Sunday, October 16, 2016

Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics, Part 10: Other Religions [Draft]

So does God exist or not?

Well, hopefully, if you've been paying attention up to this point, the answer is pretty obvious. No. Don't be ridiculous. The very idea of God is already a hopelessly incoherent mess unto itself, meaning the very notion of His entire existence can be utterly disproved through exercise of pure reason alone. But even if someone actually did manage to provide a logically viable conception for a word like "God," then the burden of proof would obviously lie with theists to empirically demonstrate that God's existence and not with atheists to negatively prove the contrary. Until that burden is actually met, the complete lack of evidence alone would again justify the strong assertion that there is no such thing as God.

But hey, let's be generous and just assume outright that the theists are correct anyway. God is a logically coherent thing manifest in objective reality as a powerful, sentient agent. He created the universe, He created all life as we know it, and He personally intends to judge us for our Earthly compliance with the doctrines of His one true religion.

Can someone please now tell me exactly which religion is that supposed to be?
  • Islam?
  • Hinduism?
  • Zoroastrianism?
  • Christianity?
  • Judaism?
  • Shintosim?
  • Sikhism?
  • Jainism?
All of these religions claim absolute certainty about the correct nature of the one true God (or Gods), and many of them even threaten us with eternal damnation for accidentally believing the wrong one. So how exactly are we supposed to tell which one of these is the correct path to salvation as opposed some soul-destroying concoction of fallible, human corruption?
Obviously, we can't. None of these religions have any epistemic advantage over the others, and it's almost entirely a matter of cultural upbringing as to which one people happen to pick. But hey, let's ignore all of that, too, and just assume anyway that the one true faith is indeed Christianity.

Now what? Which denomination of Christianity am I supposed to follow?
  • Catholic?
  • Pentecostal?
  • Baptist?
  • Mennonite?
  • Lutheran?
  • Mormon?
  • Anglican?
  • Adventist?
  • Methodist?
  • Quaker?
  • Presbyterian?
Remember now, our immortal souls are at stake, here! One bad choice could easily mean the difference between eternal, heavenly bliss or endless hellfire and damnation. Yet there are dozens, if not hundreds, of denominations for us to choose from within Christianity alone. So what compelling argument can anyone possibly hope to offer that proves the veracity of any one faith over another? At the very most, only one of these God concepts can rightfully be considered correct, while all other variations necessarily must be the product of human imagination. Yet if everyone else believes in wild, superstitious nonsense for no good reason, then what makes any religious believer so perfectly convinced in the absolute truth of their particular brand of faith?

And so we come to the ultimate philosophical failure of all Christian apologetics: The mere existence of other religions.

Notice how even if we completely grant everything that Christian apologists could ever ask for, we're still faced with an indisputably blunt fact about human nature: the vast, overwhelming majority of all people throughout history have dedicated their lives to the worship of things that are most definitely not real. We're talking about a phenomenon so ubiquitous among cultural groups that it practically qualifies as a defining feature. So it's not just atheists who are claiming that God does not exist, but the theists themselves with respect to each other. You will never find an orthodox Christian who sincerely believes that the Mormon conception of God can lead one to salvation, just like you will never find a single Mormon who accepts the salvation of Islam. If anything, the only practical distinction that separates theists from atheists is the simple fact that atheists add one extra little entry to that massive list of other God concepts that certainly aren't real.

This is not a trivial observation to make, and it speaks volumes about the intellectual integrity of religious apologetics. If religion had anything to do a real, supernatural agent communicating His will onto our species, then you'd think we would see a gradual convergence of theologies over time. False doctrines would inevitably have to be discarded as correct doctrines withstood critically objective scrutiny. But instead, we see the exact opposite, with new religious denominations seemingly popping into existence all the time, then heavily segregating themselves along very distinct cultural and geographic boundaries [1]. It's a dead giveaway that religion has nothing to do with any rational desire to understand reality, but instead is a highly subjective product of human cultural groups. So rather than debate endlessly over the existence of any particular God or Gods, perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is where do all these religions keep coming from in the first place?

It cannot be stressed enough that this is still a perfectly valid question to ask even if your own personal concept of God just so happens to be real. Yet most Christian apologists are almost deafeningly silent on this question, as if the mere virtue of acknowledging it out loud would accidentally expose the gratuitous nature of their own beliefs. Even on the rare occasions when they do try to discuss the issue in some sense, the only comment they ever seem to have on the matter is a casual assertion of Christian exclusivism—the blanket insistence that all those other religions are just plain wrong while Christianity is obviously the only correct one out of the bunch [2,3]. 

So if Christians aren’t even going to touch the problem of religious pluralism with a ten foot pole, then perhaps this is a good opportunity to see what science has to say on the matter. After all, it’s not like all these religions just poofed into being out of nothing. Something is obviously causing this phenomenon, and the only way to figure out what is through meticulous investigation. It was therefore only a matter of time before science finally stepped up to the plate by developing a viable, pragmatic theory of religion itself.

Starting with the absolute basics, it’s important to always bear in mind that, from a purely biological perspective, human beings are essentially just another collection of evolved organisms. Everything about us is inescapably driven by a fundamental competition over scarce resources in an unending cycle of survival and reproduction. This is not a matter of any serious scientific dispute, but a brute fact of nature on which any religious theory must be grounded. Contrary to popular intuition, however, not all competition is inherently zero sum. That is to say, not all of my gains necessarily have to be a result of someone else’s loss. Life very frequently presents us with valuable opportunities to maximize fitness through simple acts of cooperation rather than pure, unrelenting antagonism. That's why so many organisms spend so much effort working together in cooperative groups. For example, wolves hunt together in packs, bees live together in colonies, and even the bacteria in your gut work with your own digestive track to break down complex nutrients.

This is a well-known phenomenon called symbiotic mutualism, or simply cooperation, wherein self-interested biological agents tend to work together for the sake of mutually beneficial outcomes. It’s a perfectly natural consequence of basic game theory when applied to common biological scenarios. The only thing that distinguishes human beings in this regard is the sheer scale on which we've exploited its benefits. It's an advanced form of mutualism commonly referred to as social interdependence, wherein none of us can reliably survive and flourish without the rest of us. The more we work together, the better off we collectively tend to be. Cohesive, cooperative societies are therefore stable and prosperous, while fractured antagonistic societies inevitably struggle to meet basic human needs.

None of this is controversial so far, but it does raise significant questions over how exactly our brains are able to manage all of this social navigation in the first place. For instance, consider this pair of objects shown here [imagine a rock and a face]. Obviously, one of these things is representative of a thinking, feeling agent, while the other is little more than a lifeless hulk of unfeeling material stuff. You may have noticed, however, that I didn’t really need to tell you any of that. If you're anything like most people, you already came to that exact conclusion long before I even began explaining it. Not only that, but you probably also have an innate sense of what this person might be feeling, or even where his attention is currently focused.

Clearly, as this simple demonstration shows, human beings appear to possess highly effective faculties for both recognizing and evaluating the presence of other agents. It's all part of an awesome cognitive process known as theory of mind—the ability to perceive other objects in one’s environment as having a distinct mental awareness that is similar to, but independent of, the self. It's an essential tool in human social dynamics that allows us to empathize with fellow group members and even predict how they might respond to various situations. But as impressive as all this may be, it's important to realize that it didn't all just happen by magic. Somewhere, somehow, deep inside of your brain, there exist complex collections of neurons dedicated solely to this process. Some of these collections have even been identified directly, like the well-known system of mirror neurons found in most social primates. Not only do mirror neurons activate when an agent performs a given action, but also when the agent merely observes another agent performing the very same act [4].

That's all well and good so far, but we need to always remember that evolution will never produce a perfectly reliable system. Mistakes are inevitably going to be made, and those mistakes necessarily must produce tangible, biological costs. To illustrate, simply imagine what might happen if you were utterly incapable of either recognizing or empathizing with other agents in your environment. That is to say, rather than perceive your fellow human beings as individuals with unique thoughts and motivations separate from your own, maybe you instead experience some lifeless, unfeeling stimulus, no different from the wind or sunshine. This is known as a Type I error, or simply a false negative—the failure to attribute agency onto an actual agent. So ask yourself, what biological costs might be associated with this kind error? How do you think people would react if you treated them as a mere stimulus rather than a fellow, sympathetic agent? Would that be good for your reproductive fitness, or bad?  

Obviously, the costs of such an error can be quite high, which is why natural selection has overwhelmingly biased our judgment as far away from this threshold as it possibly can. In so doing, however, we now fall under a much greater risk of committing the exact opposite mistake: the accidental attribution of subjective agency onto lifeless, unthinking objects. Such an error is called a Type II error, or a false positive, and again must result in tangible biological consequences.

So no matter which way our actions are biased, it seems we cannot help but periodically make mistakes in our attribution of agency to the environment. Fortunately, however, there is no reason whatsoever for the  costs of such errors to be perfectly symmetric. While a Type I error is essentially catastrophic for a socially dependent organism, the Type II error is merely inconvenient. Maybe you avoid stepping on a few bushes because you’re afraid to hurt them, or maybe you spend a little time asking the moon for advice. Maybe you perform a few rain dances to appease the clouds, or perhaps yell at the ocean for not producing enough fish. These are all perfectly affordable costs for any social creature, given the huge advantages that arise from trustworthy cooperation with other group members.  

This simple thought experiment represents the biological foundation for a very important phenomenon called hyperactive agent detection—the overwhelming tendency for human beings to over-attribute agency onto their environment rather than under-attribute. It's a ubiquitous aspect of all human psychology that can even be measured empirically under laboratory conditions. For example, pareidolia is the tendency to see things like human faces in otherwise random, natural features [5]. Spontaneous social attribution is a potent effect wherein animated geometric shapes are imbued with apparent personalities, relationships, genders, and back stories [6,7]. Promiscuous teleology is the tendency to perceive natural objects or random events as having been specially designed with intention [8]. Personification is a literary device wherein nonhuman objects, or even abstract objects, are endowed with distinctly human features and emotions [9]. Even autism spectrum disorder has been theorized as a kind of breakdown in these agent detection mechanisms, wherein victims characteristically struggle with basic social skills [10].

So by default, without any need for outside priming or stimulation, the immediate human tendency is to perceive practically everything as if it were endowed with a distinct capacity for motivated agency. That's why, with all other factors being held equal, the spiritual beliefs of all primitive hunter-gatherer cultures have universally been animistic in nature. These so-called primal religions are strikingly similar in that mundane, lifeless objects, including rocks, trees, mountains and clouds, are all seen as having a distinctly spiritual essence that moves them and governs their behavior. It’s a perfectly natural manifestation given the constraints of early human cognition, but it’s a still completely wrong. The weather does not respond to human promptings and the ocean isn’t going to produce any more fish no matter how much you yell at it. Any effort spent placating the spirits is therefore inherently wasteful and must exert some tangible cost in terms of biological fitness.

Notice how this puts early humans in a curious evolutionary position. While the benefits of social cooperation are comparatively enormous, the effort spent reacting to fictitious agents is still inherently costly. Natural selection therefore cannot help but operate on primal religious traditions by creating as many productive variations as it can. The immediate implication is thus a kind of cultural descent with modification, wherein religious practices slowly develop in sophistication and diversification over many successive generations. It's as if religion itself literally takes on a life of its own by competing for adherents against other religions in a kind of cultural-psychological ecosystem. Traditions that are more successful at generating converts and preserving their well-being will eventually come to dominate the cultural landscape, while less successful traditions are driven to ever greater obscurity, or even possible extinction.

This is how animism gradually gave rise to a religious practice known as polytheism—the institutional worship of many gods and goddesses who serve as anthropomorphic representations for the various forces of nature. There's really no fundamental difference between the two systems, except for perhaps a relative degree of sophistication within the practicing cultures. For example, consider the famous gods and goddess of classical Greek and Roman mythology. What exactly is Poseidon, if not a glorified spirit of the sea and waves? What is Aphrodite, if not the spirit of love and fertility? Where did Zeus come from, if not the ever-watchful spirit of the sky and thunder? Even the various priests and oracles who worked at the great temples were little more than glorified shamans, taking on the distinct role of spiritual authority within local communities.

Now consider what happens when the complexity of some polytheistic pantheon grows too large. That is to say, do we really have to appease all of the gods to produce favored outcomes? Or just some of the more important ones? Should I build a shrine to Zeus and Artemis? Or just Artemis alone? Do both gods even respond equally well to appeals? Or is one more sympathetic to human needs than the other?

Clearly, ancient polytheists could not possibly be expected to worship all gods with equal fervor. Instead, practical limitations dictate that they eventually had to pick and choose among their favorites. It was a common religious practice known as henotheism, wherein many gods are openly acknowledged as both existing and exerting influence, but only a select few (or even just one) are ever granted any serious worship. For example, you don’t exactly see a whole lot of ancient Greek temples devoted to Atë, the goddess of mischief, but you do see a hell of a lot of time and energy spent on more prominent deities like Artemis, Zeus, and Athena [11]. Often times, this would manifest through a distinct system of local patronage wherein individual city-states tended to adopt a preferred deity for serious devotion. For example, Athens worshiped Athena, Olympia emphasized Zeus, and Corinth chose Poseidon.

In some cases, the devotion towards one particular deity might grow so intense that all other deities would find themselves being excluded outright. It's a practice commonly known as monolatrism (or monolatry) wherein many gods are still openly acknowledged as existing, but only a single one is ever worshiped openly across some cultural region. For example, it's a well-known fact that the early Israelite nation believed in a whole slew of gods and goddesses, including such famous names as El, Ba'al, and Asherah [12]. The main difference, however, is that Yahweh, and only Yahweh, was ever granted any serious devotion. In fact, most Biblical scholars even agree that the Old Testament itself preserves many vestiges of that tradition in numerous passages. Take, for instance, the first of the Ten Commandments given to Moses: “thou shalt have no other gods before me” [13]. Notice that Yahweh doesn’t actually reject the existence of any other gods per se, but simply instructs Moses to never give any of them priority in worship. Many other passages further confirm this perspective, like in Exodus 15 which asks, "Who among the gods is like you, oh Lord?" [14]. What other gods could we possibly be talking about, if not the gods of some greater, established pantheon?

Eventually, the practice of monolatry would grow so extreme for ancient Hebrews that they finally developed into full-on classical monotheism—the outright rejection of any existence whatsoever to all other gods but one. We again see evidence of this transition in later books of the Old Testament, which often go out of their way to remind the reader that there are no other gods but Yahweh [15]. Why would this be so important to emphasize if not to discredit a widely-held belief?

It’s easy to see how the adoption of monotheism might lead to all kinds of distinct cultural advantages. After all, if there's only one God, and only one correct way to worship that God, then it becomes much easier to build a unified sense of cultural identity around that God. Doing so might have huge benefits for group cohesion on a national scale as well as the effectiveness of leadership authority. Maybe it provides greater resistance against hostile neighbors, or maybe better stability in national government. Who knows? But there obviously has to be some tangible benefit to this practice because the overwhelming majority of religious adherents today are most definitely monotheistic [16].

Notice that we've just established a clear line of descent with modification that perfectly accounts for the historical development of all Western religion. Starting with early hunter-gatherer cultures, we know that hyperactive agent detection has full capacity to spontaneously develop into animism. Natural selection then acted that foundation over many generations to produce ever more complex and diverse variations. Some of those variants tended to anthropomorphize the numerous forces of nature, thereby giving rise to the familiar concept of gods and goddess. Practical necessity would then force those groups to prioritize worship among their favorite gods in particular, with some of those even going so far as to grant full devotion to only one, singular deity. At least one of those groups then came to reject the existence of all other spirit-gods entirely, such that one, and only one, god was finally given full authority over everything in the cosmos.

Viola! Animism develops into polytheism, which turns into henotheism, which then grows into monolatrism, until finally culminating into monotheism. It perfectly explains the documented historical development of all known ancient religions. Not only that, but it even predicts the branching tree-of-life pattern one would expect from a long chain of inherited descent with modification [17]. So pray tell, my dear Christians, but what exactly do you think is going on here? Remember that your own faith requires you to be exclusive in terms of who can achieve salvation and who can't. That means every “wrong” branch in this tree, including those within Christianity itself, is necessarily doomed for all eternity.  Yet each and every one of these groups is equally convinced as you in the absolute truth of their faith. What makes you so god-damn confident that your particular little branch any better?

Bear in mind now that, despite this huge wealth of anthropological data, there are still countless open questions that have yet to be resolved. For example, why do religions universally have such strong obsessions over human sexuality and death? Why do they consistently generate so many odd-ball stories about cosmology and human origins? What sort of forces tend to accelerate or stabilize the emergence of new religious traditions over time? What does it take to overcome these traditions and convince people to view the world through an objective, skeptical lens? These are all fantastic questions, and there’s a virtual army of psychologists, neurologists, historians, and anthropologists all collectively investigating them as we speak. Heck, maybe even some of you watching this right now will be instrumental in answering those questions within our lifetimes. Whatever the answers may be, they can only be found through the careful application of science and the scientific method. Only by understanding the cognitive forces that govern religious development can we ever hope to cure  humanity of the superstitions that have plagued our minds since the dawn of civilization.


  1. Leading Church Bodies, 2000
  2. See, for example, Politically Incorrect Salvation, by William Lane Craig
  3. See also Jones, M. S., The Problem of Religious Pluralism
  4. See Mirror Neurons
  6. Heider and Simmel, "An experimental study of apparent behavior," The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 57, No 2, pp. 243-259 (1944)
  7. Heider and Simmel Video: (link)
  8. ..
  9. ...
  10. Hamilton, A. F., "Reflecting on the mirror neuron system in autism: a systemic review of current theories," Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol. 3, pp 91-105, 2013
  11. See the List of Ancient Greek Temples for an indication of which gods were more important over others.
  12. Smith, M. S., The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities of Ancient Israel,
  13. Exodus 20:3
  14. Exodus 15:11
  15. See Isaiah 45:5, Deuteronomy 4:35, Deuteronomy 32:39, 2 Samuel 7:22, 1 Kings 8:60, and many others
  16. See the world religion breakdown. Ignoring the non-religious, we find that almost two-thirds of the remainder are monotheists.
  17. See the World Religions Tree Infographic. Or for a more simplified graphic, see The Evolutionary Tree of Religion

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Challenge to Feminists and Social Justice Advocates

This is a challenge to all self-proclaimed feminists and social justice advocates in the United States of America.  More specifically, this is a challenge to all of you who sincerely believe that institutionalized sexism is responsible for the gender wage gap in the United States.  I am personally giving this challenge in all sincerity to prove an important myth in popular feminist narratives across the first world.

Dear Feminists and Social Justice Advocates,

I defy you to cite for me a single example of anyone within the United States who satisfies the following conditions:
  1. Is a woman,
  2. Is performing equal quality/quantity of work to her male peers within the same company,
  3. Is being paid less per hour than those male peers,
  4. Is demonstrably being paid less than her male peers because she is female and they are male.
Seriously.  Name me a single example of this happening anywhere.  Give the names of any individuals involved, the work they do, and the companies they work for.  One.  Single.  Example.

Now before you even think about providing an answer, please consider the following proposition. By definition, the moment you satisfy my challenge, you will immediately have satisfied the necessary burden of proof for a lawsuit under the Equal Pay Act.  I therefore have to ask, why the fuck are you wasting your time with me when you should be out talking to a good lawyer?  Seriously guys, did no one ever tell you that it is officially illegal in the United States to pay women less than men for doing the same work?  You people love to rant and rave about all this institutional sexism and gender wage disparity, yet I don't see a whole lot of lawsuits being filed.  Did it never occur to you that, just maybe, the gender wage gap is a tiny bit more nuanced than men in power unilaterally discriminating against women under their employment?

Now to be fair, perhaps you believe that gender pay sexism is more subtle than that.  Maybe businesses are just really clever in hiding their reasons for paying women less than men, but dammit, the sexism is still there!

All right, fine.  Prove it.  The very nature of this argument is an open admission you don't have any evidence to back yourself up.  Ergo, you don't really "know" that sexism is the reason for some instance of gender pay disparity, and all you're doing is speculating blindly.  So get off your ass, do your due diligence, and prove it!  I cannot stress this enough, guys.  The moment you have the hard evidence necessary to prove any form of gender discrimination, you now have the legal ammunition required to stomp it out of existence.  The mere fact that any of it exists in the first place can therefore only be the result of your own personal inaction.

So honestly, guys.  What exactly is stopping you?  The entire weight of the United States federal government is standing by, ready to come to your aid.  All you have to do is back up your assertions with cold, hard, evidence.

Then again, that's exactly your problem, isn't it?

There is No Such Thing as a Necessary Being

Here's a quote by Alvin Plantinga explaining the idea of necessary existence.
"A necessary being is one that can't fail to exist, no matter how things have been.  Or we can say that a necessary being is one that exists in every possible world, where a possible world is a way things could have been.  Sort of a "total" way things could have been; it says something about everything.  One of these possible worlds is actual, the rest of them aren't...  A necessary being is one such that for any world at all, if it had been actual, it would have existed." 

Before I respond to this claim, I think it’s worth pointing out that this is something Alvin Plantinga genuinely believes in.  The guy has written multiple books on this exact subject and even publicly defends them at every opportunity.  Popular Christian apologists like William Lane Craig have likewise appealed to this same idea whenever they argue for God’s existence.  Christian fanboys on YouTube will even publish multi-part video series wherein they explain and defend this principle in elaborate detail.  So I just want to be clear that this is not a fringe, philosophical claim, but a standard go-to principle within mainstream Christianity.  The word "God" is defined to mean a "maximally great being," wherein maximal greatness is defined in such a way that includes the property of necessary existence in all possible worlds.  Therefore, God exists in all possible worlds. 

Now let’s unpack what exactly is going on here.  Whenever we talk about possible worlds, it’s important to understand that we're simply talking about ways our reality might have been.  For example, maybe you can imagine some possible world just like ours, only where George Clooney is the president of the United States rather than Barack Obama.  That’s perfectly all right, and a lot of good philosophy is built on imagining all sorts of wacky what-if scenarios. 

But what is a world, really?  Because when we talk about possible worlds, we don’t mean to imply literal, alternative realities just floating around “out there” in some cosmic multiverse ensemble.  Rather, when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, a possible world is nothing more than a formal collection of propositions and truth values.  It’s like a giant book where someone has painstakingly written down every coherent proposition there is to make about our reality, followed by a simple check mark indicating true or false next to each one.  That book, if one were to be constructed, would represent one possible world, and there are an infinite number of such books, or worlds, we could conceivably create.  And if, by some fluke, we should ever happen to write a book that perfectly describes our present objective reality as it really is, then that book would be called the actual world.

Notice, however, that if we're going to describe our world using propositions, then we can’t just randomly assign truth values willy-nilly.  No matter what collection of propositions we use to describe some potential state of affairs, those propositions still have to obey the basic laws of logic.  For example, consider the proposition George Clooney is the president of the United States and George Clooney is not the president of the United States.  What if, for some reason, my world just so happens to assign a value of TRUE to this proposition?  Obviously, my world now contains a logical contradiction and thus, by the principle of explosion, cannot coherently describe anything whatsoever.  All such worlds that violate the laws of logic are therefore said to be impossible because they are not formally allowed within our hypothetical set of what-if scenarios.

In contrast, consider what happens when you encounter a proposition like Either George Clooney is the president or George Clooney is not the president. Obviously, this proposition is a logical tautology and therefore must be true under every possible interpretation.  Any proposition in this category is therefore said to be necessary because it must always be assigned a value of TRUE in every logically consistent world.  The very rules of logic don't allow for anything else.

This is all pretty straightforward material so far, and you can probably see why philosophers might get a lot of productive mileage out of conversing within this framework.  We like imagining how the world might have turned out differently, and we like having a formal set of rules for discussing any scenarios.  That’s why modal logic is such a popular system for guiding philosophical conversations.  However, modal logic is still a really flimsy system, and it doesn’t take much effort to trick yourself into deriving total nonsense.  For example, imagine a possible world where all bachelors have three wives.  Sounds like a contradiction, right?  After all, by definition, a bachelor is an unmarried man, while marriage, by definition, implies a man with at least one wife.  So to say that you are imagining a bachelor with three wives is the logical equivalent to imagining a man with no wives that has wives.  You can’t do it.  The words are literally put together wrongly, which is why any attempt to imagine such a world is said to be necessarily impossible.

Now watch what happens if I arbitrarily decide to redefine the word bachelor.  Instead of being an unmarried man, I want the word bachelor to mean a married man with three wives.  After all, it’s just a word, right?  I’m free to define my terms however I please, am I not?  Maybe I can even convince the staff at Webster’s dictionary to go along with my definition, thus rendering it totally official within the English language.  Now it’s not only logically possible for bachelors to have three wives but also logically necessary!  They can’t NOT have three wives, because the basic definition of the word doesn’t allow for anything else.  Thus, by claiming that all bachelors have three wives, I have just stated the logical equivalent to all men with three wives are men with three wives – a necessary logical tautology.

Hopefully you can see why this might be a problem in that I can now derive any necessary truth I want, simply by playing with my definitions. I could define Santa Claus as a being that exists, and that fact would necessarily be true in all possible worlds because any being that exists is, tautologically, a being that exists.  Any attempt to imagine a possible world without Santa Claus is now logically impossible because the very phrase Santa Claus does not exist is now the logical equivalent to saying A being that exists does not exist.  It cannot possibly be true!

Notice how this is exactly what Christian apologists are trying to do whenever they describe God as a necessary being.  God is, by definition, a maximally great being; and maximal greatness, by definition, includes the property of existing in all possible worlds.  Therefore, by definition, God is necessarily a being that exists in all possible words.  God cannot fail to exist, because again, the very phrase God does not exist is the logical equivalent to saying A being that exists does not exist.

Obviously, something is terribly wrong here in that you can’t just go around defining things into existence!  After all, if you get to define God as a being that exists, then I get to define God as a being that does not exist.  Not only is God’s existence now false, but also necessarily false in all possible worlds.  Now what, Christians?  My definition is just as valid as yours.  Who wins?

This is a really interesting dilemma to me because it forces us to address two fundamental philosophical questions:
  1. How do language definitions work?  That is to say, what's the point of defining things in the first place?
  2. What does it mean to say that a thing exists?  Why is existence different from other ideas in language definition?
To begin, simply consider the tautological proposition that all unmarried men are unmarried men; a necessary proposition to be sure, but also completely vapid and meaningless.  Sure, I can go then ahead and define the word bachelor to mean unmarried man, but you'll notice that nothing about this situation fundamentally changes.  The proposition that all bachelors are unmarried men is still the same, vapid tautology, but spoken in fewer syllables.  So unless you're perfectly satisfied with empty, meaningless substitution, we need to find something outside of mere wordplay on which to ground our use of language.

With that in mind, consider what happens when we formulate our language definitions in the form of a conditional, empirical proposition:

IF on some rare occasion I should happen to encounter the empirical manifestation of an entity that is apparently both a man and unmarried, THEN I will formally choose to call such a thing a “bachelor.” 

Now we have a definition with real, functional merit.  Rather than mindlessly swap words for other words, we instead use language to place labels on distinct sensory experiences.  It's a little thing called the verifiability criterion of meaning, and it represents the ultimate foundation for all human language itself.  Any time I state some language definition, then in principle I have to be able to use that definition to identify distinct elements within my immediate sensory environment.  Without this empirical foundation, all human language immediately collapses back into a meaningless, tautological void.

Now that we have a working conception of what definitions are supposed to accomplish, we can finally consider what happens whenever I try to lump existence into the definition of some word:

IF on some rare occasion I should happen to encounter the empirical manifestation of an entity that is apparently a man, unmarried, and existing, THEN I will formally choose to call such a thing a “bachelor.” 

You may not notice it right away, but there’s really something strangely off about this statement.  Because if I should ever just so happen to encounter the empirical manifestation of anything, then it seems pretty safe to conclude that this is also apparently a thing that exists.  Likewise, if I should ever happen to imagine a world that contains no bachelors for me to ever empirically identify, even in principle, then it should go without saying that bachelors don’t exist in such a world.

This is an important observation to make because it means that existence is inherently meaningless and redundant when stated as a formal property of bachelors.  The set of all things I can empirically identify as bachelors must, by definition, also be things that exist. It therefore makes no difference whether or not I define bachelors as existing because the set of all things that qualify for such a label is logically identical either way.  However, since we can readily imagine a logically possible world that contains no bachelors, it immediately follows that we can likewise imagine a possible world that contains no bachelors that "exist." Again, this has to be the case because the two sets are still logically identical. Yet the very idea of a world without bachelors is quite literally the textbook definition of a world where bachelors don't exist in the first place.  We therefore must conclude that things which exist as a matter of definition can, apparently, not exist!

This is where we get the famous philosophical principle that existence is not a predicate.  It means that whenever we say a thing exists, we cannot possibly refer to some essential property of the thing itself.  Rather, what we’re really describing is a property of the objective reality in which this thing is allegedly contained.  In fact, if you really want to get technical about things, the very phrase Bachelors are things that exist is not even a valid proposition to make in the first place.  Rather, the correct phrasing is more like There exist bachelors, or The set of all bachelors is nonempty.  That is how existence functions as a proper, logical operation, because that is how it is implicitly defined within first-order logic.  There is no such thing as a set of "things that exist" but rather only sets of things that are either occupied or empty.  Necessary existence is therefore not logically possible because it is logically incoherent to even talk about it in the first place.

Bear in mind now that all this practically boils down at the end of the day is the rather obvious principle that reality doesn't care how you define words.  I could define myself as the undisputed King of America, but that does not mean I can just waltz up to the White House and expect everyone to start treating me like royalty.  Christians can likewise define God as a thing that exists, but that does not magically require objective reality itself to contain anything worthy of that label.  Yet that’s exactly what Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga are trying to do whenever they describe God through this nonsensical property of necessary existence!  So let’s just cut through the bullshit for one second and state the obvious out loud:

Imagine a possible world where God does not exist.

Now ask yourself, was that sentence somehow utterly incomprehensible to you?  Is there some formal contradiction buried in that claim we somehow missed?  Does the very idea of objective reality itself get violated simply by our failure to insert a thing worthy of the label “God?”

No!  Of course not!  There is nothing incoherent about the proposition that God does not exist. Any attempt to force the issue as a matter of definition is, in and of itself, a logical impossibility.  The very definition of objective reality itself is arguably just the collection of all things that persist independently of human say-so.  And what are language definitions, if not the epitome of subjective mental constructs, asserted into being by literal human say-so?  So when Christians go out of their way to inherently define God as a thing that necessarily exists, they’re ironically forcing the concept of God directly into the realm of necessary NON-existence!  Nothing exists necessarily because the very idea itself literally means “existence by definition." 

On personal note, this is once again why I just have no respect for religious philosophers and apologists. I should seriously not have to explain to these people that you cannot just define things into existence.   Yet here is Alvin Plantinga himself, the very cream of academic Christian philosophy, apparently failing to wrap his brain around this simple little concept.  It’s just inexcusable how grossly incompetent these people are.  Their very best effort to prove God's existence is nothing but an inadvertent proof that God cannot logically exist at all!  So until Christian apologists finally learn the difference between words and reality, I’m just going to keep treating them like the philosophical children that they are.

Thanks for listening.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A Formal Response to Inspiring Philosophy

A long time ago I made a video that dismantled the Modal Ontological Argument for God's Existence as presented by Inspiring Philosophy.  To IP's credit, he later put together a formal response to my video called AntiCitizenX's Maximally Great Field of Straw Men.  You can tell that he put a lot of work into his response, so I feel that I owe him a formal rebuttal.  This is philosophy, after all, and good philosophy rests on a proper exchange of ideas.

Dear Inspiring Philosophy,

What part of "You cannot prove God's existence by rote definition" does your idiotic, peon brain fail to understand?

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Christian Apologists Fail at History.

So Inspiring Philosophy is making a video series detailing his case for the historical resurrection of Jesus (link).  Being true to form, pretty much everything he says is categorically wrong.  Consequently, any specific point-by-point analysis would simply take forever and waste everyone's time.  That's why instead, I'm just going to cut to the heart of the matter and talk about the fundamental philosophical failing of this entire argument.

To begin, when apologists like Inspiring Philosophy talk about "evidence" for the resurrection of Jesus, it's important to be absolutely clear about what that means.  In short, the sum total of all evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ has only ever been the written accounts contained within the New Testament - literally, the pure, unfettered say-so of human authors.  

That's it.  

Now ordinarily, that isn't necessarily such a bad thing thing.  After all, a lot of our historical knowledge definitely comes from basic human narratives.  However, there are standards you have to follow when evaluating the reliability of various written accounts.  Some documents meet those standards very rigorously, and are therefore objectively reliable in their historicity.  Other documents, like the Biblical gospels, completely fail to meet these standards at every opportunity; copies of copies (of copies!) of anonymous, secondhand accounts, written decades after the fact, translated through multiple language barriers, riddled with known corruptions, contradictions, and plagiarisms, then culminating with fantastic descriptions of physically impossible events.  That is the level of evidence Christian apologists would have you believe when evaluating historical claims

So before the argument has even begun, the case for the resurrection of Jesus is already completely sunk.  The canonical gospels are not reliable historical accounts, and nothing they claim can be taken at face value.  Yet despite these glaring failures, Christian apologists would still have you believe that these accounts are perfectly representative of reality - as if, God-forbid, that no human narrative could ever possibly record events that didn't really happen.  

But hey, you know what?  Fine.  Let's play their game.  If Christians want to trust in human testimony so badly, then let's look at some other human testimonies, shall we?  For example, consider this [link]:

This is called the Joseph Smith History.  I defy you, Inspiring Philosophy, and all your little fanboys, to read this document in full detail.  Then, when you finish, come back and tell me how reliable human testimony really is.  Because I can tell you right now, everything about this document is objectively more historically reliable than the Biblical narratives.  For instance:
  1. We actually have the original manuscripts.  Not copies of copies of copies - the true, honest-to-goodness originals in their original ink.  You cannot say that about the gospels.  
  2. The author is not anonymous, but has in fact signed and dated his own signature on the original manuscripts.  You cannot say that about the gospels.
  3. The original manuscripts are written in English, and have not been translated through any languages.  You cannot say that about the gospels.
  4. The manuscripts are genuine first-hand accounts.  The author is not merely relaying events to us from someone else's point of view, but is, in fact, writing his own autobiography.  You cannot say that about the gospels.
Now please, do tell us, Mr. "Inspiring" Philosophy.  How trustworthy is human testimony?  Do you honestly believe Joseph Smith when he claims to have been visited, in literal person, by God, the Father and Jesus Christ?  Do you believe his testimony that both God and Jesus told Joseph to restore the true gospel as recorded in the Golden Plates of Nephi?  Do you trust him when he claims to have been visited, on numerous occasions, by angels?  It's all first-hand testimony, guys, written down in black and white.  Why would he make this stuff up?  Is Joseph Smith a prophet, a liar, or a lunatic?

But wait, there's more!  You don't have to just take Joseph Smith's word for it.  Listen to the Testimony of the ThreeWitnesses: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris.  Again, firsthand, eyewitness testimony, all signed and dated.  All three of these guys swear, in writing, that they personally handled the Golden plates of Nephi, and that a no-shit angel even visited them to prove its authenticity. 

What's the matter?  Don't you trust human eyewitness testimony?

Or better yet.  Don't just believe those guys.  There are eightmore eyewitness accounts, signed and dated, all testifying to the existence of the Golden plates of Nephi. 

Okay, maybe you think think Joseph Smith was a liar; a liar who somehow cleverly fooled everyone around him into giving up their homes and their livelihoods to migrate west.  Then why, pray tell, would he rather die at the hands of an angry mob, than simply recant his testimony?

That's right, Champ.  Joseph Smith was literally martyred.  Look it up.  Does that sound like the actions of a liar to you?  Why would someone cling to a lie, even if it meant his own death? 

Sound familiar at all?  Am I ringing any bells, yet?

And it doesn't just end there. Thanks to Joseph Smith and his descendants, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is now a global organization that boasts well over 15 million members.  You can even ask them in person, and plenty of them will be more than happy to share their own, personal testimonies on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, as revealed by the direct personal witness of the Holy Spirit.  

Remember now, guys.  You're the ones who think eyewitness testimony is a viable standard of evidence.  So please, do tell us, how exactly is the Bible a reliable, historical narrative, yet not the Joseph Smith History or the Book of Mormon?  There does not exist a single argument you can offer against the truth of their claims that does not also apply equally well against your own.  Either
  1. Joseph Smith was telling the truth.  Or
  2. He was not. 
Take your pick, guys!  This is a perfect logical dichotomy you cannot win.  If your answer is (1), then you immediately admit that Mormonism is the correct religion, and your own faith is invalid.  But since that's obviously not an option with you people, your only other claim is necessarily (2); that sometimes, gee whiz, people can, for whatever reasons, actually write fantastic things down on paper that didn't really happen in real life. 

Wow!  Who'd a thunk?  People can actually record things that didn't really happen?  What is this sorcery?

What's more, you further concede that those same works of fiction can actually be so compelling as to convince many thousands of people to abandon their homes and migrate hundreds of miles, even in the face of violent opposition from the state.  You admit that this same fiction can even sprout into a full-fledged religious ideology, complete with several tens of millions of members only a few hundred years later.  You further admit that these same organizations can even willfully sanitize their own history, effectively downplaying the less appealing events from their past, while simultaneously embellishing the more positive, even to the point of rewriting other historical events which preceded their arrival.  Finally, you must likewise concede that this is apparently a perfectly common phenomenon, as given by the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of similar religious sects have all followed very similar trends across human history.  

Well, guess what?  You now just admitted that your entire case for the resurrection of Jesus is utterly vapid.  A bunch of people claim on paper that Jesus rose from the dead, and you're stupidly gullible enough to take them completely at their word.  That's your entire resurrection case in a nutshell.

Thank you for listening.

Friday, January 1, 2016

How Words Work

If you're the kind of person who likes to study philosophy, then you probably understand the importance of rigorously defining your terms.  In fact, I would even argue that this simple task represents the heart and soul of all philosophy itself.  "Good" philosophy, in my view, is not so much about directly understanding the world as it really is, but rather about giving meaning to our ideas and exploring the logical relationships between them.  Good philosophers understand this, which is why good philosophers always begin theirs discussions by establishing what exactly their words mean, and how to apply them consistently.

But of course, with philosophy being what it is, there's always an overflowing tide of amateurs who constantly fail to grasp these basic principles.  Consequently, I often find myself spending far more time just asking people what on Earth they think it is they're arguing, rather than engaging them with any fresh, original ideas.  Some of these guys are even so bad that I've actually found myself literally explaining to them how words work.  It's happens so often, too, that I've honestly found myself simply copy-and-pasting the same, scripted responses to the same, recurring confusions.  Yet if it keeps happening this much to me, then it almost certainly must be happening to some of you out there, as well.  So to help everyone make better use of their precious philosophical time, here is a short list of common confusions I keep encountering over matters of language and definition. 

1)  How to define words.

"What do you mean by that?" is probably the most important question anyone can learn to ask when doing philosophy.  For example, what do you mean by truth?  What do you mean by God?  What do you mean when you say "free will?"  However, before you can even attempt to answer those questions, you first have to ask yourself, "What does it mean to establish 'meaning' in the first place?"  That is to say, how does anyone "define" words?

In my experience, there seem to be only two possible methods for defining words.  Either (a) you can use words as substitutions for other words, or (b) you can use words as labels for distinct, sense experiences.  That's it.  There are no other mechanisms in all of philosophy by which anyone can meaningfully define anything.

To illustrate the first option, consider a simple word like "bachelor."  Obviously, the most common definition is simply "unmarried man."  That's a direct, linguistic substitution you can apply at any time.  If someone hands you a proposition that has the word "bachelor" in it, all you have to do is scribble it out in your mind and replace it with "unmarried man" to preserve meaning.  Substitutions like this are great because they allow us to encapsulate a large series of complex ideas into just a handful of simple words, thereby saving both time and energy in basic communication.  However, it's important to understand that all we're doing is swapping mere words for more words, which immediately leads to a problem of regression.

To illustrate, suppose I ask you what "unmarried" means.  Or maybe what does "man" mean?  You might be tempted to define a "man" as "a male member of the human species," but again, I can just ask you what does "human" mean?  What does "species" mean?

Obviously, you can't just keep swapping words for more words forever.  That's why we need to use something outside of pure language in order to ground the meaning of basic words.  Yet the only thing I know of that does that is sense data.  For example, if I want to ground the meaning "human" to you without relying on pure words, then the only thing I can do is drag out a specimen and just show it to you.  [show pictures]  Here.  This.  This is what "humans" look like.  Any time I use that term in a sentence, just imagine something like this in your mind.  Done.  Now my language finally has real meaning.

This basic principle also goes to show exactly why it's impossible to ever describe a thing like "redness" to a blind person.  The very idea of "red" has no meaning except as a referent for some basic, sense experience.  So if you happen to be talking to someone who has never experienced red, and cannot ever hope to experience red, then you simply cannot use that word to express anything meaningful to them.  In order to properly function as a communication tool, human language requires some kind of shared sensory experience as a foundation.

Notice also how this principle is basically just the positivist idea of verifiability criterion for meaning.  Sure, you can substitute words for other words all you want, but sooner or later, you have to ground those words on something empirical to give them meaning.  Yet for some strange reason, there are actually people out there who honestly fight against this; as if words actually possessed some kind of magical, intrinsic meaning all by themselves, independent of any empirical reference.  It makes no honest sense to me whatsoever, but it does make perfect sense for people like Deepok Chopra; people who likes to impress others with vague, pseudo-profound bullshit, but never tie themselves down to anything concrete.

2)  All language definitions are fundamentally arbitrary.  All of them.

I don't know how many times I've gotten into an argument with someone who's one and only dispute against me was that "my definition was wrong."  That is to say, my definition did not match their definition, and so therefore at least one of us has to be objectively wrong in their use of words.  For example, many people have different ideas of what it means to be an "atheist."  Do you have to actively deny the existence of God in order to fit that label?  Or can you simply be unconvinced that God exists?  Likewise, some people define God in terms of the singular, personal deity of classical monotheism, while other people prefer to define God as the accumulation of all physical laws in nature.  Who's right?  Whose definition is "correct?"

The answer, of course, is no one.  There is no such thing as an "objectively correct" definition.  There are only "good" definitions and "bad" definitions.  Good definitions are clear, concise, consistent, distinct, empirically grounded, and generally capture the intuitive notions that people associate with that term.  Bad definitions are nebulous, long-winded, incoherent, inconsistent, redundant, or just plain fail to capture what people normally understand that term to mean. "Good" philosophers understand this distinction, which is why "good" philosophers work to hard to establish clear definitions.

So the next time you get into a dispute with someone over basic definitions, the question is not "whose definition is correct?"  That is a meaningless argument to have.  The real question you should be examining is, "which definition works better?"  Which one is more consistent?  Which one is more descriptive?  Which one is more distinct?  That sort of thing.  Sometimes two different people simply use the same word to mean different things, or even use different words to mean the same thing.  Oh well.  Language is funny like that, and we just have to live with it. 

3)  Definitions and language have zero influence over objective reality.

Religious apologists are notorious for this kind of fallacy, and it always grinds my gears every time I see it.  For example, take the modal ontological argument for God's existence.  God is, by definition, a maximally great being.  Maximal greatness, by definition, then includes the property of necessary existence, which, by definition is a thing that exists.  Therefore, by definition, God is a thing that exists.

Obviously, that kind of argument is completely circular.  Yet many modern Christian philosophers actually think this is a compelling train of thought.  Some will even go so far as to argue that logic itself is some kind immutable force of nature that magically binds our reality together.  For example, how many of you have ever heard reference to "the immutable laws of logic?"  That the law of identity cannot ever be violated, or that the universe is bound by the law of noncontradiction?  It's a classic form of Platonic realism that is surprisingly popular among wannabe philosophers.

But here's the rub.  Logic is not some ethereal force interwoven into the fabric of space and time.  Rather, a far better way to think of logic is as a highly formalized system of language.  The reason contradictions don't exist is not because logic governs the universe, but because contradictions literally don't describe anything!  They're just words put together wrongly. The rules built into our language simply don't allow them to cohere into anything meaningful.

So there you have it.  A quick and dirty primer on how words work.  Keep this in mind the next time you encounter some hack philosopher failing to grasp basic principles of human language.