Monday, December 31, 2012

You don't HAVE to have Faith

You may hear religious person say something like "you just have to have faith" when discussing religious topics, God, etc.

You know, as do I, that you don't HAVE to have Faith. Most of us - beliebers* included - instinctively understand this and operate accordingly. We use faith as a last resort, like when we jump off a cliff into a creek. We don't KNOW that there're no rocks immediately beneath the water's surface forty feet below, but we hope there aren't. Faith, in this instance, still isn't as good as knowing, but sometimes an epistemic shortcut is what we use, practical or not.

* don't ask me why Justin Bieber is relevant here. I just don't know.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Reality Hypothesis

Deacon Duncan just completed a series of ten posts discussing The Gospel Hypothesis:

"documenting the fact that it takes many more rationalizations to reconcile reality and theism than it does to reconcile reality and atheism"

He prefaced them with three posts that introduced the series - so I consider them to be part of the overall thesis. I think this can be generalized somewhat to
"it takes many more rationalizations to reconcile reality and propositions that are not observed in reality, than it does to reconcile reality and propositions that are observed in reality".
I offer this generalization in order to include anything supernatural, conspiracy-based, cultish, etc. including magic, prophecy, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, the "9/11 was an inside job" meme and the like.

In its simplest form, you can state the comparison just as a programmer would structure a conditional logic statement:
   If Proposition A is true
Then some facts about Proposition A will be observed in the world
Else If Reality is true
Then some facts about Reality will be observed in the world
Spoiler alert: this is dead simple!

You can then compare the facts listed in the "If" and "Else If" clauses and adjudge the more plausible conclusion.

You can use this approach on any topic you care to - with the caveat that you have to be honest, make sound arguments, and just say "I don't know" when you don't know the answer to something. And always remember that concluding that your preferred result pertains will only work if concluding so is logically valid, and its premises and warrants are valid and true.

DD could have extended his series to many topics within the Bible - creation of the universe, creation of life, Noah's Ark, Jesus' resurrection - but that wasn't necessary to make his point. The result of any comparison that concludes that goddidit remains that Bible stories do not explain what we observe in the world, hence can be assumed to be myth until evidence is provided that could change that conclusion.

Links to the prefatory posts:

Links to individual Gospel Hypothesis posts:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What good is prayer?

What good is prayer? It makes you feel good. If that's what you're after, then prayer works.

I use meditation, in a non-Transcendental Meditation sort of way. I'll say silent affirmations or aspirations to put myself in the right frame of mind - calm, clear, refreshed, whatever. I know that directing prayers outwardly to others is, realistically, futile nonsense - but I can't help wanting to "want" the same things for others as I am silently aspiring to for myself. So, I do it. It's more generally expressing to the universe - space, time, matter and energy - the positive things that I hope for my loved ones.

I don't expect it to work, but I do it anyway.

Call it prayer, if you want. It doesn't bother me.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Don't worry

Don’t worry.

Most of what we worry about will never come to pass.

Take Christianity, for example …

That 1st generation after Jesus died lived their lives waiting for him to return - in vain.

That 2nd generation after Jesus died lived their lives waiting for him to return - in vain.

That 3rd generation after Jesus died lived their lives waiting for him to return - in vain.

That 4th generation after Jesus died lived their lives waiting for him to return - in vain.

Nearly 100 generations have been born, lived and died waiting for him to return - in vain.

Some day, Christians waiting for him to return will wise up and stop waiting.

Don’t worry.

All the generations that wasted their lives waiting for Jesus to return - what positive things they could have done!

generations passed, waiting for Jesus…

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Do you understand me...

...when I ask the question: "Do you understand me?"

Monday, December 10, 2012

Impenetrable Quasi-philosophical Wankery

Presuppositionalist apologetics asserts that "the acceptance of the proposition 'God exists' and the truth of the Christian Bible is necessary in order for the world to be intelligible". We were treated to a public example of presuppositionalism in the online "discussion" between Pastor Stephen Feinstein & Russell Glasser this summer and fall. I've made some passing references to the discussion previously: here, here, here and here.

I took my sweet time reading all ten of the "official" posts - plus an eleventh parting shot from PSF - mainly because the Pastor's first two posts had all the literary charm of a grocery list. He didn't seem anxious to make his argument(s). Instead, he wanted to reject the idea of self-evident truths (axioms in Russell's parlance, "preconditions" in the Pastor's), and argue that Russell's axioms needed explaining or justifying, while his own preconditions (God) did not. It was grade-school stuff.

The prior paragraph is worth emphasizing.

Feinstein assumes that the existence of God to make the world intelligible requires no proof or justification, whereas he demands proof or justification for natural axioms that make the world intelligible as declared by Russell. That double standard really prevents establishing common ground on which the two parties can communicate.

The rest of us amateur counter-apologists might do well to point out that hypocrisy at the beginning of any street debate with a presuppositionalist, and terminate the discussion if he isn't willing or able to present objective evidence or a sound argument for God before proceeding.

Or suggest the following:

Returning to the written discussion:

While the presuppositionalist axiom "God exists" remains a matter of conjecture in the reality-based community, its corollary that "the truth of the Christian Bible is necessary in order for the world to be intelligible" relies wholly on God's existence - without which it is meaningless. In Feinstein's posts, we are offered no justification for these claims, which renders anything based on them irrelevant. He could have just stayed home, for all the meaning he was able to impart.

Let me turn to what I think PSF's core argument was supposed to be - the Transcendental Argument for God ("TAG"). Here's the short form:
  1. If there is no god (most often the entity God, defined as the god of the Christian bible), knowledge is not possible.
  2. Knowledge is possible (or some other statement pertaining to logic or morality).
  3. Therefore a god exists.
We never saw the argument in this canonical form anywhere in PSF's posts, although he refers to a "Transcendental Argument" in round four, implying that he'd either presented it earlier, or that Russell was expected to understand it without the Pastor having to articulate it. By rereading his first three posts, we can guess, in retrospect, that he recognizes the TAG syllogism in his thinking, but he never expresses it in writing. Regardless, TAG is refuted easily because the first premise relies on the conclusion - a classic circular argument. He wasted thousands of words on this.

In PSF's first post, he establishes his position:

"I plan to debate the issues, and why I believe atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible."
"I affirm that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility."

Immediately I'm struck by the "atheism as a world view" perspective. Since atheism is lack of belief in a personal deity - and only that - we'll see him construct a more elaborate and hypothetical "atheist world view" that he will then tear down - an obvious straw man. This seems like a common theme used by theists - "atheism is a world view" or "atheism is a religion", yet atheism is (say it with me, people!) an intellectual stance on only one topic. I think this might be worth the atheist community re-emphasizing: It's. Just. One. Topic. It's. Not. A. Religion.

You'll note that the Pastor, besides skipping merrily past an argument for the existence of God (any god, let alone a Christian one), also fails to demonstrate that lack of belief in a deity - atheism - is "untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible". At this rate, I'm betting that it will be decades before PSF is able to stake out a claim as a middle-tier apologist.

PSF further asserts:

"All science, all theories of cosmology, all viewpoints of anthropology, and just about everything else falls under the scope of philosophy and specifically epistemology. As a result, I am going to push all of our arguments into this realm, because it is where they belong by logical necessity."

This claim is a good case of "making shit up" - very philosophical sounding. What reason do we have to accept his claim? The actual practices and products of cosmology and the other "-ologies" belong in the real world where they presently exist, and where their hypotheses can continue to be tested, evaluated, discarded, or modified. The strategy of making this a philosophical discussion just screams "THIS IS NOT ABOUT REALITY".

Okay then ...

I won't go through each post individually. PSF's are a train wreck (although they inspired a morbid fascination) - and Russell shows obvious irritation in his third and fourth posts as the train wreck tumbles into the ravine. I'll still recommend them, however, because they illustrate the magical world view that assumes that the supernatural exists and has some influence on our lives. In general, this series was mostly mud-wrestling about how we can know things, none of which addresses the question of whether a god could exist and be responsible for "intelligibility".

Some other general comments:

One, a shortcoming in the debate format may have been the lack of more formal rules. Neither PSF nor RG state the proposition that they're discussing prior to beginning their theses. Readers can assume it's "Does God exist?", but the discourse would probably would have benefitted from some debating conventions to help the participants "flow".

Two, PSF is the poster child for circumlocution. He apparently thinks he has a knock-down argument to make, he starts talking and he just can't stop. It's almost as if he didn't know what the point of each of his posts was. He just circled for a while and stopped after he was tired of circling. He filibusters for two or three posts - promising in the first two to make his arguments soon - before RG "gives him something he can work with". We might suppose the Pastor's strategy was to rope-a-dope until Russell blurted out something that he could attack. Since I expected PSF to be making an "Affirmative Construction", this stood out like a sore thumb.

In fairness, the Pastor's first two posts were a decent length, had they contained his positive arguments. The following three were way too long. To illustrate, here's a (reasonably accurate) word count of all five - plus his sixth, unsolicited parting shot:
  1. 1822
  2. 2879
  3. 5480
  4. 5478
  5. 7813
  6. 2780 (PSF's self-solicited bonus post)
Let me contrast them to an imaginary 20 minute "First Negative Construction" that I wrote in October - it was 3489 words, including section headers and salutation. My post requires verbal delivery at a pretty good clip, because of its length. I've timed it twice - just to be sure it conformed to a twenty minute limit. If you followed the 20-12-8-5 minute debate format that you often see Dr. William Lane Craig engage in, then my word count should have diminished to 2091, 1396 and 872 over a four round debate. Feinstein's grew by a hilarious amount. His Round Five effort would have taken 45 minutes to deliver if given at a similarly brisk pace.

Three, another peeve: PSF was whiny. In round three, PSF uses "disappointed", "feared", "condescending" and other personal or emotionally-tinged words that just rub me the wrong way. Toughen up Pastor! Have Faith - or something. :-D

All said, there wasn't anything in PSF's lengthy circumlocutions that would persuade a non-believer that god exists. You might not have the patience to sit through it all, even if there was something there.

In contrast (yes, I'm biased), I appreciate the way that RG conducts his end of the discussion. He's much more concise, he didn't have to construct an elaborate straw edifice to knock down, and he didn't have to maneuver the discussion out of the real world into the world of epistemology and philosophy where anything can be rationalized. He was able to pretty much say, "here's what exists, here are axioms that are self evident, and here's how we apply observation and reason to build a knowledge base."

Russell sums it all up this way:

"Presuppositionalists don’t present evidence. They balk at the notion that they should attempt to persuade. They delight in impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery. They toss in little jibes like “You know in your heart of hearts that I am right.” And then they go for the big finish with the “On your knees, sinner!” speech.

When all is said and done, we might as well be trying to convince people in the modern world that Ra is still necessary to explain the movement of the sun."

"Impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery" ... Yeah, we saw that!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why explain two things?

... When one will do.

That's Occam's razor in a nutshell.

Any time someone uses "you can't explain that" as a preface to declaring "thus God exists", the obvious, economical reply is "Now you have two things to explain - we're worse off than we were when we started."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

An Even More Insane Lottery Fantasy

Back in July I let my mind wander through the fantasy of "what would I do if I won the lottery?"

Since I mentioned that I would come back and elaborate on this, I figured a year-end flight of fancy might be in order.

When I entertained this pipe dream before, I touched on whether I could retire immediately with any of a one-, two-, or four million dollar after-tax payout. I concluded that I could do it for sure at four million, but might be strapped at two million. This was based on the idea that my take-home pay is less than $2000 every two weeks, and I'd have to pay for health insurance, a roughly $12,000 per year expense that I don't currently have.

Truth be told, $3 million is really the right number, given that (hypothetically) I have no assets and no debts.

Today's insanity is this: "how would I distribute charity and gifts from a large lottery jackpot?" Since I mention $3M as a "starting point", let's begin.

With a $3M cash sum, I could plan on $75K per year for 40 years. That takes me to the age of 95, and allows for inflation via the growth of the invested portion of the sum. What could I give away?

My instinct is to start with a 10% charitable gift right off the top, but let's see if that's wise. We can always give charitably year-by-year based on net cash flow within a given year, thus preventing a gross miscalculation at the outset of our 40 year retirement. I said that around $66K per year was roughly equivalent to a replacement income, so that is a $9,000 surplus per year, or $360,000 over the 40 year retirement. Very close to 10% after all! What I would probably do is work out a split between truly charitable giving and gifts to family members that would keep the siblings happy. Since I'm married, I'd also have to split the "gift portion" in two, one part for my wife's family, one part for mine. Therefore, if we do a 70-30 split, charity to family gifts, then $252K goes to charity, and $108K goes to family, or $54K to my family alone. It's not much, but it beats a sharp stick in the eye. As I mentioned previously, I can always give away more during any given year in which cash flow allows.

What's the next increment to consider? Well, this is purely fantasy, so let's say $30 million dollars! Now, this amount would make ANY sane person happy, so I can see splitting this three ways, self-charity-family, so that each bucket is $10M. That allows my wife and I $250K per year, and my siblings a $5M pot! Now, depending on how many family members and how much you can give away before you're taxed for estate purposes, you might give them a large lump sum (a third of it?) and the remainder over ten or twenty years to reduce the additional tax burden on you.

Finally, what would you do with ten times THAT - or $300 million dollars? This is not impossible - last summer's MegaMillions payout was around $308M - but a single winner of that much money is extremely extremely improbable. It's my fantasy, though, so play along.

With a lump sum of $300M, the distribution - in my mind, at least - gets skewed heavily in favor of charity. After all, how much money do I personally need? So... My new split is 50-25-25 charity-gifts-self. That's still $75 million dollars for my wife and I, $37.5M for my side of the family, and $150M to charity. $75M for personal use is probably still too much, but I don't have to act responsibly when I'm dreaming.

If I had $75 million, I'd probably tier the money so that year one would be a 5 or 10 million dollar blow-out, and the next 39 years would be split evenly. Imagine having a $1.5M - $1.75M dollar yearly after-tax income even after spending 5 or 10 million that first year! For the family members, the wealth will be scaled down, but still beyond any reasonable need. Imagine that I had 4 family members to give to. That would be over 9 million bucks a piece before taxes. I would probably structure their gifts so that they're front-loaded, say $1M a year for three years, then a diminishing annuity over the rest of their lives. That would still be over $100K a year after the original big payout.

What a fantasy!

Do Aliens Visit Planet Earth?

I used to hope that we were being visited by aliens. I remember lying in the front yard at night, and seeing little orange specs in the sky that traced geometric patterns, and wondering if they were UFOs. They weren't of course, they were hard-earned figments of my imagination.

A couple of decades later, I met a guy, an educated financial analyst for an aerospace company that I worked for, who claimed a UFO experience. He said a bright red one rose out of a lake and zoomed into the sky. Of course we can't know if he was in his right mind, so that can never count as evidence.

More decades have passed, I have never seen evidence of UFO's.

I think if you reflect on the Drake equation - you'll conclude that the probability of aliens that we could come in contact with is very very very low. Without calculating the odds formally, let's start with a bold assertion: "Intelligent life will arise 100 billion times in the universe". Sounds like a lot, but there are at least that many galaxies in the universe. Then we have no idea what the odds are that an intelligent species can develop the means to contact other intelligent species, nor how long they might survive (10 thousand, a hundred thousand years as a technologically advanced civilization?). Then we add the duration of this observable universe that ANY intelligent species might be able to arise and thrive. Just guessing, say the window of opportunity starts 5 billion years ago, and extends for 100 billion years. Your common sense will tell you that the chances of even existing in the same galaxy at the same time as another intelligent species is very remote.

That's why it's not a good bet to claim we are being visited by aliens.