Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Asymptotic Behavior

Rational arguments are generally considered a worthwhile method for discerning truth. In reality, we have a poor grasp on the evidence at hand and are plagued by our imperfect reasoning abilities. Like a child playing with a puzzle, putting some small shape into a hole meant for the larger piece, we'll rejoice: "It fits!" until someone points out our error. It's not just the arguments themselves, but this dialectic that leads to truth. In some ways, it's similar to a damped oscillation: back and forth, but eventually converging on a single value. With an oscillation, we can predict the end state from some initial measurements — can we do that with the dialectic as well? It's wise to understand different sides of an issue, but what if we go a step further and try to understand the interplay between those sides? Does it change things if we think about the entire continuous process instead of the discrete present state?

Consider the argument from first cause, also called the cosmological argument, as allegedly "misunderstood" by critics):

  1. Everything has a cause
  2. ∴ The universe has a cause
  3. ∴ God (the cause of the universe) exists
Some critics will argue with the first premise, citing quantum theory. Others will respond by questioning the nature of "God" (rather than attatcking the argument itself): "Wouldn't God require a creator as well?". Because that idea is unsatisfactory, the argument is restated by the theists:
  1. Everything with a beginning has a cause
  2. The universe has a beginning
  3. ∴ The universe therefore has a cause
  4. ∴ God (the cause of the universe) exists
If we accept 1 by appealing to everyday experience, and 2 based on big bang theory, 3 follows and 4 is trivially true. This would prove the existence of something transcendent (i.e.: separate from this space-time called "the universe"). However, this "God" could be anything from a personal, loving entity to Linde's quantum foam.

This specific argument (which is obviously ridiculously oversimplified and ignorant of any continued debate) I'm not so concerned about — it's the process. Starting with a single argument from the theist, we're left with another argument both theists and naturalists would accept. In general, this seems to be the "process" which a dialectic will follow over time (the behavior of the oscillation): controversial premises are argued away (or clarified), leaving some unintended and impotent conclusion. Perhaps you can only prove trivial things when you have a valid argument and premises both sides agree on? All the interesting claims seem to be reserved for assumption.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Reasons to (dis)Believe

Standpoint.com offers a collection of people's beliefs and justifications. Not surprisingly, there are more atheists citing their rationale than theists. But there's "nothing new under the sun" — the arguments are all pretty standard. I do find it interesting that the top atheistic argument (by frequency, as of this posting) is "All beliefs in the 'supernatural' are human-created mythologies" — a very subtle ad hominem (or, more properly, a genetic fallacy). Attacking the origin of a belief does not prove its negation; a belief may be true in spite of an unsound argument. We should be careful to keep untangled the support for and truthfulness of a claim.

The Weight of Belief

Again from God's Debris:

They say that they believe because pretending to believe is necessary to get the benefits of religion. They tell other people that they believe and they do believer-like things, like praying and reading holy books. But they don’t do the things that a true believer would do, the things a true believer would have to do. If you believe a truck is coming toward you, you will jump out of the way. That is belief in the reality of the truck. If you tell people you fear the truck but do nothing to get out of the way, that is not belief in the truck. Likewise, it is not belief to say God exists and then continue sinning and hoarding your wealth while innocent people die of starvation. When belief does not control your most important decisions, it is not belief in the underlying, it is belief in the usefulness of believing.”
Annie Dillard recounts some similar sentiments in "Teaching a Stone to Talk":
On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.
And this isn't new. It was the same in 1927, when Bertrand Russel first gave his "Why I am not a Christian" lecture:
I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.
As Karl Rahner put it:
The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny him with their lifestyles are what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable.
There's an "apocryphal" story about Rahner as a missionary, living out this ideal:
[...] shipwrecked at sea, who was washed up on shore and taken in by some natives who nursed him back to health. He lived among them for 20 years, the little story says, and during that time he confessed no faith, he sang no hymns, he preached no sermons. But when they were ill, he took care of them. When they were lonely, he was there to talk with them. When they were hungry, he shared food. There was no condition with which he could not identify. And then after he had been there for 20 years other missionaries finally came to the village and began to talk about Jesus. After hearing the stories the natives said to the missionaries, "Come, we will introduce you to the man about whom you have been speaking."
And, of course, Jesus reiterates this in Matthew 19 and the beatitudes:
"Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand--shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

God's Debris

Sometimes it's hard to draw the line between an elegant minimalism and appeal to straw men. An excerpt from God's Debris by Scott Adams:

"So where is free will?" he asked again.
"It must involve the soul." I didn’t have a better answer.
"Soul? Where is the soul located?"
"It’s not located anywhere. It just is."
"Then the soul is not physical in nature, according to you," he said.
"I guess not. Otherwise someone probably would have found physical evidence of it," I said.
"So you believe that the soul, which is not physical, can influence the brain, which is physical?"
"I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but I guess I do believe that."
"Do you believe the soul can influence other physical things, like a car or a watch?"
"No, I think souls only affect brains." I was crawling out on a limb with lead weights strapped to my belt.
"Can your soul influence other people’s brains, or does it know which brain is yours?"

The Ass and the Grasshopper

From Aesop's Fables:

An ass, having heard some Grasshoppers chirping, was highly enchanted; and, desiring to possess the same charms of melody, demanded what sort of food they lived on to give them such beautiful voices. They replied, "The dew." The Ass resolved that he would live only upon dew, and in a short time died of hunger.