Monday, May 15, 2017

Should We Ban Sharia Law?

            From time to time, people in some segments of American government and society make calls for the banning of Sharia law. For those unfamiliar, Sharia is a body of law that has grown up in majority-Muslim countries based on the commands and requirements of the Koran and the Hadith. It actually varies a bit from country to country, depending on how the local power structures interpret the requirements of Islam, so it’s a little difficult to nail down exactly what it is. But, nonetheless, a significant portion of Americans seem to think it needs to be banned in order to prevent things like female genital mutilation, child brides, and wife beating. But mostly, so that Muslims will know in no uncertain terms that they are officially unwelcome here.
            But here’s the thing: most of the stuff that would actually make sense to ban is already illegal, and if Sharia has somehow managed to invent some forms of abuse that aren’t addressed under current laws we have the option to address those as needed. Most of the rest of it are things we’ve generally decided it’s not the government’s business to regulate. You may feel like Sharia’s rules on dividing up inheritances are pretty shitty, but we kind of take it for granted in America that it’s up to the deceased how to divide up his property on his death. Dietary rules are also part of Sharia. Gonna ban people from not eating pork? Gonna ban people from not drinking alcohol? Gonna force people to charge interest whenever they loan someone money? How would that work, exactly, given that many versions of Christianity and Judaism include similar restrictions? Would you ban people from refraining from eating certain foods or drinking certain drinks only if they do so because of Muslim rules but not if they do so because they just don’t want to? Or if they are following (for example) Jewish dietary rules? Clearly that kind of thing is unworkable. Oh, yeah, and it’s also unconstitutional.
            Oops! That niggling little thing: the Constitution. Remember the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Do you think, possibly, that it might be a “law respecting an establishment of religion,” to place a blanket ban on all the behavioral rules of a specific religion? Think that might be somewhat infringing the religious rights of Muslims? Perhaps?
            Or maybe you’re concerned that Muslims would legislate Sharia onto the rest of us if it weren’t banned. Well, currently Muslims make up only about 1% of the population of the U.S., so it’s hard to see them coming up with the kind of legislative majorities that would be necessary to pull that off. But there’s another little secret you may not be aware of: that’s already illegal. Once again, the First Amendment. Just as the government isn’t allowed to ban people from practicing their own religion, it’s also not allowed to force people to practice someone else’s religion.
            I know there’s a grand tradition in this country of ignoring that last part, which may explain some of the confusion. You see, trying to use the government to force religious practices on people who don’t share your religion is the right-wing Christians’ shtick. These are the same people who regularly call for the banning of Sharia law. And it’s a case of creating their own problem, because this is the same group that has been, by leaps in bounds, the most dogged and the most successful in eroding the secular legal principles that would allay these concerns.
            After all, it’s hard to argue that American law prevents the imposition of a particular religion on the populace, when it’s your goal to impose your own religion on the populace. It’s hard to argue that people can’t ignore laws that conflict with their religion, while demanding the right to ignore laws that conflict with your religion. It’s hard to argue that religious laws don’t trump national laws, while regularly electing officials who claim your religious laws do trump national laws. It’s in this context of denial that the American Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of and from religion that is the only context where a Sharia ban makes any sense.

            So, diatribe aside, I don’t believe we can or should ban Sharia. While it contains many examples of what I would call bad ideas, even horrific ideas, it also contains some that are reasonable and worthwhile and some that are just not worth writing any legislation about one way or the other. It’s a lot like other religions, in that way. In my opinion, such a ban would be unconstitutional, entirely inconsistent with American traditions of religious freedom, and cruelly alienating to Muslims for no good reason whatsoever.

Friday, May 5, 2017

How Do You Justify Inference?

            There’s an argument I heard the other day that I don’t think I’ve ever addressed on here: God is necessary in order to justify scientific inference. Let me see if I can summarize the idea for you.
            In scientific investigation, it is a baseline assumption that the universe will continue to behave in the future as it has behaved in the past. This is the assumption that allows us to make predictions based on data we have collected – i.e. this has to be true in order to make scientific inferences. After all, what good does it do to collect data about (for example) the strength of gravity and how it relates to mass if gravity might simply cease to exist tomorrow? How can you calculate satellite orbits, if there’s no reason to think gravity might not reverse itself five minutes after launch? It’s essential to believe that the universe will continue to behave the way it has in the past for any of that to make sense.
            But, the argument goes, how do you justify believing that? If you go for the obvious – that it’s an assumption that has always worked for us in the past – isn’t that circular? You can’t justify believing that what has worked in the past will continue to work in the future just because it always worked in the past.
            So, how do you get out of that circle?
            Here’s where God enters the argument. The claim being made is that the only possible justification for believing that scientific inference is valid, the only possible way out of the logical circle, is that God has revealed to us that the rules of this universe are constant. Therefore, doing any science at all (or, really, acting in any way as if the world is going to continue being just as coherent a second from now as it always has been in the past) is tacit admission that God exists.
            So… where do I begin?
            As far as I can tell, we don’t know that the laws of the universe won’t change; not in the sense of having absolute logical certainty of it, anyway. We act as if they won’t, because we have no choice.
            Or rather, you have the choice to act as if the universe is a sensible place where the future will continue to behave much like the past, or you can curl up into a catatonic ball and ignore everything going on around you until you starve to death. You can act in accordance with your observations of the world you live in, or you can die. That’s it. This isn’t a revelation from God, it’s a practical reality. Living things that act like none of their past experiences can inform their future actions die, and those that act like their past experiences are relevant to their future actions at least have a chance to survive.
            But it’s more than that. The alternative – that the rules of the universe are subject to change and we have no access to the reasons for this to happen – means we die and there’s nothing we can do about it. After all, as fans of the fine-tuning argument are fond of pointing out, if the rules of the universe were anything other than what they are, we couldn’t exist. If gravity changes, the earth’s orbit destabilizes and we all die. If inter-nuclear forces change, our body chemistry fails and we all die. If electromagnetism goes haywire, our neurons fail and we all die. These are not possibilities we can act on or prepare for in any way, and on the other side of such eventualities we simply cease to exist, so for purposes of determining our behavior they are utterly irrelevant.
            And even if there were to be a fundamental change that we somehow survived, we’d have no choice but to try and learn how the “new normal” works – a process that will require inference from our new observations.
            So, to summarize, we do not seem to be able to have absolute certainty that the laws of the universe will continue to be in the future what they have been in the past, but we also seem to have no choice but to behave as if they will. Whether it’s true or not, we are stuck with the assumption that it is.
            Now, that can be a very uncomfortable position to be in. The idea that the universe around you could possibly just cease functioning, and that you have no way to know that this won’t happen, can really suck if you dwell on it too much. Most of the time we just kind of casually accept the assumption that the universe will keep working and don’t dwell on it. And really, we’re kind of used to operating with a certain amount of uncertainty. After all, I can’t guarantee that I won’t get hit by a bus on the way to work on any given day, but I get up and hit the road anyway. We don’t need absolute certainty in order to function.
            So the argument falls apart there, since it’s built on the assumption that we need absolute certainty to act on inference. But we don’t need it, and we don’t have it. We just have reasons to want it, and those reasons are solely to assuage our own feelings of uncertainty.
            And that gets to the fundamental conceit of the argument. Essentially, it posits that human certainty is so fundamental to existence, the universe is so very much “about us,” that an “out” for this logical uncertainty must exist. Existence itself owes it to us. Humanity is so important that it simply cannot be true that we can have no choice but to accept something fundamental about the universe and yet not be absolutely certain about it. If the only thing one can think of that will give that certainty is a god, then that god must exist. The argument centers “making humans existentially comfortable” as the fundamental trait of the universe that determines what is real and what is not.
            What’s weird is that the person who was making the argument seemed to know it. When confronted with the fact that the argument “I believe God exists because I’m certain inference is valid, and I’m certain inference is valid because I believe God exists,” is circular, he acknowledged this was true. He just claimed that it’s a “good kind of circular,” because it allows him to have a consistent worldview. In other words, it makes him feel good, so he’s willing to accept it even though he knows it’s logically fallacious.
             OK, whatever. I suppose that if it works for him and he understands the limitations, fine. So why even bother to write about it? Well, because it’s not really an isolated case. It’s part of a frustrating class of arguments that has been cropping up a lot under the heading of presuppositionalism. They all pretty much take the form of “Idea X (scientific inference works, solipsism isn’t real, logical absolutes are valid, etc.) is so fundamental that I can’t imagine functioning without being certain of it. I can’t logically prove Idea X is true. But if I assume God renders Idea X true, I can pretend to be certain of it. Therefore, God exists, everyone who accepts Idea X must also accept that God exists, and anyone who says differently is lying.” It’s that last bit that takes the argument from bad to offensive.

            This is one of those apologetics that is all but guaranteed to frustrate and annoy atheists. Because it’s not actually an argument. It’s not actually trying to convince anyone, and, when pressed, even flatly acknowledges that it’s not convincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe. Its claim is that it doesn’t need to convince anyone, because everyone already believes it. It’s crafted for the sole purpose of creating a bubble of delusion for the believer by casting literally everyone else as liars. It’s utterly alienating; great for walling people off from each other. But as an actual argument for the existence of a god, it’s an abject failure.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Is the Design Inference Really That Simple?

            I was listening to yet another iteration of the argument from design the other day, based on the idea that design is the simplest explanation for the fine tuning of the universe. The fine tuning argument, for those who don’t know, is based on the idea that there are several fundamental constants inherent in the physics of the universe that could not be varied from what they are by anything more than the tiniest fraction without the entire universe as we know it being rendered impossible. For example, if the gravitational constant were much higher than it is the universe would have collapsed on itself within seconds of the Big Bang, and if it were much lower gravity wouldn’t be strong enough to form stars and galaxies. That’s just one example among many, and the argument goes that there are just too many variables that have to exist in too small a range to be mere products of chance. Therefore, concludes the argument, the inference that there was a designer for the universe is the simplest explanation.
            But is that really a simple explanation?
            I had heard this “simplest explanation” argument in a debate I was listening to, and the debater’s opponent didn’t address the topic in the way I might have. I won’t go into his argument, though, since I flatter myself that you’re reading this because you want to get my thoughts rather than just my regurgitation of someone else’s.
            And, in my opinion, there’s no reason to think “design” is a simple explanation at all.
            Have you ever designed something? You probably have, even if it was only something as simple as an arrangement of furniture in your living room. As an engineer I design things for a living, so I’d like to think I have a little bit of insight into the process. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing simple about it.
            You see, when looking at any aspect of a designed thing, the answer to the question “Why is it like that?” is never “because it was designed that way.” There are reasons for every decision that goes into a design. Every aspect of a design is meant to solve a problem or achieve a purpose. Even something as simple as a hammer, you can ask and answer a lot of questions about it. Why does it have a handle? Because it acts as a lever to multiply force for less effort. Why does it have a flat face? To provide a stable striking surface. Why is the head made of hardened steel? So it isn’t damaged by repeated impacts against iron nails. Why is the handle shaped the way it is? To fit in a human hand.
            Of course, you could answer any of those questions with “because it was designed that way,” if you wanted to, but to do so would be a dodge. It doesn’t explain anything. Because even if there is a designer, he/she/it still has reasons for the decisions that were made. Those reasons will be related to the nature of the designer, the task it’s trying to accomplish, the constraints within which it has to work, and the problems it has to overcome in order to get there. All of that stuff is complicated, and trying to stop at “because it was designed that way,” is just an attempt to hide that complexity. Or to hide from it.
            It seems, in these sorts of arguments, that there’s a buried assumption that conscious actors don’t do things for anything as mundane as reasons. As if merely slotting in a conscious entity serves as an explanation in and of itself. Or, at the very least, that the reasons that a conscious entity does something are simply beyond our reach. So designers, being conscious entities, are an explanation, by themselves, full stop. And never mind the fact that this isn’t really borne out by any of our experience with conscious entities.
            There’s another aspect to it, as well. You see, all of our experience tells us that designers, in and of themselves, are complicated. Name something that you have ever seen consciously design anything, and I guarantee you that it is a very complex entity. Hell, even the things we can’t prove are conscious, yet appear to design and build things (e.g. ant colonies) are pretty damn complicated. We’ve never, ever seen a simple designer, and everything we have ever witnessed suggests that such a thing may not even be possible.
            I’ll just add one more thought, here. Given that anything exists, it exists in some state at some point in time. An explanation for how it came to be in that state should, ideally, account for why it’s in that particular state and not a different one. But no matter what state any system is in, “it was designed that way,” is equally applicable to all of them. Which means it still doesn’t actually explain why we have this particular state.
            The universe appears to be a complicated place, and we don’t have any direct evidence for why or how some of those complications came to be the way they are. For that matter, we don’t have any direct evidence for whether they even could have been anything other than what they are. We can’t see (at least, not yet) what determines the gravitational constant, for example. But to infer a designer as the answer doesn’t simplify the problem in any real sense. It just hides the complexity behind a wall of possibly unwarranted assumptions. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Are You Touched by the Babies in the Womb?

            Have you ever seen the following script?

Two twins were talking in the womb:
Tell me, do you believe in life after birth?
Of course. After birth comes life. Perhaps we are here to prepare for what comes after birth.
Forget it! After birth there is nothing! From there, no one has returned! And besides, what would it look like?
I do not know exactly, but I feel that there are lights everywhere … Perhaps we walk on our own feet, and eat with our mouth.
This is utterly stupid! Walking isn’t possible! And how can we eat with that ridiculous mouth? Can’t you see the umbilical cord? And for that matter, think about it for a second: postnatal life isn’t possible because the cord is too short.
Yes, but I think there is definitely something, just in a different way than what we call life.
You’re stupid. Birth is the end of life and that’s it.
Look, I do not know exactly what will happen, but Mother will help us…
The Mother? Do you believe in the Mother? !
Yes.
Do not be ridiculous! Have you seen the Mother anywhere? Has anyone seen her at all?
No, but she is all around us. We live within her. And certainly, it is thanks to her that we exist.
Well, now leave me alone with this stupidity, right? I’ll believe in Mother when I see her.
You cannot see her, but if you’re quiet, you can hear her song, you can feel her love. If you’re quiet, you can feel her caress and you will feel her protective hands.

            This was making its rounds a little while back in social media circles, accompanied by gushing comments about how beautiful it is. And it was kind of aggravating to me, because from my perspective it’s ugly and dishonest. Let me explain why.
            Now, obviously, this is meant as an analogy to belief in a god and the afterlife, with one baby representing the “atheist,” and the other representing the “believer.” Which brings me immediately to the first reason this little vignette is both ugly and dishonest: Atheist Baby is a blatant asshole. His questions aren’t honest inquiries, but simply set-ups for insults that he delivers with strident exclamations. You’re supposed to dislike Atheist Baby because he has a shitty personality. By contrast, Believer Baby is portrayed as calm and reasonable and likable. This is pure emotional manipulation aimed at making the reader like Believer Baby’s position better because they like Believer Baby himself better. It also plays to the stereotype that atheists are just nasty, condescending jerks.
            The other dishonest thing it’s supposed to do is distract you from the fact that both babies are arguing in exactly the same manner. Each one is simply declaring things that they have no way of knowing. One is being a jerk about it, and the other is being nice, but they are both doing the same thing. Of course, here’s where the author cheats: he always has Atheist Baby assert with absolute conviction and contempt things that we know are wrong, and Believer Baby assert in a reasonable-sounding and friendly manner things that we know are true.
            And that’s the trick. The author is trying to make you think that this analogy of birth and life is comparable to real questions about death and the afterlife. There’s never any reason given in the story to think that either baby could possibly know anything about what happens after birth. But the author, and anyone reading this thing, lives in the world that Believer Baby is describing. Believer Baby says correct things only because the author knows they’re correct and puts those words in his mouth. Atheist Baby says incorrect things only because the author knows they’re incorrect and puts those words in his mouth.
            The thing is Believer Baby could have spoken any nonsense at all, and Atheist Baby would have had exactly as much reason to believe it as he has to believe what was actually said in the story. It’s the fact that you already know what happens after birth that the author counts on to get you to skate past the fact that Believer Baby hasn’t actually justified anything he said. The author wants you to believe that, because Believer Baby is right about birth, then you ought to accept that religious believers are right about death. Which is why it’s funny that I’ve found this story on different sites promoting different religions, each of which have different beliefs about what the afterlife is like. The story is, conveniently, vague enough to be useful to promote pretty much any afterlife you want.


             All of that in addition to just the practical questions about the story itself. Such as:

·         How do these babies even know about birth in the first place? They would never have been in the womb to see one.
·         Where did Believer Baby get the idea of walking? It isn’t even a concept that would make sense to someone whose only experience is floating in a cramped uterus.
·         Are we supposed to think all this knowledge was inherent, or mystically imparted? If so, why was only one baby gifted with the knowledge of what the outside world is like, when both were gifted with the knowledge of what birth is?


Further, the analogy of birth with death is just a bad one because they are very different processes. An observer in the womb sees a completely different situation during birth than an observer in the world sees during death. If you were watching a birth from inside the womb, you would see a physical baby moving through an aperture in a physical barrier. You’d probably still hear their voice from the other side, suggesting they continue to exist in some other space. You might know little to nothing about it, but there should be little doubt that the baby has gone someplace else. It’s literally just like someone walking into another room – a change of location rather than a change of state. Whereas in death, the dead person physically remains here, but has lost the quality of being animate and able to interact volitionally with others. You don’t see him pass through anything, you don’t see him going anywhere, he didn’t leave. He has changed state without changing location. This is just a terrible analogy.

            This is not a beautiful story. It’s ugly from its core. It’s a deception, and a manipulation, based entirely on using unpleasant stereotypes to hide bad reasoning. And it is those things, even if you ultimately agree with what it’s selling.