Mar 08

E Pluribus Abruptio

There has long been a dispute over our country’s motto, and H. Con. Res. 13 aims to settle it. In one corner, E Pluribus Unum (roughly: out of many, one). It’s elegant, accurate, and using Latin makes us sound smart. In the other corner, In God We Trust. You’ve probably seen it on coinage and bumper stickers south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The sponsors of this resolution suggest the latter should be our sole national motto, and that we should encourage its display on public buildings. The resolution has many problems, but I’ve reprinted it here so you can make your own decision. The wording from the resolution is in bold with my commentary underneath. Enjoy!

 

 

Reaffirming ‘In God We Trust’ as the official motto of the United States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.

Whereas `In God We Trust’ is the official motto of the United States;

I’d like to point to Alonzo Fyfe’s article right off the bat. In it, he discusses the whole notion of “We” in this proposed motto and gives a detailed analysis of the problem.

Whereas the sentiment, `In God We Trust’, has been an integral part of United States society since its founding;

The sponsors are showing some crafty maneuvering right off the bat. Notice he is claiming the “sentiment” has been integral, not the phrase or motto itself. The phrase itself was not used on any notable scale until the mid-1800s and not adopted as a motto until the 1950s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_God_We_Trust).

Whereas in times of national challenge or tragedy, the people of the United States have turned to God as their source for sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength, and direction;

And they are welcome to continue doing so without it being the national motto. Oh, and there’s that pesky point that many have not actually done this. Perhaps it should read “some people” instead of “the people” unless the goal is exclusion.

Whereas the Declaration of Independence recognizes God, our Creator, as the source of our rights, `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’;

Thanks for providing the quote, sponsors. But where does it recognize God? I see it says Creator, but that could refer to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Which leads me to my next point: I’d like to officially nominate “In Spaghetti we Trust” for consideration. Some might object that this singles out a specific religion and thereby violates the Establishment Clause. This objection is plainly ridiculous; people are free to worship the flying spaghetti monster of their choosing. I don’t discriminate.

Whereas the national anthem of the United States says `praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation . . . and this be our motto: in God is our trust.’;

Wait, you’re telling me there are more verses to the Star-Spangled Banner? I think I hear Christina Aguilera weeping at the thought.

Whereas the words `In God We Trust’ appear over the entrance to the Senate Chamber and above the Speaker’s rostrum in the House Chamber;

Uh…who cares?

Whereas the oath taken by all Federal employees, except the President, states `I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.’;

Thanks for reminding me; we should do something about that too. I’d also point out that they can opt out of saying this, so it’s not really all inclusive.

Whereas John Adams said, `Statesmen may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.’;

Well, that’s one person’s opinion from 200 years ago. Many modern thinkers, like the late John Rawls, would disagree. As long as we’re quoting old Presidents:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.  -Thomas Jefferson

 

Whereas if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured;

This is becoming repetitive (see above).

Whereas as President Eisenhower said and President Ford later repeated, `Without God, there could be no American form of government, nor, an American way of life.’; and

More presidential opinion. This seems very selective. I wonder what they would say to quotes from Presidents on subjects with which the bill’s sponsors disagreed. How about a quote from FDR on social programs? They are quite obviously cherry-picking quotes to support their view. I am forced to ask, “Why does it matter what these people said? How does that make it right?” Oh, and it’s also wrong (see above again).

Whereas President John F. Kennedy said, `The guiding principle and prayer of this Nation has been, is now, and ever shall be `In God We Trust.’:

This is demonstrably false.

Now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That Congress reaffirms `In God We Trust’ as the official motto of the United States and supports and encourages the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.

Be it resolved that this proposal has no intellectual legs on which to stand.

Mar 02

A Tale of Two Naturalisms

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking on the god of the gaps argument, brought up the often quoted survey of religiosity among members of the National Academy of Sciences. The survey showed that only 15% of the Academy members believed in a personal god. Much has been made of this almost complete reversal compared to the general population. But Tyson interestingly remarked, “How come this number isn’t zero? That’s the story!”

This retreat to non-overlapping magisteria by the 15% comes from the distinction between Methodological Naturalism (MN) and Philosophical Naturalism (PN). MN is an assumption in science that we can only gain knowledge of natural causes. PN, on the other hand, is the denial that there are supernatural things unless there is sufficient reason or evidence to think so. It doesn’t make much sense, then, that a scientist, who accepts MN as a guiding assumption that works amazingly well, would put on his or her faith goggles when they take off the lab coat.

Consider the following argument:

1. Methodological Naturalism asserts that we can only detect and know natural causes.

2. If we can only detect and know natural causes, then we have no reason to believe in supernatural causes.

3. If we have no reason to believe in supernatural causes, then it is justifiable to assume Philosophical Naturalism.

4. If you are willing to assume Methodological Naturalism, then you should be willing to assume Philosophical Naturalism.

If you are willing to assume one, then you should be just as willing to assume the other unless contrary evidence is presented. In fact, it seems fairly inconsistent to assume natural causes for everything we study in the world and then still believe in the supernatural. It would seem to be like knowing the wind causes the tree to move and still positing the tree has a spirit anyway. That’s kind of the whole point of the starting MN assumption. Once you know what lightning is, you no longer need a mountain god throwing bolts in anger.

Many who want to save this distinction and hold on to their supernatural beliefs will say that MN does not assert the impossibility of spooky causes. It’s true that PN isn’t a necessary logical entailment of MN. But shouldn’t it lead to that conclusion? Do you really want to hang your hat on a retreat to the possible? This is quite clearly a case of special pleading, which could be seen by simply asking a Bible-believing Christian scientist what he or she thinks of unicorns. MN doesn’t rule them out as impossible, yet they assume unicorns are fictional. Mere possibility is not and should not be enough. Once you accept this, the whole idea of non-overlapping magisteria no longer makes any sense.

Feb 21

Is the eye irreducibly complex?

I was emailed by a reader of the site with a question about evolution. Specifically, she wanted to be able to answer challenges about how the eye could have possibly evolved. I think my email to her might also be useful to other readers, so I’ve adapted it a bit for the blog. I hope you find it helpful. 

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

  

How can a thing as complex as the eye have evolved by successive steps? If you take away certain parts, then it doesn’t work…or does it? 

This question is really part of a whole broader spectrum of questions about whether evolution can really explain complex things.  This modern argument is basically a restatement of William Paley’s watchmaker argument, only now it goes under the name of irreducible complexity. This argument was popularized by Michael Behe and is widely used by Intelligent Design proponents. So we’re faced with the question of “How could the eye have come to form in its present highly complex state?”
 
First, I’d like to point out that this is an argument from ignorance, which is a logical fallacy. It’s basically claiming that, if we cannot explain the eye, then it must have been designed. This is clearly wrong and is no better than saying Zeus caused lightning in ancient Greece. This is all that is really needed to defeat the argument, although we should say more if we can. But I point this out because not everything is currently explained by evolutionary biology. This is natural and it doesn’t indicate that it is incorrect. Think of physics – we have relativity and we have quantum mechanics. Both are well accepted, but we’re still not exactly sure how the two fit together. The uncertainty in minor areas do not undermine the whole of observed facts.
 
So what can we say about the eye? I should let professional biologists speak to the technical details of the problem, so I’ll provide a few links toward the end, and I’ll just speak in fairly general terms. First, we should not assume that our eye is this perfect device. In fact, the octopus has a better eye than humans do. We also have some severe deficiencies in the range of the electromagnetic spectrum we can see, we have a significant portion of the population needing corrective lenses, we have blind spots, and on and on. We even have severe malfunctions like blindness and cataracts. So, it seems silly to think of how great the eye is – this is clearly a matter of perspective because it could be much better. But we still have a pretty good eye and it’s fairly well suited to our normal lives. We can then ask, “Are there precursors to our type of eye that are less complex and adapted to other scenarios?” The answer is yes.
 
As Richard Dawkins and others have often pointed out, eyes seem to evolve at the drop of a hat. Eyes have developed independently several times. There are eyes without lenses, eyes that use pinholes, eye cups, eye spots, and even  bumps for where very simple eyes used to be (see the following for a few of several examples).

Euglena

 

Planarian

 

Nautilus

The fact of the matter is that these more primitive eyes from our perspective still served a purpose. Any light sensitive cells are better than none. A slight cup formation allows even better “vision.” An eye that doesn’t focus well is better than no eye at all. Hopefully you are starting to see how the argument doesn’t hold water. There are several advantages along the way to a camera lens. For these creatures that “lost” their eyes, they live in very dark places and eyes aren’t necessary for their habitat. You also have creatures like bats that use a type of sonar and see without actually seeing. That’s where evolution is key. It is the only theory that gives a plausible explanation for the sheer diversity of living things. To say that they were designed in their exact present form seems silly (Why not design all eyes on similar creatures the same way? Why make little modifications?). They were quite obviously adapted to living conditions. The ID proponent wants people to believe that there could not have been steps along the way that provided utility to get to our current eyes. We know of plenty of examples which show that to be false.

The evidence of eyes in our ancestors may not be complete – remember that eyes are soft tissue, so they do not fossilize. But again, to fall back on incompleteness is a dishonest and fallacy-driven approach. We have loads of good evidence about eye evolution. In fact, the people on the front lines, like Behe, know this and now turn to obscure things like the bacterial flagellum (which, by the way, biologist Ken Miller has also debunked).
 
Here are some links to sources citing professional papers and a few videos from biologists, so you know I’m not making up the varyingly complex eyes out there:
 
http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB301.html
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/vision.html
http://darwin.uky.edu/~sargent/EvolutionFAQ/Eye.htm
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/01/1/l_011_01.html
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5e2c6uliTw&feature=youtube_gdata_player   

    

Conclusion   

As long as there can be successive steps that lead to improvement in a given environment, then this poses no problem for evolution by natural selection. We can see quite clearly that there are benefits to having some form of eye and that there are many stages still around today to observe. People often just have a hard time imagining the probability to produce things like eyes, but you have to remember that our notion of probable is limited to what happens in a day, week, year, and lifetime. How often have you heard something about a once in a lifetime opportunity? Well, this is billions of years and many failed adaptations later, but a few successful ones are still around to leave clues.   

Feb 15

Gospel Truth: Do we have eyewitness testimony?

This will be my first in a series of posts on questions of reliability and the gospels. I will give a high level overview of some major topics in comparative gospel study. My first discussion will focus on eyewitness claims. Other topics I’m considering include:

Do the gospels contain eyewitness accounts of Jesus?

Let’s first note that these gospels do not claim to be written by anyone in particular; they are anonymous. They also do not claim to be eyewitnesses. In fact, Luke says fairly directly that he is not an eyewitness. So why do we think they have anything to do with eyewitnesses? This seems to be largely based on church tradition to lend authority to these accounts. My guess is that the belief came about as a defense mechanism against critics and against competing gospels.

Evangelical Christians commonly claim that the gospels were either written by eyewitnesses or the authors had access to eyewitnesses. Ultimately, these claims are not very convincing to those outside that group. These gospels were likely written between 70-95 C.E. and the authors were dispersed throughout the region. To assume that followers of Jesus would have been in this situation and actually able to read and write is highly suspect.

Let’s first consider whether the gospels contain purely eyewitness testimony. This is surprisingly common, even though the claim can basically be dismissed immediately. Let’s think about what takes place in these gospels. Two of them start before Jesus was born. Were the writers there? Do they know what Joseph dreamed? Were the authors in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus went off alone to pray? Were all four writers present throughout the whole life and ministry of Jesus? It’s pretty clear though that none of them could possibly have seen all of this. So, one should at least grant that they cannot contain only eyewitness accounts.

But could the authors be eyewitnesses to the major events, just not those mentioned above? Again, this does not seem likely. It is pretty clear that Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source, as well as the “Q” source. They contain many of the same stories, which scholars believe were from copying written work. The reason it seems to be from written work, rather than multiple eyewitnesses recounting the same stories, is due to the many instances of verbatim similarity. This kind of congruence (wording, sentence structure, etc.) does not come from independent eyewitness testimony or oral interviews. So, we can dismiss Matthew and Luke from serious consideration as eyewitness accounts. You then have just Mark and John. Since John differs so much from Mark, it doesn’t seem to be copied. Yet, because of that stark difference, both cannot be correct.

John is often called the Maverick Gospel because of how different it is from the synoptic gospels. These differences are so interesting and numerous, I will provide a separate post just to deal with this gospel, and why I conclude it is the least reliable.

What about Mark, though? It has a lot of things going for it – it was the earliest, it was obviously popular and widely circulated, and it is the least embellished in many ways. A common apologist claim is that Mark travelled with Paul and used Peter as a primary source for accounts of Jesus. We have no real reason to believe this; it is simply later church tradition and it still wouldn’t make Mark an eyewitness. This also relies on Mark being the person mentioned in Acts and 1 Peter. First, Acts and 1 Peter are anything but reliable. Second, the name Mark was just a later addition to the gospel, which again is anonymous. We simply have no reason to think this name is actually the name of the author. The arguments for these claims go nowhere and rely on circular logic.

 

Conclusion

Since the authors do not claim in any way to be eyewitnesses, then that should not be our starting point. The real starting point is admitting we do not know, and then we go on to examine the evidence. The evidence, in this case, does not favor assigning eyewitness status to the authors. The vast majority of scholars agree with this view.

Feb 09

Original Sin and STDs

I was researching a possible topic for the blog, when I came across this little tidbit:

Sin is passed on genetically from the male. This was why the Virgin Birth was necessary and specifically why Jesus was “without sin.”

This quote is from Pastor James F. Williams, the founder of Probe Ministries. For the time being let’s ignore the ironic name of this ministry and focus on the quote. There are a couple of claims made here and I’d like to examine one of them. Afterward, hopefully you’ll agree that this person’s theological perspective is completely ridiculous.

  

Claim #1: Sin is genetic

To say that something is genetic is to say it comes from a certain gene. The claim here is essentially that there is a “sin” gene passed on from the male during reproduction, just like there are specific genes for various traits (eye color, height, etc.). Every trait has two genes – one from the mother and one from the father. If it is true that sin is genetically passed only from the father, then that must mean every male has a dominant sin gene (S) and every female a recessive sin gene (s). So, the sin trait is expressed at the genetic level always as Ss, except in the singular case of Jesus. Is this sounding ridiculous yet? This is what this person is actually proposing. He probably wouldn’t know how to express it this way because I doubt his science education, but it is entailed by his statements. Just wait, though; it gets worse.

Now, if a female is genetically ss and a male Ss, then only 50% of their offspring would actually end up with the dominant trait. See the following Punnett Square:

  S s
s Ss ss
s Ss ss

 

This means that the dominant gene wouldn’t end up in every male offspring. It also means the dominant gene would end up in some of the female offspring. That is, of course, unless you bring in your magic sky god who mysteriously messes with our genes to make this specific one act differently.

And finally, the human genome has been mapped. To my knowledge, none of our 25,000 genes, give or take, is a gene carrying the trait of original sin (Insert magic again to make this gene invisible and undetectable). I’d very much love to see this theologian look at the entire genome and specifically pick out which gene corresponds to sin.

 Let’s just call this what it is – uneducated BS.

Jan 31

A Call to Action: Anti-Evolution Legislation

As an atheist, I often find myself defending science as our best means to obtain knowledge. The struggle going on in this country is apparent in the battles over science curriculum in public schools. I also feel this distrust of science and lack of value placed on scientific knowledge is doing considerable damage to our science education, and may be one of the reasons our students perform so poorly in this area. If you live in Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, or Texas, there are Action Alerts from the National Center for Science Education. These states have proposed legislation against the teaching of evolution or are using other means to promote a creationist agenda. I urge you to take action if you live in one of these states or see something similar proposed in your own state. As a resident of Missouri, I wrote my state representative (unfortunately, he is a co-sponsor of the bill) and wrote the following letter to the editor (you are free to use my wording as a guide to your own letter, if desired):

 

Creationism tries using the back door.
 
Recently, HB 195 was introduced to the Missouri House of Representatives promoting critical thinking in the science classroom through criticism of evolution. In the constantly moving target that is the Intelligent Design agenda, this is the latest version of their attempts. HB 195 is clearly an attempt to criticize well-established scientific theory with the broader goal of planting an intelligent design seed. If you doubt this, simply look at the history of this bill. It is virtually identical to HB 1651 from 2010. The chief sponsor of that bill, Robert Wayne Cooper, “previously introduced a string of unsuccessful anti-evolution bills — HB 911 and 1722 (which called for equal time for “intelligent design” in the state’s public schools) in 2004, HB 1266 in 2006, HB 2554 in 2008, and HB 656 in 2009,” according to the National Center for Science Education.
 
There is clearly an agenda here beyond simple objectivity. No scientist would deny that critical evaluation of things is good. If this bill were simply about improving critical thinking skills it would be uncontroversial. However, the motivation is anything but uncontroversial. This is displayed by singling out evolution by means of natural selection in the text. Why do they not question Einstein’s theory of relativity? Why do they not question scores of other scientific theories? I suspect that, if we dig deeper, we will find a severe lack of objectivity.
 
I’d like to apply a simple litmus test. If these legislators were trying to improve science education, then surely they would have done some of the following. How many local science educators were consulted? How many local school boards were consulted? How many organizations responsible for determining science education standards were consulted? How many biologists were consulted? In addition, I would be interested to know how many of the sponsors have a solid understanding of evolutionary biology and how many of them are creationists. The answers should be very revealing.
 
These tactics and the carefully crafted language inserted in the bill are meant to disguise its ultimate goal. Moreover, these tactics have been deemed unconstitutional due to violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I urge you to contact your local State Representative and express your concern over this bill.

Jan 24

The Clueless Argument for God’s Existence

Last time I told you that we could all be living on a giant sneeze. As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s in pretty good standing among other creation myth arguments. What is it that allows for so many different arguments with so much variation concerning our origin? Well, it’s because no one has a freaking clue. Almost every popular argument for God implicitly benefits from areas of ignorance. I don’t care if they are given by a professional philosopher, a respected theologian, or Oprah. They must rely on this due to the very nature of what they wish to prove. They must reach a point where you just have to start making stuff up–just like the sneeze.

Let’s examine the current bulldog of theism and Christian apologetics, William Lane Craig. He presents these very polished, professional arguments that sound great during his debates to the people who already believe him. Since Craig is the best out there on the Christian side, in my opinion, I’m going to focus on one of his arguments. Though, the things we notice will be widely applicable.

 

Is God the best explanation for our existence?

In a debate with philosopher Austin Dacey, Craig presents the Argument from Existence (which is also very similar to his Kalam Cosmological Argument). It goes as follows:

P1. Any thing that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in its own nature or an external cause.

P2. The universe exists.

P3. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is an external, transcendent, personal cause.

C. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal cause.

Thus, he concludes that God is the best explanation why something exists rather than nothing.

I’d like to focus on P3, in which Craig states this explanation must be external, transcendent, and personal. That is quite a lofty claim and your baloney detectors should be at least at “yellow.” So, why does he conclude this? Craig says,

The cause, in this case, must be greater than the universe. Think of the universe–all of space and time. So the cause of our universe must be beyond space and time. Therefore, it cannot be physical and material. Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description: either abstract objects, like numbers, or else an intelligent mind. But abstract objects can’t cause anything.

Just look at all the suspect assumptions going on here that take advantage of what we do not know. There is the assumption that the cause must be greater, cannot be physical (even though this violates everything we know so far), and also that an intelligent mind can exist without physicality. I have seen no reason to concede any of these points, and one could reasonably continue on this thread to severely undercut Craig’s argument.

Furthermore, Craig is simply inventing his own creation myth. Notice what he does in such arguments; he does not simply take a series of propositions and follow them to their conclusion. I realize he presents it this way, but you should realize that he is working as an apologist. He is taking the assumption that God exists, comparing it to philosophical problems, and creating a home for God that can possibly avoid objections. He has made his own God and his own creation story in his mind, as many do. You won’t find too many theists still holding to a literal interpretation of the Genesis myths. No, they often say things like “maybe a day to God isn’t the same as it is for us” or “maybe God worked through the Big Bang.” These are not pre-existing ideas, they are created anew in the person’s mind to try and reconcile scientific knowledge with their belief.

That is a minor point, though. Let’s return to the argument itself. I contend that Craig implicitly benefits from ignorance, and it is subtle and well-disguised by presenting a deductive case. Just look at what he is claiming. Craig says that God is the “best explanation” for why we exist and why the universe exists. He takes a subject on which no one can reasonably comment and asserts he has the best explanation. How does he get away with this? Quite simply because we don’t know how we got here in the grand scheme of things. It is because of this ignorance that his arguments flourish in the minds of believers. I can imagine the same type of arguments for Zeus being the cause of lightning among the Greeks. The fact is, there are other possible explanations, even ones currently known but also currently untestable, like the multiverse hypothesis. Or perhaps gravity, which according to Hawking is all we would need to jump-start the universe, exists necessarily. Where would Craig’s argument stand then? It would fail, but we can’t rightly assert these possible explanations because we just don’t know. This is the real dishonesty of the apologist’s approach; rather than admit ignorance, Craig asserts an explanation. Craig is polished enough to avoid committing a simple fallacy, but this should really be seen as a close cousin.

Just because science does not currently, and may not ever, have an answer to this question does not mean we can rightly conclude that we have a best explanation in God. In fact, it means we can’t really conclude that anything is the best explanation.

About such things, we are all clueless.

[Later Edit: I’ve added some further thoughts on this type of argument in my post The Sherlock Holmes Defense]

Jan 17

Creating a Myth

Mandelbrot Set

There is a being so great, we would not recognize its foot as anything other than an infinite wall. The life span of this being is also so long, it would seem to have always existed. But let’s not be too abstract about this being; He has a name, after all. His name is Phil and He seems to have a cold.

Phil has actually been sneezing (an anthropomorphism to be sure) for countless millennium. The force of this sneeze because of His gigantic attributes would destroy us easily. But this same destructive force can also create unknown to Him.

You see, Phil is made of basically the same “stuff” as the rest of us. He consists of familiar elements plus some that are less familiar. To see why this matters for His great power of creation, let’s examine one of His sneezes more closely.

Sneeze 12-B-78-GF-X (If Phil were actually classifying them)

What began at a point in Phil’s nose shot outward with great force and velocity, comparatively speaking. While Phil doesn’t know what happens at the microscopic and submicroscopic levels of His newly released sneeze, and doesn’t care to–it’s a sneeze, after all–there are some interesting things if we look closer.

As the sneeze blows outward, we can notice patterns beneath the apparent randomness. The sneeze is made of the same fundamental particles as everything else and contains a few of the elements that were in Phil. At first, it is mostly hydrogen, helium, and lithium, but elements have a way of forming other heavier elements. It is expanding and cooling, as it leaves its smaller and warmer place in His body. Some particles are even colliding with each other and others are bursting, releasing their substance outward in many smaller pieces. This is just what happens in the aftermath of a sneeze, but we don’t stop to care about it, and neither does Phil.

Who would imagine that these patterns predictably emerging would form systems out of these common elements based on the same basic forces that rule Phil’s world? Sure, the objects are tiny to Him and their gravity is so minuscule it couldn’t possibly affect Him, but to each other these minuscule particles and the forces they exert can be quite forceful.

In one insignificant area of this expanding sneeze, we find some unusual activity. There seems to have formed some kind of intelligence. It’s not really surprising, though. After all, if we just keep moving down level-by-level we see there are patterns, randomness, more patterns, more randomness all the way to particles so small even the powerful Phil can’t imagine their existence. As we said, Phil is basically made of the same fundamental stuff too, He just isn’t aware because it’s too small for His measurement.

The civilization that has developed is living quite a happy and productive life. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite aware that Phil’s sneeze, on which they reside, is expanding more still, cooling, and coming ever closer to the floor of Phil’s world. They eventually do reach that floor, which spells doom for anything living within the sneeze. The force is so great it basically “splats” every elemental gathering that had formed. Don’t feel too bad for this civilization, though. That sneeze took 100 billion years of their relative time to reach the floor.

Now, you might think I’ve just described our own history and Universe. Don’t be silly, though, as we are of course still alive. We are actually Sneeze 46-W-12-HY-P (again, if Phil actually cared to catalogue such things as sneezes) and we are much more recent. By my calculations, we still have at least 30 billion years before life is no longer sustainable–probably about 30 seconds in His relative time.

However unpleasant this may seem, the facts are unavoidable. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are made of “Phil Stuff.”

Jan 07

What is atheism?

There is a constant argument brewing over the definition of atheism. I hope to show that this argument is misplaced.

It is generally agreed that the definition of theism is something like, “belief in one or more gods.” Atheism, however, has some controversy regarding its definition. Some say it means “lack of belief in any gods,” a negative claim. Others say it means “the belief that no gods exist,” an arguably positive claim. It should be clear that broad definitions of this sort cannot be adequately applied to diverse groups.

Why does it persist then? Our minds like labels. It helps us make sense of the world and allows our brain to quickly process new information. Have you ever seen a tall person and wondered whether he or she plays basketball? Have you ever inferred something about a person based on the way he or she is dressed? Immanuel Kant was well ahead of his time when he supposed there were innate categories of understanding built into the human mind. We now understand there are well-documented psychological constructs, called heuristics, which aid us in these types of group processing scenarios. We all tend to do these things. Yet, the labels don’t always apply.

Let’s examine how this can be misused. Here are some sample statements from a message board I frequent. The moderator proposed a definition of atheism and a ridiculous discussion ensued. According to the comments, atheism is:

  • stupid
  • sin-loving
  • duty bound to distrust and disagree with Christians
  • intellectually unrespectable
  • claiming knowledge that one doesn’t have
  • an emotional and religious position, not a scientific or intellectual one
  • placing no value on life

I could go on, but I’m sure you can imagine the intellectual level of the discussion I was reading. And this happens in reverse, as well. There are plenty of instances I’ve even felt the need to correct atheists’ comments that were unsubstantiated or baseless personal attacks. Such nonsense does not progress a conversation, and that’s what these occasions are. Whether you are on the internet, at a public debate, or having a private discussion, you are engaging in a conversation involving opposing views.

Recognizing this, it becomes pretty clear what types of statements will not advance the conversation. For example, some say, “Atheists believe something came from nothing.” How many times have we heard this? Wouldn’t it clearly be better to ask, “How do you think the Universe came into existence?” That gives the individual a chance to answer, and then you can discuss that particular answer. This turns the discussion from mischaracterizations and semantics into claim-based arguments, an obvious step forward. Do not simply say, “Prove to me there is no God.” Rather, you can ask, “Do you think you can prove there is no God?” If the answer is no, then you have no real disagreement on the subject. Let’s raise the level of discussion and avoid the consistent building of straw men.

So what does an atheist believe? It’s simple; just ask one.

Dec 31

The Blind Leading the Blind

Do we have blind faith in things like history?

This was the assertion made by Ray Comfort in his debate with the Rational Response Squad on Nightline. I have also heard it presented in my personal conversations with theists. This is a particularly interesting claim since it seems to acknowledge that faith is a bad thing, but I’m more interested in whether it is true that we have blind faith in history. I will argue it is not, and I will also argue that very few things would qualify as “blind” faith, though we still have a method to separate the strength of beliefs. I hope to elucidate this point by breaking down a few example beliefs to which this faith assertion is commonly applied.

 

What would blind faith look like?
I would define blind faith as lacking the ability to see any reason for belief. This hopefully captures the essence of why Ray would insert the word blind into the phrase. For an example, let’s consider a variation of Bertrand Russell’s teapot. Suppose someone asserts there is a flying teapot orbiting the Earth. This teapot also happens to be invisible and undetectable by any known method. I think we can reasonably say that the person making this claim is showing blind faith. Just how this differs from other claims said to be taken on faith should become clear when we examine two crucial aspects of belief.

 

A Hierarchy of Beliefs
Rather than say faith, let’s consider a number of our beliefs to be unverified or not yet verified, if you prefer to imply that you may indeed verify them. You might say that I have the unverified belief that incredibly tiny subatomic particles called neutrinos exist or that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Likewise, you might say that Ray has the unverified belief that God created humans as presented in the Bible. So, all of these beliefs are alike insofar as they are all unverified by the believer. However, it would be a mistake to think they are equal. I would encourage you to consider a spectrum of beliefs moving from not really verifiable to well verified (almost certain). On that spectrum, I would place our three example subject matters as follows:

Physics, often called the Queen of science, is near the top (except for perhaps theoretical notions, like string theory). History and Religion are nearer the low end of the spectrum, with Religion being lowest of the two. We’ll explore just why I’ve placed them this way in the next section.

 

Method for Determining Level of Verifiability
I don’t want to oversimplify the issue of verifying claims, but there seem to be two main areas that we can quickly assess when presented with a belief. Its performance in these areas can give us a rough estimate of where this belief falls on the spectrum. Let’s call these areas Plausibility and Testability. There is a bit of overlap between these notions, but hopefully the nuances will be apparent after applying them to our examples.

Plausibility can be thought of as similar to intuitive reasoning. We will use our existing knowledge to get a rough idea of the general likelihood of the belief’s truth value. Testability would be using the best available methods for verifying the claim. Why do we need both? Plausibility leads ultimately to testability, so we may be tempted to do away with the former. I think that would be a mistake for two reasons. First, consider that many ideas we now hold at one time seemed implausible and our intuitions become much less reliable as our science becomes more advanced. Second, mistaken tests could lead us to wrongly throw out ideas. If we maintain the importance also of plausibility, I think we will be more likely to try new tests. In the end, however, the testability is the biggest factor in your belief’s place on the verifiability spectrum.

Consider again our examples: the existence of neutrinos, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and Biblical creation. I would rate them as follows:

Belief  Plausibility  Testability 
Neutrinos  Medium High 
Crossing the Rubicon High  Medium 
Biblical Creationism Low  Low 

 

Neutrinos

  • Plausibility: On the positive side, we know of other very small subatomic particles and we saw some effects that could be explained by unknown particles. On the negative side, it’s hard to imagine a particle so small that billions pass right through you every day as if you were thin air.
  • Testability: Scientific experiment is the best case scenario for this measure. The reasons for this would take us too far outside the scope of this piece, though. For now, let’s agree that you can conduct them in the present in controlled environments and they are repeatable, which are all good things.

Crossing the Rubicon

  • Plausibility: This is very intuitive. We can go to the Rubicon and determine that it is plausible for Caesar’s army to have crossed given their known capabilities. We can also couple that with Caesar’s expansionist policies. (To avoid the appearance of circular reasoning, we are not just trusting historians to tell us about Caesar’s army, capabilities, and policies. The information gathered from historians is combined with archaeology and other disciplines that fare pretty well on our spectrum.)
  • Testability: This is the tricky part for historians. I rated it as medium because there is a wealth of information on the Roman Empire, but generally the further back in time you go, the worse your testability will fare. Historians do have a number of methods, though, for testing claims. These include, but are not limited to, making sense in the historical context and multiple independent attestations from disinterested parties.

Biblical Creation

  • Plausibility: Within this story, we are told that God took a rib from Adam and made Eve from it. This does not fare well intuitively. We have never seen such demonstrable physical interaction with a super being, as described here (God actually walks with them in the story). We have also never seen anything to suggest a rib could be turned into a woman. Modern genetics might actually someday challenge that latter statement, but there is still testability to consider.
  • Testability: Assuming this ever makes it past the plausibility stage to be considered for a test, I’m not even sure how we would test it. This does not rate well, which should be obvious considering the claim. It’s quite clear that asking God to come show us again will not be successful.

 

Conclusion

So we have examined three beliefs, which could be accused of being based on faith. But we see quite clearly that there are differences among them. My hope is to provide you a way to easily break down how beliefs differ. The next time you are accused of having faith in science, you can say the difference between it and supernatural claims is its verifiability. Even though you haven’t yet verified a belief, if it measures well in both plausibility and testability (assuming that’s true for your case), then you’re in pretty good standing.

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