Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The biblical magi

The story of the wise men who visited Jesus shortly after he was born is one of the most beloved stories of the entire Bible. It's a staple of Christmas reading (for those branches of Christianity that embrace Christmas,) and in fact in some Christian cultures it's really big deal (such as in Spain, where the three wise men, or "kings," are much more celebrated figures than Santa Claus.)

Not many people stop to actually think about this story too much. When you do, you actually realize that it reads exactly like a fable, a mythological fantasy story, even in the context of the Bible itself. Just consider these points:
  • The story is only mentioned in one single book, that of Matthew. There's absolutely no mention whatsoever of it anywhere else, not even in passing.
  • It is never mentioned who was witnessing these events and how the writer came to know about them (which is typical form of fable storytelling.)
  • The story does not mention where these men came from (other than a vague "from the East.") This is unusual even in the Bible itself, where place names are very often dropped when introducing new people or when telling about their travels. This kind of allusion to a vague, unnamed place, is something more typical of fables than to chronicles.
  • Likewise it does not specify their names or any other details about them (such as social status or profession.) They are solely vaguely referred to as "wise men." Again something more typical of fables.
  • According to the story, these wise men wandered around asking: "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." This is a really odd thing in the context of the Bible, such as:
  • There's no mention or explanation whatsoever about how they supposedly knew about this event, what the star in question has anything to with it, and why they thought the star was any kind of indication. This "sign" represented by the star is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, nor are there any precedents or allusions to it.
  • Moreover, this story gives a very strong allusion to astrology. While it does not explicitly say that the men were astrologers or that they predicted the event using astrology, the way the story is told and the mention of "wise men" in this context is a quite strong indication that the writer was thinking of astrology when he wrote it. (The word used for "wise men" here was typical of "scientists" of the era, which usually meant practitioners of astrology among other things.) "The East" is also a strong indication of the author thinking of it when he wrote the story.
  • Astrology in itself is usually considered one form of divination condemned by the Bible, and Christians don't very often like to admit that astrology was involved in this because of its negative connotations. (Those who do, often try to explain it away with some rationalizations.)
When you think about it, even in the context of the New Testament itself, and the Bible in general, this story stands out as a sore thumb for its oddity. It seems out-of-place in its tone, content and narrative style. It comes out of nowhere, is very non-specific (not specifying any places of origin or names), it reads a lot more like a fable than a chronicle, and is never mentioned again anywhere else.

The story makes a whole lot more sense when we consider the hypothesis that it was simply the author of the book in question letting his imagination run wild and adding some personal embellishment to the narrative he was copying (probably from the book of Mark and a possible other source.) He got quite carried away with his imagination, I must say.

It's quite ironic that the vast majority of Christians actually never stop to think about this. They don't dare. (After all, if it's in the Bible, it must be true and accurate.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The non-falsifiability of God

The vast majority of people think that science works with a pattern like "observe phenomenon, present hypothesis, prove the hypothesis correct with evidence and testing." Most people don't understand what scientists and other people are talking about when they say that a hypothesis must be falsifiable.

Falsifiability of a hypothesis is, in fact, even more important than how much positive evidence you have for it. And when we get down to it, much of hypothesis testing actually aims to show counter-proof of the hypothesis false, not proof of it as correct.

The thing is, a hypothesis can only be tested if there exist test results that would prove the hypothesis as false (or, at the very least, cast doubt on its veracity.) If there are no tests that could prove it false, the hypothesis is basically untestable. Thus these tests serve a dual role in a manner of speaking: Not only do they test the actual hypothesis, but also by their very nature (ie. being tests that try to disprove the hypothesis) they show that the hypothesis actually is testable in the first place.

If a hypothesis is not falsifiable, and therefore not actually testable, then it's not a very useful hypothesis because it cannot be corroborated as either true or false. This kind of hypothesis has no use in the real world because our understanding of the world does not change regardless of whether it's actually true or false. Such hypothesis has no practical applications.

Many people ask for proof of the existence of God (and others try to present it.) However, an even more relevant and important question would be: What kind of test could be used to actually prove that God does not exist? Which test result could be considered as strong evidence for his non-existence? In other words, is the God hypothesis falsifiable?

If you ask a believer "what kind of test result would convince you that God does not exist?" and if this believer is completely honest, he or she will ultimately admit that there is no such test. They will keep believing no matter what.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why science rejects the supernatural

There's a very common misconception among theists (and even among some non-theists) that science is strictly naturalistic. In other words, that science asserts that every phenomenon must have a natural explanation, and rejects any supernatural explanation out of principle.

This is incorrect.

It's true that science rejects supernatural explanations, but the reason is not philosophical or "closed-minded" stubbornness. No, the reason is purely pragmatic.

You see, a supernatural explanation is completely useless and serves no purpose. It's a non-explanation. It's exactly the same thing as saying "this phenomenon that we can observe can not be explained" (in other words, the mechanism that causes or produces the phenomenon cannot be physically observed, measured or tested.) "Cannot be explained" is not an explanation at all.

It's also a contradiction of concepts. If something affects the natural world, then by definition that something is itself natural. This is because if it has an effect on the natural world, then it can be observed and measured by said natural world, which is the very definition of "being natural."

The very concept of "supernatural" is ill-defined. If we can observe it in some manner, it's by definition natural. If something were truly supernatural, then it would be impossible to detect by natural means. But if we cannot detect anything supernatural, how can we tell if there is anything supernatural in the first place? What would be the difference between something supernatural that we cannot detect, and nothing supernatural existing at all?

Some people try to define supernatural as "not in or bound to this universe." But if there is something out of this universe, what exactly makes it non-natural? Especially if it can have an effect on this universe. (Again, if it can have an effect, it's by definition natural. Granted, it would be somehow different from what we observe inside our universe, but being merely different doesn't make it "supernatural.")

Even if there were something that could change or break the laws of nature (inside our universe) that in itself doesn't make it "supernatural." It would just be another natural phenomenon. (There's nothing that says that natural laws must remain constant everywhere and at all times.)

Shrugging off a phenomenon by attributing to a supernatural cause is useless and serves no purpose or meaning. Thus there's absolutely no reason to do so.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Cambrian explosion

Many creationists (and, sadly, a few mislead skeptics) have the misconception that the so-called "Cambrian explosion" is a mystery to science, that it baffles scientists and is unexplained (and if something is unexplained, you know that arguments from ignorance will immediately follow.)

The so-called Cambrian explosion is the phenomenon found in the fossil record that multicellular life proliferated and diversified during the Cambrian period at an extraordinarily fast rate, and that before that period there's very little fossil evidence of any kind of life (although it's not completely non-existent.)

Note that when the term "fast rate" is used in this context, it refers to "fast" in the geological sense. In other words, when normally such amount of diversification requires hundreds of millions of years, here we are talking about just a few tens of millions of years. While that's "very fast" in a geological timescale, that's still a humongous amount of time. (People have great difficulties in understanding the magnitude of time that tens of millions of years encompass, because it's so far removed from our everyday experience.)

Creationists and other people who do not understand evolution at all may be easily misled by such fancy words as "Cambrian explosion" and "extraordinarily fast rate of evolution", and believe that we are dealing with something that baffles scientists, who struggle for an explanation. But that's not the case at all.

In fact, if you understand how evolution works, this is not a mystery at all. It's simply the case that when successful multicellular organisms first developed, they were so successful and superior at surviving, and they found such a huge, huge niche where they could freely live in, that they successfully reproduced and diversified with little hindrance for a very long time. (In economic terms, they found an enormous market with no significant competition.) The world was stock full of nutrients (by that time diverse single-cell organisms had spread everywhere) and there was little to no competition for them.

This is also the time when multicellular organisms started to develop harder tissue that could fossilize. Prior to that the vast majority of organisms were soft-tissued, or even unicellular. The almost complete lack of fossils prior to the Cambrian is no mystery at all. There was simply nothing to that would leave fossils behind, because most organisms were soft-tissued. (That's not to say that no fossils at all exist in the pre-Cambrian layers. They do. It's simply that they are much, much rarer than in the upper layers. It requires much more special circumstances for soft-tissued organisms to fossilize, not to talk about unicellular ones.)

Of course creationists willfully ignore all this, in order to retain one argument more in their repertoire. And Christians are supposed to keep honesty in a very high regard...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Argument from information and special pleading

Apologists and creationists are really fond of coming up with special "rules" about how the universe and existence works (some of them being somewhat close to actual physical laws, while others are outright spurious) which supposedly help to "prove" the existence of God. One of the most common problems with these "rules" is that an exception has to be made for God himself. God is always exempt (because if he weren't, then the very thing they are trying to prove becomes contradictory.)

For example, one common argument that they love to spout is a (more or less fictional) "law" that information cannot come from anywhere else than an intelligence, that it cannot come from inert matter, and that the amount of information can never increase. They often refer to a vague alleged discipline of science, usually named "information science," while providing little to no references to actual scientific papers that would support these claims.

Regardless, the major problem with that argument is, once again, that a completely fallacious exemption has to be made for "God." In other words, if the claim is that information cannot come from nothing, that it must always come from an intelligence, where did God get this information then? Remember, the rule was "information must always come from an intelligence." Since this "God" allegedly has information, shouldn't this same rule apply to him as well?

But of course not. God is always (and will always be) exempt from all these rules.

This is a particularly difficult conundrum for the apologists to solve because God allegedly being "spaceless", "timeless", "all-powerful" or "immaterial" (or any of the other adjectives they love to spout) does not actually explain where all that information that God allegedly possesses came from, or why he possesses it, or why he is exempt from the rule.

"It has always existed" is the worst non-answer that could be given to this question. It does not make any sense, and it only raises more questions than it answers.

This fallacy is formally called special pleading. In other words, in order to argue for the existence of God, he has to be exempted from the very rules that they are using for the argument. The rules apply to everything except God, for no good reason.

Quite ironically, the "problem" could be solved by acknowledging that information, like entropy (which it's really closely related to,) can increase locally (in the same way as order can locally increase.) This would explain why God has all that information (especially given that he is allegedly "timeless.")

Of course the problem with acknowledging it is that the very argument from information crumbles, because now God is not necessary to explain it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The purpose of life

Theists always claim that atheists have no greater purpose in life, that atheism cannot offer such a purpose, and therefore life without God is meaningless. Only God can give purpose to one's life.

Curiously, not many people, on either camp, stop to think about what exactly is this grandiose purpose that God allegedly gives us.

If you ask a theist why God created us, one of the most common answers is "to worship Him."

Is it just me, or does that sound like a really, really petty reason for an omnipotent, all-knowing god to create sentient beings? Just so that they can worship him? In any other context this kind of situation would be considered the complete opposite of a good and desirable thing. A person acting in such a manner (ie. making others worship him) would be considered a smug self-serving lunatic with a superiority complex and delusions of grandeur.

Imagine a father who tells their children that their main purpose in life is to serve him. Would you consider that person sane? Would you call him a good person and father?

Yet God is somehow different. When God allegedly does this, it's somehow a good and desirable thing, something that gives "true purpose" to life. Apparently subservience (for no other reason that he just says so) is the greatest goal and purpose that one can attain, and God created us for that precise purpose.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a god that, even if it existed, I would consider a sick joke that would deserve no respect whatsoever? Is it just me, or does this sound like a purpose in life that I would really hate?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ignoring the scientific method

Many creationists and other apologists both have and (usually implicitly) give a picture of science (especially those branches of science that they hate) as it being just a bunch of deluded people waving their hands and coming up with wild speculation and everybody else just believing what they say, without much question, just because they like it. A bit like some guy somewhere just one day comes up with a wild idea like "hey, whales and hippopotamuses look slightly alike, so maybe they are closely related" and everybody else is just like "yeah, that must be it; let's put that into the books!"

When you hear some of these creationists talk about science, they clearly paint this kind of picture. Even though this is outright ridiculous, they still get away with it, at least with their typical creationist audience, who see no problem in it. But why?

The major problem (dictated by practicality) is that the vast amount of work that goes into developing scientific hypotheses is hidden from the public. Not hidden as in it being intentionally secret, but in the sense that the public is never really exposed to all this work because it's not especially front page news.

Usually quite a lot of research and testing goes on behind these hypotheses. People work on them and write papers that are then peer-reviewed and tested by others. Other scientists may spot flaws or deficiencies in the methods used, and these may then be corrected or elaborated in further detail. Sometimes the conclusion of the research might be wrong, but it springs new better hypotheses (in other words, the original hypothesis works as an inspiration for other, better hypotheses.) Many of these hypotheses may have years and years of hard work behind them, made by dozens if not even hundreds of experts on their respective fields of research. The scientific method tries to ensure that flaws are spotted and eliminated, and that only the most accurate information is left.

What ends up in textbooks and scientific journals is, however, only the conclusions, because that's what's most interesting and important about it. The vast amount of work that went into developing that result is usually not conveyed at all. Thus it's easy for creationists to ignore the very existence of that work, and just imply that the result was pulled out from thin air.

The work itself is in no way a secret, of course, but getting and understanding it requires a lot of work. References would need to be followed, the papers being referenced be read, the papers that they reference have to be read as well, and so on, and all this has to be backed up by actual knowledge of the subject (which in itself may require years of study.) For a regular layperson it could well require years of hard study and work to fully understand the research behind the result, which is why this is so seldom done, and nobody even expects for the average person to do that, which is why only the conclusion is presented in a simplified manner so that the average person can understand the gist of it.

Creationists are extremely (and willfully) ignorant about this, and abuse the ignorance of others to advance their agenda. Even if you try to explain the amount of work that goes to develop these results, they just ignore it outright. It's pure intellectual dishonesty.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

There's a website at that claims to "prove" the existence of none other than the Christian God using nothing but logic. The website is both inane and hilarious, so it's worth a tour.

The front page is simply a trick to make you choose the "absolute truth exists" option. For example, if you choose "I don't know if absolute truth exists", it just jumps to a false dichotomy trick question (where the only options are "absolutely true" and "false", lacking the option "I already said I don't know".)

But anyway, let's play their game and see if they succeed in "proving" anything. We choose "absolute truth exists." It jumps to a page about how it's going to logically prove the existence of God. Pay special attention to this particular sentence:
This website offers logical proof, not persuasion.
We'll remember that and hold you accountable for that promise if you don't deliver, so let's continue.

The next pages go on about trivial questions of whether laws of logic, mathematics and science exist. Of course I'm suspecting that what they mean by "exist" might be just slightly different than what it should be, but let's just play their game for now. (It's a whole branch of philosophy that discusses what it means for abstract concepts, ideas and descriptions to "exist", and what the author of this website means by "exist" in this context might be misleading, but let's not go there now.)

Then they present the question of whether absolute morals exist. This is a very nuanced issue, and it depends a lot on what you mean by "absolute", and they are presenting a dichotomy here that may well be false, but let's just play their game for now and just choose the option that they do exist.

Then comes the question of whether these concepts are material or immaterial. Again, it's a philosophical question of definition of what it means for them to "exist", what they depend on, and whether they could even be considered to exist if there were nobody thinking and formulating them. But let's still play their game and say that they are immaterial. It's not like it's such a big deal.

Then comes the false dichotomy of whether these concepts are universal or, as they call it, "individual." There is no option for "I don't know", which would be the correct one. (After all, I really don't know if, for example, the laws of physics, or even logic, apply to a possible "outside" of this universe, if that exists. I most certainly can't say that the laws of "morality" would apply to this possible exterior, if it exists.) In fact, science makes the assumption that the laws of physics apply equally everywhere in this universe, but they do not assert it with absolute certainty; it's simply that based on observation so far there's no reason to believe otherwise, and assuming that they apply everywhere the same has worked very well so far.

The false dichotomy is even more blatant in that it contrasts these laws being "universal" or "individual", the latter meaning "each person can decide them at a whim" (as seen if you choose the latter.) They completely leave out the possibility that they may be the same for our local observable universe, but might be different somewhere else, which is not a complete impossibility (especially when it comes to the laws of physics, not to talk about the much more abstract concept of "morality".)

But anyway, that's not really a big deal. Let's continue with their game and say that they are "universal." (After all, they might very well be.)

And we go to another false dichotomy: They ask if these laws are unchanging. There's no option for "I don't know," which would be the correct answer. (If you choose that they are changing, they give a hilarious argument about your day-to-day personal experience and how you assume that everything works today as it worked yesterday. Yeah, like that's a definitive proof that they have always been the same since the beginning of time and will be for infinity...) Fine, let's keep at their game and choose what they want me to choose and go on.

Now, finally, after all these silly games, we get to the beef. The actual "proof." So what is their "logical proof" that God exists?

They just jump to the Bible, quote a vague passage, and just state:
The God of Christianity is the necessary starting point to make sense of universal, abstract, invariant laws by the impossibility of the contrary. These laws are necessary to prove ANYTHING.
Wait, what? Where exactly did the bible step in all of a sudden? Or the God of Christianity? Not just any supernatural all-powerful being out of this universe, but "the God of Christianity" in particular. Where exactly are the missing steps from the previous game to the God of Christianity? Leap in logic much?

They summarize this "proof" in the next page as: "The Proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn't prove anything."

I see where this is coming from. This exquisite circular logic is exactly what Eric Hovind is so fond of proclaiming. And, what do you know, the website had been made by one of his pals.

The inanity continues in the next page:
Note that the proof does not say that professed unbelievers do not prove things. The argument is that you must borrow from the Christian worldview, and a God who makes universal, immaterial, unchanging laws possible in order to prove anything.
There are many other gems there as well, such as "only the Christian worldview can logically support rationality."

There's just so much wrong with this. It's making so many unjustified claims, leaps in logic, and logical fallacies that it's hard to even try to list them. (But just to mention one: Even if it were absolutely true that "Christian worldview" contained all the laws of logic, physics and morality, how exactly does this prove the existence of a god? You know, two worldviews can come up with the same conclusions by observing the universe. And what exactly proves that Christianity invented these laws first? Ok, I'm digressing here quite badly, so I'll just stop.)

Then it asks if you believe in God or not. If you answer that you don't believe, it goes to a page that starts with: "Denying the existence of God is not unbelief but an exercise in self-deception. You may know things, but you cannot account for anything you know." And so on.

Now, remember what I quoted at the beginning of this post? "This website offers logical proof, not persuasion." What else is this other than persuasion? There's not a shred of logic here, only logical fallacies, vague references to the bible, and claims of "self-deception" if you don't accept their claims.