Friday, December 27, 2013

Can we explain entanglement without supernaturalism?

Is quantum entanglement supernatural magic?  We do not have to be a New Age mystic, or a fan of Chopra Deepak, to think so.  We do not know the spin of a particle until we measure it, yet the instant we know it's spin we also know the spin of its entangled partner particle which could, in theory, be millions of miles distant.  Naturalism's dependency on physicalism sometimes appears to impose too much of a constraint for a feasible explanatory framework.  People turn to supernaturalism in part because they perceive naturalism as too restricted, and therefore too weak, a framework to explain our universe.  Are they mistaken to do this?  Can quantum entanglement be explained within the constraints imposed by naturalism? 

Some intelligent and thoughtful people, such as philosophers Thomas Nagel, Massimo Pigliucci, David Albert, and others, express doubts that a naturalistic framework is sufficient.  Some skepticism is indeed appropriate when dealing with the mysterious and the unknown, as is the case here.  Nevertheless, contra the philosopher skeptics, and popular opinion, the better answer is that naturalism is likely sufficient, and one way to illustrate this is to highlight one such possible explanation.

Physics has sometimes advanced with "what if" thought experiments imagining extreme conditions that would be difficult to replicate in a laboratory, such as Einstein's thought experiment of chasing a light beam, leading to Special Relativity.  Two physics heavyweights, Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, and Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, California, recently asked this question:  What would happen if two black holes are entangled?

First, they showed that space-time tunnels emerge from quantum theory when two black holes are entangled. It's as if the wormhole is the physical manifestation of entanglement.  When space-time curves we experience that curvature as gravity.  Anytime an N dimensional object curves, it enters an N+1 dimension.  Given that space + time = 3+1 = four dimensions, gravity evidences a fifth dimension.  Such warping of space-time can produce space-time tunnels, or wormholes.

The two physicists then extended this idea to a single black hole and its Hawking radiation, resulting in a new kind of wormhole. This wormhole links a black hole and its Hawking radiation.  Hawking radiation is the result of the black hole absorbing the anti-particle and emitting the particle of the virtual particle - anti-particle pairs that are otherwise constantly bubbling into and out of existence in the vacuum of space.

Julian Sonner of MIT, Kristan Jensen of the University of Victoria, and Andreas Karch of the University of Washington decided to try to determine what happens with pairs of entangled particles. To see what geometry may emerge in the fifth dimension from entangled quarks in the fourth, these scientists employed holographic duality, a concept in string theory. They found that what emerged was a wormhole connecting the two quarks, implying that the creation of entangled quarks simultaneously creates a wormhole.

So while entangled particles are far apart in four dimensional space-time, they could be joined together, fragilely, in the fifth dimension.  Spooky action at a distance may not be what seems, it could be an illusion from our inability to directly observe the curvature of space-time.  We witness the curvature of space-time indirectly by its products of gravity, black holes, and quantum entanglement (physicists usually consider quantum mechanics to be more fundamental than gravity, so they may say that the curvature of space-time is a product of quantum entanglement).  

We cannot properly have confidence that this quantum entanglement with wormhole scenario is true without more favorable empirical evidence.  But even if this hypothesis proves to be false, the fact remains that a strictly naturalistic framework is rich with possibilities for explaining our universe.  The intuition that a naturalistic framework lacks the power to explain how our universe works repeatedly turns out to be mistaken.  We do not need to turn to supernaturalism to explain how our universe works.  With effort, time, observation, and ingenuity we continue to make progress naturally.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Freethought Equality Fund endorses six candidates

The new Political Action Committee for non-believers endorsed six candidates for Congress in 2014.  The Freethought Equality Fund was launched by the American Humanist Association's Center for Humanist Activism in September.  Two of the candidates, Carolyn Tomei of Oregan and Juan Mendez of Arizona, are secular humanists.  The other four are Jared Polis of Colorado, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Bobby Scott of Virginia, and Lee Rogers of California.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Harris poll says more US residents "not at all religious", agnostic, or atheist

A press release summarizing the latest Harris poll results on the religious beliefs of United States residents; shows a continuing move away from superstitions and supernaturalism and towards skepticism and atheism. The biggest increase since 2009 was among the "not at all religious", which increased from 15% to 23%.  Those who are "absolutely or somewhat certain there is no God" increased from 13% to 16%. The percentage who either do not believe in God (16%) or are unsure (also 16%) increased from 26% to 32%. The disbelievers and non-believers are younger, better educated, more male, less racially black, and less Republican, on average than the population as a whole.  A small counter-trend towards supernatural belief is evidenced by a greater likelihood for younger people to believe in witches, ghosts, and reincarnation than older people.  Presumably, older people are more inclined to reject witches, ghosts, and reincarnation because those beliefs conflict with the traditional Abrahamic religious beliefs that they are more inclined to take seriously.  The steady trend away from religion and supernaturalism in the United States is showing no signs of slowing down, but almost three fourths self identify as theists  (down from over four fifths at the start of this century).

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Protestant Universalists as activism allies

I recently listened to Deacon Perry King of Universalist National Memorial Church in D.C. explain and defend his religious beliefs during a mostly cordial public talk featuring him and Don Wharton of WASH.  My understanding of his perspective is as follows:  He described his denomination as representing a liberal Protestant Christianity that embraces the pluralistic Universalist notion that people from all religions qualify to go to heaven.  He cites Paul Tillich's definition of god as the grounds of being, and he equates god with concepts like goodness and love.  He considers it possible to be both an atheist and a Christian, and points out that some other people call him an atheist, although clearly he does not self-identify as an atheist.  He appears to embrace faith as a valid alternative way of knowing, but then he claims his religious identity is not rooted in concrete beliefs, emphasizing instead that his religious identity is rooted in symbols, abstractions, and meanings.  He asserts that the bible is an important source of wisdom and that Jesus has a special role, but he rejects trinitarianism  He says he has read Sam Harris.  He says he embraces a post-modernist outlook and rejects logical positivism.  Social activism also has a central role, and he identifies the social activism as being motivated by Christianity and as being Christian in character.

For us secular humanists, deciding to join a public policy, or social activism,  or humanitarian intervention, alliance with any other group centers around answering two questions:  What public policy is needed and who else is advocating for that needed public policy?  The evidence regarding global warming related public policy is different from the evidence regarding civic equality for LGTB citizens is different from the evidence regarding atheism versus theism.  The religious belief identities of the other groups in the coalition is irrelevant, and it is counter-productive to exclude anyone from a public public advocacy coalition because of disagreements over unrelated questions, including religious beliefs.  We would never tell Unitarian Universalists that as a pre-condition for working together on a particular issue of common concern it will be necessary for Unitarian Universalists to "show respect for us" by refraining from publicly advocating for Unitarian Universalist belief, or refraining from arguing against atheism, or refraining from advocating against any other conflicting and competing belief, or attending WASH meetings.  We are entitled to insist on the same from them.  Mutual respect is based on equality, and equality entails that everyone publicly advocates for their beliefs and associates only with who they choose without restrictions.

I am confident that I will never call myself a Christian or a post-modernist, never put faith front and center as a preferred method for justifying conclusions about how the universe works, and never put so much credence in an ancient text with so little substance.  The UU Deacon's apparent denial that his religious identity is based on factual assertions (he was somewhat ambiguous here, he only denied he held "beliefs" and then gave examples of beliefs he did not hold that were all factual assertions) is inconsistent with his reliance on faith, since faith is only applicable in a context of reaching true/false conclusions about factual claims. Faith has no applicability to personal preferences or ethical commitments.  Also, a denial that his religious identity is rooted in factual assertions is inconsistent with various factual assertions he made about the nature, or character, of god and the bible. 

Apparently, from a post-modernist perspective, this distinction between factual true/false beliefs, ontological existence assertions as a distinct subcategory of factual assertions (to which logical positivism applies), personal preferences, and ethical commitments, is all blurred.  Blurring these distinctions is convenient for those who want to avoid the constraints imposed by following the evidence. The distinctions between factual true/false beliefs, personal preferences, and ethical commitments are valid and important.  Post-modernism is mistaken.  Furthermore, insofar as his religious beliefs really do refrain from making any factual assertions it loses it's Christian character, contrary to his assertion that his church and it's beliefs are Christian.

Advocacy for atheism is easily accessible to everyone who uses the internet.  The Huffington Post, as do other publications, has a religion section that features writers ably representing many different perspectives, including atheism. There are books promoting atheism published every month, and every year a few of these books sell well.  No church can stop this from happening.   We should never even consider agreeing to unilaterally curtailing public advocacy for atheism as a condition for joining public policy coalitions with anyone else.  We are not pushovers, it would be wrong to capitulate to such double standards and intolerance.  Yes to public policy, social activism, or humanitarian intervention coalitions with any group that shares any such goal with us.  No to curtailing public advocacy for atheism or against religious beliefs.  There is no contradiction here and we should never accept attempts by our competitors to impose one on us.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sean Carroll's argument for atheism

The video of Sean Carroll's Oxford-Cambridge lecture titled "God is not a good theory" is almost one hour long.  I recommend taking the time to watch the entire video.  However, for the benefit of people without an hour to spare I will summarize his argument for you.  

He starts with a definition of theory as an idea about the universe that may be true or false.  For almost all believers, god qualifies as a theory.  However, god is not a precisely specified theory, and this is one of the substantial problems with the theory of god.

Concepts of god can be placed into at least three categories:  Passive, Active, and Emergent.  A passive god, as conceived by arm chair philosophers, is justified as fulfilling some requirement for making logical sense of our universe, such as the first cause, the unmoved mover, and a necessary being.  This a passive conception because this god is not intervening to change any physical laws.  An active conception of god is that of a creator and ruler who cares about human life, communicates to humans about proper human conduct, performs miracles, grounds morality, organizes an after life.  The active god has an empirically observable presence and is justified accordingly.  An emergent conception defines god as synonymous with love, the universe, the laws of nature, feelings of awe/transcendence.  An emergent god is justified as serving a rhetorical function.  

Sean Carroll dismisses the emergent conception of god as unworthy of further discussion because we can have the same conversations about the same topics without making any references to a rhetorical god. An emergent god therefore is superfluous.

The passive conception of god has a huge problem. It is based on a-priori metaphysics.  It is rooted in rationalism rather than empiricism, it fails to give priority to observation.  Such arm chair reasoning has never taught us anything factually true about the world.  What it reveals, at its best, are consequences of axioms, and this can be useful, particularly in mathematics and logic.  But it doesn't tell us which axioms are possibly true.  Such a-priori reasoning cannot get us to the facts about what is actually true in our particular universe.

Sean Carroll then proceeds to argue that even if we take the arguments for a passive god more seriously than is merited by this major flaw in the underlying epistemology, they still do not succeed.  God as a necessary being, first cause, and similar concepts are refuted by the fact that we can easily conceive of many possible, self-consistent, self-contained, coherent, eternal universes in the forms of various mathematical constructs with no god, no first cause, etc.  Furthermore, at least one of these possible universes is plausibly our universe as it appears to represent a framework that correctly models our universe.

A counter-argument is that while it is possible to conceive of universes without god, those universe are infeasible because they lack a sufficient cause or explanation, they provide no answer to the "why" question.  A legitimate universe explanation must answer the question why there is a universe and why it is this particular universe, therefore a god is required.  Sean Carroll disagrees.  You may prefer that there be an explanation for why this universe exists instead of another, or for why this universe exists instead of no universe, but our universe could just be.  We associate causes with events because we experience our universe that way.  Cause identification is linked to the overall context, so examining the same event from different perspectives will very often result in our reaching different conclusions about the cause.  The context in which the universe appears is different from the context of our daily experiences.  So analogizing from the contexts of our experiences within the universe to the context of the universe as a whole here is a weak analogy.

Sean Carroll states that he does not think that everything within the universe can be associated with a reason or a cause.  Here is a short discussion of "Purpose and the Universe" with a video of Sean Carroll discussing the topic in more depth at an American Humanists Association meeting.  He says "The universe itself doesn’t have a purpose, nor is there one inherent in the fundamental laws of physics. But teleology (movement toward a goal) can plausibly be a useful concept when we invent the best description of higher-level phenomena, and at the human level there are purposes we can create for ourselves."

The primary point here is that all such a-priori metaphysical arguments claims ultimately boil down to contingent empirical claims.  Why must there be a sufficient reason for the universe?  We are obligated to adopt a skeptical stance to such "must be", "necessary", types of assertions.  It can then be argued that sufficient reason is needed because everything else has sufficient reason. But that is an empirical claim. Therefore, we must examine the god hypothesis like we examine all other hypothesis and look for the simplest coherent theory that explains the largest amount of data.

So does god give us a good theory on conventional scientific grounds?  For a variety of reasons, the answer is no.  Conservation of energy means there is no need for a first mover, chemistry means there is no need for a giver of life, natural selection means there is no need for a designer of the many different species of life.  Neuroscience suggests that there is no need for a provider of consciousness and cosmology suggests there is no need for a creator.  While these latter questions remain unsolved problems, there are multiple viable hypothesis and these questions appear to be resolvable using the same types of empirical methods that have successfully resolved the other questions without a god being needed.

Sean Carroll then identifies the Fine Tuning argument as the best empirical argument for God.  He identifies several weaknesses to this argument.  One is that we do not know what other possible universes would support life because we do not know enough about what different forms of life are possible and under what other conditions those different possible forms of life would be viable.  Life may be possible in many other forms and as a result the phenomena of life may be much more generic and common to many different universes than the Fine Tuning argument assumes.  What is needed for life is a very hard question to answer and we are not even close to knowing what percentage of possible universes would support some form of life.  Another weakness of the Fine Tuning argument is that modern physics predicts a multiverse, and in a multiverse where the parameters vary we would expect to find ourselves in a region of the multiverse where the parameters appear to be finely tuned to support our existence.  

Lastly, the question of the probability that god exists given the data is addressed.  If we did not know anything about the actual universe, but we have this theory that there is a god who created the universe and who cares about us human beings, what would we expect the universe to be like?  We know what the universe looks like so it can be tempting to say that god would make the universe exactly as we see it.  But that is a biased approach.  To tackle this question properly, we must try to start with a blank slate.  And here we encounter a problem with the very low entropy of our universe during the Big Bang.  It was about 10 to the -10 to the 120 smaller than its current value.  Such extremely low entropy is incompatible with the existence of life, so if god created the universe to support life then we would predict our universe would have started with much higher entropy.  This would have resulted in a universe with one galaxy instead of our universe with billions of galaxies that are unnecessary for life on earth.

There are other similar empirical arguments against the god hypothesis.  The problem of evil, the problem of random suffering, and the problem of lack of clear divine instructions.  No god ever told us that matter is made of atoms, the universe is billions of years old, people of different races, genders, etc. should be treated equally, and the like.  Trying to salvage god by assigning to god the traits of elusiveness and vagueness is counter-productive since those are traits that evidence a weakness in the god hypothesis.  We cannot have it both ways and say that god is evidenced by fine tuning but no other evidence can count against god.  That is a double standard.  God is much more ontologically problematic than a multiverse.  God is an entirely different metaphysical category from everything else, ill-defined, unnecessary, whimsical, and frustratingly reclusive.  We do better explaining the universe without the god hypothesis. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hylopathism and pantheism overlooks emergent properties

There are numerous Jewish/Christian/Muslim scientists, or at least theistic scientists. I prefer to cite atheist scientists because their arguments are better. Today, I will quote and criticize the metaphysics of physicist Freeman Dyson, who calls himself a non-denominational Christian but whose liberal theology sounds similar to traditional universalist unitarianism.  He appears to meld unitarianism with a type of animism that is known as hylopathism and also with pantheism.  This perspective appears to not be uncommon among liberal academic theologians.  Deepak Chopra, a physician and author who has turned himself into a wealthy man by presenting himself as a holistic health/New Age guru, and by promoting alternative medicine, sometimes cites Freeman Dyson's beliefs as supporting his "quantum healing" concept, which mixes ideas associated with quantum mechanics, applied outside their proper context, with ayurvedic "medicine". Chopra's popular reception in America is symptomatic of many Americans' historical inability, as Susan Jacoby puts it, "to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddled theories in the guise of science."

In his book "Infinite in All Directions" Dyson Freeman asserts that there are three levels of mind: "The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is the level of elementary physical processes in quantum mechanics. Matter in quantum mechanics is [...] constantly making choices between alternative possibilities according to probabilistic laws. [...] The second level at which we detect the operations of mind is the level of direct human experience. [...] [I]t is reasonable to believe in the existence of a third level of mind, a mental component of the universe. If we believe in this mental component and call it God, then we can say that we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus" (p. 297).

Either we get sentient life from non-sentient matter or we get non-sentient rocks from sentient matter.  After all, both life and rocks are made with quantum mechanical matter.  Some people with a religious orientation have a tendency to think the latter scenario is more plausible.  But we have lots of evidence that properties that are not found in the constituent parts  emerge from interactions that occur within large ensembles of those smaller parts. Thus, the available evidence strongly favors the conclusion that the sentience difference between rocks and brains is rooted in the differences of the molecules and their chemistry and interactions that result in an active metabolism in sentient life that is lacking in non-sentient rocks.

The fact of emergent properties is not controversial.  These are phenomena that only occur, or can only be defined, when there are a gazillion interactions occuring.  Emergent properties, which appear only within the confines of a particular context, are pervasive.  Examples of these in physics are superconductivity, fractional quantum hall effect, and magnetism.  Weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals, as driven by the random motion of water molecules within a conducive natural environment, is another example of an emergent process. The laws of classical mechanics can be said to emerge as a limiting case from the rules of quantum mechanics applied to large enough masses.   Friction, viscosity, elasticity, and tensile strength are emergent properties.  Chemistry is an emergent property of the laws of physics and biology is an emergent property of chemistry.

What is controversial here is the reductionist versus anti-reductionist interpretations of the emergent properties phenomena.  The reductionists say that all emergent properties are ultimately explainable in terms of the basic physics.  The anti-reductionists deny that this is possible.  But we do not have to take a position in that debate to recognize that sentience, and mind, are nothing more than two more instances of the ubiquitous phenomena of emergent properties.  It is a mistake to take emergent properties and assign those same properties to the constituent parts or to universe as a whole, as Dyson Freeman is selectively doing in both directions when he assigns sentience and mind to matter and to the entire universe.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Testing the God hypothesis

I recommend Victor Stenger's blog, which is on the Huffington Post.  His latest article is a synopsis of his argument that the god hypothesis is disfavored by the available evidence.  He adopts a simple, pragmatic, evidenced based approach.  We can do the same from a higher level perspective and substitute testing the closely related, but more general, supernatural hypothesis instead of the god hypothesis.  If our universe appears to exist and operate for the purpose of harboring humans, if our universe appears to exist and operate under the design and control of an intelligent agent to further that intelligent agent's goals, then that is evidence for supernaturalism.  If our universe appears to exhibit an indifference to humanity and exhibits a chaotic, random operation then it is naturalistic.  

We have determined that our universe operates according to laws.  The laws that govern our universe's operation exhibit an indifference to humanity.  Humanity lives at risk of annihilation from a large asteroid, a volcanic storm, a gamma-ray burst, contagious disease, supernovae, or even a solar flare eruption from our sun.  The patterns and constraints that define the laws governing our universe exhibit no intended purpose, no goal.  Our universe's overall organization and operation is haphazard, unstable, and random.  Galaxies are built from a small minority of all of the particles, and after they are born they all eventually disintegrate.  The immortality of the Greek gods is a fiction given that our universe dissapitates at an accelerating rate.  Furthermore, the natural laws governing our universe are not violated.  

The aforementioned considerations are the most relevant empirical evidence available to us for deciding this question.  The best fit conclusion that follows is that our universe is exclusively naturalistic.  This can easily sound sad or tragic to us but that is entirely irrelevant to determining what is true.  It may be that the popularity of supernatural belief is motivated at least in part by wishful thinking, but that is an ineffective, parochial, self-centered way of reaching conclusions about how our universe works.

One of the points Victor Stenger emphasizes in his article is that we arrive at conclusions about how our universe operates by constructing models.  Ultimately, the only thing that matters here is whether the models we construct are successful.  Does the model describe what we observe accurately and consistently?  Does it make predictions which are subsequently verified?  The reason that success is our ultimate criteria is that we have no way of measuring the truthiness of our assertions by any other criteria.  If our model is successful then we have achieved everything that we reasonably can want to achieve.  Thus, it is a mistake to worry that we are missing some additional ultimate truth as a result.  Since we do not have access to that ultimate truth we have not in any sense failed by not acquiring it.  So when some people argue for believing in an unevidenced god on faith they are making an intrinsically silly argument.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Some pointed humor

By Mathew Goldstein

Enjoy this popular video poking fun at religious believers by NonStampCollector.  It is absolutely OK to lampoon ridiculous beliefs and willful ignorance.  We are not showing respect for humanity by refusing to actively criticize unjustified beliefs or by refusing to actively advocate for civic equality for atheists.

Quiz Show

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Senator Mikulski sponsors medical quackery week

By Mathew Goldstein

As if we do not have enough problems due to a refusal of most Republicans to accept and follow the overall direction of the available empirical evidences when setting national policies, particularly in the House of Representatives, one of the senior Maryland Senate Democrats, Barbara Mikulski, decided to introduce a resolution designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as “Naturopathic Medicine Week” that applauds "the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care."  Naturopaths claim to be holistic, which apparently means they believe that the natural body is joined to a supernatural soul and a non-physical mind and the three must be treated as a unit.  Naturopaths offer treatment at their offices and at spas where patients may reside for several weeks. Their offerings include fasting, "natural food" diets, vitamins, herbs, tissue minerals, homeopathic "remedies", cell salts, manipulation, massage, exercise, colonic enemasacupunctureChinese medicine, natural childbirth, minor surgery, and applications of water, heat, cold, air, sunlight, and electricity.  Many of these methods are said to "detoxify" the body.

This encomium for medical quackery was passed by the Senate with unanimous consent on September 9.  Eleanor Norton sponsored a similar resolution in the House, but that resolution was not voted.  Seventeen U.S. states, and the District of Columbia (but not Maryland), allow people who are trained at an accredited school of naturopathic medicine in North America to use the designation ND or NMD, some states even license such people to write prescriptions for drugs.  If this resolution is typical of popular, bipartisan, middle of the road, moderation, then don't look for me there.  Here is Senator Mikulski's resolution:

Designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’ to recognize the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.
Whereas, in the United States, 75 percent of all health care spending is for the treatment of preventable chronic illnesses, including high blood pressure, which affects 68,000,000 people in the United States, and diabetes, which affects 26,000,000 people in the United States;
Whereas nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese and, consequently, at risk for serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and depression;
Whereas 70 percent of people in the United States experience physical or nonphysical symptoms of stress, which can contribute to chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes;
Whereas the aforementioned health conditions are among the most preventable health conditions and are especially responsive to the preventive, whole-person approach favored by naturopathic medicine;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides noninvasive, holistic treatments that support the inherent self-healing capacity of the human body and encourage self-responsibility in health care;
Whereas naturopathic medicine reduces health care costs because of its focus on patient-centered care, the prevention of chronic illnesses, and early intervention in the treatment of chronic illnesses;
Whereas naturopathic physicians attend 4-year, graduate level programs with rigorous admission requirements at institutions that are recognized by the Department of Education;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are especially skilled in treating chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders, because of their focus on whole-body medicine rather than symptom management;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to serve as primary care physicians and can help redress the shortage of primary care providers in the United States;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to refer patients to conventional physicians and specialists when necessary;
Whereas patients of naturopathic physicians report higher patient satisfaction and health improvement than patients of conventional medicine;
Whereas the profession of naturopathic medicine is dedicated to providing health care to underserved populations;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides consumers in the United States with more choice in health care, in line with the increased use of a variety of integrative medical treatments; and
Whereas the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148; 124 Stat. 119) requires that insurers include and reimburse licensed health care providers, including naturopathic physicians, in health insurance plans: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate–
(1) designates the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’;
(2) recognizes the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care; and
(3) encourages the people of the United States to learn about naturopathic medicine and the role that naturopathic physicians play in preventing chronic and debilitating illnesses and conditions.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

When atheism is religion

Gary Berg-Cross recently commented on the question "is atheism a religion?".  He concluded that, while there is no one correct answer to what qualifies as a religion, a reasonable way to tackle this question is to look for various indicators of religion.  One is a reliance on faith as a way of knowing.  Another is the notion that there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities.  More generally, there is the belief in some non-natural power.  This approach implies that theism is "a religion", but it is not.

A problem here is that atheism and theism are particular beliefs and a particular belief is not necessarily unique to a particular religion.  A religion has a name that is capitalized.  So asking this question about theism, or atheism, is a category error.  Instead, we can properly ask if theism, or atheism, is a religious belief. 

Gary's thoughts on how to address the question, so re-worded, are good.  The conclusion we reach is that individual atheists who think faith is a valid way of acquiring knowledge, who think there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities, and the like, can be considered to be religious.  Otherwise, Bill Maher is correct.  Atheism, unlike theism, is usually not a religious belief.  It depends on how the atheism is held and the overall context of beliefs in which the atheism is embedded.

But does this answer really address the original question?  Why do some people seem to think this is a significant question? What difference does it make if atheism is deemed to be a religious belief or not?

One place where this question has significance is the law because the first amendment calls for no establishment of religion and free exercise of religion and the tax code gives special benefits to religious organizations.  So let's not beat around the bush and pretend that "is atheism a religion?" is a direct philosophical question.  It is really about those laws and their applicability.  What the people who are asking this question do not appear to fully appreciate is that nouns can have different meanings in legal contexts than they do in everyday contexts.  That is the case here.  The people who are asking this question are actually asking if the no establishment clause, the free exercise clause, the tax benefits, apply to atheists and atheist organizations.  Gary commented only very briefly on these questions in his article.

Let's tackle tax benefits first.  There is no proper justification for treating different beliefs differently in the tax code.  We can properly make distinctions on various other criteria, but not on the beliefs of citizens regarding the nature or existence of gods.  Ideally, our tax code would distinguish between profit and non-profit organizations, and between organizations that advocate for or against candidates in government elections and those that do not. The tax benefits that are unique to religious organizations, such as the tax return filing exemption and the parsonage exemption, are unfair and should be eliminated.  If an organization is religious or non-religious should be irrelevant to the IRS.   But for now, given that the tax code does make this distinction, atheists are fully justified in insisting that we are fully entitled to all of the same tax benefits as theists.  So in the tax law context, religion includes both theism and atheism.

In the non-establishment context it is important to recognize that the first amendment does not refer to "a religion", it refers to religion in the plural sense.  We can only identify what is religion in this plural sense by identifying the presence of, and the role of, a religious belief.  Furthermore, in a legal context, a partisan belief is always paired with its opposing belief.  We can either assent or dissent to a partisan belief, and there is no difference in the legal standing of assenting and dissenting.  So here again, since theism is a faith-based, religious belief, and atheism is the dissenting belief relative to theism, both theism and atheism are covered by the noun religion in the Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause is paired with the Free Exercise Clause, so atheism also has the same free exercise protections as theism in principle.  However, in practice, atheism makes few, if any, free exercise demands against secular laws.  Protecting free exercise will tend to favor assenting religious beliefs over the corresponding dissenting beliefs.  Free exercise protection should not be allowed to interfere with the health, general welfare, or civil rights freedoms of other citizens.  Therefore, free exercise should have lower priority than most other civil rights protections.  Free exercise should prevail over secular laws only when such accommodation of religious beliefs otherwise does no significant harm.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Religious privileging in Maryland law

Laws that accommodate religious beliefs are sometimes appropriate, and even necessary, to respect individual religious liberty.  Laws should make a reasonable effort to accommodate religious beliefs, even when the religious beliefs are themselves foolish and deserving of disrespect (as is often the case).  Legal accommodation of some peoples' religious beliefs becomes unreasonable religious privileging when it is not protecting free exercise or when it infringes upon other peoples' freedom, civic equality, health, or safety.  Maryland law, like most other state law, includes some religious privileging.  Following are some examples, this is not a comprehensive summary of all such laws in this state.

There are a number of provisions in Maryland that accommodate faith healing.  Faith healing is a good example of a foolish religious belief that arguably negatively impacts primarily the religious believer and thus is at least partially protected as a religious liberty.  But Maryland law sometimes goes further and grants parents the ability to deny prudent medical care for their children. 

Most notable in this category is a religious exemption from a law that requires pregnant women to be tested for syphilis when they first become pregnant and again during the final trimester.  About 50 percent of pregnant women with untreated early syphilis end up with a baby who's infected. That's compared to 1 to 2 percent of women who get treated (thanks to atheist and materialist medicine that some people mistakenly characterize as exhibiting a methodological naturalism bias). They may lose the baby in miscarriage, stillbirth, or soon after birth, or the baby may be born with severe neurological problems. Syphilis also increases the risk of preterm birth and intrauterine growth restriction. This religious exemption from syphilis testing of pregnant women in Maryland is unconscionable and should be eliminated.  Other examples of questionable religious privileging in Maryland law that undermines the welfare of innocent children are exemptions from hearing, eyesight, and lead poisoning screening and from vaccinations.

Clergy are partially exempted from reporting child abuse revelations to law enforcement and judicial authorities.  Maryland law also has a second provision that broadly exempts clergy from testifying as a witness in judicial hearings "... on any matter in relation to any confession or communication made to him in confidence by a person seeking his spiritual advice or consolation."  Parents should think twice before passing their children over to religious institutions in Maryland.

Article 37 of the Declaration of Rights in Maryland's constitution  permits "... a declaration of belief in the existence of God" mandate "... as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State".  The U.S. Supreme Court declared this provision of Maryland law to be a violation of the first and fourteenth amendments in 1961, however this law has still not been amended to comply with the federal constitution.  Oaths of office for the National Guard and the Maryland Defense Force include a "So help me God" appeal.  Article 10 of the Rules of Interpretation contradicts these oaths while still incorporating an appeal to a god as follows:

The form of judicial and all other oaths to be taken or administered in this State, and not prescribed by the Constitution, shall be as follows: “In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly promise or declare”, etc. And it shall not be lawful to add to any oath the words “So help me God”, or any imprecatory words whatever.

Article 36 of the Declaration of Rights permits anyone who does not believe "... in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefor either in this world or in the world to come" to be involuntarily disqualified from serving as a juror or witness.  This Article was amended in 1970 but the amendment did nothing to eliminate this religious privileging.  Instead, the amendment endorsed government establishment of theism by adding this sentence:  "Nothing shall prohibit or require the making reference to belief in, reliance upon, or invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, ceremony, school, institution, or place."

The theistic Pledge of Allegiance must be recited in public schools.  There is an opt out provision for both students and teachers.  Laws like this make it difficult for people to keep their personal beliefs private.  And children in particular shouldn't be instructed by the state that theism is the more patriotic belief.

There are exemptions from sales and property taxes for religious organizations, including a parsonage exemption from property tax.  Another provision gives localities the option of refunding part or all of the property tax that religious organizations would otherwise be required to pay.  There are also regulation exemptions for religious organizations regarding cemeteries, obtaining a trader's license, and erecting advertisement signs.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Guardian's atheist defender of ignorance and superstition

Andrew Brown of the Guardian newspaper denies that it makes any difference whether most people's beliefs about how our universe works, which he labels "our stories", are true or false.  In his recent article "Virginia Heffernan's creationism is wrong but makes good sense", he also argues that it makes "good sense" for people to give justifications for their factual beliefs that provide zero probability of establishing that their factual beliefs are true.  He argues that only some small minority of people who specialize in building useful things need to have some narrowly focused skills required for them to be productive.  Therefore, he argues, only those people need to be epistemologically and ontologically competent within only the confines of their expertise.  But is work time specialization really the only place and time epistemological and ontological competence is needed?  

If we imagine two different countries, one where all citizens are epistemologically and ontologically competent and one where, outside of their narrow areas of work time specialization, all people are epistemologically and ontologically incompetent, which country would you rather live in?  Which country would you prefer shared a border with your country?  After all, our conclusions about how are universe works, and how we go about reaching these conclusions, influences many of the other decisions we make, including the laws we favor, our lifestyles, what and who we accept or reject morally, who is our friend or enemy, whether we ourselves are reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, etc.  

People who choose creationism over evolution, regardless of whether they do this because they find creationism aesthetically more pleasing, or morally uplifting, or meaningful, or any other such entirely inappropriate reason, are asserting that humans are not primates with a common ancestor with other apes.  This is a factual claim, and as such it is not merely a story, and it is not a choice we make like selecting a novel to read.  Factual claims are foundations upon which we construct our laws, our morality, our aesthetics, and our decisions generally, including daily decisions and important decisions impacting not only ourselves but others around us.  To say, as Andrew Brown does, that "they are the clash of two competing stories", and "it is a story which derives most of its power from the way that believers suppose that it is true", is to wrongly trivialize the basic task of making true/false judgements down to the level of picking a novel in a bookstore.

Have we become so accustomed to the fact that epistemological and ontological incompetence are widespread that we have become inured to it?  Do we prefer to scapegoat the rich, the politicians, the boss, the big corporations, particular other religions, for all problems because that is easier?  Is this why people who know better keep making bad excuses that such incompetency is OK as long as it is other people doing this, not me and not my children?  We are told people will forever be stupid so give up, we have no way to reliably make any true/false decisions so one method is as good as any other, one person's truth is another person's falsehood, the primary function of holding true/false beliefs is something other than accurately modeling reality, etc.  Yet some of the same people who argue thusly for denying or ignoring this problem also advocate for public policies which are themselves responses to the symptoms of this same problem.  This refusal to deal with the underlying source of the problems that they argue against thus carries with it a whiff of pusillanimity.

The reality is that, insofar as anything at all has importance, what we believe is true about how our universe works and how we justify our beliefs are also important.  These are actually fundamental.  The Enlightenment was a major positive achievement for humanity exactly because it was about humanity getting a better grip on reality from a commitment to better epistemology and ontology.  Andrew Brown's populist defense of post-modern relativism is lazy, it is bad excuses for bad epistemology and ontology, it is regressive and harmful Counter-Enlightment advocacy. Virginia Heffernan's creationism is not merely mistaken, it is also foolish, there is no good sense to be found there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ways of knowing

Theists tend to claim that by applying theological principles we can determine not only that a god really exists, but the actual identity of this real god.  They then argue that atheists fail to take theology seriously and thus fail to acknowledge the strong justifications for theism.  We atheists tend to think theists are wasting their time on chimeras because theological principles are incapable of discriminating between what is true and what is false about how our universe works.

We can divide questions about truth into at least three categories:  what could be true, what is true, what should be true. The what should be true category can be further subdivided into moral and aesthetic judgements. That which is good/beautiful should be true while that which is bad/ugly should not be true.

Atheists start with the could be true question, compare the could be scenarios against the data, which consists of the empirical evidences, and then conclude that the could be true scenario which is the best fit with the available data identifies what is true.  Theistic theology mostly either does not do this, or does this in a biased, incomplete manner.  This is because theistic theology instead tries to derive conclusions about what is true on the basis of combining what could be true with what should be true.  An example of this is Pascal's Wager which argues that we could be punished by a god who should exist for the purpose of imposing an after death reckoning for before death misbehavior.

Theists complain atheists are being too narrow and closed minded by rejecting this sort of reasoning from theological principles.  Yet we all have excellent reason to think that we cannot derive what is true conclusions from what should be true principles.  Everyone experiences conflicts throughout their lives between what should be true and what is true.  People should not become injured, should not become sick, should not forget things, should not lack food or shelter, should not die, etc.  So atheists are merely guilty of being consistent when they reject reaching any is true conclusions from should be true derived principles.

God exists and has a particular identity versus gods do not exist are competing statements asserting alternative contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined.  The only way to reliably evaluate such competing statements about how our universe works is empirically.   No judgement about good/bad or beautiful/ugly is involved.  Because moral and aesthetic statements entail these additional judgements they are arguably different kinds of truth, and we cannot reach conclusions for such should be statements only empirically.

Yet empirically determined conclusions about how our universe works are needed to properly anchor our moral and aesthetic judgements.  Our moral and aesthetic judgements are built on top of our empirically derived prior conclusions about how our universe works.  Our subsequent judgements regarding what is good/bad and beautiful/ugly are informed by our true/false conclusions.  People who build their true/false conclusions about how our universe works from their moral and aesthetic judgements (a.k.a. from theological principles), although often well-intentioned, are making a mistake, like a home builder constructing a house underneath its foundation.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Belief and English language deficiency

Many people have recognized that English vocabulary is sometimes deficient and some have tried to add words, usually without success.  For example, many of the world's languages do not have gender-specific pronouns. Others, however – particularly those which have a pervasive system of grammatical gender (or have historically had such a system, as with English) – have gender-specificity in certain of their pronouns, particularly personal pronouns of the third person.  Problems of usage arise in languages such as English, in contexts where a person of unspecified gender is being referred to, but the most natural available pronouns (he or she) are gender-specific.  Michael Newdow tried to encourage us to substitute re, rees, and erm for gender non-neutral he, his, and him.

There is a similar, but more subtle,  problem with the words belief and proof.  The word belief is broad, it encompasses both justified and non-justified beliefs.  The word proof is narrow, it designates an established fact.  The problem is that we lack a good noun for properly justified belief that falls short of proof.  

One symptom of this vocabulary deficiency is that some people overuse the word proof.  If you see a link to an article with a title like "proof of existence of god" or "disproof of existence of gods" the best course of action is likely to not click on that link.  Another result is that some people refuse to utilize the word belief on the grounds that they do not want to taint their well justified beliefs with the unjustified beliefs of the hoi polloi by sharing the same noun.

I do not know of any efforts to coin a new word that is synonymous with justified belief.  The obvious problem is that the same hoi polloi will misuse the new word much like they already misuse the word proof.  The goal of avoiding a "guilt by association" type of taint by utilizing a more obscure vocabulary also has a cost. Using a different word implies a different entity, but the entity itself is the same here. Belief is not the problem to be avoided. The problem is holding beliefs that are poorly justified.

There are some people who go so far as to claim that belief is the problem.  I strongly disagree.  A belief is what we have whenever the available evidences overall have a favored direction.  I keep encountering people who claim that atheism is about having no beliefs.  Yet I can no more not have a belief about the existence of gods than I can not have a belief about the existence of Leprechauns.  The evidences do speak on these existence questions, the evidences are not neutral, and therefore the corresponding belief follows. We can expect one set of evidences if those entities existed, and a different set of evidences if they do not exist.  

With an ultrasound we can detect pregnancy.  That is proof.  With Leprechauns, as with gods, as with the supernatural more generally, we can only infer. It is still proper to utilize the word proof in contexts where conclusions are inferred provided that there is a consensus of the experts that the conclusion is true. Without this usage restriction the word proof becomes too political and loses much of its meaning. There is a sense in which we arguably do have such a consensus -  scientists de-facto abandoned supernaturalism several centuries ago. Unfortunately many scientists are unwilling to acknowledge that this constitutes a consensus answer to this question.

Evidences can speak loudly by being consistent and pervasive, which is the case here. We do not need proof to have properly justified strong beliefs. Mind is an natural emergent property of particular physical configurations of matter-energy, matter-energy is not a supernatural product of a non-physical mind - so we believe.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Defining supernatural

A mutually exclusive, yes or no, binary type of decision can be simple to make.  For some decisions we can directly observe the physical presence or absence of something and reach a definitive conclusion.  But we often have no direct access to the answer and therefore we must infer a conclusion on a best overall fit with the available evidences basis.  The conclusion is now going to be a probabilistic estimate, and therefore will represent a location on a continuous line joining the two end points.  The binary, one or the other, proposition is thus converted into a continuum by the decision making process.

However, it is impractical to assign a particular probability number to our conclusion since we typically lack enough information to be that precise.  Fortunately, Baysian probability analysis is still viable with only three discrete outcomes:  Positive, neutral, and negative.  We can assign the evidences one of three values, 1, 0, and -1 so that we can accumulate evidences into a single sum.  Every evidence for the proposition adds to the total, every evidence against subtracts from the total.  Does this conversion of our proposition from its original binary form to a discrete line form indicate that our proposition is incoherent and meaningless?  No, this is merely the unavoidable outcome of the fact that we are not omnipresent and omniscient so we often need to retreat to approximate Bayesian probabilities to infer a conclusion.

Many propositions are not well defined.  For example, we may ask if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  We cannot even begin to reach an approximate probability estimate until we have a definition of intelligent life that includes a criteria which can be utilized for evaluating the evidences.  The criteria selected to clarify the proposition will often unavoidably be somewhat arbitrary.   Does this arbitrariness and ambiguity in the definition of a proposition indicate that the proposition itself is incoherent and meaningless?  Lets try to answer this by identifying a criteria for intelligent life.

Our relationship with our pets, for better or worse, is limited by our inability to converse with them.  So we can specify as a meaningful criteria for intelligent life the ability to symbolically communicate with an extensive vocabulary.  There is still ambiguity here about what qualifies as extensive, but since inferring on the evidences is an approximation anyway we are not likely to benefit much from a more precisely defined proposition. Inferring on the evidence can be a coherent and meaningful activity even when we lack a precisely defined proposition.

We may sometimes need more than one criteria for evidencing a particular proposition.  Furthermore, we may decide that each criteria by itself evidences for the proposition.  This results in a complex proposition.  When we apply the evidences we may find that according to one of the criteria the proposition is affirmed, but according to the other criteria the proposition is disconfirmed.  Does the possibility of a such a paradoxical result mean that all complex propositions are incoherent and meaningless?  Again, the answer is no.  The possibility of such a paradoxical result is merely the unavoidable outcome of combining inference with a complex proposition.  Nevertheless, we should try to avoid making the proposition more complex than is necessary to reduce the risk of a paradoxical outcome.

In their excellent essay "Does Science Presuppose Naturalism?" (the correct answer is no), philosophers Yonatan Fishman and Maartin Boudry propose a complex, three criteria definition of supernatural.  I think their definition is a good start, but is unnecessarily complex and too weak.  I am going to propose a simpler and more stringent definition using their proposal as a starting point.

I will drop the criteria that they label as (2), which is that the phenomena "exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe".  Although this criteria is associated with the supernatural, I want to keep the proposition as simple as possible and this criteria is not essential.  I will then modify the criteria they label as (1) and reverse the order of the two remaining criteria. This results in the following two criteria for identifying supernatural phenomena:  (1) They suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme and (2) they operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current scientific understanding of what is permissible within the constraints set by natural laws.

The first criteria is important because it enables us to distinguish natural laws from supernatural laws.  We need to be able to make this distinction to apply the second criteria.  The second criteria is important because it defines the scope of what is possible within the natural framework.  Many people greatly underestimate the capabilities of the laws of nature and as a result of this ignorance are overly dismissive of the viability of naturalism.

The existing natural laws are incomplete. Therefore the quality of residing outside the scope of natural law is an insufficient condition for identifying supernatural phenomena.  Natural phenomena occurring outside the incomplete natural law framework are to be expected.  This is why the criteria says that a fundamental violation of a natural law constraint must occur. 

These two criteria can be combined into a single criteria.  This results in the following definition of supernatural phenomena:  They suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme, and they operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current scientific understanding of what is permissible within the constraints set by natural laws.  This requires an initial categorization of the existing scientific laws of the universe as being either natural or supernatural, which is done using the first half of the combined criteria.  A violation of at least one natural law is now a requisite indicator of supernatural phenomena, but is by itself insufficient.  Because we approach claims of supernaturalism skeptically, we will also require that the violation evince a mind-like, judgmental or supervised, purposefulness.

One common objection to any attempt to define supernaturalism is that the supernatural concept is always ruled out because it violates Occam's Razor.  But Occam's Razor is a rule of thumb focused on dropping superfluous adornments, its not a fundamental law for disregarding the direction of the evidences.  Another common objection is that all evidences favorable to supernaturalism should instead be interpreted as evidence of an advanced technology civilization trying to fool us.  This is a mirror image of the perspective of some theists that evidences favorable naturalism are really favorable for god.  Some people assert that supernaturalism entails unpredictability, undetectability, and similar attributes that place it outside the reach of evidences, rendering any attempt to evidence supernaturalism futile.   This is actually false, supernaturalism entails no such particular set of attributes (the previously referenced essay by Fishman and Boudry addresses this).

Supernaturalists are inclined to try to argue that the current scientific laws of the universe are themselves supernatural.  One argument that our laws are supernatural is the Fine Tuning argument.  Victor Stenger, among others, argues that the premises of the Fine Tuning argument are false.  But even if the Fine Tuning argument was valid, our current scientific laws predict a multiverse, and combining the Anthropic  Principle with a multiverse undermines the Fine Tuning argument.  Another argument that our laws are supernatural is the First Cause argument.  However, the consensus of cosmologists is that modern cosmology has no need for a non-natural first cause. It is difficult to avoid concluding that our universe overall is indifferent to humanity and to life more generally.  Even people who should know better nevertheless avoid this conclusion for psychological and psychology related political reasons (people prefer to believe that our universe is about us).

Merely accepting the possibility of supernaturalism being evidenced doesn't produce such evidence or otherwise render our universe any less naturalistic.  On the contrary, the fact that supernaturalism could be evidenced, but is not, is all the more reason to conclude that our universe is naturalistic.   As philosophical naturalists, we can and should be willing to acknowledge that if our universe did evidence supernaturalism then we should be supernaturalists.  Best fit with the evidences, despite its limitations, is the only viable method we have to accurately model our universe.  At the end of the day the goal of our beliefs about how the world works is to accurately model reality, not to reach any particular, fixed conclusion.