Sunday, June 30, 2013

Coming soon: Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly

I'm about to release a second print publication, which I'm calling Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly. It will be released hopefully within the month of July of this year. Instead of being a typical book in its own right, it is a collection of essays that I have written around the topic of infinity, particularly as it is applied (usually misapplied) to the topic of "God."

Front cover design for Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly
The short work includes sixteen essays, many of which were originally written for this blog and have since been edited, augmented, and prepared specifically for inclusion in this collection. Several of the essays are entirely new to this collection, though, so routine followers of this blog will have plenty of new material to chew on.

I've written, put together, and decided to publish the collection in print primarily to address a few themes that I think are important. The decision to put them in print was a bit of a struggle for me, but I hope it will help them reach more minds and be taken more seriously. Putting it in print adds weight and seriousness to the endeavor, which I think it deserves in this case, instead of simply leaving it in blog format.

The central themes of the piece, from my perspective (please, when it's available get it, read it, and come up with your own!) include
  • Mathematics is a human endeavor that does nothing to point to the existence of any "God,"
  • As the foundation of the previous theme, that Platonism (the reification of ideals) is an erroneous way to think about just about everything,
  • Mathematics and theism, among many other things, are axiomatic realms of abstractions used to describe or understand reality, not reality themselves,
  • The concept of infinity is desperately tricky to work with philosophically without making mistakes (for both theists and atheists),
  • That the application of the concept of infinity to "God" is simultaneously necessary and fatal to modern theology,
  • Infinity is fraught with paradoxes and therefore may not apply to reality,
  • Infinity isn't a number or anything like a number,
  • Infinity is weird.
The title, Dot, Dot, Dot, refers to the three dots called ellipsis (...) that indicate the continuation of a pattern (say of numbers) off "to" infinity, for example the "natural numbers" are 1, 2, 3, .... The idea with the title is to have captured the idea that a great deal of what's going on with infinity, as happens in our thinking and as gets applied to our philosophy and even science, gets swept up and hidden within those three dots, but simultaneously, essentially everything about infinity is contained within them. They are the story where infinity is concerned, and they're the part we ignore with that dot-dot-dot notational convenience called ellipsis.

The subtitle, Infinity Plus God Equals Folly, is, I hope, self-explanatory. It applies, for my purposes, to theists, but I don't spend much of my time tackling that low-hanging fruit. Indeed, only two of the essays are directly targeted at theists (one at William Lane Craig and one at Anselm of Canterbury, although Alvin Plantinga gets a brief mention). Most of the time is spent on the math, bringing in key points about the God discussion along the way. An atheist's argument is also given some attention. Historian and outspoken atheist Richard Carrier has an essay dedicated to one of his arguments as well. The misuses of infinity are common. Indeed, I even indict myself a little bit.

There's plenty there for any reader that's interested in thinking about philosophy (including especially mathematical ideas) as it gets applied to theological topics, or for anyone that's interested in this bizarre end of abstract reasoning in the mathematical realm.

I do hope people will find interest in it. I found writing it and compiling it to be rather a lot of fun, and since it pressed my thinking, I sincerely think it will press the thinking of others. Stay tuned to the blog or my Twitter feed for updates on publication progress. It should be fairly soon!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why does mathematical Platonism feel so reasonable? Candyland.

Because I had a discussion with a Platonist last week, I've been thinking about it even more than I already was--it being something of a major theme in Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly (which I'm hoping to publish pretty soon!). While listening to music earlier today, I hit upon a thought that added a lot of clarity for me regarding something Ian Stewart mentions in his Letters to a Young Mathematician: "the working philosophy of most mathematicians is a mostly unexamined Platonist-Formalist hybrid." Why is Platonism in there? Why does mathematical Platonism feel so reasonable?

Now, I want to clarify a matter before getting too involved with today's insight. That is that the discussion I had with the Platonist was essentially that mathematics is in nature, and not that mathematical objects simply exist in a Platonic realm of ideals. These two things, strictly speaking, aren't the same. Mathematical Platonists, for the most part, I think, are of the second sort more often than of the first, although things get a bit blurry there. Hopefully I'll be able to shed some light on this. It's also worth pointing out here that working mathematicians don't have an awful lot of need to bother with the philosophical foundations of mathematics--hence Stewart's use of the word "unexamined." We just don't need to bother to do mathematics, at least not very often.

My insight occurred while listening to a song that featured a very prominent bass (guitar) line, something I recognized as being a popular musical style from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Noting that it was popular then but not decades before got me thinking about musical styles in general, and then all of a sudden it popped into my head that there was absolutely nothing to have stopped, say, the Beatles from pulling off the exact bass line I was hearing from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The bass guitar existed at the time, and the musical arrangement itself could literally have occurred at any point in human history. I wondered--did the Chili Peppers "discover" that style, or did they invent it? What precluded the Beatles or Beethoven--or one of their contemporaries--from discovering the appealing rhythm there?

The answer to that riddle doesn't matter much (but is pretty likely to come from the fact that musical styles and the features therein evolve over time), but it led me to an old analogy I used to think about with doing mathematics, revealing that at one point in time, I was indeed a mathematician with an unexamined Platonist-Formalist hybrid position. That analogy, a bit appropriately, is of a cave.

I used to think that doing mathematics (or science, maybe, but somehow differently) was a lot like exploring a cave. We might venture down this tunnel or that, and sometimes we'd find wide-open spaces filled with wonders, and sometimes we wouldn't. Some tunnels simply dead-end. Other tunnels constrict maddeningly and involve a lot of struggle for very little reward and, often, ultimately failure. The metaphor, though, kind of holds the idea that the whole cave exists, and we as mathematicians are exploring it, discovering vistas of mathematical interest as we go. That's mathematical Platonism.

And it's correct, except that it isn't possible to actually make it into full-blown Platonism, the kind where we say "oh, so this mathematics exists in nature and that's why mathematics works to describe nature." That brand of Platonism does not follow from my metaphorical cave mathematical Platonism. And as of today, I think I understand what's going on here.

Mathematics is a process of determining truth values for statements that follow from basic formalized axioms, when viewed from the formalist position (and from the intuitionist position, which hybridized with formalism and, I guess, some brand of Platonism is somewhat closer to the one from which I think). In other words, mathematics can be seen as the field of coming to understand certain classes of axiomatic systems (which I'll explain in the next paragraph). I'm going to go ahead here and generalize to axiomatic systems in general, in fact, since it applies to them all.

Axiomatic systems are systems of propositions, each of which is assigned a value known as a truth value. The mechanism by which we assign truth values to propositions is known as a "logic," and the underlying logical structure includes a definition of the number of truth values in that logical framework. In the West, we're mostly familiar with Boolean (binary, two-valued) logic: propositions are either true or false. Taoism employs a three- (or four-) valued logical system in which there are some statements to which "true" and "false" simply don't apply, like "the belly is yin," since yin and yang are inherently defined in relationship to one another. Other logics have more truth values, and any number, including infinitely many, are valid logical constructions. We call certain kinds of infinite-truth-value logics "fuzzy logics," and they let us work with statements like "that pile of rocks is now a heap." (To complicate matters, the work of Kurt Gödel shows us that all axiomatic systems, if coherent (without paradoxes) contain statements whose truth values cannot be determined.)

It's key to note here that axiomatic systems are built upon statements called axioms that are taken to be "self-evident." Generally, we accept the fact that axioms are baldly asserted, and since this is true of all axiomatic systems, it's not a strike against any of them simply to point that out. Axioms have to be judged against how "self-evident" they really are, how useful they are, how little they assume, etc.

An axiomatic system, then, is a system of propositions together with truth values that are determined by the underlying logic, which works a bit like a truth-value function, with respect to the underlying axioms. In this sense, truth values aren't universal phenomena--they're only valid against the axioms of the underlying axiomatic system. This is a big, but tangential, point: "truth" doesn't mean anything except against the underlying axioms. In other words, something is only as "true" about the world as the underlying axioms and logical framework are accurate assumptions.

Here, then, we can make sense of the cave metaphor I used earlier. Once we know which logic we're using, and once we've decided upon our fundamental set of axioms, the "truth" of every proposition that can be examined from within that axiomatic system is already determined--although usually we know very, very few of the truth values. Indeed, we know very few of the propositions worth examining! Within the abstract context of that axiomatic system (the imaginary cave), the whole thing exists once we choose the system (the underlying axioms and the logic we're employing on it).

It's exactly like the game of Candyland, in fact. In Candyland, once the cards are shuffled at the beginning of the game, the entire game is determined. There's no need to play at all, and nothing except the unfolding of the cards really happens. As one plays the game, it feels as if a game is being played (especially to children), but it isn't. The whole thing is determined from the initial shuffle of the cards. That whole "game" already exists, is done, before it started, but the unfolding of the game gives the illusion that it's being played. This is exactly the case with axiomatic systems.

So, mathematical Platonism, in a sense, makes some sense. Once we've chosen the axioms and logic, the whole thing is done. It's up to us to explore that system and discover the timeless truths contained within it, if we want to know them, and so it feels very much like those truths exist and we're discovering them. But this is because it's easy to lose sight of the facts that we made the whole system when we chose the axioms and underlying logic, and that those axioms and logic do not actually exist in reality. They are abstract statements made and held in the minds of thinking beings that create, in a sense, abstract realms that can be "explored" in the mental sense. That said, in the other sense, mathematical Platonism makes essentially no sense at all.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A discussion with a Platonist and the meaning of existence

On John Loftus's blog, Debunking Christianity, where I frequently interact now, in one of the longest comment threads I've ever encountered, I encountered a Platonist. Platonists, to make it very brief, essentially believe that abstract ideas exist in a "real" sense, i.e. the reify their abstractions. To get really specific, if anyone cares, the fellow in question follows the Monadist philosophy of Leibniz, and he plays the usual card of "if you don't read it and take it seriously, you can't dismiss it." Sigh. So much straw. So much wrong. (For what it's worth, I have seen it before, didn't study it in depth, and moved on--just like I did with homeopathy.)

This discussion got quite huge (link, and continuation of link, and continuation again), and eventually has led to me wanting to take a few minutes to elaborate on the foundations of mathematics and the meaning of existence (meaning: the meaning of the word "existence"). For good or for ill, this will probably be quite long. Apologies.

My claim, up front, is that Platonism is bogus. In fact, I think that reifying ideals (or abstractions in general) is a recipe for problems. We see it with religions (Christianity and Islam are ultimately (neo)-Platonist in their philosophical basis), and we see it with politics (hard Libertarianism is a reification of the ideal of Liberty). I think it's easier to see the problem with politics like Libertarianism, where because Liberty has been reified, it is held as more important than the flourishing and suffering of real sentient beings, but the problem is more tenacious with religions.
In fact, this remarkable picture was shared by The Thinking Atheist today.

In fact, I suspect that confusion of the Platonist sort is a primary reason that religions are so tenacious. For me, it has become transparently obvious that "God" is a certain kind of abstraction (and I'm starting a book fleshing this idea out fully). The confusion between whether or not "God" exists, then may rest entirely in the confusion of Platonism--the "unsettled" question about the "existence" of abstractions. Further, I suspect the fact that we use the word "exist" both for ideas like "baseballs exist" and "democracy exists" is a holdover from Platonism that constrains and confuses our thinking in a Platonist direction--problematically.

Not all "exists" are intended equally

Here, I'll offer a short series of examples that hopefully reveal just how ludicrous it is to accept that "exists" means one thing (whether for real things or abstractions). This series of paragraphs is a comment that appears in the discussion referred to at the beginning. (Link to comment).


Do numbers exist? Can you show me three? Not three of something. Show me three. Can you do it? Mathematicians say "the number three exists," meaning "there is an abstract notion called 'three' that describes the property of 'threeness,' which can be defined explicitly as the unique property shared in common among all collections of three things." But can you show me three? No! All you can show me is collections of objects that exhibit threeness. Is this the same meaning of "existing" as we use for the idea that "trees exist"? Of course not!

Do dragons exist? People have talked about them for centuries. There is complex and detailed literature available about them. Because someone thought up dragons and literature came up about them, must we say that they exist? Do dragons only exist in the abstract world of imagination? Is that the same kind of "existing" as we would use if they were a real animal? Of course not!

Then we can get weird. Suppose someone imagines a monster of some kind, writes it down, and never shares it. Does that monster exist? What if he never writes it down? Does it exist? What if he thinks it when drifting off to sleep one night, forgets about it by morning, and never thinks of it again? Does it exist?

Or weirder. Do potentially imagined things exist? Meaning, do things that could be imagined but that haven't been and perhaps never will be exist? Do they start existing only when someone imagines them for the first time? How odd, if so. What about those potentially imagined things that will never actually be imagined by any mind? Do they exist? In what sense?

Platonism can't deal with these problems except to assert an unqualified "yes" with very little nuance. Is this the same as the lusted-for "logical argument that Platonism is false"? Of course not! Like I mentioned, I don't think such an argument can be formulated because Platonism is based upon the acceptance of a bizarre set of unfalsifiable axioms (e.g. "There exists a realm of ideals in which the forms of all objects and ideas have reified existence," "Within the realm of ideals, the quintessential form of every thing and idea exists," "Human thought is the process of navigating this abstract world and discovering, not inventing, an expression of the forms contained therein.")

That's why I've dedicated so much time to his objections. He's committing one of the same errors that theists commit, at the foundation: he's engaging in non-parsimonious thinking that relies upon unfalsifiable axioms to fill in some attributional gaps that his psychology seems to need for some reason.

[At this point, people looking only to the thrust of this essay--about Platonism and the meaning of existence--can stop. The curious can read on for more information: background thoughts that led to this and answers to some particular objections.]

What kinds of objections does this answer?

To keep this shorter, it's probably best for the interested to see the actual series comment that I hope the above closes. (Start here.) I'll try to pull out some highlights here, though.

"Not a single one of you can provide a logical argument why Platonism is wrong."

I claimed he is looking in the wrong place here (using the analogy of a "you are here" star on a map and then looking for the star on the ground and arguing because it isn't there). As I clarified more later (in the comment above), it's not a matter of a logical argument that proves Platonism is wrong, it's a matter of the fact that it isn't useful for anything and is decidedly problematic. Platonism rests upon reifying abstractions. That's a problem because reified abstractions are no longer treated like abstractions (see Libertarianism--the importance of the abstraction is held above salient concerns about flourishing and suffering because the abstraction has been reified, i.e. taken to be real in an important sense). This confusion is at the heart of many of our deepest social ills including religion and bad politics. Why is this looking in the wrong place? Because such a logical argument almost certainly doesn't exist. You want an answer to a question that doesn't mean anything, however profound it seems to you.

"The purported "killer" of Platonism, Kurt Gödel, remained Platonist until his death, so I would assume you must believe your own mind to be greater than his, so please by all means provide evidence of this claim."

Those interested in Gödel's work, it's advised to go read this blog essay I wrote about him a couple of months ago. A cleaner, tighter version of this argument will appear in Dot, Dot, Dot, my next upcoming publication.

My response: This is another ridiculous charge. We know more about the fallout of Kurt Gödel's work now than he did. In fact, he's a character a bit like Tesla--held up on a pedestal now that sweeps under the rug the fact that he was kind of crazy. Also, as a Platonist, Gödel had a particular faith-based bent to believe in and vindicate Platonism, so of course he adhered to it! It's like C.S. Lewis and his "liar, lunatic, or lord (leaving out legend)" and concluding "lord." He wanted it to be true, and he never turned his back on it although he provided a key insight that makes Christianity far less believable.

Gödel's revelation was that our axiomatic systems can only be complete and coherent when they're trivial, which means that no matter how we decide to try to describe the world (mathematically, philosophically, via our own worldview), we are forced to choose axioms to do it. Not all choices are equally salient, of course, but on down the line, when we get into the transfinite stuff, we have no reason to believe that any of these axioms "make sense" against reality. It really uncovers just how human the whole thing is. If we want to call it "discovery" in a "realm of ideals," fine--but we have to know what we're doing! We're navigating a mental space of ideas, not something real. Otherwise, we obfuscate and contribute to an enormous lack of clarity that leads to some pretty serious problems, and what for? So we can feel better about nearly meaningless questions of ontology?

"Do you think just because you can't point to something that it doesn't exist?"

No. I believe that "exist" in the sense of abstractions, mental constructions, means something completely different than "exist" in the sense of physical objects or energy. It's a bit unfortunate (and maybe a consequence of Platonic thinking) that our language doesn't provide two different words for these things. If it did, I doubt you'd be confused on this point. On what other grounds might people think that theology is in any way different than mythology except that theology has its own special word?

"Where does the 'mental' come from? Randomness?"

Too blinded to see. Mental comes from minds. It exists in minds--only in minds. Again, star on the ground. The star is on the map (the map now is in your mind, it is imaginary), and you're looking for it on the ground. Randomness? By your use here, I'm not sure you even know what that word means, but see the previous paragraph in which I talk about billing you for your time.

"Do you think just because you can't point to a 'mental' object, such as a dimensionless point on a number line or grid, that these points don't exist and are simply 'made up'?"

Yes. They exist in minds as useful constructions defined by axioms which are statements made by people with minds. "Simply 'made up'" straw mans the situation a little bit, though, because it seeks to put it on par with Harry Potter. It's more like being on par with Newton's laws, a set of models that allow us to approximate values that give us predictive power concerning the behaviors of real objects. That's what the models are for: explanation and prediction. You're talking about the models as if they are real. They aren't. They're imaginary maps. This is the fundamental confusion of Platonism.

"Do you think all of reality is made up by language and that consensus, which determines language, also determines reality?"

This is tricky to pick apart. No. I'm a realist. I think reality exists, and I think people exist and try to explain it for their own purposes. We build mental models that allow us to make decisions. You're going Pyrrhic skeptic here, in a sense, taking the nuclear option. On the other hand, our language does determine how we experience reality. I gave one example of this above, but a far more profound example is available from the Himba Tribe in Africa. Their language is built completely differently around how they describe colors, and it has been demonstrated that they literally see the colors differently than people who speak, say, English. Their experience of reality, which is a model itself created by their brains, are dependent upon language in a very fundamental way. Given a spectrometer, though, they'd get the same numbers we get regarding various colors of light, and so their experience isn't changing reality. Our language helps make our brains, our brains determine how we experience reality, and reality, being non-agent, doesn't care a whit.

This is an incredibly deep, probably insurmountable bias that only a data-driven field like science has any hope of overcoming.

"Do scientists decide reality by consensus?"

No. Scientists determine the explanatory and predictive power of the models by consensus, although scientific consensus is a special kind of consensus that relies upon them having independently examined and cross-examined the evidence. Already, the forefronts of theoretical physics are putting out ideas that could possibly provide two or more fundamentally different descriptions of reality beyond our capacity to test. It's conceivable, given natural limitations like the Planck scale, that this could happen without the possibility of better resolution. Scientific consensus is really about the usefulness of the models. Imminently useful and elegant models with no essential contradictions via observation can be called "a description of reality," and are, for all intents and purposes, but the description is never the thing itself. Maybe try Buddhism on for a couple of years until you get this point in your head.

"What are our probabilities describing?"

The likelihoods of seeing certain outcomes in the world.

"Are you saying the actual patterns that the probabilities describe are themselves made up because we made up the language to describe them?"

There's a lot to untangle here. First, probability is a model that assigns likelihoods to the various potential outcomes. It's mental stuff too. What probability ultimately means is still hotly debated (in fact, it's probably the most bitter debate going in the philosophy of mathematics). This speaks to the fact that we're assigning the meanings, though (meanings also are mental models--the universe itself has no need or use for meanings, only thinking beings that care about them do).

Second, your "because" is broken all to pieces. I hope I've already clarified the difference here. In a sense, the probabilities are made up because they're a construction by which we attempt to describe what we see in the world. The randomness underlying it on the macroscopic scale (e.g. rolling dice) is usually assumed to be simply deterministic chaos, i.e. the physical system we're trying to model is too complex to reliably make predictions about, so a probability model with the assumption of randomness is more useful. Deterministic chaos is usually not regarded to be at work in quantum mechanics, although no one yet knows what is going on there. It could be deterministic at a scale smaller than the Planck scale, for instance. It could be that our binary logical system is bogus from the get-go, demanding a fuzzier type of logic to really understand what's going on. At any rate, the language of probability theory (which we invented starting in the 17th century) is something we invented to try to describe these things and to make useful predictions regarding them. The probability itself is "made up" (a phrase I seriously regret using with you now because you're taking its most extreme meaning, as if it is a farcical throw-away thing).

Third, patterns. Are there "actual patterns" at all? If no one was there to see the pattern, would it be a pattern? I'd probably argue that structures would exist, but that a "pattern" requires a mental model, so probably not. I bring this up not only because it's interesting but because it paints a clear picture about how confused your basic assumptions are. You're willing to assert that "patterns" exist independently of minds to interpret them that way, and you're not examining that assumption. If you lose that assumption, does your Platonism start to fall apart?

Mostly, and finally, I think you're really busy looking for something that is important to you for some reason, that being answers to questions that appear meaningful and deep but that are actually just confused. Christians think that the idea of the Trinity is meaningful and deep because it's so confused. As John said in his Outsider Test for Faith "Faith is a parasite on the mysterious." Here, you've assigned a meaningful-to-you mystery to the ontology of mathematics, and your faith (in the reification of abstract ideas) in Platonism is a parasite on that manufactured mystery.

"How do we tell 'reified abstractions' from abstractions?"

You tell me. I don't think they have any meaning. I'm not the Platonist.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who is Tom Schmidt?

Who is Tom Schmidt, the "sanctified man," and why does he follow Glenn Greenwald around on twitter like a sock shadow?

On the 24th of April, I had my first interaction with the green-egg mysterious Twitter character called "Tom Schmidt." This was during the time when journalist Glenn Greenwald and Sam Harris were having their much-publicized sparring match. Agreeing with Harris on the matter (see Link)--that Greenwald and others were mischaracterizing him rather incredibly--I had commented about something I had read about Greenwald, and Greenwald himself had interjected to try to correct me on what I had said.

Strangely, just after, green-egg Schmidt hurled an insult. I ignored it, so that was that. Later that night, though, I looked closer. This is what I saw--photo adding some highlights:
One tweet to insult me; only three following and no followers?
That looks pretty suspicious, I thought. The three people Schmidt follows are apparently unimportant to the discussion. It's noteworthy that making an account on twitter prompts you to follow a small number of people.

A quick search of the Twitter name, @sanctifiedman, revealed only one other interaction at the time, pictured below. Note that the content of those tweets had been deleted in the five intervening days. Note the similar circumstances (chronological here is bottom to top):

Same Tom Schmidt, only tweets in response to something involving Greenwald.
That made things look more suspicious, particularly given that accusations about Glenn Greenwald's employment of sock puppet behavior (making an alternate account in a false name to pose as someone else, usually to talk about or defend oneself). It's particularly suspicious that every tweet from Schmidt that I've ever seen tags Glenn Greenwald, usually arguing with or denigrating some detractor of his.

From time to time since, I've checked up on the @sanctifiedman account to see what it's been up to. I don't have any screencaptures of that time, unfortunately, but soon after this interlude on the 24th of April with me, all of Tom Schmidt's tweets were deleted. For a fair stretch of time, in fact, green-egg Schmidt appeared to have tweeted nothing at all. I noted it a couple of times on Twitter and then kind of left it. Who cares, after all?

Then this NSA scandal thing broke. Greenwald soared in fame, of course, and so I wondered about Tom Schmidt. Interestingly, fascinatingly, green-egg Tom started talking again. Same deal: always referencing Greenwald, always.
See Tom. See Tom tweet. See Glenn Greenwald in Tom's tweet.
Suspicious numbers, deleted tweets, all contain Greenwald.
Now, Greenwald has blocked me on Twitter, so I have some limitation in how much I  can look at any of these tweets in specific without going to extra effort. That's not terribly important, though, I don't think, so I haven't bothered. The behavior alone is curious. It raises some questions: Who is Tom Schmidt? Why this odd behavior? Will the account or tweets on it suddenly disappear again soon? Why?

I don't know if Tom Schmidt is Glenn Greenwald or not, and I'm certainly not accusing, but whoever he is, he's not making Greenwald look any better. Maybe he's just a too-devoted fan, but it's strange. What's going on here? To know more, I think the question stands: who is Tom Schmidt?


As a parting thought, if "Tom Schmidt" is Greenwald incognito, then the particular tweet below nearly broke my irony meter. Is this Greenwald pretending not to be Greenwald telling people to shut down accounts pretending to be Greenwald?

Irony overload?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Is science denialism suicide? Another moral bankruptcy of faith

We live in a very technologically dependent world. Our global citizenry exceeds seven billion people and maintains an exponential growth curve. Our environment is heating up and desertifying at an alarming rate. Those two facts alone are cause for enormous concern, because the two are not compatible. People need to eat, and given the current state of affairs, we very well may need technology--the fruit of science--to survive.

I don't mean to imply that our species would die out necessarily if we are unable to come up with satisfactory scientific discoveries and technological advances to solve our environmental and population problems. Many, many will, but ours may not. We're quite clever and resourceful when we need to be. More than likely, Homo sapiens would survive, unless the intense competition for resources triggered a nuclear war or unless the outcomes of global climate change are far worse than predicted. Most of us, or our children, or theirs, though, would die. We and they would die hunger or in violence, and in tremendous suffering. This is what we should expect when we exceed the carrying capacity of our environment, and our carrying capacity is at present immensely bolstered by technological advances. Given the challenges we face, it is also dependent upon very big new ones.

Also, I don't mean to imply that science and technology will automatically save the day. In fact, I have only a little cause for concern regarding the likelihood of the necessary scientific discoveries and technological implementation being achievable to stave off disaster. What I fear is politics. We need to implement those discoveries on an intelligent, integrated, global scale with surprising rapidity to prevent some pretty bad outcomes that may, indeed, be disastrous. And that's where the problem lies with theological science denial. To implement these necessary changes successfully requires enough public trust in science to enable it, allow it, and fund it.

I think the severity of this problem is one that people are dimly aware of and yet that they strongly underestimate. It's not new, by any means, for theologians to denigrate and obstruct scientific advancement, but it has had a new resurgence in popularity lately. Many theologians in our technological world are desperate to attempt to put their faith on a level with science, and they do it by outright science denial and the undermining of public trust in science. Given the success of science, obvious in their lives and critical to their abilities to disseminate their messages far enough and wide enough to be a real problem, this issue would be laughable (because theology can't beat science in a war of ideas on their own merits). But it's not. The problem is that some of the science denial memes are highly infectious with those smart enough to get behind them, and they spread from theologian to pastor to flock with astonishing efficiency. Then, these people--who constitute a nontrivial portion of the American population, which is the group most relevant for a variety of reasons--vote.

The current popular brand of this dangerous nonsense with evangelicals is the "Pyrrhic skepticism" sort. Pyrrhic skepticism is extremely radical skepticism, like brains-in-vats, computer simulations, can't know reality exists radical. Many evangelical theologians are employing it out of desperation against the steady, reasonable informed skepticism advocated by and underpinning scientific methodology. The general flavor is that skepticism should be so skeptical that it denies that we can prove or establish anything--for example not even that the world exists or that we do in it--then arguing that everything has to be taken on "faith." Once faith is thusly "justified," in comes a cartload of faith-based nonsense.

This toxic argument is deceptively seductive, especially if the recipient has a pre-existing bias to favor faith (to protect emotionally and socially driven religious beliefs in most cases). The claim of the argument is that since "science can't prove itself, it takes as much (or more) faith to believe in science than it does," say, to believe in God. It doesn't matter that this is nonsense. It is seductive to the faithful, and it is widely accepted.

Consider this example of how this argument can feel seductive, quoting from John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith: How To Know Which Religion Is True (See OTF, p. 107). Retired Christian professor of philosophy Mark Hanna is writing to undermine Loftus's construction, saying:
If the only thing we should trust is the sciences, then we should not trust the claim that the only thing we should trust is the sciences. The assertion itself is not a scientific one nor is it discovered or justified by any of the sciences. It is a non-scientific, mistaken philosophical judgment about knowledge and the sciences, and yet he [Loftus] trusts it. So the sciences are not the only thing he trusts. ... It is beyond dispute that the empirical sciences neither contain all knowledge nor are they the only means for gaining knowledge.
Mostly, this is a ridiculous, straw man accusation, but here we see the theologian's game. In some sense, he's right--it's not essentially something science does. The philosophy of science has already solved this problem, for all intents and purposes, noting that we aren't aiming for the kind of certainty it seems to suggest. Still, following this argument comes truckloads of others. I am not suggesting that Hanna goes to Pyrrhic skepticism, but many do, and Hanna's work misinforms them. This brand of science denial holds a lot of appeal to pastors and congregations that are too easily impressed with the pseudo-profundity of movies like The Matrix, a theme that rests in the popular culture of much of the modern world now. Right behind this nonsense, though not necessarily from Hanna in this instance, is the big claim: that scientists accept trust in the sciences based upon "faith," and so faith is "justified."

Obviously, this is utter tosh. It's a game in which a pinprick in the fabric of our model of the world is poked, and then a truckload of unsupported assumptions are driven through on a false equivalence: that all forms of "faith" are essentially equal. Science does not operate on "faith," it operates on confidences, usually statistical. In fact, science operates specifically on doubt, requiring statistics on repeated examinations to overcome that doubt. That's why it works! Philosophically, the underpinnings of science may be axiomatic constructions like in any other methodology or philosophy, but science has the undeniable advantage over others of working. It reliably produces reliable results. Planes fly. Bridges hold vehicles. Computers work with and transmit data. Medicine performs the near-impossible, the closest thing we can call to miracles. We now depend upon those results because so does agriculture.

So, the problem is that theologians are willing to make these science-denying arguments, pastors are eager to disseminate them to keep the faith strong in an increasingly technological and secular world, and believers are happy to soak them up as insulation against the attacks that they perceive against their faiths, which satisfy core psychosocial needs for them and literally define their worldviews. Then these believers, so misinformed, vote in modern democracies, and as is amply testified to at least in the United States at present, they elect to high offices scientifically illiterate, scientifically hostile, ideologically motivated imbeciles with the same drive to denigrate science anytime it threatens their core beliefs.

This is a problem. A big problem.

For what may be a very broad majority of us, we face the situation where a public science denial campaign, if effective, could literally be suicide, inviting upon ourselves suffering, violence, and deaths numbering perhaps in the billions all within the next few decades. Sadly, this is unlikely to be terribly hyperbolic--estimates of the economic damages of global warming alone exceed $180 trillion by 2050. Our challenges at present require massive innovation and massive implementation that is currently a massive political impossibility. The controls are mostly in the hands of the wrong people, and the minds of those that put them there are becoming increasingly poisoned with anti-science rhetoric and belief structures. We're already decades behind where we should be for this very reason, and the science-denial memes appear to be spreading more effectively than ever. Science denial, sufficiently successful now, could be global suicide--the slow, painful, violent, suffering kind.

To target the apologists specifically, noting that these criticisms apply to politicians and members of the public as well, from this we can draw two possible conclusions. One is that these theologians are insufficiently educated about science to make responsible statements about it and do not understand the scope and imminence of the problem. Given their sway, that's irresponsible in the extreme. Secondly, we might conclude that these theologians simply don't care. Religious faith and science are fundamentally incompatible, this fact has been exposed, and despite our dependence upon science and technology, for whatever ultimately selfish, indefensible reasons theologians are choosing to push faith directly at the expense of scientific literacy and implementation.

Thus, in either case, these theologians--and politicians and everyday folks like unto them--are desperate enough to protect their faiths by promoting science denial actually to do it. From that, we can see another aspect of the moral bankruptcy of faith: religious faith is content to watch the world burn to protect itself, blind to the imminent danger that could lead to the wonton suffering and deaths of billions of human beings.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Review: John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith

I've mentioned before that more people should be reading John Loftus's writing (link to his blog). His Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, which he calls his "magnum opus," tops my short list of must-read books for anyone that wants to understand why belief in the Christian religions rests upon poor (read: absolutely no) foundations historically, ethically, and philosophically. It is truly a powerhouse.

If nothing else, Why I Became an Atheist is an indispensable desk reference for atheists to have on hand to investigate various Christian claims coming from a person who thoroughly understands them and yet rejected them--after working hard to be able to accept them and to lead others to accept them as well. Christians absolutely owe it to themselves to challenge their beliefs with Loftus's arguments, and so responsible Christians should all get it and engage it. The book is very long--500 dense pages--and written at the college level, but this review is not about Why I Became an Atheist.

In Why I Became an Atheist, Loftus has a short chapter near the beginning where he outlines what he calls the "Outsider Test for Faith," which is a topic I've written about several times in the past, adding some mathematical backing via Bayesian-style arguments that illustrate how it operates. Analyzing the Outsider Test was what first led me to conclude that faith itself should be classified as a cognitive bias that distorts the role of evidence in certain ways, a fact I'm very glad to see made it into Loftus's newer title.

I have called this Outsider Test argument a "silver bullet," and I still believe it is. It is the argument that fully exposes the double standard that religious believers hold with regard to bolstering their own faiths while dismissing others. As Loftus notes repeatedly, the Outsider Test is the tool by which we can solve the problem of religious diversity--why are there so many religions?--and religious dependency--why do the religions appear to be distributed profoundly geographically as if they are cultural artifacts instead of valid truth claims about the world? He correctly notes that whatever arguments for their faiths that various religious apologists might offer, none provides a coherent explanation for these problems. (Calvinism side-steps it by making God into a monster.)

Evidently, the apologetics world that Loftus left behind, especially evangelical apologists at whom most of his efforts are aimed, did not receive the OTF well, launching long strings of arguments back and forth with him essentially arguing either why the test is invalid, why they shouldn't have to take it, or how they've taken it with their faith uniquely passing the test. Prompted by this discussion (which I'm overwhelmingly tempted to describe as a shitstorm), John Loftus wrote a book-length treatment of the OTF: The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. This book is one I feel most people should get. I want to argue that point for two audiences: believers and atheists.

For believers in any faith tradition:

Reading The Outsider Test for Faith is something you owe yourself, your faith, your religious community, your wider community, and your God. Though your religion may ask you for blind, unexamined belief, your world is increasingly secular, and your faith should inform you that your God intended you to be rational. If sectarian faith is to survive in a secular, multicultural world, it has to be informed, and it has to be challenged. As a believer, it is your responsibility to elevate your faith to modern standards, and the Outsider Test presented in this book is the best, most fair tool for doing so that has so far been presented.

The Outsider Test for Faith was written, as noted above, by taking an idea that appeared in another work the Christians among you need to examine and then having it challenged by leaders in the Christian world. In other words, Loftus took the time and effort to spell out clearly real-world rebuttals to his original argument and respond to them. As an atheist reading this book, I actually feel like it takes away from the thrust of the argument somewhat, and yet I understand that he needed to do it for you, religious believers! Atheists already see your faith from the outside, and so our perspective makes the test "blindingly obvious" (as one Amazon.ca reviewer called it).

Loftus handles these objections so that you will not make the mistake of underestimating this test or its importance. The subtitle tells it all: How to Know Which Religion is True. In this secularizing, multiculatural world, it is critical for believers to try their faiths on such a test honestly and fairly--not just for the good of the secular communities faiths live within now but also for the good of the faiths themselves. False faiths do not possess what it takes to survive secular examination, so you need to be sure that your faith is true. The Outsider Test provides a tool to allow you to test yours, and The Outsider Test for Faith is well-written, clear, and concise for helping you understand what the test is, how to take it, why it's important, how it meets its goals, and why its criticisms so far are all severely lacking.

At the very least, believers, the first chapter of The Outsider Test for Faith is written in a way to engage you. It is written specifically to be used as a pick-up chapter for use in discussion groups, either in college-level classes in Bible colleges or in your Bible study groups inside or outside of your churches (assuming Christianity here, although it applies to other faiths, details modified as necessary). Religious believers should be engaging at least the first chapter of The Outsider Test for Faith wherever they meet to discuss the role of faith in their lives and in the broader context of the community. The rest of the book fleshes out that first chapter, bolstering it, justifying it, and refuting common objections to it.

If I were writing a blurb for a Christian-college cover jacket for The Outsider Test for Faith, I would write:
Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith presents itself as a test for determining which religion is true. Specifically, it sets out to engage readers on the question of the distribution of world faiths, asking them to look at their faith as would an outsider. This removes the double standard and allows believers their one shot at strengthening their faith-based claims in an increasingly secular world. Every believer today owes it to himself or herself, as well as to his or her faith community, to engage Loftus's arguments openly and honestly. It is a total game-changer.


For atheists

I know. We already know the punchline. "Which religion is true?" None! We don't need this book to convince us of that. We don't need this book to convince us to take the OTF itself either--we've already done it. We need to read this book to strengthen our abilities to apply this silver-bullet argument, to understand its importance and value, and to wake ourselves up to the state of argumentation provided against it by modern apologists. We tend to dismiss apologists, but it is critical to realize that they are still influential members of our communities (particularly in North America, which is astoundingly religious). Their arguments are dangerous poison, though, and Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith exposes that based upon the Christian reaction to its real-world deployment a few years ago inside Why I Became an Atheist.

Particularly, the degree to which these apologists engage in science denial is alarming, and it's hardly limited to them. If we've engaged with believers, particularly evangelicals, we know that science denialism is becoming a primary theme for them again. We also see it in politics, and this relationship is a reciprocating feedback loop that literally could have incredibly terrible consequences. Apologists most of us have never heard of may be the ones crafting these arguments, but pastors across the world are reading them and disseminating them to their flocks. This is a big problem, and I think it's underrated. The middle portion of Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith makes abundantly clear how incredible the lengths are that apologists are going to defend faith, attempting to undermine trust in science at its foundations, and believers nationwide are taking up the charge to our peril!

I won't lie. I think that the middle portion of this book where Loftus handles the apologists, is the least interesting part of it. I felt like it drags a bit through sloppy mud; I felt disappointed in it at times because I wanted him to simply dismiss them; but he's right not to. Engaging these denialist arguments here is important because of the virality of their ideas among the desperately faithful. My mom used to say that stubborn people will "cut off their nose to spite their face," and Loftus makes it clear that real apologists out there, mainstream ones, will cut off their heads to protect their beliefs.

Of course, there's a constant fear that taking on apologists, particularly science denialists or creationists (not Loftus's focus here, particularly), elevates their views and gives them false legitimacy. I think of it in this case more as putting them out in the sun, hoping that the light of day will sterilize them before they have too much of a chance to do damage. Loftus does a great job with it here. We can ignore margins. We cannot ignore growing infestations of bad ideas likely to have horrendous consequences. Science denialism today is one such set of ideas, and we have a responsibility to see how it is being argued and how to argue against it. Because the Outsider Test advocates informed skepticism, it brought the crazy straight out of the woodwork. Loftus provides good, direct responses.

The rest of the book is nice for us to read as well. The Outsider Test is a silver-bullet argument, like I said, but silver bullets only kill werewolves that they hit, and so the more people carrying them, the better our chances will be. For that reason, I would urge atheists to get this book, read the arguments (especially at the beginning and end of the book), and be able to argue for the Outsider Test as the necessary tool to examine one's faith in the light of the geographical distribution of faiths and preponderance of family and cultural transmission of them. The Outsider Test is a powerful tool for helping "werewolves" out of their "lycanthropy," that is helping lead believers to better ways of living without their religious faiths.

The book is very well written, and Loftus's passion and frustration are both evident. This is what a skilled writer with strong credentials that engages evangelical apologists feels, and he conveys it very well. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to make ourselves aware of this struggle--evangelicals do represent somewhere between 20-40% of Americans, after all, depending upon the definition. They are not a marginal fringe, and they are highly motivated to spread their ideas by any means possible. They are experts at preying upon emotional needs and experiences and willing to undercut anything--even secularism and science--to spread their beliefs. John Loftus knows this, feels it, expresses the sense of it clearly, and yet offers a powerful tool for engaging it in this book.

The atheist jacket blurb would go:
John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith is well-written; it is passionate; it is important; it is engaging; and it is surprising. It's well worth the relatively short read and a lot of consideration. It's a silver-bullet argument on its central theme: which religion is true? None of them! Get it; read it; and press the OTF out into the world where it can do some good. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in discussions about religious faith.
For what it's worth, as a little personal note, I want to point out also that this book contains my current favorite sentence on p. 219: "Faith is a parasite on the mysterious." What a beautiful way to put it! Thank you, John!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Randal Rauser's fascinating response

A couple of weeks ago, partially at my request, evangelical Christian apologist Randal Rauser--noted by John Loftus as one of the best of our generation--invited me to participate in a series on his blog concerning "Why [we] don't believe." I wrote a short essay for him on the matter (Link to my blog), and he graciously published it in full on his blog with his commentary (Link to his blog). Please, at least link to his blog here because my full text is there along with his commentary. I've thought about it all morning and part of this afternoon and decided to give some response to his commentary here to continue to facilitate what may be a productive dialogue between the two of us.

Though I do not agree with Dr. Rauser's conclusions, I have every reason to respect him as a generally honorable and genuinely nice person, so I'm excited to have this opportunity and don't want to make light of it by pretending it is about winning or losing. I'm very interested in the dialogue for its own sake and wherever it leads.

Regarding the title of this response, I will readily admit that as someone studying into the psychology of religion, I find Randal's commentary absolutely fascinating, even given how clean and philosophical he makes his cases. I don't say this to trivialize his arguments but rather to state my view of them more firmly. I recognize and honor his beliefs, and I see them as psychosocial phenomena to the core.

I will quote Rauser at length, in the customary green I have been using for this purpose, and I will respond as I feel it pertinent.
Hmmm. I’m perplexed. On the one hand, James describes himself as having come to the point of rejecting (or as he says, “leaving”) theism. On the other hand he insists that he cannot reject theism. What’s going on here?

As they say, actuality entails possibility, so if it is actually the case that James rejected theism, then surely it is possible to reject theism. And since James actually did reject theism (since leaving certainly entails rejecting) it is possible for him to reject theism.

Of course it is not possible for him to leave theism now that he’s an atheist. But that simply shows that when it comes to one’s metaphysical beliefs one man’s “null hypothesis” is another’s alternative hypothesis.
Let me clarify: I "left" religion, and then left theism, because I found it had no practical use for me. This happened a long time before I came to a position that criticizes it, which I would take as being roughly equivalent with how Rauser is understanding "reject" here. As I pointed out in my original essay to him, a statistical analysis here prevents me from having rejected theism without miscategorizing it as the null hypothesis. Pardon the need to linger here, but this part raises a couple of important points.

First, we see by Rauser's last sentence that he still lacks a firm footing for understanding what the null and alternative hypotheses are. Granted, and I intend to develop this more later, I see the kernel of corn inside this pile that he's referring to, but theology likes to play the fiddle of getting to pretend that it can assume its central premise (which is indicated by this reversal of roles that Rauser, like William Lane Craig, like Alvin Plantinga, like Apologist Inc., hold--"you've got to start with God"). I commented at the end of the fourth chapter of my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges, on what's going on here, and my next publication, Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly (coming soon!) should clarify the matter more.

Briefly, I'm positing that belief in "God" is a fundamental axiom in what we might describe as a worldview. Theists assume some God axiom. I do not. If someone is assuming a God axiom, then it is the null hypothesis, but because it's an axiom, it reveals the inherent bias. The axiom itself can be judged, and among those who have decided not to accept the axiom, it has been judged as wanting for evidential support. My essential claim is that "God," though, is an axiomatic, and therefore abstract, construction--which carries with it as corollary that it is not an agent at all, no worship or belief required. This is simultaneously more anti-theistic and less insulting than calling "God" a fairy tale or a superstition. The question then is about how we can judge which axioms we accept (e.g. the world exists, "realism") and which we need not (e.g. God exists, "theism") as defaults. I will be developing both of these ideas even more in the future as I think they are very important.

As to this fiddling, Rauser is likely to ask why I can assume naturalism in place of theism. That it's not obvious shows the desperation of theism. Everything we experience speaks to naturalism, even if we adopt a theistic point of view as well. Anyone who takes on the experiment of seeing the world as a naturalist only for a span of time each day, asking "how would I see this if I didn't believe in God?" will quickly realize that sufficient reason to accept naturalism pervades our entire experience. This is why the axioms of naturalism are more parsimonious than the axioms that add in theism and why we can accept them as the null, which does not apply to theism. The above experiment reveals that "God" is an extra hypothesis, and its reverse doesn't reveal the same about naturalism. Indeed, even psychological research indicates strongly that all but serious fundamentalists will take naturalistic attribution over supernatural or religious attribution until we psychologically can't (see Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, 4th ed., Hood, Hill, and Spilka, e.g.). Again, it's desperation to pretend otherwise, and Dr. Rauser shows it clearly here.

Second, we have the point that I had to leave theism in the first place. Why did I have to leave it? Because I once accepted it? Well, no, not really. It's more fair to say, loosely, that it was "forced" upon me. When I was a child, I was told it is true--by my parents, by my teachers, by my church, by my community, by my entire culture. I had been taught this before I had the capacity to evaluate it, and when I evaluated it for the first time as a young adult, I found the hypothesis useless (like Laplace's famous quip "I had no use of that hypothesis," referring to God). Later, I examined it closely and decided it is as bogus as other ideas I was taught as a child and did not question immediately.

In fact, somewhat sheepishly, I will admit that when I was a young child, I truly believed in the Easter Bunny. In fact, after a rather horrific dream early on Easter morning one year, I claimed to have seen the Easter Bunny and discovered that it is, in fact, a horrible monster. I still get made fun of for this dream to this day by the very people who taught me to believe in that bullshit in the first place. At any rate, I accepted the belief. Later I left it. After that, I became critical of not only it but the entire enterprise of teaching kids to believe in things beyond their capacity to evaluate and yet that might be pretty consequential. Of course, a key difference here is that in a religious upbringing, at no age do we ever get told by many of the authorities that matter that it is okay to question religious beliefs (or that not holding belief is, indeed, the hypothesis that is actually null on this claim).

So, here, with his confusion about the null and the alternative hypothesis, Dr. Rauser reveals that the whisperings of his Mother Culture--operating beneath the level of critical examination--have led him to have reversed the roles of these hypotheses. For many, this is because of childhood inculturation or outright indoctrination. I see this as a problem.

That's more than enough on that short little bit. Sorry... I got excited. Rauser continues, getting a little more personal as he goes.
There is a polemical edge in James’ writing that contrasts starkly with Jeff Lowder’s tentative non-belief. Consider, for example, James’ statement that Christianity is “unacceptable nonsense”. A dictionary definition of “nonsense” would be helpful here: “Nonsense” n. trifling, fatuous, foolish, absurd, without meaning.

So James apparently views Christianity as trifling, fatuous, foolish, absurd, and/or without meaning. It is difficult to conceive a more harsh and dismissive attitude toward Christianity than this.
Correct--I do feel that way, regarding whether or not Christianity is true. I feel that the claims of Christianity are so ridiculous as to be beneath serious comment about their truth-value validity. The religion itself is profoundly nonsensical, even if the underlying spirituality, psychology (but I repeat myself), and sociality are not.

I also don't think whether or not it is true matters to most people. What's a bit more important here is whether or not it is psychosocially useful. I do not deny that Christianity fills psychosocial needs and spiritual needs, and I do not belittle those at all. In fact, I profoundly understand them after having spent literally thousands of hours trying to satisfy them for myself. I do, however, think that trying to fill those needs with Christianity is profoundly foolish because the religion simply isn't true.

Worse than that, as much use as Christianity has in terms of meeting psychosocial needs and spiritual needs, it also causes great harm in both of those arenas as well. In fact, I don't think this claim is controversial enough to need explicit support. This is a core problem for Christianity and other religions to wrestle with--even as it helps it harms, rather profoundly in many cases.
James may think this brusque dismissal is a sign of the intellectual strength of his position, but really this only evinces the hard and simplistic categories of the fundamentalist. As I document in You’re not as Crazy as I Think, both Christian and atheistic fundamentalists are distinguished for marginalizing those with whom they disagree with sweeping charges of immorality or ignorance. James presumably opts for the latter charge here.
I don't intend to accept labels that attempt to bully me into accommodationism on whether or not the doctrines, dogmas, and beliefs of Christianity are overtly silly when viewed from the outside. They are. Not only is it obviously the case, many, many theologians and religious people hardly deny it. I don't know how many times--at least hundreds, maybe thousands--I have heard a Christian tell me something like "I know it [Christianity] is crazy, but it's true!" Well, no, it's not true, and yes it is crazy. Thanks for noticing as well. It's even crazy from the inside. I've even heard this routinely offered as part of different pastors' preaching.
James then adds that Christianity is “beneath commentary entirely”. Wow, strong words (and ironic since he’s commenting on Christianity as he makes them; call it benevolent condescension!). But what reasons does James give for finding Christainity “beneath commentary”?
The reasons are clear and outlined just above: it's admittedly incredible nonsense, even from within. Further, it has no empirical evidence for it and has been suggested to be unable to provide empirical evidence for it. Hitchens's razor applies neatly, then: that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
James gives two reasons. First, he sees no reason to accept theism. This isn’t a very impressive reason since it could simply reflect one’s ignorance of the subject matter. (Compare: the fact that Mrs. Brown’s grade 3 class sees no reason to accept superstring theory doesn’t mean there are no good reasons to accept superstring theory!)

James’ second claim is that Christianity (or, as he says, “Christian theology”) is “easily dismissed” when “viewed from the outside”. I’m not sure what James is saying here. Is this a nod to John Loftus’ outsider test?
Mrs. Brown's third grade class is a world-class example of a talisman meme: the appeal to ignorance. Ward off my arguments by hollowly pointing out that I can't know enough to have made them. It's like magic!

And yes, it is a nod to John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith, a hammer that hits so hard that theologians don't even realize they've been hit yet. I'm as comfortable saying that Christian beliefs are nonsense that meet the psychosocial needs of Christians as many Christians are in saying that Islamic beliefs are nonsense that meet the psychosocial needs of Muslims. I'm as comfortable saying that theism is nonsense that meets the psychosocial needs of theists are theists in saying that the beliefs that some alien race created humanity (or even the entire universe, even as a simulation) is a nonsense belief that meets the psychosocial needs of people who hold it. This is also a point below the level of any reasonable controversy.
This [“my failure to accept theism resulted from a long-term search that I can now understand in light of attempting to satisfy many of these psychosocial needs for myself”] is an admirably candid observation, though the psychosocial satisfaction one derives from accepting p is not a reason to accept (or reject) p. (However, in cases where the evidence for p and not-p is roughly equivalent, a pragmatist could argue that psychosocial benefits could be sufficient to take a doxastic stand.)
This smart-sounding excerpt is an incredible miss of what I said. I claimed that the reasons I think people accept theism are because they meet various psychosocial needs, not because of a belief that these claims are true (although believing they are "true" comes as a consequence of accepting the beliefs), and here is an attempt to turn it around on me when I indicate that I've had better success without the hypothesis in question. Incidentally, some straw got stuffed in there, as if I'm basing my argument upon my own feelings of psychosocial satisfaction.

In context, I argued that people cannot accept theism based upon its validity (because from the outside, and even within, it is overtly false), and so there must be other reasons. What are those reasons? I mentioned some and said I feel they were not sufficient for me. So, in fact, I've clearly stated that I hold the same philosophical premise that Rauser attempts to use against me while stating that it's an insufficient reason to accept theism. Fascinating.

Then, in response to my claim that science meets my attributional needs better than does theism, Rauser offers this.
It depends what phenomena we’re trying to explain. In my public debates with John Loftus I point out that there are many facts about the world that science must assume (e.g. the inexplicable fact that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics) and others that science cannot address (e.g. the transcendent meaning of love).

If I read James correctly then his ”basic attributional needs” include scientism. I am driven to this conclusion based on a reading that James seeks scientific explanations for phenomena simpliciter. (If James believes certain phenomena are not amenable to scientific explanation then he can certainly explain what those are at which point I’ll happily drop the scientism reading.)

But even if James finds a commitment to scientism does better at “providing [his] basic attributional needs”, that certainly isn’t a reason to think scientism is likely to be true.
Ahh, game on.

I don't think I need to talk at length about the "inexplicable fact that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics" given that I'm about to publish a short collection of essays that addresses that very topic, in a manner of speaking. Briefly, I don't think this is any more inexplicable than that Google Maps "inexplicably" look just like miniature pictures of the earth, including of my house, with useful words superimposed upon them. What do I know about mathematics, though? I'm just a mathematician.

Now, scientism. Apparently, Randal Rauser accuses me of being a scientist, but I just said I'm a mathematician. </bad joke>. There seem to be a lot of labels Rauser wants to pin on me, but I'm not a donkey, and I have no need for a tail. Related: the only use I have for straw is in my garden, which is not the kind we find in that last paragraph that Rauser uses to close his remarks. All these labels, particularly this one about scientism, are popular talisman memes again.

I could write a chapter or two of a book about "scientism," but I'm not going to do that here. This is by far long enough. Also, others, like Jerry Coyne, have done a great job of it (see here, e.g.) If Rauser had read my book God Doesn't; We Do (do you need a copy, Randal?), he'd see that I make quite a fuss near the end about the importance and value of our subjective experiences, something that puts me at some odds with many atheists. I feel science can shed considerable light upon these phenomena, but that ultimately, we are going to experience life subjectively no matter what. I do not think that this qualifies as "scientism."

Particularly, many theists point to "transcendent" ideas like "the meaning of" emotional states like love. Science has a lot to say about this--about what it is, how it is experienced, what the underlying biological causes for the experience are, etc. This does not explain the experience of the experience (hence the word "transcendent"), but all that says is that science, like a map, informs us about the world but is not the experience of the world. So what? Other arguments in this vein tend to be weak arguments to complexity, like morals, history, economics, etc. My response is the same: science can do a lot to inform us about these things, and importantly, its methodology (informed skepticism with empiricism) has the incredible advantage of consistent success in practice--enough consistent success to where it is far less appropriate to deny it than to embrace it.

There's a problem with his attempt to reject science as an attempt to bolster theism, though. In fact, I had considered writing a short post today about a related topic, so I'll use it to close this long response to Dr. Rauser.

Imagine that we observe or experience X. Science asks, "How did X happen?" and attempts to answer the question using various methods that essentially boil down to informed skepticism and empiricism (doubt it, check the data, doubt it some more, check more data, have other people check it to filter our biases, etc.) with the fewest number of assumptions--underlying axioms--one of which is "we are probably wrong, so we'd better be cautious and double-check repeatedly."

On the other hand, regarding attribution, theism says on some level or another, "God did X" or "God is responsible for X."

Any informed, skeptical person, including scientists, can immediately ask, "How did God do X?" if it grants the theist's hypothesis. Observe that we are now, practically speaking, in exactly the same place we were before--with a complete lack of useful knowledge explaining how X occurred. This is why many people, including me, argue that theism offers nothing substantial by way of attribution. So, even if science cannot explain everything, the thought that science doesn't explain something gives no credibility to theism.

So, by inserting "God" into the line of questioning, nothing is gained except an extraneous hypothesis that helps people feel better about certain psychosocial needs (e.g. a need for attribution filling the God of the Gaps--do note that finding "meaning" in "transcendent" ideas like "love" is also assigning attribution, and this attribution, even if subjective, need not be made supernatural). On the other hand, something important is lost by inserting "God."

Because the God in theism is an agent, we are stuck with another, harder question. So our real degree of connection to the problem has suffered some damage because a strongly confounding, perplexing, meaningless-off-theism question gets stuck in to the problem. That other question, one that science doesn't have to deal with, is "why?" "Why did God do X?" This question has no meaning at all without the acceptance of an underlying agent cause.

This question cannot be answered (because it's either meaningless or completely indeterminable, essentially by definition, even on theism: "his ways are not our ways," and "the LORD moves in mysterious ways"). Answers are given, though, usually revealing the psychosocial needs--many very childlike in nature--of the theists begging at them. Often, the suggestions given are reward, punishment, trial, etc., all statements that hearken back to needs for esteem, control, and mostly attribution, just like I mentioned to Rauser in the first place. My claim stands: I don't need to ask these inherently empty, misleading, desperate questions to get along with my life, so I don't.

Again, cheers, Dr. Rauser, for inviting this discussion. I'm in your debt.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Talisman memes

"You can't prove God doesn't exist!"

"There is microevolution but there's absolutely no evidence for macroevolution."

"It takes as much faith not to believe in God as to believe."

"Christians face serious persecution in the United States today."

"Science can't prove itself, so we can't trust it either."

These statements, and hundreds more like them, are all too familiar to anyone who has tried to engage a committed believer. They're all also false. In fact, they're so overwhelmingly clearly false, that it takes a rather substantial suspension of disbelief to accept that the person saying one of them actually believes it is true.

Since I don't believe that these people are actually stupid (or wilfully ignorant, etc.) to believe these statements if they actually spend any time thinking about them (see nota bene at bottom), and since they have no weight in a serious discussion, I've spent a little time pondering what purpose they really serve. In seeing what I think may be their actual function, I have arrived upon a name for such statements.

I call statements like these "talisman memes."
The Talisman of Charlemagne: opulent and nonmagical
The construction is simple.
  • A talisman is defined as "an object marked with magic signs and believed to confer on its bearer supernatural powers or protection," or more simply as "something that apparently has magic power," and
  • A meme is "an element of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation."
Obviously, talismans do not possess magical powers, whatever people believe about them. Particularly, talismans do not possess the ability to ward off negative influences, although people may rely upon them for that purpose.

A talisman meme, then, is a memetic object, usually in the form of a common phrase, sentence, or argument, that is used primarily to ward off dissenting ideas or challenges to one's beliefs.

Particularly, I intend the term to mean such memes that do not actually possess solid argumentative weight, although there is a belief that it is there. Like with a real talisman, I expect that if someone were to examine a talisman meme with even modest skepticism, the belief in its magical powers would crumble. I've found the term useful and so have written this in order to share it with others.


N.B.: I actually do think that a fair proportion of the people who use talisman memes do believe that they are solid, true statements with argumentative weight (perhaps even that they are clever instead of banal). I do not, however, think that this belief stems from stupidity. I'd pin it on the same underlying force that enables people to believe in the alleged powers of physical talismans: emotional desperation.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why Orion?

I got asked recently why I put a picture of the constellation Orion on the cover of my first book, God Doesn't; We Do. I guess that's a good question that I've never bothered to answer for anyone (particularly, you won't find out by reading the book).

There it is. Orion on the cover of God Doesn't; We Do.


Orion is a symbol. In the old myths, the gods put the heroes, among other things, in the night sky as constellations. Obviously, this is not the real state of affairs since constellations are apparent arrangements of stars. The stars are so far away that they appear to be two-dimensional arrangements that can be interpreted, with some imagination, as indications of pictures. Orion is the imagined image of a man applied to a particular and recognizable set of stars.

I chose to put Orion on the cover of God Doesn't; We Do in homage to the idea that no god did anything of this kind. People put the idea of Orion upon the appearance of stars that only coincidentally form that pattern in our night sky. Interestingly, we all know that now about Orion, dismissing the old myths as casually as we should dismiss our own.

God doesn't; we do. Orion was, for me, a symbolic theme of that idea.


For those curious, that drawing on the cover was done by hand (or rather, by mouse) by me. My obvious lack of digital art skill turns out to be both apparent and part of the reason I chose this design in the first place (I could make a blue/black gradient all by myself). The entire cover design was my own, which might have been a mistake.