Tuesday, October 13, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 3 Getting Medieval)


Feser starts chapter 3 lauding Aquinas' lifelong chastity and devotion to god, as if that's supposed to impress us. Religious obsessions with chastity always reminds me of how masochistic it is. There's also something about serious Catholics that I really don't like. I've always hated Catholicism, but it's hard to hate most Catholics today because most of them are so non-religious that they act almost indistinguishable from your average secular atheist. But the ones who take their religion seriously, like Feser, get me agitated. Feser is convinced his religion is true and wants the world to conform to it, and that's dangerous. I suppose then that it's a good thing he doesn't get much traction.

It's in chapter 3, called Getting Medieval, that Feser lays out his argument for god. He starts by making several insults about the New Atheists and their apparent failure to address the "greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages," especially Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the most famous atheist in the world. As a reminder once again, I haven't fully read The God Delusion, and so I unfortunately cannot speak on Dawkins' behalf. But, from what I did read, Dawkins does make a lot of common sense arguments against the belief in a theistic intervening god - the kind who ensures you have parking space at Walmart while he ignores the prayers of millions of kids starving to death. Hitchens' God is Not Great is really a critique of religion, specifically the Abrahamic ones. He doesn't really try and refute the existence of god per se. Perhaps this is a weakness, but I think his criticisms against Abrahamic theism are strong enough that no argument anyone can make could establish the probabilistic existence of Yahweh. The biblical god and the religions that derive from him are just too absurd to be taken seriously, even when Aquinas' arguments are met head on, as we're about to see.

Feser makes a big deal about the New Atheist's criticisms of William Paley's popular design argument. The reason why so many atheists mention Paley's argument is because it's a very popular argument that a lot of theists make. It's also a very simple argument; one doesn't need to learn complex, esoteric metaphysics like one has to do in order to understand Aquinas. That's why Paley's argument keeps coming up again and again, and the New Atheists (and atheists in general) have to make it a point to address it. Aquinas' arguments are generally too complex and require too much philosophical knowledge for your average wannabe apologist to successfully make. It's much easier for them to memorize the simple premises of the cosmological argument, or remember the scene involved in Paley's watchmaker analogy. It's fair to say that it isn't a straw man to attack design arguments of the Paley variety as Feser thinks on page 81. It's a legitimate argument for god, albeit a really bad one. No, a more proper straw man is like what Feser did in his opening chapter when he says your average secularist thinks strangling infants or fucking corpses or goats is perfectly normal in order to show how secularism is "irrational, immoral, and indeed insane," without even defining what he means by "secularism."

Feser's attitude seems to be that none of the New Atheist's arguments mean anything, until they refute Aquinas. And to be fair, the New Atheists have, by and large, not taken up Aquinas. Feser accuses secularists of swallowing "anything their gurus shovel at them." (80) But he must realize how absurd it is for him to make such a claim, when everyone knows it's organized religion that brainwashes its masses and requires its adherents make statements of faith, usually starting at childhood. And the Catholic Church is about as organized as organized religion can get.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

My Atheist Debate Dream Team


I love watching really good debates between theists and atheists, but many of them are lackluster. Last year's debate between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig was a particularly good one when it came to the cosmological evidence for and against theism. But those kinds of debates are the exception. The one thing Sean Carroll can't do well is debate the historicity of Jesus, or morality. And for other atheist debaters like Richard Carrier, the one thing he can't do well is debate the fundamental cosmology theists try to use to argue for god. William Lane Craig for example can debate both of them well - in that he's got enough knowledge of each to make a case that appears convincing, even if it isn't.

That's where a group debate would come in handy. To entertain my debate fantasy, we'd have a three-on-three atheist vs Christianity team debate and on the atheist side I'd pick and choose who I'd want representing team atheism. Since cosmology always comes up in god debates, I'd have Sean Carroll on team atheism to handle cosmological questions. He's shown himself to be more than capable in that regard. There are many other cosmologists who could do the job, like Lawrence Krauss, but Krauss' disdain for and ignorance of philosophy is a strike against him. Carroll, though not a philosopher, is at least philosophically inclined. (He minored in philosophy as an undergrad.)

For Christian-specific questions, such as the historicity and resurrection of Jesus, I'd have Richard Carrier on team atheism. Over the years Carrier has demonstrated himself to be one of the world's foremost scholars in the field of Jesus mythicism. He knows Christianity and its historical context really well, and has the ability to debate them better than most. So I think he'd successfully be able to put to rest any claims that the evidence demonstrates Jesus existed and rose from the dead.

Lastly, besides cosmology and the arguments specifically for Christianity, Christians usually bring up either morality or the origin of life as their other preferred arguments. For morality, I'd consider AC Grayling, who is a moral philosopher, or Massimo Pigliucci, or maybe Michael Shermer. Matt Dillahunty is another good atheist debater, who could handle many of the non-scholarly stuff. For the origin of life I have no idea who can debate that sufficiently enough to drive the point that it doesn't need a god. So I'm not sure who I'd employ here. (Maybe Aron Ra?) Ideally, I'd pick someone who can do both morality and abiogenesis or evolution, and that might leave me with Pigliucci since he was a biologist turned philosopher. But this position might have to be decided depending on the Christian debaters. And if this is pure fantasy we're talking about, I'd have Christopher Hitchens between Sean Carroll and Richard Carrier. Though Hitchens was not a philosopher or scientist, he was really good at pointing out the bad things about religion and many of its non-obvious absurdities.

Who would be on team Christianity? Probably William Lane Craig. I'd definitely want him on it. Maybe Alvin Plantinga, JP Moreland, or Edward Feser, or David Wood. Who knows? The thing is Feser and Craig don't agree on a lot of metaphysical views, so I'm not sure they'd both be on team Christianity. I do know that a weakness of the atheist/theist debates is that there is no atheist version of William Lane Craig. There are atheists good at philosophy, but not science; there are atheists good at science but not philosophy, or decent at both but not history. Since to sufficiently debate god, you have to know physics, cosmology, biology, philosophy, history, and of course, religion, that is a lot of stuff to have to know. You by no means must be an expert in all of these subjects, but you have to be exceptionally familiar with each in order to be a good debater on the god topic. And since today there is no single atheist who can do this, only an atheist debate dream team could. If I had 100 million dollars I'd definitely use some of it to orchestrate such a debate.

If only.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Quote Of The Day: William Lane Craig Is Wrong On Cosmic Time


William Lane Craig really doesn't like the B-theory of time, also known as eternalism. He's written whole books and essays trying to debunk it and to promote the A-theory of time, also known as presentism. The reason why is clear. Craig's favorite go-to argument for god's existence is the kalam cosmological argument, and it presupposes the A-theory of time. In fact, on the B-theory, the argument is useless. So Craig has spent many calories trying as hard as he can to make the case for the A-theory. One of them is this notion that "cosmic time" allows us to have an objective reference frame, which is ruled out under special relativity which says that all reference frames are subjective. It's even convinced another atheist blogger at one point that the relativity of simultaneity doesn't imply a block universe and the eternalism that describes it. But this is wrong, as physicist Aron Wall writes on his blog:

Now it is true that on some specially nice spacetimes, there is a naturally nice choice of time coordinate. For example in an FRW expanding universe, there is a "cosmic time" coordinate which tracks the overall size (the "redshift factor") of the universe. Some philosophers, such as St. William Lane Craig, have suggested that God's "time" might simply be this "cosmic time".

But this is a misunderstanding of the physics of our universe. The FRW metric is a just an approximation to reality. It describes a universe which is completely uniform (the same in everywhere) and isotropic (the same in every direction). This is a very good approximation on large distance scales (billions of light years), but on shorter distance scales (e.g. the solar system, or the milky way, or your living room) you may have noticed that matter is not distributed uniformly. It comes in clumps, and each of these clumps has a gravitational field which distorts the spacetime metric, making the FRW metric no longer correct. On a lumpy spacetime, the notion of "cosmic time" is not well-defined.

Aron Wall is a physicist and a devout Christian, so he certainly doesn't have a theological ax to grind here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Quote Of The Day: The Unlikely Possibility of Possibilism On Time


There are three main theories on time: presentism, possibilism, and eternalism. This is the difference between the three:

Presentism: Only the present moment exists
Possiblism: Only the present moment exists and everything that has happened in the past
Eternalism: Every moment exists

Visually it looks like this:


Presentism entails that the future and past do not exist; possiblism entails that the present and past still exist and is therefore commonly referred to as the "growing block theory;" eternalism entails that all moments in time exist such that the universe can be viewed as an eternal block, and is therefore commonly referred to as the "block universe."

Eternalism is the dominant view in science. In Relativity and the Nature of Spacetime Vesselin Petkov drives the point, arguing about the unlikely possibility of possiblism:

I think the arguments against the growing block universe indicate that it is very unlikely that such a view will be an adequate representation of the world. On the other hand, all arguments against the four-dimentionalist view are based on the sole fact that we are aware of ourselves and the world only at the constantly changing moment 'now'. But this fact, as we saw in Chap. 3, has two logically possible interpretations, one of which is fully consistent with Minkowski's view. That is why the four-dimentionalist view is the most serious candidate for correctly representing the world." (p. 167)

I agree with the consensus. I think eternalism best fits the data and that would mean we are living in a block universe. The future of every single moment from our subjective perspectives in the spacetime block already exists and there's nothing we can do about it. I know this can be mind blowing and very difficult on the ego. We like to think of the future as a wide range of possibilities. Believing our futures to be locked into place may cause a mild to severe existential crisis. It requires a certain degree of philosophical investigation and knowledge to handle. But I do think that understanding this and seeing the universe this way has as much potential as a paradigm changer as did heliocentricism, evolution, and the end of libertarian free will.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What The Hell Is Going On With CJ Werleman?


Apparently, a rift has opened up and deepened among liberals over the way we view Islam. On the one side, some liberals think that Islam is a religion of peace and that criticizing it offends millions of Muslims and amounts to racism, or anti-Muslim bigotry. On the other side, another group of liberals stands opposed to any ideology or religion that flagrantly violates basic liberal values, and they recognize Islam as doing so. This rift became shockingly apparent on Real Time with Bill Maher last year in a debate over Islam between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck. (I commented on it here.) I've made my views clear that I'm on team Harris. He recognizes, like all informed and rational people, that the Islamic religion contains many immoral prescriptions and that this makes some Muslims agree with and hold those views. And some of them are inspired to commit violence because of these views. Beliefs have consequences. Shocking isn't it. It's quite a modest claim, but many liberals disagree, and one of them is an Aussie-born writer and journalist who's been getting some publicity in the past few years named CJ Werleman.

I first came to know CJ Werleman about a year ago. I first found out about him via YouTube in a speech he gave called What The Corporate Totalitarian State Means for Humanism. At first I liked him. He was a liberal atheist and he espoused the same kind of populist economic views that I hold. I agreed with him that corporate influence in government is too strong and that democracy in the US is fading away into corporatocracy. He seemed like he'd be a great atheist ally for those of us with left-leaning politics.

That is until I found out about his views on Islam. Given his criticism of those on the religious right, I thought he would naturally see Islam for what it really is: an ancient religion that contains many barbaric morals that results in disturbingly large numbers of its followers holding these barbaric morals. But to my surprise, he takes what seems like the standard liberal approach to Islam: that violent Islamists and Jihadists are entirely the result of bad Western foreign policy, and socio-economic factors. According to liberals like Werleman, Islam is never the reason why Jihadists commit acts of terror, or why 90% of Muslims think homosexuality is wrong, or why 23% think stoning to death adulterers should be the law of the land. Although he seems to recognize that Islam contains some barbarism, he doesn't seem to connect the dots that beliefs have consequences.

Werleman is an atheist but not an anti-theist. He just wrote a whole book disparaging anti-theism, which I won't link to here. His views on Islam make him a member of what Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris call the regressive left. Regressive lefties are basically liberals who blame the regressive beliefs of extremist groups like those of radical Islamists entirely on Western imperialism and socio-economic factors. Here's a recent tweet by Werleman espousing this view:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

How To Do Recreational Drugs Responsibly




I just watched Vice's special on our broken prison system where president Obama sat with several convicted felons in a federal prison, the first time ever for a siting president. It was pretty fuckin' good, I have to say. Vice knows how to do some really good reporting. Several inmates were profiled and their situations highlight just how broken America's prison system is. According to the show, about 97 percent of people arrested and charged with non-violent drug offenses plea guilty to lesser sentences because the mandatory minimum laws passed in the 80s and 90s are so stiff. Once you serve your time you'll often actually be charged fees for your public representative and for your parole, putting you in debt. Combine this with the fact that having a felony conviction makes it very difficult to find a job, especially without an education, and it prevents you from applying for food stamps, public housing, or getting federal aid for college, the recidivism rate is 67.8 percent after 3 years. And so the cycle goes on and on and on, generation after generation, and no community is hit harder than the African American community. 

Watching the show reminded me of my life growing up. I was raised by a single mother. I grew up in the inner city - not in the worst of neighborhoods, but definitely not the best. Many of the friends I knew during high school and immediately after were dropouts who often engaged in petty crimes like vandalism, graffiti, and low level drug dealing. When I went to college I stopped hanging out with them and made new friends and took a new path. I now hang out with people who have a much better mindset and I have a good job that affords me a comfortable middle class life. Watching the show made me realize just how good I have it. I am really, really lucky. I cannot stress that enough. I have it ridiculously good compared to so many people. For one thing, I'm a middle class person living in a first world country. Right there I have it better than about 90 percent of the world's population.

That got me thinking. Given how the inmates profiled in the show were convicted of low level drug offenses, I want to offer some advice to the readers out there. I've done plenty of drugs in my life, and I'm not against responsible drug use. I'm a libertarian in the sense that I don't think the state should be telling people what they can and cannot put in their body for the most part. So given this, here is some advice for responsible recreational drug use.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Quote Of The Day: Does Quantum Indeterminacy Allow Free Will?


Today's QOTD is by Caltech physcist Sean Carroll. Many people, theists and atheist alike, think that quantum indeterminacy allows for libertarian free will to take place. But this is a misunderstanding of quantum mechanics and the way probability works in it. On his blog, Carroll explains:

[I]f you want to use the lack of determinism in quantum mechanics to make room for supra-physical human volition (or, for that matter, occasional interventions by God in the course of biological evolution, as Francis Collins believes), then let’s be clear: you are not making use of the rules of quantum mechanics, you are simply violating them. Quantum mechanics doesn’t say “we don’t know what’s going to happen, but maybe our ineffable spirit energies are secretly making the choices”; it says “the probability of an outcome is the modulus squared of the quantum amplitude,” full stop. Just because there are probabilities doesn’t mean there is room for free will in that sense.

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