Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Mother of All Assumptions

We’ve all heard the saying about assumptions and, I suspect, we all have enough experience to know that it is partially true. Sometimes, assumptions do make asses out of everyone involved. Of course, sometimes they don’t. The difference between the two situations is almost always in how wild we let the assumption become.

Plenty of things start out as assumptions and there’s nothing wrong with that. So long as the assumption is tested and evidence is gathered, eventually that assumption will cease to be an assumption. Properly tended by reason & evidence, assumption is the seed from which facts spring.

The problem comes when assumptions are untended, left to grow uninhibited by fact or logic. Here there is no pruning, no careful separation of what accords with reality from that which is wild imagination. Here grows Faith. Faith is what happens when assumption is unshackled from reason, when it allowed the luxury of ignoring evidence. Faith is the mother of all assumptions and it seeks to make an ass of us all.

Let’s face it: Faith is a bad thing. I know it. You know it. Hell, even the apologists know this, which is why they are so interested in justifying their beliefs or, failing that, tossing out the inevitable dig that atheists have Faith too.

So then, do atheists have Faith? Have we let our assumptions get out of hand? Let’s look at some of our alleged Faith and see what the case may be.

1) Atheists must believe that something came from nothing- Ok, this isn’t strictly a claim that we have faith in something, but it’s so annoyingly, blatantly wrong that I had to address it. There is nothing in the lack of belief in gods that ties it to a belief that something came from nothing.

2) Atheists display Faith every day, such as the Faith that oncoming traffic won’t cross the center line- A classic case of equivocation. In this case, faith is a synonym for meager assumption, but the apologist is trying to pass it off as something more. If we put it to the test, though, we find that this “faith” is well-tended by logic and reason. There is a sufficient body of evidence (past experience, general self-preservation instincts, etc.) to keep this assumption in check, to afford it a measure of certainty.

3) Atheists (or more broadly anyone who depends on reason & evidence) must have Faith that the natural world is all there is- This one is untrue, but not in the delusional sense. It is a misunderstanding that needs cleared up. Neither atheism nor science depend on the assumption that the natural world is the totality of existence. What they do is look first to the natural world for an explanation. Why? Because we know that the natural world exists. If, by some chance, all natural explanation proved insufficient, science does not exclude us looking for a supernatural one. (The debate over whether we can truly exhaust all natural possibilities is another one entirely.)

4) You must have Faith that your senses can be trusted- Here, we have entered the world of the absurd, a philosophical mire that threatens to drag us all under. I often wonder if the people who suggest this are aware of the implication. No, scratch that. Clearly they aren’t or they would never bring this up. While the details of the mess are too long to discuss here, the short of it is that generally trusting our senses is unavoidable. To do otherwise excuses one from reality. At any rate, it should be easy to see that where our senses are concerned, it is at worst another case of a well-tended assumption that has blossomed into fact.

5) You must have faith that the world is rational/that you can make sense of the world- More often than not, these are separated into two statements but they shouldn’t be. Really they are restatements of each other. To say that something is rational is to say that it is consistent with reason, that it makes sense. Really, this is all that needs to be said here. The world is not rational or irrational, it simply is. Calling it rational is simply saying that we have constructed a reasonable model describing it. It is purely a function of ourselves and requires no Faith. Now, I suppose the apologist could mean that we must have Faith that our model is correct, but yet again this turns out to be a case where assumption has been nurtured by fact, not left to grow into wild faith.

These, of course, are just a few of the things atheists allegedly have faith in, but the pattern holds. Each time, we come around to an initial assumption that has been supported & transformed by evidence. (Not surprisingly, this echoes the scientific method) It is curious to note though, that in the cases above where there was an assumption, it was not limited to atheist. The apologist must assume their senses can be trusted, that their model is correct, that natural explanations are sufficient for a great many phenomena. Add to this the great untethered assumption, the faith in an invisible, intangible, omnipotent magic being. Even if this all comes down to weighing assumptions, the apologist still loses out.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Descent into madness

Well, it seems I’ve ruffled Joe Cienkowski’s feathers with my last post. Shortly after sending him the link on twitter, he blocked me. No reason given, no response, just a sudden blockage. It shows a lot of confidence in your work when you respond to criticism by ignoring people.

Apparantly though, Joe is still claiming that he hasn’t seen a proper refutation of his grand delusion. If he hasn’t, it’s not because they’re not there. I even kept mine simple and stuck to just his numerical problems. When asked about this, Joe insisted I was a mouthpiece as if that somehow invalidated what I said. It doesn’t. The problems still stand and if you can’t address them, I can’t stop myself from laughing at you.

I am dreadfully curious, though, how Joe came to the conclusion that I was a mouthpiece for someone else. Mind you, he has a lot of experience in the field: Joe can’t go a day without parroting Ham or Hovind. Perhaps I should ask them the question. Dear Messrs Ham, Hovind, et al.: Why, precisely, do you believe I am a mouthpiece and for whom?

In fact, let’s all play along. Submit your best guess as to whom I am speaking for. My bet is that I’m the Metatron. That’d put a pretty spin on things.

Now then, let’s take another look at the Grand Delusion and address a couple more things Joe says in his video. It’s been suggested that I make my own video response but for now I’ll maintain my anonymity.

00:08 “…That is, I believe the bible is literally true…”

For his part Joe starts with his strength: misrepresentation. He says he believes the bible is literally true, but I can’t tell whether he means all of it or just the creation account. At any rate, Joe is far from a biblical literalist. In fact, I can’t recall anyone I’ve ever met who actually was a literalist. Oh, I’ve know a few who claim to be, but they all turn out to be interpreters in the end. Joe, for example, doesn’t believe that the world is a circle, or that bats are birds, or that insects have four legs. Those passages in the bible Joe is more than happy to interpret. What about the contradictions and the distasteful bits? The bible didn’t really mean it. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

00:39 “…I believe that this is going to turn the scientific community & the world upside down…”

Hovind's timeline
Joe is convinced that his human population timeline is going to make us all believe. Except of course that it isn’t Joe’s timeline at all and it didn’t work before. I strongly suspected Joe of plagiarism for a number of reasons, including past history, but my friend @pen7agram actually took the time to go through Kent Hovind’s video and find his eerily similar version of the timeline.

01:56 “…this is proof we’re designed because of the sum of our parts…”

If you’re scratching you head, you’re not alone. I don’t have a clue what he’s babbling about. The best I can tell, Joe thinks there’s some magic number, say 42, that all our parts add up to and this somehow proves design. By Douglas Adams. Or cells, that’s what Joe says, we were designed by cells. So which branch of Christian theology is this, Joe?

02:30 “…humans only produce human babies. This is what we see every single day”

Joe really seems to be hung up on this whole “humans having humans” thing. It’s what he sees every day. Joe must spend a great deal of time lurking around maternity wards. I wonder if Joe knows that this is precisely what evolution says should happen. Speciation is not some instantaneous change between generations. Each generation will obviously be the product of the one before and the producer of the one after. It is only when we remove these intermediaries and examine the extremities of a line that we notice a distinction.

A nice real time example of this principle exists in the form of ring species. These chains of neighbouring, interbreeding populations have “ends” that are too distantly related to interbreed. Let me say that again: at each step along the way the differences between the two populations is small enough that they can produce viable offspring. However, by the time we reach the end of the chain they are no longer able to interbreed with the initial population. This principle, taking place temporally rather than geographically, is why Joe may only see humans even as evolution marches steadily along.

Even though Joe packs plenty more nonsense into his video, I prefer to keep my posts manageable. We’ll cut off here with an open invitation to Joe: Joe, if you’re willing to pick a topic from your vanity tracts and present your case, I’ll debate you on it and post the whole thing here. Give it some thought, it’d be a good start on backing your “Christianity’s chief apologist” claim.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fun with Numbers: Exploring the creationist argument from population growth

I must admit, sometimes I secretly wish that the ardent defenders of faith would unveil some startling revelation that would give us all pause. Mind you I wouldn’t expect it to last very long. I suspect that any god who hasn’t made their presence unquestionably known by now isn’t likely to do so. Still, it would be nice if once in a while we got some new material from creationists because, quite frankly, I get tired of hearing the same discredited bunk from dozens of different parrots.

Take Joe Cienkowski and his latest vanity tract as a prime example of what I find so wearisome in the YEC crowd. For those of you that haven’t met Joe, he’s the self-published author of such illustrious tomes as Atheism is a Religion. He’s a young Earth creationist and has referred to himself as a biblical literalist, although like most he chucks literalism for interpretation when it suits him. Though lacking any sort of higher education, Joe fancies himself a purveyor of “true science” and “Christianity’s Chief Apologist.” He is, or at least should be, famous for the stunning proclamations that “all rectangles are squares” & “there are three types of atoms: electrons, protons, & [neutrons]” (Joe actually repeated electrons, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt)

But let’s not spend too long on Joe’s personal shortcomings and hypocrisy. Joe has a new, ahem, book out that “proves humans can’t be more than thousands of years old.” He’s been hyping it for months, calling it the Grand Reality Project. Well then, this sounds serious.

Though I haven’t read the work ( frankly, I’m reluctant to plonk down money on anything that lines the pockets of YEC, especially when they’re pimping their faith) Joe was kind enough to post a youtube video where he not only holds the book up for all to see but also briefly outlines the argument within. The book itself seems rather thin, especially for something as revolutionary as this claims to be. Not much room for a bibliography. Or a detailed analysis of the subject. Or anything really except the tired repetition of a pitiful misunderstanding of population dynamics and math in general.

The video says it all really. Joe trucks out some lovely homemade charts and posters “detailing” the human population timeline and other standard Joe talking points. Joe isn’t modest about his Grand Reality. He’s convinced his revelation is going to stand the scientific community on its ear. Never mind that it’s failed to do so for the past 20 years. Joe isn’t saying anything new here. Henry Morris has tried it, Kent Hovind has tried it, and at a glance at least a few dozen creationist websites have tried it. Did Joe miss these attempts and the lackluster response of the scientific community when he was doing his research? Of course not. Chances are, given how often he parrots Hovind verbatim, Joe didn’t do any research. Research takes time. Plagiarism is easy.

Unlike Joe, I did do some research. Perhaps it’s because I am a voracious reader and wannabe writer, but I found it rather easy to find a wealth of information on the subject of population growth as it relates to creationism. Also unlike Joe, I’m willing to give credit where it’s due. Many people have already covered this ground and I’ll use their arguments where needed, though most of that won’t factor in until my next installment. For now, we’ll do things by the numbers.

The human population argument essentially states that between some past date and the present, there has been a large increase in the human population. Drawing from this, the creationist asserts that a similar increase happened in the years prior to their initial date and thus humans could not have been around more than X years. Seems simple, right? Not something that needs be given a second thought? At least, that’s what creationists would have you think.

The first thing that really bears consideration is that anything before that initial date is an extrapolation. It’s nothing more than a possible scenario that may or may not be the case. How likely this extrapolation is the correct one depends on the quality of the data and its relevance. At the moment, though, we can ignore that (we’ll get to it) because the important point here is that it is only a possibility. That something is possible does not necessarily mean that it is actual. The creationist is trying to move between the two without doing the heavy lifting of proof.

Consider this as an example: I am in the park pushing a young boy on the swing. Because it is possible that I am the child’s father, does this mean that I am actually his father? No, it does not, nor does the (unlikely) possibility that the human population could have developed in a few thousand years mean that it actually did.

So let’s look at the numbers and the creationist analysis and see how it holds up to scrutiny. The current world population is estimated to be roughly 6.87 billion[1]. According to most reasonable estimates, we reached our first billion some time around 1800[2]. Based on the United Nation’s ’99 publication The World at Six Billion, the estimated world population at 1 CE was 300 million[3].

These numbers are, with small differences, the same ones that Cienkowski uses in his chart. Good so far. Joe then happily tells us that in a little over 200 years, there is an 86% decrease in world population. You read that right folks, an 86% decrease. Joe has gotten things a little mixed up. If there really had been an 86% decrease in 200 years, either the population in 1800 was 49 billion or I’m hallucinating a lot more people than I thought.

Joe’s gotten into a bit of a confusion here, and I’m hard pressed to say whether the muddling is just a failure to understand the subject or an attempt at obfuscation. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: he sees some correlation in the numbers and doesn’t quite know how to express it properly.

Usage errors aside, Joe isn’t particularly wrong here. If we start at the present and look back in time, (which I’m going to do so I keep things in terms that Joe understands) we do see an 86% population reduction over 200 years. Impressive yes, but not particularly relevant.

To prove the point, let’s work this out. Let’s apply that 86% change over the 200 year period from 1800-1600 (still looking backwards). Given the final population of 1 billion, the world population in 1600 should be 140 million. Looking further back, the population in 1400 was roughly 19.6 million, 2.7 million in 1200, and a whopping 20 people in the whole world at 1 CE. Something has gone seriously wrong here. These numbers don’t agree with the estimate for the world population in 1 CE and they make most of the stories in the bible seem sketchy (who needs a census when there are only 20 people in the entire world?).

The problem here is that I’m applying the slope I derived for the population curve beyond the area of fit. The Industrial Revolution had a tremendous impact on the population growth rate, and trying to use a post-Revolution rate of increase (or rate of reduction since we’re looking backwards) for pre-Revolution numbers is an application error. The factors that made the RoI so high were not present for much of human history so trying to use the derived RoI for those periods is at best wrong and at worst duplicitous.

The same principle holds true for any prediction. Without good reason to believe that the rate of change in our unknown portion closely mirrored that of the known, our “predicted” numbers are likely to be in error. If we have good reason to believe that it was not the same, which is the case here, our chances of a valid prediction drop even further.

But perhaps I’m not giving things a fair shake. Joe provides us with another data point and maybe if I use this number, I’ll see the light. First off, let’s ignore the period from the present to 1800, as that seemed to muck things up. Let’s calculate what our rate of change is from 1800 to 1 CE.

% Change = ((P1 – P1800)/P1800)*100
                 = ((300M-1000M)/1000M)*100
                 = (-700M/1000M)*100
                 = -0.7*100
                 = -70 %

So, from 1800 to 1 CE, we have a -70% change in population, a 70% reduction over roughly 1800 years. Now let’s try that extrapolation again. In 1798 BCE, the population was 90 million or so, another 1800 years back, in 2598 BCE it was about 27 million. Wait a minute, I’ve forgotten something. Take a look at Joe’s chart, or better yet, let’s see what he says in a tweet he sent me (after much duress I might add).

“ @recreant888 According to #Bible, flood happened about 4400 yrs ago;8 people survived; this fits perfectly with 250 million in the year zero”

So according to Joe, around 2400 BCE, a global deluge wiped out all but 8 people. But the extrapolation says that there were still several million people in the world at the time of the flood.

Just to be fair, and to head off any whining, let’s use Joe’s numbers now and calculate the population right at the end of this alleged global culling. Now we have a 75% reduction over 1800 years, or 62.5 million in 1800 BCE. To get to the flood 600 years earlier, we need to get an estimate of the rate of change in that time. We can do this by dividing 75% ( the change in 1800 years) by 3 ( the number of times 600 goes into 1800) which works out to 25%. Those of you with any inclination to numbers will know that this method won’t be entirely accurate, but it works for our purpose here and, let’s be honest, the numbers are already jacked; another error isn’t going to make much difference.

Using our estimate, we come to a world population immediately following the end of this flood of about 46.9 million people. Not 8. So once again, despite what Joe claims, the numbers don’t accord.

All right, maybe I was a little premature in discarding the numbers from 1800 to the present. Maybe I need to use the world population now and in 1CE to get accurate results. I’ll even take Joe’s word for it and agree that it represents a 96% reduction in population from the present to 1CE. Much better, right? How does this one work out? Using Joe’s numbers, about 8 million people at the end of the flood. Well, at least I can see how he might confuse this one. Still off, though.

So here we have three different ways of looking at the numbers, with three different results, none of which seem to match up with Joe’s assumption. Joe likes to harp on the numbers, to say that we can’t argue with them, but I’ve done just that. I’ve argued purely with the numbers, three times. Maybe next time, I’ll address things like population dynamics, stability, carrying capacity, and other factors that affect growth rates, but for now it’s just numbers. I’ve given Joe’s numbers three chances to reach his conclusion and each time they didn’t agree. Three strikes, Joe, you’re out.


Saturday, August 21, 2010


Omnipotence is a tricky thing. It seems so simple to say that something is all-powerful, but a close examination quickly reveals the flaws. What exactly does it mean to be all-powerful? Most people who use the term seem to think that it means there is nothing impossible for an omnipotent being. This, however, leads us into a realm of odd contradictions. Is it impossible for an omnipotent being to find something it cannot do?

Even ignoring clever wordplay, it is generally agreed that there are a few things that an omnipotent being cannot do and yet still maintain its claim to all-powerfulness. These fall into the category of logical impossibility: things whose very definition involves a contradiction such as a square circle. Following the line of Aquinas, most knowledgeable theologians assert that omnipotence, especially where god is concerned, does not cover logical impossibilities.

 Other than that caveat, though, everything goes. Should we find anything else that an omnipotent being cannot do, we must seriously question whether such a being exists. Now it should be fairly clear that, when judged in conjunction with other typical divine attributes, we can conjure up all sorts of contradictions. But even on its own, omnipotence doesn't fare too well.

 Practically everyone who has examined omnipotence is familiar with the classic paradox: Can God create a stone so heavy even he couldn't lift?  The upshot of the question is of course that there is always at least one thing an omnipotent being cannot do.  This conundrum has seriously vexed those who wish omnipotence upon their gods. Short of limiting omnipotence in some way, which they are wont to do, there is no escaping this paradox.

Still, those brave theists couldn't help but try. The paradox, they say, falls into the realm of logical impossibility, and so does not affect God's omnipotence. This, however, seems to be a matter of definition in reverse: the paradox is claimed logically impossible because God cannot satisfy it.

An example may prove helpful. A few weeks ago, I helped some friends move.  One of them is an excellent packer. As a consequence of this she can, and did, pack boxes so heavy that she could not lift them. On the other hand, she had the good sense to hire a moving company and the strapping lads weren't as efficient as she was. They could not pack a box heavier than they could lift.

Here we have the perfect illustration that the question is not logically impossible. We have two people, one who can create a box heavier than they can lift, and one who cannot. It is only when someone claims to be able to do both that we encounter a problem. Normally, we'd call this person a liar. But in the case of a being whose very definition demands they be able to do this, we are forced to conclude that it does not exist.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The meaning of things

I've spent considerable time now trying to come up with a way to make this post interesting and, after much reflection, have finally decided that may be impossible. A few days ago, a young earth creationist on twitter "agreed"to a debate (I say "agreed" because like a man afraid of becoming a husband, he did not set a date). In preparation for that, I thought I'd use this post to lay a little groundwork.

In arguing anything, and especially with those given to fallacy, it is important to be clear in what we mean. Too often we run up against people who quite literally have no idea what they are talking about. Other times, they'll resort to equivocation, shifting meaning as it suits them. (In all fairness, I suspect a great many people guilty of equivocation fail to realize they are; frequently they are just repeating something they've been told) With that in mind, I thought it best to start with a few definitions.

Atheism is the position of having no belief in god(s).  The etymology of the word has been parsed so many times that I won't do so here. Suffice it to say that it supports this definition. In addition, defining atheism this way has some advantages. It is a broadly inclusive definition, encompassing both outright denial (There is no god) and cautious skepticism (There is insufficient evidence for god).

This definition is also in line with the default position of philosophy and the null hypothesis of science. Because this is a point that is often overlooked by creationists, I'll explain it further. In science, a hypothesis is tested against what is known as the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis essentially states that whatever being tested is not the case. If the evidence to support the proposed hypothesis is insufficient, the null hypothesis is accepted.  Similarly, the default position is the one accepted when a belief lack support. Typically, these are negative statements, as is our definition.

(Some of you may note that the null hypothesis may be formed positively. However, to avoid the cry that we are claiming certainty, we will stick with the negative formation)

Finally, and perhaps most important to a debate, defining atheism as I have nicely splits the issue in two.  A person either believes in god or does not believe in god. There is no in between here, no grey area for insufficient knowledge. And while this may upset some people who are afraid of the atheist label, it is both in line with the concept of agnosticism and beneficial to debate. (For those of you in need of convincing, ask yourself this: If you don't know whether an oncoming car will run a stoplight, don't you still form a belief? I certainly do)

Well then, that's one definition out of the way. Sadly, even this relatively brief explanation is sufficiently lengthy, so I'll hold off on any further definitions. As an aside, the creationist who agreed to the debate is looking more likely to back out. Until I get proper confirmation, I'll return to my regular rantings on the impossibility of god.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

An abortion rights diatribe

Last week, as I travelled across the South, I happened to hear a lovely piece of talk radio dealing with abortion rights. The person, whose name I've taken efforts to forget, took the time to lambaste his more moderate "pro-life" colleagues for the minor consideration of permitting abortions in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the mother's life. According to this man (yeah, that's right, this man who will never face those situations), abortion should never be allowed.

I do not think I can overstate his position: abortion should never be allowed. From the moment of conception onward, nothing must be done to prevent that "life" from being born. Under no circumstances should we take steps to end that "life."

If that last paragraph has your blood boiling, I feel your pain. Even now, the sheer stupidity of it makes me angry.
For those of you who may not see the problem here, an example should prove informative.

An ectopic pregnancy is an abnormal pregnancy wherein the fetus begins developing outside the womb. It will not survive and can present a serious health risk to the woman, although death is rare. Treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is surgical removal of the developing cells.

According to our "pro-life" friend, nothing should be done.  Even though the "life" will not survive and the woman will suffer, removing those cells is wrong.  From the moment of conception, he says, those cells are a human life, and to end their life in favor of the woman's is putting ourselves in the position of god.

Now, aside from the cruelty of that position, I'd also like to note the hypocrisy of it. If preferencing one life over another is putting one's self in the position of god, then this man is equally guilty.  Practically every decision we make preferences one life over another. The food we eat preferences our life over those that could have eaten it. The homes we maintain preference our life over those who might have lived there. Should I need to defend my family, I am preferencing their lives over those of the assailants.  Even worse, if we are not living at the barest level, we are preferencing our comfort over the lives of others.    Even this supposed non-preferential stance is selecting the "life" over the woman. Preferring one life to another is a part of existence.

The "pro-life" stance has never been about life. A mother's life may be ended so long as the child is born.  Never mind that that might leave the child alone and unloved, never mind that even should the mother survive in many cases the child will be equally unloved, shuffled off to foster homes waiting for an adoption that may never come. Never mind the suffering of a rape victim who has a constant reminder of that ordeal and the psychological scars it left behind (all respect to those women who can move past this to love their child, but not all can). Never mind the poverty and hunger that a child might endure. So long as that "life" is not prevented from becoming a child, all other concerns don't matter.

 "Pro-life" is isn't about life; it's about suffering.  If you truly are pro-life, start doing something to fix the problems that besiege the lives that are already here. Until those are a thing of the past, don't speak to me about a woman's choice.

Monday, July 26, 2010

There must have been some point when I thought heaven was a great thing. Who wouldn't, after all, find the idea of a perfect existence appealing.  Gradually, though, the mystique fell away

Heaven, at least as the Christian mythology envisions it, is a strange and somewhat empty concept.  Talking about some sort of perfect place may seem all well and good, but it only stays that way if we don't examine it too closely. Perfection, like love or justice, is something that most people can get behind without any real agreement as to what they actually mean.  The nuts and bolts of perfection can vary greatly from person to person, and so does each persons concept of heaven.

I happen to enjoy books, so my perfect place would obviously include a library. Some of my coworkers, on the other hand, have something verging on phobia when it comes to the written word; any hint of it would likely be scrubbed from their version of heaven. Scenarios like this are easy to imagine and not always easy to resolve. While it might be that heaven could include libraries for those who enjoy them and other areas for people of different interests,  what happens when we extend things to the universal? If my idea of perfection includes only those who share my interests, where does that leave people who don't? Is heaven segregated?

While heaven has been consigned to the nebulous, hell has received a much more descriptive treatment. Lakes of fires, eternal dismemberment, a constant wailing and gnashing of teeth. Books are written detailing the fate of the damned in the most horrifying terms.Torment, it seems, is much easier to imagine than perfection.

Instead of working through the gritty details of heaven and hell and dissecting their issues, I'm going to look at things on a simpler level. Heaven I will take to be a place of contentment, hell a place of suffering.  With that in mind, I am going to work through a simple scenario to see where it leads.

Consider now a situation where you find yourself in heaven only to discover that a loved one has ended up in hell.  Personally, I would feel terrible if this occurred. The thought of someone I love suffering, especially eternally, is supremely disturbing. In fact, were I to find myself in this situation, I would feel compelled to help my unfortunate friend.

This of course, is something of a problem. If I follow the christian mythology, the sentence of hell is irrevocable. There is no possibility of relieving the suffering. Still, I cannot sit idly by, enjoying heaven while knowing that my loved one is suffering; to do so would be a torture itself. With no hope of granting relief, I would do the only thing I could. I would choose to share their suffering.

I don't think this is a drastic statement. Rather I think it flows naturally from human compassion.  This desire, to show some small measure of care by suffering alongside those you love rather than abandon them, seems to me innate to most humans. Perhaps I'm too much of an optimist, but I do think that most people would choose as I do.

There, I think, is where the snowball begins. Once I choose leave heaven and share the torments of hell, it seems to me that those who love me will follow suit. The same goes for those who love them, and so on. Soon enough, entire populations are suffering together in hell. Some, perhaps, would choose to remain in heaven, those people who are so concerned with themselves that nothing can phase them, but I would like to think that they are a minority.

Here, though, is the final kick. If God is indeed all-loving, then he has followed us down to hell as well. Being omnipotent, his infinite capacity to endure pain has relieved ours. Heaven, then, isn't an eternal reward, it's a final test to weed out the selfish, self-absorbed bastards.

Of course, I don't really believe any of this, but it is something to think about. The next time some kind-hearted theist tries to save you from the torments of hell, tell them you prefer it to the loneliness of heaven.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Does belief in evil imply belief in god?

You might find this hard to believe, but I spend a fair amount of time listening to Christian radio. Sometimes I find it enlightening, if only in the sense that it helps me understand what they think. Most of the time, though, I find it infuriating. If ever you should wonder why certain atheists speak so vocally against religion, a few hours listening to American Family Radio can be insightful.

As I tuned in one day, the apologist Ravi Zacharias was recounting a tale concerning his defeat of the Problem of Evil. As he tells it, a naive student stood up during one of his speaking engagements and question Zacharias about the PoE. Ravi responded by questioning the student about his presuppositions until the young man  tacitly admitted he believed in god and sat back down, thoroughly confused.

Though his audience found the anecdote amusing, I was incensed. Zacharias hadn't answer the question at all, he had simply tricked the student into submission. To trumpet this as a victory was dishonesty of the worst kind.

Did Zacharias have a point? Does belief in evil presuppose the existence of God? This is a common response to the problem of evil, so I must ask if it sufficient. Obviously, I do not think that is the case.

The assertion that believing in evil implies the existence of god hinges on the acceptance of the Argument from Morality.  As I have said before, I do not believe there is any merit to this argument. The existence of objective morality is questionable at best, buttressed only by our subjective desire for our moral views to be universally right.

Qualifying certain acts or states of being as good/evil does not rely on the existence of some transcendent moral pronouncer. Much more natural explanations for the development of morals abound. They may not be as satisfying for someone who longs to be unquestionably right, but that does not make them any less legitimate.

None of this, however, is particularly relevant to the Problem of Evil. The assertion that belief in evil presupposes God does nothing to answer why the two contradict. Claiming that by saying evil exist I am acknowledging God, besides being untrue, is irrelevant. The PoE is such a problem because it flows from what certain theists, particularly Christians, believe. There is an inconsistency there that needs to be addressed;  changing the subject doesn't fix that.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Evil pt 2: Is there method in the madness?

Everything happens for a reason. I hear that phrase quite often, though it rarely gets directed at me anymore. The curious thing is that I never seem to hear it after some fortuitous occurrence. No one ever win the lottery and proclaims "Well, everything happens for a reason. Maybe tomorrow I'll  lose my health insurance and be diagnosed with cancer." No, everything happening for a reason always seems to proceed from life taking a turn for the worse.

Last post, I discussed the free will defense to the Problem of Evil. Like free will, the assertion that things happen for a reason is an attempt to justify the existence of some evil, and it crops up frequently in various defenses against the PoE. This time, I'm going to examine a few of the reasons put forth and see how they hold up.

The creation of some good.

The most often cited reason for the existence of evil is that it is required for the production of some type of good. Compassion, bravery, and self-sacrifice are typical examples of goods that require evil in order to be effected.

While this seems like a decent answer on the surface, it turns out to be much like free will in its failure. Really, we must ask ourselves why we think these goods that the evil produced are valuable.  Compassion, for example, relates to caring for a person in a time of suffering. Caring for another can certainly occur when there is no suffering. In this case then, it seems that evil introduces no new good, it simply modifies our evaluation of a pre-existing good.

Self-sacrifice can be viewed in much the same light. In all but the extreme cases, in fact, self-sacrifice is just the material expression of compassion. In the more dramatic instances, one might argue that self-sacrifice is something more than compassion.

 I do not believe that this is correct. There is, at least in the opinion of most, nothing particularly good about destroying oneself. Many religions in fact label such an act as penultimately bad.  It must be then some motive behind the act that frames it as a good one; it must be the compassion that is expressed by such an act. Self-sacrifice, then is an expression of care for another required by evil. It is not a new good introduced by evil, it is an unnecessary extreme forced upon us by evil.

Most, if not all of the example goods can be resolved in a similar manner. It is not so much that evil allows new good but that it affects how we value that good.

I'd like to address an obvious contention that is sure to come up over that last statement. Could evil be here to increase the value of certain goods?  This idea, I think, is an admission of defeat. It implies that initially we undervalued those good.  If that is the case, then isn't that a deficiency in the original design?  How does an omniscient, omnipotent creator let that sort of thing slip past him? Furthermore, having discovered the cosmic error, why does he employ such a Rube Goldberg scheme to fix it rather than correcting the value directly?

Before we leave the creation of good defense, I'd like to point out that certain of these alleged new goods rely not just on evil, but also on some deficiency of character. Bravery requires fear, perseverance requires the possibility of failure, and so on. But how can an omnipotent god be afraid or possibly fail? Because certain goods rely on those things for their creation, it would seem then, that God lacks them. If this is the case, God is apparently not all-good. As with free will, this defense has hindered God more than it has helped him.

The greater good

Often, the creation of good defense is taken a step further.  When there is no manifest good that is being created by evil or when the amount of evil is so overwhelming in light of the meager good it creates, things are simply pushed back a step. Evil does create good, it is said, at some higher level that we cannot currently grasp. An analogy once presented to me captures the idea quite nicely

"As a parent, there are times when you must do things for your children that may seem evil to them but are for their own good. Though they do not understand now why you do these 'bad' things, some day they will realize you did it because you love them."

While this is an appealing idea, it is also terribly flawed. There are times when I must do things that my children don't like, but I always endeavor to explain why I am doing them.  Sometimes I am unsuccessful, but then again, I'm not omnipotent. I do not have the resources and powers that God could marshal to make his children understand. With omnipotence at his disposal, there is little reason why God could not make his children understand precisely why the perceived evil was an eventual good. Failing to do that is an evil in itself.

Who are you to question God?

This is the really the endgame of all for a reason defenses. God has a reason for evil and he doesn't need to explain it. Who am I, one of his lowly creations, to question his motives?

Why anyone thinks this is a good defense is beyond me. I suppose it does get many people to stop talking, but it does not resolve the issue. If we are to believe the tales, God is the source of our moral inclinations. The reason that we declare something evil is, if you believe the theology, because God also finds it evil. When we question the existence of evil, we are merely echoing God on the point.

(It could be the case, as I have been told, that our moral judgment has been corrupted, but these merely shifts the issue to the evil of our corruption and why it exists)

One final thought before I sign off: If we cannot question why evil exists in the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god, by what rights do we call him good?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Problem of Evil

I'm a big fan of the Problem of Evil.  I suspect that may sound like a funny statement to the uninitiated, but anyone having found this blog should understand my meaning.

Basically stated, the problem of evil says that if a god possessing omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence (the Christian God) exists, evil should not exist. Evil exists, therefore such a god does not. The reason I'm such a fan is that the argument is simple and obvious. Some other disproofs of god take a certain amount of investigation and understanding, but the problem of evil readily presents itself. Suffering is too prevalent, and it is all too common to hear a Christian ask why god would allow this or that to happen.

Because I enjoy the PoE so much, I am also very interested in theodicy, the defense against it. I'll review several defenses here in my next few posts, along with some common analogies and explanations as to why I don't think they work.

Quite a few of the defenses against the PoE, when dissected boil down to the notion of free will. God wanted us to have free will, it is said, and this could not be accomplished without evil. Before I explain why this doesn't work, it is important to understand what is meant by free will.  When I ask people about this, I rarely get the same answer. From what I've gathered, though, it seems that Christians take it to mean the possibility of making any of the available choices in a given situation. They do not mean that the choice has not been limited, coerced, or otherwise influenced.

Now, immediately a problem presents itself. Omniscience appears to preclude free will. If a being is all-knowing, then certainly it knows the outcome of all choices, does it not?  Christians assert that it means just that. How then, is there any real choice if the outcome is already known?

Perhaps the worst response to this question I have ever heard took the form of an analogy:

   "Suppose my child is reaching for a hot stove. I know that she will get burned, but she still has a choice to touch the stove or not. " ( I'm paraphrasing here; the original analogy was filled with much emotional pleading and unnecessary exposition.)

Firstly, I am not a bad parent. I'm not going to sit idly by and let my child, or any child I have the ability to stop, injure themselves. Secondly, I am not omniscient, and that is where the analogy falls apart. The uncaring parent in the analogy does not know their child will get burned, they know that if the child touches the stove, she will likely get a burn.  Omniscience doesn't allow for if or likely; the little girl will touch the stove and will get a burn.  The poor child has no choice once omniscience gets involved.

Let's imagine for a minute that free will and omniscience are somehow compatible. Does it then solve the PoE? To know that, we need to ask more questions.

The concept of free will as a cause for the existence of evil implies that there are good choices and bad (evil) choices.  Without delving into what is meant by 'good' or 'bad' we can say that a good choice is one that produces a good result and likewise for a bad choice.  Generally, we can say that the character of a choice is determined by its result. Bearing that in mind, the question we need to ask our Christian friend is this:

Can there be a good result of free will that does not also accord with God's will?

Omnibenevolence seems to indicate that there cannot. If God is to be all-good, then his actions and choices are also all good. For any choice, the good result is the one that God would choose. (It does not matter that God might have choices unavailable to the person actually making the decision because we are hypothetically limiting God's choices to those available to the person. In other words, no matter the size of the group of choices, God will always choose the one that is most good)

This answer presents something of a conundrum. Free will becomes a net evil; no new good is introduced by it, but new evil (evil itself according to the defense) is. Really, then, free will is nothing more than another name for evil and is of no use in resolving the PoE.

Though the whole muddle of free will and Christian theology brings up dozens of questions, I'm going to stop there and finish this post by presenting a version of the Free will Argument for the Nonexistence of God (FANG). To my knowledge, it is an original formulation.

1)God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good)
2)God has free will
3)God always chooses the most good choice available(from omnibenevolence)
4)From 1-3 God is a free-willed always good being (FWAGB)
5) A FWAGB is not logically impossible (from 4)
6)God can do anything that is not logically impossible (from omnipotence)
7)God did not create humans as FWAGB, but as FWnAGB
8)By 3,5-7 FWnAGB is more good than FWAGB
9)By 4 & 8, God is less good than he could be.
10) By 9, God is not omnibenevolent
11)1&10 are contradictory.
12)Therefore, God does not exist

There are, I think, two basic objections to this. The first would to be to challenge my usage of omnibenevolence. One could either deny that God is maximally good or that his choices are always the most good, but either of these options wreak havoc on Christian theology.

The other objection might be that there is some restriction on humans that disallows them being FWAGB. This is, however, a weak objection. The objection implicitly claims that humans, which must be FWnAGB, were the best choice for a creation, better than any FWAGB. This is simply a restatement of premise 8 and as such does not affect the argument.

I believe this is a sound argument based on premises that Christians themselves recommend. Free will, it seems, doesn't help God out of the PoE. To the contrary, it shoots him in the metaphorical foot.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Last Gasp

When I was just starting high school, I got on something of a philosophical kick. This wasn't the product of nor impetus for any great amount of study, it was simply some quirky conclusion I had drawn from observations that had the effect of irritating my fellow students. At any rate, there was one day where an older student was brow-beating one of my classmates about some finer point of the workings of the world.  To defuse the situation, I issued the silly  challenge "Prove that God exists."

What I got was the ontological argument.

Now, at the time I was a christian, and so was just about everyone I knew.  If they weren't , they were at the least religious. I didn't know anyone who did not seriously believe in god. At the same time, though, I was pondering questions of solipsism, skepticism, and epistemology (without even knowing what they were). The ontological argument seemed to me like a godsend, banishing the need for troublesome demonstration.

Now, though, I positively loathe ontological arguments.  Some of that probably is due to my being fooled for a time by them.  More important though, is the way in which they conjure success.  Ontological arguments, and especially the modal version we'll be discussing, remind me of something my father used to say (and probably stole from someone else): If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

William Lane Craig uses Plantinga's modal ontological argument as his final entry in Five Arguments for God. Aside from a much needed but far too short introduction to modal logic and the concept of necessary/possible, Craig spends little time explaining or defending the argument. I get the impression that he believes it speaks for itself. But modal logic can be confusing for anyone not well versed in the subject and a bit more effort was probably warranted (One claim against the MOA that I have seen repeated several times is that even the people who formulated it don't know what they're talking about).

I will try to keep things as simple as possible here, both because I know less about modal logic than I'd like and because I hope to leave you less baffled than before.  Essentially the MOA says this:

1. It is not possible that god does not exist
2. Therefore god exists

Everything else, all the tricky wording about necessary and possible, is in the argument to obscure the basic idea I just stated.  Proponents of the MOA will foam at the mouth over this, vehemently denying the truth of it, but after having spent several days going over the rejections and counter-arguments, I haven't seen one solid refutation of my assertion that doesn't leave the MOA toothless.

Modal logic deals with things in terms of necessary and possible.  You may notice that this bears some resemblance to necessity/contingency mentioned in The Cosmological Argument from Contingency.  While the concepts can be related, they are not exactly the same.

Modal logic hinges on what is best described as alternative world concepts.  Alternative world concepts are basically a collection of statements that describe a world different from the actual. Note that these are not actual alternate worlds, they are merely descriptions of conceptually possible worlds. The actual world is seen as the alternative world concept that has been actualized.

Using the idea of alternative world concepts (AWCs), we can now explain what necessary and possible mean here.  To say something is possible is to say that it is true in one of these alternative world concepts. To say that it is necessary says that it is true in all of them.

Already, an issue presents itself.  The old spectre of equivocation has once again raised its head, this time around the term "possible."

Generally, when we speak of something being possible, we are speaking of uncertainty.  If I say, for example, that it is possible that non-terrestrial intelligent life exists, I am saying that I am uncertain as to whether it is true. This uncertainty also logically entails the opposite possibility statement, it is possible that non-terrestrial life does not exist. Replacing the first statement with the second does not change the meaning. This type of possibility is usually referred to as empirical or epistemic possibility because it is based on (a lack of) knowledge and data.

Modal possibility, on the other hand, is more akin to conceivability. Craig's example of  George McGovern being President is a good example. Empirically, this is not possible, but there is nothing in the statement that appears to make it inconceivable. Thus, in some alternative world concept, George McGovern is president and the statement is modally possible.

Obviously, the MOA uses the second type of possibility, but it attempts a bit of trickery here that its proponents don't seem eager to correct. Because we generally use possibility in the first sense, when we hear a statement such as, possibly X exists, unless  we know that it is not the case, we tend to accept the statement.  Really, though, what we have agreed to is that in some alternative world concept, X exists. This difference may seem trivial and innocuous, but the entire MOA rests on it. I'll explain why once we begin looking at the actual argument.

Craig doesn't even bother to mention or explain the term necessary, though it is crucial to the MOA.  The problem with necessity is that we have no good way of determining if a statement or entity is necessary.  One suggestion is that a something is necessary if it is impossible for it not to be true. The laws of logic are usually put forth as an example. I'm not so sure this works. Consider this modal statement: Possibly, different laws of logic exist. Similar arguments have been put forth to propose that logical inconsistencies may exist between AWCs.  The other option for modal necessity is that the definition of the entity requires it to be necessary.  But this doesn't really work either, as we could make everything necessary simply by adding that clause to its definition.

As if things weren't complicated enough already, there are different modal logic systems, and the MOA doesn't work in all of them. Neither Plantinga nor Craig offer any reason for selecting this system (S5) over the others.

For the sake of relative brevity, we'll turn now to the argument itself. The first premise seems uncontroversial  until one unpacks it. Firstly, Craig gives no explanation of what maximally great means. Plantinga offers up a definition including the three omni-attributes usually associated with the christian god, not forgetting to throw in that it is necessary.  Putting aside the internal problems with this definition, the description of a maximally great being bears a curious resemblance to the perfect being from Anselm's ontological argument and is, as such, vulnerable to many of the same criticisms. To their credit, Plantinga and others have presented decent defenses of their position. (I am not alone in thinking these defenses don't hold, but that is a discussion in itself.) It also appears that the property of being necessary was simply tacked on to the definition, which leaves it open to the criticism of arbitrary assignment.

The second , more damning issue with the first premise is the trickery I mentioned earlier. The statement "It is possible that a maximally great being exists" also entails the opposite "It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist." With empirical possibility, the statements are essentially interchangeable. With modal possibility they are not; substituting the second statement as the premise produces a contradictory conclusion.
Breaking it down by Craig/Plantinga's numbers:

1.It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist.
2. If 1., then a maximally great being does not exist in some possible world
3. If 2., then a maximally great being does not exist in any possible world (because it is necessary, if it exists, it must exist in all AWC. Since there is one AWC where it does not exist, it does not exist)
4. If 3., then a maximally great being does not exist in the actual world
5. If 4., then a maximally great being does not exist.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist

Using the same formulation of the argument, we have reached the conclusion that a maximally great being (god) does not exist. Given that this contradicts with the conclusion reached in the MOA, Craig/Plantinga have something of a problem.  The only real way they have of rescuing the argument is by arguing that our first premise above to be untrue. Or to put things another way:

1. It is not possible that god does not exist.

Really, though, if they could do that, why bother with the MOA?

That is the last gasp of Craig's five arguments, and I'm afraid that they haven't fared particularly well. We have plenty of reason to reject these arguments as invalid and useless. Craig wishes to criticize the New Atheists for not addressing them, but we can see that it wasn't necessary. Though dressed up in semi-modern terms (George McGovern, really?) they hinge on the same fallacies they always have.

Next time I'll begin examinations of some of the arguments against the existence of god.

(Those of you interested in learning more about refutations of the MOA should start with Paul Almond, Debunking Christianity, and R. Kane. They are more thorough than I have been in raising additional objections.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fine-tuning? Really?

The other day my daughter said something that made me burst out laughing.  When we take long trips in the car (which is anything more than half an hour for children), my daughters and I spend a lot of time pretending.  On that particular day, the sky ahead of us started to become overcast and I said it looked as though it was going to rain.  A few seconds later, the rain came and, to kick off our pretending, I exclaimed "I said it would rain and it does. I control the rain!"  To this my oldest daughter replied "Oh yeah? Then make it stop." Clever girl.

This post marks the fourth installment of my review of William Lane Craig's Five Arguments for God. This time I'll be tackling The Teleological Argument from Fine-Tuning. The argument typically goes something like this:

1. The universe is fine-tuned
2. This fine-tuning is the result of  either physical necessity, chance, or design.
3. It is not due to physical necessity or chance
4. Therefore, the universe was designed

Now there are two things here I'd like to point out.  The first is that, once again, this argument for god makes no mention of god.  At best it argues for design of the universe. The second thing that bears mention is that, also once again, it is not clear in what sense the word universe is used.  Perhaps this argument does show that the (cosmological) universe was designed, but does it show that the (philosophical) universe was?

In his formulation Craig leaves off the first premise, although he does go through an introduction that essentially explains the premise. I include it here because I believe it will be helpful in identifying an underlying assumption.

What does it mean to say that the universe is fine-tuned?  When proponents of fine-tuning speak of it, they talk about this or that universal constant/ratio/etc. being very precise, such that a small change to them drastically alters the cosmological landscape. So is that it? Is fine-tuning simply saying that if things were different that things would be different? Of course not. Craig is kind enough to clarify here and let us know that fine-tuning is in reference to the existence of intelligent life. According to Craig, if these constants and ratios were slightly different, intelligent life would not be possible.

Here then, lies that hidden assumption I mentioned.  If fine-tuning is in regards to intelligent life (life as we define it mind you) and if it is to be at all meaningful, one must assume that the aim of the universe was the production of intelligent life. This, in turn, assumes a purpose or intent to the universe, which assumes some guiding force, and suddenly we're begging the question.

Let me illustrate with an example. Let us say that I take a half dozen paint-filled balloons and throw them randomly at a canvas.  The resulting image is (roughly) that of a man in profile.  Were my throws fine-tuned to produce that image? No, they were not.  They were random and just happened to create the image.  Now let's repeat this example with a slight modification. This time, before I throw the balloons, I sketch out a man in profile which matches the image the balloons create. In this case, my throws were fine-tuned because I had an intended image before I began.

Having exposed fine-tuning for what it is, we have effectively vanquished the fine-tuning argument. Still, there are enough additional flaws that I think a little dead-horse-beating is useful.  Sticking with the first premise, let's examine these constants and ratios that Craig believes are so fine-tuned. 

It turns out that they are not as awe-inspiring as Craig would have us believe. Many of the constants, including the gravitational constant Craig uses as an example, are artifacts of the unit system we are using.  As it so happens, these constants can be changed with no effect on the physics.  Really, then, no fine-tuning there. The ratios fare no better, quite often being required by the laws of physics.

Another problem with the fine-tuning premise, or at least Craig's explanation of it, is the range of variation for these values. Craig says that if they are altered less than a hair's breadth, the balance would be destroyed. Not being up to speed on the latest technical jargon, I'm not certain what numerical value a hair's breadth represents. As it turns out, the amount of variance changes between constants/ratios and is not always necessarily small, even when it is phrased to seem that way. (For example, saying that if I were only 1/10^16 of a light-year taller, I would be one of the tallest people on earth looks like a small change, but when you work it out, you realize that it's a change of approximately 3 feet.) Again, this doesn't exactly sound fine-tuned.

I'm not done with that first premise yet, because now we need to examine the claim that a change to these values would have such a drastic effect.  The scientific community, specifically those people who are involved in the relevant fields of cosmology and physics, do not seem universally impressed. Dozens of papers disputing the idea of fine-tuning exist. Victor Stenger (who just so happens to identify himself with the New Atheists that Craig mentions in his paper) provides an excellent guide to those wishing to know more about the scientific flaws of fine-tuning.

Because I was so harsh on the first premise, I'll go relatively easy on the second.  Honestly, there's not much to say about it, except that it brings up that hidden assumption again.  Because fine-tuning implies intent, nature and chance aren't going to get a fair shake.

The third premise says just that. Nature and chance don't explain fine-tuning. Of course they don't. Saying that something was fine-tuned (unless it is meant in a trivial sense) rules out nature and chance. So instead of talking about fine-tuning, let's talk about the way things are.  Does nature or chance provide a reasonable explanation for the values of these constants and ratios? Yes, they do, as I've explained above. Once you drop the assumption of intent, nothing rules out either option.

Chance, in particular, gets a bum rap because people don't understand it.  It's easy to say that the odds of something happening are 1 in some large number, so isn't it amazing that it happened.  The problem is extremely unlikely events occur every day. That something has low odds of occurrence does not mean that it cannot occur even as the result of a single random instance.

The order of cards in a normal deck of 52 playing cards can be any one of 8.06582 x 10^67 possibilities. Restated, the odds of any specific order of those cards is 1in 8.08582 x 10^67, very low odds by most standards. Thoroughly shuffle those cards though and one of those orders will occur.  Because the odds of that order are so low, should we assume that it was fine-tuned.  Chance and randomness easily explain low odds events if we don't make the mistake of privileging the outcome after the fact.

Coming to the conclusion now, we can see that it just doesn't hold.  There are too many problems with the fine-tuning scheme to merit a conclusion of design. Defusing it turns out to be a matter of asking a question much like my daughter did. Would the universe be pointless if it didn't produce intelligent life? Forgive me for finding that a little conceited. The rain doesn't fall because I tell it to and the universe isn't here for the purpose of producing me.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Here There Be Monsters

Let's get this out of the way now, because someone is going to say it eventually.  I am a monster.  This is not due to any horrible crime or hidden shame.  I have no unnatural appetites that need to be sated.  Sadly, I am a monster because I accept the possibility that morals are subjective.  That concept, that subjective morality is so horrendous that we should deny even its possibility, is the essential thrust behind the Moral Argument for God, one of the five arguments William Lane Craig presents in his paper.

Craig spends comparatively little time defending his argument, instead electing to lay out definitions and bring up related dilemmas. The definitions provide him an excellent opportunity to lobby for the rejection of subjective morals and he does not let it go to waste.  Since the end of the Second World War, Nazism has been excellent political capital.  If one is able to link their opposition to Nazis, not matter how flimsily, the distaste most people feel towards the actions of Nazi Germany makes it unnecessary to address the actual issues.  In making the distinction between objective and subjective morals, Craig tries to link subjectivity to believing that the Nazis were right.  Having done that, he feels the matter settled.

I am going to cast things in a different light.  The reason this Nazi ploy works is because people feel disgusted by the atrocities committed under Nazi ideology. To put it a different way, people are rejecting the actions of the Nazis based on the emotional reactions they evoke.  The problem here is that emotional decisions are subjective ones, so Craig is using subjective moral judgments to garner agreement with the concept of objective morality.

Let me go through this again, because the concept is important. Craig says that objective statements are independent of people's opinions whereas subjective statements are dependent on opinions.  (He perhaps intentionally leaves off  emotions, but this is trivial since we can see that opinions are the product of emotion.)
The statement "2+2=4" is an objective one, the statement "Apples are the best fruit" is subjective.  No matter what we feel about the first statement, it is true, but the second statement relies on our emotional attachment to the glorious apple.  By the same token, saying that the Nazi regime killed many people is objective, saying that it was wrong because it makes you feel icky is subjective.

And here we come to the crux of the problem.  Moral statements involve emotional content.  Few people say this or that is moral because the facts support it,  they say that something is moral because they feel it is right.  It is my opinion, and you're welcome to correct me on this, that there can be no such thing as an objective moral statement. Moral statements are, by their nature, subjective.  To speak of objective morality is nonsense and question-begging.

Because Craig believes he has successfully lobbied for the denial of subjective morals, he makes no attempts to defend his argument. As such, he misses the flaws in his first premise.  In the first case, he does not address the possible alternatives sources of objective morality that other non-believers have suggested.  In the second, it doesn't consider that god might exist and yet morals might still be subjective. (If god decides what is moral, then are morals subjective because they are based on gods opinion?) Either of these, along with the issue I raised above, is enough to make the argument questionable.

Craig does bring up a common problem associate with god and morality, if only to tell us that it is weak.  Euthyphro's Dilemma asks which statement is correct, 'God wills something because it is good' or 'something is good because god wills it.'  If the first is true, then good and bad are independent of god, if the second is true, they are arbitrary.

Craig's response to this dilemma is to present a third alternative: 'God wills something because he is good.'  Unfortunately, examining his explanation of this statement shows it to be nothing more than a repackaging of the second option. Craig explicitly states that God's nature is the standard for goodness, which implies that whatever god's nature might be, it determines what is good.  Were god's nature deceitful, callous, and vindictive, this would be, according to Craig, the standard for good.

To wrap things up here, I'd like to point out something that objective moralists overlook.  Believing in the subjectivity of morals does not mean being universally permissive. Regardless of whether or not objective morals exist, human morality is a human social construct that has demonstrably changed over time.  If I want my moral values to be those of society as a whole, I cannot allow people to do whatever they please. Likewise, I cannot simply declare by fiat that something is wrong no matter people think. I must persuade people that my moral opinion is the correct one.  Ironically, so must Mr Craig.  Really then, what is the difference between our moral stance?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kalamity Strikes

I'm back again to continue my discussion of William Lane Craig's Five Arguments for God. You can find the full article here . This time I'll be looking at Craig's second argument, The Cosmological Kalam argument.

The play on the words kalam and calamity that I use in my title was first brought to my attention in Dan Barker's Godless. Dan, for those of you that might not know, is a former evangelical preacher turned atheist. He is currently co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and I encourage you to check out their website . Dan gives a thorough treatment of the kalam argument, and I will be following closely in his footsteps here.

The kalam argument is typically stated as follows:
1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

Now, many of you have probably already noticed something curious about this argument. It makes no mention of god, capital G or otherwise. As an argument for god, it fails at the outset, no discussion needed. The best it can hope for is to show that the universe had a cause. Craig seems to be aware of this and does make some attempts to show this cause is plausibly god. We'll get to this later.

The first premise seems strange. It appears to accord with common sense, and this is how Craig hopes to win agreement: by saying it is plausible and hoping no one studies it further. He asserts that the premise is a necessary truth and expects that to be the end of things. Unfortunately, I'm not so easily persuaded. Asserting that something is a necessary truth and establishing that it is are two very different things.

In this case, we actually have some reason to believe that it is not a necessary truth. Quantum physics allows for uncaused effects. Craig has been made aware of this before and countered by asserting that they are only seemingly uncaused because we do not know the cause. This does nothing to dismiss the problem. If we do not know the cause, how does Craig know there is one? The simple answer is he doesn't, he simply assumes there is because his argument depends on it.

Craig makes an attempt to shift scrutiny by asking why everything does no begin to exist uncaused. This points to an inability to properly defend his premise (because of the problem I noted above). The question, though, is irrelevant to the possibility of uncaused beginnings.

A further issue with the first premise is its implicit attempt to divide everything into two sets much in the same way necessity/contingency did. In this case, the categories are entities that began to exist and those that did not. (Barker used the abbreviations BE and NBE in his discussion; I will use the same convention.) Once again, Craig provides us with no argument for the existence of these two sets, he simply expects us to accept them.

What, though, is an NBE? Aside, from the god Craig is attempting to prove, what are examples of actual (as opposed to conceptual) NBE? There isn't one. In fact, for this argument to have any thrust in the direction Craig wishes to take it, this must be the case: god must be the only NBE. Sadly, that reduces NBE & BE to synonyms for god and 'not god' respectively and that causes all manner of problems. The worst of which is that it insists we assume the existence of god, making this whole argument an exercise in question begging.

The second premise turns out to be just as bad as the first. Once again, Craig falls into equivocation when he uses the word 'universe.' When he claims that scientific evidence supports the universe having a cause, he means universe in the cosmological sense, but hopes to get agreement for the philosophical sense. Once this sleight of hand is exposed, the implications of scientific findings are much less staggering than Craig would have us believe.

Craig also tells us that a beginning is supported by philosophical argument. The problem with this statement is that so is the existence of god. It just so happens that the arguments that support god are horribly flawed. The arguments that support a beginning may be equally as flawed. Since Craig does not present them, it is not our responsibility to make that determination. However, if these arguments are solid, they may present serious problems for Craig's god.

(This tactic, of stating something that is trivially true in a misleading way, is prevalent enough that I feel an aside is necessary. When looking at statements of facts and statistics, especially in politics, we must be cautious in our evaluation. For example, I once read a statement that said "It is a verifiable fact that no atheist organization voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act." What it fails to mention is that organizations do not vote, individuals do. Even if every member of an organization votes in favor of some measure or another, it is trivially true that the organization itself does not.)

When it comes to the science, Craig attempts a bit of trickery. He first mentions alternative hypotheses to the Big Bang, but does not list any. This is crucial because as well as truly alternative hypotheses, there are also supplemental ones. Craig is attempting to covertly dismiss both of them.

His reference to the Vilenkin paper is another bit of misinformation. Though they have been brought to his attention before, Craig does not feel the need to mention the scientific papers that show the work of Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin is compatible with an unbounded dimension of time.

Craig also feels the need to throw out the old canard about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Craig, like most apologetic that use this, neglects the part where it says in a closed system. At least a few physicists and cosmologist question whether or not the universe can be defined as a closed system. He also fails to note that, because of its expansion, some have presented scenarios in which the universe has reached maximal entropy and entropy is still increasing. Since I am not a physicist by trade, I will not go into detail. Those of you interested in the topic can check out the popular works of Victor Stenger for an introduction to the subject.

Now we come to the conclusion and Craig realizes that it hasn't said anything about god. Not content with this, he attempts to show that god is a plausible cause. As I said before, that he is aiming for the easier mark of plausible should tell us something.

Since the kalam argument is so miserable, and since much of Craig's attempt at plausibility rests on his other arguments, I'll only mention here the contradiction he raises when speaking of a personal cause. Craig says that, if the cause is infinite, but its effect happened a finite amount of time ago, it stands to reason that a personal force must have chosen that moment to cause the effect. Essentially, he is saying that the effect could have happened earlier, but it did not, so personal choice is the reason. Assumptions aside, what he forgets is that elsewhere he has asserted that time began with the Big Bang, and this sinks his ship. If time began at the Big Bang, which Craig asserts is also the beginning of the (cosmological) universe, then the effect happened at the earliest possible time.

Because of the amount of errors that Craig packs into such a small space, I haven't covered all the problems here. I suggest checking out the previously mentioned Godless by Dan Barker and Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis for more information.

In my next installment, I'll be taking on Craig's Argument from Not Wanting to be a Nazi.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sifting through the Ashes

This will be my first, and perhaps only, attempt at blogging. For a long time now, I have avoided things like blogging and twitter because of a simple principle: Wait to speak until you have something to say. I don't expect that to change.

Last week I dipped my toe into the twitter waters, looking for a more interactive way to discuss topics of interest (my finally getting a new phone also had something to do with it) and, though I am still learning the ins and outs of it, I was not disappointed. Within a day, I had found a few serious "discussions" that engaged me. So much, in fact that I felt I needed a supplemental space to present topics that were too complex to be filtered down to tweet-length.

And here I am. A few days ago, I offered to help point out the flaws in one tweeter's (or perhaps it's twit) arguments for the existence of capital G god. When I did so, I failed to realize two things. Firstly, that almost none of it was his own words. And second, that a comprehensive discussion of the flaws might actually reach book length.

I called this post Sifting through the Ashes because that's what I feel like. Here I've come upon this burned over disaster and I'm trying to go through the wreckage and find where things went wrong. For now, I'll be focusing on a piece from William Lane Craig, which can be found here .

Since I am mostly concerned with the errors in his arguments, I won't make much comment on the misrepresentations he packs into his opening, other to say they are there. Instead, let me start by focusing on Craig's opening gambit, upon which the rest of his monument to fallacy is built. He begins by laying out the criteria for a sound argument, namely that its premises are true and that the conclusion follow from the premises, only to immediately abandon the first condition in favor of a more lax "premises are more plausibly true than their opposites." Aside from raising the spectre of false dichotomy, this is simply bad philosophical practice. If a premise is questionable, then it requires a sub-argument to support it. Asking us to accept an premise because it is "more plausible" is an attempt to get the results without the work and, since plausibility can be subjective, is destined for failure.

With this in place, Craig feels confident that he can present compelling arguments for the existence of god. (Actually Craig feels that they are arguments for the existence of God, but even if they held up, they fall short of that mark.) Because of the torrent of errors that plague these arguments, I'll limit myself to one per posting.

The first is the Cosmological Argument from Contingency. For brevity's sake, I won't repeat it here.This argument falls apart before we get past the first premise. It rests on the principle that there are two types of entities: necessary and contingent, but this principle is not self-evident. Craig gives us no supporting argument for the existence of such a division, nor does he give us sufficient means of determining necessity/contingency. Now, one might say that Craig does provide this means, but all he really does is say that things with external causes are contingent without explaining how he determined this. If contingency is to be relevant to this argument, it must be something more than another way of saying "has an external cause." More to the point, we have no guide for determining if an entities nature makes it necessary. Note that the qualifiers Craig gives are not equivalent opposites; nothing in these qualifiers precludes an entity from being both necessary and contingent.

Craig further muddies the water by presenting examples of what many mathematicians believe may be necessary entities. May be? It seems Craig can't find one solid example of something that is necessary. Even worse, he lists among his examples sets, which is going to cause trouble for him later.

Craig spends a good deal of time attempting to defend his first premise, and doesn't feel limited to strictly addressing the content of the premise. Instead, he goes on to insist that the universe is contingent and that atheists are guilty of question-begging and circular logic. Personally, I feel he should have quit while he was ahead.

While insisting that the universe is contingent, he slips into equivocation. It is never really clear what he means when he says 'universe' and he actually seems to slip back and forth between usages.

In cosmology and physics, the word universe refers to the collection of know, observable entities that entered its present state at the Big Bang (it's a bit more technical than this, but you get the picture). In philosophy, universe has historically referred to the totality of existence. Now, while it may be meaningful to ask for the cause of the first sense, it is ridiculous to ponder the second. It is asking for the cause of existence itself. The "taxicab fallacy" that Craig raises is relevant only to the first case, but wishes to apply it to the second case simply because both are identified by the word universe. This does not stand and is horribly dishonest.

In both uses, however, the universe is not a thing: it is a set of things. Remember Craig pointed to sets as possible necessary entities. Even if necessity/contingency can be made coherent, the universe falls into the category of necessity.

Craig's accusation of fallacy and question-begging exposes his own need to commit these offenses. We know of the universe, we do not know of anything else. To assume that the universe is all there is is the null hypothesis. Not maintaining this is begging the question in favor of that which Craig is purporting to prove.

Having thrashed his way through the first premise, Craig feels safe to move to the second, where he fairs a little better, if only because he doesn't say as much. He begins by setting up a strawman concerning what atheism says about the nature of ultimate reality and the cause of the universe. Atheism is the lack of belief in god(s). The only statement that atheism makes about the universe and ultimate reality is that a god was not involved. Once this is clear, the logical equivalence of atheism to the second premise dissolves, and with it goes any hope of agreement that the premise is true.

Craig finally gets something right with his third premise, but by this point his argument is so far gone that it hardly matters. With his crucial premises left gasping, Craig's Argument from Contingency crumples under the weight of its unsupported conclusions.

That wraps thing up for this one. Next time: kalamity strikes!

Credit goes to Dan Barker, Victor Stenger, and George H Smith, whose works preceded and influenced this post.