Thursday, December 18, 2014

NT: Matthew - The Mission Sermon

As I poke my way through the New Testament for what seems the umpteenth time - but really isn’t - I realize how little of it I retained in the past. For instance, pre-born-again, I’m certain that I never read much of it at all, and what little I did read was probably suggested by a religious associate. Once I undertook the verse-by-verse reading that launched me into deconversion, I walked away with a general impression that Jesus was a good dude, but his ministry was based on a bad dude. Or a non-existent dude, depending on how analytical I felt the day that I examined the dudeology. Over decades, non-existent dude overwhelmed bad dude as the operative concept, making Jesus increasingly irrelevant.

Today, I continue my general comments on the New Testament, still without attempting to analyze it closely. I’m just laying down the general form of the books. I have a few points that I’ll make when certain passages disturb the force, but I’m not doing this to purposely point out inconsistencies on a broad scale like a counter-apologist or critic might. I’m just organizing my impressions so that I can elaborate on them further down the road, should I desire.

The Sermon on the Mount ends in Matthew Chapter 7, so we begin Chapter 8 with Jesus healing a leper and performing other miracles and acts of charity. More of the same in Chapter 9. There are good words by Jesus, and miracles, but these chapters appear to be an interlude. I’m using this Wikipedia article to help me better detect the structure of Matthew.

The Mission Sermon - or Mission Discourse - begins in Chapter 10.

This discourse is directed to the twelve apostles who are named in Matthew 10:2-3. In the discourse Jesus advises them how to travel from city to city, carry no belongings and to preach only to Israelite communities. He tells them to be wary of opposition, but have no fear for they will be told what to say to defend themselves when needed: "For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you"

The whole spiel is done by the end of the chapter, and includes many memorable sayings. I have a question, though. Jesus is instructing his disciples - the apostles. What part if this is useful for the rank believer? I can imagine a theologist saying that all Christians are charged with spreading the good word, but I’ll be interested to see how this thought evolves through the rest of the testament.

At this point, we can detect trouble brewing:

(KJV) Matthew 10:4 Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him. Judas and his future role are mentioned.

Chapters 11 & 12 serve as a segue into the third discourse by treating us to some John the Baptist and some Pharisees action. Another indication of the trouble to come:

(KJV) Matthew 12:14 Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.

Knowing that Matthew has a general structure is really helpful and interesting, particularly when trying to establish whether (and then how) Matthew relates to the other Gospels. A peek ahead to the Wikipedia article on the upcoming Gospel of Mark lets us compare “literary styles” of the two. Matthew has a seven-part structure, whereas Mark appears much less organized:

There is no agreement on the structure of Mark.[20] There is, however, a widely recognised break at Mark 8:26–31: before 8:26 there are numerous miracle stories, the action is in Galilee, and Jesus preaches to the crowds, while after 8:31 there are hardly any miracles, the action shifts from Galilee to gentile areas or hostile Judea, and Jesus teaches the disciples.

I feel that by the time I sketch out my impressions of Mark, the need to discuss the Synoptic Problem will be nearly unavoidable. Pre-born-again, it was easy for me to assume that Matthew was written first, followed by Mark, Luke and John. Post-born-again, someone (I have no idea who it was) pointed out to me that scholars think that Mark appears to have been written first. Over the decades, I’ve read enough about it to be able to see how they arrived at that conclusion. The relatively visible structure of Matthew somewhat illustrates how an earlier compilation of sayings and stories could have been re-organized.

I’ll give the "Parabolic Discourse" a go next.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

NT: Matthew - The Sermon On The Mount

Before I proceed to whiz through the New Testament, some background is in order.

First, blogging about the NT, even as shallowly as I’m doing here, serves a purpose. It allows me to organize my coarsest-grained understanding of the books, and put them in a place where I can update them and refer to them - over, and over and over.

Second, it serves as an autobiography of sorts. An individual’s thoughts about their place in the universe may include a belief in the supernatural. It appears that this is very common. If I sound too blasé in making the shocking previous claim, it’s because I’m trying to be un-emotional about this. Some people believe that which can be observed is all that there is. These are - without getting into the finer points - naturalists. Some people, in addition to that which can be observed, believe that there are other objects that can affect this world without necessarily behaving in accordance with natural laws. In the most general sense, these people are “supernaturalists”. Mister Obvious has spoken.

I imagine that, absent any prompting from family or friends during my infancy and childhood, I would be prone to belief in some vague “ground-of-all-being” type supernatural realm. Some pantheistic concept that implies that we are all part of one transcendent object that we ought to revere and revel in.

I also imagine that my mom (mostly) planted the thought that there was “God” in heaven looking over us if we were good. Once I started to attend Sunday School, “God” was fleshed out in the form of YHWH and Jehovah.

There’s no need to over-analyze this. Teen age and young adulthood did not change this mind set much, and a brief “born again” period left me unscarred, but newly inclined to be skeptical of people quoting the Bible. So let’s see what happens starting in Matthew chapter 5.

Chapter 5 seems like a candidate for the most-quoted Bible chapter ever. It is, of course, the famous Sermon on the Mount. We hear Jesus in his own words bestowing blessings, advising the faithful on how to carry and display their faith - it is beautiful, moving literature. I can imagine, without claiming that it actually happened to me personally, that someone looking for salvation need only read Matt 1:1 through Matt 5:48 to become filled with the spirit and become born-again. As we noted in my last post, the first four chapters are sparse and fairly uncomplicated. Chapter 5 is a soaring sermon for believers, it could truly transform you. Read it once, you’re a believer. There is, however, some weird shit. Lets look.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great [is] your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

No problem with verse 12 above - Jesus seems to be wrapping up a benediction. But WTF is verse 13 about? I probably read this chapter 5 or 10 times, and I bet that verse 13 didn’t bother me until recently. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. And why is "salt of the earth" good?

Jesus gets back to business in verse 14 by telling his disciples that they are the light of the world, and sprinkles some truly memorable phrases in the following verses. Then it gets weird again.

17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

So proceeds a stretch of teaching and commandments that - if you find the Old Testament repulsive like I do - makes you realize that Jesus is selling the same snake oil as that reprehensible old twat YHWH. This sounds harsh, but it is truly my reaction. As a young man, I became born-again, read the New Testament verse-by-verse, and was overjoyed at the soaring beauty of what Jesus had to say. Then I read the Old Testament. Full stop. Much has been written about what a vile monster YHWH is, no need for me to recount it. Let it be said that I now felt that I’d saw Yahweh’s balls off with a rusty nail file if I ever saw him, so hearing Jesus uphold worship of this monstrous dickhead disabused me of any illusions that Jesus was fundamentally different.

From verse 19 through the end of the chapter (verse 48), Jesus tells the faithful how his commands are different and (sometimes) more stringent than the “old laws”.

Chapters 6 and 7 continue his teachings. As I was writing this post, I happened upon a literary summary of the New Testament at SparkNotes. I’m not recommending them as anything more than a nicely organized summary, but it’s there for the reading. For example, they point out the loose organization of Matthew into an introduction (chapters 1-4), The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7),

...The Mission Sermon, which empowers Jesus’s apostles, follows Jesus’s recognition that more teachers and preachers are necessary (10:1–42). The mysterious Sermon in Parables responds to Jesus’s frustration with the fact that many people do not understand or accept his message (13:1–52). The Sermon on the Church responds to the need to establish a lasting fraternity of Christians (18:1–35). Finally, the Eschatological Sermon, which addresses the end of the world, responds to the developing certainty that Jesus will be crucified (23:1–25:46)

...concluded by the Last Supper and Jesus’ Resurrection.

Next time I’ll skip through chapters 6 and 7 again briefly to see what memorable thoughts we can accrue, then I’ll set out into the Mission Sermon.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The New Testament: Matthew

I participated in a Bible reading group once upon a time. The idea was good, but the implementation soured as the group progressed from the Old to New Testaments. The reasonable, and sometimes studiously devout believers that covered the Old Testament with us were replaced by a small, odd band of believers that were less interested in discussing the actual NT text, and more interested in exercising a weird argumentativeness. I don’t know if I can honestly apply the term “apologetics” to the approach being taken, but the group fell apart quickly, aided (I’ll presume) by a personal relationship between the blog host and one of the “new NT apologists”. I can just imagine our host, in the wee hours of the morning, thinking to himself “I have to put up with this guy in real life because he’s related to my sister. This blog shit has got to go.”

So, I never re-read the NT straight through, as I expected. Here, I’ll share some of my notes as I try again.

Matthew Chapter 1 primarily enumerates Jesus’ ancestors - ancestry being very important in the Hebrew world to establish one’s claim to power. At verse 18 the text describes Jesus’ birth, and establishes the concept of the virgin birth.

Matthew Chapter 2 is a rocket sled ride from Jesus’ birth to his arrival in Nazareth to begin his ministry.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

His eventual arrival in Nazareth:

23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Chapter 3 begins with tales of John the Baptist, into which is woven the story of Jesus:

13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.

The chapter ends on a note that comes up in apologetics and theology:

16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

One can be forgiven for assuming that this is the singular event at which Jesus' divinity is first recognized, but it's worth considering. Whether Jesus was eternal and whether he was eternally devine, are not questions we can answer given what we’ve read so far.

Chapter 4 sees Jesus going off into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, but prevailing, and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. He enlists Simon/Peter, Andrew (Simon’s brother), James and John (James’ brother) as apostles / “fishers of men”. In just 25 verses, he has become famous, being followed by “great multitudes of people”.

I’ve read these first four chapters in Matthew many, many times now. The Gospels, Acts, some Pauline Epistles and Apocalypse are usually considered essential reading for the studious. Each time I re-read Matthew, I’m increasing struck by how sparse it is, and how the parallel passages in Mark are even more sparse. Here, Christmastime 2014, we will not see any mention of the celebration of Christmas. The Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - seem to serve as the platform on which a religion is to be built. The prime mover in that new religion of Jesus worship is Paul, who we'll get to after the Gospels are complete. Let me note that during Jesus’ lifetime, no mention of him is preserved. No monuments, legal documents or contemporary historical mention exists. When I was a believer, I never gave this much thought. Now, as a more thoughtful amateur critic, I find it exceedingly strange.

More next time.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Time for an Objective Moral Values project?

Among familiar arguments for the existence of God is the existence of Objective Moral Values. I understand that many philosophers feel that OMVs exist, independent of the existence of God. I think it's time for me to find these OMVs, or attempt to enumerate a crude list.

Just saying.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Michael Brown

The killing of Michael Brown has captured the American public’s attention much as Trayvon Martin’s killing did. It has many of the same features, and evokes the same emotions for many of us.

A young man was killed before he had begun to fulfill his potential as a human being. The universe will never know what he was capable of. A mother has lost her son. A family has lost their brother, son, nephew, uncle, cousin. Friends have lost a friend. These are tragedies. Horrors. This has changed mother, family and friends forever.

I see differences as well. Trayvon was being pursued in the dark by someone who definitely wasn't an authority. His decision to turn on his stalker was one that many of us would have made.

Michael was in broad daylight. He was confronted by a police officer in a police car. It is clear, regardless of the (so far) unsubstantiated reports of violence initiated by Michael, that he failed to follow the direction of a uniformed police officer in a recognizable police car. This doesn’t turn out well for anyone - black, white or brown. I personally ended up in jail in my twenties for arguing with a police officer. I had to plead no contest and pay a fine. Michael could have done the same, if he had been me - white. It makes no difference that Darren Wilson failed to control the situation, or that he was inept and homicidal. Michael could have avoided this.

We all make mistakes. Some of them are fatal. Some of them are irrelevant and evaporate in the breeze. For Michael Brown, his mother, his family and his friends, his mistake lead to his killing. Black men and boys get killed, where white men just go to jail like I did. It’s a tragedy, a horror, a grave injustice, and mother, family and friends will feel the sorrow of this forever.

There are at least two lessons. One, if you’re black, the police - and people who think they have police power - will kill you. So be cautious. Err on the side of living to another day.

The second lesson is for America. If you’re black, the police - and people who think they have police power - will kill you. This has to change now. The Michael Browns of the world deserve to live until tomorrow. They deserve law enforcement that values their lives like they value their own children. They deserve a legal process like I - a white man - received. They deserve a chance to live.

Anything else is a tragedy.

Link to PBS table of witness testimony

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Minute Meditations

I had a brief Twitter exchange with tweep @Playdoughpoem who mentioned that (as a recent deconvert) she missed praying. I suggested "minute meditations", which are something I've done on-and-off since the '70s.

It started in an attempt to calm myself and relieve stress in my twenties. I had been having panic attacks since my early teens (subsequently resolved with thyroid supplements). I tried yoga and "relaxation tapes" - somewhere between the two I developed a habit of calming meditation in the morning, which grew into applying it in little slices throughout the day. Being able to relax all of your body parts, becoming comfortable physically, then calming your mind and either banishing all thought, or focusing on one or several mantras, affirmations, reinforcements was soon something I could do at my desk, or while walking across the parking lot. Very helpful.

I was a non-believer by then, but I still recognized that prayer had been good for me when I was a believer. I adopted both minute meditations and longer, more serious meditating as replacements for prayer, and I've never looked back. In fact, I still say a few words of thanks to the "objects that be" occasionally before I fall asleep.

Critics of prayer slam it as nothing more than talking to yourself. I agree, and in this example, that's the whole point. Talking to yourself with a purpose can be beneficial, so why not take advantage of it?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Are there Objective Moral Values in the world?

I posed the following question to @SecularOutpost on Twitter a few weeks ago:

@SecularOutpost layman’s questions: If “objective” is defined roughly as “having reality independent of the mind”, doesn’t the discussion of Objective Moral Values require explanations for 1) where OMVs would independently reside, absent the existence of minds, and 2) what mechanism(s) exist that make OMVs available to minds once minds do exist? Is that (part of) what’s required to make a sensible argument for OMVs?

He was kind enough to reply:

.@skepticali I think your analysis is good. The only part I might reject or edit would be the part about the mechanism(s) that make OMVs available to minds once minds do exist, since that blurs ontology with epistemology. It's possible that OMVs exist and we can know that fact, without knowing which OMVs exist.

My followup question:

@SecularOutpost how do we access OMVs? It *seems* to be culturally. If it’s truly objective, wouldn’t they be physical, in some sense?

His response:

.@skepticali I don't see why. 2+2=4 but I wouldn't call that physical. The answer to your question about access will depend on one's position about moral ontology. I.e., an ethical naturalist will have a different answer than an ethical non-naturalist.

I thanked him and went off into the woods for seven years of reflection and meditation. Or less.

After returning to civilization, I confronted my unrequited concern about the possibility of there being “independent reality” for objective moral values. I'm probably too unfamiliar with moral philosophy (or philosophy in general) to understand @SecularOutpost’s point that

“It's possible that OMVs exist and we can know that fact, without knowing which OMVs exist.”

I’m still troubled at how we can arrive at the actual OMVs that we say exist, and how a separate observer - maybe at a different time, place and culture - can arrive at those same actual OMVs. That we might not know which OMVs exist calls into question how it is that we could know they exist. I’m not saying that knowing OMVs exist in principal requires that we know which specific OMVs exist, but the lack of actual OMVs that we can independently arrive at - and verify - makes the argument that “OMVs exist” appear much weaker to me.

His tweet

“The answer to your question about access will depend on one's position about moral ontology.”

indicates that accessing the OMV’s is relative (”...will depend on...”), thus is not objective in the sense of “having reality independent of the mind”. I can restate this as
a Divine Command Theorist, an Ethical Naturalist, and an Ethical Non-Naturalist may all agree that OMVs exist, yet all three differ as to what they are.
This does not demonstrate to me that OMVs exist. It demonstrates that the three parties think they exist, and implies that they can each derive them repeatably using their individual principles and practices, but there is no guarantee that they can arrive at the same conclusions. @SecularOutpost's tweet seems to confirm this. Arriving at three potentially differing sets of OMVs would imply that two and maybe all three are not truly objective facts in the way that we think of gravity as being an objective fact. So I remain puzzled: “If there are Objective Moral Values in the world, how do we assure ourselves that they have reality independent of the mind?”

Postscript: I'll eventually be asking @SecularOutpost to review this and comment on it - but I think I'll let it breathe for a day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How God Affects the World

Random thought of the morning: the claim that God exists is hard enough to justify. Imagine claiming that It creates Objective Moral Values; stores them somewhere; then makes them available to moral agents once those moral agents exist.

How does It do that?

Doesn't that seem awfully complicated and even harder to justify?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Meaningful, Productive Work

A thought popped into my head about how my career in software development had stopped being meaningful and productive. That's not to say that the software development business is not meaningful and productive, but that my experience of it, at a specific large corporation, had become much less meaningful than it had been.

So I'm jotting this down as a reminder, that I need to explore why this happened to me, why I let it happen to me, and compare some of the irritants such as a focus on metric gathering and reporting (AKA "industrial engineering") to the way that focus on IE practices in manufacturing grew and then receded decades ago in response to a need for both productivity and employee engagement.

To be continued...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Cool Kids are acting Less Cool

Sam Harris put his foot in his mouth, if you believe all of the #Estrogenvibe outrage that it stirred up. Greta Christina took exceptional offense to it: "Fuck you, you sexist, patronizing asshole.” Ophelia Benson contributes her hearty “No. And fuck you." Heina Dadabhoy also weighed in with a much more light-hearted take that includes sex toys.

I will get lost if I try to analyze all that’s been said in the past few days, but I can draw an analogy.

The Cool Kids Have a Fight

I’m in junior high school. Cool Kid #1 gives a stupid answer to a simple question posed by a member of the Journalism Club. Cool Kid #2 reads about it in the school newspaper and responds with cursing and anger. Cool Kid #3 chimes in with more cursing and anger. Cool Kid #4 responds with humor and sexual innuendo. The school hallways are abuzz. You can’t help but hear about it between classes.

The Cool Kids

Cool Kid #1 tries to clarify his remarks. Cool Kid #3 is having none of it. The Philosophy Club, the Science Club and other Journalism Club members chime in. Jocks, Nerds, other Cool Kids and even Nobodies like me are choosing up sides. The Cool Kids don’t look so cool any more.

What was accomplished?

Cool Kid #1 (Sam Harris, in case there was any doubt) said a Bad Thing that makes him look like he’s sexist. I’ll admit that I found what he said pretty mild - worthy of a stern rebuke, unquestionably, but making a generalization about the willingness of women to engage in his style of discourse is not the worst thing ever said. Greta, Ophelia, Heina (Cool Kids 2 through 4) and others appeared to take what he said to be a blanket denigration of women’s attitudes and/or aptitudes for engaging in critical thought and/or discourse across the board. If this is what he meant, then they are right. And they were right to call him out. And he should have responded, and they should have pressed him on anything that they were unclear and or unhappy about in his response.

What happened was a bit different. Both Greta and Ophelia cursed him. Greta had some good criticisms to offer, but had wrapped it in her “Fuck you...” packaging that made it difficult to get to her core criticism. I had to reread her post 3 times before I was able to pick out 3 or 4 paragraphs that were constructive. They were good paragraphs, but they were lost in the cursing and anger.

I believe that Greta, Ophelia and Heina, to name the involved bloggers that I read occasionally, deal with sexism, oppression and the threat of violence on a frequent, maybe even constant basis. And it’s clear that Ophelia dislikes Harris, even before last week’s episode. They don’t need approval from anyone to express outrage. But what is it that’s being achieved here? Harris gets exposed for expressing a (overt? covert?) sexist dismissal of women. Greta and Ophelia get to expose Harris. Have minds changed? Are results achieved?

If I were Harris, I’d spin on my heels and keep walking. Maybe, in some way, he’ll be more thoughtful with his words and actions. Maybe he’ll tune out his detractors. Who knows? His fans won’t desert him. He may not get new fans from the Greta/Ophelia camp. Is that important to him? I’m sure he’d like whatever increase in readership he can garner, but does that maximize his flourishing?

If I were Greta, I’d probably still be pissed. I don’t know if she was predisposed to dislike Harris, but, so far, this controversy won’t have warmed her up to him. I look forward to hearing her thoughts on Harris’ clarification, but I suspect that the best we can hope for is for her to recap her last few paragraphs of her original response:

... It has nothing to do with estrogen or ladybrains.

So Sam Harris, and anyone else who says this sexist, patronizing bullshit — knock it the hell off.

Heina’s take was actually pretty funny. If you could take the best of what Greta wrote and interleave it with Heina’s post, it would really speak to people like my white, middle-aged, privileged, American, male self.

Two passages posted by non-participants struck me.

Andrew Sullivan made a good point about these types of conflicts in general:

People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive.

...and Dan Finke provided this crystallization of Feminism:

Feminism is not just an emotionalistic kind of moral idealism, it’s a more rational position than its competitors. It’s one that looks at women’s potential and says, “Women actually and demonstrably have more abilities than just those required to be mothers and wives and, therefore, it’s only best for them, and for an overall culture, that women be maximally empowered according to their abilities.” Why shouldn’t people with aptitudes in a range of skills be encouraged to thrive according to all that potential? How does it benefit them not to? How does it benefit society to arbitrarily waste potential because it happens to reside in women, rather than men? There’s nothing rational about that. It’s only logical to say that a being’s good is in maximizing her potential in her abilities. It’s only logical for a society to take a vested interest in empowering its members to perform as many of their abilities as well as they can if they are going to maximally benefit from the abundant resource of human potential within a society. These are rational positions even before looking at the empirical situation.

Then, when looking empirically, it should be obvious that millennia worth of demonstrable subordination of women socially and mentally would have deep cultural impact. It’s obvious that denying a group of people equal access to education and political power and religious power for millennia is going to shape society and its biases in ways that implicitly perpetuate disadvantages to that group of people. All that cultural, linguistic, political, and mental anti-woman structure won’t just vanish into thin air just because we now mouth some new words about equality and change the formal law to be different. Only when there is a root to branch transformation of all our personal and institutional assumptions, habits, practices, etc. could all this social structuring of our reality get out of the way of women’s demonstrable, biological, natural potential.

Until that happens, there shouldn’t be an a priori assumption that men’s disproportionate successes in numerous areas are owed to “natural differences”. Such assumptions are not unvarnished, politically-incorrect truth-telling. They reflect an irrational bias towards the cultural status quo as natural fate. When we know that in principle there’s no reason women cannot be far more equally successful in outcomes than men are, when we see that they’re not coming out as successful our focus should be on how we can proactively change the culture.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Proving a Negative as an Apologetics Manuever

I ran into a pair of the worst apologetics arguments imaginable last week. So bad that it took me days to get my head around them. I discuss the first of these here.

The passage that incensed me was

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

There is enough wrongness packed into these two sentences that they could stop a charging bull elephant. Let me paraphrase them to dig out the core thought: “Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist”. I don’t know if it’s my business to try to unearth the reason why they think this is a persuasive argument that God exists - but I can comment on whether the argument is persuasive.

The obvious first question is “Is this a coherent claim?” Isn’t the claim “Disbelief in The Invisible Pink Unicorn is wrong because no one can prove that The Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn't exist“ just as coherent? Aren’t the two questions then equally persuasive in making their cases for their subjects? Shouldn’t we be able to assert the same about Allah, Zeus, Odin, Mithra, Ashur, Enlil, Chemosh, Baal, Vishnu, Marduk, Yaluk and others, and expect our interlocutors to respond? Won’t all of these claims tend to make their cases equally well?

The answer, of course, is “no”. No, you can’t expect your interlocutors to respond to claims like this because you’ve left out something essential. First, assuming you’ve chosen “God” as the object that you claim can’t be proved to not exist, you must acknowledge the implied claim you’re making that “God exists”. You’re asserting that the object referred to as “God” is an actual thing for which existence is an attribute.

Imagine the following conversation:
A: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
B: Are you claiming that God exists?
A: Yes
B: Which God are we talking about? What attributes does it have that I can test?
A: [responds with explanation]
B: [requests clarification on what level of certainty is required for proof]
A: [provides clarification]
B: [proceeds with testing prior to presenting results]
Then imagine this alternative conversation:
C: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
D: Are you claiming that God exists?
C: No
D: Then what are you talking about?
C: [no response]
D: [ends conversation]
The implied claim that “God exists” gives claimant A something ostensibly real to discuss. Respondent B can then request a list of the claimants best evidence and arguments that this object exists, and begin an examination of the positive claim “God exists”. If the level of certainty reaches what the participants agreed to, then they may assent to the claim. Other outcomes may result as well. A resolution is possible in principle.

The absence of the positive claim “God exists” - on the other hand - raises the question of what claimant C could possibly mean. Without clarification of what the subject of C’s claim is, the words “no one can prove that God doesn't exist“ has no meaning because, using C’s own refusal to acknowledge the implication that “God exists“, no real subject exists to discuss. D is under no obligation to continue.

What I’ve omitted is that the idea of “proof” is not one that is relevant outside mathematics, even though the word is used in lay conversations everywhere. The real challenge - if both parties are amenable - is to establish a level of certainty (think of a Bayesian probability between zero and one) that the parties agree will serve as confirmation in lieu of “proof”.

Then let the fun begin!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Folly of Atheism

I stumbled upon this blog post titled "The Folly of Atheism" via Twitter user @Cand_Apologetix. It only took a couple of paragraphs to pique my interest, particularly this passage:

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

Since no comments are allowed for this post, I couldn’t thoughtlessly blurt out the first snarky thing that popped into my head, which is probably a good thing.

Earlier this week, I had actually published two posts analyzing The Folly of Atheism - a much longer version of this post that dissected the opening paragraphs, and a follow-on that looked briefly at the more formal arguments that he laid out.

But then I thought better of it.

This is probably the first time I've ever deleted a blog post. I realized that it didn't serve anyone for me to criticize The Folly of Atheism in depth - it is so bad that 60 seconds skimming over it will convince you of that without requiring any verbose piling on from me. Sometimes, stuff is just so vacuously, vapidly inane that you!re better off to just keep moving, so that's what I've chosen to do.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On having faith

I don’t believe in God because there is no good reason to, but I **am** interested in the terms “faith” and “belief”, so I’d like to discuss them from an a-religious point of view.

I’ve personally never been approached with the claim that “even atheists have faith in something” - or whatever vague criticism is sometimes leveled at non-believers. Before I declare the common definitions that I’ll be working from, let me say that 1) non-believers are probably wrong to claim that faith and/or belief are stupid, illogical or otherwise untenable as epistemological frameworks; 2) some faith-like or belief-like approaches to living have to be used by everyone, so it’s stupid for a non-believer to claim otherwise.


Some definitions:


“Belief is a state of the mind, treated in various academic disciplines, especially philosophy and psychology, as well as traditional culture, in which a subject roughly regards a thing to be true.“


“Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, view, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion. It can also be defined as belief that is not based on proof,[1] as well as confidence based on some degree of warrant.[2][3] The word faith is often used as a synonym for hope,[4] trust,[5] or belief.[6]”

In both cases, the definition “regarding a thing to be true, possibly not based on proof“ seems to match how a non-believer (as I am) applies the terms.

Let me make my case: every time I need to drive somewhere, I have a reasonable expectation that my car will start, and that I’ll be able to drive wherever I need to go. This is based on 1) a general trust that auto manufacturers want cars to be reliable, thus encouraging repeat sales; 2) experience - it’s been several hundred times in a row since my belief in a functional car has failed me; 3) I generally try not to worry that I won’t be able to do what I plan to do. Otherwise, I’d be an emotional wreck. So - I use what might be termed “faith” as an attitude towards my car.

Shiny new car

What would undermine my faith in my car? Well, I bought it used, and for the first several months I owned it, it was a piece of shit. The idiot lights came on, the power steering failed, and eventually the entire electric system shut down. It took several months for the dealer to correct this, during which time I had - with good justification - no faith in this car. It took many months and hundreds of starts to get over the feeling that this piece of shit needed to be junked.

What am I saying?

I started out with faith that this car would work, it let me down and I lost faith, I got it fixed and my faith in it was slowly restored. It was a process, a human, physical process that took about a year.

Now, believers might say “that’s preposterous - faith in God is not like faith in a mere automobile - it's much more transcendent, sublime, meaningful - and the payoff is better!”. To this I say “no, it’s not”. Faith in some unseen entity deserves the same respect as a car does. It has to work. It has to have the properties and behaviors that I expect of it, and when it doesn’t, I need to adjust my expectations of it. And I have done so. God never appears in the universe. Theologians can’t give a clear, unambiguous reason why God would, could or should exist. The world looks exactly like it would if no intervening force were at work, and in the absence of good evidence or good reason to believe otherwise, it makes perfectly good sense to treat God like an automobile that has never and will never work.

It needs to be junked.


Creator God is Illogical

My Tuesday morning interwebzing spun me off into this brief reverie on the possibility of the existence of God. For this post, I’ll assume God is the “creator god” of the Cosmological Argument.

I’ve always assumed that I’m justified in stating that there is a non-zero probability that creator god exists. I assume this justification due to the limits of my knowledge, although I imagine the probability to be approaching zero - say 1 * 10-googolplex on any average partly cloudy Tuesday.

Here’s where creator god becomes untenable: in order to put him (her, it, etc) in a position capable of creating the universe, it's usually claimed to be (quoting Dr. Wm. Lane Craig) “beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent“ - thus creator god must be understood to have an existence separate from this universe. That’s the key: creator god must first exist. So creator god does not create existence. Therefore creator god is not the greatest imaginable being - only a being capable of creating “creator god world” is. But then who created the creator of “creator god world” ... and so on? This has always been the criticism of assertions like “God created the universe” - they reduce to infinite regress, and require defending via special pleading or bare assertion. Illogical!


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Doesn’t it make you feel important?

H/T Deacon Duncan” - from 2007:

Doesn’t it make you feel important to know that the true meaning of life is that Almighty God is doing everything in His power to make sure that you ultimately end up happy for all eternity, and that everyone who opposes you ends up unhappy? Can atheists claim to have that kind of significant relationship with that kind of significant Other? You rule, Christian dude.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Attributes of God

Tracie Harris writes:

The attributes of my concept of X are only attributes of X if my concept of X aligns with X. Without the ability to compare my concept of X with X, I cannot call attributes of my concept of X “attributes of X.”

She was talking about the “attributes and effects of God” when she included that concise statement of the problem we all face when trying to argue about God: we can’t describe it so that everyone agrees about it. That leaves any discourse about it incomplete, or even counterproductive.

Jesus Camp

Of course, she’s also pointing out how the concept of universal God is impossible, given that we can’t describe it so that it can be verified as being God.

Commenter CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain (Great name!) suggests that most people don’t really believe - but believe that they believe.

What a convoluted way to be!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Free Will

Sam Harris appears in a video discussing his thoughts on Free Will. He believes we don’t have it, and gives calm reasonable arguments why we don’t.

Although I can’t argue against his thesis, most of us instinctively assume that we *do* have free will, that we can consciously choose to jump off the sofa and shout Jennifer Lawrence, be my queen“Jennifer Lawrence, be my queen” at any moment, and that this demonstrates our possession of free will. Having said this, but not having acted on it, kinda implies that I will jump off the sofa and shout “Jennifer Lawrence, be my queen” at some later time - which is probably true. So have I predetermined that I should do so?

What does this mean for the free will vs. determinism debate?

A Fundamental Problem with Arguments for God

Many arguments for the existence of God lack the warrant authorizing you to proceed from the premises to the conclusion that God exists. Take the Cosmological Argument, for example. You can assume that the premises are true (although this is frequently disputed, let's assume truth, for brevity's sake). You can then conclude that a First Cause exists.

That's all.

How an individual maps that First Cause to God is an entirely separate exercise that the assumption of a First Cause doesn't undertake at all.

You see this pattern over and over again - the leap of logic from First Cause (or a Designer, or a Greatest Possible Being, etc.) to the desired conclusion that "therefore God exists".

You and I see this pattern over and over.

Don't be afraid to point it out!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Cause, Effect and the Cosmos

James at Just Thomism writes a brief review of Sean Carroll’s refutation of William Lane Craig’s version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument by focusing on this passage by Carroll:

Why should we expect that there are causes or explanations or a reason why in the universe in which we live? It’s because the physical world inside of which we’re embedded has two important features. There are unbreakable patterns, laws of physics—things don’t just happen, they obey the laws—and there is an arrow of time stretching from the past to the future…. But crucially, both of these features of the universe that allow us to speak the language of causes and effects are completely absent when we talk about the universe as a whole. We don’t think that our universe is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws. Even if it’s part of the multiverse, the multiverse is not part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws. Therefore, nothing gives us the right to demand some kind of external cause.

I have no comment at the moment on James’ review, but I look forward to reading more of his posts. He’s a self-described “Catholic Thomist”, and he appears to be a thoughtful guy, although I’m mystified that people still follow medieval theology.

My immediate interest is solely Carroll’s thought:

nothing gives us the right to demand some kind of external cause

It raises the more general question: “what right do we have to think the universe should conform to our expectations?” When I consider existence in this way, it reinforces the thought that only by observing patterns in the world can we make sense of the world. It is an empirical approach to the cosmos that will help us understand it.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for mystery, faith or magical thinking in the world - tens of billions of people have survived by the seat of their pants. But when you ask life’s “deeper questions” - mystery, faith and magical thinking will not get you in line with the cosmos that you observe.

So start paying attention to the world.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Necessary Preconditions of intelligibility

Apropos to my last post, while reading Dawson Bethrick's reply to a budding presuppositionalist, I was inevitably drawn deeper into the Interwebz to read background and related material. Dawson provides a series on world views and intelligibility beginning at Can a *Worldview* "Provide" the "Preconditions of Intelligibility"? - Part I.

I was reminded of Deacon Duncan's post on the same subject - containing a much more concise passage that addresses the issue:

The necessary preconditions of intelligibility are simple: reality must be consistent with itself. Intelligibility requires that we be able to employ concepts, which are mental representations corresponding to properties and/or objects in the real world, at some level of abstraction. To be meaningful, concepts must be consistent (at some level, at least), with objective reality, and that in turn requires that reality be consistent with itself. Otherwise we end up with concepts that refer only to some inconsistent and thus non-meaningful state, thus making them unintelligible and useless.

Notice that to reach this conclusion we need assume neither Christianity nor atheism. Intelligibility depends on the self-consistent nature of reality whether there’s any God or not. Indeed, if reality lacked this quality, God Himself would not exist in any meaningful way, because when reality itself is lacking in self-consistency, knowledge is meaningless and impossible, which means God could not be omniscient. (He also would be unable to be omnipotent or loving or eternal, but I’ll leave a discussion of that as an exercise for the reader.)

Dawson goes a step further, by pointing out how backwards this is:

... it should be clear that the assumption that a worldview can “provide the preconditions of intelligibility” (or “intelligible experience”) plays a central role in the presuppositionalist playbook.

Unfortunately for presuppositionalism, however, the idea that a worldview can “provide the preconditions for intelligibility” – at least with respect to the most fundamental of those preconditions – is itself incoherent. That is because those preconditions would already have to be present in order for a worldview to exist in the first place.

in order to avoid the mental contortions that a presuppositionalist has to perform in order to believe what they say, I'll summarize what both Duncan and Bethrick exposit:
  1. reality exists
  2. reality exhibits patterns that can be recognized (it is consistent with itself)
  3. entities such as ourselves need minds that can recognize the patterns in reality in order to have coherent perceptions
  4. our minds need to be able to construct, maintain and update nets of perceptions in order to develop a mental picture of what the world is like ("world view")

The Shallowness of the Presuppositional Apologetic

Dawson Bethrick from Incinerating Presuppositionalism has an excellent post that addresses a wanna-be presuppositionalist's most heartfelt recitations of the Bahnsen Procedure. A "sound bite" that caught my attention:

This simply reveals the shallowness of the presuppositional apologetic. With its mind-numbing habit of continually dropping relevant contexts, it requires to both know and not know at the same time. One must know what good and evil are in order to know that the Christian god is good, and yet one is not supposed to know what good and evil are in order to recognize the obvious contradictions which result from the conjunction of Christianity’s own claims about its god and the world it is said to have created in its all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful wisdom.

There's lots more - this is a lengthy, lengthy post, but sometimes a brief summary like the above is all that's needed to make the point.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Begging the Question

Developing a sound argument is a good idea all of the time, but the need for it is doubly apparent when discussing the existence of God. After all, what are the intertoobz good for?

Take for instance the claims - made to me by a colleague on Twitter - that “most of the arguments in favor of God don't beg the question“ and “Neither the cosmological argument nor the ID argument nor the morality argument beg the question“. If one accepts the definition (as another Twitterer contributed) “To beg the question literally means to assume the truth of an argument's conclusion in its premises“, then we can evaluate these claims to determine if they beg the question. I’ll focus on the Cosmological Argument for God (hereafter CAG) as an example.

First, the standard no-frills CAG from Wikipedia:
  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. A causal loop cannot exist.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.
Consider the argument carefully. First, we notice that the word God does not appear. It is generally assumed that God is that first cause, but God is not a necessary conclusion of the argument. You’ll notice that a First Cause is all that can be concluded - and that’s assuming you accept the premises without objection, an assumption we could easily challenge. I’ve stated elsewhere that the assumption that “God is that first cause“ could just as plausibly be replaced by “A banana slug is that first cause” or “A stink beetle is that first cause” or “InfiniTwinkie is that first cause”. These alternative conclusions are just as well rationally and evidentially supported as a conclusion of God. Where do people arguing CAG go wrong? Clearly, the unstated premise that God must exist in order to be used in the conclusion is the problem, but how do you work out all of the premises and objections to them, and your counter arguments to the objections, so that you can arrive at a persuasive argument? The easiest way is to use Argument Maps - or alternatively - just write out the argument as stated, and notate the pros and cons, and their pros and cons, until the argument has no obvious holes. I'll try to demonstrate that below. For my example, I’ll adopt a fairly uncontroversial convention that C is the Claim or Conclusion that the claimant is trying to make, P1 through P99 are the Premises that lead to the Conclusion. Since the P and C symbols are used already, I’ll use S (“Support”) in place of “pros”, and O (“Objection”) in place of “cons”, so that S1 through S99 are the Support for any of the claimant’s Premises, O1 through O99 are Objections to the Claim or any of the Premises or Support that the claimant has offered. My other convention will be to label the various premises and objections in Domain Name-like notation so that we can keep track of what the statements refer to, in case further discussion is required. Finally a caveat: the Support and Objections that I use here are for illustration only. They are not deeply thought out nor meant to represent a knock-down argument for or against the Conclusion. I will only offer my S and O notation for Premise 1 and the Conclusion because my goals for this post are: 1) demonstrate an argument outline; 2) evaluate the conclusion of CAG to illustrate the general question-begging that exists in it.

Here we go:

  • P1: Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
    • P1.S1: P1 is warranted because everything we observe in daily life has a cause - nothing “pops out of nowhere”
      • P1.S1.O1: personal experience is unreliable - this is not a matter that can be resolved subjectively. A more rigorous scientific approach is required.
      • P1.S1.O2: quantum mechanics indicates that particles do pop out of nowhere all the time. As for the first moments of the universe, at present it appears that this occurs in the physical realm of quantum mechanics, thus making it plausible that the universe did indeed come into existence probabilistically without a prior physical cause.
  • P2: A causal loop cannot exist.
  • P3: A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  • P4: Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.
  • P5: (assumed)That First Cause must be God
    • P5.O1: The existence of God is conjectural
    • P5.O2: Even were the existence of God to be established, there is no reason to think that it participated as a first cause for anything we can observe
  • C1: Therefore God exists
    • C1.O1: The conclusion is rejected due to P5.O1 and P5.O2
Assuming that you fleshed out P1 through P4 to your satisfaction, exhausted all of the Pros and Cons to the argument, when you get to the unstated premise (which I list as P5) that the First Cause must be God, you arrive at the point where the question-begging occurs. If two believers are discussing this argument, the existence of God could be axiomatic to them, but take away the two believers, and where does that leave God? Take away every human being on the face of the earth, and all that’s left is an indication that beings on this planet once believed in various greater powers. A visitor from another world might investigate the nature of earth, and would find no reason to believe that any of these greater powers that human artifacts refer to existed in real life. None.

THAT’S what’s wrong with CAG, KCA, ID, the argument from objective moral values, and anything else that a believer might employ in an attempt to make belief in an actual God sound rational. God is not available to be used in these arguments. You have to assume the existence of God before you can use it in arguments that attempt to demonstrate its existence, and that, fellow travelers, is begging the question.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Stephen Law on EAAN

My prior 4 posts all had to do with Alvin Plantinga, who has developed the “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism“ (EAAN) - that seeks to refute a solely naturalistic worldview by showing it to be incoherent.

There’s a refutation of EAAN by Stephen Law at Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism Refuted. He does us a favor by summarizing it thus:

Let Naturalism (N) be the view that there’s no such person as God or anything at all like God, and Evolution (E) be the view that our cognitive faculties have come to be by way of the processes postulated by contemporary evolutionary theory. Then, argues Plantinga, the combination N&E is incoherent or self-defeating. This, he maintains, is because if N&E is true, then the probability that R – that we have reliable cognitive faculties (that is to say, faculties that produce a preponderance of true over false beliefs in nearby possible worlds) – is low. But, concludes Plantinga, anyone who sees that P(R/N&E) is low then has an undefeatable defeater both for R and for any belief produced by their cognitive faculties, including their belief that N&E.

In my last post, I posited that an argument against evolution due to it’s inability (if what Plantinga believes actually obtains) to produce true beliefs was not relevant because all that is needed is an organism’s ability to develop truer beliefs within its own lifetime, and the culture to pass down the truer beliefs via the features of culture. Now, I don’t know if this is what actually happens, as I am not an expert in the relevant fields, but I don’t see the EAAN as constructed being that convincing anyway, regardless of whether my conjectural account of truer beliefs is pertinent or not.

Now Stephen Law is willing to address EAAN as written, without resorting to conjectures such as mine. In a nutshell, he takes Plantinga’s claim that evolution cannot deliver true beliefs and develops an argument that the neurophysical structures that result from evolution can tend to contain true beliefs, thus eliminating Plantinga's central complaint. It’s all very technical propositional logic, but it’s interesting. Keep in mind that EAAN, Law's refutation, and my unfounded musings are all conjectural - but I think it indicative of the obscure paths we're will to take to make a point.

I still like my wholly unwarranted presumption that an organism’s ability to develop truer beliefs within its own lifetime, combined with the ability to establish a culture to pass down the truer beliefs, is all that's required to develop extremely accurate beliefs. So I guess I’ll have to nose around and see whether anyone has traveled down this path.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

My First Look at Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Gary Gutting continues to probe Alvin Plantinga at Is Atheism Irrational? by asking

...isn’t the theist on thin ice in suggesting the need for God as an explanation of the universe?

Plantinga replies weakly:

Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact ... that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena...

As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified.

It’s almost as if Plantinga didn’t take this interview seriously. He missed the point early in the interview when he gave a detailed criticism of Russell’s Teapot, but ignored the broad parody that it intends. The “a-moonist” example above is worse yet. He should have skipped this lunacy (pun intended) and gone straight to his claim that

The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience.

Okay then! We’ve finally arrived at what the estimable Dr. William Lane Craig calls “not really an argument”. If I may interpret this, he’s saying that there’s good reason to believe because you believe you’ve experienced something. Meh.

He then proceeds to give some (psychological) reasons why non-believers might not believe. Double meh.

At this point, Gutting nudges Plantinga into a discussion of materialism, and Plantinga takes the bait.

GG: ... atheists ... think there’s nothing beyond the material entities open to scientific inquiry, so there there’s no place for immaterial beings such as God.

AP: Well, if there are only material entities, then atheism certainly follows. But there is a really serious problem for materialism: It can’t be sensibly believed, at least if, like most materialists, you also believe that humans are the product of evolution.

Thus begins what I believe is a Reader’s Digest version of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). I’m going to wuss out and quote more of this verbatim in order to avoid clipping out important subtleties. Here he outlines his conception of beliefs:

First, if materialism is true, human beings, naturally enough, are material objects. Now what, from this point of view, would a belief be? My belief that Marcel Proust is more subtle that Louis L’Amour, for example? Presumably this belief would have to be a material structure in my brain, say a collection of neurons that sends electrical impulses to other such structures as well as to nerves and muscles, and receives electrical impulses from other structures.

But in addition to such neurophysiological properties, this structure, if it is a belief, would also have to have a content: It would have, say, to be the belief that Proust is more subtle than L’Amour.

He goes on to what (I believe) is the heart of his argument:

I’m interested in the fact that beliefs cause (or at least partly cause) actions. For example, my belief that there is a beer in the fridge (together with my desire to have a beer) can cause me to heave myself out of my comfortable armchair and lumber over to the fridge.

But here’s the important point: It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has.

So far, I believe he’s saying that the belief and the action are not materially related.

...This means that the content of the belief isn’t a cause of the behavior.

Gutting and Plantinga go on to banter about whether evolution can produce beliefs that are true, or merely adaptive - as Plantinga claims. The last few paragraphs of the interview are worth quoting in full:

GG: So your claim is that if materialism is true, evolution doesn’t lead to most of our beliefs being true.

AP: Right. In fact, given materialism and evolution, it follows that our belief-producing faculties are not reliable. Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

But to believe that is to fall into a total skepticism, which leaves you with no reason to accept any of your beliefs (including your beliefs in materialism and evolution!). The only sensible course is to give up the claim leading to this conclusion: that both materialism and evolution are true. Maybe you can hold one or the other, but not both.

So if you’re an atheist simply because you accept materialism, maintaining your atheism means you have to give up your belief that evolution is true. Another way to put it: The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.

That’s the end of the interview, with Plantinga concluding that an atheist can’t believe in evolution because it can’t produce true beliefs, thus is self-refuting. Well!

Let me take a crack at this. There are a lot of phrases and sentences that deserve specific criticism, but it’s not worth getting mired down in details because I think he’s wrong at a more general level.

My most recent thought is simply that evolution doesn’t have to produce beliefs that are true, only animals that survive and reproduce, and can eventually hone their beliefs. Then when an animal like Homo sapiens is successful enough to do more than just survive and reproduce, it just needs to have the potential to develop beliefs that are more true than not, and must be able to do this in the space of a lifetime. If these truer-belief-developing animals are able to survive in greater numbers than non-truer-belief-developing animals, then over time, most will have that potential, and - because this particular animal developed culture - culturally the practices that take advantage of this material potential to develop truer beliefs are institutionally reinforced, institutionally passed on to descendants, and further propagated. It is that tipping point where an animal can develop a mostly true belief, coupled with the development of culture, that speeds the adoption of mostly true beliefs which, over generations, get refined until they become almost-certainly-true-beliefs. Nothing magical required. If this guy’s a great philosopher of theology, I don’t see it.

Plantinga on Fine Tuning - or "How Vladimir Putin Fixed My Toilet"

I’m continuing my review of Is Atheism Irrational?. In Alvin Plantinga at The Stone I commented on his view that non-belief in a deity is not warranted. In that early portion of Gary Gutting’s interview, Plantinga offered a refutation of “Russell’s Teapot”, a maneuver that I believe missed the broader parody of unwarranted belief that the teapot represents.

In the next section of the interview, Gutting moves the conversation into other arguments against theism, specifically the problem of evil, an argument that Plantinga acknowledges might be the best one against theism. He offers no counterargument to it, but does claim that there are “about two dozen” good arguments for theism. When pressed, he cites fine-tuning. Before we even hear the term “fine-tuning“, however, Plantinga performs a classic waffle, by voluntarily offering this comment on theistic arguments that

None is conclusive, but each, or at any rate the whole bunch taken together, is about as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.

Let that sink in. “None is conclusive” and “ about as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.“ He’s saying to our faces that there’s no compelling theistic arguments. When I first read this interview in February, I came away feeling that Plantinga offered indirect, kinda squishy defenses of theism. Upon further review, I’m certain of it. To be charitable, this is Gutting’s interview, and he and his editor have certainly taken the scissors to it, so it may be that my impression is due more to the editing than Plantinga himself, but clearly, he admits there’s no single knock-down argument for theism.

When pressed, Plantinga cites fine-tuning as a good argument, and summarizes by saying:

fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.

Gutting gets criticism here by not simply asking “how so?”

I need to make a general comment here about the more famous arguments for the existence of God. As far as I know, arguments like fine-tuning, the cosmological argument, and the argument from objective moral values all posit that natural features and phenomena are insufficient to explain where a) fine-tuning, b) the universe, and c) objective moral values come from, therefore God must be the answer, therefore God exists. The Toulmin model of argumentationThe transcendental argument for God (TAG) takes this general approach as well. The glaring problem with all of these is that the rhetorical transition from the premise(s) to the conclusion are accompanied by no argument or explanation as to why God should be the conclusion. None. For those who are not familiar with argumentation terminology, the argument or explanation that “authorizes” us to reach the conclusion is called the “warrant”, thus these arguments may be said to be warrantless. Add to this warrantlessness the fact that God is not established as an independent fact that we can use in the argument, and we end up with a really high-minded sounding but vacuous waste of words .

Let me put this a little differently. If it could be shown that there was something in the universe that could be independently verified as god-like, you still have an obligation to present the chain of reasoning that leads you to conclude that this verified god-like thing was the reason that fine-tuning exists. My plumberIt’s like me claiming that Vladimir Putin replaced my toilet. Sure, he exists. Sure, he’s hypothetically capable of replacing my toilet. Did he replace my toilet? How would I convince you that he did? This is where these kinds of arguments seem to evaporate. My claim that Vladimir Putin replaced my toilet makes for a better argument than the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, because we know Putin exists, and we have good reason to think he’s capable of replacing a toilet in spite of my not being able to link Putin to my repaired toilet. It's at least possible. We know nothing definitive about any gods that we might claim, except for the unsubstantiated claims that we make for them. Trying to associate any unestablished entity like God to some feature of the universe is nonsense.

Another pet peeve I have about these kinds of argument is that they allow the proponent arguing this way to abandon the hard work of finding out what really could be the explanation for the mystery under consideration, and lets them claim God Did It. This is both lazy and fallacious. The correct answer is to say "we don’t presently know the answers to a), b) or c)". You can even take a step in the apologist's direction and say a) yes, there must be a fine-tuner, b) you're right, there must be a creator, and c) of course, there must be a source for objective moral values. So what? None of this gets you remotely to the existence of the supernatural, or supernatural entities, or gods, or one omni-everything Swiss-army-knife can-do-it-all God that I think most Christians believe in. They are still arguments from ignorance.

Another thought, this time about Plantinga’s claim that

the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism

He acts like no one has ever tried to “synthesize and balance the probabilities“ before.

There are much better sources for calculating probabilities than you'll ever hear from me - Richard Carrier, Jeffrey Jay Lowder, Eliezer Yudkowsy and Less Wrong all are immeasurably superior to what I can offer. Still, an example that pops into my head over and over is this. Assuming that God is a supernatural being, then assuming that a supernatural realm must exist, then assuming that we need that realm to sustain persistent entities, then we need these entities to be capable of interacting with our world, then we need one (God) to have all the attributes that we ascribe to him, then we need him to have the motive to create our universe, then we need him to have the means to create the universe, then we need him to actually create it and perform all of the other God-functions that we expect. Assuming that my individual prerequisites represent some chain of independent gates that we need to pass before we can logically conclude the existence of God is probable, then we have enough to start calculating a probability. Using a charitable .5 probability for all of the listed steps, we see the probability get reduced by half at every one. It works out to (.5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5), or 0.0078125. Less than one percent at best. So God ends up being very improbable, even when we give him an overly charitable 50-50 chance every step of the way. How does Plantinga think that the probabilities balance in the theist’s direction?

I’ll take a breather here, and leave something for another post. Next time, we may get into what appears to be Plantinga’s own Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism - an argument that I’m only vaguely familiar with. That will be fun.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Praise of The Written Word

While reflecting on “Is Atheism Irrational?” I was struck at how reading Alvin Plantinga’s words allow me to really digest what he says and examine whether it makes sense - to an extent that I might never be able to if I were in direct verbal conversation. For example, Plantinga says

...fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.

Although he spent a paragraph leading up to this conclusion, he fails to (or chooses to not to) unpack what the apparent fine tuning of the universe means. First, refer to Douglas Adam’s parable of the puddle:

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'

Following Adams, we can say that we exist in a human-shaped puddle. we exist in a universe that supports our existence. We would thus expect any “tunable” parameters to be in the range in which our existence can be sustained, and we do. There’s nothing surprising about this, and absolutely nothing that implies a fine-tuner, or even a ((gasp)) god. Second, here is no reason to expect the “cause” to be a rational agent such as god is usually claimed to be. It may be a brute fact. It may be probability. The fact that we have insufficient information to say why it is this way is no reason to fabricate a cause.

It’s my freedom to read, hopefully digest and synthesize, and write down my conclusions on topics like this that makes me appreciate the written word.

Long live the written word!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Alvin Plantinga at The Stone

Gary Gutting is doing a series of interviews on religion at The Stone for the New York Times. His first one was with Alvin Plantinga, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and sometimes inspiration for the apologetics of Dr. William Lane Craig. The interview originally appeared in February, but I took the opportunity to re-read it this past week to see how it fares against my amateur counter-apologetics. The title (and subject) of the piece is “Is Atheism Irrational?”. I’ll try to summarize Plantinga’s significant points and comment on them - but I recommend reading the article to get the full context.

Gutting opens by stating that the majority of philosophers are atheist or atheist-leaning, and asks whether their views are warranted. Plantinga replies that arguments for theism can certainly be rejected as unsound, but that’s not sufficient for atheism. Even or Odd?He then gives an example that because there’s no good reason to believe that there are an even number of stars in the sky, that doesn't give you warrant to believe that there are an odd number of stars.

You can find at least two things - that while technically defensible - render his reply unconvincing, maybe even irrelevant. First, his use of the term “atheist”. When taken literally - it simply means “not theist”. Even the dictionary defines it primarily as lacking belief, with a secondary definition being an active belief that there is no god. Yet Plantinga appears to take this secondary definition to make this part of his case. I suppose if you’re in the business of shoring up the theist edifice, then arguing against people who take the “strong atheist” position makes for more impressive rhetoric. Plantinga’s second problem is his example of “even-starism”. He attempts to draw a comparison from the warrant of this to the warrant for non-belief, yet the two aren’t even remotely comparable. In the case of even-starism, the choices are concrete and limited: there are either an even number of stars or an odd number of stars in the universe. There are no other alternative answers. The question of whether god exists is purely conjectural, and sufficiently ill-defined that further debate seems (and often is) pointless. It is a different knowledge domain than that regarding the number of stars in the universe. We know there are stars, but we don’t know if a god is even a sensible concept. We don't know how one can exist, whether it has any characteristics that we normally associate with it, or whether the god we’re describing resembles, or in fact is, one described by anyone having any belief in such things. It’s apples and oranges - the first example doesn’t imply anything about how we should evaluate the soundness of the second.

Gutting then questions Plantinga’s implication that lack of belief is unwarranted, to which Plantinga replies with Russell’s Teapot. Russell’s TeapotAgain, he’s deceptively indirect here. He states that there are good reasons to believe that there is not a teapot in orbit around the sun, assuming that Russell's example is meant to refer to a real man-made object that would have to be put in place by men. Yet Russell's Teapot - as I understand it - is meant as a parody - a broad metaphor for anything that cannot be detected. This counter example is not compelling. He appears to be rebutting a specific case that the originator never intended. You might call that a straw man.
The remainder of this interview centers on two other lines of thought - a traditional “good” argument for theism - fine tuning - and what appears to be Plantinga’s own Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism .

Until next time...

Update 6/1/2014:
From the You Learn Something Every Day Department: I found out today that Bertrand Russell first formulated his Teapot example in 1952, seven years before the Russians had put Sputnik into orbit around the earth. So Plantinga's criticism of The Teapot seems even more off-point now. Bertrand Russell, speaking in 1952 when human capability to put a teapot into orbit did not exist, was well justified in lacking belief that such an artifact was in fact in orbit. I bet Plantinga didn't know that either!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Consensus on God?

Richard Carrier explains the role of Expert Opinion in his latest post "On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus". Upon reaching the reference to Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, it dawned on me just how riddled with problems concepts like "conventional wisdom" ("CW") and popular opinion are.

Take the idea that God, gods, or the supernatural exists. In the world today, I presume the majority believe in a higher supernatural power or realm. This despite the lack of a jot of evidence or a tittle of rational argument that something supernatural exists. What are the chances that this majority are correct? First assume that most of us are not capable of making a correct judgement about things that we are not expert on. Conventional WisdomThis eliminates the vast vast majority of subjects that we laymen can discuss concretely and accurately. In fact, using myself as an example, 20 years in software development qualify me to claim expertise on some areas of software development, but in the overall population of software developers, I might rank in the 70th or 80th percentile. Could you go to me for software development expertise? In a certain context, absolutely. In all contexts? No, only in some cases. Can we infer something from this specific example to possible expertise on the subject of God?

First, we can say that no one has practical experience in the field of God. Face it, it is conjectural. If you were to set out on a program of research to find God, you’d have to define what you’re looking for in terms that could yield a sensible result. A god of the Greek persuasionQuestions like these will immediately muddy the waters: do we search for a general higher power, an ultimate highest power, a power described by existing sacred texts, a power described by philosophers to cover the general case? What constitutes good evidence that we’ve observed God? Can other researchers duplicate the tests and achieve the same results? How do we infer God’s concrete nature from these results? How do we map our observations and the inferences we make onto the current philosophical, theological, religious and/or spiritual landscapes - or do we carve out a new (scientific?) landscape in which to repose our findings?

Compare this conjectural research project with the current state of thought about God. There are philosophers that consider the nature of God - a specific instance like Yahweh, or the general case as in “the ground of all being. There are theologists that take specific formulations such as Yahweh, and supporting texts (the Bible, adjunct Jewish texts, apocrypha, commentary on all of the above) and develop theses about right belief, right living and so on. But where is there someone who can be called an expert? The pastors, deacons, bishops of any particular church are not experts with concrete God experience. They are practitioners in running churches, helping church-goers live in accordance with right beliefs and practices, nurturing the religious community, organizing and delivering charity (good for them!!!). Not one of them can bring a God experience to a neutral third party for evaluation, and have that deemed to be evidence for the existence of God.

This has always bothered me, and Dr. Carrier formalized the problem by pointing out how and when expert opinion is to be valued. A church, and the general congregation that accepts and reinforces the beliefs and practices of that church, are all non-experts. They have no claim to authority in a global sense, although the individual could choose to allow other individuals to assert authority over them for various reasons. Outside the church, those beliefs and practices are of lesser interest. Moreover, anyone claiming expertise must (after Carrier) be familiar with the best arguments against their claims, and be able to address them. When you start to evaluate the claims that affirm and negate the existence of God - and more generally, the supernatural - you then have a series of alternatives that can be judged for their effectiveness in explaining phenomena in the world. By this point, you then conclude that physical evidence for the supernatural does not exist, and rational argument for its existence is fundamentally circular, bare assertion, argument from personal incredulity, or appeal to emotion.

A jury - Twelve Angry MenWhere does that leave us when looking for experts on God? We don’t have experts on God. We have people who claim authority - as individuals or as representatives of a religion or sacred text - but no one that we can really acknowledge as an expert. So we return to Condorcet’s Jury Theorem:

When “each voter has an independent probability p of voting for the correct decision” then:

If p is greater than 1/2 (each voter is more likely to vote correctly), then adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct. In the limit, the probability that the majority votes correctly approaches 1 as the number of voters increases.

On the other hand, if p is less than 1/2 (each voter is more likely than not to vote incorrectly), then adding more voters makes things worse: the optimal jury consists of a single voter.

Since individually, the vast vast vast majority of us are not experts on God, then a consensus on God is of no value to us, and there are no experts to then refer to.

...a consensus on God is of no value to us...

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Crude Apologetics

In the blog post that inspired my prior piece on physical and mental worlds, Jeffrey Jay Lowder refers to an exchange between he and a Dangerous Idea commenter “Crude” about the nature of Naturalism, and it’s efficacy in explaining the world. The Dangerous Idea thread can be viewed here, while the prime mover for all this was at Axis of Jared.

I often find these exchanges interesting as much for their similarity to other blog/Twitter/Facebook dialogues as for any novel new apologetics that I might encounter. In this instance, “Crude” switches between criticisms of naturalism and atheism often enough to give me the impression that he (or she) couldn’t quite zero in on exactly what in Lowder’s comments was worthy of criticism. But he had sound bites, and wasn’t afraid to use them.

I'll apologize in advance for using soooo muuuuch of the material on Dangerous Idea in this post. It's for my benefit - to condense and focus the flow of arguments so that their strengths and weaknesses can be observed close up.

To give some context, this Lowder reply to Dangerous Idea commenter Legion of Logic gets Crude's attention :

Metaphysical naturalism entails that there is a physical universe, whereas theism does not. So the fact that matter exists is evidence favoring metaphysical naturalism over theism.

Crude engages with Lowder:

That doesn't seem right at all. First, it seems trivially false when we see the list of theisms on offer (polytheism of the sort that involves Zeus, etc, would swing right against it - those gods were apparently physical beings), and second, 'naturalism' is notoriously hard to define (I always refer to the SEP entry of naturalism to illustrate this.) Third, you'd need to define 'matter' and 'physical universe'.

Crude’s claim that “the list of theisms on offer“ is a counterargument to naturalism sounds like he accepts “the list of theisms on offer” at face value - that they are a real part of the physical world. This is completely off-the-wall. If this is supposed to serve as a counter-argument to naturalism, it's utter nonsense.

Crude’s criticism of Krauss is equally unclear:

it seems like if it were in fact the case that 'physical universe' was required by naturalism, then Krauss' speculations - even such as they are, non-ultimate - would seem to strike against *naturalism*, not theism. After all, there'd be a point at which there was no physical universe, just laws or a system or a force. But if the mere existence of laws or a system or a force is compatible naturalism, then it's hard to see what isn't - you can even get classical theism under an umbrella that big.

I’ll take a guess that he’s reducing Krauss’ conception of the universe at the absolute beginning to “mere existence of laws or a system or a force“ without explaining how he arrives at this. So, it's a straw man, or a guess, maybe something else. I don't see what his point is, so I can't accept it as a counterargument either. Wasted words.



Assume for just a moment that the universe is factually necessary (as opposed to logically necessary, metaphysically necessary, or factually contingent). How do you go from "the universe is factually necessary" to "atheism is still out in the cold."


A brief googling tells me that you're talking about a Swinburne conception here, with the 'factually necessary' being a brute fact. If that's accurate, then you're right on back to inexplicable magic, and the issues of metaphysical necessity and contingency are left unresolved.

Again, it appears Crude reduces this rather hastily, to bad effect (“you're right on back to inexplicable magic“). In any discussion, the participants will rely on some axioms that they hope are generally accepted by all. In this exchange, Lowder assumes physical entities that we know about, or can eventually know about, are all that exists. By extension, any originating cause of the world would be physical (my words, not his). Crude (I assume he’s taking the Theist position) assumes God in place of the physical things that Lowder presumes. Crude attacks Lowder by ridiculing the axioms for natural explanations as “magic”, while ignoring the fact that magic is the essence of the Theist project. The irony is deep here.

Bottom line? Crude doesn’t like Lowder’s axiom(s), while privileging his own with no justification. He can't make a persuasive argument that way.

Bonus gripe: the “Atheism is still out in the cold” claim is off-topic. The contention between these two is (my words) "Naturalism vs. Theism as an explanation for the world". Atheism (the broadly defined lack of belief in theism) is a natural byproduct of Naturalism, but only addresses a single topic - god. We know (kinda sorta) what Crude means - he doesn't like the general non-belief position - but it's a distraction when he himself appears to be unclear what the topic is.



I agree with that there are theisms on offer which entail the existence of gods (lower case 'g') who are/were physical beings. But that point is not of obvious relevance to my argument, which was an evidential argument against God (capital 'G'), not those other types of supernaturalism.


Well, yes, I think it's entirely relevant to your argument - since it runs against atheism. I also pointed out the problems with your view re: the God of Classical Theism.

Finally, why are these even 'types of supernaturalism'? I think the natural/supernatural distinction is almost entirely arbitrary here.

I get what Lowder says, and don't get what Crude is saying. He says (simplified) "oh yes it does" without elaboration, then appears to play dumb regarding "those other types of supernaturalism", which are the "the list of theisms on offer" that he just got done touting as a counterargument to Naturalism.


This revised version of the argument brings out the problem for S even more clearly.


Not really. In fact, it just highlights the problems you're getting at each and every step.

Sheesh ... "I know you are, but what am I?" That's not a counterargument. Again.


1'. E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.


First, we're right on back to needing to explain what counts as E. Second, if you define E in a restricted way, idealism still exists as a live possibility. Third, I pointed out that if E is defined as matter, etc, then we're in the situation of atheists arguing that naturalism was out and out false in the past.

Crude's throwing out a hypothetical that Lowder didn't make ("if you define E in a restricted way"). Twice. "if E is defined as matter, etc, ". It appears that Crude is going off on a tangent. Whether he's doing so purposely is not clear.


2'. S is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(S) is not much greater than Pr(N).


And now we're back to the issue of 'N' being pretty vacuous as a definition, and very little principled difference between S and N in the relevant senses.

Taken out of context here, Crude has a point. If N and S are equally probable, then neither interlocutor has an advantage. But it's not meant to stand alone. Lowder presents 4 statements, with the first three as premises to a conclusion. So Crude missed the point.


3'. Pr(E | N) =1 > Pr(E | S).


A view I've called into question on multiple fronts.

Crude failed to address the conclusion (4) of Lowder's original comment. He just really missed the point. Here's what Lowder said:

Let E = the existence of physical entities, N = metaphysical naturalism, and S = metaphysical supernaturalism.

1'. E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.
2'. S is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(S) is not much greater than Pr(N).
3'. Pr(E | N) =1 > Pr(E | S).
4'. Other evidence held equal, S is probably false, i.e., Pr(S | B & E) < 1/2.

What Lowder could have said to clarify was that premise 3 indicates a) all the evidence we have is expected on N, b) little or no evidence we have is expected on S. Crude did not understand the notation, or chose to ignore it.

In conclusion, it appears that these two were talking past each other. I don't think that Lowder was as concise as he sometimes is - a plain English explanation of the above argument may have helped, for example - but Crude seemed to willfully miss the point more often than not.

Another worthy example of bad apologetics.