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Atheist Perspective: The Trials of Adjunct Life

August 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Again, not a standard update the life of an adjunct is one of chaos apparently. It seems that they have neglected to give my class a classroom for tomorrow morning. I recently submitted a paper to a Christian Philosophy conference that was rejected. I’m looking for any kind of comments as it deals with a familiar subject to this blog: variances on the design argument with a special focus on a contemporary philosopher’s version. It also deals with some scientific concepts that I am a little familiar with and I believed that were misused by the contemporary philosopher. Any comments are welcome:

Rigging the Cosmos

That we exist is not under question. What we need to ask is how we exist, not merely standing in this room but the entire race of homo sapiens with that prized possession of sentience that is thus far unique among all other creatures in the known universe. Our knowledge of existence is incredible, we have learned more about the nature of the universe in the last century than in all other time periods combines. We have delved into the very fundamentals of material reality to discover the “rules” by which the Cosmos is governed. Our ingenuity has created the largest and most complicated machines ever to study the smallest and briefest of existence that may make up the very foundations of our world. Yet all of that direction of inquiry seeks to figure out the what, but not the how or the why.

The deeper and deeper we delve into the invisible reality that underwrites our physical reality the more and more it becomes apparent that existence is extremely fragile. Without certain interactions the basic blocks of matter decay so quickly that calling it “instantaneous” isn’t that far off. Even if material was permanent we have forces which cause the matter to join, to repel, and to change; these forces just as fundamental as the material are so absolutely necessary to our existence that changes in them would severely change and possibly impair our existence. The changes need not be that much as well. It only takes a slight weakening of the gravitational attraction and atomic nuclei would not attract each other: meaning that Hydrogen atoms do not come together to form gas clouds and ultimately stars, in which the gravity of the atoms form a fusion furnace churning out heavier elements such as He, and especially Carbon with its tendency to bond to just about anything except snooty noble gases. We can also keep our rules and just move things around a bit, push Jupiter a bit further out from the sun and its gravity wouldn’t affect the path of asteroids as it does. Perhaps then the dinosaurs do not suffer extinction, etc. These are interesting lines of thought to follow, and perchance even fun things to hypothesize. Yet despite our imaginative diversions there is the fact that our existence right now is the result of a specific sequence of events and a series of immutable laws.

Curiously, there is no necessity to these laws. There is nothing which logically necessitates that the gravitational constant has to be 6.673 x 10-11Nm2/kg2 ¬rather than 7. The Cosmos would be different, but it would still be just we wouldn’t be in it. This leads to a conclusion for some that our world is specifically created with the idea that we are supposed to be in it. This idea first germinates in an argument from Design, first laid out in Cicero (although there were some prototype arguments in both Aristotle and Plato). This is given a focus in what is known as the “Teleological Argument.” Metaphysician Peter Van Inwagen in “The Wider Teleological Argument ” takes up the mantle and argues using two thought experiments: the straw game and the Cosmos machine in order to make the point that the Cosmos was specifically created to produce sentient life. I will argue that neither of these two experiments are compelling and draw from an earlier Stoic argument based on climate given by the Stoic mouthpiece Balbus in De Natura Deorum.
1048576:1

The first conclusion that Van Inwagen makes in his wider Teleological Argument is that the game is that the game is rigged. He creates a thought experiment in which a person must draw a specific straw in order to avoid an immediate annihilation. This situation is that the safe straw must be drawn out of a pile of 1,048,576 straws of which only one allows us to live. Now the game being played is that of live or die, and the odds are certainly stacked against us.
Let’s assume that these parameters hold and our first contestant, “Adam” steps to the pile. He pulls a straw and is immediately annihilated. This occurs again with Bob, then Charlie, etc. until finally Adam 3 (having run through a large amount of possible names) finally pulls the “live straw” and the game ends. The argument concludes that Adam3 would likely come to the conclusion that the game was somehow rigged in his favor. This assumption, by Adam3, is that odds against him living are so high that winning is so improbable that it can be no fault of Adam3 that he did live. Something else must have guaranteed his survival. The only other alternative, according to Van Inwagen, is to think that someone had to win eventually, so Adam3 had no better chance than Gwendolyn2 only that he won and she lost.

The issue with the alternative choice is flawed though. There is no reason to think that anyone had to win. Van Inwagen does not choose this number at random, he derives it from a similar metaphor of flipping a coin a number of times and getting a specific result which had the odds of 1048576:1. In a coin flip the result of heads or tails is not exhaustive, i.e. throwing heads does not eliminate heads on the next flip so we can assume that the person who draws a “death straw” does not eliminate that straw from being chosen again. We assume that each straw is replaced upon choice. The probability of winning doesn’t necessitate that eventually there must be a winner, only that we can predict winning is unlikely by any specific person and that there will be far more losers than winners.

When Adam3 wins he is to think that someone meant for him to win, but why should he think this rather than ascribe his continued existence to mere fortune? For Adam3 to think that someone wanted him to win he would have to consider that there were two factors at play: 1) that he was somehow more special (in some respect) than all of the other candidates. That the provided thought experiment is not impartial but that Adam3 was fated to win. If that were to be the case the probability aspect of the argument must be tossed, because it wouldn’t matter if the probability was a googol:1 or 2:1, Adam3 isn’t playing a game he’s merely a puppet going through the motions of pretending there is a game. 2) If the person running the game can influence Adam3’s decision in picking the winning straw then we can assume that he lacked the free will to choose for himself.

Adam3’s conclusion that the game was rigged in his favor has these derivations from it. As a rigged game he had no ability to lose and could not have chosen differently than he did. This raises the spectre of determinism. If sentient life is the goal then certain consequences must stem from arranging the game so that Adam3 wins. Perhaps the game is set so that once Adam3 wins he gets his prize and can do whatever it is that he likes with it. If that is the case, we can certainly bust the determinism ghost, but it then means that Adam3 is a placeholder and it wouldn’t matter who won as long as they pulled the right straw. This analogy is weak given the probability, literally anyone could have won but no one had to. There is no reason to think that the game is rigged in any manner by the contestants, the only reason to think that is if one had the predisposition to think that already which makes it mere confirmation bias.

Calibrating the Cosmos Machine

Cicero’s argument consists of two branches which both come together to make an argument substantively similar to the premises for the teleological argument. The conclusion of the “straw contest” is essentially that the conditions in which the Earth and the Cosmos were created, against the odds, for the express purpose of generating sentient life.
Van Inwagen’s argument begins with the identification of what is known as the “Fine Structure Constant. ” This constant also going by the label “” governs the electro-static charge between elementary particles such as protons and electrons. Van Inwagen wonders “what features would the Cosmos have if the fine-structure constant had twice its actual value? ” This question is answerable: a change of a 4% increase of e^2/4π and stellar fusion would be unable to produce carbon an essential element of life. If the constant were > .1 stellar fusion would be impossible. Without the fusion of H  He all of the other elements which make up our day to day interaction with matter would not be possible. We can also theorize that if the gravitational force were stronger then the universe would be full of masses compressed into singularities forming only black holes. Too weak, and material attraction falls apart causing not only planets failing to obtain orbits but atoms whose nuclei fail to “stick” together. This list can go on, we can posit everything from electromagnetic wavelengths being inhospitable to organic compounds, laws of thermodynamics which operate in reverse, etc. However in keeping with the theory we will stick with “”

What’s problematic with the example though is that  is not merely conducive to life, but rather conducive to matter. We can leave the dial on the machine at 7.2973525 x 10¬¬-7 and never achieve sentient life. In fact, all of the physical constants of the Cosmos could remain in the machine and human life is still not necessary. Changing  changes the nature of matter, which would affect a change in sentient life, but that is not the immediate effect. By drawing the “death straw” it’s not just that Adam3 dies, but all other contestants go with him as well. Perhaps that is the point, the odds may not go up but the stakes are certainly higher. Despite that, there is still the glaring omission of evidence that these constants exist for a purpose. In claiming that the features of the Cosmos are such that they are purposefully directed toward producing sentient life, Van Inwagen is merely rewriting an older argument given by Cicero, through the Stoic Balbus. It’s a deviation of the standard formulation of the Design Argument, which I am terming the “Climate Argument.”

While appearing in roughly the same portion of “De Natura Deorum” as the more popular Design Argument the “Climate Argument” is thematically different. All formulations of the Design Argument follow the same pattern: they use a natural object and compare it to the most complicated artifact that the day provides. By making this comparison, the arguments seek to compare the object of human invention with the natural world to show the lesser against the greater. If small human artifacts are the products of reason and design then the natural world, which is thought to be greater, must also be the product of reason and design. Chaos cannot produce more magnificent feats than order. The teleological argument does not do this: it instead diverges by postulating a hypothetical machine that would be needed to construct the Cosmos. It’s a subtle difference but in the fine-tuning of  we have no earthly parallel. We can’t use an ex gratibas argument since we have to direct our travels downward. The machine produces a Cosmos specifically designed for us, because the Cosmos is habitable and we are in it.

The Stoic argument through Balbus is that there is an inborn conception in the minds of all people for the existence of some divine being. He admits that the various details may differ among the races of men but that conception is universal and arises from four causes, “Second was the one which we (Romans) received from the magnitude of the benefits which we get from temperature of climate, the earth’s fertility, and the vast array of other advantages. ”

The climate argument is deeply flawed, presenting the position that one group of people is favored by the gods and is thus granted a favorable location. In this respect it puts in reverse cause and effect. Rome enjoyed a favorable location, but that is probably the reason the city was founded there rather than divine influence changing the climate of a region to accommodate a particular group of people based on their piety or the gods’ favor. It also implies that people in less than favorable climates would deny the existence of the gods simply because their climate was bad, or perhaps consider that their gods disliked them for some reason. Other civilizations would ascend to empire with vastly different climates, some of which were considerable less comfortable than the Romans.

In either case the Stoic argument is raised because it bears an obvious parallel with the “Fine-Tuning Argument.” The claim that the Cosmos has been specifically created, adjusted, and then fine-tuned specifically to create what we know as sentient life is no different than saying the climate of the Italian peninsula was such for the specific reason of creating the Roman Republic. However, it is easy to imagine a situation where perhaps the gravity is a bit stronger and sentient life is just a bit shorter. This is easier to imagine when we consider that sentient life is certainly possible in other areas of the universe. While we typically feel that conditions such as our planet are those that are the only ones that can produce life being within what is known as the “goldilocks zone”—being neither too far nor too close to its central star. However extra-terrestrial life could exist on the ice moon of Europa which would normally be thought of as too far to be hospitable. The view that our type of sentient life is the only one is far too narrow.

An objection might be that I am asking too much of the argument. That just because the claim that sentient life is the goal of the features of the Cosmos that the argument is disavowing other forms of life, but I don’t think I am going too far. The idea that it is only the features of the Cosmos ignores that our existence is also the result of a series of chronological events. Various extinction level events, meteor impacts, extreme climate changes have also contributed to our evolution into what we are now. This sequence of events are only second to the physical features in that this sequence emerged from the physical properties. It stands to reason that our existence is the result of catastrophic events that were in no way conducive to life on this planet and only by what could best be described as fortune that life at all exists on this planet. While this is also a result of the Stoic argument, the Stoics were hard determinists they don’t have to consider free will issues. Their omni-benevolent deity has ordained the actions of the Cosmos through the machinations of fate including our actions. The proponents of the teleological view might be unsettled by the idea that this kind of purpose implies a control of natural events that scuppers ideas of total free-will.

A Puddle Rebuttal

The ultimate problem with the teleological argument is that it plays on predispositions to thinking. If the person is already of the opinion that they the game is rigged or that the machine has been calibrated for the purpose of creating their existence then the argument is going to be found compelling, but that reduces the argument to a reliance on a vague circular logic: I believe the argument therefore it confirms my belief. Adam3 may feel the game favored him, but that’s only because the result worked in his favor.

A person without such a disposition may view the argument differently. Rather than coming to the conclusion that the Cosmos was designed to support sentient life, that sentient life came about in a Cosmos where it was possible. The difference is subtle but let’s take our straw contest winner Adam3 and say that he’s walking down the street and sees a puddle in the sidewalk. Now he can come to one of two conclusions, the first is that the depression in the concrete and the soil below it, as well as perhaps the shoddy job that the person who poured the concrete, as well as the material strength of the substance itself were all done with the intent of one day creating that specific puddle which Adam3 is now stepping over. We can add all of the other factors to it as well, the meteorological events which made it rain that day, the tree whose branches grew in such a way that the leaves didn’t shield the depression from the falling water, all of this with the intent of creating the puddle. That, however, is not the reasonable conclusion what is more reasonable is to think that the puddle merely formed because the depression in the sidewalk was there, and that the rain merely filled it in.

In the cosmic scale, sentient life is such a puddle. When the Cosmos created a gap in its chronology that allowed any life at all to exist, life began which then ultimately led to sentient life. It is not reasonable to say that the entire history of the universe has been driving at the goal of producing the brief period of time that the known sentient life has been in existence. To claim that we are the ultimate result of history is anthropocentric and unjustified by this argument. Not to mention that the vast majority of the Cosmos is inhospitable to any form of life. Like the objection to Cleanthes we exist because the conditions allow it, but the conditions do not exist for us.

Works Cited
Barrow, J. (n.d.). Cosmology, Life, and the Anthropic Principle. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 139-143.
Cicero, M. T., & Walsh, P. (2008). On the Nature of the Gods. Oxford University Press.
Long, A., & Sedley, D. (1987). The Hellenestic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rowe, W. J., & Wainright, W. J. (1998). Philosophy of Religion. In P. Van Inwagen, The Wider Teleological Argument. New York: Harcourt Publishing.

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Categories: philosophy, religion, science

Atheist Perspective: My Own Personal View Will Remain Absent

August 19, 2014 Leave a comment

About three hours ago I was asked to teach a course in Bio-Ethics at my University. I’ve taught the course before, but it’s been awhile and one of the most difficult things about the subject is that the science is always moving forward. I have to crash write the course given that it begins in a little less than two weeks at a school that I have never taught at.

That got me thinking about my personal policy regarding the teaching of Philosophy courses. Unlike what certain talking heads want to believe which is a symptom of anti-intellectualism that has always run through American society, I don’t care what the students believe. I am an atheist but in my courses it’s not an issue for a student to argue from a position of religion. For the most part it doesn’t matter. I only have to be careful when teaching philosophy of religion courses because some religious people will seek to hijack the course to make sure that no one is straying from the true path. As an instructor it has never been an issue in my classes, but as a student I’ve seen it happen.

There are some atheists who believe that we should wear our atheism like a Christian wears a gold cross around their neck. They want to advertise it, and like some of the Christians, they want to be challenged on it. I feel that as an instructor this is the worst policy, this is a like a Marxist teaching a political philosophy course, it sets a tone that stifles the free exchange of ideas. There are brave students out there for sure, but like in any given population, the brave ones are the minority. Students who otherwise would speak might not, their papers will not be honest as they will be afraid to contradict the instructor’s position. They may soften their speech, or do a number of other things that mitigate what their view all in the name of their grade, if they perceive the instructor to be the type of person who is vindictive.

For this reason I don’t mention my views to my students regarding anything within the sphere of the course. Given that this is an ethics course with an emphasis on medicine, healthcare, and science; abortion comes up (unless the universe is kind and I run out of time before we get to it). Abortion, to some, is the most important topic that can be discussed, it’s import cannot be denied. It’s the one issue that unified all the different sects of Christianity, and it’s the one that I am utterly sick of talking about in class. I forbid the topic in my Intro to Ethics class because of this and the reason that at the 100 level no one ever brings anything new to the argument. It’s standard boilerplate anti-murder or anti-choice arguments that are neither novel or even well researched.

As an atheist, I can have whatever view on the subject I find most compelling but I never bring it up. It would do absolutely no good. Any sort of posturing merely pollutes the course and is an abuse of the position.

What I do let them know are the rules of argumentation, where the burden of proof lies and that they cannot, without proof, deny established science or facts. There are some who would believe that is me pushing my beliefs, but its reality that I push not a point of view. I don’t care if they believe differently because the Earth is round no matter what they want to think about it, vaccines do not cause autism, and homeopathic remedies are junk. No religion discussion need enter into it.

If they ask, I merely remind them of my policy. It’s the best possible solution, it’s not that I am ashamed to be an atheist, I have no reason to be. It’s that I don’t want that debate where it does not belong.

Atheist’s Perspective: Red Team III “The Ra Argument”

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

In the interests of fairness, where my lens of criticism must not only focus on the weakest arguments of the theists in the world it must also turn its gaze toward the weak arguments of the non-believers as well. This isn’t an issue of fairness bias, I’m not pretending that all are equally right. This is an issue of image. For every time that an atheist slams his hand on a table and claims, “there is no god;” our “side” gets weaker because that assertion cannot be proven. Atheism as a movement, has to understand that as a minority we have an image problem–religious zealots characterize us as anarchists, immoral, and/or hedonists because they can’t imagine that a person would behave without a spiritual gun to the head forcing them to be moral. Every time a weak argument is thrown out against the religious we look like a bunch of people who are just trying to anger the majority and are really in denial. These <a href=""Red team“” title=”"red team"” target=”_blank”> posts are a way of attacking the bad arguments so that progress can be made.

The history of civilization is littered with the corpses of dead gods. Gods that failed to protect their civilizations from whatever it was that destroyed them: whether it was famine, pestilence, or the armies of other civilizations. We cannot know the true veracity of another person’s belief much less of an entire civilization but we can make educated assumptions about them. Did the Greeks really believe that Apollo spoke to the maidens at Delphi? It seems so, although it must have been odd to think that they believed their gods lived on Olympus which is a climbable mountain. It seems just as likely that the Aztecs believed in their gods as the Norse did theirs. All of these gods lie in ruin, although at least the Norse seemed to predict this in their sagas.

One popular argument against religion is to use this historical fact as a proof that all civilizations had some kind of religion, that those people really believed, and that it didn’t matter because their gods failed to protect them. I term this, “the Ra argument.” It’s almost always delivered as a response to a statement that claims religion is necessary for a civilization to flourish but the weakest form goes like this:

Theist: Well if you can’t disprove the existence of (insert deity here) then it must be true.

Atheist: That’s a false dilemma, you can’t prove that Ra doesn’t exist either.

The theist is asking for a negative proof which is impossible (see the first link with regard to Russel’s Teapot for why), instead of pointing this out the atheist merely offers a retort in much the same manner. Sure, it points out the flawed reasoning but it doesn’t address the concern of the theist in which they are asking for some kind of reason to doubt. Also, Ra could very well exist alongside whatever contemporary deity is being cited. Krishna in the Baghavad Gita tells Arjuna that no matter which of the false gods a person worships, in the end they are worshiping me.

Sure the Egyptians were a dominant civilization, sure they believed in a sun god, insect and bird gods; but the fall of the Pharaohs doesn’t mean anything. All it does is mention a historical fact coupled with a request for a negative proof.

The argument does have its place, especially when dealing with the theistic ad populum argument which states that so many people believe in something so it must be true. Let me be clear though, it only works as a response. On its own, it merely falls into he same trap. In short, if you are asking a theist to disprove Ra, you might as well be asking them to disprove Yetis. It’s a silly and incorrect argument on its own.

The better response though is to ask what makes the contemporary religion better than the ones in the past. Sincerity of belief isn’t a mark in the present’s corner since we can be reasonably assured that those ancient people really believed. This is a question that I have hardly heard an adequate response to. Some people might say that modern religions are effective, but in all honesty I don’t see any Frost Giants terrorizing Midgard anymore.

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Atheist Perspective: Religious Persecution

August 5, 2014 Leave a comment

“At the bottom of religious persecution is the doctrine of self-defence; that is to say the defence of the soul.”
-Robert Ingersoll, February 5 1892

Ingersoll was speaking of the motivation of those who persecute the members of one religious by another religion. In this respect he was talking about the laws and punishments inflicted on one Christian by another Christian of a different stripe. The self defense he speaks of is that of the follower who believes their soul is at risk because another person has the nerve to display their sincerely held belief. Because person A is not constantly reminded that theirs is the true belief, they feel the need to make sure that only their faith is the one that anyone sees.

Today, in the US, it’s different, but not by much. Today, instead of trying to persecute they instead claim that they are the victims of persecution. The cry of “liberty” is never so loud or shrill as it is when it flies from the mouth of a person who is not losing it. Their privilege is what is being lost and this is conflated with liberty. Religious liberty is the freedom to practice a religion, it is not the freedom to make sure that everyone else has to act underneath someone else’s moral guidelines.

No one is trying to remove the Nativity Scenes from churches they just should not be sponsored by the government. Any claim that this persecution is hyperbolic and false. Ask them to point to where they need to make these displays, what doctrine is being violated and they will be unable to answer the question. Ask where the persecution, the actual war on their religion is happening, and again they will be unable to answer since it does not happen. What is happening is their ability to look everywhere and be reassured that no foreign thouhts or doubts will occur to them.

What they actually desire is total domination of the thoughts of every person who thinks differently than they do. They need to know that an antiquated set of rules, that they themselves barely follow are allowed to be put in a courtroom where only two of those rules can actually be enforced (maybe three if you count he false witness thing). They need to make sure that a holiday season worships Jesus along with its actual divinity: consumerism. It is all sound and fury signifying nothing. They can cry all they want but too many of them will rush for deals on televisions and the like while at the same time complaining that no one remembers what the holiday is about.

Despite this hypocrisy, no one is trying to deny them anything. Their right to practice has never been under threat by non-believers. The only thing that ought to be taken away is their ability to remind everyone else what the true religion is.

What harm does it do if the baby Jesus is a few blocks down the street in front of a church rather than in front of city hall.? Is it the knowledge that not everyone believes dangerous to their faith? Is their grasp on their god so tenuous that not seeing the decalogue on a court wall will cast them into hell? Or is it their desire to be persecuted, to be a martyr that they drum up false controversies?

The idea of a world where everyone believes the same thing is an unrealistic goal. Claiming that this is persecution trivializes places in the world where real persecution is actually happening.

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