Saturday, September 27, 2014

Part 8: Historical Jesus

You can tell that Christian apologists are fighting an uphill battle when the very existence of God is already a dubious philosophical proposition unto itself.  To illustrate, let's suppose we're feeling generous and immediately decide to grant every last argument put forth by Christians thus far.  What exactly would be established?  Well, apparently, a powerful, supernatural agent exists somewhere, He has a good knack for conjuring stable universes out of nothing, and He probably has a vested interest in how human beings conduct their personal affairs.  That's really about it.  It's a pitifully weak form of deism that does absolutely nothing to differentiate Christianity from any other religious tradition.  That's why, sooner or later, Christians eventually have to start defending the Bible as a reliable historical account of genuinely supernatural events.  And even then, the only thing that fundamentally separates Christianity from the other Abrahamic traditions is the alleged spiritual identity of Jesus Christ.  So for all the philosophical posturing and metaphysical presumptions, Christianity either lives or dies on the historical reliability of Christ's ministry and resurrection, as detailed by the New Testament accounts. 

Now before offering any criticism, it’s important to establish what exactly is being claimed here.  Remember that the very core of all Christianity itself is the belief that, roughly 2,000 years ago, a half-blooded demigod, born of a virgin woman, was sent to Earth on a cosmic mission to atone for the sins of the entire universe as a form of ritual blood-sacrifice to appease the perfect justice of his omnipotent father/God/self.  He healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, turned water into wine, and spent his entire adult life preaching a message of divine salvation throughout ancient Judea.  Then, three days after being crucified by Roman authorities, he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven in full, celestial glory.

That really is the ultimate pill you have to swallow in order to properly call yourself a Christian.  However, it's also important to realize that stories like this are rampantly commonplace throughout human history.  For example, Apollonius of Tyana, Zoroaster of Persia, Muhammad of Arabia, Siddhārtha Gautama of India and even Joseph Smith of Upstate New York, are just a handful of similar prophetical figures to Jesus of Nazareth.  All of them are recorded to have been divinely inspired leaders who taught messages of spiritual salvation and even performed miracles among their communities.  So on what basis do Christians pretend to know that the supernatural stories contained in the Bible are legitimate, historical events, as opposed to just another bunch of cultural myths, legends, and fairy tales?

This is an important question to ask because the answer itself is almost embarrassing to say out loud.  In short, the sum total of all evidence we have for any of the spiritual events described within the Bible is the Bible itself.  Literally, the pure, unfettered say-so of human authors; oral traditions that were scribbled down millennia ago by members of highly superstitious, illiterate cultures, teeming with deliberate frauds and religious cults.  We're seriously talking about copies of copies (of copies!) that were selectively edited and compiled over multiple centuries by a series of politically-motivated committee decisions, and then translated through multiple languages.  That is the ultimate standard of evidence Christians expect us to embrace when determining the historical reality of supernatural events.

So without even getting off the ground, the case for the historical Jesus is already so laughably empty that there's almost no point in even looking at it any further.  Nevertheless, the case of the historical Jesus does raise a very profound epistemic question.  Namely, how do we know the past?  That is to say, on what basis do we measure the "truthiness" of any given proposition about historical events?  How do we know that Abraham Lincoln was an actual living person while Sherlock Holmes was not?  This is another one of those complex philosophical issues that again sparks all kinds of academic debates to this day.  But even so, there are still many well-established guidelines on which every renowned, professional historian necessarily agrees.  We can therefore learn a great deal about history and Christianity by applying these very same rules to the Biblical gospels.

For example, one of the core guidelines in all historical method says that any given source of historical information may be forged or corrupted.  This is simply a fact of life given that huge volumes of historical knowledge are derived almost entirely from written human narratives.  And whether we like it or not, human beings have the unfortunate habit of misremembering, mistranslating, exaggerating, hallucinating, omitting, or even plain, outright lying whenever they commit a piece of information to paper.  No matter how certain we may feel, there is simply no such thing as "absolute" historical truth.  At best, there are only varying degrees of certainty based on empirical data and probabilistic inferences to the best explanation.

Now contrast this basic principle with the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy - the belief that the words contained within the Bible were all divinely inspired by God Himself, and are therefore perfectly trustworthy as given.  It's another classic attempt by Christianity to sidestep fallabilism altogether and psychologically shield itself against the prospect of being wrong about things – as if we're supposed to just take it all on faith that not a single one of the dozens of Biblical scribes, authors, and editors, was even remotely capable the slightest shred of personal bias, misinterpretation, embellishment, or deliberate fraud.  And this is in spite of the fact that we literally have hundreds, if not thousands, of well-documented examples of exactly that sort of thing in early New Testament manuscripts [1].  Yet most Christians apparently just don't care.  They simply assume, in advance, that everything in the Bible is the inspired word of God Himself, and therefore completely free of error [2,3].

Next in our list of historical methods is a simple guideline that says first-hand information is more credible than second-hand, which is more credible than third-hand, and so on.  This is simply an application of the famous “telephone” problem [or Chinese Whispers if you’re from the UK], where information is inevitably corrupted as it hops from one individual to another.  It's also the reason why nearly all forms of hearsay are utterly inadmissible in any modern court of law - you just can't trust it.  So if the Gospel narratives are supposed to be credible, then it should would be awfully nice if they were written by the actual people who were actually there.

But of course they weren’t, and often times are openly proud of it.  For example, absolutely nothing in the New Testament was actually written by Jesus himself, but was instead written by other people who merely claimed to be recording Jesus' words after the fact.  Even in the Book of Luke, we find an implicit admission that he didn't actually see any of this stuff for himself, but rather that he's simply compiling second-hand accounts from various anonymous eyewitnesses [4].  Then the apostle Paul admits in his own epistles that no one actually told him anything about the Christ narrative, but that he instead received his entire message by pure revelation alone [5].  Many events, such as the nativity, occur long before Christ ever met any of his disciples and therefore cannot possibly be eyewitness accounts under any conditions.

Even the very authors of the Gospels themselves are completely anonymous [6], because all we have to go on is religious tradition to tell us who these guys actually were.  We don't even have any original copies of the Gospels, but simply scattered fragments of copies (of copies!) written centuries after the fact.  We even have multiple competing versions of the Gospels with wild variations in all sorts of crucial details, with nothing more than religious tradition to tell us which are officially "scripture" and which are just fallible human concoction [7].  We therefore have no idea how much of the New Testament is a reliable transmission of factual events as opposed to natural historical corruption.

Moving right along, our next rule in historical method states that the more time that transpires before recording an event, then the less reliable the account becomes.  This should be pretty obvious, given that human memory is notorious for omitting, substituting, and even inventing major factual details - a situation that is well-known to get even worse when social pressure is added to the mix [8,9].  Hell, why do you think human beings even bother writing stuff down in the first place?  Memories unavoidably change over time, which is why the sooner a narrative gets recorded, the more reliable it becomes, while the later a narrative gets recorded, the more natural corruption there will inevitably tend to be.  So if the Gospel writings are going to have any validity to them at all, then the least we should expect is for them to be contemporary with the actual events as they transpired.

Sadly, this is not at all the case.  For example, consider the Gospel of Mark, which scholars generally agree is the earliest official record of the Christ narrative.  No one actually knows exactly when this document first appeared, but there is at least a general consensus among scholars that it could not have been recorded any earlier than 30 years after the death of Christ [6].  That means multiple decades of raw, unrestricted word-of-mouth compilations before we even get our very first official Gospel!  And that's our absolute best case available, because the other three Gospels were all definitely written even more decades after that.  Compound this with the obvious political and social bias inherent to any religiously-motivated allegation, not to mention the superstitious, illiterate culture from which it grew, and it becomes psychologically inevitable that legendary elements would corrupt the narrative beyond repair.

At this point, the case for the historical resurrection of Jesus is already decisively settled beyond any rational dispute, yet Christians are amazing when it comes to cramming as much failure into a single argument as they possibly can.  For instance, one of the most important rules in all of historical method is the requirement that multiple, independent accounts should all converge onto the same message in order for that information to be credible.  This is another obvious rule based on simple probability [10].  All it means is that it's far more difficult for several people to collectively misremember an event the same way than it is for only one person.  This is how we know that Abraham Lincoln really was shot in Ford’s Theater on April 14th, 1865.  We have genuine eyewitness accounts from the crowd of people in the room as it happened. We have testimonials from the confederate conspirators themselves admitting to the plot and carrying it out.  We have the autopsy report from the guy who examined Lincoln’s corpse after the fact.  We even have the actual pistol used by Booth himself to fire the shot.  It’s a huge variety of independent sources, all cross-confirming each other on each and every detail, with hardly any errors or inconsistencies between them.

Now contrast this with the Gospel accounts, which often borrow so heavily from each other that they cannot even be considered as truly independent narratives.  Then in other sections they'll vary wildly in all sorts of crucial details that cannot be corroborated by a single outside source.  For example, after Jesus is crucified, the Gospels describe a series of very extraordinary events, including massive earthquakes and even three hours of darkness covering the land [11].  You would think that if something like this really happened, then maybe a few local historians might have recorded it, or that maybe the local astronomers would have noticed the sun blotting out for three entire hours, right?  But strangely enough, no such records exist, leaving us entirely with the Bible's abject say-so that any of this stuff really happened.  But what's even more extravagant is how the Book of Matthew also describes dead people rising from their graves and roaming the streets.  Surely, it’s reasonable to expect at least a few locals to mention a sudden zombie apocalypse somewhere in their memoirs, isn’t it?  Yet not even the other three gospels are kind enough to confirm or deny any of this stuff, and these are supposed to be reliable narratives of the exact same events  [12]!

And speaking of zombies, there’s one particular rule in historical method that often gets overlooked, even though it conspicuously stands out above and beyond all others.  Namely, any narratives that appear to completely violate the known laws of physics are the least reliable of all.  Again, this is hardly a controversial requirement, since, by definition, such violations cannot be reliably demonstrated under any known conditions.  In contrast, human accounts across all cultures are notorious for their capacity to imagine wild fantasies in total disregard to physical laws.  This is how we know that stories like the Iliad or the Odyssey are totally unreliable in their historicity.  They talk at length about all sorts of magical enchantments and superhuman feats, while the Gods of Olympus constantly intervene in the flow of events - things that make no sense from objective historical references, but are perfectly fitting in a mythological story.

The exact same thing is true for the New Testament narratives.  We’re talking about a guy who was allegedly birthed by a virgin woman, who walked on water, who exorcised demons, and who came back to life after three days of lying dead in a tomb - events which have no physical basis in all human experience!  We know that women don't make babies without first having sex.  We know that people who stand on water will generally tend to sink.  We know that mental diseases are not caused by evil demon possessions.  And, most important of all, we know that dead people have a persistent tendency to stay dead.  So when confronted with a story about some guy bleeding out on a cross, only to rise again after three entire days, which should we assume is more likely?  That the very laws of physics and biology were specially suspended in this one case?  Or that, just maybe, somebody is telling an extravagant work of fiction? 

Bear in mind that these are not just “my” rules for determining history, but “the” rules - rules that are designed to keep us honest and help us arrive at a functional understanding of objective reality.  Violation of any one of these is already sufficient grounds for doubting the reliability of any historical account, but the Biblical narratives fail at each and every one of them without exception.  It’s as if the Bible is going out of its way to win the title for “Least Reliable History Ever.”  We're talking about anonymous human narratives written decades after the fact by second-hand sources with obvious political and social agendas, and then translated through multiple language barriers.  All of them make wild claims about fantastically impossible events, many of which cannot even be corroborated internally, much less externally by objective, independent sources.  It's so patently absurd that even if the authors admitted outright to having made it all up as they went along, then it still wouldn't technically make any of it worse off than it already is.  Yet the entirety of Christianity itself is predicated on the idea that the pan-galactic uber-deity of the entire cosmos had a direct influence in assembling this record and preserving it to modern day.  Information that is supposed to ultimately determine the eternal fate of our very immortal souls, and the absolute best that God can do to relay it to us through hopelessly corrupted accounts from a dubious iron-age cult.

This is what makes Christian doctrine absolutely terrifying on a national scale.  Because if you want to talk about the historical basis for the Christ narrative, then at best, the only thing we can confidently conclude is that there was probably some popular philosophical Jesus-figure who served as the real-life foundation for an exaggerated messianic legend.  He wouldn't be the first example of this kind of phenomenon,  and he sure as hell wouldn't be the last.  Yet apologists would actually have you believe that these narratives are more than enough evidence to justify the strong assertion that the literal son of God came down to Earth, performed miracles, and died for your sins.  They have no respect for very basic rules of honest epistemology, but instead rewrite them altogether into something that can only be described as a direct effort to foster dim-witted conformity.  It's as if the entire institution openly relies on the implied assumption that you're nothing but a credulous moron who’ll believe anything simply because a smart guy in fancy suit says so.  We’re talking about a belief system where truth itself is literally defined through the compiled scribblings of an ancient, superstitious culture.  The very words “I am a Christian” might as well be perfectly synonymous with the words “I am a gullible fool.” 

  2. "We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly.  We believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God." - 8th Article of Faith for the LDS church
  3. "We proclaim the absolute truth and authority of the Bible with boldness." - AIG mission statement
  4. Luke 1:1-4
  5. Galatians 1:11-18
  6. Mack, B. L., "Who Wrote the New Testament?" The Making of the Christian Myth", Harper One, 1996.
  7. Bart Erhman, "Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament
  8. Loftus, E. F. and Palmer, J. C., "Reconstruction of automobile accidents: and example of the interaction between language and memory," Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, Vol 13, No 5 (1974)
  9. Allan, K. and Gabbert, F., "I still think it was a banana; memorable lies and forgettable truths," Acta Psychologica, Vol 127, No 2 (2008)
  10. For any two events A and B, if A and B are independent, then P(AB) = P(A)P(B).  That means P(AB) < P(A) and P(AB) < P(B).
  11. Matthew, Chapter 27
  12. Luke and John make no mention of the earthquakes.  Only Matthew mentions the dead people rising from the grave.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Part 7: Morality Explained

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
- Voltaire

So there I was the other day buying a Slurpee when the cashier asked me for a buck-sixty-nine.  Just as I reached into my pocket for some loose change, the most incredible thing happened: I paid him and got on with my life.  It’s strange, I know, because the more “natural” course of action is to immediately jump over the counter, gouge out his eyeballs, rape his corpse, and then set the store on fire.  Why, it’s almost as if some ethereal cosmic spirit was telepathically commanding me to be nice to people.  At least, that’s what Christians would have you believe, since apparently they can't think of any other viable explanations for why I should refrain from lashing out in a violent rage against total strangers.

Which brings us to the moral argument for the existence of God.  And while there are of course dozens of variations floating around, they all generally share the same basic structure [1]: 
  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This argument is wildly popular among religious apologetics, and was even one of the personal favorites of C. S. Lewis.  But what really makes this argument truly special is how utterly depraved and incoherent it is at every last step.  Even the wording itself gives away its own amateurish origins, with the very first premise being written as an obtuse contrapositive [2].  Yet for all of its obvious failures, arguments like this are very powerful at insulating believers against all reason and evidence to the contrary.  Religions work very hard to intertwine themselves with the perception of absolute moral authority, such that giving up one's faith is often seen as the equivalent of giving up all sense of human decency at the same time.  Why else would believers consistently view atheists as the least trustworthy minority group in all of America [3]?  It's another deliberate psychological ploy designed to manipulate the believers into remaining believers, and not necessarily to build a viable case for God's existence.

But what is morality, really?  Because for all this talk about morals and values, it's surprisingly rare for anyone to actually break them down into rigorous, coherent terms.  So let's begin with the simple observation that the core of all morality is implicitly defined by choice.  That's why we only tend to punish people for things they consciously decide to do or not do, and never for things that just happen.  But it's also equally important to realize that choice itself has no practical meaning unless one is trying to actualize some desirable outcome.  "Good" and "right" choices are those which can reliably produce a specified result, while "bad" and "wrong" choices ultimately fail in that goal.

So which goals are specifically "moral" in nature and which ones are not?  This is another one of those sticky philosophical issues that sparks all kinds of academic debate to this day.  Yet despite all the contention, most people do tend to agree that any coherent concept of seemingly "moral" behavior must revolve around some kind of ultimate, social interaction.  Morally "good" choices tend to manifest through desirable, pro-social consequences while morally "evil" choices are those which tend to do the opposite.  But no matter what the specifics may be, it's important to always bear in mind that the whole notion of morality itself is utterly meaningless and irrelevant without some form of consequentialism at its foundation.

Strangely enough, however, most Christian philosophers actually reject this principle outright, claiming instead that morality is an objective feature of the universe itself, like the law of gravity or the charge of an electron; that even if the entire human race went extinct today, then certain laws of morality would still be absolutely true and universally binding on all sentient beings across the cosmos.  It's another one of those tempting philosophical views called moral realism, and while it may appeal to certain naive intuitions, it utterly fails before it even begins.  Because to say that anything is morally "good" or "evil," in and of itself, without any reference to goals or consequences, is just incoherent gibberish.

For example, just stop ask yourself: what on Earth is an objective moral value supposed to look like?  Like if some guy were to say to you that, "human life has objective value," or that "human life is objectively good," what does that even mean?  Is "goodness" supposed to be some kind of radiant intensity that just emanates from human beings, simply by the mere virtue of living?  Can we quantify this goodness and measure it with moral thermometers?   If so, then what's the standard of calibration?  Does a cow's life possess objective moral value, as well?  Or a squirrel's?  How many squirrels does it take to equal the moral value of one human?  How the hell are we supposed to empirically verify any of this in any functional capacity?

Obviously, we can't.  Because any time we say a thing has value or that a thing is good, we're not talking about some intrinsic physical quality of the thing itself.  Technically, what we're really saying is that somewhere, somehow, a subjective agent has arbitrarily decided to place value on that thing in the form of a preferential desire with respect to other things.  That's why absolutely nothing in the entire universe can possibly have objective moral value because the very idea itself is an oxymoron!  It's like trying to ask what the "objective value" is for a dollar - there isn't any!  Value does not exist without some value-er to do the value-ing.   So to say that human life has value simply means that, if given a choice, subjective agents will tend to behave in such a way as to promote and preserve human well-being over the alternatives.

What about the claim that there exist such things as objective moral duties?  That is to say, things we "ought" to do and things we "ought not" do.  Well, again, to say that anyone ought to do anything is to say that there exists some desirable state of affairs that can be conditionally actualized through specific actions.  For example, if we desire to raise our children into happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults, then it necessarily follows that we probably ought not torture them in their infancy.  However, if we have no interest whatsoever in promoting the health, happiness, or emotional well-being of children, then there really is no good reason for us to refrain from torturing babies, now, is there?

Notice how there's nothing conceivably objective about any of this, except for the fact that actions have consequences and that people tend to find certain social outcomes more desirable than others.  Yet in the view of Christian apologetics, all moral oughts are universally unconditional.  It's a vapid, worthless tautology wherein baby torture is simply deemed, as fact, to be "evil" for no other reason than pure, cosmic fiat.  But then the only reason why we "ought not" torture babies in the first place is purely because it's "evil" - as if the mere virtue of some arbitrary four-letter label is supposed to illicit immediate and unconditional compliance from our behavior.

So once again, we have Christian apologists pushing yet another argument that was already bungled beyond all meaningful comprehension long before it ever even began.  But let's suppose we're again feeling generous and decide to immediately grant the entire moral realist philosophy without contention.  Can someone please now tell me in what logical universe does any of this imply anything that even remotely resembles the singular deity of classical monotheism?  The very first premise of this argument might just as well have said that if apples don't grow on trees, then the moon is an onion.  There's simply no logical connection between these two statements.  Yet when we listen to Christian apologists, it apparently just goes without saying that the only viable source for objective morality is the express dictate of a powerful supernatural agent.  It's an absurdly authoritarian view known as divine command theory, wherein the ultimate measure of all good and evil in the entire universe is derived solely from the abject say-so of an invisible pan-galactic sky fairy.  Literally, objective moral values and duties defined entirely by the whims and properties of a subjective agent!

So not only is the moral argument for God's existence completely incoherent and self-defeating from the very start, but also blatantly circular.  After all, let's not forget that the whole point of the moral argument in the first place is to prove God's existence.  Except you can't do that when morality itself has already been predefined by the implied assumption of God's existence!  It's like trying to argue that Elvis' car proves the existence of Elvis.  The very phrase "Elvis' car" has no objective meaning until after we've established the existence of Elvis; not before [4].  It's another textbook example of classic logical question begging, and again, self-proclaimed “experts” in philosophy continually fail to recognize it to this very day.

But even ignoring all of that, the one thing that makes this argument such a truly spectacular failure is the fact that Christians are specifically trying to prove the existence of Yahweh, the God of the Bible - the very same god that has openly and proudly endorsed some of the most unspeakable moral atrocities we can possibly imagine.  We’re talking about a God that actively encourages:
  1. Slavery (Exodus 21:20-21, Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5)
  2. Blood sacrifice (Genesis 8:20)
  3. Human sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-18, Exodus 32:27)
  4. Misogyny (Genesis 3:16, Exodus 21:7-8, Corinthians 11:8-9)
  5. Genital Mutilation (Genesis 17:10-14, 1 Samuel 18:27)
  6. Genocide (Genesis 6-9, Numbers 21:3, Numbers 21:33-35, Deuteronomy 2:33-34, Joshua 6:21-27, Joshua 10)
  7. Infanticide (1 Samuel 15:3, Exodus 11-12)
  8. Thought crimes (Matthew 5:27-28)
  9. Rape (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
  10. and death penalties for trivial offences! (Exodus 35:2, Numbers, 15:32-36, 2 Samuel 6:6-7, 1 Kings 13:15-24, 2 kings 2:23)
The very idea that the Biblical God is supposed to serve as the ultimate standard of moral goodness is patently ludicrous.  It practically gives a free-license to engage in the most destructive, antisocial behaviors in human history.  Or is it really just a coincidence that slave-holding Christians from the American South would habitually appeal to the Bible itself as moral justification for the practice? [5,6,7]

But who knows?  Maybe the Christians are right.  So let's again be generous and immediately grant the entire moral argument without contention.  Now what?  What changes?  Because if God really is the source of all human morality, then how exactly are we supposed verify any specific moral claim?  After all, it's not as if God has ever come out and actually told anyone that torturing babies is bad, so how do Christians even pretend to know that this is true in the first place?  For all we know, maybe God absolutely loves it when people torture babies, and we're all dangerously behind on our quotas.  It's perfectly consistent with all of His other atrocities littered throughout the Bible, so what objective empirical evidence can anyone possibly hope to offer that would indicate otherwise on God's behalf?

Or heck, even if God really did come out and issue us direct verbal commands, so what?  What objectively binding incentive do I have to comply with such a standard and not some other standard of my own choosing?  What's to stop me from simply telling God Himself to "eat shit and die," while I go out and torture babies anyway?  Because even if the Biblical God indeed turned out to be real, the only physical effect he could possibly have on any of my choices is to artificially skew their costs and payoffs after the fact.  What other purpose do heaven and hell possibly serve, except as a glorified carrot and stick? - Literally, rewards and punishments designed to influence my choices now by skewing their implied consequences later.  The very core of nearly all monotheistic doctrine is an open admission that consequentialism really is the ultimate driver of all human moral behavior.  And not just pro-social, altruistic consequences, either, but brutal, unfettered self-interest.

Interestingly enough, that's exactly the same assumption used by behavioral scientists when formulating a naturalistic theory of moral behavior in biological organisms.  Because it's a demonstrable fact that self-interest, when coupled with social interdependence, can, and does, give rise to virtually every form of apparently "nice" behavior observed in nature.  Life is not always a zero-sum game, where individual success can only be achieved at the expense of another.  Rather, cooperation among organisms very often has a tangibly positive impact on all parties involved, thereby increasing individual well-being and eventual reproductive success.  Virtue really can be its own reward.

This is not just some passing philosophical assertion, either, but a rich scientific field complete with its own empirical data and quantifiable mathematical framework [8,9].  Biologists, anthropologists, and economists all independently figured this stuff out decades ago and have long-since converged on a perfectly viable, pragmatic theory of biological cooperation.  Morality is not some magical essence of human decision-making, but simply an emergent property of interdependent social dynamics.  So to try and explain human morality through the God of the Bible is exactly like trying to invoke Thor, the God of Thunder, to explain the weather.  It's a God-of-the-Gaps argument that doesn't even have any gaps!

It's ironic that Christians have such a hard time with this kind of natural morality when you realize that the vast majority of American Christians are also gung-ho, laissez-faire capitalists - an economic system, mind you, grounded on the principle assumption that all human beings are fundamentally self-interested!  The very essence of a free-market economy is the fact that self-interested individuals have perfectly rational incentives to cooperate and specialize for the betterment of the entire social structure.  It’s a spectacular feat of doublethink where Christians simultaneously embrace and reject the exact same principle for no other reason than religious context.

It's important to understand that biology simply doesn't give a damn about naive labels like "good" and "evil."  Whatever behaviors your parents and grandparents statistically chose to engage in, those same behaviors must have facilitated their ultimate survival and reproduction - because if they didn't, then by definition, you wouldn't be here to think about it.  Likewise, your own actions must inevitably serve that very same goal, or else, by definition, you won't have any children or grandchildren to think about it, either.  So if our collective behaviors happen to include a general propensity for being nice to each other and getting along, then those too must, in some way or another, serve to improve our statistical reproductive success. Natural selection simply cannot have it any other way.

Notice how nothing about this principle requires the emergence of some homogenized moral perfection, but instead predicts exactly what we observe in human cultural groups today - a huge variety of nuanced, moral frameworks, each adapting individually to their respective cultural niches and continually diversifying with respect to geography and time.  Yet for all of our variation in cultural norms and values, it's easy to see how certain universal principles might still apply to all groups at all times.  For example, under no conceivable circumstances will eating babies ever promote the long-term survival and reproduction of any cultural group.  It has nothing to do with some mystical, transcendent essence of the cosmos, but the simple fact that any group which behaves in this way must inevitably go extinct.

This is why we get to call the fascist Nazis "bad" and peaceful egalitarians "good."  Because if our desire is to live in a happy, safe, productive society (which most of us generally do), then it is an objective fact that violently antagonizing our neighbors is counterproductive to that goal.  However, if we have no desire whatsoever to form peaceful, cooperative, and mutually beneficial relationships with those around us, then there really is no good reason to refrain from rampant genocidal aggression, is there?  Just don't act surprised when vast, national-scale resources that could have been spent improving infrastructure and funding innovations must instead be spent fighting off people who want to annihilate our culture.  

Remember that the moral argument for the existence of God is supposed to be another one of those sophisticated go-to arguments, grounded in rock-solid logic, and refined over centuries of academic exchange.  Yet the whole thing is so hopelessly bungled at every conceivable step that I can only describe it as pathologically deranged.  It again offers no empirical predictions, it makes baseless assertions, it uses incoherent terminology, it argues in a circle,  it contradicts itself internally, it gives no reason to care even if it turns out to be true, it implicitly utilizes the very philosophical principles it seeks to reject, it argues for a moral standard that happily permits slavery and genocide, and it attempts to magically explain a natural phenomenon that is already well-understood by science.  The only conceivable reason this monstrosity even exists in the first place is because it serves as an excellent tool for overt psychological manipulation.  In order to get otherwise decent, kind-hearted people to commit violent atrocities against their fellow human beings, it generally helps to have a good way of satisfying their conscience.  And what better way to do that then to convince them that the ultimate standard of all moral virtue itself wholeheartedly endorses their actions, and will even reward them infinitely for their obedience?

  1. William Lane Craig's formulation for the moral argument (link).
  2. Premise 1 has the form, If not-Q, then not-P, which is called a "contrapositive."  This form is needlessly obtuse because it introduces two unnecessary negations.  A more efficient expression is simply, If P then Q.  Premise 1 should therefore read as: if objective moral values and duties exist, then God exists.
  3. Gervais, W. M. and Shariff, A. F., and Norenzayan, A., "Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101, No. 6 (2011)
  4. Let morality = "God's standard of good and evil."  Then premise 2 becomes "God's standard of good and evil exists."  This statement has no meaning without first establishing that God exists.  Saying that God's standard exists is implicitly stating that God exists as well, which is what we're trying to prove in the first place.
  5. With regard to the assertion that slavery is against the spirit of Christianity, we are ready to admit the general assertion, but deny most positively that there is anything in the Old or New Testament which would go to show that slavery, when once introduced, ought at all events to be abrogated, or that the master commits any offense in holding slaves. The children of Israel themselves were slaveholders and were not condemned for it. All the patriarchs themselves were slaveholders; Abraham had more than three hundred, Isaac had a "great store" of them; and even the patient and meek Job himself had "a very great household." When the children of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, they made one whole tribe "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and they were at that very time under the special guidance of Jehovah; they were permitted expressly to purchase slaves of the heathen and keep them as an inheritance for their posterity; and even the children of Israel might be enslaved for six years. - Thomas Dew (1852)
  6. If domestic slavery had been deemed by Jesus Christ the atrocious crime which it is now represented to be, could it have been passed over without censure? Would the doctrines of salvation have been illustrated by a reference to it, direct and unequivocal?—should we not have been told, not that the rich man, but that the slave-holders, could not enter the kingdom of heaven? - National Intelligencer (3 December, 1819)
  7. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes - a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, — a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, — and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.  Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard the fact of being the slave of a religious slaveholder, the greatest that could befall me. - Frederick Douglass
  8. Ridley, M., The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1998)
  9. Axelrod, R., The Evolution of Cooperation (1984)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Responding to Objections - Omnipotence

This is going to be a response to some objections I've been getting about the nature of omnipotence.  Specifically, in Part 3 of the Philosophical Failures series, I gave a brief outline of an argument known as the Omnipotence Paradox - the idea that if God can do anything, then can God create a rock so heavy that even God Himself cannot lift it?  It's a somewhat facetious argument in its simplicity, but it does make a very serious point.  Namely, if the theist is not careful in how exactly God is defined, then disproving God becomes trivially easy.  All we have to do is examine the meaning of the words contained within the definition itself.  If we happen to find any contradictions, then God immediately disappears in a puff of logic.

That's the essence of the omnipotence paradox in a nutshell, but some people seem to have a problem with my presentation.  So what I'm going to do today is respond to YouTube user Philosophy Lines (or Phil, for short), who was kind enough to make a video critique of my video.  And if the title of his video is any indication (Exposing AnticitizenX's Ignorance of Philosophy), he seems to be under the impression that I'm just some terribly inept hack who doesn't know what he's talking about.  Well, okay, that's fair enough, but if you're going rhetorically hype your criticism to that kind of level, then you'd better have something truly insightful to say.  So what have you got for us, Phil?

"The errors he makes in this series are illustrative of the tendency within the New Athiesm to rely on popular writers such as Dawkins, Harris, or Michael Shermer, rather than serious philosophers such as Plantina, Mackie, Oppie, and Smith." - (0m,7s)

I must confess, I find these kinds of remarks to be incredibly off-putting.  I have, in fact, read the published work of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, while I have not read anything by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris [1].  But what's really upsetting is that Phil is basically saying that all of us "New Atheists" are bunch of intellectual boobs incapable of thinking our own thoughts, simply because we read the wrong books.  In contrast, Phil only reads "serious" philosophy and so therefore Phil gets to have independent thoughts of his own.  Honestly, I don't know what he expects to accomplish with this opener, other than to cheaply imply that his philosophical dick is bigger than mine.

So yeah, that's a little bit disappointing as a starter, but let's grant him this much anyway.  Phil's philosophical penis is amazing, and mine is weak and piddly.  Now what?  Show us what you've got, Mighty Penis Man. 

"In his video, PFOC Part 3, ACX shows that he does not understand the conception of God outlined by modern theists such Swinburn, Craig, and Plantinga.  I'll quote Swinburn from the existence of God: 'God is Omnipotent - able to do whatever is logically possible.'" (0m,20s)

Okay, let's just stop right here.  Phil, you've read the title of this video series, yes?  It's not called "Philosophical Failures of Swineburn, Craig, and Plantinga."  It's called "Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics."  And while I do tend to pick on Craig and Plantinga a great deal, this is still a hugely broad category that extends way beyond your little clique of philosophical favorites.  And since we are talking about Christianity here, it seems perfectly natural to me that we should use the Bible as the ultimate source of what God is like.  So let's take a look, shall we?
  1. But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
  2. Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God." (Mark 10:27) 
  3. For nothing will be impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)
  4. Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too hard for me? (Jeremiah 32:27)
  5. I know that you [God] can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)
There you have it.  According to the Bible, God can do anything.  Not only that, but the Bible is even kind of enough to state this fact with unqualified redundancy.  All things are possible, period.

This is a form of omnipotence called absolute omnipotence, and is perfectly consistent with the traditional framework of Christian theology.  Granted, not many modern scholars hold to this view, but that's not really the point.  Many lay Christians today and famous philosophers throughout history have traditionally tended to naively interpret omnipotence in this regard, and have always done so precisely because that's exactly what the Bible says.  Hell, the word itself literally means "all potential" in Latin (omni = all, potens = ability, power).

Now if your conception of omnipotence just so happens to be different, then good for you.  It just means whatever argument I'm about to give against omnipotence no longer applies to you, does it?  But as far I can tell, the only reason people ever backed off on this concept is precisely because of the paradox it entails.  After all, why bother pointing out the paradox in the first place if nobody actually took it so literally?

Next, Phil plays my clip of the omnipotence paradox, wherein I ask if God can create a rock so heavy that God Himself cannot lift it.  But remember, the only real point of this question is to show that inconsistency is an automatic deal-breaker for anyone who wants to argue God's existence.  So if your conception of God is incoherent, then by default it cannot exist, and we can even prove that fact with 100% logical certainty.  Nevertheless, Phil has a response (2m13s):

"Of course, this is a strawman of the theist, who does not claim that omnipotence is the ability to do everything, including the logically impossible.  It's logically impossible to move an immovable object, so God's inability to do so does not violate His omnipotence, correctly defined as the ability to do anything logically possible."

Excuse me?  Did you say "correctly defined?"

Phil, you're an educated philosopher, right?  I mean, for crying out loud, you have the word "Philosophy" right there in your screen name, and a picture of John Mackie as your avatar to boot.  So obviously you seem to fancy yourself an aficionado of philosophical thinking, and have at least some kind of formal training in this stuff, correct?  It therefore follows that you, of all people, should know that there is no such thing as a “correct” definition.  At best, we can only say that there are “good” definitions and “bad” definitions.  Some definitions are concrete, meaningful, and precise, while other definitions are incoherent and self-defeating.  Some definitions tend to accord with the general, public understanding of a term, while other definitions tend to be more technical, contextual, or obscure.  But just because I didn't use your preferred definition of omnipotence, that does not absolve you from the fact that my definition is still perfectly consistent with plenty of naively common Christian conceptions about omnipotence.  I never claimed that my definition was the only definition, or even that it was the modern, academic definition - only that it was a usual definition (i.e., common; though perhaps a better word would have been "naive"). 

Honestly, Phil, have you even so much as read the Wikipedia entry on omnipotence?  There's at least a half-dozen definitions for omnipotence right there, and surely plenty more scattered throughout the literature.  Your definition is simply not the only one there is.  For example, Rene Descartes believed that God was not limited by logic, but could in fact do the logically impossible.  St Augustine of Hippo believed that God was capable of "doing what he wills."  Does this mean Rene Descartes and St. Augustine were not "serious philosophers" in your view?

This really is the only serious objection Phil presents in his critique.  My definition of omnipotence, being the historically naive definition inherent to the root meaning of the word itself, is not his preferred definition, so therefore I'm a philosophical ignoramus speaking nonsense.  Thank goodness we have Philosophy Lines to expose my academic buffoonery to the world!

The sad irony in all this is that we can, in fact, use Phil's own definition of omnipotence and still arrive at the same fundamental problems.  For example, if I really wanted to nit-pick, I could point out that the phrase "logically possible" doesn't technically mean anything.  "Logic" is not some binding, universal essence of the cosmos, but just a word we use for any arbitrary axiomatic framework that governs the assignment of truth values to propositions.  So which logical system are we supposed to appeal to, Phil?  Classical Aristotelian logic?  Tri-state logic?  Fuzzy logic?  Maybe perhaps one of the five different systems of modal logic?

Now to be fair, what Phil's source probably meant to say is that omnipotence simply means God can do whatever is logically consistent.  And that's certainly a step in the right direction, but it's important to understand what this is fundamentally implying.  Literally speaking, it means if you can say it, God can do it, just so long as it's intelligible and contains no contradictions.  So fine.  Let's see how it goes:
  1. God can do all that is logically possible (Phil's definition of God and omnipotence)
  2. It is logically possible to lie (incorrigible fact).  
  3. Therefore, God can lie (from 1 and 2).
  4. The Bible says that God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2).
  5. Therefore, the God of the Bible is not omnipotent (from 4 and 1).
Now what?  Is God omnipotent?  Or is Christianity true?  Remember, our focus is on Christian apologetics, so what's it going to be?  You can't have your cake and eat it, too.   

Or how about this?  Can God wish a universe into existence?  There aren't any immediate contradictions in that statement, but it also doesn't appear to have any logical coherence, either.  How exactly does the mere act of speaking an event out loud magically cause that event to manifest itself in reality?  There is no causal connection.  Yet that's exactly what the Bible says God did "in the beginning."  So does "logical possibility" include the principle of non-sequitur or what?

But hey, since Phil brought it up anyway, let's forget about Christianity altogether and take it even further:
  1. God can do all that is logically possible (Phil's definition of omnipotence)
  2. Given any force f and acceleration a, it is logically possible to compile a mass m such that m's acceleration is less than a (Newton's 2nd Law of Motion).
  3. Therefore, God can compile a mass to negate any force (from 1 and 2).
  4. Given any pile of mass m, it is logically possible to produce a force f that will accelerate m beyond a (Newton's 2nd Law of Motion).
  5. Therefore, God can provide enough force to accelerate any mass (from 1 and 4).
Now let's ask the question again: Can God create a rock so heavy that even God Himself cannot lift it?  No matter what answer you give, either premise (3) or premise (5) must be violated.  Yet if I were to simply replace "God" with any other finite being we can think of, then the contradiction immediately disappears.  It therefore has nothing to do with the question being malformed, but God Himself being ill-defined in premise (1).  Because in order for God to accelerate any mass, then God must necessarily have the capacity to generate infinite force.  And in order for God to negate any force, then God must necessarily have the capacity to generate infinite mass.  "Infinity" is not a logically well-behaved concept, and you can't just throw it around willy-nilly without running into these exact kinds of problems.

The problem Phil doesn't seem to appreciate is that two things can potentially both be logically possible in isolation, but not necessarily possible when joined together in the same set.  What this means is that either God can (a) create immovable objects, or (b) create unstoppable forces, but not (c) both at once.  Any attempt to write down an actual list of God's abilities must therefore pick and choose, resulting in a list that is always going to be incomplete.  So even with Phil's own definition, we still have the same contradictions as before, because not all "logically possible" potentials are compatible with each other.

I can't help but point out that if Philosophy Lines had ever read the work of "serious" philosophers like Bertrand Russell, then he would know that the omnipotence paradox is actually just a special case of another well-known dilemma called Russell's paradox.  Because when it comes to naive set theory, it happens to be a mathematical fact that any attempt to define a sort of "universal" set must inevitably lead to internal contradictions.  That's exactly why omnipotence likewise has so many similar problems, because it tries so hard to treat God as a similar kind of universal set.  It simply doesn't work.  The set of all logical possibilities is, itself, not a logical possibility!

So once again, without even leaving my own chair, I can conclusively prove that God does not exist, simply because the very definition being offered is not meaningfully consistent. 
But the one thing that makes this argument truly pathetic is the simple fact that it's so trivially easy for theists to avoid.  All they have to do is stop being so damned greedy in their definition of God, and then the entire objection would immediately vanish without a trace.  But no!  Theists don't want to worship a merely "finite" deity that's logically consistent, but instead insist on God being infinite in His potentials.

At this point, most apologists will tend to back-pedal on their definition even further by saying that an omnipotent being can only do things that are logically consistent with its own nature.  So for example, God may be omnipotent, but God is also immortal.  Therefore God cannot die, because an "immortal mortal" is again a logical contradiction, which God cannot do.  Yet even this definition doesn't work because it technically applies to anything and everything.  For example, I am mortal.  It is in my nature to die someday.  I therefore cannot live forever because an "immortal mortal" is again a contradiction.  It is not logically consistent with my nature.  So to say that an omnipotent being can only do what is "logically consistent with its own nature" is to effectively say that all of us are now omnipotent.  It's a tautological assertion that is always true!
  1. God is omnipotent.
  2. Omnipotence = able to do everything that is consistent with one's nature.
  3. What is God's nature?
  4. God is omnipotent.
I cannot stress enough that the only point of the omnipotence paradox is to remind theists that contradictions are bad.  Yet when faced with this brute logical fact, the best they ever seem to do is offer up yet more contradictions and even a vapid tautology to boot.  And this is just what happens when we talk about omnipotence alone.  What do you think is going to happen when they start adding other "omnis" to the mix, like omniscience and omnibenevolence?  Each one of these is bad enough in isolation, so how are they supposed to even remotely get along together in the same logical entity?  This is not a trivial problem.   The core foundation of all philosophy itself is the rigorous definition of terms.  If religious apologists can't even bring themselves to coherently define what this God-thingy of theirs is supposed to be, then it's utterly meaningless to even talk about whether or not it exists.

So really, who's "ignorance" is being exposed here, Phil?  Have you even remotely thought this thing through?  You had one job.  Get out a piece of paper, write "omnipotence" at the top, and then enumerate a list of properties we can associate with that word.  The rules?  Keep it intelligible, and don't resort to any contradictions or recursions.  If you can't do this one, simple task, then this is no longer an argument.  It's bullshit. 

  1. That's not entirely accurate.  I actually did read one of Sam Harris' books, but not until after making PFOC Part 3. So technically, it doesn't count for this discussion.  I've also read a couple of Shermer's books, but it's hard to see what anyone could have against them.  All Shermer ever does is promote basic science and skepticism, and none of the material I've actually read has anything to do with philosophy of religion.