Saturday, April 30, 2011

Who can believe - and why

Why would someone believe the bible is the inerrant word of god? Reduce this question to "why would someone believe something that is imaginary"?

I'm sure this is covered in depth by others (Shermer?), but I'm always struck by just the raw numbers.

First, if measures of IQ are relevant, half the people in the world are of below average intelligence. We shouldn't describe these folks as not bright ... but it's a statistic that can be verified to reasonable precision. We understand that 68% of all people are within 1 standard deviation of average (100 IQ), so 34% are between 100 and 116, and another 34% are between 100 and 84. The other 32% that are beyond one standard deviation from the norm are probably evenly split ... so 16% above 116 IQ, and 16% below 84 IQ.

Second, some people are gullible. Not unintelligent, just uncritical, overly trusting. I have no idea how you'd measure this population, but we all know people who will believe things without examination of the facts and logic behind the assertion.

Third, some people are prone to being lead. John Dean, in his critique of political conservatism Conservatives without Conscience asserted that approximately 20% of the population is easily lead by other people. This "Right Wing Authoritarianism" does not mean right wing politically, but right wing on the personality spectrum, as noted by Robert Altemeyer.

Fourth, we are fascinated with mystery and secrets - being privy to knowledge that others don't have, and to which we can claim authority, and gain notoriety and respect.

Fifth, some people don't have the time, resources, or education to find out and understand what many now consider fundamental knowledge - the age and size of the universe, the number of stars and planets that exist, simple chemical processes that produce the precursors to carbon-based life, and do so every minute, every day every millennia, and in places wholly unimagined as few as fifty or sixty years ago (outer space, deep sea vents, deep inside the earth). Evolution.

Sixth, some people are fearful. Maybe fearful of modernity, or fearful of uncertainty, or fearful of others that are foreign to them - again, here I am without statistical support, but I know, and you know, that some people are afraid of reflecting on themselves and this world, its possible genesis, the meaning of their lives, what death means.

There are large cohorts of the population who, through one or many of these (and others that I haven't enumerated) constraining factors might be prone to believe weird things ... religion for example. Combine this with the segment of the population that are motivated (for whatever reasons) to assert things that are untrue, whether or not they believe them. You can begin to see P.T. Barnum's maxim at work, but on an immense scale.

Go back in time 2 or 3 thousand years, and compound these factors by the relative isolation, tribalism, lack of developed social structures and illiteracy of people in the world, and we have conditions that are ripe for the flourishing of religion. Most people in the pre-BCE middle east were not literate. Estimates are that up to 99% could not read or write. A select few could, and these people could secure influence for themselves by recording and promulgating ways of thinking that only they were privy to.

Is it any wonder that superstitious thinking became the norm three thousand or more years ago? Is it any wonder that it persists today?

More importantly, isn't it time to outgrow this superstitious thinking?

The bible as tribal literature

A salient phrase in Greta Christina's biting criticism of religious morality spawned this topic: the "tribality" of the Bible.

Speaking at Alternet, she says (regarding how believers might respond to the bible's atrociousness):
This is wrong. This is vile and indefensible. This kind of behavior comes from a tribal morality that humanity has evolved beyond, and we should repudiate it without reservation.

Since we have no evidence that god (yahweh, zeus, odin, allah, etc) exists, and we can construct no rational argument why such a being - creator of, supervisor of, intervener in, the universe - could, would or should exist, we conclude that the bible cannot be eyewitness accounts of god, because there is no god to witness. What are we left to conclude?

The Hebrew bible is a tribal mythology. It may be the recorded verbal history passed down by pre-Hebrew people - stories that attempt to explain how they came to be on this earth - stories that attempt to explain their present situation in relationship to whatever the antagonist(s) of the moment are, antagonists who may be modernity - farmers as opposed to herders, villagers as opposed to nomads - or they may be specific people - Amalekites, Jebusites, Canaanites, Stalactites, Stalagmites, Nanites ... whatever.

The bible authors have no way of knowing how they came to be, how their world came to be, how the world works, how they work. When faced with uncertainty and the need to explain, they constructed the early stories in the bible (Genesis, Exodus ... Deuteronomy), combining their creation, an explanation of their circumstances, and some rudimentary health, sanitation and moral guidelines that would keep the tribe together and somewhat healthy. You might also impute to the story-teller/law-giver a desire to have influence over the layman. A religion is born.

I'm not an expert, but this certainly seems plausible - that the bible is tribal myth, apologia and rudimentary social guidelines - much more plausible than an indisputable, evidence-based, independently verifiable recording of actual supernatural beings and their words and actions. We can imagine supernatural beings at work - billions do, billions have in the past, billions will in the future - but it is extraordinarily, maybe incalculably more implausible than the rational, evidence-supported natural causes that we see.

Primitive tribal utterances are no foundation on which to base our understanding of the universe, and the purpose, meaning and ordering of our lives.

Life is uncertain

Consider all of the states of all inanimate matter in the universe ***at this moment in time***. Consider that most of this matter is in motion, and that, at some point, there are convergences that do bad things to animate entities living on Earth. These states change every moment, so that, over time, we can not predict small events over long timelines, but have some hope of predicting large ones over smaller timelines.

Consider all of the states of all energy in the universe ***at this moment in time***. Consider that most of this energy is barely apparent to us until it is upon us. These states change every moment, so that, over time, we can be gently warmed by the sun or moved by the tides, or instantaneously incinerated by the flash of a yet unseen supernova.

Consider all of the states of all of the animate beings on this Earth ***at this moment in time***. Humans, and other life forms have intentions that get realized as action. These states change, every moment, every day. On average, we might expect that in regions where there are enough resources and no religious, political or personal conflicts, that today will be peaceful, and tomorrow may be, as well. The same cannot be said of regions where there is a lack of resources, or there is political, religious or personal conflict. Where we are, when we are there, in convergence with what we and others do at the moments we are there, dictate to some extent whether we experience the sublime, ennui, tension or unimaginable terror.

Consider the convergence of the actions and conditions broadly outlined above. It's hard to predict what today may bring, let alone tomorrow or a year from now. You personally may prosper, or barely maintain the status quo, or may succumb to unimaginable horror and misery. You don't know what, how or why. But it is not "god's plan". It is complex and uncertain - and our best strategy is to be alert, but not fearful; have vision and take action, do not be oblivious and inert; be of good will to yourself, your loved ones, neighbors, community and fellow beings, not negligent or of ill will. Repeat this again tomorrow, next week, next year, forever.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter - don't waste your life!

The Four Horsemen get together in a multi-part conversation about atheism.

About six minutes in, Dan Dennett says "There's no polite way to say 'do you realize you've wasted your life' " to a believer.

As harsh as this sounds, it is simultaneously profound, because it reduces the problem of belief in imaginary beings to raw emotion about how you spend much of your life.

For those people who require certainty, order, direction, comfort, a sense of community and the hope of transcending their present circumstances, religion provides an unparalleled crutch. I understand this - I have felt this - it is attractive, powerful, compelling, a little awe-inspiring, and even a little frightening.

What if a different focus was available? What if every Sunday morning, for four hours you donate your labor to building a house for the needy, or preparing food, or preparing clothes, or providing job training, or providing medical attention? If 15% of the adult population donated this much time, 22 1/2 million mornings a week, 90 million hours a week, how would the well-being of this nation be improved? People in need would have some needs met, people providing the services would have that warm glow, that feeling of community, that knowledge that, if the need ever arises, they too could receive the fruit of human kindness from their neighbors.

All we lack in this scenario is the knowledge that this life, this one right here, is the one shot we have. There is no heaven, nor hell. The soul that we feel we have, may dissipate upon our death, never to return. We probably feel nothing, know nothing once the moment of our demise passes. There is nothing for us after our brains die - we should not spend thousands, tens of thousands of hours deluded that something is going to intervene and make us unimaginably happy, healthy, loved, serene, for all eternity. We have tens of years, they should not be wasted.

We can create a better world here, where we are now. There is no imaginary being that will do it for you. It is your responsibility for you. It is my responsibility for me. It can be done, if we don't waste our lives believing in something that isn't there.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Worthy of worship?

For the sake of argument - assume that the supernatural exists. Let's say that god(s), angels, leprechauns, faeries, demons, ghosts and the like, exist. We might also throw in some human-based capabilities such as ESP, prophecy, etc.

Within the regime of the supernatural, then gods could exist - unimaginably powerful agents that can control the earth, wind, water, sky and everything in them. Taking it a step further, one god could hypothetically exist that supercedes the existence of or need for less capable gods - "one god to rule them all" so to speak.

So - does the bible describe something that fits this description? Does our understanding of god match that which is described in the bible?

Simply stated, no.

Starting with Genesis 1:1, the proposition "God" is initially powerful enough to create everything we see (albeit in an illogical way that fails to match the evidence) - and then devolves into a hiding-behind-a-burning-bush, child-murdering, locust-delivering, heart-hardening, bad-deed-doing, fickle, petty, ill-tempered, incompetent punk who made such a mess of his creation that he allegedly killed everything on the earth with the exception of one family and all of the animals that they could stuff into a boat, then allowed the whole cluster-hump to begin anew with no change.

Is there something about this worthy of worship?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Here is here

Roger Ebert wrote a thoughtful piece on the existence of the universe a few weeks back.

In re-reading it, I drift away on a Zen-like tangent ...

Here is here, whether we are here or not.
Here does not depend on me
... to reflect on it before it can be here.
It is just here
... with or without my reflection on it
... or interaction with it.

Here was here before I got here.
Here will be here long after I am gone.

I am here now
... and can reflect on here.
It's beautiful here
... so I am glad to be here.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Harris Craig debate

Revised 5/1/2011 - here's a link to a single video of Harris-Craig from NDdotEDU:

As a skeptic, I side with Harris, but let me be a little objective in my review. First, the structure of the debate was 20 minute opening statements, 12 minute rebuttals, 8 minute counters, 5 minute closing statements. I'm not sure what this format is, nor whether the terms for the various statements are correct, but you get the idea. A 30 minute audience Q&A followed.

William Lane Craig went first. I've heard that he's the Terminator of Christian Apologetics. The reputation is well earned, he's polished, confident, fast, and word-bombs the opponent. I have to admit, though, that he seemed a decent enough guy, if a little too slippery. He blew through his argument with nary a pause, throwing out many references to Harris' book "The Moral Landscape" which neither I, nor probably many in the audience, have any knowledge of. I'll be interested to go back and listen a second time, because I caught myself thinking "what was that?" several times. It felt like there were some bare assertions and a tautology or two thrown in there that a skilled debater would jump on. His central point is that there is no moral grounding without God, thus an atheist or scientific conception of morality is meaningless. Craig did stress how loving and perfect god is, a point that Harris would take increasing advantage of.

Harris followed, and was slower, more congenial in demeanor, but his few attempts at humor fell flat in that first statement. His central argument is that it's possible to conceive of maximum and minimum well-being, and thus to derive morality from this to achieve maximum well-being for the maximum number of people.

Overall, the 20 minute sessions were won by Craig on style.

From then on, I thought Harris warmed up, took control, and won the debate. The main fault that I see with Craig is his reliance on god, and the assertion that god is both perfect and loving. Harris attacked this, giving examples of god letting 9 million children a year die before the age of five, as well as pointing out the implausibility of the Christian concepts of heaven, hell, and eternal damnation for non-believers by giving a "what if" example of Islam being the one true religion - and its implication for all Christian's eternal souls.

This was a lot more entertaining and congenial than I expected - have a watch!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Designing the universe

"It looks like the universe just behaves accordingly to natural laws, but it's really God - trust me"

Thus reads the punch line to a long-running joke that is belief in supernatural agents.

If there was an intelligent designer of the universe, an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal being responsible for the existence and configuration of the universe - it could have configured the universe any way it wanted.

The ground we stand on could be flat, and extend infinitely in all directions, or terminate 100 miles from where you were born.

...or... we could have a universe in which we are beings that require no ground to stand on.

...or... the universe could consist of pink cotton candy extending infinitely in all directions.

...or... the universe could consist of an infinite number of sharp pointy objects aimed sinisterly at your naughty bits.

...or... the universe could consist of nothing but ground - no sky.


I think you get the point.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Listen to this, you who devour the needy

Via Pro. Christine Hayes at Yale:

Amos 8:4-6:
Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, saying, "If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale, using [a measure] that is too small and a shekel [weight] that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale, and selling grain refuse as grain! We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals. The Lord swears by the pride of Jacob: I will never forget any of [their] doings.

Why the overhead?

Sean Carroll tweeted today that the Intelligent Design community isn't happy with him today. I peeked at the Uncommon Descent blog post that quoted his words from a recent piece, then immediately drifted off to write this.

Inspired by Sean's words about whether the universe needs a god and anthropic fine tuning, I'm motivated to say that the idea that a god that created a universe full of stars and galaxies sure created a lot of overhead, if the point was just to create life on earth - human life.

Why not just create a universe that has only heaven and earth ... flat, infinite, no extraneous stars. Provide light when (if) it's needed, dark when (if) it's needed, rain when (if) it's needed. There's no need for natural laws that cause protons and neutrons and electrons to coalesce into atoms, atoms into molecules, into dust, and planets and stars and galaxies. Nor is there a need for molecules to combine into monomers and polymers and proteins and form structures like cell walls and nuclei and RNA and DNA - and animals, and plants and humans. All of this is extraneous if the point is just to create human life.

Heck, why heaven AND earth? Why all the overhead?