Monday, March 28, 2016

A Very Stupid Argument Against Eternalism

So I've been debating someone on whether Special Relativity entails eternalism and he is absolutely clueless as to what he's talking about. At the beginning of the debate he barely even had a basic conceptual comprehension of Special Relativity, and he kept making mistake after mistake, forcing us to spend weeks outlining his mistakes so that we could actually be on the same page. And this, despite the fact that he kept proclaiming he has "sufficient" knowledge in the subject matter.

His latest gaffe is below. He created this gif that tries to claim that presentism is compatible with Special Relativity, even though we cannot ever verify an objective reference frame, and furthermore that eternalism is not logically inferred from Special Relativity, which, of course, it is.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The F-Word, Yet Again

The F-word to many atheists is "faith." So many atheists abhor the word, and its very utterance is usually reacted to with disgust.

But I've been thinking lately, as atheists should we omit the word entirely from our vocabulary? Are there any contexts where an atheist can sensibly use the word faith? I want to explore this.

Consider the phrase, "Faith in humanity,"—which I say from time to time, and what I mean by "faith" when I say this.

When I am tempted, at times, to proclaim that I'm losing my faith in humanity, I generally mean that my expectations for the human race are unlikely to be met, given the circumstances. In other words, given human beings and our abilities to be rational, to cooperate with one another to solve problems, to be empathetic towards one another and to nature, there exists a bar, a standard I'd expect humanity to be capable of reaching. And when we fail to reach that standard, I say that I'm losing my "faith,"—or expectation, that humanity can do so.

This is different from the kind of faith in religion. That faith can be defined a number of ways. It can be the belief in the existence of something without evidence, or without good evidence. But there is a difference between having faith in something that exists, with having faith that something particular happens in the future. No one can be certain about what happens in the future. I'm using faith to refer to humanity in this sense: I have an expectation of future human behavior that may or may not come true. My expectation is based on evidence from past human behavior (and requires nothing supernatural), but humans and societies are highly complex things, and there is no guarantee of anything.

The reason why faith is a dirty word among atheists is because it's so closely associated with non-evidence based reasoning and belief. I agree with that, but I don't think the word necessarily has to be toxic to atheists. It may be however, that the word itself can never be divorced from its religious connotations and many atheists, skeptics, and so called freethinkers will refuse to ever use it.

But in the sense of using the term to refer to my feelings and beliefs about humanity, atheists who think the term should never be used can look at it several ways:

On the one hand atheists could never use the term due to its negative connotations. On the other hand the term could be used in relation to certain degrees of importance in belief and of epistemology. For example, maybe when it comes to one's worldview, politics, morality, and philosophy, we should use a high degree of reason and evidence, because these views hold a higher degree of importance and thus we should never use faith when referring to them. But when it comes to relatively trivial beliefs in your everyday interactions, like whether or not your friend's going to pay you back that $5 he owes you, or whether or not so-and-so will show up at the party, perhaps it isn't toxic for atheists to use the word "faith" in these situations.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Jesus, Where Are You? The Missing Extrabiblical Evidence

It is interesting how there are numerous gaps in the historical record for time periods that are critical to the story of Christianity. Using scholarship from On The Historicity of Jesus, some examples include:

  • In the Roman History of Cassius Dio, all the years between 6 to 2 BCE are gone. That gap begins exactly 2 years before King Herod's death, in accordance with Mt. 2:16, and ending 2 years after it (there was uncertainty among Christians when exactly Herod died). In volume 58 covering the years 29 to 37 CE a reference to an event (in 58.17.2) that was described in a section that was deleted some time between the years of 15 and 30.
  • The Christian scholar Hippolytus in the early 3rd century wrote a Refutation of All Heresies in ten volumes. At the end of the 1st volume he mentions that he's about to explain the secret doctrines of the mystery religions which would have included passion narratives of savior gods, miraculous births, deaths and resurrections, but the 2nd and 3rd volumes are missing. Volume 4 goes right into astrology.
  • In the beginning of the 1st century, Ovid wrote an elaborate poem, the Fasti, describing all the festivals throughout the year in Rome, and what went on in them and why. The annual Roman festival of Romulus where his death and resurrection were reenacted in public passion plays was held on the 7th of July. Only the first half of the poem survives covering January to June. The texts cuts off precisely before the month in which the passion play survives.
  • In Plutarch's Moralia, a huge multivolume library of treatises on diverse subjects, one of of the volumes is Tabletalk. There, he discusses the equivalence between Yahweh and Dionysus, linking Jewish theology to the mystery religions when suddenly the text cuts off. The surviving table of contents indicates there were several sections remaining on other subjects besides this one.
  • In the Annals of Tacitus, of which we have only 2 surviving manuscript traditions, there is a gap in the text covering the middle of 29 CE to to the middle of 31 CE. The year 30 is regarded by many Christians as the years of Christ's ministry and crucifixion. 

Silence on Jesus, Christians, Christianity and its origin:

  • Philo of Alexandria wrote 5 books about his embassy to Caligula after the year 36 and the events precipitating it, and only 2 survived. One of the 3 missing volumes covered the persecution of the Jews under Tiberius, one was on Pilate, and the other was on Sejanus at Rome. All 3 of these may have had embarrassing silence on Jesus.
  • Emperors Vespasian and Titus published commentaries on their government service which included persecution of the Jewish War and Christians are never mentioned.
  • Seneca the Elder wrote a History of Rome covering the 1st century BCE to the year 40 CE. Seneca the Younger wrote a treatise On Superstition some time between 40 and 62 CE that criticized every known cult at Rome, even those trivial or obscure, including the Jews, but never mentions the Christians. Seneca was also the brother of Gallio whom Christians are brought on trial before in Greece according to Acts 18:12-17.
  • In the 3rd century, Marius Maximus, notorious for extensive quotations of official documents, wrote biographies of the emperors of the second century. The second century saw several imperial engagements with Christianity, yet he never once mentions or digresses on the origins or treatment of Christianity.
  • In the 1st century we have the fragmentary remains of Satyricon of Petronius which mocks several religions and its narrative, even poking fun at crucifixion, and never mentions Christ, Christians or Christianity. None of the early pagan religious novels mention Christians.

What are the chances that so many historical volumes and texts would have gaps covering precisely the periods where the history of Jesus mattered so much? And what are the chances that Christianity, Christians, or the origin or Christianity would be absent from so many written works covering the times and places where the religion and its followers were suppose to have existed? Could these all be coincidences? I think that is very unlikely. If the minimal mythicist view is correct that Jesus never existed, and was thus silent from the historical record, then the early Christians would have been motivated to destroy those records covering those periods where Jesus' life details were supposed to have taken place, or, they would have been motivated to doctor records with interpolations. Once the Roman empire came under Christian control and Christianity eventually dominated Europe, Christians controlled which pieces of written history were preserved. and which were not. They had every reason to do this in a way that favored their particular brand of Christianity, which for a long time was the Catholic Church. And the Catholic Church's version of Christianity needed a historical Jesus.

So think about this. Much of the written knowledge from antiquity was filtered through the Catholic Church that we know was motivated to omit and doctor things to suit its theology and agenda. Given this, how likely do you think it is that these mysterious and convenient gaps and silence are just a coincidence?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition - Part 5: Aquinas' Fifth Way

Steven Jake over on the Christian Agnostic blog wrote a review of my review of Feser's book The Last Superstition. So let me now review his review of my review. This is part 5 on Aquinas' Fifth Way.

Aquinas' Fifth Way

The existence of teleological final causes is paramount on the Fifth Way argument. SJ reiterates Feser's example of an acorn turning into a tree, whereby the tree is the final cause of the acorn but there's immediately a problem:

For how, then, can a final cause actually be a cause if it doesn’t actually exist yet? For example, an acorn has an oak as (one of) its final causes. But the oak doesn’t yet exist, only the acorn. So how can the oak actually be a genuine cause if it doesn’t exist? Well we actually do have examples where a final cause doesn’t exist in a substance, but exists in an intellect. An example that Feser gives is that of a builder. See, before a builder builds a house, the form of the house is contained in his intellect. So here the final cause does exist as a form in the intellect of a builder.

SJ doesn't define the "intellect" here and neither does Feser, at least up to chapter 4. If the "intellect" is the mind, then the mind is caused by the brain. Every thought, idea, and concept that you consciously entertain reduces down into a brain state that causes it. And you don't have to except complete physical reductionism in order to accept this. Thomists like SJ and Feser have to deny that this is true, because if they concede that the brain causes the mind, their metaphysic basically comes crumbling down. Feser says the intellect causes the will on p. 127. That sounds to me like the mind. So if the Thomist is going to claim that the form of the house is contained in the intellect and that this is somehow immaterial and that this somehow has causal power over the builder in any respect, he needs to show scientific evidence for that because that basically would violate everything physics says is true. The burden would be on the Thomist because he'd be saying that there is something in addition to the four fundamental forces at work here. And if he says that formal causes would not be verifiable in any scientific way of having causal power on the physical, then he needs to explain why a mere materialistic ontology is not enough. And lastly, we're talking about causes that affect the physical world here, so this is a question in the domain of physics. So one cannot say that I'm assuming scientism.

But, what about final causes that are not similar to artifacts like buildings, like the oak we mentioned earlier? Well there are only a few possibilities: (1) it might exist in the natural object itself; (2) it exists in a human intellect; (3) it exists in an intellect outside the natural world altogether; (4) or final causes don’t exist at all. We have already explained why (1) doesn’t work—the form of the oak doesn’t already exist in the acorn. We know that (4) cannot be true since causal regularity necessitates final causality (see above). (2) cannot be true since we are not the ones that make acorns turn into oaks. Therefore, (4) is our only option, and thus we are led to an intellect which exists outside of the natural order.

SJ made a mistake here, I think he was referring to (3) as the answer, not (4). We have no good reason for granting teleological final causes. None of Feser's arguments for it logically prove its necessity. So granting (4) above is no problem, because once again, mere causal regularity is perfectly compatible with naturalism, and SJ acknowledges this himself. Final causes are when substances generate a range of effects reliably, which is causal regularity. Hence, to get final causes all you need is causal regularity. In this sense, final causes are being defined as causal regularity. But SJ claims the naturalists have "great difficulty" explaining why causal regularity exists in the first place. Three responses. (A) This presupposes the principle of sufficient reason and SJ has not shown brute facts are impossible, (B) this presumes that causal regularity on naturalism is unexpected and no prior is given why it should be unexpected, and (C) if I grant that we have difficulty explaining this, if this is a problem for me, then explaining non-physical causes and why god eternally coexists with our universe and not no universe or another universe is a problem for SJ. If he can appeal to mystery to absolve him of his problem, then I can do the same. I can say that there is a naturalistic answer to why causal regularity exists but that we can't know it because our brains aren't capable of knowing everything. I can do the same thing SJ does.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition - Part 4: Aquinas’ First Way

Steven Jake over on the Christian Agnostic blog wrote a review of my review of Feser's book The Last Superstition. So let me now review his review of my review. This is part 4 on Aquinas’ First Way.

Aquinas’ First Way

SJ starts out saying:

Thus, Feser’s point in highlighting the importance of essentially ordered series is that of instrumentality, and not simultaneity. And therefore The Thinker’s claim that simultaneity is “crucial” for Feser’s argument is false—at least as Feser himself has articulated his position.

I'm willing to concede this, but I don't think it destroys all of my objections this argument.

The Thinker continues his objections by mentioning the philosophy of eternalism, which is supposedly entailed by a block universe.

Supposedly? Eternalism is the block universe. Let's look into SJ's objections of this.

However, these objections do not work. First, an eternal universe does not solve the problem—in fact, Aquinas actually allowed for the possibility of an eternal universe. The Thinker thinks this is a problem because “[i]t’s logically impossible that an eternally existing universe that never came into being couldn’t have existed.” But this is pure question-begging on his part. While an eternally existing universe cannot come into being in any temporal sense, this does not entail that it is therefore necessary. Why not? Well, because duration of existence does not alter the essence or nature of an existent, nor does it alter whether something is a composite of act/potency. That is to say, a thing’s nature does not all of a sudden become necessary simply because of how long it exists, whether it be for a second, or for an eternity. Therefore, if the reason for the universe’s existence is not contained within its nature—which it isn’t—or if the universe is a composite of act and potency—which it is—then the universe is contingent, and thus no matter how long it exists, it remains contingent.

I think Aquinas allowed for a universe with an infinite number of past events—which is different than the block conception of eternalism, which may or may not include an infinite number of past events. So I'm not sure Aquinas considered this. As for the question begging sense that SJ claims, I'm not arguing that our eternal universe is logically necessary and that it must exist a priori, I'm arguing that since it is eternalistic it is therefore impossible for it not to have existed, since something eternal like a block universe cannot not have existed. I'm making an a posteriori argument that because we've discovered the universe is a certain way, it therefore logically negates its non-existence. I'm arguing that this forces us to rethink the whole notion of contingency, existence, and the act/potency notions as they don't apply given the way the universe is. And here SJ applies act/potency to the universe as if he's just made a brilliant point. He hasn't. I'd like to hear him logically explain how god can create an eternal universe or sustain one in existence. The only possibility is to suppose god and the eternal universe coexist together and this opens up lots of conceptual problems I mentioned in the review of chapter 3. For one thing, if our universe isn't necessary, why does god coexist eternally with it and not another universe, or no universe? So merely claiming that it is logically possible for the universe not to exist (which if it is eternal is impossible) does not make the case that god is required for the universe to exist.

Second, even if the block universe did exist and was a valid description of our own universe, this still does not make the universe necessary. For while there would be no change in the universe, the universe in itself would still not contain the reason for its own existence, and therefore it would still be contingent. In fact, The Thinker makes my point for me when he says that we can still imagine (read: conceive) of the block universe not existing. For if we can conceive of the block universe not existing then the explanation for said universe’s existence is not contained within its nature, and thus the universe is not necessary. So, even a denial of change in the universe altogether—which is extremely radical in itself—would still not lead away from the need for a First Cause.

I argue that the block universe is simply incompatible with any logical notions of a creator god, and certainly not creation ex nihilo, which many theists argue is a must for the Abrahamic god. There would have to be aspects of god that were brute facts, and once you allow brute facts, you can skip god altogether and stick with the universe, since after all, the universe's existence is a fact and god's isn't. (And ironically, denying eternalistic interpretations of Special Relativity might actually force you to accept brute facts, according to Yuri Balashov and Michael Jensen.) Here SJ appeals to the principle of sufficient reason, but he doesn't argue for it. He has elsewhere (and so has Feser) but I see no reason to think their arguments stick. SJ mostly reiterates Feser's arguments when he denies the possibility of brute facts. In fact, a lot of his blog is Feser's ideas reiterated. And I can imagine god not existing. In fact it's very easy for me, as all the "logical" arguments that try to show god's necessarily existence are flawed or contain word salads like SJ's favorite "God's essence just is existence." This can be ignored by any thinking person as nonsense. Lastly, the denial of change in the universe is not at all radical once you properly understand eternalism, which is logically entailed from Special Relativity. (Read here and here.)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Sheba 1995 - 2016

Taken probably around 2000

I have some sad personal news to report. It is with sadness and emotion that I report that my beloved cat Sheba has just died earlier today. It's been very difficult for me. I've had her for the better part of 20 years.

My mom had adopted her from the North Shore Animal League way back in August 1995. I remember that I was on vacation at the time with my father and my sister in Indonesia, and when I came back home there she was in my apartment, the same one I'm living in right now. What a nice little treat she was. I was 13 years old.

Taken around 1999-2000
Just think about how long ago that was. 1995 was the dawn of the internet age, when it just had started getting popular. Only 14% of Americans were even online at the time according to PEW, and I'd be surprised if most had even heard of email. We were using dial up back then, and paying for internet service by the minute with AOL dominating the market. This was before Facebook and Google had even come out. Yahoo had just came out earlier in the year. Most people didn't even have a cell phone at that time. I remember people were still using beepers back then. Beepers! Can you believe how far we've come in the lifetime of my cat?

And so in August 1995 I came home from vacation to a new cat. We already had another cat that me and my mother snatched off of the street and took home. This new cat's name was Sheba. I think she was named by the people at the animal shelter because I don't remember us naming her. But it was the perfect name for her. She looked just like the cat in the Sheba commercials, which is why I think they named her that. She was a beautiful Russian Blue, with a slender figure, green eyes, and a graceful, elegant stride. She was very feminine. I'd have visions of Sheba being the cat of Cleopatra.

Taken around 2007 with my Aztec sunstone painting in my old apartment

She had personality too. She wasn't one of those cats that slept all day and only got up to eat. She had lots of energy that she kept well into her later years. She'd jump up on things and move around for hours. Sometimes this would actually annoy me because she'd make noise when I needed to sleep or to concentrate on something. I would sometimes wish she was one of those lazy cats that slept all day. But usually I did love her energetic poise. Just a week ago she was jumping up to my bathroom sink where she preferred to drink water right out of the faucet.

For International Cat Day back on August 8th, I "Trumped "my cat for her 20th birthday.  

Sheba also liked getting attention. She'd jump on my lap when I was sitting on the couch and stand there and give me this look that basically said, "Hello, I'm adorable, I want you to pet me." I almost always obliged and she'd purr and eventually nestle in the nook between my legs to take a nap. She also didn't mind being held for a while. I loved scooping her up and cuddling her in my arms, and giving her little head a kiss. She wasn't shy around people, but she never let anyone but me hold her. Russian Blue's are known for being loyal only to their owners.

February 2015
When my dad moved to New Jersey around 2000 my sister moved in with him and took Sheba with her. At the time I was still mostly attached to my other cat and so I didn't mind. While living there for several years Sheba and I grew apart. I remember visiting my dad's apartment and she'd run from me when I'd try to pick her up. My dad instantly fell in love with her. I couldn't blame him. Sheba had that effect on people. My dad didn't even like cats, but Sheba was special. I remember hearing a story of how one day Sheba had jumped from their third floor window and went missing for several days. My sister said my dad was crying over this, and my dad never cried or showed emotion. This was a testament to the effect Sheba had on people. Everyone I introduced her to said she was the most adorable little thing. Eventually they found her somehow and brought her back to the apartment.

Then, when my dad moved a few years later his new apartment didn't allow pets, and they gave Sheba to my mother and one day my mom came over to my apartment that I had just move into and dumped Sheba on me. I still had my other cat. And so now I had two. I remember Sheba staying on the top of my fridge for a week afraid to come down. They say Russian Blue's don't like changes of environment. Eventually she got used to my apartment and it was then that we really started bonding. When my mother moved to the west coast I moved back into the apartment Sheba originally lived in and brought her back full circle. My other cat died in 2008 of a tumor, and since then it's been me and Sheba.

Our relationship had grown very close, especially in the past several years. There were times when I was going through depression and difficult life circumstances and it was just me and her. Me and my baby girl. That's one of the beautiful things about cats. They don't judge you by how you look or how much money you make. They judge you by how you treat them.

Taken around 2000

There were some issues though. She was a very thirsty cat and needed lots of fresh water. As a consequences of that she urinated a lot, which meant her litter box was always full. She also vomited a lot. I'd have to feed her small amounts of food in frequent servings because if I fed her too much she'd either eat it all up and then vomit it out an hour later, or she'd waste half of it and it would go bad.

Taken November 2015

Other than that she was a very healthy cat. She never had a single medical issue in the entire 20 years we had her. No allergies, no sicknesses. Nothing. Other than getting her fixed and declawed when she was almost still a kitten, we never took her to the vet for any issue not one single time. She would wake me up early every morning with her meows and greet me with those same meows every day when I got home from work, in the expectation of food. It will be weird getting used to coming home to an empty house now.

Taken October 2015

So this hasn't been a good weekend for me. My baby girl is dead. She was the best cat I could have ever asked for and I'm so lucky I got to be her owner for almost her entire life. I will never have another cat as good as her. I could ask why she had to die but I know better. We all have to die, eventually. Death is the only thing that is certain in life. It's one of life's ironies. I'm thankful she lived as long as she did. The average life expectancy for a cat is 15. And Sheba was 20 years and 7-8 months old when she died, which is about 99 in human years. She had a long life, and I hope a good one. In my teen years I did a few mean things to her. I was just a stupid adolescent boy. I made sure I treated her like a queen when I grew up. I hope that overall I gave her a very good life. I have an appointment with the vet tomorrow morning where I plan to have her cremated and her ashes kept.

I'm gonna miss my baby, so much. So much. But as I gaze out into the sunset, I recognize that life goes on. And it's the finitude of life that makes it special. I'm just lucky to have had Sheba in my life.

RIP Sheba 1995 - 2016 

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition - Part 3: The Existence of God

Steven Jake over on the Christian Agnostic blog wrote a review of my review of Feser's book The Last Superstition. So let me now review his review of my review. This is part 3 on existence of god.

The existence of God

The analogy of being and conceptions of God

SJ starts out saying:

Thomists claim that because God must be metaphysically simple—that is, he is not composed of parts either physically or metaphysically—then the characteristics that we attribute to Him must, in God, be identical.

Then how the hell can Jesus be god, along with the rest of the trinity? That was one of the central criticisms I launched against the Thomistic notion of god and SJ doesn't even mention it once. Furthermore, saying god is identical to the characteristics that we attribute to him means that if we attribute jealousy, anger, malevolence, and things like homophobia to him, then god must be identical to those things. There are several things to address here. First, it would mean god is almost anything we say he is, and there is no way to objectively determine what attributes god has and doesn't have. This is likely because god is just an idea in our minds. Second, there is a presumption of Thomism here in the idea that attributes can have ontological status of their own. As someone who rejects Thomism, I see no reason to think attributes are anything more than the mere descriptions we give to physical things or ideas.

This is an extremely confused statement by The Thinker. First of all, the doctrine of analogy is precisely predicated on the fact that we don’t know “how [G]od really is.”

No it isn't confused at all. It's right on the money in fact. Theists don't know how god really is because it's a made up concept that's kept so vague and mysterious that this shields them from any prying criticism or analysis. It's similar to how some Buddhists conceive of Zen. If god were a vague, made up concept, we wouldn't expect to be able to pin god down in detail. So Thomists like SJ need to keep that in mind when arguing the veracity of their deity: if it were false, we'd expect the same problems that we have. And claiming I made a categorical mistake doesn't get you out of this. The Thomistic god is laced with vagueness. That seems to be part of its essence. And this is a god who supposedly wants us to "know" him and created the whole universe for this very purpose. Totally absurd.

Second, an analogous attribution itself necessitates a vague (though not necessarily so mysterious) application—again, that’s what an analogy is. But this should not at all present any problem for the conception of God, unless one simply states that analogies are invalid forms of attribution, which would be an extreme and, I maintain, an indefensible position to espouse. So The Thinker simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on here. His objection is only efficacious if we assume that predicating something by analogy is wrong-headed, and he has demonstrated that this is the case.

No, analogous attributions do not require vagueness. Some analogies are right on the money for describing how another thing is. So this is just false. And this definitely is a problem for the Thomistic conception of god—which is indeed incoherent. If the analogies must always fail to describe how god really is when there is a problem with the very conception of god, then there is no reason to accept the conception of god as coherent and the existence of god as plausible. The coherency of god is literally resting on a faith based position, since it cannot, perhaps even in principle, be demonstrated, if SJ is right. I'm not against analogies—we use them everyday. I'm against incoherent concepts like the Thomistic god being believed as true and organizing one's life around. So SJ's criticism has no leg to stand on here.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...