Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Insentient Watchmaker

You say that...
If I...
Stumbled on a watch I'd assume it had a watchmaker,
That a muffin presupposes a baker,
So you must agree sooner or later,
That this proves that there's a creator.
So if I put my foot in a stinker,
You'd assume the existence of a sphincter,
Thus you don't need to be a great thinker
To coclude that God's a bum,
--Exerpt from "Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins" by Tim Minchin

William Paley first posed the question of whether, if you found a watch on the ground, you would suppose that it had always been there, or that its complexity and apparent purposefulness implied that someone had made it. Would you assume that the watch had a watchmaker?

Well, I think most watches are made mostly by machines these days, but if you're asking if I would think it was the result of a series of improvements upon the designs of less sophisticated timekeeping devices leading back to something that I would not have recognized as one or if I would assume that it only existed by fiat of some magic man in he sky for whose existence I have no evidence, my answer would have to be the former.

Modern clocks are derived from sundials, which meter time using the motion of a shadow cast by a gnomon onto a dial. Anything that casts a shadow can function as a rudimentary gnomon, and any landmark that the shadow moves across can be used to measure its movement. I can just imagine a cave mother telling her cave children that they can play outside, but they have to come inside the cave when the shadow of the big mountain reaches the tree line. This type of primitive timekeeping system can be augmented with additional landmarks to measure a the shadow's movement with a finer gradation, and the addition of an artificial scale with regular intervals makes the measurement more systematic. Simple mechanisms can be added to continue measuring time when the sunlight is not available, and many types of minor improvements can be made to keep time in a way that is more precise, efficient or convenient. Moderns clocks are the result of a series of many such minute improvements, as well as many dead-end modifications to clocks that were not worth repeating, and may not have ever been built before that fact was determined.

This is a process of evolution. Memes arise as random thoughts and chance occurrences. Some are absurd and dismissed immediately, others are tried unsuccessfully, but only those that work are repeated and become the basis for further improvements. Evolution isn't a process of design that doesn't require intelligence, design is a process of evolution that does.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Maybe Intelligent Design Does Have a Place in Science Class

You'll probably be shocked to hear me say it, but I think that Intelligent Design should be included in science classes. In fact, I think ID could play a more important role in science class than evolution. You see, most current science classes are a big fat failure. They teach many things that we have learned through science, but they generally do a piss-poor job of defining science, which is why so many of the products our public school system (or worse, homeschoolers) think that ID is science.

But wait, didn't I just say that ID belongs in science classes?

Intelligent Design belongs in science class because it is a consummate example of what science is not. Children are leaving school thinking that science is a body of knowledge that includes categories like physics, chemistry and biology. Under this definition, an argument could be made that if the Intelligent Design hypothesis were true (which many already assume to be the case), that it would be scientific.

Science, however, is not a body of knowledge. Science is a methodology for attaining knowledge about natural phenomena in the material world through observation and experimentation and, by extension, a standard for evaluating that knowledge. Our science classes attempt to teach the scientific method, or at least to pay lip service to doing so, but they put far more emphasis on memorizing formulae and the names of anatomical structures. These classes would be better termed "History of Science". A true science class should not teach the fruits of science, but rather the methodology of science and the value of scientific scrutiny of ideas rather than the dogmatic acceptance or rejection of them.

Intelligent Design is an untestable postulation of an immaterial being acting upon the physical world by supernatural means based on claims that have not and could not be observed to be true, and nearly every word of that description contradicts the definition of science.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Islam Bashing

I find the Islam bashing -- both around the intertubes and in traditional media -- increasingly irritating. The Christians who partake in this are generally hypocrites of the worst kind (I saw a video today in the last minute of which Sean Hannity demonstrates Godwin's law with a level of hypocrisy that demonstrate's Poe's law), but it's atheist Islam-bashers who really annoy me. Don't get me wrong, most of what they say about Islam is true of Islam, but it's also true of Christianity, and aiming your rebuke at the religion that is primarily practiced half a world away instead of the one that's most likely practiced by your next-door neighbor, or even others in your own home, smacks of xenophobia.

Let me say this very clearly, Islam is no worse than Christianity.

It may be true that proactively violent fanaticism is more common among Muslims than Christians today, but an honest look at the religious beliefs of the members of the US military would surely call even that into question. The real difference between the two is that there are currently no serious Christian theocracies. Vatican City may technically be a sovereign state, and the vestigial monarch of the UK may also have some ceremonial authority in the Anglican church, but there is no Christian state where a predominantly lay population is held to Levitical law or any other possible analog of sharia. Ironically, some of the most vocal critics of Islam would love to see the United States become just such an oppressive theocracy.

Here in the United States, Christianity is a far greater threat to our rights than Islam. Patrick Henry once famously said "Give me liberty, or give me death." Some Islamic extremists may want to give us death, but their Christian counterparts want us to have neither. More importantly, the Christians are in a better position to attain their goals on a national scale. There is also far more military and economic power among so called "Christian nations" than in the Islamic world. Conditions seem to be different in the UK and possibly elsewhere, but in the US, the threat of the intolerance and batshit-insane ideas of Islam doesn't compare to the threat of the intolerance and batshit-insane ideas of Christianity.

Criticism from within always bears more weight than criticism from afar. We have plenty of Christians and Muslims complaining, often hypocritically, about one another. We need more Christians and Muslims speaking out against more extreme versions of their own faiths, and atheists speaking out against religions with which they have to live, and of which they may have been members. This is one area in which mormonism is a good example for the rest of us, and I would like to take a moment to congratulate and to thank all the former mormons who have spoken out against the LDS church.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Am I too rational for my own good?

In the second episode of Richard Dawkins' new show, The Enemies of Reason, (which you can watch below) Dr. Dawkins takes on "alternative medicine", and pays special attention to homeopathy. In case anyone reading (if anyone is reading) is not familiar with this particular flavor of bullshit, homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine in which substances -- and it truly makes no difference what they are -- are diluted to the point that "in order to get one molecule of the active substance, you'd have to imbibe all of the atoms in the solar system."

Dawkins correctly notes that the only possible use for homeopathic "medicine" -- which, amounts to so much water, exactly as pure as that used for dilution -- is as an expensive placebo. The placebo effect is well-documented and supported by scientific evidence. The psychological effect of believing that a treatment will work causes the body's self-healing mechanisms to function more effectively. In short it only works if you believe it will work. I don't believe that ignorance is bliss, but it's undeniable that under certain circumstances, it can be healthy.

I also considered this some time ago, a few years before I realized that the god that I had heard about all my life could not possibly exist. Before this realization came the realization that prayer could not possibly be efficacious. An all-knowing and unchanging god with an all-encompassing plan would necessarily have decided whether or not to do something long before it is requested, before the birth of the requester, and indeed, before the dawn of time itself. It could not be possible to sway the will of such a being, therefore prayer is useless. My pastor did not know how to respond to this conclusion, except to subtly scold me for thinking that way. Pastors are not, after all, paid to think. My mother, the theologian, told me that the purpose of prayer is not to change God, but to change yourself, which I immediately recognized as the placebo effect.

Of course, knowing the nature of a placebo negates its effect, which at first made me reluctant to share this knowledge. It was a moral dilemma: on one hand, telling someone that prayer is a placebo would make it as useless to them as it was to me, but on the other hand, keeping someone uninformed is always a disservice. This, to me, is perhaps the most important moral question, and it took several years for me to come to the conclusion that sharing the truth with someone is always the moral thing to do, no matter how unwelcome it may be. Each person has a right to their own beliefs, but that includes the right to base those beliefs on the best information available. By giving a person incomplete or false information, you deny them the right to believe what is true, and I can thing of no worse affront. This is why it is considered unethical in scientific medicine to prescribe placebos except in cases such as clinical trials where patients may be in the test group or the control, and thus know that they may receive placebos, and agree to be temporarily uninformed so that the placebo effect can be tested.

For doctors, it would be unethical to do any more than allow a patient to believe that a placebo will be efficacious, whereas religionists and practitioners of "alternative" medicine are free free to employ lies, dogma, and obfuscation to sell their snake oil. Deceiving anyone, yourself included, is harmful, and individuals only have the right to choose that type of harm for themselves. I prefer to rely on my body's own defenses whenever it is reasonable to do so, but I also avoid these types of self-deception that could enhance those defenses, so it is likely that I would be at least marginally more healthy if I were less rational. Perhaps I am too rational for my own good.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager states that it is logical to believe in God based on a cost/benefit analysis. According to the wager, belief costs nothing, but the potential reward is infinite, as is the potential penalty for disbelief. If there is no god, nothing is gained and nothing is lost whether you believe or disbelieve. This, of course, neglects the value of a belief being true, presumably because it assumes that the chances of being correct in either situation is 50-50 and that no further study can significantly alter these odds.

There are many counter-arguments to Pascal's Wager, and I won't address nearly all of them here, but perhaps the most obvious is that it is a false dichotomy. There are many mutually-exclusive beliefs about the existence of a god or gods, and even if one chose to be a theist, one would still presumably need to choose the correct religion in order to gain the reward. Most people would then start by placing each religion on equal footing with one another and with atheism in terms of probability, but this is already mistaken because there is a true dichotomy between theism and atheism (when defined simply as a lack of theism). Religions posit a god, then make further assertions about that god, so the 50% probability that there is a god must be divided among them. At this point, it becomes clear that, in the absence of evidence either way, the atheist is more likely to be right than a member of any given religion, but this counter-argument misses the point a bit, because in this case it could still be desirable to forego all likelihood of being correct (a finite benefit) for the chance at attaining an infinite reward. This is a much truer wager, and resembles a lottery with a small buy-in for a small chance at big rewards, but in this case there is not only a huge pot to be won, but an equally huge penalty for not winning. You have to play to win, but you don't have to play to lose. Under these circumstances, it still makes sense to pick a religion and believe.

The real problem is that people assume that even if there's a 50% chance of a god, that god must resemble the god of some religion. It's tempting to divide the god side according to the world's religions, or even the individual (and unique!) concepts of god that each believer holds, but without consistent revelation, these gods are no more likely than any other conceivable gods. Herein lies, I believe, the real achilles heel of Pascal's Wager.

Let's assume that there is a god that is aware of you, gives a damn about what you believe, and will punish you for believing the wrong things with regard to its own existence. The probability of this is already far below 50%, but for the sake of argument, we'll assume that these are necessary properties of a god, and ignore deist gods who don't care or those who value other properties such as your taste in music, your favorite color, whether you donate $5 to this website, whether you have a cute mole on your ass, etc. etc. ad infinitum. This god is at least as likely to value skepticism, evidence-based belief, and critical thinking as it is to value blind faith. Add the fact that if there is a god, it goes to great lengths to hide its presence (as evidenced by the fact that we have to ask the question), and the benefit of pleasing the skepticism god is better than that of the faith god, as the latter would obviously be a sadistic psychopath who wants to punish more than to reward. Who would want to spend eternity with a jerk like that? In fact, in the watered-down theologies in which the punishment is only annihilation or separation from the god, I'd say that the punishment is better than the reward.

When you look at it this way, the greatest benefit possible comes from pleasing a god that values skepticism. Skepticism also offers the greatest chance of a benefit because you would have a 25% chance that you will be wrong but will gain the favor of a god that values skepticism on top of the %50 chance of being correct but receiving no further benefit, therefore skepticism is the only logical choice. Of course, adding gods that don't care about belief back into the equation significantly diminishes that 25%, but it diminishes the chances of having the correct theistic belief equally.

Sure, some would argue that a god that values skepticism is far less likely than one that values faith, but what evidence do we have that this is the case? Only the word of theologians who have no more evidence than you or I, can't agree on anything else, and would have to go get a real job if people didn't believe. That, Mr. Adams, does not "pass the sniff test".

Of course, it would be stupid to disbelieve in a god that probably doesn't exist simply for the purpose of currying favor with it, but I think I've demonstrated that it doesn't make any more sense to believe for the same reason.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Defining god

Some theists try to define their god into existence with prevaricatory bullshit like "God is love." The problem with this is that we already have a word for love. It's called "love". Saying that god is love makes the word useless, not to mention the fact that people who say this invariably have a concept of a god that includes supernatural powers, more than a few idiosyncratic moral precepts, and masculinity, none of which is mentioned next to love in any dictionary I've ever seen. These people -- one would hope -- were conceived in love, but even so, its clearly a stretch to claim that love is their creator.

There are some who say that a volcano or a totem pole is their god. I can see and touch these gods, so I would be forced to admit that they exist. Despite the claims they make about these inanimate objects protecting them from evil, claiming them to be higher beings is clearly daft. These objects have naturalistic origins that we are capable of grasping, and we are far more likely to bend them to our will than they us. You can worship a rock 'til you're blue in the face, but it's not going to know or care, much less have the will or ability to reward you for doing so, nor to punish you for doing otherwise. These gods too are completely useless.

So what would make a god useful? A useful god must have some kind of power over the physical universe, but this alone is not enough. Clark's third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, yet an advanced alien species would not be gods, however tempting it may be to call them such. A god does not have naturalistic origins or exert its control through purely naturalistic means. Without naturalistic means, though, the effects of this control would be distinguishable from what would happen in the absence of the god only by the intention behind it. In order to exhibit this intention, the god must have a will, which implies a mind, and presumably one at least as smart as our own. A god would not be very useful if it was dead, or not yet alive, so it would be expected to be uncaused and immortal, and because a physical brain is vulnerable to damage and entropy, we can assume that a useful god would be immaterial. A useful god is usually also considered to a creator, even though our scientific knowledge explains our existence as the result of naturalistic processes.

So, here is my definition of a god: a god is an eternal, non-corporeal, intelligent agent imagined to be the cause of natural events. I say imagined, because those events that are attributed to a god are invariably found to have naturalistic causes upon close enough inspection, thus the ever-narrowing "gaps" into which believers are constantly wedging their gods. A god that is only imagined does not actually exist, so you see, just as theists attempt to define their god into existence, I have defined him out of it.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

What would it take?

I was thinking about what it would take to convince me that there was a god. This is a question that theists seem to like to ask, so I thought I should have an answer.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and they don't get much more extraordinary than the claim of an all-knowing, all-powerful being that's everywhere at once and cares what I do while I'm naked. It would require a demonstration that included a verifiable violation of the laws of physics, and in order for that violation to truly be verifiable, we would need a complete understanding of those laws. Is there a deity out there just waiting for us to stumble upon a Theory of Everything before it makes its presence known? I'm not holding my breath.

Theists often assume that if we had proof of a god, we would have no choice but to bow down and worship. This is not the correct response. If we met a non-human intelligent being, we should treat it the same way whether it was a god, an alien or some kind of super-chimp. The correct course of action (after learning to communicate) would be to invite the being to join our society as an equal. As a person, human or otherwise, it would have "human rights" (I don't like that term) and the obligation to afford other persons the same rights. If the god agreed to abide by our laws, we could get along amicably, and I would enjoy watching its party tricks, but if any appreciable portion of the Bible is factual, it would not accept. This is understandable, as it would need to immediately be brought up on charges that would result in imprisonment for innumerable consecutive life sentences, assuming the death penalty was not feasible.

Of course, an omnipotent being could not be forced to comply with our laws, or any punishments we deemed necessary, but if it refused to do so, it would certainly not be a being to be worshiped, but one to be hated and resisted in any way possible. Only a tyrant would demand worship, and it is the duty of any thinking person to resist tyranny.