Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Letters to the faithful: Please don't tell me what I believe

It's sometimes great having theists ask me about atheism.  I appreciate that it can be tough for a believer to get their head around how an atheist sees the world.  I don't mind spending a bit of time on that.  But nothing is going to cause friction faster than a theist telling me what I must believe (sadly often in form of strawman fallacy).  There's a lot of misconceptions about what atheism is.  It really isn't hard.

All atheism means is the lack of belief in gods. If you claim there is a god, then atheism is summed up as the lack of belief in that claim.  It is really really simple.  It's about the issue of belief in gods.  Atheism is not the claim that gods don't exist.  That is a different issue relating to knowledge.  Many atheists are also agnostics.  Richard Dawkins for instance.

Atheism does not mean I believe the universe created itself out of nothing. The origins of the universe relate to the scientific discipline of cosmology.  All atheism means is I'm unconvinced by any non-evidenced story involving a talking snake. I don't need to have an alternative model in mind to reject a theistic explanation.  It is the lack of evidence that gives me reason to reject a divine cause, not the existence of alternatives.  Neither atheists (nor indeed cosmologists) can be defined as having a belief in big-bang cosmology.

Atheism is not a political ideology.  Atheism does not lead to Marxism or other forms of totalitarian governments.  Totalitarianism is the product of various socio-economic and political factors.  It manifested itself in Christian dictatorships and in Marxist ones.  Stalin did not kill in the name of atheism, but to rid the state of what he perceived were its enemies.  Atheism is a response to a claim, it is not an ideology.

Atheism doesn't mean I make up my morals. Atheism makes no claims about morality in exactly the same way it makes no claims about how to repair motorcycles.  This lies outside the scope of atheism.  Atheism is a response to a claim.  It is not an ideology or a world view or a system of ethics or a method to repair motorcycles. Clearly I don't get my morals from a guidebook from antiquity. But there is around four centuries of secular moral philosophy that provide a rational alternative.  Personally, contractarianism appeals to me the most.  None of these moral philosophies actually say you get to make the rules as you go.

Atheism does not mean I believe we evolved from rocks. Atheism makes no claims about the origin of life, nor its diversity.  These are questions that biologists address.  The nice thing is that many of their answers are actually backed by evidence.  Atheism is not the same as evolutionary biology.  It's scope is limited to rejecting the theist claim of divine causes. 

In short, any time, anyone tries to assert that atheism is more than a response to a claim, then they are misrepresenting atheism.  Often the motive for doing so is malicious.  Sadly many attempt to stigmatise atheism I believe, to hinder believers understanding the perspective.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Not again! Pascals' Wager

A number of things can be guaranteed in life. One is that a Christian will employ ‘Pascal’s Wager’ on you if you’re an atheist. 

Pascal's Wager derives from the 17th C French philosopher Blaise Pascal. He proposed an argument for god based on a gamble.  If you believe in god and it tuns out you're wrong, you've lost very little.  If you don't believe in god and it turns out you're wrong, then wow. You are really going to suffer.  The argument covers the general form of argument where you base belief on consequences

This wager acknowledges the lack of evidence for a god, but so turns faith into a gamble instead. If Christianity (whilst premised on Christianity, the argument can be employed more generally and often is, I've had Muslims use it on me too) is right, they avoid an eternity of torture.  On that basis, belief is rational whilst non-belief in god is irrational.

 It doesn’t work for three main reasons
  • There are thousands of gods known in human cultures. The odds Christianity is right as a ‘gamble’ are thousands to one against. On that basis, the odds I’m going to end up in the Maori underworld are pretty much identical to you. So it fails as a ‘good bet’.
  • It’s insufficient to generate belief. This is actually the big one. The wager doesn’t generate any evidence (this formed one of the earliest critiques of Pascal’s wager). It doesn’t matter if hell is true or not. If you don’t have an evidence, then a rational person can’t choose to believe.
    Consider this analogy: Using Alien technology I have mounted giant lasers on the moon. They’re undetectable. I have targeted your family for destruction at a random time in the future. Unless you send me money now, these lasers will destroy everything you hold dear later.
    This is identical to Pascal’s Wager. I provide no evidence, I just promise a horrible fate in the future if you don’t believe me. By the logic of the wager, you should believe me because you can’t afford not to.
    One suspects you don’t believe me for one simple reason. There’s still no evidence to back up the threat. The lack of evidence in Pascal’s wager is why it has no validity.
  • It’s a coward’s argument. I find it repellent because it is based on fear of consequences, not reason or evidence.
There are other objections.  One is that it's based on a pretence.  You're effectively going to Church as a kind of 'fire-insurance'.  The theory is that you can fool god into accepting you're a believer.  Pascal tried to deal with that objection by arguing that you would gradually become a true believer with this immersive process.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Simple Experiment: Evolution & Information

One of the quaint notions creationists toss out occasionally is that evolution can only destroy information in DNA, not increase it. While we have already proved that false with various experiments, I think it stems to a bad understanding of what mutations are.

One of the most common mutations is sequence duplications. A section of DNA gets copied several times by mistake (one of the reasons we have 3bn base-pairs in the human genome but only use 23,000 genes to code for a person). While intuitively, it might seem as if these copies don’t add any new information (they have the same codes as the original), these new sequences do create strings of new base-pairs that can yield new functions. (In information-theory, this is equivalent to an increase in Kolmogorov complexity).

To make this more intuitive, consider the following little experiment. I’ve generated a column of random letters and found a set of words in there. So, I’m using an lexicographic algorithm as an analogy for a genetic. Lexicographic codes follow rules too- they have to be read from left-to-right they must contain a vowel, each letter can only be used once.

The second column is now the duplicate, and I’ve highlighted now in green, the new words this duplicate allows me to form. Some of the new words in the 2nd column are completely new- e.g. smug, win, are. Simply by duplicating strings (a mutation) of old information, we can generate entirely new information as code.*

* Disclaimer- this is an argument form analogy and is not representative of how genetic algorithms treat sequences.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Begging the Question Fallacy #2

This is another very popular fallacy* that I’ve frequently had employed on me.  It becomes a fallacy because at no point in the argument, does the proponent support their premises.  They find ways to restate their claims (religious doctrines) so that the argument they use, just gets repeated.  It is sometimes known as the circular argument fallacy.

There are many examples of this type of theist reasoning.

Example 1: The theist claims their god created the universe. When asked for evidence to support this, they claim everything around me qualifies as evidence.  This has simply restated their original claim. God created the universe therefore the universe proves god exists.

 Example 2: The theist claims that god is the source of all things good and wonderful. If I ask why therefore bad things happen (like the Haitian earthquake or babies getting cancer) I’m told this is caused by Satan, or Demons, or our sinful nature etc.  This is just a restatement of their religious doctrines. Neither any evidence to support their god or some demonic force is ever produced.  It is utterly circular.  Good things come from god, bad things come from Satan. All bases are now covered.

* Adapted from my Tumblr post on the same subject

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Gospel Jesus: an odd penchant for obscurity

One of the objections many atheists have to Christianity is the obscurity of Jesus in the historical record.  Here is allegedly, the greatest event in human history- an episode marked by extraordinary events- yet we cannot corroborate these claims outside the gospels.  Somehow, nobody outside a small Judaic cult noticed these events.  And pretty much, nobody from this cult bothered to write it down until decades later.  

The odd thing is that when you bring up this objection, when you point out that not one contemporaneous account even mentions Jesus, you get the same response.  It's claimed there are lots of sources that can corroborate the gospels.  Usually the Christian will rattle off the usual sources- Josephus, Tacitus etc.  

What this really means is that they've read something second or third hand.  They haven't bothered cross-checking the claims to ensure:
1) that the account is contemporaneous.
2) the account actually corroborates the fantastic claims of the gospels.

So let me help out a bit.  You can see from the table I've picked up five fantastic things that Jesus is alleged to have done.  There's the virgin-birth, which only 2 gospels describe and they don't really agree on.  There's the leprosy curing- that was basically incurable until modern antibiotics were developed.  The next two describe events that should have caused others to notice.  Having lots of formerly-dead people visit Jerusalem would I imagine, attract a bit of local attention.  Inexplicable long episodes of darkness, accompanied by earthquakes, should also have gotten a mention by contemporaneous sources.

Then I've listed a whole bunch of historical sources from the 1st CE in chronological order and crosschecked them against the gospel claims.   The shaded rows are contemporaneous (at least in part) with Jesus.  Not one even mentions him.

Then as we reach the later sources, then there is nothing that corroborates those gospel claims.  No mention of three hours of darkness. No mention of earthquakes or the dead visiting Jerusalem. No mention of the ability to cure the incurable leprosy. The actual details supplied are too sparse to flesh-out anything of substance about Jesus.

Virgin Birth
Cured Leprosy
Dead awake & visit Jerusalem
3 hours of darkness on cross
(65-70 CE)


(80-85 CE)
In reign of Herod (before 4 BCE)
Adds earthquake
(80-85 CE)
In Census of Quirinius (6/7 CE)*

(90-100 CE)


(59 BCE- 17 CE)
No mention
Seneca the Elder
(54 BCE- 39 CE)
No mention
Philo Judeas
(20 BCE- 50 CE)
No mention
Pliny the Elder
(23-79 CE)
No mention
(37-100 CE)
Bk 20:9.1 – James had a brother Jesus, called Christ
Justus of Tiberias
“1st C CE”
No mention
(46-120 CE)
No mention
(56-117 CE)
Pilate executed a man called Christus for whom Christians are named
Pliny the Younger
(61-112 CE)
Confirms early Christians worshipped Christ as a god in Trajanic-era
(69-122 CE)
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

 * the pesky gap between the claimed birth-dates of Jesus in Luke and Matthew are one of those problems that torpedoes the tactic of trying to use the gospels to prove the gospels are accurate
** I've omitted the forged section from Josephus.  The lack of historical records for Jesus is something that has long embarrassed Christians and likely motivated this later 'embellishment'.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Faulty Analogy Fallacy #1- God & Air

The Faulty Analogy fallacy* is a common logical mistake, and for that reason, employed with astonishing frequency by theists. Analogies are not a strong argument in the first instance, and the Faulty Analogy inflates this weakness by claiming two things are more alike than they really are.

One instance of this is the argument that because I believe air (or oxygen) even though I can’t see it, it is reasonable to also believe that god exists even though I can’t see this either.

The first problem is we’re not talking about related things.  The god-claim has far more properties to it than just lack of visibility. It branches deep into supernatural properties.  Air and god are not similar things.

The second problem is that is also absurd. It uses a strawman fallacy as well. I accept things exist on the basis of the evidence that support it. I don’t use a visible/invisible criterion.  I accept music exists, not because I can see notes but because I can hear them. Evidence isn’t defined as only that which can be seen.

For this reason, it fails utterly. There is evidence that air (and oyxgen) exist.  Air has many physical properties. Descend rapidly and you’ll notice the air-pressure changes as your ears pop. We map out air-pressure on weather maps. Photographers know that air will change light.  You can see the effect of haze if temperatures are too high.  You can see colour shifts as sunlight hits air at different angles. The low angles of sunrise and sunset accentuate the red tones.

Rust is visible evidence of oxygen
Similarly, you can see oxygen.  In liquid form its actually a pale blue colour.  But it also interacts with iron.  Anytime you see rust forming on iron, you can see oxygen.  It’s combining with the iron atoms to form that orange residue.

* This post is copied from my Tumblr site.