28 July 2013

Reza Aslan on Jesus the zealot

Reza Aslan is a scholar of religious history who has been receiving criticism over his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

The reaction of Christians on this matter just goes to show why religion is so ridiculously stupid. Free inquiry is antithetical to religion, which thrives on the preservation of doctrinal tenets. Religion, in fact, is the set of ideologies I know of that has given a name to mark the ostracization and marginalization of those who dare to disagree with the collective dogma: heresy. If there's ever a red flag that religion is a collection of falsehoods, that is it.

In any case, while I'm not familiar with Aslan or his book and I am in no way defending his writing, the outrage is coming not from the idea that he has written a scholarly work with ideas to be rationally critiqued and debated, but from the idea that a Muslim has dared to write about Jesus. This is a scholar who writes about all manner of religions, and for him Christianity is just another subject to treat as a work of scholarly inquiry. But don't tell Christians that, who are so pathetically desperate to cling to their doctrinal portrait of Christ that they can't stomach someone questioning the status quo.

Here's his recent video on Fox News, if you can stomach the paucity of journalistic integrity and the reference to William Lane Craig.

26 July 2013

God does not exist, but I still do

I know I've been a little quiet over here this past week, but hey... it's my first week of unemployment. So, how did I do?

All I can really say is that I almost wish I had done this a long time ago, though I do think this is the right time both personally and professionally. I've already had a client pay me, in full, for a 3-month training package. I have nearly 200 'likes' on my business' Facebook page and my website has pulled in several strong leads already in addition to several client contacts and Facebook leads. People are pursuing me, which is exactly what I intended.

I've also been crazy busy. Setting up the website and doing search optimization, blogging to get sharable content online, setting up my LLC, getting all the legal forms together plus putting together all my programming concepts and developing an advertising campaign for Facebook... yeah, it's a lot. But the payoff is that I made more than enough money to breathe a bit while I pursue my new leads. Not bad for being "unemployed".

Everything that's happened has reinforced what I believed deep down: that I can pull this off. I don't have to settle for working for someone else for an entry-level salary; I can do it my way, and do it better.

I'm really itching to blog about Randal Rauser's asinine critique of Lawrence Krauss though, so stay tuned!

22 July 2013

Doing it better

I confess, despite my general optimism, I'm in a bit of a funk with the whole unemployment thing. Although I knew my job was ultimately a dead-end, it was at least a steady paycheck and food on the table. I'm terrified at the thought of being a disappointment to my girlfriend, though she's been incredibly supportive.

I'm now making a full-blown effort to establish myself as a freelance trainer, something that I had tried years ago but lacked the client base, experience and knowledge to pull off. I've created a website and corresponding Facebook page, and I'm using a targeted ad campaign to hit local potential clients. On the downside, I don't have any leads from the site from day one. But on the upside, in its first day it's had over 300 visitors and I nabbed over 50 fans on Facebook. That's not a bad start.

Looking at the stats, I realized something. There's really no more job security working for someone else. In my previous job there had been several slumps over the years where I really struggled to get by. I always thought those slumps were in no small part due to the fact that my boss was horrible at advertising – he was fixated on 'outbound marketing' like mailers, cold calling, and emails. He used a 'sell hard' style where everything was loud and verbose, and filled with grand promises and money-back guarantees.

For a high-end industry like personal training, that always struck me as the exact opposite of how to advertise. You're dealing with reasonably well-off, educated people. The money should never be an issue for potential clientele; if it is, you're talking to the wrong people. That's why I'm a fan of 'inbound marketing', where you use your website and social media to help people find you. Outbound marketing is predicated on the hope that you'll hit a needle in a haystack – the right person, the right product, the right time. Inbound marketing gives people the tools to educate themselves and connect with you, so that you're always talking to qualified leads.

I always looked at the way my boss did things and thought, That's so stupid... I could do better! Well... now I have the chance. While in a sense it's a little scary, in another sense it's no less scary than being at the mercy of a business whose owner can't market worth a turd. And while I have a ways to go, I'm encouraged by my first day. Maybe, just maybe, I can pull this off.

19 July 2013

Well, today kind of sucked

Today's my birthday. Yay, me!

I was also fired from the job I've worked for the last seven years.

Given that this blog is essentially personal and I can say whatever I want, I can disregard the tact I've used when discussing the issue in public and with my clients thus far. Let me say it outright: those assholes can take a long walk off a short cliff.

I've had some disagreements recently about the direction our studio is taking. After no increase in pay for nearly four years, I was told my pay as a trainer was capped and that to make any more money, I'd need to do marketing and sales, and work off commission bonuses. While I don't have a problem in principle with my job description expanding, it's not an excuse for capping my pay for my primary role in the business – developing programs and training clients. Further, the marketing was poorly implemented out-bound marketing that relied on promotional discounts and cold-calling to get people in the door – hardly the kind of business that would result in a significant increase in my income.

I've known my boss to be stubborn on such matters, and with my imminent engagement I decided it was unwise to stake my financial future on being able to reach an agreement with my owner and manager. Accordingly, I had been making connections and calls just to get a feel for what opportunities might be out there. Well, one of those connections knew my boss, and sent an email informing my boss that I'd contacted him.

So when I entered into the meeting today, I was under the impression that we were going to try to work to resolve some of these issues. Instead, I was greeted with an accusatory tone while the two bosses dismissed my concerns as irrelevant and twisted my words to imply that I had done something unethical. For example, I had mentioned that many of my clients have said they would follow me if I ever left; this was twisted into Oh, so you're talking to clients about leaving? I made mention of the fact, for the reasons explained above, that I had been exploring other possibilities; this was twisted into Oh, so you have one foot out the door already?

I feel my criticisms were constructive, but they were dismissed outright and further discussion was quickly stifled. I know from experience that anytime those two clowns were running a meeting together, they weren't in a listening type of mood. You, the employee, sit there nervously while they chastise. This was no different. They backed each other up while twisting my words and criticizing me, and ended the meeting by firing me – after seven years of loyal service – without so much as a "thank you".

I feel strongly that how you compensate your employees is a reflection of how you value them. Having had no pay increase of any kind in nearly four years and making what most would consider, at best, to be an entry-level salary, to say I felt undervalued is the understatement of the century. On the rare occasions that clients would probe me into alluding how much I made, they were always shocked that I received such a small fraction of the money they pay – particularly when it is my dedication to them that keeps them renewing their contract over the long haul. And indeed, most of my clients were individuals whom I'd trained for years. While I wish my employers no ill, I feel they have lost sight of what drives a successful personal training business and that in the coming months this will bear out in employee turnover and client losses (both of which have already been issues of late).

On the upside, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. Clients have been calling me expressing their anger at my bosses and support for my future endeavors. Many of them have told me they will follow me and train with me elsewhere. My boss, in his pride and haste, has eroded the goodwill of his clients and employees (the other evening trainer is similarly dissatisfied with the direction of the business), and lost a loyal and dedicated employee. I'm a bit frazzled by what's unfolded today, but I'm also optimistic. I feel a sense of liberation, and I knew that working there was holding me back.

So, at least one upside is that my schedule will be temporarily a bit freer. So, more blogging!

18 July 2013

Sophisticated theology

Sometimes I think that Christians get into esoteric philosophical debates partly because the atmosphere of apparent academic and intellectual rigor helps them distract themselves from some of the more obvious absurdities of their religion, as is cleverly satirized here:

17 July 2013

Describing God by analogy: another trick that doesn't work

Whenever contradictions arise in apologetic arguments, the "nuclear option" is to describe God as in some way ineffable or incomprehensible, which has the convenient effect of immediately terminating all critique. In the recent comment threads going back-and-forth about Aquinas' argument from motion, two commenters, when faced with the inevitable contradictions entailed by their arguments, have argued that when they use certain terminology to describe God they are speaking analogously – and this is supposedly just as legitimate as describing God in unequivocal terms. I want to take a moment to explain why I'm not buying it.

First, a quick primer: my central objection to the argument from motion (though certainly not my only objection) is that it ends with a God that is 'pure actuality'. It says that change occurs when 'potentiality is reduced to actuality', and this creates an infinite regress lest terminated in a source of 'pure actuality' which is, in Aquinas' words, the 'First Mover'. The obvious problem here is that if God is really pure actuality, then he's non-functional. God can't think, act, cause, will, or anything of the sort because these actions all imply change. This means that not only can God not have free will, but humans can't either – because all that God can do or be is fully actualized, and the arrow of time from his perspective would be meaningless.

Now, while you have to love the irony of theists arguing for an omnipotent God who can't actually do anything, theists try to weasel out of the convoluted nature of their conclusion by saying that God still does all those conventionally temporal things – think, be, experience, cause, act, will, etc. – but we can only describe those concepts analogously because, well, God is ineffable.

Well, pardon me for thinking that the apologist hasn't said anything remotely meaningful at all. It's tantamount to saying,
God has thoughts, but they are not "thoughts" in any sense that we would ordinarily use the term.
In that case, what's the point in even saying that God has thoughts at all? Why call them 'thoughts' if they bear little to no resemblance to our everyday conceptualization of the term? This is the kind of semantic bullshit that only religious apologists can pull off.

Have you ever been chatting with a friend when one of you whips out an impromptu analogy, only for the other to say, "Actually it's not like that at all!" before you both laugh? Analogies are used in communication to clarify conceptual ambiguities by expressing common relationships between two concepts or scenarios. But the apologist is using analogy in a completely different sense: not as conceptual clarity, but rather to justify conceptual ambiguity. It's a misguided use of language and a misunderstanding of how analogy is used. But being as they are like magicians with a seemingly endless supply of smoke and mirrors, I'd expect nothing less from apologists.

16 July 2013

The eight miracles of Buddha

When I was in Pasadena this past weekend, I visited the Norton-Simon museum which features a terrific exhibit on Asian art. Among the many statues are descriptions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It's been many years since I studied those religions (doing so was paramount in my deconversion from Christianity), but I was particularly fascinated by a statue depicting the "eight miracles" of the Buddha:

It's fascinating because of how familiar it all sounds as an ex-Christian. Buddha was claimed to have been immaculately conceived, to have tamed a wild elephant instantly, miraculously purified water, ascended to Nirvana (and then came back), walked on water, and done a litany of other supernatural things.

Studying world religions is a fantastic way to deconvert, because it removes you from your own ethnocentric biases. You begin to see that those "miracles" that Jesus supposedly performed weren't actually all that unheard of in antiquity, and that similar tales abound in religions all over the world – many of which predate Christianity by hundreds or even thousands of years. Then you ask yourself why you should think the miracles described in the Bible are True Facts, but all those countless other miracles are just cultural myths, especially when the ones in the Bible are remarkable only in their lack of originality.

Aquinas' argument from motion

Since this has been the topic of countless lengthy comment threads, I thought it was high time I dedicated a post to talking about this lesser-known and somewhat odd argument for the existence of God. I'll restate it as I wrote it in the last post; I'm sure there are variations, but this is one that popped up in a quick Google search:

  • Evident to our senses in motion—the movement from actuality to potentiality. Things are acted on.
  • Whatever is moved is moved by something else. Potentiality is only moved by actuality.
  • Unless there is a First Mover, there can be no motions. To take away the actual is to take away the potential.
  • Thus, a First Mover exists.
  • I'll try to break this down to the best of my ability. The word "potentiality" simply describes a possible change; the word "actuality" describe a realization of this possible change. The argument is suggesting that potentiality can only move to actuality when some pre-existing actuality acts on the already-existing potentiality. It doesn't make sense to have an infinite regress of potentiality and actuality, so the argument posits a termination of the regress with the existence of a First Mover that is "pure actuality".

    Nailing Jell-O to a wall

    This argument actually reminds me a lot of the ontological argument. While they're very different arguments of course, they're similar in that it can be difficult to cut through the semantics to figure out exactly where the fallacies lie. The only people who use terms like "actuality" and "potentiality" are philosophers (presumably religious ones), as those terms have long been relegated to antiquity in the face of scientific clarification of the concept of causality. Religious apologists seem to almost relish in this obscurity, because it's easy to confound laypersons with the esoteric and confusing terminology.

    I'm not a philosopher by training, and I have little patience for conceptual obscurity. My tactic is to try to understand things in the simplest terms possible. From my perspective there are lots of problems with Aquinas' argument, so I'll try to break them down as best I can.

    1. Defining potentiality and actuality

    These terms are obscure in the extreme. If they're supposed to describe cause and effect, then there's no reason to take them as axiomatic. There's no evidence, nor any reason to believe, that classical conceptualizations of causality work at the quantum level. Apologists will use the "you can't disprove it" canard, and argue that it can't be shown causality doesn't have some effect in quantum mechanics. But that's trivial; that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Even if that were the case, though, there's still no reason to take causality as anything more than a description of physical, empirical phenomena. There's no justification for taking it as an axiom that applies even beyond the universe itself.

    It's also worth noting that, as alert Christian commenters have pointed out, that the term "motion" is currently understood simply to mean "change". But in this case, the law of conservation of energy and the laws of motion eliminate the need for an endless well of actuality to exist, because energy is always conserved and the causal chain can persist without external influence. In other words, the total sum of energy in the universe, even if it is finite, is sufficient to describe all instances of potentiality coming to actuality. We don't need to posit a "First Mover" that acts as an infinite source of actuality – the laws of motion and conservation of energy sustain the chain of interaction on their own. Whether the universe is finite or infinite to the past is also irrelevant, as the total energy of the universe can be finite in either scenario, and this eliminates the need for a "First Mover".

    Further still is the fact that actuality and potentiality need not be separate interacting mechanisms; in quantum mechanics, what Aquinas would call a particle's "potentiality" could be described as an intrinsic property of the particle, and it becomes "actualized" through quantum indeterminacy at some probabilistically determined point – as in the case with virtual particles, quantum entanglement, or nuclear decay.

    2. "Potentiality is only moved by actuality"

    The problematic implication here is that potentiality and actuality must both always exist. Actuality cannot in itself bring potentiality into being, for that potential for change would mean that actuality has some intrinsic potentiality (is this confusing yet?). But the argument terminates in the idea that God is "pure actuality". But if God is pure actuality, God cannot do anything. All concepts we use to describe action – causality, creation, etc. – imply the existence of a potential change.

    Apologists try to wiggle out of this contradiction by positing God as existing outside of time. Thus for God, the past, present and future are simply arbitrary points. This, however, just digs the apologist a deeper hole.

    Firstly, as I just mentioned, terms like "cause" and even the term "being" for that matter imply a temporal context. To strip them of that context is to render them conceptually nonsensical. Worse, it's a fallacy of equivocation – you cannot use one definition of something like "being" or "cause" within the premises of your argument, and then use another definition in your conclusion.

    Secondly, it raises the question of whether time itself is a more fundamental property of existence than God. Because if God cannot change, then he cannot create time. He exists as this abstract "actuality" that exists at all possible points in time, and any changes are only changes from the perspective of observers such as ourselves (ironically enough, this is actually similar to the concept of the "block universe"). If there is something more fundamental than God, then God can't be the "First Mover" – it would only be the potentiality of time that allows him to exist. If this is all confusing, though, it's because the above objection is still the more powerful one – it just doesn't make any sense to talk about temporal concepts in non-temporal contexts.

    3. "Unless there is a First Mover, there can be no motions"

    This is rendered moot by the objections under (1), but I want to entertain another possibility: that potentiality can actualize itself. A commenter quoted the apologist Edward Feser making this objection:
    " if a mere potency could make itself actual there would be no way to explain why it does so at one time rather than another...if the potential for [a form] could have actualized itself it would have happened already since the potential was there already ".
    It's interesting to note that this is precisely what happens in quantum mechanics! The wave function of a particle can only be determined by probability; there is no classical mechanism that can explain why the particle changes at one time rather than another.

    But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Describing the arrow of time only makes sense from our own perspective as internal observers of an inflating universe. By the apologists' own argument, God exists "outside" of this arrow of time, so that any point in the past, present or future is simply arbitrary.

    Self-actualizing? Maybe.
    Ironically, this is somewhat similar to the Hawking-Hartle No Boundary Proposal. Under this mathematical formulation, the universe prior to inflation exists as a four-dimensional hypersurface; that is, time itself functions like another dimension of space. We can imagine it like the surface of the Earth, which is two dimensional (i.e., you can plot any point on its surface using longitude and latitude). If I were to ask you, "What is the starting point of the surface of the Earth," you'd quickly point out that I had asked a nonsensical question, like asking "What is South of the South Pole?"

    In the Hawking-Hartle model, the primordial universe is like the surface of the Earth. Time flows in arbitrary directions, and no specific point can be said to be the "beginning" or "end". Eventually, through various laws of quantum mechanics that I don't have the space on this post
    to reproduce, a region of this four-dimensional space begins to inflate. The arrow of time then becomes a description of the entropy of the inflating region of space. The bizarre implication, though, is that the universe didn't have to "actualize" itself at any specific point in the four-dimensional hypersurface.

    In other words, the origin of the universe escapes Feser's objection because it's nonsensical to try to describe it using the arrow of time (a sequence of temporal events). Instead, the potential of the universe to develop an inflationary region always exists (not infinitely into the past, but as a property of the four-dimensional hypersurface), and the point at which inflation happens is arbitrary and can only be determined through probabilistic calculations of quantum mechanics.

    I have absolutely no idea, by the way, if that's actually how the observable universe came into being; however, it's sufficient that, as a mathematical and logical possibility, it undermines the axioms that Feser's objections are reliant upon.

    Final thoughts

    It all just goes to show that the argument from motion is one that relies upon the fallacious idea that empirically observed phenomena can be taken as axioms that apply in all conceivable circumstances (a problem with all natural theology), and it's dependent on equivocation to resolve the paradoxes implied by its conclusions. The reason the paradoxes arise is simply because it's nonsensical to take empirical phenomena as axiomatic; these arguments are a case of garbage in, garbage out. But as long as apologists are willing to play fast and loose with the definitions of key terms, they can make modal logic appear to prove anything they want.

    15 July 2013

    Christian apologetics: the endlessly moving target

    I have several persistent frustrations with Christian apologists.  One is their incessant attempts to "prove"  the existence of God using a priori reasoning as though empirical knowledge of the world can be attained through little more than rational introspection. Another is the frequent shifting of the burden of proof through appeals to mystery and that which cannot be disproved (that is, almost anything imaginable).  Another still is that the very concept of God and the concepts used to describe him/her/it  are virtually infinitely amorphous, such that they can be molded to rationalize any belief at all.  The very meaning of "God", "existence", "causality", and virtually every such related concept all lack universally agreed upon definitions, and can be defined as needed to retrofit any belief already assumed to be true.

    Let's take something as simple as "existence". To be. God, supposedly, is a being which exists without a physical form or body, and independently of space and time. These things probably sound really awe-inspiring to the apologists who trumpet such descriptions of their pet deity, but what the hell does that even mean?

    Take this excerpt from a recent comment thread with alert reader Steven Garmon. Steven's a big fan of Aquinas' "Argument from Motion", which uses the concepts of potentiality and actuality as a causal argument for God's existence. 'Potentiality' simply represents a possible change, and 'actuality' is the realization of that change. The original argument goes like this:
    1. Evident to our senses in motion—the movement from actuality to potentiality. Things are acted on.
    2. Whatever is moved is moved by something else. Potentiality is only moved by actuality.
    3. Unless there is a First Mover, there can be no motions. To take away the actual is to take away the potential.
    4. Thus, a First Mover exists.
    In our chats, Steven defined God as "pure actuality"... which prompted me to make the following objection:
    If God is pure actuality, then he cannot possibly change; any act of will or mind represents a change in potentiality to actuality, which would by definition include a willful act of creation. If you define God as pure actuality, then you've just conjured up a static being that can have no thoughts and do nothing... which ironically is a lot like what atheists say about God!
    This is a pretty air-tight objection. But, never one to acknowledge a blatant failing of logic, the Christian apologist is the ever-resilient interlocutor who responds with the ever-reliable defeator: the rules don't apply to God! Steven says,
    Of course God cannot change, for the concept of change requires time. This is why God is said to be outside of time. If you think of our illusion of time as linear then God can be conceived as present at every point in the line. Therefore God doesn't change from point A on the line to point B. Rather he is present at both points and this lines up adequately with him being pure actuality.
    There are several things to be said in response here, not the least of which is that apologists who make such arguments dig themselves into a pretty deep hole. If God exists as pure actuality and cannot change, he cannot make decisions, create, destroy, or do anything at all – at least not in any way intelligible to us, because you have to redefine those concepts to mean something completely different than what we ordinarily take them to mean. Instead, God exists, somehow, as the full realization of all possible possibilities. He can't will himself to create something, because he by definition is always creating. This also annihilates human free will, since God's judgement upon mankind was already in place before the world was created (and, bizarrely, would remain after the world was destroyed per the book of Revelation). Since God is just sort of a static "thing" that does not experience anything temporally, then from his/her/its perspective all actual events – including its own subjective experiences – are happening simultaneously.

    This just goes to show how nonsensical it is to talk about "existence" without space and time. It might be tempting to say, for example, that God could "choose" to experience something temporally; but that would immediately create a contradiction since choice by definition implies a temporal sequence of events. You'd have to redefine the word "choice" entirely, so that it doesn't resemble much of anything that we would recognize, and then you've simply created something so abstract as to be unintelligible. And in that case you've only succeeded in conjured up something that, even if it does exist, might as well not exist. What, after all, is the difference between something that doesn't 'exist' in any intelligible sense of the word, and something that doesn't exist at all?

    I'm home!

    I just got back from a vacation in lovely Pasadena with my fabulous girlfriend Vanessa. We stayed with my brother and his wife, and got a nice taste of life in greater Los Angeles. I gotta tell ya... it's a lot like life in Tulsa, except with way, way, way more traffic and vastly more expensive housing. We hit the Norton-Simon museum, got in lots of shopping and dining, stuffed ourselves at a huge farmer's market, watched Man of Steel (second time for me, first time for everyone else), and took plenty of walks.

    It's funny, because my brother and his wife (and her entire family, really) are always trying to get me and my parents (who live roughly 20 minutes from me) to move out there. They seem to have this impression that it's just a given that LA is just so much better and more interesting than Tulsa. But Vanessa and I came to the conclusion that while Tulsa obviously doesn't have things on the scale of LA, pretty much anything you can do there you can do in Tulsa, too. The difference is that in Tulsa it only takes 15 minutes to get there, and our 'heavy' traffic is akin to a pretty light day on the 5. Also, Tulsa has such comparatively low cost of living that it practically doesn't even compute how much it costs to live in LA.

    Case in point, my bro's home in Pasadena is valued at somewhere around $750,000... and it's 1200 square feet. For that amount of money, you could live in a spacious house in one of Tulsa's beautiful historic neighborhoods (that, frankly, are at least as nice as anything you can find in Pasadena) and still have money left over to buy yourself a sweet ride and hire a gardener.

    So, it's a fun place to visit, and my bro and my extended family there are all fantastic, generous and fun people. But man, I have no desire to live there.

    In blog-related news, I've been reading A.C. Grayling's book The God Argument, and I love it. I love it not only because he tackles many of the popular 'proof of God' arguments with a level of academic rigor that a certain other notable atheist has been accused of lacking, but because of how clearly, cleverly and concisely he communicates his ideas. He quite thoroughly eviscerates religious apologetics and has had me saying to myself "Why didn't I think of that?" on many occasions.

    Given some of the extended dialogues in recent posts (I try to respond to as much as I can, but I can't reply to all of them) as well as the book, I have plenty to write about. The only difficult part is deciding where to start.

    09 July 2013

    I wish my grandmother could die

    My grandmother, now 91 years, is one of the sweetest, smartest, most compassionate human beings I've ever known. As a child she was not just some distant relative but a great source of support and love. To my cousin, who now helps take care of her, she's like a second mother.

    For the last several years, her health has been deteriorating. Following a hip replacement, she never followed through with the rehabilitation like she should have, which is all too common. Accordingly, she gradually became less mobile, which led to her being weaker, which led to her being more dependent. It's a downward spiral and, at that age, there's little if anything to stop it.

    She's recently been diagnosed with a blood clot in her lungs. She's also been found to have blood in her urine and stool. And she has a mass which may or may not be cancerous. She doesn't want to do more tests. She sleeps for 16 hours a day. She requires a bedside commode and has fallen several times. She needs not only a walker to move about, but a helping hand (or two). She fatigues very quickly and cannot remain upright for very long. More recently she's had increasing cognitive difficulties, such that conversations with her can be difficult.

    She's also depressed. She's confided in my aunt that she doesn't understand "why the Lord hasn't taken me yet". She feels like a burden to those around her. Tonight I was told that she's been lying in her bed crying. Despite her depression, she hopes to live long enough to see her daughter, granddaughter (my aunt and cousin) and her great-grandchildren in about ten days. I hope for her own happiness that she lives that long. I hope it's a beautiful and happy day, and that she suffers little until then. And I hope that soon after, she can go in peace.

    There's a certain point when you're not really living. You're just surviving day to day, feeling like a burden to others and unable to help yourself. You can't stand or walk without assistance, and you even need help going to the bathroom. Meanwhile, medical tests and treatments rack up expenses for your loved ones.  I'm a believe of assisted suicide. I feel very strongly that we should have the right to choose to die with dignity, to stop prolonging suffering that realistically can only become worse as the inevitable end draws closer.

    I love my grandmother very much. And it's because I love her that I hate to see her depressed, feeble, and suffering in her final days. I wish she could have the choice to die peacefully, painlessly, and with dignity. But I know that, in our death-fearing culture, she will not have that choice. Instead, measures will be taken to prolong her life as much as possible. She will grow more feeble, more dependent, more confused, more depressed until her body gives out. She has precious few moments, like the time with her children and grandchildren, that brighten her days. She's lived a long, happy life and raised a wonderful family that has paid her love forward, since it's far too immeasurable to ever give back. And now, while she lies in bed in tears, I find myself wishing she could say goodbye – on her terms.

    The great apologetic switcharoo

    I go back and forth about the value of debating Christians. On the one hand, I like being challenged and although the odds of me re-converting (at least all the way back to evangelical Christianity) are pretty much nil at this point, I've occasionally found that discussing theological and philosophical issues with educated theists can get me to consider things I hadn't thought of on my own.

    But more often than not, it's just an endless morass. And I think a big part of what makes the whole affair sometimes seem like such a waste of time is what I like to call the great apologetic switcharoo. Religious apologists always begin their arguments with the confidence that any rational person ought to be convinced, logically and rationally, that not only does God exist but, hey who'da thunk, it's the god of tribal Palestine and not any of the other tens of thousands of gods scattered throughout human history.

    As you start to push back against apologists, though, a funny thing happens. They switch, usually very subtly, to the old You can't disprove it! canard. Take for example the odious William Lane Craig's response to a challenge on the Kalam – namely, that just because causality applies within the universe doesn't mean it makes any sense or implies that causality must apply to the universe:
    You could also do a thought experiment. Ask [atheists] why one timeless entity—say, a number—could not depend timelessly for its existence on another timeless entity. Why is that impossible? Why couldn't God timelessly sustain a number in existence? That would clearly be an asymmetric causal relation. Why is that impossible?
    Did you see what he did there? He didn't actually offer an argument, much less any evidence, that we should think any of those propositions are true. He just blurts out that we can't disprove it. And hey, if you can't disprove something it's gotta be true, right? This is not an isolated incident – it's endemic in the Christian apologist community. They don't want to approach questions as a rational skeptic – i.e., "Why should I believe these claims are true?" Rather, they assume their position to be true and challenge skeptics to provide "defeators".

    Let's take a central issue regarding the truth or falsity of Christianity: the Bible. Is the Bible really the divinely inspired, possibly inerrant (depending on your theology) word of the Lord and Creator of the entire Universe? Or is it just a fairly mundane collection of writings from a relatively primitive subset of Middle-Eastern cultures? In my experience, Christians tend to treat the issue as though there are two positions being debated:
    • The Bible is the word of God
    • The Bible is demonstrably false
    But there's obviously a third possibility:
    • There's no reason to think the Bible is the word of God
    Notice the difference here between the second and third positions.  The fact that something is not demonstrably false does not constitute a reason to affirm that it is true. I cannot demonstrate that Buddha did not achieve enlightenment or that Muhammad is not the prophet of Allah. And no amount of quasi-academic blathering will change the fact that no Christian can disprove those claims, either. The fact that something can't be disproved is utterly trivial. There is a virtually infinite number of propositions that can't be disproved, but we don't go around believing in them. Disprove the existence of leprechauns! I dare you to try.

    I wrote a post a while back, which I've since pinned, called The Gospel Challenge. I tackle some of the problems with the New Testament, although not in as much detail as I did in my review of Lee Strobel's movie The Case for Christ. This was my challenge:
    [Given] the basic facts, I challenge you to demonstrate either logically and/or empirically that the only plausible explanation for the gospels is that they are the inspired words of God – that no reasonable person could conclude, based on the facts, that the gospels are nothing more than the works of ordinary, delusional human beings.
    In other words, what evidence would compel a rational skeptic to accept that there is no other plausible explanation for the gospel accounts aside from the Christian one? See, Christians generally structure their arguments based on the fact that they've already assumed the gospels are true; they then challenge skeptics to demonstrate that they're wrong. But that's impossible, for the same reason it's impossible to demonstrate that Buddha didn't achieve enlightenment or that unicorns don't exist. What I'm really interested isn't how Christians defend assumptions they're already made, but how they arrived at those assumptions in the first place. If a Christian could imagine themselves as someone from another country (or heck, another planet) who had never heard of Christianity, what is the evidence that would compel them to accept the Christian explanation of the Bible?

    This 'switcharoo' is another strategy – along with the misguided strategy of using philosophical arguments to prove some kind of god exists – that I feel we non-believers need to call Christians out on more mercilessly, because they use it all the freaking time. Too often, debates get lost in the minutiae. One of the reasons Christians think William Lane Craig "wins" debates is because he sets up a lot of little fires for his interlocutor to chase. He rambles on about Bayesian probability or the Bord-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, and challenges his opponents to explain "four facts" about the Resurrection. If instead of chasing around these small targets his opponents instead focused on the big picture – challenging the idea that philosophy can be used to prove God's existence in the first place, or pointing out that there's no evidence the Resurrection is a historical event that needs explaining at all – these conversations would be much shorter and the farce of apologetic evangelism would be exposed for the sideshow it is.

    03 July 2013

    Another great talk with Sean Carroll

    This one is a discussion on all things metaphysical... heady, but fascinating.

    02 July 2013


    "Scientism" is a word flung at us non-believers when we refuse to take unverifiable claims of divine revelation, dubious historical records, anecdotal reports and uncontrolled case studies as hard evidence of the supernatural. "You're closed-minded," they say. But like the old saying goes, don't be so open-minded your brain falls out. Demanding good empirical evidence to support claims about reality isn't closed-minded – it's open-minded because you're showing that your position is amenable to evidence. It's the person who credulously assumes that the unexplained is paradoxically explained by the supernatural without demanding independently verifiable evidence who has truly closed their mind.

    You can't use philosophy to demonstrate that God exists

    Over the years in writing this blog, William Lane Craig has provided plenty of cannon fodder for me; more recently, Randal Rauser has proved to be a wellspring of facepalm-worthy apologetics and pseudoscience. Both have one thing in common: they're both philosophers by trade who think that it's possible to prove the existence of God through the use of deductive logical arguments.

    Here's a quote, for example, from Randal's latest post, which is itself a quote of another apologist-philosopher type, Edward Feser:
    In each case we have [apologetic] arguments to the effect that the material universe in principle must have had a cause and that the divine cause arrived at not only happens not to have a cause (as a “brute fact” would) but rather in principle could not have had or needed a cause and in principle could not have not existed.  And the reasons, of course, have to do with the metaphysics of potency and act, the difference between composite substances and that which is metaphysically absolutely simple, the real distinction between essence and existence in anything contingent, and other aspects of classical metaphysics in the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and Scholastic traditions.
    All of this quasi-academic blather rests upon the misguided notion that it's even possible to establish knowledge about the external world (its properties, origin, causes, etc.) without actually going out there and looking at it. It's not an empirical endeavor that relies on observation, but one that relies on a priori "truths" in the Rationalist vein of Rene Descartes.

    The Kalam Cosmological Argument is a fine example. William Lane Craig says that the basis for the first premise ("Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence") is based on "the metaphysical intuition that something can't come from nothing". Wait... "metaphysical intuition"? Let's look at that more carefully. When asked to expound on that point in both his debates and his written work, Craig usually goes on to point out that this is consistent with what we observe – that we don't see things just "popping into existence", so to speak. We always observe things coming into existence as the outcome of prior causes.

    The problem is, that is an empirical observation. What Craig then does is treat that observation as an a priori truth – it's not just something we observe in our day-to-day reality, but something that is always true in every conceivable circumstance. The entire Kalam is therefore undermined with the most basic retort to its first premise: maybe not.  Now, personally, I would argue (and have argued) that classical concepts of logic and especially causality are nonsensical when trying to describe quantum mechanics. No philosopher could have ever describe the double-slit experiment through a priori reasoning. But even if I didn't have quantum mechanics on my side – if I had been living in antiquity, for example – I still could have rejected such a premise on principle alone. How does Craig know that all things in all conceivable circumstances behave according to the same rules and laws he observes in his immediate frame of reference? If that seems a little narrow-minded, that's because it is.

    I've seen this objection to the Kalam put much more simply: just because things within the universe are subject to causality does not mean that the universe itself must be subject to causality. There are two reasons for thinking that this case has not been established. The first is that we don't know what it's like to measure the universe as a set. How could we? How could we step "outside the universe" and make empirical observations? The second is that it's arguably nonsensical to even talk about something like causality without the context of the physical universe. Every observation of what causality is – and that includes Aristotle's "Four Causes" all the way to a more modern Newtonian scientific definition – has been inferred from observation of the physical universe. If we strip the universe away, why should we assume the rules still apply? What does it mean to talk about causality without time, space, matter or energy?

    When confronted on this in an old Q&A, Craig retreated to the old "prove it's impossible" canard. But we're not the ones asserting the first premise of the Kalam as an a priori truth, and the burden is on him to demonstrate it as so. Unfortunately for Craig, he simply can't, because that would require something theists are fond of accusing atheists of flouting – knowledge of everything.

    Possible objection 1: "Scientists do that all the time!"

    Here's a predictable objection: Scientists do that all the time! If you don't acknowledge certain a priori truths, you can never do any experiments in the first place!

    This objection (or some variation of it) is one that I've heard innumerable times from theists over the years on this blog and elsewhere on the theological underbelly of the interwebs. But it's conflating two very different things: a priori knowledge and provisional assumptions.

    A fine example is the ubiquity of physical laws: scientists assume that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe. But unlike a priori truths, scientists know that you can't actually learn anything about the universe with a provisional assumption; rather, it's more like a starting point to spearhead further empirical inquiry – and it's an assumption that, by natural of being provisional, could be wrong. No scientist would be caught dead using an argument like this:
    • The law of gravity holds within the currently observable universe
    • The laws of physics are the same in all parts of the universe
    • Ergo, the law of gravity holds beyond the currently observable universe
    It's entirely possible – although improbable – that we could indeed someday observe a region of deep space in which the law of gravity does not hold.  We do not mistake our empirical observations for immutable truths – and yet that is exactly what Craig and those of his ilk do when they cantilever a priori truths into realms that are either untested or even untestable. How can Craig possible know that "everything that begins to exist has a cause"? He can't, of course, because he's making the mistake of deriving an a priori "truth" from an empirical observation.

    Possible objection 2: "It's like math!"

    I've seen mathematics brought up on more than one occasion as an example of something that supposedly allows us to learn about the world through reason alone. After all, so the theists say, you can't prove the foundations of mathematics are true; you just have to acknowledge them as a priori truths in order to learn anything about the world at all! But the foundation of mathematics, which is called "set theory", is indeed based on empirical observation: the observation of discrete objects that can be grouped into sets. From that, we can abstract arithmetic, irrational numbers, and various theorems and complex mathematical axioms.

    However, all mathematics can do is tell us the consequences of axioms. It can't tell us which of those axioms actually correspond to reality! If that were possible, then physicists wouldn't bother doing experiments; they'd simply "math" their way to the secrets of the universe. But physicists do experiments because it's impossible to know, just by mathematics alone, what the universe is actually like. It's entirely possible for us to create mathematical structures that have absolutely no referent in physical reality whatsoever, and/or to create ones that are contradictory to each such that either might exist, but both could not. That's why, just like with anything else, learning anything about the world through math requires observation and experiment.

    Possible objection 3: "It's properly basic!"

    This is a lot like the first objection, in that the assumption is that we have to hold certain things as true in order to make sense of anything else. But in this case, we might take the process all the way down to our basic perception of the world and our subjective experience: i.e., "rational intuition". But the problem for a priori knowledge again rears its ugly head. We can't know that we're not plugged into a Martix-like simulation, or that we're not a manifestation of another creature's dream, or that we weren't created moments ago with the illusion of memory; instead, we simply acknowledge that there's no justification for assuming such things to be true. Not unlike the ubiquity of physical laws, we can take the basic axioms of rational intuition, such as "I exist" and "My sensory experience is generally reliable", as provisional assumptions that are a starting point to further inquiry rather than immutable truths.

    One theist offered this retort:
    I say the knowledge of efficient-final causality is embedded in our mind by nature, and we know it a priori.
    Oh... he says! Well golly, I'm convinced! Look, this is like saying that you know God exists because God gave you the knowledge that he exists. It relieves your position of epistemic humility and begs the question at the same time! The fact that some theists fail so completely to recognize such flagrantly circular reasoning shows just how ridiculous the whole charade really is.

    There's a trend I'm seeing more and more frequently in which theists trot out all sorts of obscure philosophical arguments for God's existence. Each one has umpteen different forms, so if you take the time to refute one of them, the theist can just come back with "Oh, but that's not the version of the argument I agree with," or some such nonsense. We can avoid a lot of useless discourse if we really start hammering these Christian-philosopher types with a basic fact: you cannot prove or disprove the existence of God with logical argumentation.

    Logical axioms give us a framework for understanding the world around us – not a basis for inferring immutable truths. When we point this out, theists have no choice but to retreat to the idea that belief in God is just a matter of faith. I mean obviously, we don't sit around arguing about whether the sun or the moon or you or I merely exist (well... anti-realists not withstanding...). That's because there's evidence – such overwhelming evidence, in fact, that it's easy to take it for granted. The evidence that God exists? It's right there, as long as you're content to worship the sun.