Archive for February, 2007

Is God omniscient?

February 20, 2007

So here’s the thing; god drowned everyone on Earth for being a big ol’ bunch of sinners. He saved Noah and a few animals but laid waste to every other lifeform on the planet. What a complete and total dick. Regardless of the dickishness of this maneuver, there’s something that just doesn’t make sense to me about all this (and it’s more than “how the hell do people believe this rubbish?”). The following comes from Genesis (emphasis mine, not god’s).

And Yahweh said, “I will wipe man from the face of the earth, man, my own creation and also the animals of the field, and the creatures that crawl on the ground, and the birds of the air; for I regret having made them.”

Before I start ranting, what’s the deal with killing all the animals? I didn’t know animals could sin. What a dick.

Anyway …

God is supposed to be omniscient. God allegedly knows everything. If god knows everything, couldn’t he have foreseen that mankind would sin? How can an omniscient being regret taking an action? If he was going to regret it so much that he had to kill everybody, why create man in the first place? If god knew what mankind would do and created mankind anyway are the sins really man’s responsibility? If you create man, giving him free will but you know what he’s going to do with that free will is it really free will at all? The only exercise of true free will was the act of creation. Once god created man and had foreseen the future, man was placed on the path foreseen by god. Unless of course, god is fallible and not omniscient. Maybe god just doesn’t know everything?

The same question applies to the Adam and Eve myth. If god knows everything, then wouldn’t he have known that the sins in the Garden of Eden were destined to happen? Wouldn’t he have known, at the time of creation, that his creation was not perfect and was destined to sin? So why am I reading about regrets and mistakes?

Someone tried the argument that god is omniscient exclusively about the present state of affairs but not about the future. This can’t be true. If god wasn’t omniscient about the future then he couldn’t have predicted that Jesus would be sacrificed for our sins on the cross. If god couldn’t predict that, then Jesus just got randomly killed and his death wasn’t foretold by god.

So something doesn’t make sense. Either god knew, at the time man was created, that man would sin (heinously) in the future or he couldn’t have known that Jesus would be crucified to atone for our sins. Either he knows what man will do or he doesn’t.

Now, obviously, I don’t expect any sensible answers to this. I expect weird new caveats that I’ve never head before. The hoops people will jump through to try and maintain a coherent belief system are amazing.

I’m still trying to deal with the shock I felt when I realized that bible stories just don’t make any sense.

Advertisements

Madness dropped?

February 17, 2007

I’ve been involved in an exchange of ideas with Rob Vitaro for some time now. Rob’s most recent post is worth reading. He makes some very good points, which is about par for the course. As I told Rob in a comment; I audibly guffawed in a couple of places while reading it. He even got a “golf clap” at one stage in acknowledgement of a point well made.

Rob publicly pondered his reasons for continuing the discussion and ultimately decided to carry on because

it is probably the most civil discourse I’ve had with a non-Christian (nut-ball term aside), and for the sake of reason and logic it shall continue.

Wow. I can’t imagine what types of discourse you’ve had with atheists if I qualify as civil. Anyway, this led me to ponder my own reasons for continuing and I realized they’re not that deep; it’s fun, challenging and I learn stuff. So, on with the show.

First of all, I’d like to highlight the “golf clap” point that Rob made. Rob originally said that he was on solid psychological ground because there are a lot of people who believe the same things he does. I argued that “weight of numbers does not a solid position make”. The problem arose when, later in the same post, I wrote that Rob was on shaky ground because there were four and half billion people alive today who think he’s wrong. According to my own argument, weight of numbers does not make the four and a half billion people right. I could claim that I was trying further address his original weight of numbers point, but in rereading my post, I don’t think I was. So Rob, I acknowledge that point. You’re right; you can’t claim sanity because a bunch of people believe the same thing you do and I can’t claim insanity because a bunch of people don’t believe what you do. I think I made that too easy for you, but you handled it skillfully nonetheless.

While we’re on the topic of insanity, I’d like to conditionally retract my claim of madness. One of the conditions is that I’d like Rob to clarify exactly what form of communication he has with Jesus. Rob’s communication might be something completely different than I got from his writings. If, for example, Rob clears his mind and thinks about a decision he has to make and the answer “pops into his head” then I’ll drop the crazy thing and acknowledge my mistake. I obviously won’t acknowledge that Rob is receiving messages from Jesus, but I will cede that the “crazy” label might not fit.

I will point out that I think Rob didn’t do a wonderful job of rebutting the crazy claim. He acknowledged that if the other party in his communication was anyone other than Jesus, things would look pretty grim:

I agree in part, though: replace Jesus with Abe Lincoln in that paragraph and yes, I’d look crazy!

He follows this right up with:

A psychological condition is almost always accompanied with impaired functioning so much so that a lower quality of life is the result. This is not the case for most Christians

I think the flaw here is pretty obvious; if the only thing that changed was that he claimed Abe Lincoln was communicating with him instead of Jesus then seemingly Rob would still be able to function in society. If he acted the same way, did the same good deeds and was the same guy in general, wouldn’t he be just fine? I’ll give Rob some leeway here and I’m really trying to let the crazy thing go, but that logic just didn’t cut it for me.

Then after some reasonably tame responses, Rob whips out a comment that just about floored me.

Well, this may blow darwinator away, but I already know this all too well: I’m well aware that he could be completely right, that everything I believe is in my mind and not real.

Blown away didn’t quite cover it. I hadn’t expected this at all. Rob writes with such confidence and conviction that I was certain there was no room for doubt in his mind. I admire his strength in admitting this and would probably just like to see it acknowledged a little more in his writing. However, that’s not really my call. Can’t hurt to ask though, can it?

Rob quickly moves in to strike after throwing me off balance:

But here is where being “smart and deluded” bites darwinator in the butt. Christians are always the ones who are asked, “what if everything you believe in is wrong? Can you even admit that?” Ok, I just did. Now it’s your turn, darwinator. What if everything you believe in is wrong? Can you admit that you could be wrong? What if you are smart and deluded?

I direct Rob’s attention to my Reasonable Atheism post. I can (and, the post shows, did) admit doubt. Certainly everything I believe could be wrong. The atheist position and, more generally, the rational position requires that evidence be evaluated before coming to conclusions. If evidence were presented for the God hypothesis, I’d certainly believe in God. I imagine the religious among those reading this will respond that they too require evidence. I guess the difference then becomes one of standards. A fatally flawed document authored 1950 years ago does not constitute evidence. If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that it doesn’t even come close.

You see, I firmly believe atheism takes faith to adhere to. It’s just as much a gamble as believing in any other religion. In the end, only one of us can be right.

I understand Rob’s point about faith here and disagree with it. I hope the Reasonable Atheism post explains why. I do see what Rob’s getting at here, but the word “faith” is inappropriate. It’s a trick commonly used to make atheists seem just like religious folk. Being an atheist takes courage (for reasons Rob points out later), strength of character and above all being an atheist requires you to be honest with yourself. You don’t get to believe things that you want to be true. You have to believe the things that you actually think are true. Whenever a loved one dies, it would certainly be nice to think that they’ve gone to a better place. Wanting something don’t necessarily make it so. It doesn’t even make it likely.

I also asked Rob to consider the fact that his beliefs are an accident of his upbringing which, in turn, is an accident of the lottery determining when and where he was born. I was very disappointed in Rob’s response. It’s actually the first thing he’s written that I’ve been disappointed in. I feel like he dodged the intent of the question.

Ah, but darwinator hasn’t thought this through. If I had been born at any other point in time or location, I wouldn’t be me, Rob, I’d be someone else! Even if my parents conceived a day later, I’d be someone else. That’s undeniable, sorry.

I’ll try to rephrase to get an honest answer. I’m looking for a scenario where Rob was raised in a different faith. Say his parents or guardians converted to Islam when Rob was a child. There are other scenarios but the point is that I’d like Rob to think about the impact of the ideas he was exposed to in his formative years. It might not be a question he will answer, but if he’s honest, it’s pretty obvious that without the exposure to Christianity there’s no way he could be a Christian. He could be a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Scientologist or any one of literally thousands of other religions. He believes the things he does simply because of the “luck of the draw”. How can he explain that?

The following quote highlighted for me the deep, fundamental differences in the way that Rob and I look at things.

You see, when darwinator looks at the universe, he finds it awe-inspiring, but also an accident. Huh? How can an accident give you wonder? When I slip and fall, the only thing I wonder about is how clumsy can one person be? I find that the only things that seem to give us wonder are the things that are created.

The wonder and awe I feel come from understanding how things work. To truly understand how evolution produced the biodiversity we see around us … well, it’s very hard to describe the feeling. Something so simple and elegant is attractive to the engineer in me. Something so powerful and creative appeals to my artistic side. The whole process of evolution is simply beautiful to me. It’s amazing. The idea that everything has a purpose in an evolved system, sometimes obvious, sometimes not, is satisfying to me in a way that the stories about divine creation aren’t.

Side notes:

  • The hardest thing for me about the current religious debates in the US (intelligent design, etc) is that they’re missing out on the beauty and elegance that is evolution. In many cases, they’re missing out on it willfully.
  • I also bristle at the use of “accident” and “random chance” when talking about evolution, because evolution is the opposite of random chance. However, that’s a topic for another rant on another day.

To truly understand (if the tenous grasp I have can be called understanding) the scale of the universe is mind blowing. Humanity has always had a tendency to find God in the gaps of human knowledge. It isn’t honest. It’s also not a sensible position to take in the face of the inexorable march of knowledge. Those gaps will shrink and disappear. Where will God hide then?

Now this next section got me a little riled up, so I might be letting off some steam. Apologies in advance.

But insignificant? How does that make my existence beautiful? How does that give me hope? How would that encourage me to go on? What’s the point of living? It’s all an accident anyway, right?! But that’s “darwinator’s paradoxical answer to the meaning of life:” You’re tiny, insignificant, and a product of random chance: you’re beautiful! And when you die, NOTHING! Hooray for the Great Accident!

Our cosmic (in)significance should have no impact at all on how beautiful your life is, Rob. Your life is beautiful because you have a wife, family and friends that love you. Why do you need to get “hope” or “reasons to go on” from a creator of the universe? Live your life because it’s the only one you have! How can your life only be worth living if you get everlasting paradise at the end of it? Your life is beautiful for the many reasons you list in your blog posts. Why on Earth would you need more than the reasons you already have?

Here’s what it comes down to, darwinator. If you’re right, if this is all an accident, and everything I believe is in my head, then we both lose in the biggest joke ever.

No we don’t. We don’t lose at all. You had the chance to have a wonderful life, filled with the love of wife, family and friends. I’m pretty sure you don’t consider that a losing proposition.

But if I’m right, I will inherit an eternity of peace and an end to suffering, living with the Creator of the universe. You lose there, too.

The fallacy of “belief as virtue” would require a whole separate thread to deal with. Suffice it to say that if God exists and conforms to your conception of him, then I certainly lose. You’ve provided an abridged version of Pascal’s wager which is as compelling as it is logically sound; that is to say, neither. I’ll deal with the logical failures below.

I’m not a gambling man, but I think I’ve made the smarter choice. With your stance, either way you’re screwed.

You’re right (as discussed above), I can never get access to paradise after death but your “smarter choice” intrigues me. It seems to imply that you weighed the situation (as per Pascal’s wager) and figured that there was no real downside to believing. That if you’re wrong, well, there’s no real cost (maybe some small opportunity cost) and if you’re right, jackpot! However, the problem with this is that it brings mercenary economic considerations to bear on a problem that is, ultimately, about what is true. A cost benefit analysis isn’t a convincing argument to accept religious doctrine and a “choice” based on such won’t convince the big guy upstairs.

You believe something because you’re convinced it’s true.  You don’t believe something because you’ll punished if it turns out you’re wrong.  Otherwise, the obvious extension to Pascal’s wager is to simply believe in whichever God has the most heinous version of hell (to minimize your downside).  I think it’s easy to see where this leads.

I look forward to reading Rob’s thoughts but must admit that my intensity is flagging. Rob has made some wonderful points and I do think I’ve learned some things. I feel like we’re getting very close to the limits of where discussion can take us and look forward to returning to my usual laziness rather than all this typing.

Madness discussed

February 10, 2007

Young Rob read the post where I called him a nutball and seemed to get a kick out of the label. He has posted a lengthy response. It’s very well written and Rob makes some points that I think are worth addressing.

Before I get to that, let me make one thing perfectly clear; I think Rob is intelligent. It’s impossible to write the way he does and argue as persuasively as he does and not be smart. Suffice it to say that his IQ is significantly above average. That being said, it’s possible to be smart and deluded. I’m claiming that’s the situation here.

However, Rob’s delusion presents something of a dilemma. In any reasonable discussion one would certainly hope that the other parties involved would consider all the points raised. Rob is convinced that Jesus has literally saved his life, so I’m a little ambivalent about how deeply I’d like Rob to think about all this. Ideally, he’d use his intellect to see through the superstitious nonsense he believes and appreciate his existence for how beautiful it really is. Failing that, I’d rather he cling to his beliefs and remain safe.

Let me address some of the points Rob makes.

Well, if I was the only one who believed and did this, you would be correct with the nut-ball analysis. However, I am in the company of billions of people over the last 2000 years. We can’t call that nut-ballish with that many people involved.

I disagree with this. Strongly. Weight of numbers does not a solid position make. In a world of (roughly) six and a half billion people, there are (again roughly) two billion Christians. This means there are four and a half billion people who think that the Christians are wrong. For every other religion the numbers are worse. If you’re a Hindu, for example, about five and a half billion people think your deeply held religious beliefs are … well … wrong.

So how can there be so much confusion? Isn’t it vastly more likely that religion fills a deep, human need? That people generally have a yearning to believe the types of things that religions claim? That makes much more sense to me than a world where the simplest point of agreement among the religious adherents of Earth is that they will be saved and everyone else is in trouble.

Daniel C. Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” addresses the evolution of religion in more detail than is appropriate here. I’d be extremely interested to hear Rob’s thoughts on the book.

The only answer to this: Jesus has to be a real live person who interacts with us.

Again, I disagree. The fact that billions of people are gullible enough to be convinced of something doesn’t make it true. As a future psychotherapist, I’d wager that Rob could come up with many more explanations than I could to explain his “interactive Jesus” claims. My first guess would be wishful thinking.

And so then what makes me any different from people who seek a guru to give them guidance? (Well, *I* say the difference is that Jesus has the answers while the guru is grasping at straws, but for the sake of argument I’m comparing “life coaches.”)

I’d say the major difference here is that for the majority of people, the person they choose as a life coach is someone they could get hold of by phone. Or have lunch with. Or exchange emails with. You know, an actual person. Now, if Rob was prepared to drop the “living Jesus” strand of his belief system, he’d be on more solid ground. Then the teachings of Jesus can be obtained from the written word, much like “How to win friends and influence people” or any other self help text.

I don’t want to imply that I’m being controlled by Jesus, as opposed to Him guiding me. I have used the phrase “I gave Jesus control of my life,” but what that means is I trust in Him so much that He tells me where to go and what to do, and I do it – by choice.

Okay, this is fair. I obviously wasn’t clear. My concern isn’t whether Jesus is explicitly at the wheel or whether he’s riding shotgun. I’m more interested in the claims that Rob is in communication with a being who, if he lived at all, died over 2,000 years ago. I claim that Rob’s insistence that this communication is real should qualify him as crazy. What if Jesus communicated to Rob through the TV? Would that be crazy? What if Jesus communicated with Rob via Morse code in the patterns of falling rain drops? Would that be crazy? Obviously, I think all of those should qualify someone as being crazy. Apparently there are bounds within which it’s possible to claim that you have correspondence with supernatural entities and not qualify as insane.

Speaking as someone who plans to be a psychotherapist, you do make a good point, but only from the starting premise that Jesus does not exist. If He does, and interacts with us (albeit differently from other people), then it is perfectly normal and not nut-ballish.

I think we agree 100% here. I think it would benefit Rob to read “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion”. There are a couple of relevant pieces in the book. The first talks about how much more certain we become when we publicly declare our position on something. The second deals with a cult in California and the events that drove them to evangelize. I see some of Rob’s posting in light of the second piece and I think it would benefit him to better understand his motivations.

Now we get to the section where Rob’s buttons were tweaked by some things I said:

Anyone who claims Jesus told them to hurt or kill has been greatly deceived by Satan.

It’s hard to know how to respond to this statement because, to an atheist, it reads: Anyone who claims an imaginary person told them to hurt or kill has been greatly deceived by another imaginary person. I thought the original punishment for violating (at least six of) the ten commandments was being put to death. The instruction to put people to death would seem to be hurtful. At least it qualifies as something I consider hurtful. Then again maybe it was god issuing the edict which would get Jesus off the hook (unless we adhere to the proclamation that the triune deity is indivisibly one being). Or maybe Old Testament stuff isn’t considered doctrine any more. Regardless, we’ve established that Rob does not believe in a hurtful Jesus. This is a good thing.

And if you knew the person that I am (which I try to make evident on my site) you would realize how utterly ridiculous that statement was.

Maybe Rob is a really wonderful person. Even if he’s not, he sounds like he does try to live a good life. However, I have to defend the statements I made. Rob is in communication with entities that fully four and half billion people on this planet do not think exist. It’s not out of the realms of possibility that when his mind is making stuff up, it could make up stuff that doesn’t bode all that well for others. Rob claims he’s pacifistic, I’m happy enough to take him at his word.

Your cutting remark reeks of condescension (and because I doubt you’d say it to my face, cowardice)

Condescension maybe. Cowardice, sure, if you like. It’s not intended to be condescending although there is some small amount of pity in there that’s hard to keep out. That’s why I don’t outright dismiss the charges of condescension. I honestly hope that if Rob is hearing voices, they continue to tell him things in the vein of peace, love and understanding. Given that I believe that what Rob is hearing or seeing is a construct of his own mind, I have no real guarantees that the communications will remain benign. Now, if the communication were coming from Jesus and Jesus is as loving as Rob says, then there’d be no problem. It just ain’t so, hence the concern. Perhaps Rob’s saying that if Jesus were to issue instructions of hurtful nature, Rob would know it was Satan attempting to deceive him. I’m not sure. All I do know is that there’s a lot of imaginary people being considered here. Gets a bit confusing really.

I certainly don’t think Rob’s stupid. I think he’s constructed his own reality based on dogma he’s received. It would benefit Rob to spend some time thinking about just how much of an accident it is that he’s received the dogma he has. If he’d been born at any other point in time or even at the same time but in a different location, he’d be very unlikely to believe the things he does. If he was born in a country where the prevailing dogma is that of Islam, he’d be a Muslim. If he claims otherwise, he hasn’t thought it through.

As for the cowardice claim, I think that’s just Rob letting off steam. I’ve just spent the last week being “witnessed” to by a born again Christian so I don’t think I shrink from these types of discussions. I’m certainly not scared of very many people physically, so I’m not sure what the cowardice thing meant. Let’s not rule it out though, maybe within whatever context Rob’s using, he’s right.

I resent that you and other bloggers continually imply that Christians such as myself are in the same league as other religious extremists, namely militant Islamists.

Rob is religiously extreme by any definition I can imagine. That, however, isn’t the point I’d like to deal with here. He mentions extremists and points out, specifically, the adherents of Islam. Let’s give Rob the benefit of the doubt and allow that he’s not an extremist. At least for the sake of this point. The problem with religious moderates is one that’s frequently addressed by Sam Harris. When the beliefs of religious moderates have to be respected, it provides cover for the fundamentalists of that religion. Rob enables religious extremists by claiming conversational sanctity for his own beliefs. Check out Sam Harris‘ writings on this topic, it’s really worth thinking about.

Religious belief is a cop out. It’s a crutch to avoid dealing with certain harsh realities in the world. It also blurs one’s vision so the truly amazing and awe inspiring universe can never be truly appreciated. It can all be explained with “god did it”. In comparison to the beauty of true knowledge and understanding, the veil of religious delusion is uninspiring. How arrogant it is to believe we are the children of the supreme being. In contrast, considering the scale of the universe, it’s humbling to acknowledge just how insignificant and tiny we really are.

Reasonable Atheism

February 9, 2007

Until now, most atheists have been caught in a dilemma. The dilemma revolves around how to assert one’s atheism without falling into the trap of relying on “belief”. For example, atheists are told that their failure to provide evidence that god doesn’t exist means that they are just as irrational as they claim the religious to be. The conversation often runs something like this:

“I believe in in god.”

“You’re not rational, there’s no hard evidence for god’s existence.”

“So you are an atheist?”

“That’s right, I don’t believe in god.”

“Do you have hard evidence that god doesn’t exist?”

“Ummmmmm”

“Ahhhh HA! You’re just the same as me!”

The dilemma comes about, at least in part, because of the misunderstanding of the words describing belief and nonbelief. This article is a suggestion on how to deal with this dilemma, so let’s start by clarifying some terms.

Most people believe the word agnostic means that someone isn’t sure about whether there’s a god or not. This is not strictly true. The word agnostic describes someone who thinks that the question of god’s existence is beyond the realm of things that humanity can know. Admittedly, an agnostic is saying that we don’t know but they are also saying that we can never know whether god exists.

The reason this clarification is important is because it gives the atheist label a little more leeway which we’ll see used below.

Atheism is a fairly controversial word. Some claim the term derives from the greek word “atheos” (roughly meaning godless or without god). Others liken it to amoral and asexual where atheism would mean the absence of theism. Regardless of the origins of the word, there are two main flavors to atheism; Strong and Weak atheism.

Strong atheism involves denying the existence of god. A Strong atheist claims that there is no god. The problem with this position is that it’s too easy to lampoon. There can’t be proof that god doesn’t exist, because a negative can’t be proven. Bertrand Russell‘s Celestial Teapot deals with this far more elegantly than I ever could. The problem with claiming to be a Strong atheist is that the position can be easily equated to belief in god without proof; Strong atheism appears to be just as irrational as religious belief. A Strong atheist appears to be saying that “I believe there is no god but I don’t have evidence for this belief.” Most atheists are proud of their commitment to requiring evidence for things they believe. The Strong atheist position runs counter to that commitment.

That brings us to Weak atheism; a position that many atheists “fall back on” because Strong atheism is dogmatic and ignores evidentiary requirements. Weak atheists claim that while they don’t believe in god, they aren’t required to believe god doesn’t exist. A Weak atheist lacks a belief in god. Weak Atheists aren’t asserting anything about the existence of god, they’re not “taking sides”. They simply don’t have a positive belief in god.

Having discussed the Weak & Strong flavors of atheism, we can now deal with my major complaint about them; They just don’t seem to actually exist. Strong atheists might exist but Weak atheists almost certainly don’t. It’s not a reasonable human position to be asked the question of god’s existence, consider it for enough time to label yourself an atheist and then simply lack belief in the premise you were asked to consider. Weak atheists adopt the label simply because they want to be considered reasonable and not dogmatic. It’s a point of pride to a lot of atheists that evidence matters to them. They believe god does not exist because they’ve considered the evidence for the god hypothesis and found it sadly and obviously lacking. Being a Strong atheist would require them to assert things without evidence of their own and it goes against their commitment to intellectual honesty. Weak & Strong atheism are caricatures of what atheists really believe and they’re the only widely used labels I’ve seen to describe atheism.

Until now. 🙂

My dear atheists, there has to be a third option, “Reasonable” Atheism. Reasonable Atheists believe that there is no god and they’re not irrational about it. They are basing their beliefs on the available evidence (and the lack thereof) and as with all reasonable beliefs, they’ll reevaluate in light of new evidence. In my opinion, Reaonable Atheism is the most common position held by atheists. I think it’s a position you’ll come to recognize frequently now that you have a label for it. I feel it more accurately describes the position of real atheists in the real world.

I deny god’s existence. I do so based on the complete lack of real evidence and the shoddy construction of claimed evidence. If, however, real evidence were to be provided at some time in the future, I’d certainly considered it and reevaluate my position. I am a reasonable atheist.