Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Contra Craig #1 - Forthrightly Understandable Cosmological Kalamity!

Kalam's calamitous cosmological argument is generally formalized as follows:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

  2. The universe began to exist.

  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
This argument sounds so smooth and plausble, unless you've ever taught physics at the undergraduate level or below.  It turns out that whenever one applies everyday intuitions to the universe as a whole, you get pretty much everything wrong, and so it is in this case.  

Think about what you really mean by "everything that begins to exist has a cause."  Consider a rock, a tree, or the internet.  The rock formed when molten magma cooled and hardened, and then broke up into little pieces over time.  The tree grew up from an acorn by taking in vast amounts of energy and nutrients over many years.  The internet was formed over decades by the dedicated labor of thousands of scientists, technicians, engineers, programmers, and the like. All of these things began to exist because of the rearrangement of preexistent matter and energy into new forms within space over a period of time.  The causes which brought these new things into being are those particular events and processes that contributed to their formation, working their effects within space and time according to natural law.

Nowhere else in the English language do we ever use the word "cause" to mean anything remotely akin to "an immaterial entity acting outside of space/time to produce new matter/energy out of nothing" and as a sophisticated professor of philosophy, Dr. Craig surely knows this.  Yet, he sees fit to slide this slippery equivocation into his leading argument for the existence of a god, and never bothers to mention the difficulties inherent in doing so. Presumably, he is waiting for his opponent to raise the issue on rebuttal, although (oddly enough) that almost never happens.

This is not logical deduction, this is smooth-talking equivocation of the highest order, the sort that should make even Bill Clinton or Bill Kristol blush.  Freethinkers who encounter this argument from theistic apologists would do well to point this out.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Contra Craig #2 - Universal fine-tuning

I’m going to try to be as charitable as possible on this argument, but it this is how it seems to go:

  1. The universe is such that it allows for the gradual evolution of intelligent life under certain circumstances

  2. It could have turned out any number of other ways, almost all of which would not have allowed for such life

  3. The best explanation for this particular universe is that an intelligent transcendent creator finely-tuned it for life

  4. Therefore, an intelligent transcendent creator of the cosmos exists. QED.

I will admit that such an argument has a certain intuitive appeal, but only the first of its three premises are well-established. The second premise has been cast into serious doubt by professional cosmologists such as Victor Stenger, but it should not take a Ph.D. in physics to see that the third premise is quite problematic in and of itself. To illustrate why, consider an argument about the conditions that prevail on our own planet:

1.  Earth is such that it allowed for the gradual evolution of intelligent life under certain circumstances

2.  It could have turned out any number of other ways, almost all of which would not have allowed for such life

3.  The best explanation for this particular planet is that an intelligent transcendent creator finely-tuned it for life

4.  Therefore, an intelligent transcendent creator of the Earth exists. QED.

When you get to premise three, you should wonder whether other planets exist which might be similarly situated to our own. In the age of Sagan, Asimov and Rodenberry this is not a particularly great stretch of the imagination. Only a few hundred years ago, though, this second argument would have seemed perfectly plausible to W.L. Craig’s philosophical and theological forebears, who forbade the possibility of multiple worlds (sometimes on pain of death) and generally preferred the view that the Earth was uniquely created for humankind.

Suppose we consider only two rival hypotheses (a) metaphysical naturalism and (b) classical theism, excluding other possibilities for the sake of convenience. Given that living being exist (who are just intelligent enough to have thoughtful debates about metaphysics) the crucial question here is which of these hypotheses best explains the fact that the universe allows for the natural evolution and sustainment of intelligent life.

It should be clear that if intelligent minds exist and metaphysical naturalism is true, it is absolutely necessary that the laws of nature are such as to allow for the natural evolution and sustainment of intelligent life. By contrast, if classical theism is true, then minds can exist as souls apart from bodies, and there is therefore no need to posit a natural world which allows for life to emerge and flourish naturally over vast stretches of time and space. If God wants intelligent beings, He may readily create as many angels and demons as he pleases, endow them with free will.  He need never give a thought to the idea of mucking about with matter, much less minds made of meat. There simply is no need for such onerous fine-tuning, if theism is assumed to be true.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Contra Craig #3 - Argument from objective moral values

Here is the argument from morality in laid out deductively:

  1. Objective moral values cannot exist other than in the mind of god
  2. Objective moral values really do exist (and we all know it)
  3. :. God exists. QED.

While the argument is valid in form, it is unsound because neither of its premises have been established. The second premise involves an implicit move from “We can all agree that certain actions are never morally justifiable” to “Moral values therefore exist apart from human minds.” How this move (from inter-subjective consensus to non-subjective reality) may be made is never made clear, it is merely assumed that the first premise implies the second. Perhaps there is a rational argument to be made here, but from what I’ve seen, neither W.L. Craig nor C.S. Lewis (who popularized an earlier form of this argument) have ever bothered to do so. It must be noted here that no amount of dramatic hand-waving about horrific atrocities should be considered an argument in support of premise two, however much it stirs the heart.

The first premise is even more troublesome, as it assumes firstly that objective moral values are a coherent concept, and that they must exist (if at all) in the mind of some sort of transcendent being. Here we run into two objections each of which may be avoided by reading one’s Plato. The first is that you become irreversibly impaled upon one of the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma as soon as you assert that moral truths are objectively true in the same sense as mathematical truths, as Craig does. Such an assertion commits you to the view that morality is non-contingent upon the desires and values of any particular deity, however powerful and transcendent it may be, and thereby implies that Craig first premise is necessarily false. In order for that premise to work, “objective moral values” must mean “whatever moral values are subjectively preferred by god” which is sophistry of the highest order.

The second problem with the first premise is that there is not necessarily a logical contradiction to be had in the concept of moral propositions subsisting in something like the Platonic realm of the forms in which ideas exist independently of minds. Skeptics may object that ideas simply cannot exist apart from minds, but this is an objection rooted in induction from everyday experience, not unlike the observation that minds do not exist apart from brains. Once you start arguing in favor of transcendent, timeless and bodiless minds, you forfeit the ability to object based on our own (material and spatiotemporal) experience of how minds and ideas really work for us down here on Earth.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Contra Craig #4 - Argument from Easter

William Lane Craig makes the same four or five arguments in almost every debate, and yet continually his opponents are usually addled, befuddled, confused, disoriented & exasperated. For the sake of argument, I propose that each one of Craig’s arguments may be easily met with a brief response, a single question which strikes at the root of the fallacy being propounded:

  1. Cosmological argument – “What can the word ‘cause’ be understood to mean when taken out of its usual context within time and space?”

  2. Teleological argument – “Given that life exists, wouldn’t fine-tuning be necessary in order for metaphysical naturalism to be true?”

  3. Moral argument – “Why should we believe that human moral intuitions indicate the existence of anything beyond human beings?”

  4. Historical Jesus argument – “Given the historicity of an empty tomb, would not a natural process of myth-making (incorporating messianic expectation, eschatology, mysticism and syncretism) easily account for all subsequent doctrinal developments?”

  5. Subjective experience argument – “Supposing subjective religious experience is indeed a trustworthy and valid means of theological insight, why has it lead to incredibly divergent sets of mutually exclusive religious doctrine, even among those who lay claim to the spiritual heritage of Abraham?

Every one of these Socratic interrogatives requires a bit of fleshing out and following up, but only the fourth requires any particular expertise with the subject matter. That counterargument requires a more than a bit of study and also suffers from ceding more ground than strictly necessary from the perspective of methodological history, since the empty tomb may well be naught but a Markan literary device. I should note here that Craig himself has conceded the possibility of Matthew inventing quite a few empty graves as a parabolic and eschatological literary device in his narrative (during the recent Hitchens debacle) and it is no huge leap from there to considering the possibility that Mark did something similar in his gospel narrative.

That said, assuming that there really was a tomb which was found empty, there is little reason to suppose that it was the right one. Assuming the gospels are correct on these matters, Jesus was not interred by his own disciples, but rather by a member of the Jewish Council, the whole of which "were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death." Implausible as this might sound on its face, it nonetheless raises the question of how Jesus' female followers could have known the location of the tomb. Presumably, they covertly followed Joseph of Arimathea until he interred the body of their beloved rabbi, as they watched from a distance with tear-filled eyes, their minds clouded by shock and grief. Under such extenuating circumstances, they could have easily failed to find the correct tomb two days later, on Sunday morning.

Suppose, hypothetically and for the sake of argument, that the original episode in the tombs actually went something like this:
And when the Sabbath was past, Mary and Salome brought sweet spices to anoint the body. Very early in the morning, they came among the sepulchers at the rising of the sun. They said to themselves, “Who shall roll away the stone from the sepulchre?” They came to a sepulchre by which a great stone had been laid, stooped and looked into the tomb, but found it empty within. The women came across a young gardener walking amongst the graves and said to him, “They have taken away our rabbi, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The young man said unto them, “He is not in this tomb, behold, the place where the body would be laid.”
Just as in the oldest gospel, in this scenario the women were so absentmindedly grief-stricken as to forget to recruit a few strong men to move the stone, without which their journey would be in vain. Might also have forgotten the proper path to get to the right part of the tombs? It seems perfectly plausible, given their emotional and mental state at the time.

Hypothetically, the women end up at a sepulchre which only resembles the one which they had glimpsed earlier and from afar. While in the area, they have a brief exchange with a strange young man, and then begin the long trek back, exhausted, puzzled, and woebegone. Along the way, they start to reflect upon the significance of the empty tomb, and one of them comes up with the idea of a bodily resurrection as vindication of Jesus' righteousness and his teachings. From there on in, the process of mythical accretion begins in earnest and we end up with the gospel accounts as we have come to know them.

Is this scenario implausible or unlikely? Perhaps it is, at least somewhat, but bear in mind that it is to be compared against the probability of a disembodied mind taking on flesh for the express purpose of undergoing a violent death and thus appeasing its own wrath/bloodlust, facilitating a sacrificial atonement, and thereby fulfilling humanity's dearest wishes of eternal paradise.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Into the lion's den (j/k)

Many heartfelt thanks to Rhology as well as the staff and people of Trinity Baptist for having the hospitality to host a televised debate and (more importantly) a face-to-face dialogue between believers and unbelievers tonight. Hope to see you guys around!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Arguments for and against metaphysical naturalism

A fellow blogger recently wrote “If naturalism is true, there is no reason whatsoever to think that naturalism is true.”  I would argue that if naturalism were true, we should have at least six distinct (albeit interrelated) reasons to believe that naturalism is true.  Indeed, on naturalism we should reasonably expect to observe various things about the world that need not (or perhaps cannot) be true on the premise that the world was created the sort of transcendent being(s) we read about in various sacred writings : 

1.                   Methodological naturalism (science) will work

2.                   Mind/body dualism will lack any empirical confirmation

3.                   Life itself ought to be explicable in terms of natural processes (e.g. evolution)

4.                   Human psychology should be explicable in similar terms  (e.g. sociobiology)

5.                   Divine hiddenness – The existence of any particular deity ought not be obvious

6.                   Gratuitous suffering – Malthusian/Darwinian competition for scarce resources

Of these factors, the last two are the least secure and are limited in value to certain specific deities, namely, those that care about people and hope to have relationships with them.  Deistic deities need not apply, though the gods of classical monotheism (e.g. Abrahamic, Zoroastrian, Bahá’í) may well fit the bill.  The best case that I've read which puts forth these last two arguments was a book by Theodore M. Drange, the essence of which one may find condensed here

As to the fourth argument, I'm unsure I've ever seen it made in defense of metaphysical naturalism, but it seems clear that if the predictions of sociobiology are well confirmed, such evidence should count very much against the idea that the human mind is something more than a natural adaptation used by by selfish genes in an attempt to maximize their long-term efficacy in yet another eukaryotic medium.  For the sake of illustration, take an example from Richard Dawkins first book, in which he calculates the degree of relatedness between parents, siblings, cousins, etc. and predicts that human altruism should be more pronounced between more closely related individuals.  Assuming this prediction has been strongly validated, it is evidence that human desires and behavior may be explained in naturalistic terms rather than by the invocation of mysterious concepts such as, say, a sin-stained soul.

The first three predictions of metaphysical naturalism are so strongly confirmed as to require no further support herein, but I'd be happy to addresses any challenges thereto in the combox.  For now, I'm off to torment the kids.