Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Interactions with a thinking Christian

On Monday I posted a comment on the blog of Thinking Christian, in a post that is a reply of sorts to another post by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (who, in turn, was taking Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga to task for sloppy apologetics and argumentation). I was away yesterday with no time nor decent access to continue with the follow-ups, and when I returned there's just so much to dig into that I decided to place my replies here. So.

Update: Small changes towards the end to make sure I talk about models of thought and not the people in question.

Update 2: It pains me to say this, but the Thinking Christian has, well, banned me. I've pasted at the bottom a couple of banned responses. I'm very disappointed by this kind of shutting people up - I would never do that myself - but can hardly say I'm surprised.

My comment basically said two things;

1. By changing one of the premises by upping the complexity without defining further premises to define them, you are essentially begging the question. If I am to take the thinking Christian seriously - and, by 'thinking', I am assuming that logic, reason and deeper thinking than what is required for making dinner is involved - then each time something is begging the question, we need to point this out, otherwise these arguments aren't sound. And so I pointed out that in order for Tom (that's the thinking Christian in question) to have a good reason to ridicule Coyne, we must all agree with what omnipotence actually mean in this context. I will go into detail about this a bit later (and Tom asked me to specifically delve into it).

2. Tom used as part of his rhetoric that "Nothing can cause itself." Now, I admit that perhaps my wording here was a bit clumsy, but even if me begging for the logical reason for the argument - even when clumsy - still dives into the problem that believer of a thing that has always existed face as they bring out the everlasting god vs. everything else is caused;

   We don't know that everything else is caused.

The usual example in this argument is that the universe had a beginning, therefore someone created it, therefore god. But there is a huge misunderstanding in lay peoples understanding of what this beginning of the universe mean, and the key to this lies in the fact that scientists - when they want to be a bit more precise than when they're on some talk show on TV - call this universe "the known universe." This is important; The word "universe" is what we use for what we see, and, indeed, what we see - mostly light, the bits of matter we can see in our solar system - all of that can be traced back to a common point in time from which their journey started some 13.7 billion years ago, and hence we say that this is the age of the known universe, and that even time might have started here.

But this only that little part of it all that we can see. In fact, we can't see all of it; for the first 380.000 years of the universe the heat was so high that photons couldn't even be created to create light; they would try to bond, and then get shredded apart again by the heavy radiation. It was slightly after those 380.000 years that the universe cooled enough to create light, and from which we could start to see anything. This border between what we can see and what lies beyond is called the radiation microwave background, and it gives us a good map of how the universe - the known universe - further evolved, but is quite out of scope for this post.

However, we - and I mean scientists, of course - can calculate back into those 380.000 years using powerful computers and simulators, all the way back through the slowing and expansion of the known universe and the inflation, all the way to a few Planck constants after the Big Bang (which didn't bang), but not further as our understanding of quantum mechanics break down at this point. Beyond this point we don't know anything, however this is not to say we will never know, only that this is the current limit of our knowledge.

When we consider that the universe is made up with positive and negative energy, and after weighing the universe - again, the known universe - and accounting for all that is in it, we are left with the fabulously funky concept that the total energy of the known universe is precisely 0. Zero. Nothing. But more on that later when we talk about whether something can come from nothing.

Quick aside, though, as this whole section stands as an answer to another commenter JAD who said "Again, there is nothing logically contradictory about the premise “that Something has always existed.”" Yes, you're right. However, the point admittedly clumsily made was that Christians refuse to give anything but their god the privilege to having always existed, like matter, energy, empty space, or the universe - as opposed to the more popular known universe - and they refuse this not because it isn't plausible or logical, but because they don't like it or don't agree with it. Anyway, onwards. The theory (and the facts of) the known universe says nothing about the materials that were used in the formation of it, but we can make a pretty good case that there is stuff there that have always existed. But we don't know.

Tom says; " I think you, like Dr. Coyne, would likely say that you place a high value on evidence."

And I dare say that all of us place a high value on evidence. Saying otherwise would be philosophical sophistry. Would you drink Mercury? No, because evidence tells us you'll simply die. We all use evidence all the time, from walking out your door, surviving the landscape, interacting with the universe, and trying to grasp notice of what happens in it. I think it's probably fair to say that we all value evidence equally much, but that some of us are happy to replace evidence with faith when evidence interfere with our world view and / or preconceived notions.

We need to be clear about this; everything that enters the scientific consensus is by any practical means true. The only way to shift the truth-value is to produce counter evidence. (Btw, science is quite happy to accept counter evidence. In fact, all good science that are part of the consensus was at some time counter evidence. But I digress) We need to treat the laws of physics and biology and cosmology and chemistry as proven to be true, because if you don't, the onus is on you to come up with that lovely counter evidence. Being a kook or dream up an insane (but internally logical) platform of knowledge may work for the kook in question, but evidence is rooted in the concept of testing and re-testing the data to increasingly ridiculously rigid levels (and I mean that in a good way; those levels are ridiculously high for us normal lay folks, but in science they are the norm) to be agreed by consensus.

Tom says: "There is nothing sophistical, my friend, about saying that omnipotence is an attribute of God that has to do with power; or that maximal power can do what maximal power can do, but that maximal power still can only do what power can do"

There are many problems to address here. I'll start with what Tom clarified in a further comment: "Given the hypothesis “The God of Christian theism exists,” and given the definition of God that comes with that ex hypothesi, can you defend Coyne’s position that such a God ought to be regarded as potentially being able to commit divine suicide?" This was his point A, with a direct follow-up question point B giving the context of the post itself, basically asking "Can the Christian god of Alvin Plantinga commit suicide?"

The answer is, unsurprising to many but mostly surprising to Christians, "why not?" Theology is a funny thing in that one can pick and choose from thousands of years of religious thinking about all sorts of issues, including suicide. Traditionally, suicide was regarded the ultimate sin for Catholic reasons (Aquinas and confession of sin before death), but lots of people (including Augustine) would argue that it's a sin because it violates the sixth commandment.

But hang on a minute; the call to arms on the believing side is that their god cannot sin (it is illogical for their god to sin), therefore suicide is ruled out. But how? Where in the Bible does it say that suicide is a sin? It seems that the commandments - vague as they are on this topic - were rules written for man, not for god; even the most cursory reading of the bible will give you plenty of examples of this god killing people or having people killed in his name for a host of different reasons as he see fit. William Lane Craig is on record for proposing (and believing) that divine command theory makes anything god wishes and orders to be good, even if we mere humans might find it distasteful. Is that the yard-stick on our topic as well? Killing doesn't seem to be something god has an automatic, all-encompassing problem with, as opposed to, say, picking sticks for firewood on the sabbath, or taunt some guy because he's bald (god killed the stick-picker and 42 children for the taunting, although this is admittedly low-hanging fruit). I think I could make a case that ‘Biblical morality’ is situational, based on the arbitrary whims of Yahweh, so why couldn't he whim a suicide?

But all of this is of course context but besides the point. More to the point is, have Tom got any reason for why god can't? I know the concept seems rather absurd for a Christian as they've been told all their lives that god is love and all life is sacred and god is love and everlasting and so on, but is there something concrete to point to? Suicide isn't mentioned in the bible as such (although there are people who die at the hands of actions they themselves started), and I can make a case that the tale of Samson's demise can stand as an example of an approved suicide. If the conditions are right, why not?

There's various quotations about gods eternity, of course, and the everlasting love, which indeed suggest that he's at least planned to hang around for a very long time. However, that doesn't say can't, only a won't. And that was my point; your god can't do something? Or just won't do something? And then, if the question gets answered, we move to biblical morality, but more on that later.

(Update: Tom didn't say this, Doug did)

Commenter Doug  moves to a further comment: "I find it curious that Alexander references “arguments” (plural), when the neo-atheist arguments typically boil down to one:
1. If God exists, his primary concern would necessarily be to justify His existence to me (since I, the Rational Man [tm], demand it).
2. Inexplicably, God declines to play by my rules and jump through my hoops (to be known hereafter as “evidence”).
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

You know what I find curious? The sentence preceding the above reads "But my question to Alexander was of a different nature, addressing the unstated atheist preference: not for a definition per se but for a definition they like." and yet ... and yet, there are proclaims that all atheist arguments boil down to the one he wrote above.

The curious part is the double-standard. Isn't it obvious to you (ie. Christians in this debate) that you yourself are giving us a definition that you like to swat? That argument up there? It isn't mine. This is called "building a straw-man", where you dream up an argument you think your opponent have, or, at least, hope he has, and then easily burn it down because it's flawed, stupid and not really all that good. I don't really need to point out that it's a stupid argument, because, well, you made it so. It exist in your head, not in the real world.

So, let's look at the real world, which, incidentally, is a fun way to summarize the only argument atheists, in fact, do make;

"1. There is no scientific evidence for a god. 2. Therefore, there probably isn't any god."

Packed into that is of course also the finer point of science and probabilities (it seems a lot of misinformed people out there took Richard Dawkins to task last week or so for saying, er, exactly what he's been saying for years and years and written a whole book about. Oh, the irony!), but it essentially comes down to one thing; evidence. And that we talked about at the very top of this post, so I won't reiterate my stance on that again.

JAD further writes something, well, interesting: "Why should I accept an eternally existing universe over an eternally existing transcendent Mind (God)? Which is the better explanation?"

Right. Which is the better explanation. Better. Explanation. At this point it is tempting to throw up my arms and just bail out, but I'll use it as a parting comment.

The question itself is easy enough to answer: "Because truth matters." It's not my problem if people like to believe things for whatever reason - like comfort, bliss, support, need and so on - as long as those beliefs don't affect the lives of others. If you can't grasp this argument, then imagine that your country was run by a militant Jainist (there's a hysterical joke in this definition if you care to look it up) and all meat eating was banned and ants had rights to eat your house over you getting rid of them. If nothing else, I believe strongly that we must adhere to the secular state as the only state in which we all can have freedom of religious belief (and if you think otherwise, then you shouldn't have the right to complain about other opinions, no matter how different from yours they might be; we share this world, and we are different, and none of that is going to change).

But dear Jad (and others who might be lost in this model of thought); there are glaring problems here. You don't mean "eternally existing transcendent Mind", you mean the Christian god of Yahveh who is jealous of other non-existent gods, who gets angry, who smites, interferes in the discourse of men, tells people to kill their own, is a gambler with people's lives as tokens in his play,who has a son who is also himself (and not), and kills himself as a scapegoat for others so that others can - by mere thinking that this event happened the way it did and where the players were exactly who they claimed to be - get to a different non-physical place with non-physical bodies called heaven where there's going to be singing and praising for all eternity to this transcendent mind that started it all and knew all along what would happen. Oh, and he can do anything, except those things the believers in this story find unfitting in their model of thought.

That god, that Yahveh of the talking bush and virgin birth and killing babies of peoples he didn't approve of, the god that orders an unskilled person to build a boat so big as to defy biological facts and physical laws of nature, the god of having a personal relationship with everyone except those he doesn't, who loves all except those he don't - That is the god we're talking about here. (Update: First comment on the post pointed out that it was a bit attacking. Well, this section about Yahveh is not meant to be attacking at all; it is meant to bring the actual properties of that specific god into a discussion that far to often diverts into a wishy-washy definition of what a god is. I've re-worded some of this to make that clearer.)

Let's not lose sight of what the consequences of your belief is. Your god is not some vague ethereal mind that cannot be defined and must remain in the mysterious space of transcendent mumbo-jumbo of avoidance like some New Age hippie definition of love that always win wars or whatever, man. Talking philosophy and reason and logic is all good and well, and is often a wonderful tool in sussing out a model from which truth can spring, but I don't think you have completely honest intentions of following the truth wherever they may lead you (ie. change your model of epistemology based on a different model of epistemology that may or may not be better than yours at defining truth and scrutiny), and so the danger of bringing in this New Age version of god is a testament to the undefined, to the flaky thought-through concepts that you build your argument on. I'm not saying this as a criticism of your god nor your beliefs, I'm pointing out that when we place our arguments the premises needs to be rooted in reality rather than making it some thought experiment that only has validity in our imagination. This is why I keep focusing on sophistry (as a challenge, mind you) and the fact that I too often see double-standards wherever you call up logic and reason. Sure, you can create logically consistent arguments within your model of thought itself - so can the guy in the asylum down the road who thinks he's Jesus or Napoleon or Elvis - but it is directly incompatible with science, as referenced at the beginning of this post. And when that happens, well, evidence is really what matters; how else are we to determine what is true if not for a joint subjective process of tests, results and basic epistemology?

Have evidence? Then bring it; surely a few thousand years should be enough to dig up at least a smidgen of something that claims to be such an integral part of everything. Bring it because it is important. We all value the truth, and we all should follow the truth wherever it takes us, but we need to be very honest about our knowledge and our epistemology. Convincing the unbelievers of something so fantastic and integrated into everything should be easy, and yet it seems it is not. Any miracle would do. Even plausibility would do.

Otherwise it's just our opinion. Opinions are, well, interesting and worth listening to, but at some point those opinions need to have some connection with either reality or some other person who has her own opinions. Our arguments are sharing opinions, and the more we can link it to objective logic, the easier it is for the other party to accept them as true. Beliefs are opinions sometimes shared with others. You might ask at this point if there is any harm in false beliefs, for which the best answer I've heard (from Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist) is "I believed the gun was empty."

Update2 : Banned comments
Two replies that didn't make it through. One to Tom, another to Rodrigues.

@Tom:"In other words, you blew off the answer that was on the table for discussion. Totally ignored it."

No, I actually addressed it. Poorly. First time in the comment right after you gave your answer, the very next comment. It has to be said that it wasn't an "ok, I get what you say now" answer, I was distracted by the focus on proposition #4 for your original answer.

My answer in #73 was a summary of my problems with the propositions, not a direct dealing with your answer. It wasn't that I had ignored you, and I certainly didn't mean to skip a beat in the flurry of comments; I was re-stating why it is a problem, but more importantly, I stated in my objection five (building on 3 and 4) that as a springboard for talking about things that can be caused or not (as Melissa pointed out), causation needs to get a better treatment if the propositions can be used for our discussion. Yes, I should perhaps have clarified better what I meant here (and would had anyone asked) about various definitions for causality (ie. Aristotlian, Humean, etc. in philosophy vs. causality as meant in physics). The causality for a finite universe is obvious, but not so for an infinite one. I was waiting for why the unmoved mover was an acceptable one, and not nature.

You then move to the "non-reply" comment, which was my response to Melissa's "I was going to reply to most of your objections but [...]" where she says that it's addressed elsewhere, and btw number 5 is wrong. If she's not responding to the eight objections, then that's a non-reply. Not no reply, but a reply that doesn't really reply much, or, a clumsy way of saying I was hoping for more. But again, I can see how that snowballed another poorly lit hill.

In the very next comment you say "Melissa referenced that. You’ve ignored it", but I didn't ignore it. I had addressed it. Not in an admittedly perfect way, that is for sure, but claiming I had ignored it is, well, not true, and certainly not by intent.

But I'll say this: The weird part is that I've dealt with all the way back to beginning with talking about the origin of the universe on my blog - the very definition of the universe, the known universe, the all-encompassing universe; three different universes that we need to figure out before we go on, to which you replied (for Doug, which he agreed with) that it is the known universe. Ever since then I've tried to explain that the four propositions are then irrelevant when you want to talk about the supernatural which comes in as soon as you make claims about it (this friggin' universe) needing to be caused. This is the main thrust of my objection, and as far as I can tell from reading through the comments, still not addressed.

With the definition of universe you gave you are giving special privileges on your god to be uncaused which you are not willing to allow for *any* version of the universe. From here we ventured into your four objections for why the universe can't be uncaused, so this whole flashback scene was a bit of a surprise. But here we are, and that's that.

@Rodrigues: "At any rate, for someone who directed "Oh my, how ridiculously stupid this is getting. I can’t tell you how much expletive juices are bubbling up through my spline in frustration, but; Yes, really, really, really, Really!" at Doug -- this is just an example, others could be gathered -- methinks this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black (not that it excuses me in anyway)."

So, did I call anyone anything? Was I personalizing anything there, except expressing my own feelings of the situation, and using Doug's *own* words back at him as stylistic effect? Did I call him ignorant? Was it condescending? No, it was pure frustration on display, *my* frustration. I come into the debate with an agnostic attitude, explaining in fine details that we (the human collective known as science) don't know for sure a whole lot of stuff, that I myself am agnostic and don't know a lot of stuff, and then - as if this is a surprise, and changes the game somehow - being called out as an agnostic.

Now, as far as frustration goes, yes, perhaps I could have phrased it differently, but I've not attacked the person or implied anything bad about Doug (if nothing else I can say in hindsight he's been one of the nicer ones). I stated that "this" is getting stupid, "this" being this whole "debate", this frustration being an example of what I see as a lack in my opponents to make any effort towards understanding what I'm saying. I've stated several times through this rigmarole my agnostic leanings, and later I'm being accused of being one? There's no way of getting through here; damned if I do, damned if I don't.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A strange Quora encounter

I love Quora, one of those Q&A sites, where all manners of questions are asked, and people vote up and down the answers to get to the best ones. A question asked a little while ago was this ;

What are some of the greatest speeches in history?

I love history, so I followed along the answers with great interest, and then I hit this answer;
Bradley VoytekPh.D., neuroscience Neuroscientist at...I'm quite surprised that the Sermon on the Mount isn't here yet: This speech contains the most often quoted (though under-practiced) sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, such as the Beatitudes, as well as the "woes of the Pharisees), which is (simplistically) a denunciation by Jesus of the hypocrisy of "religious ornamentation" without belief or faith. The importance of these issues, of course, cannot be understated in terms of their effect on the Western world.
Needless to say I wasn't quite convinced one could make a case that that speech was historic ;
Nobody has mentioned it because the question asks about speeches in history. There is no evidence that this speech was ever performed, so unless we also accept Mel Gibson's speeches from "Braveheart", I'd say the sermon on the mount disqualifies.

Then the fun begun. The following (rather long) comment battle is the discussion between me and a believer about whether or not Jesus could be considered historic, and it went in all sorts of directions. Grab your popcorn and try to follow along, and for maximum authenticity I haven't bothered to fiddle with links and formatting, warts and all (including some slight misunderstandings that always pepper up any boring stew) ;

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