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.