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.