Saturday, December 29, 2012

Secularism and Nonreligion journal

Access to this academic journal is free and the articles are interesting. They say that they intend to publish one volume per year, with new articles being added to the current volume throughout the year. The first volume is now completed. So go take a look, Secularism and Nonreligion.

Blurb from their web site:

Secularism and Nonreligion is a new interdisciplinary journal published with the aim of advancing research on various aspects of 'the secular.' The journal is interested in contributions from primarily social scientific disciplines, including: psychology, sociology, political science, women's studies, economics, geography, demography, anthropology, public health, and religious studies. Contributions from history, neuroscience, computer science, biology, philosophy, and medicine will also be considered. Articles published in the journal focus on the secular at one of three levels: the micro or individual level, the meso or institutional level, or the macro or national and international levels. Articles explore all aspects of what it means to be secular at any of the above levels, what the lives of nonreligious individuals are like, and the interactions between secularity and other aspects of the world. Articles also explore the ideology and philosophy of the secular or secularism.

Irreligious Socialization? The Adult Religious Preferences of Individuals Raised with No Religion PDF
Stephen M. Merino 1-16
Atheisms Unbound: The Role of the New Media in the Formation of a Secularist Identity PDF
Christopher Smith, Richard Cimino 17-31
Anti-Atheist Bias in the United States: Testing Two Critical Assumptions PDF
Lawton K Swan, Martin Heesacker 32-42
Forms, Frequency, and Correlates of Perceived Anti-Atheist Discrimination PDF
Joseph H. Hammer, Ryan T. Cragun, Karen Hwang, Jesse M. Smith 43-67
Explaining Global Secularity: Existential Security or Education? PDF
Claude M. J. Braun 68-93
Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, by Robert N. McCauley PDF
J. Tuomas Harviainen i-ii
Secularization and Its Discontents, by Rob Warner PDF
Isabella Kasselstrand iii-iv
Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia, by Victoria Frede PDF
Scott M. Kenworthy v-vi

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The best answer to this question is we don't know.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman. The New Statesman published an article on December 19 Why is there something rather than nothing? by Mehdi Hasan in which he argues that his theistic belief in prophets and miracles is properly evidenced. He begins by saying that evidence is not proof, therefore faith is not belief in something without evidence.

One of the recurring problems with this discussion is the introduction of everything or nothing, faith or proof, ignorance or knowledge, and other similar dichotomies that confuse and obscure the real issue, which is belief justification. Our beliefs do not need to be proven, or appear in science textbooks, or qualify as knowledge, to be properly justified. But that doesn't mean that there are no standards at all and every belief is equally, or even properly, justified. Nor does it mean that a belief is properly justified by citing faith. Beliefs are properly justified by evidence, not by faith. Therefore, the word "faith" shouldn't even appear in an argument for a belief.

So when Richard Dawkins publicly asked Mehdi Hasan ‘‘You believe that Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse?”, he was asking a fair question. Certainly he wasn't thereby guilty of claiming "the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots". Very intelligent people can profess beliefs that are poorly justified, and religious beliefs in particular have a tendency to have this role. Therefore, we cannot properly justify particular beliefs merely on the grounds of esteeming the intellects of people from the past who held similar beliefs.

Mehdi Hasan then makes three arguments, starting with the cliche "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic." This notion that the only way to properly anchor a belief in the overall available evidence is to refuse to take a side and remain undecided is mistaken. On the contrary, anyone who takes an evidence first approach to justifying their beliefs is compelled to take sides and prefer one conclusion over competing conclusions whenever the evidence favors that conclusion. Proof in some absolute sense has nothing whatsoever to do with properly justifying beliefs because such proof is impossible (we are not omniscient and omnipresent) and unnecessary. Also, whenever a particular conclusion implies the presence of supporting evidence, and such evidence is absent, the absence of that evidence is itself evidence against that particular conclusion. So, contrary to what Mehdi Hasan asserts, that tired cliche (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) is sometimes false.

Mehdi Hasan then begins his second argument by citing four examples of statements that "cannot be scientifically tested or proven" yet are reasonable to believe to be true: "1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil." In fact, it is both possible, and wise, to follow the evidence when deciding whether or not your spouse loves you, whether or not other minds are conscious, and whether or not some ideology was evil. Statements about objects being beautiful also have some evidence based content, but such statements about feelings and sentiments are distinct from statements about historical events or existence claims. Atheists are not making the unreasonable claim that all possible statements require evidence to be properly justified when we insist that factual statements about historical events, or about existence claims, or about how the world works, require evidence to be properly justified.

Mehdi Hasan continues his second argument by noting that "science itself is permeated with unproven (and unprovable) theories. Take the so called multiverse hypothesis." Mehdi Hasan asks "How do we 'prove' that these “billions and billions” of universes exist?" A multiverse is not a theory, it is a prediction of scientific theories which are well evidenced and accepted. There are four theoretical categories of multiverse, called levels. Inflation naturally produces the Level I multiverse, and if you add in string theory with a landscape of possible solutions, you get Level II, too. Quantum mechanics in its mathematically simplest ("unitary") form gives you Level III. If theories are scientific then it's legitimate science to work out and discuss all their consequences even if they involve unobservable entities. Evidence need not be direct, indirect evidence is also evidence. The notion that there is no evidence for the prediction that there is a multiverse, and therefore a multiverse is believed merely on faith, is a misunderstanding, which a minority of accommodationist scientists, such as Templeton Foundation prize winner (1995) Paul Davies, have unfortunately promoted.

Mehdi Hasan's third argument is that there is evidence for God, citing the Kalam cosmological argument, the fine- tuning argument, and "the late Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who embraced God in 2004, did so after coming to the conclusion that 'there had to be an intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical universe'." Mehdi Hasan then concludes that God is the best answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?"

However, the Quran, like the Bible, depicts a universe where humans are central to what the universe is all about and why it exists, while the overall empirical evidences much better fits the conclusion that humans are inconsequential and unimportant. We are a primate mammal on a small planet orbiting one of the more than 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Given the failed track record of arm chair theologians and philosophers, citing logical puzzles as evidence for a God, let alone for the God of Islam, is not particularly persuasive. No one predicted the theory of relativity and quantum chromodynamics, or the number of stars, from logic alone. A better answer to Mehdi Hasan's question is that the quantum vacuum state is unstable and the multiverse is eternal. Since the multiverse always was, it didn’t have to come from anything. Beyond that, the best answer by far is that we do not know. Existence could be a brute fact that has no further explanation. Some people convince themselves that with this one word, God, they have answers which they actually don't have and don't need.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The determinism versus indeterminism question

If our universe is deterministic then stopping, rewinding, and then restarting the clock would result in a repeat performance like stopping, rewinding, and replaying a movie. But unlike a movie, we cannot stop and rewind time. A big problem with addressing questions such as this is that it requires technical expertise in physics that most people, including myself, do not have. Nevertheless, it can be useful to try to address a question like this because it is a convenient starting point for disputing related misconceptions.

As pointed out by Gary Berg-Cross in his recent blog post, we shouldn't confuse the multi-factor causal determinism behind complex phenomena, like climate, with "partial determinism". Human behavior has internal determinants, a.k.a. genetics, and external determinants, a.k.a. environment. The mere presence of external determinants doesn't render human behavior "partially determined". So are climate, human behavior, etc., deterministic? In the non-quantum, classical, larger scale realm that we inhabit, our universe appears to be deterministic. Therefore the answer to this question appears to depend primarily on whether or not the small scale, quantum mechanical realm is indeterministic.

It is almost as if quantum mechanics occupies exactly the line that separates determinism from indeterminism, as if it occupies both descriptions simultaneously. Maybe it does. Inconsistent attributes like this are counterintuitive, but under the laws of physics, anything that is permitted to happen arguably does happen, and the results are sometimes counterintuitive. However, just like it is a mistake to confuse complexity with indeterminism, it is also a mistake to confuse probability with indeterminism. Stochastic outcomes like those which characterize quantum mechanics could be compatible with determinism. Some experts describe quantum mechanics as being best characterized by the phrase "determined probabilities".

My non-expert understanding is that Bell's inequalities theorem, which is favored to be true by experimental results, implies that either the principle of locality is false or quantum mechanics is nondeterministic. Furthermore, if locality is false then the laws of special relativity, which have been found to agree with QM to a high degree of accuracy, would be contradicted. Therefore, physicists tend to favor the view that indeterminism is true, which implies that quantum mechanical events are, in some significant sense, uncaused.

For the sake of argument, lets say that our universe is indeterministic at the small, quantum world scale. Under this scenario, when we rewind and restart the clock, the radioactive decay events would repeat with the same predisposition, as reflected in the same half-life probabilities as before, but the individual events would occur at different times than they occurred the first time around. It would arguably be the case that our universe could then be best described as partially deterministic, or partially indeterministic, or mixed. The small scale indeterminism would sometimes change larger scale events and our replayed universe would eventually take a noticeably different course from the original universe. This would be true even if the larger scale events are themselves strictly deterministic. But is there a line that clearly delineates the quantum mechanical and classical realms, and if not then does some of the small scale indeterminism carry over into the larger scales? Strict determinism may be a very accurate and useful approximation while technically being a fiction if taken literally.

Although we may not yet have sufficient evidence to assert with confidence that the aforementioned indeterministic scenario is true, we can answer another question that is often associated with the determinism question: Do we have free will? My answer is that we most likely (almost certainly) don't have free will, regardless of whether the universe is deterministic.

Many people appear to think that the question of the existence of free will is of central importance. I disagree. Our lack of free will arguably undermines the role of nondeterrent retribution in achieving justice. But beyond that it has little, if any, significance. We don't need free will. Our having free will wouldn't clearly be advantageous, and even if it would be advantageous, we are what we are and accurately acknowledging what we are doesn't change what we are. In that sense I agree with Daniel Dennett. But I am unwilling to go so far as to continue utilizing the term "free will" by creating a new category and labeling it "compatibilistic free will" while relabeling the original free will concept as "libertarian free will". Free will is rooted in a mind-body dualism, where the mind is understood to be at least partially extraphysical and nonmaterial, and as such implies not just indeterminism but also supernaturalism. Without the indeterminism, libertarianism, and dualism there is no free will and it is at best confusing, at worst misleading, to retain that label while dispensing with the concept.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Is nature by itself sufficient evidence for god?

In his February 29, 2012 Huffington Post article Why I Am an Accommodationist, Robert J. Asher, a paleontologist specializing in mammals who is currently Curator of Vertebrates in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, seeks to reconcile theism with the available evidence and demonstrate that theism and the evidence have a cooperative relationship. His tactic is to assert that god doesn't leave behind any evidence. Instead, god acts through nature. Therefore, nature is itself the only evidence we have for god. Nature is the proximate cause mechanism while god is the ultimate cause agency.

Having started by conceding that no evidence for a god exists beyond nature itself, Robert Asher has already lost his argument that he is properly justified in believing that a god exists. Going from observing that nature exists straight to therefore god exists is far too big a leap. We cannot jump that far without begging the question. After all, nature doesn't feature any immaterial, immortal, willful, agents that operate outside of time and location constraints. Best fit with the overall empirical evidence is the only proper justification we have for believing something exists. By positing a new ontology (immaterial, willful, agent) that is outside of the framework of any ontology that is found within nature, Robert Asher is arguing from an ideology first perspective. Nature exists therefore god exists is not a viable argument for god (from an evidence first perspective) because all of the evidence we have from nature is that willful agents are inherently materialistic (catabolic, anabolic), temporary, and finite.

A second problem with Robert Asher's argument is that nature has no demonstrated need for a supernatural, or even a nonnatural, ultimate cause. We need a proper motive, rooted in the available empirical evidences, for asserting a cause of a particular sort is needed. If nature is self-contained, if everything in nature has only natural, non-ultimate causes, then why believe that a supernatural god is an ultimate cause? Natural, non-ultimate causes are the only type of causes known to exist. We have not encountered evidence of a supernatural cause, let alone of a cause that has the special quality of being "ultimate". So we have no proper basis for assuming that there is a supernatural, or an ultimate, cause.

Theists such as Robert Asher appear to have a tendency to think that the naturalistic framework which is evidenced is insufficient, to the point of being impossible, for ever providing a needed explanation for our universe. They then tend to claim that only a non-evidenced and counter-evidenced supernaturalistic framework is sufficient, to the point of being necessary, to provide a needed explanation for the universe. But that is a reversal of the correct sequence for determining what is true. We shouldn't start with an insistence that we must claim to have an explanation, right now, prior to our having the supporting evidence. Instead, we should start with the evidence and go only where the evidence takes us. Otherwise we are fooling ourselves into thinking we know more than we do. We can manage fine without falsely claiming to have ultimate explanations that we don't have, so why this insistence on believing that a god exists?

Furthermore, we need to put aside mere human intuitions regarding what is plausible, implausible, possible, and impossible because our intuitions here have consistently been wrong. Most of modern knowledge is nonintuitive, There is essentially nothing in science textbooks that matches what people believed on intuition alone. What we know about how the universe works we discovered only by following the empirical evidence, often reaching conclusions that, without the supporting evidence, would be nonintuitive or counterintuitive. Instead, it is those assertions that are outside the framework of the laws of physics which are the more implausible and the more likely to be impossible relative to competing assertions which reside inside this framework. Theism is outside this framework and it is rooted in human intuition, which are two big strikes against theism.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Does the universe has a purpose?

A major disagreement between theists and atheists is the proper answer to this question: Does the universe have a purpose? When we approach this question from an empirical evidence first perspective, the proper answer must be no. Here is an entertaining 2 minute video recently produced by Neil deGrasse Tyson that answers this question from an empirical evidence first perspective. He places some emphasis on his not being "sure". Given that we are not omniscient it should be obvious that we cannot know with absolute certainty so prefixing and suffixing every strongly evidenced answer with "I am not sure" renders that phrase useless while attaching that phrase inconsistently to only some strongly evidenced answers makes it misleading. We all must be at least a little agnostic because we all are limited in our access to information. But he is clear in this video that there is a single best answer from the available evidence to this question.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Send a short note to the White House

Go to the White House comments web page and send them this brief message:

Before President Obama takes his oath of office, please instruct Chief Justice Roberts not to append an extralegal monotheistic codicil as he did during the previous presidential inauguration. A person taking an oath of office can speak freely after the legal oath recitation ends and should not be directed what to say by the person giving the oath. It is unseemly for the person leading a government oath to spatchcock a religious phrase.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is "god of the gaps" a terrible slogan?

Graham Veale is a theology graduate of Queen’s University Belfast and Head of Religious Education at City of Armagh High School. He argues that Christianity is true on his website Saints and Sceptics. In an article titled "God of the Gaps: Five Problems with a Terrible Slogan" he tries to argue that it is difficult to take seriously the "McAtheist" complaint "that 'goddidit' is a lazy man’s approach to explaining phenomena".

Graham Veale starts his attempt at refuting "McAtheist" with the observation that "we cannot be confident that every puzzle has a scientific answer". So lets set the record straight on this major misconception about atheism once and for all. Atheists have no problem with the fact that humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. On the contrary, atheists are well aware that we will forever never know everything that has happened in the past, nor what will happen in the future, nor the present. Since our access to information is forever and permanently limited by temporal-spatial constraints we will always be unable to answer every puzzle. How does this fact refute the observation that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explaining phenomena? Graham Veale doesn't say.

Graham Veale then begins his second argument thusly: "There are persistent gaps that have never been filled in, and might never be filled in, by naturalistic science." OK, that is reasonable, and atheists agree with this. But why does this count as a second argument different from the first argument and how does this contribute to refuting the characterization of "goddidit" as a lazy approach to explaining phenomena? Graham Veale cites consciousness as an example of "persistent gaps" that he thinks are beyond the reach of naturalistic explanations. In the not so distant past religious believers like Mr. Veale would have the said the same about disease or the diversity of life forms. Throughout history religionists have persistently underestimated the reach of naturalistic explanations. He apparently is not aware that progress is being made in understanding consciousness. That none of this progress in acquiring such understandings have ever been made with the non-scientific methods of religious worship and divine revelation is one-sidedly ignored by Mr. Veale.

The argument he labels as three, but is really number two, begins as: "It is obviously false that theists invoke God to explain every phenomenon." Correct. Atheists are aware of the fact that theists have a tendency to be inconsistently selective in identifying God as the cause of their own good fortune but not their own misfortune. Graham Veale then cites the large amount of effort that theologians have put into debating for centuries the problem of evil. Again, he is correct that many believers have been active and assertive in defending and promoting their beliefs. However, the fact that laziness is not a general trait that characterizes believers does not contribute to refuting the criticism that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explaining phenomena.

Graham Veale finally attempts to address the evidence with the argument he labels as his fourth: "However, if there is some evidence that does not fit neatly with theism, then there is an abundance of evidence which theism can account for." He then cites as two evidences favoring Christianity, or at least theism, "our finely-tuned universe and the living world around us." However, both phenomena are themselves strictly naturalistic. To get to supernaturalism from such naturalistic phenomena, religionists make an intuitive appeal to probability. Mr. Veale states it this way "Each is extremely unlikely to have happened by chance." But is that true? What are the probabilities here?

Given the billion of years, the size of our planet, the amount of energy and water available, the tendency of carbon and other elements to interact to form organic compounds, the ability of some organic molecules to auto-catalyze their own replication, the ability of reproducing organisms to change over time, the tremendous size of our universe, why should the living world around us be deemed too unlikely to have formed this one time? Given that our universe could be residing in a huge multi-verse, ditto for "fine-tuning". Furthermore, cosmologists don't currently know how many different combinations of the possible different values of all of the constants would produce viable universes containing living worlds over the entire multi-variate landscape.

Graham Veale then cites as argument five that if the “God-of-the-Gaps” criticism of theism is taken seriously then atheism becomes unfalsifiable. However, neither theism nor atheism can be decisively falsified, they are both in the same boat here. The question with all such competing beliefs about how the world works is overall weight of the evidence, not proof or falsification in some impossible to achieve sense. Again, humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. We are capable of obtaining, accumulating, and evaluating empirical evidences. We know that this empirical method for justifying our beliefs about how the world works has been uniquely successfull. The criticism that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explanation neither interferes with, nor contradicts, our ability to obtain, accumulate, and evaluate the empirical evidences.

Graham Veale fails to demonstrate that the "goddidit" catch-all is a valid explanation for anything or that arguments for theism based on filling the gaps in our knowledge with a god have any merit.

The real problem with theism

Paul Wallace has a PhD in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University, is a former university professor in physics and astronomy, a former NASA researcher, and is a Christian hospital chaplain, who recently wrote an article that was published in the Huffington Post under the title "The Real Problem With Atheism". Within his article is a concise summary of his argument in the following two sentences: "It [science] wears blinders and refuses to acknowledge whole classes of questions that are important to people everywhere, questions of good and evil, and of human weakness, and of meaning. And it seems that New Atheism, in its wholesale dependence upon science as a philosophy, imports science's blinders -- bound as they are to its optimism -- into its overall worldview." Paul Wallace also claims that atheists do not "take note of", and "roll jauntily past", the poverty-stricken, those desperate for a job, drug addicts, and mothers who just lost a child to social services. So do we all need to be Christians, or at least theists, in order to acknowledge these important classes of questions and address the problems of those among us who are experiencing difficulties?

Atheists appear to be generally competent at recognizing the impacts of behaviors and actions on themselves and others. Atheists appear to be generally competent at distinguishing the positive from negative impacts. Atheists appear to be generally competent at recognizing that people have shortcomings. Atheists appear to be generally competent at finding meaning. Atheists appear to generally participate in, and contribute to, various efforts to reduce poverty, increase employment, treat addictions, and support parents whose children were taken from their custody. Contrary to what Paul Wallace asserts in his article, there is no convincing evidence that atheists are deficient overall, relative to Christians or theists generally, in acknowledging good and evil, human weakness, or meaning, or with assisting others in need.

In addition to the aspersions on the competencies and character of atheists lacking veracity, there is also a problem with Paul Wallace's argument being illogical because his conclusion that Christianity is true doesn't follow from his premises. If we accept his argument that atheists are lacking in those competencies, and in their character, then it still doesn't logically follow that Christianity, any other religion, or theism is true. The bottom line here is always the same, and it cannot be stated too often or be overemphasized. The only way to properly justify Christianity, any other religion, or theism is to show that the empirical evidences overall favor the supernatural world-views of Christianity, any other religion, or theism over the natural worldview of atheism. That many Christians, religionists, and theists either avoid altogether even attempting to make such an argument, as is the case here, or don't come close to succeeding when they do attempt to make such arguments, is the real problem with Christianity, all religions and theism.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tolerance yes, respect no

Illiberal societies identify one religion, or related group of religions, that rule. Liberal societies try to accommodate the multiplicity of mutually exclusive religious doctrines. One approach is an ecumenical accommodation built on a watered down, common denominator, general religion, with a focus on monotheism, or on theism more generally. Some governments establish this ecumenical religion as their civic religion. An assumption of such civic religion is that religious beliefs warrant respect. Some people are influenced to endorse this respect for religion principle by the notions that liberalism requires respecting pluralism and esteeming diversity of beliefs. Other people associate government establishment of ecumenical civic religion with religious toleration and freedom of worship. But is government establishment of ecumenical civic religion really liberal?

Beneath this accommodation there remain unresolved potential sources of conflict. There is the unaltered totality, supremacy, and singular exclusivity that persists in the doctrine of individual religions. Jesus Christ’s declaration is “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Civic religion says that although Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., are not your way and as a result you are to suffer eternal damnation, or whatever the punishment is that the particular religious doctrine dictates infidels are to suffer, you should respect them. Civic religion says a god exists (or multiple gods exist), and that citizens are, or at least should be, monotheists (or theists), regardless of, and contrary to, the weight of the overall available evidence otherwise. These are illiberal expectations.

Such respect, built on self-censorship, fear of disunity, and an incomplete non-sectarianism, is artificial and superficial. There is no good reason to treat religious beliefs any differently from other beliefs, and nothing other than circular reasoning to argue that a nonbeliever should acknowledge any religious doctrine as anything more than just another set of ideas. No religion, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others opt to commit to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, must earn our respect intellectually, and not be awarded our respect uncritically.

There is good reason to proffer mere toleration for beliefs of all sorts. Until we find our way to that truth that is the one way for all (which will probably be atheism), or that coherently permits multiple ways for all (toss in deism), tolerance is the pragmatic common ground for living in peace. But religions do not always keep to themselves. They may sometimes impinge on their neighbors. When they do, we need to consider religious doctrines as we would any other set of ideas or any other argument or claim about the nature of the world. Just like we need to justify our non-religious claims about the nature of the world in empirical evidence, so too with religious claims, particularly when they try to assert relevance over determining our behaviors, defining our self-identities, or setting government policies.

Over the last several weeks we have witnessed the spectacle of Islamists overseas protesting for the U.S. government to arrest some of our citizens for placing a video on the internet that was dubbed to depict the founder of their religion as a scoundrel and then translated into Arabic. Some of the protests turned violent. Most Islamic governments tend towards illiberalism, some censor the internet, some have blasphemy laws. Most of our citizens don't want our government to censor the internet or enact blasphemy laws. Yet there is still an illiberal, unearned respect for religious claims in our government's established civic religion that goes beyond any need to respect freedom of conscience. Government establishment of a civic religion improperly cedes to religious claims automatic respect. We are a liberal society relative to other societies, but our establishments of monotheism are illiberal.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Correcting unconstitutional state constitutions

In 1961, the US Supreme Court ruled in Torcaso v. Watkins that it violates both the first and fourteenth amendment of the US constitution for state governments to require anyone to recite a religious test oath as a condition of government employment. State legislatures modify their constitutions frequently. There were 689 amendments in the period 1994- 2001 alone. Overall, there have been almost 150 state constitutions and they have been amended roughly 12,000 times. Yet more than fifty years after that Supreme Court decision, the text of seven state constitutions (Texas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee) continue to mandate an unenforceable religious test oath as a condition for government employment as they did prior to 1961.

Among the possible justifications for amending a state constitution, ensuring that the state constitution complies with the federal constitution is surely among the best and least controversial. State lawmakers knowingly obligate all the citizens of their state to respect state laws and they themselves are obligated to respect those same laws. These state lawmakers are also citizens of the nation which similarly has lawmakers who also obligate all the citizens of the nation to respect national laws. So when a state constitution clearly flouts federal law, the state lawmakers are obligated to promptly amend their constitution to ensure the state constitution complies with federal law.

Yet the very same Article 37 of the Maryland Constitution that was declared unconstitutional in 1961 is one of the obsolete state laws that remains intact. The Maryland State Legislature could take the first step to cleanse their constitution of its invalid provisions with 3/5 of both houses voting to do so. They should have done this fifty years ago.

The current Maryland Constitution, ratified in 1867, has been amended almost 200 times, most recently in 2010, a rate that is close to one amendment per year. In 1970 an amendment that created the position of Lieutenant Governor of Maryland was approved. In 1972 an amendment created the current legislative districting system. Two amendments were on the 2008 Maryland State Ballot, both were approved. Amendments were also ratified in 1962, 1964, 1966, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2006. Yet in all of this time, no amendment "for the general purpose of removing or correcting constitutional provisions which are obsolete, inaccurate, invalid, unconstitutional", as called for in Article 14 of the Maryland Constitution, has been passed by the Maryland State Legislature to comply with the Torcaso v. Watkins ruling.

So what is going on here? Why are some state governments failing to respect a fifty year old Supreme Court decision? It cannot be because they consider exhibiting respect for national constitutional law to be unnecessary. It cannot be because they consider amending the state constitution too difficult. It isn't because public opinion favors religious test oaths for government office. Many state constitutions that pre-dated the federal constitution were subsequently revised or amended to remove religious test oath provisions.

The seven state governments have not acted because the unconstitutional religious test is for theism, and there is substantial public opinion opposition to fully applying our constitutional law to atheists. In Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court ruled that an oath of office cannot be utilized to restrict government employment only to people who self-identity as theists. But according to Congressional law we are "one nation under God" and "in God we trust" describes the national character. In the minds of many people, equality before the law for all citizens is a divisive principle when all citizens really means all citizens and not just theists. In their minds, atheists may exist, but their existence is an alien anomaly that is to be disregarded. In their minds, some people may say they are atheists, but no one is really an atheist. In their minds, atheism is dangerous, it is a rotten choice, it indicates poor character, and therefore atheists should be fenced off from the rest of community in self-defense. In their minds, many atheists accept their outsider status because even they themselves understand it is justified.

And our lawmakers, instead of respecting the federal constitution first and fourteenth amendment laws, enthusiastically celebrate the federal laws from the 1950's that define citizenship and patriotism as theistic. Lawmakers for at least the past fifty years have defined leadership as being about following the majority, wherever it goes, federal constitution be damned. Secularists shouldn't consent to this situation. We should be challenging both public opinion and our lawmakers because we know that they are wrong. Because we know that the 1961 Supreme Court decision was correct. Because we know that the first and fourteenth amendment express legal principles that are worthy of our respect. Because leadership has to come from somewhere, and leadership can only come from the people who recognize the problem.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Theism is not secularism

Jacques Berlinerblau has written another article that was published with the title Atheists Are Not Secularists, this time his article was published Sept. 9 in Salon (previously it was published in the Huffington Post). It makes similar arguments as before, but with some additional details, and it adds a historical section on Englishman George Jacob Holyoake who coined the term secularism. His first argument is that secularism is being confused with atheism, his second argument is that atheists who criticize religion generally are extremists.

Mr. Berlinerblau begins by complaining that "the equation secularism = atheism ... is increasingly employed in popular usage". He cites the Secular Coalition of America for making this association because it claims to advocate on behalf of "the non-theistic community". Berlinerblau asks "why must so-called secular organizations be focused exclusively on nonbelievers?"

But on closer inspection it turns out that the otherwise diverse groups that "from the 1940s ... mobilized on behalf of secular causes" have an incomplete commitment to secularism and non-establishment of religion. They have focused on protecting minority theistic religious beliefs from majority theistic religious beliefs when the two conflict. Non-theism was, and continues to be, beyond the scope of their otherwise secularist agenda. The result is that the general principle has been compromised. So non-theists did what we had to do to defend the principle of secularism, we formed our own secularist group.

Berlinerblau is adopting a blame the unpopular victim argument here. Instead of holding the secularist movement responsible for dividing secularists by excluding atheists, he wants to hold atheists responsible for dividing the movement by adding their voice to the movement. This division will end with a change in position among the theistic secularists. When the rest of the secularist movement is willing to assert that the theistic national motto, pledge of allegiance, oaths of office, etc. are neither secular nor in compliance with the EC, regardless of poorly justified judicial decisions asserting otherwise, this internal division will wither away.

Berlinerblau complains that "the equation secularism = atheism", an equation which the Secular Coalition of America does not make, "leaves people of faith with little incentive to buy in". The Secular Coalition of America advocates for an inclusive government secularism that all secularists can share. The Secular Coalition of America states on its web site that they "enthusiastically welcome the participation of religious individuals who share our view that freedom of conscience must extend to people of all faiths and of none. Accordingly, our staff works in cooperation with a variety of other organizations and coalitions where common ground exists on specific issues...". If there is any advocacy that the Secular Coalition of America is engaged in which doesn't uphold civic equality for people of faith then Berlinerblau should identify it. That some theists prefer to have no association with atheists may be true, but that fact doesn't impose on atheists any obligation to be content with not having a public voice in civic affairs.

Government secularism is compatible with theists publicly advocating for theism on both religious and secular grounds. Numerous theists do this, and Berlinerblau evidently has no problem with this, nor should he. Similarly, government secularism is compatible with atheists publicly arguing for atheism. Berlinerblau, however, mistakenly thinks that atheists should not criticize "religion in general" and, if they do, they are "catastrophically" promoting a "creed" that is "dangerous", "misguided", and "extremist". As an example of this he cites Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for their statements that people who defend religious faith, despite being well-intentioned, are facilitating religious extremism. Berlinerblau somehow concludes from such statements that they "can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen". Berlinerblau is wrong. They can and they do make this distinction.

It is a distinction between how we justify our beliefs and what beliefs we adopt and how the two are related. If the method deployed for justifying beliefs does not place substantial constraints on which beliefs can be viable, then we will tend to adopt more parochial and arbitrary beliefs. That is the problem with religious faith that the "New Atheists" quoted by Berlinerblau are pointing out. Choosing between religious faiths is too much like choosing between shirt colors, it is too non-empirical to allow for a logically right versus wrong choice. But unlike choosing shirt colors, choosing holy book literalism has implications for civil and human rights. Accordingly, an empirically constrained, evidence first approach to justifying beliefs is arguably a stronger and longer lasting antidote to religious intolerance than is tolerant religion which shares with intolerant religion the same fatally flawed, promiscuous, faith based approach to belief justification.

Which beliefs we adopt is important. For example, beliefs that deny freedom of expression with violence are not equal with beliefs that respect freedom of expression. Atheists who argue that the range of beliefs that are justifiable is related to the belief justification method are being reasonable and are doing nothing wrong. Children are taught to hold a religious belief on the authorities of tribal identity, tradition, holy book, theology, and faith instead of by overall currently available evidences. They are then arguably ill-equipped as adults to dispute religious extremists who cite the same authorities. If Berlinerblau wants to dispute this argument then he should engage the argument. Instead he throws negative adjectives at two people for daring to make this argument, and falsely caricatures their argument.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Lying by Sam Harris

A book advocating for less lying and more honesty, this is a straightforward and accessible summary of the risks of lying and the benefits of being honest. The arguments are interspersed with mini-stories depicting someone lying only to subsequently be exposed, or where the lie interferes with relationships, or prevents people from recognizing and resolving real problems, or undermines our willingness to trust others enough to build well-functioning communities and societies, along with counter-examples depicting someone being truthful in contexts where people are tempted to lie. He argues that truthfulness simplifies our lives since we don't have any need to make an ongoing effort to protect previous lies, an effort which could itself spawn more lies or unravel. He points out that truthfulness can increase one's own influence and improve the odds for better outcomes, and that truthfulness sometimes requires that we take communal level responsibility instead of trying to pass on that responsibility to others or avoid responsibility. Honesty is actually easy, yet it is no less sophisticated and intellectual than the alternative.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Anti-theism and ideology driven metaphysics

In his recent Huffington Post article, Berlinerblau applied the anti-theist label to both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Berlinerblau didn't define the label other than to characterize it as radical and to encourage the reader to consider it to be bad. Was he correct to label them this way?

One definition of anti-theism is: Opposition to the existence of God. Another definition is: The opinion that it would be bad/immoral for such a being to exist. The second anti-theism definition tends to be context sensitive, it is dependent on how the hypothetical god is defined. By contrast, the first anti-theism sounds doctrinaire because it implies an emotional opposition to a particular fixed fact, which is a rather odd way of dealing with such facts. So that definition suggests a somewhat derogatory negative caricature, similar to Berlinerblau's negative caricature of anti-atheism as being synonymous with anti-secularism, and should be rejected accordingly. A third definition is the opinion that theism has a negative influence overall on societies and we would all be better off without such beliefs. Atheism is implicit to this third definition of anti-theism because discarding theism only becomes a logical option after it is deemed false.

Christopher Hitchens represented the second definition of anti-theism. He would argue that a god with particular attributes would be bad/immoral. As for Sam Harris, he is more focused on practical concerns about the negative effect of religious belief on the believers, and less on the hypothetical question of whether it would be bad/immoral if such a being existed. So he arguably fits the anti-theist label under the third definition.

For me the primary issue is not whether or not it would be good or bad and moral or immoral if a god exists. Instead, the primary issue is whether we have better reasons to believe that god(s) exist or do not exist. I dislike ideology driven perspectives. What do I mean by ideology driven perspective and how is it mistaken?

Questions about what is good or bad and what is moral or immoral are separate questions from questions about what exists in the sense that the former questions don't direct or instruct us regarding the proper answer to the latter question. We can answer the important questions regarding what is good or bad and moral or immoral in the context of our understanding of what exists. But we cannot properly address the important question of what exists if we a-priori insist that what exists depends on what is good or bad and what is moral or immoral.

Theists tend to be more ideology driven. They tend to first decide what would be good and moral and then they determine that god exists because god existing would be good and moral. By doing this they assume the role of designer of the universe, interjecting themselves and their own preferences or biases into their description of our universe. They don't give equal consideration to alternative perspectives, such as atheism, that may be better supported by the evidence and thus are more likely to be true, because they prefer to design our universe with a god. Of course, this approach to determining what is true is mistaken. We participate in the universe, but otherwise our universe exists independently of us and our actual role is that of observers.

Some non-religious people are fond of saying that they wished they could be more religious. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and various other "New Atheists" disagree, and they want people to understand why they disagree. So who is right? If religion were removed from human history, would that history look better or worse?

I don't think we know enough to reliably answer questions like this. We can't rewind the clock and run experiments on alternative histories. Comparing religious societies with non-religious societies requires controlling for lots of other variables that could be impacting the results, and there are many different measures of good and bad results. It may be that religion is more a symptom of other problems than a producer of the problems, and it can be difficult to determine the cause and effect direction. It may be that religion contributes both to making things better and worse. It may be that religion's contributions for better or worse differ based on the religion and other contexts such as time and place. It is an interesting question, and people should pursue collecting information to see if they can shed more light on the answer.

But ultimately this isn't so much about whether it is better or worse for humanity to be religious, or whether it would be good or bad for god to be real. This is more about what is true or false, and how we distinguish between what is true and false. The horse pulls the cart, the cart doesn't push the horse. The conviction that god exists is the horse while the impacts of the theism is the cart.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Rebranding possibilities as justified beliefs

Some critics of the anti-accommodationist position assert that anyone who in any way is trying to accommodate a religious audience is an accommodationist. For example, they may cite E.O. Wilson who seeks out religious audiences and tries to accommodate their perspectives when arguing for taking environmental threats seriously. Then the critic of anti-accommodationist may falsely accuse anti-accommodationists of being opposed to reaching out to religionists. But E.O. Wilson is not an accommodationist as anti-accommodationists define the term and anti-accommodationists seek to debate religionists and to reach out to religionists and regularly do so when given the opportunity. Accommodationists are people like Michael Ruse, and Elliott Sober, who actively try to argue that religious beliefs can be properly justified within the framework of a rational approach to understanding how the universe works.

So what is wrong with the attempts of accommodationists to reconcile religious beliefs with a rational approach to understanding how the universe works? Accommodationists rely heavily on the notion that a proper and sufficient standard for belief justification is compatibility with the laws and theories of science. According to accommodationists, if a belief is not directly in conflict with any particular law or theory of science as they appear in textbooks then that belief is properly justified. I call this method a belief first approach for justifying beliefs. It is mistaken.

This belief first approach for justifying beliefs does incorporate a real standard in the sense that it does impose a necessary constraint on which beliefs can be properly justified. The problem, and this is a big problem, is that this constraint is entirely insufficient. It is insufficient because it fails to accomplish the primary goal of properly justified belief, which is this: Reliably distinguish what is true from what is false about how the universe works.

In order to reliably distinguish what is true from what is false, it is necessary to impose some additional constraints. In particular, there is the constraint that we don't spatchcock non-evidence supported beliefs onto our evidence supported conclusions. One reason we apply this additional constraint is that there is an infinite, unlimited, supply of such beliefs. Basically, such beliefs are mere possibilities. And merely proposing a possibility doesn't achieve our primary objective of distinguishing what is true from what is false. Elevating mere possibilities to the status of justified beliefs opens the door to justifying all sorts of ridiculous beliefs, such as believing that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States or professes Islam.

Furthermore, we have every reason to think human imagination derived, human intuition derived, human psychology derived, beliefs are fictions because the evidence is overwhelming that in the context of questions dealing with issues outside of our day to day experience, such as questions concerning the very small and the very large, what we discover to be true via the empirical evidence is consistently outside the scope of anything that anyone previously imagined or intuited. So to allow such spatchcocking is to allow a back-door way to extraneously re-introduce our human imagination derived, human intuition derived, human psychology derived, fictions into our descriptions of how the universe works. This is particularly true when there is no explanatory deficiency in the evidenced based conclusion for the spatchcocked belief to remedy. So, for example, evolutionary theory completely explains the existence of all species of life, so there is no explanatory deficiency that is resolved by spatchcocking an unevidenced god to evolutionary theory. But this is also true even when there is an explanatory deficiency in the evidence supported conclusion. So, for example, we don't know why all of the constants of physics have the values that they do, but we don't actually answer that question by introducing an unevidenced, catch-all belief such as "god did it".

But the accommodationists never tell their target audience that there is anything insufficient or wrong with taking a belief first approach to justifying belief. On the contrary, they actively promote a belief first approach to justifying belief, provided it doesn't contradict any science textbook law or theory. And that is just plain wrong and counter-productive.

Furthermore, are supernatural concepts, such as god, really fully compatible with the laws and theories of science as the accommodationists imply that they are? Maybe a deist god that doesn't intervene in the affairs of our universe can plausibly fit with the available evidence. But who worships a deist god? So far I have asserted only that gods are unevidenced. My writing on this topic would be misleading if I stopped with that assertion. Gods, as commonly understood, including even a deist god, are actually counter-evidenced because the available evidence favors (better fits) the conclusion that we live in an entirely materialistic universe. The accommodationists don't admit this. The argument of atheist accommodationists appears to be grounded at least partly in the fear that being forthright would be counter-productive because some of the theists will refuse to listen to them if they actually fully said what they really think. That is probably true to some extent, but that excuse doesn't overcome accommodationism's fatal flaw.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Anti-theism is not anti-secularism

In his recent article and video titled Secularism Is Not Atheism, published 7/28 in the Huffington Post, Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University argued for the assertion appearing in his article's title. This assertion is correct because the secularism he is referring to is a government neutrality that respects religious liberty and civic equality. He completely ignores secularism as it applies to individuals instead of institutions, presumably because he doesn't want to distract from the focus of his argument. That is OK. He cites no individual theists as anti-secularists or atheists as secularists, but in the article he acknowledges many atheists are secularists. This is also OK. However, Jacques Berlinerblau takes another simplification short-cut that is unfair and indefensible.

He cites a number of famous religious people as examples of secularists and two celebrity atheists as examples of anti-secularists. The problem is with his identification of the two anti-secularist atheists as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and with his effort to associate anti-theism with anti-secularism. The video conflates anti-theism with anti-secularism using camera close-ups of anti-theistic books written by the two atheist authors.

Sam Harris advocates for a benign, non-coercive, intolerance of religion, and he has advocated for pro-active action to thwart religious extremists from carrying out violent actions, but he definitely does not advocate against religious liberty or for government to be intolerant of religion. Christopher Hitchens opposed "the untrammeled free exercise of religion", as do all sensible people, while supporting religious liberty, including free exercise. Both Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are (in the case of Hitchens, "was a") secularists in all usages of that word. Not all secularists agree on where government should draw the lines. Hitchens, for example, disagreed with New York Mayor Bloomberg's acceptance, on free exercise grounds, of removing blood from the penis of circumcised babies with the mouth, as done by a few tiny Jewish sects, that resulted in some babies being infected with herpes. In that instance I agree with Hitchens. Other times I find myself disagreeing with what Harris or Hitchens say. But calling them anti-secularists is not accurate.

The fact is that both theism and anti-theism are equally compatible with government secularism. While Jacques Berlinerblau correctly argues that government secularism should not be equated with atheism (it is usually theists, not atheists, who incorrectly equate the two), he falsely labels two atheist secularists as anti-secularists and falsely equates anti-theism with anti-secularism. He re-enforces this false equation with the final sentence of his article: "Yet as long as some celebrities of nonbelief continue to espouse radical anti-theism (in the name of "secularism," no less) the future of secularism is imperiled." Shame on Jacques Berlinerblau for this double standard hypocrisy.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Compelled to atheism

Every week there are press releases covering recent research results that undermine one or more arguments made by theists for a god. To illustrate this I will summarize three research results reported within the past three days and cite the arguments for god that they counter.

The argument from consciousness takes the nature of mentality as evidence for God’s existence. The key idea in the argument from consciousness is that mental events are something over and above physical events. This past week scientists from the Max Planck Institutes of Psychiatry in Munich and for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and from Charité in Berlin reported completing a study that provides more evidence that consciousness is realized through physical activity in particular areas of material brains.

They studied people who are aware that they are dreaming while being in a dream state, and are also able to deliberately control their dreams. Such lucid dreamers have access to their memories during lucid dreaming, can perform actions and are aware of themselves – although remaining unmistakably in a dream state and not waking up. Magnetic resonance tomography was utilized to demonstrate that a specific cortical network consisting of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the frontopolar regions and the precuneus is activated when this lucid consciousness is attained. The first two brain regions are responsible for evaluating our own thoughts and feelings. The precuneus is a part of the brain that has long been linked with self-perception. These findings thus confirm earlier studies in identifying these specific neural networks as seats of consciousness.

An argument from design says that the many species of life could not have arisen by chance and therefore must have been created in their current forms by God. Researchers, led by a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, developed a method to search the vast archives of known gene sequences to identify and compare similar proteins across the many kingdoms of life to see if they physically evolved from a common, material ancestor. They concentrated their efforts on proteins that are found on the surface of cell components called ribosomes. The ribosomal proteins are among the most accurately identified proteins, and because they are not transferred between individuals independent of reproduction, are good candidates for tracing the evolution of species.

Four proteins, named S9, S12, S13, and S19 have been studied by the team. They tapped into gene banks containing more than 600,000 genes from the genomes of more than 6,000 species. Utilizing an efficient method to search through the gene banks, they looked for all copies of the same family of protein. Analyses of the data points to Actinobacteria as the last universal common ancestor among those species included in this study.

An argument from biological complexity says that proteins are made only of left-handed amino-acids, but naturally occurring amino-acids are 50% right-handed, so a god is needed to build the proteins from only the left-handed amino-acids. Life can't function with a mix of left- and right-handed amino acids because a mix of both in proteins would produce different protein shapes for each different combination of amino-acid orientations. Researchers analyzing meteorite fragments that fell on a frozen lake in Canada reported this week that they found evidence for an entirely materialistic explanation for the origin of life's left-handedness. The meteoroid pieces were collected within days of landing on earth and kept preserved in their frozen state.

The meteor has four times as many left-handed versions of aspartic acid as the opposite hand and just eight percent more left-handed alanine. Both amino-acids are found in the proteins found in life. The team confirmed that the amino acids were probably created in space using isotope analysis. The large left-hand excess in aspartic acid but not in alanine gave the team a critical clue. Aspartic acid has a shape that lets them fit together in a pure crystal composed of just left-handed or right-handed molecules. Alanine has a shape that prefers to join together with their mirror image to make a crystal, so these crystals are composed of equal numbers of left- and right-handed molecules. A process of crystallization and dissolution from a saturated solution with liquid water would amplify any initial handedness imbalance in amino-acids that crystallize like aspartic acid. Polarized ultraviolet light or other types of radiation from nearby stars might favor the initial creation of left-handed amino acids or the destruction of right-handed ones. This imbalance then gets amplified via repeated crystallization and dissolution with some handedness conversion taking place during this process. Left-handed amino acids may then have been incorporated into emerging life due to their greater abundance.

People who are committed to responsibly and properly justifying their beliefs need to spend the time required to learn about the ongoing accumulations of evidences and then allow the evidences to direct their beliefs. It is my conviction that when we do this honestly we are compelled to draw the conclusions that the universe is entirely materialistic, and that religions, and gods, are imaginary, human created fictions.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Churches are private property

Many of the people who advocate for current edition church bulletin discounts at retail stores incorrectly claim that such discounts discriminate against no one because anyone can stop by a local church and obtain a church bulletin. While it may sometimes be possible for someone to fetch a church bulletin from a church, it should be obvious that a mere possibility for someone to obtain a current church bulletin is not sufficient to make such discounts non-discriminatory. There is no legal enforcement mechanism to ensure that anyone can always fetch a church bulletin published by any particular church. A church is private property. No church can be legally compelled to print more bulletins than there are church members, let alone to print enough bulletins for the entire town and make their bulletins available to the general public. A church could promise in a statement made in court or in public to make its bulletin available to the general public and then immediately renege on that promise with no legal consequences. Statements from churches that their bulletins are available to the general public are empty and misleading posturing because they are unenforceable.

Church bulletin discounts are attractive to small business owners because they cost less than paying for advertisements and because the income loss risk to the retailer is lower than for a discount offered unconditionally to all customers. Businesses that want to offer discounts for church bulletins arguably can do so legally provided that they publicly extend the discount generally to published current edition periodicals representing any perspective regarding religions, including religion belief dissenter groups such as secular humanism and atheism. However, even that is dubious because it assumes an active interest related to this particular topic, thereby discriminating against those without such an active interest. It is better to offer discounts to all customers, including those who do not subscribe to any religion belief topic related periodical. It is also OK for retailers to pay for coupons in church bulletins provided that this is done simultaneously with placing the same coupons in locally available publications that do not endorse particular religion related beliefs. Giving discounts exclusively to customers who present church bulletins, or a coupon that is only available from church bulletins, is religion based price discrimination and therefore is illegal.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Separation of unrelated questions

The question of whether or not gods are all fictions, and more generally whether or not disembodied minds and disembodied willful agents, or super- capable willful agents operating on our universe from outside our universe, and attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, etc. are all fictions, can only be confronted properly if it is divorced from unrelated questions. Although this concept of addressing unrelated questions separately is easy to grasp, in practice some people insist on bundling unrelated questions. This is particularly true in contexts such as this where, even though the questions are unrelated, the preferred answers conflict.

A good illustration of this mistaken mixing of unrelated questions having conflicting answers can be found in the Discovery Institute, which asserts "The mission of Discovery Institute is to advance a culture of purpose, creativity and innovation." By focusing on trying to change, or deny, the conclusions of scientific inquiry, especially biological evolution, to support their vision of propagandizing for positive cultural values with religion, they are insisting on bundling questions about how the universe works together with unrelated questions of how to perpetuate and promote the religious beliefs that claim to provide people with their life's proper purpose. Since the latter goal is to some extent based on presuppositions that conflict with the former goal they are, in effect, working to square a circle.

Logically, answers to questions about how the world works must take priority over questions dealing with human purposes, motives, and the like when we are justifying our beliefs. The reason is simple. Our beliefs are our understandings of how the world works. When our beliefs are built instead for the different purpose of justifying our own motivations we undermine the integrity of our beliefs. Our beliefs cannot simultaneously serve this other function without sacrificing their primary function. The Discovery Institute is making exactly this basic logical mistake by giving equal or higher priority to human centered goals of religious beliefs, a.k.a. "purpose" or "culture", in the unrelated context of the different goal of understanding how the world works.

The question of atheism versus theism addresses this broader issue of how the world works and as such is distinct from the narrower and different questions about human emotions, incentives, purpose, morality, popularity, politics, and the like. Few theists seem to recognize or acknowledge this. For many theists, these unrelated questions addressing different domains merge and become confused and entangled with each other. It is wrong to justify a belief about how the world works by measuring that belief's conformance to pre-existing stories intended to provide individuals with particular sets of motivations and incentives, no matter how desirable those motivations or incentives may be. Our universe isn't about human motives and incentives, let alone about the contents of any particular sectarian books or myths. Questions about human motives and incentives are important questions about us. But questions about how the world works, including the question of atheism versus theism, are not questions about us, and are unlikely to be answered correctly when the focus is misdirected to us.

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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Naturalism has defeated supernaturalism

There are at least two possible general approaches to obtain knowledge about how the world works. One way is methodological supernaturalism, another way is methodological naturalism. An example of the former is divine revelation. An example of the latter is matching empirical observation to a logical model by using the model to make predictions and verifying the predictions with reproducible experiments.

It is commonly claimed that science is intrinsically, and therefore a-priori and by definition, dependent on methodological naturalism. As will be shown here, this is false. This false assertion that methodological naturalism is intrinsic to science should not be confused with the similarly common and false claim that science can say nothing about whether the universe is naturalistic or supernaturalistic. Nevertheless, both falsehoods are logically related to each other and most people who assert one of these two falsehoods also asserts the other falsehood.

The fact that methodological naturalism is not intrinsic to science should also not be confused with the claim that methodological supernaturalism is a proper way of obtaining knowledge. This is because methodological supernaturalism is unproductive. Methodological supernaturalism has simply failed to produce any knowledge whatsoever and therefore has been universally abandoned by all knowledge dependent vocations and avocations for being a complete failure. Not just scientists, but everyone employed in any knowledge dependent vocation or avocation relies exclusively on methodological naturalism for obtaining that knowledge because methodological naturalism is the only method for obtaining knowledge that is productive.

Even though in practice it is the case that the universe that we were born into relies exclusively on methodological naturalism for acquiring knowledge about how the university's works, in theory it could have been otherwise. We could have been born into a different universe where the best way, or maybe even the only way, to obtain knowledge about how the universe worked was methodological supernaturalism. In this mirror image universe, all people engaged in knowledge based vocations and avocations would obtain knowledge through divine revelation by worshipping a deity, or deities, and closely following the rituals, rules, practices, beliefs, behaviors, etc. dictated by the deity or deities.

A universe where methodological supernaturalism prevails is the universe that the authors of the Tanakh, Bible, and Quran were convinced they lived in. It is the universe where uneducated and mostly illiterate people intuitively imagined themselves to be living for thousands of years. In those days, the knowledge that was considered most important was to know the future and what displeased and pleased god. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel were said to have received divine revelations about God's current opinion of, and the future of, God's chosen people. The Christian bible added more prophets such as John the Baptist. Psalm 119:66 appeals to God to "Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments." “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” is the instruction of Proverbs 1:7. Furthermore, 1 Timothy 6:20-21 indicates divine revelation that supports biblical based religious belief is the only source of knowledge: "Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith”. According to the Quran, all prophets through history, starting with Adam, have consistently preached the same main belief of worshiping Allah, and Muhammed is the final prophet.

If we lived in that mirror image, alternative universe, where knowledge was obtained by divine revelation, then we should all be theists. This is why it is important to understand and appreciate that all knowledge based vocations, and avocations, pragmatically rely exclusively on methodological naturalism provisionally because this method alone works, and not because of some a-priori, ideological bias or logical requirement. Furthermore, for the same reason that the success of methodological supernaturalism would constitute strong empirical justification for theism in a mirror image, imaginary, alternative universe, the exclusive success of methodological naturalism in the real universe that we inhabit is strong empirical justification for atheism. Given the universe we are all born into, we should all be atheists.

The close logical connection between methodological naturalism's monopoly for obtaining knowledge and philosophical naturalism is understandably awkward for those who, regardless of the evidence, are pre-committed to theism. This could explain why we so often hear this falsehood that methodological naturalism is intrinsic to science. If methodological naturalism was intrinsic to science, if methodological naturalism was a-priori a logical necessity, then methodological and philosophical naturalism can be declared to be logically separate and unrelated. But again, this is not true. The truth is that the strong success of methodological naturalism relative to methodological supernaturalism over the previous several hundred years is the primary reason methodological supernaturalism is rejected by scientists. Add to this the consistently naturalistic explanations we have acquired over this time that reliably answer so many questions and the supernatural worldview reflected in the holy books becomes archaic. It is long past time for people to recognize those books are fictional.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?

The notion that supernatural phenomena are fundamentally beyond the scope of scientific examination is promoted by prominent scientific institutions, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The court ruling in the United States against the teaching of "Intelligent Design" (ID) as an alternative to evolution in biology classes (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District; Jones, 2005) was partially justified on the grounds that claims involving supernatural phenomena are outside the proper domain of scientific investigation.

A few other examples of this commonly asserted denial that science has anything to say about supernatural claims follow.

The booklet "Science, Evolution, and Creationism" from the National Academies Press says this:

Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

A statement by the National Science Teachers Association:

Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. . . as noted in the National Science Education Standards, “Explanations on how the natural world changed based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.”

A statement by the National Association of Biology Teachers:

Explanations employing nonnaturalistic or supernatural events, whether or not explicit reference is made to a supernatural being, are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum. Evolutionary theory, indeed all of science, is necessarily silent on religion and neither refutes nor supports the existence of a deity or deities.

They are all mistaken. Science does not presuppose Naturalism and supernatural claims are amenable in principle to scientific evaluation. Here is an article on this topic by Yonatan I. Fishman, published in 2007 in the Science & Education, titled Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? His article explains that "whether the entities or phenomena posited by claim X are defined as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ is irrelevant to the scientific status of the claim. If the fundamental aim of science is the pursuit of truth - to uncover, to the extent that humans are capable, the nature of reality - then science should go wherever the evidence leads. If the evidence were to strongly suggest the existence of supernatural phenomena, then so be it."

Yonatan Fishman concludes thusly: "Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large." I recommend this article.

Why do so many groups and individuals, including institutions that advocate on behalf of educators and scientists, mistakenly deny that our modern knowledge can be biased (and in fact is biased) vis-a-vis various theisms? We can assume they are issuing these denials out of fear of offending religious people. These false assertions are counter-productive because they attack and undermine the very goal of critical thinking that these same institutions claim to be defending. This counter-productive appeasement of religious beliefs at the expense of truth by institutions representing educators and scientists needs to stop. When speaking the truth is inconvenient because the audience is intolerant or otherwise prejudiced against the truth, there is always the option of keeping silent. How about more silence here?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Petition Catholics to drop blasphemy complaints

Sanal Edamaruku is the founder-president of Rationalist International. He is also the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. He is the editor of the internet publication Rationalist International, and author of 25 books and numerous articles. He is a regular TV commentator on various Indian TV channels on superstitions and blind belief and is a major voice in defense of reason and scientific temper in India. He has spent 30 years debunking miracles and exposing fraudulent faith healers. Earlier this year he was charged with blasphemy for debunking a claimed miracle at a local Catholic Church.

A statue of Jesus on a crucifix was dripping water from the toes. Hundreds of people came every day, some from far away, to pray and collect some of the “holy water” in bottles and vessels. A TV channel invited Mr. Edamaruku to investigate the “miracle” that caused local excitement. He went with the TV team to inspect the crucifix in front of the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni. Within half an hour, he identified the source of the water (a leaking water pipe) and the mechanism for the water traveling to the statue feet (capillary action).

In March, a group called the Catholic Secular Forum filed a complaint against Mr. Edamaruku with the police in Mumbai, and two other groups, the Association of Concerned Catholics and Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum also filed complaints at other police stations. The Catholic Bishop of Mumbai called on Mr. Edamaruku to apologize for “hurting” the Catholic community by questioning the motives and sincerity of church authorities who allegedly encouraged people to believe there was a miracle occurring.

Because Mr. Edamaruku can be arrested at anytime (he was instructed by police to turn himself in for arrest), and because he was recently denied "anticipatory bail" (he could spend years in jail waiting for his trial), he was compelled to flee India.

If you have not done so yet, please consider signing the petition appealing to the Catholic authorities in Mumbai, particularly the Archbishop and Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai, and the Vatican and the global Catholic community to clarify their Church's position on the attempts to silence Mr Edamaruku's criticisms through legal channels, and to use their influence with local Catholics to encourage them to publicly withdraw their complaints.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ideological dependency and misunderstanding

It was common for theists to be convinced that there are no atheists in foxholes even during the height of the Cold War when the enemies of freedom and democracy actively and aggressively fought with guns from hideouts in forested mountains on behalf of an anti-capitalist and godless, militant, totalitarian ideology. The contradiction should be obvious, how can atheists with guns be battling and overthrowing governments around the world when there are no atheists in foxholes? Yet even today many people seem to think, despite the lost Vietnam war, despite Communist victories in Cuba, China, Nicaragua, etc., that there are no atheists in foxholes. This suggests that there is a psychological mechanism at play here that overrides the evidence to the contrary. It turns out that the same psychological mechanism that helps convince people that there are no atheists in foxholes also helps to convince some of those same people that only their particular religion is true.

University of Missouri psychologist Kenneth Vail III and colleagues recruited 26 Christians, 28 atheists, 40 Muslims and 28 agnostics to study how religious individuals tend to believe so strongly in their own religion’s gods yet deny the gods of competing religions. Each participant was tasked with writing either a brief essay about how they felt about their own death or a "religiously neutral" topic, such as loneliness or how to cope when plans go awry. After a brief verbal task to distract the participants from the true purpose of the study, they filled out questionnaires about their religious beliefs, including their faith in the Christian God or Jesus, Buddha and Allah.

When Christians thought of death, they became firmer in their religious beliefs and less accepting of Allah and Buddha. Likewise for Muslims, who became more committed to Allah and less accepting of Buddha or the Christian God. Agnostics became more likely to believe in any deity, whether the Christian version, Allah or Buddha.

This explains why theists, including theistic leaning agnostics, so readily accept the counter-evidenced claim that there are no atheists in foxholes. They are projecting their own religiously motivated psychology onto atheists. However, that projection is a mistake because atheists lack this ideological dependency common to theists. Atheists showed none of the responses to thoughts of death that the theists and agnostics did. In the words of the researchers, "atheists do not rely on religion when confronted with the awareness of death."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Adults under 30 have more doubt

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released the results of the latest Pew Values Study survey. Compared to 1987, fewer citizens of the United States of America think books that contain "dangerous ideas" should be banned from public school libraries. Fewer people think that school boards should be able to fire teachers who are homosexual. Fewer people claim to have "old fashioned values" about family and marriage. The poll results in the "religion, social values" section have otherwise not changed much, with one exception.

In 2007 81% of people who were 18-29 years old said they never doubt the existence of God. The numbers that year were 87% for people 65 and older, 83% for people 50-64, 84% for people 30-49. Those numbers subsequently diverged as more people under 30 admitted to sometimes having doubts. The percentage went down to 76% in 2009 and 67% in 2012, increasing the sometimes doubting count from 19% to 33% over 5 years. Meanwhile, over 80% of people 30 or older continue to say they never have doubt.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Fictional absolute nothing and theology

David Albert, in addition to being a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, has a doctorate in physics from Rockefeller University. So it was appropriate for him to be selected by the NY Times to review Lawrence Krauss' book "A Universe From Nothing". In his critical review, David Albert correctly points out that the definition of nothing favored by theologists and some philosophers as a perfect nothingness does not exactly match the concept of nothing described by Lawrence Krauss. For David Albert, Lawrence Krauss' up-front refusal to adopt the theological/philosophical definition of the concept of nothing as absolute and total is a fatal flaw in Lawrence Krauss' argument. David Albert, depite his multiple doctorates, is wrong about this, and it is important to understand why.

It is often true that something is either absolutely and totally present or absent. Furthermore, we can generalize from the fact that there can be more, or less, of something, to the concepts of total nothing and allthing. There is no word in English that is the opposite of nothing, so I am making up this word "allthing". We go from less and less of something until we have a complete absence of something, and we go from more and more of something until we have a total presence of something. Similarly, we can imagine a complete cold and a complete hot, a complete dark and a complete light, etc. There are many phenomena that can be measured on a line of less and more, and we can generalize from the concept of less and more to the concepts of complete presence and absence of that phenomena. That is clearly what David Albert and theologians are doing when they imagine their concept of total nothing.

But David Albert and theologians are not stopping with imagining total nothing, they are also insisting that this imagined concept is a fact and that total nothing is the initial condition. After all, if those theological/philosophical concepts of total nothing and allthing are fictions then clearly Lawrence Krauss is doing nothing wrong by excluding those fictions from his efforts to describe how our universe works. So why does David Albert insist that the theological/philosophical concept of total nothing is factual? Does David Albert also insist that total darkness and total light are factual conditions? Total cold and total heat? We can imagine many things this way that are fictions. Where is the empirical evidence for this total nothing that justifies this assumption that it is a fact?

The bottom line is this: When it comes to determining what is true and false about how the world works, empirical evidence trumps everything else. Human intuition and imagination are not up to the task. So when philosophers and theologians place their intuition first, as they are doing when they insist a-priori that there is a starting point of total nothing, they are making a fundamental mistake. They are, in effect, putting the cart of human ideology/psychology ahead of the horse of evidence. In contrast, Lawrence Krauss takes the better approach here. Lawrence Krauss is simply pursuing the evidence and allowing the evidence to dictate the conclusions on a best fit basis.

David Albert also points out, again correctly, that our understanding of how the universe works is substantially incomplete, as Lawrence Krauss acknowledges in his book. Thus, we don't know why the forces of gravity and dark energy are as weak as they are. Similarly, Lawrence Krauss cannot demonstrate that his underlying assumption that quantum mechanics characterizes at least some of the multiverse beyond our universe is correct. But it is still reasonable, on a best fit with available evidence basis, to assume that the quantum mechanical and general relativity properties of our universe are also properties found elsewhere in the multiverse. If David Albert and theologians are going to dismiss that assumption in favor of the less plausible assumption that our universe is unlike the rest of the multiverse for being quantum mechanical, then they need better reasons for their preferred assumption than that we lack proof either way.

Monday, May 28, 2012

From nothing to something to nothing

Why is the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun and the distance from Earth to Mars between 34 and 250 million miles? Questions like these, that seek the underlying purpose, are the sort of questions that theology falsely claims to answer. Such questions assume that there is a purpose behind everything and then assume that we can discern that purpose. But this flies in the face of all of the empirical evidence that there is no such purpose associated with everything and that, in any case, we have no way to discern any such purpose.

And so it is also with one of the favorite question of theists: Why is there something rather than nothing? There is no human focused, purpose based, explanation since humans are not the goal, and purpose is not the essential, or foundational, property of reality. So as long theists keep falsely insisting, a-priori, and contrary to the evidence we have, that the only "satisfactory" answers to the "why" questions must provide ultimate purpose from a human-centric perspective, they will continue to give priority to their own make-believe version of reality over the evidence.

We can fruitfully address the related "how" questions, such as what physical processes led to the Earth ending up in its present position. Most of theology, with it's insistence on finding the imaginary holy grail of the ultimate purpose, is non-productive. Unlike science, theology never has produced, and we have every reason to think cannot, and therefore never will produce, any knowledge.

Lawrence M. Krauss, in his new book, "A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing", advocates for the productive, empirical evidence first, skepticism based approach of science to resolve the mysteries of origins. He summarizes what we know, including what we know we don't know, about the origin of our universe, and he also discusses the possibility that there are mysteries about origins that we will never be able answer.

There is no way around the fact that the laws of physics are counter-intuitive and can only be understood by people who spend years learning the mathematics and studying the subject. So, for example, it turns out that empty space has gravitationally repulsive energy "... because it causes empty space to have "negative" pressure. As a result of this negative pressure, the universe actually does work on empty space as it expands". The end result is an initial period of inflation, after which "... one ends up with a universe full of stuff (matter and radiation), and the total Newtonian gravitational energy of that stuff will be as close as one can ever imagine to zero". Starting with "an infinitesimally small region of empty space" with a vacuum energy, we end up with an arbitrarily large and flat universe, without costing any energy. Our best measurements of our universe's curvature favor the conclusion that our universe is flat, exactly as predicated for a universe born from a tiny empty space.

The book has 11 chapters plus an epilogue. In chapter 9 he states: "Just as Darwin, albeit reluctantly, removed the need for divine intervention in the evolution of the modern world, teeming with diverse life throughout the planet ..., our current understanding of the universe, it's past, and it's future make it more plausible that "something" can arise out of nothing without the need for any divine guidance." But so far we have assumed a starting point of an infinitesimally tiny empty space. Where did that tiny empty space come from?

It turns out that everything happens that is not forbidden by the laws of physics. And according to the laws of physics, nothingness is an unstable condition, nothing always produces something. Not only can nothing become something, it is required to, but in a way that balances negative and positive energy so that they sum to zero.

At this point we encounter several of the big unresolved mysteries of cosmology. One question is what generated the asymmetry between matter and anti-matter? Dr. Krauss emphasizes that "independent of this uncertainty [regarding how our universe became dominated by matter], however, is the remarkable fact that a feature of the underlying laws of physics can allow quantum process to drive the universe away from a featureless state".

Another unresolved question is whether or not "small, possibly compact spaces ... themselves pop in and out existence?" And here Dr. Krauss follows the general principle that anything "not proscribed by the laws of physics must actually happen...". Citing Stephen Hawking, Dr. Krauss says "a quantum theory of gravity [which we currently do not have] allows for the creation, albeit perhaps momentarily, of space itself where none existed before." Furthermore, "a compact universe with zero total energy" could spontaneously appear and remain for a long time, without violating the Uncertainty Principle (a basic principle of quantum mechanics).

This suggests that our universe not only has total Newtonian gravitational energy of zero, and is therefore geometrically flat, but also has total energy, including the mass energy (e=mc2), of zero, and therefore our universe was initially geometrically closed. In other words, an initially tiny, closed universe can pop into existence, rapidly and exponentially expand (inflate) into an infinitely large flat universe, spontaneously, with impunity, carrying no net energy.

It is said that "out of nothing nothing comes". This has no foundation in science. Instead, the laws of physics imply there is a multiverse, with the other universes existing either in extra dimensions or in a context of eternal inflation within three dimensional space [the existence of extra dimensions is another unresolved question of cosmology]. The laws of nature in each universe may be set stochastically and randomly. It is even possible that there is no fundamental theory. It could be that "there is something simply because, if there was nothing, we wouldn't find ourselves living here." The question why is there something rather than nothing "... may be no more significant or profound than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue."

It may be that in the multiverse there are an infinite set of different laws of nature, or there may be a very restricted combination of laws that results in viable universes. Lawrence Krauss has clearly given considerable thought to the subject of origins, and he makes winning and important arguments on behalf of the conclusion in his epilogue that "I find oddly satisfying the conclusion that, in either scenario [infinite or restricted set of laws of nature], a seemingly omnipotent God would have no freedom in the creation of our universe. No doubt because it further suggests that God is unnecessary - or at best redundant."

This book received a strongly negative review in the NY Times. Having read the book, I can say that that negative book review was unfair. This is a very good book.