Thursday, 16 April 2009

Putting Lipstick On A Pig

One criticism I see of the modern atheist movement is that it fails to capture the arguments that modern theologians are arguing. If the modern theological interpretation, the god of the philosophers, were a valid extension of ancient beliefs then I would fully agree with this criticism. But I like many others would argue that the modern theological constructs that surround the god of the philosophers is not the god that they profess. Rather it is a modified version of the god of the bible, dressed up to look like the god of the philosophers. Thus it enables these theologians to push through all the incredulous parts of their dogma as if they became somehow validated through arguments that are by far more diffuse.

The God of The Bible
Yahweh, like many other gods of the age, was born out of human ignorance to give a sense of order in a seemingly chaotic world. While it may seem to do little justice to the concept, it's important to keep in mind what purpose the gods stood for at the time they were invented. It does no disservice to any deity to portray them that way, as it is as far as I can tell the most accurate descriptor available for the supernatural beings that litter the various mythologies and cultures scattered across the globe.

Consider one of the scientific claims out of the bible - the origin of different language. In Genesis, this is explained by the story of the Tower of Babel. Now it's true that different cultures have different languages, but is that story a satisfying explanation? Look at the languages in Western Europe. French, Italian and Spanish are all Latin-derived, but none of them are Latin. We know through history that each started off as a Latin base, but changed over time. This gives us predictive power - that languages evolve as a culture changes. So we should expect to find that while different cultures speak different languages, nearby cultures derivations should be more similar than ones that have been geographically isolated for millennia. And this is exactly what we find: in Australia there are many different languages spoken by the natives yet these languages are similar, and completely different to the languages spoken in Japan or tribal Africa.

This is but one example of the many superseded explanations that once God / The Bible were used to explain but now have a naturalistic cause. With our understanding of cosmology and evolution, the bible simply does not hold as a book on natural history; it fails badly in every respect. Yet this is the idea that Christianity expanded upon, and modern theologians are now mixing modern philosophy with. The god of the philosophers is being used to justify the god of the bible, yet historically and culturally it's hard to see how one could be mistaken for the other except in a rationalisation of beliefs that were previously held for other reasons.

The reconciliation that wasn't there
There are many philosophical arguments for the existence of God, and not being a trained philosopher I don't feel that I could argue against the arguments anywhere near as effectively as others have done. Rather my contention is the diffuse nature of the arguments. Even if the arguments demonstrate the god of the philosophers, calling it the Judeo-Christian deity is a huge leap in logic. Each one of these arguments do not demonstrate any particular properties that are ascribed to god, they do not justify the dogma or explain the disparity between the god of the philosophers and the bronze-age god of the Jews.

If there was a total abandonment of dogma for the sake of philosophy I could understand. Where is the trinity justified in anything other than Christian dogma? Where does original sin come from if not dogma? The god of the philosopher's doesn't even necessitate consciousness or any interest in the human species, yet these are at the core of the Christian doctrine. For all the evidence otherwise, modern theology still largely rests with earth (and specifically us) as the focus of the universe despite all the evidence to the contrary.

It seems that to mix one with the other, it can be done by either demonstrating that the Judeo-Christian construct of God matches the philosophers god and therefore Jesus, or by showing Jesus' divinity and therefore God. Without demonstrating that the philosopher's god has any form of consciousness, intelligence or interest in the human race then there isn't enough of a ground to alleviate the scepticism surrounding the impossibility of the claims surrounding Jesus. And with only eyewitness testimony, the impossibility of the claims surrounding Jesus do not meet the sceptical threshold to justify that the philosopher's god is the Christian one.

This may seem a harsh use of Occam's razor, but to me it is justifiable. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the weak nature of the evidence surrounding a deistic Jesus combined with the nebulous nature of the god of the philosophers mean that neither are good explanations to justify the other. Even when used together, the impossibility that surrounds each claims means that a cumulative argument where the two are used in conjunction with one another does not bridge the large leap of logic one has to take to get to the other.

The finest dressed pig at the ball
Modern Christianity cannot escape the shaky foundation it is built on. And although they have tried to dress it up to be something else, the shaky foundation is still visible for all to see. It's not only putting lipstick on a pig, but giving it a complete makeover. It has been given a dress, taught to walk upright and even talk. To even be generous, the makeover has even involved radical cosmetic surgery to make it look human. Yet no matter what cosmetic enhancement the pig has undergone, inside it is still a pig. To call it out as such does not need one to take into account that it has been dressed up to look otherwise. A dressed-up pig is still a pig, just as a modern interpretation of God is still the same deity that came about to explain order in the absence of scientific knowledge.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Inadequacy of Poe's Law

Just to show that even the arguments of a creationist can evolve, Ray Comfort has reprised his atheist nightmare. But the focus is no longer the banana - the product of artificial selection and human design, he's now moved onto animal. In a "debate", Comfort has shifted his argument to the majestic dog. For those not in the know, dogs like bananas are a product of artificial selection. As far as we can tell, dogs were the first animal to be domesticated by man, some 15,000 years ago in Asia. Dogs are wolves, selected for particular traits that suited the purposes of man.

Adding another level of irony, the dog is actually a very good example of where new species come from. Comfort's cartoonish version of the origin of a new species is that it would be impossible for a male and a female to evolve simultaneously. PZ Myers has as good an explanation as anyone in pointing out the obvious absurdity of Comfort's claim. Just look at the dog breeds that are there now. Great Danes and Poodles both reproduce sexually, a Poodle won't give birth to a Great Dane or vice versa. Yet it was only 15000 years ago that these two shared a common ancestor that reproduced sexually as well.

To get the exaggerated difference between the large Great Dane and the cutesy Poodle, it's taken selection. Each step of the way there has been reproduction between a male and a female. It's that variations that occur by nothing more than the virtue of being born are deliberately bred against. By selecting favourable features and choosing mating pairs that will breed such features, over time those variations will accumulate. All the breeds and all the different features and specialisations in each breed are the result of only 15,000 years of breeding. Yet there are dogs specialised for a myriad of different roles. A Chihuahua may make for a good house pet, but it can't run like a Greyhound, nor can it be used for hunting like any variety of scent hound. Nor is it specialised for being a beast of burden, unlike sled dogs, or be useful with livestock like a cattle dog is.

I've got to wonder if Ray can be so unintentionally stupid, it's hard to imagine that someone can be that profoundly ignorant when it comes to science. Evolution doesn't happen in individuals, rather it happens in populations. In the case of mammals, that includes both males and females. There's been direct breeding from the grey wolf to the German Sheppard as there has been to the Great Dane and to the Poodle. Each step of the way there has been variation, and there will be an accumulation of these traits over time. This obviously is a much faster process than what happens with natural selection in the wild, but the principle is the same. Animals reproduce, there are born both male and female - and those offspring will both compete to reproduce. Thus the cycle of life brings on change over time. That is the inevitability of evolution, highlighted by an unintentional 15,000 year global experiment.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Problem Of Induction

It's been put to me a few times by theists when arguing for science, the question of the problem of induction. Not being a philosophy student and being somewhat unfamiliar with where philosophical literature is on the matter, while I had no idea how to respond the argument felt like nothing more than philosophical sophistry. Upon investigation into the concept my suspicions were confirmed. It's a valid criticism though as a problem for science it's far overstated. By focusing on what science isn't, it's deceptive about what science is.

Deductive and inductive logic
It might be wise to explain the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Take for instance the deductive proof for abiogenesis:
Life in it's current state can only come from pre-existing life, though such a statement requires an infinite regress.
Since the earth is not eternal, there must have been a point that bore life from non-life.
(Therefore,) abiogenesis occurred.

Deductive reasoning seems easy enough, given a certain set of premises a conclusion can be drawn. In the case of abiogenesis, we understand that the universe and the planet itself is of a finite age. By a variety of dating tequniques and sources, that age is worked out to be ~4.55 billion years. All observation of old rocks and modelling show that the early earth would not be able to cater for even the most primitive of life, so the first 500 million years or so it is deduced that there was no life. By 3.5 billion years ago, the fossil record suggests the presence of primitive bacteria. So it's logical to deduce that somewhere between 4 and 3.5 billion years ago life began on this planet. How it began though is still unknown.

Take one of the premises - life in it's current state can only come from pre-existing life. This is inductive reasoning. Rather it should say, by all observation life can only come from pre-existing life. It's inductive reasoning to infer from observation to apply it on a universal level. The classic example is the black swan. By observing only white swans, the statement "all swans are white" could be inducted. But finding a swan with black feathers falsifies that statement - as it happened when British explorers came to Australia. Taking what is observed and inducing it will always be the case is no guarantee of success.

Practical induction
Say you are holding a glass, after you take a sip you want to free your hands. So what do you do? Any reasonable person will use the law of gravity to make the inductive assumption that a glass needs to be put on a stable flat surface, yet even though every time gravity has worked so far you cannot tell if in the next instance the glass will simply float if you let go in mid-air. Now think of what to do next time the car needs filling up. Now you could stick to petroleum under the inductive purpose that the laws of physics haven't modified your engine, though by doing so you are missing out on the chance to see whether in this one particular instance whether the car will run on pure H2O.

These examples sound absurd but they highlight the way in which induction is used in everyday life. When choosing to exit a tall building, it could be that by jumping out a 10th story window that you'll float gently to the ground, But the safe bet is that while you can't be certain of your demise through doing such a thing, it's it's all probability best to take an elevator and exit through the front door. By turning on a television or getting water from a tap, the inductive reasoning holds true the laws of nature. It's the mastery of the environment, the ability to control these forces, that highlight the triumph of the scientific endeavour.

Turning on the news should show more inductive reasoning in action. Each day during the weather forecast, predictions for what time sunrise will be and the times for the tides are displayed for all to see. These aren't guesses but are worked out through the knowledge of the relationship between the sun, earth and moon. The predictions hold true day after day, this knowledge yet another demonstration that the practical output of induction based on deductive reasoning has merit. The examples of the practical applications of the scientific method are endless, and that that in itself demonstrates is that the process is not hindered by the problem of induction.

At the heart of science is falsification. As Popper noted, it only takes one instance of falsification to show that a logical statement is wrong. For the statement "all radiocarbon dating is accurate", it has been found several different ways where the technique is invalid - such as dating coal or crustaceans. All carbon dating is falsified, but there are still instances where "radiocarbon dating is valid" still holds true. And that's what scientific theories are largely about - finding the best-fit explanation in terms of it's explanatory power of current data and it's predictive power of future data.

It leaves science itself in a state that can never be certain, but that hardly matters. As is evident by modern society the process has been repeatedly shown to work. Ken Miller said during the Dover trial that all scientific knowledge should be regarded as tentative. Look at the way Darwin changed the world in 1859 and Einstein in 1905. Those men in the last 150 years have completely changed the human understanding of the universe, yet like all ideas both of theirs are subject to the same revision as any scientific concept. General relativity still needs to be resolved with quantum gravity, and evolution has changed through observation and experiment. The system is not perfect, but that's the power of science. Those focusing on trying to have certainty will be almost certainly wrong.
"Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them." - Karl Popper

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Threat Of Hell

I want to expand a little more on one of the concepts I touched on in effective proselytism, and that is using the threat of hell in order to convert an atheist. As I explained in that post, the threat of hell doesn't feel like a threat because there's no indication that the threat is a valid one. To see that from the atheist perspective, one must understand why they would not see the afterlife implications of another religion as a threat. At the very least, understand what feels like an empty threat - say for instance someone claiming they have a nuclear warhead targeted at your house. It's a grand threat, but the sheer absurdity of the claim should negate any such concern.

Assessing a threat
Being able to properly assess a threat was in the past essential to the survival of our ancestors. Beyond the safe confines of modern suburbia, there exists a world where inadequately assessing the risk of a given situation could easily lead to termination. Yet there exists basic necessities in life that require risk-taking in order to survive. Foraging for food required the right knowledge of what fruits are poisonous, while going for water risks being attacked by predator species who also share that same mammalian need for a water source. So assessing threats and changing our behaviour to cope with them is part of our nature. And if one can see that a threat is sufficient enough, it will change their actions.

While in our modern society the imminent threat of death is not so common, but it still exists. For instance if someone is robbing you at gunpoint. Non-immediate threats are difficult to gauge, for instance the threat of lung cancer as a result of smoking. Getting cancer is a concern so taking preventative measures by altering diet and behaviour is a way to minimise the risk. Yet even with the knowledge of the link between smoking and lung cancer, many people still choose to smoke regardless. Even having non-fatal consequences are still threatening, such as avoiding the sickly helps mitigate the rick of falling ill or investing assets into a company. The relationship between environment and risk should be well established.

I have no doubt that theists who threaten hell on children and non-believers are doing so out of the genuine belief that hell is a real place, and that given the severe risk such a place poses to the well being of themselves and others it makes sense to try and warn others about the threat. To a non-believer the threat will not feel credible at all. For someone to worry about the threat of hell, they must first be convinced that hell is a real place. Otherwise threatening an atheist with hell is like threatening a Christian with suffering in the next life through not breaking The Cycle Of Samsara. If a Christian won't give up their desire to be with Jesus on the account of the suffering it could bring them in the next life if the Karmic Wheel is true, then why would they expect an atheist to do the same without first making the case that hell is real?

Why hell?
On its own, the threat is absurd. To ignore the threat of hell for not believing in Jesus is as much of a threat as hell for crimes committed against Allah. Most religions have their own version of hell and each their own way of avoiding it. There's even plenty of Christians who feel that hell is nothing more than the absence of God and as such it's not the torturous place that some make it out to be. Yet through either implicit or explicit rejection, a theist who argues for the threat of hell under their conditions is rejecting the notion that any other path to hell exists. Why shouldn't the bible bashing Baptist not be worried about missing out on the afterlife because he did not follow the ancient Egyptian belief that the only way there was through mummification? Perhaps upon burial the Book of the Dead should be put in the coffin alongside a crucifix, you know, just in case...

The threat can never be shown to an individual, only inferred. The limitation of our observation point means that the threat can never be properly assessed. So testimony near death experiences, divine revelation, and prophetic visions are the only possible ways to know that the threat exists. Not many experience these first-hand, rather they are transmitted through personal accounts and handed down through the generations. One way to test the validity of such claims is to see how often these transcend culture, judging what similarities are there through experience. Why aren't the prophetic visions of shaman in India the same as those in Bible Belt USA? Why don't the Near Death Experiences of Christians line up with those who delve into New Age spiritualism? Why is it that similar experiences can be induced through drugs or even dreaming?

Again, I don't doubt people have those kinds of experiences and that they seem very real to whoever goes through it. But given the inconsistency of experiences, the conflicts between testimony from those experiences and there being rational explanations, those testimonies are not enough to convince me that hell is a real place any more than one who tells of a personal abduction by aliens as being proof of extra-terrestrial beings. Eyewitness accounts are the worst form of evidence, and when it comes to speculative areas where the mind is not trained to understand, any testimony becomes extremely shaky. How can we tell fantasy from fact when the mind is so good at creating the former?

What is beyond this life is not known, and by all accounts it cannot be known. It's a matter of faith to believe something is there, even if a holy book attests to their existence. So in the face of the unknown, perhaps a little humility should be given. That if these questions are beyond human understanding and comprehension as many theists will attest to, then to say otherwise is to presume to speak for God. It's making statements about the nature of God and the will of God, yet doing so through the fallible mind that every human has. We don't know, we can't know, believing it to be true does not make it so. There may be an afterlife, there may be a hell, but really what makes any person's vision of hell any more or less accurate than anyone else? That needs to be answered before the threat will hold weight.