Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why Reason Matters In The Gay Marriage Debate


Why do secularists feel so passionately about the use of reason when it comes to making informed moral decisions? Because our moral values and laws should be based on the most informed, most pragmatic, most practical and rational, and the most scientific and evidence based reasons that are humanly available. They should never be solely based on what has traditionally been done or believed, or what a certain book believed to be divinely inspired says, or be based on some strict ideology exempt from criticism and reform.

The Supreme Court of the United States is taking up the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the role of states and the federal government on gay marriage. It is amazing how fast public opinion has changed on the gay marriage issue. The issue first confronted me back in the summer of 2004 when president George W. Bush was running for reelection and it was the hot button social issue. At first I wasn't sure about it. It seemed kind of weird to me. But this was only because I had not really thought about it at all prior to that time and I was making a judgement purely on my emotional reaction to it. Over the years I warmed up to the issue of gay marriage as I became more educated on the matter and of sexuality in general.

I just recently saw a debate between Pastor Doug Wilson and columnist Andrew Sullivan entitled "Is Civil Marriage for Gay Couples Good for Society?" Andrew makes a very emotional opening speech and Pastor Wilson essentially makes the slippery slope argument basically saying that if we allow gays to marry today, Muslim polygamists are going to demand to be able to marry 4 wives tomorrow.



Although there is no evidence that this is the case at all, the main rebuttal Andrew presents is that polygamy is not a state, it's not an orientation, same sex attraction is. Polygamy is therefore a preference, it's not a sexual orientation; no one is born needing 2 or 3 wives. A man may wish to have more than 1 wife, many men do, but a polygamist gets to have at least 1 spouse where as a homosexual would not be allowed to have one if current discrimination continues. That's the meaning of equality: gay people just want to be equal to their heterosexual counterparts. And finally, if a man can have 4,5,10,20,or 50 wives, it upsets the male to female balance ratio making it harder for other men to find wives.

There are still a great many number of religious conservatives who believe that homosexuality is a choice, like the way going to Baskin-Robbins and picking out an ice cream flavor is a choice. They think all gay people are really just straight people who are just tempted by sin. Their ill-informed religious worldview just won't allow them to accept that gay people are born the way they are, and so they'll say things like, "There is no gay gene!", and "There are ex-gay people who have been made straight by the power of the lord!" And of course I naturally have to laugh in response to such confident nonsense. Even if there isn't a gay gene, to anyone educated, sexuality is obviously a complex arrangement of hormonal influences in the womb and neuro-physiological development of the brain.

But while on the slippery slope argument anti-gay marriage proponents seem to love making, let me address a few of them briefly.

Pedophilia - underage children are not old and mature enough to make the kind of important decisions like consenting to a marriage requires. In cultures where children are allowed to marry, it is often their parents that arrange it for them whereby the child has no say in the matter. Consent requires a person of legal age and most scientific research deems that age somewhere around 16-18 for most people. The same goes for sex with children. Pedophilia harms children and takes advantage of them, that's why young children are not able to consent to sex.

Bestiality - animals also cannot consent to marriages and are also in the same class of vulnerability as children are when it comes to sex. Marriage allows such things as the power of attorney amongst spouses and that role cannot be fulfilled by an animal. Can you imagine a lawyer having to deal with a horse or a dog when dealing with a divorce or its spouse's death? There needs to be a human recipient who can give a civil consent in such legal matters. A human being can own an animal, but there is simply no need for them to be married to the animal since all the legal benefits of marriage have no practical application between species.

Think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. That's the definition of reason. It is very hard to make the case against gay marriage if you cannot appeal to religion. But in a secular democracy like ours we champion individual liberty, equality and freedom of the will so long as it doesn't hurt anybody. Gay marriage harms no one, and the slippery slope arguments made by dissenters are unfounded and fallacious.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Moving The Goal Posts


It's amazing to see Christians and Muslims debate the existence of god today, especially the formidable ones. They have to concede that evolution is now a fact and that it happened, and that Big Bang cosmology accurately describes the history and evolution of our universe - meaning that it is not thousands of years old, but billions. And in order for them to make the case for the Kalam Cosmological Argument, they must use science that actually disproves their own religions, at least in their literal contexts.

This is particularly problematic for Muslims, because they must show their own Qur'an to be false on its claim to scientific "facts" to argue the Kalam. For example, the Qur'an says that the heavens and the earth was made in 6 days in chapters 7:54; 10:3; 11:7; 50:38; & 57:4, then it says it was made in 8 days  in chapters 41:9-12. A Muslim might then say that a "day" might mean a period a lot longer than a literal 24 hour day that we experience, but luckily we also have in the Qur'an the definition of just exactly how long a "day" is for god. The Qur'an says that a day for god is the equivalent of 1000 years for us in chapters 22:47 and 32:5, and then it says that a day for god is 50,000 years for us in chapter 70:4.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

God, Time And Creation: More Problems For William Lane Craig


Central to any argument about whether god exists or not is the notion of time and its relationship with being. "What is time?", is such a profound question that underlies our entire sense of reality. The fundamental nature of time is so puzzling that we do not get a consensus amongst physicists and philosophers alike on what its true properties are.


In philosophy, there are generally two theories on the nature of time, A-theory and B-theory. The A-theory of time states that the present is all that exists. The past no longer exists, and the future is a mere possibility, but doesn't yet exist. There is only the eternal now of the present moment. Because past and future do not exist, they aren't in a sense, real. The A-theory of time is adopted by most Christian theologians as describing the nature of time within Christian theology. Buddhism also interprets time according to the A-theory. The A-theory states that there is a "master time" or absolute time of which all clocks are set to, even if others tick slower of faster. Our intuitions are more closely in tune with the  A-theory of time because we feel that we exist only in the present, and so the present is therefore all that exists.

The B-theory of time states however, that the past, present and future all exist and are therefore all equally real. The past doesn't cease to exist once it's gone and the future doesn't come into being when it is reached at the present moment. Think of it like driving down a road. The town up ahead doesn't begin to exist when you reach it, it already exists, you just haven't gotten to it yet. Under the B-theory of time, the future already exists, it has already happened in a sense, we just haven't gotten to it yet on our subjective journeys through time. This means that notions like the experience of the passage of time are subjective illusions, and indeed time itself is an illusion. Past, present and future are more like destinations that we can in theory, travel to. The B-theory of time runs counter-intuitive to how we generally sense our understanding of time.

Now what does physics say on the matter? Issac Newton's understanding of time as a fixed absolute would agree with the A-theory of time, but we now know that Newton was wrong on time for all his genius. Einstein's general theory of relativity helped close the gap in our knowledge on the true nature of time. Time and space are intertwined in what we now call space-time, and the laws of physics permit the passage of time to increase or decrease depending on your speed relative to other objects, and the strength of gravity where you are. The faster you move and the stronger gravity is around you, the slower time passes.

This has amazing implications on what we think of as "now". We generally believe that the present moment is the same for everyone and everything. While I'm typing this blog, you are currently doing something at the same time. My now is your now, and your now is my now. But general relativity tells us that that is not quite so. If another being living in some far off galaxy at the far reaches of the universe, say 13 billion light years away were to travel away from us at a certain speed, their "now" would actually be our past. And depending on how far or fast they were moving would depend on how far into our past their "now" would be. So their "now" could be a year ago or a thousand years ago before we were even born. If they started traveling towards us, their "now" would encompass our future, even after we might be dead. But you're thinking, "Wait a minute, the future hasn't happened yet. How could someone else's "now" be our future that hasn't yet happened?" I've pondered exactly this problem myself.

The reason this occurs is because time is relative, as Einstein showed us. When objects move, their clocks tick slower. So if a traveling alien billions of light years away starts moving away from us and their "now" becomes our past, the straight line of time between us that represented our "now", becomes angled for the alien backwards towards our past. But ahead of the alien, in the direction he's (or it's) travelling, that diagonal angle points toward someone or something else's future. So, if the alien travels towards us, its "now" is our future. And that means that the future already exists much like the town up ahead when you're driving down a road.

Physics therefore, has demonstrated that the B-theory of time is more compatible with its laws. Watch physicist Brian Green explains in the clip below from the Nova ScienceNow special, Fabric of the Cosmos: The Illusion of Time how this concept works.




Time is like a frozen river, and our experience of the present may just be a subjective illusion. What does this say about the existence of god? Well, the Kalaam Cosmological Argument, so often used by theists as the "shock and awe" tactic and front line of offense is predicated on the A-theory of time, which we now know not to be true. That doesn't mean that god is definitively disproven, but it punches serious holes in the argument that theists have to address.

This is where William Lane Craig enters since he is the current champion of the KCA. I've voiced my concerns over the problems of god and timelessness numerous times, particularly how a "timeless" and "changeless" being can have a causal relationship with temporal events, like creating a universe. Furthermore, if the beginning of the universe is the first event and thus the beginning of time, if god caused the universe to exist, then the cause of the universe would have to precede time. In other words, time would have to exist, before time existed. Logically, it's like saying I was born, before I was born.

I recently was reading a paper Craig wrote years ago about timelessness and creation in which he takes on these same concerns that were made by Oxford University Professor Brian Leftow. In it he writes:

God's choices are not events, since He neither deliberates temporally nor does His will move from a state of indecision to decision. He simply has free determinations of the will to execute certain actions, and any deliberation can only be said to be explanatorily, not temporally, prior to His decrees. If time is essential to choosing, then a timeless God could not choose between a beginningless or a finite time either.

It would seem according to Craig, that the execution of god's will must create time since he believes god is temporal posterior to the creation of the universe, which is an event. But how can god have "free determinations of the will" if he is timeless? In the paper Craig scrutinizes three theories that Leftow criticizes. I won't mention all of them, but the theory that Craig settles on, is one that states that time was preceded by what Craig calls "finite time". In other words, in order for god to have created the universe before time existed, and in order to explain god's timeless state before he somehow willed time into existence, another form of time had to exist before time existed. Craig argues:

Since [the beginning of time] is preceded by finite time, that time is not the consequence of t's being the time of the first event (otherwise it would be infinite or amorphous, since if t's elapsing is itself sufficient that there should have been n finite time units prior to t, it would also be sufficient for there having been n+1 finite time units prior to t). So the times prior to t must be either substantival time units in their own right or the relational consequences of events going on prior to t. Thus, if God refrained from creating t, that would have no intrinsic effect on times prior to t; they would still have existed, only now they would be at the end of time. Thus, it is difficult to see how God could do anything at t to bring it about that time was infinite when it was in fact finite.

Basically Craig is saying finite time that existed before time cannot be infinite (hence the name) and must be some kind of "relational consequences of events going on prior to" time. But this doesn't make sense when Craig constantly stresses the absolute beginning of time at the Big Bang and according to his website says, "A sequence of mental events alone is sufficient to generate relations of earlier and later, wholly in the absence of any physical events." That sounds like regular time to me, and so it appears the theist might have to commit to the idea that time began before time began in order to make sense of the cosmological argument.

If theists can be expected to just make up imaginary units of time, as is the case with "finite time" existing before time on purely philosophical and theological grounds, with no scientific theories or hypotheses backing them up, then how can we be expected to have a serious debate? The atheist goes to great lengths to make his case as scientific as possible. That doesn't mean to say that a theist can't be knowledgeable of science and use it to make their case, but if they get to violate logic by resorting to theories that have no scientific basis, and in some cases are even refuted by science, like the A-theory of time, then they should at least stop making a big fuss when we say that the universe came into being without a prior cause. It's only fair.




Further reading on arguments against god:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument
The Fine Tuning Argument
Objective Morality Without God
Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good from God?" A Debate Review
Refuting William Lane Craig: The Moral Argument
The Logically Implausible God
The Logically Implausible God Part 2
The Ontological Argument: Putting the Absurd Where it Belongs

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Who Are The Skeptics?


The "skeptical" community consists of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, non-believers and the like. We are generally united in our skepticism towards supernatural and pseudo-scientific claims. But what about those of "faith" who believe in god and their religion's fantastic claims? Are they skeptical? Well, theists actually are just as skeptical as non-believers are, but they're only skeptical towards things that contradict their religious beliefs. Take creationists for example, they're extremely skeptical towards evolution and they'll look for any possible way out of actually having to accept its evidence, but then they'll believe in talking snakes, people living inside fish, and that two of every animal and insect once shared a single boat during a worldwide flood.

So where is the consistency with skepticism? Why only apply it towards things that contradict your faith? Why believe something just because it's written in a book, but disbelieve in science that at least has evidence backing it up? Most theists behaves this way towards their religion: When it comes to their religion, they'll believe whatever is required that they believe, no matter how improbable or how impossible. They'll believe it because their religion requires it. But if their faith is strong, then anything that contradicts that belief they will have already decided can't be true, and so they throw up a wall of extreme skepticism that blocks the passage of any evidence. This is not true of every theist, however. There are at least some who constantly doubt their religious beliefs and do allow evidence to change them.

So both non-believers and believers are technically skeptics, just in different ways. I certainly am skeptical about the supernatural claims made by religions, and since theists cannot offer any real scientific evidence to back up their claims, I am within reason to continue doubting. I've heard the best arguments theists have for the existence of god, like the cosmological argument, the fine tuning argument, etc. and I've seriously considered all of them very deeply. In the end, neither of them are proofs, they're probability arguments founded on intuitive logical assumptions. There exists natural explanations that describe non-supernatural processes that can result in our universe and its apparent fine tuning. And as long as a plausible, natural alternative exists to a supernatural one, I can reasonably maintain my doubt and skepticism.

So whose skepticism is more justified? Certainly not the creationists. Neo-Christians who accept the cosmological explanations of our galaxy, sun and earth, and who accept evolution certainly are on better footing, but it seems to me that as time goes on and our understanding of the world through science gets greater and greater, the skepticism of the atheist becomes more and more justified. The more we understand, the less and less we need the hand of god as an explanatory device.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Catholic Sex Scandal


I haven't written at all about the Pope's decision to resign because I really don't care about it. But when the news came out of his resignation, it was accompanied by yet another sex scandal perpetrated by priests. I'd like to add a few thoughts on the subject of why so many priests seem to be entangled in sex scandals involving young boys. To me, the obvious reason why is because priests are forced to take a vow of celibacy. It is not natural for a human being to be able to suppress their sexual desire because we are all to one degree or another, sexual beings. Sexual desire in Christianity has been likened to an addictive craving for gambling or sweet foods, but science tells us that that is not exactly the case. Sexual desire is not some addiction, it is natures way of ensuring the survival of the species by making it want to reproduce. When suppressed it can deviate in peculiar ways.

Now I don't think that taking a vow of celibacy makes one a homosexual pedophile, rather, the desire for male children in most cases already exists in people who become priests. What better place is there to hide such desires than in the priesthood? Priests are not expected to marry and engage in sexual relations with adult women, so a man who's attracted to boys can hide under the cloth and be free from societal pressure to marry and be attracted to women. The same is also true for regular homosexuality and that's why the priesthood is a haven for repressed homosexuals in desperate need to hide their sexuality. 

The best thing the Catholic Church can do to alleviate the problem of homosexuality and pederasty in the priesthood is to change back the rules for priests and allow them to marry and have sex as Protestant denominations do. Or better yet, allow priests to be openly gay while serving their church and god so that the "issue" of homosexuality is no longer an issue. The pederasty however can not be allowed for obvious moral reasons, but allowing consenting adult homosexuality and priests to marry would be an obvious starting point. Now I feel that most Christian denominations will eventually come around to accepting homosexuality, it's only a matter of time. And when they eventually do, since Christianity frowns upon all sexual relations outside of marriage, many will actually take the position that gay sex is only right within marriage and do 180 degree about-face on their current stance on gay marriage!

The Differing Moral Concerns Of Liberals & Conservatives


Now I'm not a professional demographer, but I sometimes like to reflect upon the differences between what liberals and conservatives think are the most important issues facing us today. Liberals generally care about equal civil rights, the environment, economic inequality, healthcare, corporate special interest in government, reproductive rights, and gun control. For conservatives, it's issues like immigration, the deficit, secularization, religious liberty, abortion, traditional marriage, big government and the overreaching of government power, terrorism, gun rights, and taxes.

I'm a pretty liberal guy on most social issues and I happen to fall in line with most of my fellow non-believers when it comes to politics. But some of the social issues that I am most concerned about, like corporate special interest in government and economic inequality, are not shared by most conservatives - who also tend to be the most religious Americans. And I've wondered, "Why is that?" Why aren't conservative Christians more motivated by the fact that most of our politicians are in the pockets of the richest banks and corporations, who are using their power and influence to make it so that they can continue to profit at the expense of the American worker and the environment? Why are conservative Christians up in arms over the idea of two men or two women marrying each other, while the ever increasing big money influence in politics barely passes their radar? If Jesus were alive today, I believe he'd be just as angry as I am about the role of big money in government.

I strongly believe that the preoccupation of conservatives on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, is helping to allow big business to take over government. Why? Because it allows a political party like the republicans to pounce on these social issues by offering candidates that capitalize on them, all while they give into big business' agenda, and economically screw over the very people who voted them into office. So while conservatives are protesting over Tom and John getting married, their senators and representatives are busy crafting economic policies that allows big business to get even more rich in such ways that very little of that wealth trickles down into the middle class. This to me is one of the greatest moral abomination of our day that very few conservatives notice, and it's tragic.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Morning Hangover Post



Last night a friend of mine convinced me to go partying in the Meat Packing district in Manhattan. I was originally in the city just enjoying a sunny, relatively mild Saturday afternoon absorbing the sights and sounds. I hadn't been out leisurely in quite a while since I'm not really a friend of the bitter cold, but the weather seemed like a prelude to Spring and I didn't want to waste it.

I had on a vintage jean jacket and my black Levis skinny jeans, advertising the rediscovery of my rock and roll roots. While chilling in Union Square park soaking up the Winter sun, a few people approached me due to my style. It's always complimentary to the ego when your looks alone get others interested in you. This one group of people wanted my picture because I looked similar to one of the men in the group. Then later a woman who was researching information on fashion came up to me and wanted to interview me about my style, on camera. Since I had nothing to do I decided to give it a shot. So she asked me about how I describe my style - which was a topic already on my mind. I told her my style is kinda vintage rocker with a little modern hipster thrown in, and that I've gone through many phases in fashion over the years, some of them very embarrassing. Then she asked me what I'd change about my body - a slight curve ball of a question that I didn't quite expect, and so I told her that if I could change anything I'd probably want to be more muscular. It's hard to admit one's bodily shortcomings, especially for a man, but for me I've always wanted more muscle definition, without actually having to work out of course.

After the interview we talked a little about the reasons behind fashion - like what motivates us to dress how we want to. For me, fashion and style are a way to express to the world visually how I want to be thought of. I've always wanted to be in a band, but was never able to commit myself to the amount of practice it takes to actually be in one, so with fashion I can at least look like I'm in one.

Anyway, after the interview I called my friend who wanted to meet for drinks at a bar in the West Village. He knows the owner of the bar and so it was free beer all night - no complaints from me. Since I hadn't seen him in a while, we had to catch up on things. He told me he's actually giving up Facebook for lent. I didn't even know he was a practicing Christian, and so it got me asking him about religion. It turns out he doesn't actually believe that the Old Testament is the true word of god, which explains why he supports gay rights. The variety of Christian belief is astounding. But since my friend isn't exactly the deep thinking intellectual type when it comes to his beliefs, my probing didn't evolve into a lengthy discussion. And so after his girlfriend showed up and another friend of mine came through, we all decided to go to the Meat Packing district.

Now I'm not a huge fan of the Meat Packing district to be honest with you. Sure it's trendy and full of really hot women, but at my age, I'm just not into that scene anymore. Most of the clubs and bars play that kind of in-your-face techno that I lost interest in before I ever even had it. When it comes to electronic music I generally prefer chilled out house or electro. The crowds in the MPD draw the usual assortment of Jersey Shore guidos and Latino thugs that I'd prefer not to acknowledge the existence of. My entire time there I was really just observing the Saturday night rituals of a crowd and a culture that I've left behind years ago. I used to be a club promoter, and every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, I was surrounded by the Manhattan club scene in the MPD and Chelsea. Now there's no amount of alcohol that could make this scene tolerable and it's too bad I didn't drink enough to black out and forget it all.


Friday, March 8, 2013

In Defense Of The New Atheists (And My Problem With Them)


Some critics of the New Atheists have said that they aren't too intellectually bright and don't even understand the religions they're criticizing. Although I don't always agree with all the New Atheists all the time, one thing to remember is that they are largely reacting to fundamentalist theists who do interpret their religious texts literally, and who do hold views that other mainstream or moderate theists do not. So when Richard Dawkins goes on a polemic about the ignorance of creationism, he isn't necessarily talking about all theists, just a certain kind of theist. The variety of religious belief - even amongst people of the same religious denominations, means that no one can ever criticize "religion" and hope to encapsulate all believers in one swath of the tongue or the keyboard.

The New Atheists have helped make atheism, agnosticism and non-belief in general more mainstream, and for that I am greatly in debt to them. But I've written before that irrational militant atheism can backfire and actually harm the skeptical community, so I don't always support the kind of blame-game rhetoric some New Atheists use some of the time in castigating religion as if it's responsible for all the world's evils. If I was a public figure, I'm not sure how close I'd want to be associated with some of the New Atheists. I'd like to perhaps move the conversation towards a more intellectual stance, and make sure that we don't sound like a bunch of cry babies complaining about religion all the time. There is certainly a time and place for making fun of religion and god, I'm just saying that's not all we should do as non-believers. We should be listening to the best arguments theists are making and be dissecting them under the microscope so that we can provide proper counterarguments and offer a more plausible worldview than what they're offering.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Great Video On How Wealth Is Spread In The US


If there was ever a reason to be angry at the unequal distribution of wealth in the US, it is exemplified in this nice little video. It graphically represents the wealth distribution seen from three different perspectives: how we'd like it to be; how we think it is; and how it actually is.






Perhaps after issues of religion and secularism, our current dire economic situation is what I'm most passionate about. The reason why our economy is in the gutter is because the people who carry it - the middle class - are barely getting by. Something has to be done. If enough Americans knew and cared about what's going on, we'd be able to make some real changes to the system.

No one really wants true socialism as the video mentions, I certainly don't, but we absolutely need greater equality in the share of wealth in the country. Corporate profits are at an all time high, worker output is also at or near all time highs, but the wealth is almost all flowing to the top. What's going on? Workers are being shafted. They're being squeezed out of every drop of energy that they can produce and yet their salaries have remained virtually flat. I know this because it's happened to me.

At the end, if we cannot pressure corporations and businesses to increase the salaries of their workers, then they will have to be forced through appropriate legislation.

The struggle continues....

The Holographic Universe Theory


One interpretation of the Holographic Universe Theory states that there is no external objective reality, and that the physical reality we observe is actually just a subjective illusion derived from our consciousness. I'm immediately drawn to two questions regarding this theory: What did physical reality consist of before conscious life evolved if reality is a product of consciousness?  And, is it possible that physical reality came into being at the moment consciousness arose and did not exist prior? If the latter is so, how could consciousness arise before there was a physical reality? Can consciousness exist immaterially?

Neuroscientists have discovered that when we make a conscious decision to do something, like say reach for a glass of water, or choose one object over another, neural imaging technology can know you are going to make that conscious decision up to 6 seconds prior. That means that someone else can consciously know what you're about to consciously do, even before you're conscious of it.

"The 'Higher Self' conceives; the physical brain receives; the personality mind perceives. That's all it does", so says "Bashar" who is said to be a "multi-dimensional extra-terrestrial being who speaks through channel Darryl Anka from what we perceive as the future." Right. I don't want to get into the realm of pseudoscience with concepts of consciousness, but there is enough mystery about it that all possibilities should be considered, even supernatural ones.

People tend to be more critical towards ideas that contradict their worldviews. That's why theists tend to be highly skeptical towards a lot of biology and physics whenever it steps on their theology, but they'll grant the existence of talking snakes, flying horses and miraculous healing without a shred of evidence. I myself tend to believe that there is an objective external reality that exists outside our subjective minds. The Holographic Universe Theory however punches holes in that by saying all of reality is subjective and that your reality is different from mine. Whether or not your reality and mine can be causally related I'm not sure.

Below is an interesting video discussing the Holographic Universe Theory on consciousness. It makes the case that the "Higher Self" is determining the thoughts and desires of the brain, which then receives these signals or "downloads" them, which then the personality makes sense of. It's similar to how a radio receives invisible radio waves and then interprets them into music that we can make sense of. The radio is the physical brain, the radio waves are the Higher Self, and the personality mind is what makes the music that we can understand.



In this view of consciousness, we are all simply like physical machines that receive and react to what information our brains are receiving. The Higher Self in this case is like an external force, like the wave that the surfer rides: he doesn't create the wave, he perceives the wave. This gives a very satisfying argument for the determinist who believes that we're all causally determined in our thoughts and actions by external forces. The Holographic Universe Theory also states that our perception of the Higher Self creates the holographic universe that we perceive as our external physical reality, but is a subjective illusion.

It's true that as we discover more and more about the nature of reality, the more and more unrealistic it seems to become. The idea that our reality is a subjective hologram is not something most people digest easily, even for me, although it could be correct for all I know. So while neurology confirms that our thoughts develop inside our brains by factors we are not consciously aware of, I'm not yet ready to believe that these thoughts also create the physical world we see around us.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Few Thoughts On Steven Brill's Bitter Pill Article In Time Magazine


You shouldn't have to be a genius or a healthcare expert to understand that you shouldn't have to go bankrupt in a country like the United States because you slipped and fell or had chest pains and needed a hospital visit. I'm reading about this in Steven Brill's exposé Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us of our current medical system on why hospitals charge exorbitant prices for routine medical equipment and tests. It's enough to make you sick (ha!).

Hospitals across the country use a machine called the chargemaster that calculates the prices that hospitals charge patients for medical screening tests and procedures, treatments, medication and even the doctor's surgery gown. It can even charge several hundred dollars to a patient just for the doctor to look at the test results. The line item analysis done in Brill's article is shocking: $7 for a cotton ball to sterilize the skin before an injection; $200 blood tests that should cost no more than $15; $32 for the use of a reusable blanket to keep a patient warm during surgery; $39 for the gown worn by the doctor during the surgery when 30 can be bought online for $180; and $49,237 for the use of a Medtronic stimulator, a device which costs just $19,000 to buy wholesale.

The list goes on and on showing hospitals price gouging as much as 21 times the wholesale costs of their equipment. Why should a trip to the hospital that involves some routine tests cost someone $87,000? Brill says hospitals want to over test patients to prevent themselves from getting sued. OK, but why such high prices? Not-for-profit hospitals are really being run like for-profit enterprises argues Brill, with their presidents making upwards of several million dollars a year. The mysterious chargemaster machine determines the prices based on location and other factors that are not well known.

Medicare significantly lowers these costs to seniors but often healthcare can only negotiate 35 to 50% lower rates that are still high because of the initially high costs. What needs to be done is get these prices down. Some countries enforce price limits to prevent this kind of gouging but critics of that here say it's socialism - and we can't have that in America. So I guess then we'll have to keep this hospital industrial complex running, which will only lead to these costs going up, and more and more Americans getting stuck with the bill.

It is my contention that healthcare and hospitals should not be a for-profit industry. The necessity of the health business should give us the impetus to enact reasonable moral guidelines that prevent so called "not-for-profit" hospitals from turning into the kind of greedy corporations that run Wall Street.

This has also gotten my worried about potentially having medically related financial woes in the future. I've been eating much more healthy in recent years and have increased my fruit and vegetable intake significantly. I still occasionally binge on garbage but I'm much more conscious of it now mostly because I'm older and I know my body will begin breaking down. The fear of a potential $87,000 medical bill motivates me too.

My advice to anyone reading this, especially if you're young, is that healthcare starts with you. You can't treat your body like crap forever, you need to consciously take the initiative to become a healthier person and this will help you for the rest of your life. The sooner you do this the better. Two reasonable steps for the lazy:

  • You don't have to become a health fanatic, per se, but if you eat fast food and other forms of edible garbage, eat at least as much healthy food with it so there's a balance. 
  • And if you're a partier and like to drink and smoke and do drugs, at least exercise a few days a week to balance it all out. 
Maintaining a reasonable exercise routine and balanced diet goes a long way.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Does God Intentionally Deceive Us?: Theistic Evolution And The Problems Of Faith


It has only really been since Darwin discovered the evolutionary process that the atheist or agnostic position has even been tenable. Before Darwin, you find very few atheists, and the default position for skeptics of supernatural claims was pretty much deism. Evolution changed all that by showing that an unguided natural process could bring about all the existent species of life. Physicists and astronomers like Newton, Laplace and Einstein, further demonstrated how natural processes were guiding the stars, planets and matter. The wondrous triumph of science over the centuries is that is has continually removed any need to invoke supernaturalism in order to explain phenomenon, for everything that we can explain today has a natural explanation.

Science has forced theists to take one of four positions on evolution: Evolution is either a natural process that was started by god in the beginning; evolution is partly natural process that god occasionally interacts with and guides; evolution is a process that is completely guided by god at every step; or, evolution is false and doesn't happen. The naturalist position of course is that evolution is a totally unguided process that never needs supernatural intervention. But since a growing number of theists accept evolution today, incorporating evolution into theology opens up copious amounts of new problems concerning faith and doubt. Consider this scenario:

Imagine that you must take a history exam that determines whether you go to heaven or hell. To prepare you for the exam, the exam administrators have given you no less than 10 different text books that each tell a slightly different version of history, and many of them contradict each other. You have been given a random and indeterminable amount of time in order to study the given material and without your knowledge the exam administrator will call you up in order to take the exam. Each question on the exam will be in a multiple choice format with each option being one of the versions of history in the exam books. You must choose the right answer every time or else you fail. You have only one chance to pass it; fail and it's an eternity of torture. 

How is this exam process really any different than what god supposedly does to all of us? In order for you to adequately have been given preparation to pass a test, you shouldn't be given contradictory, ambiguous and misleading information. The ability to know the correct answers should be apparent, clear and obvious, and shouldn't require chance or a leap of faith. If you're a progressive theist who accepts evolution and the naturalistic processes that guide matter and also believe god had morally sufficient reasons for doing it all that way, then you'd have to accept the possibility that god is purposely trying to deceive us. It's like god has laid down a breadcrumb trial leading to him, but he makes it diverge into two paths, and then three, and then four, and sometimes the breadcrumbs suddenly disappear and you have to find the next ones on your own on faith. That's like trying to use a text book for an exam, and finding missing pages all over and contradictory information. That's not fair, nor is it "holy" and "loving".

With all the work done by theists to try to use science and logic to prove god's existence, it still ultimately requires leap of faith in the end to believe. And if god wanted us to know he existed, why hide the evidence for it in such a way that it took us all the way until the twentieth century to find it? And why bring creation about using a long natural process, or a process that appeared natural, if it wasn't to intentionally deceive people in order to test their faith? These are the kinds of things you have to consider if you do not take the fundamentalist (i.e. creationist) position on religion and I find it deeply disturbing, because I'm told god is loving and good and doesn't deceive, and yet it's obvious to me under the progressive theist worldview that god would have to be purposely misleading us in order to require faith.

Non-Religious Theism


I wouldn't really have a huge issue with the idea of deism being true to be honest with you. It's only the idea of a deity that cares about what foods I eat, what liquids I drink, what clothes I can wear, what I can and cannot do to my own body, and is deeply intrigued with what I do when I'm naked, that I deplore. Likewise, I don't necessarily care about whether or not other people believe in a deity, but it's the kind of deity they believe in and how their beliefs make them behave that concerns me the most.

For example, I've known many people and have had many friends over the years who were theists, but they didn't really act like it. There wasn't a religious element about them at all. I was actually the one talking about god and religion more than they were. These kinds of people I call non-religious theists. They're people who just believe in god or some supernatural deistic force or entity who may have intervened with the world a long time ago but is not anymore, and they're not religious about it. They don't worship, pray, attend church or any kind of social religious services, and they conduct their lives in an almost indistinguishable manner from your average secular atheist. These are the kind of theists that I can get along with, with very little conflict because they're almost like deists.

I suppose one can make an argument that a militant atheist is more "religious" in a sense, than someone who is a non-religious theist. I do find myself talking about religion and god more often than a lot of people who actually believe in god. For me religion is a fascinating topic. I mean, I can talk about a whole lot of things when I'm around people - music, science, culture, history, politics and philosophy of course. But it seems that when I like to get deep, I tend to gravitate towards religion and the metaphysics that religious belief asserts.

I like to say that, I care more about how people behave than merely what they believe. As long as people respect the separation of religion and government, they can believe whatever supernatural nonsense they want. I'd prefer at least that they be educated on science so that their worldview isn't totally absurd, but their ultimate belief in a deity, especially if their politics coincides with mine, I don't have a huge issue with.

So there is a kind of theism that I think is compatible with atheism at least in allowing those two kinds of people to get along without major conflict. But one could say that militant atheism ruins the balance, because it's just as fundamental as some brands of theism. I think this is true, and I like to be reminded that there is a time and a place for militant atheism, but it's not something atheists should wear on our sleeves, all day, everyday.

Jesus Was A Mortal


Premise One: All men are mortals

Premise Two: Jesus was a man

Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus was a mortal


Deductive logic at its finest! Christians would of course object to the use of logic this way, because they believe Jesus was a man and god at the same time, kind of like how water can be ice and a liquid. I've always thought the central myth at the core to Christianity made little sense. When god for example "sacrificed" his only son Jesus, not only did he sacrifice himself to himself, but since god can do anything, he knew he'd get Jesus right back, and so from god's perspective sacrificing Jesus would be like sacrificing the end of your finger nail - three days later it grows right back. Some sacrifice.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To My Local Atheist Meetup Group...


I'm not sure if I ever wrote about this story here but it's kinda funny and ironic...

I like to stay active in my local atheist meetup groups and enjoy getting together with like minded individuals. Last summer, on a beautiful August day, there was an atheist meetup happening just about a 10-15 minute walk from where I live. So as I was walking over, I see these two young women approaching me on the sidewalk. They each looked about 20 years old or so, and from a distance, kind of like hipsters.

I expected them just to pass me by but when I got close to them they suddenly asked if they could talk to me for a few moments. Being slightly late for the meeting, I hesitated, but then decided to entertain their idea. One of them handed me a small card and then with great enthusiasm said, "We'd like to talk to you about Mormonism. It's amazing, it's absolutely changed my life." I should've seen this coming. There is a Mormon missionary center just a mile away from me where they send kids from Utah and other extremely red republican areas of the country over to spread the "good news".

Then the other girl asks me, "What have you heard about Mormons?" Wow! Being asked this question is like every atheist's dream! So I told them exactly what I heard about Mormons. "You were an officially racist organization that thinks black people are inferior", I said. Both of the girls were shocked, their bulging eyes giving it away. I could clearly tell they were not expecting that answer.

After a second or two of awkward silence, one of them says, "Well we don't believe that stuff anymore. You probably think we're polygamists right?" This attempt to change the subject didn't go unnoticed. I pressed further on the race issue and one of them said, "Well I'm not a racist, and nether is she." So I respond, "I'm glad that we're all not racists and everything but your religion officially was."

At this point I can see both of them are beginning to lose confidence in me. They realize I'm not ignorant about their religion as they had hoped I was. So I said, "Look, I'm sure your experience with Mormonism is wonderful and all but it's just not for me. But I'll take your card and look into it. OK?" They seemed relieved in not having to deal with me and we part ways.

Looking at the card it has a picture of a Hispanic woman on it, I suppose in an attempt to appeal to the immigrant community where I live. Mormons actually think Native Americans were a tribe of Israelites who sailed from Israel through the Mediterranean Sea and across the entire Atlantic Ocean to the New World sometime around 600 BC (an event not upheld by any scientific, archaeological or historical evidence).

All in all, I had a funny ironic story to tell my fellow atheists at the meeting and we all had a big laugh passing around the card. Looking back, in a way I felt a little bad for being so harsh on the two girls because they were just so wholesome and sweet, in that goody-two-shoes Mormon kind of way. But then I'm reminded of the lies and nonsense they're spreading and it goes away.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Fine Tuning Argument


On my blog here I've written several times responding to the Cosmological Argument for god's existence and the various moral arguments, but I've only once written about the Fine Tuning Argument head on. I want to take some time expounding on some of its implications and the problems I think it has in a bit more detail than I previously did.

The Fine Tuning Argument, another staple of my favorite punching bag Dr. Craig, generally states like this:

1. The fine tuning of the universe is either due to physical necessity, chance or design.
2. Fine tuning is not due to either physical necessity or chance.
3. Therefore, it is due to design.

The Fine Tuning Argument poses what seems to be another tough obstacle for the atheist. The probability that all the elements in the universe would be as meticulously fine tuned to unfathomable levels that would allow life as we know it, are incomprehensibly small. But as scientists tell us, events that are extremely improbable happen all the time.

1. First I always like to use the probability of me being born as an example of chance. What is the probability that I would've been born? Well first my father and mother had to meet, that took some chance. I then had to have been conceived from one particular sperm cell and egg. The chances of that are extremely rare when considering that every time a man ejaculates, as much as 100 million sperm cells are thrust outward and only one will fertilize the woman's egg - and that's if fertilization even happens at all. The chances of me being conceived just considering that one specific time when my parents tried to conceive a child, and not even considering all their other attempts, is about 1 in 100 million. When you factor in all the other attempts at conceiving a child, combined with the probability of the circumstances that lead up to their decision and attempt to conceive a child, already the mathematical odds are stupendous. 

Then you have to multiply this to the chances of each of my parents being conceived and the circumstances that lead up to that event, and then do the same to their parents, and their parents, all the way back literally to the very first form of life some 4 billion years ago. The odds of this happening are unfathomable. Everyone alive today is the product of an unbroken chain of births, billions of generations in the making. The chances that any one of my distant relatives would have had a different offspring that wouldn't have been one of my ancestors, would have always been much more probable. And yet of course if this had happened, I wouldn't have ever been born, and yet I exist and I'm real. What are the chances of that?

So events that are extremely odd can happen all the time even when the odds against them are much more probable. But even this answer doesn't satisfy all the critics, so let me give a few others.

2. The Fine Tuning Argument proponents sometimes point to the idea that there was just one chance for our universe to get all the right properties of its laws just so, so that matter and life similar to us could form. They've argued that in my example of chance above, there are a series of improbable events happening over time, not happening all at once, and this somehow dilutes the veracity of the argument. I personally believe my example in number 1 still stands as a testament to how improbability given unfathomable odds is still possible, just as our universe is, but I'm prepared to take them up on their continued challenge. 

In his book A Universe From Nothing, Dr. Lawrence Krauss explains that we live in a flat universe confirmed by triangular tests made by lasers against the cosmic microwave background. In a flat universe, the total energy output of all matter would amount to zero. The positive energy of matter is negated by the negative energy of gravity. A flat universe with a total energy output of zero not only can come from nothing, but moreover it in fact has to come from nothing. You can start with "nothing", and then quantum fluctuations can produce the universe. And by "nothing" I mean no matter, no space or time, and zero total energy - but the potential for something always exists because the laws of physics allow something from nothing. "Always" of course is a tricky term, because there was no time before time for it to exist. The idea of absolute nothing that doesn't even have the potentiality for something, like what some philosophers and theologians like Dr. Craig believe in, may in fact not exist in reality. It may just be a concept that we can think of in our minds like an infinite series of past events or a mythical deity like Zeus, but has no basis in reality.

Now, if universes can come from nothing as the laws of physics allow, why should it only occur once? If it can occur more than once, there ought to be a multiverse with a potentially infinite number of universes - a "world ensemble" as some call it. Only the universes with the same properties as ours - flat universes with zero total energy - will produce the kind of conditions favorable for life similar to us to exist naturally. Other universes with different laws of physics either collapse in on themselves immediately in Planck-times like virtual particles, or they'll expand so quickly that atoms and matter never have the chance to form, thus rendering them unable to produce life as we know it.

It is helpful to understand that the multiverse theory was originally developed in the 1980s not to address the apparent fine tuning problem, but to address some of the problems explaining how cosmic inflation operates. The multiverse theory is hinted within the existence of dark matter and the mathematics of the laws of physics. We may never be able to definitively confirm the existence of other universes unfortunately, but if we can accurately describe them in mathematics, and if we can infer their existence using highly sensitive measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, it will give us the confidence that they exist. No one to date has ever seen a black hole, or seen matter going into a back hole, but we can confidently infer they exist, because we can see their effects on matter and we can describe them in the mathematics of Einstein's general theory of relativity. In physics, being able to accurately describe something mathematically has yielded us with the knowledge of things before they've actually been observed.

Occam's Razor is another objection to the multiverse theory. A physicist by the name of Paul Davies said "Invoking an infinite number of other universes just to explain the apparent contrivances of the one we see is pretty drastic, and in stark conflict with Occam's razor." If the "God did it" hypothesis is true for everything, than any alternative explanation will always be more complex. One of the powerful forces of science and naturalism is that it offers realistic testable explanations to the existence of things that were once only explained by supernatural phenomenon. The evolutionary process for example is much more complex than the creationist idea that god created all life at once using his magic. So Occam's Razor, which says that the simplest explanation is the most likely one, is not some kind of absolute rule that applies in every situation, and we have many examples of its violation.

3. It is also important to mention that the apparent fine tuning of our universe is interpretive. The overwhelming majority of the universe is incredibly hostile to life as we know it. We exist on a knife's edge where any slight climatic change would spell our doom. The universe is also constantly trying to kill us. Our sun is bursting with deadly gamma rays and solar flares that would kill us all if it weren't for our protective atmosphere and magnetic field. The theist might then say "Ah ha. The Earth's protective fields are evidence for god. Look how generous he was for creating the protection that allows us to live." To this is reply, "Why would god create a sun bursting with deadly gamma rays and solar flares in the first place? It's almost as if god is shooting at us with a gun, but then he provides us with a bullet proof vest to save our lives. The theist focuses on the bullet proof vest, but I focus on why god had to shoot at us in the first place. In other words, why couldn't god have just created a sun that wasn't trying to kill us so we wouldn't need a protective field?"

Then there are supernovas, the largest explosions in the universe. Depending on their size, they could happen in as little as 3,000 light years away, which is to say our cosmic back yard, and they could destroy the protective fields around our planet which would allow the sun's gamma rays and solar flares to kill us. If such an event occurred, we'd have little to no protection from its affects. There are also comets and asteroids that have the potential for wiping out all or most of the life on Earth as we know it. These rare events seem to happen once every several hundred million years, but smaller impacts, like the one that hit Siberia just weeks ago and the kind that hit Tunguska in 1908, happen every few hundred years. They have the potential for eliminating small regions of Earth and killing tens of millions of people. I suppose the asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago that ended the dinosaurs and enabled mammals to dominate the planet was all somehow part of god's plan too. I can just imagine god tiring of dinosaurs after their 180 million year existence and getting impatient in how long it's taking humans to evolve and then deciding that hitting Earth with a giant asteroid that causes a world-wide mass extinction of 70 percent of all life would be the best way to speed that up.

All told, the circumstances allowing our existence to be actualized seems to be chance rather than design, however improbable that may seem. There are just too many events in history that bare the hallmark of chance over design, ranging from the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs to the continental impact of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates 50 to 30 million years ago that is said to have dried the climate of East Africa by thrusting up the Himalayan mountains, and which forced our tree dwelling ancestors to adapt to survive on the ground, leading to our evolution. So as I've explained earlier, improbable chance is always possible, and you and I are proof of that.

And finally, the future of life in this universe looks grim. Eventually, the power of dark energy will overcome gravity and electromagnetism and force apart the atoms that make up everything, including any life that exists, resulting in the "Big Rip". The universe will reach a state of maximum entropy where no galaxies stars or matter could clump together, and this will go on infinitely into the future. But, the good news is that we'll all be dead long before this happens.

4. The Fine Tuning Argument also hints at the idea that even god must conform to the laws of physics. I imagine god fumbling over an instruction manual on how to create a universe with just the right recipe in order to allow human life to develop. If god can do anything, or at least anything logically possible, why does he have to conform to the laws of physics? Couldn't god be able to create life in a universe that wasn't fine tuned for it? If we found that our universe didn't have the properties that allow life like us to exist and it still did, I find that that would be better evidence for god.

Summary

The old Aristotelian geocentric model of the universe with the Earth in the center surrounded by different sized concentric spheres that the sun and each of the known planets revolved around prevailed for nearly two thousand years. It wasn't until Copernicus in the 16th century, that the West began to realize that the Earth actually revolved around the sun, and that the sun is just like the other stars only closer and therefore appearing larger. The belief that our sun and neighborhood of stars called the Milky Way galaxy was all that existed prevailed for several hundred more years until Edwin Hubble discovered it was but one of billions of others. We now know that there are as many as 100 billion other galaxies that exist in our universe and that our universe may actually be one of a potentially infinite number, each perhaps existing in its own dimension, and each with its own laws of physics. 

Our place in the universe, or should I say, multiverse, keeps getting smaller and smaller. If there are an infinite number of universes, that means it is inevitable that there are an infinite number of universes just like ours, with an infinite number of yous and mes. Before that thought blows your mind, it is important to dwell for a bit on the evidence for the multiverse. 

1. Inflationary theory, developed in the 1980s by Alan Guth, which is our best explanation of the big bang to date, naturally gives rise to multiple universes. String theory as well is complimented by the existence of the multiverse.

2. The multiverse gives us an explanation for the value of dark matter we've measured in our universe and the disappearance of energy produced by particle collisions made by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) whereby the missing energy may have escaped our universe into another. The indeterminacy of the positions of quantum particles can also be explained by the multiverse by inferring that the multiple simultaneous positions each occur in other parallel universes and hence there exists a multiverse.

3. Observing the multiverse might be possible because gravity from other universes might be able to pass between universes which can be measured perhaps with more sensitive space-based instruments such as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) set to launch in 2014. LISA is a "gravitational wave detector sensitive at frequencies between 0.03 mHz and 0.1 Hz. LISA detects gravitational-wave induced strains in space-time by measuring changes of the separation between fiducial masses in three spacecraft 5 million kilometers apart" according to the NASA website. 

I'm not exactly sure if the infinite series of big bangs each resulting in a different universe happens at the same time or one after the other. If they happen one after the other, then we're stuck with a potentially infinite series of past events, an idea philosophers find impossible. If that is so, each universe may exist in its own dimension, causally unrelated to any other, where time and space arise only in that dimension. Or they could all arise at the same time, either in different dimensions or in the same one.

This is all admittedly speculative, as the existence of other dimensions are, but even if we never observe other universes to confirm what the math predicts, a solid mathematical model of the multiverse might be enough, just as it was in predicting the existence of black holes. In the future we might be able to see the effects of the multiverse by being able to observe impacts of other universes on our own, but the prospects of this are uncertain. Even so, the fine tuning itself is illusory. Every single event that happens in our universe is an extremely rare event because the probability of the event happening was much more likely not to have happened than to have happened. The laws of physics also allow something from nothing, and so it seems where ever intelligent life exists it will forever be forced to have to contemplate its existence.




Further reading on arguments against god:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument
Objective Morality Without God
Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good from God?" A Debate Review
Refuting William Lane Craig: The Moral Argument
The Logically Implausible God
The Logically Implausible God Part 2
God, Time & Creation: More Problems For William Lane Craig
The Ontological Argument: Putting the Absurd Where it Belongs

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