Monday, September 3, 2012
When they leave the theater, the magician goes on to another city and never returns. But there is no reason to to doubt that some of the things that happen in the world are controlled by secretive magicians that they never actually see. It is perfectly obvious to everyone that the earth is flat, the sun and stars go around the earth, and objects in motion invariably slow down and stop. They measure the behavior of the sun and use it to predict when to plant their crops. They don't know why it follows the path it does, but they can certainly predict where it will be in the sky at any given time.
But there are these stubborn people called scientists who refuse to believe in magic, and worse yet, they tell us that nothing we see is actually real. They are always making everything more complicated. When you show them something, they always want to take it apart into smaller and smaller pieces. They never really seem to understand it, but they claim that the tiniest pieces are what is real. They say stuff like “an object in motion stays in motion, and only slows down because of friction”. This doesn't even obey Occam's razor. Then they say that the perfectly hard walls and floor that we can see and feel are mostly empty space. And the little teeny pieces they said everything was made of? Apparently those aren't real either -- instead they are some kind of probability wave. Or maybe it's both. Nobody is really sure. And get this: ninety-five percent of the universe is made of stuff nobody can see. The scientists can't find it, even with their fancy equipment, but they insist it's there somewhere. Sheesh. This is just crazy stuff.
Scientists are never happy with what they've got. Whatever they told us was real last year turns out to be wrong this year. Now the tiny pieces might be even tinier wiggly 11-dimensional strings. But some of them aren't happy with this either. There are some who think that maybe the universe is some kind of cellular automaton with cells the size of the Planck length. Some philosophical types think the universe is some kind of mathematical model, in which everything that can exist does exist, subject only to mathematical consistency. And then there are the loonies who think that the universe could, in theory, but a computer simulation.
Monday, January 30, 2012
A Gun At Your Head
Suppose that a man holds a gun to your head, and tells you to rob a bank or he will shoot you. Regardless of what you think about free will, you can still decide not to rob the bank and be shot. But if you do rob the bank, you won't be responsible because you were coerced.
A Space Alien Controls Your Brain
Suppose there is a space alien in orbit around the earth in an invisible space ship. Suppose that he has some very advanced technology such that he can reach into your brain and control everything you do. He has you rob a bank. Presumably it is clear that you do not have free will, because your actions are controlled by something outside your body. But since nobody knows about the space alien, you will be held responsible for robbing the bank.
Simulating the Future
It is, of course, impossible to simulate (and hence predict) the exact future of everything, because that would require a computer bigger than the entire universe, and it still wouldn't run in real time. But it is still possible to predict localized futures of isolated simple systems for near futures, with high probability. Otherwise we couldn't do science.
The system I describe here is certainly beyond our ability to predict today, but may well be possible some day. You enter a room containing a screen and two buttons, labeled A and B. You are instructed to wait five minutes and then push one of the buttons. As you enter the room, a computer scans your body and various relevant properties of the room. After four minutes, the computer displays “You will push button A” on the screen. After another minute, you push button B. You do this because you believe you have free will, and you think this proves it.
What's wrong with this picture? The computer must simulate the entire five minutes. The simulation must include the display of the result that occurs after four minutes, because it is one of the inputs to the simulation. But it hasn't finished the simulation yet, so it doesn't know what to put into the simulation at that point. If you think this through, you will realize that it is impossible to write such a program.
However, if we take away the screen, and just print the result on a printer outside the room, the problem goes away. There is no reason to believe that such a result could not be computed with better than 99 percent accuracy. When you leave the room, and see the result, you may find it hard to believe that it was printed before you pushed the button, but I'll just leave this for you to ponder.
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Before trying to answer this question, I thought it might be best to decide who benefits from one answer or the other. The question seems to arise in debate between theists and atheists. At some point the theist asserts that atheism is a religion too. Then the atheist, who had planned, going in, to ask if the theist really believes in a talking snake, takes the bait and ends up spending the rest of the debate defending his or her own beliefs as fundamentally different from theism. And the theist, who, by some strange logic, has accepted the idea that more than half the world believes in some completely different religion, can go home comforted by the idea that atheism is just one more. So mark this one up for the theist.
Now think of the benefits that would accrue if atheism were a religion. First of all, its institutions would be tax-free. As a religion, atheists would no longer be society's outcasts. As it is, atheists are always rated the scariest, most hated group - more so than Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. But as a religion, maybe Christians would allow their daughters to marry atheists. Even Scientologists want to be a religion. And in that debate, the atheist can simply say yes, you're right, atheism is a religion -- now lets get back to the talking snake.
So with all this going for it, why don't atheists simply declare themselves to be a religion and be done with it? In fact, some do. There is a Church of Reality. The Humanists hold Sunday morning meetings that seem very similar to church services. But in the final analysis, it just doesn't work. Nobody believes that atheism is a religion. Most atheists go ballistic at the suggestion that their belief system is comparable to the absurd mythologies of organized religion. And theists generally don't believe that you can have a religion without a god, even though there are religions, like Buddhism, that have no god. Even that debater probably doesn't really think that atheism is a religion -- it was just a rhetorical device to help win the debate.
So if neither side believes that atheism is a religion, are we done? Isn't the answer no? It may just be that this is the best answer we can give. Still, this nagging question keeps coming up in debates, and to answer it with “nobody believes that” somehow doesn't cut it. So it would be nice if we had a simple, logical analysis that would answer the question definitively. In order to get that, of course we need ...
Definitions, definitions, definitions
At the very least, we'll need definitions for religion and atheism. Since the answer to the question will depend on how we define the terms, it may be difficult to make definitions that both sides agree to. But lets see what happens.
Religion is Theism
Suppose we simply define religion as belief in a god or gods, i.e. theism. Then if atheism is a religion, we would have theism equals a-theism, and this is nonsense. Surprisingly, this doesn't end the debate. When the theist claims that atheism is a kind of religion, what he really means is that atheists aren't really atheists. In this argument, the atheist instead believes in the god of science, or the god of logic, or the god or rationality. This amounts to a definition of god, of course, and under this definition the term atheist becomes vacuous, since everybody believes in something. So the definition of religion as theism is either trivially true or trivially false. Moreover, it leaves out the religions, like Buddhism, that have no gods.
Religion is Faith
Religious people commonly agree that they are willing to live without evidence for God, because they have faith. Atheists are OK with this because they have neither belief nor faith in God. Now the theist may claim that the atheist has faith in science, and since faith is the essence of religion, atheism is a religion. At this point, the atheist can make a couple of different counter-arguments. One is to play with the words faith, belief and trust. In this argument, faith is the kind of blind belief that the religious have, whereas trust is the relationship that one has with science. This is a weak argument, however, because these words are all pretty squishy. One could spend the rest of the debate coming to some agreement over their precise semantics.
A better counter is simply to say that atheism has nothing to do with what someone does believe, only what they don't. This really ought to answer the question. Since the atheist has no faith, atheism is not a religion. But the theist may not give up so easily. Since the atheist cannot prove that god does not exist, it can be argued that the atheist must have a kind a faith in the non-existence of god. The atheist can counter this with the claim that faith is not required. No atheist thinks it is 100% certain that there is no god, but that a logical analysis of the evidence shows that the probability is very low. Furthermore, it actually is rather trivial to prove that the major monotheistic gods (Yahweh and Allah) are logically impossible.
Religion is Dogmatic, Close-minded, Emotional and Irrational
This may sound like a blatant accusation leveled at theists by atheists, in order to compromise their position in a debate. But before you leap to this conclusion, it turns out it's not that simple. First of all, many theists would agree with some of these claims. Secondly, many atheists may be guilty of some of these attributes as well, even though they may try to deny it.
Consider dogmatism. The word itself is most commonly associated with religion. Every organized religion has its central dogma, which is the stories that comprise its sacred texts. One cannot remain a Christian and deny the story of Jesus. So there is no question that religion is dogmatic. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows people to accept certain “truths” and move on. Are atheists dogmatic? One could regard “there are no gods” as the dogma of atheism. However, this doesn't really seem right. First of all, most atheists arrive at this conclusion of their own accord -- it is not imposed upon them. Second, most atheists do not regard it as a certainty, but as subject to revision by possible future observation. Sometimes theists will assert that atheists are dogmatic because science is sometimes dogmatic. Although it is true that dogma is often found in science (for example “Darwinian evolution is a central dogma of biology”) science is not actually part of atheism. I think we can conclude that dogmatism is a characteristic that distinguishes religions from atheism.
Are theists close-minded? Yes, of course. They might feel offended by this characterization, because they don't feel close-minded in areas other than religion. But it is simply implied by faith. Faith trumps everything. No argument can change your mind. Are atheists close-minded? Theists sometimes say so. They see so many compelling arguments in favor of god, not to mention the masses of humanity that are religious that in their mind it is close-minded not to at least “try it”. Perhaps they don't realize that most atheists have already tried it and found it wanting.
There is another way in which atheism might be regarded as close-minded. If one day there were evidence for some kind of god, we wouldn't easily accept it. We would make every attempt to debunk it. We would prefer to doubt it until it was proven to be valid beyond all reasonable doubt. And even then, we wouldn't respond by going to church to worship and pray. We would study it like any other natural phenomenon, such as attempting to communicate if that seemed appropriate. Personally, I would count this as a kind of open-mindedness, but your mileage may differ.
Is religion emotional? Emphatically yes, and proud of it! Theists sometimes use this as a kind of proof of God's existence. They will say “I feel God's love”, or “I love Jesus”, and then ask how they could love or be loved by something non-existent. Another favorite is “it is important to fear hell or you can't be moral”. Their next step is to to accuse atheists of being cold and unemotional and furthermore of using faulty logic because it fails to take account of emotion. All of these claims are false of course. The details are beyond the scope of this essay, except to point out that logic certainly can take account of emotion, but you can't draw conclusions directly from emotions. Just because something feels true doesn't make it true.
Are atheists emotional? In general, they are just as emotional as anybody else. Are they emotional about religion? Most atheists try to keep emotion out of their arguments about religion. But otherwise, I think there is plenty of emotion involved. Much has been written recently about the “angry atheists”. This may be somewhat overstated, but I think it is there. In addition, there is often pride and passion about being “enlightened”. And, of course there is fear of punishment by the religious majority, especially in theocracies. I think it would be fair to say that atheists are more emotional about their position than theists often are. So in this respect, atheism is kind of like a religion.
Is religion irrational? It might seem that faith is irrational by definition. Despite this, there are theists who feel that their religion is completely rational. Others, however, admit that they are irrational, and say that this is a good thing, arguing that rationality is not the only way to discover truth. Somehow they never quite get around to explaining what the other ways are. They seem to involve either accepting a logical argument as true even if it is shown to be false; or accepting something as true because it feels like it must be true.
Atheists, on the other hand, put rationality on a sort of pedestal. It's kind of like the coach of an amateur sports team, trying to comfort the players after a loss by saying “winning isn't everything”. The professional player, however, says “winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing”. Atheists are the professional rationalists. It is worth examining this more closely in order to avoid certain misunderstandings that may arise. Lets say that a theist makes some assertion about his god. The atheist may have a kind of visceral reaction to the effect that “I know that must be false -- what should I say?”. There follows a heated discussion which is inconclusive. Later, the atheist manages to construct the definitive proof that the assertion was false. We can see that this proof is a kind of rationalization of the original gut reaction. The theist can, with some validity, claim that the atheist is just as irrational about his belief in no gods as the theist is in his belief in his god. The reality is that this is just human nature. Rationality is the end result of a complex emotional and social process. The difference is that the atheist can get there, and the theist cannot.
So religion is demonstrably dogmatic, close-minded, emotional and irrational. While atheists are also emotional, it takes a real stretch of reasoning to find them dogmatic, close-minded or irrational. So by these characteristics, it would appear that atheism is not a religion.
Religion Is Belief in the Supernatural
Not convinced yet? Here is one last argument. In the stone age, people apparently couldn't form the idea of things following mechanical rules, or even the idea of one thing controlling other things. To them, everything was “alive”, and the non-human things were “gods”. So the sun god wasn't a separate entity that controlled the sun. The sun was a god. Later, as people learned to control some things themselves, they got the idea that there were more powerful human-like beings who controlled the things they didn't understand, which was still pretty much everything. These gods lived on the earth, but somewhere inaccessible to men. Later yet, as they developed hierarchical power structures of their own, they decided there was just one chief god. This god was still human-like, but lived in the sky somewhere. He still controlled everything, spoke to people regularly, and did miracles. This idea of god is still with us today. As science progresses, people no longer thing he controls everything, but, depending on who you talk to, he still controls some things, and may speak to people, and perform minor miracles. He still lives in a place that is inaccessible to humans. Since humans now have access to every place on earth and in space, this place must be somewhere that is not part of the natural world. We call this the supernatural.
Lots of other phenomena also seem to exist in the supernatural, like ghosts and ESP. Religious people don't necessarily believe in all of these, but most believe in a heaven and hell that are in the supernatural, where dead people go. Also souls may live partly or wholly in the supernatural. There are religions that have no gods, but as far as I know, they all believe in something supernatural. In my mind, this as the essential definition of religion.
Needless to say, atheists do not believe in the supernatural. An atheist might believe in ESP, since that doesn't necessarily have to do with gods, but if so, it would be as a natural phenomenon, not supernatural. I could stop here, and say that this proves that atheism is not a religion. But I can't resist going on and showing that...
The Supernatural Either Doesn't Exist Or Is Irrelevant
At one level, the proof of this is completely trivial. It is true by definition. The natural world consists of everything we can observe. So something supernatural is something we cannot observe. That means it can have no effect whatsoever. There is nothing to prevent the existence of such a thing. Think of it as some kind of parallel universe. Real scientists talk about such things a lot these days. But if it is truly unobservable, then it is irrelevant, since it can have no effect on anything. It might as well be non-existent. QED.
So if a theist agrees that there is no evidence for god, so you just have to have faith, that is actually nonsense. No-one can know what to have faith in if there is no evidence. Now you can start discussing what he thinks the evidence is. Theists commonly believe that god influences their minds in some way. Lets say he helps guide moral decisions. Regardless of what you think about how the mind/soul works, it can ultimately connect to your mouth, tongue, and vocal chords, and you can discuss moral decisions with me. This would give me a channel to god. This shows that god, if he exists, cannot be entirely supernatural.
At this point, you can begin to evaluate the evidence and see if it makes a convincing case for the existence of a god. If not, then the theist cannot fall back on the faith argument. He can, and probably will, disagree about the quality of the evidence. Perhaps someday brain science will show that all of the purported godly influences on the mind actually originate in the brain. Will that end the argument? Probably not. But I do hope that I have made a convincing case here that atheism is not a religion.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
So this is already pretty scary, but today this item shows up on one of my mailing lists: it is a video in which Mike Huckabee says that Americans should be forced at gunpoint to watch David Barton, a well-known loony-tune who has a book full of false quotes and other material which supports the claim that the US was founded as a Christian country. Now it's clear that Huckabee thinks this is some kind of joke, but at the same time you can sense that he thinks forcible indoctrination would be a good thing, at least where god is concerned.
I'm not going to go into the whole David Barton thing. You'll find lots of links in the article, along with the video itself. My main point is this: does anyone think that this man can get elected president after making a remark like this? They have already removed it from the public copy of his remarks, but do you think they can somehow suppress it completely? If they don't suppress it completely, will the press ignore it?
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
- Yes, we are angry, and here's why.
- This is a false accusation. Whenever we debate theists at all, somebody will say that this is inappropriate and angry.
- We agree. These guys are too angry, and it is hurting our mission.
I think there is some truth in each of these, and I'd like to discuss them in turn. Firstly, what is the anger about? I think there are several causes of justifiable anger: (a) in response to an admission of atheism, people are often "excommunicated" by their family, friends, and community. (b) There are numerous cases of real harm being done in the name of religion. When people fly airplanes into buildings, you can argue all you want that it is politics, but it is clear that religion is playing a role here too. When the pope says that condom use is wrong and causes more aids cases, this causes real harm, and is purely religious. Finally, (c) when atheists in general are degraded and regarded as somehow sub-human. Supreme court justice Scalia said that the first amendment "... permits the disregard of devout atheists." And George H. W. Bush said "atheists should not be considered citizens".
"Moderate" theists almost invariably will claim that each of these cases is limited to "extremists" and does not justify the condemnation of religion in general, and especially their religion in particular. However, I think that extremists are more common that moderates seem to think, and in their silence they effectively condone extreme behavior, no matter how harmful it may be. So when atheists condemn harmful behaviors that are happening right now, this is should be regarded as a moral duty and not as a fault. If they sometimes paint with too broad a brush, perhaps they can be forgiven, especially when it affects them personally.
Moving on, is debating religion a kind of anger that should better be avoided? In America we have freedom of religion, after all. Over time this has developed into religious tolerance. The latter means that, with certain limitations, people are expected to keep their religion to themselves. There are, of course, evangelicals of almost all major religions, as well as those who promote their own religion through writings and speaking. But people seem to draw the line at calling out other religions, and especially all religions, as wrong. But what else is an atheist to do, besides just keep quiet. Many of us are simply dumbfounded by the ability of so many people to continue believing the most bizarre things, despite massive evidence against them. We feel like we just want to shake some sense into people. We know this usually won't work, so we may try to do it in the gentlest and least threatening way possible. Granted, Harris, et. al., aren't taking this approach, so perhaps it is fair to criticize them for shaking a little too hard. But if gentle persuasion is still regarded as intolerance and anger, then anybody who doesn't just keep quiet is angry. So be it.
What about the four horsemen? Except for Daniel Dennett, who I think was writing a calmly reasoned scientific treatise, the other three clearly were not. I think the other three were clearly expressing some of the anger I have just discussed. Whether this anger is excessive depends on what you think their goal was. If you think their goal was to convert theists to atheism, I would say they are too angry. Although I have heard reports of conversions that they did inspire, I have explained in an earlier post why I think they will not succeed well at this goal. But their strong words did achieve a different goal. Their sheer popularity served to wake up the world, theists and atheists alike, that atheists are not just a few shady characters with no morals who can safely be ignored. It gave atheists some pride, allowed them to join growing groups of like-minded people, and encouraged them to speak out, with or without anger.
So is there a schism between "new, angry" atheists, and others. I don't think so. I think there are plenty of atheists who are still in the closet, or who otherwise keep their religious opinions to themselves. Then there is a new group who are inspired to speak out. Since atheists, by some reasoning, can have nothing constructive to say, if they speak up, they are intolerant and angry. So if there is a schism, it is only between the quiet ones and the noisy ones.
All of this is not to say that some of the noisy atheists really are intentionally expressing anger. Whether this is justified depends on the goal. Many people have the simple goal of getting equal rights for atheists. Historically every political "right" gets established as such only after some level of "fight" which involves some group of people expressing their justifiable outrage. But if your goal is to convince people to stop believing crazy stuff, you clearly can't do it by yelling at them. It may be that no reasoned argument will be very effective in general, but if enough people speak out in enough different ways, it may have some positive effect.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Religious tolerance is a remarkably complex phenomenon which I can't hope to address in a single blog posting. Nevertheless I'm going to start with some thoughts and see where it takes me. The reason it is so important is that it seems key to avoiding war with Muslims and perhaps others, not to mention certain kinds of political conflict within the US.
The odd thing about tolerance is that it seems like a rather untenable position for a religious person to take. If you think your religion is right, and it involves an all-powerful deity who has set down laws for you to follow, and who condemns you to eternity in hell for failure to do so, then surely you will do everything in your power to follow these laws. If other people have different laws, then there is a serious conflict. This conflict ultimately resolves into the laws of the state. Each religion must surely want the laws of the state to include all of their religious laws. Surely it would be wrong to allow the will of the majority to override the will of the supreme deity.
Yet, in spite of this logic, we find that in the western industrialized world, the vast majority of people have in fact become willing to submit to the will of the majority in almost all cases. In the US a somewhat smaller majority accepts the constitutional separation of church and state, although many fundamentalist Christians do object to this provision.
I am going to argue that, even though people think that their morality comes from God, it actually comes from society, and it changes over time. Even though people may think that God's morality is unchanging, they are wrong. Bible literalists can always find quotes that can be interpreted to support current morality, but these are rationalizations. In reality, the quotes and the interpretations change over time.
After fighting religious wars and persecution in Europe for hundreds of years, people have come to accept religious tolerance as a preferable, if imperfect, alternative. Over time people have come to believe that God favors tolerance. The old testament clearly commands God's people to kill other people who have the wrong religion. But the new testament is taken to override this, even though this seems to be saying that God was wrong when he wrote the earlier rules.
Let me just give two further examples which show that current morality is unrelated to scriptural morality: adultery and abortion. The bible makes it very clear that adultery is a serious sin and is punishable by death. People still think it is a sin, but very few think it is a capital crime. If you did think it was a capital crime, you would have a serious problem with the secular state, which not only tolerates adultery, but if you do God's will and kill an adulterer, it is you who are guilty of murder. Yet no one has any problem with this.
Now abortion is a different matter. The bible actually says nothing about abortion at all. It is never mentioned. Both "pro-life" and "pro-choice" advocates can find quotes in the bible that can be interpreted to justify their position. Now the pro-life side is adamant that abortion is murder, and it drives them crazy that the state refuses to treat it as such. They have somehow become convinced that this is God's will and God is really pretty upset about it.
What about the Muslim world? It would appear that, despite fighting among themselves for 1400 years over the question of the inheritance of religious authority from Mohamed, they have not yet developed widespread religious tolerance. Sunnis and Shiites remain mostly divided along national boundaries, and where there is substantial mixing, there remains a high level of inter-sectional violence -- i.e. Iraq. There is sometimes a grudging acceptance of other religions in some cases, but they are treated as second-class citizens.
How can we account for this? It is a gross simplification, of course, but I believe that the single most important factor is education. There is generally no secular public education available in Muslim countries. If a poor boy gets an education at all, it is often in a Muslim school called a madrasa. In a madrasa, the education consists exclusively of teaching and reading the Koran and other religious texts. So it is no surprise that this sort of education results in religious intolerance.
Of course there are many religiously tolerant people to be found within Muslim cultures. The reason is the same as it is in the more affluent countries. Among the better educated, more affluent middle and upper classes, religion tends to lose its standing as the sole source of moral authority. When they emigrate to non-Muslim countries, naturally they have little choice but to tolerate the religions that dominate in their new homes. Unfortunately, the religiously tolerant do not have either the political power or the moral conviction to establish tolerance as a secular imperative.
Is there any solution to this? Perhaps the best hope is education. If we could introduce and support secular education without appearing to interfere with local cultures this would have tremendous long-term value. This would take some years to have a significant effect, but it would almost certainly be cheaper and more effective than paying for endless wars. In the short term, we could attempt to support secular leadership wherever possible, again without interference.
You might conclude from the above discussion that I think religious intolerance is the only factor fueling anti-western fervor and terrorism. Clearly there are other factors, including nationalism and a justifiable anger over western interference in local governments. However, religion remains a factor, and the others are not within the scope of this blog.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
It is clear from her connections that Sarah Palin either is, or would be, under the control of her handlers, a dominionist. Another part of God's plan, apparently, is that society should be ruled by his law, as expressed in the Bible. Dominionists actually want this to be literally true, in the U.S. The one thing in the bill of rights which drives these people crazy is the separation of church and state. Of course they have no hope of passing an amendment that removes this explicitly, so their strategy is to get a supreme court that will effectively interpret it out of existence.
Imagine what it would be like if the Bible was the law of the land. Most people are not very familiar with the parts of the old testament where God spells out his laws. It is not a pretty picture. The punishment is usually death. The worst offense, of course, is having the wrong religion. Apostasy is especially bad. Adultery? Death. And so on. Interestingly, Bible literalists who are familiar with the laws seem to have no problem with it. If you ask a knowledgeable fundamentalist whether it seems right to execute someone for adultery, he will be OK with that.
Of course this conversion is not going to happen overnight. It would be a gradual process in which intrusions would be introduced incrementally. Each change would seem small once the previous one became accepted. Right now the mania of the moment is overturning Roe v. Wade. Of course this alone should be reason enough to vote against McCain/Palin. But you shouldn't think that they'll be happy once that is done. That is just the beginning.
Now it does not appear that John McCain is a dominionist or is associated with them. Although he has tried to associate himself with some of the fundamentalist leaders, they all know that he is not really on board, which is why the religious right was never very happy with him. He would, however, appoint supreme court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. But his reasons for supporting the Iraq war appear to be more patriotic than religious. Wrong either way, of course, but understandable as a kind of stupidity, rather than a mission from God. In any case, one might hope that a McCain presidency would be less damaging than the Bush one has been. But McCain could die, and then there would be hell to pay.