Monday, May 25, 2015

Thoughts on the Problem of Evil

Note:  This work is reproduced from my post in a discussion thread here

I've never really felt like the Problem of Evil explicitly disproves god. Merely that it's one of many observations of the world which serves to make "god" a less plausible explanation of how we came to be. So I'll cede the point that a valid argument could be made wherein it's possible for a deity with the omnis to exist while it allows purposeless suffering or "suffering whose purpose is beyond our mortal comprehension" to persist.

sschlichter's logical argument starts with the supposition that a god exists and it has the traditional three omni's. I reject that starting premise and instead consider the likelihood of a god existing or not existing based on the things I can directly observe. One of those things I can observe is that people are permitted to suffer and die with no apparent purpose. While it's possible that there could be a purpose, it's rather presumptuous to claim that such a higher purpose must exist.

At the original poster's request, I'll address the philosophical solution proposed by Alvin Plantinga, repeated here for convenience:

  1. A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. 
  2. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. 
  3. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.
  4. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. 
  5. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.
Free will analogy meme
It makes the false dichotomy of absolute free will or absolute slavery in [2 and 3]. It's apparent from the threat / reward system developed in Christian doctrine that we are in fact not given complete free will. In the same way that a mugger might hold a gun to our head and demand our wallet, "god" threatens hell and demands love and respect. We are "free" to reject god in the same way the mugging victim is free to refuse to give his mugger his wallet. Removing this false "free-will" dichotomy, it becomes clear that god could easily prevent child rape simply by inflicting mortal wound on the attacker once he has chosen to commit the crime. Judgement can be had, the rapist had free will, and the child needn't suffer. 

As for other issues with Plantinga's argument (as presented here), that "He must create creatures capable of moral evil" does not follow (non-sequitur) from the preceding discussion. Finally, this whole argument turns a blind eye to issues like drought, famine, disease, earthquakes, miscarriage, tsunamis, and all manner of other natural disasters which cause extensive human and animal suffering yet have no discernable connection to "free-will".

So to conclude, I find the argument wholly unconvincing, but even if it were convincing, the mere possibility that a god could be forced to allow evil in order to grant free will  doesn't make it so. It's still tremendously unlikely.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Thought Experiment On Marriage

I'd like to engage you in a thought experiment, dear reader. Suppose for a moment that two people care deeply about each other and want to spend their lives together. Set aside your assumptions about the nature of their sexual relationship just for a moment (we'll come back to it); Let's assume they're not having sex.

These two people share common interests and views on the important things in their lives. It just so happens that they're the same gender, but that's hardly relevant because this isn't about sex, remember? They care for eachother like brothers or sisters. Such love and commitment is something we should all encourage and celebrate, right?

Now, I promised we'd come back to sex and I know some of you may be harboring a significant doubt or concern about the physical nature of this same-sex relationship.  Let's address the part about sex. I'm happily married to my wife for 14 years.    We have three young children. You might reasonably assume we've had sex, but you wouldn't dare to ask us about our sex life, right?  Because you understand that what consenting adults do in private of our bedroom is none of your goddamn business.

Same goes for homosexual couples. Mind your own fucking business.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Self-Identity, Beliefs, and Emotional Logic


How does this guy feel when his beliefs are challenged? Do you suppose he's able to fairly consider ideas which conflict?
It's human nature at times to tie beliefs to our self-identity.  Religion is the most common example, but politics are a close second.  When we do this to ourselves, it makes us emotional about any challenge to our beliefs, as such challenges are also a threat to our self-identity.

For example, if a person says your belief system (be it atheism, Catholicism, or Islam) lead mankind to commit atrocities, the implication is that you are personally capable of and inclined to commit those atrocities. As the anger wells up in your chest, you become unable to discuss the assertion rationally. Our human minds are wired to respond to threats, and the fight-or-flight response responds to social threats as well as physical. Given the relative security and anonymity of the internet, it's a whole lot easier to choose to fight. When we chose to fight while emotional rather than to proceed with deliberate and thoughtful responses, things get ugly and we wind up looking like the "angry atheist".

Such attacks (i.e. the Hitler attack) are common on Twitter, and are blatant attempts to provoke an irrational, emotional response from the opponent.  This behavior should be called out for its immaturity or dismissed out of hand. Do not give the attacker the pleasure of seeing you mad.

Often, the provocation is much more subtle and we can miss the emotional reaction it induces in ourselves.  When a theist asserts that atheists have no morals or purpose, does that make you angry? Notice the biological reaction in yourself and use that awareness to take a deep breath and calm down before you respond.

A Solution

Sexy Lady Justice!
The best way I've found to help minimize my personal sense of threat or social hostility is to dissociate my beliefs from my sense of self. Though I identify as an atheist in this anonymous social-media persona, it's not a defining feature of my identity in real life. I've come to terms with my limited ability to know things. My senses and cognition are human, no more. I have made mistakes big and small, and I will continue to do so. It's okay to admit this fact and continue to do my best moving forward.

This approach to truth and honesty allows me to evaluate any claim that's made fairly and honestly. I'm not in any way set on maintaining my atheist belief. But I am keenly aware of the human cognitive biases which can lead to false beliefs. After all, I've fallen for many of those cognitive bias errors myself.

These cognitive biases are often mental shortcuts and assumptions we all make to simplify the decision-making process. The apply to all of us, and not just in our evaluation of religious beliefs.  I've made that mistake in many areas. Some good examples are irrational fear of flying and our tendency to make snap judgements of other people's motivations. It takes meticulous deliberation to think through beliefs and assumptions carefully, and each of us is liable to make that mistake when we're quick to reach a conclusion.

I often tell theists that I "Will Convert for Evidence", and I mean that with all sincerity. I believe I have drawn the most reasonable conclusion possible given the evidence available to me. If I discover new evidence that leads me to conclude a god actually exists, I will change my belief. Thus far, all the evidence I've seen is better explained by failures of human cognition such as group-think, wishful thinking, and emotional decision making.

The best I've seen from theists seems to be "promising" me that they "know" it's true. While I don't doubt the sincerity of their convictions, I understand the ways that people reach the wrong conclusions, then double-down on those conclusions rather than re-evaluating them.

I generally ask with sincerity how they know their particular god is real and how they selected it from among all the other religious beliefs. Most haven't considered any other religious beliefs. Those who have tend to draw comparisons like, "So which is most plausible? A mad prophet on a flying horse or humble Jesus on a donkey?" [link]

Such statements make it clear just how fair the evaluations of other beliefs were. The fear of damage to self-identity leads people to tip the scales in their identity's favor. The end result is a less impartial assessment of alternative explanations and a greater chance of missing the correct interpretation.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Why Louis Pasteur Didn't Prove Abiogenesis is Impossible

Christians often like to claim that Louis Pasteur proved abiogenesis was "impossible."  Here's the first example I came across in my search. It's a pretty professional-looking production. And it's short, so you won't hate me for wasting much of your life if you watch it. Seems like these guys understand the science and have thought it through, right?

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory.
A more careful review of his work demonstrates that he most certainly did nothing of the sort. In his experiment, Louis Pasteur experimented with relatively small quantities of liquid compared to the volume of liquid on earth. Let's pick an absurdly large number in order to give the Christian claim every possible benefit.  Suppose that Pasteur tested a thousand cubic meters of liquid. That's 260,000 gallons, larger than the Giant Ocean Tank at the New England Aquarium. Pasteur demonstrated that no life spontaneously generated in them over the course of his experiment. Let's assume that it was a decade-long experiment.  These would be very large numbers, considering the pictures available of him in his laboratory.  Pasteur's analysis did not demonstrate that life never spontaneously forms anywhere ever. It only showed only that life did not spontaneously generate in the large sample of broth over the time period he tested.  This puts a lower-bound on the mean time until life spontaneously forms in a given volume of liquid.  In other words, we can say with confidence that life sponteneously generates less often than once in $10^4 m^3  \cdot years$ . (for the sake of simplicity, I'm presuming that the spontaneous generation of life would follow Poisson distribution where each infinitesimal unit of liquid volume is as likely as any other to spontaneously generate life per unit time).

Now, compare that volume to the volume of water on earth ($1.386 \times 10^{18} m^3$) and we can then calculate a lower-bound on the global spontaneous generation rate:

$ f_{gen} < \frac{10^4 m^3/yr}{1.386\times 10^{18} m^3} $
$ f_{gen} < 1.386  \times 10^{14} year^{-1}  $
$ f_{gen} < 4.39 MHz $ [ref] 

That's right.  Pasteur's experiment shows that life spontaneously forms on Earth at a rate below 4.4 million times per second.  And that's with the generous assumption that he tested a thousand cubic meters of solution! Life could be forming all around the world at a rate of 4.4 MHz, and Pasteur's experiments would remain a valid measure. In 1000 cubic meters over a decade, life is unlikely to form.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

High Pressure Sales Tactics of Religion

High-pressure sales guy. 
"Convert to __________ now. Hurry before it's too late!"

Why? Why on Earth would a god judge us for the conclusions we reach absent any tangible evidence? Having designed us, he's surely aware that we have no senses with which to detect his presence. So there's no way any of us can know for certain.

If it's all revealed when we die, why can't we just decide then? What's with the "hurry, act now!" mentality? Christians say our soul is eternal, so why would a fair God put an arbitrary deadline on our beliefs? It sure seems to me that an ethical god would let you in on the secret and give you time to make an informed choice.

From what I've seen of the scriptures, it's not there. There's several places in the Bible where salvation is described, and the interpretations are inconsistent.  Faith or Works is one of the key points of disagreement in the Christian faiths, contributing to the schism between Catholic and Protestant sects.  But none of the scriptures I've managed to find suggest you have to decide before you die.

So what is this approach and where did it come from? It sure seems to me like a classic high pressure sales trick. The offer (eternal bliss) might not last. You have to decide today before it's too late (you die). In reality, the offer will probably be there tomorrow too. They want the sale.

So why is there an arbitrary deadline being pushed here? Seems like the church really needs you to join up now. You're not much use to them once you're dead. The only relationship that has any sort of urgency is your relationship to the church. God is eternal. A few decades don't make a difference to him.