God Cured My Athlete’s Foot

The moment a person says something like “God cured my [insert disease here]” or “God helped our team win”, that person assumes ownership of (at least some of) the things their God failed to do, such as his failure to prevent, every single day, 8,500 malnutrition-related deaths of children under 5.  And before that person is done reconciling that problem, I’d be interested in hearing about their thoughts on the wide-scale rape, murder, disease, plagues, and environmental catastrophes that are so permitted in this paradigm.

Of course, the reason I think these things happen is not because some celestial dictator makes it so, or turns a blind eye to it, or waits in the wings to comfort victims who have managed their ascent to heaven (if they were lucky enough to be born of the “right” religion).  Rather, I think these phenomena happen because the world is an extraordinarily hard place, and because its inhabitants, by nature of their cultural, geographic, and physical limitations, are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to prevent them.

This tunnel vision Christianity and other monotheisms encourage is facilitated by the notion of a personal god, while its logical weaknesses are glossed over by its practitioners, with the statements “God loves me” and “God works in mysterious ways.”  That’s a nice sentiment, until you give some thought to the injustice this mentality permits.  God might have helped to stop some of those 8500 babies from dying of malnutrition today, but instead, he helped you score a touchdown.  I guess you’re one of God’s “chosen people“, just like the bible says.

One of the characteristics of probability is that it can create illusions for a species already prone to hyperbole and pattern-seeking.  For instance, natural remission rate for some cancers might be as high as 20% [http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Spontaneous_remission].  If you’re lucky enough to fall into that population, you might literally feel like you were selected by God to be cured, if you’ve already been conditioned to the notion that God cures the people he loves.

Similarly, there might be a day when only 7500 children worldwide die from malnutrition-related disease.  Was that a good day for God, or was it an artifact of statistical error [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_error]?

My point is that maybe it’s time to put aside these childish superstitions and get to work on the real problems confronting humanity, such as how to stop 8,500 kids from dying of malnutrition every single day, rather than relying on some personal god to fix our problems, or provide a verbose apology for all the bad things that happen.


Daniel And The Lion’s Den

I was talking recently with a Christian friend, and the topic of the pope’s upcoming address to congress came up.  My friend mentioned that it would be analogous to Daniel and the lion’s den.

“Refresh my memory on that one,” I said.

“Well,” my counterpart replied, “Daniel was a righteous bureaucrat who dutifully prayed to God.  His fellow administrators hated him, and tricked King Darius into outlawing prayer for a month.”

“How would such a rule be enforced?” I asked.

“By threat of entry into the lion’s den.”  My friend replied.

This sounded like the sort of absolute punishment I’ve come accustomed to hearing about in the bible, but evidently, the advocates for this law were pagans, not Jews or Christians, so no dings there.

I asked my friend to go on.

“Daniel, being a good servant of God, ignored the law, and was soon found in violation.”

“Bad news for Daniel,” I said.

“Real bad, considering he was an old man at the time.”  He went on, “But after many hours with the lion, it was found that the lion didn’t eat Daniel.”

“Lucky break, I suppose,” I said.

“Daniel said that an angel protected him”.

I responded with the hypothesis that “maybe the lion wasn’t very hungry.”

“Maybe, but the lion certainly had its appetite back when it ate all Daniel’s conspirators”.

“Sounds very biblical,” I replied.

We spent the rest of the evening chatting about completely non-religious things over a couple beers.

I wanted to read more about the lion’s den story, and one thing I found that my friend didn’t share is that, in the bible, it wasn’t just Daniel’s conspirators who were eaten.  It was also their wives and children, whose bones were crushed as the lion devoured them.

Isn’t it interesting that all these famous allegories in the bible are completely surrounded by barbaric imagery?

Apologists will say it was a sign of the times, and that it’s unfair to hold the same cultural standards for people who lived 2600 years ago.

But it got me thinking about morality in the bible again, and the notion of the objective morality that Christians (and Jews) claim they’re able to invoke as members of the faith.  They manage to make these claims without even the slightest hint of irony, when there was no account of Daniel, or anyone for that matter, appealing for the lives of the innocent women and children, whose only crime was their association with scheming assholes.

Everything worked out great for Daniel, and he appears to have thrived under King Darius’ rule, despite the fact that the blood of those innocent women and children were on his hands.

Here, the bible’s problem isn’t explicit in the same way that God’s advocacy for slavery or murder or rape is in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but rather, it’s in the absence of Daniel’s capacity for empathy in the face of an outrageous horror committed by the king.  Did Daniel weep for those women and children?  Did he pray for them?

The bible doesn’t seem to tell us, but I suspect the persecution complex the bible peddles would have prevented Daniel from giving away too much concern over the matter.  This omission is yet another insight into how horrible this book is.  The fact that people hold the Daniel character in any sort of reverence is a testament to how tone deaf readers of this bible are.

If there is objective morality, and Daniel were such a moral person, wouldn’t the death of those innocent women and children have created an emotional turbulence for him?  If I were him, and a bunch of kids died because their dads tried to get me killed, I would be overwhelmed by guilt.

Could it be that the “objective morality” prescribed by the bible allows people to ignore that guilt?

The Problem Of Christianity

There’s a serious problem when you make the claim that there is a God, and that he’s worth worshiping.  This would have been particularly true for the population that created Yaweh.  These people rarely survived into their 40s (if they managed survive past the age of 5), and they lived lives so unendindgly awful that death was hardly worse than life.  The problem of the God claim is this:  how could this God be worth worshiping for people who are so destined to live such awful lives?  Among other things, the problem of evil

Half of this problem is solved by the idea of heaven.  Even though it’s bad now, it’s going to be great once you die.

But any good marketing strategy is multi-faceted, and more pressure is needed to encourage the acceptance mechanism (aside from inquisition and threat of heresy charges).  Enter original sin.  In other words, we’re born sick and commanded to be well, and this world is an experiment where children get to feel God’s love via starvation, tuberculosis, innumerable plagues, and water-borne disease, because their ancestor ate fruit from a tree at the urging of their wicked grandmother.

It isn’t enough that life is bad, and only going to get worse, but it is also the case that humans are born into a heritage of depravity for which there is but one solution:  God.

The interplay between sin and heaven is what makes this marketing strategy so effective, and why, thousands of years later, people still buy into it.  Even in western countries, whose populations are significantly better off than their Bronze-aged ancestors, this interplay strikes a resounding chord.

Stephen Fry recently made the news by responding to an interviewer who asked him about what he would do if this supposed Deity confronted him.  He would ask God why there is bone cancer.

I don’t like this sort of hypothetical game, and the way a lot of atheists respond, because they allow monotheists to smuggle in the weird idea that a God, who is responsible for the universe’s creation, was the same God who “revealed” himself to mass-murderer characters in the bible, such as Moses and Jephthah.  For many years, the underlying ideas in Deism seemed quite a lot more reasonable to me than anything the major monotheisms put forward, and the revelation issue was at the heart of that.

The revelation stories in the bible seemed dishonest to me for the bulk of my adult life.

The irrationality within scriptures probably leads a lot of believers to see these things in a similar light.  Most moderate Christians I know don’t literally believe Adam and Eve or Noah were actual accounts of the origin of life.  They see them as allegories, useful for something…even as a Christian, I never could tell what.  Likewise, many apologists I’ve met don’t believe God personally commanded the deaths of hundreds of thousands of victims throughout the old testament.  Rather, believers cherry-pick – sure Moses brought down the 10 commandments, but he wasn’t a murderer commanded by God to slaughter innocent women and children, or to encourage torture and rape.  And sure, Jesus was the son of God and rose from the dead, but he wasn’t a political zealot.  In other words, the bible is the word of God, except for the parts we don’t like.

As someone who has given these issues some skeptical analysis, I find it interesting that people are able to ignore this dissonance.  I suppose the answer, for those concerned about an eternity in hell, is to ignore these paradoxes…then when something good happens, give credit to God.

On Heaven

I think the first time that most children give their parent’s selected God much attention is when they realize people can die.  Sure, heaven is present in various conversations children have with their parents during their formative years, but the human capacity to consider our own mortality is what makes heaven worthy of much consideration.  It must be traumatic to first piece together that existence will someday end.

Aside from the existential fears about a finite mortality, I think the other factor that contributes to heaven’s perpetuation is its cosmic justice. When a baby dies, people recognize this as the worst sort of tragedy. The baby never got a chance to live its life or defend itself against a natural world intent on killing everything in it.  This striking unfairness needs correction: enter heaven. Heaven forgives this injustice, and the almighty, all-powerful deity who allowed it.  After all, a God who allows such outcomes might not be praise-worthy if his servants reflected on the fact that he literally spends all day killing babies, but provides no benefit in exchange for his sacrificial victims.  Heaven is therefore a necessary fiction to provide motivation for lifelong worship and reverence in a cruel and unfair world this god so immaculately and carefully designed.

What about people who misbehave, yet still manage to avoid lowly, terrestrial punishment?  Most people are offended by justice-ducking, because it violates their ideas about about what criminals deserve for the harm they cause.  Heaven solves this problem too – if those jerks didn’t get their comeuppance during their flesh life, they certainly will once they die.

But what about those half-way decent people who feel bad for their bad behavior?  Those doomed miscreants surely have potential to improve as they age, right?  The heaven paradigm manages to solve this, too.  Just behave better, apologize constantly, worship, and give all your extra cash to your church, and you’re a shoe-in.  Death bed confessions are proof of how serious some people take these matters.

Heaven has something for everyone.

One of the sneaking suspicions I had earlier in my life was that heaven seemed unbelievable…not in the sense that it seemed great (although I assumed it must have some lovely qualities), but that it ran counter to almost everything else we experience or have ever experienced.  Invoking supernaturalism as the cure for our natural state seemed like the ultimate copout: dishonest drivel that owes its framework to people who were too scared to imagine themselves not existing.

The dilemma I ran into was that, if humans were susceptible to the pressures of other animals, and if humans were preceded by less-human animals (Neanderthal, Heidelbergensis, Erectus, etc), then our ancestors would have encountered the stark realities of what it means to be an animal in nature: it’s challenging, there are predators who constantly want to eat you, food is not guaranteed, infection is always right around the corner, as are injuries and the occasional inter or intra-tribe homicide…in a word, almost everything about life is nature’s attempt to kill you.

Why should humans be an exception to that rule? To the Christian, it’s important to distinguish humans from other animals, but the undeniable truth to which one arrives after investigating biology and evolution is that humans are not remarkably different than a lot of other animals.

The takeaway is simply this: heaven would have been a lovely invention for people who were closer to the perilous realities of nature than we are today. In the absence of the ability to prevent death, the world seems quite cruel. Heaven is the perfect antidote to this reality, and that seems to be the most likely reason why people invented heaven in the first place.

The More Insidious Side

I often joke that you can’t get me to do anything unless you incentivize me with eternal reward or threaten me with eternal punishment.  The intent is a little tongue-in-cheek mockery of heaven.  But it really is obscene that the underlying tenet for many Christians’ moral framework is the notion that we can’t behave ourselves unless we’re threatened with hellfire.  What’s to stop anyone from raping and killing everyone they want?

To paraphrase Penn Jillette, I already have killed and raped exactly the number of people I want to, and that number is 0.

It’s horrifying what little faith Christians have in humanity and in themselves.  What do they think people did before religion?  How did we even manage to survive?  (you know, before god flooded the earth and killed everyone and sent bears to kill 42 kids because they called some guy “baldy”).

I think the worse thing, though, is the idea that people need heaven as an incentive to behave themselves.  It’s interesting that Christians mock Muslims over their theology that states they’ll get 72 virgins in heaven if they die a martyr.  Is the Christian heaven less absurd or unreasonable?

If a person can’t find a way to be a decent person without the expectation they’ll get eternity in paradise, then that person ought to be much more feared than the atheist who doesn’t think that eternal paradise is real.

Materialistic Straw Men (The Noumenon/Phenomenon Barrier)

One of the claims theists hurl at atheists is that, from the materialist’s perspective (the perspective that the whole of the universe is simply material, and is not guided by transcendent, supernatural rules), morality, logic, thought, ego, and a host of other abstract and innate concepts could not exist.  Theists go on to state that Atheists do not have a foundation for their moral claims, in particular, that there can be morality in the absence of religion and/or God.

This is an interesting perspective, and it takes a while to work through what’s wrong with this position.  There are a lot of metaphysical considerations a person could loop through to grapple with this topic, but I think that, at the crux of this matter is the relationship between thought and language.  Wittgenstein said “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”  He also said “Philosophy is the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

My point in referencing Wittgenstein is to point out that he, along with a host of other 20th century philosophers, were keenly interested in the relationship between thought and language.  We use language to convey thoughts we have, but is language a good enough medium to represent those thoughts accurately?  This is quite analogous to Plato’s ideal forms.  We can never draw a perfect triangle because of constraints in the natural world.  In fact, according to Plato, our interpretations of reality is wrong; we’re either purposely misled or our interpretation is obscured by the shackles of our reality.  In Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave, – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave, he used the analogy of human beings shackled, facing the wall, and only seeing the shadows of what actually exist, not the object itself.

One of Raphael’s most famous paintings is The School of Athens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_School_of_Athens), and it depicts a number of important Greek philosophers.  At the center of the painting is Plato, pointing up to the sky, a reference to his concept of the ideal.

Standing next to Plato is his student, Aristotle, who, contrasted with Plato, is holding his hand palm-down towards the ground.  This depiction is a reference to Aristotle gently reminding his teacher that we should be considerate of the world in which we live, and not just the abstract

My modern interpretation of this is that empiricism and induction are as good of an anchor for our insights into reality as philosophical deduction is.  We live in a natural world, and the best strategy we have for understanding it, and from separating fact from fantasy, is through induction and empiricism.

I tend to fall on Aristotle’s side of the discussion.  Dwelling on our intellectual ability (or inability) to understand the physical world, although an interesting exercise for undergraduates in philosophy survey courses, doesn’t do a lot of good or solve anything with a high degree of success.  Even if we never could articulate why logic exists or why we’re so compelled to natural decency, that doesn’t mean that our inability to do so means God did it.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we can’t articulate these positions (I think we clearly can), but it certainly isn’t easy when you get down to the nitty-gritty metaphysical contrasts between the object and the language we use to describe the object.

It’s worse to appeal to God in describing these seemingly transcendent characteristics of the world.  Clearly, humans are bound by their earthly experiences when formulating thoughts to describe their world.  And clearly there is a difference between noumena and phenomena – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noumenon.  To say that God is the barrier between noumena and phenomena is putting forward a claim that is neither substantiated nor honest.

Swinging back to moral behavior, there’s an old lesson that parents teach their kids about sharing.  If 2 kids are bickering over how to share some cake, the parent allows the following compromise:  Child A cuts the cake AND Child B chooses who gets which piece.  This predictably results in decent outcomes, in terms of fairness for both individuals.

The abstract concept to take from this lesson is the following:  create systems and institutions that create maximum benefit, minimal harm, and from the perspective that you will not know what role you play in that system.  This is referred to as the Veil of Ignorance – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil_of_ignorance

Though this framework might very well be difficult to deductively justify (it takes more words to justify this position than it does to say “God did it”), we can appeal to historical empiricism to determine whether or not the action or institution results in better human outcomes (or, if you don’t like the term “better”, then outcomes where humans don’t die or endure unnecessary physical or emotional harm).

To me, I don’t think a consistent universe is an explanation or proof for God.  When I was a deist, I might not have been so quick to make a statement like that, but these days, I think it’s a profound logical leap one must take to say “the universe is consistent in a logically discernible way, therefore God exists.”  Part of what led me down the path I’ve been on lately is that I have no right to make claims for which I have no proof.  In fact, I could put forward an explanation for why the universe is consistent without making assumptions for which I have no proof.  I think that’s the more honest solution to the problem of a complicated universe, and I suspect it would result in a more peaceful world than one where people can manage to use their invented deity to justify killing, raping, and enslaving people.  Learning how to honestly investigate things we don’t know should be a priority for a healthier and happier humanity.

If the universe, or even the world, were so logically deductive, it wouldn’t have taken humans 200,000 years to formalize rules about it (and thousands of years after domestication).  That we can represent the world with any predictive capacity in a language we invented speaks to the quality of our language and the honesty of our interpretation.  If the world or universe were different, we might have a different language to represent it or different rules to describe it.

Appealing to incredulity is intellectually dishonest, and it’s worse than saying “I don’t know.”  It also ignores some of the things we know, such as the fact that there were evolving species over billions of years.  Couldn’t it be that our increased brain size and intellectual capacity that arose during evolution created a mechanism to internalize some of the more obvious characteristics of our world, such that it made it difficult for us to articulate its underlying rules.  Or couldn’t it be that the particular language we’ve developed doesn’t do as good of a job as it could to help us better describe the universe?

There are a lot of questions like these, and I think they all come down to God of the gaps.  Because the sun revolves around the Earth, that must mean God made it…oh wait, the Earth revolves around the sun, therefore God.  Oh wait, it’s more of an elliptical pattern…oh wait…

To a typical person who lived in the absence of formalized logic, outer space would have seemed as abstract as thought itself.  Those people lived their lives never understanding anything at all about the universe besides what they saw in the 20-square mile radius in which they spent their entire lives.  We are heirs of that ignorant time, and our emergence from this medieval Platonic cluster-fuck is in its death throes.

Who knows…maybe someday we’ll discover there is indeed a multiverse; in contrast, we may discover there is an edge of the universe that cannot be exceeded.  Regardless of what that answer is, the magnificence of it does not mean God did it.  It just means we don’t have an answer.  Appealing to Plato only serves to reinforce the notion that we could never possibly understand the universe in itself.  I think supporters of that position underestimate how much we can actually know.

Subjective And Objective Morality

This post is inspired by watching a debate between Daniel Fincke (camels with hammers) and John Figdor, – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zz3_X31gSU on Objective and Subjective morality.  I don’t know if I have an answer to whether both can really exist, but this is my first shot at it.

Objective:  (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

Subjective:  based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions

Morality:  principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

I’m a programmer.  My specialty is in object oriented programming.  In object oriented programming, you have objects.  An object has attributes and behaviors.  This mirrors real life in a lot of senses, because this paradigm manifests similarly in real life.

For instance, a human has arms and legs (attributes), and a human also can speak or walk or move (behaviors).  Notice the human’s attributes (arms and legs) might have attributes and behaviors of their own, and those things contribute to the overall mechanisms the human is capable of owning or performing (legs help the human walk, arms help the human lift things, etc).

Each attribute and behavior in programming can be broken down to its most simple attributes and logical preconditions.  This mirrors real life, but there is an important distinction that distinguishes programming from real life:  the mind.

In programming, logic is contained or fed in through external sources.  Even with artificial intelligence, the logical preconditions to assess optimal and non-optimal states were initially given by the programmer.  So if code can “learn”, it’s learning is based on some criteria that was given to it by an external programmer (or collection of data or whatever).  In this sense, code is a perfect “tabula rasa” (blank slate), except that it can’t think on its own, so the only criteria it can use to make determinations about the “right” behavior originates externally, even when the application it is running appears to be functioning autonomously.

Example 1

Contrast this with a human who decides that slavery is wrong, even when they’ve never heard anyone put forward that idea.  A person who decides slavery is always wrong presumably does so because the manifestations of slavery create a paradox within their internal moral or logical faculties.

In other words, the logical justifications a person who condones slavery makes are inadequate or create a logical or moral dissonance for the person who rejects slavery.

So is this an objective mechanism, or a subjective one?

If owning people is objectively wrong, what objective characteristics make it wrong?

I suppose I’ve always thought this is subjective, because people are able to create arguments to support their position, and culturally speaking, slavery has historically fallen on some spectrum of how abhorrent it is (ranging from 0% to 100%).

The argument I would put forward to argue that owning someone is wrong would be:

1.  It causes harm to the person who is owned – financial, emotional, physical, etc
2.  People ought to be considered free when they are born.  Slavery impedes this
3.  It culturally reinforces that it’s ok to own others

Is any of this objective?  That is, is any of it detached from personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts?

To the extent that we can predict outcomes with any level of success, my view is that 1 and 3 provide more objective support than #2.  It’s easy to assess that slavery will causes financial, physical, and emotional harm, because slaves are prohibited from thriving financially.  Slaves almost certainly will experience emotional harm as well, because they lack the freedom to reproduce at will, go as they please, or engage in activities they want to perform.

Institutionalized slavery also can be predicted to reinforce social acceptance, at least in many situations; we know this is true because there is historical precedent for it.  If many generations have owned slaves, it creates a cultural paradigm that condones slavery.  As we know, motivated reasoning and mob mentality are manifestations by people who want to reinforce their preferred (subjective) mental framework.

In terms of the subjective one – people ought to be born free, I suppose that is subjective in a sense, but let’s consider its foundational justifications.  For instance, consider why a person should be free.  Freedom allows individuals to contribute to their society in meaningful and creative ways to improve things in ways that may not be available to chattled people.  For instance, a free person might be allowed to receive an education, couple the education with their natural abilities, and invent something or perform charity based on their skills, knowledge, and subjective values.  It’s easy to predict that these contributions could result in life-saving behavior.  Freedom also tends to feel better.  The support we have for this claim is empirical in the sense that we can compare populations – one free and one slave, and gauge whether one group is significantly different than the other, in terms of how they feel.

But, can these feelings of others be used as objective justification?  If the person who might have otherwise been owned contributes to society’s improvement, is that objective?

This, I think, is where the problem lies.  Is society’s improvement, or financial or emotional harm, or the cultural reinforcement of that harm, or the way someone feels about something objectively good or bad?  In other words, can there be any universal claim made that always makes something right or wrong.  Math is easy to use as an example, because 1 + 1 always equals 2.

But…if society’s improvement, or a person’s financial or emotional harm is objective, then what makes it so?

Does a person always deserve to have financial and emotional well-being?  If so, then neither slavery nor prisons should exist.  But, we do punish people for causing harm, and we make laws that *ought to* be to everyone’s benefit (admittedly, this doesn’t always happen).  When children misbehave, a common tactic is to put them on a time-out, thereby restricting their freedom to continue behaving the way they were.  So, we put the child on a time-out because, from our perspective, their behavior was causing some sort of harm that overrode the well-being of someone (perhaps even themselves).   This is analogous to a person who is in prison, although the timeframes and motivations may be slightly different.

As a pragmatist, I try to be open to ideas, because, if the idea has the potential to cause better outcomes, then I think it’s a better idea.  Is that objective, though?

Going back to a more scientific basis, Einstein’s ideas were more predictive of reality (in some circumstances) than Newton’s ideas were; therefore, in those circumstances I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Einstein was objectively more correct.

But science is logically separate from human well-being.  The interplay between humans necessarily creates conditions where some events cause better outcomes for certain individuals and worse outcomes for others.

In that sense, I don’t think that we can deductively presume there is objective morality.  Because actions can benefit some while harming others, I think the best we can do in these cases is to rely on inductive empiricism.  That is, weighing the benefits and costs to maximize benefit while minimizing harm.

This process is objective to the extent that weighing benefit and harm can be done objectively, or that the assessed benefit and harm determination is objective.

Example 2

Consider this far-fetched example.  Suppose a person has a special formula that would save 100,000 innocent people’s lives.  But, suppose this person demands, in exchange for donating that formula to society, they must be allowed to murder 500 innocent people.  Would it be moral to allow this person to murder those 500 people?  In the framework of maximizing well-being, then it would result in the best outcome (saving 100,000 people) to allow 500 innocent people to die.  Yet, that’s still awful.  In this case, I think the well-being factor falls apart a bit, because killing innocent people is really really bad.  Is that objective, though?  To me, it seems better to lose 500 innocent people than to lose 100,000, but those 500 innocent people might not agree with that.

Even if those 500 people had all the same facts as me, some of them might not agree with my decision to allow their murder.

I don’t think there are objective and universal truths.  I could be wrong, and I’m sure smarter people than me might disagree with me.  But I just don’t know how a person can perfectly distinguish fact from opinion in matters of morality.  Saying a mathematical, historical, or scientific fact is binary and true is different from saying that a behavior of a person is objectively right or wrong.

I think the best we can do is to improve our capacity to distinguish benefit and harm, and maybe incorporate consistent and agreed-upon criteria in that process.

Karl Popper, Falsifiability, and Evolution

I’ve seen a lot of talk from creationists about evolution, in particular, that species evolution (at least macro-evolution) is not “falsifiable”, therefore, not scientific.

The idea of falsifiable is very loaded, and the baggage creationists are smuggling by using terms like these escaped my attention the first few times I noticed the theme.

My first thought when I saw reference to falsifiable was that they were committing an error in terms of how they were discerning between induction and deduction; often, science is an inductive process, where we collect data, then make assumptions based on trends we see in this data.  Of course, we are prone to errors when relying entirely on induction, but science manages this by maintaining a tentative spirit.  If all you ever see are gray squirrels, the statement “all squirrels are gray” is true until you see a black or white one.

The next thought I had about falsifiability was in terms of the null hypothesis.  In general, the null hypothesis can never be shown to be true, and this is a tenet of science.  We only reject or fail to reject the null hypothesis.  For instance, if the null hypothesis is that a pharmaceutical drug has the same effect as placebo, we might arrange a strategy to test the assertion.  If there is a significant difference between the pharmaceutical drug and the placebo (or alternatively, no intervention at all), then we fail to reject the null hypothesis, and we give it a probability value.

But I was still missing something, in terms of the bridge between evolution and falsifiability.  The missing link (pun sort of intended) was in a statement Duane Gish (a prominent young earth creationist) first made in 1981:

There were no human witnesses to the origin of the Universe, the origin of life or the origin of a single living thing.  These were unique, unrepeatable events of the past that cannot be observed in nature or repeated in the laboratory. Thus neither creation nor evolution qualifies as a scientific theory and each is equally religious. As the scientific philosopher Sir Karl Popper has stated, evolution is not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research program.

It is interesting Gish invoked Karl Popper in his appeal to authority, considering that Popper had no trouble accepting evolution as fact.  Nevertheless, Gish’s statement made me curious about how he interpreted Popper, so I thought I’d isolate Popper’s position on falsifiability (for which Popper was an advocate, in terms of defining how scientific something is).  These are the primary points Popper makes about structuring science in terms of fasifiability;

1. It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory-if we look for confirmations.

2. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say,if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory-an event which would have refuted the theory.

3. Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of theory (as people often think) but a vice.

5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability; some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of “corroborating evidence.”)

7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers-for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a “conventionalist twist” or a “conventionalist stratagem.”)

 I’m going to approach each of these points individually to see if I can make a case that evolution doesn’t violate Popper’s positions.  By the way, these refutations are not implications that I think they’re all correct or all-comprehensive of good science, but the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think evolution as a theory violates Popper’s premise:

 #1.  It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory-if we look for confirmations.

Popper is loose with the term “theory” here.  In science, a theory is a well-tested hypothesis that is demonstrably more correct than any alternative.  It simultaneously provides predictive capacity, given certain pre-conditions.  Popper was framing this in terms of social science’s looseness, in particular, referring to Freud and Marx.

In any event, Popper is referring to confirmation bias.  I think an equivalent of point #1 Popper made was stated by Richard Feynman when he said “the easiest person to fool is yourself.”  Confirmation bias is a real thing, and it’s important to recognize when we’re doing it.  It’s easy to find confirmation for one’s own belief, and Popper made this point by talking about Marx and Freud.  Popper didn’t like how imprecise social sciences were, and that was because social science makes it easy to link phenomena with social theories.

#2.  Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say,if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory-an event which would have refuted the theory.

When we propose that we expect a fossil species to be found in a particular strata of soil, or that there must have been a species that existed that had certain attributes, even if we don’t yet have evidence that the species existed, I would argue that’s a risky prediction.  The fact that we’ve verified this, over and over again, with species like Tiktaalik and mammal-like reptiles such as Eothyris, Edaphosaurus, and Estemmenosuchus, and the fact that we consistently find fossils where we would expect them to be, adds a lot of Popperian weight to the matter.

Again, I think Popper was asserting this claim with regards to social sciences.  For instance, it’s not risky to say that a wide-scale famine is caused by the underlying machinations of capitalism, because, simultaneously, there may have been multiple factors contributing to the famine unrelated to capitalism AND because it’s almost impossible to build a model that demonstrates the relationships in a linear fashion.  In other words, any number of things could have caused the famine.  Why didn’t famine occur in other capitalist societies?  If capitalism causes famine, then we should see famine whenever we see capitalism.  Likewise, we might expect to NOT see famine in non-capitalist societies.  There’s no solid model to be built here.

Contrast that with a claim like:  if you start digging in a specific area at a specific depth, you will probably find Neanderthal bones – we know this because we have a good idea of when they lived, the age of the soil at various depths, and we know roughly what geographic regions they lived.

 The Neanderthal claim is a risky prediction and not at all guaranteed to be true; however, one of the things science gives us is increased predictability in a world that is imprecise.  It is true that, even in this context, there is some fuzziness, with concerns about causation versus correlation, but coupled with mountains of other science supporting evolution, it’s pretty damning for creationists that we are able to predict with any success at all, let alone the tremendous success we actually have,  where specific fossils can be found.  In “Your Inner Fish” (episode 1), Neil Shubin talks about trying to guess where a particular fossil species would be found.  He opened a geography book that showed where particular geographic formations can be found, and he knew right away where he needed to go to find them.  He used supporting sciences to predict something that he would have never been able to predict otherwise.

 #3.  Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

Once again, Popper was referring to social sciences such as economics and psychology.  If the Oedipus complex should prevent something from happening, then it should never happen; the moment that phenomenon does happen, the theory becomes less sound.

 Of course, given the messy world, there are problems with this position.  That’s why we have quantum theory, relativity, and other sciences that caused problems in our classical models.  The universe is nuanced, and there is no universal code or equation.

But evolution certainly forbids things this to the dismay of young Earth Creationists.  Evolutionary theory forbids a young Earth, Noah’s worldwide flood, and Adam and Eve.  Geology plus radiometric dating does more to collapse the young Earth hypothesis than evolution does, but I think a lot of young Earth creationists tend to lump these sciences together as a straw man tactic – it’s much easier to argue against one generic science than it is to argue against biology, chemistry, physics, math, and geology.  Making reference to the evolution boogey man is more effective when you load the term.

 #4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of theory (as people often think) but a vice.

I think this is the key premise in the young Earth Creationists’ argument.  In other words, a theory is scientific if it makes clear predictions that can be unambiguously falsified.  Popper here was making the case against Freud, Marx, and other social scientists, and contrasting them with Einstein, making reference to relativity and the famous solar eclipse test that Einstein hypothesized should demonstrate bending of light that would either validate or invalidate his theory.  Clearly, Einstein made a risky prediction (see #2), and falsifiability here meant that the underlying element of the position could be proved true or false, given an event.  If Einstein could not come up with a natural phenomenon that could test his theory (eg a solar eclipse), then that would have rendered relativity non-scientific.

In the same vein, a critique could be lobbed at social sciences because of their impreciseness.  Where Einstein’s theory implied specific and measurable bending of light when looking at stars during an eclipse, claims in Marxism or Freudism were less precise and open to interpretation.  For instance, if Marxism claims that laissez faire capitalism makes people less free, that claim is true until a society is found that simultaneously is laissez faire and its people are free.  However, perfect vacuum-type implementations are rare with humanity, and the wiggle room available in social sciences allows people to engage in motivated reasoning to link events with underlying theories.  The missing piece is being able to describe why it is that a phenomenon was caused by the social theory put forward, AND why that phenomenon couldn’t have happened because of some other reason, perhaps cyclical patterns of human behavior.

There’s a problem when we mix-and-match terms and theories, because not all theories are derived in a similar way.  For instance, we see examples all the time where gravity is shown to be true (throw a baseball into the air, and see if it ever falls down); however, we can imagine situations where gravity (and its constant behaviors) are less consistent, for instance, in outer space, or in a situation where drag and lift are affected, such as when we drop a feather.  This is well explained by gravitational theory and classical physics, but it demonstrates that there is not a universal constant that explains everything all the time.

How we might falsify evolution is to find examples where evolution asserts something that could not be possible given its position, such as a fossil of a human being found in the same soil strata as a dinosaur.  According to evolution, this shouldn’t (and doesn’t) happen.  If it did happen, the theoretical underpinnings would be challenged, particularly if it could be demonstrated that the dinosaur bone appeared to be the same age as the human bone.  It would be tremendous if we actually managed to consistently find evidence that challenged evolution; but we don’t.  The only evidence we ever find reinforces evolution as an explanation for species diversity.

#5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability; some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

If Duane Gish had bothered to consider this part of Popper’s position, he might not have invoked Popper at all, especially with the position that some theories are more testable than others, and science is messier than philosophy in that it is constrained to limitations in the real world when trying to demonstrate the correctness of a position or theory.

Coming back to why creationists have latched on to this notion of falsifiability, I think it’s because it allows them to rely on the fact that we weren’t  present to observe large evolutionary shifts, and therefore, we just can’t prove it.  I would encourage any such person to please abstain from ever serving on a jury for a murder trial, because forensic science specifically deals with reconstructing events in the absence of observation.  Many tools are used in this process, such as analysis of bacteria growth, insect growth, blood splatter, body temperature, body decomposition, etc.  All of these testing mechanisms are admissible in court because the science behind them is sound and they have been shown to be helpful in successfully predicting answering questions about events we did not observe.

#6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of “corroborating evidence.”)

I disagree with Popper here, as do many scientists.  Sometimes, all we have is induction.  I think an alternative or post-script to this comes with science’s position of tentativeness.  All squirrels are gray until we find one that’s not.  We don’t always have the tools or evidence to test a claim.  For instance, we can’t travel back in time to observe transitional evolutionary patterns.  Does this mean we should bury our heads in the sand, and claim we can never prove evolution?  Young Earth Creationists salivate at this notion, but they’re dead wrong, and their position is harmful to anyone who falls under its spell.

Genetics alone proves evolution.  Shared genes, genes that are “turned off”, divergence, allele frequency, and other clues in the genetic code all  demonstrate slow and steady genetic change over time.  These all support evolution.  But we knew about evolution before we understood genetics – depending on how you define “understanding genetics”, maybe 100 years earlier.  Certainly, the fossil record coupled with radiometric dating proves evolution.  In other words, the fossil evidence is so compelling, we don’t need genetics to demonstrate evolution, because we see transitional figures in the fossil record, and we have a very reliable way of determining their age.

But Darwin had neither genetics nor a robust fossil record to refer to when summarizing his ideas on evolution; rather, it was clear to him, based on his observations of various fauna on the Galapagos, there is an undeniable similarity between species, and that similarity could not be chocked up to chance.  It was brought on by natural pressures and exacerbated by niches and isolation.

To test evolution is a difficult task because people take evolution to be such a broad term.

If you want to test the notion of whether there was a time humans did not exist on the earth, but other animals did, that’s easy to test.  If we fail to find evidence of humans existing, while we simultaneously find evidence that other species did exist, that is supportive of the claim that humans did not always exist in their current form.  We can leverage radiometric dating and look for fossil evidence to build our test for this claim.

If you want to test the notion that, prior to humans existing on the earth, there were quasi-human species that existed, that’s easy to test, too.  It adds an extra layer of fun to the matter when the remains of humanoids (Neanderthals, Denisovans) still contain genetic information that can be compared to modern humans.

Here we can use deduction from our inductive data collection to frame a hypothesis:

1.  Humans did not always exist on Earth
2.  Prior to human existence, there existed non-human humanoid species
3.  The humanoid species were genetically distinguishable from humans
4.  There is evidence that we share a small percentage of our genome with the humanoid species
5.  Therefore, a natural mechanism exists where genetically dissimilar species can reproduce fertile offspring

#7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers-for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation.

Clearly, Popper had Marx and Freud in mind when asserting this.

Young Earth creationists would make the claim that evolution has been proven to be false.  Others would claim that it couldn’t be made false because it doesn’t fit their preconceived notion of falsifiable.  The irony here is that their preferred explanation (God) is the ultimate example of something that is untestable and unfalsifiable.  All the evidence in the world would either prove or disprove evolution, but all the evidence in the world would almost certainly not prove God.

Karl Popper’s framework is not without critics, and those critics are probably less concerned about proving evolution than they are with the concern that Popper is overly rigid in light of a complex and messy world.  Karl Popper was a philosopher, not a scientist, and philosophy sometimes has luxuries that science does not.  I think science and philosophy ought to work hand-in-hand in a perfect world, but obviously we miss that part sometimes.

Nevertheless, the fact that science manages to improve predictability via hypothesizing and fine-tuning (ie the scientific method) is pretty good evidence that science is the best method we have for differentiating fact from fiction.  If a theory allows us to make predictions that are consistently correct, then we either have the correct theory, or were very lucky, or we identified inputs (parameters) that are very correlated to the actually correct parameters (for instance, if we say that ice cream sales have been high during the summer, therefore we expect to see more shark attacks, then we are wrong with the input parameters we specified, but we did find an input (ice cream sales) that is correlated to the correct input (air and water temperature PLUS humans in the water).

Popper played an important role in science, and his contributions served to improve the standard for what science should be.  His framework is indeed rigid, and I don’t think that something becomes pseudoscientific if it tentatively relies on induction.  In any event, the claims young Earth creationists put forward, in terms of evolution and unfalsifiability are dead wrong on a number of levels, and their failings are not isolated to inductive evidence.