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.