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).

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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.

Eternal Punishment

The teachings given in Christianity is that if I don’t believe or if I don’t surrender all of my love to a supernatural being whom I’ve never seen, and for whom there is no reliably conclusive evidence, then I will suffer the human equivalent of being doused in gasoline and burned alive. But unlike in the natural world, where my excruciating, fire-induced suffering would end in death, this supernaturally imposed punishment, as a result of my disbelief or failure to love enough, would never ever end. I would burn forever.

My children also supposedly live within this framework, and would suffer this fate if they dared commit the same thought crime I did.

This God, who seemed to have no qualms about revelation in the pre-video era, and who at any moment could reveal himself in a reliably observable, modern way, thus putting away the question forever as to their existence, would burn my children and me for our thought crimes, and for using the deductive and inductive logic that he supposedly gave us. Not only that, but any child or adult who dared question the existence of this invisible deity, now or at any time in history, would also be subject to the same torture. The answer, according to Christianity, is to give unending and unearned love to this abusive, jealous, rageful, torturous, human-burning God.

An apologist of this hell-fire wielding supernatural entity might say something like “God is love”, or “God is the authority on morality”, or “you have the option to believe”, or that “God gives you the opportunity to apologize”, or that “God is forgiving”, or that “God show’s mercy”…all you have to do is quick say a little prayer that you believe and that you are sorry for having the audacity to use your brain in a way that is proven to be the most reliable way to distinguish fact from fiction.

Personally, I’ve never claimed to be a God, but it would never occur to me to douse a loved one in gasoline and burn them if they didn’t love me, or if they didn’t believe in me. If I loved somebody, and if I had a hand in creating them, and a vested interest in their well-being, the thought of burning that person because of what they think is repulsive to me. To take that one step further, if burning my children wasn’t repulsive to me, what would that say about me? It would would make me a monster, clearly worse than my unbelieving, sinful victim.

With about as much certainty as I’ve ever had in anything, I assert that the inclination to burn your children for eternity because of their thoughts is neither loving, merciful, nor moral.  The god Abrahamic practitioners imagine is quite wicked, indeed.

Becoming An Atheist

My name is Tim, and I’m an atheist. That was hard for me to write, and the purpose of this post is to examine why. Why is it that writing a simple sentence, that no one other than myself has read, was such a challenging task?

I’m still quite new to this deconversion process, but my deconversion comes after a period of trying to be as honest with myself as I possibly can. Sometimes honesty is painful, and most of the time, self-honesty is not pleasant. As one of my heroes, Richard Feynman was fond of saying, “the easiest person to fool is yourself.”

For many years, I was quite afraid to even pose the question: Is there really a God, or am I deluding myself?

I’ve since gotten past that problem, and I’ve begun to reflect on what the underlying reasons were for my fear to engage in this blasphemous thought crime.

I think there are a lot of reasons why people are afraid to use their better judgement in evaluating origins of the Earth, and what their specific place in it is. Even harder is to imagine a universe completely different than what you’ve been taught. My thoughts on why these matters are so difficult are these:

1. Physical and Social Safety – Aside from the concern of eternal hellfire, there are many cultures around the world where failure to practice the “appropriate” religion can result in death, property loss, and imprisonment. In the Western world (at least, in the US), failure to accept the family-sanctioned religion can result in one’s family, or entire community, shunning them.

2. The infinite death – It’s not a very pleasant thought to imagine that your existence will eventually be nullified forever, and within a few dozen years, no one will ever think about you again. This isn’t a pleasant thought, whether you’re thinking about it in first-person, or whether you’re concerned about someone else’s legacy. The idea of an eternal theme-park that casts away all the unfairness of the world is particularly appealing to most, and it would have been even more appealing to an earlier age of people (think the dark ages) who only knew pain and suffering, and where people were lucky to survive to be 35 years old.

3. The infinite universe – If you’ve ever really given any thought to the size of the universe, it quickly becomes apparent that humans are somewhere south of a speck, in terms of their relevance in that universe. Coming to terms with one’s insignificance is a tough task, particularly if they grew up in an atmosphere that stressed to them that they are important in the eyes of God.

4. Reality constructed on a lie – It is no wonder that people have come to look at science as the enemy of religion. The particular branch of science, upon which most other modern science relies, is the theory of evolution. There are 2 specific reasons why it is important that religious people reject evolution: evolution implies there is no original sin AND evolution implies that people can exist with some harmony without religion (ie ethics and morality precede religion). Original sin and the moral authority of God and the bible are the cornerstones of Christianity (the religion I understand best…which is not saying a lot).

5.  Cognitive Dissonance – Most people don’t do well when confronted with facts that are inconsistent with their world-view.  In fact, sometimes it seems that we’re hard-wired to ignore this situation.  Most hypotheses put forward by Christianity are patently absurd when framed in the context that decent human behavior is not possible without religion.  But people continue to ignore it, because it’s easier not to think.

6. Cherry-picked arguments – One of the challenges in being honest with yourself is assessing the honesty of a philosophical argument. If the implication of an idea results in an impossibility in real life, then it’s at least partially wrong. For example, if I said that all people who wear yellow shirts are jerks, this claim is invalidated the second I meet someone with a yellow shirt who is not a jerk. This is a simple example, and it gets more difficult when you’re talking about an ideology with many claims.

The point of #6 is that the Christian bible seems to me, on its very best day, to be a tremendously immoral document; that is, it advocates immoral behavior. This immoral behavior includes slaughtering people who are not “God’s chosen people”, slavery, rape, human sacrifice, and infanticide through the word of God. These biblical moral failings are the tip of the iceberg, as far as what’s wrong with the bible, but the implication when an ideology fails on particular grounds is that the ideology is not perfect; therefore, the bible could not be the ultimate moral authority, because it advocates immorality which is plainly evident to anyone who can exercise any bit of morality on their own.

I have a lot more to say about why I think modern theism is faulty, and why that is not the same as why I am skeptical of the claim that God exists. But these are my first thoughts on the matter.