Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Do You Believe in a Thing Called Love?

            A fairly common rejoinder to atheists’ desire for concrete evidence to indicate the existence of a god is something along the lines of “well, you believe in love, don’t you?” The essence of the argument is that love, like god, doesn’t have any kind of physical form, can’t be seen, heard, tasted, smelt, or felt, and yet pretty much everyone (atheists included), believe that it exists. So, if you believe in love, how can you not believe in gods? Or, conversely, if you don’t believe in gods, how can you believe in love?
            This is an equivocation. That’s when you pretend that two things that share only a superficial similarity are actually the same in order to apply to one of them an argument that only supports the other.
            You see, god and love are not being said to exist in the same way, so the comparison isn’t actually valid. Love is an emotional state. It is generated in the brains of individual human beings. It manifests in people’s consciousness as a set of feelings. It manifests outwardly only in the way that it compels human beings to behave, and we are able to communicate to each other a shared understanding of how that feels and what actions it motivates. We can monitor brain states and see, physically, how the experience affects the brain. But love doesn’t have any existence outside of that. I don’t think most people believe that love is a conscious entity floating around in the universe doing things independently for its own reasons.
            Now, you can accurately say that at least some people experience a god as a set of internal feelings. And that it manifest outwardly in the ways it compels people to behave. That we can communicate a sort of shared understanding of how it feels and what actions it motivates. We can even monitor brain states and see, physically, how the experience affects the brain. But then we’re asked to accept that the god does have an independent existence outside of that. We’re asked to believe that the god is a conscious entity floating around doing things independently for its own reasons.
            That’s where the comparison completely breaks down. Evidence that is sufficient to believe in the existence of an emotional state is not also sufficient to believe in the existence of an independent conscious entity. They’re not even remotely the same thing. It’s like asking us to believe unicorns exist because we already believe the color pink exists.

            Yeah, I believe in love. Just not God.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Is Christianity Inherently Offensive?

            A friend of mine posted a religious meme a little while back that annoyed me. I mean, people are posting religious memes all the time, but this one got on my nerves because it read like a direct accusation that people who aren’t focused on God all the time are inherently selfish and self-absorbed. So I said something about it. We had a brief conversation, and the part that stuck out to me was when she that she couldn’t promise not to post anything offensive in the future on account of Christianity being inherently offensive due to its claim to be the only true religion.
            So… is that true? Is Christianity inherently offensive? And, if so, is it because of its exclusive truth claim?
            As usual, this question is complicated by the fact that there are just so many versions of Christianity. Some of them I think are offensive, and some I don’t. But then, maybe that makes the answer simple: if there can be versions of Christianity that aren’t offensive, then Christianity must not be inherently offensive.
            But that’s kind of dodging my friend’s assertion, because of course she means her Christianity is inherently offensive (and, by implication, those versions that aren’t offensive are not valid Christianities). So let’s examine that.
            First, I’m not going to make any claims about what is or is not a valid Christianity. That’s not my issue to sort out. I don’t buy the baseline claims of any of them, so it would be a pointless exercise. I’m just going to talk about what makes some versions offensive.
            I guess the place to start is to think a bit about what makes a claim offensive. Because I don’t think that mere assertion that one proposition is true, and another false, is offensive by itself. If I say it’s true that the earth is round, and false that the earth is flat, that is not an offensive claim. And, despite the common assertion that “you’re only offended because I’m speaking the truth,” I don’t think people are generally offended by truth, either. No, I think that what makes a claim offensive is a perceived combination of negative judgment and falseness. In essence, if I feel you are judging me negatively based on a false premise, I am likely to be offended.
             By way of illustration, do you suppose that a woman might be offended by the claim “girls can’t do math,” because she believes it’s true, or because she believes it’s false? Do you suppose she might find it offensive because it indicates a positive judgment of women, or a negative one? Or, think about some time you, yourself, may have been offended; was it because you thought the offensive idea was true or false? I’m betting you thought it was false.
            I suppose someone could feign offense if you made a negative, but true, judgment about them. But, in that case, they’re not actually offended. They’re ashamed and trying to cover for it. Note, however, that even the feigned offense is an attempt to deny the truth of the statement, not confirm it. Even in this case, offense is inextricably tied to the perception of falseness.
            Of course, the mere fact that someone finds your position offensive doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re incorrect. It only means that they believe you’re incorrect. So if you find that you’re regularly offending people, you need to consider that something is going wrong in your communication. You’re saying things that are wrong, or you are failing to persuade your audience that you’re right. Either way, it means that you still have some work to do – whether that be in reevaluating your presentation and argument, or questioning the actual truth of what you’ve said. In neither case should one be proud of being offensive.
            Unless, of course, you’re just a jerk who gets off on upsetting other people to no purpose.
            So, how does this tie back to the original question of whether Christianity is inherently offensive? Well, it boils down to this: I don’t think things that are true can be inherently offensive. They can be perceived as offensive, but only to the degree that they are perceived as false. So I would say that the kinds of Christianities that proudly describe themselves as inherently offensive are probably correct, in that they are both judgmental and false. It is not the fact that they claim to be true that makes them offensive; it’s the fact that they claim they right to judge people negatively (in many cases to the point of inflicting real harm on people), while appearing to be false, that makes them offensive.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Have You Heard the Trilemma?

            C.S. Lewis once made this response to people who claim Jesus was a great moral teacher but not a god:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
                This is referred to as the Lewis Trilemma, and is often shortened to the phrase “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.” The basic premise being that Jesus cannot have been a great moral teacher and still been an ordinary human, because he also claimed to be God. If that claim was untrue, then he could only have been a liar or a madman, both of which would mean everything he has to say should be disregarded. A popular atheist response to this is that the trilemma is a false one, in that there exists a fourth ‘L’-word that could also be applied: Legend. The argument basically goes that Jesus, if he existed at all, was a dude who had valid moral lessons to teach, while his supernatural claims and/or abilities were legendarily attached to him as embellishments by the authors of his stories. And while I agree that this is a valid alternative, I kind of hold to a different view.
            My view is that the Trilemma is nonsense from the outset. Quite simply, the whole argument rests on an assumption that we need not make in the first place: that the question of whether or not Jesus’ moral teachings have value is dependent in any way on his identity or character.
            Let’s just take one example: the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As a general rule, I think most of us can agree that this is a reasonably good one to apply in your life. But in evaluating the idea and how it might best be applied, does it really matter who said it? Does it matter whether that person held some delusion that he possessed supernatural ancestry? Does it matter whether he lied about his parentage? Does it matter whether every word he ever uttered in his entire life, except for that one sentence, was a complete fabrication? Absolutely not. Either it’s a good idea, or it’s not. It is the idea that we ought to evaluate and not the speaker.
            That’s why I think the whole formulation of the Trilemma is misguided from its very core. If somebody convinces people that they really ought to be doing things that make other people’s lives better, and I am rationally convinced that these are good moral precepts, then I’m likely to call that person a good moral teacher regardless of how ridiculous any claims he might make about his nature and origin might be. I’m on board with giving medicine to the sick, for example, even if the person who convinced me to do so claims to be a lily pad, a god, a demon, or an alien from the planet Orgasmo. Those claims are irrelevant to the value of medicine.
            To Lewis, though, it’s the claim of supernatural authority that is the only relevant part of the equation. Either Jesus really was a god, in which case everything he said is authoritative, or he wasn’t, in which case everything he said was a damnable lie or irrational insanity. It’s a paradigm in which the moral value of everything is dependent solely on whether it has supernatural authority behind it, as if there was no possibility of independently evaluating the impact and value of Jesus’ various statements and claims. To Lewis, it doesn’t matter how good or valuable anything Jesus had to say was; if he claimed to be God, and wasn’t, then he was leading people away from the real God. That makes him either evil or insane, and his teachings valueless.
            I can even sort of get why that would be the case from his perspective. In many forms of Christianity, the only true good is to believe in, worship, and obey their god. Outside of that, nothing you do matters. But it’s an argument that, it seems to me, is silly to direct at anyone. With rare exception, Christians accept that Jesus really was God, and so they wouldn’t be making an argument that he was a great (but merely human) moral teacher. And most people who do think he was a great human moral teacher don’t think the value in his teachings comes from being a god. So what’s the purpose of the argument? I suspect, mostly, that it exists to reassure people who already believe in Jesus’ divinity that they should continue to do so.

            But there’s no logical connection between Jesus being a literal god, and Jesus having some cogent things to say on the subject of morality.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What About Teen Pregnancy?

            So… it seems that our current administration is cutting funding for investigations into how to prevent teen pregnancies. And, of course, this thrills conservative Christians who favor abstinence-only positions. And liberals are less than thrilled, since it’s rather demonstrably true that abstinence-only polices pretty much always result in increases in teen pregnancies. So of course, there has been the usual chorus of liberals and secularists pointing out this fact as if it ought to affect the policy. But I don’t think it will work, because it never does. And I’d kinda like to talk about why I think that is.
            Now, this is just my personal theory. I may be way off base, here, and I encourage anyone who thinks they know better to correct me. But I think that trying to point out the effect of different policies on teen pregnancy rates completely misses the point. It’s based on the assumption that the target audience agrees that teen pregnancy is a problem, and that reducing it ought to be a policy goal. And I don’t think that’s true.
            I don’t think that conservative Christianity, or at least that portion of it seriously involved in government policy and practically orgasmic over the current administration’s eagerness to pander to their agenda, cares even a little bit about teen pregnancy. We liberals and secularists may think they should, and we may even have good reasons for thinking that, but they just don’t. What they care about is premarital sex.
            You see, to secular society, the problems with teenagers having sex is the possibility of contracting an STD, and that getting pregnant at such a young age frequently leads to health problems, unnecessary abortions, and long-term educational and economic disadvantages for both the mother and the baby. Since those are the problems, and it is demonstrably true that sex education (including abstinence, birth control methods, how conception and pregnancy work, and how STDs are transmitted) reduces the chances of these occurring, then it only makes sense to have a comprehensive sex education policy.
            To conservative Christianity, the problem is with anyone, of any age, having sex outside of marriage because their god doesn’t approve of that sort of thing. It doesn’t give a fig whether we’re talking about teenagers or geriatrics; if they’re married they can have sex and should get pregnant, and if they’re not married they should not have sex for any reason. Full stop. The only possible policy that meets this goal is abstinence outside of marriage. It’s not about whether anything negative happens as a result of sex. The consequences are immaterial. Their god said you shouldn’t do it, so you are supposed to obey.
            Thoughts? Anybody?
            I think that we sometimes talk about fundamentally different worldviews that value different things as if they value the same things. We like to focus on what we have in common, and in general I think that’s a good idea. But we shouldn’t allow it to blind us to how the differences impact the way we talk to each other. Or rather, allow it to let us talk past each other because we make too many assumptions. It behooves us to pay attention to what other people profess to believe, and take them seriously. I know it bugs me when other people treat me as if I don’t actually believe what I say I believe. I figure I owe other people the courtesy of taking them at face value.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What is Falsifiability (and Why is it Important)?

            The concept of falsifiability is a scientific idea that often comes up in discussions on the existence of gods. Judging by the reactions I sometimes see, it seems to be a badly misunderstood concept. So I figured I’d put up a short post about what it means.
            Falsifiability, in a nutshell, is the ability to frame a test for a hypothesis that would be capable of disproving it (i.e. proving it false). If an idea is unfalsifiable, that means that no test can be devised that would prove it wrong. Here’s where the confusion often comes in: “unfalsifiable,” does not mean “true,” and “falsifiable,” does not mean “false.” In actuality, many facts about reality that we generally accept as true are falsifiable.
            Let me see if I can illustrate the idea with an easy example. Suppose I had a pebble sitting in the bottom of a bowl of water, and I wanted to investigate why the pebble is sitting at the bottom instead of floating. So I come up with the hypothesis that the pebble must be denser than the water. To check, I take the pebble out of the water, dry it off, weigh it, measure its volume, and come up with a density number. Then I do the same with a volume of the water, and I compare the two densities.
            So what happens if it turns out the pebble really does have a higher density than the water? This doesn’t actually prove the hypothesis. It’s a data point in favor of it, but there still might be other factors besides density that are the actual cause of the pebble sinking. More investigation is warranted, and that’s often the case in science; you rarely, if ever, get to say that a given hypothesis is proven true. All you can do is amass evidence that is consistent with it. In that sense, a positive result in this test isn’t all that important on its own, but rather as a building block to a fuller understanding.
            But there is a more important possible result of the test, and that would be if it turned out that the pebble had a lower density than the water. Because if that were the true, then the hypothesis that the pebble sinks because it has a higher density than the water could not be true. The test would have falsified the hypothesis. We’ve never seen that result, we generally accept that it’s true that objects denser than water will sink, but there is a potential outcome of the test that would tell you that the hypothesis is false. This is what it means for hypothesis to be falsifiable.
            But suppose that I had, instead, come up with the hypothesis that the reason the pebble sinks is because there are invisible, intangible water spirits called Naiads that really love pebbles and want to envelop them. Clearly, testing the density of the pebble does nothing to prove this hypothesis true or false, since any possible result can still be explained as the vagaries of Naiad behavior. But here’s the thing: there may very well be no test at all that could ever disprove the Naiad theory. Because no matter what physical observation you make about what traits result in objects sinking in water, it can always be covered by “that’s just what Naiads like to do.” The Naiad hypothesis is not falsifiable.
            So why should we care? What does it really matter?
            Well, as it turns out, an explanation that is not falsifiable is kind of useless. And that’s because the thing that makes a theory unfalsifiable is the fact that it makes no predictions. Going back to the Naiads above, what does believing in the Naiads actually tell you about whether any given object will float? What does it tell you about anything? Does it tell you that you can expect to see Naiads? No; they’re invisible. Does it tell you that you should expect to touch Naiads? No; they’re intangible. Does it tell you that you should expect dense objects to sink? No; Naiads may just not like any particular object even if they seem to have liked every object denser than water in the past. Does it tell you that you should expect less dense objects to float? No; Naiads really could take a liking to anything. Ultimately, there’s no observation you could possibly make that could not be “explained” by saying that it’s just how Naiads choose to behave in that instance. But, by claiming to explain every possible observation, it actually explains none of them. Not in any useful way, anyhow.
            Are Naiads real? Who knows? They’re unfalsifiable – you can’t prove they don’t exist. But since you also clearly can’t make any decisions about the real world that are predicated on their existence, it doesn’t make much sense to act as if they do. How, in fact, would you behave as if they exist, when you can’t test or observe anything about them to know how you should behave?

            Does that sound like anything else you know?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Do You Feel Loved?

            How do you know your mother loves you?
            Or, rather, what is it that you believe you are feeling when you are experiencing your mother’s love? Or the love of anyone, really, whom you love and/or feel like they love you. When you are in their presence and feel that special combination of warmth and happiness that you associate only with them, what is it that you think you’re feeling?
            As I see it, there are two possibilities. One of these is that what you are feeling is your loved one’s actual emotion; that somehow, the love they feel gets projected directly into your consciousness and you are feeling what they feel as they feel it. The other possibility is that what you are feeling is your own emotion, generated in your own brain and triggered by your positive associations with that person combined with the belief that they love you.
            Did I say two possibilities? Because I don’t think the first option is actually possible. Nothing we understand about how the world works suggests that anyone, much less everyone, is capable of projecting their emotions directly into other people’s heads. Nor do we have any reason to think anyone, much less everyone, is capable of plucking the emotions directly out of anyone else’s heads.
            Now, that has some interesting implications. It suggests that it’s quite possible that, when you’re being held by someone you love and are basking in those beautiful emotions, the other person might not even be feeling them. For all you know, they’re wondering how you might taste fire roasted with a barbeque glaze. Or, maybe they’re not actually thinking about you at all. Maybe your girlfriend is absent-mindedly stroking your hair while wondering whether Agents Coulson and May are ever actually gonna share that bottle of Haig. You don’t need them to be feeling that emotion in order for you to feel it. All you need is the right emotional cues, or even just to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Actually, I’d bet that if you think hard enough about it, you could summon up those emotions without your loved one having to be present.
            Or even having to be real…
            Yeah, I’m sure you saw that coming. It is the nature of this blog, after all, and it usually comes to this point eventually. You see, one often hears believer saying that they can “feel God’s love,” and I have to wonder how they know that’s what they feel. After all, we use the same language to say we feel our mother’s love, but I think we all understand that it’s an emotion generated in our own heads that we are feeling. I suppose that it’s possible that, if an all-powerful god existed, it would be capable of telepathically projecting its emotions into our minds. But that would be the only instance of “feeling X’s love” where what you were feeling was X’s actual emotion and not something generated in your own head. And how do you tell the difference? How would you know if the emotions originated with you or with someone else – especially someone else that you can’t otherwise see or hear?

            I don’t know… it seems to me that, knowing that in every other instance of “feeling someone’s love,” is an emotion generated in your own head, you’d have to acknowledge the possibility that “feeling God’s love,” falls in the same category. Or at least that I don’t have any reason to think it’s any different. Wouldn’t you?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Aren’t You Just Rebelling Against God?

            A frequent accusation leveled against atheists is that they don’t really disbelieve in God, but are just rebelling against him. This seems kind of silly from my perspective, but I can see why it might have some weight to someone who actually believes in a god. After all, someone who doesn’t believe in a god isn’t going to be terribly bothered by how that god wants us to behave. Therefore, most vocal atheists not only don’t feel they are bound to follow any god’s orders, but are openly resentful of attempts by religious believers to impose those orders on them. If you think that god is real, and encounter that resentful attitude, it’s easy to see why you might think it’s the source of the atheism.
            It doesn’t help, of course, that some holy books make exactly that claim. I don’t know whether the writers just made the same mistake described above, or if they cynically exploited the fact that it’s an easy mistake for others to make. In the end, I don’t suppose it matters. The statements are in there, and I guess we just have to deal with the fallout.
            But let’s think about this just a little bit. Can you think of any time in history when anyone actually rebelled against any actually existing authority by pretending it didn’t exist? Can you imagine a thief analyzing a target’s security, deciding that he can’t possibly get past it, and then deciding to go ahead with the robbery on the basis of deciding the police don’t exist? Think the American Revolution would have been successful, if it were predicated on the idea that the British Empire didn’t exist? Do you suppose that anyone even stood up and suggested that as a serious approach to take to the problem? People just don’t behave like that.
            Or perhaps, even more nonsensically, you think we’re rebelling against a god we believe exists, and we’re just telling you it’s because we don’t believe. As if, somehow, we have the balls to spit in the face of the all-powerful creator of the universe, but are scared to admit it to ordinary people. Does that make any sense at all?
            On a more personal note, allow me to tell you a little something about myself: I’m not a particularly rebellious person by nature. I am a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy. I’m a follower. As a rule, I do not like to argue. I don’t like to contradict people about things they clearly feel strongly about; I just don’t feel comfortable with that kind of conflict. I especially do not like to engage in those conflicts if I don’t believe I have a really solid reason for my contrary position. I don’t go around breaking laws (well, except maybe the occasional speed limit. Shh! Don’t tell!), even ones I don’t agree with. I am not a brave person. The idea that I could stand up to the ultimate authority in the universe and “rebel” makes no sense at all. That’s not me.
            And yet, here I am telling you that I don’t believe that such a being exists. I’ve spent more than three years writing with fair regularity about this perspective. This isn’t a testament to my vast desire and capacity for rebellion. It’s a testament to just how ridiculous the very idea of a god seems to me, how utterly wrong-headed it appears to me that anyone should bind themselves (and attempt to bind others) to the dictates of an imaginary being.

            So, to sum things up, the idea that people are atheists because they just want to rebel against a god gets the equation backwards. Rather, because we don’t believe a god exists, we see no reason to take its demands seriously. And it isn’t necessarily even a case of rebelling; if a god doesn’t exist, then many of the dictates attributed to it don’t even make any sense. There’s no reason to care what it wants. We evaluate the demands, therefore, on what we perceive to be their merits in the real world, and feel pretty free to disregard the ones that are evidently harmful or pointless. That’s really all there is to it.

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? !
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.