Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Argument from neener-neener-neener

The Argument: You can't disprove the existence of God, therefore God exists.

The Rebuttal: you can't disprove the existence of hypotheticals. Otherwise, the following would be just as compelling an argument:

You can't prove that the universe wasn't created by a tasty cream-filled snack cake. Therefore, the universe was created by a Giant Twinkie.

I rest my case.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Existmas!

When you assert that God exists and Jesus is his earthly representative and that only through belief in Jesus can you reach heaven and enjoy eternal life, you have to jump the following cognitive hurdles:

- you have to believe in the supernatural

- you have to believe that there are supernatural entities that persist that can interact with our reality in a meaningful way

- you have to believe that one supernatural entity exists that is responsible for the creation of our natural world, is capable of and in fact does intervene with us in response to our prayers or in positive or negative response to our belief in it and our adherence to its written or unwritten rules

- you have to believe that the Old Testament describes this being - which we'll call "God" - and that this conception and the words that describe its rules and expectations supercede all other written and unwritten descriptions and conceptions of an ultimate supernatural being throughout the existence of the universe.

- you have to believe that an addendum to the Old Testament - the "New Testament" - describes an earthly representative of God called Jesus, whose words, transmitted to us through intermediaries whom we know little or nothing about, modify and supercede the basic conceptions laid down in the Old Testament, and that these words and rules must be followed in order to achieve life after death and eternal existence in a place called Heaven while the vast preponderance of humans who ever lived and/or who do not believe this particular set of words and guidelines will suffer eternal torment

- you have to believe that God will eternally maintain both Heaven and Hell for all eternity to reward and/or punish the aforesaid for a few decades of existence in the real world and the adherence to and belief in the written words and concepts

In polite conversation, the response to this is usually "Are you insane"? A less polite response - which I will convey to you in the interest of completeness - is "ARE YOU F**KING INSANE???"

When you try to convince another person that they should jump the cognitive hurdles that we outlined above, and that they should not inquire of your sanity but should instead accept your assertion at face value - you'd be well served to bring evidence that each hurdle that we described above is in fact an accurate representation of the world that can be affirmed through repeated, systematic observation, and not just some insane f**king sh*t someone made up.

That's putting it politely.

Merry Existmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Serenity Meditation

I will find serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
One of the things that we must admit to ourselves - the unbeliever and believer alike - is that we humans can draw inspiration from secular and religious sources. It does not mean that the motivation for the words (religious or not) confirms or disconfirms the reader's world view. It just confirms that the words and acts of others can touch us, regardless of the motivation that the other has in performing them.

I like the Serenity Prayer - it is simple and direct, and speaks to a need that reoccurs in my life - I need serenity, courage and wisdom all the time.

In keeping with my disbelief in the supernatural in general, gods more specifically, and the specific god referred to in the Bible, I believe it's consistent to remove the word "God" from that prayer, while continuing to use the words as a meditation to achieve the same result. Thus - The Serenity Meditation.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitch is dead

I felt like I lost a trusted mentor when Christopher Hitchens died.

Of course I didn't know him ... I'm a one-man intellectual and literary cul-de-sac that he would never have guessed existed ... but it would have been fun to be in his presence just once.

I ***do*** know him through many videos I've watched on-line, through ten or twenty articles in Vanity Fair that I've read, and through many TV appearances back when the Iraq War was just spooling up. I hated - HATED him back then ... he was an obnoxious arrogant, neo-con - or so I thought. It wasn't until I learned that he was one of the "Four Horsemen" of atheism that I paid attention to him for more than his views on Iraq ... and I realized that he could speak and write wonderfully, and he could explain why he felt the way he did.

He's dead. He will never write again. Never speak again, never debate again.

It's final.

His words live on ... and for that, I thank you, Christopher Hitchens.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I picked up an article on Americans and God at the NYT by Eric Weiner. He speaks for the "Nones" - non-affiliated believers - not religious, not atheist - allegedly searching.

Darned if less than an hour later, P.Z. Myers hadn't already fired off a take-down. Regardless of where you stand in the continuum of possible world views, and possible stances on your world view in contrast to others, Weiners article prompted me to reflect on my one-time "neo-paganism".

First, definitions. Neo-Pagan is the label applied to me by a survey that I took at Beliefnet's Belief-o-matic some years back. I must have expressed a disbelief in organized religion, and an affinity for deist and/or ancestral spirits. I never consciously applied this label to myself until after I'd read in on the soulless automatonic interwebs.

That was many years ago.

Second, P.Z. is out-spoken ... out- out- out-spoken. He's right, of course, belief in something that is not there is not smart.
It just means you’re halfway to crazy town

Human beings are a deeply deeply superstitious bunch. We are also, largely, conditioned to defer to those with power, money, knowledge. Combine the two ... and religion - or something just like it - will not go away for centuries.

The task, as I've set out for my life, is to be honest with myself. Deal with the world as it is ... seek understanding where I lack it ... seek wisdom from understanding. When I retreat into fantasy, I need to be aware that I'm doing it, I need to acknowledge it to myself, and I need to understand why I'm doing it, how it is a benefit (if it is a benefit at all) and how to advance again beyond it.

Kinda a metaphor for civilization.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I am an indexed reasoner and a religious hobbyist

I will use the word "indexed" here thanks to John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts article "Atheism, agnosticism and theism 5: Scope and indexing" - wherein he illustrates that "doxastic attitudes" can be indexed to specific claims ... which is a fancy way of saying that beliefs can be stronger or weaker about specific subclasses of a general class. Regarding the existence of gods, then, you can be a gnostic atheist (you know god doesn't exist) - or more specifically, you can be a gnostic atheist about Thor (you know that Thor doesn't exist) - but an agnostic atheist about the "god of the philosophers" (you believe god doesn't exist, but you can't know for sure).

That said, I reason about some things, and fly by the seat of my pants on others - therefore I am an "indexed reasoner". This is the most general statement I can make about my stance on reality, one that, I'll bet, is widely held.

One subclass of things that I can hold beliefs about is the supernatural, and a subclass of that is entities that have influence over physical reality, and a subclass of that is entities such as YHWH, Baal, Asherah, Vishnu and the like.

I don't believe in the supernatural, but if it can be shown that it exists, I'll change my belief. It would be irrational to withhold belief in the supernatural if it can be demonstrated that it exists. There's no reason to hold a belief in the supernatural today - except as a hobby - because it's never been demonstrated to exist, has no effect in the real world, and doesn't affect me specifically. Logically, it follows that I feel the same way about gods in general, or YHWH, Baal, Asherah, Vishnu or any other named deity specifically - since they are a sub-subclass of the class that I call "supernatural". There is no value to me in believing that god exists. I understand the positive feelings that belief in deities and participation in religion may bestow on the believer/participant ... I just don't value it except as a hobby.

Therefore my claim that "I am an indexed reasoner and a religious hobbyist".

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Evidence and Amputees

If you get into discussions with believers about what evidence would convince you that the god they believe in exists ... you may be literally speechless, because, depending on which god, and which religion, and which denomination, and which congregation, and the disposition and experiences and perceptions of the person asking the question, you really, REALLY don't know what they're asking. The god they perceive may be entirely different than that of their brother, or mother, or father or sister or child's.

But here's how I might answer:

First I'd stipulate that the god that we're talking about is Yahweh as depicted in the Old Testament (and modified by the New Testament). Second, I'd define evidence as a repeatable, independently verifiable test that uses a prediction relying on the existence of this god that will yield a pre-defined consequence - first time, every time, to a reasonable certainty. Third, let's stipulate that the test result can only be produced by the action of god, and cannot be explained by common natural phenomena. Fourth, "reasonable certainty" means some level of repeatability - for me, 99 out of a hundred times is acceptable. For the wider world to accept this, we might try the same test thousands of times and expect no failures before we'd publish the result ... but I'm looser than they are.

Let's try a thought experiment ... If God Exists, and He is all-powerful, and He answers Prayers, then I ought to be able to construct a test whose results would signal to me that God answers believer's prayers. Use an Iraq War amputee as an example ... this brave man or woman lost a limb in the service of their country, and deserves our profound respect and thanks, and we as a grateful nation should demonstrate our appreciation. Therefore:

1) a single Devout Believer should sign an affidavit that they will pray for the complete restoration of the Veteran's limb, and that this restoration of the limb will occur without human intervention within one month of the date of the prayer being offered to God.

2) at the completion of the prayer, the Devout Believer signs an affidavit that affirms that the Devout Believer has offered the aforesaid prayer of limb restoration to God on behalf of the Veteran.

3) at the end of a month following completion of the second step, the Veteran is inspected for restoration of the previously absent limb.

4) if the previously absent limb is restored, then we may say that the hypothesis "God exists" is true, contingent on successful repetition of the test using another worthy Veteran and another Devout Believer.

5) if the test only succeeds once, we may not conclude that God undeniably exists, but we can all agree that this was truly a wonderful miracle, and the hypothesis "God Exists". although not proven to a reasonable certainty, still warrants that believers and non-believers alike adhere to Pascal's Wager and live their lives as if God Exists, for He has given us a sign.

6) If nothing happens, then everyone agrees that it's all bullshit.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Devotional ... or not

Is it Truth that tells you that the Bible is not the Inerrant Word of God?

I was never "devout" as a Christian ... more of a "good boy" as a child, I went to church (Episcopalian), was confirmed at around thirteen, continued to go weekly up until the time my parents started experiencing some problems and my Mom lost her focus on dragging her now teenage kids to church every week. I *did* experience a drug-fueled epiphany one morning at about the age of seventeen, but that passed within 24 hours, so it doesn't really count - but it *was* a serious rush!

So ... I drifted away from organized church at about fifteen or sixteen, then the family moved to another city in which I never attended a service regularly. In my twenties I had another brush with Christianity when my roommates and I all got high and one of the guys started "speaking in tongues". I picked up on it, started going to a Pentecostal church that one of my other roommates had just started attending, and immersed myself in the New Testament. I was, as is common to many born-again types, enthralled with the feeling of family, the supernatural feeling of the Pentecostal church (speaking in tongues) and the story of Jesus. I read the New Testament cover to cover ... then started on the Old Testament, where it all unraveled.

Before this Pentecostal phase, I had read parts of the OT & NT, but not in an ordered and purposeful manner. In fact, it was probably always Sunday School, or the occasional reference reading that represented the whole of my personal knowledge of the Bible.

After the Pentecostal phase, I had a good overview of the Jesus story - but like other folks that can read and comprehend at the same time, I understood that there were inconsistencies that had to be ignored or explained away using a Christian filter in order for it to seem coherent. The Old Testament didn't reinforce my belief - it destroyed it. The Book of Genesis is the most preposterous account of Creation that I can imagine, short of utter parody. Verse by verse, book by book, I intended to get through the whole thing from start to finish, but I just couldn't do it. I wussed out somewhere in Deuteronomy - convince that the authors were primitive charlatans trying to impress and gain favor and control over folks that had less knowledge and influence then themselves. It was really pretty vile. I had read passages from Isaiah and Micah ... and probably others that prophesied the coming of a Messiah, at various times through my childhood and adolescent years, but I never went through it verse by verse route until my twenties.

That was enough. It's just not accurate or convincing.

As I journey through life, gain experience, hopefully become wise, hopefully dispense with wishful thinking, hopefully remain aware when I erroneously seek confirmation instead of truth, I try to develop and refine my approach to dealing with reality as I encounter it.

The Bible doesn't provide evidence that maps to the reality that I've encountered, and doesn't provide insights that I couldn't get elsewhere. Having other human beings making the case that the Bible *does* map to reality and *is* the authoritative source for life's insights (and moral guidance) speaks more to its lack of inherent authority and coherence.

This seems to be the case for all claims that lack evidence.

Why are there defenders of the faith? Shouldn't any claim that requires hordes of defenders, but which never delivers evidence, be rejected on those bases alone?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shit happens - and Lrrr did it.

Shit happens.

It is what it is.

Zenner words were never spoken (is "Zenner" even a word? Probably not - but you get the point).

We hear people say these things a lot in America. It *is* kinda Zen - this acceptance of what is.

Why isn't that the most effective world view for a sentient being to have? What value does imagining the supernatural have that offsets the costs that the belief imposes? That may, indeed, be the reason that people have beliefs in (so far...) imaginary entities, and the doctrines and rituals and communities built up around them.

Sure, belief in Lrrr, Ruler of Omicron Persei 8, may have a comforting effect on the believer, and may socially bind believers together in a network of mutual benefit, but strictly speaking, Lrrr doesn't exist. Lrrr can't be found in reality. Arguing that Lrrr will destroy you shouldn't scare the non-believer, and shouldn't make the believer feel that this threat has real value, that the believer can summon Lrrr to wreak havoc on you and your collection of Star Trek memorabilia.

Why, then, does belief in Lrrr continue to gain adherents?

Author's note: Lrrr, I beseech you, please do not destroy me. I have never doubted your existence, even though there has never been physical evidence of your existence, nor evidence of evidence of your existence. Notwithstanding Futurama. Amen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Today's review: Genesis 1:1

It's time to review the first verse of Genesis. I don't know why this isn't done every month or so in school. It highlights, in stark, explicit, bright contrast, the difference between the world we live in and the world that the author(s) of Genesis did when the final text was set.

I personally assume that the Bible was (or contains) oral tradition that was recorded on media at some time in the past, and edited, compiled and eventually canonized as "The Bible". This is my non-believers view. What is commonly known about Genesis can be found at Wikipedia - sans the spin that gets applied in both apologetic and polemic texts. Authorship of the Pentateuch is assumed to occur over a wide period:
dates vary from the 15th century BCE to the 6th century BCE.
The documentary hypothesis (that there were Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D) and Priestly (P) sources) is apparently considered obsolete, having been replaced with the idea that
the books were combined gradually over time by the slow accumulation of "fragments" of text, or that a basic text was "supplemented" by later authors/editors
Additionally, dating of the document:
most recent proposals place it in 5th century Judah under the Persian empire.
and estimations as to Moses' life:
Rabbinical Judaism calculated a lifespan of Moses corresponding to 1391-1271 BCE ... Christian tradition has tended to assume an earlier date
...lead the independent observer to conclude that Moses lived prior to 1200 BCE, the Pentateuch does not appear to be written before 800 BCE, and that Moses could not have authored any of these first five books of the Bible. Apologists and Bible literalists will, of course, take issue with this, but will provide no evidence of their claims.

...but I digress...

Assume a wise Middle Eastern tribal elder was responsible for the foundational claims and narratives that form Genesis. Let's look at the KJV text:
Gen 1:1 : In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
Here we have some assertions that need to be supported and/or explained before we can understand the meaning of this verse.

"In the beginning..." The story starts at the beginning of what? We assume (or I assume, based on my mundane Episcopalian upbringing) that "beginning" means "prior to the formation of this earth on which we live". Some defenders of the faith insist this means the beginning of the universe, while others limit it to the creation of the world. It is a problem either way. Geologically, mankind understands that the Earth formed roughly four and a half billion years ago ... an accretion of dust and gas that was left around the sun Sol on the outskirts of an average galaxy that we refer to as The Milky Way.

Claiming that creation occurred in 4004 BCE (as the Ussher calculation does) does not jive with the physical evidence. Thermodynamically, you couldn't assemble the several septillion tons of material that's required and not have a boiling mass of lava 6000 years later. Forget about water, ice caps and solid land.

What are we left to assume? The author of Gen 1:1 was speaking of a time before history. That's all he or she was capable of doing.

Next snippet: "...God..." Here we get to my biggest problem with the Bible: the assertion "God". The author asserts that the subject "God" creates the creation that the author is about to describe, without any prior or subsequent explanation of the characteristics that would enable the power of creation. We are just thrown this bare assertion that God did it.

Not acceptable.

There are a handful of arguments for the existence of God, all of which have been debunked elsewhere, so I won't rehash them. The simplest way to envision any system is by the most plausible explanation(s) for it. If a "God" is required for the universe to exist, then that "God" requires a system in which it exists, and *that* system then requires a cause (creator?) ... and on and on. That may in fact be what we find out after years of research, but that speaks only to creation and creator - not to the anthropomorphic representation of, and alleged interactive nature of the God we are presented in the Bible. Further reading of the Bible uncovers the struggle between pagan deities ... one of which YHWH (God) appears to be, on his way to the monotheistic conception that prevails today (Father, Son and Holy Ghost not withstanding!!!).

"...created the heaven and the earth." Again, it's not entirely clear if the reference is to the visible stars, planets and the earth itself, or spacetime, energy, matter and the arrangement of forces that control their behavior. I have to assume this refers to the visible solar system, visible part of the galaxy, and the ground we walk on. To the previous point that a young Earth creation circa 4004 BCE is not plausible, likewise the simultaneous creation of the solar system and the nearby portion of the galaxy is not plausible. Since we know now that our star is one of approximately 10,000 billion billion stars in the visible universe, the scale of creation is unimaginably more immense than described in the Bible. The Bible appears to be the best guess that late stone-age, early bronze-age goat herders could make based on visual observation and not much else.

The fact that this verse spawned three major religions that have adherents numbering over half the species that lays claim to intelligence is remarkable.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Assessing believers in the supernatural

You can sometimes tell something about people by the way they act. If you're in the local Kwik-E-Mart, and you walked into an aisle where there's a person furtively looking around while stuffing something into a pocket, you have some reason to assume that the person has just shoplifted. You may be wrong, but the person's behavior indicates that they are attempting to obscure the act that they're committing - whatever it may be.

You can also sometimes tell something about people by the way they look. A guy may rate a 4 out of ten on the classic-movie-star-good-looks-scale, but if he's clean and neatly dressed, walks upright and purposefully, you might think he's well brought-up, well-educated, confident, or some combination of these and other positive characteristics. Alternatively, that same 4-out-of-10 guy, when unclean, unshaven, disheveled, disoriented may look homeless, possibly ill or slightly incapacitated.

You can tell where this is going, of course ... You can sometimes tell something about people by the things they say. The guy downtown at the corner of State Street and Broadway railing about the government cover up of UFOs may not be your next choice for CEO of your bank - assuming of course, that the government cover up of the existence of UFOs has not been exposed between the time I write this and the time that you read it.

The way people look and act may give us an indication of how the person perceives and interacts with the world, but gives us little insight into what their intentions might be over a period of time. A person's words, however, may provide those additional insights we need to fully appreciate the persons viewpoint and possible future behavior.

Normally, I don't care what a person's world view is, provided they're a good neighbor. I assume that a good neighbor also has the characteristics of being a good family member, reasonably caring and charitable of those nearest to him, reasonably tolerant of those less close to him, and generally a benefit to the community. I can be completely, tragically wrong, but using this as an operating assumption has served me well so far, and doesn't burden me with the small, but still plausible, worry that my neighbor might be an axe murderer.

When people start talking about things that are not there, I assess that the person asserting these things has a world view that maps differently, or not at all, to the world that I map mine. Since I believe that I am of sound mind, and since I believe that I am not subject to belief in implausible things for which there is no physical evidence, makes it difficult for me to confidently predict that person's behavior. I might even have reason to believe that the person might be a danger to himself or others, depending on other signals that I pick up.

This is where I have problems with people asserting belief in the unexplained, and more specifically the supernatural. If the person expressing the belief, say, in UFOs, does so in a manner that indicates a casual interest, then I am less concerned than if they structure their life around this belief, and manifest it in ways that are weird and even disruptive. A UFO landing pad in the backyard might be a cause for worry.

As I continue my journey through life, I find the whole god conjecture, and most specifically the assertion that Jesus is the conjectural being's representative to whom we owe our fealty, rely on for a supposedly requisite redemption, and around whose teachings and the teachings of millennia of his followers we must structure our lives - I find this bizarre in the extreme.

It makes no sense to believe in something that is never directly evident and for which there is no indirect evidence, nor rational justification. The hypothetical universe that can only exist through the simultaneous existence of god and his delegate(s) has never been rationally described. There appears to be no necessity in any system for such a thing. The attempts at reasoning why such a scheme might be the most plausible conception of the universe are always subject to huge gaps in empirical support and reasoning.

If a person believes that god is real, and that he sent a delegate to redeem the believer, then okay. I do not care if the person truly sees things this way about the world. It would be nice if the believer didn't feel the need for this belief, because it would indicate to me that the person is mature, reasonable, and possesses a sound world view that maps to the objects and events that constitute the world that I perceive.

Fervent, even fevered belief in the supernatural leaves me to consider the belief-holder to be untrustworthy, imbalanced, and potentially even dangerous. There is no reason to try to out-shout people who do not believe things you believe in, yet this often happens when addressing people that have no other alternative. If your favored beliefs do not have the power of physical evidence and sound rational justification behind them, then the average mature, stable, reasonable adult has every right to reject the assertions you make as unfounded. This is the way rational discourse progresses.

When you assert belief in the unseen, and your audience assents, you may have strengthened the emotional bond between you and they, but you are literally preaching to the choir - reinforcing a set of conceptions that otherwise erode the moment you step outside and continue with mundane everyday experience.

Spending a whole lifetime trying to resist thinking and ignoring the world around you in favor of the comfort of imaginary supervision and redemption is a tragic waste of the human spirit.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Letter to a generic apologist

Dear generic apologist,

So far, all of your pro-theist bluster is based on the unwarranted belief that there are supernatural forces at work in the universe. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that this is so. Tens of billions of human beings have walked the planet. Not one has offered evidence of the supernatural that could be verified, let alone resulted in a fundamental change in the way we view such claims. Instead, fundamental changes to human understanding of the universe have always come from detecting phenomena and exploring their causes - creating hypotheses that could be tested, testing those hypotheses and rejecting them, refining them or accepting them as adequate explanations of what we observe. You continue to not participate in this global endeavor. You have not offered a shred of evidence to support your claim(s) of the supernatural.

Certainly there may be phenomena for which no answer can be found in our lifetimes. This is not cause for worry, and absolutely never a reason to fabricate explanatory schemes that are more fantastic and less plausible than what we can temporarily infer based on the incomplete evidence that we *do* have. Use String Theory as an example of where a skeptical approach is appropriate. It sounds great - space-aged - complicated - mysterious, but is it a fact? No. Ask any physicist. What will they tell you? They'll tell you string theory is a contender for a hoped-for Theory of Everything that explains and links all known physical phenomena. What's wrong with it? It has never predicted any results that have been observed and verified, leading some scientists to believe that it is not correct to consider it in the same sentence with the word "science". We cannot accept it as anything but an interim hypothesis until it can be tested, rejected, refined or accepted. This approach prevails throughout all successful projects that attempt to explain the world. It is a long and tortuous process, this search for the truth. It takes baby steps.

The conjecture that the supernatural exists ... angels, prophecies, gods, demons, the devil, messiahs - may have been useful when primitive groups of people spent all of their days in the struggle to obtain adequate food and water, to construct and maintain shelter, to defend themselves against animal and human predators. It may have been part wishful thinking, part social adhesive, part emotional defense against facing the gross uncertainty of life early in human history. Some of the words that have survived have a timeless quality that still ring true. Most of the words do not.

The world has grown up. Our understanding of the universe is monumentally greater than it was two, three, four thousand years ago. Most of the stories we told ourselves thousands of years ago are no longer necessary to explain the phenomena that we observe in everyday life.

If you enjoy religion, or take comfort in its rituals and practices; or find it a convenient tool to maintain familial and social bonds and harmony; or use it as an ethical guide instead of your own ability to behave civilly without the threat of retribution; or gain a platform from which you can be heard; or benefit from some other effect that I didn't mention; you are of course free to do so. You may even genuinely, fervently believe the sacred texts and doctrines that the religion has developed over time. Just don't expect moderately rational, moderately informed, moderately independent, moderately civil, moderately intelligent people to accept the fevered repetition of Calvin, Henry and other apologists as anything more than obsolete rationalizations for why ancient texts might be the word of some entity that deserves even passing consideration, let alone worship. This entity, for all you've been able to establish for an anxiously waiting world, is so invisible, so inconsequential, that it is indistinguishable from its own absence. There is no indication that what you say is there, is there.

You have a right to have yourself heard. I have a right to ask that you make sense. You have no right that guarantees your ideas will be respected - in civil discourse, that has to be earned. Until you can present evidence that the most trivial supernatural concept is real, making claims for anything supernatural will continue to be met by reactions ranging from indifference, through gentle kidding and skeptical inquiry, to derision and outright scorn. The broader the claims you make, the more difficult your evidentiary support and rational justification efforts will be.

I patiently await evidence of anything supernatural from you or anyone that you may offer as your surrogate. After we establish the veracity of that evidence, we can start talking about the possibility of a god. Once that's resolved, we can investigate why your preferred conception is more compelling than the thousands of others that have come and gone. It may even be worthwhile, if you have the time, to examine the different versions of the sacred texts and explain the reason such differences are necessary. While we're at it, some attempt at clarifying why separate sects and denominations exist will also help to solidify your claim to representing "the truth". After we resolve that, we can concern ourselves with the possibility of an incorporeal, eternal soul, an afterlife, eternal punishment and reward, and finally, the proposition that a messiah figure is a necessary delegate of the primary deity, could fit into to this grand scheme, in fact exists, and is worthy of our consideration and ultimately, worship. It is a long and tortuous process, this search for the truth. It takes baby steps.

Have a nice day!

The preceding mental exercise was written with a particular obscure apologist in mind - a fellow who has participated with me and others in a blog about the bible. I believe that the preceding generic admonishments can apply to most apologists.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Inspiration

It's been a good week for me to occupy my head with tidbits from the world of research, intellectual thought and skepticism ... although the "intellectual" tag is something only I might apply to thoughts that i have.

Exhibit A -
Researchers in South Africa found what may have been an "art studio" where early man accumulated and mixed materials that could be loosely termed "paint". This site is approximately 100,000 years old. Quoting directly from the article:
the find represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human mental processes
I suppose that articles like this fill my heart with joy, awe and wonder much like my religious brethren claim when they consider their favorite major or minor deity.

Exhibit B -
@theealex tweeted a link to the reliably thought-provoking Talk Origins site about the existence of Geologic Columns around the world that provide evidence on how the earth has changed over the eons ... and puts the lie to Creationist claims that the "Geologic Column is an idea, but nowhere to be found in nature". Ummmm ... except that it's found in at least 25 places around the world. Creationism is fun!

Exhibits C through Z -
Almost any tweet with the hashtag #skeptic #atheist or #atheism has the potential to be insightful or downright funny. A couple that caught my eye:

via @godisreundant - "The biggest advantage to believing in God is you don't have to understand anything...I wanted to understand." Dr. James Watson

via @maximosis - "If God Made us in his image then why aren't we invisible too?" - #Random Bathroom Graffiti #atheism lockerz.com/s/147687213

via @hemantmehta - God Has a Challenger bit.ly/q5FBYI

via @Monicks - Don't confuse your religious beliefs with knowledge, better gain vast knowledge of your beliefs, you'd most likely stop believing. #atheism

...and a most heart-rending one...

via @GodlesBlkFemale - #atheist #christian #YouhaveSomeExplainingToDo #Jesustweeter lockerz.com/s/146635485

That last one cuts to the heart of the matter: that a supposed god would be kicking back in his supposed heaven in his favorite easy chair, sipping his favorite beverage, while innocent children starve to death.

It reminds us thinking, caring, un-delusional human beings that our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and the innocents born around the world are in need of help - and that those of us that can help, should help.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why I am an Atheist

I thought I'd take a shot at the Why I am an Atheist topic that PZ Myers called submissions for.

I'm an atheist because it is a rational intellectual stance about a proposition for which there is no evidence and no rational justification.

A personal god - as I presume theists believe - has never been observed in the history of humanity. It is, strictly speaking, imaginary. God can only be imagined, not observed, therefore belief in such a proposition has no base from which to operate. It does not add to my understanding of the world. It does not help me deal with immediate emotional, familial, social, professional or avocational problems that I might encounter. It unnecessarily complicates any system in which it is introduced. It is not needed. It is not plausible.

There are a nearly unlimited number of tangible and plausible concerns about which I can attend. God is not part of that set.

Sunday Links

PZ Myers posted a submission from Heather Dalgleish on Why I am an Atheist. It was elegant, precise, and I thought that PZ had written it until I saw her name at the end.

Unreasonable Faith has a link to an excellent talk by Lawrence Krauss on how the universe might arise from nothing. It was fascinating. Clocking in at a little over an hour long - it kept me awake until after 2 AM.

Finally, Camels With Hammers has a series-in-progress on reaching out to religious believers. It's well thought out, and definitely worthwhile!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Blogger from iPhone!

Now that I have the new Blogger app for iPhone, I can post from anywhere! Even from a flying saucer that I claim to not believe in.

21st Floor

It's probably been around for a while, but I just discovered the
21st Floor - obviously a skeptics site!

Since I don't give near enough attention to non-religious magical thinking, I thought I'd pimp a nice article titled Astrology IS a load of rubbish.

Pretty accurate assessment, wouldn't you say?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

My (imaginary) Debate with Dr. William Lane Craig

Thank you for being here tonight, and thank you for allowing me to spend the next couple of hours with you. Let me especially extend my thanks to Dr. William Lane Craig, who, wholly unbeknownst to him, will serve as my imaginary opponent in this most improbable of imaginary debates.

The question before us here tonight is "Is there a God?" This question has been debated by such legends as Plato and Aristotle, St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, Dr. William Lane Craig, and by such obscure laymen as yours truly.

Is there a God? The question itself evokes awe and wonder about the immensity of the universe - eternity and infinity, time, space, mass, energy and the way they appear and are arranged and behave. The question "Is there a God?" is almost invariably linked to, and preceded by life's most basic and deepest questions such as "Where did I come from?", "How did life arise?", "How did the universe come into existence?" and "Why is there something instead of nothing?".

Our intuitions - the almost-unconscious feelings and attitudes we have about things, tell us that there is something greater than we are. As an example, if we didn't know better, we might imagine that the cause of the rain was something not unlike ourselves - an animate force endowed with the ability to cause rain to fall. We know what and how we humans think and act (to an extent) so projecting characteristics that we ourselves have onto the invisible cause of the rain is as good a guess as any we can make in the absence of more information. We certainly do this as children, we certainly did this as a species early in our history, and we certainly do that even today.

Carrying the analogy a step further - when the rain floods the river until it overruns its banks and threatens our homes, we may seek to win favor from this animate rain-causing being by acting in a certain way that we think it might approve of, or offering it certain things that we think would please it, or bargaining with it. When the rain either falls - or subsides - in accordance with our wishes, we are filled with good feelings about the force behind the rain, and we sing its praises. When the rain - or lack or it - does not accord with our wishes and requirements, we may feel anger or fear, and seek to ameliorate these feelings with bargaining and offerings and sincere beseechments. So when these beseechments and offerings are coincident with a positive change in the weather, we say that the rain force has answered our prayers. When the weather fails to turn in our favor, we don't understand, but we can save face by saying that the rain force works in mysterious ways, and we re-double our prayers and offerings. Sooner or later, we either get rain, or we parch to death, after which our particular form of belief in the rain god passes away with us.

Taken to the extreme, this minor deity may accumulate other powers, merge with other minor deities and morph over time into God, almighty God, God the great and powerful. That's what Dr. Craig and I will argue tonight, he in the affirmative, I in the negative.

Defining God

Let me define God as I perceive it to be intended in this debate. When we say "God" tonight, I believe we are speaking of the monotheistic God "Yahweh" as described in the Hebrew Bible. This God is usually believed to have created Heaven and Earth, Adam and Eve, and is most commonly perceived to supervise and judge our lives and the world around us, and take action upon us and our surroundings both during our lives, and for eternity after we pass away. We can petition this God to receive benefits, and occasionally to smite our enemies. This conception of a deity is unimaginably powerful, this thing that can create an entire universe and interact with every thinking being on this tiny planet, then supervise us all for eternity after our physical lives are over. Unimaginably powerful indeed. And acts in mysterious ways.

Common arguments for God

Dr. Craig will argue that God exists. Dr. Craig will not present physical evidence of God, because, up until the very moment we walked into this building, there has never been any credible evidence that God exists. That we expect physical evidence which others can verify independently is a hallmark of an intelligent society that seeks to understand how the universe works. We want to know - to a reasonably high degree of certainty - that the things we can discern are explained as well as possible, while leaving it open to new and better explanations when new data, tools and techniques warrant. We even design experiments to falsify our hypotheses - to show that the data and models and methods that we propose as representing reality are instead false or unrepeatable - in order to prove to ourselves that our models reliably and repeatably explain things. So keep in mind that Dr. Craig will not present any of that.

Dr. Craig will argue some or all of the following: that God exists because 1) he is necessary for being; 2) the universe requires a cause, and that cause must be God; 3) the appearance of design in the universe indicates that there must be a designer, and that designer must be God; 4) the existence of human morals requires a higher authority to instill them in us, and that authority must be God. Dr. Craig's fifth common argument may be that the resurrection of Jesus as described in the New Testament is evidence of grace and power and love that are signs that God exists.

Finally, you may hear Dr. Craig tell us (and I will paraphrase here) "I believe in God because he personally revealed himself to me" - and that revelation is evidence that God exists. Although it is the least warranted, least supported by verifiable physical evidence and rational justification, it is the one argument that I am most sympathetic to. You see, I was once born-again. I once had what I would describe as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I once - or twice - had what I interpreted as personal revelations that convinced me that God exists, and that he was speaking to me directly, not through an intermediary. This is powerful, powerful stuff. I no longer believe it - not a bit of it - but I'm very, very sympathetic to personal revelation because I've experienced it. So I stipulate that I am sympathetic to some arguments for the existence of God - but let me make it clear that I, in no way, accept any of them as demonstrations of, or evidence for God. I reject this God hypothesis completely, and in the course of this debate, I will show that the arguments for God that I've listed just now, are devoid of evidence, faulty in structure, and in no way present the slightest indication that anything supernatural does or could exist, let alone that ultimate supernatural conjecture we call God. They are just arrangements of words.

Tricks and traps

In the course of tonight's debate - Dr. Craig arguing that God exists and I arguing that God does not exist - I want to warn you of some of the tactics that will be employed in arguing for the resolution that God does exist. First, you will hear some assertions that are not agreed to.

For instance, you may hear that eternity - literally a universe with an infinite past and an infinite future, is logically impossible. Well, this is irrelevant. It makes no difference whether there is an infinite past or not. We are talking about whether something - God - exists. We are not arranging three and four-syllable words in order to impress our friends and exercise our lips. The only thing this assertion is good for is to set the stage for the argument from first cause - that the universe requires a cause, thus the cause is God, thereby proving that God exists (which incidentally omits how God could exist in the first place to perform this function). When you hear an argument against the existence of an eternal universe, you're just being softened up to accept a finite beginning, to which a hypothetical being - God - can be prepended as the cause. This is the only way that an argument from first cause can ever be made. Don't be misled. Arguing the existence of God ... a conjecture that has never been proven anywhere, and certainly the point of contention in this debate ... based on a premise so conditional as whether or not the universe has a beginning, does not make a worthy argument. It still ignores how God is necessary to the process. You might as well say "if, hypothetically, the universe has a finite beginning, then if, hypothetically, anything with a beginning has to have a cause, then if, hypothetically, the supernatural exists, then if, hypothetically God could exist, then if, hypothetically, God did exist, then if, hypothetically God could cause the universe to exist, then actually God did cause the universe to exist, therefore God exists." Did you notice how many times we have to interject that this is hypothetical? This type of reasoning is not something you'd ever consider worthwhile if you were trying to determine if the 200 foot high bridge in front of you is safe to cross - there are too many conditions to be met, most of which are clearly not certain, and may in fact be wildly improbable. To top it off, it's just another fine example of a circular argument - if he could exist and if he did exist and if he could create the universe and if he did create the universe then he exists. Huh?

If something exists, it can be detected. Rearranging words like we just did, on the other hand, doesn't help us detect anything. When my opponent rearranges words without a valid logical structure, without providing warrants for the intermediate inferences, without supplying adequate evidential support, it may simply confuse you or dissuade you from consciously recognizing that the conjecture being proposed - God - has no base of evidence or reasoning from which its existence can be affirmed.

The fact is, considering concepts such as eternity and infinity don't help you except to give you a metaphorical place to stand here and now. If, from this vantage point here and now, the human race cannot detect anything supernatural in the universe, then the best argument for the existence of God is only its negation - that "you can't prove God doesn't exist". Because you can't prove the non-existence of something is not logically followed by the statement "thus that 'something' is proven". It only puts the subject being not disproved into limbo - a limbo that says "we can think and say the words that describe it, but we have never observed it in any fashion". This is not an argument for God.

Also in the course of this debate, I urge you to count how many times your hear my opponent appeal to your emotion, to your ego. You will hear "don't you think?" and "it just stands to reason..." and "it's just common sense" - and similar constructions - more than once tonight. If you're like me, (and I'm blatantly appealing to your emotions and your intellects here) you are flattered when folks appeal to your predispositions, your emotions, your egos. But look for evidence - cold, hard, verifiable, unequivocal evidence. There will be none. Invoking things like "common sense" means nothing if, at its core, the sense that we're claiming to be common has no basis in fact. It's just opinion. Questions of existence aren't decided by opinion polls, they're decided by observation and measurement.

Interlude - my potential for belief in God

Now ... what would it take for me to believe in God? I once jokingly told a fellow blogger that my standards were low - just have her meet me at a restaurant that I'm thinking about, and at a time and date that I'm thinking about, and buy me the meal that I'm thinking about. If all this comes to pass, I'll even pick up the tip. It's that simple. It will not happen of course, but I hope this makes my point. If a super powerful being that people could communicate with and influence via the power of prayer cared one bit about the people of the world, she'd start making appearances so that the locals would know that it's not just nature that brought us here, but a real, verifiable cosmic force that is capable of finding its way around Little Italy in San Diego and ordering a meal for two. Simple.

Introducing my arguments

Finally, before I get into the meat of my thesis, I want to stress again that you will not hear me attempt to prove, logically or by physical evidence, that God does *NOT* exist. That, I'm sure Dr. Craig will agree with me, is a fool's errand. Here's a trivial analogy: You may able to measure the water in a glass and come to a reasonable conclusion that all of the water in the glass is H2O and only H2O - that only real water exists in the glass - but if I assert that there is arsenic in that glass, the only way you can disprove it to an absolute certainty is to observe each molecule individually. Barring that, you can never be 100% sure. You may be 99.999999% sure, but getting that last millionth, or billionth, or gazillionth of a percent will take more time, effort and money than the question is worth.

The same difficulty prevails when considering a disproof of the existence of God. If I can't disprove the existence of a molecule of arsenic in a glass - I'm darned sure incapable of disproving God's existence. I just don't have the time or inclination to go through each atom and photon and neutrino in the universe, nor each and every one of them in combination as they move and rearrange throughout eternity. Getting to that last billionth or gazillionth of a percent certainty is astronomically more difficult than my simple glass of water. So I won't even start down that road - not during football season, anyway.

Why the expected Arguments for God don't work

Let's have a brief look at why the most common arguments for the existence of God don't work.

The ontological argument

Ontological arguments take many forms, but tend to be marked by a focus on categories of being - such that extending the idea of higher powers to its "ultimate" leads you to arrive at the concept of God.

Dr. Craig normally relies on a variation of the Ontological argument first proposed by St. Anselm, and refined by Alvin Plantinga. I understand this to be:
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
First problem - none of that indicates there's a god required anywhere - but we are then told that the maximally great be is god. It's not necessary that a god is the maximally great being that the argument concludes - so we could stop there.

But we won't - second problem: If and when Dr. Craig argues that this proves god ... does it prove Yahweh as well? You won't hear him make the mental twists and turns to do this - case closed again.

Third problem - did anyone count the "ifs"? That's a whole lot of "ifs" there, isn't it? Four of them. We can summarize the problems with this argument in one sentence: literally "It is possible that a maximally great being exists - therefore, a maximally great being exists". We can see that this chain of conditional premises can be used to "prove" - in a scare-quotey kind of way - that anything that you wish to assert is the maximally great being proved - and thereby prove that anything you wish to assert is God. By this logic - I can argue that it's possible for the universe to consist entirely of white mocha frappacino with a dash of cinnamon. You get my point that this argument does nothing for the theist when we take it seriously.

The argument from first cause

The argument from first cause - the Cosmological Argument - states that something caused the Universe to exist, and this First Cause must be God.

There are some problems with that: 1) it assumes that the term "cause" can be meaningfully applied to the universe. We may assign cause to human beings and their actions and products because we really do cause trivial things to be built and destroyed, and we really do cause events to occur. But it is early, barely at the dawn of man's ability to make meaningful observations and interpretations of the universe. There might not be a "cause" of the universe... it may just exist. 2) If "cause" is relevant, then we presumably must assign it to something external to the thing being caused. That implies that the thing doing the causing has an existence of its own, which, following the same pattern of thought, requires a cause, and so on. That's called an infinite regress. You can never stop asking the question of what caused the next higher causative agent. As a wise lady once was reported to say "it's turtles all the way down".

The variant of this argument that Dr. Craig appears to prefer is called the Kalam Cosmological argument. It is more elaborate that the basic formulation we just described. It says:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
  4. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.
  5. Therefore, an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.
Dr. Craig - when he chooses to make this argument - will throw lots of sciency sounding phrases around in an attempt to make it sound plausible, but here's all you need to know. Premise 4 - that "if the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful" - is not concluded. There is, just as with the ontological argument before it, no evidence and no warrant that justifies making the leap from (it has a cause" to "the cause was some all-powerful magical being". It could be, as before, that white mocha frappacino is working its mysterious wonders again here, as well.

The argument from design

The argument from design - known as the teleological argument, mainly because philosophers love big words - asserts that the existence of order and direction in nature - its apparent design - is attributable to some kind of designer, thereby essentially proving the existence of God. You're guaranteed to hear proponents of this - Dr. Lane of course - use the words design and designer as if the apparently ordered arrangement that we observe is the product of a design, thus implying a designer. In fact, what we perceive as order is just our human propensity to mentally arrange things in meaningful and memorable patterns. The "design" as it were - is just the result of nature. There is no active moving around of parts in this universe that are not just action and reaction cascading down from what we perceive as the Big Bang. The stars are just accumulations of gas caused by gravity, and lit up by fusion when the gravitational forces sufficiently compress the hydrogen and helium in the star. Planets, asteroids and comets are all subsequent by-products of heavier elements blown off by early supernovae, and coalesced around stars, again via the force of gravity. Up until this very moment, there has never been any supernatural force or entity required for anything that we've ever observed.

The argument from morality

The argument from morality - that the existence of morals could only be instilled in humanity by a divine presence - is an attractive but flawed explanation for why we feel a sense of right and wrong. Man is a social animal. Social animals develop behaviors that nurture one's offspring, relatives, and social group, and protect against those not in those groups. Some of the things that humans and other higher primates do, are wholly expected - altruism for instance. The fact that we feel repugnance at senseless murder within the social group, but extol it as a warrior's bravery when committed against out-group members, is just a further indication of how such behaviors evolve to perpetuate the social group, possibly to the detriment of those outside.

The argument from miracles (Jesus' resurrection)

The Resurrection of Jesus is also used as evidence that God exists. It is the argument from miracles. The problem with miracles is that they can be claimed, but you never have direct evidence of them. Find a single example of an occurrence in human history that couldn't be explained by natural forces, and you'd have a shocking headline. The resurrection of Jesus is not one of those cases. It is not independently attested to beyond the Bible ... the authors of the New Testament themselves were unclear if Jesus was resurrected by God to fulfill a divine purpose, as later authors claimed, or simply was no longer in the tomb, as the author of Mark reports. Since Mark is the first Gospel to be written, and upon whom both Matthew and Luke base most of their material, it is more plausible to say that the resurrection story was added later. Let's be clear, if Jesus was truly dead, and was truly raised from the dead after three days, and we could not explain it in natural terms, then it would be a miracle. But we can't ever make that claim, because there's no way of verifying that. The author of Mark doesn't make that claim. We are left to conjure up scenarios of what might have happened: possibly he never truly died and he escaped before three days was up; possibly he died and his body was stolen, possibly he died but his body was hidden and the tomb was presented as misdirection; possibly people were just mistaken about what happened; or more simply the story was just added long after his passing to impress on the faithful the importance of Jesus' entire ministry. This probably sounds if I'm being dismissive or disrespectful of the New Testament or of the faithful, but simpler conjectures are more likely, given the absence of any physical evidence.

The meat of my thesis

Finally - we get to the meat of my argument that God does not exist. Remember that I am not attempting to prove his non-existence, because we've already shown that any endeavor to prove the non-existence of something becomes astronomically more difficult as the subject increases in complexity. If, by definition, God is perceived of as that maximally great being that we mentioned before, then examining every particle in every atom everywhere in the universe, and every bit of energy everywhere in the universe, is laughable. My argument against the existence of God is simple: First, where is she? Tens of billions of humans have walked the earth since man first arrived on the scene. We might make a broad assumption that they've each lived an average of ten thousand days or so - less than thirty years each up until recently. Not once in history has a single human made a single credible claim of a God sighting that could verify her existence. The staggering silence of this hypothetical being speaks more to her non-existence than all of the preaching from all of the pulpits and street corners in all of history. One hundred trillion person-days, and nary a peep. Second, when is attempting to explain a complicated and remote concept such as the creation of the universe or the emergence of life, ever ... EVER ... aided by presupposing something astronomically more complex as an essential predecessor, as God is presumed to be? It defies logic and physics to postulate this. It is unnecessary, and it leads to an infinite regress. This astronomically more complex being would then require an explanation as to what brought IT into existence. And what brought THAT into existence? And so on. We don't now what brought the universe into existence, but laid bare, we are either faced with an infinite regress that presupposes an infinite number of succeedingly greater worlds that require beings to cause them, or we just admit our ignorance and continue to look deeper into this mystery with the goal of broadening our understanding. It most certainly isn't turtles all the way down.


In summary:
  • imagining that a being as great as God is required to bring the universe into existence ignores that the arguments for it don't work;
  • we don't need external forces to explain what we take to be design;
  • the existence of what we consider morals are just good social sense that tend to help us propagate our kin;
  • the resurrection of Jesus, or any purported miracle, has yet to be independently reported on, not to mention verified;
  • and the idea that God revealed himself to you personally has no bearing on how the world is, it just tells you how you respond to internal sensations.
None of these things indicate in the least that the supernatural, or that ultimate supernatural concept - God - exists. The fact that tens of billions of people have never reported a God sighting that could be confirmed, much less repeated, speaks volumes. The fact that an entity that could cause the world needs a base from which to effect that causation just makes the thing being caused unnecessarily complex. If God exists, I invite her to appear immediately, otherwise, we will remain prudent in assuming that she does not exist. Thank you for inviting me here. I look forward to Dr. Craig's opening statement.
[The preceding was an imaginary opening statement for an even more imaginary debate that I hallucinated, starring William Lane Craig as my opponent - but it could have been any apologist capable of making the common arguments that I preempt here. See? Imaginary friends *CAN* be fun!] Because I was trying to fashion this as a transcript of an opening argument (imaginary though it was), I didn't provide hyperlinks in the text like you'd usually expect in a blog post. Here are some relevant links to make up for that: The Cosmological Argument The Teleological Argument The Existence of God (lists lots of arguments for and against) And ... the two debates starring Dr. Craig that I'm most familiar with: Dr. Craig and Christopher Hitchens Dr. Craig and Sam Harris
I modifed this in April and May to correct some errors that I made ... somehow in my prior version I interleaved info on the Kalam COsmological and the Ontological argument. How could I have been so careless?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why doesn't she tell us?

If God existed - she could tell each and every one of us personally and unambiguously. She could, but she doesn't. Instead, the people that want you to believe in God take it upon themselves to tell you that you should believe in God. Who do these people think they are? Why would we ever believe the word of someone claiming something for which, throughout all human history, and throughout all time there is not the slightest evidence?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

After 9-11

Before September 11th, 2001, my concerns were largely professional - I was a consultant on a second engagement with a large energy company. I was making good money, my relationship with my wife was solid, and I was approaching the age of fifty - not yet having the aches and pains of old age, with still a small hope of obtaining remarkable physical fitness.

My world view was similar to that which I hold now, but much less intense - with fewer peaks. Yes, I recognized political differences between people, but my dissatisfaction with the Republican Party had not grown to warrant defection. I perceived other people as being moderate, or moderately liberal or conservative - nothing too extreme. Religion likewise seemed a quaint but harmless affectation. Sure there are some door-to-door proselytizers, but there always have been. It didn't seem offensive. I'm not a Christian, and different religions did not seem either scary or weird. Whether there was a correlation didn't concern me. Islam didn't seem that awful either ... and religious extremists of all stripes were remote concepts, not physical realities.

Before 9-11, I was aware that much of the Middle East did not like us. In the seventies, the Iranian Revolution highlighted some of the underhanded dealings and manipulations that the U.S. had with the rest of the world, but I could see then, and still see today, that influence via proxy is often more effective and less disruptive than direct political, economic or military action in achieving world stability and/or national policy objectives. The term "blowback" hadn't entered my lexicon, but I recognized the concept after the Iran Hostage Crisis. From the Olympic Massacre in Munich in 1972, through various hijackings and bombings, I was forming an impression of the world that included the violence that sometimes accompanies factional struggles. I suppose at their simplest, they are attempts to achieve policy objectives as well - independence from oppressors, oppression of independents, or sometimess mere retribution for perceived or actual wrongs.

September 11th, 2001 was a watershed for most Americans.

After 9-11, I saw what extremism truly is. How insane it is. How insane you must be to be that extreme. I also saw that extremism is just an ideology. Ideology - the superset of world views that include religions, nations, ethic groups, political parties, informal political movements, social movements and the like. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people in the world aren't out to kill their fellow man or destroy society, although many percent of us have truly weird conceptions that are not grounded in reality.

I see now how wide the range of conceptions, and biases for action, are on any particular topic. Some people kill other people to prevent abortion - a monstrous double standard if there every was one. Some people kill other people who do not believe that same imaginary being because their holy texts - written by human beings - tell them that they will be rewarded in an afterlife.

People kill other people for insane reasons - that became painfully, woefully apparent on 9-11. It has happened throughout recorded history, but on 9-12, I got it. People adopt wholly irrational beliefs, in deities or politics or social conventions, and are willing to revile, persecute and kill people because those beliefs lead them to the conclusion that the world in general, or their world in specific, will be a better place.

The world is not a better place ten years after 9-11. American has spent over a trillion dollars on the war on terror. Our freedoms have diminished. We ceded our liberty for security, and we have truly gained neither. We are now more like performing circus animals than ever before. We sit up on our hind legs like caged lions and tigers. We spin in a circle because the ringmaster wields a chair and a whip, and has trained us to do so.

As rational, independent beings, we should struggle to form our world, not to be formed by it. There is still hope.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ontological Argument - Take 3

I can't help myself. I've mentioned before what a piece of Swiss cheese the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God is. Let's revisit the first part of the argument.
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
I pointed out that this was a bare assertion before ... but let's examine this more closely.

The fact that we can imagine something - a maximally great being, for example - is no reason to presume that such a thing exists. We can imagine giants, but they don't exist. We can imagine unicorns, but they don't exist, we can imagine that your neighbor has an invisible fire breathing dragon in his garage, but it doesn't exist.

If we take the construction of a maximally great being, and replace it with any of the lesser, but similarly ludicrous claims above, we can assert an argument that says that anything we can imagine exists, and thus exists "in all possible worlds".

That. Is. Simply. Stupid.

Remember just how improbable the existence of God is.

It's worth remembering every day, every year, throughout your life, throughout the life of this universe, just how improbable the existence of God is.

God has never been seen or heard. No one has ever credibly reported a God sighting. No one has ever reported anything that remotely indicates the existence of God, and had it independently verified so that it could be shared with an awed and humbled world.

Life is improbable - the universe is improbable. So imagining a being so powerful, so knowledgeable, eternal, infinite, all-seeing, is improbable to a degree that makes our unlikely existence seem commonplace by comparison. Explaining an improbable occurrence by presupposing an incalculably more improbable occurrence does not make the first one more probable.

If the God that you conceive of is this eternal, infinite, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful intercessor in human events and supervisor of this universe, and heaven and hell to boot, then remember that he evolved along with humanity, from animist forces, to pagan Gods to one almighty God, and then, curiously (for Christians), back down to three. He changes every day, every year, from person to person, congregation to congregation, region to region. He never stays the same. It's as if we make him up as we go along, and he is powerless to resist our whims.

If believing in God makes you feel good, brings feelings of love, serenity, certainty, security, if it helps you get over the regret, shame and sorrow that you feel about committing some horrible wrong - then be aware that this is why you do it. Just remember how improbable the existence of God is.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Craig - Hitchens debate - 2009

I took the occasion of having to nurse a sick pet as an opportunity to watch the William Lane Craig - Christopher Hitchens debate on Does God Exist? (April 4, 2009 at Biola University) on YouTube. As some of my previous posts indicate, I'm fascinated with the arguments for God - and more than a little fascinated with Dr. Craig's reputation and apparent effectiveness at delivering clean, organized arguments, regardless of their truth value.

The opening statements, 20 minutes each, are where I took notes, then I let the remaining three rounds (plus some questions at the end) play pretty much without interruption.

As usual, Dr. Craig cuts a striking, authoritative, confident figure, and delivers a clean and polished spiel, while Hitchens is more rumpled, given to occasionally backing up to make a point. I was surprised at how friendly and gracious Hitchens presented himself in the first round, and how generally well-behaved he was. Throughout the debate, Dr. Craig frames his arguments clearly, then stays within his framing, always stating his case as if it were true and obvious, even when he fails to provide evidence.

Dr. Craig cites five arguments for the existence of God - 1) the Cosmological argument (existence requires a creator); 2) the Teleological argument (design); 3) the argument from Moral authority; 4) the argument that Jesus' resurrection proves there is a god; 5) the argument from personal revelation. Hitchens does not refute these directly - in fact, neither did Sam Harris in his subsequent debate. I think I know why - these arguments seem tired and ineffective to those who have heard them before - but I can imagine that newbies will think "Why didn't Hitchens refute this? Dr. Craig must be right then."

The Cosmological Argument

I've gone over this one myself before. Dr. Craig does not provide any evidence that the universe requires a creator, or that a cause is required. In fact, the science is so new that claiming the universe is this way or that is not a certainty. Layering on claims that a cause is required, then proposing that it must be timeless, spaceless, unbelievably powerful, and "personal", is so contingent to be meaningless. As you see anywhere explanations are given, a simple one is preferred over more complex ones when there is no difference in explanatory power (Occam's Razor, don't ya know!) One demerit for Dr. Craig.

The Teleological Argument

Dr. Craig argues generally that the fine tuning of the universe points to the existence of a designer - citing some numbers presented by Barrow and Tipler in their 1986 book "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" as a source that speaks to the improbability of the universe arising "by chance". Oddly, he goes to great lengths to criticize some of the main material at Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design - written no later than 2003, so I don't know if he truly believes these guys, or is cherry-picking. The argument from design seems to me a simple one. "We are pattern-seeking animals. We design, therefore we see design".

The Argument from Morality

This argument is the one that Sam Harris generally refutes in his book "The Moral Landscape" - so dwelling on this won't be enlightening. All books used as authority for religious doctrine claim moral authority, but using the Bible as an example, one can't look at each chapter and verse and discern an absolute and unambiguous set of moral principles that stand the test of time. Quite to the contrary, the Bible is full of contradictions and outright injunctions for immoral, even repugnant and murderous behavior. This points to anything but a just and loving God.

The Resurrection of Jesus

Resurrection being thrown in as an argument that supports the God hypothesis seems to be pandering to the religious audience. Dr. Craig claims the Resurrection as a fact, claims it was God's doing, and ignores the many lay explanations that can be made without special knowledge. Off the top of my head, I can imagine a bunch: 1) Jesus didn't die, and was "disappeared" by parties unknown; 2) Jesus did die, and his body was disappeared to eliminate it as a religious relic that could be used for future incitement of the faithful; 3) Jesus revived naturally and escaped; 4) common grave robbers; 5) the authors were wrong; 6) the authors had an ulterior motive; 7) the story changed from what the original authors documented. It might be noted in support of #3 that "resurrection from the dead" is still common today, and as recently as 1898 in England, several thousand recorded "rising from the dead" events occurred. People look dead. They wake up.

Personal Revelation

The argument from personal revelation is the weakest of all arguments for God. Just because we can imagine God, and think he touches us, is no reason to claim that as a cosmic proof that it exists. I suppose that in lay conversation, I might be inclined to go easy on a believer if they play this card - purely out of sympathy for my fellow man - but it was a surprising entry in this debate.

Hitchens' Performance

I thought Christopher held his own in the opening statements - but just as I thought Sam Harris missed his chance to nullify Craig's arguments, so did Hitchens. As the debate wore on, Craig remained organized and eloquent, whereas Hitchens, as anyone who watches him knows, refers to notes, fiddles with his glasses, appears to look down his nose at folks, and gives the impression of being disheveled. I think Craig wins style points here.

Final Thoughts

I've now watched two debates and several videos featuring Dr. Craig. As I said previously, he's organized, eloquent, confident, and he rattles off his arguments and various relevant (or irrelevant) citations cleanly. Where I have a problem is the fundamental non necessity of the supernatural in explaining the world. I see a creator, supervisor, personal intervener entity as even more unnecessary that the mere supernatural. The immateriality of a deity, and the resources required to implement heaven and hell, mete out reward and punishment for all eternity, and the basic absurdity of such a system based on a few decades of adherence or rejection of supposed rules, is absurd.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Purpose - and other scary crap

One argument given for the existence of God is that it gives our life purpose.

Purpose - literally the results or ends of an action that was intentionally taken - is a concept that we intuitively "get". We know that a tiger attacks a gazelle to obtain nourishment, an elephant sprays water through its trunk onto its back to cool down or to wash. Other cause-and-effect relationships are less obvious. It sometimes appears that birds fly because its joyful, tiger cubs play because it feels good. We assign purpose to inanimate things as well - clouds are for rain, flowers are to feed bees; mountains are to climb.

It seems that trying to assign the purpose of our lives to something hypothetical is stretching what is already a pretty meaningful situation to an absurd length. I understand biologically that we are here to perpetuate the species. I live to bring my wife security, warmth, comfort and occasionally joy. I try to bring security and warmth and charity to others. I try to leave the world materially and emotionally better off than I found it.

These are meaningful things. They have profound meaning to me. A hypothetical being does not add or subtract from this feeling of deep meaning.

Take 2 - Ontological Argument

I went into a hissy fit a couple of days ago over the Ontological Argument that Tim Delaney took down on the Secular Web. My original intention was to just present the premisses, data, warrants and conclusions as they appeared, and point out the problems I had with them. This was in contrast to Mr. Delaney's approach, which centered on the lack of empirical evidence. Although he's correct - there is no data and no warrant provided that leads to the conclusion being claimed, the logical fallacies inherent in the stated argument are still worth cataloguing, so my simplified version follows. My comments to each component are surrounded by comment delimiters (/* and */).
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
/* ipse dixit (bare assertion); Non sequitur (conclusion does not follow the premiss(es) */
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
/* Non sequitur */
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
/* Non sequitur */
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
/* This is actually sound and true!!! */
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
/* Tautology (unnecessary - saying the same thing twice) */
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
/* Non sequitur */

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My take on "On the Value of Ontological Arguments"

The Secular Web has a clear and uncomplicated essay "On the Value of Ontological Arguments" by Tim Delaney ... (there are more articles on Arguments for the Existence of a God at the same site). The Delaney essay is less than 1500 words long, so I recommend reading it - it should only take 20 or 30 minutes.

Tim does a nice job of taking down the most commonly used forms of the Ontological Argument for God. First, remember that
An ontological argument is one that uses reason and intuition alone to come to a conclusion
In the next sentence he starts the takedown:
It seems to me that any attempt to produce reliable knowledge solely by arranging English words is illegitimate
From there, he lays out his empiricist viewpoint - with which I agree - that hypotheses need to be tested and verified in order to be considered worthy of acceptance by the wider (scientific) community.

Citing a formulation of the ontological argument given by Alvin Plantinga and used by William Lane Craig, Delaney politely skips over the logical fallacies inherent in the argument, in favor of attacking the failure to present evidence as a warrant. Because I think that examining the logical structure of an argument is equally fun, I offer the following.

First, restating Craig's use of Alvin Plantinga's "maximally excellent being":
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Before we even start breaking this down, let's notice that nowhere is the word "God" mentioned. Additionally, my reaction to the argument ends up being amplified by the fact that William Lane Craig himself, a polished and effective apologist, is the guy using this argument. I wonder if you'll share my amazement.

I'll refer to each of these points as Arguments, just to keep them kinda straight. In Argument 1, Craig/Plantinga assert that it is possible for a maximally great being to exist. This is a bare assertion, for which no evidence was provided. Delaney makes this general case. We'll call this "Proposition A"

Argument 2 is a howler. It uses Proposition A from Argument 1 to conclude that because we can conceive of it, it exists in some possible world. This is where I jump in. Proposition A ("maximally great being") is unwarranted, as Delaney points out. Regardless, it is subsequently used to reach the next conclusion - which we'll call "Proposition B". Simplifying - If (unwarranted assertion), then it has to exist. Here's what I see missing:
  • Proposition A is undefined and hypothetical
  • Argument 2 is conditional and unwarranted. Craig/Plantinga implicitly introduce probability here, so it's fair to ask what the probability is that this conditional value ("a maximally great being exists") is true. Wouldn't you instinctively say, absent a hint of how it might be true, that the probability is "near zero"? I would. We are exactly nowhere.
  • third, why does the idea that if something could exist, it follows that it has to exist. Possibility doesn't equal necessity. You've heard of Maxwell's Demon. It is possible for all molecules in a box to spontaneously segregate into a hot side and a cold side, but the odds are astronomical. From a practical viewpoint, it will not happen. A "maximally great being" is even more unlikely, given its greater complexity.
Argument 3 says that if this hypothetical Proposition A can exist in one hypothetical world, then it must exist in every possible world. Why? This makes less sense than the prior argument. If the universe repeats endlessly, the thought that it might occur once in all eternity does not mean that it will always occur.

My sober, scholarly, reasoned analysis is "WHAT THE FUCK???"

Let's take a break for a second ... five deep breaths ... count to ten ... maybe some Sun Salutations or Jelly Shots. Shake it out. Something.

Feel better?

Okay - Argument 4 is more of the same ... if our wholly-hypothetical-maximally-great-being can exist, it exists in all possible worlds, therefore it exists here. This is becoming a convoluted metaphysical circle jerk! The only thing Argument 4 has going for it is, taken in isolation, it is logical. If something has to exist everywhere, then the set "all possible worlds" includes this world. The only problem is that the chain of arguments was broken at Arguments 1, 2 & 3. Why should we even bother with Argument 4?

Argument 5 is ... oh, jebus cripes, that's like saying "if twinkies actually exist, then they exist".

Argument 6 repeats the mistake seen in Argument 5 ... "a maximally great being exists, therefore a maximally great being exists"

Great Dog Almighty - this was worse than I imagined. I'm somewhat embarrassed by my histrionics here, but I had no idea how weird, illogical and blatantly unsupported this argument is. The Ontological Argument has been shown to fail many times, but it just seemed more subtle than this arrangement of words being thrown out by Dr. Craig.

Let's go back to my note that "nowhere in the Craig/Plantinga argument is the proposition "God" mentioned". This "maximally great being" might be The Blob for all we know. There is no stipulation that "maximally great" entails omnipotence, omniscience, creation of the universe, creation of humanity, intervention in the daily lives of billions of people, ultimate judge and jailer for tens of billions of souls for all eternity ... something usually recognized as God. All that verbal manipulation is for something less than God ... well, that's just maximally great!

I've seen William Lane Craig in debate (on YouTube), and I've heard him use the ontological argument, but I never tried evaluating this point-by-point. What strikes me most is how decoupled the first proposition "a maximally great being" is from any proof that God exists.

I'm not ridiculing Dr. Craig - as I said, he's polished, well-prepared, effective. I will point out, however, that this is what he's good at - stringing together words that sound like they mean something.

In this case, they don't.

Making s**t up doesn't help when you're in pain.

I can imagine how a person can go from being totally ignorant of the bible to believing it is the inerrant word of god.

Pain, loss, sorrow, fear, uncertainty, poverty - all are powerful vectors that might push the undirected, unfocused, indecisive or weak towards wishing for relief from their discomfort ... relief to be delivered to their doorstep with little further effort by the sufferer.

I tend to be sympathetic to the sufferer, because I've been there. Death of best friends, uncertainty, depression, panic, loss of love, lack of self esteem, alcoholism.

I also have a tough, task-master side to me that says: "suck it up!" "Rome wasn't built in a day" - "good things come to those who wait" - "persistence and determination alone are omnipotent". Yada. Yada. Yada.

There are concrete things you can do to minimize, eliminate or overcome pain, loss, sorrow, fear, uncertainty, poverty. It requires strength, vision, focus, planning, execution, persistence, and continuous, honest self-evaluation and redirection. You need to believe in yourself, and believe that you personally will stick with it over the years.

Making imaginary shit up doesn't help.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

One Hundred Trillion

I just can't get the enormity of this number out of my head.


One hundred trillion.

In my previous posts about "Maps of Certainty" (here and here) I came up with the number as a way to characterize the likelihood that someone had credible evidence that they'd seen god.

I keep asking myself: "Why, in the tens of billions of lives that have passed since prehistoric times, living an average of ten thousand days each, has there not been one god sighting that was worthy of verification by a second person?" Why didn't anyone, upon seeing god, go immediately next door to his neighbor's house and shout "Bill, come over immediately - I think I see god!". Bill comes out, verifies that god is indeed there, and says "Hank, I see him too. Let's call the authorities - this could be big!"

Why hasn't that ever happened?

Hundred(s) of trillions of person-days without one credible report THAT COULD EVEN BE INVESTIGATED!

Nothing to shut the non-believers up ... or at least keep them busy trying to debunk. Not a sniff. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Bupkis.

If god had ever been seen - and that evidence had been suppressed - it would indicate that there is a conspiracy of monumental proportions going on. Millennia long. Involving tens of billions of people. All working in concert to suppress the evidence that god had been sighted.

We should look into this!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Knowing what we don't know

Ignorance about a topic is an inadequate reason to then assert magic as an explanation. We don't know any more about magic than we do about the unexplained topic. Claiming magic is no different than saying "I don't know". Adding a second unexplained concept to a first doesn't make the first somehow more explained.

You've seen this before ... the principle of parsimony, aka Occam's razor, stating that we should prefer the simpler of two theories unless accepting the more complicated one provides added explanatory power. Since the absence of an explanation, compounded by a concept that also lacks an explanation, doesn't explain either, you can reject magic as an explanation outright.

In our quest for a balanced and realistic world view, we should probably 1) look for explanations when and where they can be found, 2) defer the search for explanations when the cost in time and effort is too high, 3) have the patience, maturity, courage and serenity to accept not knowing, 4) persistently pursue knowledge over a lifetime so that less of the meaningful and interesting questions are left unanswered; 5) never accept magic as an answer, as two unexplained things are always less plausible than one unexplained thing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Argument from Twinkies

Compare the two statements:

1) "you can't explain how the universe came into being, therefore it must have been created by god"
2) "you can't explain how the universe came into being, therefore it must have been created by Twinkies"

Which has greater truth value?

Statement 1) asserts that because A can't be explained, that B must be true. This is a false dichotomy, among other things. Nothing limits the range of possible answers - it may be true that the person who "can't explain A" is not knowledgeable about A, or that the topic A is in the midst of being researched and there is no universally agreed upon theory, or that the question can't be answered. Statement 1) also has the problem of introducing an imaginary concept in the "therefore" clause.

Statement 2) suffers from all of Statement 1)'s problems, except that it does not introduce an imaginary concept. Twinkies are real. They can be observed.

I submit that it is more likely that the universe was created by Twinkies than by god, because the existence of Twinkies can be proven, thus getting me closer to making a true statement in 2) than Statement 1).