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.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Infinite Regression & You

Mathematically, .9 repeating is equal to 1. Here's the proof: two-thirds (.6 repeating) plus one-third (.3 repeating) is equal to 1 (.9 repeating) You can think of the 1 as an infinite whole and the .9 repeating as an infinite regress of 9s, yet they are equivalent.


You, in your body, exist in this moment. When did you exist before now? The moment before. These moments regress back to when you were conceived. Before that moments regressed back to the Big Bang. Moments, as I'm using it, is shorthand for any length of time you'd like--seconds, minutes, days, whatever.

Before the Big Bang is gets more complicated because it seems as though space and time as we understand them originated in same singularity as all the matter and energy of the universe. It isn't technically correct to say anything precedes the Big Bang, but that isn't going to stop this thought experiment. After all, believers assume something (God) came before the Big Bang and they won't simply give up that belief because of y'know, physics. So we need to imagine another, greater spacetime-like dimension the singularity is within...or something.

I've already written about possible causes of the Big Bang that don't involve the Almighty. Religious apologists say any non-God cause is only pushing the need for God back a step. "What caused the cause?" they say. The answer, "the cause before that." That's what infinite regress is in terms of religious debate, an infinite chain of causes with our universe as an effect (and perhaps a cause) on said chain.

Back to God. According to believers, God doesn't have a moment of origin, but can still be understood as existing at every moment. When did God exist before this moment? The moment before, ad infinitum. What caused the cause? The cause before that, ad infinitum. God is in the exact same boat as an infinite causal series. One can't argue that one is impossible without arguing that both are impossible.

You can think of God's existence as infinite, eternal, or forever--it's all semantics. God is described by apologists as indivisible. They obviously don't describe God this way because they are informed by evidence, they describe God this way because they want God exempt from the perceived infinite regress problems of secular explanations. To them I ask, if God doesn't exist every moment into the past, at what moment does God stop existing?

Put another way, to avoid the apologist's denial that God's existence can be segmented the same way as literally everything else, let's talk about God's actions marking points on a line. We can pick a point for a reference--in universal apologetics creating the universe is the best choice. So universe creation is point X. Actions after, like creating life or sending his son can be represented as points X1, X2 and so on. Points before X can be represented as -3X, -2X, -1X. This assumes God can act before he created the universe, which he can if he is omnipotent.

Now, when could he act before -3X? Well, -4X. When could God act before -1000X? -1001X! This either regresses infinitely making apologetic objections to secular infinite regress hypocritical and invalid or the apologist must admit there is a point in which God cannot act, just as there is a point in which God cannot exist, making their deity limited and finite. Which begs the question, what caused God?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Darwin Day Exchange

Darwin Day was last week, or as religious apologists call it "question evolution day." In that spirit, I posed a question to those not sold on the theory.

What aspect(s) of evolution do you have a problem with?
  • Is it that you don't believe in heritability?
  • Is it that you don't believe natural selection is a sufficient mechanism to propagate beneficial genes and weed out harmful or useless genes?
  • Is it that you don't believe in genetic mutation?
There was one apologist who answered saying that they didn't believe in heritability--he actually didn't believe that traits were based down from parent to child. I asked if he noticed that black parents typically have black kids and that tall parents usually have tall kids, but to that he said anecdotal evidence can't be used to show anything. Luckily, only one respondent went to this extreme a denial.

There was another apologist who didn't believe natural selection is a sufficient mechanism for the theory. I asked him to hear out this simplification of the process:
You have a random selection of rabbits in a room with the only food source on the ceiling. They all need to get up on their hind legs and stretch to try and get the food, but only about half can actually reach. Very quickly the ones who can't reach starve, most before mating. The remaining rabbits go about their lives, stretching for their food every day. Eventually they have kids. Given that the mating pool is taller rabbits, the next generation of bunnies inherit traits from taller rabbits--making the new generation taller, on average, than the group we started off with.
Say we very slowly raise the ceiling, weeding out rabbits that don't meet the new minimum height to eat. Each generation would be taller and taller as the shorter die off. Given that mutations occur, (which this apologist admitted do occur) some rabbits might even be taller or shorter or more or less stretchable or better or worse jumpers than the heritable gene pool suggests. Those with an advantage, the better jumpers, the more stretchable, the taller, whatever then mate and pass on their new mutation while useless mutations die off.
The apologist actually agreed that this would happen. So...does he believe in evolution now? Of course not. Once he couldn't deny evolution on a scale of a lot of generations he opted to deny evolution on a scale of a whole lot of generations. The vague micro- versus macro-evolution divide.

Yet another apologist argued that mutations and heredity happen, but only as changes or improvements on preexisting traits. In his words "this can give you blue eyes instead of brown but it cannot create eyes." He then went on to list the various cells that are absolutely required for a working photoreceptor in an effort to show that multiple mutations with no benefit would need to exist for generations before anything light sensitive could kick off the evolution of an eye...then I pointed out single-celled organisms that exists today, euglena, that demonstrates phototaxis (movement according to a light source) via a photoreceptor literally called an eyespot. At this point his brain seemed to get caught in a feed back loop.

There are many ways to deny evolution, just none that I've found are internally consistent or based on reality. For a reading of the exchange that prompted this post click here.