Friday, November 30, 2012

The "prophet" mentality

Many creationists and other believers, who vehemently oppose the theory of evolution, have this strange, twisted concept that Charles Darwin invented this crazy theory and now the whole scientific community just believes it without question, like it was some kind of holy scripture. Therefore if you discredit Darwin or his writings, you discredit the entirety of evolution.

These people do not seem to realize nor acknowledge the humongous amount of research and testing that has been performed since Darwin, and how much the theory has actually evolved (no pun intended) since his publications. (For example, Darwin had no idea about DNA and how it can be used to create a cladistic tree, or trace back the ancestry of a species and connect it to other species. This being just one tiny example out of many.)

It seems to be that many of these people cannot get rid of a "prophet" mentality. In other words, that truth (or alleged truth) is handed down to ordinary people by wise "prophets", and this information is either the whole, unchanging truth, or completely false and devious. How to know which it is happens by examining the prophet himself. If the prophet is questionable in some way, or if anything that he said can be proven to be false, then everything that he said is dubious and should not be trusted. After all, the Bible itself talks about prophets and how to distinguish true and false prophets.

Curiously, many of these believers don't even themselves realize that they are engaging in this kind of thinking. Not even if it's explained to them. No matter how you explain to them that science just doesn't work that way, it doesn't help.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The second law of thermodynamics

The laws of thermodynamics, especially the second one, are the favorites of creationists and apologists. Which is rather ironic (and hypocritical), really. Usually they oppose science and think that it's the work of the devil and exists just to discredit the existence of God. Of course when some creationist figured out that they could use the laws of thermodynamics to argue against "evolutionism" (which is really just a made-up term), the status of that part of science immediately jumped to completely credible and well-established fact (much unlike the rest of science, which is just a bunch of lies invented to deceive the faithful.)

Anyways, no such apologist actually understands the laws of thermodynamics. They have a vague "pop-culture version" of it, but that doesn't stop them from proudly announcing their understanding of it as well-established scientific hard fact.

(Unfortunately, scientists themselves are partly to blame. Personally I blame mostly Stephen Hawking and his book A Brief History of Time, which popularized the misconception that the the second law of thermodynamics means that everything must go towards chaos, and order increasing is a physical impossibility. Hawking may be a brilliant scientist, but I think he has done more harm than good at popularizing it in a manner that avoids misunderstandings.)

The creationist version of the second law is: Everything must always go towards disorder. Order cannot increase on its own.

Most creationists, and even many non-believers, swallow that without a second thought, even though it's extremely easy to disprove. I myself am increasing order right now, by writing this article. Am I breaking the second law of thermodynamics? If order can never increase, doesn't it mean exactly that? I have proven the second law false, so where's my Nobel prize?

A creationist will immediately object and say that I'm increasing order by using my consciousness and intelligence. That it's different. The order is not increasing "on its own." The obvious counter to that is: Where exactly does the second law of thermodynamics specify such an exception? The second law does not say "chaos must always increase, except if acted upon by an intelligent being." Nowhere will you see anything like that.

But I don't even have to resort to an intelligence increasing order. It happens in nature all by itself all the time.

For example, lava is molten rock material. It's basically just a completely amorphous blob of mineral molecules with extremely little order. Then thermodynamics happen: The blob of lava starts releasing its heat to its environment and therefore cooling down. Sometimes something awesome happens: As the lava solidifies and forms a rock, inside this rock crystals may form. Crystals are highly-ordered mineral molecules. (The extreme ordering of the molecules is what makes them crystals.)

So, nothing acted on the rock. No intelligence, no external force, no design. The lava just cooled down, releasing heat, and all by itself the completely chaotic amorphous blob transformed into highly-ordered crystal molecules.

Was the second law once again completely broken? Clearly order increased tremendously, with no external action. Why isn't this a huge mystery and open question in physics? Why isn't this called "the great crystal anomaly" or something similar? Are scientists in a huge conspiracy to not to talk about this?

No. The problem is that this is all just a huge misunderstanding of the second law of thermodynamics. Creationists just don't understand it.

What the second law says is that the total amount of entropy in a closed system never decreases. There's nothing in the law that says that entropy cannot decrease locally (as long as entropy increases somewhere else in the system by at least that much, so that its total amount remains the same or increases.)

There's nothing in the cooling lava that breaks this law. The amount of chaos inside the rock may have decreased, but that just means that the amount of chaos somewhere else has increased by at least that much. (In this particular case it was the heat that the rock released, which increases the entropy of the environment.)

There's nothing different with me writing this article: By doing so I'm consuming energy and releasing it in a form that has higher entropy. As the order of certain things increase when I write this, the amount of energy available for useful work overall decreases by at least that much (and in practice more.) In other words, I'm actually increasing (overall) chaos by writing this article, not decreasing it (even though order is increasing locally.) That's because I'm consuming energy, and releasing waste energy that increases entropy. The order is not coming from nothing.

(If you understand that notion, you can also understand why the second law implies that no perpetual motion machine is possible. It's the exact same principle: No machine can produce more useful work than the energy it consumes.)

There is nothing in the formation of stars, planets, molecules and living beings that would break the second law of thermodynamics. What the law is saying is simply that the if the amount of order (more precisely, energy available for useful work) increased somewhere, it means that it decreased by at least that much somewhere else.

Creationists cannot understand this, and in fact they refuse to understand this. The laws of thermodynamics are their pet arguments, so they simply cannot accept being wrong about them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Misattributing evidence

There's one curious aspect of the human psyche that's really, really hard to get rid of, and to spot the deductive error caused by it. Namely, the instinct to misattribute evidence (regardless of whether it's valid evidence or not.) This is done by the vast majority of theists, believers in the paranormal, conspiracy theorists and, sadly, even by many skeptics.

I once had a conversation with a friend about the belief in God. He told me a personal anecdote as one of the (many) reasons why he believes in God: Some years ago, when he was having a very difficult time in life, he was at a local church, and the pastor was speaking words of knowledge. My friend says that at one point the pastor started talking basically directly at him (starting with something like "there's a young man somewhere in that corner", and my friend says that he was surrounded mostly by old people and some women, so he was the only young man there) and listed quite specifically all the problems and difficult questions he had been having, gave answers to some of them and said that the rest would be resolved in time (or something along those lines.)

Now (and as I have commented in a previous post) the vast majority of skeptics make a big mistake at this point: They start discussing the event itself, and the possible natural explanations for it. However, I did know better than this.

If I had succumbed to start discussing the actual details of the event, me and my friend would have both made the same error in deduction: That the event, if true, was indeed a sign that God is real and that he affects this world (eg. by giving people words of knowledge) and that it would be a valid reason to believe in him.

No. This is a fallacy. The major problem here is misattributing the evidence. Even if the event happened exactly as he described, and even if it had indeed been something that defies any natural and logical explanation, that would still not tell us anything at all about what caused that phoenomenon or where it came from. On what grounds can one claim that the phenomenon was caused by a god? Why are all other possible hypotheses discarded in favor of this one? What's the justification?

The fact is: Even if the event did happen as described, we do not know what caused it.

A skeptic should be more savvy and note the fallacy in deduction from the very start, before going into details. It's very important to emphasize that even if the described events were real, they would still not be evidence of a god because we do not know what caused the events in the first place, what their source is. Claiming that it must have come from a god is completely unjustified.

In fact, the vast majority of "proofs" (for some reason theists really like to use that word instead of the more accurate "evidence", for some reason) for the existence of God fall into this very fallacy.

They often argue that something must have caused the Universe to exist, and that something is God. On what grounds is this claim made? They may argue that the Bible contains information and prophesies that were impossible for the people of the time to know, and therefore it must have come from God. How do they know this? They argue that archaeological evidence demonstrates that many of the events of the Bible really did happen. But how exactly is this any kind of evidence for the existence of God? They argue that miracle healings are proof of God. On what grounds? They argue that Jesus did indeed exist and did miracles. But how does this demonstrate the existence of a god? Some argue that they have seen ghosts. What's the relation to a god, exactly?

But the connection between "something extraordinary happened" and "therefore God must exist" is so strong and so deeply ingrained into the human psyche, that it's really difficult to remove and correct. More often than not, when the skeptic points out the mistake, when he points out that "even if that happened exactly as described, that would still not be evidence of any god", the believer does not understand what he means. Instead, he thinks that the skeptic is just rejecting evidence out of principle because he doesn't like it, shoving it aside without even considering it. It can be extraordinarily difficult to make the believer comprehend the nature of the deductive error.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Bible is the perfect word of God?

It's extremely common in Christianity to claim that the Bible is the absolute and perfect word of God, the perfect message from God to us, and that it contains exactly what God wants it to contain, no more, no less. The Bible is supposed to contain all the basic tenets of faith, and how we should live our lives.

Yet, when you examine the Bible, it's a really, really poor conveyor of such information. There's very little organization and order, tidbits of information are scattered randomly throughout the entire book, interspersed with random tidbits of unrelated things (like history, anecdotes, ancestor lists and parables) and overall it's very difficult to get a coherent picture of the entire doctrine.

This can be very easily seen by listening to any sermon or lecture on the Christian faith. The speaker or writer, when quoting the Bible, will jump wildly from place to place, often quoting small sections (usually just a passage or two) from here and there, in order to get a coherent description of even a small part of what constitutes the Christian doctrine.

And not only is all this information randomly spread through the whole book, it often consists of vague phrasings and expressions that are very much open to interpretation. It is, in fact, a very common statement made by Christians that in order to understand passages properly, you have to compare it to the rest of the Bible. This goes to tell how unclear many passages are.

And all this can really be seen. There are well over 30 thousand Christian denominations, all of them with more or less varying interpretations of the Bible, some of them with highly different interpretations than others, even when dealing with the most important core tenets of the religion (such as, for example, what is or isn't needed for salvation.)

How can this kind of book be called "perfect" in any way? The fact is that the Bible is far, far from perfect as any kind of basis for religious doctrine, and this causes a lot of disagreement between people and denominations.

If the Bible were really inspired by an all-powerful, perfect being who wants to convey to us a message that's as clear and unambiguous as possible, I would expect it to be much more coherent, organized and hierarchical. For starters, it should be divided logically into sections and subsections by type of content. For example like this:
  1. The basic tenets of faith (ie. what is necessary for salvation.)
  2. The law. (What God wants and doesn't want us to do. What's forbidden and what's allowed.)
  3. Life instructions. (Clear and unambiguous rules of thumb on how we should live.)
  4. The history of humanity and Christianity. (A methodical and clear description of the history relevant to Christianity.)
  5. Prophesies and the future.
  6. Aphorisms and other inspirational text.
  7. Glossary of terms, and additional notes.
Then, of course, it should use as unambiguous and clear terminology and phrasing as possible. (If there are terms that were foreign to the culture of the time, surely God could invent a new word for it and define it clearly in the glossary. That shouldn't be any kind of problem. Also if some terms had multiple or ambiguous meanings, the glossary could also be used to clarify them.)

This would have been perfectly possible even thousands of years ago. There's nothing in the languages of antiquity that would have made it impossible to organize a book clearly like this, or using clear and unambiguous terms and definitions.

In fact, if the Bible were written like this thousands of years ago, it would be quite a lot more indicative of divine inspiration than the current mess it is. (Of course it would still not be proof of it, but at least it would be a lot closer to the mark.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mistaking emergent behavior for design

Most creationists argue that nature has been clearly designed, and therefore there must be a designer.

What is really happening here is that they are mistaking emergent behavior for design.

Emergence is the appearance of complex patterns from the interaction of simple rules. This can be seen all the time both in nature and in artificial situations (such as in some computer games.) Surprisingly complex behavior can result from the interaction between surprisingly simple rules. The outward appearance of the complex behavior might look a lot like it has a purpose and design, but when we actually study the underlying phenomena and rules behind it we discover that there actually is no purposeful design, that the overall complex behavior has just naturally emerged without any actual guiding hand.

It's very hard for the human mind to fully comprehend emergent behavior because it's a quite complex subject. Therefore people make the mistake all the time, and see patterns and design where in reality there are none. On top of that, creationists in particular are extremely biased and have an agenda to try to "prove" that the design is there. Because of this strong bias, they will refuse to even try to understand the true cause of the apparent design.

A guide to skepticism

I thought I'd lay out some of the basic principles on how one can gain more insight into skepticism and have a more rational approach at understanding reality, as well as understanding our limits in knowledge and avoid making deductive mistakes.
  1. Disabuse yourself of the notion that something can be deduced from an unknown. (Just because something is unknown doesn't mean you can jump to any kind of conclusion based on that. Doing so is an argument from ignorance.)
  2. Disabuse yourself of the notion that eyewitness testimony is in any way reliable. (It just isn't. This subject is too extensive to comment in more depth here.) Also disabuse yourself of the notion that the reliability of eyewitness testimony has anything to do with honesty, intelligence or mental illness. Also things like profession, education, titles and ranks have little to do with this.
  3. Disabuse yourself of the notion that human feelings and emotions, no matter how strong, are more reliable than physical observation, measurement and testing. 
  4. Disabuse yourself of the notion that all evidence is good evidence. (Not all evidence is valid, and even good evidence can be misinterpreted and misattributed.)
  5. Disabuse yourself of the notion that "the official explanation" must always be a false explanation and a coverup. (This doesn't mean that you should always accept official explanations without question. It means that you should get rid of the instinct to always reject it automatically.) Also disabuse yourself of the notion that experts aren't.
  6. Study how science works. Shove aside prejudice and misinformation about science and the scientific method, and get some actual information about it instead. Educate yourself, take classes, enroll in an educational institution, get first-hand experience on science. Disabuse yourself of the notion that the world-wide scientific community is in a huge conspiracy to discredit your world view.
  7. Disabuse yourself of the notion that skepticism means "stubborn closed-mindedness". Also disabuse yourself of the notion that "open-mindedness" means that you should accept everything based solely on questionable evidence (such as eyewitness testimony.)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

God, the lottery machine

Requests for prayers are something quite universal in and ubiquitous to Christianity. It's a very common custom in the vast majority of Christian denominations, and you see these requests all the time everywhere (especially nowadays in the internet era.) People request prayers for tons of things.

(Curiously, there's little support in the Bible for this. This kind of practice is not found in the Bible, nor is it suggested there. There might be one or two passages that could be loosely interpreted to somewhat support this notion, but even those are quite far-fetched. This prayer requesting ideology is mostly extra-biblical theology.)

The vast majority of Christians never think about what the prayer requesting custom implies. It implies that the more people pray, the higher the probability that God will answer. These requests always seek for as many people as possible to pray for the topic in question, as if that somehow increased the chances of success.

In other words, they seem to think that God works exactly like the lottery: The more lottery numbers you buy, the higher the chances of winning something. If there's a pool where many people submit money in order to buy lottery numbers, the chances of winning something gets the higher the more people participate.

Thus to them God is a lottery machine, even though they don't even realize that.

If I were God, I would be really appalled and offended by this kind of mentality. But maybe that's just me.

Religions take credit for what they didn't establish

It's rather contradictory and ironic that there's a common adage in Christianity (and possibly in other religions, but especially Christianity) that God's word and morals are eternal and never change, that they have always been and will always be the same, unchanged and perfect, yet when you look at the history of Christianity, what is and isn't considered morally good and morally bad has changed quite radically with the times. What was considered morally acceptable a couple of hundreds of years ago may well be abhorrent today, and the other way around.

The fact is, Christian "morals" have always adjusted to the secular morals of the time. For example, when slavery was generally considered acceptable, Christians generally considered it acceptable. Nowadays when slavery is generally considered abhorrent, Christians also consider it abhorrent. And this is but just one example of many.

The obnoxious thing about this is, however, that (many) Christians still maintain that all these morals come from the Bible. It doesn't matter if completely opposite moral values were considered biblical some hundreds of years ago than today, and that these "biblical" morals seem to always follow secular morals, Christians still claim that morals come from the Bible. Almost no Christian will admit that they do not, that in fact they are just trying to apply modern secular morals to what the Bible writes (rather than the other way around.)

What's happening here is that Christianity is trying to take credit from the hundreds of years of development in secular morality and human rights. They cannot accept nor admit that humans themselves are, in fact, capable of coming up with good and valuable morality, and instead try to shove whatever is currently morally acceptable into the Bible (sometimes by using really twisted interpretations) and then take credit, reverse the direction and claim that those morals actually come from the Bible (rather than the other way around.)

It becomes quite amusing (and sad at the same time) when they try to reconcile the biggest contradictions between modern secular morality and the Bible. The twisted explanations can become pretty wild. (I have seen really, really amazing attempts to eg. whitewash the fact that the mosaic law in the Bible permits a slave owner to not only own slaves, but to hit them.)

Some apologists can be incredibly more obnoxious than this, however. For example there are many of them (among others Kent Hovind, although he is certainly not the only one) who actually try to claim that secular atheism has never produced any scientific advances nor discoveries, and that those have actually all been made thanks to Christianity. (Nowadays it's also very common for muslims to claim this from Islam.) This kind of attempt to take credit and completely reverse the direction of events is just astonishingly obnoxious.

(It is a well known fact that modern science started to thrive most prominently when science was separated from theology and philosophy. Many hundreds of years ago those three things were actually considered just different aspects of the same thing. However, in the so-called age of enlightenment science was completely severed from theology and also from the most esoteric forms of philosophy, which allowed it to make progress in giant leaps afterward because of not being bound by religious nonsense.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The non-dichotomy of belief

There are true dichotomies that most people nevertheless think are not. The most prominent example is theism vs. atheism. This is a true dichotomy: You are either one of those. If you are not a theist, you are an atheist, by definition. Yet most people think that "theist" and "atheist" are just the extremes of a spectrum, that there's a lot of "in-between" variants. That's not so.

On the other hand, the opposite is also true: There are non-dichotomies that most people think are true dichotomies. Perhaps the most prominent one is the belief in the existence of something. In this particular case there are three options: Either you believe in its existence, or you believe in its non-existence, or you have no belief either way. (This is different from theism vs. atheism because by the very definition of atheism, even someone who doesn't care one way or another is an atheist by definition.)

The prevalence of the idea that belief in something is a true dichotomy is quite prominent. It's extremely common to think that if someone says "I don't believe that God exists" means the same thing as "I believe God does not exist." However, those are two completely different propositions, and are not equivalent!

I like to compare this to the Goldbach's conjecture: The fact that you have no belief in it being true doesn't automatically mean that you believe it's false. There is a third option: You don't know if it's true or not, so you cannot believe either way.

For some reason it can be incredibly difficult to explain to a theist that the fact that someone doesn't believe in God doesn't necessarily mean that he claims that God doesn't exist.

Quantum powers

There's a curious phenomenon related to alleged miracles, the paranormal, psychic powers, divination and all kinds of other nonsense: Whenever the phenomenon in question is actually studied and measured, it somehow stops working.

The great James Randi is perhaps the most prominent debunker of such claims, and his method is pretty simple: Let's test if they really work. Somehow they never work in controlled double-blind experiments. Yet invariably the claimants afterward offer all kinds of excuses why it didn't work precisely at that moment. Some even go so far as to directly claim that the very presence of such a skeptic as Randi affects the result.

All these things should be named "quantum powers": They work as long as nobody is actually measuring them. When someone does, they somehow stop working.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Inane logic by Eric Hovind

In previous posts I have mentioned Ray Comfort (who, among other things, really loves to fallaciously play with words and is enamored with gnosticism) and William Lane Craig (who's a really smug pseudointellectual who thinks that "philosophy" trumps all science). Today I'd like to mention another creationist celebrity, Eric Hovind, the son of an even bigger creationist celebrity (Kent Hovind.)

When Eric is not just blindly repeating the same old tired arguments of his father (usually word-for-word), his own arguments tend to be on the really hilarious side.

For instance, one claim he just loves is "all arguments against God assume God."

It's hard to imagine weirder insane troll logic than this. He is saying that if you present any arguments against the existence of God, you are assuming the existence of God. Therefore your argument is contradictory and illogical.

The thing is, he presents this claim in all seriousness, as if it was actually a good and valid counter-argument. And many people are listening to him without batting an eye. Just like that. (It really tells something about the intellectual capabilities of his audience, doesn't it?)

The argument is completely equivalent, and equally silly, as saying for example "if you claim that this car is not red, you are assuming that it is red" or "if you claim that you can't square a circle you are assuming that you can square a circle" ("and therefore your argument is contradictory and invalid.") It makes no sense.

Of course the idea behind this silly argument is the same kind of pre-emptive self-defense mechanism as with "you are not really an atheist" (which I have mentioned before.) It predisposes the listener to reject all and every argument against God outright, without even listening to or thinking about it. After all, if it's an argument against God, it already assumes God, so it's automatically contradictory and thus incorrect, isn't it?

This is just a more complicated (but not less childish) way of putting fingers in one's ears, singing "lalalala" and saying "I don't have to listen to anything you are saying because you are wrong."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

God's two sides

The most common Christian theology is that God is infinitely merciful and just. This is repeated over and over like a mantra.

Of course being merciful and just doesn't mean that bad people should never be punished. However, it does mean that the punishment should be humane and uncruel. There's a reason why things like torture and unusual punishment are considered to be against basic human rights and morals. Punishing people for their crimes does not mean that they should be made to suffer needlessly.

When you read how God behaves in the Bible, it paints a rather different picture from an "infinitely merciful God." And I'm not talking just about eternal torture in Hell. I'm referring to how God punishes living people in the Bible's stories.

Noah's flood is really ubiquitous to the Christian theology. It's really prevalent and something found everywhere, from serious theological papers to children's books. That's right, children's books. Basically no Christian seems to even try to think what kind of story it is.

So humanity had become completely corrupt and wicked, and God wanted to destroy them all. How does the infinitely merciful and just God does this? Does he, for example, make them just disappear? (After all, if God is all-powerful, that shouldn't be any problem at all.) Or maybe just make them suddenly die and that's it? No, he decides to flood everything.

Flooding is a huge catastrophe that causes enormous amount of destruction and suffering. There's probably no need to point out the news footage from recent tsumanis in order to get a good picture of what it looks like. It's a horrible, horrible way of making people, adults, children, everybody, die in agony and suffering. And this is being told in children's books.

Or what about Sodoma and Gomorra? God wanted to punish these cities for their corruption and wickedness, so what does the infinitely merciful and just God do? He makes fire rain from the skies. This is ostensibly even worse than flooding them.

Do these and other similar acts sound like the behavior of an infinitely merciful and just ruler? Or do they sound like the behavior of a cruel and power-hungry dictator who has no qualms in making his subjects suffer horrible and agonizing deaths because he doesn't like them, even though he could perfectly well treat them in a more humane way?

What exactly is the claim of infinite mercy and justice based on? Not on the Bible stories, that's for sure.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Debates are pretty useless

Many prominent apologists and skeptics often engage in public debates on the subject matter of religion and other related topics. These debates tend to be quite popular, especially when the debaters are "celebrities" of sorts.

There are rare instances where such public debates are actually meaningful and useful. For example there was a televised debate between two people supporting the existence and activities of the Catholic church vs. the late Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry who argued that said church has done much more harm than good. This was a superb debate, where arguments were clear, concise and easy to understand, and directly to-the-point (especially, and unsurprisingly, those by Hitchens and Fry) and which did not sink into arguing about minutiae and terminology, muddling the whole issue. There was a public opinion poll before and after the debate, and the result was quite radical.

However, those kinds of debates tend to be more the exception than the norm. In the vast majority of cases such debates are an exercise in futility. They might start with clear statements (which have often been previously written by the debaters), but as arguments are thrown back an forth, the whole thing usually sinks to a senseless arguing about small things, such as the meaning of words (as I have mentioned in previous posts, apologists really love to play with words and commit all kinds of fallacies related to that) and all kind of wordplay and hypotheticals that have little to no relevance to the actual question in hand. The opponent's counter-arguments will seldom, if ever, be acknowledged and accepted.

One big problem is that most of these debates have a format were each debater has a large amount of time (like for example 10 minutes) to flood the discussion with dozens and dozens of claims, concepts and terms. It can be quite difficult to respond to all of them while at the same time presenting new arguments. There also tends to be a great disconnect between claims and their responses when there's over ten minutes of rapid-fire argumentation in between them. It's basically impossible to stop a chain of logic from the very start, if it starts from unjustified (or even outright false) premises.

Also, the end result tends to be that no listener changes their opinion. Usually the supporters of one debater will claim that he or she won, while the supporters of the other debater will do the same. (Also, rather obnoxiously, sometimes at least one of the debaters themselves will later claim that he/she clearly "won" the debate. I have noticed that this seems to be much more common among apologists and theists than among skeptics, who tend to remain much humbler.)

Some people argue that debates are a good way to get information and answers to arguments. However, this is not something that requires a debate. The most useful parts tend to be the opening and closing statements, which are most often pre-written by the debaters. This is something that you can read from blogs and wikis. You don't need a debate for that.

Religious beliefs and the sunk cost fallacy

People who are deeply religious and have been so for a long time (and especially if they have been since childhood) often have a really hard time letting go if they start having doubts and thinking about these things more rationally.

There is, of course, a multitude of reasons for this. Religious dogmas contain tons and tons of "self-protection mechanisms", ie. notions and ideas that exist to make it psychologically as hard as possible for the deeply religious to discard the religion. These mechanism are what make religions so prevalent and pervasive.

Anyways, I have been wondering if at least in some cases one aspect that's strongly in play is a concept of "sunk cost fallacy." This is a fallacy that's most often applied to economics: If someone has invested a lot of money in a project that turns out to be a fiasco that never gets finished with a satisfactory result, this person will often have a strong aversion to just stop funding it because the idea of just outright losing all that money is unbearable. It's better, in their minds, to spend just a little more in order to get something sellable out of the project than simply dropping it and accepting a pure loss of money. It's better to get even some of the money back from a half-finished project than nothing at all. In the worst cases such people have sunk vast amounts of money on hopeless projects. It can become a vicious cycle: The more money is spent, the less motivation to just end it (because the total losses would be very large.)

When speaking about religion the question is not necessarily about money, but about time, effort, work and principles. It may well be that someone who has been deeply religious for tens of years might at some level, even without realizing it, think along the lines of "I have spent so much time in this, so much effort, studied the Bible so much, invested so much emotionally, made so many friends, that I cannot just outright stop now. Even the idea of stopping now and throwing all that away is unbearable. Out of the question." They might not literally think like that, but that very notion may well be one of the driving forces behind them keeping their religious beliefs. The very idea that they might have spent so much time and effort on a lie is so unbearable that they don't even want to consider it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Argument from ignorance

The so-called argument from ignorance is incredibly ubiquitous to every irrational belief out there. And I mean, really, really ubiquitous.

How many times have you seen or heard the stock phrase "science doesn't know everything" as if that were some kind of valid justification for believing whatever that person wants to believe? I have seen it over and over. I have had good friends tell me that (in exactly those words.) The argument is completely nonsensical to justify anything. I really can't understand why so many people think this is such a good argument.

If you get into a discussion with a theist, there's approximately a 99% chance that some form of argument from ignorance will pop up sooner or later (probably sooner.) It can take many forms, the one above being just one of them. Other typical examples include things like "where did the Universe come from?" and lots of claims that start with "science can't explain..."

It's also extremely common among many theists and apologists, that if they succeed in making the skeptic say "I don't know" (or something equivalent), they consider it a victory. As if that were some kind of admission that surely then God must exist, doesn't he?

It really comes down to a false dichotomy: Either you can give a natural explanation for something, or you must accept that God exists. There's no third option.

It's quite unfortunate that many skeptics are actually afraid of just outright saying "I don't know." Personally I don't have the slightest problem in saying it. If someone, for example, asks me "where did the Universe come from?" I just say "I don't know." Why should that be a problem?

(I often follow that up by throwing the same question back. If the answer is something along the lines of "I believe God created it" I ask "and how do you know that?" And so on.)

Skeptics shouldn't be afraid of saying "I don't know." In fact, science and progress thrives when we accept our ignorance. It drives curiosity and makes us try try to discover the explanations, the mechanism behind those things. It's because of the brave people who dared to admit their ignorance that we have progressed so much in science and technology.

The bane of young Earth creationists

Young Earth creationists can get away with lots of nonsensical claims about science when dealing with subjects that are complicated and hard to understand. For example they will argue that the different dating methods don't work, and are off by something like six orders of magnitude. Because this is a complex subject, many of their listeners believe it without much thought.

However, there's one aspect of physics that even creationists don't dare to question: The speed of light. (Which is curious, really, because the speed of light is exactly as esoteric and outside the realm of everyday life as is something like radioactive decay.)

Therefore young Earth creationists have a real problem with distant stars and galaxies, which are far, far beyond 6 thousand light-years away, being visible.

There are basically two schools of thought among them to explain it away: Some of them just make a vague statement that maybe God simply created everything at once and created the light on its way so that stars would be immediately visible. (They get a bit uneasy when asked why God would want to deliberately make the Universe look a lot older than it really is, according to them. Why the deception?) The other school of thought tries to twist physics and claim that physicists are either deluded or lying about the properties of light in the past. (No actual math is ever shown, of course. Just vague statements and waving of hands.)

The most common problem with both of them is that they seem to think that stars are just standing there, not doing much. However, that's not true. There's a lot of things happening in the observable Universe, and we can trace those events back a lot further in the past than just 6 thousand years.

SN 1987A is a wonderful example of this. It was a supernova event observed in 1987. This was a rather exceptional supernova in that it was surrounded at a great distance by a dust cloud (material ejected by another closeby stellar event in a very distant past.) Several months after the supernova the dust cloud was illuminated by its light.

Since we know the speed of light, we can therefore calculate the distance between the supernova and the dust cloud, and using simple triangulation we can calculate how far the supernova was from us. It turns out that it was approximately 168 thousand light-years from us.

In other words, that star exploded 168 thousand years ago, which is way before the alleged age of the Universe by the young Earth creationists. This is a problem for both schools of thought among them.

For the first ones, it brings into question God's honesty. If the Universe was indeed created just a bit over 6 thousand years ago, then God had to deliberately create light in such ways as to make it look like stellar events such as the SN 1987A have happened way, way before that. Why such a deception? Why is this alleged god lying to us?

For the second one, it becomes a physical impossibility. One common claim they make is that light was faster in the past. Even without going into the physics of that (there are many things wrong with that thought; for example, light slowing down affects redshift quite a lot) it just doesn't fit: For the most distant galaxies to be visible to us while still being just 6 thousand years old, light would have had to slow down by about six orders of magnitude (ie. about a million-fold.) That would mean that SN 1987A was actually about a million times farther from us, and therefore the explosion had to be about a million times brighter than it was. I think it's a physical impossibility for a supernova to be a million times brighter than supernovas observed today. Also the dust cloud would have to be a million times larger and have about a million times more matter in it. I think this would start making it about galaxy-sized (and would have quite a significant gravity.)

More importantly, though, if SN 1987A was a million times farther from us than what triangulation tells us, how far are the most distant galaxies then? They are way, way farther than SN 1987A. Which in fact creates vicious cycle: If all galaxies are really a million times farther than they look like, it means that light would have to had been even faster in the past (by another six orders of magnitude) in order for them to be visible... which means that SN 1987A was actually 12 orders of magnitude farther, and so on and so forth. You see the problem here? It just doesn't work.

It's actually quite amusing reading how young Earth creationists try to struggle with all these observations and explain them away.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Where do atheists get their morals from?

One of the oddest arguments I have ever heard is "where do atheists get their morals from?" This argument seems almost exclusive to the United States, as I have seldom heard this being presented anywhere else.

The question seems very odd because the answer is so simple: We are a social, intelligent, thinking species, and we can deduce what's good and bad for the society. As a society we can agree which rules we should follow that benefit everybody, and how to deter members of the society from doing harm to others.

I don't understand what's so hard in understanding that.

If we delve more into the origins of morals, they come directly from evolution. Humans have been a social species for a long, long time, and it's the reason why humans have flourished and succeeded in survival. There are certain behaviors within a society that naturally maintain this beneficial status, while other behaviors disrupt it. The beneficial behaviors help in survival, while the harmful behaviors impede survival. Therefore it's only natural that the beneficial behaviors get favored by the societies within the species, while the harmful ones are abhorred. Instincts like empathy and altruism have been naturally selected because they benefit the society and therefore the survival of the species.

Imagine two hypothetical, isolated human societies. One of them behaves like what these American Christians imagine atheists to behave: They are immoral and selfish, they have no qualms in harming others for their own benefit, and they have no concept of empathy. They are all savages and ravaging criminals who steal and kill as they like. The other society is a civilized one, with an agreed code of proper behavior, where everybody helps those in need, where the society cares for its own, and where criminals are punished and deterred.

Which one of those two societies has a larger chance of survival, especially in harsh conditions? I don't think it could be clearer where morals come from: Evolution.

"You are not an atheist"

In a previous post I mentioned the stigma heavily associated with the term "atheism" in some countries, and how even some very outspoken atheists avoid calling themselves that, instead opting for the cop-out term "agnostic" (which is a category error, really.) I also mentioned the weird argument that some theists often throw that "you are not really an atheist."

In some countries (especially the United States, but also some other countries) the word "atheist" really does carry a lot of baggage with it. If you declare yourself to be an atheist, you are immediately assumed to hold a lot of other views as well.

In itself, "atheist" simply means "not theist", in other words, someone who has no belief in gods. There's nothing else that the word implies. You can believe all kinds of nonsense and still be an atheist. For example Buddhists are atheists (because they are not theists), and many UFO worshippers (such as Raelians) are also atheists. There exist many people who even believe in the paranormal and supernatural, yet are still atheists (because they don't have theistic beliefs.) Atheism in itself does not imply skepticism.

However, as said, in many countries "atheism" carries a lot baggage. If you are an "atheist" you are immediately assumed to also be a so-called strong atheist (ie. one who has the conviction that no gods exist), anti-religious, immoral, rational skeptic, secular humanist, believer in science and evolution, believer in the appearance of the Universe ex nihilo, believer in abiogenesis, pro-choice, liberal, feminist, and so on and so forth. That's quite a lot of baggage to carry. (Many outspoken atheists do fit many of those descriptions. However, that's not what the term "atheism" in itself implies.)

Many theists actually get quite dogmatic about it, if you try to discuss the real meaning of the term. Some of them go to ridiculous lengths to try to argue how the word "atheist" is the exact same thing as what's called "strong atheist", as well as implying many of those mentioned things. I have never quite understood why they are so dogmatic about it.

Which brings up to the subject of that weird argument that some theists use as some kind of "attack" against atheists when discussing with them, that if they show any kind of "weak atheism" (in the sense that they admit not knowing something for certain) they will vehemently claim something along the lines of "you are not an atheist."

For a long time it puzzled me why some theists pursue that notion so vehemently and why they think it's some kind of good counter-argument to anything. Even if we disregard for a moment the true meaning of the term, what does it matter if someone is or isn't a (strong) atheist? Shouldn't this person's arguments be what matters, not what we classify him or her?

One day a realized what the idea is: It's some kind of twisted notion that nobody can be a true atheist (ie. strong atheist) with good reasons. They are just pretending, and inventing all kinds of excuses. Deep inside they "know that God does exist, they just deny it."

The "logic" here is that since an atheist cannot be one for any good reason, the theist doesn't have to listen to those reasons either. They are just excuses that the self-proclaimed atheist invented, and thus can be ignored and rejected outright, without consideration. When the theist convinces himself and others of this, it predisposes them to not listen to any arguments that an atheist may present. It's a defense mechanism. This is closely related to the notion of "poisoning the well".

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The most common skeptic trap

One of the most common arguments for why someone believes in God is the alleged existence of supernatural phenomena, such as miracle healings (as well as a big bunch of other party tricks that are often used in fundamentalist churches.)

One of the most common mistakes that skeptics do at this point is to start discussing these alleged supernatural events themselves. For example if the argument was the existence of miracle healings, eg. someone miraculously recovering from an incurable disease, the skeptic will typically start inquiring for more details on the alleged event itself, and offering alternative explanations.

This is a mistake because it's indirectly acknowledging the validity of the argument. Remember, the argument was: "miracles happen, therefore God exists." If this were a valid argument, it all would come down to the question of whether miracles do indeed happen or not. The skeptic will start arguing about the miracles themselves, rather than pointing out that the argument itself is flawed!

No discussion should proceed without this being made absolutely clear. The argument is incorrect. The alleged existence of miracles in no way proves the existence of a god. That's because even if they did happen, we don't know what causes them. Attributing them to a god is a fallacy. By not making this clear, and instead starting to argue about the miracle claims themselves, the skeptic is implicitly acknowledging that the argument is sound and valid. This is a trap that one should not fall into!

If, and only if, it has been clearly established that the existence of miracles does not prove the existence of a god, then it may be an interesting topic of discussion whether those miracles do happen or not. However, that's a completely different issue and should be discussed separately from the question of whether a god exists.

In fact this exact same principle can be applied to most other arguments for the existence of God as well. For example, it's often argued that the Bible contains fulfilled predictions or knowledge that would have been impossible for the people of that time to have known. Again: Even if that were completely true, it's still not proof of the existence of a god for the simple reason that we don't know where that information came from. Whether those alleged predictions do indeed say what it's claimed is a side-issue.

Do not fall for the trap. Kill the invalid argument from the get-go.

Playing with words

One tactic that many apologists love to use is playing with words. Fallacy of equivocation is one of the most common ways.

For example Ray Comfort just loves to do this (although he's by far not the only one.) For example, if you ever get into a discussion with him about faith, he will always use the stock argument "do you have faith in your wife?"

He's trying to argue that everybody has faith in something. Of course this is a classical example of a fallacy of equivocation: Using a word with multiple meanings with the wrong meaning. Believing in the existence of God requires faith, which means that you believe without evidence. However, having confidence that your wife doesn't cheat on you is a completely different thing, even though the word "faith" is also used here. Just because the same word is used for two completely different meanings doesn't mean that you can mix them up.

Another wonderful example is his use of the word "religion". When an atheist says that he opposes religion, Comfort will say that "I oppose religion too." He will vehemently deny being "religious." However, he's using a different meaning of the word "religion" here, and is deliberately mixing them up. (When the atheist uses the word, he is talking about the set of dogmas, beliefs and customs around a widespread form of theism. When Comfort uses the word he is not talking about theism and dogmas, but about so-called organized religion, ie. the physical organizations and churches with all their bureaucracy, legislation and the like.) This is actually a pretty common argument among many Christians.

This kind of deliberate fallacy of equivocation is actually quite dishonest. Rather than understand and acknowledge what the other person is trying to communicate, he (and many people like him) try to muddle the issue by playing with words and their multiple (often contradictory) meanings.

There are many other examples of playing with words. For example Comfort is quite fond of claiming that he knows where the Universe came from and that he knows that God exists. What he really means is that he's completely convinced of those things (at a personal level), not that he absolutely knows, but he will never admit to the that. For some reason he's strangely obsessed with gnosticism and knowing things. He just loves it when someone says that they don't know, or use alleviating words like "maybe" and "perhaps", as if that helped his position and his arguments.

Speaking of which, an odd argument sometimes used by many theists against an atheist is "you are not an atheist, at most you are an agnostic." It can be difficult to understand why they are making such an argument, as if it was somehow a great comeback and a blow to the atheist's position. However, I believe that it's the result of a twisted logic that starts with the notion that "nobody's really an atheist; they know in their hearts that God exists, but deny it." They somehow think that if they can show that somebody is not really an atheist, they have half-won the argument already (regardless of what it is.)

It's quite sad how widespread the misconception about theism vs. atheism is. Most people think that they are the two extremes, and that there's a third category, agnosticism, that lies right in the middle of that scale. If you are not a theist nor an atheist, then you are an agnostic.

No, that's not the meaning of those words at all. Theism vs. atheism is a binary position; it's a true dichotomy: You are either one or the other. There's no in-between. If you are not a theist, you are an atheist. By definition.

Thinking that "agnosticism" lies in between the two is a category error. Gnosticism vs. agnosticism deals with a completely different philosophical matter, related to knowing (or the ability to know) something. Those two terms are in no way mutually exclusive with theism and atheism. All four combinations are perfectly possible (yes, even agnostic theist.)

Sadly, even many atheists say things like "I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic" (while denying belief in gods.) This is basically an oxymoron. It's like saying "I'm not a human, I'm a man" or "I'm not European, I'm German."

The reason why they try this kind of cop-out is because of the social stigma that the word "atheist" carries in some countries. (Sometimes there might be a confusion, which is rather typical, that an atheist is someone who asserts that there are no gods. However, even many who know that's not the case still want to avoid the stigma and use the "agnostic" cop-out.)

Other typical examples of misusing words is confusing the word "theory" in its scientific and colloquial meanings (the latter of which really means "conjecture" or "hypothesis") or using the word "proof (of something)" when in fact what is meant is "argument (for something)" or "evidence".

Misusing philosophy and logic

Philosophy and logic are tools. When properly used, they can be beneficial and useful to create the guiding principles of science and inquiry, in order to minimize and avoid mistakes and errors in methodology. They can help spot defects, flaws and shortcomings in the way in which things are investigated, observed and tested, and how the test results are interpreted. For example, they can help avoid common mistakes such as deductive fallacies and biases. They also help making it clearer what the limits of the investigation are (in other words, so that the experimenters don't jump to conclusions without sufficient justification.)

Without philosophy and logic, science would be much harder and error-prone. However, philosophy and logic all by themselves cannot be used to discern and establish how the universe works and what's real and what isn't.

The reason for this is that they always start from certain assumptions. These assumptions have to be based on actual observation and evidence, or else the reasoning will be flawed. Also, more often than not there tend to be hidden assumptions that might not be stated explicitly, but are assumed to exist (for example that there's nothing else affecting the outcome of the chain of logic.)

Logical deductions can be used to make predictions. Sometimes these predictions are correct, but sometimes they aren't. In the latter case it doesn't necessarily mean that the logic was incorrect. It may simply be that either the initial assumptions were too simplistic, or that not everything was taken into account (that is, the hidden assumption was made that nothing else affects the end result.)

Thus logical deductions should always be corroborated with actual physical observation, measurements and experimentation. Until this is done the deduction cannot be established as being true. (History is full of examples of incorrect predictions that may have been logical, but were based on incorrect or flawed premises.)

Many Christian apologists try to argue that philosophy and logic is enough to establish what's real and what isn't. They want to make logical deductions and bypass the physical corroboration part, and proclaim their argument to be a well-established fact based solely on philosophical grounds.

William Lane Craig is one of the best possible examples of this (although he is by far not the only one.) He actually explicitly makes the argument that philosophy is enough all in itself to establish what's real and what isn't. (He also shows an incredible amount of smugness and douchery in this category in that he likes to belittle his opponents if they don't have an "education in philosophy", making them incapable of fully understanding his arguments. As if philosophy were some kind of higher form of science.)

All these apologists always make the same two mistakes, both of which are quite egregious:
  1. They always start from unjustified premises, assuming their veracity from the get-go. (This often takes the form of what I like to call "removing the conditional." This means that when in propositional logic an argument typically has the form "if X, then Y", the apologists just outright assume X, and state it as "X, therefore Y." The assumption is often completely unjustified.)
  2. After the proposed chain of logic, they always make huge leaps of deduction. (This typically takes the form "...therefore X. Let's label this X 'God'. That's the God of the Bible, of course." This is done without even a semblance of justification.)
They also typically make all other kinds of mistakes and hidden assumptions (such as assuming that nothing else affects the end result.)

However, in the end, the major mistake is that they assume that philosophy and logic on their own can be used to discern reality. They think that if they come up with a logical-enough chain of deductions, that settles it. No actual corroborating experimentation is needed. This has never worked, and never will. We do not discern what's real and what isn't by playing with words. We do it by observing reality. Words can be used to make predictions, but they cannot be used to establish reality.