" need not produce falsifiable hypotheses or replicable empirical data – yet for some reason, we should take it seriously as a science anyway.

Even worse is Randal's retreat to a semantic argument over the definition of science. Here's a tip: when you have to fuss over the definition of science just to get your theory taken seriously as a science, you're off to a really bad start. Science is empirical. It requires data, observation, and measurement. Theories must be falsifiable, and to do so they must generate testable hypotheses. Once hypothesis are tested, the research must be replicated in order to account for the possibility that the data was skewed by the types of discrepancies, mentioned above, that can occur with anecdotal evidence. This is uncontroversial – the definition of science is as well-established as it is a successful methodology.

Conversations doomed from the start

Randal's sloppy defense and poor understanding of science was frustratingly typical of those advocating his position, judging by some of the other comments on the post:
JohnM: "I'm not making any theories. I'm just looking for the best explanation. And so far you have offered no alternative."

Me: "A theory is by definition an attempt to explain data."

JohnM: "No. An explanation is an explanation. And a theory is a theory. Those are 2 different words, not the same word."

And then, on the subject of replication, we have this gem from commenter "Tim":
Does that mean we'll have to scientifically replicate the phenomena of life arising from inert matter before we can believe that's how life began on this planet?

At a certain point, it's evident that I'm dealing with people whose scientific literacy is painfully lacking. Granted, I'm no scientist myself, but I study enough of it – though popular science books and my trusty long-running subscription to Scientific American – to know the basics of how it works. Randal wants to call into question the definition of science in order to elevate anecdotes to the level of controlled research. JohnM wants the word "theory" to mean something different than what it does. Tim is unaware that we can test theoretical explanations of past events not by replicating the events, but by predicting what data will be unveiled with future research and replicating the steps that led to that data.

And yet, through all of this, I'm supposed to take the disembodied soul theory of NDEs as serious science? Color me unimpressed.

18 June 2013

Randal Rauser is an ID proponent

After some engagements with him last month, I've had a mostly favorable impression of Randal Rauser. I say "mostly" only because I found him frustratingly evasive in some of our exchanges. But his penchant for dubious philosophizing aside (see Sean Carroll's lecture in the previous post), he's clearly a well-read and generally smart guy. I suppose I'd pegged him for more of the Francis Collins type of theologian, rather than the science-denying creationist type. But as much as I want to be charitable here (since he's a theologian by trade rather than a scientist), the entirety of Intelligent Design is just too idiotic for someone as otherwise intelligent as Randal to give it any serious consideration. Color me disappointed.

In a recent post in which he engages the might Chris Hallquist, Randal defines ID as follows:
"ID is the view that appeal to intelligent or agent causal explanations is a legitimate part of natural science."
That's not accurate, actually. Because of course intelligent causes are a part of science, such that we observe the behavior of other animals (including humans). But what Randal really means is supernatural agency or causes being legitimate explanations for phenomena in evolutionary science.

Unfortunately, that's not testable. If something supernatural were testable, it would no longer be supernatural at all – it'd just be part of the growing realm of the natural sciences. There would be empirical evidence for supernatural agency, and that would make the "supernatural" as "natural" as any other field of study. Because it's not actually testable, ID functions primarily as an argument from ignorance – its proponents sit around trying to poke holes in evolutionary theory, and if the holes are large enough they stick God an "Intelligent Designer" in them. Accordingly, and because of the overtly religious motives of the Discovery Institute, it's creationism.

But Randal objects. I wrote a comment similar to the paragraph above, and he replied,
(1) ID isn't testable
(2) ID is an argument from ignorance
(3) ID is creationism.
Each of these is demonstrably false. The way you test for ID is by looking for evidence of contingency, complexity and specification (Dembsi's filter) or irreducible complexity (Behe's criterion) or the best explanation of a putative phenomenon based on known acting causes (Meyer's method). Dembski in particular lays out very clearly his method. And ironically, many folks claim that Behe's claim about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum has been falsified. If a claim can be falsified then it is testable.
Second, you claim it is an argument from ignorance. No, read Stephen Meyer's discussion of that topic in "Signature in the Cell." The fact is that inferring to an intelligent cause based on known acting causes is new information, not ignorance, and it can specify new avenues of research.
Finally, to say that ID is creationism is to evacuate the word "creationism" of meaning. Proponents of ID includes atheists, agnostics, Moonies (Jonathan Wells), Christians, and other theists. In the twentieth century the word creationism has been used to specify a position that includes the attributions I outlined in this article.

A dubious proposition

Before I respond in full, I want to take a moment to briefly explain why I think Intelligent Design can't even get off the ground philosophically, much less as an empirical science.

In his book The Language of God, Francis Collins – after devoting a substantial portion of the book toward debunking ID – postulates that God intervened in the universe to create life, but that once the wheel of evolution was in motion, God's intervention was no longer required. That argument struck me as arbitrary and bizarre. God could choose any particular point to "set things in motion"; why evolution? Why not set the universe up from the start so that, in rare circumstances, life would evolve purely by natural causes?

ID suffers from a similar problem. Small changes to species are generally accepted by ID advocates as a perfectly normal part of natural evolution; but at a certain point, God has to intervene. In other words, a certain degree of natural complexity or change is fine, but a seemingly arbitrarily greater degree of change is not. It's tantamount to arguing that God designed the universe, but didn't design it quite well enough. God still has to tinker with it here and there. Maybe God thought that if he never tinkered at all, it'd be too easy for people to be atheists.

So, we can parse these positions out something like this:
  1. God set the universe in motion at creation; no divine intervention is ever required
  2. God has to intervene in the universe to create life, but it can evolve on its own thereafter
  3. God has to periodically intervene in the evolutionary process to continue the proliferation of life
From a theological or philosophical perspective, I can't see any reason why any of these would be preferable over the others. The first seems the most parsimonious, simply because we don't have to try and figure out those exact moments when God waves his divine wand of creation. But I also don't see any reason why it'd have to be that way, and I definitely can't see any reason at all why the third position (which is that held by ID advocates) should be assumed.

So we haven't even gotten into the specific arguments for ID, and I don't see any reason to entertain it as a hypothesis, much less a theory bolstered by empirical evidence.

Randal's reply

There's been so much fuss over the minutiae of ID that I can't possibly cover it all in a short post like this, but I'll still at least give an overview of the main issues. Let's take Randal's points one at a time:
The way you test for ID is by looking for evidence of contingency, complexity and specification (Dembsi's filter) or irreducible complexity (Behe's criterion) or the best explanation of a putative phenomenon based on known acting causes (Meyer's method).
Those aren't actually tests, because they're not falsifiable predictions. That's what good theories do – make predictions that may or may not be true. Instead, these are all arbitrary criteria. How does one determine what constitutes "evidence for contingency", or what degree of "specified complexity" would necessitate a designer? (Meyer's method is a whole other can of worms... more on that shortly.) Worse, all of these conclusions are drawn post hoc. They conjure up this arbitrary criteria, and make inferences rather than falsifiable predictions. 

Now, ID proponents would probably try to argue that their criteria isn't arbitrary. The long-debunked concept of irreducible complexity was said to have played on the improbability of complete systems forming in unison, but it was ignorant of the fact that systems evolve concurrently from simpler analogs which may have completely different functions. The bacterial flagellum is the most famous example and, for ID "theory", the most embarrassing. There are also misguided plays on probabilities, in which it's suggested that x is simply too improbable to have happened without an agent. But why x? It comes right back that problem of arbitrary criteria. ID advocates can't even get the biology or the math right, and then they assume (based on their error) that God intervened at point x. Then they call it an "inference" and drown it in misleadingly scientific-sounding language.
And ironically, many folks claim that Behe's claim about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum has been falsified. If a claim can be falsified then it is testable.
The last sentence is correct! But I would disagree with anyone who claims that IC has been falsified; rather, it's been shown that the conceptual assumptions underlying it were based on an ignorance of evolution. IC can't be falsified because it's not even conceptually sound.

But for the sake of discussion, it's at least in principle possible for ID to be testable. Remember the earlier problem of determining where, exactly, God intervenes in the universe? Well, all an ID theorist would have to do is predict where on the phylogenetic tree certain large, inexplicable jumps in complexity would be found in the genome. Suddenly it would take on a massive new amount of information that would defy all known genetic mechanisms. As the theory developed they could perhaps even predict what types of new information would be found.

Of course, that will never happen, because ID is not science. It will never make falsifiable predictions because it can't.

Randal continues:
The fact is that inferring to an intelligent cause based on known acting causes is new information, not ignorance, and it can specify new avenues of research
David Hume once said that the only rational basis for believing in a miracle is that all possible natural explanations are even more implausible. So, let's say we find new information in the genome. Well, we know quite well how new information in the genome can be produced entirely free of divine intervention. Since that's not a hurdle for evolution, perhaps that ID advocate means to say that a certain amount and/or a certain kind of information cannot be produced by evolution. But there's that problem of arbitrary criteria again – how do we determine what the exact amount of information is that requires intervention?

This could, like the previous conundrums, be solved with falsifiable predictions about when and where new information arises. But ID advocates don't make falsifiable predictions; they just look at information we already have, and try to poke a God-shaped hole in it.

Finally, Randal really dislikes ID being called what it is: creationism.
Finally, to say that ID is creationism is to evacuate the word "creationism" of meaning.
Pfft. Hardly. Creationism works by attempting to poke holes in the natural sciences instead of developing a competing, falsifiable theory. That's exactly what ID does.

Besides, denying that ID is creationism ignores a couple of really important points. The first is that of the 50 or so Disco-tute fellows, only nine of them have any training in biology. Most ID advocates are theologians and/or evangelical Christians. Sure, there are some exceptions, but so what? For an organization that is supposed to spearhead a huge upheaval in the biological sciences, the Discovery Institute has a conspicuous lack of biological scientists. Secondly, Randal's denial ignores the infamous Wedge Document, which laid out the evangelical aims of the Discovery Institute in sordid detail. That's not a creationist manifesto, I don't know what is.

I don't claim to understand why people of various theological positions land where they do. I don't know why Randal Rauser has more in common with Michael Behe than other Christians like Kenneth Miller or Francis Collins on this issue. I accept evolution because it is the unifying theory of all modern biology, is bolstered by over 150 years of empirical evidence, makes falsifiable predictions that have been verified time and time again, and produces real-world results that affect our lives. I accept it because it's what the overwhelming majority of the scientific community accepts. I suppose that's not good enough for Randal and his theology, but that would just make me wonder why his theology dictates that God didn't do a more thorough job designing the universe in the first place.

Sean Carroll: God is not a good theory

Terrific talk from Caltech physicist/cosmologist Sean Carroll:

17 June 2013

Worse than Hitler? Or, McDonald's has oatmeal

I was reading an article over on Huffpo linked from Facebook with the header, "McDonald's Admits Truth About Salads". I figured this would have something to do with the sourcing of the ingredients or whatever, but the actual article was called "McDonald's Admits Salads Only Make Up 2 to 3 Percent of Sales". That confession sounds like it says more about their customers than the company.

Attached to the article was a little slideshow called "11 Things McDonald's Wishes You'd Forget". It sounds like it'd be damning stuff, but instead it's stuff like, "Its employees work on Christmas" (since apparently no other restaurants are open on Christmas), and "They've been accused of..." without actually saying whether that accusation went anywhere.

One of them was "Its oatmeal isn't good for you", and it linked to an old op ed (from 2011) by some guy named Mark Bittman writing for the New York Times, entitled "How to Make Oatmeal... Wrong." And it's this, ladies and gentleman, that grinds my gears.

The article seems like the kind of thing that health-conscious people ought to cheer for. He says,
Since we know there are barely any rules governing promotion of foods, one might wonder how this compares to real oatmeal, besides being 10 times as expensive. Some will say that it tastes better, but that’s because they’re addicted to sickly sweet foods, which is what this bowlful of wholesome is.
Sounds pretty bad. So, what's so horrible about McDonald's oatmeal?
The aspect one cannot argue is nutrition: Incredibly, the McDonald’s product contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin. (Even without the brown sugar it has more calories than a McDonald’s hamburger.)
Huh. That's weird. According to McDonald's website, the fully-loaded oatmeal – oats, light cream, brown sugar, dried apples, dried cranberries, and dried raisins – has 290 calories. I'm not sure when that became a lot of calories, because, well, it's not.

What about the sugar though? Well, it turns out that most of the sugar comes from the cranberries. Cranberries, being extremely tart, have to be sweetened to be edible for most not-weird people. Virtually all dried cranberries are sweetened. They're also packed with antioxidants. But if the sugar is bothersome, McDonald's allows you to leave it out. That drops the calories to 220 and the sugar 17 grams instead of 32. Ask them to leave out the brown sugar as wel
l, and you're down to 200 calories and just 3 grams of sugar.

Bittman then really sticks it to McDonald's:
I asked them this, via e-mail: “Why could you not make oatmeal with nothing more than real oats and plain water, and offer customers a sweetener or two (honey, the only food on earth that doesn’t spoil, would seem a natural fit for this purpose), a packet of mixed dried fruit, and half-and-half or — even better — skim milk?”
If you made your own oatmeal and put brown sugar and/or honey, a bit of mixed dried fruit and a little bit of half and half, you'd have... pretty much the exact same thing as McDonald's oatmeal. Look: oatmeal is cheap and easy to make at home. Bittman can't seem to imagine why anyone would go to McDonald's and pay a premium for oatmeal that you can make fast, cheap and sans a few harmless additives in a few minutes in your own kitchen. Truth be told, I can't either. I eat oatmeal all the time. It's literally a minute or two in the microwave, another minute or so to cool, and it's breakfast time. Hell, throw it in some tupperware and you've got breakfast to go.

But at the same time, the McDonald's scapegoating is getting old. Their oatmeal can be made into a pretty healthy breakfast, and even fully loaded it's not remotely as horrible at Bittman's making it out to be. It goes without saying (or it should) that for a whole-grain, high-protein, healthy-fats, low-salt, minimally processed breakfast you are better off staying away from fast food joints entirely. But if you're out of town, on the go, or whatever and you don't have the luxury of being able to cook your own breakfast from scratch, you can have a reasonably healthy breakfast at McDonald's.

10 June 2013

Philosophy is dead

A couple of posts back, I touched on Stephen Hawking's No Boundary proposal and why it was influential to my deconversion. Predictably, out come theists trumpeting the sophisticated philosophers of antiquity to argue against a theory which deals with quantum mechanics. This cannot go well. If we atheists love our physicists, then man, those theists sure do love their ancient philosophers.

But I tend to find such philosophy to be little more than sophistry, for reasons that seem to me should be obvious. The philosophers of antiquity did not have access to the sciences of general relativity or quantum mechanics, or even Newtonian physics for that matter. They attempted to make ontological declarations about the world by logical inference, achieved through rational introspection.

Well, the problem is that science has revealed that reality often defies our intuitions. Take, for example, quantum mechanics versus classical (Newtonian) physics. In Newtonian physics, you can determine the position and velocity of a baseball through a regress of causal events. The ball was struck by the bat and such-and-such an angle at such-and-such a speed, which will make it accelerate at x rate to y speed at z trajectory, etc. etc. You could further take this causal chain back to the human body and the force exerted by the muscles of the human body to determine the angle and velocity of the bat, and so on.

You can't do anything like that in quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, the position or velocity of a particle is determined probabilistically. Likewise with the rate of nuclear decay, the spontaneous emergence of virtual particles, or the spin of entangled particles. Classical laws of causality simply become nonsensical at the quantum scale, as do the "laws" of logic. A particle can be described as either wave-like or point-like, which is indeterminate until it's measured – and there's evidence that a particle can be both wave-like and point-like simultaneously, contrary to the "law" of noncontradiction.  And because the above phenomena can only be determined probabilistically, they defy explanation by modus ponens – cause and effect or "if a, then b".

I've heard theists attempt to argue that there may be some sort of classical logic at work in quantum mechanics that we just haven't detected yet. But while it may give theists some comfort to crouch in the annoyingly indefatigable position of "you can't disprove it!", we have good reasons to think that classical causality doesn't work at the quantum scale – namely, that we have successfully described, with astounding accuracy, all of that particles and physics that are relevant to human existence. And we've done it all without a shred of evidence that the laws of classical logic are at play.

Ancient philosophers inferred the laws of logic from their everyday human frame of reference. But we don't exist on a subatomic scale any more than we exist in the singularity of a supermassive black hole. We can't intuit about those frames of reference because they don't factor into our subjective experience at all. Instead, we have to use observation and experiment – and it turns out that predictions made by quantum mechanics are the most accurate in any science ever developed. One famous analogy describes it as being able to predict the width of the United States with a margin of error the width of a human hair. Despite its persistently counter-intuitive nature, quantum mechanics has illuminated our understand of the fundamental workings of reality more than any other science in human history.

And why should we expect reality to conform to our intuitions? Why should we expect that classical philosophers who had only their intuitions ought to be able to tell us more profound things about reality than particle-smashing physicists? The only reason I can gather is the obvious one: wishful thinking. The philosophers of antiquity seem to lend an air of credibility to theistic beliefs by virtue of their esoteric vernacular and semantic obfuscation. To accept that modern science has undone much of classical philosophy is to concede that arguments that have held sway among believers for centuries are founded on misguided premises and incomplete facts.

That's why Hawking said "philosophy is dead" – it's failed to keep up with science. And that's why arguments about "potentiality and actuality", "prime movers", or "First Causes" are irrelevant in light of today's scientific progress. It's discomforting for some believers, and instead of embracing this knowledge they cling desperately to the comforting sophistry of antiquity. But as Carl Sagan said: it's far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

09 June 2013

Sometimes, I'm embarassed by other atheists

I've been seeing lots of memes like this on Facebook:

I feel like this is so obviously stupid that I think it's ridiculous that I have to actually explain it.

"Science" has no values. It's not proscriptive. Science can be used for great kindness, or great cruelty. A religious person could just as well make a similarly inane meme where one picture, captioned "Science with religion", depicts a missionary delivering vaccinations to impoverished children and the other picture, captioned "Science without religion", shows something like Nazi medical experiments or an atomic bomb.

I'm all for criticizing religion – particularly fundamentalism – but I think that in the process, it's important to remember that most religious people are normal, nice people. The good that is done by religious people far outweighs the bad – not necessarily because they're religious, but simply because they're human beings and we human beings (contrary to our occasional bad rap) tend to be kind to each other more often than we're cruel. Empathy is in our nature.

A better caption for this might be "cultures that respect women" versus "cultures that oppress women". Or maybe even "humanism" versus "fundamentalism". I don't know who the astronaut is in the picture, but statistically she's much more likely to be religious than not, as are the people who facilitated her education and accepted her into NASA.

There was a similarly dumb meme I spotted recently:

Sigh. I don't know, maybe this is photoshopped, because I don't want to believe anyone could be that stupid. And what was really stupid is that I saw this on the Facebook page for the Richard Dawkins Foundation, with the caption, "Reason!" Not that Richard Dawkins, or even Sean Faircloth, runs that page but good friggin' grief. I'm pro-choice, but any moron knows that the pro-life argument goes that life begins at conception. Again, it's astounding to me that I actually am writing these words.

While I'd certainly argue that atheism is the reasonable position to take, this all just goes to show that being a non-believer doesn't actually make you reasonable.

08 June 2013

More on Randal Rauser's reply: Being a good skeptic

Continuing on from the other day (and sort working backwards through Randal's post), Randal offered some other points in his reply to my short essay that I think need to be addressed, starting with my discussion of the multiplicity of religions.

Back when I was a Christian, the question that really troubled me and spurred my intensive study of theology was Why are there so many religions? Randal offered his interpretation of my question, which I think is pretty accurate:
(1) If there is a God then why would he allow there to be many diverging interpretations of the human problem and the means to resolve it?
(2) If one religion is true, how can we tell which one it is?
He doesn't spend any time on the first, instead just linking to some other material. But the reason I found it a troubling question was to me fairly obvious: if God really desires everyone to be saved, then why not intervene in humanity long before we'd diverged across all the continents? Or why not reveal the One True Faith to everyone, instead of having a seemingly arbitrary "chosen people"? It struck me as revealing that only the Israelites, and no one else, referred to themselves as God's chosen people. From an anthropological perspective, that's hardly surprising.

The plurality of faiths has provided humanity with little more than conflict – often bloody. People were converted by the sword in Rome, the Inquisition, the Saxon Wars, and Encomienda (among others). Religious violence persists to this day as one of the most brutal, depraved and pointless sources of violence in all of human existence. Israel and Palestine can't reach peace terms because they're both convinced that God gave them a certain patch of land in the desert, and they're willing to murder and sacrifice themselves for it. Muslims are blowing people up and subjugating women while Christians in the third world burn witches. It's utterly fucking ridiculous.

This is a big deal because it didn't have to be like this. God could have simply revealed the truth equally to all people. It would have spared humanity an incalculable amount of needless violence and suffering. But for whatever reason, God supposedly decided to hone in on the people of the tribal Middle East: "That's the best place and time for me to reveal my One Truth Faith to all of humanity!"  I don't think there's any convincing rationalization to get rid of this problem for Christianity. It makes Christianity look a lot like pretty much any other religion on Earth.

On the second question, Randal elaborated a bit:
As for the second, think about the parallel with science. If there is one secure result of the natural sciences it is that our scientific description of reality is always changing. So how can we know what the true description of reality really is?
Well at this point we can choose to become skeptics or scientific antirealists, or we can continue to work from our inevitably limited place in time and history to gain the fullest understanding of what the world is. 
This isn’t just true when it comes to science. It is a reflection of our general place in history as finite creatures, whether the matter concerns questions of ethics or culture or metaphysics or theology. So in each case we simply do our best with our limitations to understand reality. How then do we tell which religion is true? We start from the place we are — as a Christian or Mormon or skeptic or whatever — and begin stepwise by considering the evidence for our view and potential defeaters to it.
Analogy fail. The obvious truth is that we don't know any absolute description of reality. I've talked often about model-dependent realism and I'm big on it. It eliminates the fuss about what's real or not (hear that, free will debate?) through the simple observation that our understanding of reality comes to us by way of descriptive models that are more or less successful to varying degrees. Our cognitive models are some of the most limited, and science often demonstrates this by revealing reality to be highly counter-intuitive.

This doesn't create any great existential dilemmas; it simply says that our best understanding of reality is contingent upon the evidence available to us. What I think Randal misses is that to really reach a more enlightened place (yes, I realize how cocky that sounds), you have to let go of your beliefs and assumptions. You can't hold any idea as sacred, and you have to treat them all with equally ruthless skepticism.

In my experience, Christians often switch very subtly between offense and defense. For example, William Lane Craig always posits his Kalam Cosmological Argument as a logically air-tight piece of evidence that ought to compel rational skeptics to believe in a creator. But when he's pressed on the justification for the underlying assumptions – like the argument's reliance on the "Neo-Lorentzian interpretation of Special Relativity", he switches to defense and says (in so many words) that a theist can be confident that there aren't any resounding defeaters for their position. In other words, the theistic arguments can't be disproved.

But that's missing the point. I'm not interested in hearing theists defend their assumptions after they've made them. I want to know how they got to those assumptions in the first place. But in order to do that, as a believer, you have to let go of your emotional attachment to sacred ideas and imagine yourself as a true-blue skeptic starting from scratch. And inevitably, when you press a theist on the evidence that ought to compel a rational skeptic to assume God exists, they'll switch from offense to defense – retreating to vague and esoteric philosophical arguments fussing over semantics, appealing to what's possible, and presuming victory over their interlocutors when their assumptions can't be conclusively disproved.

Randal stumbled when he lumped "skeptic" in with "Christian" and "Mormon". "Skeptic" should always be the default position – y'know, what is known in philosophy of science as the null hypothesis. If you make the assumption first and then look for "defeaters", you're always going to be able to conjure up some rationalization that prevents your assumption from being disproved (see for example the comments from Christians here). An honest self-critique requires that we divorce ourselves from our assumptions and challenge ourselves to get back to them. That subtle but pivotal shift in perspective is the difference between a career apologist and an ex-Christian.

p.s. – I just remembered that the mighty Bud Uzoras did a terrific post on this topic some time back, using the infamous Parsec Apologetic from Star Wars as an analogy. Check it out at his blog, Dead Logic

07 June 2013

The dumbest thing I've ever read.

I'm halfway tempted to comment on this, but I thought it'd be more entertaining just to leave it as is.

Evolution's Difficult Questions

Many have zealously embraced Darwinian evolution without question, as if it were the gospel truth. But can evolution stand the test of close examination?

Zoologists have recorded an amazing 20,000 species of fish. Each of these species has a two-chambered heart that pumps cold blood throughout its cold body.

There are 6,000 species of reptiles. They also have cold blood, but theirs is a three-chambered heart (except for the crocodile, which has four). The 1.000 or so different amphibians (frogs, toads, and newts) have cold blood and a three-chambered heart.

There are over 9,000 species of birds. From the massive Andean condor with its wingspan of 12 feet, to the tiny hummingbird whose heart beats 1,400 times a minute, each of those 9,000 species has a four-chambered heart (left and right atrium, left and right ventricle)--- just like humans.

Of course, the 15,000 species of mammals also have a four-chambered heart, which faithfully pumps blood throughout a series of intricate blood vessels to the rest of the body.

Here are some interesting questions for the thinking evolutionist. Can you explain which came first---the blood or the heart---and why? Did the heart in all these different species of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals evolve before there were blood vessels throughout their bodies? When did the blood evolve?  Was it before the vessels evolved or after they evolved?

If it was before, what was it that carried the blood to the heart, if there were no vessels? Did the heart beat before the blood evolved? Why was it beating if there was no blood to pump? If it wasn't beating, why did it start when it didn't know anything about blood?

If the blood vessels evolved before there was blood, why did they evolve if there was no such thing as blood? And if the blood evolved before the heart evolved, what was it that kept it circulating around the body?

The only reasonable answer to these questions is that God made the human body (and the bodies of all the other creatures) with a heart, lungs (to oxygenate the blood), blood vessels, arteries, blood, skin (to hold it all in), etc., at one moment in time the Bible states. Scientist Brad Harrub sums it up well:

The final hurdle that evolutionists have not (and cannot) overcome involves the co-dependence  of he respiratory system and the circulatory system. The heart muscle requires oxygenated blood to remain alive. The respiratory system depends on the circulatory blood to deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. So which came first, and how was it able to function properly without the other? Yet, another chicken-egg problem for Darwinians! Evolution may continue to be taught as a "fact" in the classroom, but it has yet to answer such basic life-dependency questions as these.
Source: The Evidence Bible NKJV, Commentary by Ray Comfort

Randal Rauser on reading Stephen Hawking

Randal Rauser recently invited me to do part of a series he did which he called Why they don't believe, in which he's invited various heathens like myself to offer a brief overview of why we're not believers. You can read my entry at Randal's blog here.

Randal was kind enough to offer a reply, and although I responded briefly in the comments on the post itself, I wanted to explore some of the other topics he touched upon – in this case, his response to the influence that A Brief History of Time had on my deconversion (from agnostic theist to atheist; my deconversion from Christianity was some nine years prior).

A quick recap: there's a chapter in ABHoT called "The Origin and Fate of the Universe". Prior to my budding interest in cosmology, I'd held firmly to various cosmological arguments for the existence of God. There had to be a Creator, I reasoned, to bring such a marvelous, complex, and ordered universe into existence. It couldn't just come from "nothing", or "chance". It was my belief that the laws of physics as we knew it simply came to an impasse at the beginning of the universe, and there was no plausible way of explaining the mere existence of the universe without a deity.

In a nutshell, Hawking pulled the rug out from that assumption. He proposed a way, wholly embracing and consistent with all the known laws of physics, for the universe to simply be. It wouldn't come from anything (or 'nothing'), it wouldn't have a beginning or an end. It's speculative, of course, and Hawking doesn't shy away from that. However, his theory has at least made one falsifiable prediction (regarding the anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background), and that's one more piece of scientific evidence than exists for any 'god hypothesis'.

So, what does Randal think of all that?
I first bought A Brief History of Time back in 1988. I think I read half a chapter. I returned to the book in 1996 at which point I read the entire book. When I did finally read it I found a brilliant scientist offering a speculative theory to a general audience. Remember how I observed a moment ago that scientific theories are always changing. Given that fact you might think that scientifically literate folks might be chastened in granting assent to particular speculative proposals. (And the Hawking-Hartle attempt to remove the singularity is certainly speculative with its application of the concept of imaginary time.) So it was surprising to see how widely and enthusiastically Hawking’s book was received (straight on down to Carl Sagan’s adulatory foreword). But then maybe it wasn’t that surprising. After all, many people desperately wanted Hawking to be right because they didn’t want a singularity or any perceived need for a creator. Hence, Hawking’s less than subtle suggestion that should his theory be true, we’d no longer need an agent cause to kick things off. “What place, then, for a creator?” Hawking asked.
I’m not commenting on Mike D at this point, mind you, but rather on the general reception Hawking’s book and its highly speculative proposal received. The way that Hawking’s speculative model was received reflects motivated reasoning at its baldest. And yet the irony is that Hawking’s book doesn’t eliminate the metaphysical problems at all, for the book doesn’t even discuss the supporting reasoning for Thomistic and Leibnizean cosmological arguments.

Randal seems to take some comfort in the fact that this is basically speculative physics. It doesn't totally rule out a role for God simply because it's just a proposal, not a formal working theory. And one theistic physicist posited that even if Hawking is right, you'd need God to "sustain the laws of nature". Whatever that means.

But I think Randal is missing the forest for the trees. The power in Hawking's idea isn't that he's disproved some particular theology, but that he's shown that we have more options than believers are usually comfortable admitting that we have. It may be true that the universe requires an external cause in the form of a deity to bring it into existence; but as we best understand it, there's no logical or scientific reason to make that assumption. It's entirely plausible that the universe can simply be. For someone with a commitment to theism, this obviously won't cut it since it doesn't actually disprove God (as though that could ever happen). But it shows that theists aren't justified in assuming that the explanation for the universe must be God. I think that's a pretty powerful idea because it shows that the old all-purpose atheist defeater "If there's no God, where did the universe come from?" is full of hot air. The truth is that we simply don't know.

But there's another comment Randal makes that doesn't sit right with me, namely this:
After all, many people desperately wanted Hawking to be right because they didn’t want a singularity or any perceived need for a creator.
Uh... no.

What we often call the "cosmic singularity" (its description in General Relativity) is what physicists refer to as the "boundary condition". It's generally accepted that GR, since it can't describe gravity at the quantum scale, is an incomplete theory – as Hawking says in The Grand Design:
"Although one can think of the big bang picture as a valid description of early times, it is wrong to take the big bang literally, that is, to think of Einstein’s theory [general relativity] as providing a true picture of the origin of the universe. That is because general relativity predicts there to be a point in time at which the temperature, density, and curvature of the universe are all infinite, a situation mathematicians call a singularity. To a physicist this means that Einstein’s theory breaks down at that point and therefore cannot be used to predict how the universe began, only how it evolved afterward.” [p.128]
Since we don't yet have a quantum theory of gravity, we're not really sure what the boundary condition actually is. According to Alan Guth, Arvind Borde and Alexander Vilenkin, it's a "closed spacelike hypersurface". Y'know, one of those. Hawking's idea is a bit different – that the boundary condition is that there is no boundary.

It's also more than a little ridiculous to suggest that anyone wants to get rid of the singularity because it would seem to get rid of a need for a creator. The singularity is and always has been little more than an artifact of GR, which simply doesn't work at quantum scales. We know it's wrong – or rather, incomplete. Attempts to resolve some of these issues have given rise to all sorts of interesting ideas, most notably String Theory. These boundary-condition proposals arise as either attempts to explain observable features of the universe, or as implications of the mathematics of other theories (as in Guth/Borde/Vilenkin's "hypersurface" idea, which arose as a consequence from inflationary theory).

Lastly, I think Randal stumbles here, too:
And yet the irony is that Hawking’s book doesn’t eliminate the metaphysical problems at all, for the book doesn’t even discuss the supporting reasoning for Thomistic and Leibnizean cosmological arguments.
I think it makes both those arguments irrelevant. They both begin with  the assumption that the universe is "contingent". Yeesh... talk about assuming the consequent. Hawking's proposal shows that the universe itself can exist, to borrow the philosophy-speak, "necessarily".

I've always found this to be a subject on which the theist seems to be in a much thornier, and frankly more arrogant position than the non-believer. The theist has to make the assumption that the universe cannot be described by the laws of mathematics a la Hawking or Guth et al. In other words, the thiest has to assume the universe is contingent, even though there are no scientific or logical grounds to do so. As an atheist, I'm not committed to any particular idea – I can remain agnostic about the origin of the universe, which frankly is the only intellectually honest position one can take. And yes, this will come as a shock to theists everywhere who don't actually know what atheism is, but I don't even have to assume that the explanation for the universe couldn't be some sort of God. Maybe it is. But until the evidence is there, I'm content to live with my non-belief.