Monday, April 13, 2015

The Subjective Scope of the Natural

God, or any sufficiently powerful supernatural entity (if such a being exists), could have designed us to operate miraculously. We could see through pores in our skin, hear via golden halos, and float from place to place--all without any mechanism for how our bodies function. Instead we have a naturally comprehensible biology of which we have a deep understanding. Why would God make us, and all organisms, in such a way when he could have just as easily made magic-powered life?

I wonder why God, if he exists, would make the workings of anything subject to human discovery. I say anything, but really it could be everything. We have yet to find something that science is fundamentally incapable of explaining. Before the apologists chime in, yes, I realize there are aspects of nature we have yet to understand, but that doesn’t show that they are fundamentally beyond natural understanding. Take something like human consciousness. We knew next to nothing about it in the recent past, but now we know of neurons and synapses. We know roughly where in the brain is most important for memory and cognition. We know how chemicals affect thoughts, perception and personality. It seems everything is within our ability to grasp.

I know that these questions I pose may be unanswerable. I don’t expect the believer to know God’s motivation for making things how they are, even if God exists. Mysterious ways and all that. But consider this, believers: since everything that God created, if he did, seemingly operates by an intelligible natural process, why reject evolution by natural selection as the process responsible for the diversity and apparent design of life? If the evidence supports it, and it does, denying it outright because it isn't miraculous is a bizarre exception considering all the things you accept that are not magical. Evolution happens and the process is unguided by any external agency--embrace this knowledge or ask yourself why God would make this one aspect of reality supernatural. Or ask God. If he answers, let me know.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Tipping Doubt

Mary Baker Eddy
The last god I believed in was the version of Jesus seen through the eyes of Mary Baker Eddy, an American women who attributed overcoming health issues to faith healing after homeopathic “medicine” failed her. The religion she founded, called Christian Science, framed sin and sickness as errors of thought and framed thought as an expression of Mind, Soul, or Spirit--all of which she considered synonyms for God. Jesus was considered the first and ultimate Christian Science practitioner, a skill and awareness he passed on to his disciples, who also healed the sick in the Bible. The healings eventually became less common as the teachings of Christ were muddled over time. Luckily, Ms. Eddy got us all back on track...or so the CS narrative goes.

I bring all this up because I’ve been thinking about the catalyst of my journey to atheism. Was there one event that made me turn the corner from believer to nonbeliever? The answer for me is the same as most of us, no. A series of many events progressively inspired me drop my faith. That said, I remember one place, in particular, where my doubt reached a tipping point.

I was 16 years old at the then biggest (only?) Christian Science summer camp. The camp had a CS practitioner on staff. If you think of God as faith healing medicine, a CS practitioner is basically a faith healing doctor--prescribing God. Ideally, a Christian Scientist can learn to be their own faith healing doctor or a practitioner for others, but if one isn’t comfortable in receiving the spirit or working out their own problems, guys like the one at camp are there to help. Interestingly, the camp also had a nurse. Not a faith healing nurse, a nurse nurse. Apparently CS magic is great for healing invisible ailments of subjective pain, but isn’t trusted to reset a broken arm when there is a possibility of a less-than-faithful parent suing the camp.

This is problematic because Christian Science Sunday School taught me that this faith is unique among all others in that they are evidence-based. One can prove the efficacy of the Christian Science process by it’s ability to heal, but if prayer works consistently, why the safety net? The presence of the nurse weighed on me. When, during the various physical activities common to most summer camps, I injured myself. I tested my ability to faith heal in earnest. I fucking hurt so I fucking prayed. This wasn’t the first time I attempted to heal myself. At home, I got rid of a few headaches, or so I thought, and failed to get rid of a few others. My immune system and confirmation bias convinced me the system worked. There, at camp, when the pain didn’t subside, I doubted. I thought back to all those other “healings” and wondered if my success rate was any higher than chance. If the length my headaches naturally lasted was, well, just how long they lasted--regardless of me asking JC for an assist.

I stayed at camp and continued making friends and eating granola, but I took in the remainder of the Christian Science material through a new found skeptical filter. When I got home, I kept going to Sunday School more for the cute girl in my class than for any spiritual insight. The questions compounded until I learned to value the evidence-based belief my church professed, and decided that they weren’t the ones able to provide it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bandwagon Belief

In my experience talking to Christians I’ve learned to not assume I know the beliefs of the individual...with a few exceptions. Every Christian I know believes that Jesus Christ existed, that he was crucified, and that he rose from the dead. From there they vary wildly. A big disagreement is over which Biblical bits are historical and which are fictional stories--beliefs that are dependent on their personal credulity or that of their chosen church.

The resurrection of Christ is so indoctrinated into their culture that it’s unquestioned and taken for granted even when talking snakes and planetary floods are considered too outside the realm of possibility to be seen as factual. This cultural familiarity somehow makes ideas plausible. So lets imagine something unfamiliar.

“Woman gives birth to squid!” How’s that for a headline? Imagine you read that, not as a modern headline, but as an event expressed in a book over a thousand years old. The obvious context is that every woman you’ve ever known has given birth to a human boy or girl, every account from every person since you were born bares out the identical report, and every historical record of births since modern bookkeeping confirms that humans give birth to humans. So would you believe that a woman from antiquity bore an ink-squirting, tentacled baby? Given that, biologically speaking, there is no mechanism for such a birth to be possible, would a Christian believe it?

I doubt neither you nor that Christian would accept such a claim, because it’s absurd, sure, but more importantly it's novel. There is no cultural familiarity with the notion of squid-babies (outside of that one scene in Men in Black.) If everyone you knew happened believed that old squid's tale from childhood....suddenly it becomes plausible. Credulity becomes communal when fitting in is praised over critical thought. I think that's a given. How we change that requires more thought.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why I Talk About God

Why do I talk about about something I don’t believe in? I get this a enough that I should probably address it no matter how obvious the answer are to me. Yes, answers--plural. Here’s a bunch of answers, all of which apply, some more than others, depending on the context.
  1. Because gods, as concepts, are some of the greatest influencers of our age or any age. The majority of people use the concept of one or more gods to inform how they socialize, how they raise their families, how they vote, and their overall behavior. I am one of the people they and their families socialize with and the people they vote for also govern me. For this reason, I have an interest to lessen religion’s influence when it could otherwise negatively impact me unchecked.
  2. Because believers often tell me they are interested in the truth. Given that, I am providing, to the best of my knowledge, what they seek. I recognize that I may be wrong about some things, in which case something they provide could bring me closer to the truth, which is great since I am a truth seeker myself. Sharing experiences, data, and philosophies in a marketplace ideas, rather than in an echo chamber, is the best way I’ve found to examine the truth of claims.
  3. Because I wish someone talked about the possibility of being an atheist to me earlier in my life. Growing up exclusively among Christians makes the notion that I could choose to be anything else untenable. Free will is a cherished concept to Christians so another option should be openly provided in order to express that will--especially to children.
  4. Because I find the topic interesting. Since no single religion is a majority on this planet yet most people are religious, it means that the majority of people in the world believe in stories every bit as fantastical and made-up as The Lord of the Rings as if they were historically accurate. Everyone must admit this. The psychology of the human mind that allows us to be so willing to be believe wild fictions should be understood by all, even if it isn't directly applied to one's own beliefs.
Why do you promote your worldview?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

To Falsify Evolution

I recently had a discussion about what it would take to falsify evolution with another atheist. We both agreed that theories based on evidence are all falsifiable by counter-evidence, but we disagreed on the amount of counter-evidence it would take in the case of evolution.

Here is the hypothetical evidence that he believes would falsify the theory: “If we found an organism that clearly breaks out of the evolutionary tree we know. Say - a 5 legged creature, or an animal without DNA, or an animal that has a DNA that doesn’t have any common parts with the rest of the life on earth.”

Such a find would certainly be compelling, but I would first consider that the outlier was created artificially or evolved in isolation of all other known life before throwing out evolutionary theory. As unlikely as either of these sound, they would be more reasonable explanations. To show evolution is false, each line of evidence needs to be overturned. Each aspect of the theory needs to be falsified. Evolution isn’t too big to fail, but it’s certainly too big to die of a single counter-point.*

(*Unless, of course, that counter-point was that all known evidence was found to be lies planted by the Great Deceiver. Positing the devil as a way to reject evolution is one of the more honest and internally consistent methods--if only it wasn’t based entirely on mythology.)

Back to reality...or at least hypothetical reality--even if such a find could impact evolution as a whole, it would revise the theory, maybe falsifying parts, before it would falsify the whole shabang. This happened before with the theory of gravity. Isaac Newton understood gravity in a manner that worked to explain all gravitational movement...at first. It didn’t quite work with the solar orbit of Mercury, much like current evolutionary theory wouldn’t work for the aforementioned hypothetical creature. It wasn’t until Einstein hashed out relativity that a new understanding of gravity could account for Mercury. If we one day discover gravitons or something, we might have to adjust gravitational theory further. Edits aside, I can think of no natural evidence regarding either evolution or gravity that could falsify all previous findings that work perfectly well with what we have. Natural selection happens. Mutations occur. Heritability is a thing. If you find a glaring example of uncommon decent, let me know. It could modify evolutionary theory, but smart money says it's an alien.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Three Thoughts on a Dead Friend

One.

A good friend of mine died this week, so I’ve been thinking a lot about grief. It is a surprisingly selfish process. I don’t feel bad for my friend. I feel bad for me. I guess this should be true for anyone who believes there is no afterlife or that their loved one is in a pleasant afterlife--heaven, most commonly. In the first case, like with me, there is no longer any friend to feel bad for. In the second, the friend is now better off than those he left behind. Unless one expect’s that their dead friend is in hades, no worries.

Two.

Atheists, who obviously don't offer prayers or comforts of the beyond, generally offer condolences by saying that the passed lives on in our memories. This should make me feel better, but it kinda bums me out. I know how flawed memory recall is. I know that some of what I remember of him has faded or has been altered and that this will only get worse the more I think back on him. This seems to be one of those cases where being informed backfires. Ignorance is, occasionally, bliss.

Three.

So is there any chance my friend still exists? The only comfort I can come to is that it's possible that there is a multiverse and my friend has duplicates still kicking, perhaps infinitely so. In some universes he didn't die. In others he survived and is wildly successful. In others still he died younger or was never born, but let's not dwell on those. This notion isn't so much supported by evidence as it is speculation based on interpretations of theoretical physics, but it's a hell of a lot more likely then, well, hell.

The service is Sunday and it will be Hindu in nature, which should be interesting. Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Burden of Probability

If you claim something is true and intend to convince others, you have the burden of proof.

If you claim something is likely and intend to convince others, you have the burden of probability.

A strong theist, one who claims God exists, would have the burden of proof when engaged in debate. A strong atheist, on who claims God does not exist, would also have the burden of proof when engaged in debate.

A weak theist or atheist, those who claim the existence of God is likely or not likely, has the burden of probability when engaged in debate.

Weak theists and strong atheists are rarer breeds than strong theists and weak atheists, so it is accurate to say that it's more common for theists to have a more rigorous burden on their hands.

There is no inherent burden to any personal belief, just don't expect it to be meaningful to anyone else without accepting the burden to satisfy reasonable skepticism when engaged in argument.