Friday, October 31, 2008

Logic in philosophy is meaningless without scientific data

When I wrote my book Christian No More, I only occasionally stepped into the realm of philosophy to briefly describe why an idea doesn't work. But for the most part, I stayed away from philosophy. The reason is all too often people resort to wordplay to make a logical conclusion, and then claim it's fact -- when it isn't.

Consider this example:

(a) It's impossible to cover an infinite amount of distance in a finite time.
(b) There is an infinite amount of numbers between any two real numbers. (If you don't buy this, see below where I explain it.)
(c) Therefore, the distance between me and the television across the room makes up an infinite number of steps, and thus I can never reach the TV set no matter how long I walk.

I would hope that most people would agree that that's a bunch of nonsense. But logically it makes sense. How can you cover an infinite number of steps that exist between me and the TV? Yet we seem to do it every time we move so much as an inch or less. And, in fact, I *can* walk to the TV.

The problem here is that I'm using just wordplay disguised as "philosophy" and not bringing in any actual measurable scientific facts and data. And that's the problem I see with a lot of philosophical arguments. People can make all the philosophical arguments they want either for or against the existence of God. But in the end, if there's no correlation to real, live scientific data, then it's meaningless.

For example, one can say that everything must have a cause, and then use this throughout a "first-cause" argument. But that's not even true. In Quantum Mechanics (which we have scientific data to know is real), pure randomness is real. Quantum mechanics tells us that there is a tiny, tiny, tiny possibility that I could suddenly find myself on the other side of a brick wall, having transported instantly for no reason whatsoever. The likelihood of this happening is so low that we probably would have to wait longer than the lifetime of the universe to see it happen, if ever. But at the subatomic level, such strange things happen quite regularly, and this, in fact, is how radioactive decay happens. The particles suddenly move to a place where it seems it would be physically impossible for them to do so as they are projected outside of the atom, resulting in radioactivity. This is measurable, testable fact, not just wild speculation.

In other words, radiation takes place without a prior cause. It just happens. It seems to defy logic. But in the scientific world, especially at tiny levels (quantum mechanics) and huge levels (relativity), things don't always happen the way our minds expect them to. Things seem to defy logic. Yes, we could give a pure logical argument of why Quantum Mechanics isn't real (e.g. "one object can't occupy two spots the same time" -- yet it happens when studying waves; logic fails).

That's why, without any connection to real, live scientific data, the philosophical debates about the existence of God are meaningless. Show me some actual scientific data and I'll listen. But explain to me through just wordplay why God exists or doesn't exist, and I see little reason to listen. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My response to Pascal's Wager

In the past when presented with Pascal's Wager, I've given this argument: Why would somebody consciously "choose" to believe in a God "just in case"? If God is real, wouldn't he see through such a hypocritical belief?

Most people I've talked to -- Christian and atheist and everything in between -- like this response. But today in conversation with a Christian friend of mine, I thought of the following. Here's my new response to Pascal's Wager:

It's a moot point. I live my life as best as I can, donating to charity and helping people simply because I want to, because it's important to help people. Since I don't believe in an eternal reward or eternal punishment, I'm doing these good deeds from my heart, NOT out of some warped desire to impress a deity to earn everlasting salvation. The goodness is in my heart.

In the Bible, Jesus even said that it's important that we have goodness in our heart, that we don't behave hypocritically. (It's late, and tomorrow I can find some exact verses.) So if I'm living a life of goodness from my heart, just as Jesus taught us, then I have nothing to worry about. I don't believe in the Christian God, nor do I believe in Jesus. But in the highly unlikely event that after I die I suddenly wake up and find myself sitting before Jesus for some kind of judgment, then I'm not worried at all. I was a good person and had goodness in my heart.

That's my new response to Pascal's Wager. I don't believe in God, and I'm not worried, because if there is a God, he'll see the good person that I am. (Incidentally, does that mean I'm leaving open the possibility that there's a God? Nope. I don't believe one bit in the Christian God. He's not real. But at least I don't sit around dreading it either way.) Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Atheist's Riddle

There's a guy who claims to have proven that Intelligent Design is real. He makes this claim:

1) DNA is not merely a molecule with a pattern; it is a code, a language, and an information storage mechanism.
2) All codes are created by a conscious mind; there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.
3) Therefore DNA was designed by a mind.

(The whole page is here.)

He then defies anyone to prove his claim wrong by providing an example of a code that is not created by a mind. But this argument is filled with holes and problems. For example, he's making a rather outrageous claim and then demanding that the claim hold unless anyone can prove him wrong. That's not how science works. I've used this argument before: I could claim there is a guy named Frank sitting in the center of Jupiter controlling the universe. Prove me wrong. And until you do so, I DEMAND that you accept my claim as fact. Is that realistic? Of course not. Will all scientists of the world drop to their knees and suddenly believe in Frank? No. Science doesn't work that way.

And speaking of science, this guy's claim has absolutely no basis in science anyway. Even if it were true, what use is it? Does it help scientists solve some problem of technology? Evolution and thermodynamics both help scientist solve problems.

Using Google, I've found several pages that basically dismantle this guy's claims. But here's my take on it.

First, he's making an enormous assumption by defining the word "code" as he sees fit and forcing that definition into the argument. What is a code? Well, that depends on who use ask.

Consider this: What is Hydrogen? It's an element, and the first one in the periodic table. Its atoms consist of a single proton and a single electron. Virtually all scientists agree on what Hydrogen is. (Tomorrow will Hydrogen still have a single proton and a single electron? Yes. Because scientists have created a specific definition: An item that has a single proton and a single electron and no neutrons is called Hydogen. It's a definition, and it doesn't go the other way. Tomorrow Hydrogen won't suddenly consist of two electrons and two protons, because such a thing wouldn't be called Hydrogen.)

But what's a "code"? In order to bring this argument into the realm of science, we better have a solid definition of code. If "code" is a physical means used to transmit information from one mind to another mind, then DNA isn't a code. If it's a physical means of duplicating data, then DNA is a code, but language isn't. See the problem? This guy is using wordplay. He's making up a definition of "code" and then trying to use it in the realm of real science, where his argument doesn't belong.

In fact, he's leaving out the aspect of human observers. It appears that in his definition, a code is simply something that contains information. But does anything contain information? The letter H by itself contains no information. But in the context of a word, it has meaning to you and me, and I can use it to transmit information from my mind to your mind. It's the first letter of Hello. But it's not always used that way. It could be the symbol for Hydrogen. Or it could be a traffic sign showing there's a small connector between two parallel roads. By itself, this "code" has no information. In order to be useful, there must be two parties who agree on the meaning of the code. Otherwise is it even a code? If you find a tribe of people who have never had contact with any other humans, and you hand them a piece of paper that says, "Look out! There's a bear coming!" then certainly such a "code" would not transmit any information at all, since they don't speak English.

Yet this guy seems to equate "code" to the very thing that is being used to transmit my thoughts as I type this blog into your mind as you read the blog. But to make this happen, I'm using many different technologies: I'm using letters and punctuation to form words, sentences, and paragraphs that are part of the English language. Further, beyond the letters and grammar, I'm using careful choices of words to at least make a valiant effort to try to duplicate my thoughts into your brain, but at the same time I'm aware that that's impossible. (You'll hopefully come away with an understanding of what I'm saying, but certainly your thoughts on the subject won't be identical to mine in every possible way.)

Beyond the letters, symbols, words, and paragraphs, there an enormous thing that's helping transmit the information: My computer, your computer, and the huge Internet in between. And on each computer is, presumably, a keyboard and a screen; I'm using a keyboard to get the letters and symbols into the computer; and you're seeing a screen display the letters and symbols. Is that a code? Maybe; maybe not. It depends on how you define code.

But it appears this guy's own personal definition of "code" somehow includes DNA. But DNA has very little in common with the language you and I are using as I map my thoughts into your brain via this blog. DNA, rather, is a means of copying genetic information from one cell to the next and there's not a human mind on either end of it.

And so you can see what's happening here: This guy has chosen the word "code" and has DEMANDED that we accept his postulate that both DNA and written language are both "codes" by this definition. Yet, in fact, DNA and written language are two drastically different items.

Ultimately, though, this guy isn't talking about codes themselves; rather, he's talking about who created the codes. English, if it's a code, was created by many, many people over multiple generations. And it continues to change. Was it created by a single mind? No. And so, we could change his argument into something that I'm sure even he would say is nonsense, yet could be forced onto people by the same dishonest means:

1) DNA is not merely a molecule with a pattern; it is a useful language.
2) All useful languages are created by a large group of people spanning multiple generations.
3) Therefore DNA was designed by a large group of people spanning multiple generations.

In a blog posting, somebody who adheres to this guy's beliefs said that birdsong is a similar language like that spoken between humans. Who created birdsong? The birds? I suppose one could try to make that argument, although biologists would likely disagree, bringing instinct into the picture. But let's humor that and suppose that birdsong was created by the conscious minds of the birds. If that's the case, then are birds capable of creating human language? No. They're limited in their capabilities. So one could make this argument in the same dishonest vain:

1) DNA is a code just as human language and birdsong are.
2) All codes were created by beings just smart enough to create the codes, but not smart enough to create more sophisticated codes.
3) Thus, DNA was created by a God who was only smart enough to create that one code and no other codes.

I'm sure the guy would agree that that's absurd as well.

So let's get right to the real problem: This man's flawed argument is nothing but an assumption. He's inventing definitions and forcing his own mind to see it one way, and trying to force others to see it his way. He has no reason to write it as fact. Instead, the best he could do is write it like this:

1) It seems to me that DNA is not merely a molecule with a pattern; it is a code, a language, and an information storage mechanism.
2) It seems to me that All codes are created by a conscious mind; there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.
3) It seems to me that DNA was therefore designed by a mind.

And that, my friends, is not a very strong argument. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Homeschooling and atheists

Well, my sister is in a bit of a predicament. Her daughter is very advanced -- in 5th grade she's reading at an 8th grade level; she's doing pre-algebra; and is excelling in many other areas as well. My sister recognized that she was being dragged down by the schools, so when her daughter was in 1st grade, my sister pulled her out and began homeschooling her. (My sister is also very intelligent, and certainly capable of teaching her daughter.)

Well, now that a few years has passed, her daughter was really missing the social aspects of school. So they tried re-enrolling her. This worked for about two weeks. The teachers were on her case, not letting her read the advanced books she wanted to read, and refusing to teach her the advanced stuff she was ready for. Basically it was a disaster.

I just found this out last night, and I'm not sure if my sister is pulling her back out or not, but I suspect she will.

What she really needs is to find a group of other homeschoolers who get together so their kids can work together with other kids. This is actually quite common in the homeschooling community.

But there's a problem: The majority of such groups are Christian groups. By and large, the homeschooling community is largely Christian. In fact, it's hard to find materials that aren't of a Christian nature. My sister would tell people she's homeschooling, and people would automatically assume she must be Christian!

At this point, I'm not sure what my sister will do. But I can say that one thing is clear: The homeschooling community is mostly Christian, and it's unfortunate that people who want to raise their children as atheists and freethinkers don't have access to the benefits of combined homeschooling that the Christians do.

If anyone has any suggestions and ideas, I'm all ears!

p.s. I'm adding my blog to Planet Atheism. You should check it out; lots of great blogs there. See the link on the left. Sphere: Related Content