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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Labels & Sports

On Labels

Theists and atheists are primed to dislike each other. It’s a function of the labels. Whenever people create an in-group/out-group dynamic we progressively identify more with the in-group and consider the out-group the enemy. It seems to be human nature--whether you think that nature is due to the fall of man or selective pressure.

I am an atheist, I’m not denying that, but I’m tired of it opening the door of generalization. I probably don’t possess whichever negative qualities someone draws from whichever other atheist they happen to dislike the most. I’m an individual. So are you. So is that Christian. So is that Muslim.

Now I’m buried in labels--secularist, naturalist, materialist, evolutionist, New Atheist, Darwinist, humanist, skeptic, whatever. I honestly don’t know if there are distinctions any more or which really do apply.

On Sports

People's obsession with this or that sports team relies on one of two factors the vast majority of the time. You root for team "X" because you either are geographically located near team "X" or your parents root for team "X." Of course, the same two factors play a heavy role for religious preference. Do most people you know practice the same faith as their parents? That may be anecdotal evidence, but statistics show this as well. It's impossible to argue that Hinduism isn't primarily practiced in Indian. Muslims and Christians have spread out some, but have pretty solid majorities in specific areas. "Jewish" as a term is so entrenched in cultural heritage that it identifies ethnicity every bit as much as it does faith

You probably think it's silly for me to say that the Ohio State Buckeyes is the objectively right team, but that is what the religious are do. It's important to consider that one's belief in Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, or Vishnu is more dependent on convenience than correctness.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Faith-Fueled Mental Illness Stigma

It seems like every few months there is a news item about a guy who takes up arms and kills as many people as he is able before being put down. Sometimes there are targets in mind, others the deaths are quite random. It’s sad news, but I doubt anyone who reads this is unaware.

Whenever the killers have a religious background, especially when it factors into the killer’s motivations, many atheists are sure to place part of the blame on the religion itself. I do too, but less directly than most.

The killers are mentally ill. We can argue that they aren’t all mentally ill, but it can’t be argued that this pool of killers are not, on average, more mentally ill than the general population. Their brain chemistry is rare and so puts their behavior at odds with cultural and societal norms. Their indoctrination didn’t do this to their brain chemistry. However, their indoctrination and the beliefs of those closest to them inform what they do about their problem.

There is a large stigma regarding mental illness in the United States which leads families and individuals to deny symptoms and shy away from treatment. Most religions don’t have a hard line against medical treatments, my ex-denomination excluded, they do put a lot of faith in spiritual sovereignty. If a benevolent God created us equal with freedom of will and thought, then a select few of us can’t be naturally deficient in will or thought. The mind, spirit or soul can’t be subject to variations of brain chemicals if any transcend the material world.

Mental illness should be at the forefront of our thoughts when these tragedies happen, but for the most part it’s not. I didn't want to post this immediately after such an event, I would feel like I'm capitalizing on a horrible thing, but it will happen again and we should do what we can to change this stigma and get these people help.

I have no affiliation to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, but believe they do good work in the field. If you have some time, look it over. If you have some money, donate.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Asymmetrical Skepticism

Christians are skeptical.

Christians, and theists in general, are skeptical of life arising from non-life and the universe originating from quantum fluctuations they’ve never observed. They don’t feel inclined to believe that consciousness as deep and self-aware as ours can arise through random mutations that are built upon guided by selective pressure.

Don’t make fun of them for this.

They are right to be skeptical of these things. These are counter intuitive concepts with evidence that can’t be assessed directly by laymen and requires a large commitment to gain any competence.

Make fun of them for believing in miracles.


Where does that skeptical instinct they methodically apply to naturalism go in regards to virgin birth, resurrections, and transubstantiation? One one hand they deny living matter arising from unliving matter, but one the other they freely accept living matter arising from non-matter. It’s okay to be extremely skeptical of both--they are extraordinary claims that are so rare that we only have clear reason to believe one or the other happened once in the history of the universe--but be consistent.

Why? What specifically makes walking on water and the magical duplication of bread and fish more believable than quantum mechanics or a multiverse? Why be understandably skeptical about some extraordinary claims and so faithful about a host of others?

I've asked Christians these questions and the answers, when given, are never satisfying. If I had to distill their varied answers to a core principle, it's an emotional connection to their indoctrination. In lieu of understanding, embrace what is comfortable.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Consensus & Source

I see both atheists and theists finding a scientific study or paper from somewhere on the internet and posting it as a central support to their argument or claim. This study or paper might even be written by someone with a degree in a relevant field. That's great, but the internet is a big place and there are all kinds of people who use it. The interpretations of data and the conclusions to be drawn from them can vary as much as the agendas and biases of the article writers. The best thing to do is to only look at the data and apply your own encyclopedic knowledge gained from being an expert in the field to draw your own conclusions.

Oh, that’s right, I’m not. I only know the broad strokes of evolution, TV cosmology and pop-quantum physics. In other words, I don’t know shit. I know a lot more than the average guy walking down the street, but it’s relative. If I know anything, it's my limitations.

Which brings me to the conundrum. In order to talk about issues beyond my pay grade, I need to trust some of those papers and studies by the professionals. The best way I see to go about this is by focusing on consensus and source. Papers from respected journals with no clear agenda are more valuable than those from publishers with a vested interest in certain kinds of conclusions. The assessments supported by the majority of the community should be taken more seriously than fringe assessments by outliers.

I know this is the road to the fallacious arguments from authority and popularity, that’s why it’s important to consider source and consensus not as markers of truth, but as markers for a better likelihood of truth. It’s not perfect, but I can think of no better way. Can you?

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Gap In Every Argument

Many arguments for god(s) take something the apologist intellectually doesn't understand and compensates with an assumption that reinforces the belief they've been taught is true. Sometimes they disregard or deny the available information because it doesn't jive with their indoctrination (committing the fallacy of personal incredulity) and sometimes there is no information available in which case they are filling a gap in knowledge with their divine explanation of choice (called the god of the gaps.)

Example time.

Those who use the cosmological argument: "I don't know if the universe has an ultimate origin or what that might be, so let's assume there is and it's God."

Those who use the fine tuning argument: "I don't know if the constants that apply to our universe could be different nor how different nor do I know if there are other universes or variables, but let's assume they can differ wildly and our universe is unique because God designed it that way."

Those who use the argument from design: "I don't know how the diversity of complex organisms could have came to be as they are now, so let's say it's God."

Those who use the moral argument: "I don't know why I feel so strongly about certain things being right and other things being wrong, so God must have made me aware of those moral values."

In the case of the cosmological and fine tuning arguments, humanity hasn't nailed down the mechanics of the origin of the universe nor why the universe has the constants it does. We have theories that cover part of the answer and hypotheses that speculate the rest, but there is enough that we don't know that I consider these arguments, in part, god of the gaps arguments.

The argument from design and the moral argument are different. Since the Theory of Evolution, the only way to find the argument from design convincing is by sticking your head in the proverbial sand to avoid the evidence. Saying they are personally incredulous of evolution doesn't an argument make. The moral argument is more nuanced and, depending on definitions, suffers the same fate of the argument from design. There is enough selective pressure to be altruistic, especially within one's own gene-mates (which some call their family), that that feeling to be good is also covered with evolutionary theory.