29 June 2014

Hide your kids, hide your wife: crime and the availability heuristic

The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias in which we overestimate the probability of events we can readily recall examples of, and underestimate the probability of events that are harder to recall examples of.

Recently in Tulsa there's been a series of rapes purportedly committed by the same person. There are eight reported assaults so far, and police are on high alert and have released a sketch of the suspect:


Several of my friends have remarked that they're taking extra precautions, and my mother has express concern for my and my fiance's safety because we live in 'midtown', and most (but not all) of the assaults have been in midtown, and one was around two miles from my house.

There are several interesting things to think about.

Crime exists on a spectrum of probability. Even if you live in the safest neighborhood in your city, there's still some probability that you'll be the victim of a crime, be it a burglary, some kind of assault, or even murder. When crime is reported on the news, it becomes part of our availability heuristic and we overestimate the probability that we'll be the victim of an assault. In reality, the crime most likely fits the normal pattern of probability for crime in the city, and you are in no more danger today than you are any other day.

The appearance of the suspect is another problematic issue. I was talking the other day with one of my clients who is a defense attorney, and he was telling me about all the problems with eyewitness testimony — especially that from victims. People tend to recall details rather poorly, and this deficit is magnified by trauma. Victims exaggerate details of the subject's appearance (the size of the nose or jaw, height, skin color), thus making police sketches, in the sense of "Be on the lookout for this person!" to be next to useless. In the case of the alleged serial rapist (the idea that all eight assaults are connected is somewhat speculative), victims gave fairly diverse descriptions of supposedly the same person — he's black, he's white, he's light-skinned black, he's "thin" but also "muscular", etc.

I did a cursory check on the accuracy of police sketches, thinking that their reliability is likely quite low. And sure enough, the consensus seems to be that sketches like the one above are quite unreliable indeed [1] [2] [3].

Steven Pinker had to spend a good chunk of The Better Angels of Our Nature presenting both mountains of data and impressionistic arguments that we really are in the most peaceful era of human existence. It's counter-intuitive precisely because of the availability heuristic — we watch the news, and of course crime (especially violent crime) makes the top of the new because it is so out of the ordinary. But that gives us examples we can readily recall, and we go on to overestimate our danger of being victims. Next time you see something in the news about a crime spree, just relax. It's one thing to take sensible precautions to protect yourself (Sam Harris did a phenomenal job of explaining what those are), but life is simply too short to live in a constant state of paranoia.


UPDATE: Police now have a suspect in custody, whose DNA was found at some of the crime scenes.:

28 June 2014

Thomism and magical thinking

Occasional commenter 'Dante' linked to an article by Ed Feser (purveyor of all things Thomistic and Aristotlean) called Magic versus metaphysics, in which he purportedly counters the notion that theists believe in 'magic'. I replied to Dante with a massive quote from Harvard physicist Lisa Randall (from her book Knocking on Heaven's Door), which serves as a nice primer and/or companion to what I'm about to argue, but I thought that Feser's post was worthy of at least some level of analysis.

The first question is what exactly what we mean by 'magic', and I think Feser gives a fair summary:
“Magical” powers, as [Hilary] Putnam here describes them, are powers which are intrinsically unintelligible. It’s not just that we don’t know how magic operates; it’s that there is, objectively, no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how it operates.
Robert Todd Carroll, at his fantastic (but now retired) blog Unnatureal Acts That Can Improve Your Thinking, defines magical thinking as,
... a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend physical connections.
After a bit of background into about the perspectives of various philosophers, Feser opines,
But a potential, precisely because it is merely potential and not actual, cannot actualize itself; only what is already actual can actualize it. And if that which actualizes a potential is itself being actualized as it does so, it must in turn be actualized by something else. Such a regress of causes would be of the essentially ordered or instrumental kind; and it can only terminate (so the A-T philosopher argues) in that which can actualize without itself having to be actualized -- something which just is “pure actuality.” And that is the metaphysical core of the A-T conception of God.
He then sets the trap, arguing that it's unreasonable to think that such a conceptualization has anything to do with 'magic' in the sense defined above:
You might disagree with the argument; you might think (quite wrongly, I would say, but let that pass) that it has somehow been superseded by modern science, or that in some other way it is fallacious or rests on mistaken premises. What you cannot reasonably do is deny that such an argument is a genuine attempt at explanation, rather than an appeal to something inherently unintelligible. The same can be said of the Thomistic argument from the distinction between a contingent thing’s essence and its existence to God as a cause whose essence just is existence; or the Neo-Platonic argument from the existence of multiplicity to a cause which is an absolute unity; or the Leibnizian argument from contingency to a necessary being; or indeed of any of the other major theistic arguments. It is one thing to reject these arguments after a serious analysis of them. But to dismiss them as appeals to “magic” is just silly.

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Actually, it's not quite so silly. I'm really tempted to go off on a tangent about how  a god who is "pure actuality" is by definition a being that is utterly inert — because to be capable of any sort of change is to require, on the Thomistic definition, 'potentiality'. So God cannot think, act, interact with the world, or really do anything at all whatsoever, including 'moving potentiality to actuality', as a Thomist would say. Sounds a lot like the kind of god this atheist believes in.

That's a bit of a tangent, but it begins to highlight the problem. We have a thoroughly comprehensive scientific framework by which to account for natural, physical phenomena at a great range of scales, from infinitesimally small particles to galactic superclusters. This understanding of the mechanistic, materialistic framework of the universe is what has allowed us to unlock the secrets of subatomic particles, predict the existence of black holes, and create everything from vaccines to supercomputers.

Certainly, there are plenty of questions science has not yet been able to answer. But the problem with a theological explanation such as 'potentiality and actuality' is that it requires us to invoke a new level of description that defies empirical observation. According to the Thomist, God sustains the universe's existence by moving potentiality to actuality. But how does God do this? We know the physical forces at play in our universe. Even if God is merely said to be influencing our thoughts, our thoughts rely on electric and chemical processes in the brain. If God has no influence over physical forces, nothing moves.

So, the Thomist thinks that indeed God does have influence over physical forces. But how? How, exactly, is God exerting His will? What is the mechanism by which God transcends the supernatural domain to influence the natural? Positing an invisible, undetectable force that inexplicably influences forces or objects in the universe is, without a doubt, magical thinking in the most precise and commonly understood definition of the term. As Lisa Randall so incisively puts it, 
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.

For the Thomist, this is compounded by the ambiguity of 'potentiality' and 'actuality' themselves. Presumably, we are to believe that potentiality and actuality are not merely abstractions of the human mind imposed on the universe, but fundamental properties of extant things. But properties in what sense? When we discuss potential energy  — a well-defined and robustly verified scientific concept — we know precisely what is meant. The forces at work are purely physical, and their effects readily predictable and observable. But Feser wants us to entertain the notion that there is some extra level of description, one that defies material and scientific description but is nonetheless an integral description of the properties of material things. The conundrum he's put himself in should be obvious: these are purportedly properties of empirical things which underlie all the mechanistic processes of the universe, yet these properties cannot be accounted for empirically in any way whatsoever. In what sense, then, can such things even be meaningfully called 'properties' of empirical things at all?

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Feser's arguments further highlight the dubious nature of 'metaphysics' to begin with. The notion that God inexplicably acts on the universe to sustain it by changing 'potentiality' to 'actuality' is problematic not only because potentiality and actuality can't actually be shown to be properties of physical things in any coherent or meaningful way, nor only because the idea of a being that is 'pure actuality' that can nonetheless change and influence the universe is itself paradoxical; the problem is that the idea of inexplicable forces exerting an undetectable influence over physical things is flatly in conflict with our material, scientific understanding of the universe, and masking such sophistry with a quasi-academic veil of 'metaphysics' doesn't make the underlying concept any less illogical, unscientific, and absurd.

27 June 2014

Randal Rauser on the 'three wheeled car'

I still read Randal Rauser's blog, despite the fact I've opted to avoid directly interacting with him in the comments sections. I feel that on virtually every occasion, our conversations — to use Randal's words — have "generated more heat than light". He still writes some content I think is worth engaging though, in this case his recent article Three wheel Christianity.

In the post, Randal imagines someone named Oliver who is fed up with three-wheeled cars because they keep tipping over, and goes on to swear off cars entirely.
So Oliver has rejected cars based on his experience with the Reliant Robin, a three-wheeled economy car that was popular in 1970s Britain and which was famous for its fuel economy … and its penchant for tipping over in moderate cornering.
Randal's analogy here is that people seem to reject Christianity because of fundamentalist or literalist positions in their church:
Some other common catalysts for rejecting Christianity include biblical inerrancy, Calvinism, hell as eternal conscious torment, anti-environmentalism, political conservatism, and so on.
In each case the rejection of Christianity based on the reason given is like rejecting cars based on the three-wheeled Reliant Robin.
His point is that just as cars are not defined by the Reliant Robin, Christianity is not defined by fundamentalism, political conservatism, anti-intellectualism, or any of the myriad other reasons that frequently trigger people's deconversions.

However, I think that while Randal is certainly correct, he's not fully understanding the process of deconversion. I should qualify that I'm speaking wholly anecdotally here — from the perspective of my own deconversion and from innumerable conversations with fellow apostates.

While it's true that some specific issue may trigger doubt or skepticism, it's unlikely that any one such issue will be enough to completely dismantle one's faith. At first this may seem counter-intuitive; I've remarked that my deconversion began with the innocuous question, "Why are there so many religions?" Another deconverted friend of mine was spurred into skepticism because she couldn't see what the point of prayer is, perhaps in a nod to George Carlin's excellent satire of the practice:
  
But, as the Youtuber 'Evid3nc3' observed in one of his videos, religious beliefs work something like a computer network, comprised of many different 'nodes'. Network security is designed so that one, or even several, of the nodes can fail and the network can still remain intact. For a Christian, the 'nodes' could include:
  • Community 
  • Theological academia (the presence of intelligent, educated believers)
  • Biblical history
  • Apologetic arguments
  • Witnessing purportedly supernatural experiences
  • Experiencing purportedly supernatural events first-hand
  • A strong conviction, feeling or intuition that their god exists (see Plantinga's 'sensus divinitus')
And many more. Now, a devout Christian may find themselves cornered in an apologetic argument with an atheist. But they can easily take comfort in the fact that there are very smart, educated people like Alister McGrath, Francis Collins and William Lane Craig who are devout believers and, they might reason, could probably answer the atheist's arguments.

A Christian could likewise spend years believing they were possessed by a demon, had a near-death experience, or witnessed a miraculous healing — only to come to believe later on that a more parsimonious natural explanation is more likely. However, their confidence in the truth of the Bible, the reinforcement of their beliefs provided by their community, and their knowledge of philosophical arguments for God's existence could easily preserve their faith even as those other 'nodes' break down.

Even Randal, in his book on Heaven, avoids directly answering the question of whether Christians could really be in 'Heaven' if they were mourning the loss of their loved ones to eternal damnation or separation from God. But while (at least in the book) he seems to be content to leave the question unanswered, that in no way has undermined the broader network of his beliefs. 

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In my experience, what generally happens in deconversion is that several of the nodes have already been weakened; I can't tell you how many times a recent deconvert has told me something like, "Oh yeah, I had doubts about all kinds of things for years!" The shattering of one node leads to a sort of domino effect, in which the other already-weakened nodes crumble and the network of belief is shattered.

This means that — and again, I must qualify that I can only speak anecdotally here — not only is the process of deconversion more complex that Randal is giving it credit for, but many deconverts dabbled in liberal theology before deconverting. Heck, given my own experience, I've often half-joked that liberal theology is a gateway drug for atheism. I was raised in moderate Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, went full-blown evangelical, and then spent a couple of years steeped in more liberal theology before it became clear that Christianity not only didn't make sense to me, but that I was investing an extraordinary amount of intellectual energy trying to rationalize it. The day I realized I didn't owe my beliefs anything was a liberating awakening indeed.

I should mention, too — and this is again an experience I've heard echoed from many other deconverts — that I spent a great deal of time studying other religions. Ed Brayton has quipped that studying other religions is one of the best ways to lose your faith in the religion you were raised with, and I think he's right. Comparative religion had powerful effect on me, allowing me to divorce myself from my ethnocentric viewpoint and treat my own beliefs as though they were no more special than any other. So it's not just that many apostates have considered more liberal Christian theologies — in many cases they've considered other religions entirely.

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A truism about Christianity is that, as a religion encompassing two billion living followers and spanning two millennia, it is an umbrella under which a staggering diversity of opinions can be found. One could spend their entire adult life reading all the popular and academic literature espousing multitudes of interpretations of Christianity and still only capture the tip of the iceberg. A frequent point of impasse between Randal and I was his contention that I am ignorant of sophisticated academic theology, which if I read would presumably answer my questions and criticisms before I even raised them. But my position is that it's simply unreasonable to expect anyone to read the multitude of differing viewpoints on the myriad subjects encompassed by one religion; one could easily devote a similar amount of time to studying the purportedly sophisticated academic theology of Islam or Hinduism as well. It's my belief that in any conversation, the interlocutors ought to be able to concisely articulate their own opinions, as no matter how well-read one pretentiously believes themselves to be it cannot be denied that the volume of unread material on all subjects will always be vastly greater than any of us can comprehend. At some point, you have to learn to think for yourself, lest you remain a perpetual agnostic in the most literal sense of the term.

This is why, I think, many deconverts refer to themselves as 'freethinkers'. It bears pointing out that only religion has coined a term for dissension from established doctrine: heresy. In my conversation with other deconverts, I've often found common ground in the fact that doubt was treated not as an integral component of rational inquiry and reasoned thought, but as an obstacle to be overcome because, in the end, the preservation of the faith — even if done with near-total credulity — is to be valued above all else. (I'm reminded of William Lane Craig's admonishment of a curious reader in which he laments that premature exposure to secular material is "potentially destructive".)

In my experience, most deconverts — even those from fundamentalist churches — are fully aware of more liberal schools of theological discourse. But when the core concepts underpinning one's faith have been fatally undermined, it doesn't matter; in fact, liberal theology just begins to appear like what it is: a convoluted exercise in post hoc rationalizations for untenable beliefs. The problem is not so much with the beliefs per se, but rather the method by which one arrives at them. Speaking personally, after spending some eight or nine years as a self-described 'theistic agnostic', it occurred to me that I could, with enough convoluted rationalization, make any belief I desired fit to the world. I could believe virtually whatever I wanted to about the nature of God, and nobody could demonstrate I was wrong. It's for precisely that reason that I frequently encourage Christians, usually with little or no success, to take the viewpoint of a Rational Agnostic — one with no prior commitment or assumptions about the truth or falsity of any religious claim. When one begins from the bottom up, following the evidence where it leads, it becomes much harder to arrive at theistic belief through reason alone. 

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The process of deconversion is usually long and complicated. It's not as simple as just picking a belief, like anti-evolutionism, and deciding that the entirety of religion fails because of the doctrine and dogma of a single church. Rather, singular issues like that create a cascade in which the nodes which combine to form the network of belief are dismantled, and a newer outlook is brought into play. One of the exercises I used to challenged myself in my religious days was to entertain the secular explanation, just to see where the assumption led me. In every case, I found that the universe looks precisely as we should expect it to if there is no God, no design, no transcendent purpose, no transcendent objective morality, no One True Faith. Once I had seen the elegant parsimony of such a view, no amount of liberal theology could bring me back. Moreover, and perhaps just as importantly, it was clear that I didn't need religion. A rich, purposeful, moral, and fulfilling life is mine to live, and not only did I come to believe that religion was unnecessary, but that it was ultimately antithetical to such a life. A life well-lived, I believe, is more easily attained when one is unshackled from the dogmas and doctrines of religious piety. As Carl Sagan said, it is better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, no matter how satisfying or reassuring.

22 June 2014

A point that bears repeating: there is nothing in the Bible that couldn't have been written by ordinary people

Sam Harris once said that "[The Bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century."

These days, it seems my discussions with believers get caught up in overlong and obscure discussions like metaphysics and model-dependent realism, but it shouldn't be lost that virtually all of these conversations are with Christians who believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible and the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And while discussing epistemology and ontology has its place in musing over the mere possibility of a coherently conceivable god, ultimately the case for the Christian rests on the Bible.

After all, I for one don't really have a problem with deists. I don't agree with them, but the reality is that a deistic god is, at best, a sort of nebulously defined metaphysical placeholder for grand existential mysteries. You don't pray to a deistic god, and such a god does not care whom you marry or whether you're naughty or nice. So, outside of coffee-shop philosophical discussions, I consider deists to be squarely in the camp with atheists and agnostics — namely, those of us who live out our lives under the assumption that we are not being watched or judged, or that our lives are unfolding according to a careful divine destiny. 

And when it comes to the supposed divine inspiration of the Bible, the burden of proof for such a remarkable claim falls squarely on the believer. After all, no one can disprove that much of anything is 'divinely inspired'. If I claimed that this blog post were divinely inspired, I could rest just as easily as any Christian knowing that my claim could never be disproved. But with an infinite number of claims that cannot be disproved, the idea that something cannot be demonstrated to be false is not, in itself, a valid reason to accept it as true.

I've directly challenged Christians on this matter before, and never have I received any kind of a straight answer; inevitably, the believer shifts the goalposts into a "you can't disprove it" type of argument. The question is simple: why should any rational skeptic be compelled to believe that the only reasonable view of the Bible is that it is indeed the product of divine inspiration?

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We know that most of the old testament is comprised of mythology and legend. There is not a shred of evidence Adam and Eve existed or that "The Fall" occurred, and such a narrative conflicts with what we know about humanity's evolutionary past. Moses, if he existed, did not lead Jewish slaves out of Egypt — because there's no evidence Jews were enslaved in Egypt in the first place, and the evidence we do have places the origin of Jewish tribes out of Canaan. And, as Steven Pinker noted in The Better Angels of Our Nature, "If there was a Davidic Empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else seems to have noticed it."

The Gospels fare even worse. There is no evidence that they are eyewitness accounts (they don't claim to be), nor any evidence that the stories were passed down by any sort of rigorous oral tradition as is popularly claimed by Christian apologists. Even so, the original manuscripts are long lost, and the copies we have are so 'meticulously copied' that they're riddled with contradictions, omissions, and additions. Quite simply, there is no reason whatsoever to think that the Gospels are reliable historical accounts of a real person, and many good reasons to think they're the product of creative, credulous and superstitious human minds. 


For a book that is supposedly the product of an omnipotent, omniscient being, the Bible is remarkably ordinary. It's riddled with historical, scientific, and mathematical errors; historical claims that are wholly uncorroborated; and myths, legends, and hagiography that bear no remarkable signature demanding that we accept them as the product of a god.

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For these types of conversations, I like to introduce a character whom I call the Rational Agnostic. This person is not an atheist or a theist, but a pure undecided agnostic who has no leanings or preconceived biases toward one belief or another. This person is, as his or her name suggests, fully open to evidence and reason and will accept an argument when the weight of evidence lends the alternative(s) improbable to the point of being unreasonable. The Rational Agnostic accepts that the Earth is round, that it revolves around the sun, that humans evolved by common ancestry, that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, that he cannot defy the laws of physics, etc. The evidence is overwhelming in all respects. 

So, the question for Christians is this: if you were the Rational Agnostic, what would convince you  that the most rational position to take is that the Bible is, as Christians claim, divinely inspired?  

I phrase the dilemma in this way because the question should not be, "How can I defend this belief after I have assumed it," but rather "Why should I assume this belief in the first place?" Only by truly putting yourself in the shoes of the rational agnostic does it become apparent how absurd belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible truly is.

The (pseudo) science of the film "Sunshine"

Recently I've been bemoaning the fact that sci-fi horror is one of the most woefully underexploited genres in Hollywood. We can easily count the classics in the genre on one hand — Alien/s, The Thing, The Fly, maybe even 2001 if you think HAL9000 is a scary sonofabitch. There are lots of mediocre to good-but-not-great sci-fi horror flicks — Pitch Black, Pandorum, Mimic, Event Horizon...

The only big-budget film in the genre I can think of is the highly divisive Prometheus (personally, I concur with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper). I suppose Gravity, which was obviously amazing, could fit in there too — although it seems to fall more under pure 'suspense' than horror. There have been some lower budget sci-fi horror flicks, like the pretty-decent Europa Report and the rather middling Last Days on Mars, but really I have a hard time thinking of outstanding, classic entries in the genre.

In any case, I decided to add Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyl, to the list. I'd heard some good things about it (it's got a high score on Rotten Tomatoes), and the cast is really great — Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow from the Nolan Batman films), and even the Asian guy who had a bit part in Prometheus as one of the co-pilots.

Now, here's the thing about science fiction: I'm totally, 100% okay with throwing science out the window for dramatic effect... to a point. I mean, practically every sci-fi movie has artificial gravity, which is probably impossible the way it's generally depicted. But filming actors floating around is really costly and difficult and probably not integral to the storytelling. Plus, as Arthur C. Clark said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". I wasn't even bothered all that much by something as obviously dumb as the butchering of genetics in Prometheus, because the whole "Their DNA is the same as ours!" trope was just a narrative device to drive home the premise and not integral to the plot (though it certainly could have been handled more creatively and accurately).

But in the case of Sunshine, the science was butchered so badly that it actually affected my suspension of disbelief. Some of it goes back to long-overused tropes, like freezing almost immediately when you're exposed to the vacuum of space, or a big whooshing decompression that sucks everyone into space. My good friend and comrade in blog, the mighty Tristan Vick, remarked that he loved Sunshine and told me it was "the most scientifically accurate movie I've ever seen". So without further ado, I'm going to list some of the ways in which Sunshine totally butchers science into a bloody mess of absurdity. If you haven't seen the movie, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

First, the entire premise is both impossible and implausible:

  • The actual sun will not 'die' for trillions of years. In about 5 billion years, it'll turn into a red giant, and a billion or so years later, a white dwarf. It'll then slowly dissipate heat for trillions of years. 
  • The producers knew this, so they consulted with handsome physicist Brian Cox who mentions a purely theoretical particle called a Q-Ball that could theoretically interact with a star and tear it up, but qualifies it by saying our star is too small for this theoretical interaction with theoretical particles. But, the reason for the death of the sun is never mentioned in the movie. 
  • In the movie, as the sun is 'dying' it gets dimmer and the Earth gets colder. In reality, as the sun runs out of hydrogen it will burn hotter and brighter, eventually turning Earth into a sweltering, uninhabitable wasteland. 
  • If the sun were running out of hydrogen and thus 'dying', you could not ignite it with a bomb — especially a small one (the bomb is "the size of Manhattan" in the film, which needless to say is pretty miniscule compared to the size of the sun). Of course that assumes you could actually get a bomb to the sun, which in addition to the problem of accelerating an object of that size, you run into a bigger problem when you get to the sun:
  • Any hard material would have melted long before it got to the center of the sun. The coronosphere is over 10,000° F, which is roughly four times hotter than the melting point of uranium. The velocity of the payload would of course just increase the heat, so any material we could make on Earth would burn up well before it reached the coronosphere, much less get to the center of the sun.  
  • Lastly, it's not clear why NASA would send people on this kind of mission at all, since human error is what screws it all up and it's so risky anyway. Plus, it's not even that complicated — fly toward the sun and released a payload. It's a mathematical trajectory and sequence, and if humanity was facing its demise they wouldn't waste resources on life support redundancies. But I guess a movie about a giant probe wouldn't be as exciting.

But, okay. Despite all of that, I'm totally willing to entertain my suspension of disbelief for the sake of the drama. It's a ridiculous, impossible premise, but sci-fi movies often are. But as the film progresses, real science is tossed out the window at every turn, often just for the sake of rehashing tired old cliches about the horror of space:

  • In one scene, a few of the astronauts have to decompress an airlock and shoot 20 meters through space to another airlock — but only one of them has a suit. When the airlock is blown, they're sucked out in a big whoosh. This would not happen. If a spaceship decompressed, the force of decompression might suck out some loose objects, but you'd just sit there and die of vacuum exposure. This is especially true in an airlock, which doesn't contain nearly enough air to create much of any force. This is similar to the old movie trope of explosive decompression on a plane, where the side blows open and everyone gets sucked out. In reality, the plane would decompress virtually instantly and people would sit there and have a few moments to put on their oxygen masks. 
  • After Chris Evans' character is exposed to the vacuum of space and survives, he just goes on with the suspenseful progression of the film. In reality he'd need to spend time in a barometric chamber. He'd have joint pain and move slowly. And he'd have horrible burns from cosmic radiation.
  • The third character gets knocked off course and into space before he can get to the airlock, and he freezes within moments. But if you were exposed to the vacuum of space, you wouldn't freeze except for a bit on your eyes and in your mouth, but probably not until after you're unconscious. It'd take a couple of minutes to die of asphyxiation even after you passed out, but even though it's cold, the low-pressure environment acts as an insulator so there's nothing to transfer heat away from your body except for radiation, which takes a long time.  The worst thing about a brief vacuum exposure in space is being exposed to cosmic radiation, which would result in a really nasty sunburn.  
  • A big part of the suspense in the film relates to them not being able to communicate with Earth because of a "dead zone" around Mercury. In real life, NASA had no problem getting a signal back from the Mariner 10, which observed Mercury in 1975.

By the time this was all happening in the movie, I was getting a bit annoyed. Despite the absurd premise, the setup was really good. It's well-acted and the suspense builds appropriately slowly, including a great scene in which they're trying to repair the giant shield on the front of the ship. But when the movie started resorting to old scientifically bogus contrivances, it started to lose me.

Then, in the third act, the movie goes more into the realm of pure horror and pure absurdity when the captain of the previous mission, somehow still alive after seven years alone, wreaks havoc on the ship and crew. And still more bogosity ensues:
  • Nobody could survive for seven years with second- or third-degree burns all over their body without intensive medical care. The surviving captain is portrayed not only as having burns all over his body, but apparently having super strength, a horrifying ghostly deep voice, and cannot be seen clearly for reasons that are unexplained. The effect is without a doubt very cool and it works from a dramatic standpoint, but it's like Danny Boyl couldn't decide whether to make the film a believable science fiction movie or a supernatural horror flick. It casts shades of Event Horizon, but at least that movie had a clear explanation for why shit was getting scary.
  • Assuming that somehow, we could magically get a Manhattan-sized device, with a giant bomb, inside the center of the sun — which, it turns out, has both gravity and a life support system inside! — time and space would not warp in the center of the sun, as the film depicts. Our sun is not remotely massive enough. Besides, if the sun could exert black-hole-like effects, the first would be "spaghettification", where you'd get stretched longer and thinner as you moved toward the center.
  • The closing scene depicts Capa, played by Cillian Murphy, watching the surface of the sun close in on him and then stand still, beautifully and magically, as time seems to freeze. Just.... no. It's a beautiful, dramatic scene, but it's pure fantasy. Even if we could travel to the center of a black hole where the laws of general relativity break down, we'd likely just be a jumbled mess of particles. 
  • Lastly, the film depicts the ships as all having artificial gravity. Generally, I'm fine with that in futuristic sci-fi films. But they made such an effort to keep some parts believable — like having a giant terrarium in the ship to grow their own food and (presumably) recycle carbon dioxide — that I think the film would have been more effective if it had been more consistent. 

So, maybe this all seems like goofy nitpicking. The movie's obviously not meant to be a realistic science fiction movie. The producers thought the premise sounded cool, and it's about the human drama and the unknowns of space more than anything. But personally, despite the movie being well-shot with great cinematography and well-written with a strong cast, the combination of bad science, overused space-death tropes and a mysteriously magical bad guy (who, of course, makes the unexplained scary return to try and thwart the mission at the last moments) keeps it out of my list of sci-fi favorites. I give it a B-. 

20 June 2014

Do theologians have a good response to the problem of natural evil?

Tonight I was chatting with one of my clients about another client and mutual friend of ours who, like us, errs on the liberal atheist side of the political and religious spectrum. He's the kind of guy who, while being very good-natured and friendly, definitely enjoys getting a rise out of people — especially religious conservatives. 

One of the questions he likes to ask religious people, just to see them trip up, is "Is God good, or his he omnipotent?" Now, being that I've been around the interwebs for many years and have stepped into the writings of various academic theologians, I know that some of the more learned believers will not be caught off guard by such a question. I watched it happen — during one of our workout sessions, no less — when one of the other members who, in addition to being a religious conservative, is also a pretty boastful narcissist whom I'll call Eddie Van Halen. Eddie was rambling on about someone or something, clearly more interested in his anecdote than we were, and my client hit him with the problem of evil. Eddie stammered for a bit, and my client elaborated a bit on the PoE. Eventually, Eddie more or less waved the question off by appealing to God's ineffability, alluding to the idea that God's ways are mysterious and in many ways beyond mortal comprehension.

Now, Eddie Van Halen is by no means a 'sophisticated' academic theologian, but is his answer really all that different than more educated theists? I mean sure, his answer was phrased crudely and not particularly well organized, but are academic theologians proffering the same answer dressed in more flowery language?

Well, yes, in my estimation they are.

To substantiate my thesis, I want to look at a few answers to the PoE offered up by some contemporary theologians. My general impression of the more 'sophisticated' responses to the PoE is that they essentially say that it cannot be demonstrated that God does not have good reasons to allow evil.

Randal Rauser seems to echo that position in a blog post:
[There] is no logical contradiction between God’s being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and the existence of evil. All one needs to recognize is that God would have a morally sufficient reason for allowing any evil that occurs. Thus, the onus is on [the atheist] to demonstrate that no rational person could believe that God has such reasons.[1]
William Lane Craig seems to agree:
[We] can actually prove that God and evil are logically consistent. You see, the atheist presupposes that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil in the world. But this assumption is not necessarily true. So long as it is even possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, it follows that God and evil are logically consistent.[2]
Alister McGrath offers a similar response:
Second, let us consider the logic of the problem posed by suffering. Let us return to the three propositions noted earlier.
a. God is omnipotent and omniscient.
b. God is completely good.
c. There is suffering and evil in the world.
At least one further premise must be added to this list if a logical inconsistency is to result. As things stand, there is no incon­sistency. There would, however, be a contradiction if either of the following were to be added to the list:
d. A good and omnipotent God could eliminate suffering entirely.

or
e. There could not be morally sufficient reasons for God permit­ting suffering.[3]
Alvin Plantinga offers a slightly different response, following in the footsteps of Augustine and C.S. Lewis — first arguing for free will as a rationale for moral evil, then offering it, by extension, as a rationale for natural evil by way of The Fall:
Here is a possible reason God might have for allowing natural evil:
(MSR2) God allowed natural evil to enter the world as part of Adam and Eve’s punishment for their sin in the Garden of Eden.
(Those familiar with Plantinga’s work will notice that this is not the same reason Plantinga offers for God’s allowing natural evil. They will also be able to guess why a different reason was chosen in this article.) The sin of Adam and Eve was a moral evil. (MSR2) claims that all natural evil followed as the result of the world’s first moral evil. So, if it is plausible to think that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense solves the logical problem of evil as it pertains to moral evil, the current suggestion is that it is plausible also to think that it solves the logical problem of evil as it pertains to natural evil because all of the worlds evils have their source in moral evil.[4]
John Polkinghorn argues that the natural world simply could not have been any different:
Exactly the same biochemical processes that enable some cells to mutate and produce new forms of life - in other words, the very engine that has driven the stupendous four billion year history of life on Earth - these same processes will inevitably allow other cells to mutate and become malignant. In a non-magic world, it could not be different, and the world is not magic because its Creator is not a capricious Magician. I do not pretend for a moment that this insight removes all the perplexities posed by the sufferings of creation. Yet it affords some mild help, in that it suggests that the existence of cancer is not gratuitous, as if it were due to the Creator’s callousness or incompetence. We all tend to think that if we had been in charge of creation we would have made a better job of it. We would have kept the nice things (flowers and sunsets) and got rid of the nasty (disease and disaster). The more science helps us to understand the process of the universe, the more, it seems to me, to cohere into a single ‘package deal’. The light and the dark are two sides of the same coin.[5]
I could go on, but I think most theists would agree this is a fair representative sample of some of the perspectives on the PoE.

Now, I want to point out here that while some of my readers would undoubtedly disagree with me, I think Plantinga's defense of moral evil is a good argument, and I'm satisfied that the best possible world for humans is one in which we are able to choose to act kindly or cruelly. I've actually argued that one of the problems with Heaven is the idea that it is a world, much like those posited by Plantinga's critics, in which we supposedly are 'free' yet always choose good — as described by Randal Rauser in his book on Heaven [6]. I'm not particularly concerned with moral evil, but with natural evil. I can't see any reason why an omnipotent God would sit idly while people of all ages indiscriminately die of starvation, famine, disease, disasters, predation, and exposure. But is the fact that I can't perceive a reason mean that there can't be one?

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Polkinghorne's argument seems to be a concession that God is not all-powerful. I certainly cannot conceive of any logical reason why a world in which life was spontaneously created (as many a creationist argues is in fact the case) and in which there is no indiscriminate suffering or survival of the fittest is not possible, rather than a world in which creatures evolve over billions of years and struggle on a knife's edge of survival. Richard Dawkins put the issue concisely in an old article for Scientific American:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Polkinghorne seems to think that God is somehow constrained to make only this world and no other, but he doesn't offer any reason for why this should be so — likely, I think, because there isn't any such reason. If God is all-powerful, he can create a world without evolution, without cancer, with different laws of physics and different principles of biology.


Plantinga's response, by contrast, is so infantile as to barely merit a response, and frankly I often wonder why someone with a history of conjuring up some of the worst arguments for theism in existence is revered as a sophisticated thinker by many believers. The simple fact is that there is absolutely, positively, no reason whatsoever to believe that Adam and Eve were real historical figures or that "The Fall" is anything more than a fabrication of Judeo-Christian mythicism. Scientific inquiry has revealed that suffering has been around as long as life on Earth, and didn't just spontaneously enter the world at some arbitrary point in human evolution.

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I think it's safe to turn my attention toward the type of response offered by Craig, McGrath, and Rauser. It should be clear that my terse summary is perfectly accurate: God has his reasons. It doesn't matter if we cannot know what those reasons actually are — after all, as McGrath and Craig note, our feeble human minds are so limited in scope that we couldn't possibly hope to understand the reasoning of an eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful being. Quoth Craig:
As finite persons, we are limited in time, space, intelligence, and insight. But the transcendent and sovereign God sees the end from the beginning and providentially orders history so that His purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions. In order to achieve His ends, God may have to put up with certain evils along the way. Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework.[2]
At its core, how is this really any different than the crude, off-the-cuff response given by 'Eddie'? Could not all these responses be fairly summarized as something like, God has his reasons. Our feeble moral minds may not be able to comprehend them, but the atheist can't prove that God does not have good reasons for allowing natural evil

Some theologians like to take a few guesses at what those reasons might be. They may suggest that no matter how awful something is in our mortal lives, in an eternity of happiness they'll seem — as Craig suggests — 'infinitesimal'. But most theologians will not take the guessing game too far, since they'd start to step on their own toes; instead, they'll simply retreat to God's ineffability.

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There's a simple way to respond to these claims about God's ineffability, since all such claims do is push the problem of evil back a step. If God has morally justifiable reasons for allowing natural evil, then it follows that he is doing so to some greater end — sometimes called the 'Divine Plan'. The question, then, is simple: Could God accomplish his end without natural evil? If the answer is 'no', then one is taking the path of Polkinghorn and claiming, illogically, that God must have made the world precisely as it is — full of pain and suffering and mass extinctions, unfolding over billions of years through cosmic and biological evolution. This is a tacit concession of the first horn: God is not all-powerful.

If the answer is yes, that indeed God could have accomplished his plan without natural evil but chose not to, then clearly the theist has conceded the second horn: God is not good. He could have created a world without natural suffering, but did.

The theodicies above provide neither a logically coherent response to the problem of natural evil, nor do they elevate themselves above the crude and predictable responses offered by pastors, clergymen, and believing laypersons everywhere: We can't understand God's reasons; we just have to accept that it's his will. Appealing to God's ineffability is a cop-out, a tacit concession that there is no real conversation to be had — that belief is held by faith alone, not through reason and indeed often in spite of reason.

17 June 2014

On death and dying

As much as I'm sure everyone is eager to keep talking about Aristotle, Thomism, model-dependent realism and metaphysics, I want to take a break from all that stuff and talk about something that's been on my mind a bit: death.

Contemplating our mortality isn't the most uplifting of topics, but I think it's one that's important to discuss, especially for atheists. Death – or rather, the denial of death – is at the center of virtually every major world religion today, most certainly in Western Monotheism. Because I'm a nerd, I'm reminded of the dialogue between Gandalf and Pippin in Return of the King as the siege of Minas Tirith looms:
Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.
Pippin: What, Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores... And beyond. A far green country, under a swift sunrise. 
Pippin: Well... That isn't so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn't.
It's undoubtedly consoling, in the face of our own annihilation, to believe that our conscious soul will survive our bodily death. It's similarly consoling to believe, in the face of the cruel injustices of the world, that the rights will be wronged – the good rewarded, the wicked punished, and God's Divine Plan come to fruition. And I've no doubt that many a person has been consoled by the thought that someone they have loved and lost has not been lost forever, but will be reunited with them in the hereafter. In his debate with Shelly Kagan, theologian William Lane Craig argued that if our lives don't have a transcendent, cosmic purpose, then there must be no purpose to it all – it just seems so futile in the face of the annihilation of ourselves and the heat death of the universe far, far in the future.

Atheism takes all of that away. You don't have a soul. You don't have a purpose here beyond that which you make for yourself. When you die, you may be remembered for a time; if you do something extraordinary, maybe decades or maybe centuries. But eventually you'll be forgotten – most of us sooner rather than later. The world will go on without you, and people will live out their lives more concerned with their own affairs than your contribution to the world. The injustices of the world will not be righted in another life, and all those who are lost are lost forever.

If you've grown up, as I have, in a religiously inclined culture that treats death not as finality but as a transition, the loss of that perspective can certainly seem depressing. But I think, even if you're devoutly religious, it's worthwhile to consider the atheist's point of view, for one simple reason: you could be wrong. Perhaps you have a deeply and firmly held hope that you will see your loved ones after you die. Perhaps you believe you'll live in eternal peace, in God's presence. But no matter how fervent your religious conviction may be, you'll never truly be able to know what lies beyond death. So why not at least consider the perspective of someone who is at peace with the finality of death?

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I think there are two major issues to confront: the annihilation of the self in death, and the meaning we find in our lives without the promise of eternity. 

The latter is certainly the easier of the two to deal with; while the prospect of eternity may sound enticing at first, it's not without its difficulties. Do you really want to live forever? What happens when you've experienced all possible experiences that a disembodied soul can (whatever those may be)? Do you just repeat them an infinite number of times? Wouldn't that get boring after trillions and trillions of years? Do you spend eternity mourning the loss those who are not in the Good Place with you? Will you not feel deprived of challenges, of hardship overcome, of loss, of failure, and all the ways those experiences make us grow? I'm no fan of Deepak Chopra, but I'm quite fond of an old quote of his from an appearance on The Colbert Report: "In heaven, you would be doomed to eternal senility".

My point here isn't to argue against the possibility of an eternal afterlife, since I obviously can't 'disprove it'; rather, I just want to point out that the idea may not, upon reflection, be as appealing as it superficially seems to be. Similarly, the annihilation of the self, though superficially somewhat terrifying, is truly nothing to fear. It's inconceivable to us that our phenomenological experience will end. We might imagine such a death as an eternity of silent darkness, but that is not the case. In the annihilation of the self, we are truly gone. There are no memories, no experiences, not even blackness or silence. Truly the best way to conceive of our own death is to try and imagine what it was like before we were born. Perhaps an even better way to think about it is to ask "What was before time?" The answer is inconceivable, since 'before' connotes the existence of time. Our births and deaths are like the opening and closing of our own universes, with no 'other side' through which to pass.

The view of death as annihilation frees us from worries about what will come next, and forces us to turn our sights on the here and now. The more interesting question then is whether our annihilation in death somehow detracts from the purpose we have in our (relatively) short lives. What's the point of living if we're just going to die and be forgotten? Why not be as cruel as we want to be if there are no eternal consequences?

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I'm reminded of a quote from the titular character in the latest season of the TV show Hannibal:
"I’ve always found the idea of death comforting. The thought that my life could end at any moment frees me to fully appreciate the beauty and art and horror of everything this world has to offer."
Last night I went for a walk with my fiance. We walked through one of the nicer neighborhoods in town, a block of which surrounds a beautiful pond. We paused and looked out over the water, and when I looked at her, it was a perfect moment — a cool breeze, a starry sky, a beautiful park, holding hands with the love of my life.

If that moment could somehow be frozen in time, that I could live it for all eternity, it would lose its value. It's precious precisely because of its fleeting impermanence. I have no desire whatsoever to hang on to any one moment, no matter how perfect it might seem; there are too many other such moments that await us.

The impermanence of our existence is precisely what frees us to fully appreciate such moments. Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Living a Life That Matters, once remarked that death is tragic only if life is worth living. And indeed, while we may not wish for the end to come swiftly, for life to continue on indefinitely, dooming us to relive the same experiences or, as in Heaven, condemning us to idle contentment, is surely a far worse fate than a mortal life filled with those fleeting but beautiful moments.

Similarly, it is difficulty, strife, and suffering in this life which free us to fully appreciate its more sublime moments. The Chinese have long recognized this as Yin and Yang, but Western Monotheism is tainted by an almost perverse fixation on the total alleviation of all suffering in the hereafter. But we would not fully appreciate the importance of our friends and family in our lives without the knowledge that they will not be around forever, and that tragedy could befall any of them. It's the ever-present threat of suffering and death that compels us to continually better our lives — to work, to innovate, to specialize, to trade, to share, to learn.


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What about purpose and morality? The absence of some grand, cosmic, transcendent purpose to our existence in no way detracts from the purpose we make for ourselves in the here and now. I do not need to be told that the moment by the pond with my fiance was a part of some transcendent purpose to my life to fully appreciate the its beauty. On the contrary, it was a powerful moment precisely because it cannot last — because it was a moment. Only when we're mortal is each act we take important and each moment precious, since we don't have eternity to relive them. 

Morality, too, is meaningless without pressing social concerns. If we want moral autonomy, it's easy enough — we can just head out into the woods and live alone. That way there are no responsibilities to others, no obligations to anyone but ourselves. Of course, there are high costs to living totally alone — we'd have to hunt or grow our own food, build our own shelter, and we could never experience simple joys of human companionship. We'd die alone, likely of some disease (since we'd have no medicine), predation, hunger, or exposure.

We are, by nature, self-interested. But we're also gregarious, social, bonded, and interdependent. Virtually every aspect of our happiness and well-being is in some way dependent on other human beings. The very fact that you are reading this post on a computer is a testament to centuries of scientific progress through social cooperation. It goes without saying that if I do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no obligation to respect my needs and interests. In an interdependent society, we must cooperate in order to thrive, and that means living by a 'social contract'. A society in which we could all freely kill, steal, lie and cheat would be a short-lived society indeed.

Given these basic facts of human nature, it's clear that the promise of eternal reward or the threat of eternal punishment adds nothing to our moral enlightenment. Think of the 'great commandment' in Christianity: Love your neighbor as yourself. Why would God command such a thing? Is it just some arbitrary 'test' we need to pass to get into Heaven? I think most Christians would agree that the whole point of such a commandment is that living by such a principle creates a better world for all. But if that's the case, then it does not need to be commanded — we can arrive at such a moral obligation through reason alone. 

But what if we don't desire a better world for all? In that case, we're doomed. Importantly, though, the theistic notion of divine commands cannot save us, because threats of eternal punishment or reward cannot sway us if we do not value our own survival and well-being. And if we do value those things, then we do not need eternity to reason that living by certain norms will allow our well-being to flourish.

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This brief reflection on morality leads to an inescapable conclusion: morality itself is utterly dependent on our mortality. If we can live forever, we have no reason to value the short time in our lives or improve our well-being. We can procrastinate a trillion years and still have eternity to get around to it. Since there would be no threat of suffering or death, we don't have to cooperate if we don't want to. We don't have to trade, specialize, or innovate, and we wouldn't be forced to come together in communities to raise children and pass on our genes. We can just live on, indefinitely, in isolation and senility — never aging, never being challenged, never cooperating, never raising children, never experiencing anything new, never fully appreciating a fleeting moment, and never valuing our time since we would never run out of it.

The idea of objective, transcendent purpose faces another problem: the infinite regress. We can always ask, What is the purpose of this? Some say that the purpose of our lives is to prepare for Heaven. But what's the purpose of an eternity in Heaven? At some point, we simply have to agree: this is special. This is precious. This gives me purpose.
 
I remember as a child, there was an elderly woman who lived down the street from us, and she was an outspoken atheist. I remember my mother remarking once that it was so depressing — the idea that when we die, that's just it. But as I got older and went through the process of deconversion, I came to view death in the opposite way. It seems rather depressing to me, particularly given that we live in an age in which we can live twice as long as our ancestors, have access to vastly more knowledge than they did, and have greater leisure and luxury than they could have imagined, that this life is just not good enough. How depressing it would have been for me to stand there on a starlit night with my fiance, gazing into her eyes and thinking, If only life were better

I don't need the promise of eternity to fully appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this life — on the contrary, I believe eternity would rob us of the very things that make us appreciate this life and compel us to live each day to its fullest. Take away the allure of that promise, and what does religion really have to offer? A religious person is like a door to door salesman selling freezers to Eskimos. We don't need the promise of eternity to have meaning and purpose; we already have it here, in abundance. Once it becomes clear that the product they're selling isn't worth anything, their entire venture is exposed for the folly that it is.

07 June 2014

Sye Ten Bruggencate's presuppositionalist argument for the existence of God

Sye Ten Bruggencate, a Christian apologist, recently debated Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience.

Bruggencate is a presuppositionalist, and offered the following syllogism to prove that it's reasonable to believe in the existence of God:
  • It is reasonable to believe that which is true
  • It is true that God exists
  • Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that God exists
Well golly, I'm convinced!

An astute observer may notice that this deductive argument is, in fact, logically valid – the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. But it's a great example of an argument that can be valid but unsound, because at least one of the premises is false. 

Obviously we can have all kinds of fun with valid-but-unsound arguments:
  • It is reasonable to believe that which is true
  • It is true that interdimensional space monkeys exist
  • Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that interdimensional space monkeys exist
Or,
  • It is reasonable to believe that which is true
  • It is true that God does not exist
  • Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that God does not exist
And my personal favorite,
  • It is reasonable to believe that which is true
  • It is true that Mike D is the sexiest man alive
  • Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Mike D is the sexiest man alive

Here's the argument in action:

04 June 2014

Profundity in ambiguity

A recurring theme in discussions of late has been whether we can use the language of classical logic to make inferences about reality supposedly beyond the purview of empirical inquiry. This is the backbone of natural theology, as well as being subsumed under popular uses of the nebulous term 'metaphysics'. I've consistently maintained that this is a futile endeavor, and that intellectual fields like natural theology, or any 'metaphysical' proposition that assumes a priori truths to make inferences about reality, are fundamentally incoherent. 

A helpful way to think about this is what physicists call a 'frame of reference'. We intuit reality in a classical, Newtonian frame of reference. The reason that quantum mechanics and Einstein's theories of relativity are counter-intuitive is because we don't live in black holes, we don't travel at the speed of light, and we don't live in a subatomic world. The 'laws' of classical logic, and the semantic and conceptual structure that comprises them, are abstracted from that everyday Newtonian frame of reference. So we should not be surprised when we examine other frames of reference and find the language of classical logic to fail us in providing a coherent description of these systems.

Let's take a phrase like 'beyond the universe'. The idea sounds provocative and intuitive because in our minds, we visualize the universe like a container; the stars, galaxies, space-time, people, and everything else we know is contained 'within' the universe. We can abstract the concept of an 'outside' of this container, and wonder what might exist and how it might behave. The problem is that the intuition is flawed; the very term 'beyond the universe' is incoherent. 'Beyond' denotes a spatiotemporal referent – that is what gives the word its meaning. But the universe is not a container, with space 'within' and 'beyond'; rather, space itself is a property of the universe. Spatiotemporal terminology like 'within' and 'beyond' simply cannot coherently describe the nature of the universe itself.

This is why the old theological conundrum "where did the universe come from?" is fundamentally a nonsensical question, like asking what is "before time", "South of the South Pole", or asking "what comes after eternity?" The concept of 'comes from' relies on those Newtonian intuitions about reality – cause and effect, beginning and end, within and beyond. Notice, for example, how William Lane Craig attempts to buttress his claim that "something cannot come from nothing" in his debate with Sean Carroll:
[Craig] said that if the universe began to exist there must be a transcendent cause; I said that everyday notions of causation don’t apply to the beginning of the universe and explained why they might apply approximately inside the universe but not to it; and his response was that if the universe could just pop into existence, why not bicycles?[1]
Bicycles can't pop into existence because they're composed of matter, are contained within space-time, and obey the physical laws of the universe. They exist within a specific frame of reference in which the governing laws are clearly defined according to a very specific semantic framework. But these things are, again, properties of the universe itself. The universe is not a discrete object like a bicycle to which the known laws of physics apply; the laws of physics are a property of the universe, so it's incoherent to make logical inferences about the universe itself the same way we'd make inferences about everyday physical objects. Our everyday metaphors are simply nonsensical in that frame of reference.

That's why the question of "Where did the universe come from?" is misguided; the universe cannot have 'come from' anything at all, including nothing. The universe simply is. Our semantics are simply ill-equipped to coherently describe it in any other way. The reason why phrases like 'beyond the universe', 'timeless existence', or 'non-physical cause' sound profound is precisely because their exact meaning is ambiguous. If I ask someone to specify what it means to say something is beyond the universe, I'll likely get an answer like "It means something not contained within the universe" – in which case they're relying the aforementioned fallacious metaphor.


Quantum mechanics and classical logic

I often bring up the example of quantum mechanics in these discussions, because I think it's helpful in understanding that there's another frame of reference, right here in the physical universe, in which the semantics of classical logic simply fail us. One cannot describe a quantum system using classical concepts like the law of identity or modus ponens. Does this mean that quantum mechanics contradicts classical logic? Not necessarily. The key to understanding why brings us back to frames of reference. At Newtonian scales, quantum irregularities 'smooth out' and the laws of logic are perfectly sensible and applicable. Just as we can't use Feynman's sum over histories to calculate the trajectory of a baseball in our everyday Newtonian frame of reference, we cannot use simple logical principles like modus ponens to calculate the trajectory of a particle in a quantum field. 

Take quantum superposition as an example, in which a system (like a particle) exists in all possible states simultaneously. An experiment, described by New Scientist, clarifies the concept:
Does Schrödinger's cat really exist? You bet. The first ever quantum superposition in an object visible to the naked eye has been observed.
Aaron O'Connell and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, did not actually produce a cat that was dead and alive at the same time, as Erwin Schrödinger proposed in a notorious thought experiment 75 years ago. But they did show that a tiny resonating strip of metal – only 60 micrometres long, but big enough to be seen without a microscope – can both oscillate and not oscillate at the same time. Alas, you couldn't actually see the effect happening, because that very act of observation would take it out of superposition.[2]
Notice that the strip of metal could both oscillate and not oscillate simultaneously, apparently defying the laws of logic. But when the strip of metal is being observed directly, we must observe the strip of metal either oscillating or not. It's odd, and certainly counter-intuitive, but it highlights the fact that quantum systems do not lend themselves to the semantics of classical logic. Our direct observation, in our human/Newtonian frame of reference, however, does; that is because, contrary to what many armchair philosophers seem to assert, the 'laws' of logic are simply useful approximations of physical systems in a specific frame of reference – or, to put it another way, they are laws of human thought, not immutable laws of nature itself. Humans simply don't perceive or intuit reality in the framework of quantum systems.

I should clarify, though, that quantum mechanics – though I think it's a good example – is just an example. The argument that classical modal logic cannot be applied beyond the frame of reference from which its semantic structure is derived doesn't require the weirdness of quantum mechanics to be true – it's just a helpful example in clarifying the limitations of classical logic. The real challenge for theists, or 'metaphysicians' if they prefer a more pretentious moniker, is to clarify specific concepts:
  • What is 'timeless existence' – that is, how can something exist without a past, present or future?
  • How can a 'changeless mind', as Craig describes God, be functional – since function implies change?
  • How can something exist immaterially? If it is not composed of nothing, then it is composed of something. But what is that something, and how can it exist in no place (or all places) or at no time (or all times)?
  • What do things like 'non-physical time' or 'non-physical causality' mean? Since both time and causality describe processes of change, how can change or causality exist without a past, present, or future?
  • How can something exist 'before' or 'beyond' the universe? Can such a thing be described without spatiotemporal metaphors? 
I could go on (and on) but the point is made: these concepts are only superficially profound because of their ambiguity. Until they can be articulated in a coherent and non-contradictory way, we skeptics have no reason to take them seriously.