Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

The Outrage Machine

March 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Is it just me or do people want to be outraged at something? Not real things, not things that actually matter or things that are true. In some way I get it, it’s easier to just read a headline and repost. It’s much easier than reading an article and finding out what actually happened, or reading a few articles on the same subject because then, and only then, will the reader actually understand what is going on. It’s closely related to what is now the slander of being called an “elitist” in reference to someone who knows things. If you have an education, if you understand things, that is now apparently a bad thing. Why? Because anyone can be stupid, but being smart, being versed in a subject is hard. It takes work, while having mere emotional reactions armed with a few contrite phrases (“political reasons,” “fake news,” “elitist”) doesn’t take any work.

Last month (February 2017) a Pennsylvania school board agreed to remove a monument of the ten commandments from Valley Junior-Senior High School. A lawsuit was originally filed in 2012, but due to some technical issues had to make it’s way through the circuits. The school district settled and is going to have to reimburse legal fees to the FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) to the tune of 40,000 dollars. In a settlement this is a normal practice. The defendant agreed with the plaintiff and in any lawsuit where money is changing hands the agreement usually confers some recompense to the winner of the case. The school’s insurance company is going to pay the money, not the school. I’m not sure how exactly this translates into tax dollars, but it’s fact that must be stated.

Understanding this type of issue is a complicated endeavor. One must first understand why the lawsuit was brought in the first place. Unlike most of the sites that I checked, it was not to line the pockets of the FFRF, who received the 40K of the 163k settlement. An amount, which they claimed was not a full reimbursement and which we have no reason to think that a five year settlement going through three different courts was going to cost less than 40k. I note it also because in Pennsylvania, a law is being offered in response, that would ban legal fees from being a part of settlement amounts. Or at least legislation is being drafted, which is a terrible idea: because it means that if I sue for negligence because of something objectively negligent against McDonalds, they can bury me with lawyers knowing that I won’t be able financially to fight them even if they know they are wrong. Again, I don’t know how much it costs to hire a lawyer to put on one of these lawsuits, so I’ll just have to take their word for it. Just as I don’t know how much it costs to move a statue.

The removal of the monument is not about money, it’s about not allowing a public institution to endorse a particular religion. Despite what the theocrats want you to think: there’s no way that a ten commandments statue isn’t a religious statue. They like to claim that the laws of the US were founded on the Ten Commandments, which is patently false. The first four are purely religious. The fifth, while not religious is not a legally enforceable item (honor your parents). Rules 6 & 8, are the legally punishable (Murder and Stealing respectively), 7 only matters within a specific type of legal situation (divorce proceedings). Nine is trickier because there’s some debate over what it actually means. If it means the common thing: thou shalt not lie, then it’s not a legal issue. However if it is a prohibition against bearing false witness in legal matters, then that’s the legal issue of perjury. The final commandment, it is just a prohibition on thought crime and not legally actionable either. In all we only have two commandments that could be said to be legally inspiring with two more that could be considered “sort of…but…”

It’s difficult to understand that while the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it’s part of our system. The Bill of Rights specifically prohibits the state from endorsing or prohibiting any particular religion, and placing a religious statue in a school does that. Jefferson explained the purpose of the amendment as being just that. The legal result is that you have an all or nothing situation: either you have to allow all of the religions or none of them. Why? Because we don’t want the government getting into the situation of deciding which religions are true and which are not. This is especially important when you consider historical context in which Catholics and Puritans in the 18th century would not have considered themselves members of the same religion. Some Evangelical Christians don’t consider Catholics and Mormons to be Christians now, but imagine how it must have been two hundred years ago. Wisely they decided that it was not the business of the state to make these kinds of adjudications (Scientology and Raeliens included).

Yet, that’s not the issue getting thrown around the internet. It’s all about how this settlement, the court, and the lawsuit; are all about persecuting Christians. Why? Because it’s easier to sell the outrage without really having to understand the issue. Nothing will get a news story spread around faster than a headline which conveys the message that Christians are continuing to be persecuted in a country where it is a) not happening and b) where the religion makes up a strong majority (when you put all of the denominations under the same banner). The headline “School board settles Constitutional violation law suit” isn’t going to get the same travel.

Interestingly some more digging unearthed the reason for the statue in the first place: as a promotion for the movie “The Ten Commandments.” So if we think about, a monument to a religion wasn’t removed a film advertisement was.



January 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Happy New Year…I guess. Last year it was 2016 and this year is one more than that so it’s 2017. Because that’s how numbers work right? I mean it’s universal and there is no reason to think otherwise…

Unless of course you meet several criteria each more confusing and elaborate than the last. I have actually been sitting on this story for a few weeks for a few reasons, but none as near as confusing as the “reasoning” that I am about to elaborate. The first is that it is so utterly absurd that I didn’t believe it. I came across this gem from the Cognitive Dissonance Podcast episode 332, and while I love the podcast the way they cover their stories means I have to double check. I’m not calling them out for spreading false information, just that they take a humorous tone with everything and inflate the absurdities because they cover the absurd. Once I confirmed the story was as crazy as they made it sound I had grading to do. Lots and lots of grading. After that was done, I was burnt from grading and posted my rant about it last week. Now I feel I can cover the story.

1 + 1 = 2. That’s how numbers work, if you have 1 thing and another thing, you have 2 things. There is only one way this simple formula doesn’t work, and that is if two people disagree on the meaning of the symbols. That however is an epistemic problem and/or a linguistic problem. Which is a legitimate issue, and why we send out pulses of prime numbers and geometry when trying to communicate with extraterrestrials. Merely scrawling pi = 3.14 on the side of Voyager doesn’t mean anything if the creatures which find it have no comprehension of what any of that means. There’s also the post-modernist problems with math in that it tells a euro-centric narrative (they do this with science as well which Alan Sokal pointed out in his famous hoax). It’s a ridiculous notion because the thing with math is that it is independent of the external world. You might argue the inherent unfairness of language, and that could be a debate, but math isn’t about language it’s about reason thus we never need two things to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. We can have an entire rule set regarding math which never applies to the actual world, e.g. negative numbers aren’t things. They can’t represent things because we are talking about not only emptiness but positive representations of emptiness which isn’t possible. There can be no existence below existence.

However these are not the problems that are being presented in “Why Math isn’t Religiously Neutral” by Israel Wayne. The problem being presented here is that math is contingent on Jesus. The post begins with Johnny asking why 2 + 4 = 6 all the time. Why is it 6 today, but never 7 on another day. The article goes on to explain that the teacher must repeat the official government story that the story of math begins 14 billion years ago at the Big Bang, then proceeds through random chance to evolution, which also for some reason includes math. Evolution apparently, created math and this is what we teach to the kids unless we want to just say “math simply is.”

Or, we can give the “true” story which is that Jesus created  math and it’s not the process of random chance, evolution, or whatever Nihilism that the government and “Big Math” wants us to teach. See only the Christian can give the true understanding of math, which is Jesus did it. The reasoning is that if you combine a few unrelated bible quotes Col 1:15-17, John 1:1-3, and Romans 1:20 the religious interpretation of math is superior because only it understands why.

The reasoning behind this is so absurd I don’t even know if it’s not even wrong. Let’s get this out of the way right now: 2 + 4 = 6 always. It’s not up for debate. If everyone involved understands the definitions of the numbers that’s how it is, we don’t need a god to underlie the meaning of it.

Secondly, math is independent of Evolution. Even if nothing evolved, if everything merely popped into existence then math would still be the same thing. It wouldn’t matter if there were no people. It’s purely rational. It’s so utterly rational that all civilizations independent of each other (and Jesus) have come up with it, barring their different symbols used in place of course. Math has nothing to do with the results of evolution, other than allowing us the brain power to come up with the symbols and the principles behind it.

Thirdly, there is no government “story of math.” Math text books might begin with a little history about the development of mathematics from Archimedes, Euclid, and Pythagoras in the Greek world, perhaps the addition of Babylonian, Indian, Arabic, and Mayan influences in the development of arithmetic, but usually it’s just an introduction and then on to the numbers.

Finally, the author is incorrect that the Christian zealot is better equipped to teach math, or anything other than the bible (and really, not even then), to kids. Their primary, and indeed only, book is littered with scientific inaccuracies that don’t measure up the real world. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, I study Philosophy, and Aristotle’s science has large holes in it, just as Hippocrates’ medical books have errors. However, two important facts separates those authors from the Bible. The first being that they present arguments/evidence for the claims they make. Aristotle reasons that things fall down because they are heavy, which he has in reverse if we are being generous (things are heavy because they fall). Hippocrates attributes the illness of various groups to the climate they live in his work “Airs Waters Places” which could be correct but he has no idea about germs and such. The second and most important difference is that neither individuals are claiming to be reciting the inerrant mind of god or claiming that their words were the literal words of god. They can be wrong and no one is going to lose sleep over it.

However the bible claims that Pi = 3 (1 Kings 7:23 – 26) or its claiming that Solomon’s cauldron did not exist, by virtue of the contradiction negating the existence of the thing. It’s also worth pointing out that math as a measurement doesn’t proscribe a thing it just defines it. A circle doesn’t correspond to Pi because Pi makes the thing, it’s just how we measure the ration of the diameter to the circumference.

Although all of this misses the unintentionally funniest part of the story: which is what was math like before Jesus? Did 1 + 2 = 6 for the Indians, while 1 + 2 =10 for Japanese? I’m not understanding why we need Jesus for this whole operation as the societies without him, and contemporaneous with the ancient Israelites were able to come much closer to the real measurement of Pi then the group that literally, according to them, carried around god in a box.

Atheist’s Perspective: The Shield

October 14, 2014 2 comments

I was listening to the “Oh No Ross and Carrie” podcast today where they were interviewing two members of the Aetherius society. If you aren’t familiar with the podcast, the premise is that the two hosts undergo fist hand experience in alternative medicine, alternative science, paranormal, conspiracy, and religious movements and then report their findings. They investigated the Aetherius society several months ago reporting that it seemed to be another fringe religion based on new age-y beliefs using the episode to poke fun at the idea. This caught the attention of two members of the group who took offense to it, and then came on to the show to defend their religion.

The Aetherius society is another of, what I label, space-man religions. Like the Raeliens, Urantianism, the Ra-People (who coincidentally contacted my entire department last week looking for a discussion) the religion is based on extra-terrestrials who apparently contacted a single figure on the Earth to communicate a higher truth. I want to be clear about something before I move on, I excluded Scientology from the above list because adherents to the doctrine of L. Ron Hubbard aren’t told of the Xenu and the aliens, and are told that it is a slander spread by outsiders until they reach a certain point. People jumping into Scientology are kept from this aspect. The pattern of these religions is strikingly similar. It’s a voice from the stars that finds an obscure person which teaches them an alternative way of thinking based on some kind of foreign thinking that is obscure enough to be mysterious but not specific enough to actually say anything. The members talk about “energy” and “truth” which sound appealing but without a further explanation as to what kind of energy or what truth it means nothing.

Yet, who am I to ridicule? As I wrote a few posts earlier, is their religion honestly any more out there then what mainstream religions claim? All religions claim the extra ordinary, just the specifics may be a bit different. Again, I posit the claim that the only difference between the outlandish claims of burning bushes and UFOs is time. We’ve had thousands of years of hearing the claims of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions and only a couple decades of Space religions so of course it sounds crazy.

After a couple of rounds of dodging questions about the founder of the religion and his weird titles (to which I credit the host, Carrie, for constantly reasking the same question “Who was George King and where did he get the title doctor?”) one guest finally expressed that he felt the hosts were unprofessional. They were unprofessional because they were belittling one person’s path toward the truth. He felt that if someone is happy with a belief, and that belief makes allows a person to find a role in the world what right is there for an outsider to question or ridicule it?

I find this kind of defense to be cowardly. I’ll grant the individual one thing: if it makes him happy he should keep doing it and be proud of doing it. However, he’s got no claim if I want to think that his idea is full of crap from saying so. The very objection that he raises is nothing more than a form of relativism: if my chosen path necessitates that I look down on belief systems that are different than mine then what right does he have to tell me that I can’t follow my own path to truth? He has no right, his own standard allows this.

Secondly, this idea that just because someone sincerely believes something means that we cannot say that it’s wrong is merely an attempt to censor my own opinion. My point of view is that their founder read a book on Hinduism, didn’t understand it but pulled out some vocabulary words combined them with some fads of the time and created a belief system out of it. I am not wrong to criticize the claim of his religion…or any religion for that matter. It’s my right along with his to believe in whatever he wants to, but I don’t have to shrug my shoulders and accept that while it’s not right, it’s right for him, and the only truth that matters is the personal one.

This is the curse of multi-cultural post modernism. George King was not in contact with a cosmic intelligence, nor is there a satellite orbiting the Earth sending us yogic energy. I want proof of these claims if I am going to be willing to accept the truth of their claims. Truth isn’t relative, no religion gets to claim that theirs is the true path and then dismiss skeptics with a hand wave of, “it’s what I believe and you are insulting me by questioning it.” Truth is objective and reality is something that isn’t affected by what a single individual believes. This shield is nothing more than paper and ought to be burned as such.

(the defense not the person in case I wasn’t clear)

Atheist Perspective: Plato’s God

October 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Philosophy sort of begins with Plato. It’s a qualified statement because chronologically this is an incorrect assertion, Greek philosophy is often taught with his writing as chapter 1, because it is through him that we know most of what we know about Socrates. His school, the Academy, is where we get the term “academic,” his writings give us the word “symposium” (I would say the concept as well but there is surprisingly little drinking during the symposiums colleges usually hold), he’s responsible for the myth of Atlantis and a dearth of programming on the “history” channel…not bad for a former professional wrestler.

Reading Plato, especially his cosmological dialogue “The Timaeus” one begins to understand his view of the divine as the great world builder or “Demi-Urge” which created the universe and everything in it. His creation myth was taken literally by his followers and was persistent enough that all following schools had to at least address it. Plato’s god, is not the gods of the Greek world that we know from the myths, it is something different but still exercises an interest in the world and its management. It’s not the unmoved mover–that’s more in line with Aristotle’s thinking. It is also not the prime contingent truth by which all things hinge upon (again Aristotle and to an extent Augustine).

Plato’s philosophy pushes an idea of the forms, which are immaterial super-objects. I’m going to skip the detailed proof of these things but what we need to know is that they are universal concepts by which all objects are made in mockery. For everything that exists in the physical world, there exists a form of the genus of the object that we can use to create. A chair, to use a tired philosophical cliche is representative of the form “chair” which links all chairs to a central concept. What we would consider the best chair, would be a closer approximation to the form “chair.” I’m being overly simplistic but this is the general idea. What needs to be stated though, is that the form is higher in quality than the physical being. As we approach the form things get more real and more pure.

How is this related to the idea of god? Well, Plato’s theology gets a little messy here. There can’t be a form “god” and a god, that would mean that the ultimate divine was somehow lacking, so Plato’s god and god-form must be one in the same. This seems to make sense, and I would need to quite a bit of research in order to establish this, I will read any contradiction to this assertion but my understanding of Plato is that this must be the case. The god then must have built the world, and is currently managing the world based on the pure wisdom that it has access to through the forms. As it constructed the world it used this knowledge to make it the Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” and then proceeds to influence it in ways it sees fit. We get this knowledge through the Timaeus dialogue. God must engage in the best, most proper activity.

Yet this presents itself with a contradiction internal to Plato’s writings. In Plato’s Republic, which anyone reading this has at least indirect experience with as it is so endemic to our culture, he addresses the question of what is the best possible activity for human beings to engage in. If we look at what we know of his theology from the Timaeus we would think it to be something like world-building, which in his culture would most likely be equated to politics. God manages the world, the rulers manage the city-state, the parallel is obvious. Yet, the character of Socrates in the dialogue doesn’t offer politics as the top activity–it’s up there for sure, the rulers of Plato’s Republic are philosopher kings those endowed with such ability to reason that they are incapable of choosing wrong, but the top activity is contemplation of philosophy and mathematics.

What this indicates is that his god is flawed. It feels that it must be involved in the management of the world but it ought not to be doing so. Activity of any sort indicates an incompleteness and a diversion from the prime activity that it ought to be doing which is pure contemplation. Plato’s student, Aristotle makes the pure contemplation the only feature of his god in stark contrast to his former teacher. How can the god do anything other than contemplation given this contradiction?

In this respect not only is Aristotle’s god superior to Plato’s but also to most other gods in the history of human civilization for the very reason that the other gods are lacking something that they need to fix. If there was no lack, then why are they claimed to act, or be involved in the world? It doesn’t stand to reason. If something is perfect, then it should need nothing, do nothing, etc. because all of its being is fully complete. Yet Plato has his god as an active, involved entity.

What does it show? It shows that Plato added the divine being as an afterthought, or was a part of an incomplete theory that needed to be worked out a bit more. No perfect being could be actively involved in the world unless one is willing to concede some kind of imperfection. Aristotle’s idea is superior in that it is the most consistent–a perfect being that only engages in the best of all possible activities. We can even say that the Epicurean deistic gods surpass Plato on this, in the same way, yet their are other problems with them as we shall see.

Atheist’s Perspective: Near Death Experience

September 2, 2014 Leave a comment

I was listening to a debate the other day on NPR’s Intelligence Squared over whether or not death was permanent. It’s one of those questions that seems to have an obvious “yes” answer. Even for the religious, the answer is yes because our definitions of death are not coherent. The theist can answer yes, as long as by “death,” you mean the ending of this worldly life. To question this alleged fact of our existence is almost absurd. We are born and then we fill in the middle part for a bit, then we die. It is inevitable. 

The debate however extended beyond this obvious construction of our existence and into whether or not there is some kind of life after death. This obviously, is the real question being asked. Death, in this life, is inevitable; but that does not necessarily mean the destruction of the self or the identity of the individual. Perhaps you might want to throw a soul into that mix as well. Claiming that you are a soul and the body is a vehicle for that soul is a common metaphor. It raises a host of other questions, it over-complicates things in a way that I find distasteful in my almost blind adherence to Ockham’s Razor. Do souls exist? I don’t know, I see no evidence for a soul but I am open to the possibility. 

Yet the question being asked is not, “do souls exist?” but rather is there life after death. In concerning ourselves with terms as we like to do, we must define the words being used. The main point is that tricky definition of the word death. Now there are several conceptions of death that are the realm of argument in matters legal, moral, and scientific. I will simplify it for this post by saying the end of the body’s life. Far past the point where we want to describe lower versus higher brain function, brain versus heart, etc. I mean not the point where we want to say that a person has just died, but that everyone agrees that the body is a corpse. 

As a materialist, it’s hard for me to accept that there is anything more than just our bodies. Therefore when the body is dead the person is dead along with it. Yet some would claim that the person lives on, in more than just our memories but that there is an afterlife and that is where a new life begins. In the debate, Dr. Eben Alexander and Dr. Raymond Moody (the latter being the person that coined the term “near death experience) were using the existence of the phenomenon of near death experiences as evidence that there is some kind of life after death. Dr. Alexander himself spent seven days in a coma in which he described having journeyed to the other side and then returned to this life. His experience, and others like it, are used to prove that there is some kind of existence after this life. 

I disagree. I want to be clear though, I don’t think that people like Dr. Alexander are necessarily lying. He was in a coma and had some kind of experience. However it seems to be that those people who have the experiences always fit them into a description that was present in the culture that they lived in. In other words if a Christian has an one of these experiences they see Jesus, if a Hindu goes through it they see Hindu deities, a Muslim sees Allah or Mohammed, etc. If people all over the world were having these and bringing back descriptions that generally matched, I would be more open to them. 

The so-called tunnel of light, is usually explained by brain asphyxiation, and the drug ketamine has been known to have the effect of inducing one of these experiences that the person in question swears is true. 

Those explanations aside, one of the issues is that these people didn’t die. Now some may have been declared clinically dead for a couple minutes, but that doesn’t mean dead dead, because some function of the body is still operating. They may have some kind of faint lower brain function, their blood may still be flowing, etc. They don’t come back because they haven’t gone anywhere. To use these experiences as anything other than anecdotal evidence is incorrect. While I don’t dispute that personal belief of the person that they had an experience, I will contest any claim that their belief represents the objective reality of the world. 


Categories: philosophy

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.

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.

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.