Monday, December 29, 2008

Personal Identity

There's a movie out there called "The Ghost In The Shell", about a futuristic world where people regularly get cybernetic enhancements. Some people go so far as to replace their entire bodies, having their consciousnesses, whatever that is, moved into android bodies.

The logic behind this world is interesting. It states that there was a scientist who asked at what point a human stops being a human. If you lose an arm and have it replaced, are you not human? What about both arms? How about the torso? Eventually, he reasoned that there was never a point where a human would stop being human as long as it retained its consciousness.

But what is that? What is that thing that is transferred? Let's take this example out of the realm of fiction and move it into reality. How would such a process work? What, exactly, is "downloaded" into the android body? Most would say "thought patterns", but that begs the question - why would that remove the thought patterns from the original host? From everything we know, the information would be copied into the new form and deleted from the old. That means that, while it is functionally the same in every way, the android is not the same person. The original person died when the old thought patterns were deleted. That is, unless there's some kind of soul that you could move. I don't think that there is.

That thing that makes you who you are and differentiates you from an exact duplicate of yourself I will label Personal Identity. Soul carries too much baggage. When that personal identity ceases to exist, you are dead. That we will call "breaking the continuity".

This sort of thing happens all the time. If you're old enough to read and understand this, you don't have a single atom left from the body in which you were born. In many ways, you are a duplicate of your original. The continuity never seemed to break, though. There was never a moment where you ceased to be you and became a duplicate. Is it simply the gradualness of a process that determines if your personal identity remains or is lost?

I don't think so. That seems arbitrary. Illusory. I think that we do, slowly, over time, lose one personal identity and develop another. And another. But it's so gradual, so insignificant, that we'd never know. We are functionally the same. I have memories of myself as a little boy, but can I really say that I was that boy in the sense that I discussed? I don't know. Wouldn't an exact duplicate of me think the same thing, whatever the means of its construction?

Volumes of science fiction could and probably have been written about this subject. What about teleportation? Can we disintegrate a person and reconstruct her, atom by atom, in another place without breaking continuity? I doubt it. Wouldn't it be just as simple to analyze the atomic structure of that person and reconstruct her in that other place without disintegrating her? If you did, that other her would be functionally the same without sharing that same personal identity. Why, then, would we think differently if the first was annihilated? Because there's no one to claim otherwise, I suppose.

Going back to the first example, with cybernetics, let's say that you replace part of the brain with an electronic duplicate. Is it still the same person? Functionally, yes, but is the personal identity the same? I don't know. What if you gradually replace the entire brain with electronics, bit by bit over a period of years? Is the end product the same person you started with? While he or she may be exactly the same in every perceptible way, I would think not. I would think that this is a duplicate.

If this is the case, then why would we think differently of ourselves just because our brains are replaced atom by atom with organic material? There is no clear point at which continuity is broken, and yet it seems that it has been. What, exactly, is happening here?

All of these may very well be impossible to answer truthfully. This is one of the great laments of the rationalist. Because we refuse to use the easy, likely untrue answers, we often have to settle for no answer at all. If I do not allow for a soul that sits in the mass of atoms that composes my body and drives it the way I might drive a car, I can't know whether the child I see in old pictures of myself is actually me or if that's just how I remember it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Arguments Theists Can't Win

Clever, clever. It would seem a fellow named Doug Eaton has distilled several atheist arguments that beat him regularly and used them to populate a list called "Pitfalls For Atheists To Avoid".

His reasoning, I can only assume, is that atheists will believe that he truly has their best interests at heart and will indeed stop using these arguments. I'd love to return the favor for theists, but I can't think of any arguments they have that can't be taken apart on their own merits.

Anyways, let's see what he has to say, shall we? I apologize for the length, but I think it's worth understanding why these arguments actually work.

Doug Eaton believes that we should not:

1. Assume that because you compare theism to believing in pink unicorns or fairy tales that you have made a good argument.

Okay... so, maybe you were going to refute that argument to show why it's not good? What we're doing here is making an analogy, Doug. We have no good reason to believe in pink unicorns. We see drawing of pink unicorns everywhere. Children love them. We can imagine them. We can discuss their habits, desires, wishes, dreams and accomplishments. Despite all this, we have no legitimate evidence for the existence of pink unicorns. That's a lot like God. It's a good argument until you can refute it to show why the analogy is flawed.

2. Become hostile and use degrading vulgarities while maintaining that Christianity is an immoral religion.

Alright, I'm not sure if you mean that it would be hypocritical to be hostile and use vulgarities while calling Christianity immoral, because it wouldn't be hypocritical at all, or if you mean that it just won't be taken well. You're probably right, it generally won't be taken well. That doesn't mean it's not still deserved or, in the case of the latter point, true. Christianity is, after all, an immoral religion. What else would you call a religion that allows for slavery, child abuse, murder and eternal torture on the basis of an incorrect guess? I would also encourage your side to avoid becoming hostile, using vulgarities or accusing atheists of immorality. We can refute the latter, you can't.

3. When you are having trouble answering an argument posed by a Christian theist, simply say, “well even if this were true, it doesn’t prove the existence of the ‘Christian’ God.”

So an example would be, let's say, the Big Bang argument. What set the Big Bang in motion? Were I to, for the sake of argument, grant that it could have been some sort of God, why should I then concede that it would also have to be the Christian God? Sorry, Doug, this is still a valid point. The burden of proof is on you not only to show that there is a god, but that it's your god. Otherwise it could very well be the deist god, who started the universe and buggered off, or a pantheist god who started the universe by being the universe. It could be Atman, Ymir, Nox or any of a billion other gods we've seen on this planet, or something else altogether. Those are pretty poor odds, Doug. You still have a lot of evidence to present, and you're not off the hook just because you think yours is the best.

4. Assume that simply because you explain a phenomena from a naturalistic perspective that it constitutes an argument which must be true.

Here's where we get back to Occam's Razor. It is possible that the Black Cherry Soda in my mouth is actually an illusion perpetrated upon me by a mischievous boggan, who has stolen my soda and is drinking it himself. Or it could be that I'm actually drinking the soda. Let's take a look at which one is more likely to be true.

With Occam's Razor, we look at how many assumptions each argument makes. The first is that the supernatural is possible, that such things as boggans exist, that they are capable of illusions involving taste and touch, that they would be motivated to perform such illusions on humans, and that they like Black Cherry Soda. Assumptions in the second argument are that I can trust my taste buds to reliably describe what I'm eating or drinking and that the flavor of the soda in the can is correctly described on the can's label.

By definition, Doug, a supernatural explanation is less likely than a natural explanation. That's what makes it supernatural. We have yet to see any sort of precedent whatsoever for legitimate supernatural explanations. Fewer assumptions are made in natural explanations, therefore those arguments are to be preferred. That's not to say that they are definitely the truth but, until we get compelling evidence to the contrary, we can safely assume that they probably are. Again, the burden of proof is on you to show otherwise.

5. When arguing against the Christian God, simply say that you only believe in “one less god” than most people, as if that does not require you to defend an atheistic understanding of cosmology, anthropology, ethics, philosophy of history, philosophy of politics, philosophy of science, and epistemology.

It... doesn't require me to defend all that crap. In fact, the two are so unrelated that I don't even know how you put this together.

First, the "I believe in one god fewer than you" argument isn't really an argument; it's an illustrative tool. The goal is to get the theist to consider all the reasons that he or she disbelieves in other gods and then consider why those reasons are dismissed in the case of his or her own god. It's to show that we agree on most stuff, it's just this one point where we think you're being inconsistent.

Second, none of those things requires a theistic mindset. None of them contradicts an atheistic mindset. We don't have to reimagine every field of knowledge to confirm our beliefs, Doug. We just have to check to make sure that our beliefs are consistent with existing knowledge. So far, yeah, that's been the case. Anthropology may not have anything to confirm or deny the existence of a god (though I would suggest it does deny all gods pretty strongly, for the sake of argument let's say that it doesn't) and that doesn't matter. That only means that it contradicts neither of our beliefs, so we can both have the exact same views in anthropology. No contorting must be done. So far, we haven't had to contort at all with any of these subjects. I can't say the same for theists. That whole evolution thing really threw you for a loop.

6. Make metaphysical statements that suggest that metaphysics are a useless waste of time.

Rrrrrrrright. Contemplating the nature of reality is fine. The problem with metaphysics is a very low bar for entry. It all too quickly becomes a masturbatory enterprise for people who don't really know what they're talking about or what metaphysics even is. Saying that all metaphysics are a useless waste of time is incorrect, yes, but massive, massive segments of it are exactly that. Metaphysics has become a new word for people who like to sound "enlightened". Like "spirituality". They are buzzwords. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

7. Argue that we should only believe things proven by empirical evidence without proving it with empirical evidence.

Proven by empirical evidence? No. Shown as more than likely by empirical evidence? Yes. And I can prove that.

We will create two categories: one favoring evidence, one against.

In the "For" Column, we'll list Things Which Have Evidence And Are True, and Things Which Have No Evidence Which Are Untrue.

In the "Against" Column, we'll list Things Which Have No Evidence But Are True, and Things Which Have Evidence But Are Untrue.

You might have spotted the trick already. The fact is that it doesn't matter how many examples we can come up with for the "Against" Column, because the second category in the "For" Column is literally an infinite list. There is no end to things that are untrue and which have no evidence.

Therefore, it can be established that evidence is at least a better guide than flipping a coin. Until you can demonstrate a better system, we'll go with this.

8. Use logic like it is a universal, transcendent, unchanging reality when atheistic naturalism cannot account for universal, transcendent, unchanging realities.

Logic is unchanging? Says who? As we learn more, we refine logic to fit reality and more accurately predict the truth. Doug, you're really putting the wagon before the cart here. Not to mention that your people invent new logical fallacies constantly, so we get to figure out why they're fallacies, using analogies as demonstrated in #1, and add them to the Big Book Of Logic. You do have a Big Book Of Logic, don't you?

Also, take a look at #7 again. I can demonstrate in the same way why logic works. Let's count out how many illogical assertions are untrue.

9. Argue that there is no evidence to believe in the existence of God because all the evidence that is produced fails to pass the standards of evidence which have been constructed from the belief that God does not exist.

You believe the standards of evidence were formulated around the idea that God does not exist? What happened to all those genius scientists who were believers? You know, the ones your side loves to trumpet as though they were walking proof of God's obviousness? Newton and the like?

The standards of evidence were not stacked against God. They were constructed to predict reality. They've been working pretty well so far, see #7. God has yet to show up.

10. Argue that human beings are robots, puppets, and machines programmed by natural selection in a closed system of cause and effect, and then argue for free thought and moral agency.

Fair enough. I'm not a big fan of physical and chemical determinism, either. We're certainly shaped by our experiences and our genes, but within those frameworks we do have the freedom to choose. I assume that's what you mean by free thought.

Moral agency is a stickier issue. Can we blame people like Jefferson for owning slaves when that was just the zeitgeist? The answer is yes, though our blame is tempered with the knowledge that he was not the general commanding atrocities, merely the soldier carrying them out. He can be blamed for his lack of courage, conviction, perception, perspective and reason, but it is the zeitgeist itself we must blame for the atrocities of slavery.

I have no doubt that our generation will be similarly condemned for issues we do not see as obviously moral questions in our times. My money's on eating meat. Give it a few hundred years and a different perspective, I suspect future generations will wonder how each of us ever justified the casual murder of thousands of animals to feed ourselves, much less the number societies murder as a whole. The more I think about it, the harder time I have finding ways around it. We might very well be wrong.

But I digress. God isn't necessary for free thought or moral agency, sorry. Experiences and genes shape us, and there is no external absolute moral authority, but the former does not remove our ability to choose and the latter does not negate accountability for our beliefs and actions.

11. Place your ultimate trust in human reason while believing that man’s mind evolved from lower animals such as monkeys and will continue to evolve until we become the monkeys from which the minds of the future will have evolved.

Oof. Not an English major, were you, Doug? I see where you're going, though. We have to acknowledge that we're flawed, and trusting a flawed system is a bad idea. That would be the case, except that no better system is known to exist. There are degrees of accuracy, Doug, and as our ability to perceive, digest, understand, comprehend and predict the truth, reality, the universe, or whatever you want to call it, we seem to be moving farther and farther away from supernatural explanations. We have no reason to suspect that a more developed mind would turn back and embrace superstition.

Also, just so you know, there's no guarantee that humans will be any smarter, biologically speaking, in the future. Natural selection and evolution only reward breeding, not intelligence. If anything, we're more likely to backslide as the future approaches. There's also no reason to think we're any more biologically intelligent than our ancestors going back thousands of years. Our knowledge has grown sociologically. It's not that our brains are better at discerning information, it's that we have more information available. Though I really could go for a banana right now.

Seriously, though, you know we didn't evolve from monkeys, right? That's like saying that your cousin is your grandfather. We share an ancestor, monkeys are not our ancestors.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Art Of War On Christmas

I love Christmas. Halloween is more fun, but Christmas feels more important. Everything's shut down, everyone just takes some time out. I'm almost surprised when I see people driving around, and I always assume that they're just on their way to some gathering with family or friends. I don't like the idea of anyone trying to do anything productive on Christmas. Take the day, man. Have some nog.

One of my favorite parts of Christmas, however, is a shining little light tucked away in the long, dark, irritating tunnel that is the month leading up to the holiday. (Also, the tunnel plays Christmas music all the time.) That light is the War On Christmas.

Oh, it's like an early present every year. People I suspected of insanity earlier in the year confirm my suspicions and go completely bat-shit over something stupid like "Season's Greetings". Jesus lollerskating Christ, and you people say the liberals are too sensitive.

That said, this year's war had a pretty interesting skirmish. The Washington Legislative Building in Olympia allows for holiday displays, even those of a religious nature. The catch is that they aren't allowed to discriminate, so anyone can put up their little display. The Freedom From Religion foundation decided to do exactly that.

"At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Oof. That's a little rough. Also, it doesn't rhyme. That probably won't get people to think twice about their beliefs. Touchy as they are, they'll be too busy being offended (though, of course, this sign doesn't even distantly imply that they'll be tortured for all eternity for the crime of guessing wrong). As a PR move for atheists, it's probably not that great. As a catalyst to demonstrate the silliness of allowing these sorts of displays in a public building? Oh, it's pretty damn good.

First came the protests.

"The No. 1 thing is, we want the state of Washington and the governor to represent everyone in the state," said the Rev. Kenneth Hutcherson, the pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond. "But just because you must represent everyone in the state doesn't mean that you put up with intolerance from the people that you represent."

Hey, good call Reverend. That's why we're not going to listen to the protests. The sign stays.

Republican State Representative Jim Dunn, you had something to add?

"It is time to chase out of the house of God all the unbelievers and evildoers," Dunn said.

Great, thanks for the input.

In a stunning display of religious tolerance, the sign was stolen.

The sign, which was at the Legislative Building at 6:30 a.m. PT, was gone by 7:30 a.m., Gaylor said.

The incident will not stifle the group's message, (Freedom From Religion co-founder Annie Laurie) Gaylor said. Before reports of the placard's recovery, she said a temporary sign with the same message would be placed in the building's Rotunda. Gaylor said a note would be attached saying, "Thou shalt not steal."

It didn't last for twelve hours. That's how crazy people get about Christmas. Mark my words, it won't be long until we see signs reading "CHRISTmas!!" to match the "One Nation, UNDER GOD!!" bumper stickers. Hey, did anyone else notice that the first line of that CNN article says the sign criticizes Christianity? That's weird, I don't remember the sign saying anything about Jesus.

The story doesn't end there, though. I wouldn't waste your time. Everyone's favorite IRL-troll Fred Phelps and his crew have decided to get in on the action. Here's what their sign will say:

You'd better watch out, get ready to cry, You'd better go hide, I'm telling you why 'cuz Santa Claus will take you to hell. He is your favorite idol, you worship at his feet, but when you stand before your God He won't help you take the heat. So get this fact straight: you're feeling God's hate, Santa's to blame for the economy's fate, Santa Claus will take you to hell.

Man, that's awesome. Sometimes I'm actually thankful for the Westboro Baptist Church. They illustrate points so well.

Bill Donohue, a crazy bastard who I suspect lures children under bridges and then eats them (and he has yet to prove otherwise), has some especially confusing logic to explain why he should have freedom of speech, but other people shouldn't.

In other words, hate groups have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but they have no right to set the time and place. Moreover, freedom of speech is meaningless unless it can prevail unobstructed by attempts to stifle it.

Yes, he really did follow that first sentence with that second one. Yes, that really does completely contradict his first sentence. No one's speech is being violated by the atheist sign, Bill. You still have your display. Atheists just get to say something, too. That's how freedom of speech works - everyone gets it.

But wait! Everyone? Yes, everyone. That means that they actually do have to put up the Festivus pole. That means that they actually do have to put up the Flying Spaghetti Monster display. This has become a complete circus.

And here's the point. This is why secular government is the way to go. This is why you don't allow nativity scenes on public property. You aren't allowed to discriminate. If you let one group do it, you have to let all the groups do it. The result is exactly what you see. This is one-upmanship run amok. Half the participants are laughing their asses off, the other half are losing their minds, and I can only imagine that Washington's poor governor is buried in a deluge of angry letters from people with delusions of relevance.

Wasn't there some sort of holiday coming up or something?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

God Only SEEMS Nonexistent

Warning for the sensitive: There are a couple pictures of birth defects that are a bit disturbing. They don't last long.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dang it.

Someone came up with the same thing I did and put it on a t-shirt. You can get a stick figure Muhammad t-shirt. I'm tempted to buy it, but I don't know that I'd ever actually wear it. Not because I fear repercussions (I'd be happy to get on the news), but I'm not a fan of the design. There are some pretty good shirts on that site (such as the "I'd verb her noun." shirt), but I just don't want to be the goofy t-shirt guy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Roger Ebert Attacks Expelled

He's a bit late to the party, but Roger Ebert decided to weigh in on Expelled, Ben Stein's anti-Evolution and pro-Intelligent Design film. He's not very kind to it.

I liked this bit:
This film is cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted, cherry-picks quotations, draws unwarranted conclusions, makes outrageous juxtapositions (Soviet marching troops representing opponents of ID), pussy-foots around religion (not a single identified believer among the ID people), segues between quotes that are not about the same thing, tells bald-faced lies, and makes a completely baseless association between freedom of speech and freedom to teach religion in a university class that is not about religion.