Sunday, July 5, 2009

Special Pleading

I was listening to some people debate the merits and faults of the Cosmological Argument for God when I noticed another common thread running through many apologetics' favorite arguments.

The Cosmological Argument is the First Cause argument. Essentially:
1) Everything has to have a cause.
2) There must have been a first cause.
3) That first cause, we call God.

Setting aside the fact that, even granting all these premises, you can't then derive any information about that god from this argument, this argument is self-refuting.

Thomas Aquinas phrased this argument a few different ways and called them all different arguments. But, really, they're all just iterations of the Cosmological Argument.

Below, I'm posting a section of the Transcendental Argument for God from, but not the entire thing because it's very lengthy.

Their own summary goes like this:

Logical absolutes exist. Logical absolutes are conceptual by nature, are not dependent on space, time, physical properties, or human nature. They are not the product of the physical universe (space, time, matter), because if the physical universe were to disappear, logical absolutes would still be true. Logical Absolutes are not the product of human minds, because human minds are different, not absolute. But, since logical absolutes are always true everywhere, and not dependent upon human minds, it must be an absolute transcendent mind that is authoring them. This mind is called God.

The first half can be summarized as, "Yes, if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, it does indeed make a sound." I agree with that. Sounds are not defined by whether or not they are heard, they are defined by sound waves. All our experience shows that a tree falling creates sound waves.

You might feel a bit of a logical hiccup once you get toward the end of this summary, though. There are a number of them, but this particular hiccup becomes more obvious in the expanded version.

Number 2, Section C: Something cannot bring itself into existence. In order for something to bring itself into existence, it has to have attributes in order to perform an action. But if it has attributes, then it already has existence. If something does not exist, it has no attributes and can perform no actions. Therefore, something cannot bring itself into existence.

Here's where we get to the point.

Many theological arguments are structured as follows:
1) This rule exists, applies to everything, and cannot be broken.
2) Something must have broken this rule, because it's difficult to conceive another way the universe could come to be.
3) It must have been God.

That's called special pleading. God is exempt from whatever rule it is that they put forward, because he's God. Why is it God that's exempt, and not, say, the universe? Which god is the one that's exempt - Ymir? Nox? Yahweh? Brahman? How do we know such an entity thinks marriage is between a man and a woman? Why did it create cancer?

These can all essentially be broken down to, "Who designed the designer?" Once you ask that question, the special pleading is revealed for what it is, and their efforts to arbitrarily assign a sort of "stopping point" to the logical regression comes to a screeching halt.

There's a decent chance my next post will deal more with the Transcendental Argument. I apologize for that. It's complicated, confusing, and very weird. That, in my opinion, is precisely why some people find it so convincing. It's a logical magic trick.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Newsweek Nails It

Had a bit of a crazy month, but I'll post something new soon. Until then, check out this article released somewhat recently by Newsweek, finally bringing the skeptical perspective on Oprah to the mainstream:
Why Health Advice on 'Oprah' Could Make You Sick

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Evolution and Creation

God is omniscient. This is a defining characteristic of most gods. For the purposes of this argument, I'm dealing with those gods.

My uncle is a dentist. About once a year, he performs a procedure on a blowfish. A local restaurant owner has a pet blowfish that he considers the mascot for the restaurant. A blowfish's fangs grow over time, as they trim them down by chewing on coral. This blowfish, however, has nothing on which to chew. Thus, he nearly starved to death because his fangs grew so large that he couldn't fit food into his mouth. My uncle saved his life by becoming the first dentist to perform this procedure. And now he does it yearly, because the fangs keep growing back. It's difficult (for everyone) and dangerous (for the fish).

This is evolution in action. It's short-sighted. Evolution sees (figuratively) a niche, or a problem, or a weakness, and it latches onto the first solution that comes along. That solution works fine under the current circumstances, but evolution doesn't know enough to plan for the future. It doesn't consider that circumstances change. It just react to current circumstances. If those circumstances last long enough, you get some really weird stuff. If they change, species go extinct.

We can see examples of short-sighted biological developments all over the world. Moths fly into flames because they use light from the moon and stars to navigate. They didn't expect that we might find a way to have light while it's dark, and they certainly didn't expect that light would kill them. Fortunately (or not), there are plenty of moths and their population can withstand the fairly modest number of candle-related casualties they now suffer.

Being prone to addiction is a biological condition. Some have suggested that it might even be a desirable trait on some levels, as addicts have proven time and again to be extremely resilient when it comes to survival (as far as natural selection is concerned anyway - it doesn't care if you live to 80, just as long as you have babies before you go). Striving to satisfy that craving provides motivation to a creature, whatever that craving is. That creature will go to almost any lengths to get what it wants, and that resolution helps them survive until they get it. The consequences of addiction are largely unimportant to evolution. Lost your job? Died at 30? Got thrown in jail? Killed someone? As long as you had kids, and there's a good chance you did, natural selection is happy with its choice.

Flawed biology simply doesn't make sense for an omniscient god. Why would you build things with such remarkably crippling flaws when you can clearly see the problems that will arise? How can an omniscient being be so short-sighted? Why build things with a predisposition to suffer and fail?

Nature has an obvious bottom-up design. It is complicated, convoluted, and confusing- a complete clusterfuck. The course of its progression makes your average MMORPG's design look positively prescient. (Boom! Take that, MMORPGs!) It is short-sighted and flawed, but beautifully so. It could not more clearly resemble the rule of chaos- undirected and free. It lacks intent or direction, or any other stain that would have been left by a thoughtful creator.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Thing About Chaos...

It's fair.

The Dark Knight almost certainly didn't intend to be taken this way, but I found it to be a very humanist-friendly film.

Here we watch a battle between two men who both believe that only Man can decide if the world flourishes or burns. One believes that Man can rise above his chaotic, violent instincts, the other doesn't.

The Joker is an excellent portrayal of the mentality some theists expect to see of atheists. "There is no God, thus, there is no purpose, thus, everything is permitted." He does more than accept and cope with the chaos of the world, he revels in it. More than that, he does everything he can to enhance it so that everyone else will see it and be unable to deny it. No one freaks out if everything goes according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying.

Batman, on the other hand, understands the chaos of the world and has taken it upon himself to help the world cope. He knows his battle can never be won. To paraphrase a prolific comic book writer, Warren Ellis, "The world can neither be perfect or doomed, but it can be better." He understands evil will always return and wreak havoc on the innocent, but we can make incremental progress. We can stubbornly continue to rebuild the sand castle, knowing that the tide of chaos will eventually roll back and smash it to bits. Most, importantly, only we can rebuild that sand castle. Batman is the epitome of one person standing up and deciding to take responsibility, rather than waiting for someone (or something) else to handle it for him. Batman is action, as opposed to prayer.

One man is trying to make the world better, the other is trying to make the world worse. The point is that they both know the choice is theirs. The world is ours to do with as we see fit, and as our natures dictate. There is no cosmic authority to watch over us and decide the results of our actions - they're in our hands.

When we glimpse the pain that chance can inflict on us, will our minds snap like Harvey Dent's? Or will we rise above our anger and put our experience to use, like Bruce Wayne?

When chaos appears, will we devour each other like the gangsters who made a deal with the Joker? Or can we maintain our faith in our fellow men and work to overcome it, like the people trapped in the wired boats?

This was part two of supervillains and religion.


I apologize for the huge gap between posts of late. I'm a very reactive person. When I'm in an environment conducive to atheological reasoning (such as at my last job, where I'd openly talk about it with co-workers, and I'd spend most of my time driving around and listening to books or podcasts on the subject), I have a lot of inspiration to write. Subjects come up and I want to address them. New job doesn't really have that same environment. I can't listen to books or podcasts because the job requires me to focus mentally, so they'd just be background noise. I do like the new job, but it's definitely making my "free-time writing" suffer.

That said, I've had a few experiences worth noting. Foremost in my memory are the instances of selective praise. We've all heard it before, and it feels weak to discuss it again, but it's so common I think it's worth touching on.

A horrific scenario occurred in the family of one of my colleagues in another office. Her 4-year-old daughter developed a malignant brain tumor. I became aware of this when I received the company-wide email from her, explaining the story so far. Her daughter was to go in for surgery on the next day. She asked for our prayers.

Setting aside the fact that prayer can cause harm in such a situation, I didn't think much of it. A religious person is speaking religiously, hardly news.

What irritated me was a few days later, after the surgery, when she announced its smashing success. I was glad to hear her daughter was going to be alright, but rather confused that she gave all the credit for the effective surgery to God and prayer, and none to the doctors who were actually there, doing the work. Those doctors who spent their lives training so they might help people in just such a way - yeah, those guys.

It raised the obvious question - why did God feel it appropriate to give a brain tumor to a 4-year-old in the first place? Why, after the surgery, did he allow malignant, microscopic cells to remain? Why did he allow her to faint and smack her head on the sink faucet, prompting another trip to the hospital? Where's the gain in all this? Is it so the company can come together as a community, hoping the little girl gets better? Isn't that just sick? By that very reasoning, a kidnapper is committing a morally laudable act by providing a community with the hope that its children will be returned safely.

We're right back to the problem of evil and the question of motivation I addressed in my last post. Causing pain to get a reaction isn't accepted by society (except for the Bush administration, apparently), why do we accept it of God? Are we victims of Stockholm Syndrome on a cosmic scale? Why do we cling so strongly to the idea of a Creator that we will make excuses for the evil he created? For being guided by a benevolent being with a plan, the world certainly appears awfully chaotic and unfair.

The girl is still in poor shape. They're asking for more prayers. I hope they're not telling her about them, I imagine she's frightened enough without knowing that dozens of people think only a miracle will save her.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Fear Tactics

Check out what just showed up in the mail.

Death. It is one thing we all have in common. It is something that we can't escape. For some people, this is a frightening thought. For many, what you see is all that is, which means that death wins - it has the final word. The story of Easter claims that death does not win. The story of Easter and the story of Jesus declares that in some strange, yet profound reversal, life wins.

And it goes from there in the same William Wallace-esque "Few of us ever ask if we've ever truly lived" kind of stuff we're used to hearing from that crowd.

But just wow. Not even trying to hide it. Thing is, death isn't an entity. It's a fact. That's like saying that, because we all can't fly around like Superman, gravity wins.

Fact is, I don't stress about death. When it comes, it comes. If I die tonight, I hope it's as painless as possible. If I die in seventy years, I hope it's as painless as possible. That's really all I ask. I'm in no rush to die, but being afraid of it just because it really is the end is just silly. Hell, if it wasn't the end, there'd be more to fear. The thing about death is that when it's over, it's over. The afterlife can keep on screwing with you, though.

Also, who says "what you see is all that is"? Talk about your straw men. Even the most rudimentary understanding of science or art can show you that this is plainly untrue, even for the most hardcore materialist.

I hope they keep sending these things to me. I'm betting the next one starts off with, "YOU HAVE CANCER."

Supervillains and Religion

It is, without doubt, because I am a nerd that I often find comic book parallels for theistic and apologetic arguments. I'm going to address one of them today.

The problem of evil was first (as far as we know) articulated by Epicurus around three hundred years before the Common Era. It's a rather simple argument and, while it doesn't disprove the existence of any gods, it rather handily disproves the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god. That's what Epicurus wanted to do, after all; he simply thought the gods (plural) were removed and uninterested in humanity.

It goes like this:

There is evil in the world.

Does God not want to prevent that evil? Then he is not benevolent.

Is God unable to prevent that evil? Then he is not omnipotent.

If he is both benevolent and omnipotent, then why is there evil?

That's sort of the David Hume version. There exist numerous responses to this, all of which fail to understand the meaning of the words "omnipotent" or "benevolent." I'm going to address one that fails on the latter.

Saint Irenaeus and others have said that evil is a necessary part of spiritual growth. After all, if we had no hardship to endure, we would have nothing to build our characters. There is no courage without fear, for instance. On some level, this misunderstands the nature of omnipotence; simply because we cannot conceive of something does not mean that it could not be so. Indeed, if God is omnipotent, exactly the opposite. He must be able to accomplish the logically impossible, or there are limits to his power.

However, setting that aside, let's grant the premise that evil must exist for spiritual growth. Is it worth it? Is that moral?

Zoom is an enemy of the Flash in DC Comics, who, like many well-constructed villains, follows a different moral code. He thinks he does what he does for the greater good, while the rest of us view his actions as obviously and horribly evil. He attempted to murder the Flash's pregnant wife, and succeeded in causing a miscarriage of their twin children. He has been responsible for numerous tragedies in the lives of many heroes, all with the goal of making better heroes. The element of personal tragedy that marks so many heroes, Zoom reasons, is what makes them sympathetic to the suffering of others. This is why they risk so much to help people. Thus, inflicting evil on an individual builds his or her character.

Sound familiar? Strange, isn't it, how a defense of God's motivations so easily translates into the motivations of a supervillain. That's not a benevolent god, that's a sociopath.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Let's Get Angry

Story here.

I read about this about a year ago. While this example is particularly horrific, it's nothing all that new - some horrible cult (this one happens to count a very low percentage of the world's population among its members, so the rest of the world is calling it a "cult" as well, instead of a respectable institution) murders a child for its religious beliefs.

Usually you see this with faith healing types. Medicine and treatment are withheld, the kid dies, the parents say, "Not our fault!" and the rest of the world says, "Yes it is!" and to jail they go.

Frequently, those same parents will try to claim religious freedom in their defense. Of course, as noted by Judge Vincent Howard in just such a case, "The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct."

Here, however, we see a court playing into the delusions of the murderers.

A Maryland woman involved with a group described as a religious cult pleaded guilty in the starvation death of her son, but insisted that the charges be dropped when he is resurrected.

Bold mine. That's her plea agreement. They agreed to that.

Let's think about the message that sends to anyone watching - it's not okay to kill your child in God's name if you're wrong, but if your beliefs turn out to be right then we'll accommodate you.

The problem with that is simple. There's are some people on this planet who are absolutely convinced, 100%, that they are right. I call them "everyone." This does absolutely nothing to deter such murders in the future. If anything, from the perspective of the people who really, truly believe that it's really going to work this time, this is a stamp of approval.

Do you really believe what you say you believe? Then what are you worried about? Starve your child to death if he doesn't say "amen" before or after a meal. God wants you to, and the courts will back you up. But only if you really think you're right. Only if you believe with all your heart. Only if you know for sure that God's on your side.

Also, if it turns out that your neighbor's dog really did make you go on a killing spree, we'll set you free and arrest the dog. So, you know, make sure that dog's telling the truth.

What really happened here is likely one of two scenarios:

1) The prosecutors agreed to throw this clause in because they thought they'd get something useful out of the bargain. They figure no harm, no foul, and this way more bad people go to jail. To some extent, they're right. We do want all of the people responsible thrown in jail for as long as possible, but I don't know that we can call legitimizing a claim like this "no harm."

2) The prosecutors feared that they might lose their conviction on the grounds of religious belief. After all, it's difficult to prove that resurrection will never happen. A lot of the people in the jury probably believe it happened at least once. Isn't the defendant entitled to her belief that it was going to happen to her? The answer, of course, is "Yes, but she's not entitled to act on it." It's the difference between thinking dozens of people deserve to die and actually killing them. But they feared a stupid jury, and decided to compromise, setting a disturbing example for the future, so they could sidestep that possibility.

Good thing we don't rely on court decisions for precedent or anything.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Grasping For Meaning

Thomas Aquinas suggested that a proof for God's existence was the absurdity of infinite regression. Everything has a cause, but at some point there had to be a first cause. His way out of this was to assign that first cause the name "God".

Atheists have since contended that this only dodges the question. Even if we agree to call the first cause "God" we have failed to demonstrate any characteristics of that first cause. We can't even know if it's intelligent. To try to draw any conclusions from this assertion is impossible.

Similarly, theists will claim that the universe cannot exist eternally (for various unconvincing reasons) and so it requires a point of Creation. That point of Creation must have been enacted by a Creator, who is God and who is eternal. But the question then goes, "If the universe cannot be eternal, why can God?" Again, we have failed to demonstrate anything by the assertion, and we have failed to provide any evidence for the assertion.

The illusion of meaning, or purpose, is something taken very seriously by the religious. An argument that atheists hear time and again is that God must exist, because otherwise we would all be simply biological machines and everything we do would be ultimately meaningless and without purpose. They, of course, assume that life is not meaningless and without purpose as a foregone conclusion. Atheists respond to this by suggesting that the religious try to enjoy life for what it is, rather than for what they wish it to be. I think we can do better.

To suggest, somehow, that the existence of God solves the problem of purpose is deflecting the question. If we are unable to imbue meaning in our own lives (which, I would argue, we are), what makes us think God can? What makes It the final arbiter of purpose? The universe, if "Created", would simply be a grand experiment, or play, or argument. Its Creator, though having authored something of extraordinary magnitude, is without intrinsic value. To put it plainly, God is as empty as we are. To suggest that It is somehow able to imbue meaning and purpose into anything is to stop the infinite regression at an arbitrary spot, because the alternative hurts our heads (or, in this case, hearts).

God, if It exists, is a lonely, solitary, empty entity playing with Its own illusions. There is no other way to view a being like that. Theists must be so depressed and anxious, trying to search for approval and validation from something that never gives direct answers. I'm glad I'm an atheist so I can kiss a girl, eat a steak, laugh at jokes, and appreciate life for what it is.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Free Speech

Something's going on. To be honest, I don't really have the energy right now to give you the brief version and analysis that I normally do, but I can provide the links you need to read. This looks fairly important.

This is the first article. Selected line: "The right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid."

This is what happened after the first article. Selected line: "The editor and publisher of a major Indian newspaper have been arrested for "hurting the religious feelings" of Muslims after they reprinted an article from The Independent."

Here's the follow-up article. Selected line: "If fanatics who believe Muslim women should be imprisoned in their homes and gay people should be killed are insulted by my arguments, I don't resile from it. Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone."

I rather like this guy.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I Have Not Abandoned This Blog

I promise.

Updates will just be slow for a while as I adjust to compensate for this new job. Not to mention that my brain is busy learning a great deal of new stuff and has no time or energy left to think up new ways to argue against theism.

If I was a normal person, this is the point where I'd take the "Who cares?" perspective on the whole question.

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, I am too stubborn for that.

I'll be back. So help me God.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


A beat poem by Tim Minchin.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

People Don't Give Out Free Stuff

Not without wanting something back, anyway.

I just received this letter from "Sansford & Jordan".

I am pleased to inform you that you have been chosen to receive (2) Roundtrip Airfare.

That's amazing, considering I'm not entered in any contests. First mark against them - no return address on the envelope. Legitimate companies tend to make stuff like that apparent, or at least use an envelope with the company name on it.

We have attempted to contact you several times without success. This is our last attempt.

I can only hope. Second mark against them, the letter is signed by a "Claire Mason" from the "Travel Awards Division". There's a division of this company solely dedicated to giving out travel related awards. She's not qualified to give out cash rewards, just travel. If you want to buy someone a vacation, call Claire Mason. She's all over it.

If you choose to decline your Roundtrip Airfare for (2), please contact us as soon as possible so we may issue your Roundtrip Airfare Voucher's to an alternate recipient.

Marks three, four and five. You don't just write (2) in parenthesis for no reason. You put that there after you write out the word "two". Example:
If I received two (2) letters from this company, I will firebomb their office.

That's why it's in parenthesis - because it's confirming with a numerical symbol the spelled number that came before it, and it's not really part of that clause of the sentence.

The fourth mark is the green grocer's apostrophe in "Roundtrip Airfare Voucher's". Watch out, here comes an S! That's not what an apostrophe is for. When you're making a word plural, as in saying that there's more than one of something, you don't use an apostrophe. Example: bananas.

The fifth mark is the fact that they expect me to call whether or not I'm interested in getting the trip. Real companies don't rely on customers to inform them of their lack of interest. They set deadlines and move on. This is clearly a trap to get me to call their number.

That number, by the way, is 1-877-878-3956. If you Google the company name, you'll find a number of other people reporting this scam. Some called the number out of curiosity and reported that a live person answers. That might be good for a laugh if anyone out there is feeling bored.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Defund The NCCAM

The NCCAM, or National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, has been open for over 15 years in a couple different incarnations. This is a government funded institution researching such things as qi, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc, etc, etc. It attempts to demonstrate the validity of alternative medicine techniques through the scientific process.

Unfortunately, they aren't doing very well. After hundreds of millions of dollars, they have yet to demonstrate the legitimacy or reliability of a single "alternative or complimentary" method.

Enter: Obama

You may know that Barack Obama's website allows users to sign up, write a brief message about an issue they feel is important, and other users can sign off on that issue showing their support. It's very much a voting system. Over here you can see that some intrepid soul has suggested saving the government a decent chunk of change by defunding the NCCAM. This should save a minimum of $225 million. I suggest you follow the link, register, and vote that issue up.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009