Feb 18

New Article for An American Atheist

I have a new article on the website An American Atheist. I make the case that too many arguments about First Amendment cases are built on a fallacious foundation. If you’re interested, check it out here: Appealing to Tradition is Still a Fallacy.

 

Feb 17

Where is God?

The answers to the following questions are all completely consistent with traditional Christian theology.

 

Where is God?

Nowhere

Where is my soul?

Nowhere

Where is Heaven/Hell?

Nowhere

 

I’d like to point out that these answers that would be given by a proper theologian are the exact same answers we would expect if asked about something imaginary. For example, if we asked about the location of the flying island of Laputa, we would rightly be told it is nowhere.

 

How is it that I can say that these things exist nowhere? Well, to exist in a place (i.e., somewhere) requires spatial extension. You must have some kind of spatial dimension for any sense to be made of a ‘Where?’ question. If you ask the average Christian where his or her soul is, they will probably tell you they think of the soul as inside his or her body. However, this is clearly absurd. An immaterial thing that does not take up space cannot rightly be said to be anywhere. There is a similar problem if he or she says that soul will someday go to heaven. What exactly is doing the going? How does it go when it has no extension? Where is it going? Is heaven an actual destination? These questions have no answers that make sense.

 

What you will see instead are grossly imperfect analogies given as if they make the answers to the questions posed here somehow more palatable. They don’t. God does not exist ‘outside’ of space and time because outside is itself a phrase that requires some spatial construct. This is the sort of turn of phrase that Hobbes found to be revolting, like ‘incorporeal body.’ All we are doing is putting two contradictory words together to form an oxymoron. Yet, these are the types of answers most often given.

 

It is clear evidence against something’s existence when the responses to problems are given in absurd or contradictory terms.

Feb 01

Doubting Science: The other tactic of creationists

Every year, Republicans in the Missouri House of Representatives bring forth a bill intelligently designed to undermine evolution. Usually, they attempt to mask this attack as an attempt to promote critical thinking in schools. This was the case in 2011 when HB 195 was introduced.[i] It was preceded by HB 1651 in 2010, and similar bills in 2009, 2008, and 2006. Currently, however, we have a bill that is not so subtle in HB 1227.

HB 1227 has the dubious distinction of blatantly calling for “equal time” given to the teaching of intelligent design. I encourage you to read through this short bill and recognize just what is happening. As Bruno Latour realized, our methods are being turned against us in deceitful ways. I call this the “Yes, but…” problem. Modern critics of science use critiques that are at their heart essentially correct, but they then extrapolate humble premises into gross mischaracterizations in their conclusions. Consider the bills mentioned above that promote critical thinking. You can imagine the following conversation:

“But don’t you want to encourage our students to think critically and question things for themselves?”

“Yes, but…”

“And isn’t the nature of science one of caution and uncertainty?”

“Yes, but…”

“And haven’t there been paradigm shifts in the past where theories turned out to be incorrect?”

“Yes, but…”

You see the problem, I hope. The academics—especially historians of science and philosophers of science—have given out the keys to the kingdom in recent decades. In trying to figure out how science is so successful (and recognizing areas of uncertainty is one of the reasons), they have established the tools by which modern critiques against science are accomplished. However, even from a valid starting point, a premise can be unsound. Let’s see two excellent examples from the bill.

1. “Scientific theory [definition], an inferred explanation of incompletely understood phenomena about the physical universe based on limited knowledge, whose components are data, logic, and faith-based philosophy.”

The faith-based philosophy claim toward the end is drawing on the two key notions of incompletely understood phenomena and limited knowledge. The problem here is that both of these things are true, albeit trivially. As soon as we grant that, though, and move onto the “but…” we’ve already lost them. Anyone who is familiar with the creation/evolution debate knows that they will run with this until they can run no more. They will always focus on the areas of uncertainty, rather than the large body of evidence in favor of evolution.

2. “Knowledge growth as a result of human endeavor serves as the foundation for the continuous reevaluation of theory, hypothesis, conjecture, and extrapolation to determine their correctness based on supporting or conflicting verified empirical data.”

Once again, this is a true claim, but the problem is not just that creationists challenge the theory of evolution. Rather, the problem is that they continually make bad challenges to the theory. Furthermore, their methods are often either deceptive or poorly informed, as they keep presenting arguments that have been long disproven. Most popular-level creationists are simply poorly informed, like the proponents of the Missouri bill. I have looked into the backgrounds of the sponsors and co-sponsors, and none of them have a formal background in science of any kind, let alone biology. My guess is that they were handed this bill from a creationist “think tank” and submitted it with minor modifications, if any, since it sounded awfully “science-y” to them.

So, here is our problem. We have a number of true claims (often trivially true) being used as a foundation for misinformation. Information is always incomplete. The science of the future may not look like the science of today. We can’t replicate every theoretical process. We want to be able to question current understanding. All of these things are true, yet they all make the job of debunking creationist arguments—and global warming deniers, etc.—much harder. We cannot in good conscience deny the validity of these basic claims. When you can’t close your door all the way, some undesirable pests are going to get inside the house.

I write this so you will recognize that we actually have two distinct problems. First, there is the familiar problem of misinformation. These claims were included in the bill, but I did not discuss them here. Many of us have no doubt already heard that the fossil record does not support evolution, that the eye is irreducibly complex, that radioactive dating is unreliable, or that the Cambrian “explosion” cannot be explained by evolution. I think there has been a lot of success in confronting these falsehoods. But that is where most of the effort goes and we can’t just focus on these and forget about the second problem. Creationists are using trivial truths, like the ones I’ve discussed, to prop up their cases. If you’ve had training in sales, you know that it’s always a good idea to get a person started saying “yes.” They are softening the audience in the public square and turning them against science. They are creating a public illusion of what science is and how it operates—and it’s working. They don’t take to peer-reviewed journals. They reach millions through Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and other friendly outlets.[ii]

This is a big problem, and there is no easy solution. The tactics being used require us to be well-versed in the discussion of why and how science is an authority. Unfortunately for us, that question has never been fully answered. Until it is, our answers may never satisfy a public that is skeptical of science because of the concerted efforts of a small group of doubt mongers.

 


[i] For that previous bill, I published my full letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch here. The paper ran a shorter version.

[ii] To better understand the tactics used, it would be very worthwhile to read Merchants of Doubt. This book is mainly about environmental concerns, but the tactics used to create doubt in the public square are incredibly similar.

Jan 05

The Parable of the Sheep

The young girl awoke with a start to the sound of desperate bleating. She quickly dressed and ran outside, fearing the worst. The pen which held her sheep—her precious sheep that she cared for daily—was open. Carcasses and blood were everywhere. She had to find her father; he was the only one who could help.

“Daddy!” she cried, running up to him, “a wolf’s gotten in the pen.”

“I know,” the father said.

“Please do something,” she sobbed. “They’re being killed and suffering terribly.”

“But the sheep let the wolf into the pen,” said the father as he turned away to resume his work. “They were curious about the animal. They had never seen a wolf before, so they knocked the gate open.”

“But they’re sheep!” the girl practically screamed at him. “They couldn’t possibly understand the consequences.”

“I’m sorry, dear,” said the father. “I warned them what would happen. They did not listen.”

“But they’re sheep!” she said again—this time even louder. “You would let them suffer and die over this stupid choice? They can’t see and think like you.”

“Even so,” said the father solemnly, “it is better for them if I do not interfere.”

Outside the slaughter continued as the wolf savagely ripped out the throats of its victims. The father did nothing.

Jan 04

New Contents Page

I’ve added a new page to the site: http://foxholeatheism.com/contents/.

I think this will make browsing the archives of this site much easier. I’ve arranged posts by category and sub-category, where appropriate. I haven’t included every post I’ve ever written, but I have included many of them.

Next up, I’ll be doing something similar for my recommended reading page. My current widgets from Amazon are too limited and don’t show up on mobile devices without flash. I’ll recommend books based on subject matter and level of difficulty.

Feel free to leave feedback about the new page.

Dec 30

Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

Recently, I’ve written about some introductory topics in Bayes’ Theorem. If you did not read these earlier pieces, you may want to go here and here before reading this post.

The initial impetus was to use the theorem to defend a famous maxim often attributed to Carl Sagan—extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This time, I’m going to use the theorem to argue against another maxim associated with Sagan.

Sagan was an outspoken supporter of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In the following embedded video, he introduces the Drake Equation on his show Cosmos.


This equation leads many to believe there is almost certainly intelligent life elsewhere, even in our neighborhood of the galaxy. However, we face a problem. So far our search has been fruitless. In response to this, Sagan noted that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

What Sagan should have said, though it wouldn’t have been as catchy, is that absence of evidence is not proof of absence. There is a difference between something being a proof of a claim and being evidence for or against a claim. If we go back to thinking in Bayesian terms, we can put it like this: If something is evidence against a hypothesis, then the posterior probability will be lower than the prior probability after taking said evidence into account.

Let’s run some numbers and see whether absence of evidence leads to this lower posterior probability. It might be useful to think of this like a function. A measure of probability goes in, stuff happens, and another measure of probability comes out the other end. It doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this post what the prior probability is; rather, we are just concerned with how the output compares to the input. In terms of the theorem, that means we’ll want to focus our discussion on the two figures assessing the likelihood of observed evidence.

Let’s consider an example with a prior probability of H set at 0.5:

  • 0.5 * Pr(E│H) / [0.5 * Pr(E│H)] + [0.5 * Pr(E│¬H)] = ?

We are concerned with the likelihood of our observed evidence given a true hypothesis, Pr(E│H),and the likelihood of the same evidence given a false hypothesis, Pr(E│¬H).

First, we should observe how the equation will react based on what we plug in for these numbers. If we plug in the exact same number for both figures, then our outcome will not change. The posterior probability will be 0.5, which will mean our evidence did not specifically favor either H or ¬H. Plugging in the same number for both essentially means the observed evidence was equally expected by both hypotheses.

But what happens if one is higher or lower, meaning the evidence is expected under one hypothesis more than the other? Let’s try plugging in Pr(E│H) = 0.7 and Pr(E│¬H) = 0.3. Our output is 0.7. Compared to the prior probability of 0.5, this is an increase, so this was evidence in favor of H. How about if we switch the figures so that Pr(E│H) = 0.3 and Pr(E│¬H) = 0.7? This time, the output was 0.3, a decrease, so this was evidence against H (against H and in favor of ¬H is really the same thing).

Now on to the big question of whether absence of evidence for some hypothesis (H) will mean a higher number in Pr(E│H) or Pr(E│¬H) or whether they will be the same. Let’s first eliminate one irrelevant possibility. In these cases, Pr(E│¬H) will always be =1. That is because in cases where someone claims something does not exist, like God or ghosts or aliens, there should always be an absence of evidence. That is expected 100% of the time. This means Pr(E│H) will never be higher than Pr(E│¬H); it can only be ≤1.

Whether or not Pr(E│H) will be lower than or equal to Pr(E│¬H) will depend on what H predicts. For example, say you specifically predict life on Titan, a moon of Saturn. If someone observes that there is no evidence of life on Mars, that doesn’t affect your hypothesis. So, it certainly is possible in cases of irrelevant evidence to achieve a neutral outcome. You can try plugging in some numbers yourself to see. In the following cases, the posterior probability shows no change from the prior probability because both likelihood measurements are =1:

  • 0.5 * 1 / [0.5 * 1] + [0.5 * 1] = 0.5
  • 0.9 * 1 / [0.9 * 1] + [0.1 * 1] = 0.9
  • 0.1 * 1 / [0.1 * 1] + [0.9 * 1] = 0.1

Many hypotheses, however, will not be so lucky. That is because the search for evidence is often quite relevant to the hypothesis (otherwise it would be a pretty fruitless search). So, in most cases where the evidence is relevant to the hypothesis, Pr(E│H) will be lower than Pr(E│¬H), which leads to a lower posterior probability, as shown in the following examples:

  • 0.5 * 0.9 / [0.5 * 0.9] + [0.5 * 1] = 0.47
  • 0.5 * 0.75 / [0.5 * 0.75] + [0.5 * 1] = 0.43
  • 0.5 * 0.5 / [0.5 * 0.5] + [0.5 * 1] = 0.33

In review, as long as the lack of evidence is relevant to the hypothesis, this lack of evidence is indeed evidence against that hypothesis being true. The degree to which that is the case will depend specifically on the initial predictions of H, as shown in the last set of examples.

 

Dec 29

God and Intrinsic Value

I have a new post at An American Atheist. It argues that intrinsic value cannot come from God. If interested, you can read it here: God and Intrinsic Value

Dec 28

Are the Ten Commandments just?

Here is an argument with premises that are fairly easy to defend, but which leads to powerful conclusions where traditional theism is concerned:

1. Justice means to give people what they deserve.

2. People do not deserve to be punished for acts in which they had no role.

3. Descendants who are not yet born (or are very young) can play no role in the acts of their ancestors.

4. Therefore, punishing said descendants is not just.

You might think this is an obvious conclusion to draw. Good; I hope you do think that. To be safe, though, Ill defend the premises briefly.

I almost consider (1) to be a tautology. I have a hard time separating the notions of justice and desert. If necessary, we can fall back on discussions by Aristotle and many others defending this concept of justice. If someone wants to propose a different definition, I’m willing to entertain it, but I can’t imagine any definition of justice that would escape the problem of this argument.

I also think (2) should be fairly obvious, but I want to bring in support from a theist here before we discuss possible further conclusions. William Lane Craig had the following to say in his debate with Sam Harris:

“His [Harris’s] thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because, on his world view, we have no control over what we do.”

Craig clearly thinks that control over the act is required to create any sort of duty or obligation. If no obligation is violated, it is not clear how any reciprocal punishment for the act can be deserved. I welcome some argument to the contrary.

I can’t imagine anyone denying (3) without invoking some kind of very strange backward causation. Time travel could potentially be trouble (I don’t actually think it is), but I’m going to set that concern aside for this discussion.

Then, the conclusion simply follows from the premises.

So, why does this matter? Well, it creates a tension between certain theistic claims: (i) God is completely just; (ii) The Ten Commandments were given by God.

There are actually multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, but I will be specifically quoting from Exodus 20:4-6 (NIV):

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Here, God is promising to punish descendants to the third and fourth generation specifically for the acts of their ancestors. Given the argument above, this means we should at the very least reject either (i) or (ii), both of which are central components of Judeo-Christian theism.

 

Dec 16

Creationist Math

A common misconception is that evolution relies entirely on chance. For example, I once read part of a science textbook intended for homeschooling parents that included this analogy:

Imagine a yard containing all of the parts of a working computer that has been disassembled and the parts have been strewn all over the yard. How likely does it seem that a tornado could blow through the yard and randomly reassemble the parts to once again form a working computer?

This is an attempt to update the old Boeing 747 analogy from Fred Hoyle. He was attempting to illustrate the improbability of certain elements of life originating by chance.

Since such abuses of probability estimation seem to thrive still today, particularly in forums that are dominated by amateur commentators (I’m talking about you, Facebook), I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss a one of the many problems with analogies like this.

The modern theory of evolution—or you may hear it referred to as the modern synthesis—does not suggest that evolutionary events are the products of mere chance. While chance is a factor, such as in random mutations, it is not the only one. Consider 10 types of birds living on an island with 10 different beak shapes. Let’s suppose the available food source for these birds is only reachable by one of the beak shapes (perhaps it’s in a narrow hole or something). A naïve treatment of the probability of survival here would assign equal weight to every type of bird. However, we should easily recognize that survival is not random here. It will specifically favor the bird type that is able to reach the food source. So, there is a non-random factor at work. Specifically, reaching the food is needed for reproduction and survival and not all bird types can reach the food. An entirely natural process is performing selection.

Let’s also look at an example that does not involve living things. If you’re on a rocky beach, you might notice the distribution of rocks and pebbles has a specific pattern. Rocks will be sorted according to their size. There will be fairly uniform layers running parallel to the water. Let’s approach the problem like a creationist and see how we incorrectly determine the probability by thinking it’s random. To keep it simple, we’ll assume a small sample space of 16 rocks. Each letter group means the rocks are roughly the same size.

 

A A A A
B B B B
C C C C
D D D D

 

If I were to randomly pull rocks out of a bag and place them into the 16 squares, I calculate the chance as only 0.0000000159 that this pattern would appear. This is being pretty generous in that we have only 16 squares to fill and any of the A rocks can be in the first row, B rocks in the second row, etc. Even given these concessions, random chance is an unlikely explanation. So, should we conclude that there must have been intelligent involvement? Of course not. We know there are natural processes selecting for rock placement just as natural processes select for survival.

Any argument that calculates a probability based on random chance alone ignores this known feature, thus, is arguing against a straw man.

[Cross-posted at An American Atheist]

 

Dec 08

Repeating Nonsense

I began listening to the debate on Naturalism vs. Theism between Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Phil Fernandes the other day. I’m about halfway through (it’s over two hours long) and, thus far, Lowder is “winning” decisively. There are several claims made by Fernandes that inspire a facepalm, but I found one claim especially annoying.

You will often hear creationists talk about the Earth residing in a Goldilocks Zone. Here was a claim along these lines made by Fernandes:

If the distance between the Earth and the Sun was to differ by just 2% in either direction, no life on Earth would be possible.

This, like nearly every creationist claim, is demonstrably false. Yet, such things are repeated ad nauseum. Now, we could say why this claim being used as proof of a designer is problematic in terms of philosophy, but I think some fairly simple science will be our best method of debunking here.

The Earth’s orbit around the sun looks something like this (not to scale):

 

 

You’ll notice that it is an ellipsis. Why does this matter? Well, we can see that the existing orbit does differ. At the Earth’s greatest distance from the Sun, the distance between them is about 152 million km or 1.0167 AU. This is called the aphelion. When the Earth is closest to the Sun, the distance between them is 147 million km or 0.9833 AU. This is called the perihelion. At this point, you’re probably tempted to take out your calculator. If so, you would find that the distance between the Earth and Sun actually differs by 3.3% or 3.4%, depending on whether you use the aphelion or the perihelion. Either way, we don’t have to wonder what would happen to the Earth if its distance from the Sun differed by more than 2% because it already does. Yet, here we are.

At best, the creationist claim here is poorly phrased. At worst, it’s plainly false.

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