Friday, June 29, 2012

Thought of the Day: Life, Purpose, Meaning

A finite life is not the same thing as a meaningless life. If you can't find purpose enough for living in the short time you are here, you're not likely to find it in the hereafter. If you believe in an afterlife, an eternal amount of the same will no help you discover any underlying purpose. The fact is, we make our own destinies--we define out own purpose for being. Unless, of course, a rogue asteroid smashes the Earth into oblivion. Cuz, that's pretty much out of our control. --Advocatus Atheist

What is the Meaning of it All?

"[I]f the existence of God is denied, then one is landed in complete moral relativism, so that no act, regardless of how dreadful or heinous, can be condemned by the atheist.... Hence, atheism is destructive of life and ends logically in suicide." --William Lane Craig (Reasonable Faith, p.55)

This absurd quote comes from chapter two of William Lane Craig's masterpiece of sensationalist sophistry and obfuscation that is Reasonable Faith. The book is a headache to read, namely because every other page is laced with a quote like the above. Now, Craig pretends to be representing Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880), but really, it seems more like he's just using Dostoyevsky as an angle to try and slip in some of his inane sophistry--which is so absurd that it is lamentable, if not, laughable that a supposedly rational mind even thought of it at all.

I often have doubts whether WLC is all that rational, however. But this is beside the point.

The point I want to address here is that WLC is saying that without the existence of God there could be no objective morality, no purpose beyond destructive, dreadful, and heinous acts. That, ultimately, existence, and so too life, would be meaningless and it would make more logical sense to end the godless suffering and misery than to keep going.

This horribly sensationalist, fatalistic, and not at all accurate portrayal of the atheist position blatantly ignores several things which I want to address.

Part One: Frosting

Theologians like Craig are a lot like magicians. They know all the good tricks. But their fancy-talk and razzle dazzle disply of sophistry only ever seems to dupe the dim witted. To the well trained eye of the philosopher, their tricks are merely amusing. But in the end, they're only tricks

One of the weaknesses of the above epigraph, and the fatalistic sentiment of the theologians, is that WLC, and those who take his view, often ignore the Problem of Good. Many of you are probably more familiar with the corollary, the Problem of Evil. How in the world, with all it's suffering, could this apparently godless suffering and misery be allowed if, in fact, God exists and he is, as believers say, a Good God?

It is my strong opinion that in two-thousand years of theology--the Problem of Evil has never been adequately addressed by any thinker or theist. No one has ever offered an rational and logical answer as to how, or why, a Good God would allow suffering--especially when said deity is also presumed to be All Powerful and could have prevented, or at the least altered, the terms and conditions of the events which caused the suffering and misery. Nobody, to my knowledge, has offered any pragmatic solution which can explain by practical common sense why a Good God, who by his nature would feel unavoidably compelled to protect his beloved creation, would turn his back? 

Often times you get obfuscation or appeals to additional metaphysical terms and conditions, such as God's desire to allow Free Will, or the fact that God is all knowing and there is a Greater Good being striven for, one we, with our finite minds, cannot possibly comprehend. These are sophist dodges, as they don't actually solve the problem, but rather, only provide fleeting excuses which are entirely unfounded. Many of these concepts, such as Free Will and the Greater Good, are themselves entirely complex metaphysical theories, and we should keep in mind that there are no clear answers to these questions, let alone how they would lend support to any proposed demonstration of how a Good God could allow such evil and suffering in the world. So, without a straightforward, practical, explanation that everyone could understand--it doesn't appear the Problem of Evil has ever been adequately addressed, which is why it probably remains one of the strongest philosophical arguments against the existence of a theistic God.

Meanwhile, if the Problem of Evil is the realization of the absence of good, then the Problem of Good is the realization that there is a limit to the amount of evil we experience. The Problem of Good was first formulated by the University of London philosopher Stephen Law, and goes something like this:
“(1) There is just as much evidence from the goodness/evil of the world that the creator god is evil, as there is that the creator god is good. (2) We are justified in believing that evidence of goodness in the world demonstrates that there is not an evil creator god. (3) Therefore, we are equally justified in believing that the evidence of evil in the world demonstrates that there is not a good creator god.” (The Problem of Good, as proposed by Stephen Law)

In Stephen Law's “Think” article he states, “...belief in an evil god clearly remains downright silly. But then why isn't belief in a good God also silly? Aren't we justified in rejecting belief in a good God for the same very good reason that we are justified in rejecting belief in an evil God? If the problem of good is fatal to belief in an evil God (which it clearly is), why isn't the problem of evil similarly fatal to belief in a good God? That's the question the theist needs to answer.” 

Now, by the theistic view the Problem of Good shows that the existence of an evil god is just as absurd as a good god. Neither are supported by the evidence of good or evil in the world. But this is merely looking at the problem from the theistic point of view. If we apply this law to the Naturalistic view something interesting occurs.

In other words, in the scenario WLC established for the atheistic/naturalistic view, he paints a rather bleak and fatalistic reality without goodness or purpose. If Craig is correct, then we would only expect to find evil and suffering and no trace of good in the world. Yet, if the Naturalistic view is true, and the world we live in is atheistic, well then, whence cometh the good? Accordingly, we would need to account for the amount of goodness we do, in fact, find. As it is, we do happen to find good acts where suffering is limited and flourishing can occur. Needless to say, good acts abound. Now, WLC uses this as a type of shell-game to trick you into admitting that, wow, yeah... good things do exist, so, therefore goodness is real. And since it has to come from somewhere, if you couldn't guess, it must come from God! 

I don't think I need to be the first to point out that this is just WLC ignoring the validity of the atheistic position based on a Naturalistic worldview in favor of his already decided theological position based entirely on the Argument from Morality (which I'll get to momentarily). WLC hasn't done anything in the way of considering the objection fairly. He ignores the consideration that he might be wrong and that Naturalism is, in point of fact, the default reality which we live. All Craig has done here is set up the atheistic/naturalistic view, then at the last minute, pulled a bait and switch, reverted back to his own default theistic view. He never takes the atheistic/naturalistic view to its logical conclusion.

The Problem of Good then, in both forms, is a horribly devastating blow the the theistic proposition that good cannot exist in an atheistic universe. It's devastating for two reasons. 

1) It negates the theistic position of a Good God by positing an Evil God and thereby showing both considerations are equally absurd. Without any way to distinguish which version is possibly true, or even the most likely, it seems that Naturalism becomes the default view.

2) Applied to the atheistic/naturalistic view the theologian still must account for the existence of good in the universe minus the existence of God. Additionally, the existence of good in an atheistic worldview disavows the fatalistic tendency theologians are want to take in the absence of a good God.

This forces to theist into a Catch-22. They must deal with one or the other. That is the burden they place upon themselves when they say things like:

"[I]f the existence of God is denied, then one is landed in complete moral relativism, so that no act, regardless of how dreadful or heinous, can be condemned by the atheist.... Hence, atheism is destructive of life and ends logically in suicide."

Addressing the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Good, and giving them a well balanced approach, considering the pros and cons of each, and then raising fair objections to both is what any well-versed philosopher would be obliged to do, but when it comes to religious apologists like William Lane Craig, we find sophistry and obfuscation in place of rational consideration. Instead of tackling either the Problem of Evil or the Problem of Good, there is never any genuine investigation into either, let alone the consequences of both.

But this much is clear: if you are going to make the totally absurd claim that an atheistic universe is only logically capable of providing dread, destructiveness, and misery ending in eventual suicide as the best possible logical escape, then, on this view, you very DAMN WELL have to explain the GOOD we find. You cannot pull a bait and switch fallacy and suddenly change over to your prefered "God" explanation. That's not how it works. If WLC actually took the time to consider the Problem of Good as applied to the atheistic view, I think he would realize that his above statement is, really, truly, that horribly absurd. 

Part 2: The Cake

But all this is just the icing on the cake. Believe it or not, we haven't even gotten to the meat of the argument yet. After all, Craig could simply ignore the Problem of Good and avoid having to address good and evil at all by supplanting it with the Argument from Morality. The argument from morality basically states that Goodness exists because God exists, and interestingly enough, goodness could exist even if an all evil God existed, thus muting the Problem of Goodness in its theistic form (and this would likely resort in the theologian ignoring the problem of goodness applied to the atheist worldview since it would already be invalid from their point of view). But what about things like objective morality, purpose, and ultimate meaning? Is the argument from goodness enough to establish that God is good let alone the source for these things, as Craig would have us believe?

Assuming, for the sake of argument, Craig's assumption is correct--and God is the author of all that is moral and good, then we are left with one well known metaphysical objection which, to my knowledge, goes largely ignored by theists. Either they are satisfied with the mundane theological attempts to answer for it or they are ignorant of it, because it is taken for granted whenever they simply make the assumption God exists and so this, somehow, satisfies the answer as to how there can be moral goodness in the world. 

Basically, the objection is this:

If God is the source of moral goodness, purpose, and provides ultimate meaning, since God himself has no need of moral goodness, purpose, and cannot be his own ultimate meaning, then how can God presumably be the source of moral goodness, purpose, and provide ultimate meaning? (Those who are well verse in their Plato will recognize this is an revision of the Euthyphro dilemma)

It stems to reason that if God exists, he exists with certain properties, the appeal to God's properties is what allows theologians to claim God has X amount of characteristics. Never mind that the only way to confirm and verify these properties is to actually test God, something no theologian has ever been able to formally demonstrate. But assuming God has at least the above properties of being morally good,  then we have the problem of asking: how does God define what goodness is?

If, for example, moral goodness is a property/attribute (which I am using interchangeably) of God, and this moral goodness is where we can derive our moral goodness from, as well as meaning, since in this goodness we would find purpose enough for being--since we would have the perpetual goal of striving to be good like God (a very Christian notion)--then, as I mentioned above, we would need to explain how God could himself be a source for goodness if he cannot derive his goodness from some fixed external force (objectively) but only derive them from himself (subjectively).

It's a problem for this reason. If God is moral goodness, then God has no objective source for being morally good. In other words, God provides the definition for what is morally good because he becomes his own definition for what goodness means. If God has no way to way to derive goodness from an objective moral source apart from himself, then he is landed in complete moral relativism. 

This means, anything God says is morally good becomes the moral standard of goodness, and then Plato was right, so that no act, regardless of how dreadful or heinous, can be condemned by God (since by definition God is good (e.g., if God command us to rape babies and then fillet and eat them then baby rape/cannibalism would be morally good). Hence, God would be destructive of life and logically ends in suicide--God would, by his very attributes, relegate himself to self termination.

What this means is quite clear. All moral goodness, purpose, and ultimate meaning cannot be derived from God if God is his own moral standard, because anything so subjective is relegated to relativistic limbo and the objection of Plato, who understood the weight of this problem first, ends in God's logical termination--i.e., God becomes irrelevant and meaningless as a source for moral goodness, purpose, and whatever ultimate meaning we might be searching for. Therefore, God is either not as the theologians describe him, and cannot be the source for moral goodness, purpose, or ultimate meaning, or else God does not exist.

If the prior is true, then all belief in God as we know it becomes erroneous, as everything faith is founded upon is a lie, regardless of whether God exists or not. If it is the latter, then the atheistic worldview is true--and we must account for the good in the world minus the existence of God.

How we go about that exactly is a discussion for another time. And I think it is a discussion worth having. More importantly, it is a necessary step toward understanding life's real purpose and moving one step closer to finding out whether there is an ultimate meaning behind it all. But whatever we discover, whether the universe is full of meaning or void of it, we know this much: God is not an answer that supplies us with any relevant information and cannot be relied upon to help us in answering the bigger questions as to our purpose and meaning of life.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Quote of the Day: Richard Dawkins

"The popular canard about Hitler being inspired by Darwin comes partly from the fact that both Hitler and Darwin were impressed by something that everybody has known for centuries: you can breed animals for desired qualities. Hitler aspired to turn this common knowledge to the human species. Darwin didn't. His inspiration took him in a much more interesting and original direction. Darwin's great insight was that you don't need a breeding agent at all: nature--raw survival or differential reproductive success--can play the role of the breeder. As for Hitler's 'Social Darwinism'--his belief in a struggle between races--that is actually very un-Darwinian. For Darwin, the struggle for existence was a struggle between individuals within a species, not between species, races or other groups. Don't be misled by the ill-chosen and unfortunate subtitle of Darwin's great book: The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. It is abundantly clear from the text itself that Darwin didn't mean races in the sense of 'A group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin' (Oxford English Dictionary, definition 6.1). Rather, he intended something more like the OED's definition 6.II: 'A group or class of people, animals, or things, having some common feature or features'. An example of sense 6.II would be 'All those individuals (regardless of their geographical race) who have blue eyes'. In the technical jargon of modern genetics, which was not available to Darwin, we would express the sense of 'race' in his subtitle as 'All those individuals who possess a certain allele.' The misunderstanding of the Darwinian struggle for existence as a struggle between groups of individuals--the so-called 'group selection' fallacy--is unfortunately not confined to Hilerian racism. It constantly resurfaces in amateur misinterpretations of Darwinism, and even among some professional biologists who should know better." --Richard Dawkins (from The Greatest Show on Earth)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

True Love is Artificial: A Skeptics Perspective

A true love story goes something like this:
"I was in Hallmark buying my mother a Happy Birthday card when I noticed this old man standing in front of the Valentines card section contemplating which one to get. I decide to go over and I ask him “Are you getting a Valentine’s Day for your wife?” in which he replies 'No my wife died three years ago from breast cancer but I still buy her roses and a card and bring them to her grave to prove to her that she was the only one that will ever have my heart'" "Wow, now that's TRUE LOVE."

I hate this story for two reasons. First, contrary to the narrator's opinion, it is the opposite of a happy story. This man is hurting. He cannot let go of the memory of his dead wife. Instead he is caught in the perpetual cycle of heartache, and although he honors her memory in a sweet and tender hearted way, this is not love--it is love lost--and it is tragic. But what, other than convention, is to say this old man couldn't find someone else to love? What is preventing him from finding a new happiness in the love of someone else?

I ask this question because my own grandmother lost a love but, years later, found another man who, unlike her first husband truly, genuinely, loved her back. Looking at my grandmother's experience, losing her first true love was for the better. What's to say it wouldn't be for the better if this old man stopped living in the past and moved on with his life? Wouldn't that be what his wife wanted for him--to be happy in return? Instead, the man has given up on trying to find someone else. At his age, why bother? He has destined himself to live in the memory of the ghost of a deceased loved one, forever haunted. That's not happy, it's sad. It is sweet in the way he honors his dead wife's memory, but my point is this, he could still do that even if he found someone else to love! He wouldn't be loving someone else more--he'd merely be loving someone new--which would be a love all unto itself.

This brings me to the second reason I don't like sappy one-true-love stories like this--it's entirely artificial. The narrator of the story has been duped by the romantic ideal of love sold to them in the form of romantic Hollywood love stories and sappy Hallmark cards. They think the misery of a love lost is somehow beautiful. Sanguine perhaps, but it in no way requires this man to be destined to live out the rest of his life sad and alone... only to die still clutching the photo of his long lost love desperately hoping he might be reunited with her someday.

What a meloncholly existence!

So, my question is this, why can't he find a new love and love again? I believe a person is capable of loving more than just one person. I do not believe there is a restriction or limit to such a love. In order to believe in true love, or one true love, or something like a soul-mate, one has to limit love and bind it to one person and one person only.

This is unrealistic for numerous reasons. I'll list three.

1. Love is unlimited. Chances are you have not met but more than a few hundred people in your entire lifetime. Maybe more, maybe less. Yet the truth is there are millions, upon million, into the billions and billions of people with whom you may be able to share an intimate connection with. Unless you have met all (approximately) seven billion of them, how do you know there is just one perfect for you? The fact of the matter is, you don't. People who are in love rarely realize this, due to the chemicals making their brains stupid, but people who fall out of love who eventually find someone else know this truth quite well. There is nearly an unlimited pool of so-called soul-mates to choose from. There is never just one.

2. Love isn't forever. Love even between people in love is not so simple as a matter of being in love, because so often people who fall in love can just as easily fall out of love. The romantic ideal of fidelity, chivalry, and star-crossed lover's promises sounds wonderful to the naive hopeless romantic in all of us, but it is largely a fantasy. The truth is, such love only exists in the movies and in fairy tales. ever focuses on the good but never looks at the trials and tribulations one must endure in order to simply make a basic relationship work. That is to say, love is no walk in the park--it takes damn hard work to sustain a loving relationship let alone make it grow and flourish. Sometimes, however, the people we love aren't compatible enough and we slowly grow apart. Sometimes people separate, divorce, or struggle through unhappy relationships. But given number one (above) the question is why should they? They struggle because they have been duped by the PR image of romantic, idealized, the prince and the princess lived happily ever after love stories which make love out to be a many splendid thing. In other words, they are in love with the concept of love, so when love fails them, they keep wanting to give it a fighting chance. In reality all they are doing is flogging themselves with the dead corpse of a failed relationship until they are miserable. Sometimes it's better just to enjoy what you had and then realize love doesn't always last--and there rarely ever is anything like a happily ever after. Be content knowing that you shared a few good experiences and memories of someone who was special to you. But don't let your obsession with love ruin your chances of ever finding happiness.

3. Love is transitory. Love, as a real biological, behavioral, phenomenon is not so simple after all. Love is nuanced. It's complex. Recent research has shown that there are almost an unlimited series of factors to consider which contribute to the development of the emotional attachment and feelings of love. It's partially how our brains our wired, but at the same time, love can be influenced by various external stimuli and experiences which, ultimately, shape the path our love will take. There is no such thing as true love for the very reason love is not a fixed point. Love stretches across and entire spectrum of different types, kinds, and forms. Like a Techno-color kaleidoscopic, however, with the slightest nudge from an outside influence our love can take a on a drastically new shape. Love is not permanent. It was never intended to be, except as a marketing gimmick by movie producers and Hallmark card makers and as a fixture of religion to get its adherents to make babies so that it could take them into its bosom--whereby it would continue to seek to control every aspect of their lives and dictate exactly how they should love and when and with what parts of the body to do it with. But that's the infantile view of love. Once you can accept love for something impermanent, ever changing, like an ocean of colors we move along, an entire spectrum of love-wavelengths so to speak, instead of lingering on a single ray of love--the entire sea expands before you in all its infinite glory. Once you can accept this, then its easy to accept the fact that love is fickle--it comes and goes, it's temperamental, it's never the same twice, but it's always able to take us to new highs as well as sink us to new lows. But try not to be naive and think that love will always stay true to you. No, love is a promiscuous thing.

Although I enjoy a good love story--I enjoy them for the fact that I know it is fantasy. Reality is quite different--and in real life it is better not to bind ourselves to the rules of fantasy--because we'll only be gravely dissapointed if we do.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Is God Belief Inherited? Or Why We Don't Worship Volleyballs

A simple thought experiment to show that God belief is inherited and acquired second hand, from family and culture, is to imagine an atheist on an island by himself, and on a totally different island far, far away a Christian. 

With nothing--not a holy religious book or anything outside influence, except for the wind in their hair and the sand beneath their feet, and a few coconuts to survive on, after thirty years, assuming their insanity holds up (excluding the volleyball with a face on it called Wilson ala Tom Hanks) do you think the Christian will remain a Christian?

But it's not out of the realm of possibility to imagine him throwing up his arms and relinquishing his faith either. In fact, God's thirty year long silence would seem as if God had ceased to hear his pleas for help altogether, or likewise, it would seem as if there was never any God to hear those please to begin with. It's not hard to imagine that after such a long time the Christian would feel resentment toward God for turning a cold shoulder and leaving him there all alone to wither away on that distant shore forlorn. That is to say, his doubts would be steadily accumulating for thirty long years. Do you think his faith could survive the build up of thirty years of massive, soul crippling, doubt? Possibly, but it doesn't seem very likely. 

Now to juxtapose this example with the nonbeliever, we must ask ourselves, what are the odds of the atheist, mind you still perfectly sane (apart from his version of Wilson carved into a coconut), spontaneously creating an entire religion by himself and worshiping the same exact God as the rest of the planet, with more or less the same tenets and rituals, that he doesn't even know about (not having been raised religious)? Not very likely, I'd assume. 

In fact, I think it would be safe to assume the atheist would have no reason to suddenly develop belief in a god at all. Both developed imaginary friends, but they never had any incentive to worship their Wilson companions as an island deity. And if they had, it wouldn't be a real religion. And what's more, we could prove it. 

Well, that's how I see all world religions now that I am an atheist. They all appear invented--mere figments of mankind's collective imagination. What's more, it takes the tradition of family and culture, all locked into rigid customs of ritual, to preserve and transmit these beliefs. Without that framework, I feel, God belief would not survive a single generation.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Some Random Thoughts for June: Advocatus Atheist

Here are some short, albeit random and uncollected, thoughts I have had recently.

1. Karen Gillan is beautiful beyond all imagination. She's basically my Helen of Troy. Except that I'm married. Never stopped the Trojans though! Badda-bing! My wife has Jensen Ackles to ogle over, and I have Karen Gillan. That makes it, at least, fair.

2. Properly basic beliefs do not exist. Red appears redly to you is considered a basic belief. The belief the color red exists as it exists, that a particular wavelength of light will, under similar conditions, always appear the same and we will all understand that red is red is red. Even if we see different tints of red, red is still red to the beholder, so there is no need to support the belief with anything--it is considered a properly basic belief. Language theorists would tell you this reasoning is flawed. Before we can formulate what red could mean we must assign it a name, a word, and a sound. The idea comes after the formulation of these ingrediants. But there are things like epistemological constructivism, social constructivism, and language constructivism to consider first. There is constructionism too. These to me suggest that red could not possibly mean what it means without the micro-components which make the learning of what red means, its symbols, its sounds, its meanings, and all within a social and cultural context. I think this example applies to all basic beliefs, and therefore, I would argue there is no such thing as a properly basic belief. It can always be deconstructed further so that the belief requires the believer to build upon pre-existing micro-components.

3. My stars and garters Karen Gillan is beautiful. Like, really, really, really amazingly beautiful.

4. The Christian story is moving because it pits our own empathy against us and makes us sympathizers with the plight of Jesus Christ. If you don't feel sorry for the horrors which befell the Son of God, and the trials and tribulations he endured, then one would be compelled to feel guilty for not having enough empathy. This is taken to extremes in the Christian story, because we are made into the perpetual sinner, the almost perfect but not quite would-be reflections of God. We need Jesus to bridge the gap of our longing to be a part of something greater and that all encompassing love of God. Only then will our sympathy laden sorrow come to an end, when it reunites with the source is longs for--the source of love. But don't forget the horrible guilt which will be perpetually held against you--because the promise of that love is always to come. Always just out of reach. Jesus may have died for our sins, but we're still all just sinners, don't you know? But just because it's a powerful and moving story doesn't necessarily mean that any of it is true, FYI.

5. Skepticism about the origins of life (abiogenesis) happening naturally seems odd to me. Here on earth we have all the chemical ingredients  for creating life naturally. It's like seeing all the ingredients of a cake laid out before you and thinking... since we don't actually know how or what way the cake was actually put together we have to attribute it to God. That is a strange leap in logic to me. Its a much simpler explanation to assume, that having all the ingredients, given the right conditions, a cake formed. An earthquake, the mixing of ingredients, time, a random fire (they happen more than you might think) and the baking of the ingredients into a doughy edible substance. The first cake may have not been perfect, in fact it probably had pebbles and bits of gunk in it. Considering it took BILLIONS of years for it to happen at all, we're lucky to be able to account for how it could have happened, knowing it happened. It seems strange to believe that before intelligent life existed there was something intelligent enough to put the cake in the oven--so to speak. That's putting the cart before the horse. I think this sort of reasoning occurs because people are so accustomed to attaching their limited understanding to things. We have never seen a cake spontaneously create itself from scratch, so it must be God--the divine Baker! These people ignore the fact that we haven't actually been alive for billions of years and that, in case it was lost on them, we aren't actually talking about cakes here.They also seem to be unaware of experiments in which scientists have replicated the early conditions of earth, including the chemical ingredients, and have reproduced them only to discover that everything we require for replicating cells arises from nothing more than salt water and a little bit of lighting. If that's all it takes, wouldn't it be wiser to assume that given some salt water and an atmosphere prone to generating lighting, like we have, that given billions of years life was bound to happen? Where the heck does the Baker fit into this? As far as I can see, he doesn't.

6. Recently I had discovered I have a stalker. A cute high school girl stalker, but a stalker none-the-less. That's not the interesting part though. What's interesting to me is that she's a Xenophile. Xenophiles are typically fascinating because they seem to lack cultural biases against other cultures--and for some reason they become fixated on specific notions about other cultures until it develops into a sort of love affair, or obsession, depending on how you wish to define Xenophile. They may be unique to more homogenius cultures, like Japan, however, since in more culturally diverse and racially mixed societies it would be less of a phenomenon. If one's own culture is diverse, like a European or American one, then it's less likely one will develop quirks focusing on the love of radical differences because the differences get blended into the main culture. Whereas in homogeneous cultures any differences really tend to stand out. There is also the factor of obsessing over cultures which are alien to ones own, much like Japanophiles standing out in the U.S., with their obsession of Japanese popular culture. This is the exotic appeal--because its foreign, different, exotic even, it grabs our attention more than things we would be familiar with.

7. Rabbits are excellent proof that intelligent design theory is wrong. More specifically, male rabbits, since their scrotums are in front of the penis it sort of proves nobody was thinking when that "design" choice was made. The frsutration of male rabbits everywhere must be stupendous.

"Derrrr---dammit!" the rabbit thinks. "Why does this thing keep getting in the way of my love making?! For the love of Peter Rabbit!"

Except, rabbit reproduce like bunnies, which is to say, they repopulate better than most humans. So maybe our junk it on the wrong way around? I'll let you mull that over for a bit.

8. My wife isn't wrong, Jensen Ackles is a gorgeous man. But he's not half as gorgeous as Karen Gillan, in my humble opinion. Maybe that's just because I am a guy who likes women, so there is a bias. Both, however, are beautiful people.

9. Jim Parsons is a stitch-up as Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory. I absolutely love him. He reminds me of my younger brother in so many ways.

10. Snails are not cuter than slugs. Snails are merely the mobile-home version of a slug. A slug just prefers to streak around naked.

Well, that's a peak inside the workings of my brain. Crazy stuff, for sure.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Is the Bible the Best Supported Ancient Text Ever?

A Christian friend of mine posted this image on FB.

My response was (with a few fixes) roughly as follows:

I like the design of the chart, but the information is completely irrelevant to the point being made. In other words, it in no way lends credence to the claim of reliability.

You cannot take different counts of various ancient texts and then say one is more reliable because of a near ubiquitous proliferation of surviving texts from antiquity. The survival of a text does not relate to whether the histiography used to understand that text is adequately suited for doing so. This "best supported ancient text" argument is an apologetics ploy which neglects to fully consider the fact that reliability has nothing to do with the proliferation or survival of popular texts.

In fact, the more ancient the text is the less likely there would be means of preserving it. Especially in the case of the Homeric epics which are separated by nearly 500 years of history--in a time when the stories weren't even written down 
(Fagles, 1997). Oral tradition preserved the stories long enough for them to eventually get collected and written down. In fact, that makes the survival of the Iliad, Odyssey, and works like the Epic of Gilgamesh that much MORE miraculous than any surviving fragment of the NT!

The NT comes out of the Greek Hellenistic period when there were entire sects devoted to copying down the texts, the Essenes for example was one such group (Feather, 2005). But the very fact that the NT texts were written by aristocrats is perhaps a better explanation for their proliferation (Talbert, 1986). Those who funded the production of the texts could *afford to make copies. They had the money, the materials, and the means (Carrier, 2009). It's why you get things like the Synoptic problem in the first place--there were just so many competing variations of the same story. When the Gospel writers wrote their version of the Gospels they were relying on other source texts, which have since all been lost to us. Interestingly enough, the discrepancies in their copying/storytelling reveals a lost tradition of borrowing from other sources.

"Best supported" then is simply a false dichotomy. It does nothing to support the argument of reliability (Ehrman, 2010)--but somehow manages to neglect to consider all the available answers as to why the Gospels did survive antiquity in the first place (Ehrman, 2011).

Also, I should add, it neglects to account for the texts that didn't survive antiquity due to regrettable happenstance, like the fires that burned nearly all of Aristotle's work. A tragic loss in the course of human history.

If *all of Aristotle's works had survived, there is no telling how much more his influence over Christian tradition might have been. His few surviving works certainly helped to shape Christian thought over the course of history (Armstrong, 2008). Undeniably so.

This is just another observation, which in no way relates to the reliability of ancient documents, other than to say, they seem to become somewhat less reliable when you factor into account the amount of influence ancient documents have had on each other (Loessl and Watt, 2011). That is to say, how much of today's Christian thinking was shaped by the Bible and how much was shaped by those great thinkers, which this chart attempts to diminish, like Homer and Aristotle?

Needless to say, it is this very cross-cultural-influence which explains for why we find traces of the Homeric style of writing tucked within the Gospels and the book of Acts (MacDonald, 2003). A style which was not traditionally used in the recording of ancient histories, such as those by the Jewish historian Josephus, but which was frequently utilized in the production of h
istorical fictions (Helms, 1989). Another interesting example of cross-cultural-influence.

Actually, according to the ever useful Wikipedia, there are actually more than 24,000 surviving fragments.

Just reading through the numbers they give I tallied over 25,000 fragments. 

But then we are told that there are more than 400,000 variations of these fragments!

That doesn’t seem reliable to me. That seems to be the opposite.

Many more of the fragments are, in point of fact, too fragmentary to actually use for dating or further analysis. Again, not very reliable.

Reliability depends on two factors. Accuracy of a text to the actual historic events or, similarly, accuracy to extemporaneousness accounts of the same event. The more unison *differing texts are on a matter, then a consensus can be formed.

But when the *same accounts differ, and there are discrepancies between the histiographies, then this makes a text less reliable or else not reliable at all.

Because of the astounding number of surviving biblical texts, historians have been able to count the discrepancies between these texts. There are more than 400,000 differences between them.

That makes for a picture of unreliability, because the accounts vary--not only in content, but also in structure, verb usage, pronoun selection, and often times message. All of this needs to be taken into account of the number provided, because it contradicts the point I think you are trying to make.

Also, the 95% only accounts for similarity of the texts. It actually doesn't account for the larger percentage of divergence, because some texts with be more or less similar to each other than other ones.

For example, you will have ABA, ABB, ABC, ACC, BCC, AAA, BBB, CCC, AAB type patterns. You are claiming they are 95% similar. Which is true. But they are all different from each other. CCC for example is farther from ABB then ABC. The C's overlap, making ABC more similar to CCC. But ABC is more similar to ABA because it has two overlaps.

Which is why the 400,000 plus differences actually goes against the point you are making.

Additionally, we are only working from copies of copies of copies. We have no original surviving first editions. So we cannot say how much divergences, or drift, from the original documents there may have been. To point out that 95% of the copies of copies of copies are similar to each other doesn't mean they were divinely inspired. It means the copiers were likely working from the same, or similar, source material.

That said, there should be absolutely NO divergence if the copiers were competent and all the originals were the same. But because there ARE differences, we must assume the scribes frequently made errors, which they did, or that the originals might have been divergent as well. It might only be a matter of 1st edition vs. 2nd edition publications, but the greater the initial discrepancy the greater the drift is over a longer period of time.

All these elements seem to suggest a very mundane progression of a popular text in a time when copying was becoming a cultural establishment. To argue you can't trust the works of Homer or Plato because there is less copies doesn't mean their discrepancies are greater. Aristotle's work, for example, are almost universally the same due to the limited surviving texts. Meaning it has an accuracy rate of far higher than the 95% without the additional discrepancies to consider, just to point out one example.

Anyway, I hope that clarifies where historians are coming from and why apologetics like this leap to conclusions before considering all the information.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Why Attack Christianity?

Are atheists cruel hearted robots? R2-D2 and C3P0 didn't believe in God. And everybody loves them.

It is often asked, usually by my Christian family members, why I am so bent on attacking Christianity? Why don't I attack Buddhism with the same zeal?

Well, Buddhists aren't, en mass, currently trying to restrict the rights of my homosexual friends to get married and be happy. My Buddhist friends aren't trying to dictate whether or woman can have an abortion or not and dictate what she can or cannot do with her own body. Buddhists aren't trying to control education policies by supplanting historical and scientific facts for their ancient myths.

But that's just one of my reasons for speaking out against Christianity. My other reason is more subtle. I want to educate Christians, because the truth of the matter is, many Christians don't seem to know all that much about Christianity. Granted, it might be unfair of me to expect over two billion people to have access to higher learning, and I feel much of the things which religious historians have understood for the past 300 years should be made more common knowledge to the general public, perhaps Christians most of all. But there is no reason we shouldn't have the right to correct a Christian when they are wrong about some straight forward fact.

The problem is, however, this isn't always as easy as it sounds. The general Christian, meaning the majority of Catholics and Protestants (and mainly in Western societies), do not really care so much to learn if their faith is TRUE or not. A FALSE faith is to be avoided like the plague. That discovery is to be avoided, which is why they invented apologetics. So that discovery would never have to be made. 

Most Christians (in my experience) take things on faith because, well, it is easier to believe such things if one takes it on a matter of faith. My Christian mother is a prime example of this line of reasoning. She constantly informs me that I am wrong about this religious business, and how does she know this? Well, she informs, "I know because I know because I know."

If Christians questioned and doubted with the same degree of a Skeptic, this would be seen in their religious community as dangerously on the verge of heretical thinking, and they could be shunned for it--or worse. And that's only the asking the question part. The actual investigation into these matters is a another thing entirely.

To actually take it upon oneself to read, oh, I dunno, say 150 books on Biblical histories requires a lot of time and dedication . Investigating these questions is no simple task, nor should it be treated as such. Having myself spent such time and dedication learning about what we can claim, with certainty, to really know and what we can't know, takes years of familiarizing oneself with the arguments. And even then, the best I can conclude, is most of the questions remain open.

So, as you can imagine, it is extremely bothersome to run up against Christian apologists who parade their Biblical and theological degrees around, as if it made them incontrovertible experts, and then say I'm wrong because I haven't looked into things thoroughly enough. My training in religious studies may not be formalized, but I have put in as much time as anyone with a masters or Phd. So it seems, perhaps, a little hasty to write off the layman's criticism simply based on credentials alone. I have no desire to debate with someone who thinks the only thing that distinguishes a genuinely intelligent person is a piece of paper. Such people have proven themselves fools, and you know what they say about arguing with fools, right?

The average Christian of faith doesn't like the fact that I try to educate them on their own religion. When I inform that I was an ardent believer for over three decades, they claim I was no true Christian at all. It could be argued that such a lack of respect, and not taking someone at their word, or even implying they are liars, is far greater offense than having someone ask you to reconsider the reasons for why you believe something.

Others like to point out that I am working for Satan, which I get all the time, because I make a simple distinction between the Gospel Jesus (a fictional character) and the historical Jesus (who I am confident existed). To them, anyone who denies the Son of God is in league with the Devil, for the Bible tells them so. These are the people I am most concerned about. The average believing Christian.

Why am I concerned about them?

Because they make a show of denying my beliefs, my truths, by claiming theirs are the only ones which matter. This is doubly offensive. And it's simply not true.

Usually they will preach to me the doctrinal tenets of faith. Convert the unbeliever! It's the Christian thing to do, after all. I'm sorry, but to me that is a huge offense for a couple of reasons. First, because it is disrespectful to assume someone else is wrong, without even pausing to consider their position, and simply write them off as "in need of correction." Worse to try and force them to change to your standard of what you deem "proper." The second offense is that anyone who engages me by preaching the tenets of their faith have given the clear sign of a mind already made up. A mind which has turned off and hidden behind the walls of religious dogma.

I have had thirty years of doctrinal faith, so I know the tenets better than most "cultural Christians" who have never actually studied what these tenets are and what they entail. But that's just a bother which compels me to be argumentative. I don't like people dictating what other people should believe. Some might argue, but you are trying to push your atheism on us! No, actually, I don't argue that way. I simply try to adhere to the Socratic method of getting you to ask the questions for yourself.

You might feel it's not very fair to hold two billion believers to the same standard of scrutiny we use for everything else, the same we use for history and science, but I think that if they are the ones making truth claims then they have to do better than just state the reason they know is because they know because they know.

That's why I talk about systems which demonstrate themselves. If it can be demonstrated they know something because of a specific series of justifications, then I'd be more willing to have a meaningful and informed conversation with well informed believers.

But the conversation with the average believer rarely ever gets this far. In fact, most times, I will claim something like the following FACT: that Joseph of Arimathea did not exist. Or that Judas Iscariot didn't likely exist. And that Satan, most certainly doesn't exist. Then the Christian would rather not debate such things because the FACTS so assault their faith by diminishing it to the rubble of myth they so adamantly love to deny in other religions.

My point is, they do not even stop to take the time to consider the objections raised. Maybe I made a mistake in my analysis of the data, and Joseph of Aramathea actually did exist. It's possible. See, for me, that would be interesting to learn. But here, I am pointing out the fact that Christians have every opportunity to engage in the religious debate. But instead, they would rather continue demand the respect of a belief system based on the so-called truth--and when you criticize it--they say you are attacking everything they believe in.

Here's is where I have, perhaps, the biggest problem. People who have the burden of proof who are not in the habit of checking their facts have no right to dictate the rules of the conversation in the discourse. You cannot demand respect from me when you in turn do not respectfully engage in the process of discovery and enlightenment. If you want me to believe you--show your evidence. But it seems to me the Christian esteems faith above reason, whereas I don't think you can pretend to have a faith which matters if it isn't at least reasonable.

I would be content to allow Christians that small happiness, if they practiced a simple faith and didn't expect me to the adhere to their rules and try to force policy changes which effect everyone, even people not of faith. Notice that the whole anti-gay sentiment is strictly a religious motivated ordeal. In other countries, not letting women vote or drive cars, and killing them when they try to learn to read, is religiously motivated. The killing of African children suspected to be witches is religiously motivated. It's not just Christianity I have problems with. It's dangerous modes of religiously corrupted thinking in general. It's bad thinking which I have problems with. It's the lack of good reasoning skills which are so predominantly found within religion that makes me suspicious of most religious claims.

So you see my problem. I am trying to have a serious conversation with people who are so confused, due to faith based reasoning, that I can't always expect every single one of the two billion Christians to be reasonable people, like a hand full of genuinely thoughtful Christians I know. Yes, thoughtful Christian do exist! I never said they didn't. In fact, we usually find ourselves in agreement more often than not.

For that reason I probably resort more to polemics, because the sensationalist tactic shocks the "cultural Chrisitan" awake and forces them into a knee-jerk reaction of having to defend their beliefs. That's exactly what I want them to do--because it forces them to ask the question how to I defend this belief? And as they struggle to do that, they inevitably begin thinking of reasons to defend their core set of beliefs. Once they consider the reasons they have for believing any one given proposition, they begin to realize that, perhaps, not all their reasons are air tight. Perhaps their is reason enough to doubt after all.

Although, they would never come to this conclusion if some "mean" atheist hadn't poked them with a stick and stirred up their collective bee hive. But my poking isn't intended for Christians thinking Christians, who take the time to think about these things, rather it is intended for those wishy-washy faith based Christians that simply don't think. I would much rather have discussions about the importance of belief and the things we believe and how they impact our choices and our lives--but I simply can never get that far when the Christian complains, for example, of being persecuted simply because they weren't allowed their time honored sense of privilege. I'm sorry to say, the era of Christian privilege is at an end. It's best to learn to cope and move on.

But the age of reason is still a far ways off. Religion still dominates the social and cultural spheres, and it's only because of Skeptics and Free-thinkers that there is any resistance in the first place. And if this push-back which is skeptical of religious claims and wants people to be more reasonable bothers you, then I think the question you need to ask yourself is: why does that make me uncomfortable?

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist