Thursday, February 28, 2013

About Gödel's ontological argument

In my debate on this blog with Keith Rozumalski, he mentioned what boils down to Gödel's ontological argument for the existence of God. Gödel's argument is pretty much impenetrable gobbledegook, in that it's written in formal logic, but Rozumalski does an okay job summarizing the general theme of it. I'll quote him here, in his customary deep green.
It should also be noted that God is logically possible in all possible worlds unlike contingent beings like us. Humans are not logically possible in worlds without matter or worlds without planets or worlds without heavier elements. God who is said to be a necessary, self-existent and immaterial being is logically possible in all of these possible worlds.
Gödel's proof is slightly more involved (please see the link labeled "impenetrable gobbledegook" to see what I mean), but for brevity, I will not elaborate here. I will note that it follows modal logic, which has been rather thoroughly debunked as being worthless for making serious existence claims. I'll direct you to this video by the blogger that goes by CounterApologist, a blog well worth checking out on its own. Granted, CounterApologist addresses Alvin Plantinga's ontological argument, not Gödel's, but a quick read of Gödel's makes it pretty clear where Plantinga got the idea. Plantinga removes most of the gobbledegook for us.

CounterApologist's video on the modal ontological argument:

I was asked this question a while ago on a thread on, and so my response here will be an updated version of what I posted there. My original response there (to a slightly different, vastly less specific question) can be found here.

About Gödel's ontological argument, like all other ontological arguments, it has been thoroughly debunked (see the videoabove, for instance). Though I still think Richard Dawkins (following Hume, to be fair) did it with the best style when he pondered aloud how anyone could accept as valid a strong claim being made about the universe that fails to take into account a single datum from it, a criticism that applies to all a priori arguments. This, combined with CounterApologist's presentation, is more than enough to be getting on with in terms of realizing that this "proof" isn't really proving anything of substance.

Still, let's concede Gödel's ontological proof anyway and see what it gets us. Hint: it's not what the theists want it to prove.

First, since we've arrived at this notion from examining axioms put forth by Gödel, no comment on the fact that they look pretty ad hoc, we get an axiomatic conception of God. So what? Who needs an abstract concept that they call God (other than Plato, maybe), and who actually believes in such a God? What does such a God do (Cf. the title of my book)? This is the "philosopher's God," the Platonic God, and it is completely and purely abstraction. There is no need to set up a religion to worship an abstraction. Indeed, it seems quite silly to do so.

Now, since we've arrived at this notion of this God arising from examining axioms, the (abstract) concept of God that it extablishes is also subject to those axioms. That means if those axioms are bad or don't match reality, then there's a problem. Let's examine Gödel's axioms specifically.

The first of Gödel's axioms is that there is a meaningful "moral aesthetic" positive. So this God is inherently subjective, not to mention abstract, at least unless we accept, additionally and on no evidence (we call this question begging) the premise that there is an objective moral aesthetic that exists independently of the (subjective) minds of sentient beings. This puts us wading dangerously close to "God is an imaginary friend" here.

The rest of Gödel's axioms are pretty presumptive too. Axiom 2 depends on the rule of the excluded middle (wherein he defines his logical system, which may not actually represent reality, however useful it is); Axiom 3 implicitly assumes being "God-like" is a moral positive (which is a bald assertion teetering awfully near begging the question); Axiom 4 asserts that positive in any hypothetical world implies positive in all hypothetical worlds (i.e. that in every possible world, the definitions of moral aesthetic positives need to be meta-universal)--but why in the multiverse should we accept this at face value? and Axiom 5 assumes that what he's wanting to show is a "positive" property. Look how close we are now to begging the question with an ad hoc construction!

That fairly well damages the credibility of Gödel's ontological argument, but a further problem exists because it isn't the only ontological argument out there (surprisingly carrying the same amount of empirical weight: zero).

For instance, if we consider the vastly more famous and common ontological argument of St. Anselm, which we really shouldn't in general but since we're accepting at least one ontological argument, we might consider it, we have to conceive of God as "that than which nothing higher can exist." But Gödel's axiomatic God is subject to his axioms, so we can easily conceive in the mind a God that is higher, one that is limited by fewer axioms or none at all. So St. Anselm's construction would reject Gödel's construction, and only intellectual contortionism allows us to accept both at once--this barring the core problem with Anselm's ontological argument in the first place, which I cover in detail in Chapter 6 of God Doesn't; We Do: that there is no salient way to define "most high" in the first place.

What does this tell us? In essence, it shows that any attempt to lay out axioms to prove God exists subjects God to a definition created by those axioms. So, if we want to follow Gödel and define God as an arbitrary and abstract moral-aesthetic positive that if it exists in one possible world then it must exist in all possible worlds, then maybe his ontological proof proves that God exists. Who cares, though? And why should anyone care? Who prays to that God or goes to church to sing "his" praises? What has this God to do with Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Paganism? It's even worse for connecting to religions than is Anselm's ontologically "proved" God that is defined as the Platonic ideal of that which is good.

The problem left by such an a priori argument is that impossible chasms of non sequitur have to be leaped to get from that particular definition to the ones that are actually used by people, notably the Gods of faiths like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. If proofs like Gödel's above don't commit it on their own, the question begging begins in obscene amounts the very moment we try to extend these very weird definitions of God to other completely incompatible meanings of that word, an act completely necessary to the validity of any of the theistic religions that can even be conceived of.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Green Letter Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Rozumalski

Keith Rozumalski is at it again! Maximal length comments and all! I'm rapidly losing my patience for this, but I'll address it again (Episode VI is the last Star Wars that counts--we all know how stupid it's going to get after this one). I'll try to keep it brief. First, a short summary of Rozumalski so far:
  1. Five days ago, I wrote a piece about how social pressure is the proper tool by which antitheists can achieve the end of faith. That piece was mostly for antitheists, particularly since I hear from them all too frequently that making rational arguments against Christians is a waste of time since they won't listen. Rozumalski commented on that post, using it to shoehorn in his idea that liberal Christianity is above criticism, which we all know is an example of the special pleading fallacy since Christianity in total doesn't have evidence to support it and since therefore there is no reliable method by which we can tell the validity of one Christianity from another. Rozumalski, like every Christian ever, wants his beliefs to be treated differently from other ones, which he sees as darkening the name and legacy of Jesus.
  2. I responded to Rozumalski, indicating why I choose to go after Christianity of all stripes as my first target (since he accused me of being mean to Christianity when Islam is clearly the trouble-maker, using my citation of 9/11 as insight into my thinking). I could retitle this post "Green Letter  Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope for Rozumalski," but I won't. I hadn't thought of the Star Wars allusion yet.
  3. Rozumalski replied to me again. It was pretty epic--in the sense that it spanned four long comments.
  4. I replied to Rozumalski a bit more harshly, "Green Letter Wars, Episode V: Rozumalski Strikes Back." Particularly, I indicated for him that without evidence, particularly given the burden of proof upon every theist, he has no case for Christianity. I don't think he realizes that I already blew up his Death Star, because he replied to me yet again. This link is the most relevant to this post, because it's the one I'll be quoting and responding to. No, there will not be Jawas or speeders in the forest.
So, back to the green letters. Rozumalski is in green. I reply in black. Hopefully briefly (not doing too well at that so far...). Oh, and I'm pretty sure, despite at least two dozen indications that he should if he wants to argue with my position, I don't think Rozumalski has bothered to read God Doesn't; We Do yet, the book I wrote that this blog is kind of centered upon.

Rozumalski starts "strong":
No, this leads to an argument that I have formulated from our dialogue. Here it is:
1. Antitheists would be reasonably justified in undermining Christian faith if the Christian faith causes Christians to commit acts of violence or if Christianity is obviously false to most rational people.
2. The Christian faith does not cause Christians to commit acts of violence and it is not obviously false to most rational people.
3. Therefore antitheists are not reasonably justified in undermining the Christian faith. (from MT)
Keith, please support #2 with more than a bald assertion. Your #3 depends upon it. I'm willing to bet that you will have a very difficult time convincing anyone other than people who already believe (and thus warp the evidence before their very eyes) that #2 is supported. I'd bet that most rational people will stop reading this here, in fact, seeing that you debunked yourself completely.

Do not resort to cherry picking to support #2. It is easy to find decent Christians that directly cause no problems. No one doubts this--even if they could live better without the unsupported beliefs that warp their moral and "spiritual" thinking (See chapters 8-11 in my book). The problem with the decent Christians has already been covered: they create and maintain the context that gives rise to and affords the societal protection that allows fundies and other problematic believers to come about and to flourish.

Let me elaborate: the First Amendment ensures that we can make no law limiting how someone practices their religion so long as it doesn't directly violate other laws. That means that we cannot legally stop a fundie from being crazy based upon their insane and damaging beliefs. Social pressure, however, can. That social pressure is super-weak, though, if tons of people are still Christians and defend the Christian scriptures as being above being seen for what they are (ancient mythological literature) and the Christian way of life (obviously, to be determined by the believer, including in your case).

Therefore, your syllogism breaks at #2 since it isn't supported except on bald assertion. But it's worse. Your #1 isn't even right. Christianity is a set of ideas that exists in the marketplace of ideas, as it's been called. Therefore, being unsupported by evidence (with evidence suggesting that it can be problematic), even if no Christian committed violence or was actually sophisticated enough to appear true, it would still be within the purview of antitheists to say "show us the evidence, or belief actually is not rational."

Admittedly, if the conditions in #1 were met, that no Christian is ever violent (or even that they're better about that by far on average) and the doctrines appeared more reasonable, antitheists possibly wouldn't have ever said too much. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Ask almost any antitheist why he/she is an antitheist. It's not about philosophy for better than 90% of them, I'd wager.

Now throughout the dialogue you asked me repeatedly to prove that God exits, and have pointed out that I’m not capable of proving to all rational people that God exists.
First, let me amend that for you: you're actually not capable of proving to any rational person that God exists, however many you can convince. This difference is not inconsequential.

With that fixed... Right, so why are you still here? I won't say "case closed," because, who knows? Maybe you'll come up with something. I'd bet incredibly long odds (infinitely long, actually, see Chapter 5) against it.
The problem with all this is that you’re committing the argument from ignorance fallacy.
Um, no. I'm committing the "don't believe anything on insufficient evidence" anti-fallacy. You're the one claiming something exists when you don't have proof. That means you're actually the one committing this fallacy while trying to use this line, which you think sounds clever (and would be if it were accurate), to shift the burden of proof, another fallacy you repeatedly commit.

I can't fault you too much for committing the burden-shifting fallacy. It is the core of theology to commit the burden-shifting fallacy.
The only way that you can rationally say that something doesn’t exist is if you’ve made an exhaustive search for that thing and you can’t find any evidence for it. 
Perhaps. Have you heard of Russell's Teapot? It's full of coffee, you know. How about the Pink Invisible Unicorn? Flying Spaghetti Monster? Zeus?

See this is the point. It's not about categorically saying something doesn't exist. That would be disproving a negative. This reveals that you really don't understand this burden of proof thing, for all the philosophical-sounding jargon you're using. This is about refusing to believe in things on insufficient evidence.

To believe in your brand of Christianity is to believe in some ideas (without evidence for them) that would radically change my behavior. Many theists jump at this point and say "A HA!" and try to say that atheists are just interested in living their lives outside of God's laws. That's bullshit. We don't see any reason to believe that there is a God, thus don't see any reason to believe there are any laws from God, and thus don't see that it is reasonable to sign up for sets of rules, sometimes quite arbitrary and at other times quite restrictive (often both), without having sufficient reason to sign up for them. It's not about "wanting to sin," it's about not wanting to put unjustified limitations upon oneself based upon the imagined demands of an imaginary God.

To believe in your brand of Christianity is also to believe in all kinds of things that displace purpose, meaning, and value in our lives (please, read my book for my arguments about these things, particularly Chapters 6, 8, and 9 in this case).
For example if you look around a room and see no elephant then you can rationally say that no elephant exists in that room. We can also rationally conclude that unicorns almost certainly don’t exit on earth since we’ve found no evidence for them. 
If I were to argue like you here, so you can know what it feels like, I'd suggest that perhaps the elephant in the room is invisible or tiny or perfectly camouflaged. I'd also suggest that you cannot exhaustively search the entire room because the elephant could be moving very fast while being very hard to see, and so everywhere you look, he has already moved.

Then you mention unicorns on earth and contradict the very point you're trying to make. Nicely done.
Since God is said to be an immaterial entity and we currently don’t have the ability to detect immaterial objects we can’t rationally conclude that our lack of evidence is proof that God doesn’t exist.
Immaterial entity? Then how does it interact with material? Or does it not interact with material. Did you read the title of my blog and my book: God Doesn't; We Do.

I argue that God doesn't exist, in all likelihood, because it follows from parsimony on my real thesis: God doesn't DO anything. For all intents and purposes, an immaterial entity that doesn't do anything is identical to an entity that doesn't exist. Of course, you'd know that already if you had bothered to read my book.
What’s more it is quite possible that God is the metaphysical cause of the universe and everything in it, so we actually might have indirect evidence of Gods existence.
Chapters 4 and 6. Also, this doesn't really mean anything, does it? The "metaphysical cause of the universe and everything in it"? "Might have indirect evidence"? Yeah, if we define all of that stuff to be that way.

This brings me back to the axioms bit (again, See Chapter 4). If you want to define God as the "metaphysical cause of the universe," what the hell do I care? What does that do? Isn't that the deist's God? What does it have to do with Christianity? What does it DO? You can't answer any of those questions from that definition of God.

This definition is quite popular with philosophers. They usually parse it out better, though: the necessary agent cause of contingent reality. They can't explain why a necessary cause has to be an agent, though, so they just shove that in there.

Again, rational people are supposed to sign up for all of this Christianity nonsense because God can be defined to be the metaphysical cause of the universe and thus that we might have indirect evidence for God (but not Christianity)? That word "rational" you keep using. I do not think it means what you think it means.
It should also be noted that God is logically possible in all possible worlds unlike contingent beings like us. Humans are not logically possible in worlds without matter or worlds without planets or worlds without heavier elements. God who is said to be a necessary, self-existent and immaterial being is logically possible in all of these possible worlds.
Not content with teleology, Rozumalski quickly switches to ontology. No one has ever pulled that gambit before. Reality is not determined by logic. Reality determines logic. You can read more about my opinion of St. Anselm's ontological argument for God in Chapter 6. You can read more about my opinion of this slightly more sophisticated ontological argument here. You're essentially paraphrasing Gödel's ontological argument in this one. Follow that link (labeled "here") and see what I think of it. Maybe I'll make it a post here as well, so it's easier for folks like you to find.
The only way that something could be obviously false to most rational people is if we have made an exhaustive and conclusive search for evidence of that thing or if that thing is logically impossible.
Wrong. The search need not be "exhaustive" in the technical sense. We can estimate the likelihood of finding such a thing to be sufficiently low to be getting on with without having to look everywhere. See your argument about unicorns, just above.
What’s more, as I said before theists have formulated several valid arguments capable of persuading some rational people that God exists.
First, the arguments are actually not valid. They all assume what they want to show or leap a non sequitur to get there from some "first principle" that is also just assumed to exist.

Second, homeopaths have formulated several "valid" arguments capable of persuading some rational people that homeopathic medicine works. Racists have formulated several "valid" arguments capable of persuading some rational people that other races are inferior. Chinese con men have formulated several "valid" arguments (with demonstrations!) that by doing certain esoteric looking exercises for long periods of time that magic powers like knocking people over without touching them is possible from using magical "empty forces."

Those things all must be true too, right?
Given all this information we can conclude that the second half of premise two is correct.
No we can't. We can, however, conclude that you're a fool. You want it to be true, so you are convinced by the unconvincing.
Since premises one and two are true and are validly constructed it logically follows that the conclusion that antitheists are not reasonably justified in undermining the Christian faith.
Categorically wrong. Premises 1 and 2 are not established.
What’s more is that you also never demonstrated that a content theist’s existence is really marred if they are wrong. You talked about short term affects, but you never explained how this would carry on past the 0 to 120 years of someone’s life. You never explained how the effects of false belief persist after all traces of human existence has been wiped away from the universe.
Yes I did. I wrote a few chapters in a fucking book about it--a book that you haven't read yet.

Wait, though. I "never explained how this would carry on past the 0 to 120 years of someone’s life"? What the hell are you talking about? First, it does--because we teach other people about our beliefs. That's why you know about Christianity in the first place. Jesus died 2000 years ago, and yet here you are talking about it after the 30-some-odd years of his life. Why? Because we share those beliefs with others. You can't be serious.

I don't think this is what you meant, though. I think you meant after we die how it matters what we believed. It doesn't, except in the impact it had on others. It doesn't, except that during that time, that brief window between birth and death when our everything is, we traded out much of what could have been for what we hoped was (on no good evidence). Ultimately, that doesn't matter too much, but for the person that made the trade, it's profoundly sad.

That last bit, "You never explained how the effects of false belief persist after all traces of human existence has been wiped away from the universe."  Now... that's something. I actually did. I said I don't think that there is any reason to believe in ultimate purpose. I don't think those effects persist at all at that point. Why should I?

Unlike you, most likely because of your religious beliefs, I am concerned with the quality of life here and now for the living that are actually experiencing it, which is the only thing we have evidence for (barring almost empty philosophical bullshitting about if that can be proved or not). I do not give a rat's ass about what happens after all traces of life are wiped from the universe. I don't think anyone should.

This is very good evidence for me of one of the serious costs of your religious beliefs. Your thinking is warped away from the meaningful now into the literally meaningless immeasurable future. You are literally hung up on the fact that your one precious life isn't good enough. It makes your religion look so petty and pitiful. It also makes it a death cult that is obscenely preoccupied with that which does not matter at the cost of that which does. And you preface this revelation with the audacity to tell me I haven't demonstrated how these beliefs are damaging. You, sir, are the proof--without even having to get into the details of how you're helping to maintain and protect the context by which gems like the Westboro Baptists do their thing.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Green Letters Wars, Episode V: Rozumalski strikes back

My most recent fearless theist commenter, Keith Rozumalski, responds again, this time to my response to him (fair enough). One maximum-length, sarcasm-laden comment wasn't good enough for him this time, though. He left four of them. Let's respond, though perhaps with less detail this time (indeed, so much detail last time only because of my experience in not responding to some particular sentence only to be told that I didn't have a response to it... so annoying). Like with other recent discussion partners, by arguing further, Rozumalski helps us out. As before, Rozumalski speaks in green, in quote-indents.
You mention special pleading a few times in this post, and it appears to me that you don’t really understand the concept of the special pleading fallacy. Special pleading is applying a principle to someone else’s case, but not your own. An example would be a Hollywood star who while cutting to the front of a long line says, “I think that people should wait in lines, but I’m a VIP with a busy schedule so I shouldn’t have to wait.”
Special pleading is also when you think your chosen belief system gets special treatment that other non-evidence-based belief systems get. Got any evidence for Christianity yet? Didn't think so.
In this instance you’re referring to the only way I could be committing the special pleading fallacy is if I were ignoring commands in the New Testament to commit acts of violence against non-believers. I know that Jesus commands me to love my neighbor, but I can’t think of any NT verses that tell me to slay infidels. 

Try John 15:6, allegedly from the mouth of the late, great JC himself: "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." Granted, it doesn't specifically say to do violence to infidels, which you'll counter with, but that's hardly the point. As you go on to interpret the Bible to your uses (just below), many Christians have gone on to interpret this verse (amongst others) to set infidels on fire throughout history. 

Again, Inquisition much? For what it's worth, until you can prove that your brand and interpretation of Christianity is "the true one," you have no authority to say your interpretation is more valid than anyone's else. That's the problem with non-evidence-based thinking. You have no epistemology by which we can distinguish one "theological truth" from another. To believe otherwise of yourself is to commit special pleading for your interpretation.

To pretend that Christianity doesn't have a streak of violence and exclusivism written directly into its scripture (to say nothing of its dogmas or doctrines) is to commit special pleading by saying that in Christianity those verses are to be interpreted metaphorically, whereas doing that would be inappropriate in a religion you don't believe, say Islam.

Maybe you're right, though. Maybe I'm the one that doesn't understand special pleading. I'm not nearly as practiced at doing it as you seem to be.

Rozumalski goes on,

The problem here is that you quoted Matt. 10:34 out of context. Matt. 10:34-37 says, “34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Thanks for making it worse for yourself. Moral salience failure.
So, with the full context we can see that the sword is the Gospel and is working metaphorically as a divider between the people of Christ and non-believers who could be your own family members.
So with your full context (following Gill, I know, but that's his), not the full context. And all Gill can do is write some apologetics that try to lay the blame on people screwing up Christ's alleged intention here, which he cannot actually know. This is a classic self-depreciation routine played out repeatedly in the Abrahamic (and other) faiths. Instead of assuming that one guy was perfect and everyone else is screwing it up, it's vastly more reasonable to assume that the one guy was screwing it up too--not least because he believed the world was about to end and in the new world order to come he'd be the king of creation. These days, we try to treat mental disorders of that kind, and we certainly do not deify them.

Skipping some, Rozumalski mentions another old favorite, though not to make this point:
Whenever anyone has absolute power there will always be a temptation to abuse it just as the atheists in communist countries harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed religious people.
Making this argument destroys your credibility as a serious person. You have revealed yourself to be an agendist because you are ignoring the forest for the trees. Atheism is a null hypothesis and cannot motivate such behavior. Totalitarianism not wanting competing totalitarianisms (like theologies!) motivates this behavior.

In related news, did you know that those murderers in communist countries also drank water? As you drink water as well, you are clearly just as bad as they are.

The only reason God doesn't fall for this absolute power problem, for what it's worth, is because He's imaginary. You'll note that throughout the OT, though, He falls for it repeatedly.

Rozumalski's point:
Just because some atheists behaved horribly decades ago doesn’t mean that all atheists are going to try to kill me because of my faith. In fact most atheists are quite peaceful just as most Christians are quite peaceful even though some Christians have behaved horribly at times throughout history.
Oh, right... because my main problem with Christians is that most of them act badly? NO! I already covered that for you in detail, and it resides in my book, which I'm assuming you still haven't bothered to read.

My main problem with Christians is that they believe something they cannot establish to be true, and that that sets the context for the lunatic fringe to be horrible while having their beliefs protected from the criticism they deserve and while adding false force to their agenda (a la "most people believe this but King Obama is trying to take it away!").

Rozumalski goes on with the sarcasm in full effect next. I'd ignore all of it, but he deserves a little correction here.
You said: "I'm not saying, nor have I ever said, that all religious people are dangerous and evil. That's nought but straw, and moldy straw at that. I also don't think that most religious people are violent in general."

Good, we’re making progress in sounding out your motivations for wanting to destroy all faith. We can cross fear of religious violence off of the list. I’m glad that you realize most religious people are peaceful.
No, Keith. You're making progress in understanding my position. I haven't had to move yet. Stop pretending I have.
You said: "My main issue, though, isn't political."

Good, we’re really making progress now. We can cross politics off of the list too. So, what left?
No again, Keith. You're the one really making progress now. I haven't had to move yet. Stop pretending I have.
Even supposing that you’re right about naturalism how is a religious believer’s life marred by their faith especially if they get meaning, comfort and peace from their beliefs? It’s not like they are ever going to know that they’re wrong—when they die they’ll just cease to exist. At least their brief, little life was imbued with purpose and happiness even if it was just a fantasy. It’s not like their life was wasted as there really is no way to waste your life in an entropic universe that is going to wipe out all traces of our existence. 
It's not about whether or not I'm "right about naturalism." It's that I know you're not right about theism because it requires you to believe something on insufficient evidence. "I don't know" is a good answer to questions when it is the true one.

How are their lives marred by their beliefs? READ MY BOOK! CHAPTER 11. I already told you that. It's a nuanced argument that I already made and published.

It doesn't matter if they ever find out that they're wrong. It matters how they live the life they know they have. Having unsubstantiated beliefs in an afterlife, for instance, modifies how that is treated. Having unsubstantiated beliefs in a judgemental God who cares what they do with their sexual organs, choices of curses (spoken to the air to relieve psychological pressure), many other activities (dietary restrictions, dancing restrictions, etc.), and thoughts modifies how that is treated. They end up throwing away much potential value in their lives chasing smoke. That's why it matters on one level. It matters on another level because they are personally, scripturally, doctrinally, and societally pressured to push all of this unsubstantiated nonsense on everyone else, sometimes frequently even by screwing with public policy. Oh, and then there's that creating and maintaining the context for David Koresh and the 9/11 hijackers kind of thing.

The thing about purpose is dodgy. If there really is no God, their lives were not imbued with purpose but rather with false purpose. That's important.

Happiness? Maybe. Seems to me like that's not the case. Most deeply religious people I see are perpetually confused about why God keeps sending them so many trials because they aren't permitted to have the perspective that it's just how things go and that no one is sending them trials. Normal people don't blame themselves when a storm blows shingles off their roof causing expenses that are hard to cope with, but religious people who believe that the only reason bad things happen is because sin is in the world have to blame themselves for happenstance.

You're thinking in black and white here. It's not a matter of totally wasting a life or not. It's a matter of doing less well than otherwise. Of course religious people don't waste their entire lives (read the book). They just live it necessarily suboptimally because of their unsubstantiated and influential beliefs (read the book).

In comment #3 (the above was #2), Rozumalski addresses the fact that his arguments are helping the cause of antitheism, predictably by doubling-down on them. Really, these kinds of arguments aren't helping theism at all. Theists would be better off to stop making them.
Remember that it is your worldview that says that we are nothing more than highly evolved animals living on a rock surrounded by a vast, indifferent universe. We are just here by chance. Entropy is going to destroy the earth and all life in the universe will be exterminated. There is no meaning to life other than what you come up with, and that meaning will cease to exist once our ephemeral life is over.
Um, right, and we have evidence for that worldview, however sad it makes you feel (we'll get to that briefly, or you could READ MY BOOK where I cover it). Do you have evidence for yours? Oh, that's right, you don't.

Now, that chance thing.... Sort of. Sort of not. This is a favorite point of equivocation for theists, which is why it helps us every time you make that argument because it reveals you as a bunch of equivocators arguing against people who are trying to be vastly more careful than you are.

This is too complicated to get into in full detail here. The anthropic principle plays a role (anywhere that "chance" occurred well enough, we might expect sentience to be able to raise this same argument, and thus the seemingly low probability is actually probably not that low at all). Evolution is usually warped into this, but while chance plays a role in it, so does a mechanism that is not simply chance.

Most importantly, even if we're here by chance, so what? What is lost? What makes us less special in our own eyes at that point? Nothing! (Especially if you bother to spend the time researching how that had to happen, which is nothing short of fascinating: cf. "starstuff.") Indeed, like very rare baseball cards, we're kind of more special if we're really rare stuff. "God made us" is, in a sense, like when a kid's dad makes him a fake Favorite-Player rookie card because he can't find it in a pack. Less special.

Now the destroyer... entropy, not Siva. Actually, your science is wrong here. Entropy isn't going to destroy earth, the sun running out of hydrogen as  its primary nuclear fuel is way before entropy has anything to do with it (I'm not getting into the thermodynamics of whether or not entropy is behind this or not so that you can pretend you still made a point). This is a big deal, though. How big? Big enough so that I covered it IN MY BOOK!

Theists like to get all bent out of shape about objective this and objective that. Objective purpose is one of those things. I hear it all the time. Theists argue that if the entire universe isn't set up specifically to give their lives meaning, there is no meaning in life. Arguing that without ultimate purpose there is no purpose is such sorry solipsism and displacement of humanity that the only emotion I can muster when I hear it now is profound, nearly bottomless pity.

For what it's worth, my editor told me that my section on purpose is perhaps the best section in my book. Maybe you should bother reading it.

Rozumalski continues to ask to be pitied:
What flabbergasts me is atheists who will give lip service to being adult and bravely facing the serious implications of naturalism, and yet they scurry around like ants busily building a nest that is about to be torched. 
A nest that we will conceivably live in (supposing we don't blow each other up first or poison it with our quest for inequality) for thousands of generations before that happens, and a nest from which we can move if the need arises if we develop the technology to do so in the intervening time. "About to be torched..." in about five billion years. Do you not see how you embarrass yourself? Your argument is many times worse than saying "in a thousand years, and earthquake will knock down the house you lived in, so why bother putting a roof on it?"
The ant has an excuse because it is completely oblivious to the fact that it and all its relatives are doomed—it doesn’t know that its work is futile. You don’t have that excuse; you should know that, if naturalism is true, then our existence is ephemeral.
You can't be serious. "Theists believe that there's no point to trying to make a living if we don't get to live forever in a magical place, and we won't hesitate to point to things that won't affect us at all to try to make that point." Nice work. Please, keep making these asinine arguments. Your thank-you card is in the mail.
Imagine if you had burned your book manuscript right after you finished it—there was the moment of triumph when you finished it, but it fades out of existence as if it never existed. If naturalism is true then this is what ultimately happens to all our memories and projects—our existence gets burned away.

When it comes to meaning in an entropic universe the burden of proof is in your court. How does all life in the universe ending tomorrow different then it ending 10,000 years from if all traces of our existence will be wiped out either way?
Wat? Back to your inability to make sense of subjective and local purpose. You really should read that section of my book.

Thanks for highlighting the theistic preoccupation with death and destruction as opposed to an approach that centers on living and flourishing while we can.

In part four, Rozumalski turns it up, debunking "New Atheist nonsense" and going on to make himself out to be the exception (that still can't prove his religion is true but wants people to accept it on... special pleading that his interpretation is better than theirs):
I oppose fundamentalist positions that I believe are harmful and unbiblical. I have actually written posts criticizing Christians who were dirtying Christ’s face by spreading hate in their community.
So did all of the heretic-hunters, including the Inquisition, without the "written posts" part. What makes your interpretation better than theirs? There are over 40,000 distinct denominations of Christianity that you have to rationalize being superior to, along with 20 other major world religions. You know the other Christianities say the same thing about you and quote the same book to do it. What makes you think you're right? Could it be special pleading?
I have written posts defending science and theistically driven evolution.
I have also spent hour debating Christians on a Christian blog that was advocating making abortion illegal. In that debate I saw the fundamentalist quickly dismiss the advice of an atheist just because it came from a non-believer. As a Christian I was able to stay in the debate much longer. I wasn’t able to convince the fundamentalist that their ideas were harmful, but at least I got somewhat of a hearing. 
So what you're saying is that people should be Christians so that they can hang in debates with Christian fundamentalists for longer periods of time without changing their minds?
If fundamentalists can be reached then they’ll be reached because of the efforts of moderates. Fundamentalist wall themselves off from non-believers, but they just might be willing to listen to people of their own faith.
I disagree. Indeed, the first post of mine that you commented on pointed out that I think that if their minds can be changed (I don't think that in many cases, actually, and expect that the deeply entrenched ones might simply have to die out as their minds are too warped already), it will be because of increased social pressure--just like with racism. It wasn't almost-racists that changed their minds, it was a rising tide of social pressure. And indeed, recent evidence indicates that most of their minds weren't changed, only their outward behaviors. My thesis stands: social pressure plus the dying out of bad ideas (which comes because social pressure keeps them from being perpetuated to younger generations).

Note that you didn't succeed in changing any fundamentalist minds. You did support their context as another believer in God and ultimate purpose, morality, and a perfect afterlife, though.
Do I have to remind you that you wrote this, “when people on the fence read the arguments of antitheists and see that they make sense, they're more likely to start repeating them,”? Clearly it’s not the case that atheists only cross their arms and say, “No, that’s not enough evidence, try again.” By your own admission atheists have formulated their own arguments, and in my opinion those arguments have fallen short of showing that God doesn’t exist.
Do I have to remind you that the burden of proof is on the claimant, not on the null hypothesis? No atheist, or anyone else, has to show that God doesn't exist. Theists have to show God does exist. It's central to theology to try to get the burden of proof backwards.
However, I do claim that the various cosmological, teleological, axiological, and ontological arguments taken together along with historical evidence and religious experiences are capable of persuading some rational people to believe.
Which is why you should read my book. I'd recommend John Loftus's books as well, and perhaps even some Christian historians (if we accept your thesis that believers can influence other believers more). The historical evidence--not credible evidence, at least not according to historians including Christian historians. Religious experiences--not credible evidence, not least since they happen in all religions, in no religion, and under the influence of some drugs, certain classes of seizures, some traumatic brain injuries, and by wearing devices that send various electrical impulses through certain parts of the brain.

You should also read my post about how faith is a cognitive bias, which is why it sill mislead some otherwise rational people to believe.
Few arguments are as conclusive as this one:
1. If square circles are logically impossible then they don’t exist.
2. Square circles are logically impossible.
3. Therefore square circles don’t exist. (from MP)

This valid argument is obviously true based on the definition of a square and circle.
Indeed, based on the definition of a square and circle. There are metric spaces that can be defined in which squares and circles are identical (and not just ad hoc ones), in which case your syllogism is crap in step 2. That's the problem with these axiomatic formulations--they depend upon the axioms. Logic doesn't determine reality. Reality determines logic, and logic is just a formalistic construction that exists in our minds in order to better interpret reality.

Let's try this one, though: Chickens exist because there's a chicken (incidentally, I can see one out my window at this very moment, so I'm not just saying that). Where's your God?
However, most arguments are not this clear. I can’t even prove that to you the people surrounding me exist outside of my mind. My conviction that they do comes from the properly basic beliefs that the world exists independent from my mind and that I can trust my senses. If I can’t even prove that people I interact with exist how could I possibly convince all people that an immaterial God exists?
Right, you can't prove that. Hence two of my other claims. One is the whole "almost surely" construction in Chapter 5 of my book, which you clearly haven't read because I address this exact issue in it.

The other is that philosophy has probably reached its limit of application to most of the big questions. Where it dwaddles there, it produces naught but twaddle, like this crap which is easy to mistake for being profound.

Rozumalski concludes,
I am satisfied with being able to rationally believe that God most likely exists.
Clearly you're satisfied, but based on what? Do you have evidence?

Thanks again, Keith! Seriously, though, read my book.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Monday, February 25, 2013

God doesn't give us moral ontology

Moral ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with how we can know that morality "exists," and in what capacity that is meaningful. Though an interesting question through the ages, it has essentially morphed over time into a banner of pretentious bullshit behind which theologians believe that they are making qualified and important arguments. They aren't. Indeed, moral ontology is one of the branches of "philosophy" that makes me question the endurance of the value of philosophy--certainly I suspect its days are numbered as being a field that addresses the big questions, instead taking on a role of handling synthesis and deriving understandable meaning from the more substantive work done in other fields.

Asides aside, last night on the Twitters, I was engaged by a fellow who wanted to tell me that faith is based upon evidence, and when pressed for evidence, he (predictably) went straight for moral ontology (his other options being other gaps in science like origins, teleology, consciousness/epistemology, or biopoesis). To cut out an unnecessary story, no evidence was presented, of course, leaving his claim that faith is based upon evidence (instead of defined to be the exact opposite of that) on the lack of ground that we all know and love.

I rather love when I get this moral ontology crap, almost like the person presenting it watched a couple of sweet William Lane Craig videos on YouTube and brought that fallacy-ridden mess straight over, with all the usual smugness and only a fraction of the (appearance of*) sophistication. *I say "appearance of" because theology possesses no sophistication, only sophistry.

Why I love getting the moral ontology line:

His claim, in essence, is that "on atheism, we do not possess the ability to say why care and flourishing are 'good' while harm and suffering are 'bad.'"

Say what? Yeah, I know. He did it better than that, though, indicating that "on atheism, it is merely a preference not to rape little innocent children."

So, this does me a huge favor as someone who argues for doing better than falling for theological nonsense. This fellow has illustrated very clearly how much theological thinking can warp one's sense of moral understanding. To be clear, moral ontology or not, it is perfectly clear to every well-adjusted human being on the planet why it is not okay to rape an innocent child.

Theists--even philosophers--making these kinds of arguments do us all the enormous favor of painting very clearly a portrait of why we needn't listen to them about questions of morality. Their moral compass is skewed by pitching salience for absoluteness and objectivity.

His other ridiculous claim

Of course, he wasn't merely suggesting this nonsense in order to talk about how he thinks atheism fails. He wanted to illustrate how theology succeeds, and indeed, he said that there is a clear moral ontology that underlies the theological approach--noting when pressed that moral epistemology (how we know right from wrong) is not necessarily made perfectly clear by "holy" books like the Bible and Qur'an. The problem is that theology doesn't succeed here any more than it does in explaining how the universe came to be ("God spoke it into existence"), how life arose ("God spoke some of it into existence while fashioning other bits out of dirt, blood, and bones"), or how gravity works ("God..." oh yeah, they don't even try that one).

Here's the important bit: his statement amounts to the following conditional, highlighted by putting it in indented offset:
If God exists, and if God is a moral lawgiver, then we have sufficient moral ontology.
What gets glazed over here are those two ifs. See them? IF God exists, and IF God is a moral lawgiver.... None of that is established at any point (because it can't be--indeed proving those things is the purpose of the discussion). Instead, it is kept hidden under all the pretentious bullshit that attempts to keep the burden on the atheist rather than where it belongs, on the theist, who (if you pay attention) does not want to talk about God much in these "sophisticated" arguments until enough bullshit has been sprayed on the forum.

So, even if we grant the theologian this conditional statement, "If God exists, and if God is a moral lawgiver, then we have sufficient moral ontology," the theist has not succeeded in proving that there is a sufficient moral ontology. God doesn't give us moral ontology, even if we attempt to define Him as moral ontology itself--because God doesn't give us any credible reason to think He exists. Axiomatically saying "God is the foundation for morality" is circularity in action.

Is this trickery?

Many theologians would object at this point and argue that I'm neglecting how they use this. Their real effort is to make that conditional, then turn its contrapositive, and use that to prove God exists. The contrapositive of their conditional is logically equivalent, and in this case it reads: If we do not have sufficient moral ontology, then either God does not exist or God is not a moral lawgiver. This statement is hard to disagree with, frankly. It's a shame that theologians don't realize that the statement that they're resting upon is logically equivalent to something they don't want people to think too hard about.

In any case, they go on to try to prove that we do have sufficient moral ontology to tell right from wrong, but that's not part of the premise of either of the relevant conditionals. The conditional they need to use is "If there is sufficient moral ontology, then God exists and is a moral lawgiver." This, however, is the converse not the contrapositive of what they are arguing, and the converse is not logically equivalent to the original. Proving the converse does not establish what they want to establish.

[Easy example of these conditional formulations: If it is a bear, then it is an animal. This is true. The converse is "If it is an animal, then it is a bear." This is not necessarily true. The contrapositive is "If it is not an animal, then it is not a bear." It is also true.]

As it turns out, they're not able to even make that converse statement because they don't have the one thing for it that they would need: evidence. We could have a sufficient moral ontology, for instance, based upon something other than a moral lawgiver or God. It could be based upon something salient, like the actual experiences of real, sentient beings capable of flourishing and suffering. The claim is that without sufficient moral ontology, we cannot say why flourishing is "good" and suffering is "bad," instead that we merely have a "preference" for flourishing and to avoid suffering.

I'm totally okay with that!

Let's consider the matter: if there is a near-universal preference among sentience for flourishing over suffering, then it seems entirely reasonable to use that as the basis for a moral epistemology (a method by which we can know what is "good" and "bad") as any. Indeed, I'm not sure I can think of a better one. Indeed again, I can hardly think of a better use of the word "good" to mean "that which promotes flourishing and well-being" and the word "bad" to mean "that which causes harm and suffering." If we aren't going to call this "objective" morals, or morals that are ontologically sound, who in their right minds cares? It certainly seems inappropriate, at the least, to play with words like "mere preference" when there is so much salience behind those "preferences," if that is indeed what they are.

On theology, we're given the competing idea that "good" and "bad" are defined via what God has decreed meets those definitions, whether that be by having written ancient scriptures about "the law" or by writing on our own minds a knowledge of right and wrong. The problem--other than that it still requires the assumption that God exists to count as an actual ontology--is that this doesn't admit of a moral epistemology. Look at the 40,000+ denominations of Christianity, the existence of at least 19 other directly contradictory major religions, the religions that aren't major, the religions that are dead, and the imagination of the religions that don't yet exist or never will. How are we to pick which one provides the correct moral epistemology? They are all on equal footing with respect to credible evidence that supports them: goose-egg.

Theologians, then, which is it? Which religion provides the right moral epistemology to go with your axiomatically shoehorned moral ontology? How do you know? Why do you keep fighting bloody wars over it, then?

This is all an attempt to prove "objective" morals exist, which is muddy water

The entire Twitter engagement about moral ontology (which arose after being asked for evidence that God exists, recall) arose with "do you think objective morality exists?"

I answered this question the same way I answered it in God Doesn't; We Do. "It depends on how we define the word 'objective.'" I don't mean to play word games here--indeed, I think it's an interesting and hard question. Let me show you what I mean by showing you two ways we can interpret that term:
  1. The theist way: Objective morals are divine ethical laws that stem from a source outside of human minds (the fellow I talked with last night specifically said this, adding the words "transcendent" and "supernatural" in the mix).
  2. The science way: Objective morals are ethical guidelines that have been empirically determined to optimize values in salient metrics that gauge them.
Incidentally, while the term "supernatural" cannot apply to (2) above, the term "transcendent" can, but not in anything but the mundane "societies are bigger than individuals" sense.

So, I'm not being a jerk when I say that the term "objective morals" isn't sufficiently clear for me to answer the question of whether or not they exist. I suspect that there are some, perhaps one, answer to the definition (2)--although the salient metrics are likely to be very hard to determine and even harder to measure, perhaps impossible. Still, those metrics refer to moral epistemology, not ontology, and the suggestion that such a set of metrics meaningfully exists in principle is sufficient to have a moral ontology without any need for God. On the other hand, the definition (1) rests entirely on the God hypothesis, and so while I cannot say that I know for certain if it is correct, I say that it is likely to be incorrect, almost surely.

I'm also not being a jerk to point out something I think happens quite frequently with theologians: their reluctance to clarify which "objective morality" they mean here and to capitalize upon the two possible meanings. This is an extension of several games that they play of this sort, not least with the other relevant word here, "exist."

In any case, if we have to resort to the fact that morality has an inherently subjective component to it, requiring a more fluid understanding of ethics than otherwise, so be it. Subjective morals that aren't confused about raping children are almost surely better in all regards than objective morals that are.

Theologians, here's a tip: You're making your religion look horrible with this crap!

I don't think many theologians realize how utterly horrible this kind of crap makes their religions appear to the growing crowd that is more curious than credulous. When they are attempting to make statements that use as examples that reduce to something like "without God as a moral ontological foundation, thinking people are not able to say why it is inappropriate to rape an innocent child," they are saying something so horrendously out-of-step with what any not-brainwashed thinking person thinks that you're making their religions look like barbaric horror-mills, even when the subtle question of "does this guy want to rape kids, or what?" is dismissed as categorically untrue. It cannot go unsaid, though, that it is deeply troubling to see theologians arguing that without moral guidance from an invisible, silent God that we're all walking a thin line from being child rapists.

Let me help you here, theologians--stop making these kinds of arguments. Go back to the drawing board. You're exposing yourselves as peddlers of nonsense that is unhelpful and disturbing. As an antitheist, I'd encourage you in the endeavor, so helpful is it to us, but as a humanist who has heard too many of your flocks repeat this terrifying tripe with a straight face, as if they were on to something clever and deep, I can't help you help me.

(Fellow antitheists, fear not. This is one of their more effective arguments with those already in the fold, so for them to continue it helps us, and for them to abandon it also helps us.)


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

How I choose my targets and more: Responding to a reader comment

Yesterday I wrote a piece about how social pressure is the key to changing the societal landscape that we live in, one in which religion plays too big a role. I received a very long comment by Keith Rozumalski on that post that deserves an answer, and so since the response is likely to be long, I've decided to answer in a fresh post instead of in a long, winding comment thread, not least because these questions deserve answers (sort of... you'll see) and also significantly because Blogger limits the lengths of comments (indeed, I think the one left to me is near maximal length).

On his blogger profile, Rozumalski describes himself as
I’m an ex-atheist who became a progressive intellectual Christian. I’m a graduate from the University of Washington. I have a passion for literature, philosophy, apologetics, science and the arts.
I will respond to his comment in pieces, instead of posting the entire thing in a single block. Because I will, at times, quote my own and other works, I will highlight Rozumalski's comment in deep green, while quotes from other sources will be in the usual black.

He opens rather predictably, given that my previous post mentions that the events on 9/11 have a lot to do with why I decided religion is a problem. Had he read my book, God Doesn't; We Do, Rozumalski would already be aware that I believed in God for almost another eight or nine years following 9/11/2001, being part of the now-trendy "Christianity isn't a religion" and "religion is the problem, not the God or core teachings of it" crowd before any of that was cool. Rozumalski  writes,
If the main reason why you became a strident atheist is 9/11 and the concern that religion can cause people to commit acts of violence then why aren’t you focusing on trying to destroy the of faith people with violent tendencies such as Islamic jihadists? Not that they would listen to you because you’re just an infidel living in the corrupt West, but my point stands.
Exactly, Keith--not that they would listen to me. This is hardly my whole critique of this question. My primary cause is to understand and subvert the entire enterprise that is religious thinking. While I see the clear differences between the violent Islamists and other religions, I have been quite clear on a number of occasions that the differences between the religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, or as I call them the "One True Faiths," are inconsequential compared with their similarities. They're all variants on the same poisoned theme. This is a lovely attempt to get me to try to turn my attention away from your stuff and to put it on others (we call it "special pleading," and it's a fallacy too).

It is very useful for me to point out there that I live in the Southeastern United States (Rozumalski's profile indicates that he lives in Seattle, in the so-called Godless Northwest). Why is this relevant? Christianity is by far what I am most familiar with, irritated by, damaged by, and presented with on a literally daily basis. I'm therefore many, many times more competent talking about Christianity than I am about Islam, even though I have studied the latter religion to a reasonable degree. Since I try not to be in the habit of talking out of my ass, I focus on my strengths. It's not immaterial that Christianity is vastly more imminent in my life and in the lives of almost everyone I know personally than is Islam as well. That's why I choose Christianity. Same poisoned apple, different bite--and a bite that keeps getting shoved on me and mine every time I turn my head or open my mouth. From my experience, to use a Southernism, it's natural to clean up the shit in one's backyard before working on someone else's.

I don't see these endeavors as separate. If I work to undermine the entire fabric of religious belief, particularly somewhere I can have an impact, then I can enable the social pressure that I argued (in the post Rozumalski is responding to) is the only real way to change this problem. In other words, the way I see this is that it will be vastly  more effective to create a stronger and stronger global social pressure that fundamentalist religion in particular is unacceptable. Since I don't have the power or the finesse to topple theocratic governments half a world away, it seems pretty reasonable to work within my scope.

It's incredibly poignant to point out here that the events on 9/11 were a trigger that changed my thinking about the entire enterprise of religion. One might liken it to being similar to the way that Francis Collins allegedly viewed a three-part waterfall and was moved to believe in the truth of the Christian dogmas as a result, except that in this case, my thought process actually makes sense.

Rozumalski continues,
If you’re really concerned about violence then why are focusing on destroying Christianity, a faith that clearly teaches that violence and even name calling is a sin (see Matthew 21-22)?
We can find Islamic passages that teach that violence is a sin too. Indeed, they call themselves a religion of peace! Sura 4:171 specifically forbids extremism, in fact: "Do not go to excess in your religion." On the other hand, Matthew 10:34 is rather famous on quoting Jesus: "I come not to bring peace but a sword." Does Rozumalski have any weight in this argument, then, by cherry picking around to call Christianity a less violent faith than Islam?

(Incidentally, I think Christianity is less violent, but then the Inquisition isn't exactly roaring anymore, so my opinions are heavily skewed by a deeply secularized vision of Christianity, as I would argue Rozumalski's are as well--we ought not ever forget how the Christians behaved when they had absolute power when apologizing for their current "excellencies" of behavior and nonviolence.)

Rozumalski goes on,
To say that because some Islamic terrorists behaved abominably on 9/11 then all religions and religious people are dangerous and evil is to commit the fallacy of composition. Just because a small group of Islamic people are violent doesn’t mean that religious people are violent in general. 
Rather like to say that either religion is a religion of peace that teaches that violence is a sin is to commit the fallacy of cherry picking.

Let's talk more about this fallacy of composition nonsense, since Rozumalski apparently wants to beat a straw man here. I'm not saying, nor have I ever said, that all religious people are dangerous and evil. That's nought but straw, and moldy straw at that. I also don't think that most religious people are violent in general. If Rozumalski had bothered to read God Doesn't; We Do, or much else on this blog, he would be keenly aware of this fact. The entire eleventh chapter of God Doesn't; We Do addresses my thoughts on the issues with moderate and liberal faith, which are real but subtle--not crass accusations that they are all violent and dangerous.

For example, on p. 303 I write,
Essentially, the main idea I want to make clear is that the vast majority of believers in the One True Faiths, like the vast majority of infidels, are simply good people that are trying to do their best to live and understand life. Most are pro-humanity. Most are moral and behave ethically. Most are gracious, nice, and kind. Most are sincere. Most are honest and trustworthy. Most are exemplary humans insofar as anyone can be. Many of these positive traits can easily be extended freely to organizations of religious believers as well, and, in most cases, to the leadership of those organizations. (It is perhaps one of the least happy of circumstances that there are sufficient grounds, modern and historical, to raise many eyebrows about the goodness of religious organizations, although it is generally true enough.) 
On p. 304 I go on to state, "I think there are ways in which belief in God can be held and expressed in a manner that is unlikely to deserve much negative attention." I think this more than qualifies much of Rozumalski's rebuttal as being the moldy straw I say it is.

Indeed, although the arguments against moderate (or is it moderated?) faith are nuanced and varied, Sam Harris has a stunning quote from The End of Faith hitting one of the key ones, one tied to Rozumalski's complaint here. Harris writes,
"Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed"
Not content with the weight of what might have been a valid question, Rozumalski continues by icing this cake of shit with
Do you attack all religious faith because you don’t want to appear as being a racist for attacking a Muslim religion?
Really? I talk about Christian nonsense primarily because I'm steeped in it up to and beyond my eyeballs. I've already covered the main points here, but let me reiterate: the similarities vastly outweigh the differences. Last time I checked, Christianity hasn't proved itself to be valid any more than Islam has. I can't precisely remember, on the other hand, ever saying that Christianity is bad and yet that Islam is somehow good. Hell, I hardly draw the line at "all religion." Superstition and ideology in general, taken to consequential ends, are all my target, something else I've been consistent about that Rozumalski would be aware of had he bothered to read more than a page of my writing before commenting with his "beautiful" assumptions about me and my motivations.

That ends Rozumalski's first paragraph. His next one is better still:
Let’s say that your nightmare scenario happens and Islamic jihadists obtain nuclear weapons and let’s say that the incredibly improbable happens, that their use of these weapons causes worldwide nuclear warfare that destroys all life on the planet. If your view, that naturalism is true and that nothing can stop entropy from slowly destroying the earth, universe and all life, is true then how is this scenario really any different than if the earth as we know and all life on it perished naturally in x number of years from now? Both scenarios end the same; the earth and life on it are destroyed. It’s not like any of those people can take the happy memories they would have had when they die. If life is as Arthur Schopenhauer says, “a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness,” then there really is no difference between life never existing or if it last 100 years or 10 billion years. If naturalism is true then extinction is inevitable and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Destroying religion is not going to save us from our doom.
This cannot be described as anything other than intentional obtuseness, trolling, or willful stupidity. How is the destruction of all life on the planet soon and by intentional, unnecessary violence different from the destruction of all life on the planet later (probably much, much later) and by natural and thus blameless causes that are presumably unavoidable?

If Rozumalski is serious with this rejoinder, which I hope he is not, he has illustrated beautifully for me how Christian thinking completely skews one's sense of value and importance, not to mention moral force.

It also underscores another enormously important point that I keep driving at lately: logic doesn't determine reality. Reality is what it is. If Schopenhauer is accurate, which I don't think he is (because nothingness is not possibly "blissful," instead it is utterly and completely neutral and unexperienced), it doesn't matter. It doesn't make religion any more true or useful. Maintaining religion isn't going to save us from our doom either, although it might hasten it.

It literally flabbergasts me that Christians and other religionists think this way. It's as if they are so bent on their fantasies of death that they are perfectly willing to throw out any value that can be found in life. Let's mark this as another argument against Rozumalski's religion, then, shall we? Thanks, Keith!

Two paragraphs not being enough for him, he continues:
If your feelings have more to do with politics then wouldn’t your time be better spent working the political system instead of trying to destroy all faith particularly in light of the fact that you don’t have any arguments that conclusively prove that God doesn’t exist (believe me I know as I have spent numerous hours poring over atheist and theist argument and have spent several years in both camps)?
No. Since Rozumalski uses the phrase "in light of," let's recall that faith is not light. It's blowing out the light. Faith is a cognitive bias, and those may give the illusion of light, but it's hardly light. This, by philosopher Denis Diderot, says it pretty well: "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' The stranger is a theologian." Trying to minimize this is hardly to be disparaged.

Should I focus my efforts on the political system? Who says I don't? I keep many irons in my fire. My main issue, though, isn't political. My main issue is that billions of people are doing themselves wrong by using a flawed system when we are perfectly well equipped now to leave it behind. I want better for people than broken methods.

By the way, asking me to prove that God doesn't exist, indeed, to even suggest that I should have to, is shifting the burden of proof. It's also a fallacy--indeed, it is a big one, maybe the fallacy. Russell's Teapot is full of coffee until you conclusively prove it's not, right?

Rozumalski again,
Warning, I’m about to blow your mind! Are you prepared to have your mind blown? You should be seated for what I’m about to type.
It's wonderful that you think so highly of yourself, Keith, but no, you are not. Sarcasm, for effect, noted, though.
Here it goes: not all Christians are Christian conservatives. 
Oh snap. Really? I was wrong. My mind is blown. I'll hang it up now, then. All that crap about creating the context in which the fundamentalists can do their things, all that shit about how all Christians are still living their lives by unproved assumptions that are on fantastically sketchy grounds, all of the ethical problems in the Christian dogmas and doctrines boils down to nothing. Not all Christians are Christian conservatives. I'll hang it up now. I'm out of the conversation. Go on Amazon, and you'll find my book has been taken down. I can be sarcastic too, by the way. I speak it fluently with a hybridized Southern accent.
Since your mind is currently in a blown state I’m going to repeat what I just said; not all Christians are Christian conservatives. 
Yeah, I'm reeling. Mind is so blown. In reality, though, Rozumalski is still doing special pleading in three... two... one...
How do I know? I know because I’m a liberal Christian, and I know other liberal Christians. I know the stereotype about Christians exists for a reason, but really there are moderate and liberal Christians out there. Why don’t you work with us? I don’t want to force a religious state down anyone’s throat any more than you do. Just as long as you don’t push legislation that constricts my religious freedom then I’d probably be on board with your political agenda. If you spent your time working with secular people and moderate/liberal people of faith then I think you’d see much better results than trying to push arguments that can be defeated or at least explained away by any philosophically minded Christian.
Thanks for the advice. Seriously, get God Doesn't; We Do. Start on Chapter 11: What's Wrong with Moderate Faith, and the conclusion, A Call to Action. It's not that expensive on Kindle (or in paperback for that matter). Meanwhile, plan a vacation to Alabama or Mississippi and see what the Godless Northwest might be letting you ignore. You can read my book on the plane. You'll find there that I actually do give you special treatment, although I don't let you off the hook about your beliefs, which no amount of special pleading can substantiate. I'm glad you're a decent, thinking person, Keith--and that's honesty. I'm glad you're dedicated to secularism--also honesty. You don't have any good reasons to believe the doctrines or dogmas of Christianity, though, because those doctrines and dogmas are not true. There are good reasons not to be a part of these social clubs, however, and some of them are quite poignant (that Harris quote above is worth reading again, I think).

If you want to defeat my arguments, particularly regarding the burden of proof thing, demonstrate the existence of your God. We're waiting. We've been waiting for thousands of years. Why can't someone just get to it? All you have to do is get some evidence for Christianity's validity including which denomination is doing Jesus right--there are some 40,000 of them to argue over. Until then, no "philosophically minded" Christian, or anyone else, can make a case for Christianity that amounts to anything more than "explaining away" the relevant details of why the dogmas and doctrines are impossible and untrue.

Thanks for the comment!


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Arguments, reasoning, morals, and achieving the end of faith

For regular readers, I'm not quite done with the infinity exploration, but this particular topic has been weighing on my mind enough for a few days and has me wanting to explore it.

Of course, having become vocal in the antitheistic effort (to be distinguished from the inaptly named "atheism movement"), I think often about the theme of addressing religious faith and other damaging superstitions, particularly in their role in the public space. I make arguments, some reasoned and some appeals to moral thinking, attempting to help reach believers, particularly who have started to have doubts (as they are the only kinds who can really be reached, in most cases). Recent discussions, live and virtual, have led a particular aspect of this question back to the front of my thinking. Essentially, the question is "why bother when we know that reasoned arguments won't work?"

I've run into this line of thinking on a few blogs, particularly. John Loftus recently wrote an essay on his blog Debunking Christianity titled "What Best Debunks Christianity and Religion?" which is worth some examination. Perhaps he was also motivated by comments and discussions on several of his recent posts along this particular aspect of the same challenge, or perhaps it is his ongoing discussion with another atheist, Jeffrey Jay Lowder, who seems to have taken some issue with some of John's arguments lately. It's not isolated there. Another blog, maintained by Rosa Rubicondior, recently talked about the OTF, and the same "why bother?" theme emerged in the comments (I participated, for anyone interested).

Preface aside, I'll cut directly to the chase: what will bring about the end of faith is the only thing that can do it--sustained social pressure.

The discussion on Rubicondior's blog essentially highlighted a difference in cultures possibly being the underlying issue that created that debate in the first place. Rubicondior and the commenter are not Americans. John Loftus and I are (indeed, we're both Bible Belters). Our perspective is quite different, then, because the social environment we face is utterly different. Outside of the US, the social pressure in favor of religion is muted considerably compared with the bizarrely religious US. In the US, the presences of different religions and of antireligion/antitheism--even of secularism--are vastly less influential than in other parts of the developed world.

This isn't to suggest, of course, that Europe isn't still blighted by religion--even without the Islamic cultural invasion going on there. It is in many ways. It still isn't anything like in the United States, where it is all too common to be greeted literally with a higher priority on "what [sic] church do you go to?" than on "what is your name?" In the US, what is desperately needed to bring about the "end of faith," or really just an obvious ascendance of secularism, is a change in this underlying social fabric. Nothing else will do it.

How do we create social pressure?

Societies and cultures are like enormous ships. They cannot simply be steered into quick turns excepting in very dramatic events. Indeed, look at the events of 9/11. As I wrote in God Doesn't; We Do:
Then something very important happened. I woke up at about nine in the morning, central time, on September 11, 2001, and was told that someone had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center. I did not believe it and claimed that it must be a movie on television or something. Soon thereafter, I came and saw for myself it was real and that a certain faction of the Muslim community had declared an unequivocal message to the world: the time for religion to be a major influence in this world, a world of jets and skyscrapers, is long passed. An hour later, I was completely done with religion. In fact, I had become openly anti­-religion, and I still am a decade later. There is an undeniable fact here: religion did that, and it did it in the modern world using modern tools.
Here we are more than eleven years later, and while the ship seems to be turning according to how I saw things on that day, despite the incredible drama and import of that event, the ship has not turned from its course yet. The United States is still nearly as religious as it was on September 1, 2001, even if the rate is now dropping precipitously. Why is it dropping? Social pressure has a lot to do with it.

My point there was that we don't just get to create social pressure, and we certainly don't want to ask for "dramatic events" that cause it. What we need to do is take the changing tide and make sure that the ship keeps turning with it. The way we do it is by continuing to engage in "the pointless": the rational arguments, the moral appeals, the whole laundry list of things that "don't work."

They work and don't work at the same time.

There are a few features at work here making these kinds of reasoned arguments and moral appeals simultaneously effective and ineffective. It is incredibly important to realize, I think, that psyches are themselves like ships--they don't turn on a dime. Indeed, it is very rare to see anyone change their minds in real time. Perhaps only a few people, who have purposefully cultivated the skill and who are mindful enough and academically detached enough, are able to do it consistently. That said, the reasoned arguments don't work now, but they do plant seeds that might be enormously influential later.

If the workings of my own mind are any indication, I know that I am far more influenced by most disagreements than I want to admit. I am, on the whole, more open-minded than many staunch religionists and quite reflective about varying viewpoints, but I often find myself repeating modified versions of the other sides of arguments I've been in a few hours or days after being in them. This used to surprise me, but since thinking of the mind more as a brain phenomenon arising from prior states in the brain, which could be influenced by those inputs, it no longer does. It strengthens my resolve that reasoned and moral arguments against religion, although they sometimes cause theists to dig in their heels and rationalize their beliefs more fully, do plant seeds that can slowly change thinking.

My analogy for this phenomenon is that these arguments are like throwing seeds on pavement. The vast majority of them have no chance there and will never amount to anything. Some, however, land sufficiently nestled in the cracks to take root. Most of those don't grow into much, something small (and perhaps pretty) that eventually suffocates and withers. Others, though, flourish, and their roots tear apart sections of the pavement, or to shift the analogy slightly, tear the entire wall down. Seeds planted in small cracks can make them into big cracks, given the right conditions. These conditions are largely composed of the prevailing social pressures--and the more people throwing seeds, the more it looks like we want trees to grow where there were once only parking lots.

Not all influence lands where it is aimed

Another huge factor here is that people often like to look on without saying much, and not all conversations are private (especially on the Internet). Many people with extant doubts will lurk, silently reading and evaluating these arguments. These people have lots and lots of cracks where the seeds are already taking root, maybe even breaking up the pavement. Thinking that all antitheist versus theist arguments are meant only to influence the theist (or antitheist, I guess)--and meant to be judged by the degree of success of that effort--is folly, at least anytime a conversation can be overheard or is made public, as on the Internet.

Throwing seeds repeatedly, tearing down the fallacious arguments of the theist and consistently "making sense," as one friend recently put it to me, is enormously influential to onlookers, whose doubts often grow enough to allow them to critically examine the roots of their own faiths and then do as we hope they will: make up their own minds, beyond their conditioned biases, and decide to free themselves of the shackles that religion puts on their minds and psychology.

For me, I keep always in mind that while I may or may not succeed with any particular theist, when these debates are held in public, people are listening. The theist is more of my canvas, in that case, with the art mostly intended to be viewed by others. This may explain why I have so few of these discussions in person and in private.

Of note, when people on the fence read the arguments of antitheists and see that they make sense, they're more likely to start repeating them. That may cause them to accept them or consider them more deeply, but that's less consequential than that it creates more of the social pressure that creates the proper cultural environmental conditions for seeds to take root in more places. Again, then, these arguments, however effective or ineffective with any particular theist (or even every theist), shouldn't be judged by whether or not they change the mind of the theist nearly so much as by their prevailing effect. This isn't a call to intentionally propagandize--I think the most effective arguments are made by simply consistently "making sense" honestly. It's just a reminder that the minds we might be trying hardest to change aren't the ones we'll change, at least not directly.

Filling the gap.

Now that I've made the case that the reasoned and moral arguments are very important to helping free people from the chains of superstitious religious thought (and action!), I want to suggest that it's not enough. Indeed, this is why centuries have passed since the Enlightenment and giants like David Hume did their work, and yet religion is nearly as tenacious as ever. There is a missing component if we really want to "change the world." I don't know if that component is a temporary tool or a necessary permanent fixture, but it's not trivial however much antitheists tend to trivialize it. It's related to my arguments in favor of "spirituality" for atheists, but it goes deeper into our moral cores as well.

To put it bluntly, religion is still meeting psychosocial needs in a way that the non-religious community has not been able to match. Some atheists have tried to fill this gap, perhaps most famously Alain de Botton with his Atheism 2.0. Others, notably the Atheism+ crowd, seem to illustrate what the lack of this kind of unifying psychosocial force within atheism can lead to--attempts to force it. Both make the error that "atheism" is not itself a thing. I really cannot hammer that point enough, but it's beside my point here. My point here is that both illustrate that "atheism" is lacking in its ability to meet people in a critical way--a way I see as being psychosocial. [Of related interest: two posts in which I discuss the "outcome of atheism" and "what atheism has to offer."]

I don't fault atheists throughout history for failing to develop ways to meet these needs as successfully as the religions have. The religions have specifically been in this business for thousands of years--this perhaps being their primary evolution-derived purpose in the ultrasocial species known as human beings--and they haven't given outsiders much of a chance to attempt to meet the needs in other ways. This is part of the psychosocial structure, and it seems to be pretty deeply rooted in human psychology. That doesn't change the fact that I think the entire affair could be accomplished much more effectively without the superstitions, distortions, outright lies, emotional baggage, mythology, special pleading, and exclusionism that necessarily come with religion. That is, I think the non-religious can do it all better than the religious once we get the proper chance to do it. Atheism 2.0 is an early (and failed) attempt at this effort. Of course, by attempting to make "atheism" into a thing, I think it misses the core point and is therefore doomed. Without theism to define it, "atheism" is a meaningless and useless word except as a historical footnote.

To connect this back to the main theme of this post, and to close it, I should say that by the very definition of social pressure, when the non-religious start finding effective ways to meet these deeper psychosocial needs for people, the bricks that hold together the religions are likely to come tumbling down rather quickly. Some cannot be met--a proper non-religious network will not be able to paper over the reality of death with fluff about an eternal afterlife, for instance. Those sorts of needs will have to be met in other ways, perhaps finding a lot of inspiration in Robert Ingersoll's work and building from there.

Social pressure is the way.

In very brief, that which will change ours to a post-religious world will necessarily be social pressure, though, and that pressure is created and maintained by open, unashamed nonbelievers repeatedly and unapologetically "making sense" with reasoned and moral arguments, whether or not they are locally effective. Meanwhile, it is important in the evolution of the atheistic mindset to become less reactionary against religion and to start attempting to understand how to meet the real psychosocial needs that religion appears very good at meeting for people.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.