Monday, August 22, 2011

All theisms are created equal

I recently read the article Why I am not an Atheist by Pierre Whalon, Bishop of Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, published in the Huffington Post on August 9. He starts by asserting that "by definition" there is no evidence for god, approvingly citing German Jesuit and theologian Karl Rahner for saying "God is not a datum in the universe." He also approvingly cites Thomas Aguinas for arguing that nothing can be proven from nature or scripture to those who do not have faith already.

Karl Rahner may have been right, but not because there is no evidence by definition according to the Christian bible, where God speaks and performs witnessed physical miracles onymously. Bishop Whalon, however, defines god as subsisting "completely outside of the universe". I will simply accept Bishop Whalon's definition of god since he is entitled to argue for his god on his own terms. I will then leave it to the reader to decide whether Bishop Whalon is being inconsistent here insofar as he also claims to be Christian according to the authority of the Christian bible.

I am not impressed with Bishop Whalon's citing some recent Scientific American articles for asserting that the existence of the multiverse "cannot be proven" and that the reason why math works "cannot be understood scientifically". "Cannot" is a strong word here, and my understanding is that supporting evidence for both is not outside the realm of the possible. In particular, we already have evidence for a multiverse in the sense that existing theories of how our universe functions which are favored by cosmologists appear to imply a multiverse. A multiverse is currently a highly speculative possibility and yet it is also better evidenced than any gods. This is important because we don't require "proof" to justify our theism/atheism beliefs, what is required is overall weight of the available evidence, and the evidence we have for a multiverse is unfavorable to gods being non-fictional.

Nevertheless, putting aside that his two examples may be flawed, Bishop Whalon is no doubt correct on his main point, that "there are limits to the 'evidence' science can produce." He also says "the questions these limits raise are clearly not the confines writ large of human inquiry." But surely it is not merely inquiry that Bishop Whalon is advocating for when he advocates for Episcopalianism in particular, or even monotheism more generally. So its not clear what Bishop Whalon's point is here.

Since Bishop Whalon put the word evidence inside scare quotes, it is worth noting that evidence is not produced by science, at least not in an active sense. Evidence is that which was observed to happen. Scientists seek out, verify, and consume the evidence, they don't produce the evidence.

Bishop Whalon has conceded most of his argument from the start: There is no evidence for god. For some inexplicable reason, Bishop Whalon appears to think that theism is justified without providing any explanation for how it is justified. He mentions faith and intuition, but faith and intuition alone cannot justify belief. No belief about how the world works is justified without evidence.

Having first conceded that there is no evidence for god, he then concedes that the evils manifest in our universe are evidences against an all-knowing, all-powerful, all good, god. When we combine concession one with this second concession its even less clear why Bishop Whalon is a Christian theist. Bishop Whalon puts in a pitch for theism when he says "... a theist can be called to account because her religion has an ethical standard that stands completely over her. An atheist can have no such check." However, this isn't an argument that theisms are true. Its an assertion that only theistic religions provide ethical standards transcending the individual. Yet the individual is not transcended by any religions. Individuals have the option to believe or not in any particular religion. Furthermore, the ethical standards that religions provide may be unethical, or poorly defined, or undefined in any given context, thus taking us back to square one, or maybe worse.

Bishop Whalon, citing Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as examples, points out that evil in the world is also a problem for atheists. Of course, evil is a problem for all people, but its not evidence against atheism. It is evidence against the set of theisms that posit a omnibenevolent deity.

Bishop Whalon then characterizes awe, intuition of a hidden order, curiosity, beauty of order, and the like as the domain of the "queen of of sciences" - theology. It is "that intuition -- that life has a meaning that transcends my momentary flicking in and out of it -- is for me confirmed by the revelation of God on the cross of Jesus...". Mesopotamians also had intuitions. The forces of Taimat and Abzu, who had emerged from a primordial chaos of water, created the 4 creator gods. The highest of the 4 gods was the sky-god An, the over-arching bowl of heaven. Next came Enlil who could either produce raging storms or act to help man. Nin-khursag was the earth goddess. The 4th god was Enki, the water god and patron of wisdom. These 4 gods did not act alone, but consulted with an assembly of 50, which is called the Annunaki. Innumerable spirits and demons shared the world with the Annunaki.

So, Bishop Whalon, why are your intuitions more accurate descriptions of how the world works than the Mesopotamians intuitions? You asserted "not all theologies are created equal", but I fail to see how we can logically adopt any particular religion when all religions are non-evidenced, counter-evidenced, intuitions. Intuitions about how the universe ultimately works are diverse, inconsistent, and, as human history amply demonstrates, inevitably false. Human intuition here is synonymous with human ignorance. You may think that relying on intuition to answer questions such as who created the universe, the ultimate purpose of people, the ultimate meaning of human lives, and the like is rational. I am convinced that the evidence demonstrates otherwise and you are mistaken. Those questions have simple, non-intuitive, negative answers. No intelligent agent intentionally created our universe, there is no ultimate purpose of people, there is no ultimate meaning to human lives.

Contrary to what Bishop Whalon argues, a story is not true because its implications "are trustworthy in the abstract" or because it is "personally relevant". Fictions can be trustworthy in the abstract and personally relevant. Bishop Whalon asserts that "what you believe ... makes up what you are ..." But we shouldn't be utilizing belief as a method of defining ourselves. Our beliefs reflect our best efforts at deciding what is true and false. Accordingly, we believe because the overall weight of the evidence directs us to what we must believe.

Bishop Whalon then confuses evidence justified belief with faith by concluding thusly: "Faith, atheist or otherwise, is never just a personal option. At least, not for long." On the contrary, faiths, no matter what their implications for the holders of those faiths and for others, are always a personal option. It is evidence alone that enables us to transcend personal options. In my judgment, the available evidence is that all gods are human created fictions, these fictions accurately reflect ignorant human intuitions, gods almost certainly do not exist, and in any case, by definition, we cannot be justified in believing in anything that resides completely outside of the universe.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Politics, Prayer, and Prejudice

In a August 2, 2011 editorial titled Politics and Prayer, the New York Times editorial staff applauds a recent United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decision outlawing the Forsyth County prayer policy because the prayers often featured sectarian references. The NY Times argues that the constitution forbids government from favoring "one religion", citing the court's observation that invocations must not "repeatedly suggest that government has put its weight behind a particular faith." The NY Times then quoted the court criticizing the county's policy because it favored "the majoritarian faith in the community at the expense of religious minorities." This argument is seriously flawed because it ignores that "the majoritarian faith" encompasses more than "one religion" or "a particular faith" and that the Establishment Clause forbids "an establishment of religion", not "establishment of a religion" or "establishment of one religion" arbitrarily selected.

Forsyth County is majority Protestant, it is majority trinitarian, it is majority Christian, it is majority monotheist. There is no one majority religion or faith. Different religious belief based divisions of the same set of people results in multiple different religious belief majorities. The gratuitous addition of the qualifiers "a", "the", and "one" by the NY Times and the court to mis-characterize as singular the pluralism inherent in majoritarian religion is disingenuous and mischievous. Counting religions is capricious. Delineating a single religion for large groups of citizens is inherently subjective and arbitrary because there can be as many religions as there are people. One judge could count a single religion where another judge could count hundreds of religions which is one just one of several reasons why the count of religions should be irrelevant to judicial decisions.

There is no basis in law for judges to pick and choose for which religions the Establishment Clause applies and for which religions it does not apply. The concocted misconception that the constitution requires judges to identity "the" majority faith or "a" majority religion when evaluating the applicability of the Establishment Clause is in conflict with the underlying principles of impartiality and equity which gives the first amendment and, more generally, all laws, their warrant to claim to be just. It should be obvious that the Establishment Clause principle equally prohibits establishments of minority religion, regardless of how unlikely that result is in a democracy, multiple establishments of religion, however many such distinct establishments there are, and a single simultaneous establishment of multiple religions, regardless of how many different religions or faiths, however delineated, are simultaneously established in a given instance. The Establishment Clause applies equally to minority and majority religions, to any and all religions, to one and many religions.

Accordingly, if, as asserted by the court here, Forsyth County violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by starting its meetings with prayers “endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths” then it also violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by starting its meetings with prayers endorsing monotheism to the exclusion of polytheism and atheism. There is no non-prejudiced basis for declaring government favoritism for Christianity to be unconstitutional while declaring government favoritism for monotheism to be constitutional. That is a completely arbitrary distinction. Jesus as deity is Christian religion, singular God as deity is Abrahamic religion, one majority is larger than the other majority, but otherwise its the same violation of the same principle against government establishment of religion. Yet it is exactly this irrelevant distinction that many judges, courts, and the NY Times, repeatedly and inconsistently endorse as a foundation of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

There is no such thing as inclusive and nonsectarian theistic prayer. Theism is exclusive to, and sectarian for, those who believe one or more gods should be worshiped, or be appealed to, with a prayer prior to starting work. If, as the NY Times asserts, "a government that favors one faith flouts the inclusive nature of American government, harming church and state" then a government that favors monotheism, or even theism more generally, is identically harming church and state by flouting the inclusive nature of American government. Excluding non-Christians and excluding non-theists is an identical harm to the identical principle. The NY Times, and the judges, by refusing to acknowledge this, are hypocritically declaring themselves to endorse a principle of inclusiveness while they simultaneously advocate against the identical inclusiveness principle. The only real difference is that one exclusion targets a different minority than the other exclusion. Prejudice or bigotry are the nouns that apply when one minority is not deemed equal before the law merely because that minority disagrees more completely or directly with the majority on a matter of opinion than the other dissenting minorities.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Universe is not intuitive

Reposted from Secular Perspectives

When atheists assert that evidence for god is missing, theists tend to react with complaints that atheists are disregarding or stereotyping the sophisticated and compelling arguments of theologians, or with complaints that atheists have a faith/belief in materialism that skews their perspective. What characterizes these arguments defending theism is a tendency to favor intuition over empirical evidence, and/or to characterize intuition as providing supporting evidence that is at least on par with empirical evidence. I won't dispute that theism is more intuitive than atheism. So to answer the question 'who is right here?' we need to tackle the question of whether or not appeals to intuition are a proper and compelling basis for reaching conclusions about how the world works.

Intuitions are intellectual seemings that something is necessarily the case. They are directed towards statements that make some kind of necessity claim. Intuitions can be distinguished from beliefs more generally, since we can believe that propositions which are non-intuitive are true, and our intuition can favor propositions which we believe to be false. So the question here becomes this: Should our beliefs about how the world works follow our intuitions or disregard our intuitions?

One way to answer this question is to look at history for the intuitive answers that humans relied on to answer the big questions about how the world works. For example, what are the intuitive explanation for drought, flood, illness, earthquakes, wind storms, and similar calamities? What are the intuitive explanations for mental illness?

In Chaldean mythology the seven evil deities were known as shedu, meaning storm-demons. Hebrew demons were workers of harm. To them were ascribed the various diseases. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus casts out many demons, or evil spirits, from those who are afflicted with various ailments. The exorcists of the Catholic Church teach that demons attack humans continually but that afflicted persons can be effectively healed and protected either by the formal rite of exorcism, authorized to be performed only by bishops and those they designate, or by prayers of deliverance which any Christian can offer for themselves or others.

In Islam, some thought mental disorder could be caused by possession by a djin (genie), which could be either good or demon-like. There were sometimes beatings to exorcise djin. Christian Europe often considered Madness to be a moral issue, either a punishment for sin or a test of faith and character. Ancient Hindu scriptures attribute mental disorders to supernatural agents, sorcery or witchcraft. Disrespect towards the gods, teachers or others were blamed. The Chinese blamed an imbalance between Yin and yang. In Judaism, mental disorders are caused by problems in the relationship between the individual and God. Plato argued that there were "divinely inspired" mental illness that gave the person prophetic powers. Playwrights such as Homer, Sophocles and Euripides described madmen driven insane by the Gods.

For most of human history, almost all people have thought that the Earth was in the center of a giant sphere (or ball, called the "celestial sphere") with the stars stuck to the inside of the sphere. The planets, Sun, and Moon were thought to move between the sphere of stars and the Earth, and to be different from both the Earth and the stars. This was correct intuitively - and factually wrong.

Now lets briefly look at this question of the ability of intuition to give us knowledge from the other direction. This time we will look to examples of our strongly evidenced knowledge to see if they are intuitive.

Humans have a common ancestor with all other primates, who have a common ancestor with all other mammals, who have a common ancestor with all other vertebrates. This defies our intuitions, which is why no human ever proposed this to be true on the basis of intuition. Solid matter consists mostly of empty space. There is a maximum velocity that information can travel. All particles exhibit both wave and particle properties. No one reached these conclusions from intuition. Over and over again, our knowledge about the world, including much that today we take for granted, is non-intuitive, and arguably counter-intuitive.

Time and time again, through out history, the intuitive explanations for how the world worked, the explanations that originated in human imagination, were wrong. They were much more often wrong than right. The pattern is clear, as is the explanation: Human intuition is not up to the task of explaining the world. On its own, human intuition lacks the capability to understand our world.

Yet theists continue to rely heavily on intuition in their arguments for theism. They continue to argue intuitively along the lines that something cannot come from nothing, therefore god exists. There must a first cause for everything, therefore god exists. Beauty and order characterize our universe, therefore god exists. Humans have conscious minds with capabilities that go beyond what purely material brains can achieve, therefore god exists. Free will exists, therefore god exists. Etc. Granted, the full arguments can get considerably more nuanced and sophisticated than this, but given that the premises are assuming certainties that go beyond, or even contrary, to what we obtain from empirical evidence, the additional sophistication doesn't diminish the dependency on human intuition.

Theists think they have wonderful arguments, so they conclude that atheists are blinded by a bias. The theists are overestimating their arguments and simultaneously underestimating what is possible within a purely materialistic framework. We don't have sufficient reason to think that nothing is the stable starting condition ("nothingness" exhibits an intrinsic small scale instability), that there is an ultimate first cause for everything (QED arguably allows some acausality), that beauty and order prevail (there is plenty of the opposites), that human minds exhibit capabilities that cannot be realized by material mechanisms (our minds have properties consistent with being entirely material), that free will exists (some evidence suggests free will may be an illusion), etc. Those are all human intuitions, like the intuition that time is unrelated to velocity and gravity, and as such they are most likely false. We even have some modern evidence that hints that some of these long standing intuitions cited by theologians, are, or at least may, be incorrect, as parenthetically stated above.