Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why gravity is real but god is not

Christian Platt, in his recent article "Atheism: A Null Hypothesis on God", admits that "I have tried in vain over the years to understand atheism.". He then goes on to make various analogies for acquiring knowledge of various phenomena empirically, such as our seeing things from reflected light, and our verifying gravity by its effects, with his claims of witnessing god by god's reflections and effects. He, and other people like him, will continue to have difficulty understanding atheism because he is not understanding the difference between arguments based on empirical evidence and his arguments for god. This distinction is not difficult to grasp, and after understanding this distinction, he may come closer to his positive goal of "getting" atheism.

But first, lets dispell the unbalanced notion, which Christian Platt mistakenly promotes, that agnosticism is consistent with Christian theism but inconsistent with atheism. He appears to confuse uncertainity that god exists with faith that god exists, and since atheists don't have faith that god exists he concludes atheists are not agnostic. But all agnostics do not have faith that god exists. Not having perfect and direct knowledge that something exists does not equate with faith that it does exist.

Christian Platt is correct that everyone should be agnostic because humans are not omniscient. But he is incorrect to say that atheism precludes agnosticism. Richard Dawkins, for example, has acknowledged that he has such uncertainty. All atheists who are thoughtful acknowledge agnosticism. He also claims that atheism 'implies the same kind of certitude that a religious fundamentalist might claim is arguing they "know without any doubt that God exists."'. Some atheists may say that, but in my experience most atheists either say they don't believe and stop there, or say they believe there is no god, instead of saying they "know without any doubt". This notion of disbelief isn't difficult, and there is no good reason for intelligent people to have difficulty with this concept of disbelief in the singular context of god belief when everyone disbelieves lots of things. The real issue here isn't whether someone has any particular conviction, nor whether that conviction is definite or indefinite, nor whether the conviction is in the middle, or towards one end, of a true versus false spectrum line. The real issue is whether the belief, or disbelief, is well justified and held in proper proportion to the evidence.

Christian Platt then approvingly quotes John D. Caputo for his argument that God belief "insists, so that the rest of creation might exist.". This sounds like an argument that the universe must have a creator. That is a dubious assumption. For example, insects exist, but they do not have a creator. Insects exist because of abiogenesis and evolution. Some cosmologists think that the universe was spontaneously created, or self-created, and most cosmologists think that a self created or spontaneously created universe is consistent with all of the known laws of physics. While the notion of a creator is intuitive, we know from the very long list of non-intuitive and counter-intuitive conclusions found within modern knowledge, that intuition is not a good guide to, let alone a good source of, knowledge.

Christian Platt then declares: 'God is the impetus, the spark, the divine breath, the "inspiration," if you will from which all the rest of creation finds meaning.' I think this is silly, and I will try to explain why. Meaning is found in our experiencing and living our lives. Merely declaring otherwise does not constitute a justification for claiming otherwise, let alone constitute a compelling argument for a god. The notion of creation finding meaning makes no sense. There is no meaning to be had outside the context of minds capable of contemplating the concept, and all such minds that are known to exist reside in physical brains that are attached to physical bodies of animals. Saying that "creation finds" a concept or sentiment, such as meaning, is a category error. This is poetic language, but evidence and argument is not found in poetry. If it were then we would go to poets instead of medical doctors for our annual medical health checks.

Christian Platt then argues that God is found "conspiring with the physical world to create something that makes sense." Here is where he indulges the flawed analogy with seeing an object indirectly as "the result of the interaction between the light and the observed object.". Light is a physical entity that is measurable, it has amplitude and wavelength, it is empirically observed and evidenced. This is very different from the assertion about the vague concepts "something that makes sense" and "conspiring". This analogy doesn't work at all, since the foundation of our knowledge in the second case is precisely the empirical evidence that is completely absent in the first case.

Christian Platt then tries to argue that empirical evidence is not necessary because in the past we didn't know about atomic particles, or dark matter. He appears to be confusing what we know, a.k.a. ontology, with how we know, a.k.a. epistemology. It would be nice if we could just eliminate the effort and time needed to acquire knowledge and magically skip to having knowledge through some unspecified direct mechanism to this particular truth claim (god). However, such magical and instant capability to directly possess knowledge has not demonstrated much success as a non-empirical, alternative method for acquiring knowledge. There is a time sequence constraint here that applies to everyone. Time travels in a single direction from past to present to future. Before we can have knowledge about what is true we must first obtain the evidence to justify the conclusion that it is true. The latter achievement precedes the former achievement in time, we cannot properly leap directly to a conclusion without the evidence needed to justify the conclusion.

Christian Platt cites gravity a second time, saying it 'cannot be directly observed: only measured as it affects other objects. It's not a "thing" that can be pinned down.'. Gravity is due to curvature in space-time, and space-time curvature is a thing that can be, and is, predicted and indirectly measured. It is true that all empirical measurements and observations and knowledge can be said to be indirectly acquired. But the critical and essential attribute of evidence is that it is repeatedly measureable and observable, attributes that are entirely missing from poetic "evidences", if we can call them that, for god. Even if it is true that everything that is empirically evidenced is evidenced indirectly, it doesn't follow that everything that is argued for indirectly is therefore also properly evidenced.

Christian Platt then asserts "to say that even science is entirely constrained by the scientific method is to ignore the creative imagination required to stretch the boundaries, to imagine what might be, beyond what is now understood to be. It's this kind of imagination that pushes humanity to create new tools that have allowed us to observe things we never knew existed before.". The notion that atheists define the scientific method so narrowly as to preclude a role for imagination is false. Imagination, when married with empiricism, can be an important contributor to getting productive ideas. But imagination is no substitute for grounding existence claims in empirical evidence. Undiscplined imagination unfettered by empiricism has been a path to much fictional fantasy falsely claiming to be knowledge. There is excellent reason to think that imagination by itself is a source of fiction only.

Christian Platt then argues "making room for those possibilities, seem, to me, to be at the heart of science as much as the rigorous processes defined by the scientific method.". If by "those possibilities" he means all of the possibilities that have no empirical support then the fact is that the scientific method does not endorse, and cannot arbitrarily endorse, any such possibilities. But the issue here is not "scientific method". The issue is the need for empirical evidence in support of existence claims to justify the corresponding existence beliefs.

The article concludes with this comment: "However, to leap from that to certitude of God's non-existence is to violate the principles of the scientific method, isn't it?". Explicit atheism is not a conclusion of science. It is a belief based on an assessment that the overall direction and weight of the available evidence favors the conclusion that there are no non-material actors with non-material super intelligent minds that created the universe or that take some special interest in humans or that intervene, monitor, or oversee human affairs on earth, nor that humans continue to live forever as material or non-material entities after they die under circumstances dictated by such a god, nor anything of this sort. Instead, the available evidences best fits the conclusion that all god stories are human created fictions that have no relationship to anything that is true.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The incomprehensible, everything good, god

When I wrote, in my previous post, that theists argue for irreducible complexity in biology as evidence for god, I was not (of course) referring to all theists. So what about a god that is not to be found in biology, chemistry, or physics? Victor Udoewa, in his recent Huffington article titled "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?", wrote "it is clear that science may make belief in a certain concept of God obsolete. But it is a hard task to make belief in every concept of God obsolete." Seeking funding from The Templeton Foundation to promote his timeless and undefeatable version of theism, he asks: "What if there were concepts of God that had something to offer or add to the fulfilled? What if we had concepts of God based on creativity? On a positive definition of incomprehensible peace? On imaginative joy? On creative, problem-solving love?"

The god that is creativity, peace, joy, imagination, love, and other such general and positive capabilities, outcomes, feelings, and sentiments is a favorite gambit of liberal theists. Its strength is its weakness, in equal measure. There can be no evidence against this god nor can there be any evidence for this god. This god is claimed to be real but is defined as a fantasy. And that is why no one has any proper justification to believe in this god. Evidence is the proper foundation to justify beliefs about what is true or false regarding the reality of entities that are to be worshipped or otherwise asserted to really exist. Conservatives want evidence, but they don't respect evidence that contradicts their theism, so they tend to manufacture their own, alternative world "evidence". Liberals want to follow the real evidence, but they don't want the evidence to contradict their theism, so they tend to place their cherished theism out of harms way by defining their god to be beyond the reach of any possible evidence. Either way, it's the same failure, they are both failing to put the evidence first and follow it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

V-ATPase proton pump and biological complexity

Vacuolar-type H+-ATPase (V-ATPase) is a highly conserved evolutionarily ancient enzyme. A proton pump is an integral membrane protein that is capable of moving protons across a cell membrane, mitochondrion, or other organelle. The V-ATPase proton pump helps maintain the proper acidity of compartments within the cell. The pump has a ring that is made up of a total of six copies of two different proteins, but in fungi a third type of protein has been incorporated into the complex. There are many molecular machines like this in cells. Theists assert that these molecular machines are irreducibly complex and therefore must have been created by a god (a.k.a. Intelligent Designer). How could a ring that consists of three different proteins be created without an Intelligent Designer?

A team of scientists from the University of Chicago and the University of Oregon worked out an answer: "It's counterintuitive but simple: complexity increased because protein functions were lost, not gained," The lead author of the study, Dr. Thornton said. "Just as in society, complexity increases when individuals and institutions forget how to be generalists and come to depend on specialists with increasingly narrow capacities."

Hundreds of millions years ago the proton pump ring consisted of two proteins, similar to those found in animals today. However, these older versions of the protein were more versatile, their functionality was broader than the equivelant proteins seen today so they could substitute for each other in the ring. A gene coding for one of the subunits of the older two-protein ring was duplicated, and the daughter genes then diverged on their own evolutionary paths. The functions of the ancestral proteins were partitioned among the duplicate copies, and the increase in complexity was due to complementary loss of ancestral functions rather than gaining new ones. In other words, since the proteins were now assembled by different genes, the proteins diverged, becoming more specialized.

"The mechanisms for this increase in complexity are incredibly simple, common occurrences," Thornton said. "Gene duplications happen frequently in cells, and it's easy for errors in copying to DNA to knock out a protein's ability to interact with certain partners. It's not as if evolution needed to happen upon some special combination of 100 mutations that created some complicated new function.". Thornton proposes that the accumulation of simple, degenerative changes over long periods of times could have created many of the complex molecular machines present in organisms today. Such a mechanism argues against the intelligent design concept of "irreducible complexity," the claim that molecular machines are too complicated to have formed stepwise through evolution. "I expect that when more studies like this are done, a similar dynamic will be observed for the evolution of many molecular complexes," Thornton said. "These really aren't like precision-engineered machines at all," he added. "They're groups of molecules that happen to stick to each other, cobbled together during evolution by tinkering, degradation, and good luck, and preserved because they helped our ancestors to survive."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Free will and fine tuning

There is good reason to think that we do not have free will and that the fundamental constants of physics are not fine tuned. Some people defend theism on the grounds that both phenomena are evidence that naturalism is insufficient to describe or explain the universe. So the evidence that both are false assumptions has some significance in the debate over whether or not we should believe that there are no gods.

I will utilize biologist Jerry Coyne's definition of free will: When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

If we had free will then we would be self-aware of the action we have selected before we have irreversibly committed to that action. If our choices are unconscious, having been determined well before the moment we think we've made them, then we don't have free will in any meaningful sense. Scans of brain activity favor the latter scenario. First we irreversibly commit to an action and we become aware of which action we are taking only after the decision was made. For example, brain scans show that when a subject "decides" to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. We then convince ourselves post-hoc that we decided on our action after conscious deliberation. Thus, our feeling that we consciously choose may be a deeply ingrained and automatic self-deception, a trick our mind plays on us.

In his new book "Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain", neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga explains how the right brain hemisphere is driven by the senses and acts on an immediate, subconscious level. The left brain hemisphere applies a conscious after-the-fact reasoning that attempts to make sense of the actions that the subconscious mind has already taken. The left-brain's "interpreter module" is always at work inventing theories to "explain" what the right half of the brain has already "decided" on the basis of reflexive subconscious instinct.

Our intuition that we have free will is very strong. The concept of free will is fundamental to the way people assign meaning to their lives and is perceived as continuously being in play except when we are sleeping. But from a biological perspective, conscious self-awareness of actions came later in the history of life. Life originally selected among alternative available actions without self-awareness. So it makes sense that animals which later acquired conscious self-awareness still tend to make decisions prior to being self-aware of those decisions.

The premise of the fine-tuned universe assertion is that a small change in several of the dimensionless fundamental physical constants would result in a universe that cannot support life. The current standard model of particle physics has 25 freely adjustable parameters. However, the standard model is not mathematically self-consistent under certain conditions, so most physicists believe that it is incomplete. In some candidate replacement theories, the actual number of independent physical constants may be as small as 1. But, for the sake of argument, let's accept that there are 25 and that a small change to any single one of these constants makes the universe radically different.

Fine tuning can be cited as evidence for an intelligently designed universe only if the probability that the universe would be able to support life is tiny over the entire spectrum of all possible combinations of all possible values of all the constants. Even if the fine-tuning premise were true, there is theoretical evidence for a multiverse which provides a naturalistic explanation for fine-tuning. But is the premise true? Varying the value of just one constant while leaving all of the other values at their actual values may result in no other universe that can support life. Yet varying the values of all 25 constants simultaneously may result in many universes that can support life. The former result can thus be misleading, because the latter result, if true, would outnumber, and thus defeat, the former result.

Simulating universes while simultaneously varying the values of all 25 constants may be computationally very difficult, but several attempts have been made with a subset. Victor Stenger has simulated different universes in which four fundamental parameters are varied. He found that long-lived stars could exist over a wide parameter range. Fred Adams has done a similar study to Stenger, investigating the structure of stars in universes with different values of the gravitational constant, the fine-structure constant, and a nuclear reaction rate parameter. His study suggests that roughly 25% of this parameter space allows stars to exist.

So the free-will and fine tuning arguments may both be wrong. Certainly, both arguments have been premature in the sense that neither phenomena has been established to be true by the evidence. It is only very recently that we have acquired the tools to start to tackle the question of whether these two premises are true. The early results suggest both premises are false.

Theists' defense against atheism and human invention fails

Sean McDowell and Jonathan Marrow wrote a book "Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists", published in August 2010, that claims to defeat the arguments for atheism and show that Christian theism is true. I have not read the book, instead I recently read a book review. Sometimes, reading a favorable book review is enough to conclude that the book fails to achieve its claimed objective. Why and how does this book fail to make a convincing argument against atheism, contrary to the enthusiastic book reviewer's assertions that the book succeeds? Let's take a look at some of the arguments from the book as cited by the book reviewer.

All people, including atheists, have faith in some things, therefore atheist attacks against religious faith are said to be mistaken. One trusts the unfamiliar pilot of a plane one boards; one has faith that the electrician properly wires your house; one trusts the cook at the restaurant where one eats, etc. The problem with this argument is that it is confusing our day to day faith in the behavior, skills, and good will of other people with faith in factual claims made by religions. It doesn't follow that because we trust pilots to not try to kill their passengers that we are justified in trusting that the angel Moroni communicated the wisdom of God to Joseph Smith as asserted by the book of Mormon.

Atheists are then accused of having blind faith in the ideas that the universe came into existence from nothing, that life emerged from non-life, and the human mind arose from mere matter. None of this is true. Atheists follow the opinions of the experts in cosmology, biology, and neurology: Cosmologists, Biologists, and Neuroscientists. These are the people who have devoted their time and efforts to studying and pursuing the evidence about our universe, life, and brains, including their origins. The evidence suggests that our universe contains a near balance of negative and positive energy consistent with its emerging from an unstable, initial "nothing". Nothing is in quotes here because the evidence suggests that absolute nothingness could be impossible, it exists in the minds of theologians but has no evidenced reality. The evidence suggests that the brain is a completely materialistic entity that is the sole source, together with its supporting body, of our minds. The evidence suggests that life emerged from chemistry and is entirely a chemical and physical process. These are, in fact, the conclusions favored by the available evidence. I, and most other atheists, are absolutely convinced that these are the conclusions that are the best fit with the evidence.

The authors of the book are then quoted as asserting "there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science”. As evidence for this it is noted that most of the early pioneering scientists were theists. However, time passes and more evidence is accumulated. Today, more scientists are atheists than a hundred years ago. People hold inconsistent beliefs, so the fact that there are many people who hold two beliefs is not sufficient to establish that both beliefs are not in conflict.

The authors claim naturalism “ultimately undermines any basis for confidence” in nature’s order and the powers of reason. It is claimed that under a naturalistic worldview, there’s no reason to trust our reason or our senses; they were merely the result of blind Darwinian accidents. Again, this is false. Our reason and senses are effective precisely because they competitively evolved. To the extent animal reasoning and senses were less trustworthy they were out competed by animals whose reasoning and senses were more trustworthy. The process of evolution is thus not only accidental, it is also directional, it necessarily follows a path that "puts us in touch with reality", because the outcome is shaped by competition for survival. A tendency to walk over cliffs is not an outcome favored by evolution.

The authors defend the concept of miracles, “if a transcendent God exists, then it seems eminently possible that He has acted in the universe”. This if x then y is possible logic is sensible here. But we could just as logically say if not x then not y. While the authors seem to be impressed by the standard philosophical arguments for God, those arguments fail by the only criteria that counts, they don't reach conclusions by following the overall weight of the overall evidence. So the authors are mistaken to consider those various traditional arguments for god to be convincing. Arguing from one possibility to another possibility only makes sense when the evidence favors the first possibility.

The authors claim that Hume mistakenly presumes to know the uniformity of human experience prior to considering the evidence. Indeed, we should always start with the evidences. So do the available evidences favor the conclusion that the universe consistently follows a set of laws? Yes, very much so. Pieces of icebergs break off and fall down into the ocean, but equivalent amounts of ice don't jump up and attach itself to the side of the iceberg. Hume was correct regarding this "presumption" of his. Time has a clear direction from past to future because our universe unfolds uniformly according to fixed laws.

The authors then attack Hume’s argument that one should be skeptical about the improbable. “But surely it is perfectly reasonable to believe that an improbable event can occasionally occur”. No, that is not a reasonable conclusion for any particular imaginable event. Again, this depends on the evidence. We know that Royal Flushes in poker are both improbable and an occasional occurrence, while a human language talking donkey is not only improbable, but physically impossible and thus a never occurred fiction. Believing in any such tall tale events that violate the evidences regarding what is possible, a.k.a. a miracle, is, by definition, unreasonable.

The authors claim that there is not good evidence for macroevolution (changes from one species into another different species), only good evidence for microevolution (small changes within a kind). This is false. The evidence for evolution transcends this micro/macro distinction and is strong for both. Macroevolution is also an unavoidable logical consequence of microevolution.

The authors claim that a purely material reality cannot produce consciousness. Again, this is contrary to the evidence. The evidence that we have favors the conclusion that consciousness is an emergent property of purely material brains. Near death experiences are like dreams, we have lots of evidence that they are fictions, they reflect activity internal to the brain, not what it is true beyond the confines of the person. Intention and free will are not sufficient evidence for consciousness being immaterial. We literally don't have evidence that free will is anything more than an illusion, or that if it is in any sense real, that it is in that sense also non-material.

The authors note that atheism lacks an objective and perfect ground to issue objective moral commandments as well as the means to hold all moral lawbreakers to an account. But neither does theism. The authors claim that “In the theistic view, objective moral laws are grounded in the reality of a Moral Lawgiver." That is a circular argument, it fails to establish what are objective moral laws, or how that is determined. Citing the Christian (or Hebrew or Islamic, etc.) bible as the guide for "Morality" is untenable. Those documents are more distant from being a decent, let alone perfect, guide to moral behavior, or laws, than most atheists could write themselves. Furthermore, it is rather obvious that the content of these documents reflect the state of knowledge and attitudes of the people of the place and time where they originated. Again, the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that the only Lawgivers behind these documents are people.

The book reviewer concludes "They offer several of the leading arguments for Christian theism while toppling some of the most belligerent of the objections promoted by the New Atheists. They have written, with abundant care, to attain a thoroughness that is not often established in popular books. The wisdom and excellence with which each chapter is written makes this a crucial volume for the budding apologist’s library."

The arguments for Christian theism, and more generally for religious theisms, in this book, and in the many similar arguments found in other such books, are often seriously flawed, in conflict with the available evidence, and very weak overall. That books like these are popular is an indication that more debate regarding religious beliefs is needed. There is nothing belligerent, or impolite, or counter-productive, in arguing that everyone should believe in macroevolution, in abiogenesis, in global warming, in atheism, and generally in that set of conclusions which are best supported by the available evidence.