Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 3

This is the third installment of the atheist quiz

6. Do you believe free will to be illusory? If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?
In other words, is free will a real thing?  A few minutes ago, I decided I wanted some coffee, so I poured myself a cup, and am now drinking it.  I suppose I was free to do that.  I understand that this question is designed to lock respondents into some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but I consider questions like these to be armchair matters that don’t really contribute much to honest debate.

To address the second part of the question, is the questioner really asking if we can justify immorality because of free will?  That seems absurd, but I guess I’d take my version of ethics and morality over what the Christian bible encourages, for instance, justification for keeping slaves, sacrificing and murdering babies, women, and children, genital mutilation, and slaughtering members of the neighboring village.  At least I can feel good about treating people as well as I can without supernatural intervention that commands me to be bad to other humans.

That’s all I’m going to respond to this question, because I think the questioner presupposes Christianity provides a moral highground.  I think that Christians had better start appologizing for all the harm they’ve done to the world and others in the name Christianity before they start asserting that their religion gives them any sort of monopoly on morality.

7. Does objective morality exist? If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”? If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?
Social fads?  I don’t think I’d characterize it in terms of “social fads”.  That’s reductionist, and I don’t think most reasonable people, regardless of political or religious position, would be so bold as to characterize how we treat people as a fad.  There seem to be reasonable and logical ways to behave that result in moral behavior, such as the desire to minimize harm.

We do have the capacity to collect information and exercise empathy, and all that is perfectly explainable without referring to the supernatural.

Maximizing well-being also seems to contribute to this paradigm.  This is objective to the extent that we can define universal well-being for all humanity, which is a big task, and might not be an all-to-useful exercise.

We create frameworks for justice because most cultures agree that it is best for everyone if we have a collection of rules that minimizes harm, attempts to maximize well-being, and gives people some amount of flexibility to commit errors.  There may be illogical implementations of these frameworks, or tendencies to favor the well-being for some people or groups over others, but that is a function of societal acceptance of such a paradigm.  Societies that refuse to accept that particular families are chosen by God to rule over the country are more inclined to abolish or disempower monarchy.  But clearly, what’s acceptable to any given society is fluid and changes a lot over time.

As far as whether there is objective morality, I don’t know.  I think people tend to care about certain things, and those things vary greatly across different cultures.  Therefore, there does seem to be subjectivity in how we discern right from wrong, but this is not unique for atheists.  There is a great deal of disagreement over a number of matters in and out of the church – think war, abortion, civil rights, slavery, etc.

I think that some of the morality espoused in the bible is a good enough reason to reject the bible as a moral authority, so if that’s what the question is getting at, then I’d probably err on the side of there not being objective morality, because well-being doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone.

Fairness, equality, and justice are relative to the culture, and this has been true forever.  There is a self-defeating mechanism that exists for humans, in that if we kill everyone, then there won’t be any more humans, so there would have always been some logical, or self-correcting mechanism to recognize this.

By the way, fairness is not exclusively human.  We see empathy, sharing, and non-violent behavior across many species, including bonobos, who behave remarkably similar to humans.

8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?
There is a biological reason why parents protect their children:  parents are biologically responsible for their children’s lives until their children are old enough to defend for themselves.  This is not unique to humans, nor are humans the most zealous defenders of their children’s lives – there are plenty of animals that are equally or more defensive of their offspring’s safety than humans.  We seem to have inclinations to create rules (laws) that serve to create a shared social responsibility for children’s well-being, and that is somewhat unique to humans, although we see plenty of species that will work to the well-being of infants they did not parent.  These behaviors are reinforced by various chemical and hormonal pathways across many species.

If I’m erring on the side of there not being objective morality, I think it’s hard to answer whether a human child is more or less valuable than an animal of any other species.  Certainly, humans tend to give more value to human children than almost any other living organism, and this is quite explainable via our biology and hormones.

Basically, I don’t think this is a very useful question, because I don’t see a lot of “Sophie’s Choice” situations where we have to quickly give value to humans and other species, and then use that value in terms of how to save both.  I don’t see humans as more important or special than other species, except to say that humans seem to have capabilities that other species don’t have as a result of a larger brain.  But there are some species that have abilities that humans don’t have, such as the ability to fly or how well they see in the dark.

9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?
I think that atheism doesn’t specify any rigid codes.  A good atheist ought to be pragmatic, looking for best practices based on observed outcomes.  We recognized that slavery and genocide are wrong, so we don’t do it anymore.  The bible never corrects those errors it committed.

Wishful thinking, presumably, is the absence of honestly evaluating a claim.  If your hypothesis doesn’t agree with reality, it’s wrong (paraphrasing Richard Feynman).  So, yes, atheists might be hopeful that they can cure cancer via scientific strategies, but it doesn’t make absolute claims that science cures these things the way that religion does.

I think humans have a tendency to be over-confident at times, and are very prone to committing all sorts of moral and logical errors.  For some, this inclination decreases as they get older, and for some, this inclination never goes away.  So, to the extent that religious people engage in wishful thinking, that is simply an artifact of their human errancy.

We have methods that demonstrate themselves to be effective at distinguishing fact from fantasy, and it ought to be our obligation to learn and practice those methods the best we can.


10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity? If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?
I think that’s an appeal to popularity, which is a logical fallacy.  Every single person in the world can believe something, and they can all be wrong.  Just because religion has been a staple over the course of human evolution doesn’t prove anything either.

If religion were harmful to the extent that it were causing too many deaths, then either religion would go away, or people would go extinct.

Religion has not been harmful enough to cause humans to go extinct, but there’s still plenty of time for that.

11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?*
No.  It’s profoundly irrational, yet we do it all the time.  We have the capacity for empathy, and the ability to consider and estimate potential outcomes

based on behavior.  If I don’t push someone out of the way of an oncoming bus, they might die.  Some people might be more inclined to self-sacrifice than others, and I would leave it to psychologists to answer why.  It still doesn’t prove God.


12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true? What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?*
Been there, done that.  Religion and Christianity don’t work for me, because practicing it requires a consistent dishonesty and suspension of logic that I’m no longer willing to do.

If it happened that Christianity was true, I would be quite puzzled, because there are boatloads of immorality that go all throughout the bible, and countless deaths have come because of it, including the religious crusades, the Spanish inquisition, the death and destruction of native people in America, the discouragement of condom use in Africa, the cruel and unusual torture to which homosexuals have been subjected to over the millenia, etc, etc, etc.

I don’t know how one can reconcile the evil that Christianity has caused over history, and I reject the bible as a source of moral authority.  Cherry picking phrases does not an ideology make.  Just because something in the bible, or something that religion says, seems correct for our situation, that does not mean the whole thing is correct.


Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 2

This is part 2 to the 12 question quiz directed at atheists:

3. How do you account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton,etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?
This is another question that intends to expose scientific ignorance, and in the process, attempts to push the respondent into committing a logical error – this is hard to understand, therefore, it must be God.  Again, just because an individual (or the scientific community) doesn’t know something, that does not mean the answer is God.  For people who grew up in a religious home, it takes time to realize that ignorance is not proof of God.  I’d go so far as to say that invoking God to explain our ignorance is an altogether dishonest tactic that leads to nothing except more ignorance.

It appears this question advocates for something in the neighborhood of Spinoza’s pantheism.  Would the person who formulated this question presume that Spinoza was right, and that Christians are wrong?  Even if this were not the first half of the begging the question fallacy, I still don’t see how equating complicated scientific phenomena with God honestly gets someone from Deism or pantheism to any monotheistic religion.  It’s still absurd to believe that bronze-age fairy tales were revelations from God.

To try to answer the question directly, I suppose if there weren’t some order to the universe, then we wouldn’t be here to debate these matters.  Does this question presume these natural phenomena prove supernaturalism?  Couldn’t it just be lucky that there appear to be natural laws that guide the universe that allow us to be here, no matter how temporarily?

This question is a blanketed attempt at the teleological argument (argument from design, watchmaker).  Of course, we can cite many examples of how the universe does not follow a well-planned order.  For instance, look at how many pregnancies end in miscarriage – what an inefficient use of biological resources that is.  Another example is the example of the Andromeda galaxy encroaching on the Milky Way.  Eventually, they will collide, almost certainly ending all life on Earth (if there’s any left by that point).  There are a lot of examples of how the universe is not finely-tuned.

4. Why is the human mind naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the laws of nature?
We live in the natural world.  This seems to be another version of the watchmaker argument.

Of course, not all human minds are naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and there was a long period where humans and humanoids (h. Erectus, etc) would not have understood mathematics.  Our current mathematical paradigm is evidence that we are capable of understanding a fairly consistent world and describing it.  The physical parallels, and the fact that math can describe other parts of the universe is an artifact of our ability to accurately describe the universe with a language, given a fairly consistent universe.  Math’s ability to describe the universe is not an answer for God – the logical bridge this question tries to create gives rise to numerology and pseudoscience.

Isaac Newton, who may have been the smartest human being who ever lived, did an excellent job of capturing his interpretation of the universe’s mathematical manifestation in “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”.  But even Newton, a guy who basically invented calculus more-or-less on a dare from his friend, couldn’t get the math right, in terms of how gravity caused light to bend.  It took a new paradigm that wasn’t understood for 99.95% of the time that humans have lived on the earth in a biologically similar state as they exist today.

There are inconsistencies in the universe, and there is not a magical equation that explains everything.  It takes very complicated math to explain very complicated phenomena, and this math is nothing close to intuitive; it is not eerie that we can create a language to describe observable phenomena.

5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism? If so, why are rational human scientists and engineers so woefully incapable of imitating the precision and complexity of cellular machinery that (presumably) arose via strictly irrational processes?
Here we go again.  Look, we can make reference to complex science, therefore God.

Yes, naturalism provides a consistent and intellectually honest paradigm that we can use to frame how we understand complex cellular behavior.  Of course, materialism doesn’t define science, nor does it define specific scientific implementations or processes.

Maybe someday we will be able to engineer cells that behave the same way as biological cells.  We haven’t been working at it very long, and we’ve already made great strides, in terms of the ability to model protein folding, creating enzymes, and artificial photosynthesis.  This is God of the gaps, again.

In terms of evolution via strictly irrational processes, I don’t see it is strictly irrational.  Genes can mutate and find new ways to do things.  The term irrational is invoked out of a misunderstanding and fear of what evolution is.  By the way, I don’t see God as more rational than evolution, but then again, I don’t necessarily see evolution and God being mutually exclusive, either.

Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 1

I stumbled onto a quiz that asks 12 questions to atheists.  I don’t know who the original author is, but it seemed to surface on the web sometime during mid-2012.  A lot of people have already answered this quiz, but I thought I’d give it a shot.  I’ll put this into multiple posts, because the answers can get long-winded

1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause? If so, what was this cause?
The answer is a big fat I don’t know.  I don’t know what the cause looked like, or if it really needed a cause.  My understanding of what science has gathered so far is that an event that we call “the big bang” occurred about 13 billion years ago, which caused a still-occurring expansion to the size of the universe.  My understanding is that in an environment such as the ones we observe around black holes, which shares parallels with our big bang, gravity is so strong that it literally causes time to slow down.  So the question of what happened before the big bang is difficult for us to answer, because it might hold that there simply was no time before the big bang.

But even if we addressed this question directly, we could still respond without invoking God.  Maybe our universe is inside or parallel to other universes, and maybe all universes that exist come from black holes, and maybe all the black holes in our universe will create other universes, and eventually we’ll have so many universes that they start swallowing each other up.

It does create a problem of infinite regression when we say that a universe comes from a black hole in another universe, and might lead you back to the same question (what caused the original universe).  But I don’t think that’s particularly different than the infinite regression problem of what caused God.  The theist’s solution to that problem is to say that God is supernatural, but then, how do you know that?  And how can you observe and state that with any confidence?

So, I don’t know, but neither does anyone.  Some people have really good ideas, but an honest person will call it what it is:  a hypothesis.

Not knowing does not give us license to imagine supernatural nonsense and claim it as truth.  The best way we can answer questions like these is by saying we don’t know, and then trying to find honest ways to answer.

2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?
–Begin Rant–
I have a lot of problems with this question.  First, it presupposes that a person who is an atheist must have a strong philosophical and scientific formulation of why they don’t believe in god; second, it presupposes that an atheist must be a strict materialist AND determinist; third, it presupposes that an atheist should be able to reconcile very complex philosophical and scientific matters that really aren’t at all related; fourth, most people have no fucking clue about any of this, yet this question assumes that only people who do understand the question have the right to reject the God delusion.

So, it’s a great big gotcha – the height of dishonesty, but I would not expect anything less from people who would formulate a quiz like this.

News flash:  a person doesn’t need to know jack squat about quantum mechanics or the various genres of materialism or determinism to reject the claim that all the natural complexity in the world must be attributed to some invisible supernatural being.
–End Rant–

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about materialistic determinism (or quantum mechanics for that matter), but since it’s a question, and I think that some atheists ought to be able to speak to it, this is me trying to do science with words – for any philosophers or physicists out there: feel free to correct any errors I make.  This is physics and philosophy from the perspective of a computer programmer, and by no means as elegant as some people can write this stuff.

I’ll start with some definitions:

Determinism:  all events, including human action, are determined by causes external to the will.
Materialism:  nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications

So materialistic determinism is the belief that we’re a collection of matter, and that everything that exists has a physical explanation, and the explanation to which we owe our existence is a collection of chemicals, atoms, etc.  In this doctrine, we don’t necessarily have free will.  If atheists are willing to engage in this sort of reductionist, strawman pigeon-holing, then the counter-argument put forward by theists might be that free will couldn’t exist if we owe our existence to a jumble of chemical equations.  Of course, not all atheists are adherents to this philosophy, nor is this philosophy necessarily a prerequisite of atheism.  Let me put it this way:  atheism is a rejection of a collection of claims, not a rigid adherence to fixed philosophical or scientific dogma.  Religion and faith rely on inconsistent and incompatible dogma; rejection of religion is, to me, the recognition that it’s impossible to honestly reconcile inconsistencies inherent in faith and religion.

In materialistic determinism, things like free will, a complex mind, and morality supposedly couldn’t exist without some supernatural string puller who endowed humans with these non-physical characteristics.  Of course, these things could exist, and I think it’s quite a dishonest stretch to claim that the mind and morality are proof for god, in the same ballpark as it is to say “I think, therefore my toaster created me.”

If you’re asking me if the mind and morality can be represented by a collection of hormones, electrical impulses, complex and evolved cellular behavior, and chemical reactions, then I suppose my answer would be:  maybe.  It seems like it.  It seems to me that 4 billion years of evolution could probably give rise to this complicated interplay between various types of cells (see endosymbiotic theory), and natural pressures seem perfectly capable of giving rise to genetic and behavioral changes.  I don’t see any evidence that there is some supernatural force that endows us with these characteristics, or that some transcendent being gives us insight into these matters before we’re born or while we’re alive, or that we have a soul that will outlive our bodies.  You’d think we’d have more evidence of things like this by now, if they were actually there.  I know there are a lot of religious folks who are horrified at the prospect that there may not have been some supernatural entity that made it all so, but despite an increasingly complex understanding of our universe, we haven’t found that supernatural explanations are needed to explain this complexity.

I could be wrong, but the evidence against my hypothesis is scant, and there don’t seem to be a lot of reasonable and testable hypotheses put forward to support the claim that our mind or morality is driven by things external of our physical bodies, brain, and learned experiences.

As far as comparing materialistic determinism with the “intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics”, it seems like quite a stretch to try to link the two concepts…sort of like trying to compare a slice of pizza with a space ship.  But I’ll rap on it for a little bit, even though I’m by no means an expert, and I think that attempting to draw someone into a debate on topics they’re unfamiliar with is quite a dishonest and cheap move.

But here’s some background:

At the quantum level (translation: very microscopic level, for instance, an electron), nature appears quite different than at the macro level (translation: the visually observable level).  Albert Einstein didn’t like some of the implications in quantum mechanics that scientists like Neils Bohr put forward in the early 1900s, because, he said, since behavior at the quantum level relies on statistical laws, it must hold that these quantum events cannot give the full description of nature by itself; in other words, there must be some other complex force that affects the probability of behavior at the quantum level.  So Einstein, along with Podolsky and Rosen, presented a paper in 1935 that claimed there was a paradox (violation of natural laws) to which quantum theory gave rise.

In 1964, John Stewart Bell demonstrated mathematically that there are no hidden variables behind the statistical nature in quantum processes, and therefore, proved Einstein and his colleagues wrong.  In other words, Bell demonstrated that quantum behavior was more-or-less a function of itself – no other natural phenomena were providing inputs in quantum processes, such as radioactive decay.  Even though in the observable world, we say that observable phenomenon have a cause, this does not hold in the quantum world.  To put it another way, events at the quantum level seem much more random than events we had previously described with mathematical equations in classical mechanics; in actuality, quantum behavior follows a series of behaviors that we have described mathematically, but those mathematical definitions are different than those found in classical mechanics.  Quantum mechanical probabilities are functions of the space, time, energy and momentum variables and give specific weights for specific measurements.

To swing back to the question of materialistic determinism, and whether it’s compatible with the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, I would say that the two are not compatible, nor do they need to be, nor would their compatibility (or incompatibility) prove God in any way, nor is it a reasonable exercise to try to draw parallels between the two, nor does one’s ability to stump non-scientific atheists add any weight or credibility to their argument, nor does the complexity at the quantum level need an external supernatural explanation.

The Moderate Pathway to Deconversion (Part 2)

I was reading comments on a Youtube video yesterday, and I saw a mini-squabble between two people – one talking about about immorality espoused by the bible, and the other who didn’t care, because their primary concern was to follow Jesus Christ’s teachings.

There’s a real challenge for people who choose to debate against Christians, because Christianity has, built into it, a persecution complex; after all, Christians’ lord-and-savior was persecuted his whole life, and then killed by crucifixion.  The bible also teaches that Christians are sure to be persecuted (Second Timothy 3:12), and this is reinforced in sermons and on Sunday School posters.  And of course, no persecution paradigm is complete without leveraging the movie “God’s Not Dead”, which stews in this persecution complex by claiming that it is so institutionalized, college students are forced by asshole philosophy professors to renounce their faith, lest they want to fail the course.  This is a dubious projection indeed, since the only examples we can actually cite of forced religious pledges are in Christian colleges.  But I guess that asshole professor got what he deserved in the end, eh comrades?  Pandering still works.

Is it any wonder with all this certainty about their own persecution, the largest religion in America constantly claims that we secular heathens are removing Christ from Christmas, and all the other nonsense that is so appealing to people who genuinely feel persecuted, despite all evidence is to the contrary?

I don’t know what the key argument is to force people to reexamine their own beliefs more skeptically, nor do I feel particularly inclined to proactively deconvert people (but if people try to re-convert me, I’ll damn sure push back).  For me, it was a collection of things, including biblical inconsistency and immorality, dubious logical claims, a valid and reasonable concern that Jesus Christ didn’t even exist, the persecution complex coupled with all evidence to the contrary, and the undeniable correlation I observed between level of religious indoctrination and overall worldview incorrectness.

I stumbled upon Deism one day, and it was appealing to me.  My skepticism led me to conclude that Christianity was ridiculous, but the God idea was less so.  I didn’t feel that I needed a formalized collection of rules as described in the bible.  Evolution, social conventions, the human brain, and hormones seemed like a good enough explanation for why humans can manage to not murder each other en masse, or at least why we would have been able to abstain from murder frequently enough to reproduce and maintain a diverse population.  In other words, to quote Christopher Hitchens, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it”.  So, I considered myself a Deist for several years.

I think it’s hard to simultaneously argue against theism and the underlying deism.  The two are logically separate; not mutually exclusive, but logically speaking, God can exist without one particular religion being correct.  So, to me, it gets messy to try to make one claim that there is not enough evidence for God AND that there is not enough evidence that Jesus Christ was God’s son; in fact, there are logical pitfalls in trying to hold these two positions in the same argument.

I think that decoupling deism and theism is a pathway to deconversion.  The God concept, without all of Christianity’s baggage, makes for a clearer investigation.  Similarly, Christianity isolated from the technical argument for God allows for a more honest assessment of what Christianity is truly advocating, without reducing it to cherry-picked warm and fuzzies.

The Moderate Pathway to Deconversion

It doesn’t take long, when you live in America, to realize there are groups of ultra-religious assholes who justify their assholishness by referencing the bible and its impossible standards for humanity, and cherry-picking it to shame or otherwise hold contempt for a group of people other than themselves.  I recognized this group (the Jerry Fallwell genre) when I was in high school in the 1990s.

Growing up attending an ELCA Lutheran church, it was pretty easy to distinguish those religious zealots from my own group, because as Christians go, mid-western, Scandinavian Lutherans are pretty moderate.  Sure, there’s the occasional lunatic, but they are the minority.

My defacto stance on the matter was that one can be a non-zealous Christian, be moral, and still end up in heaven.

I remember learning, maybe by my freshman year in college, that December 25 was almost certainly not the date Jesus Christ could have been born, according to the birth story in the bible; March or April seemed a more accurate time.  When I shared this discovery with my mom, about the Pagan rituals Christianity adopted, she half-heartedly accused me of blasphemy…in the gentle sort of way that loving, Lutheran, midwestern mothers do.  I wasn’t persecuted or commanded to go to church, but it was clear that she would rather not hear about revelations like that, and she assured me that ignorance is bliss in these matters.

Fast forward a couple years.  In a college freshman biology class, the professor pointed out the absurdity of the claim that the Earth is younger than 7000 years old.  He talked about James Hutton and Charles Lyell and that they demonstrated how the Earth must be older than their contemporaries claimed, given the slow nature of geographic formations.  At the time, I took that to mean that the Earth, and all living organisms on it, could not have been formed in 6 days.  That seemed fairly intuitive to me, anyway, and I had already assumed the Earth was quite old, but never gave the precise age of it much thought.

My Christianity was still in tact by the year 2000, but it didn’t escape my attention that the most holy times of the year (Christmas and Easter) were grossly commercialized to the benefit of corporations.  I had grown up in a Reagan-Democrat household, and I had conservative leanings at the time, probably even more conservative than my parents, who were (and still are) middle-of-the road (although the GWB administration, and its outrageous folly, pushed them to the left a bit).  So even though I saw a commercialized Christmas as sinful, or at least tacky, as a pro-freedom wannabe-capitalist, I was friendlier to the modern American corporation and its behaviors than I am today.

Somewhere along the way, I took an anthropology class, and I learned about Neanderthals, homo Erectus, homo Ergaster, Autrailapithicus, and lots of other species that predated humanity, while becoming more human over time.  At this point, the religious implications of human evolution didn’t occur to me; in fact, I’d never given evolution much thought, and the grandeur of the process, and its implications, had never crossed my mind.  No one, up to that point, had ever pointed out a paradox between original sin, salvation, creation, and the kink that evolution introduces.

In 2001, there was 9/11, which more or less solidified the “us versus them” mentality for many Americans.  Though I was a bit more progressive by this point, I took it as a reasonable proposition that extreme religious views were consistently correlated with terrorism.  I didn’t feel really attached to my religion at this point, or inclined to defend its merits juxtaposed against Islam.  For moderate midwestern Lutherans, moderation is itself a justification for its correctness.

From 2003 to 2010, the notion that science can disprove or shed light on religion’s suspicious claims became clearer to me, but I was focused on my career and family, and I was in no hurry to disprove anything.  I’m a pragmatist, and it was enough for me to slowly gather facts about the natural world and universe, and what our role is in it.  For pragmatists, formulating an opinion too quickly can be harmful and lock us into a faulty viewpoint.  Of course, the fact that I had 2 young kids during this time may have influenced the amount of time it took for me to formulate a revised opinion on the life, the universe, and everything.

Since 2010, my interest in science has greatly increased.  I started to understand cellular metabolism, and that led to an increased curiosity about the cell, and its inner workings.  I began to understand the symbiosis between the cell’s nucleus and its mitochondria, and how genes play a role in protein formation.  This tied in with my interest in evolution, and the relationships between all living species, which can be described genetically.

But the missing part of the bridge between where I was in 2010 and now is the matter of how life could have gone from such a simple state to such a complex one as we have now.  The universe certainly seems to be guided by immutable principles, and the fact that humans are lucky enough to exist now seems unlikely, given the chaos of the earlier universe.

These conclusions led me to call myself a Deist for quite a while – my thoughts were that God doesn’t appear to intervene in the universe, and the bible’s major claims are almost certainly untrue, and written by primitive liars and schizophrenics, but it seemed fairly likely that there must have been a creator of this big machine.  In hindsight, this view might have been closer to Spinoza’s pantheism than it is to Deism, but I’m not (nor was I) concerned about semantics like that.  Pragmatism is (or ought to be) more concerned with practices and outcomes.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized I was committing a logical fallacy:  God of the gaps, where God is used as justification for incomplete knowledge.  Somewhere between then and now, I realized what a dishonest proposition it is to commit this error, and that I was as guilty as my ancestors of rationalizing my ignorance, and pointing to God as a solution for something.  Up until about 400 years ago, it would have been very tempting to blame disease or poor harvests or natural disasters on our human failings and lack of reverence to God.  Of course, that’s crazy.  Those things aren’t caused by God; rather, they’re caused by now well-understood natural phenomena.

The problem with God of the gaps, and indeed the rationale for God, is that it makes God arbitrary.  God could easily be replaced with all-knowing unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters, and the argument would be just as sound, and have an equal amount of evidence.  This arbitrary nature seems to highlight the fact that God, in terms of how we’ve defined him, is a device to hedge our ignorance.

Another problem I saw with God of the gaps is that it gives people license to practice blind certainty.  Being convinced of something can be a dangerous proposition, especially when you don’t have proof for it.  Investigation, and willingness to say “I don’t know” is a more honest position.  We don’t know a lot of things, and blind certainty stops us in our tracks, and that is altogether bad for humans.  There is a lot left to discover, and saying “God did it” is neither honest nor wise, and it neglects the burden of proof we bear when making a claim that something exists.  It also pretends to know something that we just don’t, no matter how much we’d like it.

There are a lot of ancillary examples of what added to my skepticism, such as examples in the bible or more existential questions, like the problem of evil.  But Christianity’s appeal began to wane for me somewhere between 2003 and 2006.  It just wasn’t sound enough for me, because I have high standards for what I accept as evidence, and I was aware of the special pleading fallacy before that.  Of course, it took me a while to form an articulate thought around this concept, but I think that anyone who has to take responsibility for themselves in this world understands that failure to have high standards for evidence results in really bad outcomes, and gullibility is a liability.

Logical Fallacies Part 2

There are so many logical fallacies, I didn’t think the 1100 words I gave in the first post were enough to describe the wide array of errors people commit on an almost-constant basis.  So I thought I would give some more examples.

False Dilemma
A false dilemma fallacy occurs when only 2 options are put forward to explain potential outcomes, when in fact, there are many more possibilities.  For example:

John:  “Either the screeching we heard last night was bigfoot, or I’m a monkey’s uncle”
Jack:  “Couldn’t the screeching have been something other than bigfoot?”
John:  “Nope…”

Causal Reductionism
This is very similar to ignoring a common cause.  The difference is that in Causal Reductionism, a collection of interrelated events led to an outcome.  For example:

John:  “I prayed, and that made my cancer go away”
Jack:  “You don’t think it had anything to do with medicine and chemotherapy?”
John:  “No, it was the prayer”

Red Herring
Red herring might be the most commonly invoked logical fallacy, and often, it’s hard to spot.  The example often used to describe red herring is the story of a hunting dog that is tracking a wounded bird.  Someone brings a dead fish (red herring) to draw the dog off the bird’s scent.  So, red herring is simply the use of a non-related topic to draw people off the current topic.  For example:

Jack:  “Claims about bigfoot are not reasonable”
John:  “Do you realize how many claims are unreasonable?  Think about all the people who claim they were abducted by aliens”
Jack:  “What do aliens have to do with bigfoot?”

In the above conversation, aliens are irrelevant to the point Jack was trying to make.  Had Jack not been so astute about John’s logical fallacy, he might have gotten drawn into a debate about alien abductions, and the topic of bigfoot would have gotten missed altogether.

Special Pleading
A special pleading occurs when a person attempts claims that their specific claim is special and different than most other claims of a similar nature.  For example:

John:  “Obviously alien abductions, the abominable snowman, and the Loch Ness monster are ridiculous on their surface.  But I’m not talking about them.  I’m talking about the North American Bigfoot!”
Jack:  “How is that different?”
John:  “Bigfoot is completely different!”

Sometimes it is a challenge to respond to logical fallacies a person commits, because their fallacy does not necessarily mean they’re wrong.  It just means that the argument is poorly formed, and the evidence put forward does not agree with the conclusions of the claim.

I think that watching out for logical fallacies, even when that’s directed towards people who might have similar opinions to ourselves, is an honest way to approach the world, and the best way to avoid making bad decisions when determining how to understand reality, and it is one of the best methods we have to separate fact from fiction.

Merry Little Mythmas

Jaclyn Glenn posted a fun parody of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” a few days ago, and it’s definitely worth watching.  The video delivers insight into the breadth of Ms. Glenn’s talent.

Reading the comments on the video, a lot of people talk about how Christmas was created in order to hijack Pagan rituals.  A lot of atheists also mention how themes in Christmas borrow from earlier historical figures, such as Horus, Dionysus, Krishna, Mercury, Romulus, Perseus, Buddha, Attis, Mithra, etc.

Apologists reply…umm….the way apologists reply.

Certainly Christianity hijacked earlier Pagan rituals.  Christ’s birthday (if he existed as a single person) could not have been on December 25, given the imagery and events described in the bible.

Likewise, Christianity borrowed from much earlier historical memes (the virgin mother, the crucifixion, turning water into wine, son of god, and rising from the dead).

Christmas also enjoys a tremendous commercialization, and the downstream impact is that it is virtually a lifesaver for the retail industry.  Many people, even Christians, find this abhorrent.

Although I see all these things as evidence leading to an undeniable conclusion that Christianity is untrue, I don’t think these arguments would do much to convince a moderate Christian.  Certainly they’re part of the suite of arguments, but I think that they’re the equivalent of playground monkey bars to a person who has already conditioned themselves to do the sort of intellectual gymnastics required for belief.