The Origins Of The Universe

I don’t blame people for concluding that “the universe is so complex/big/amazing that there must have been a supernatural cause for it.”  Personally, I think that only gets you to Deism (or Pan-theism), but I don’t see how that could get you to theism in any rational, reasonable, logically honest way.

The problem with that claim that the universe must have supernatural origins is this:  how do you know?  What reliable, natural evidence can you put forward to support that claim?  It creates an infinite regression problem if you say “God caused the universe,” because it raises the question “who caused God?”

I’ve always thought it was a cop-out to respond “God is supernatural, and therefore doesn’t need a cause.”  The name of that logical fallacy is a special pleading. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_pleading

But I think there’s something worse than logic errors with this position, and this is highlighted in the case of Deism.  The problem with Deism is that it relies on wishful thinking, and is very inconsistent with other Deistic positions.  Deists know they can’t prove God.  They’ve taken this to be true, because they’re right – there’s no way to prove God.  So, why make the leap to the supernatural, when there’s no evidence for that, either?

The claim for supernatural intervention comes from ignorance.  People, as far as I can tell, have never witnessed supernatural behavior, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable scientists who have put forward evidence that supernatural behavior is a real thing, or is observable in any way.  So why on Earth would we imagine it exists, especially if we’re trying to demonstrate it within a logically consistent framework?

But even if we could demonstrate that supernatural phenomena occurs, why must it have caused the Universe?  Even if you take for granted that supernatural stuff happens, what logic can you put forward that supernatural phenomena caused the universe?  Maybe what caused the universe is something that happens very rarely, but is completely natural…and maybe it’s something we’ve never even considered or observed.

Point is:  we don’t know.  But saying “God did it” is worse than saying “we don’t know”, because the claim that it was supernatural allows us to stop investigating.  There was a time when we hardly knew anything.  The method we used to end that condition was rigorous, honest investigation.  “God did it” is the opposite of that, and it doesn’t get you anywhere, or lead you to anything other than satisfaction in your own ignorance.

Advertisements

Human Pattern Seeking

One of the most important human attributes is our ability to identify patterns.  For instance, we’re able to identify cyclical weather patterns, and know that the weather will become colder during a particular time of year.  We can also identify that animals engage in particular behaviors during particular times of the year or under particular circumstances, such as a full moon or heavy rain.  Our success as a species is largely due to our pattern recognition skills, and also in our ability to share and teach those patterns to others.  A particularly important aspect of this is our ability to persist information across generations, which is something other animals don’t do.

There are ways that our pattern-seeking can get us into trouble.  One such instance is when we recognize patterns that aren’t really there.  For instance, we might notice that it always snows after a successful hunt.  We ought to recognize this as a coincidence, or maybe because the most successful hunts occur during the winter.  But that’s the extent of the relationship between those 2 events.  Drawing any further conclusions from these things is a logical error; nevertheless, humans tend to commit errors like these all the time.  The specific error to which I refer is the failure to recognize that causation is not the same as correllation.  For instance, one might make the claim that, as ice cream sales increase, so do shark attacks; therefore, ice cream sales cause shark attacks.  The error this claim commits is that it ignores a common cause.  Ice cream sales did not cause shark attacks, nor did shark attacks cause ice cream sales.  There is a missing event in our claim that brought on both of these outcomes.

Pattern-seeking can allow us to draw faulty conclusions based on an identified pattern.  For instance, during the dark ages in England, people spotted a comet in the sky that we later came to call Halley’s comet.  Halley’s comet was blamed for bringing the Black Death.  Similarly, Chinese astronomers concocted an elaborate system of identifying physical characteristics of comets, and assigning those characteristics some meaning, including the level of pain and suffering the comet would bring.

Of course, we now recognize these associations as ridiculous.  Why is this?

The answer lies in our standard for what we accept as valid evidence, and our strategy for rejecting claims.  As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.   If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

It’s important to put the burden of proof on a claim when that claim suggests that something is present or meaningful.  Can we test the proposition that comets always bring doom and dread?  Yes, we can.  Therefore, the moment a comet fails to bring doom and dread, then the claim fails.  If we were really grasping at straws, statistical measures might allow us to reframe the claim to state that a comet USUALLY brings doom and dread.  But if we find that no more doom and dread occurs after a comet sighting than before a comet sighting, then that claim fails, too.  Therefore, the claim is wrong.  There’s no use in continuing to perpetuate the claim, regardless of how that claim makes us feel, or how strongly we believe the claim.  The evidence demonstates the claim is no good; therefore, throw it out.

Rigorous investigation allows us to separate fact from fantasy.  Humans have not had tools to conduct rigorous investigation for very long, and these tools certainly didn’t exist 2000 years ago.  The concept of probability was not even formalized until the mid 1600s (the first printed work on probability was done in 1494 – “Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proprotioni e proportionalata” by Fra Luca Paccioli).  It was not until the Renaissance period and the Age of Enlightenment, once Europeans rediscovered Plato and Aristotle after returning from the Crusades, that our understanding of the natural world greatly increased.

Once philosophers and scientists were able to investigate religion in terms of the claims that it makes, both from a scientific and logical perspective, it didn’t take long for them to reject religion’s claims.  It is not surprising that there is such a fierce anti-intellectual sentiment in so many religious circles; vigorous investigative academia leads to scientific and philosophical conclusions that clearly reject religion’s claims.

One of my favorite quotes is from Neitzche:  “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything”.  The proof of a claim is in how it stands up to investigation.  If the claim fails to meet it’s burden of proof, then there’s no reason to believe it’s true.  Our recognition of this single concept is what separates us from a more primitive version of ourselves.

Claims, Hypotheses, and the Burden Of Proof

What evidence do you have that God DOES NOT exist?  If you’re a reasonable person, your response should be somewhere in the neighborhood of “absolutely none.”  Interestingly, this is roughly the same evidence you have that underwear-stealing gnomes don’t exist, or, for that matter, that leprauchans don’t exist.

It’s a very unscientific position a person takes when they ask someone to prove that something does not exist.

In science and medicine, various statistical measures are used to test claims.  For instance, if a drug company is testing to see if the drug they’ve developed is any good, the core hypothesis they test against is whether there is any difference between their drug and placebo.  Framed as a hypothesis:

H0:  Drug A = Placebo [this is the null hypothesis]
HA:  Drug A (not equal) placebo [this is the alternative hypothesis]

If you ever read a scientific paper regarding claims like these, they’ll often make reference to P-values.  These P-values represent the probability that H0 is true.  In other words, the lower the P-value, the more likelihood that what is being tested means something.  A P-value of 0.01 means that there is a 1% chance that Drug A has the same outcomes as placebo.  The effect of a statement like that is that it’s very unlikely that Drug A has the same outcomes as placebo; in other words, Drug A is different than placebo.

Framing the God question in these terms, you’d arrive at a hypothesis like the following:

H0:  God = 0 (God does not exist)  [this is the null hypothesis]
HA:  God > 0 (God exists)  [this is the alternative hypothesis]

This is not a very testable hypothesis.  How could you demonstrate that God > 0?  If you answer something like:  look at how life exists…or the universe is proof that God exists, my response would be:  why does that require God?  Are you certain that it couldn’t have come from something else?  Or are you certain that the answer to these things isn’t something that we haven’t yet discovered? If so, how so?

This framework by which we approach hypothesis testing is quite reliable.  We construct tests that are designed to deliver a probability that the null hypothesis is true.  Because of that framework, we hardly ever get to say we’ve proved something.  We only frame it such that we’ve disproved something, or failed to reject something.  In other words, we can never know if we’re right…all we can know is if we’re wrong.  But arriving at the same conclusion over and over again (either by rejecting or failing to reject a claim), we get good insight into the likelihood a hypothesis is correct or not.

This is a humble way to approach the natural world.  It puts the burden of proof where it belongs, and it’s reliable.  If we test a hypothesis many times in many different ways, and we consistently find that we fail to reject a hypothesis, that adds weight to that hypothesis, and with other corroboration, might allow it to graduate to a theory, which is the highest level of science (general theory of relativity, theory of evolution, theory of gravity, etc).

Atheists are Untrustworthy

Polls over the past several years have shown that most people don’t trust Atheists.  Atheists have been likened to rapists in terms of their trustworthiness, and they are consistently ranked less trustworthy than people of any theistic religion.  After all, if a person is God-less, how on Earth could they be trustworthy?  Whereas priests who molest little children are often looked at as pillars of morality.

Why is it that Atheists are not trusted by Theists?  I find the question interesting because many of the people who are Atheists once were Theists, and therefore, would have once been trustworthy to those non-trusting Theists.  Here are my thoughts on why I think this is:

1.  Since most Atheists were once theists, this implies they came to the exact opposite conclusion that theists come to.  The views aren’t at all compatible…either there is a God or there isn’t, or more specifically, you either believe in a God or you don’t.  Therefore, Atheists are different.  It’s a common theme in human behavior that people fear things that are different.

2.  Religion and the religious teach that Atheists are bad.  The bible says things like “They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good.”  Evidently, atheists are incapable of philanthropy.  But moreover, there seems to be a fierce anti-intellectual theme in many Christian sects, and the reason for that is that the God argument is not sound logic.  If religious people were to invite atheists to make a case for their (dis) belief, it would put their own faith at risk.

3.  The inescapable outcome, according to Christians, is that Atheists will burn in hell for their thought crimes.  Because they believe this, they believe they are protecting themselves, their family, and their community by shunning Atheists.

I find people’s fear of atheism to be telling of their intellectual dishonesty and ignorance.  Consider physics and string theory.  Some physicists find string theory stupid, or at least not-at-all useful.  Therefore, either a physicist believes that string theory is likely to lead to profound discoveries, or it will likely not.  Yet, a string-theory rejectionist can listen to a string-theory advocate without making claims to the other’s trustworthiness.  If the string-theory advocate put forward compelling arguments, it may even help to bolster the other’s opinion of them, even if the string-theory advocate failed to convince his audience.

I find that people of faith often don’t want to consider arguments for atheism.  That, by itself, is understandable.  If I really, truly believe something, lack of investigation would probably lead me to reject claims that are conflicting to my belief.  I don’t think it’s immoral to ignore claims that are inconsistent with your beliefs, but I do think it’s dishonest and unethical.

Morality without Religion

I find it interesting when people make claims that humans cannot be decent to one another without the bible and religion there to dictate the framework of their morality.

I suspect that the reason many people reject the theory of species evolution is because it would imply that humans, for about 200,000 years (and millions of years before that, in their less-human state) must have had some moral architecture in the absence of Christianity, Judaism, or any mono-theistic religions.  If we are able to be considerate of others’ well-being absent of religion, and these inclinations are a result of social and physiological adaptations that help insure species survival, this reduces the validity of the claim that the bible or organized religion is a prerequisite of moral behavior.

I once heard someone make the argument that secular (contrasted with religious) morality is faulty as a philosophical concept because people can be tricked.  For instance, someone living in Nazi Germany may have concluded that it was imperative to kill Jews (and other minority groups) because it would help maximize overall well-being, and the argument could be made that killing Jews was moral because of maximized well-being, and therefore, this clearly immoral outcome could be justified within the context of secular morality.

I find this argument puzzling for a number of reasons:

1.  Were there no Germans at all who opposed the Nazi extermination of the Jews?  Similarly, were there no Americans who opposed human slavery from the 1700s to 1865?  There are all sorts of people who can oppose something despite the fact that logical fallacies are being presented as an argument for immoral behavior.  In fact, slavery and Jewish extermination were supported by many religious people, citing religious justification for these acts – Hitler was a catholic, for crying out loud.  The way a secularist can come to a conclusion that an act is immoral is by investigating the moral claims put forth, and by assessing the implications, and how well those claims stand up to reality.  Are Jews harmful to society?  Are people of African descent incapable of exercising humanity such that we ought to enslave them?  I don’t think it takes religious moral authority to conclude that these claims are ridiculous.  The gullibility of the masses is not proof that secular morality is errant; rather, it’s proof that people can be convinced of things that are not true, even if those things are egregiously immoral.

2.  It presupposes that any morality we have was put in us by God.  Yet the people claiming that the bible is a beacon of moral authority often have a difficult time reconciling the slavery, rape, infanticide, and murder that is God-sanctioned in the bible.  So when you ask a person how they would decide that these biblical acts are immoral, they have to use moral guidelines that come from somewhere other than the moral teachings put forth in the bible.  How could the bible (with messages delivered from God) be simultaneously immoral but the moral underpinnings that we innately have (supposedly delivered by God) are correct?  Especially in light of the fact that the bible teaches us that we cannot trust our innate morality?  Further, how could it be correct that we are originally wicked and evil and need to refer to the bible for our morality if the bible is objectively immoral?

I think the only way a person could conclude that the Christian bible is moral is by cherry-picking it.  But I don’t believe that cherry picking parts of a philosophy is an intellectually honest endeavor.  If a philosophy has weaknesses or is inconsistent, then that is a burden that philosophy must bear, and advocates of that philosophy must either be able to counter that the weakness or inconsistency is not a problem, or they must change the philosophy.

The fact that the bible cannot change, despite an evolving clarity around moral behavior, is proof that the bible and religion are faulty.  That doesn’t disprove God, but I think that it doesn’t reflect well on the hypothesis, given so many of its advocates inclination to bury their head in the sand.

Deism

Deism is the belief that the natural world and universe is so vast and so amazingly complex that it could not have been formed without supernatural intervention.  Deism is contrasted with various types of theism in that deism does not claim that this supernatural entity who created the universe presently intervenes in its workings.

Deism was an offshoot of Baruch Spinoza’s Pantheism, which claims that God and the universe are intertwined.

Deism was a common-held belief during the Enlightenment and up until the early 1800s by leading politicians and intellectuals, and it was about as close as a public official could be to atheistic.  Several early presidents were deists, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and maybe even Abraham Lincoln.

Deism was attractive to thinkers of the time because it allowed them to reject the immorality described in the bible without rejecting the notion of god altogether.  I considered myself a Deist for a couple years, because it sort of allows the best of both worlds – you get to reject the lunacy coming from the fundamental fringes, yet you don’t have to necessarily reject the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of religion, such as the idea that we’re not alone, and that supernatural beings ensure continued order.

Deism, as a philosophy, didn’t last very long in any meaningful sense.  The reason it didn’t last is because of its target market.  Intellectuals and scientists originally found deism appealing because it safely allowed them to reject logical inconsistencies about God described in the Christian bible.  But once you reject Christianity, and the claims made in the Christian (or any other) bible, that forces you to investigate Deism through a more skeptical lens, which is what intellectuals and scientists are often inclined to do.

What natural problem does Deism solve?  What questions exist(ed) that could not be better answered by more natural investigation and explanation?  Doesn’t the injection of a God hypothesis just make our understanding cloudier?

The point is that Deism makes us feel better about rejecting Theism.  It’s “God did it” without Jesus (or Muhammed or [insert religious revelation character here]).  And we know that “God did it” is just an excuse to stop investigating the questions we haven’t answered yet.

How did life begin (abiogenesis)?  What happened before the big bang?  Did time exist before 13 billion years ago, or do we simply exist in a “Universe From Nothing” as Lawrence Krauss puts it?  If black holes are the ingredients it takes to make a universe, and our universe exists, did our universe come from a black hole?  If we have black holes in our universe, what makes us so sure we did not come out of a pre-existing universe?

These are important questions, and questions that are admittedly difficult to solve with the tools we currently have.  But the answer that “God did it” only serves to stifle our investigation.  And it doesn’t really help us to gain any clarity or arrive at any truth.  I think we’ll be able to answer some of these questions sometime soon, in particular, the question of how life originated.  But we wouldn’t get anywhere close to an answer if we simply concluded “God did it…move it along.”

When Charles Darwin proposed that existing species have come to be via a process of natural selection and change, he had no corroboration other than his observations.  He didn’t understand what DNA was, nor did he have any means to compare the genetics between species.  So, all he had was physical evidence that led to a very strong hypothesis.  That hypothesis was corroborated via a number of scientific breakthroughs that came well after his death, such as fossil discovery, radiometric dating, and the discovery of DNA.

Deism is “God did it.”  And “God did it” stifles progress without answering anything.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is important, but I think it’s critical to not misapply or over-apply it.  The central point in Occam’s razor is: “Plurality is not to be posited without necessity”.  In other words, in the absence of certainty when developing a hypothesis (guess) about something, the hypothesis that makes the fewest assumptions is preferrable.

There are some who would say that the simplest hypothesis is usually the most correct one, but this is not always the case.  This reality is what makes overcoming primitive pre-conceptions such a tall task.  Indeed, the God hypothesis is, in many ways, a much simpler explanation for the world than what we’ve discovered to be true.

An example of this is when Pierre-Simon Laplace was tasked with presenting a more mathematically correct model of the solar system.  When presenting this model, Napolean Bonaparte asked Laplace  “where is God in your model?”, to which Laplace  famously replied, “sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

My point is that “God did it” is an exceedingly simple explanation that allows people to stop investigating.  The reason Laplace  needed to solve challenges inherent in the existing model of the solar system was because Isaac Newton (who by my best accounts might have been the smartest person who ever lived) stopped short of solving the problem almost 100 years earlier.  Newton was a far superior mathematician than LaPlace, but Newton was stifled; he had to balance pre-conceived notions that God did everything with the reality that it just does not appear so.  Newton was limited in how much leeway he had in describing a universe that did not include God.

Occam’s razor has proven to be a very useful tool in the investigation of the natural world.  It’s not a universal rule to assert that simplicity is better than complexity, nor is it a golden hammer that paints everything as a nail.  Rather, I think it provides balance to problems inherent in the human condition.  We seek out patterns, and we have cognitive dissonance when information is presented that is counter to our understanding.  It also forces us to be honest about the certainty with which we present our claims.