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!
[1]

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.

    Notes/References:
    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.

    Notes/References
    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.

    Notes:
    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].
     
    Notes:
    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, 

      http://www.creationtoday.org/absolute-truth/
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6D6S2_3H7w
       
    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.

    Monday, August 27, 2012

    Part 1: Why God Matters



    For nearly all of American history, Christianity has enjoyed undisputed dominance over mainstream culture and media.  But with the arrival of the information age, this status has begun to falter as more and more believers find themselves falling away from the faiths of their parents.  Christian apologists have therefore organized a dedicated campaign of lectures and debates in order to publicly defend their faith and preserve their status.  It’s a crucial aspect of our politically-charged culture war with far-reaching social consequences.  After all, if God is real, especially the Christian God, then we owe it to ourselves to understand this God and worship Him as best as we can.  It means the Holy Bible is the pure and righteous word of God, and we all need to start praying and studying, lest we find ourselves rotting in eternal torment after this life is over.  However, if God is not real, then millions upon millions of our friends, family members, neighbors, and countrymen are all taking part in a massive, self-inflicted delusion - a delusion that not only demands time, money, and sacrifice to sustain itself, but also the political authority to legally impose itself on everyone else.  All of us, everywhere, have a serious stake in this issue and would do well to understand it as best as we can.

    I’m a professional scientist and engineer with a Doctorate of Philosophy from an accredited American university.  I have several publications in refereed journals, and I make a decent living by solving problems and pushing the limits of human understanding.  It's a matter of professional interest that I understand what it means to test my beliefs against the dictates of reality, and to correct them when nature tells me I’m wrong.  I have no personal stake in any of the beliefs I hold, but simply in the rational assurance that whatever beliefs I do hold are indeed correspondent with reality.  I therefore measure my beliefs through a well-defined set of epistemic rules, and I make no exceptions under any context.  That’s what it takes to make new discoveries and build the knowledge of humanity.

    Yet when it comes to religious affiliation, you don’t have to bother with any of that stuff at all.  Your beliefs are practically decided for you at birth and then grounded on little more than tradition, na├»ve intuition, social pressure, and authority.  Why else would religious faiths around the world segregate into such distinct cultural and geographic boundaries?  This is entirely unheard of in the world of physical and mathematical science, but it’s practically a defining feature in the world of religion.  It’s a dead giveaway that when all is said and done, religious belief has nothing to do with an objective understanding of reality, but instead is a purely cultural phenomenon of human making.

      
    Ordinarily this would not be so terrible, except for one problem.  By its very nature, religion, and especially Christianity, is never satisfied with merely sitting back and enjoying a life of quiet worship.  Christian doctrine itself requires believers to “spread the Word” to everyone else, and even threatens them with eternal damnation should they ever desert the cause.  This problem is further amplified by the constant push to exercise legal force as a blunt instrument for imposing a narrow interpretation of Christian morality onto the rest of the nation.  Intelligent design, traditional marriage, abortion, and abstinence-only education are just a handful of the current political controversies that are heavily motivated by the religious convictions of Christian conservatives.  So if there's any truth to this stuff at all, then it's a good idea to find out what that truth is so we can make good decisions accordingly - and if not, then abandon those beliefs and correct them so we can stop wasting political capital on pointless, dogmatic superstitions.  That’s why I feel personally compelled to understand this controversy as best as I can, and to share my professional insights with the rest of the world.  Not just to casually analyze a few political and philosophical arguments, but to critically expose the very core of what it is that Christian apologetics ultimately represent.

    It's important to realize that the debate on God’s existence is more than just a philosophical controversy between academic egos.  It’s a battle over the very rules of epistemology itself.  Because in the world of science, if you expect to build a reliable understanding of reality, then beliefs must be rigorously justified in accordance to very explicit requirements before they can ever promote to the status of knowledge.  But when it comes to religion, there are no epistemic rules to speak of.  No one converts to Christianity through the pure force of evidence and argumentation, but plenty of people do convert because of tradition, upbringing, and social pressure.  So for Christian apologetics, the goal is not really to convince nonbelievers through brute intellectual force.  Rather, the only really meaningful goal of apologetics is to rationalize the validity of a preconceived conclusion in order to slow the ever-increasing tide of apostasy [1,2,3]. 

    They do this with good reason, too.  There’s big money in this stuff and even tremendous political power, but it only works as long as you can maintain a reliable pool of gullible believers to support you.  That’s what makes education and outspoken criticism so crucial in this controversy.  It's the only way to break the cycle of belief and disrupt the political machine that works so hard to intrude on our lives.  This is also why religious groups around the world fight so hard to indoctrinate their children at such young ages.  It’s a deliberate ploy designed to unite religious affiliation with personal and social identity.  Giving up one's religion is never as simple as casually admitting some trivial cognitive error, but the psychological equivalent of cutting off an entire arm or a leg [4,5].  Religious criticism is therefore often met with a hypersensitive, irrational resistance, such that many believers will flatly refuse to ever change their minds under any condition, whatsoever.  For example:

    The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the  holy spirit in my heart, and that this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence.  And therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that that controverts the witness of the holy spirit. [6]:”

    This may sound like a harmless assertion of spiritual faith, but it's also an open admission that facts simply don’t matter - that subjective personal experiences supersede any and all physical evidence which may ever emerge to the contrary.  Remember that these are the exact same people who want the rest of us to believe as they do and live as they do - people who abjectly refuse to even admit the mere possibility of error in their beliefs, yet insist on legislating their spiritually-based morality onto the entire nation.  Rather than engage the discussion sincerely and work together to formulate a functional understanding of our universe, Christian apologists, whether they realize it or not, are far more interested in engineering conformity to a foregone conclusion. 

    So if we’re going to take the issue of God’s existence seriously, then we need to remind ourselves that the actual existence of God Himself is not important.  If He’s real, then great.  Let’s believe in Him and worship Him and study Him to the best of our ability.  But if God is not real, then that’s great too.  We can stop wasting our time at boring sermons on Sunday and start making better use of our short, mortal lives.  All that matters is that, whatever beliefs we do hold, those same beliefs can justifiably reflect reality.  It's a bitter pill of humility to be sure, but if truth matters, then we should all be able to agree on this much at least.

    Now to be fair, Christians do possess a whole slew of impressive-sounding arguments for God’s existence, but their entire position boils down to just that: arguments.  They're empty words shrouded in a thin veil of philosophical jargon without verifiable power in the real world.  That's why it's so easy to discredit each and every argument that Christians have ever come up with.  Because in the world of science, when we want to convince people of a controversial idea, no one ever bothers with cutsie philosophical rhetoric - we make testable predictions and present our findings!  So despite the huge volumes of sophisticated philosophical posturing, no Christian apologist has ever provided a single, verifiable instance of any supernatural force manifesting in the real, physical world.  It's as if the entire Christian apologetic tradition is built on the naive supposition that merely concluding God is the same thing as demonstrating Him.

    So please join me as together we dissect the great beast of Christian apologetics.  Not just because we have a bone to pick with Christianity per se, but because Christianity is simply the most well-organized and focused of all the apologetic traditions [7].  Doing so brings us face-to-face with the very foundations of knowledge itself and forces us to enumerate the most basic rules of epistemology in a concise, unambiguous template.  Only by basing our beliefs on a functional reflection of reality can we ever expect our decisions to have a positive impact on the real world.  It’s a simple, practical question about how exactly we intend to justify the choices we make.  Are we going to rigorously hold ourselves in accordance with strict epistemic rules and then modify our beliefs in the face of new, ever-changing information?  Or are we going measure our beliefs through the lens of cultural traditions and subjective personal perceptions, never changing them under any conditions to speak of?  The answer we choose as a nation, and as a species, will have immeasurable repercussions for years to come.

    Notes:
    1. "Apologetics.com exists to remove intellectual impediments to Christian faith, thereby enhancing believers' confidence in, and weakening skeptics' objections to, the gospel message." - Apologetics.com mission statement.
    2. "Catholic Answers is an apostolate dedicated to serving Christ by bringing the fullness of Catholic truth to the world. We help good Catholics become better Catholics, bring former Catholics “home,” and lead non-Catholics into the fullness of the faith." - Catholic.com mission statement.
    3. "Reasonable Faith aims to provide in the public arena an intelligent, articulate, and uncompromising yet gracious Christian perspective on the most important issues concerning the truth of the Christian faith today." - Reasonable Faith mission statement.
    4. Guenther, C. L. and Alicke, M. D, "Self enhancement and belief perseverance," Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, Vol 44 (2008)
    5. Cohen, C. L., Aronson, J., and Steele, C. M., "When beliefs yield to evidence: reducing biased evaluation by affirming the self," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol 12, No 9, 1151-1164 (2000
    6. William Lane Craig – “Dealing with Doubt
    7. And once you understand the one, you pretty much understand them all.



    Thursday, August 23, 2012

    Philosophial Failures of Christian Apologetics


    I am currently working on a new series of videos called the Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics.  The primary motivation for this series stems from watching atheist debates with Christians like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and John Lennox.  In my view, one of the greatest pitfalls committed by atheists is a complete failure to enumerate the very basic rules of epistemology so that they may be applied directly to the Christian arguments themselves.  The reason why this is important is because the Christian understanding for "truth" is often times completely at odds with what the word actually means in general usage.

    Imagine two people competing on the same game board, but one man is playing chess while the other is playing checkers.  Both sides think they are making a proper effort and playing by the rules, when in reality neither side has actually established what those rules are supposed to be in the first place.  The result is often times a pointless circle of argumentation over logical details that don't really matter in the long run.  My goal is to fill this void by actually enumerating what those rules are supposed to be so that we can see how Christian arguments for God violate them at every turn.  Doing so not only reveals the poor capacity of Christians to form a coherent argument, but also helps us to meaningfully establish a justifiable case for positive atheism. 

    The second goal for this video series is to further discuss the psychological basis for Christian arguments in the first place.  While most people can usually recognize the sloppy logic of Christian argumentation, almost no one seems to understand that these arguments are never intended to succeed on a rational level.  Instead, they are deliberately designed to appeal to distinct psychological weaknesses in human perception.  This is why we keep seeing the same, tired old arguments over and over, no matter how much they are debunked.  It is not about the exercise of proper logic in a search for truth, but a willful ploy to manipulate a naive listener.

    Finally, my last goal is to critically scrutinize the Christian arguments for God directly.  This is something that can be found on plenty of sources throughout the internet, but I feel that very few of them do a very good job at it.  All too often, I see atheists working far to much at nit-picking the premises of Christian arguments while simultaneously missing out on the embarrassing inanity that governs the essence of the arguments themselves.  For example, the ontological argument for God is often times expressed as a long, point-by-point deduction based on modal logic.  But at the end of the day, the entire argument is simply built on the idea that if something possibly exists "necessarily" (i.e., by definition) then it must actually exist.  However, most atheists tend to miss this, instead trying to examine the premises directly and  tackle them all in detail.  A far more efficient discussion is to simply point out the epistemic rules being violated by this core assertion.

    Another problem that I see is that atheists often work far too hard to provide distinct answers for difficult questions when a simple "I don't know" is perfectly adequate.  This is very often the case with arguments like the Kalam cosmological argument.  Nobody has any idea what happened "before" the Big Bag or if such a question even has any physically coherent meaning.  But that's okay, because we don't have to know.  We simply need to show that Christians don't know either, because their entire case is built on pure ignorance alone.  Of all the lectures given by apologetics like William Lane Craig, all of them will try to build a positive case on the simple observation that cosmologists don't yet have an adequate theory of everything.

    So to help offer a fresh perspective on Christian philosophy, I am working on a series of scripts to be converted into video format.  The plan is for each video to be around 10-15 minutes in length and to tackle a distinct, self-contained topic in each segment.  This corresponds to roughly 1600-2500 words per video at a normal rate of speech, which is good because it forces me to be concise in my presentation (I can babble on quite easily sometimes).  You will also notice periodic bits of emphasis added in order to eventually help me speak with inflection as I perform the actual recordings.  The audio will then consist of me reading from a prepared script while presenting relevant visual aids.  One expectation is for the visual aids to consist of crude cartoon caricatures of atheists, apologetics, and lay people doing silly actions to represent whatever is being talked about at some given moment.

    The outline of topics is still a work in progress, but for the moment will go something like this:

    Part 1: Why God Matters

    This segment justifies the question of God's existence in terms of practical everyday consequences.  It then invites the audience to open up for the rest of the series.

    Part 2:  Absolute Truth

    This is a really important segment that I have never seen anyone else seriously tackle.  The goal is to discuss very basic rules of epistemology and establish what it means to actually "know" something.  I am very much a "first principles" kind of guy, and so the goal here is to get as far down to absolute beginnings as we possibly can and then build from the foundation.  I am not a serious philosopher by any means, but I am a professional scientist and engineer.  That means I do at least know a few of the basics in this regard.  You'd also be surprised how few people really stop to think about this stuff, even though it is crucial to understanding Christian apologetics.  Every single rule you can imagine for how to properly justify a given belief, and I guarantee that some Christian philosopher has violated it.

    Part 3:  Null Hypothesis

    This is another important segment because it establishes the case for positive atheism.  Part of the goal here is to provide epistemic justification for the phrase "God does not exist."  All too often, I see people pussy-foot this idea by watering it down into something equivalent to "I lack a positive belief in God," or "you can't prove if God exists or not," or some weak-ass assertion like that.  The hope here is that people will actually grow the courage to stand up for what would otherwise be patently obvious in any other context.  For the exact same reasons we claim that unicorns, leprechauns, and fairies don't exist, we may also claim that God does not exist.

    Part 4:  Ontological Word Games

    This segment tackles the ontological argument for the existence of God.  It is also the first segment in the series to actually address a positive argument for God's existence.  The goal is to simply show that the argument fails in every way you can possibly imagine, and then to criticize Christians for thinking that they can prove God's existence just by sitting in an armchair and thinking really hard about it.

    Part 5:  Cosmological Failure

    Now we finally tackle the Kalam cosmological argument.  Again, it fails in every way you can imagine.

    Part 6:  Teleological Failuire

    Tackling the teleological argument for God's existence.  This one is actually really tricky to debunk unless you get to the heart of what exactly it is Christians are trying to say.

    Part 7:  Failure by Design

    Tackling the "watchmaker" analogy for intelligent design and why life is not like a pocket watch.  This argument is also especially vicious because it exploits a very well-known bias in human perception.

    Part 8:  Morality Debunked

    Tackling the moral argument for the existence of God.  This is one that I consistently see atheists fail at.  They'll usually have one or two pieces of good criticism, but very often they lack the courage to admit that objective morals do not actually exist.  This is also a really fun lead-in for scientific studies in cooperative behavior among human cultural groups.

    Part 9:  Historical Jesus

    Attacking the case for the historical reality of the resurrection.  It amazes me that Christians actually try to argue this, and even more so how so many atheists completely fail to properly attack it.  This topic also makes a great excuse for discussing basic epistemic rules of historical methods, and how the Bible fails to follow these same rules at every possible chance it can get.

    Part 10: A Cognitive Theory of Natural Religion

    Not quite sure how to end the series.  I am thinking of maybe making a case for natural religion.  That is to say, not only do we have a strong positive case for atheism, and not only can we effectively demolish every major argument for God there is, but we also have a growing scientific theory for where religion came from in the first place!

    I welcome any thoughts, criticisms, encouragement, and feedback on this project.  I have written and rewritten several scripts already, and I hope to go through many more iterations before these videos see the light of day.  I especially want people to point out any errors or inconsistencies they can find, as well as to point out any specific sections they found to be well done.  All constructive feedback is appreciated.  Hopefully we can make this a kickass video series!

    AnticitizenX