Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Quote of the Day: Epicurus

Monday, March 26, 2012

Proof I have Free Will

Mike over at the A-Unicornist tackles Free Will, and the recent debates regarding whether or not we have it. If you want to learn about the types of free will and whether free will is an illusion or not, I recommend you check how his article.

I have a loftier goal however. I am going to prove, here and now, that I HAVE free will and that, no, it is not an illusion.

How do I know that I have free-will?

Consider this.

If I so chose to shed my clothes, cram my toothbrush up my bum, use a can of Miracle Whip to make a whip-cream bra, and then ran down mainstreet screaming at the top of my lungs, "I am Keyser Söze!" then that would be an act of free will.

How do I know this?

Because there is nothing in the model of reality which predetermines such a choice, unless of course I had no control over my mind, in which case I would be certifiably insane.

The very fact that I chose not to do this act, confirms, that I have free will.

So you see, free will exists. At least for me. I wouldn't know about you. But if I see you running down the street with strange things crammed up your anus shouting lines to obscure cult films, I would surmise you either lacked free will or were in the middle of a mental breakdown.

Wait a minute...

Having free will being indistinguishable from insanity, we run into a hurdle, since there is no way to tell the difference between a wild act made by one's own volition or an insane act which was the arbitrary consequence of uncontrollable choices. Which means we must all assume people who appear to be enacting free will are actually not.

In which case, there is no such thing as free will. 


Unless, of course, there is. But how would we know?

What if you're wrong? What if God is real? What if there is a Hell?

A Christian asked me today in an email: 

"What if you're wrong. What if there is a God? Aren't you afraid you will go to hell?"

My reply, which has become my standard response to such hypothetical what if questions, was this: 

I don't often speculate what will happen to me after death, mostly because I simply do not care. It doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is now and making the most of my life. Keeping my family safe, happy, and contented. And trying to be a somewhat decent human being, empathizing with others, and by not being a total asshole all of the time. If I accomplish that much, and have lived a good and honorable life, then I really could care less about what happens to me after I die.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Supernormal Events and God is from the Top Down

Photo by zibidipsi

Michael Shermer's new book The Believing Brain is a must read. Today I read a line in which Shermer is talking about Patternicity and Agenticity, basically the science behind how we assign patterns to things in the real world and how we often infer agents behind these so-called patterns.

A recognizable example for patternicity would be facial recognition. We see a face on a Martian landscape because we have evolved to create faces out of patterns as simple as two black dots on white paper, or in this case a few random rocks, shadows, and a few craters. Child development shows that infants often will smile at the two dots--a natural reflex to seeing a human face staring back and cooing at them. In fact, all the infant has done is mistake a face in a random pattern. That's patternicity in a nutshell, although the psychology behind it is far more nuanced.

Agenticity is when we place an active desire or meaning behind some event. The volcano exploded! Why did it do that? Well, the volcano god must be furious at us! What did we do? Who knows? Let's try to appease it by sacrificing a virgin! Yeah, yeah, okay--that might work. 

After throwing the girl into the volcano, it doesn't erupt, and then a Type I cognitive error is made. Virgins sacrifices appease the temperamental volcano god; or so it seems. 

Shermer explains what agenticity is, stating, "the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. That is, we often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world." 

Usually an agent is invoked to help explain things that don't have readily available answers. Take the hypothetical cancer patient Cindy, for example. She is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She is informed that it has spread and that she only has a matter of months to live. But low and behold, her cancer suddenly goes into remission! Why did Cindy's cancer suddenly go into remission without any medical treatment? Nobody knows. Wait, Cindy says, I prayed to God every day to heal me. My cancer then went away. It is obvious that my prayers were answered. It is a miracle! God healed me! Praise the Lord!

Cindy has basically attributed God as the agent which cured her cancer. That is, because she prayed, God saw fit to answer her prayers. This reinforces her belief that God is real, and affirms the practice of prayer is a valid way to cure cancer.

Now this is where I think Shermer's top down observation is actually quite insightful. The reason being, God never first creates the cancer and then infects Cindy with it, as a test of her faith, and then miraculously cures her to prove his power and love. Instead, the person first must perceive an agent behind the cure, only after the fact can rationalizations begin to be generated for why God would have allowed Cindy to suffer something as horrible as a life threatening illness like pancreatic cancer.

I find this highly revealing because it shows the psychology behind what the human mind is doing when it perceives an act of God (i.e., the agent). The agent is inferred specifically because of a need to explain an event which is perceived to be intentional. Intentional in the sense that the event seems to have a design or purpose. In other words, Cindy's cancer remission wasn't some random chance event, it was perceived to be the intentional act of God who heard her prayers and magically healed her. Cindy's faith supplied the purpose for why God chose to intervene.

Why I love this realization so much is that, at least for me, it shows how much God is a figment of the human imagination. If God were at all real, that is if he were an agent which interacted with the real world in any way, we would see both top down and bottom-up type events. The reason we can only observe Top Down type events is because we aren't actually observing supernatural events. We are observing normal, everyday, mundane natural events and our minds are simply infusing agency into them.

Cindy's prayers did not entice God to cure her. She merely assumed that because she believed that's what her God would do and she didn't have adequate knowledge to explain why her cancer went into remission. If doctors were to run tests, and found that her anti-cancer cells were overclocked causing a self induced form of immunotherapy because she was fighting off, say, a secondary infection/disease at the same time, then Cindy's inference that God cured her would be demolished by the real scientific explanation. Once giving Cindy the proper knowledge of how her body's own immune system works and how it fights cancer, this would effectively explain why her cancer went into remission without needing to make a supernatural inference. Cindy's belief that God had cured her would be nullified. 

But... and it's a big but... Cindy probably wouldn't change her mind.  Studies have shown the more one feels out of control the more they will rely on supernatural explanations and attribute agency where there is none, even when their assumptions are proved false (see Deirdre Barrett's book Supernormal Stimuli). Who would feel more insecure than a terminally ill patient fighting for their very life and fending off a bout of deadly cancer? Add this to the fact that Cindy already came into the game with supernatural presuppositions fully intact, due to her religious upbringing, and no amount of scientific knowledge will convince her that it wasn't God who cured her cancer. At the most she might admit that doctor's played a small role in seeing her get through it and helping her to cope. But ultimately, in Cindy's mind, it was God that cured her. 

Here's the thing though.

Because God explanations can only work from the top down, and never the other way around, it makes me highly suspicious than any supernatural assumption depicts a supernatural agent or event. Indeed, it is more likely, that like the cancer patient Cindy, most people are simply making wrong inferences because they don't have an adequate understanding of what it is they are experiencing.

Quote of the Day: Louis C.K. on Gay Marriage

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Don't Mock the Religious! For they will CRY.

I often get the feeling that people haven't really read their Voltaire. 

So often I will put in a crude joke ridiculing religion, mocking it, and of course deriding what is odious and noxious about faith based belief. Sometimes ridiculing the corrupt ideologies of religion, and of the religious, is the best way to effectively neutralize the harmful practices. If not neutralize them, then at least bring undesirable attention to it all.

But it doesn't always come without a cost. Sometimes we have to pay a price for our right to criticize others. Voltaire found this out the hard way. 

Religious theocracy is never fair, never tollerant, and never lenient. That's why it is called a theocracy. Religious theocracy wants to force everyone to believe the same things and follow the same regulations, those who openly defy or refuse their religious world view will be threatened, harassed, and run out of town--if not something worse. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dennis Terry is a Theocratic Prick

Have you ever wondered what a right wing theocratic ignoramus looks and sounds like?

It looks like Dennis Terry.

WARNING: EVERYTHING that Dennis Terry is about to say is OFFENSIVE or else OUT OF YOUR MIND STUPID.

You've been warned.

P.S. I no way endorse this lunatics sick and corrupted ideologies. However, someone needs to slap this man-bitch down and put him in his place. But it really becomes a question of how much time we feel like wasting on such a blather bag of odiousness. Everything he spews from his wicked tongue and sinister mind are either all lies or Christian professions of faith twisted into a weird brand of right wing propaganda against anyone and everyone who isn't his brand of Christian.

His own words sort of undermine his very integrity by revealing a narrow minded, sexist, racist, bigot.

Conflating Atheism and Agnosticism is a Mistake

In a discussion over at Bud's blog Dead Logic, a reader asked a question I have been hearing more and more recently. It's a good question, so I thought I would do my part to try and answer it.

Doesn't admitting to being an agnostic instead of an atheist FEEL like you're being wishy-washy, or not fully committing to your "belief"? ... I understand that it's only honest to say that we CAN'T be sure, but I sure do hate to show weakness (real or perceived) in an argument.

Not at all. 

  • Agnosticism deals with knowledge. 
  • Atheism deals with belief. 

The Agnostic position cannot assume whether a thing like a God could exist or not given the lack of sheer evidence for such a things existence. Therefore knowing with any given certainty just isn't possible. The agnostic then makes the claim that a definitive answer with regard to "knowing" of God's existence cannot be given either way.

Atheism, however, can state with assurance that the theistic proposition of any one highly specialized personal or interpersonal deity is falsifiable given the strong evidence against such a special type of being, and the atheist claims that theism {if not in practice then in principle} can be invalidated. As such, the atheist rejects theistic belief in God, i.e. absent theism--hence A-theism.

Does that mean the atheist knows for certain if something like a God exists or not? No, not at all. 

Atheism isn't rejecting the plausibility of God based on proper knowledge, it is rejecting the theistic claims of a certain type of belief in God when the evidence is 1) either not there, hence making belief completely unfounded, or 2) seems to directly contradict the claims of theists thereby rendering belief invalid.

Dumbass Quote of the Day: Alister McGrath

WARNING: The side effects of RELIGION include: uncritical, unthinking, lackadaisical reasoning, and intellectual deficiency.
‎"All the important things in life lie beyond reason... and that's just the way things are." --Alister McGrath.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stormpooper Returns! The Saga Continues

In a discussion about the historicity of the Adam and Eve myth, a Christian pain in the ass who loves to belittle atheists, decided to respond to my line of reasoning (in blue, with commentary in purple).

The quote he made which I was originally responding to was this gem:

So, the Genesis account is mythology and fiction because of naturalistic, uniformitarian presuppositions. Therefore, miracles do not occur.
Rather presumptuous and arrogant, don't you think?

" What are you trying to say, exactly?"

Did I type too fast for you to understand?

[Notice I was asking for clarification, which he then avoids by offering a sarcastic dodge. This makes me think he either can't answer the question or is a major dick who refuses to. If not both.]

"That miracles occur or that all of Genesis is historically true?"


" Those are actually separate claims."


[Obviously, introducing on off topic tangent is one tactic that theists like him use to kill the discussion by making it impossible for the atheist to address multiple arguments all at once. Usually they claim the atheist is changing the topic when they try to be courteous and follow the tangents. However, the fact that he wasn't actually aware that he was introducing a separate topic tells us a lot right there. If he was aware, then he did not provide any reason as to why introduced a separate topic or what its significance was. I am tempted to think it was the prior over the latter, in this case.]

"If you read Genesis, you would know it was a myth."

There ya go, there's that smug atheist superiority and the false dilemma. With an insult, no less. YES, I have read Genesis. Yes, I believe it.

[Actually, in the original context of the exchange I had given numerous quotes by the expert mythologist Joseph Campbell which showed why and how it is a myth. In other words, I supported my claim. What exactly is insulting about that, I have no clue. How it is a false dilemma, I don't follow, probably because he never clarifies. Although, I don't see exactly how it depicts a false dilemma or what that dilemma would be about exactly.]

"If you assumed it [Genesis/Adam and Eve] happened historically, then the burden is on you to find historical evidence for it."

I'll leave that to historians and archaeologists. As a matter of fact, YOU have just been asserting that it is NOT true, so the burden of proof is on YOU. None of that "shift the burden of proof" nonsense.

[After I had just finished giving him various quotes by historians and archaeologists, including a well cited essay on the very subject of whether or not there was any historicity to be found behind the myth, it seems rather dense to then shirk the burden of proof by claiming it's not his burden and that I am *merely asserting as if the assertions weren't warrented. That's a cop out.]

"Unable to do so..."

Arbitrary assertions based on your atheistic presuppositions and ignorance of history and archaeology.

[Really, we begin to see how muddled his reasoning really is. In fact, I cringe to even call it reasoning. It seems we have the opposite problem. His inability to reason causes him to fly off the handle, and instead of grappling with the criticism, he starts throwing out unfounded accusations and daisy-chaining detractors such as "arbitrary," "assertions," "presuppositions," "ignorance." Using these he can convince himself that we haven't adequately met the burden of proof, and on top of it all, to add insult to injury, implies we are incapable of doing so. But the only one who seems convinced of it is himself. Anybody else would balk and roll their eyes at his impossible to believe level of thick headedness.]

"It would be arrogant to continue to assume it was history absent any evidence to support such a theory."

You are building on your arbitrary assertions with more arbitrary assertions.

[I supplied numerous sourced quotes and links in our discussion. If he neglected to follow any, and it seems all, of them, that is not the same as being arbitrary or making baseless assertions. Notice his repeat of words like arbitrary and assertions.]

"All I have done is observe that it has all the features of a myth, shared by similar myths, and have backed up my claim with the words of real historians to specialize in ancient myth."

One misotheist quoting other atheists. Big deal. Your appeal to authority is noted and catalogued with all of your other logical fallacies.

[Now he acknowledges that I have valid citations, but then dismisses them as a mere appeal to authority. This contradicts his prior claim that I am making "arbitrary assertions." Additionally, it would only be an appeal to authority if I wrongly assumed that the authority I cited was the only viable authority. But I nowhere make that claim. Also, having supplied a well sourced essay with numerous authorities means I am making an appeal to the consensus of professionals, not the claims of one soul authority. He is not only mistaken, but shows that he doesn't even grasp the basic concepts he accuses others of being guilty of. Finally, last but not least of all, a misotheist is a person who hates God. Obviously, the rational minded person pauses to reflect, how on earth can a person who doesn't believe in God, let alone acknowledge any gods' existence, hate something which doesn't exist? Explain that one.]

Kind of hard to take you seriously.


Often times people complain that Atheists are impatient with those of faith. It's probably because we have to deal with Fideists like this. If you had to put up with these people all of the time, wouldn't you feel that atheists are, perhaps, some of the most patient and tollerant people on the planet?

Atheists that Piss me Off!

Atheists rarely ever tend to agree. As nonbelievers, we celebrate difference of ideas and opinions. We recognize that we have different experiences and hold different beliefs than others. We would never try to force you to be like us, even though we would hope that you may come to appreciate what we stand for. I'd like to think what atheists stand for, apart from their lack of belief in any gods, is reason, autonomy, and skepticism.

Atheists aren't united by what they believe, but rather, by what they don't believe. It may be a strange way to classify a minority group. Not by the color or their skin but by the skin color they are not. It seems sort of backwards, mainly, because it is.

Religion dictates that we take the negative stance to an unknown positive. It is because of the role that religion has played in the arena of ideas, past and present, that the theist position has arisen. If there were no supernatural metaphysical assumptions of religion, Atheism would simply be known as Naturalism, since there wouldn't be any fantastic supernatural claims to contend with. More importantly, minus the supernatural beliefs people cling to, Naturalism, and by default atheism, would just be called reality.

A Letter About Your Crappy Beliefs

Many religious people say that the things I post about religion are intolerant and hurtful. That the attacks criticisms of their beliefs are disrespectful. As if their beliefs had feelings. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Can Religion be Eliminated? Not Likely.

Can we kill religion? The answer is no, not really. Not unless we are prepared to kill ourselves in the process.

Victor Stenger, a scientist I greatly admire, but a rather poor philosopher in my opinion, gave a recent talk for the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The transcription of his lecture was put up on The Huffington Post which you can read here after the jump.

I found myself disagreeing with Stegner on nearly every point about religion. The one point he makes in the piece which I do agree with is when he states rather near the end that

"Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. And religion is not going to change its commitment to nonsense..."

True enough. But if Stenger understood why this comment was true, he probably would not be trying to tear down religion.

Criticizing the bad practices, faulty or fallacious beliefs, and deriding the deplorable behavior of religionists is a healthy, in fact, necessary endeavor. But where I think Stenger's reasoning goes awry is when he calls for the destruction of religion.

Religion isn't something we can kill. As the psychologist Bruce Hood points out in his book Supersense, there are psychological mechanisms built into how the human brain perceives the world which often lead the brain to make Type II errors in reasoning. This ultimately leads to the creation of supernatural assumptions.

The assumptions, and wrong inferences, cannot be helped as they are a basic part of human psychology. But as Michael Shermer reminds us in  The Believing Brain, there is a tool to check our poor inferences against, and this tool is science.

Both David Eller and Pascal Boyer have gone a long way to show how unscientific minded people take superstitions and blow them up into full fledged religions. If Stenger would have read Boyer's book Religion Explained, which agrees with Hood's psychology of mind development, and follows supernatural assumptions as they turn into superstitions and then follows them even further as they progress into out and out religions, then he may not be so quick to say we need to destroy religion.

That would be tantamount to destroying ourselves.

We can, however, check religion and religious assumptions and put them in their place. The claims which do not hold up to scrutiny can then be discarded. But this is first assuming people know how to reason about their beliefs. Most people, I'm afraid, do not know how to think about these things critically.

The problem is, serious thinking takes serious effort. Not only do we need to become better critical thinkers, a skill I find many (including myself) lack, but then we need to apply these critical methods into every aspect of our lives. 

Once we learn how to reason better, and understand the basic rules of logic, are rational thinking will be much improved. But humans aren't always entirely rational, because our brains are prone to making mistakes. There is no getting around this. Evolution hasn't given us perfect thought engines. It has given us sloppy grey matter instead.

But we can improve out ability to reason. We can used science to help reveal the hidden truths about reality.

The question becomes, what can science say about God?

A lot actually. And I think this is at the heart of what Stenger is trying to say.

As it goes, the religious will make a claim, about faith or about God, which is feasible. What this means is, religious beliefs/claims can usually be tested by science, either directly or indirectly. Science then is the method we use to do this. There is no other tried and tested method, at least that I am aware of, which yields positive results as well as the scientific method.

Science has an extremely good track record of disproving religious claims, and shattering religious beliefs, by working to reveal the truth about nature. Every time a religious claim fails, it fails in the face of what science reveals about nature. Meanwhile, the reverse has never been true. A religious revelation about the universe has never crippled science. So it seems, science will continue to disprove religious claims until religion is crippled by its on inadequacy to explain the natural world.

Is science the prefect tool for doing this? Yes. But the tool only functions as good as the person who wields it, and it so happens, many scientists are poor reasoners too. It's not just the religious. It's everyone with a human brain.

So instead of calling for the elimination of religion, and making it an us versus them thing, perhaps we should be making appeals to get people to try and start thinking more critically. That, for me, would be a win win situation for all sides.

In the interim, religion isn't going anywhere. It can't be destroyed, and the death of religion would likely mean the death of the human species, since our brains have a natural tendency to produce religious belief(s). Religion can only be minimized and kept in check--and that requires critical thinking and the aid of science.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Quote of the Day: Valerie Tarico

"[T]raditional rules that govern male-female relationships are grounded more in property rights than civil rights. Men essentially have ownership of women, whose lives are scripted to serve an end—bearing offspring. It is important to men that they know whose progeny they are raising, so sexual morality has focused primarily on controlling women’s sex activity and maintaining their “purity” and value as assets. Traditional gender roles and rules evolved on the presumption that women don’t have control over their fertility. In other words, modern contraception radically changed a social compact that had existed for literally thousands of years.

Some people don’t welcome change. Since the beginnings of the 20th Century, fundamentalist Christians have been engaged in what they see as spiritual warfare against secularists and modernist Christians. Both of their foes have embraced discoveries in fields such as linguistics, archeology, psychology, biology and physics – all of which call into question the heart of conservative religion and culture. Biblical scholars now challenge such “fundamentals” as a historical Adam, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the special status that Abraham’s God gave to straight males. Fundamentalists are fighting desperately to hang on to certainties and privileges they once saw as an Abrahamic birthright. If they can’t keep women in line; it’s all over. The future ends up in the hands of cultural creatives, scientists, artists, inquiring minds, and girls. It’s horrifying." --Valerie Tarico

Friday, March 9, 2012

If you're Religious. Stop it!

Dear Christians, Muslims, and other Religious fanatics. Enough is enough already.

It's bad enough that your odious practices murder innocent babies.

It's worse still that your depraved ideologies make it so women, and potentially their unborn children, might die because you feel it's morally okay to withhold important medical information.

How mentally sick do you have to be before you think that is anywhere near close to being justifiable?

You may even feel it's a good idea to stop public education as to the proper methods of safe sex, full well knowing that your teenagers will continue having unsafe sex regardless.

Well, it's not! In fact, every study shows that when you do that the odds of your kid engaging in risky sex, which they will do, and catching an STD is very likely.

That's your burden to bare. But I have a bigger problem with the gleeful desire to make ignoramuses out of your kids. That's just backwards. If you want to equip your children and prepare them for tackling the future head on, you give them knowledge. You don't withhold it.

I'm an educator with two college degrees. So take it from me, I know a thing or two about good pedagogy. What you are proposing is not the cure to your children's problems. It's part of the disease.

Here's the truth of the matter. All you Religious Nutters and Wacky Christians are doing are killing babies, harming women, and infesting your teenage sons and daughters with STDs, and the worst kind of pestilence of all--ignorance.

Perhaps you believe these things wouldn't happen if the world just listened to what you have to say. If they'd believe in God a little more.

I'm here to tell you whatever you have to say your extremist religious views are irrelevant. It's not about some secret spiritual war going on--between the forces of good and evil--it's about what you are actively doing to your children.

And what you are doing is causing irreparable HARM!

You are inflicting pain, suffering, and ignorance upon them. As a teacher and a father, I have to wonder, how can you live with yourselves?

I for one am deeply troubled by your religoius policies. And because they affect me and my children, and my friends' children, I have to politely ask you to...

Knock it the fuck off.

Thank you.

If you're the type of religious person who is decent, and kind, and you want to tell me that not all religious people are bad. That your church, or mosque, or group is peaceful... don't tell it to me. 

Share that with your religious brethren. Send some criticism their way. Inform them their are better ways to think, act, and behave. Because I'm afraid that if you don't, then you're just part of the problem.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kony 2012

Joseph Kony is a modern day Hitler. Instead of killing Jews though... he murders small children... tens of thousands of them. Help stop this monster in 2012. 

Watch this short video and find out how!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Freethinker = A Soldier for Reason!

Christian blogger I occasionally have a run in with, recently wrote on his blog that

"Freethinker", "rationalist" and other atheistic buzzwords are emotionally loaded, with a built-in insult. That is, they are the rational ones by virtue of being atheists. This Genetic Fallacy conveniently ignores the fact that many of the world's greatest thinkers and scientists have been Bible-believing Christians.

It would be remiss if I didn't point out that this isn't entirely correct.

Freethinker is a term derived from the 17th century ideological Freethought movement that stressed that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or other dogmas. 
Whether our Christian detractor is willing to admit it, we can plainly see that there is a historical basis for one might prescribe to Freethinking values. 

Also, being a Freethinker didn't mean you couldn't have religious beliefs. Thomas Paine was a deist and a Freethinker.

So was John Adams and probably Jefferson. (Although I contend that Jefferson was probably an Agnostic, if not secret Atheist.)

Robert G. Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, was certainly an atheistic Freethinker.

So there are two types of Freethinker from the historical perspective.

Also, it's important to note that the genetic fallacy is only a fallacy when it's not true.

But sometimes it is true. Hence it is not always fallacious to claim believers aren't rational due to the rational impediments of faith or, perhaps equally, culture.  

It is also an incorrect assumption to assume that atheists believe they are more rational than anyone else. They may, in fact, be pointing out cases of irrationality in believers while full well acknowledging they are not perfectly rational beings themselves.

But not having the impediment of religious superstition and the strange effects of things like dogmatically sponsored confirmations biases, or ridiculous appeals to authority, I would bet that Atheists are generally more rational much of the time. Not always, but certainly more often than religious believers who believe in things like the Holy Spirit, power of prayer, miracles, and so forth.

What really bothers me, however, is when a self righteous Christian sets out to correct all the atheists on what it is atheists believe. I find that hilarious.

Whereas, if I tell a Christian that their beliefs are probably incorrect, it is not because I presume to know what it means to be a Christian, after all, I was a devout Christian for three decades. I know what it means to be a Christian. Twice baptized. Born again. And saved! 

Furthermore, Christians have a Holy Book and doctrinal beliefs which we can balance their claims against. If they are failing to grasp their own theological positions, then it is not wrong for me to point this out using appeals to reason and logic. These are methodologies, all part of critical thinking, and not merely emotionally charged equivocations, as the author seems to think. 

Finally, if a Christian truly knew what an Atheist believed, then they wouldn't actually be critical of what atheists believed, since Atheism isn't a belief system but the rejection of one. 

Anything else an atheist may believe can be better stated as that which the individual commonly believes alongside their atheistic position--what that something else may be, however, requires one to engage with the atheist and actually treat them like a human being, and talk with them, instead of simply announcing that whatever it is they might believe, they are obviously wrong, for no other reason than their atheism. That is a Genetic fallacy. FYI.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Quote of the Day: Joseph Campbell

"Today we know--and know right well--that there was never anything of the kind: no Garden of Eden anywhere on this earth, no time when the serpent could talk, no prehistoric "Fall," no exclusion from the garden, no universal Flood, no Noah's Ark. The entire history on which our leading Occidental religions have been founded is an anthology of fictions." --Joseph Campbell (Myths to Live By)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Type II Cognitive Errors and Ignosticism: Why Belief in God is Meaningless

In this essay I argue that God definitions stem from Type II Cognitive errors and that theological opinions are based on these wrong assumptions. Establishing  this, I therefore contend that theological opinions regarding the nature of God must continually shift in the believers mind in order to allow them to retool their supernatural/religious beliefs to fit their definitions of God. If true, definitions of God will perpetually be shifting as the brain continues making Type II errors. This predicts a genesis and engine by which religious belief can arise and spread.

The second part involves the thesis that the continually shifting theological opinion as to the nature of God, and how to define God, ultimately leads us to erroneous explanations and descriptions that are completely without meaning. That is, any explanation of God, or any description supplied, must by necessity regress to either something or else nothing. When explanations for God regress to something tangible, data and evidence can be collected and tested. If they regress to nothing, or that which equates to nothing (such as an intangible, transcendent being) then the explanation of God is unfalsifiable and so meaningless.

If the prior claim is true, and explanations regress to something tangible, then Ignosticism holds that the definition of God must be both coherent and falsifiable, as it would be based off of an actual object. As such, all similar terms would seek to define the same thing, with little to no variation in description, and they would agree with relative success. If the latter is true, and the explanation of God fails to meet the first prerequisite, then definitions of God are superfluous and without meaning, and by extension any experience of a meaningless thing that could not be understood would be unintelligible and therefore equally meaningless.

Type II Cognitive Errors
Now as it is, every religion defines their God and/or gods differently. This is in part due to how we percieve causal events. That is, according to Shermer, Foster and Kokko, individuals lack the ability to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them and this deficiency causes them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones.

Superstition, then, arises as an evolutionary mechanism to explain events by creating causal links between the event itself and the response--even when there is no direct causal link between the two. In other words, human brains have evolved to favor strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.

Simply put, our innate patternicity, that is our ability to detect patterns in the real world, often times leads to wrong inferences about reality. These mistaken inferences about casual events explains the development of superstitious reasoning. Superstitious reasoning, in turn, explains many facets we see within the development of religious belief. Not only the highly ritualized customs and practices, but also the very way in which religious believers think about God.

One of the defining attributes of a religion is that believers often times believe that they are privy to supernatural knowledge. That is, they are under the impression that they have access to revealed information or knowledge that cannot come about through any other way but supernaturally.

This is a testable claim. One which makes the a priori assumption that supernatural experiences cannot be explained naturally. That they come from beyond, or they are divine, and so external to us. This assumption, however, is false.

Koichi Ono of Komazawa University in Japan, inspired by Skinners classic experiments on revealing the supernatural inclination of pigeons in what is called a Skinner box, recreated the experiment using humans and casino slot machines. Instead of one lever, however, the test group was given three levers. They were told they would get points for pulling the levers. Little did they know that they were being run through a Skinner box sort of experiment. The points were distributed randomly and varying intervals. The experiment revealed that the individual human's inclination to develop supernatural habits, or ticks, such as rubbing the nob of the lever each time, or pulling the levers in a certain sequence, or touching their nose or tapping their fingers, to try and increase their luck to get more points was exactly the same patternicity exhibited in pigeons which developed similar quirks in their belief that it would increase their chances of getting food.

This supernatural reasoning leads to the belief that these actions, rituals, help increase the favor of the participant. Revealed knowledge functions in the same way. A religious person practices a religious right, and if it seems to work, the custom becomes ritualized. Theological knowledge then follows as an ad hoc explanation for why and how the religious observers arbitrary actions relate casually to their causal events of their everyday experience. In other words, revealed knowledge is merely an ad hoc explanation which comes after the practitioner experiences a type of positive gain in following a certain religious ritual. Since they fail to find casual links to the events in reality, they attribute them to supernatural events. Revealed knowledge!

Ancient religions, as well as modern ones, seem to evolve out of this type of supernatural reasoning. "Revealed" knowledge shows us precisely how.

Imagine a primitive tribal society living on a volcanic island. If the volcano on this tropical island spurts some lava, the tribal Chief might order a virgin be sacrificed to appease the rumbling, obviously angry, Volcano God. An innocent girls gets thrown in, probably against her will. Low and behold, the volcano doesn't erupt! Therefore more innocent virgin girls get sacrificed. 

The superstitious mind, and so too the religious one, makes a Type II error. Sacrificing virgins appeases the Volcano God. Then wrongly, they assume that there is a direct relationship between virgin sacrifices and the temperament of their god.

Thus they are able to make an inference about the character of their god. The Volcano God likes virgins. His will is that one be sacrificed every year. If he is not appeased, his wrath follows with a violent volcanic eruption which will surely devastate the village tribe below.

A little while later, someone thinks, hey--this sacrificing virgin thing is fine and all, but we're running out of young women to marry. Pretty soon, we'll have no women and no families. So the next season, the tribe splits on the theological issue of how to appease god. The traditionalists persist that they continue on with the virgin sacrifices, just to err on the side of caution. Meanwhile, the heretical group decides to save their women for more important needs, and instead sacrifices a goat.

The traditionalist tribe is furious. Not only is it improper to sacrifice valuable livestock, rather than mere women, it flies in the face of the Volcano God's very nature! Everyone damn well knows he likes virgins!

Low and behold, however, the goat sacrifice works! The heretical group creates a new definition of their god. Not only does god like virgin sacrifices, but he also accepts goat sacrifices. Their new definition, however, reveals a theological shift in reasoning based on the Type II error in reasoning. Although there is no relationship between the animal sacrifices and the timing of the volcanic eruption, the inclination to reason with a supernatural bias, causes the tribe to change its theological stance with regard to the nature of their god.

Now the traditionalists have a problem. Their theology is flawed. Some see reason, and realize that the women are more valuable than goats, and many new converts are made. The new religion grows due to the success of their definition of god and by correctly (or so it seems) studying his nature and creating the best definition for his godly attributes. Meanwhile, the die hard traditionalists chock it all up to a fluke, and continue their old ways, until they have no women left and their religion dies out due to the fact that they never learned how to compensate for their Type II cognitive error in reasoning. In other words, they made a false positive, they believed something was real when it wasn't. They relied on a non-existent pattern, wrongly assuming their god was appeased by the habitual practice of virgin sacrifice.

The only thing, however, is that the second group of heretics, now the victorious defenders of a new orthodox belief system, are also wrong about their goat sacrifices. They are, in fact, making the same Type II error as the first group. Why? Because Type II errors always override Type I errors. A Type one error is the belief that nothing is there when something really is. Oh, that's just the wind rustling the tall grass, you think. Wrong! It's a tiger. You're lunch. Thus Type II errors always override Type I. We have evolved to jump at unexpected noises and shadows precisely for this reason. Better safe than sorry.

But always being safe means we are prone to making invalid causal associations. The second tribal group's causal association is no more valid than the first groups. They have just changed the definition of their god to fit their need to attribute patterns to the events. Now instead of virgins appeasing the Volcano God, it's goats.

When a group of people tell or write down a story which explains something, these stories often take the form of myths. One of the functions of a myth is to explain, for example, why the Volcano God might be angry. And, moreover, why he might like virgins. And later, why he prefers goats over virgins. Religious texts often serve this same theological function of trying to define god according to the experience of the individual or group of individuals. If their experiences differ, then so too will their understanding of god, and likewise their definitions of god.

Enter Ignosticism.

Ignosticism Re-examined: Your God is not my God
For those that might be unfamiliar with the Ignostic position, premise one of Ignosticism states:

1) The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed

As you may already know, Christianity and Islam both stem from the Abrahamic religious beliefs which led to the development of Judaism. One may think of Christianity and Islam as brother and sister religions which are the related cousins of the Jewish faith.

Yet they all three define God differently, even as it is purportedly the same deity.

Let's take the belief in Jesus Christ as an example. Christians believe he is the begotten Son of God. The New Testament, they say, makes this abundantly clear. Although this is debatable, this is the belief they subscribe to. It is by this belief that they develop a faith based on the theological premise that God gave his only Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for the collective sin of all mankind. Therefore, we are redeemed in Christ.

Muslims, adhering to Islam, balk at such a suggestion. For the Koran specifically states that Allah (i.e., God in Aramaic) specifically does not beget sons! Furthermore, they are quick to point out that nowhere does Jesus ever claim to be the Son of God, and that if Christians would only read their own Bibles, they would know this.

Right now there is a conflict in how each group defines God. One group believes God has a son. The other group believes God does not and never will. Both groups cannot be right.

Either God can have a son or he can't. But it can't be both since both would equate to a negation of the term. The Ignostic observes that, if the description of God here provided negates itself, then the term is meaningless.

Both the Christian group and the Islamic group object. They say, wait a minute, it could be that we are right and they are simply mistaken. Many of our other definitions of God seem to match up. So maybe they are just interpreting it wrong.

The Ignostic says, it does not matter. Your definition is in conflict. Therefore inchoherent. You can't have it both ways. God can't have a son and simultaneously not have a son. Incoherent!

 The Christian protests. But we know Jesus Christ is Lord.

The Ignostic points out that within the Christians own religion, there are over 32,000 different sects alone which seem to disagree as to the exact definition and description of Jesus and God. If they agreed, they would never have split off in the first place. How can they be so certain that they are correct? Are all the other Christians wrong? How do they know? What's more, they still haven't resolved the conflict between their definition and the competing definition of Muslims, which are technically about the same God.

Finally, the Ignostic adds, there are other gods that neither the Christian nor the Muslim has even considered. Their monotheistic faiths claim there is only one god. But again, how do they know this? What if they are wrong? What if the Hindus are right and their are thousands of gods? What if the atheist is right and their are none?

The theists retreats to the anecdotal claim that, "I know God is real because I experience God in my life. I see him working through me and all around me!"

The Ignostic says, "Well, that's fine and all, but you still haven't defined what God is. So how do you know what you're experiencing is in fact the same thing which you cannot articulate coherently? Don't you find that it is unintelligible to claim you have had an experience, but you can't claim to know what that experience was?"

"But I know it was God! I know it in my heart!"

"Then tell me what God is--describe him to me."

"I don't need to. The Bible describes him just fine!"

"But you forget, the Bible's definition of God is in conflict. It doesn't count because it is negated by other competing definitions, not only from other religions, but within your own religious sphere as well!"

The theist will either give up on the Ignostic, claiming their objection is not really a valid objection, or they will retreat to the excuse that, "We cannot define God. How can our minds comprehend the infinite? God is beyond our understanding. It would be ridiculous to even try to define God."

This is where the second premise of Ignosticism comes in.
2) If the definition provide is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.

Theological Non-Cognitivism
Theological noncognitivism is the theological position that if the definition of God is unfalsifiable then it cannot mean anything. This would render God's entire existence meaningless. How so? Well let's think about it. 

If I said, for example, that I had a magic genie in a lamp, and you asked what is a genie, then I would be burdened with the obligation to explain what a genie is and what it does. Even so, if these claims cannot be tested, then whatever I claim a genie is would not matter.

For example, pretend you have never heard of my genie before. You ask me, "What does a genie do?" 

I say, "Well, genies love to live in oil lamps." 

Your curiosity piqued, you ask, "Well, how do you know that a genie lives in a lamp?" 

"You see, it's like this..." I say, "there's this magic lamp, and if you rub it three times, then the genie pops out and grants you three wishes!"

"Wow!" you say. "That sounds pretty cool. So let me get this straight, what you are saying is: A genie is a magical being that lives in oil lamps and grants wishes."

"Yes, that is the definition of a genie!"

Being excited, but rather skeptical, you exclaim, "Let's test it!"

"No," I say. "Regrettably my genie is beyond space and time. He is an infinite, transcendent, genie. You can't just summon him at will."

"But I thought you said you could rub the lamp and--"

"Actually, I don't have a magic lamp. They don't exist anymore. But I have a book which talks about them. It's called A Thousand and One Arabian Nights! There is a lot of history in there," I inform. "It involves real palaces that existed in ancient Arabia. So we know it happened."

"Whether or not the book is historical is besides the point," you rightly inform. "Your belief in magic lamps with genies in them is based on unfalsifiable evidence. Furthermore, your magic genie is, by your definition, unfalisfiable. Even if it existed, it would be rendered meaningless because you can't ever hope to explain it since you claim there can be no evidence of it and that it is outside all understanding anyway. We can't test to see if it exists, and even if it does exist, we can't understand its existence. So should it exist its existence is irrelevant and, even then, it may not even exist because you have no way of establishing its existence in the first place. That's your claim. So my question is this, what good is your definition of genies? More importantly, what good would be holding the belief in such a thing?"

Even if I did not like your tone, you'd be right. The only regress left for my genie belief would be to abandon it or else continue living comfortably with the delusion.

This goes a long way to help explain Theological noncognitivism in layman's terms. The objection to Theological noncognitivism is called a verifiable proof. What this means is the claim must be tested and verified, and only then would there be proof of the existence of said magic genie (or whatever else you might be claiming exists). Many theists protest to this line of reasoning being applied to God, however. Verificationism, they say, cannot always provide adequate proofs for things. Take the mind, for example. Can you prove there is such a thing as a mind?

Actually, this objection isn't really an objection at all, because it rests on a misconception about what the human mind really is. The body mind dualism, as modern neuroscience reveals, is merely a perception which is generated by the brain. But impede brain function and the perception of self, and of the mind, terminates. Thus there is no such thing as independent minds. There are only brains.

Ignosticism Applied to Theistic Belief in God
By making God an incomprehensibly infinite, transcendent, eternal being, existing out of space and time, the theist is simply semantically twisting their definition of God into an unfalsifiable description. Not based on observation or evidence, mind you, but based on their trying to validate their beliefs, which are in turn, predicated on a Type II error in cognition.

Since they have shifted the definition of God to mean something that is unfalsifiable, there definition is not feasible for the very reason it cannot be validated and confirmed, and therefor their definition is rendered meaningless. Thus any conversation they wish to have about their God is equally as meaningless, because to talk about God is to talk about a meaningless subject.

By extension, they cannot talk about their experiences as meaningful, since they are merely anecdotal. Michael Shermer points out in his new book The Believing Brain, that the only way to circumvent a false positive is through science and the only way to prove an anecdotal claim is to test it. 

Grandma's cancer was cured by drinking seaweed extract, you say? Well test that hypothesis! Take some cancer patients and do a study. Give some of them the seaweed extract, and don't given any to the control group. Instead, feed them a placebo of green Kool-aid, or whatever. Now, write down what happens. Oh, the seaweed didn't actually cure anyone with cancer and they all died alongside the Kool-aid victims? Well then, it's not likely Grandma's daily dose of seaweed extract saved her from her hideous bout of cancer. Prayer, seaweed extract, same difference. Both are failed hypothesis.

When a theist claims their God transcends all, this means that their experience is void, because there would be no feasible way to test the claims of their experience(s) against this transcendent God. In other words, they have obscured their definition of God so much that it has become unfalsifiable. 

Ergo, the theist could never know if their claims about God were real or imagined. Unable to know anything about God, his existence, or how he interacts with us means to talk about God at all would prove meaningless. Belief in God is therefore meaningless.

In conclusion, Type II cognitive errors seem to be the basis for shifting theological opinions, which, in turn, lead the believer to generate varying definitions of God. I contend that this, followed to its rational conclusion, means that definitions of God will perpetually be shifting and generated anew as the brain continues making Type II errors. Definitions of God being superfluous, Ignosticism states that in order for the definition of God to be meaningful, or experience to be comprehensible, a coherent description of God must be provided. This description providing satisfactory definition, then, must digress to something falsifiable or it appears there is nothing at all to base the description on.

If there is something rather than nothing, all similar terms would seek to define the same thing, with little to no variation in description, and they would agree with relative success. This not being the case, all definitions of God would be the equivelent of a fancy, a random arbitrary description based not on evidence but the transitory desires of the believer. Thus Ignosticism predicts that no meaningful definition for God can ever be found. Therefore questions of God are proved meaningless and the beliefs in a meaningless concept are likewise rendered meaningless. 

Note: If experiences of God were real--they would converge, not diverge. The divergent properties of experience are predicted by the Type II errors in reasoning. As such, different experiences lead to different definitions of God. A point I cannot stress enough.

In the end it appears that Ignosticism is an indefeasible position as long as no clearly defined universal description of God can be settled upon. The only way to overcome this obstacle is for the theist to find a definition or description of God which can be tested, which means their terms must adhere to something more than a shifting theological opinion. Therefore, they require evidence to validate their claims as to what God is or might be. If they cannot provide adequate evidence which can be held up to testing and scrutiny, then their definitions of God are merely a byproduct of their Type II errors in reasoning, and therefore are irrelevant.

It is a controversial conclusion to be sure, and I would be willing to listen to any objections anyone might have, but as far as I can tell, Ignosticism remains the strongest and most devastating argument against, not only God, but all gods. 

Recommended Reading
For an introduction to Type I and Type II cognitive errors and the science behind determining them I highly recommend Michael Shermer's Believing Brain.

Rather than a hypothetical tribal community, some real anthropological case studies of superstitious beliefs in primitive tribal cultures can be found in Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained and David Eller's Atheism Advanced.

For more on Evolutionary theory and pigeons in Skinner boxes see Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. 

To learn more on the relationship between the brain and the body and how the brain generates the perception of mind and self, read the highly informative book Self Comes to Mind by Antonio Damasio.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist