Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Of Miracles

September 29, 2016 1 comment

‘The historic case against miracles is also rather simple. It consists of calling miracles impossible, then saying that no one but a fool believes impossibilities: then declaring that there is no wise evidence on behalf of the miraculous. The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, “Yes, but there is no evidence for them.” When we take all the records of the human race and say, “Here is your evidence,” they say, “But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things.”–GK Chesterton

Miracles, where to start? First off let’s lay the groundwork on what exactly we are talking about. A miracle must be a violation of the natural order. This way we can rule out what may constitute a miracle as being a matter of perspective. If I want to run into someone and I pray for it, then I do; that’s not a miracle–that’s a coincidence at worst. A miracle must be something that could not happen without divine interference a sublimation of the natural laws. A frog falling from the sky? Not a miracle. Someone who was sick and then suddenly got better? Not a miracle…probably. Frogs sometimes fall from the sky and sick people sometimes suddenly get better.

The quote above was posted on a friend’s facebook wall and I thought it worthy of at least addressing. Chesterton, if you don’t know, is a Christian apologist who, despite the normal attachment of that label is very reasonable and easy to read. I would put him on par with CS Lewis, though some of my colleagues will undoubtedly say Chesterton is the better. I’m of an indifferent opinion given that I’ve read considerably more Lewis than Chesterton. He’s reasonable in the sense that I don’t want to throw his essays across the room when I’m reading them, in fact, I wish more defenders of a faith were like this guy…even though I consider him wrong.

So let’s take this quote from Chesterton and unpack it a bit. The first sentence is half right: the case against miracles is about historical verification. As in, there really isn’t any. Sure there are plenty of accounts, but such accounts are usually suspect to begin with. Lourdes for instance has had 200 million visitors and only 69 confirmed miracles. Yet the miracles are steeped in two problematic issues: the first is in relying on the medical knowledge of the mid-to late 19th century. Something being pronounced “incurable” is being done so with a very limited knowledge of the human body and how diseases work. At this point in history Ignaz Semmelweis is being thrown in an asylum for the crime of suggesting that surgeons wash their hands in between dissecting cadavers and delivering children. The second, a slightly more problematic for my cause, is that the people who are believing in these miracles are those that the miracles occur to. This is a two fold problem. On the one hand if you have lost vision in one eye and then you do a thing which afterward causes the vision to return then the why question is answered if you are predisposed to religious thinking. This is problematic for my proposal because I will not call that person a liar, I truly believe that they believe what happened is a miracle and even if I didn’t I know that there is nothing that I could do or say that would convince them. What they believe happened is not sufficient to show the truth of belief, just as someone being a martyr doesn’t show the truth of their religion but the truth of their belief in that religion.

Again, sometimes people do get better, especially considering health related miracles that are completely internal. Show me someone who’s arm grew back and I’ll move right back in leaping over the “Agnostic” category on the religious belief spectrum. Dismissing the historical evidence isn’t merely strict denialism. If it’s truly a miracle it should be unambiguous as to what happened. The miracles of Fatima for instance would be a miracle if anyone else on the planet noticed the sun dancing around as it was reported as having done. The natural explanation? That the witnesses stared at the sun too long and began to hallucinate that the ball of light was darting across their vision, as it does when you stare into a bright light.

The problem that I have with the other half of this argument is that first, it’s not philosophical–it’s ontological. Did those superstitious people believe in impossible things? Yes, they must have because it’s called “a miracle.” By definition it transcends the normal experience and must be considered prior to the event “impossible.” Otherwise it’s not a miracle it’s just a strange thing that happened. So, of course, if a group of people believe in miracles they believe in an impossible thing.

The second problem with that is if it’s being used polemical, as Chesterton is assuming it is, then what exactly is the problem? I doubted the Mayan doomsday prediction for a number of reasons and one of them was because these were the type of people who believed that blood sacrifice ensouled inanimate objects. It’s that kind of scientific thinking that led me to one facet of my skepticism regarding their accuracy in predicting the end of the world. Further, it’s not like the believer in Christian miracles is any different they just believe that one group of miracles is real while the other evidence and testimony from the various non-Christian religions is all farce and delusion. I’m merely applying their skepticism to Roman accounts of miracles, for example, to theirs.

However, I don’t necessarily reject a belief’s claim to miracle on the basis of, “just because they believe it.” That’s foolish and intellectually dishonest. I dismiss the claim when I hear it until I get some kind of evidence for it. Merely saying that X happened is not enough to convince, nor should it ever be. I treat stories of miracles the same way I treat stories about Yetis and Alien UFOs, those extraordinary claims need the extraordinary evidence to back them up.


Atheist Perspective: God is not a wizard

November 11, 2014 Leave a comment

A lot of pixels have been burnt among the atheist, agnostic, free-thinking crowd regarding Pope Francis. It was to be expected given that this guy is such a departure from the previous two popes that some controversy has been generated. It’s a shame though because for every step forward he seems to take a step backward as well. He wants Catholics to stop being so focused on social issues but then penalizes nuns for doing exactly that–focusing on poverty rather than abortion and homosexuality. He says that people like me are not damned to hell but then walks back his comment on whether or not we can be saved. This latest move, one that had the science fans all in a buzz, was that he claimed the Big Bang and Evolution were not incompatible with the Christian faith, and that the evidence for both theories were conclusive and necessary for the Catholic view on the formation of the Cosmos. He then went on to give his blessing to the Catholic exorcist conference. One step forward, one step backward.

If we consider his thinking on the Big Bang and Evolution though, he’s not that revolutionary. Sure, it may seem odd that such a pious Christian would accept the scientific theories, but if you think that it’s only because you pay too much attention to the likes of Ken Ham and other loud mouth bible literalists. The Catholic Church, since Pope Pius XII, has been accepting of scientific theory provided the evidence of it is overwhelming. That’s supposed to be the case, facts are neutral in that they reflect the reality of the world. Pius XII accepted the hypotheses, John Paul II commented that evolution was an “effectively proven fact.” You can shout “Galileo” and “Bruno” to me as evidence of the Catholic church’s opposition to science but there are two relevance issues with both of those martyrs. First they were over five hundred years ago and an organization can change. Second, there problem with the church was a bit more than just the ideas they proposed. Galileo in his dialogues repeatedly called the defender of the old system “Simplicio” (meaning “simpleton”) using Pope Urban VIII’s words. Whether this was on purpose or not is a matter of debate but the Catholic church did not take lightly both the insult and the denial of their doctrine. With Bruno, his crime was not so much the teaching of an alternative view of the universe but that he taught against Catholic dogma, most notably he denied the trinity and that Jesus was anything but a normal man (in either case immolation was undeserved but we must be careful on why it happened to him).

Whether or not you trust the Catholics on science is a matter of opinion, but their track record shows that they accept it with regard to the physical world. They also at least consider dissenting opinions, their “Pontifical Academy for Life” brought in the dissent, and while I hold the opinion that they came to the wrong conclusions on moral issues they do at least get the science behind the controversies. Claiming that evolution and the Big Bang are more than ideas is nothing new for the Papacy. In fact, Georges Lemaitre, the person who originally came up with the Big Bang was a Catholic priest and was completely uncensured for developing the theory (I suppose it would be hard to do so when even Einstein vocally applauds it).

It’s only Benedict in recent times that has tried to walk back on evolution, but nevertheless the Catholic church has stood by it’s acceptance of the theories.

What’s troubling is Francis’ comments. He said that “When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so…”

Really? I thought god was supposed to be omnipotent, able to do anything by sheer will. How else can he violate the physical laws of conservation. The same question that is posed to me and my ilk, “how did something form from nothing?” I thought was answered by the theists through divine will. Now, however, we have a qualification. God used the big bang and evolution as tools to make creation. I can accept it without the god part but it raises the question of why god needs tools and materials in the first place. The Epicurean asks Cicero in “On the Nature of the Gods,” what tools the gods used to create the universe, what methods, what raw materials, and the question is left unanswered by the Stoic and Academics in the dialogue.

The “magic wand” comment is curious, because I never have thought of god as a wizard, even when I believed. I have no memory as to how I thought creation was undertaken but my vaguest memory was just using words to bring things into existence (which of course would have been in Latin). God doesn’t need a wand, but he also would not need a mechanism. Claiming that these theories necessitate the existence of a god being begs the question–God used the big bang to create the Cosmos that’s how we know God exists. I’m afraid not Papa, if God is subject to the Big Bang and Evolution that means that the law of the physical universe are above His will, which means that the laws restrict those divine abilities of creation. It also means that the miracles of the holy book are impossible since the universe doesn’t allow them. The sun can’t stop in the sky to allow one army to massacre another, and many others that we can point to.

Accepting scientific theories is not something to be lauded, it’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s not a brave thing that he did, it merely represents a stance that was taken five decades ago. Pius XII wasn’t even changing the stance of the church at the time, he was merely clarifying that the soul cannot be explained by evolution. I’ll even accept that, evolution cannot explain the soul–nothing can because it’s an assumption. Yet the science is proven, it’s not a miracle to accept it it’s merely what we ought to expect form any rational person.

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.

An Atheist’s Perspective: The Interaction Problem

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

…”Likewise; thou canst ne’er
Believe the sacred seats of gods are here
In any regions of this mundane world;
Indeed, the nature of the gods, so subtle,
So far removed by intelligence of mind
And since they’ve ever eluded touch and thrust
Of human hands, they cannot grasp
Aught tangible to us. For what may not
Itself be touched in turn can never be touched.”
–Lucretius, On The Nature of Things Book. I

In philosophy the interaction problem is usually reserved for issues of mind-body. In other words if a person were to believe that the mind is immaterial and that the body is material the problem that they must overcome is that of interaction. How does the non-substance interact with substance? For materialists, this presents no problem whatsoever, the mind is made of the same stuff as the body. For everyone else the problem rears its ugly head to the point where even bringing up the question elicits groans. The groans which say, “yes, yes, there is that problem and no I have no answer for it.”

I would add that this problem works against the religious of the world as well…at least those that believe a single divine entity created all of the cosmos. My reasoning is thus: that if there is a god that god must be physical or not. If it is physical then it must be bound by the rules of the physical universe as all things are. Now I am not making the outrageous claim that it is some sort of super person, basically human but larger or more grand somehow. It could be anything, it could be a nebulae some sort of giant star, or perhaps even a network of various objects ala the god computer in Futurama. No matter what the case, physical beings have physical rules. It would fill in various gaps in their explanations for how the world functions as it does and more importantly why. Yet it presents other problems, such as decay.

“Again perceives not
How stones are also conquered by Time?
Not how the lofty towers ruin down,
And boulders crumble? Not how shrines of gods
And idols crack out worn? Nor how indeed
The holy influence hath yet no power
There to postpone the terminals of fate,
Or headway make ‘gainst Nature’s fixed decrees?”

If a thing exists in the physical world, then it must end eventually as all things, even plastic, eventually succumb to the omnipotent cold hand of time. It also eliminates the mechanism by which it hears prayers since we can gauge pretty handily how far a sound travels and that once it leaves the atmosphere sounds die. The issues of a literal physical being are such that it is denied by almost all theists.

Therefore if a thing be not material it must be immaterial. For the principle of non-contradiction binds all things (when dealing in such absolutes). If this god is an immaterial spirit then how it interacts with the material is a giant gap that is missed by those seeking to defend the existence of such a being. Their typical solution is to claim that all things are possible with god, but this is unsatisfactory because the conclusion of such a claim is that the universe has no laws. Laws of Thermodynamics, gravity, acceleration, etc. do not bind the universe because at any point those laws could change.

Further, if it is true that, in the beginning there was nothing. Then we must ask by what material did the being create everything? Ex nihilo, non nihilo–“from nothing there is nothing” as my friend’s tattoo once read. Matter and energy can never be created or destroyed yet this is clearly what the immaterial god is claimed to have done.

Adding a special case to this being merely complicates the issue in violation of Ockham’s Razor. Since no predictive element could be ascribed to any of the universal rules. It would make no sense as further questions are raised as to why this one being can violate the speed of light, but no other thing can (the answer: because he’s god is not an answer but merely question begging). Further there would need to be some kind of system of rules for how the immaterial world operates, and perhaps there is no god, but a whole host of “gods” which exist in this immaterial plane.

It is the consistency of the universe to have these rules which not only allow us to produce food, make medicine, but also to do the very writing I am doing now. Whether by keystroke or pen, knowing how things are going to happen is how we derive the fruits of our rationality. By claiming that such an interaction problem does not exist and yet that this god-being does is to claim a contradiction.

The Saints of Atheism III: The Laughing Philosopher

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Way back we introduced the idea that even atheism can have its heroes. No, I do not mean the members of what is known as “the four horsemen,” but rather the very foundations of skepticism and doubt. These are the people that advanced the idea that the world can be explained without an appeal to the supernatural, without filling in the gap of not knowing with the plurality of the personal divine. The first was Thales of Miletus, who was the first in Western Civilization to posit a natural explanation of the world that involved the natural world. He doesn’t get the nomination for being correct, his hypothesis–that all is water, is of course, wrong. His method is what made sense, that he used the observable to explain the world, as he did by predicting an eclipse.

This entry’s nomination is one that shows how close to the mark you can actually get with the power of the mind. This person would be Democritus of Abdera. Known as the laughing philosopher, he is also known by some as the father of modern science for reasons that will become apparent in a bit. He is best known, along with his mentor Leucippus (and a much later individual) as being the contributors of what we call “Atomic theory.” I don’t mean to claim that Atomic Theory of Democritus is sort of like our atomic theory in much the way that Empedocles kind of has a notion of evolutionary theory. The only thing that is missing is the empirical evidence substantiating the claim. Like Thales, Democritus only used the powers of observation to arrive at his conclusion. The fundamental aspect of the theory is that if anything that exists is made of material than the foundational thing that it is made of must also be material. While that sounds kind of obvious, anyone that believes in a supernatural origin to the universe does not believe this. They believe literally that there was nothing and that their divine made something out of it. Democritus understood that only material can make material, and that at some point there must be a point of material so small that it cannot be broken down further into smaller pieces. These ultimate blocks of matter would be un-cuttable, or in the Greek “atomon.”

This rules out gods as being different from us in construction. It also rules out the soul as being different as well. This represents a problem that will plague the history of thought until now. Not the existence of the soul (although that’s an entirely different issue) but the interaction problem of how an immaterial substance can interact with a material substance. In Democritus’ formulation there exist only two things: material and immaterial, and immaterial is nothing–the void. The void is that which the material exists in, the atoms float around in the void interacting with each other. These atoms must be partless unable to be dissected into smaller parts. They have different shapes by which they hook into each other and these clumps form into all that exists.

Under the atomic theory of Democritus, if the gods do exist they exist as material beings just like everything else. This is important because while religions (modern and ancient) posited the physical interactions of the divinity, they offered no mechanism by which this could happen. The only explanation given is…well, magic, I guess. Literally they use the deus ex machina. The powers of the gods literally manifest themselves to move the plots of the story along. Democritus’ theory provides at least some consistency in how the interaction ought to take place, the gods are material, their powers are material, and thus everything works along with the matter of the universe.

This view of the world makes things simpler because it shaves off extraneous entities that require further explanation. Democritus wasn’t wholly correct. Dreams and thoughts were constructed of certain atoms that produced the images in the minds of the people. This would of course be necessary because the only alternative is these images are made of void–which is an unbearable consequence. In this view of atoms constructing images he may not be right but he’s not necessarily wrong. Another influence of him is that this is still a matter of debate whether consciousness is a product of material or something else. If it is something else then we have to solve the interaction problem.

I nominate Democritus because his reductionist view has hit the mark as close as any philosopher for nearly two thousand years. For explanations that transcend the role of spirits, souls, and ghosts. The atoms are the material of the world, the void is that which they exist in. Anything else needs to be proven prior to our assumptions. He is the true beginning of the modern scientific reasoning excluding the supernatural.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part V of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

If we took anything from last post, it should be that an achievement is not great just because it is large. The universe is not an incredible achievement because of its size, and it’s doubtful that it could be considered an achievement anyway. However, we do consider—and I think this can be said without controversy—that complexity really lends itself to consideration of what is and what is not an achievement. The LHC, perhaps the most incredible achievement built by the hand of man is not incredible because of its size, but for what it does. Perhaps, also because it depowers an entire town when it runs at full capacity and that’s just a cool side effect of it. The complexity of a thing is directly related to how we, as lay people, would go about even beginning to comprehend how such a thing was possible. Our incredulity extends not only to things which are large and complex but also to those things which we know exist as possibilities but are so rare that we cannot consider that they could happen on their own.

[Special note to philosophers: I categorically reject that “modal properties” are anything other than linguistic exercises, that just needs to be said in anticipation of a particularly virulent strain of objection]

The Argument from Design (AfD) contains a conflation of terms that, colloquially, we all make. It is the confusion between what is possible and what is probable; as well as their opposites impossible and impossible. This is confusion that goes back to Aristotle, who points out the misuse of the terms in De Caleo (“On the Heavens”), explaining that while we use the terms interchangeably they do not have the same import of meaning. For instance a thing which is impossible is also improbable but not for the same reason. That which is improbable is a thing which is unlikely to happen, while something which is impossible; cannot ever happen. Cicero uses the example of placing letter tiles in a bag and throwing them in the air, the odds that they would land to form the writings of a Roman poet are far from likely. For him, as well as other AfD’ers, this is proof of some guiding intelligence in the universe. Cicero’s mistake should be obvious, just because the odds are incredibly remote does not indicate that the letters will never fall in a particular order. Even if we were to attempt this experiment a million times and never get the desired result; we may even never get the letters to form a single word does not mean that it isn’t possible. Just as a roulette wheel may never land on red for fifty spins, an unlikely event but an entirely possible one.

That which is impossible contains within it some kind of inherent contradiction in terms. We can never have a geometric circle that possesses a corner, or a right triangle that violates the Pythagorean Theorem. Also I cannot be considered to be both standing and sitting at the same time. The AfD argument wishes to make this claim that the armillary sphere could not have come into being through non-intelligent means thus the universe which it is made in mockery must also have come into being through design. One might be tempted to dismiss the claim of the Stoics by pointing out that there perfectly designed universe is not astronomically correct, but that is a mere quibble that ought to be rejected. What matters is that the measurements and principles, by which the armillary sphere is made, are made through human intellect. There representations but not the actual thing in question. Gravity pulls the planets around the sun, but it doesn’t abide by a rule. Those rules are those which we invented to predict the placement of the planets. As an analogy think of a life sized mannequin of you. The mannequin is designed in imitation of you, but it does not legislate your size; and importantly the measurement of your height does not make your height.

The improbability of existence being able to support any thing is taken up by contemporary philosopher Peter Van Inwagen. To his argument’s credit he comes at the AfD in a clever way: by working backwards. If we look at something like the gravitational constant, which causes things on Earth fall toward the center at the rate of 9.8 m/s2 we can come to the understanding that this measurement is so precise and so integral to the very existence of matter that if it were slightly different things would not hold together. Van Inwagen’s argument is that we could imagine a machine that is used to form the universe having all kinds of dials, levers, and buttons by which to set features like gravity so that they could support matter and eventually life. While clever, his argument still falls into the same trap as Cicero’s and Paley’s. The measurements do not create the thing itself, they only measure it. I am not quite certain that this is a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc in which two unrelated but chronologically sequential events are assume to have a causal relationship but it is close to that.

Another issue is that if such a machine exists, then it reduces the god being to a mere tinkerer. One who, through trial and error has been messing around with the settings until something worked out. It negates the omniscience of the creator (so does the existence of such a machine but since Van Inwagen is arguing from analogy that would be a trite quibble to make) since it’s got to fiddle around with the dials until everything is just so. It’s akin to the curious statement that Alan Rickman as Metatron makes in Kevin Smith’s Dogma about having gone through “about twelve Adams” before they figured out why their heads kept exploding. This raises the issue that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins bring up regarding this very argument, those who find it convincing have replaced the master craftsman with a bumbling tinkerer. The only button on that machine should be labeled “create,” and everything else ought to settle itself. I see nothing regarding complexity that necessitates a creative intelligence.