« September 2010 | Main | November 2010 »

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Possibility of Evidence for Gods

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThere was a recent post on Pharyngula, prompted by a post on RichardDawkins.net written by Steve Zara. And in the time it's taken me to get this post written, there have been multiple follow ups on this subject:

Let's look at what Zara wrote originally. In that article, he said:

I propose a new strident atheism. No playing the games of theists. No concessions. No talk of evidence that can change minds, when their beliefs are deliberately placed beyond logic, beyond evidence. Let's not get taken in by the fraud of religion. Let's not play their shell-game.

In agreement, Myers wrote this in his first post on the subject:

There is no possibility of evidence to convince us of the existence of a god.

I understand where they're coming from. They're frustrated with the theologian's god, the god that's so vague and nebulous that it might as well not exist, or, as I quoted Zara above, that's beyond logic and evidence.

But I think their position goes too far. To make the blanket statement that Myers did is close minded. While I don't believe that any gods exist, I can imagine a universe where they did, and imagine the types of things that the gods might do. To use an example from the comment thread on Pharyngula, if multiple astronomers somehow received a revelation of exactly when and where a supernova was going to occur (the comment used e-mail as the method of revelation), that would be a good piece of evidence for a god. If people were raised from the dead, or really could walk on water, or any of the points from Ebon Musing's Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists were demonstrated to be true, these would all be good evidence for the divine.

Zara brought up an interesting point, quoting Arthur C. Clarke's famous line, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Even if we had the forms of evidence I listed above, how could we be sure that they were from a god, and not some advanced aliens messing around with us? Or how could we be sure that the responsible entity really was the creator of the universe, and not just some powerful force that came into being after the big bang (a la His Dark Materials or Star Trek V). Even without invoking such god like beings, fulfilled prophecies could just be interpreted as psychic abilities of humans, and some other miracles could be telekinesis, or some other as yet unknown force. This was the direction Myers went in his defense in his follow up posts.

While they're interesting possibities to think about, they're still hypothetical, since nobody has yet seen any real miracles that couldn't be explained with what we already know about the universe. Until someone actually produces an accurate prophecy, there's no need to speculate whether it's a psychic ability of humans, an inspiration from the divine, or aliens beaming signals into our heads. Until we actually hear a voice boom down from the heavens, we don't need to try to figure out if it's Zeus or and Interstellar construction crew. It's a bit pointless trying to come up with explanations for things that haven't happened.

This leads into another point where I have the most sympathy with Myers' and Zara's position. If the types of evidence I listed above had been happening throughout recorded history, that would be one thing. However, considering that there's been no credible evidence for the divine for basically the entire history of human civilization, it would certainly make one question the source if this evidence suddenly began appearing all over the place. Given the choice between 'God thought it was finally time to interact with his creation after 14 billion years of hands off observation', vs. 'a space faring civilization has just now encountered our solar system', the latter seems more likely.

So, in sympathy with Zara and Myers, I can say that no single piece of evidence would instantly convince me that gods exist. There's just too long a history of lack of evidence, and too many alternate explanations for any single phenomenon. However, I won't go so far as to say that I couldn't ever be convinced. Given enough evidence from multiple lines, I would seriously consider the possibility that they were divine in origin. I'm just waiting for somebody to actually show me that evidence.

In anticipation of those people who would simply ask me to read the Gospels for examples of miracles, I'll direct them to a previous blog entry of mine, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else, for a short description of why I don't think the Gospels are reliable. For a bit of a humorous take on other arguments people use for a god's existence that aren't very convincing, take a look at the Hundreds of Proofs of God's Existence on GodlessGeeks.com.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Response to E-mail: Congressional Reform Act of 2010

Politics - Can't We All Just Get Along?I got another e-mail forward that I responded to. This one was a proposed 'Congressional Reform Act'.

As usual, I've interspersed my comments in with quotes from the e-mail.


A friend sent this along to me. I can't think of a reason to disagree.

I am sending this to virtually everybody on my e-mail list and that includes conservatives, liberals, and everybody in between. Even though we disagree on a number of issues, I count all of you as friends. My friend and neighbor wants to promote a "Congressional Reform Act of 2010." It would contain eight provisions, all of which would probably be strongly endorsed by those who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

I know many of you will say "this is impossible." Let me remind you, Congress has the lowest approval rating of any entity in Government. Now is the time when Americans will join together to reform Congress - the entity that represents us.

We need to get a Senator to introduce this bill in the US Senate and a Representative to introduce a similar bill in the US House. These people will become American heroes.

There's not much to respond to in this introduction. I'm not sure the Founding Fathers would necessarily agree with all of these proposed provisions, but I'll get to that below.

Congressional Reform Act of 2010

1. Term Limits.

12 years only, one of the possible options below..

A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

This probably couldn't be implemented by a simple Congressional Act. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton that state imposed term limits were unconstitutional. So, this provision would probably require a Constitutional amendment.
Wikipedia.org - U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton

This also seems like a band aid to fix a more fundamental problem. There already is a system in place to get rid of elected officials that we don't like - the election process itself. The problem is that incumbents have such an advantage, that it's difficult to vote out a bad official. This e-mail is proposing that the solution is to just do away with incumbents. But what if the person really is a good representative for their state? I know that I'm personally a more valuable employee now that I've been working at my job for a few years, and I'd imagine it's the same for politicians. Think about all the experience they acquire, and all the connections they make that allow them to do their job better. A different solution to this fundamental problem would be to try to level the playing field in elections, so that incumbents don't have such an undue advantage, and then let the election process work the way it's supposed to.

The idea in this e-mail is also a bit anti-Democratic. Consider what Justice Stevens wrote in the case mentioned above, "Finally, state-imposed restrictions, unlike the congressionally imposed restrictions at issue in Powell, violate a third idea central to this basic principle: that the right to choose representatives belongs not to the States, but to the people."

2. No Tenure / No Pension.

A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

I'm not sure what the e-mail means by tenure. Politicians aren't guaranteed their positions for life. They have to continually win re-elections.

As far as pensions, I'm not really sure what the problem is with an employer providing a pension plan. Lots of businesses do it. It's how my own grandfather supported himself and my grandmother after he retired. Why should federal employees be forced to come up with individual retirement plans? This also overlaps a bit with Point 4 below, so I'll say a bit more there, as well as at the end of this response.

3. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people.

I'm not sure I follow this point. Congress members already participate in Social Security. That's been the law since 1984 - 26 years ago. It seems a bit silly for a 'Reform Act' to specify continuation of the status quo. (I also wonder how the author of this e-mail intends to go back in time to force congress members from the 'past' to participate in Social Security.)
FactCheck.org - Do members of Congress pay Social Security taxes?

4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

Congress doesn't have their own 'Congressional Retirement Plan'. They participate in the Civil Service Retirement System, which is open to all federal employees. Like most retirement plans, they contribute a part from their salary, and their employer (the government) contributes a part.
Senate.gov - Congressional Research Service Repoert: Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress (pdf)

And like I already said, many employers provide retirement or pension plans for their employees, so I don't see why it's a problem when the government does it.

5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

I'm not sure I follow the first sentence in this point. Congress doesn't vote themselves pay raises. Since 1989, the raises have been calculated based on cost of living, and the raises have been applied automatically. In fact, a couple times since that law was passed, Congress has voted to suspend their cost of living raise for that year. Maybe whoever wrote this e-mail wants to propose a different method of calculating the cost of living increase, but that doesn't seem like a very grandiose reform – more of a refinement.
Congress.org - How Congress sets its own pay (note this is .org, not .gov)

6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

Just like with their retirement plan, there's no special health care system just for Congress or the Senate. They participate in the same health care plan as other federal employees. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is with an employer providing a health care plan.
FoxNews.com - Myths About Congress Exposed

If the author of this e-mail wants the federal health care plan to be available to everybody, that would be a much bigger proposition than simply reforming Congress. It would also be difficult to get such a proposal past all the people who would immediately call such a plan socialist.

7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

This is another point that doesn't make much sense. Congress members already do have to follow the law. Why would a ‘Reform Act’ specify that people keep doing what they’ve been doing?

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/11.

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves.

I'm not sure what this even means. What types of contracts? Any contract? Their mortgages and car loans? The author of this e-mail would have to explain just what types of contracts they're referring to before this point could be evaluated.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, serve your term(s), then go home and back to work. If you agree with the above, pass it on. If not, just delete.

I'm not sure that's what the Founding Fathers envisioned. James Madison, for example, was Secretary of State for 8 years, followed by another 8 years as president, not to mention everything he did during the founding of the nation. Thomas Jefferson, after being involved in the Revolution, served as a state legislator in the Virginia House of Delegates for 3 years, before becoming governor of Virginia for 2 years, followed by a year in the Congress of the Confederation, after which he was elected a minister plenipotentiary, then served 4 years as Minister to France, followed by 3 years as Secretary of State. After a short 3 year break from politics, he was vice president for 4 years, and then president for 8.

And those were literally the first two founders I happened to look up. If they didn't intend for people to make careers out of politics, it must have been in a 'do as I say, not as I do' sort of way.
Wikipedia.org - James Madison
Wikipedia.org - Thomas Jefferson

This 'citizen legislators' point also seems to run counter to points 2 and 4 from this proposal. Assuming a politician serves at least 12 years (the term limit set in this proposal), that's still a significant chunk of an adult's working life - around a quarter. If we want these positions to attract the best and brightest (as I'm hoping most people do), we have to make the compensation worth their while. I'm not saying that people should get rich off of being elected officials, but it at least needs to be enough to support them in a comfortable lifestyle, while providing for their future. Otherwise, there just wouldn't be any incentive for the talented among the middle class, and the only people who would run for office would be those who are rich enough that the salary doesn't matter, or those who are poor enough that they'd have nothing to lose. For that reason, I don't have a problem with elected representatives getting a decent salary and decent benefits.

After reviewing this, it doesn't really seem like a serious proposal for a new law. One of the points is unrealistic for what can be accomplished by regular laws (term limits), two of the points didn't make sense (tenure & contracts), several of the points wouldn't actually change anything (Social Security, pay raises, obeying the law), and the remainder are simply taking away the job benefits of politicians (health insurance & retirement). And just for good measure, the e-mail threw in a couple questionable references to the Founding Fathers.

I know everybody likes to complain about politicians, myself included, but I don't think we'll improve anything by making the job so unattractive that nobody wants to do it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

XKCD Takes on the Wing Myth

XKCD finally did a comic relevant to my degree (it's usually computers or physics):


For a good explanation, check out my page, Introduction to Flight. If you're really interested in aviation, I have a whole section on Aviation Theory.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Day

Portrait of Columbus from the painting,  Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo FernándezToday is Columbus Day. I wrote an entry on this a few years ago, that I figured I'd link back to today:
Debunking a Columbus Myth

I discussed the widely held belief that Columbus proved the world was round. I'm sure the Greek geographer Eratosthenes would have something to say about that.

I don't mind so much the claim that Columbus discovered America. Sure, the Vikings beat him to it, and he himself might not have known he'd found a new continent, but it was his voyages that sparked the European exploration of the New World.

For anyone like myself, who's interested in the Pre-Columbian history of the Americas, and wonders why the Europeans were able to conquer the native American empires, Jared Diamond's Gun, Germs, and Steel is a very interesting book to read on the subject.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Response to E-mail: Respected Columnist Cal Thomas Endorses Dr. Jeffress' Comments [on Islam]

ReligionI received an e-mail forward the other day. It was a reprint of an article by Cal Thomas. The article and video were the typical anti-muslim bigotry that has become common. I wrote a reply, which I've adapted for this entry.

Thomas's article was short enough, that I'll quote it here in its entirety.

September 13, 2010

There is a lot of talk about Islam from our government officials, to apologists for terrorists, to the dupes who think it's great to build the Ground Zero mosque, to those who promote Islam as a "religion of peace."

The best rejoinder to all of this are comments by Dr. Robert Jeffress, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. In a recent interview, Dr. Jeffress spoke the truth about Islam and what he called its "35 sword verses."

I have no seen anything as good as this. Dr. Jeffress synthesizes in less than six minutes what we face and the arguments thrown up at Christians about our supposed violent past.

I encourage you to watch it. You'll find it at youtube.com. Just type Dr. Robert Jeffress in the search box. And then pass it along to everyone on your email list.

Dr. Jeffress talks about the Crusades and he is unafraid to say what Islam is all about and where it leads. Again, go to youtube.com and watch this video of Dr. Robert Jeffress. You will be very glad you did.

I'm Cal Thomas in Washington.

The video Thomas was referring to was this one, Dr. Jeffress Tells The Truth About Islam

Okay, there are two things to address from this – Thomas's comments in his opening paragraph, and Jeffress's comments from the YouTube video.

Since it's shorter, I'll start with Thomas. First of all, who are these political figures who are apologists for the terrorists? The past two presidents and Congress for the past several years have continually funded the war in Afghanistan, and actually initiated a troop surge since Obama took office. I hope that with 'apologists', he's not referring to the people who try to understand the underlying motivation of the terrorists, since they're doing it so that we can better counter the forces that create terrorists.

On the 'Ground Zero mosque', I can't believe there are people so opposed to the First Amendment that they would even consider disallowing a place of worship. That's outright religious discrimination, and is a reason many of the original colonists left oppressive governments in Europe to begin with. Or do those people think the First Amendment only applies to their brand of religion?

Thomas's comment on Islam as a religion of peace blends well with the discussion below, so I'll address it there.

Jeffress made a few specific claims that I wanted to discuss. First, Jeffress did mention the Crusades, but then he slightly shifted the subject to say that many of the bad things done by Christians have been overblown, using the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials as examples. But if you're going to talk about horrendous acts done in the name of Christianity, it's very hard to ignore what still remains to many people the very epitome of evil, the Holocaust. I'm not saying that Christianity necessarily caused the Holocaust, but that it was used as a justification, and that many Germans, through their interpretation of the religion, believed they were carrying out God's will. Consider this line from Mein Kampf, which Hitler later used in a 1938 speech, "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews. I am doing the Lord's work", or this line from a 1922 speech, "In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison." The actual religious views of Hitler himself are unclear, but it is clear that he was using Christianity to motivate the German people to commit atrocities (for more info on Hitler's stance towards Christianity: Straight Dope discussion on Hitler and Christianity or Extensive list of religious quotes of Hitler).

For a modern-day example, look at what's going on in Africa right now – Children Are Targets of Nigerian Witch Hunt. Evangelical Christian pastors, in addition to performing exorcisms, are accusing people, and often times children, of witchcraft. The accused are often beaten, or worse, killed.

There are two points to the above two paragraphs. First, any religion can be used to justify violent actions. Second, and more importantly, when one group acts in the name of a certain religion, you can't assume that other people of that religion share their views. We don't blame all of Christianity for the Holocaust. We rightly blame the Nazis. Similarly, we shouldn't blame all Muslims for the acts of al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Jeffress also made a claim that there's no call for violence in the New Testament. This depends on your interpretation. For every person who quotes Matthew 5:39, "But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also," someone else will quote Matthew 10:34, "Don't imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword" (Luke 19:27 is another of the passages that can be interpreted violently). There's also the way Jeffress is splitting hairs by focusing on the New Testament. After all, Matthew 5:17-18 says, "Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved." Many people interpret that as meaning that Old Testament laws still apply. And a skim through those books reveals a very violent set of rules, indeed. As just one example, consider Leviticus 24:15-16, which also shows that some rules were applicable to those outside the Jewish faith, "Say to the people of Israel: Those who curse their God will be punished for their sin. Anyone who blasphemes the Name of the Lord must be stoned to death by the whole community of Israel. Any native-born Israelite or foreigner among you who blasphemes the Name of the Lord must be put to death." For discussion of Christians who really do want to re-institute Old Testament laws, read the following articles:

So, while Jeffress's interpretation of Christianity may be nonviolent, not all Christians interpret it that way. This is the same situation in Islam, and is why some can consider it a religion of peace, while others can use it as a justification to fly a jetliner into the World Trade Center. Considering how many different ways the scriptures of religions can be interpreted, what's more important is the way people practice the religion.

There were a couple other points Jeffress made that I wanted to discuss, but this response is growing pretty long, and I'd rather not inundate you with so much information that you won't read it. So, I'm just going to give links to further sources, if you're interested.

On the subject of oppression of women:

On the subject of religiously condoned pedophilia:

In all this discussion, it would be easy for a Christian to fall into the ‘No True Scotsman' fallacy. I could imagine that Jeffress might say that the Christians who have done the horrible acts I've mentioned above are interpreting the religion incorrectly, and might go so far as to say that they're not true Christians. But who gets to make that call. Catholics, for example, may say that Jeffress is the one misinterpreting Christianity. If a person honestly believes they're following a given religion, then what other term should we use to classify them? And I'm sure there are moderate Muslims who would like to use this same tactic – saying that the Islamic terrorists aren't true Muslims.

My point in all this is most definitely not to defend terrorists, or to say that Muslims never do bad things (the reaction to the Danish cartoons is certainly a good example of widespread bad behavior by more people than just terrorists), but to put this into perspective. There is diversity in the practices of Muslims just as there is in the practices of Christians. You can find good and bad people in both religions. Some of the worst actions we see coming from Muslims are similar to some of the worst actions we see coming from Christians. But, since the majority of people in this country are Christians, they haven't been demonized in the same way Muslims have. But it's no more right to tar all Muslims because of the actions of extremists than it would be to tar all Christians because of the actions of extremists.

This isn't directly related to Tomas's or Jeffress's comments, so I'm adding it as an addendum. I think that focusing on Islamic terrorism removes focus from other terrorist threats. When you look at the terrorist attacks in the U.S. last year, only one was carried out by a Muslim (although it was the deadliest attack of the year). And in fact, many people argue that this was more the act of an individual than organized terrorism, as are some of the other cases I listed.

Here are some of the terrorist acts on U.S. soil that I found with just a little bit of googling. I don't expect that this list is exhaustive. And that's only last year - I've left out domestic terrorism or attempted terrorism from previous years.

There were also a few acts of vandalism that border on terrorism. These examples are all from the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

  • September 6, 2009 - property damage only - ALF Vandalization of Car
  • February 2, 2009 - property damage only - H.A.A.N.D. Vandalization of 2 Homes
  • January 19, 2009 - Hackers Against Oppression Attack on Websites

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for September 2010

Top 10 ListI've gone through the server logs for Semptember, and compiled the top 10 list for that month. Nothing new - every page on the list had made it on the top 10 list at least once previously. That could be an indication that my blog entries for August and September maybe weren't as good as they could have been. Seeming to counter that, though, is the fact that my total traffic was up higher than it has ever been (by about 15%), but that could also be due to increased spam comments.

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - Response to Anti-Liberal Article by Gary Hubbell
  5. Programming
  6. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  7. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  8. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  9. Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency
  10. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64

Friday, October 1, 2010

Weak Arguments for a God

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismWell, I've been too busy this week to come up with much on my own for a blog entry. But, I've been following an interesting comment thread over at Larry Moran's Sandwalk, A Challenge to Theists and their Accommodationist Supporters. Here's the meat of Moran's post:

I challenge all theists and all their accommodationist friends to post their very best 21st century, sophisticated (or not), arguments for the existence of God. They can put them in the comments section of this posting, or on any of the other atheist blogs, or on their own blogs and websites. Just send me the link. ...

Let's stop the whining about how "know-nothing" atheists are ignoring the very best arguments for the existence of God. Come on, all you theists and accommodationists, put your money where your mouth is. Give us something of substance instead of hiding behind The Courtier's Reply. Let's see the angels.

What follows is, at this point, nearly 450 comments worth of debate, and likely to keep on increasing. If you're already familiar with debating religion, the comments are about what you'd expect - one guy quoting scripture, a couple creationists, and a lot of sophistry. Actually, one comment does a good job of summarizing the majority of the arguments presented.

Martin said...

Um, why ask people on the internet for something like this? Turn to real peer-reviewed theology if you're genuinely interested in hearing the best theistic arguments.

A few off the top of my head:

1. Kalam cosmological argument
2. Argument from contingency
3. Plantinga's modal ontological argument
4. Maydole's modal perfection ontological argument
5. Fine-tuning arguments
6. Argument from reason
7. Evolutionary argument against naturalism
8. Moral arguments
9. prosblogion.ektopos.com is loaded with arguments

Not all theists are idiotic creationists from Nebraska.

Of course, the other commenters dealt with those arguments, since they're old arguments or variants of old arguments that we've heard time and again. Really, the thread hasn't presented anything new.

There was one comment that I found particularly amusing for its cluelessness:

"Let's make this easy. Define 'evidence' any way you want to. Any way at all. Give one piece of evidence that the Christian God exists. I'm not asking for proof, just for one piece of evidence. Pick the piece of evidence that you think is the *most* compelling."

Uh-uh. I know how this goes. First, I don't find the evidence compelling, but it would take masses of epistemology that you don't have the patience for to get you to understand why that doesn't impact, to me, belief. Second, I could list the standard things that we do consider at least weak evidence for things -- ancient stories like the Bible, personal experiences -- and you'd just retreat to "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and ignore it.

So, in a comment thread that specifically asked for the best arguments for a god, one of the commenters is flat out refusing to provide evidence.

Anyway, if you're one of the people who knows me personally, and you read this blog because you're interested in what I usually write about, consider the above link a portal into the raucous world of Internet religious discussions. A browse through the comments is very interesting.

To everyone else, I'll try to post something better next week.

Let me just add that I don't think all the arguments from the atheist side are necessarily sound, either. While a lot of them are pretty good, some are less than stellar. In particular, I think many people are missing the point when they say quantum mechanics predicts something coming from nothing. Quantum mechanics still operates within our universe. Still, even if there were an external first cause to our universe, there's no reason to jump from that to assuming that the first cause had consciousness, intent, or any of the other properties typically associated with gods.

« September 2010 | Main | November 2010 »