Monday, September 3, 2012

Part 6: Terrible Teleology

Imagine yourself standing before a firing squad awaiting execution [1].  As an officer gives the commands to “ready” and then to “aim,” a squad of highly trained riflemen point their weapons squarely on your chest.  A moment of silent anticipation passes before you finally hear the enthusiastic shout to “fire.”  You shut your eyes and turn your head just as a deafening roar of gunfire explodes before you.  Yet, to your astonishment, you feel no impact and no pain.  In fact, once the smoke clears, you even look down to see that you're completely unscathed.  What do you make of this?

Naturally, there are several possible explanations.  For example, maybe someone happened to make the mistake of switching all the regular bullets with blanks.  Granted, it’s not a very likely scenario, but it would certainly explain the fact that you're still breathing.  It also has the advantage of being testable, since, in principle, you could examine the ammunition for yourself and check for consistency.

Now let’s suppose you do check the ammo and, sure enough, it’s real.  What’s next?  Well, maybe your assumption of "highly trained" marksmen is completely wrong, and really they're just a bunch of incompetent boobs who've never fired a weapon in their lives.  Again, not very likely, but it does have explanatory power with the potential for testable predictions.

Okay, so you test their skill and they really are competent soldiers.  Now what?  Well, maybe the riflemen don't want to be responsible for taking a human life and so they all missed on purpose.  Or maybe a gust of wind kicked sand into everyone’s face just as the order was given to “fire.”  Or maybe the whole thing is just a vivid, lucid dream, and you still need a few minutes to wake up and come to your senses.  There are any number of plausible explanations for the fact that you’re still breathing, and there are well-established rules for testing the veracity of each one.

Finally, what if someone were to suggest that an invisible, transcendent, disembodied mind happened to personally step in and save you at the last second by telekinetically deflecting all the bullets through his magical force of pure will alone?  How likely is that explanation?  How would you even test it?  Because if you’re a Christian apologist, this is supposed to be the most compelling explanation of them all.

Which brings us to a repeat of the same persistent philosophical failure of Christian apologetics:  The idea that scientific failure to properly explain an unlikely event is automatically grounds for invoking the intervention of magic.  Only this time, it’s called the teleological argument for the existence of God, and usually sounds like this [2]:
  1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
  2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
  3. Therefore, it is due to design.
And, of course, God is the best explanation for that design, so therefore God must exist.

Another one of those big, cosmic mysteries is the problem known as fine-tuning: the idea that the physical constants of nature need to lie within astronomically tight tolerances in order to permit life in our universe.  It’s certainly a perplexing puzzle that has a lot of really smart people completely stumped, yet Christians are again jumping in as if they have all the answers to one of the deepest mysteries in modern cosmology.  And, being true to form, they offer nothing more to the discussion beyond a tortured train of fallacious logic driven head-on into a preconceived bias.

For instance, let's suppose we're feeling generous and decide to immediately grant the entire teleological argument without contention.  Now what?  How do we follow up with it? What predictive power does it offer?  What experimental measurements can we perform to test it?  What decisions can I now make in the real world with real, empirical consequences that will manifest under the expectation of a divine, cosmic designer?  These are the ultimate arbiters of truth when making synthetic propositions, and not the ability to formulate cute, rhetorical deductions.  But of course, apologists have no answers to any of this and will even frequently argue that such challenges are unreasonable to demand of them in the first place!  It's a proof by admission that the teleological argument is little more than a glorified philosophical shoe-horn designed to conclude God without demonstrating Him.

Remember that Christians are ultimately trying to prove the existence of an entity with virtually unlimited cosmic power - literally the capacity to construct an entire universe, and all the physical laws governing it, according completely arbitrary whims.  Yet the very notion of fine-tuning itself implies a being that is fundamentally limited by a strict set of physical laws - a being whose creative potential is restricted solely to the mere tweaking of a small set of constants, scale factors and initial conditions.  And even then, the very best that this being can apparently do is construct an overwhelming void of inhospitable nothingness, dotted by the occasional ball of hot plasma and diffuse gas.  Life, in the grand scheme of things, is an insignificant cosmic afterthought; a thin film of organic chemistry squished into the surface of a tiny, imperceptible rocky dot, hiding out in some obscure galactic corner.  The very idea of a deliberately engineered universe is patently absurd when less than one part in 10^50th of the end product is actually capable of supporting the very thing it was allegedly "designed" for in the first place [3].  It would be like a multibillion dollar oil refinery that produces millions of tons of waste every day, but only one functional molecule of gasoline per millennium.  The argument itself is an argument for an embarrassingly weak and incompetent deity.

It's important to understand that whenever physicists talk about cosmic fine-tuning, it doesn’t just mean for life specifically, but virtually everything else in the entire known universe.  One slight tweak on the right fundamental constant and it’s not just life that vanishes, but also stars, galaxies, planets, and sometimes even stable atomic nuclei.  The very phrase “finely tuned for life” could just as easily be replaced with the phrase “finely tuned for black holes,” and the entire premise of the teleological argument would still be perfectly valid.  In fact, more so, because the universe definitely spends way more time and energy constructing black holes than it does creating actual life. 

Even worse for apologists is the uncomfortable fact that, piece by piece, the entire fine-tuning premise keeps getting proven wrong.  For example, the electroweak scale used to represent a classic case of apparent fine-tuning, since slight deviations in its current value would abruptly halt the fusion of heavy elements in stars [4].  However, this premise also relies on the assumption that the electroweak scale is the only parameter that one is allowed to adjust at a given time.  If other parameters are allowed to vary simultaneously, then it's actually possible to theoretically demonstrate a whole slew of perfectly functional universes in the total absence of a weak nuclear force [5].

Notice how we still have yet to even look at a proper premise of the argument itself, and already the whole thing is hopelessly wrong before it even begins.  But let's be good logicians and examine the train of thought anyway, just to see how much of a wreck it really is.  And, sure enough, with the very first premise, we see a classic logical fallacy known as the false trichotomy - a blanket assertion that fine-tuning can only be viably explained by one of three exclusive philosophical options.

Starting with physical necessity, we have the idea that the universal constants are all the product of some kind of mathematical quirk, like the area of a triangle or the value of pi.  For example, Coulomb's law has this strange factor of two contained within the exponent of its reciprocal term.  Change this to a factor of say, 3 or 1.5, and all of a sudden atoms themselves have a hard time staying together.  However, we also know for a fact that this little factor of 2 is nothing more than an expression of how surface area over a spherical shell is exactly proportional to the square its radius. The so-called "fine-tuning" is really nothing of the sort because basic Euclidean geometry doesn't allow for anything else.

Next, we have chance, which is the notion that the universal constants are all little more than random variables distributed uniformly across some arbitrary interval.  Then, in an apparent game of cosmic blind darts, our universe just so happened to pick out the one set of life-permitting constants by pure, dumb luck alone.  It's actually not as crazy as it sounds, given that nature does this sort of thing all time.  For example, consider Earth's fortunate orbit in the narrow habitation zone of our sun.  A little too close, and life dies out as the heat eventually boils off all liquid water into the atmosphere.  A little too far, and all life abruptly freezes solid due to the withering cold.  But so what?  There's 300 billion stars in our galaxy alone!  With odds like that, it should really come as no surprise at all if there turned out to be millions upon millions of planets landing well within their respective habitable zones.  Again, the so-called "fine-tuning" is really just an expression of sheer probability acting over large numbers. 

Finally, our last option is design, meaning that an unembodied mind beyond space and time used His transdimensional God-magic to specify all of our universal constants directly into the Big Bang singularity.  Why would He do that?  Who the hell knows?  But apparently it has something to do with a need for hot balls of glowing hydrogen to undergo stable nuclear fusion in their cores, thereby forging heavy atomic elements in their death throws and scattering the remains back out into space.  To what end, you ask?  Because obviously He then needed a tiny fraction of those heavy elements to coalesce back into a miniscule rocky planet capable of facilitating the self-replication of carbon-based molecules, which, after billions of years of inherited allele variations and the occasional mass-extinction event, would finally produce bipedal apes with an ultimate capacity for interdependent social dynamics and personal, spiritual devotion. 

Isn't it strange how we have plenty of real-world examples of the first two options occurring throughout nature all the time, but absolutely none of the third option to speak of?  And why would we?  It's a ridiculous Rube-Goldberg monstrosity with no coherent rhyme or reason to it from any engineering perspective.  But notice how this argument completely ignores all kinds of potential philosophical alternatives, like maybe a mixture of chance and physical laws working together.  For example, one cosmic theory speculates that as a black hole collapses, the result is an entirely new universe popping into existence, complete with its own unique set of physical constants [6].  Universes favorable to the creation of black holes therefore also tend to spawn even more universes and even more black holes.  Since the conditions for black holes are already necessarily similar to those required for life, then it only makes sense that people like us should eventually appear as a by-product of the whole process [7].

Or better yet, who's to say that the universal constants are even constants at all?  For example, recent observations into the fine structure constant have indicated a potential variation that spans from one end of the cosmos out to the other [8].  So for all we know, maybe nature simply takes on all possible values continuously across space and time.  Or heck, maybe fine-tuning really is the product of design, but just not a supernatural design.  Honestly, why does "design" have to automatically imply a divine agent rather than a bunch of clever aliens with really cool technology?

But who are we kidding?  Everyone knows that Christian apologists would rather tear out their own eyeballs than place faith in a transdimensional race of cosmic engineers.  So let's stop beating around the bush and just rewrite the first premise for what it is:  Either fine-tuning is a deliberate product of the singular deity of classical monotheism, or it's not.  That's the real dichotomy contained within this argument, so we might as well take it for what it is.  And you know what?  There's nothing wrong with that at all!  It's a perfectly valid proposition that logically complies with the law of the excluded middle.  All Christians need to do now is build a positive empirical case for God that reasonably warrants a rejection of the null hypothesis. 

You'd think this would be a trivial burden for the apologists to meet, given the sheer arrogant confidence they all seem to have in their shared position.  Yet for some strange reason, this is the one philosophical burden they all collectively refuse to ever meet.  You can even see it right there in the second premise.  Not a shred of effort is spent advancing the God hypothesis, but instead gets devoted entirely to the implied rejection of all naturalistic explanations.

For example, we already know that multiverse theories readily explain fine tuning by simply postulating a vast ensemble of random universes, each with their own unique mixture of initial conditions and physical constants.  However, the apologist will then rightly point out that such theories are all based entirely on purely theoretical speculations and dubious metaphysical assumptions, without even the slightest shred of empirical evidence backing any of it up.  But then, in the very same breath, apologists will immediately assert their own speculative, dubious, and untestable hypothesis as the only viable option now worth accepting - as if the mere virtue of other theories being wrong automatically means some alternative theory gets to be right.  It’s like being on trial for murder, and the only evidence the prosecution can offer for your guilt is the mere fact that other people did not actually commit the crime.

Let's not forget that in the context of synthetic propositions, it's nearly impossible to ever philosophically prove a negative claim.  Even Christians themselves will be the first to remind us all of this fact whenever some atheist dares to suggest how one can know with certainty that God does not exist.  Yet here we have one of the top five go-to arguments for the existence of God basing itself entirely on exactly that same fallacy - that absolutely no unguided, naturalistic explanation will ever be able to account for fine-tuning, so therefore God gets to win by default. 

So when all is said and done, the teleological argument for the existence of God is just that - another argument; words blathered out into the ether without any evidential basis in sense experience or coherent logic.  It again offers no testable predictions, it makes ridiculously absurd assumptions, it builds a false trichotomy, it attempts to prove a negative, it ignores precedents, it constraints its own deity, and it hypocritically rejects alternative theories for possessing the very same flaws contained within its own conclusion.  The only reason people find it compelling in the first place is because it utilizes the exact same tools of psychological manipulation that we saw earlier with Kalam.  Simply begin by exposing the subject to a deep, cosmic mystery, thereby arousing a high sense of need for cognitive closure.  This, in turn, makes the subject susceptible to primacy effects, which are then easily satisfied by blanket appeals to agenticity.  Once the subject has been indoctrinated with the desired belief, confirmatory observations are then piled on in abundant layers, while any potential falsification via testable empirical predictions is patently rejected out of hand.  It's a textbook snake-oil formula statistically guaranteed to engineer conformity with a foregone conclusion.

  1. I call this "The Parable of the Firing Squad."  William Lane Craig use this exact same analogy for his argument by falsely comparing it to our universe.  Only the way I'm telling it here is how an actual reasonable person would view the situation.
  2. William Lane Craig - Eastwooding Richard Dawkins
  3. Calculation based on volume.  The observable universe is about 10^80 cubic meters in volume.  The Earth's biosphere is about 10^17-10^19, depending on how thick you want to make it.  The disparity is therefore around 61-63 orders of magnitude.  If we wish to be generous, we can allow for a few hundred billion potentially habitable planets throughout the universe and still have 50 orders of magnitude left over to do something else with.
  4. Jenkins, A. and Perez, G., “Looking for Life in the Multiverse,” Scientific American, January (2010)
  5. Harnik, R., Kribs, G., and Perez, G. “A universe without weak interactions,” Physical Review D, Vol 74, 035006 (2006)
  6. Pourhasan, R., Afshordi, N., and Mann, R. B., "Out of the white hole: a holographic origin for the Big Bang," arXiv:1309.1487 [hep-th]
  7. Smolin, L., "The Life of the Cosmos," Oxford University Press, USA.
  8. Webb, J. K., et al, "Indications of spatial variations in the fine structure constant," Physical Review Letters, Vol 107, 191101 (2011)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Part 5: Cosmological Closure

“The argument, if we can dignify it with such a phrase, went something like this:

I can’t see a thing on the surface of Venus. Why not? Because it’s covered with a dense layer of clouds. Well, what are clouds made of? Water, of course! Therefore Venus must have an awful lot of water on it.  Therefore the surface must be wet. Well, if the surface is wet, then it’s probably a swamp.  If there’s a swamp there’s ferns, if there’s ferns, maybe there’s even dinosaurs!
Observation: You couldn’t see a thing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs!

By far, one of the most common tactics in religious apologetics is to point out some profound gap in human knowledge only so that God can get crammed in as the ideal explanation.  And of all the gaps in our scientific understanding of the universe, nothing gets picked on more than the very origins of the universe itself.  It's certainly an admitted mystery with a whole army of really smart people working on it at this very moment, yet Christians are more than happy to barge in and pretend like they have all the answers to, literally, everything.

Arguments like this are called cosmological arguments, with the most popular by far being the famous Kalam cosmological argument, which generally goes like this [2]:
  1. Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.
  2. The universe has a beginning of its existence.  Therefore,
  3. The universe has a cause of its existence.
And, of course, God is the best explanation for this cause, so therefore God must exist.
    While the world is full of critics who just love to shred this argument to bits, they nearly always miss out on the big picture here.  Remember that when all is said and done, Christian apologists are trying to prove the existence the Abrahamic God of the Bible.  That means an all-powerful and deeply personal cosmic agent with an overwhelmingly vested interest in the affairs of human events; a being that, according to Christians themselves, has unambiguously revealed Himself on numerous occasions throughout history via personal manifestations and national-scale suspension of the laws of physics.  We're talking about a being that desperately wants us to build a deep, personal relationship with Him so that we might be saved from an eternity of torment.  In principle, this ought to be as easy as proving the existence of the moon, where all you have to do is look out a window on the appropriate night.  Yet one of the very most popular arguments for God’s existence is nothing more than a dubious inference based on obtuse metaphysical quirks.  The very nature of the argument itself reeks of its own desperation.

    But what's most interesting about this argument is the method by which apologists usually make their case.  By far, the one, recurring theme from virtually every presentation of this argument is a long, drawn-out tirade about the mysteries of Big Bang cosmology, the metaphysics of causality, and constant reminders that our universe has a definite, finite age.  And since universes don't just pop into existence for no reason, there must have been a cause for this event, which science does not understand.  It's weird because this is not exactly a controversial claim, yet Christians will still spend hours upon hours belaboring the point anyway.  None of it actually furthers a positive case for God, but it does work great as a method for arousing the human need for cognitive closure.

    It's important to realize that many people are psychologically uncomfortable with the prospect of uncertainty and ambiguity in their beliefs [3,4].  It's a well-known cognitive bias that usually manifests as a heavy propensity for primacy - meaning that any hard, immediate answers will be far more preferable than the thought of "I don't know."  On top of that, human psychology also has a pervasive bias for spontaneous social attribution [5], meaning that people naturally tend to gravitate toward answers involving the deliberate actions of motivated agents.  So it makes perfect sense that apologists tend to ramble on and about the mysteries of Big Bang cosmology, because it psychologically stacks the deck in their favor.  There's simply no need to bother with a viable, coherent theory when all you have to do is reinforce the preexisting bias of the audience itself.

    So without even seriously examining a single premise, the Kalam cosmological argument is already on hopelessly shaky ground.  It uses roundabout argumentation to prove what should, in principle, be patently obvious, and then pushes very specific psychological buttons so as to artificially inflate its own appeal.  If anything, the only real purpose in criticizing the premises themselves is to see just how hard Christians can fail in one argument while still pretending to have a clue what rational thought even looks like.

    For example, what do you think of when you hear the phrase, “begins to exist?”  Because if you’re like most people, you probably think of something like a carpenter as he fashions a table out of wood and nails.  The table certainly appears to have a definite beginning to its existence, and it is entirely proper to say that this existence has a cause.  However, if you get really technical about it, the carpenter did not actually create anything, so much as rearrange [creatio ex materia].  The table only “began to exist” when people suddenly decided to slap a linguistic label onto an arbitrary ordering of material.  In fact, this same description is also true for everything in the entire known universe.  Anything in human experience that has ever begun to exist has only done so through a physical rearrangement of prior existing stuff.  And, as far as we can tell, things which begin to exist in this way don't require the intervention of any magical, disembodied super-fairies.

    This distinction is important because in the context of Kalam, "begins to exist" literally implies fully discrete bundles of matter and energy just poofing into existence out of pure, absolute nothingness [creatio ex nihilo]; a phenomenon, mind you, that has absolutely no precedent in all of human understanding!  So while it may seem intuitive to suppose that such an event would have a certain chain of causality associated with it, we’re still drawing conclusions about something that simply does not happen.  It’s like trying to argue that all unicorns must have fur.  It makes no difference how sophisticated your logic may be when you forget the fact that no one has ever truly experienced a physical unicorn.

    So if apologists seriously want to defend this argument, then the first challenge is to provide a comprehensive list of things that actually “began to exist” according to their definition.  That way we can at least draw a baseline from which to connect with real world events and then infer any potential patterns of causality.  But the plain fact of the matter is they have no such list.  And how could they?  The idea itself is barely even coherent.  How does a thing which exists causally influence "nothing" to do anything?  Yet when pressed on this exact challenge, the apologist merely dismisses the entire objection out of hand, like you're some kind of moron for even pointing it out.  For example [6,7],

    "They say nothing ever begins to exist, because everything has material out of which it’s constituted, and those atoms and particles existed before the thing did, and so nothing ever begins to exist, the first premise is false. And I think, what is the matter with these people? Have I always existed? Didn’t I begin to exist at the moment, say, when my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg came into union? If so, where was I? Was I around during the Jurassic age when the dinosaurs were about? Have I always existed? That is so absurd to think that I never began to exist, even though the material stuff out of which I am made existed before me.  So I don’t know what’s the matter with these people."

    So yes, according to the leading proponents of this exact argument, the very best examples we have of true creations of out nothing are, in fact, creations out of something.  It's a wholly dishonest dodge that just side-steps the issue entirely by hiding behind a smoke screen of arrogant condescension and blatant equivocation.  Yet Christians will still insist that the entirety of the cosmos itself must have a definite "beginning" to its existence, prior to which there was only a perfect void of raw, absolute nothingness - literally no matter, no energy, no space, no time, and no anything else in-between or beyond.

    Bear in mind now that when we talk about the earliest moments of the Big Bang, we’re talking about a realm of pitiful human ignorance; a realm where every naive intuition we have about the nature of space and time is completely wrong and inapplicable; a realm where you can't even hold a meaningful conversation without first subjecting yourself to years of training in graduate-level physics and mathematics.  So it doesn't matter what you think you know, because any conclusions you may ever hope to reach about the ultimate nature of everything is little more than a wild guess.  Yet apologists will still insist that fancy, rhetorical word games are all it takes to support their naive theological conclusions.  For example [8]:
    1. A temporal series of events is a collection formed by successive addition.
    2. A collection formed by successive addition cannot be an actual infinite.
    3. Therefore a temporal series of events cannot be an actual infinite.
    Or, to put it another way, if time can't go back forever, then "nothing" must have preceded it.  But notice how this is just another a dubious philosophical argument being used to support a dubious philosophical argument.  And, to make matters even more embarrassing, it's based on an implied assumption about time that is completely false.  Because when apologists speak of time in this context, they imagine a distinct, linear construct with an all-encompassing past, present, and future.  It's a naive view that certainly fits our natural intuition, but it's still dead wrong.  Anyone who knows anything about modern physics knows that there is no such thing as time, but rather a distinct, 4-dimensional construct known as spacetime.  And even this view of time is known to be incomplete, because it fails to coherently merge itself with quantum mechanics. 

    It's bewildering how guys with actual PhDs can argue at length, and with such confidence, over a scientific field they don't even understand.  But it gets even worse, because the whole thing is a complete non sequitur anyway.  Just because the universe has a definite spacetime boundary in the finite past, that does not automatically imply literal nothingness is the only viable precedent.  At best, all it shows is that there are apparently other physical realms beyond our observable, four-dimensional spacetime.  And so what?  Even if we conceded every last claim up this point, there's still nothing that even remotely hints at the necessity for a deliberate, supernatural agent.  But rather than humbly acknowledge their ineptitude and just stop right here, apologists simply power the argument through to its bitter end [9].

    "Now as the cause of space and time, this being must be an uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial being of unfathomable power.  Moreover, it must be personal as well.  Why?  Well, first of all because this event must be beyond space and time.  Therefore it cannot be physical or material.  Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description; either abstract objects like numbers or an intelligent mind.  But abstract objects can't cause anything.  Therefore it follows that the cause of the universe is a personal transcendent mind."
    No kidding!  So the only philosophically viable way for an entire universe to just pop into being out of nothing is through the incantation of an all-powerful, transcendent, eternal consciousness that necessarily exists outside of space and time [who, of course, just so happens to be Yahweh, the omnipotent God of the Bible].

    Notice again how Christians simply take Platonic realism for granted - as if numbers literally "exist" in some transdimensional realm outside of spacetime.  But now they take it one step further to a concept known as substance dualism - the idea that conscious minds are comprised of a special "substance" that exists independently of physical matter.  It’s another one of those tempting philosophies that sounds really cool on paper, but is still completely wrong [10].  There is simply no physical way to store information and exercise decisions without some kind of material network to accommodate the process.  That's why every "mind” in human experience has always required a physical brain to go along with it, and there is no indication whatsoever for any magical substance beyond spacetime that facilitates this phenomenon.

    Remember that this is supposed to be a rock-solid, irrefutable argument for the existence of God derived from modern cosmology itself.  Yet the whole thing is little more than a frantic ejaculation of wild speculation based on naive, untestable rhetoric.  There's just so much that's so wrong that you almost don't even know where to begin.  For example,
    1. Didn't we just spend half of this argument concluding that literal nothingness is the only viable precedent to our observable spacetime?  So why does God get to exist in a realm beyond of our observable spacetime?
    2. Furthermore, how exactly are disembodied minds supposed to causally influence the physical world any more than an abstract object?  Because last time I checked, "pure force of will" was not a viable mechanism for creating entire universes out of nothing.
    3. Or better yet, why is it only one, singular agent and not a committee of seventeen?  Seriously, what physically verifiable feature of reality would change if we made this an argument for polytheism instead of monotheism?  Or what if we just replaced "God" with "a race of powerful, transdimensional aliens with awesome technology?"
    We can do this all day!  The entire argument is so completely ridiculous that you can't even bother critiquing it anymore - you sit back and admire the sheer self-delusion it must take to push this drivel with a straight face.  So let's stop beating around the bush and just rewrite the Kalam cosmological argument for what is:
    1. Science has yet to devise a viable, pragmatic explanation for why there is something rather than nothing.
    2. Therefore, God did it.
    This really is all it boils down to.  It's an obvious God-of-the-gaps argument in its most pure and naked form.  It makes no verifiable predictions, it confuses the meaning of common expressions, it deliberately equivocates terms, it pretends to know things that can't be known, it makes patently false assumptions, it builds false dichotomies, it contradicts itself, it utilizes dead philosophical ideas, and it makes logical conclusions that don't even necessarily follow from its own premises.  Even if we accepted the entire argument outright, we'd still be no closer to understanding how the universe was actually created, what specific being, or beings, were responsible, or what functional impact any of it could possibly have in any single decision I could ever hope to make.

    It’s like a huge, philosophical onion of wrongness, where every layer you peel off just reveals yet another inexcusable layer of wrong.  But none of this matters, because it was never intended to be rationally sound to begin with.  It’s an overt psychological ploy designed to exploit our natural aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty by filling the mystery with a culturally familiar agent.  And since nothing inspires more awe and uncertainty than the very cosmos itself, Christians will forever have an ace up their sleeves until human beings learn to accept the plain and apparent fact that nobody yet understands how the hell the universe got here.

    1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 4.
    2. Craig’s popular formulation of the Kalam cosmological argument.  See, for example, Craig VS Wolpert.
    3. Neuberg, S. L., Judice, T. N., and West, S. G., “What the Need for Closure Scale Measures and What It Does Not: Toward Differentiating Among Related Epistemic Motives,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 72, No 6, pp 1396-1412 (1997)
    4. Webster, D. M. and Kruglanski, A. W., “Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 67, No 6 (1994)
    5. See “Psychology of Belief, Part 9: Agenticity"
    6. William Lane Craig: Why is Richard Dawkins so Popular?
    7. William Lane Craig: Worst Objection to the Kalam Cosmological Argument
    8. Forming an actual infinite by successive addition.
    9. William Lane Craig
    10. See "Substance Dualism" by QualiaSoup for a nice discussion. 

    Part 4: Word Games

    I love Star Trek and everything about it.  Especially tribbles.  In fact, I love tribbles so much, that I want them to be real.  Better yet, I know that tribbles are real, and I can prove it [1].
    1. Tribbles are small, hairy mammals, usually spherical in shape.
    2. Tribbles are born pregnant.
    3. Tribbles react violently in the presence of Klingons.
    4. If tribbles did not exist, they would not be able to react violently in the presence of Klingons.
    Therefore, tribbles exist, right?  After all, how could tribbles hate Klingons if tribbles did not exist somewhere in the real world to hate them?  The logic is perfect and indisputable!

    So where the hell is my tribble?

    Obviously there’s a problem here, in that you can’t just go around “defining” things into existence.  Because when I claim that tribbles hate Klingons, I am not really claiming that physical tribbles physically hate physical Klingons in the real, physical world.  What I am really saying is that if I should ever encounter a small, hairy mammal with the incorrigible properties of being born pregnant and reacting violently to Klingons, then that thing would be called a tribble.  Definitional truth is not the same thing as descriptive truth, and different rules govern the validity of each category.

    Remember that I am free to define the properties of tribbles in any way I like, and those definitions are 100% true because I say so.  But the moment I try to claim that something exists, I'm crossing over into a descriptive statement of reality where the epistemic rules are now totally different.  So while philosophers may continually debate over what exactly all those rules are, at least some rules are pretty well established.  Good descriptive statements must be coherent, consistent, and inductive; Good descriptive statements must have the power to explain a given phenomenon simply and effectively; and good descriptive statements must allow me to exercise some physical choice in the real world that leads to a desirable outcome.  We can logically “deduce” tribbles all day, but absolutely none of it will matter until I'm physically holding one in my hands.

    Which brings us our next philosophical failure of Christian apologetics: The idea that you can somehow "prove" synthetic propositions just by sitting in an armchair and thinking really hard about them.

    Deep down, Christian apologists must realize that there's no real evidence for their spiritual claims, but they're psychologically conditioned never to admit that openly under any circumstances.  So they have to resort to convoluted word games instead, designed to rationalize their beliefs in the face of an obvious absence of anything tangible.  And nothing demonstrates this more perfectly than the ontological argument for the existence of God, which usually goes something like this [2]:
    1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
    2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
    3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
    4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
    5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
    6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
    Now if this argument sounds like nothing more to you than a jumbled mess of spaghetti logic, then you would be right.  It's as if Christians are deliberately trying to bury their apparent empirical failure under a cloak of long-winded rhetorical jargon.  Sometimes Christians will even try to formalize it according to the rules of modal logic and everything, as if that somehow magically adds to its legitimacy.  But no matter how the argument is spun, it's easy to see that the whole thing is little more than a desperate attempt to conclude God with words rather than demonstrate God with evidence.

    Just look at the very first premise and ask yourself: what in the world is a "maximally great being?"  Because last time I checked, "greatness" was not exactly an inherent physical property of things that we can objectively verify.  But ignoring that, Christians usually just take this to mean that God is the "greatest conceivable" of all possible beings - that God is, by definition, the coolest, awesomest, spiffiest, gee-whiz entity that can possibly be imagined; a maximally-great being.  Yet if I were to ask you what the "greatest conceivable integer" is supposed to be, how could you possibly answer?  Because the very the moment you think you've discovered some viable candidate, I can immediately do better by simply taking your number and then adding one.  That's why any time you think you've identified all the properties of the greatest conceivable being, all I have to do is add on the condition that "plus my being can also beat up yours," and I've immediately found something "greater."

    So obviously, the very idea of a "greatest conceivable anything" is completely incoherent and inapplicable from the start.  But that doesn't matter, because the only real purpose in all this "maximally great" talk is to try and sneak in the claim that "existence is greater than nonexistence" - as if the mere virtue of being incredibly awesome automatically implies physical presence in the real world.  Of course, Christians don't really say it that way, but instead dress it up as a sophisticated technical term called necessary existence - that literally, contained within the very idea of God Himself is the requirement that He must exist.  So rather than waste time dissecting a bunch of pointless premises, all we really have to do is rewrite the argument for what it is:
    1. God exists necessarily.
    2. Therefore God exists.
    This really is all it boils down to.  God, by definition, is a maximally great being, and maximal greatness is implicitly defined by the property of necessary existence.  It's a textbook example of a classic logical fallacy called begging the question, or more simply, assuming the conclusion, yet guys with actual PhDs in philosophy will continually fail to recognize it to this very day.

    Remember that this is supposed to be one of the greatest, knock-down arguments for God that the elites of Christian academia have ever come up with, yet it barely takes three little minutes to reveal how utterly ridiculous the whole thing is.  But it also goes to show the deliberate play on words that Christians will exercise in order to argue what they cannot show.  Sometimes they’ll even try to use the very "laws of logic" themselves as proof for God's existence, like in the transcendental argument for the existence of God [3]:
    1. There are some objective logical absolutes.
    2. We can have concepts of these logical absolutes.
    3. These logical absolutes are not physical (you can't find them within the natural world).
    4. These logical absolutes are therefore conceptual.
    5. Concepts require a mind.
    6. Since the logical absolutes are true everywhere they must exist within an infinite mind.
    7. That mind is God.
    8. God exists.
    Note how once again we have an over-bloated philosophical word game designed to conclude God from an armchair.  Only this time, the argument flirts heavily with a philosophical concept known as Platonic realism - the idea that conceptual tools like logic and mathematics must necessarily possess a kind of intrinsic existence unto themselves, independent of space and time.  It’s an old idea with a certain seductive feel to it, but it is still dead wrong in every respect.

    For example, consider a simple mathematical concept like the symmetric law of equality:

    If a = b, then b = a.

    Pretty simple, right?  How could this be anything other than absolutely true?  It’s almost as if it represents some fundamental, transcendent property of the universe itself, doesn’t it? 

    Except it doesn’t.  When you really get down to it, the symmetric law of equality is nothing more than an axiomatic assertion - a self-imposed a rule for the manipulation of mathematical symbols based on the definition of equality.  And all this particular rule says is that the truth of an equality is independent of its order in expression.  Even more embarrassing for Christians is the fact that this is not exactly a deep, philosophical secret, either.  Any decent high-school level textbook on basic mathematics will openly introduce itself with the fundamental axioms of algebra - rules made up by human minds for the express purpose of consistent manipulation of mathematical expressions.

    This is why we say that mathematics is “invented” and not “discovered.”  The only real “discovery” that occurs in mathematics is a rigorous implementation of the rules toward their natural conclusions.  Mathematical theories are really only "valid" just so long as they avoid contradictions.  If they just so happen to serve as useful descriptions of real, physical systems, then all the better, but Christian philosophers will actually try to argue that mathematical entities like numbers and circles possess a genuinely transcendent existence unto themselves.

    It's important to realize that the entire field of deductive logic is no different.  Everything we claim to be “true” through logical deduction is only true by the standard of compliance with axioms.  For example, consider the linguistic structure of a typical syllogism:
    1. Worf is a Klingon.
    2. All tribbles hate Klingons.
    3. Therefore, all tribbles hate Worf.
    This is an absolutely solid logical conclusion that follows perfectly and naturally from the premises.  But so what?  All we did was define some arbitrary set by the sole property of being labeled "Klingons," and then instantiated Worf as a random element within that set.  We then defined another arbitrary set by the property of being "things that tribbles hate," and then included Klingons as a subset within.  The conclusion then follows immediately and logically by applying a very simple axiom from rudimentary set theory: if A is a subset of B, and B is a subset of C, then A is a subset of C.  Viola!  All tribbles hate Worf, despite the notable handicap of not existing in the real world.  It’s just a game designed to substitute real words into a basic template.
    1. A is a subset of B.
    2. B is a subset of C.
    3. Therefore, A is a subset of C.
    So while countless hack philosophers love to remind us that logical and mathematical truths are "pure and absolute," you’ll be hard pressed to find a single apologist who has any idea what the hell logic actually is or where mathematics actually come from.  The only reason they make this argument in the first place is because it sets the stage for declaring certain knowledge about things that exist outside of our sense experiences of the natural world (just like God).  They never stop to realize that chess and poker are grounded in the exact same fashion as algebra and geometry: you make up rules and watch what happens!  No one in their right mind would ever seriously try to argue that checkmates and full-houses actually exist outside of space and time, yet that’s exactly what Christians are doing when they make the same case for logic and mathematics.  The most central tenet of Platonic realism is a dead, useless idea, and has been known to be so for decades.

    Remember that when we go around claiming a thing like "God" exists, we’re making a synthetic proposition.  That means the only way to measure its truth value is by making a prediction for some kind of distinct, sensory experience.  So to say that God exists without any possibility of empirical manifestation is ultimately just meaningless gibberish.  How can we know He exists when can’t even detect Him in the first place?  How do we verify His properties?  What would physically change if there actually turned out to be two Gods instead of one?  How the hell do we objectively differentiate between a genuine physical reality versus the wild imaginations of some deluded yahoo?  Because a God that can only be concluded through argument rather than demonstrated through sense experience is functionally equivalent to no God at all.

    1. I call this “The Parable of the Tribbles”
    2. Alvin Plantinga is one of the major proponents of this argument today.  WLC has pushed it many times as well.
    3. Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry (CARM) is a big pusher of this argument.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012

    Part 3: The Null Hypothesis

    So what does it mean to claim that a being like God does not exist?  Because when you listen to religious apologists, they'll often have you believe that the only way to justify such a proposition is by scouring every last nook and cranny of physical reality itself, only to turn up empty.  Of course, that's not what it means at all, and everyone knows it, because proving a negative in this sense is a philosophically impossible feat.  But if that's the truly case, then how do we claim that anything at all doesn't exist?  What is the epistemic basis by which we can reject the existence of things like Bigfoot, Unicorns, and Yahweh?

    Imagine that you’re out shopping for a new car, and the dealer presents you with a next-generation performance vehicle [“The Parable of the Delorian”].  The car certainly looks snazzy enough, but the features are amazing.  Not only does this car actually fly, he says, but it powers itself on garbage and even travels through time.  It’s the coolest thing you’ve ever heard in your life, so naturally, you take the dealer completely at his word and write him a check, right?

    No.  You’re skeptical.  Nothing like this exists in your experience, and as far as you know, nothing ever could.  So you demand some form of justification for why you should fork over perfectly good money for this product.  It’s certainly a reasonable request, but for some reason the dealer almost seems insulted by it.  After all, he just “knows in his heart” that this car can fly, and he even brings out the rest of his staff to personally testify on his behalf.  

    Are you convinced now?

    What if he tells you that the car only flies and travels through time as long as you believe it does.  And if it still doesn’t fly or run on garbage, then you just aren't believing hard enough and need to keep “building your faith” until it does.  

    Are you convinced now?

    What if he threatens you with legal action, criminal incarceration, and torture unless you buy this car?

    Are you convinced now?

    What if the dealer drags out a chalkboard and explains the fundamental principles of cold fusion, followed by a primer on temporal physics?  As far as you can follow, the logic appears to be completely sound and the mathematics is simple and elegant.

    Are you convinced now?

    Finally, what if he just sits you down in the damn thing and takes you for a test drive?  Then, fueled by nothing but trash from the nearest dumpster, you really do take off, fly over the city, and even stop for a detour in the late Jurassic to take pictures of dinosaurs.  

    Are you convinced now?  I know I would be!

    This simple story illustrates a scientific principle called the null hypothesis.  Because it's one thing to merely claim that a car can fly, yet another thing entirely to physically demonstrate it.  Remember that synthetic propositions follow a specific set of rules, chief among which is the ability to predict events with a measurable impact in our sensory experience.  So when some guy tries to tell you that his car can fly, then sooner or later you should be able to hop into his car and actually experience flight.  And if you can't, then his claim is justifiably false.

    But notice how there's an intrinsic epistemic disparity between the positive claim and its null.  Because the claim that a car can fly carries with it a series of predictions about our actions and their ultimate consequences in our sense experiences.  But the claim that a car cannot fly carries no predictions at all, other than the continuing absence any particular manifestations.  The physical expectations of the null hypothesis are therefore immediately satisfied, by default, without even lifting a finger.  That's why the burden of proof always lies with the person making the positive claim, and never with the person who rejects it.  

    It's important to realize that this is more than just some passing philosophical nuance, but a very real, practical principle that governs all of our daily lives.  It's the reason why suspects in a criminal court of law are always legally innocent until proven guilty.  It's the reason the United States has yet to invade Canada in a preemptive strike against their secret radioactive doomsday machine.  It's the reason why nobody has ever attempted to appease the Flying Space Monkeys from Planet Neptune.  Absence of evidence really is evidence of absence, and anything claimed without justification may be immediately rejected without argument.  So unless Christians learn to back up this God-thingy of theirs in the form of a predictable sensory manifestation, then any arguments they have to offer are already wrong before they even begin.

    Bear in mind now that all this practically boils down to is the idea that pure, unfettered say-so is not necessarily sufficient justification for certain propositions.  Yet despite this universal simplicity, many Christians will still fight tooth and nail to shift the burden of proof over God's existence anyway.  They’ll say things like “there are no good arguments that atheism is true” [1], or maybe they’ll demand "proof and evidence that atheism is accurate and correct” [2].  Some Christians will even go so far as to redefine knowledge itself just so they can specifically rationalize their belief in God without any justification at all.  For example, reformed epistemology is a branch of apologetics that just assumes God’s existence outright before anything else and then interprets all human experience in that light.  Some forms of presuppositionalism will even go so far as to claim that all of us, everywhere, already know in our hearts that God exists, and that asking for proof is just redundant [3].  And not just any God, mind you, but specifically the Christian God as described in the Bible.  It’s a blatant admission that their belief has no demonstrable impact on reality, so they have to invent a whole new set of epistemic rules, just for themselves, just so they can keep on believing anyway.

    So all things being equal, the mere lack of evidence alone is already perfect justification for the strong assertion that there is no such thing as God.  By definition, things which don't exist, don't manifest in our sense experience, while only things which do exist eventually might.  But religious apologists have a remarkable habit of failing on every conceivable epistemic level you can imagine.  Because it's one thing assert the existence of things that might be real, like a powerful, personal agent with a vested interest in human affairs, but another thing entirely to believe in things that absolutely cannot be real, like an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being, that necessarily exists outside of space and time.

    For instance, let's consider the idea of omnipotence, which is usually defined by the infinite potential to do literally anything.  All right, so if God can do anything, then let’s see God create a rock so heavy that even God himself cannot move it.  I know that I can personally perform this task on myself just fine, so why is it so hard for a deity?  Or better yet, can God create a creature that God himself cannot control?  How about if God creates another omnipotent God, and then beats that God in an arm-wrestle?  No matter how one answers, there have to be things outside of the ability of an omnipotent being.

    This illustrates another fundamental epistemic rule known as coherence: the idea that whatever properties you assign to something, those same properties cannot lead to any annoying contradictions.  A classic example of this is the idea of a “married bachelor.”  By definition, a bachelor is already unmarried, so anything that happens to be married is automatically no longer a bachelor.  Married bachelors therefore do not exist, simply because the very concept itself violates the axiom of noncontradiction.  That’s why, without even leaving my own chair, I can already assert, with absolute certainty, that a truly omnipotent God does not exist either, simply by the nonsensical meaning of the idea itself.

    But let's take it one step further and consider omnibenevolence, as defined by the infinite capacity for perfect goodness, love, mercy, and justice - all properties that imply an entity who would do everything it can to minimize suffering in our world.  This sounds great in theory, except for the problem that our world is obviously overflowing with a massive amount of pointless, unnecessary suffering.  Genocide, starvation, AIDS, cancer, birth defects, mental retardation, and polio are just a tiny fraction of the horrible maladies that humans beings spend vast resources trying to eliminate.  So if God genuinely happens to be real and deeply powerful, then He is also sitting idly by while droves of us needlessly suffer miserably.  A truly omnibenevolent God therefore cannot exist simply by the mere virtue that the world is happier, safer, and more productive without smallpox in it.  

    And so we see the principle of falsifiability: the idea that whenever you describe something with a predictable impact in our sense experience, then it sure is awful nice when those predictions actually come to pass.  

    Remember that our only connection to the external world is through our senses, which are fundamentally detached from any true, underlying perception the universe.  That’s why we cannot “deduce” reality in the strictest sense, but only make inferences through logical induction.  It’s a basic limitation on knowledge that nature forces us live with, yet Christian philosophers will actually fight against even this.  They’ll claim that induction is unreliable, or that it assumes a uniformity in nature, or that it’s circular, or whatever.

    But of course they've got it all wrong again.  By definition, induction is simply the process of forming generalizations about sets through a limited sampling of subsets.  Justification for this process is then found by examining the two epistemic possibilities:
    1. If incomplete samplings of a particular subset are indeed indicative of the behavior of the whole, then induction will lead to a correct belief in the form of predictable consequences.  However,
    2. If the subset is not indicative of the whole, then sooner or later any beliefs based on induction will lead to failed actualization of desired outcomes.
    In other words, when it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it eventually lets you know.  Logical induction, by its very nature, is therefore self-correcting.  All it takes is the intellectual honesty to admit when our conclusions are wrong so that we can modify them in the face of new information.

    This is exactly why fallibilism and falsification are such integral aspects of the scientific method.  In principle, both true and false beliefs can have the power to guide our actions toward desirable outcomes, but only false beliefs have the potential to ever periodically fail in that goal.  Honest people embrace this, which is why honest people can actually be swayed in their beliefs by the introduction of new facts and evidence.  But religious apologists are not “honest people” because they come from a position of absolute, unwavering certainty.  That's why so many Christians cannot help but constantly bash on science at every turn, because science itself carries so many epistemic rules that Christians are not allowed to exercise on their theology.

    So let's be generous and assume that God is real and wants us to know about it.  What could He do to effectively demonstrate His existence?  In principle, this ought to be trivially easy.  Maybe God could appear to us in distinct physical manifestations and personally share his uniquely profound wisdom in our daily lives.  Maybe God could answer our prayers by performing distinct acts of healing with no natural counterpart.  Maybe God could sign his name in the moon or encode His one true scripture into our DNA - something that could only be explained if a powerful, personal agent were taking a vested interest in human affairs.

    But instead, what do we really have?  We have a bunch of jumbled story books riddled with known corruptions and inconsistencies; we have the dogmatic assertions of hack philosophers and theologians who abjectly refuse to ever recognize or correct a single error from their beliefs; and we have a bunch of mutually incompatible denominations, all claiming to represent the one absolute truth, yet continually diverging further apart with every passing generation.  In short, we have exactly what one would expect from a purely cultural phenomenon of human making.

    This is all it means to hold a strong atheist view.  Because even if some human concept of God actually turned out to be real, then it necessarily follows that all of the other thousands upon thousands of Gods from human history are unquestionably false.  So obviously, it's perfectly normal for human beings to invent entire religious traditions out of whole cloth, since any assertion of one is already an implied rejection of all others.  But it's a simple fact of logic that, while they cannot all be true, they certainly can all be false.  Consequently, the only meaningful distinction between an atheist and a Christian is that atheists simply go one step further by including Yahweh in that long list of Gods that certainly don’t exist. 

    Any moron can claim that God is real, and any moron can rationalize that claim under a cloak of convoluted rhetorical arguments.  But only a true and living God can exclusively demonstrate Himself in the form of a predictable sensory manifestation.  And if apologists would just fulfill this one, simple criterion, then virtually everyone on Earth would be more than happy to believe in God and convert to Christianity.  But until this happens, we are all more than justified in cutting to the chase by declaring openly and proudly that GOD DOES NOT EXIST.

    1. William Lane Craig says this all the time.  See, for example, (here)
    2. Infamous quote from popular YouTube Christian ShockofGod (link)
    3. See here for Sye Ten Bruggencate's lecture

    Part 2: Absolute Truth

    So what do we know, really?  And I mean “really know.” 

    Well, I don’t know about you, but as far as I can tell I appear to be a sentient agent experiencing a continuous flow of sensory information.  I don’t know where this information comes from or what the exact, underlying reality may be that governs it, but that’s just a limit I’m stuck with.  I might be a fully functional human being in a real, physical world, or I might just be a brain in a vat plugged into the matrix.  I simply do not know, and what’s more, I can’t know.  No amount of observation or deduction can ever truly differentiate between these philosophical possibilities.  That’s what makes external world skepticism one of the greatest pains in the backside of philosophers to this day.  Yet even with such a profound limitation on knowledge, this continual flow of information still has apparent patterns and correlations to it, and I would like to try and make sense out of them, somehow. 

    This is not an easy challenge to answer, and to this very day, many philosophers continually debate back and forth on what exactly it means for something to be “true.”  Part of this confusion is due to the fact that truth itself can come in so many different categories. For example, one of the most basic categories is simply truth by definition, like the classic statement that “all bachelors are unmarried.”  This is essentially “100% certain" in every practical sense, but only because the word “bachelor” in this context has literally been defined as “unmarried man.”  So to claim that all bachelors are unmarried is no more meaningful or insightful than to claim that "all unmarried men are unmarried" - it's a tautology.  The reason the word “bachelor” even exists in the first place is to serve as an encapsulation of a complex series of syllables and ideas, thereby saving time and energy in communication.  The only real measure of a “true” definitional statement is whether or not other people can agree with it and successfully communicate through it [1].

    This example also illustrates the key role that language plays in epistemology.  Because it's important to realize that, when you really get down to it, nearly everything we may ever hope to call “truth” must ultimately exist as nothing more than a bunch of linguistic gibberish blathered out into the ether.  That’s because language itself is the primary tool by which we communicate, shape ideas, and generate a coherent train of thought.  "Truth" is then just a label that we assign to those thoughts in accordance with some arbitrary set of rules.  The core purpose of epistemology is to then establish which rules we should use when evaluating the final “truthiness” of a given statement.

    For instance, consider a phrase like "stop on red, go on green [2]."  Phrases such as this are called axiomatic assertions, and represent declarations of rules that must be followed in order to engage in some special activity.  Axioms are essentially "true" by default, just so long as they produce consistent outcomes and people can again agree to follow them.  This may seem somewhat trivial at first, except when you realize that the entire field of mathematics itself is purely axiomatic in nature - a bunch of made-up rules based on operations and relationships between elemental abstractions within arbitrarily-defined sets.  Even deductive logic is the same thing: axiomatic rules designed to formalize our capacity for sorting out information and evaluating the final "truth" of various propositions.  So while countless hack philosophers love to brag about the "absolute truth" behind a phrase like "2+2 = 4," they nearly always overlook the fact that this is simply an application of arbitrary rules toward their natural conclusions.  They have no idea that the same principles apply equally well to hopscotch, poker, and chess, likewise producing pure, 100 % certainty.

    But what about other forms of propositions, like the phrase “I see the color red?”  After all, I may not know what red is, how it works, what causes it, or what chain of events transpire after photons strike my retina. But that doesn’t matter because I definitely experience a distinct sensory perception that is unique from many others.  The word “red” itself is merely a label that I slap onto the experience as a tool for differentiating it from other similar experiences.  Observational statements of this form are called incorrigible, and are again "100% true” simply by the mere virtue of making them.  The only requirement is that the person doing so is being honest and again uses a standard terminology that others can understand.

    Even the expression “I think, therefore I am” is just a combination of sensory experience coupled with linguistic conventions and axiomatic assertions.  For instance, "I think” is an incorrigible statement that labels the distinct experience of experience itself.  “Being” is then a basic verb which we can arbitrarily define in such a way that “things which think must be.”  “Therefore I am,” is finally a deductive statement used to link the observation with its definition according to the axiomatic rules of set theory.  Viola!  You just proved Descartes most famous theorem with complete, 100 % certainty.  Whooptie freakin' do.
    1. I think (true by incorrigibility).
    2. "Being" is a property of things that think (true by definition of existence/being).
    3. I belong to the set of things that exist (true by axiom - If A is a subset of B, and B is a subset of C, then A is a subset of C).
    4. Therefore, I exist. 
    Now let's make things a little more difficult and consider a phrase like "all bananas grow on trees" or perhaps "all bachelors are bald."  Phrases such as this are often called synthetic propositions, and represent descriptive claims about the underlying nature of external reality.  But what are the rules now?  How exactly are we supposed to measure the truth of these phrases when there exists a fundamental disconnect between reality, our perceptions of reality, and our linguistic framework for describing reality?

    This is the point where philosophers really start to butt heads with each other, but a key idea often gets overlooked in the process.  Specifically, “truth” is just a word, and can therefore be defined by whatever arbitrary metric we want.  For example, maybe I want to measure propositions by their power to make me feel comfortable and important.  I could believe that chocolate burns fat or that squirrels invented the moon, and I would be perfectly justified because these beliefs satisfy my definition for truth.  Or better yet, I could define truth as anything which coincides with an authority, like maybe the dictates of a prophet or the writings of holy scripture.  I could believe that the Earth was created in six days or that Native Americans are really descendants of Jewish migrants, and again I would be perfectly justified because that’s what my definition for truth requires.

    But let’s face it.  Those definitions are completely arbitrary and useless because they ignore a fundamental aspect of belief itself.  The reason why any of us "believes" anything at all is so that we can eventually use that information as a guide for our actions.  That’s why, sooner or later, everyone has to start measuring the truth of a belief by its power to help us exercise decisions under the expectation of desirable outcomes.  Decisions based on “true” beliefs will therefore manifest themselves in the form of controlled, predictable experiences, while decisions based on “false” beliefs will eventually fail in that goal [3].
    1. N has a desire d.
    2. N has belief b that doing a will achieve the desire d.
    3. If belief b is true, then N’s doing a will achieve d.
    It's a brutal, pragmatic view of truth to be sure, but it's also the only one with any functional connection to the real world.  That's why science can very accurately be described as a formalized methodology for explaining and predicting events.  And it works great, too!  No other methodology in the history of human thought has ever come close to what science has to offer.  But who knows?  Maybe there’s something better.  Maybe if I twinkle my nose, pray to Buddha, and wish upon a star then I can beat scientific method at shaping future events.  But remember, unless I can eventually cure diseases, build the internet, and put people into space, then no one is going to give a flying shit about my epistemic methodology.

    This one, simple principle is where Christian apologetics consistently fail more than anywhere else.  Because the claim that something like God “exists” is literally a claim that somewhere, somehow, I can interact with it on a physical level and generate a predictable sensory experience.  It's an assertion that if I poke a stick in the right corner, then something is going to poke back.  So let’s suppose we’re feeling generous and decide to grant the entire Christian religion without contentionThen what?  What changes?  What experiments can we perform to test it?  What demonstrative power does this God offer?  What decisions can I now make in the real world with real consequences that will manifest through the idea that a powerful disembodied agent exists somewhere?  Contrary to the wishful thinking of Christians, these are the final arbiters of “truth” when making descriptive claims about reality, and not how well you can formulate cute little arguments.

    Bear in mind now that this is just a sampling of the many categories of linguistic propositions one could make, each with their own set of well-established rules by which to measure truth [4].  But it's also important to realize that these rules are completely arbitrary.  It's like standing in a room with two buckets, where one is labeled "true" and the other labeled "false."  If someone places a piece of paper in your hand with some writing on it, how do you determine which bucket to dump it into?  Maybe you want those labels to have a functional meaning with respect to your decision making in real life, or maybe you just don't care and simply think that all statements belong in the "false" bucket no matter what.  Maybe you think epistemology makes better sense if we include a third bucket, or even a fourth, or perhaps an entire continuum of buckets.  Yet no matter how we define the system, nothing is physically forcing us to accept the proposition that all bachelors are unmarried.  If our goal is to effectively communicate with each other through the English language, then it kind of helps if we adopt this convention.  However, if such things don't matter, then nothing is lost by rejecting the whole idea.  Likewise, no one has to accept pragmatic scientific method, either.  But if our goal is to generate a functional knowledge base with the power to shape future events, then science is a methodology that seems to work pretty damn well. 

    So the next time some hack philosopher tries to ask you if "absolute truth" exists [5], the answer is obviously NO.  Because it's one thing for an individual to be "absolutely certain" of a given proposition in accordance with well-specified rules, but it's another thing entirely for that certainty to transcend all time and space across all linguistic and cultural barriers.  "Truth" is not a physical entity unto itself, but simply a label given to ideas in accordance with made-up goals.  No proposition can ever be "absolute," in this sense, because no epistemic system is universally binding us to consistently label a given proposition as "true."  Absolute truth therefore absolutely does not exist [6].
    1.  Logical positivists called these types of statements analytic propositions.  Quine also wrote a famous paper criticizing this distinction that’s supposed to be one of the most brilliant things ever written.  I even read it myself, and frankly, it was awful.  He spent far too much time over-inflating his jargon and not enough time understanding the role that language plays in epistemology.
    2. Or, more precisely, "If the light is red, then you must stop; if the light is green, then you must go."
    3. Alexander Bird, “Philosophy of Science”
    4. Consider some of these phrases and ask what rules we should use to measure their truth:

      "She ate nine hamburgers."
      "Where is the bathroom?"
      "Go to sleep."
      "Blargh snibble rumk flib."
      "The sun will rise tomorrow."
      "Paco tiene hambre."
      "This statement is false."
    5. The idea of absolute truth crops up in various religious philosophical contexts.  For example, Sye Ten Bruggencate begins his “proof that God exists" with this question.  Eric Hovind does the same thing sometimes.  See, for example,
    6. Or, to say it more precisely, statements that must universally be labeled as "true" by all people for all time, certainly do not exist.