Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Impossible, or Void of Content

We're working on Patrick Grim's "Impossibility Arguments" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism in my Atheism course.  Here's a particularly striking argument:

Because the [impossibility] arguments at issue operate in terms of a set of more or less clear specifications, of course, it is always possible for a defender of theism to deflect the argument by claiming that the God shown impossible is not his God. If he ends up defending a God that is perhaps knowledgeable but not omniscient he may escape some arguments, but at the cost of a peculiarly ignorant God. The same would hold for a God that is perhaps powerful but is conceded to be less than omnipotent, or historically impotent but not literally a creator. If the term "God" is treated as infinitely re-definable, of course, no set of impossibility arguments will force the theist to give up a claim that "God" in some sense exists. The impossibility arguments may nonetheless succeed in their main thrust in that the "God" so saved may look increasingly less worthy of the honorific title.

A more frequent reaction, perhaps, is not redefinjtion but refuge in vagueness: continued use of a term "God" that is allowed to wander without clear specification. Here as elsewhere - in cases of pseudoscience, for example - resort to vagueness succeeds in deflecting criticism only at the cost of diluting content. If a believer's notion of God entails anything like traditional attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection, the force of impossibility arguments is that there can be no such being. If a believer's notion of God remains so vague as to escape all impossibility arguments, it can be argued, it cannot be clear to even him what he believes - or whether what he takes for pious belief has any content at all.

The whole article, with several arguments for why omniscience and omnipotence are impossible, is here:

Patrick Grim, Impossibility Arguments

Grim surveys several of the most recent, most logically sophisticated accounts of omnipotence and omniscience from Flint and Freddoso, Rosenkrantz and Hoffman, and Wierenga.  None of the explanations work, he argues, because they either fail to be of sufficient scope to be worthy of God, or by being overly ambitious, they collapse under logical counter examples.  That is, God's properties, whatever they are, must be sufficiently maximal.  God, in order to be God, must have as much knowledge and power as can be had.  But on the best accounts we have, omnipotence and omniscience are anemic and mundane beings could qualify.  The most knowledge and power that any being can have are not enough to be God worthy.  The result, suggests Grim, is that after thousands of years of grappling with the problem, we still don't have a clear account of what it would be to be omnipotent or omniscient.  The implication is that we should conclude that the properties are impossible, unless the theist can produce some account that makes sense and that clarifies his claim that he believes in such a being.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Monkey Morality

I'm doing some research for my debate about God this week.  Prof. DiSilvestro is going to give a version of the moral argument for God.  I'll post my notes/essay shortly.  Here's a great video from primate researcher Frans de Waal about moral behaviors in chimps.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Tour Events This Fall

I’ll be giving invited lectures, doing debates, and talking about the book at a number of locations this fall.  Here’s a draft of the schedule.  Details subject to change. 

Sunday, Sept. 16
Interview about Atheism and the Case Against Christ
10:00 am
AM 950 Radio KTNF  The Progressive Voice of Minnesota
Atheism Talk with Carl Hancock and Brianne Bilyeu

Thursday, Sept. 27
Debate:  The Existence of God
with Russell Disilvestro
Redwood Room
Student Union
California State University, Sacramento
9:00-10:30 am

Tuesday, Oct. 9, 6:00-8:00 pm
UC Berkeley:
The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection is Unreasonable
Berkeley Students for a Nonreligious Ethos (SANE)
Genetics Plants Biology (GPB) Building, Room 100
Berkeley, CA

Friday, October 12
The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection is Unreasonable. 
UC Davis
Haring Hall 2205
6:00-9:00 pm
Davis, CA

Nov. 7 or 8
Stanford University
Magic, Resurrections, Miracles, and Reasonable Belief
Details-  TBD
Palo Alto, CA 

Wednesday, Nov. 14
CSUS The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection of Jesus is Unreasonable
CSUS Philosophy Club
Orchard Suite
Student Union
California State University, Sacramento

Thursday, Dec. 6
Disproof Atheism Society
Rm. 203, Photonics Center
Boston University
7:15 pm
Boston University Photonics Center
8 St. Mary’s St., Boston, MA

The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection is Unreasonable
Sacramento, CA

East Bay Atheists
Berkeley, CA

Sunday, Feb. 10th
SF Atheists
Women’s Building
Mission, SF

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Basics

Disagreeing about God is easy.  If we are going to make headway in our conversations about God, however, we’d do well to focus first on our common ground.  At the risk of getting abstract and boring:  Suppose Smith and Jones disagree about matter p.  And suppose that S and J are both reasonable, thoughtful people with the intention of getting their beliefs to align as well as they can with the facts and the canons of inductive and deductive reasoning.  Smith will have one body of information that Smith takes to be relevant to deciding the issue and Jones will most likely have another.  There will no doubt be some overlap between, but the disagree is often related to different pieces of information in those two bodies of evidence.  Smith and Jones need to share evidence, and come to some agreement about what the complete list of facts are regarding p, or at least the most complete list that they can acquire. 

The disciplines of physics, astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, biology, psychology have converged on this short summary of the history of everything.  A staggering and  unsurpassed amount of work, critical reasoning, skeptical scrutiny, vetting, and aggressive efforts at disconfirmation that have gone into justifying this account of the history of everything.  That is, the story is the result of the greatest minds in human history using our best methods for investigating the world. 

The arguments that one might make for some other version of events, or the evidence that one might cite to justify a contrary picture of reality, are all inferior.  To prefer one of those alternative accounts of reality is, plainly stated, flagrantly irrational. 

So discussions about God need to start with this bit of evidence sharing as their starting point. 

Here’s a summary of what we know about the universe, the Earth, life, humanity, and evolution. 

Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, the universe went from a singularity state of infinite curvature and energy to a rapidly expanding chaotic state, the Big Bang.  During the first pico and nano seconds of this period of rapid expansion, the types and behavior of particles that existed rapidly change as the energy levels dropped.  Within a few nanoseconds, the kinds of matter and the ways they behave settled into, more or less, the sorts of material constituents we find today.  At this point, only hydrogen, helium, and lithium exist.  The matter continues to expand outward and eventually, several billion years later, gravitational pull congregates clumps of matter together to form stars.  These heat and energy at the cores of these stars cook the early forms of matter, transforming it and creating many of the other, heavier elements on the periodic table.  Some of these stars are of sufficient mass to ultimately collapse on themselves, exploding outward and spraying the new elements formed in their cores out into space.  That matter eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own.

The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  Simple, self-replicating molecules appear on Earth around 4 billion years ago (abiogenesis).  Once there is replication, natural selection and random mutations over billions of years lead to the evolution of more and more life forms, many of them of increasing levels of complexity.  The dinosaurs emerge from this  process.  The Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods range from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago.  There are boom and bust cycles of rapid proliferations of life (e.g. Cambrian explosion) and mass extinctions, such as the asteroid event that we think was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The ecological gap left by the dinosaurs provides the opportunity for placental mammals to expand and diversify. 

The earliest known stone tools originate with hominids 2.5 to 2.6 million years ago.  Estimates about the emergence of language range from 5 million years ago to 100,000 years ago.  Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, 60 million years after the dinosaurs have gone extinct.  A variety of early hominid groups vie for survival until all related lines except homo sapiens are extinct.  We are still piecing together many of the connections and relationships between these species.

There is evidence of human religious behavior such as burial rituals dating back approximately 300,000 years. 
Only very recently have one of the hominid species--homo sapiens--on the planet developed cognitive faculties that were sophisticated enough to be able to discover these various facts about the universe.  Some of those discoveries are landmarks of vast significance in our develop, although not in a cosmic scale:  Darwin’s The Origin of Species is published in 1859. In 1929, Edwin Hubble published his paper, “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae,” in which he showed that the universe is expanding.  Extrapolating backward from its rate of expansion made it possible to date the explosive beginning of the universe at approximately 13.7 billion years ago.  In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick published their discovery of DNA in Nature:  “A Structure of Deoxyrobose Nucleic Acid.” 

Sharing Evidence

Now it seems to me that any religious doctrine that portends to give an accurate account of the nature of the universe, the origins of the universe, the existence and development of life, the origins of humanity, or the relationship between humanity and the rest of the cosmos must, at the very least, accord with this history of everything.  If a religious account of the world presents us with different details about the order, span, or nature of these events, then we must conclude that is it mistaken.  4 in 10 Americans are young Earth creationists  where young Earth creationism is the view the universe, the Earth, and all life on Earth were created in their more or less present forms within the last 10,000 years.  So that 40% of the population believe a number of things that are flatly disproven by our best evidence and scientific work.  (The oft repeated claim that religious views and science are perfectly consistent or compatible is also plainly false in this light.) 

Responsible and mature discussions about God should start with this mutually agreed upon list of basics about the universe we inhabit.  Denying these basics, given the quantity and quality of evidence we have in their favor, is irrational and irresponsible.  Someone who would deny the basics is either grossly misinformed, or perhaps he is more committed to the religious ideology than to believing that which is reasonable and best supported by the evidence. 

  • The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.
  • Only hydrogen, helium, and lithium exist for millions of years until large stars form and create many of the other, heavier elements on the periodic table. 
  •  Some of these stars go supernova and distribute these new elements into space. 
  • That matter eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own. 
  • The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. 
  • Life in the form of the simplest, self-replicating molecules occurs on Earth around 4 billion years ago.
  • Once there is replication, natural selection and random mutations over billions of years lead to the evolution of more and more life forms, many of them of increasing levels of complexity. 
  • Dinosaurs live from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago. 
  • Life on the planet goes through several mass extinctions.
  • The Cambrian explosion—a rapid proliferation of the kinds and numbers of living organisms on the planet,  occurs about 540 million years ago.
  • Mammals begin to expand and diversify significantly about 54 million years ago.
  • Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. 
  • Human religious behavior starts approximately 300,000 years ago. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Atheism and the Case Against Christ, now available.

It's real.  

It's available at Amazon here.

In the coming weeks I'll be giving talks at UC Berkeley, Stanford, CSUS, UC Davis, and for Sacramento and Bay area atheist groups.  I'll post details here as they are firmed up.