31 October 2013

Can we prove God does not exist?

It's a trite old maxim of folk logic that you cannot prove a negative. It's also a staple of religious apologetics to argue that belief in God need not be subject to methodological inquiry and verified evidentially. Combined, these two fallacies form a powerful weapon of perpetual ignorance among the faithful. Atheists themselves are fond of saying that atheism is a "lack of belief in gods", since that clears them of any sort of burden of disproof. Personally, while I think that atheism is at least in part a "lack of belief in gods", I think atheists who take the "weak" stance are to an extent selling themselves short. There are good reasons to say we can prove that God does not exist.

How should we go about this whole God thing?

First up to the plate is the contentious old question of whether the existence of God is a scientific question. I'd say that it depends on how one defines "God". If you simply mean some nebulous pantheistic-like super-intelligence that's intertwined with the universe, or you just want to say "a higher power" and leave it at that, well then no, it's not a scientific question because you've either left the being undefined (what does 'a higher power' even mean?) or made God semantically indistinguishable from the material universe. So, perhaps you define God as some incomprehensible being beyond the cosmic veil, or a deistic God who set everything in motion (or an Aquinian being who 'sustains' the universe in motion) but otherwise does not leave fingerprints of his actions. Same problem – you've defined God in such a way that in principle cannot be detected.

In all those cases, the theist has just failed to say anything worth considering. Saying you believe in an incomprehensible deistic God is about as interesting as me saying I believe in secretive extra-dimensional superintelligent alien overlords who, to us mere humans, would be indistinguishable from a God. There are an infinite number of such ideas, and they're essentially self-defeating – if something is incomprehensible, how can you know it exists? Even if such things do exist, it's like I always say (man, I really want this quote attributed to me!): the only thing worse than a God who does not exist is a God who might as well not exist.

Most theists, however, do not defined God as totally incomprehensible, mysterious or secretive. I mean heck, a cornerstone of Christianity is the concept of "revealed theology", the idea that God somehow let a few fortunate souls sneak a peak into the divine, then told them to spread the word. But that comes with a large caveat: as soon as one defines God as a being that interacts with the natural world in any way, then it stands to reason that the existence of God must be a scientific question. The reason for this was concisely illuminated by the physicist Lisa Randall in her outstanding book Knocking on Heaven's Door:
The problem is that in order to subscribe both to science and to a God— or any external spirit— who controls the universe or human activity, one has to address the question of at what point does the deity intervene and how does He do it. According to the materialist, mechanistic point of view of science, if genes that influence our behavior are a result of random mutations that allowed a species to evolve, God can be responsible for our behavior only if He physically intervened by producing that apparently random mutation. To guide our activities today, God had to influence the ostensibly random mutation that was critical to our development. If He did, how did He do that? Did He apply a force or transfer energy? Is God manipulating electrical processes in our brains? Is He pushing us to act in a certain way or creating a thunderstorm for any particular individual so he or she can’t get to their destination? On a larger level, if God gives purpose to the universe, how does He apply His will?
The problem is that not only does much of this seem silly, but that these questions seem to have no sensible answer that is consistent with science as we understand it. How could this “God magic” possibly work?
Clearly people who want to believe that God can intervene to help them or alter the world at some point have to invoke nonscientific thinking. Even if science doesn’t necessarily tell us why things happen, we do know how things move and interact. If God has no physical influence, things won’t move. Even our thoughts, which ultimately rely on electrical signals moving in our brains, won’t be affected.
If such external influences are intrinsic to religion, then logic and scientific thought dictate that there must be a mechanism by which this influence is transmitted. A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic— or simply not care.
I think Lisa Randall really nails it – I can think of nothing to add. Even a deistic God may not totally escape this conundrum, because how the universe began (or whether it began at all) most certainly is at least in principle a scientific question, even if it remains beyond the veil for the foreseeable future.

One person's proof is another person's not-really-proof

It's also worth considering what exactly we mean by proof. This is where philosopher types interject with a very precise meaning of the term – that of mathematics or deductive logic. Another physicist, Sean Carroll, often says that "Science is not in the business of proving things", and that's precisely the kind of "proof" he's talking about. To be philosophically precise, science uses inductive reasoning, not deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning and mathematics can be called "proof" because they tell us the consequences of axioms. If axiom x is true, then conclusion y must follow. But – again with a nod to Carroll here – we can't gleam from deductive logic or mathematics which axioms correspond to reality. For that, we must again use inductive reasoning. And when we use induction, we speak of things with varying degrees of reliability and probability, not absolute or irrefutable knowledge.

It's not hard to see why this is the case. If mathematics alone could tell us which axioms corresponded to reality, then physicists would never have to do experiments; they could simply solve their way to a complete understanding of the universe. But we can easily conjure up mathematical axioms that are contradictory or which can be found through experiment not to correspond to reality. Logical axioms are no different; a deductive argument may be valid, in that if the premises are unequivocally true then the conclusion must follow. But if the premises are not unequivocally true, the argument is nonetheless unsound. And to establish premises in deductive arguments as true (or, to be more precise, reliable), we are again left to inductive reasoning.

In the strict, deductive and mathematical sense, it's indeed true that you cannot prove a negative. But this is irrelevant for queries related to the existence of God, because that requires us to look at the world and establish the reliability of various propositions theists frequently espouse about the nature of God. If God answers prayers, orchestrates events in people's lives, heals people, causes natural disasters, etc. – then we are dealing with evidential claims that fall under the purview of the criteria Lisa Randall detailed. We're not talking about claims that can be deductively proved or disproved, but claims that are inductively reliable or unreliable.

Most people, when they are talking about whether we can "prove" anything about God, are not speaking with that kind of philosophical precision. They're speaking about "proof" more colloquially, in a more inductive sense – what we can reasonably, reliably know about the world around us. And to that extent, I think that we most certainly can prove that God does not exist. In this case the word "prove" is synonymous with "absolutely no rational reason whatsoever to assume the positive".

Absence of evidence and evidence of absence

Ironically, a pretty great critical summary of the old canard "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" was written by none other than theologian William Lane Craig, in the book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview:
If someone were to assert that there is an elephant on the quad, then the failure to observe an elephant there would be good reason to think that there is no elephant there. But if someone were to assert that there is a flea on the quad, then one's failure to observe it there would not constitute good evidence that there is no flea on the quad. The salient difference between these two cases is that in the one, but not the other, we should expect to see some evidence of the entity if in fact it existed. Moreover, the justification conferred in such cases will be proportional to the ratio between the amount of evidence that we do have and the amount that we should expect to have if the entity existed. If the ratio is small, then little justification is conferred on the belief that the entity does not exist.
It might be more accurate to say that "absence of evidence is not proof of absence", because it's definitely evidence. Perhaps, to use Craig's example, a highly skilled team of forensically trained ninjas came in and removed all evidence of the elephant without being detected. But this is certainly far less plausible, and requires far more assumptions, than simply concluding – quite within the realm of reasonable doubt – that there was no elephant. Again, using that colloquial sense of the word "prove", there is absolutely no rational reason whatsoever to think there was an elephant on the quad unless there is evidence of one.

If indeed God does all the various things that believers attribute to him, then there is no question that there ought to be abundant inductive evidence of God's existence. When believers use the 'miracle' canard to imply that God's fingerprints in principle cannot be detected even though God totally does intervene in the natural world on a regular basis, they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. And it's here where, in addition to Randall's excellent quote above, an old quote from PZ Myers is apt:
If something has an effect or influence, you can try to examine it using the tools of science — so when someone announces that gods cannot be detected by observation or experiment, they are saying they don't matter and don't do anything, which is exactly what this atheist has been saying all along.
Whenever theists try to escape this conundrum by positing a God beyond our purview of inquiry, they're falling right back into the trap of my own quote above: the only thing worse than a God who does not exist is a God who might as well not exist. They've simply posited a being that is utterly irrelevant to human existence. It's the theological equivalent of William Lane Craig's flea.

We can, then, through inductive evidence, prove (using the colloquial sense of the word) that God – as generally described in Western Monotheism – does not exist. There is absolutely no reliable evidence and hence no rational reason to think that there is a being who listens to prayers, orchestrates events in our lives, controls nature, creates and destroys at will, speaks prophetic words to his followers, or reveals himself selectively to a chosen few. The utter failure of theists to produce any sort of reliable evidence for any of these types of claims is indeed proof that God does not exist.

But obviously, the reason why the question remains contentious is because it is so semantically loaded and the philosophically precise usage of the words are often nonchalantly interchanged with the colloquial ones. So, perhaps this isn't an answer that can satisfy anyone, but I hope I've at least shed some light on the problem.

The Swedish Atheist: The review – part 2

Now things are getting a little heavier, with a discussion about how cultural influences shape religious belief. Sheridan seems convinced of something much like what Richard Dawkins said in a response to the question, "What if you're wrong?" after a reading of The God Delusion in 2006:
Well, what if I'm wrong, I mean — anybody could be wrong. We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the pink unicorn and the flying teapot. You happen to have been brought up, I would presume, in a Christian faith. You know what it's like to not believe in a particular faith because you're not a Muslim. You're not a Hindu. Why aren't you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, not in India. If you had been brought up in India, you'd be a Hindu. If you had been brought up in Denmark in the time of the Vikings, you'd be believing in Wotan and Thor. If you were brought up in classical Greece, you'd be believing in Zeus. If you were brought up in central Africa, you'd be believing in the great Juju up the mountain. There's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up and ask me the question, "What if I'm wrong?" What if you're wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?
Randal also gives a quick nod to John Loftus' 'Outsider Test for Faith'. The gist of the chapter is the notion that Christians (and religious folk in general) aren't as self-critical as they should be about the extent to which culture influences their beliefs.

I'm just gonna lay it out like I see it: I think Randal's response here is terrible. It's aimless, misguided and flat-out wrong on several counts. Let's begin:
"All our knowledge and beliefs are shaped by our cultural environment. Take vision, for example." With that I stand up and walk over to a young man sitting on a couch studying intently for final exams. On the table is a stack of books on psychology, including Lionel Nicholas's Introduction to Psychology.
"Nicholas is helpful on this," I say to Sheridan, "because he recounts the findings of an anthropologist named Turnbull that illustrate the extent to which perception is shaped by culture and environment. Let's see ... here it is. `Turnbull stated that when he was accompanied by a pygmy guide (who had spent his entire life in the dense jungle ... never entering the plains in any manner) onto the open plains, they observed a buffalo (which the pygmy had only ever seen at a maximum distance of 30 meters in the jungle). When the pygmy was shown the buffalo at a distance he asked what kind of insect it was. When told that it was not an insect but rather a buffalo, he stated that it could not be a buffalo as it was too small .-3 
"The point is that sensory perceptions are distributed over geographic regions in much the same way religious perceptions are. As I said, people living in the jungle interpret a particular sense experience as seeing an insect, whereas people on the plains interpret that same sense experience as seeing a buffalo. What you perceive depends on the culture and environment in which you were raised. Who knows to what extent living in North America today might have shaped our perception of things? But even though we know that perception is shaped by our culture and experience, we don't thereby cast doubt on all our perception. After all, the guy that reported he saw a buffalo was correct. Instead we should adopt an `innocent until proven guilty' attitude, recognizing that perception is generally trustworthy even if it is not infallible. Why not think about religious beliefs in similar terms? Couldn't they also be generally trustworthy even though they too are shaped by culture and environment?
Randal gets off to a perfectly respectable start by pointing out that all our beliefs are shaped by our cultural environment, not just our religious ones. But I think that Randal is greatly underestimating how unique religion is in this regard. According to research by the Pew, people do often change religious affiliation, but most retain the religion of their childhood. Of those who change, the vast majority simply change to some other permutation of that same religion. The number who become 'unaffiliated', though apparently growing, remains small. This suggests that, like Dawkins suggests, growing up in a certain faith has a very strong impact on your faith as an adult. No surprise there.

But where Randal really falls of the wagon is with the statement, "The point is that sensory perceptions are distributed over geographic regions in much the same way religious perceptions are." Randal gives a couple of other example, but they're not examples of people seeing different things but rather interpreting data differently. This where Randal needs to be a bit more nuanced. Of course culture influences how we interpret sensory data, whether it's the kind of music we like or the type of plant or animal we think we see from afar. But it's ridiculous to suggest that sensory perceptions themselves are subject to the same kinds of cultural distribution biases as complex religious dogmas. Erroneous sensory perceptions can be easily identified, corrected and controlled for using scientific methodology; the same cannot be said of erroneous religious claims.

In any case, Randal doesn't appear to take exception to the notion that religion is heavily biased by cultural influences, but he doesn't see that as being unique and, accordingly, as a reason to be unusually skeptical of religious claims. But we can draw a parallel with science. Sheridan tries, but his atheist caricature is pretty lost:
Sheridan lets a disdainful puff of air escape his lips. "Look, scientists agree about what they perceive. Religions don't."
Oh, Sheridan. You poor make-believe atheist. Of course it's not true that scientists agree about what they perceive. Debate is a bedrock of scientific inquiry. What scientists do have that religion does not is a methodology by which they can, over time, demarcate reliable truth-claims from unreliable ones. That is why many scientific discoveries have been made independently – that is, more than one person (or team) in separate parts of the world, despite having no contact with each other, were able to use the scientific method to come to the same conclusion. That's probably what Sheridan was getting at with his clumsy retort.

Importantly, there is no such example in religion. Not one. Not ever. Because there is no methodology in religion for demarcating truth from falsehood, no two cultures who are geographically isolated, and no two theologians who are not part of the same religious subset, have ever come to the same conclusions about the nature of God. Broad generalities are to be expected – one god versus many gods, angry god versus peaceful god, etc. etc. – because there are only so many permutations of deities that are believable. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer goes into quite a bit of detail on the cognitive psychology behind successful concepts of gods in his book Religion Explained. Diving into it here would be a big project unto itself, but I think the point is well-established.

So clearly, there are some non-trivial differences between religion and the interpretation of sense perception, or religion and scientific methodology. But if we are going to critically examine one belief system that's heavily influenced by culture, shouldn't we examine them all?

[Randal:] So if I accept your outsider test in religion, then it applies here as well, and you need to test your political convictions with the outsider test as surely as does the Afghani, North Korean or Saudi Arabian."
Sheridan thinks for a moment. "I have no problem with that, I guess."
"Really? But applying it consistently to all our beliefs is impossible."
"Impossible? Why?"
"Just think about the implications for politics. Even if you could defend representational democracy over and against other systems, you wouldn't be done. In fact, you'd just be getting started! Then you'd have to defend your chosen political party. After all, party affiliation is also deeply influenced by geography.
Again, there are relevant differences between political systems and religion. It is of course a good idea to think critically about representational democracy's strengths and weaknesses compared to other political systems. But unlike religion, political beliefs do not require their followers to accept the existence of things for which there is little or no evidence, or which is by definition immune to evidence and argument. Moreover, political ideologies are often based on ideals which are not necessarily grounded in objective facts about the world – such as the extent to which the government ought to be involved in social or corporate welfare, or when it is appropriate to engage other countries in war.

It's ironic that Randal's 'Sheridan' character consistently fails to grasp nuance, because that's precisely Randal's problem. There are relevant differences between sense perception, religion, political affiliation, and whatever else one can think of (monogamy?). While our culture shapes our experience in all, only one of them requires its followers to accept things as true not only in spite of, but often because of a lack of evidence. In the absence of evidence, childhood indoctrination remains an effective tool for the transmission of religious dogmas, as the Pew research demonstrates.

30 October 2013

The Swedish Atheist, The Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails: The review, part 1

Okay, I'm definitely gonna have to shorten that title for future segments. Maybe just TSATSCDaOART: The Review, part x. No? Okay, maybe just The Swedish Atheist. That's funny because practically all of Sweden is like, "Are yous talkings to me?" Well... funny in my head at least.

The book begins by introducing the characters. There's you (the reader, who is apparently a believer), Randal, and an atheist named "Sheridan". Why anyone would name their kid Sheridan is beyond me. Now, Randal says in the book that he wants to make this conversation as balanced as possible; it's not meant to be about him just kicking the argumentative crap out of some naive atheist:
I've tried to write an authentic conversation in which my interlocutor hits pretty hard and I don't always have satisfactory answers. My goal is not to compose an essay rubbed to a fine burnish but rather to chronicle the living, breathing reality of real, extended truth-seeking.
That's cool and all, but when we meet Sheridan, Sheridan turns out to be kind of a dick.  He's wearing a shirt with a thumbs-up Jesus that's captioned "There's a sucker born again every minute". Not that I have anything against some good-natured ribbing of religion, but Sheridan seems like he may have an axe to grind about one religion in particular, and he just conducts himself in fairly dickish ways. Upon realizing that Randal may be Christian, he asks, "You're not a sucker, are you?" Moments later he calls Randal a "faith-head" and says that Bill Maher showed in Religulous that there's no evidence Jesus existed. I'm already wondering if this is how Randal, or evangelical Christians in general, really perceive 'new atheists'.

But after the mention of Religulous, Randal touches, ever so softly, on a theological issue:
"Here's a question for you, Sheridan. How many tenured professors of ancient history doubt the existence of Jesus?"
Well, that's actually a thorny question. Because I'm sure that if you asked most 'tenured professors of ancient history' whether they thought some sort of historical Jesus existed, I think most would say yes. There are exceptions, like Robert Price, but even he wouldn't take a firm stance on whether we could know  there was some sort of historical Jesus. The relevant question, I have always thought, is whether historians agree that Jesus existed as he is described in the Gospels. In other words, did the Biblical Jesus exist? It's not even remotely difficult to find tenured professors of ancient history who do not believe in the Biblical Jesus. Speaking personally, I have argued extensively on this blog that there is absolutely no reason at all to believe in the Biblical Jesus and plenty of reasons not to.  I think my most thorough critique is in my three-part review of Lee Strobel's film The Case for Christ, but a quick search for "historical Jesus" in the sidebar will bring up plenty of related posts.

But, back to the book. Sheridan continues, dickishly:
"Okay, I'm getting the vibe that you don't like being called a `sucker.' So then what should I call religious people like you? You believe in a sky God who sits on a throne above and governs the world like a petty potentate. You can believe that if you want to, but if it doesn't make you a sucker, then what does it make you? Why not believe in Zeus or Thor instead? There are countless gods of the ancient world. The Christian God just happens to have a following. No doubt that's just good luck."
Sigh. Really? Now, maybe Sheridan is an exaggerated caricature of new atheists on purpose. I can only hope so, because no atheist I know or have read would talk like this. Apparently, Randal perceives new atheists as being people who have absolutely no grasp of nuance.  But Sheridan, despite his clumsiness, stumbles on to a relevant issue:
"Here's something even more interesting. Imagine for a minute that you're walking down the street and a man approaches you proclaiming the religion of the `sacred four-leaf clover.' [....] "You wouldn't take this guy seriously for one second. Heck, you'd be doing well not to burst out laughing after his earnest little theology lesson. But is Christianity really any less fantastic than this?
It is true that religious people tend to take the weirdness of their own dogmas for granted. When you're culturally indoctrinated into a complex belief system, you tend not to perceive your own beliefs as being unusual; but to outsiders, your beliefs are perceived as bizarre as any other. Christians may think that Hindu beliefs are weird, but it's a safe bet that Hindus perceive the Holy Trinity and the salvation of mankind though the blood sacrament of a god in human form as equally strange.

Such ethnocentric biases are important to acknowledge, because they can blind us from critical self-examination. I recall reading a book on world religions in my Christian days that was written by a Christian for Christians. It gave an overview of various world religions and then argued why they are wrong. Years later, when I decided to study world religions from a less obviously biased viewpoint, I came away with a starkly different impression and had to ask myself some tough questions about my own beliefs.

It's here where Randal invites Sheridan to join him for coffee, and the conversation really begins. But that'll have to wait until the next part of this review.

The Swedish Atheist, The Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails – I'm reading it

After my last foray into one of Randal Rauser's books, I wasn't about to drop coin on another one. Hell, I'm still disappointed that Randal ultimately chose to hone in one rather trite statement rather than actually discuss the central criticisms I published in my partial review.

And yet even if he wasn't interested in conversing with yours truly, conversation seems to be something that Randal at least likes the idea of, because this longly (yes, I made up a word) titled book is about a Christian and an atheist talking casually about profound things over a cup of Joe.

In any case, the book is free on Amazon today. And since I'm an atheist which of course means I believe in nothing, it seems like an opportune time to "buy" it and give it a read. My review of Randal's other verbosely-titled book What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven? wasn't a true review; I was just after a handful of specific questions I'd asked Randal about on his blog, at which point he said he answered those questions in the book. Turns out that wasn't the case, leading me to conclude it was just a trick to get my $9, and I'm sure Randal is now busy diving in his giant vault of money in a totally unnecessary scuba suit.

SPEAKING OF SCUBA SUITS (capitalized because you know you're impressed by that segue), I've only cut through the introduction tonight but I intend this – unlike my review of WoEDWKaH (even the acronym is fucking long!) – to be a full-on review of the book. The introduction admirably starts off with an admonition of the adversarial nature of many debates, to which I could not help but think Uh, Randal, have you met yourself?
I once thought the perfect setting for an apologetic exchange was the lecture hall, where two individuals engaged in a knockdown, drag-out debate in front of a rapt audience. But that reeks of combat. Let's get rid of the polarized audience and constricting debate resolution-and definitely throw out the timer!
Some conversations are meant to be savored as part of what I call the "grande conversation." Grande conversation takes hours or even weeks-however long the people talking want to spend-and participants pursue a rigorous, trusting, honest sharing of ideas in a comfortable, noncombative environment.
I could not agree more. I think lecture hall debates are masturbatory time vacuums in which the two interlocutors spend 2½ hours talking past each other and trying to impress their own audience. If many minds have been or are being changed by such charades, I haven't heard anything about it. Like, ever

Anyballs, I'll be... uh... diving into Randal's book this week. But I also have a new guitar arriving on Friday, so let's hope I can get the book read and the review written before then because God Almighty I probably won't leave my studio for a week, much to the chagrin of my lovely and patient girlfriend.

And speaking of my girlfriend, did I mention we're engaged? Wedding in a year. Extent of pagan ritual integration is yet to be determined, but goat sacrifice and the exchanging of ancestral swords have not been ruled out.

p.s. – Also I should mention that I totally had the same idea for a book, except instead of being two guys at a coffee shop they were two hot chicks in a mud wrestling contest having a poorly timed existential crisis.

21 October 2013

William Lane Craig on exposing Christians to secular material

You know how it goes. You have run the gamut with William Lane Craig's insipid arguments, and you swear you're done. Moving on. Then you watch this excellent video of Scott Clifton (a.k.a. "Theoretical Bullshit") coming out of quasi-retirement and sticking it to the Kalam. So then you say, "Hey, maybe I'll head over to that ironically titled site Reasonablefaith.org and see what old 'Dr. Craig' is up to these days". Then you see some colossally asinine post and feel oddly compelled to write about it.

In this week's "Q & A" section on his site, Craig addresses a reader who is having some struggles with his faith while reading some atheistic material:
Hi, Dr. Craig, I'm currently reading "Disproving Christianity" by David McAfee. I've also been listening to Richard Dawkins. I want to believe in God, but I'm having trouble with my faith. I've always been a Christian, but since I started talking to my atheist friends, I find it hard to believe in God. When I think about it, it doesn't make much sense to me to belive in a creator of the universe. It makes even less sense for me to believe in a God who intervines in our lives. Please, I want to believe in God, any suggestions?
Before I get to Craig's answer, I want to talk about the question. Notice that the desire to believe is stronger than any apparent cognitive dissonance. When you have someone who is well-versed enough in philosophy and/or theology to conjure up complex, esoteric and academic-sounding rationalizations to ease this dissonance, you have yourself a bona fide apologist.

Notice also that he says it doesn't make much sense to him, when he thinks about it, to believe in a Creator. Thinking for yourself?! How dare you! Dr. Craig has the solution for that:
I find myself utterly baffled by the cavalier way in which many ill-equipped Christians expose themselves to material which is potentially destructive to them. It’s like someone who doesn’t know how to swim deciding to take the plunge in the heavy surf. Wouldn’t it be the sensible thing to do to first prepare yourself before venturing into dangerous waters?
I remember vividly that when I first became a Christian I was very careful about what I read because I knew that there was material out there which could be destructive to my newfound faith and that I had a lot, lot more to learn before I was ready to deal with it. Do we forget that there is an enemy of our souls who hates us intensely, is bent on our destruction, and will use anything he can to undermine our faith or render us ineffective in God’s hands? Are we so naïve?
This exposes Craig's mindset: faith is to be preserved at all costs. It's not so much important that you arrive at your beliefs through careful thought and critical inquiry; what matters is that you simply believe. The justification and rationalization for believing can be hashed out later. For now, it's only important that you take the leap of faith, even if it requires temporarily shutting off your brain.

This is not surprising in light of the fact that Craig believes that Christian faith is justified by what he calls the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit", not any particular argument or set of evidence. That the evidence and arguments happen to perfectly line up with and support his Christian faith (according to him, obviously) is really just a happy coincidence. Remember, this is the guy who has said, "... even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness." Faith above all else. Evidence, schmevidence.

If that's not a giant red flag, I don't know what is. Why on earth should believing a proposition be so important that it doesn't even matter how you arrive at said belief? Why should it be considered admirable that someone believes something with complete and total credulity?

Craig continues, explaining that someone who really gets the arguments in support of Christianity most certainly wouldn't be impressed by any atheists:
In your case I strongly suspect that, despite your having been a Christian for most of your life, you have not properly equipped yourself before reading and watching anti-Christian material. I say this, not merely because you fail to see the obvious fallacies in arguments like Dawkins’ (see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-new-atheism-and-five-arguments-for-god and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/dawkins-delusion ), but also by your admission that “it doesn't make much sense to me to belive in a creator of the universe,” thereby evincing your unfamiliarity with the powerful arguments for a Creator and Designer of the universe, such as the argument from contingency, the kalam cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the argument from mathematical applicability, the argument from intentional states of consciousness, and so on.
Yes folks, only uneducated people think atheists have good arguments. Sorry, Oxford-educated philosophers A.C. Graying and Daniel Dennett – you guys don't count. But it's here where Craig really lays it on the line:
Even if you don’t find these arguments rationally compelling, they at least show that belief in a Creator of the universe makes sense.
Hhhwwwhat? Let me get this straight: Craig thinks that even if one is convinced the above arguments are irrational, one still ought to be convinced that they demonstrate that belief in the Christian God "makes sense"? Talk about a contradiction in terms. 

Craig's argument though, is not that this person should not study secular material, but that they should do it only after developing an extensive repertoire of Christian apologetics.
What would prompt you to feed on the garbage you’re reading and watching, thereby polluting your mind, rather than diligently studying the work of, say, Alvin Plantinga? We are called to be disciples, which in the Greek means “learners.” Is what you’re doing your idea of what Christian discipleship looks like? Is this the path to transformation by “the renewal of the mind” (Romans 12.1-2)?
Certainly, someone does need to read and interact with secular material, but that person is not (yet) you. You first need to prepare yourself.

My answer would be quite different from Craig's. First, I would tell this person that belief is not what's important, but rational and critical inquiry. If you are not convinced of a certain proposition, that's okay. And rather than say something ridiculous like "Don't read any Christian apologetics until you've mastered the atheist material first", I'd simply tell this person to read both. Read Reasonable Faith. Read The God Argument. Read Alvin Plantiga, C.S. Lewis, Ed Feser, Randal Rauser and Bill Craig. Read Dan Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Expose yourself to contrary ideas and, above all else, think for yourself. If Christianity is true, what do you have to fear?

16 October 2013

Unpacking more of Randal Rauser's book on Heaven: the ascension of Christ

I basically take Randal's deleting binge as a sign that the dude's not worth engaging on his own blog. If he's just going to censor all discussion when it doesn't go well for him, there's not much point in challenging him directly. Nonetheless, I paid a whole $9 for his book, which could have scored me a Royale With Cheese – one of my favorite burgers here in Tulsa courtesy of upscale-casual dining at R Bar on Brookside – and since I made such a tremendous and deeply personal sacrifice to read the book, I'm not quite done talking about it yet.

Today I was thinking about the first chapter in the book, which asks "Where is Heaven Now?" To us non-believers, this is a pretty easy one: "In your head." But for a believer like Randal, it's a bit more complex:
We can begin with the most important New Testament texts that refer to the ascension, which are found at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts. Scholars generally consider Luke and Acts to together compose a unified work. This is significant because it means that Luke placed the ascension at the very heart of his great work.
[ 8] When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. (Luke 24: 50– 51)
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1: 9)
The doctrine of the ascension made sense in the first-century picture of the world in which heaven was understood to be located in or above the sky. But now that we know heaven is not in the sky, where is it?
To Randal's credit, this is the type of question Christians ought to be asking. Since we know that Heaven isn't up in the sky, why on earth would Jesus float into the clouds and disappear? At the same time though, the fact that this is even the kind of question that theologians spend time mulling over truly brings the absurdity of religion to the fore.

Occam's Razor isn't any sort of 'proof', but it's a principle of parsimony. It's often phrased as "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one," but I prefer the more accurate phrasing, "do not multiply assumptions beyond necessity". So when we're looking  at the ascension of Christ – since we're not dealing with claims that can be conclusively proved or disproved – I think a little parsimony goes a long way in establishing a plausible explanation.

I would say that the reason Jesus ascends into the sky in the gospel narrative is because it's a myth, and because the people who conjured it up really believed that Heaven was up in the sky. I think that's a pretty good explanation. Religious myths span the entirety of human history, and there's nothing particularly special about the Christian one. Modern astronomy and cosmology were still a long ways off, and for lots of cultures (including Jews and Greeks) the gods lived 'up there'. So we have an explanation which requires no extraordinary assumptions – just accepting some reasonably well-established historical facts.

Jesus and clouds may not be to scale
But since Randal, like most Christians, is committed to the idea that the gospel narratives are historical documents, he has to find a more... elaborate explanation.

First I just want to point out how silly Acts 1:9 is. Unless it was a magic cloud that was really low, even on a low-overcast day Jesus would have to be really high up before he'd be hidden by clouds. He'd just be a little dot. And frankly, the fact that it says "a cloud", in the singular form, suggests we're talking about a partly cloudy day, possibly with some pretty God rays, which suggests Jesus would have to be really, really high up to be hidden by a cloud. There's really no reason he couldn't ascend on a clear day, since at high enough altitudes no one would be able to see him anyway. But the way the ascension is described in Acts just sounds more majestic despite its dubious plausibility, which of course is an important feature of historical documentaries and definitely not of cultural myths.

Anyway, Randal explains the conundrum:
“God’s right hand” is a metaphor. But that doesn’t mean that spiritual heaven has no space at all. Indeed, it must have space by definition since Jesus is there. Remember that Jesus’s body has spatial extension (that is, it takes up space), and so it follows that heaven must take up space. As Wayne Grudem puts it, “The fact that Jesus had a resurrection body that was subject to spatial limitations (it could be at only one place at one time) means that Jesus went somewhere when he ascended into heaven.”[ 9] So we’re back to the question: If spiritual heaven must take up space, then where is that space?
In my previous write-up, I mentioned that for the Christian who believes in an omnipotent deity, this should be easy to resolve: it's magic. Elsewhere in the book Randal implies that our earthly concept of time could be tossed out the window in Heaven, so why should he care about holding on to our earthly idea of space? Why couldn't God put a physical thing in a non-physical space? That seems like the sort of thing an omnipotent disembodied transcendent mind should have no trouble pulling off, since he's the one who (presumably) wrote the rules of physics in the first place.

But let's roll with Randal's dilemma. Here's his explanation:
If the Another Universe model is correct, then how did Jesus get to heaven? While it is beyond our purview to speak definitively on this matter, we can consider at least one rather exotic proposal: perhaps as he was rising into the Judean sky, Jesus entered a wormhole that transported him to this other universe we call heaven.
With this model in mind, we can envision two distinct universes like two separate pieces of paper that touch at a point. The point where they touch would be the wormhole through which Jesus passed from earth to heaven.
At this point, it behooves me to mention that this book is totally serious and not in any way an atheist parody of Christianity, although the two are starting to look almost indistinguishable. It bears emphasizing that wormholes are strictly conjectural, and that even if they exist and could be used to travel about, you could only use them to traverse space-time within our universe, not to travel to other universes. So Randal's not even really getting the physics right. He goes on to speculate about another possible explanation, in which Heaven is "a reality that overlaps the same space as the physical universe while existing at a higher dimension within it."
In order to unpack the implications of the Spiritual Dimension model, we can turn back to the realm of quantum physics from whence the concept of a wormhole is derived. Here we find another controversial and provocative scientific notion: hyperspace or extra-dimensionality. This concept arises within string theory, which posits several spatial dimensions in addition to width, length, and height.[ 14]
This is why theologians should not do physics. First of all, wormholes are derived from General Relativity, not quantum mechanics or string theory. Secondly, while it's true that string theory posits the idea that there are 10 spatial dimensions (plus the dimension of time, for 11 total), the extra dimensions are presumably so tiny that we'd need a particle accelerator roughly the circumference of the solar system to be able to detect them. So Jesus shrunk into these tiny, curled-up spatial dimensions? That's really Randal's hypothesis? Yes:
If this is a viable hypothesis, then it provides a fascinating possibility for the ascension.
I'm not sure if Randal understands what a "viable hypothesis" actually is, because that would suggest that the existence of Heaven – and by extension, God – could be tested scientifically. Is he really prepared to take his theology that far?

Randal also addresses the perfectly obvious question of why Jesus floated into the sky at all, if he's just zipping through a wormhole or something:
In this case, God wanted to communicate to the followers of Jesus that he was travelling [sic] to heaven. Since the early Christians accepted the three-storied universe, Jesus accommodated to their understanding by ascending into the sky. Then when he reached a certain point in altitude, he entered the wormhole that allowed him to pass through to heaven.
I swear I am not making this up. This is really in the book.

So, let's compare these two hypotheses:
  1. Jesus is described as ascending into the sky because it's a myth fabricated by relatively primitive people who literally believed Heaven was in the sky, and who had no concept of hyperspace or other universes. 
  2. Jesus only ascended because it looked majestic, and then he went into a wormhole or somehow entered into the curled-up Planck-scale hyperspace described by String Theory. 
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say mine at least wins on parsimony, by a country mile.

But on a larger note, Randal's musings are indicative of the kind of thinking that led me to deconvert. The simpler explanation is obvious and intuitive, but it's not desirable when you're committed to a certain dogma. So you sit around thinking up these elaborate rationalizations and telling yourself, "Hey, I guess that could have happened". And if anyone says you're an idiot because you're totally butchering science and logic, you can always just tell them that they can't disprove your bizarre conjectures. Checkmate, skeptics! Personally, I just got tired of devoting so much mental energy to rationalizing these ridiculous beliefs when the less desirable explanation was so much more plausible.  Randal's a professional theologian though, so to some degree he's getting paid to sit around and contemplate this stuff. Me, I was busy studying music and exercise science, and I figured that if Christianity were actually true, God should have done a better job explaining himself.

14 October 2013

Randal and the "new direction"

After the whole big fiasco over my allegedly uncharitable partial review of Randal Rauser's book What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?, Randal opted to delete both of his posts on the topic and all the ensuing comments (over 150) with them, citing a desire to take his blog in a different direction:
I regret the direction the conversation took in the articles and ensuing threaded discussions. It was not edifying or illuminating and generated more heat than light. Since this is my blog, I must own the lion’s share of the blame.
I'm of two minds about Randal's decision. On the one hand, I've made no secret of the fact that I get more than a little fed up with debating religious apologists. I really like Tim Minchin's analogy, that it's like two tennis players trying to win a match with beautifully executed shots from opposite ends of separate tennis courts. We're operating on entirely different sets of assumptions and often end up just talking past each other. I'm also not a fan of the frequently adversarial nature of such debates, and I confess that as the years have gone by my patience has worn thin and these days my reaction to the elaborate rationalizations of religious apologists is often more likely to be, "You've got to be fucking kidding me" than "Let me explain in rigorous detail why I think you are wrong". So I understand that Randal, too, probably gets tired of arguing with atheists and of the adversarial nature of such discussions – especially for a guy who calls himself a "tentative apologist".

But on the other hand, I think that Randal may be overlooking the fact that you can't generate light without heat. Religious apologists – of whom Randal is one, tentatively or not – make pretty bold and often grand assertions about the nature of reality, how we understand it, our place in it, and how to best live a moral and fulfilling life. Those are the kinds of things that are bound to be contentious and will provoke dissent even among believers, much less between believers and non-believers.

Finally, I think Randal's making a grave mistake in deleting the posts. It shows an unwillingness to tolerate dissent and/or criticism, and it shows him as unwilling to own his own role in the fiasco. Now of course, he did say he must take the "lion's share of the blame", but that's rather vague, no? The blame for what – passionate and vigorous disagreement? Spirited debate? I think the posts ended up being an embarrassment for Randal not merely because they generated fierce vigorous debate (that's nothing new for Randal), but because he failed to engage the arguments, resorted to a rather petty show of grandstanding over his credentials, and found even other believers correcting him and distancing themselves from his theology.

At the same time, looking back, I realize fueled the fire with my assertion that Randal spent his book "making shit up". Really, that's the phrase that triggered the whole ensuing confrontation, so much so that the actual four questions that I was (and am) sincerely interested in discussing were all but ignored. Like Randal's behavior with his "new direction", I'm of two minds about my own. I'm the type of person to call a spade a spade; I don't like to mince words for fear of offending others. I couldn't see any type of pattern or logic to Randal's claims about the afterlife, and that's what led me to the conclusion that he was "making shit up".

However, this is also cause for me to reflect on what this blog ought to be. If I want it to be an atheist echo chamber, the blunt condescension will probably do just fine as my non-theist regulars will undoubtedly cheer me on. But if I actually want to have spirited but civil debates with those whom I am criticizing, I feel that I ought to write with a less acerbic tone as no one, regardless of their beliefs, enjoys being patronized. Even if I was right about Randal's failure to justify his claims (and I'm confident I was), I could have been more careful about my tone if I actually had any interest in him or believers like him discussing those four questions about Heaven.

In many respects, I've had enough with apologetics. I've been reading and discussing it for the better part of 15 years, and it's grown tiresome having virtually identical debates over and over. But on the occasion that I see it fit to discussion apologetics or theology, my readers deserve better from me – and so to all of you, and to Randal, I apologize and pledge to do better. 

10 October 2013

And, that's all that needs to be said

When I wrote my partial review of Randal Rauser's book What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?, I intended it primarily to discuss four questions that, to my mind, undermine the logical coherency of the Christian concept of Heaven. I had asked the questions to Randal directly on his blog, a snapshot of which I reposted in the review; Randal did not respond to the questions directly, briefly explaining that he addresses them in this book.

After reading the relevant content in his book, it was my conclusion he had not done a very good job of resolving Heaven's logical paradoxes. On a couple of the questions, he literally did not even try! Worse, the book was filled with all sorts of grandiose claims about what Heaven will be like, and Randal never provided any sort of evidence for his claims.

Randal's response to me was to completely ignore the four topics central to the review, instead diverting the discussion into a criticism of my core epistemological assumptions. But not only was it clearly irrelevant (one does not have to agree with my core epistemological assumptions to agree with my criticisms on the four questions), but it was the argumentative equivalent of trying to sculpt the statue of David with a sledgehammer.  Randal lashed out against the validity of evidence-based justification, something I like to call throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it was eloquently put by reader AdamHazzard:
My patience with this dodge is simply exhausted. Epistemology is a fascinating branch of philosophy, but if there is an epistemic system that entirely denies the utility of evidence, verifiability and falsifiability in forming beliefs about the physical world, I have yet to hear of it and have certainly never seen it applied to science, law, history, geography, engineering, childhood learning, et alia. Such an epistemic system would render those fields of knowledge, and many more, utterly incoherent. And while it would enable arbitrary religious beliefs, it would similarly enable any arbitrary belief.
But, at the risk of sounding a bit cocky, I don't think Randal was quite prepared for the fact that I'm well-read on epistemology and while I make no pretense of being a professional philosopher, I can hold my own when it comes to clarifying the core epistemological concepts I think are valid. Rather than deal with my responses, Randal wrote a lengthy post extolling his academic credentials, insinuating that I'm out of my league to even question or engage his arguments. 

Keep in mind that these are the questions on which I had repeatedly pressed him:
  • How do you know what you claim to know?
  • If you were wrong, how would you know?
  • Why should anyone else believe you?
I don't think those should be difficult questions for an academic philosopher to answer. Randal's response:
I adhere to externalism, moderate foundationalism, and proper functionalism combined with particularism (as opposed to epistemic methodism). A thorough understanding of those concepts will identify me on the epistemic landscape and provide you with the understanding you seek for what it means to be epistemically justified in accepting theological claims (or to know theological claims).
The bluster here is rather pathetic. If one accepts all of Randal's epistemological assumptions, then it may be the case that they have created a framework in which his beliefs about Heaven are acceptable. But they're not inevitable. There's nothing about Randal's epistemology which inescapably leads to his conclusions. One could quite easily adopt all of the above epistemological assumptions and still form entirely different beliefs about Heaven. Randal hasn't gotten out of the need to answer the above three questions in clear, concise terms.

So that is what came of my partial review of What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven? – a senseless diversion about epistemology followed by grandstanding over academic credentials. When I was a Christian, I remember posing questions like the three above to learned Christians in my church. I always assumed that, being experts in theology, they'd have clear and concise answers to these difficult questions that, if nothing else, would get me started on the right track for further inquiry. Instead, my inquiries were always met with the same kind of irrelevant diversions that Randal has employed.

What's ironic about all this is that after my recent post confessing my exasperation with arguing with religious apologists, I thought I'd read Randal's book anyway simply because he claimed the book answers four questions that I had long taken to be devastating problems for the Christian concept of Heaven. I thought it'd be interesting to hear someone tackle those questions head-on. I never imagined the whole thing would spiral out of control so quickly and dramatically, but it's certainly hammered home my belief that reasoning with religious apologists is, pure and simple, a complete waste of time.

08 October 2013

Randal Rauser blows a gasket

Imagine that you were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. You call your lawyer, and you sit down with the prosecutor. Your lawyer asks, What evidence do you have against my client? The prosecutor responds, Oh... you think I need evidence to prove something? How can you prove such a statement? With evidence?

It might be easier to get a sense that you're dealing with first-rate bullshit than to be able to identify the fallacy at work here, but this is the 'argument' Randal Rauser used in response to my critical partial review of his book.

Randal was rather butthurt by my statement that he engages in a lot of "making shit up", calling that "uncharitable". That's weird... I call it accurate, and I spent a good chunk of the review explaining why I thought he was just making shit up. Frankly I could not care less whether Randal thinks I'm not being nice enough by calling a spade a spade. Randal pointed out that the book is not intended for non-believers, but that was a pretty irrelevant point because I acknowledge as much in my post. The problem for Randal is the even granted as much, there doesn't seem to be any method to his madness. Whether he was attempting to address the issues I was interested in or not, he never provided any kind of justification for his speculative assertions about the nature of Heaven.

So, when Randal complained about my supposed lack of "charity" – his use of the term being really a bastardization – I replied as follows:

And down the rabbit hole we go. Now, verification and falsification, even if one does not believe they are the sole valid justification for beliefs, are universally agreed upon to be one valid justification for beliefs. Essentially, saying a proposition cannot be falsified is simply a way of saying that there is no evidential basis to establish it as true or false. And when Randal objects to falsification of ideas by trying undermine the entire concept, he's throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If we can't use evidence to verify or falsify claims, then all evidence-based claims are unreliable – and surely even Randal doesn't believe such a thing. 

Worse for Randal, he's wrong: I most certainly do not take the position that "Any truth claim which is neither verifiable or falsifiable is made up shit". Rather, I take the position that claims which can be neither verified nor falsified – in other words, for which evidence of their truth or falsity is in principle impossible to establish – are indistinguishable from "made-up shit".

It's entirely possible that everything Randal wrote in his book about Heaven is spot-on and true. It's also possible that he made it all up. The pertinent question – and this seems so obvious to me that it seems absurd to have to spell it out – is how we might know the difference. Falsification is merely a method by which we demarcate reliable truth-claims from unreliable ones. The unreliable claims aren't necessarily false; we just don't have any reason to think they're true.

And that's the problem with Randal's book. He just never provides his readers – and that includes the Christian audience for whom the book is intended – any reason whatsoever to think that anything he says is actually true. In the comments, I pressed him repeatedly on the matter. I even went so far as to grant him that we can toss out evidence-based justification entirely, and verification/falsification along with it. I just wanted him to propose some way of answering questions that anyone, ever, should be able to answer when making truth-claims about the nature of reality:
  • How do you know what you claim to know?
  • If you're wrong, how would you know?
  • Why should anyone else believe you?
Randal even claimed that the views he presents are open to refutation or revision. But when I asked him how, he went off on a tangent in an attempt to undermine the principle of falsification and evidence-based arguments.

I think this is pretty simple stuff. Randal is making shit up. He's been caught red-handed, and he's embarrassed. He has literally no argument or evidence whatsoever to substantiate his beliefs, no reason whatsoever why he couldn't fabricate radically different conceptualizations of Heaven and believe them just as strongly. He's now in the unenviable position of trying to save face by putting on his best "I'm an academic!" mask and diverting the discussion into complaints about charity and rebukes of universally accepted philosophical principles, but the facade is utterly transparent and no one's buying it. Sad that someone so intelligent has devoted so much of himself to so little. 

What's especially frustrating about all this is that in blowing a gasket over these tangential issues, Randal has ducked actually addressing the four topics which were the subject of my review. All the better for him, I suppose, that no one looks too closely.

07 October 2013

NDT on the science of "Gravity"

I haven't seen Gravity yet. I've heard it's pretty awesome; a friend described seeing it in IMax 3-D as "an hour and a half on the edge of my seat". It holds a ridiculously impressive 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and did big business over the weekend.

The film sort of presents itself as a slightly more plausible take on a sci-fi thriller, but the brilliant buzzkill Neil deGrasse Tyson is on hand to tell us how wrong the movie gets... well, just about everything:

I wonder how sci-fi nerds will take this. Some people, for example, really hated Ridley Scott's Alien prequel-ish film Prometheus because it gets a lot of science really wrong. (For the record, I concurred wholly with Roger Ebert's review.) But here's a supposedly more 'realistic' (at least by appearances – no warp drives, aliens, etc.) sci-fi film and it turns out it fails the science test pretty hard as well.

What ever are we to do? I dunno... maybe accept the fact that sci-fi films make concessions for storytelling and for the general ignorance of the movie-going populace and just enjoy the ride? Nah, there's some weird sense of pride that nerds get from being total buzzkills.

"What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven?" Pretty much nothing.

Randal Rauser wrote a book recently called What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven? Being a non-believer, I had about as much interest in that book as I do in books about the afterlife in general, which is to say zero. But I thought it might be worth checking out Randal's book simply because of a quick exchange over at his blog:

And "check it out" I have. I want to hold Randal's feet to the fire here and see if he really gives provocative answers to my questions, or if it's just the usual apologist goalpost shifting that I've come to expect. 

It's worth pointing out that this book deals with Heaven from a conceptual and theological standpoint, not an evidential one. Randal's not trying to convince non-Christians they should be concerned with Heaven. And that's good, because while anecdotal accounts (i.e., 'case studies') of near-death experiences and trips to the hereafter are in no small supply, evidence resulting from properly controlled experimental conditions that can and have been replicated are conspicuously absent – although I'm sure any white-belt apologist could conjure up some convoluted post hoc rationalization to explain why God abhors properly controlled experimental conditions. 

So I take the word "know" in the title of the book with a gigantic grain of salt, because clearly Randal is using a pretty watered-down and meaningless definition of the term. His aim is really more to provide some measure of internal coherency to the concept of Heaven. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I think the questions I ask above are pretty sensible ones that highlight the logical incoherency of the concept of Heaven. Does he answer them? Well, spoiler alert: I still think Heaven is logically incoherent. But Randal's answers to my questions give me chance to expand on why I think that is the case. While this post is by no means a full review or analysis of the book, I do want to make some pit stops along the way to address what I feel are relevant points.

On diving into the first bits of the book, it's immediately apparently that Randal is engaging in some pretty standard-issue making shit up. Take this, for example:
Remember that Jesus’s body has spatial extension (that is, it takes up space), and so it follows that heaven must take up space. As Wayne Grudem puts it, “The fact that Jesus had a resurrection body that was subject to spatial limitations (it could be at only one place at one time) means that Jesus went somewhere when he ascended into heaven.”
It isn't hard to see why this is silly. We could just as well say that because Jesus had a physical body, he had to obey the laws of physics and could not have magically floated into the clouds as described in the gospels. But wait, the Christian will surely reply, you're talking about not some ordinary man but God incarnate, so it's not surprising that he could do extraordinary things no mortal could. But that just highlights the absurdity of it: all the Christian is saying is that God gets to break the rules, and as soon as you introduce this sort of supernatural gobbledygook into the equation, any hypothesis you can conjure up becomes superficially plausible. It's like William Lane Craig saying that the probability of Jesus being raised from the dead naturally is very low, but the probability of him being raised supernaturally is very high. Anything's possible with magic! Could God occupy a non-physical space with a physical body? Why could God not do some such seemingly impossible thing? Or perhaps Jesus' body was transformed in some inexplicable way when it entered Heaven. Or maybe the laws of physics are just so different in Heaven that our very concept of time and space do not apply – after all, if Jesus gets a pass on the laws of physics here on Earth, who are we to say we know anything about the physical 'laws' of Heaven? This is especially relevant because Randal will later make a similar argument himself with regard to the nature of time in Heaven, saying (more or less) that our material conceptualization of time does not apply in Heaven. Why he then cares about finding some coherent relationship between physical space and 'Heaven space' escapes me (he goes so far as to suggest that Heaven is an alternate universe something like what we'd see in String Theory), but this is standard-issue religious weirdness. I can't help but wonder what Randal would make of the book The Physics of Christianity by physicist/nutbag Frank Tipler, which postulates that our 'resurrection bodies' will be futuristic space-faring robots.

Anyway, apologies for the slight digression there, but it's relevant simply because it's important to see that as long as you're dealing with an omnipotent supernatural being that somehow exists as a disembodied mind that transcends physical space and time and can will entire universes into existence, it's a conceptual free-for-all. He later, for example, proposes that Earth will be our (well... Christians') eternal home, which does raise some issues with the whole dying sun and heat death of the universe thing. But of course, when the rules get in the way, God can just change them! God is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card whose supernatural omnipotence becomes an out for all manner of conceptual nonsense. This is an issue that will come back to bite Randal later in the book.

Knowing that your loved ones are suffering in hell

So, to my questions. First, the idea of whether our knowledge of those suffering in Hell would render 'Heaven' impossible. It seems intuitively obvious that my poor mother would be in agony to know that I was being tormented eternally while she sat peacefully in Heaven. The only escapes I can think of are 1) God erases the memories of the saved, or 2) Make Hell not such a shitty place.

To my surprise, Randal does neither; in fact, he outright rejects the idea that God makes the saved unaware of the damned, but he does so because he believes that the church and the Bible teach otherwise – not because, as is the issue to me, it renders the idea of free will rather moot and reduces Heaven to some sort of blissful ignorance.

More surprisingly to me is that Randal really doesn't really answer the question at all. While he offers some possibilities, he seems to leave the question open. His central thesis is a sort of modified take on Schadenfreude – joy in the suffering of others. While Randal is satisfied to accept that it's immoral to gain some perverse glee in others being horribly tortured, he thinks that there's a defensible form of Schadenfreude in which it is a sort of satisfaction of justice served. But this answer isn't fully satisfying to Randal, as he goes on to argue that any satisfaction at justice served must be tempered by the sorrow we'd feel. He tells an anecdote about a girl named "Lizzie", and asks us to imagine that we were her parents. She rejects Christ, and is murdered shortly thereafter:
Given that Lizzie told you she rejected the gospel, you have reason to believe that she has gone to hell. At that moment, the grief at her loss is unimaginable. But is it possible that when you are resurrected into heavenly glory, fully conformed to the image of God’s Son, the grief you now feel will be transformed into joy that God is righteously punishing Lizzie in hell for eternity? Could this really be what it means to become fully like the God revealed in Jesus?
Therein lies the dilemma. If you wouldn’t experience deep pain and sadness in heaven at Lizzie’s eternal fate, then what does it even mean to be made like Christ? But if you would experience it, what then becomes of heaven?
To my surprise, this is where the chapter ends. It's clear Randal himself struggles with this issue, which is good – it's important to think critically about such paradoxical things that believers are expected to accept. I'm sure with enough creative thinking, an intelligent guy like Randal could conjure up some way to explain it away. Maybe Hell is just temporary (in the next chapter, he suggests Hell may be like Purgatory, a place where the unsaved are 'cleansed' before they can go to heaven); maybe it's just annihilation, so the unsaved will not exist (wouldn't our loved ones miss us?). Who knows. What I know is far from answering my question, Randal seemed to accept that it's a troubling paradox for Christian doctrine.

This whole issue also highlights the problem of Hell. There's simply no justification for eternal torment of anyone, for any finite crime. I am an atheist because I sincerely believe it is the most rational position to take. It seems almost comically absurd to think that God would deem such a 'crime' of freethought to be deserving of unimaginable torment that never ends. You get to go to Hell for being wrong! I can imagine all the fundies lining up for their own little Schadenfreude, saying, "Checkmate, atheist!" as I'm tossed into the fire. Randal remains noncommital on the nature of Hell, saying,
Please keep in mind that I’m not claiming that we are wrong in reading Matthew 25: 41 and other hell passages as supporting a doctrine of eternal hell. (Although the complexity of translating the Greek word aionios, which is commonly rendered in English as “eternal,” certainly allows for that possibility.) Instead, the main point is that we cannot be certain that we’re right in this reading. And if there is even a tiny possibility that we could be wrong, we ought to hope that we are, given that being wrong would have such an extraordinary outcome— salvation for all!
The nice thing for Randal is that if he wakes up tomorrow and decides to take a firmer position, there's no way for his opinion to be confirmed or disconfirmed. He can believe whatever he wants, and convince himself to be fully satisfied with it. Blissful ignorance indeed. 

What would stop the redeemed from repeating the Fall all over again?

Randal has an interesting answer to this question (although it's not phrased the same way I phrased it): that the saved will indeed lose their ability to choose sin, but simply because their desire to do so – the 'sinful nature' or 'the flesh' as it's commonly referred to in the church – will be redeemed. He offers a "gastronomic metaphor":
Isaiah 25: 6 promises a banquet to put all the Michelin three-star restaurants in the world to shame: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.”
Unfortunately, right now with our fallen moral tastes, we are as likely to quaff a glass of Two Buck Chuck from the grocery store as a glass of the finest French merlot.[ 117] When it comes to the “best of meats,” we’re as likely to choose a Big Mac as a filet mignon. And where rich food is concerned, we’re just as likely to opt for a Twinkie as a glass of sparkling shiraz jelly complemented with frosted grapes. One day, however, our tastes will be transformed as heaven reveals to us an infinite horizon of culinary delicacies. We will have no desire to choose evil but will have an infinite range of good choices.
That's interesting. Because see, I enjoy a fine steak or some overpriced sushi as much as the next guy. I love single-malt Scotch and a litany of wines. But I also the occasional plate of fries. While it's obviously not healthy to eat that way all the time, I know that the occasional 'cheat meal' is harmless.

But in Heaven, there are no 'cheat meals', because the consequences for slipping up are dire; if it's like Adam & Eve, the consequences are borne out for all of humanity, not just the guilty party. So Randal's saying that we will not be stripped of our ability to have a celestial 'cheat meal', but our desire.

Pardon me for thinking that's the kind of difference that only an academic philosopher could believe is relevant. It seems to me that it is little more than a semantic distinction to say we technically can choose to sin, but we really can't because we will not desire to. Our desire to be right with God will absolutely overwhelm any temptation of sin, making another Fall functionally impossible. You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to. This is especially obvious when one considers that our ability to sin is entirely the result of desire. The man is only capable of cheating on his wife because he desires some sort of sexual thrill he's not getting at home. Remove the desire to sin and you remove the ability to do so. That to me seems as much an abrogation of free will as any divine mind-wipe.

It's worse though. This whole nonsense highlights the absurdity of Christian theology in general. Why does God have to wait until the saved are in Heaven to wipe out their fleshly desires? Why couldn't people just be 'perfected' when they are 'saved'? This seems like a needlessly elaborate charade. And heck, I haven't even touched the problem of the Fall to begin with.

Is Heaven just eternal senility?

I have to admit, Randal does a much better job with this one. I'll keep it short. He recognizes that we derive satisfaction from overcoming some measure of difficult and suffering, and thinks that there's some acceptable degree of unhappiness in Heaven:
[Extreme] and unrewarding suffering will indeed be part of the old order that will pass away. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be no melancholy at all. Just as there may be room for the drives of hunger and thirst that enrich the banquet, could there also be room for a dimension of melancholy to the extent that it could enrich our emotional life in eternity? Of course that possibility depends on whether there can be a melancholy that enriches our emotional life and thus can meaningfully be called sweet.
Randal says that this "sweet melancholy" is distinct from real suffering in several ways:
  1. It includes hope
  2. It has an "aesthetic dimension" absent from suffering (that one's a bit vague to me)
  3. It lacks the emotional intensity of deep sadness
The problem, as I see it, is that this appears to conflict with Randal's other thesis (in his chapter on Hell) that people in Heaven are "maximally happy". In this case, maximally happy seems to include some degree of sadness. How much, exactly, seems hard for Randal to quantify. Too much sadness and it's bona fide suffering; to little, and you lose something of the creative impulse and reward of hardship that we use to describe happiness on Earth. So the answer seems to be that Heaven doesn't eliminate sadness, but has the amount that's "just right". Goldilocks would be proud.

I actually would have expected Randal to go a different route altogether, like suggesting that we simply cannot compare our states of happiness and suffering on Earth to what we'd experience in Heaven. That would of course be the standard ineffability cop-out, so I have to give Randal some credit for a creative if somewhat noncommittal and paradoxical answer.

If Heaven goes on for eternity, wouldn't we eventually have all experienced all possible experiences such that there would be no new experiences, nothing to learn, nothing 'new' at all?

At the outset I pointed out that I thought it odd the way Randal goes through great lengths to reconcile the laws of physics with the laws of Heaven, but when it comes to time he doesn't hesitate to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But try as I might, I couldn't find any direct answer to my question in Randal's book. He proposes the idea that people will age cyclically, that culturally significant events and places could be re-experienced, etc., indicating that time will not necessarily be experienced in the arrow-like fashion we experience it now. But he never quite gets to addressing the problem that when you have eternity (regardless of whether the arrow of time is pointing straight or not), you can ultimately repeat all those experiences an infinite number of times and still have all of eternity left over to experience all other possible experiences an infinite number of times. In the introduction, Randal rejects the view that Heaven is 'timeless' – just as well, since 'timeless' also implies 'changeless'. But I'm not sure where that leaves him. So, I'll have to leave it to Randal to clarify on this one.

Being a former Christian, I can easily see how this kind of book makes for great reading for those already swimming in the Kool-Aid. But Randal remains vaguely elusive or noncommittal on some very important questions, and spends a lot of time just making stuff up and saying, basically, Hey, it could happen! Perhaps the entire facade of the book is best summarized by this passage:
In case you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I grant that the whole idea of cyclical aging in eternity may sound rather fantastic. But it is surely no more fantastic than the idea that a body that rotted into the earth millennia ago will suddenly be restored to perfect life.

05 October 2013


The other day, I got a comment notification for a post over at Randal Rauser's blog, which was strange because I hadn't visited his blog in a while per my exasperation with engaging Christian apologists. I mean shoot, there was even a whole series of debates between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, and some drama that involved letters exchanged between Krauss, Craig, and Alexander Vilenkin. And even that induced a mere yawn from me, because it was just Craig's same old bullshit.

Anyway, the comment was just a troll. Against my better judgement, I replied anyway. I then dropped a few other belated replies on the post.

The next day, this same troll, named Joseph O Polanco, found my blog – presumably by way of Randal's site. Now, I have some rules for new visitors. These are common-sense rules that are posted in the "About - Comment Policy - FAQ" tab at the top of the page. But hey, who the fuck reads comment policies these days anyway am I right folks?

On that page I ask new visitors to do things like use the search button to avoid rehashing well-worn discussions, and to avoid posting monologues (get your own blog!). Joseph, of course, ignored these requests – even after I asked him.

In one last shot at reason (one too many), I asked him to narrow down the topics, to pick one instead of dangling countless threads all over my site. I have a life, ladies and gentleman, and I'm not going to spend every spare moment arguing with Bible thumpers especially since we know how those 'discussions' usually end up anyway. That was last night. Today I awoke to 32 comment notifications from Disqus. Some of you alert readers had jumped in too, which despite your eloquent and well-thought-out arguments (which you've made plenty of times before yourselves) clearly had no effect on Joseph's overpowering delusional narcissism.

He's a troll. And I fed him. You fed him. We all did. And when he refused to play by the rules, I blacklisted the motherfucker. To give you an idea of what a thick skull I was dealing with, he actually said, condescendingly, that it looked like I hadn't gotten around to reading Hawking's The Grand Design – I've done a whole fucking series on it! And after I blacklisted him, he squirmed back to Randal's blog to offer this tidbit of profundity that clearly shows the type of person I'm dealing with:

This is the second time this has happened recently, with an apologist by the name of Matt necro'ing some old threads from a few months ago, and petulant though he was he was small potatoes compared to Joseph.

So, I'm going to use Disqus settings to shut down comments after 30 days. No more necro'ing old threads. And if trolls can't abide by the comment policy and FAQ, I'm just going to delete all their comments and immediately ban them. I'm not going to issue warnings, because I think my 'rules' really just boil down to common courtesy and common sense.

There's no help for these people. They're less famous versions of William Lane Craig: pompous, arrogant, narcissistic, and thick-skulled. They are not interested in critical self-examination, and they do not deserve your time or attention.

I want to end on an upbeat note though. I loved a quip I heard yesterday from Tim Michin, which to me beautifully illuminates the impasse that believers and non-believers frequently find each other unwilling or unable to traverse: 
A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like assholes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this, but I would add that opinions differ significantly from assholes in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined. We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others; be hard on your beliefs. Be intellectually rigorous – identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges. Most of society's arguments are kept alive by a failure to understand nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies and then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

04 October 2013

The most blasphemous burger ever

Right now it's taking all my willpower to avoid indulging the latest batch of apologist trolls who are polluting my comments sections with their bullshittery. You know what seems like a fine distraction? A burger. I consider myself somewhat of a burger enthusiast, and Friendly Atheist has a blurb on one in Chicago that is causing some predictable butthurt among predictably easily-offended religious types.

It's the Ghost Burger, named after the rather awesome Swedish rock band Ghost, whom I was privileged to see live last year when they toured in support of metal titans Opeth and Mastadon. They're not really a metal band though – they sound more like Blue Oyster Cult or something. But they're thoroughly blasphemous in that delightful way that only a European band can be, and it makes for a very entertaining show.

The ingredients are:
  • 10 oz. patty
  • Slow braised goat shoulder
  • Aged white cheddar
  • Ghost chile aioli
  • Red wine reduction
  • Communion wafer garnish

10oz patty, plus the goat shoulder? Good grief... no wonder it's $17. And yes, that's the 'body and blood of Christ'. Naturally, religious folks are getting their panties in a wad about it, but I really liked Hemant Mehta's quip: "It’s hard to empathize with people who think a cracker garnish is only a few magic words away from turning into Jesus."

By the by, seafood chain Bonefish Grill has a red-wine burger of their own, called the 'Vitner's Burger', which I highly recommend. I imagine the sweetness of the red wine reduction adds a nice contrast to the savory flavor.