Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Debate Over Naturalism

There's been a running debate between me and mathematician Dr. James A. Lindsay. There has been first, second and third parts on his blog God Doesn't; We Do which can read by following the links. I have included my main response to his third post below:

I never asked you to prove that naturalism is true because you’re right it is unreasonable to think that you could prove that it is true to all rational people. What I asked you is why you think that the probability that naturalism is true is nearly 100% (although I’m also asking you think why it’s even plausible). This arose out of our conversation three posts back where I responded to your argument that the probability that God exists is zero almost surely by creating an inference to the best explanation argument where I showed that, “Given our background knowledge about the state of the world, God is the best explanation for motion in the universe; the finely tuned universe and everything in it; the existence of objective morals and duties; and consciousness.” The argument showed that theism is highly probable while naturalism is implausible to highly implausible, and you didn’t even try to refute the argument. That would have been fine if it ended there, but you’re still acting like God’s probability is essentially zero while the probability of naturalism is essentially 100% without defending the extraordinary high probability you place on naturalism.
I think that you are a conflating the concepts of atheism and naturalism. I think that the definition of naturalism that you presented is pretty good, but you don’t seem to realize that naturalism is a positive world view that needs to be argued for just like Christianity, Islam and pantheism. Naturalism is not a negative view like atheism which says that God doesn’t exist. Naturalism makes the very bold claim that the universe and everything in it arose from naturalistic causes. So, when I ask you to defend why you think that naturalism is very highly probable or even just plausible I’m not asking you to prove that supernaturalism is false, I’m asking you why you why any rational person should think that it is likely that the universe and everything in can be explained through naturalistic causes.
The Implausibility of Naturalism:
To help you see why a theist (or really anyone who follows where reason leads them) finds naturalism so implausible I’ve created a dialogue between Bob and Dan to illustrate my point:
Bob: “I have some amazing news. Some experts have told me that my great^20 grandfather was not born; he just existed as a brute fact. So, the beginning of my family began with my great^20 grandfather who fathered my great^19 grandfather and eventually my father fathered me.”
Dan: “Wait a minute, Bob, what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. We all know that people don’t just exist as brute facts—people are caused to come into being by their parents. Why should I believe your story? Why is your great^20 grandfather existence just a brute fact while everyone is born from their parents?”
Bob: “Well, my great grandfather is an exception. It’s the only way that the experts could think of to explaining how my family came to be, so the existence of my great^20 grandfather has to be a brute fact.”
Dan: “Hmm, it sounds like you’re engaging in special pleading.”
Bob: “Oh no, just because we see that things in the universe have a cause doesn’t mean that everything has a cause. I mean look at subatomic particles they’re popping into and out of existence all the time.”
Dan: “That’s not really true, just because we can’t KNOW with exact certainty where a given subatomic particle will be at any point it doesn’t follow that the particle is popping into existence uncaused out of nothing. David Albert wrote, ‘Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.’ So, subatomic particles are not an exception to the rule that physical things like your great grandfather have a cause. Do you actually have any scientific proof that your great grandfather existed as a brute fact?”

Bob: “No, but look at the success of science, scientists will one day explain how my great grandfather was not born and yet is the cause of my family.”

Dan: “Just because science has successfully explained many things it doesn’t mean that it will explain how your grandfather was not born. Besides, I thought that you said the uncaused existence of your great grandfather was just a brute fact. Brute facts have no explanation.”

Bob: “See, there it is! My great grandfather just exists as a brute fact. Just wait someday science will prove me right.”

Dan: “Well, Bob, that may be so, but I find your story to be wildly improbable.”

So, whether it is the universe itself or subatomic particles and the natural laws I think we should regard the claim that any of these objects exist as brute facts as implausible. There is nothing in the nature of these things that are necessary—all could very conceivably not exist. We also know that everything we see around us has a cause of its existence—even the elements did not exist prior to the big bang.

Add to that the fact that as Alexander Vilenkin has said, "All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning." This means that either a) the universe popped into existence uncaused out nothing which is a ridiculous notion, b) contingent objects such as subatomic particles, which just exist as brute facts, are the cause of the universe or c) a necessarily existent, uncaused, immaterial agent caused the universe to come into being. I think that c is by far the most plausible scenario.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Why Current Neuroscience Doesn't Show that Free Will is a Myth

John Loftus at Debunking Christianity wrote a post claiming that, "Neuroscience is making it extremely difficult for believers to still claim that by freely choosing to believe we are saved (or condemned), that we freely choose to sin, or that there is a wrathful God who will judge us on the last day." Here is my response:

I think that we need to avoid the two extremes of the positive thinkers, who believe that anyone who sets their mind to something can achieve anything, and naturalists, who view people as no different than billiard balls who are powerless to resist the trajectory they’ve been set on, when interpreting the results of these studies. The former should be avoided because, quite obviously, someone who was born with severe cerebral palsy isn’t going to be a starter in the NFL no matter how badly they want to. The latter should be avoided because the information that we have does not warrant abandoning a properly basic belief in free will.
As my old Sociology professor would say, “Correlation is not causation,” and the crime statistics you’ve provided, John, are a mere correlation. Sure, given a genetic predisposition towards something like alcoholism and the wrong environment the chances that someone is going to become an alcoholic are quite high, but it doesn’t follow that the person is completely powerless not to drink. After all, if free will does not exit, then we could be as sure about anyone’s actions as we are of the velocity of a struck billiard ball, but that’s not what we see. We see alcoholics give up drinking and we see people who know they are genetically predisposed to alcoholism avoid drinking altogether. We also see people with the “dangerous” Y chromosome who grow up in tough environments become upstanding citizens.
Now, you’ve also provided some extreme case studies of people with a more limited free will. Someone with Chorea doesn’t have full control of their body, but it doesn’t follow that they have never made a free choice in their life, and it certainly doesn’t follow that, when I raise my arm, that I couldn’t have done otherwise or that I was destined from the big bang to raise my arm at that moment.
In order to have a defeater for my properly basic belief that I can generally choose to do otherwise we would need clear and conclusive evidence that my seemingly free choices are an illusion. We simply don’t have that evidence, at this point, so I have epistemic warrant to conclude that I do have free will until a true defeater is presented, and quite frankly, I think this should be the position of all rational people.
What we should do with this data from these studies? I believe that we should use it to try to prevent people who are predisposed to violence from making poor decisions. We should do what we can to ameliorate their environments and lives so that they won’t be so prone to violence. We should also make allowances for people, as I’m sure God does, with more limited free will, that truly can’t do otherwise.  

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Why it Can’t Be the Case that the Plausibility of God’s Existence is Zero Almost Surely

My critique of Dr. James A. Lindsay's, mathematician and author of God Doesn't; We Do, argument that the plausibility of God’s existence is zero almost surely is below:   
Given our background knowledge about the state of the world, God is the best explanation for motion in the universe; the finely tuned universe and everything in it; the existence of objective morals and duties; and consciousness. If God is the best explanation for these things then God’s existence is very likely. Since God’s existence is very likely, it can’t be the case that the plausibility of God’s existence is zero almost surely. If God is the cause of motion in the universe; the finely tuned universe and everything in it; the existence of objective morals and duties; and consciousness then God can’t possibly be an abstract object as abstract objects have no causal power.
The Argument from First Motion:
1. Some things are changing.
2. Whatever is changing is being changed by something else.
3. The prime mover can be either A) just potential, B) a mix of potential and actual, or C) just actual.
4. The prime mover is pure actuality.
5. Therefore the prime mover is pure actuality.
Experience shows that contingent material objects like people, trees, cars and stars are caused to change by something else. However, this chain of contingent cause and effect can’t go back to infinity because if there is no necessarily existing agent/object that is pure actuality to actualize everything that is a mix of potential and actual then everything in the chain of causality will cease to change and exist. However, since there is change and motion in the universe there must be a prime mover that is pure actuality. Since all material objects in the universe are changing and appear to be contingent it is improbable that the prime mover is a material object. However, God is said to be a necessarily existent, immaterial mind and so is more likely to be the prime mover with pure actuality.
The Kalam Cosmological Argument:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.
The Argument from First Motion deals with a potential eternal universe, but current scientific research shows that the universe has existed for ~13.7 billion years and arose out of the big bang and so it not eternal. This means, most likely, that the universe had some sort of cause for its existence. It is very, very, very unlikely that the universe popped into existence uncaused out of nothing as nothingness has no causality. Also, it would be strange that nothingness causes something to pop into existence only once every 13.7 billion years-or-so; after all we don’t observe mountains, planets and people just popping into existence uncaused.
Another naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe, that the laws of nature caused the universe to come into being, is implausible because laws of nature are abstract objects that can’t, in of themselves  cause anything—abstract objects are causally inert. Another implausible explanation is that subatomic particles and natural laws caused the universe to come into being. This explanation is implausible because everything we can see with our eyes has a cause of its existence, and even microscopic things like the elements didn’t exist prior to the big bang, so necessarily existent subatomic particles would fly in the face of what we know about the universe. Even natural laws seem to be contingent in that they could easily be different than they are. Positing subatomic particles and natural laws as the necessary entities that caused the universe to coming into being is also un-parsimonious as we would need to assume that there are physical objects and abstract objects that need to exist necessarily in order to be the cause of everything else.
On the other hand, positing God as the transcendent being that exists necessarily is more plausible because an un-embodied mind has no parts that need to be formed or created and needs nothing in order to exist. Positing God is also more parsimonious as we need to assume that only one necessary being needs to exist in order to cause everything else to exist.
The Teleological Argument:
1. The fine tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance or design.
2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
3. Therefore, it is due to design.
Observations about the universe show that the cosmological constants are exquisitely fine tuned and that if many of them were only slightly different than they are then the universe would be devoid of stars, planets and life. Oxford physicist Roger Penrose calculates that the odds of the special low entropy condition having arisen by chance alone in the absence of any constraining principles is a least as small as about one part in 10^10(123) in order for the universe to exist. It is very, very, very improbable that the fine tuning that we see in the universe arose by physical necessity or chance. Positing an agent, such as God, who designed the universe in such a way so that life could arise, is much, much, much more plausible than naturalistic alternatives.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

News Flash: The Euthyphro Dilemma Is Dead!

It seems like ever since Plato wrote the dialogue called “Euthyphro” around 400 B.C. the Euthyphro dilemma periodically resurfaces as an atheist argument against the idea that God grounds morality. The Euthyphro dilemma has recently resurfaced in the debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg and in an article in Aeon by Troy Jollimore entitled “Godless yet good” which was mentioned in the New York Time’s “The Stone” series. The dilemma that Socrates posed to Euthyphro in the dialogue goes something like this: does God arbitrarily decide that a particular action is immoral or does God declare that a particular action is immoral because it is inherently so? If an action such as murder is arbitrarily chosen as wrong by God then why is it necessarily wrong? If murder is inherently wrong then there is no need for God to command that it is wrong. The problem is that this argument is a false dilemma. A third option is that objective morals and duties flow out of God’s perfectly good being. So, God is the metaphysical ground for the existence of objective morals and duties. The truth is that the Euthyphro dilemma has been a dead argument for some time now.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Genetic Fallacy of “Bias and Heuristics in Religious Thinking”

I recently watched Professor Matt McCormick’s Youtube video titled Bias and Heuristics in Religious Thinking” and read through his PowerPoint slides that were featured in his video on his blog called Atheism:Proving The Negative. In the video Matt discusses come psychological findings that point to errors in human thinking that he believes particularly pertain to people of faith. I did find the presentation interesting and believe that there are findings that are instructive to people in general. I was pleased that Matt was generous enough to say that these findings do pertain to everyone, but I was disappointed that he applied these findings particularly to religious people and committed one of the most common atheist fallacies, the genetic fallacy.

Matt commits the genetic fallacy
Matt discusses how the hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), a mechanism that he claims was evolved to help man agents such as predators, and how our HADD causes us to see agents where they aren’t. He believes that HADD causes us to perceive gods who aren’t there. The problem with this assertion is that it commits the genetic fallacy because assuming that we have this evolved device it could actually be pointing us to God, in fact if God exists then it is quite probable that he gave us (either through evolution or some other means) this device in order to detect him. In any case the existence of HADD does not mean that God doesn’t exist or that the origin of the belief that he exists is incorrect.

There is no prayer fallacy
Later on in the presentation Matt discusses prayer, and calls theist’s claims that God answers prayers with yes, no or maybe later a fallacy. The problem with this is that it presupposes that God is an omnipotent genie that must grant all prayers no matter how ridiculous or harmful they are. Bob could pray to be Supreme Dictator of the Universe so that he can torture and execute anyone who doesn’t bow down to him and the genie god would have to grant his prayer. What if Fred prays the same thing? This is a logically impossible situation, not to mention the fact that one of these prayers being granted would be a downright scary situation. The fact that all prayers aren’t granted does not prove that God doesn’t exist, or that prayer doesn’t work. God is not obligated to answer any prayers. God is a free agent who can decide which prayers should be granted and which shouldn’t, and he has the freedom to grant them when he sees fit. As an omnipotent, timeless being he has a better perspective then we do about which prayers should be granted and which shouldn't.

Are skeptics really open minded?
Next Matt talks about defense layers for Jesus vs. actively open minded thinking. The funny thing about this his belief that atheists/skeptics generally exhibit actively open minded thinking while religious believers are close minded, dogmatic defense lawyers for Jesus is that skeptics, who are generally naturalists, are closed to the possibility of God and miracles. How can a proponent of naturalism claim that they can make an objective open minded investigation into religious claims when they start with the presupposition that God doesn’t exist and miracles are impossible? The answer is they can’t. That is why proponents of skepticism/naturalism will always favor naturalistic explanations, even if those naturalistic explanations are farfetched, because supernatural explanations are seen to be impossible. In fact it is kind of ridiculous to equate skepticism with open mindedness because the whole idea of skepticism is that it is a way to avoid possible mistaken beliefs by filtering out beliefs by demanding near if not absolute proof for that belief. So, the project of skepticism is the opposite of being open.

The difference between possible and probable
Next Matt says that believers argue that God possibly exists. Perhaps some believers do argue this but I think most sophisticated believers say that God’s existence is highly probable. There is a huge difference between possible and highly probable because just about anything is possible, but far fewer things are highly probable. When I say that God is highly probable it is because I’ve looked at the world and concluded that God is the cause of the finely tuned universe and is the ontological foundation of objective morals. I have reasons for believing that God exists. However, I realize that it is not possible to absolutely prove God’s existence because we don’t have enough information to do that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is Reasonable Faith an Oxymoron?

There have been a series of posts by John Loftus on his Debunking Christianity blog where he argues that reasonable faith is an oxymoron. John defines faith as, “An attitude or feeling whereby someone attributes a higher probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for.” Is this a good definition? On one hand, yes, John is right to talk about probabilities because the only thing that we can know with absolute certainty is that we exist, everything else must be believed or rejected with varying degrees of certainty. On the other hand, I think that John’s definition is not very precise because how can we know how high a probability has to be?

What are some other definitions of faith? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines faith as, “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” I’m taking the Merriam-Webster definition as referring to absolute proof. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant defines faith as, “A rational attitude towards a potential object of knowledge which arises when we are subjectively certain it is true even though we are unable to gain theoretical or objective certainty.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I think these definitions work better. From these definitions I think there is a faith element to all beliefs outside of the belief in our own existence. This is something that John disagrees with, but I think this is largely because of the religious connotations of the word faith, and his aversion to anything religious.

Now let’s get back to John’s discussion of faith. He writes:
I do not deny that at any given time we must assume some things since we cannot place on the table everything we think is true and examine them all at the same time. This is especially true about our notions that we exist, are communicating with other minds, that our memories represent the past, that there was a past, that there is a material world, that our senses give us accurate input that we are not dreaming right now, etc. What I deny is that we accept any of these things by faith. We might be wrong, but faith isn’t what allows us to accept such things. Scientific reasoning does. I can defend each one of my conclusions about such things though, and I do. These prior conclusions provide the background knowledge I have when involved in any discussion, and I’m allowed to have them.
John is right that we must make assumptions such as a universe exists outside of my mind but this assumption cannot be proven scientifically. John goes on to talk about our fairly reliable memories, archaeological evidence and scientific evidence for the Big Bang. It appears like we have these things, but what if all this stuff are just elaborate fictions fed to our minds by an evil genius who is trying to deceive us? What if Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin and their work are just literal as Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes and Bilbo Baggins? There is no way to be certain, but the fact that I can’t be absolutely certain that the world, which appears to surround me, literally exists doesn't dissuade me from being confident that the world exists because I can rationally make the assumption that there is no good reason to doubt the universe’s existence.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Negating the Negations: My Objections to Russ’ Debate Strategy with Christians

John Loftus published a post where he reposts an argument from his friend Russ. Russ’ debate strategy is to affirm theological statements from a theologian, who in Russ’ example is Bishop John Shelby Spong, that conflicts with traditional Christian theology. The idea is that if God is true then all theologians should agree about His attributes. However, there are multiple problems with this argument—it is formally and informally fallacious.
  1. 1.       The first problem is that the argument is formally fallacious because it has the form of denying the antecedent. The argument can be formulated as follows:
1.       If Spong agrees with all the theological claims of traditional Christianity then Christianity is true.
2.       Spong does not agree with all the theological claims of traditional Christianity.
3.       Therefore Christianity if false. (from the formal fallacy denying the antecedent)
                This is argument is invalid because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. There are many reasons why traditional Christianity could true even though Spong disagrees with it. Spong’s sensus divinitatis or God sense could be off causing him to incorrectly perceive God’s nature. He could just be wrong or confused. He could have an agenda against traditional Christianity. In any case, this form of argument is always fallacious.
  1. 2.       This argument is informally fallacious because it is an appeal to authority. Although Spong is an expert in his field, his position does not represent the general consensus of experts in the field of Christian theology. Russ even says that thousands of Christian theological heavyweights disagree with Spong’s opinion.
  2. 3.       Just because an expert, like Spong, is highly decorated and went to prestigious schools doesn't mean they are always right. Take Dr. Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, who argued for some time for a solid state universe, which was eventually shown to be false. If one of the greatest intellectual giants in the history of mankind can be wrong then anyone, including graduates from Harvard and Oxford can be wrong sometimes.
  3. 4.       Just because people have disagreements about the nature of something doesn't mean that thing doesn’t exist. Saying that God doesn't exist because there are some disagreements about his nature is like saying that because there were disagreements about whether the earth is flat or spherical the earth doesn’t exist. People were walking on the earth and looking at the same earth but came to different conclusion about the nature of it. The flat earthers were just wrong.        
  4. 5.       Even if this argument wasn't formally and informally fallacious, what kind of atheist are you if you are affirming the position of someone who believes in God? The Wikipedia article that Russ refers to says, “He [Spong] states that he is a Christian because he believes that Jesus Christ fully expressed the presence of a God of compassion and selfless love and that this is the meaning of the early Christian proclamation, "Jesus is Lord" (Spong, 1994 and Spong, 1991). Elaborating on this last idea he affirms that Jesus was adopted by God as his predilect son, thus embracing (at least at linguistic level) a form of the ancient adoptionist heresy (Born of a Woman 1992), and yet in an orthodox way he says that this would be the way God was fully incarnated in Jesus Christ.” Even if Spong has some unusual theology he still believes that God exists. It is strange, as an atheist, to embrace a position that says that God exists and then turn around and say that God doesn't exist because there are some disagreements about God’s nature. Nonexistent things don’t have natures to disagree about.
For all these reasons Russ' argument completely and utterly fails.