The Last Argument Standing

I have looked at most of the arguments for the existence of god and I find most of them weak, sometimes even laughable.  The biggest problem with most of them is that, at most even a successful argument allows for the existence of a deistic type god, but getting from there to something like a Christian is actually quite a long haul.  For example, the Kalam argument by William Lane Craig is thought to be fairly robust, but falls well short of proving that the creator of the universe is in fact the god of the bible.  Or that such a creator even knows we are here.  Craig uses the term “personal creator” but I think this is more of a linguistic trick than a valid premise.  The creator may have to be “personal” in that it has some kind of free will, but that does not mean it “personally” created everything in the universe, like you and me.

I can easily concede that the universe has a superhuman or even supernatural creator, but it does not follow in the least that such a being has the attributes that we give to “god.”  The creator does not necessarily have to have all the omni characteristics to create the universe.  It does not have to care about us.  The universe could be a giant experiment of some kind that we are accidental artifacts of.

Unfortunately for theists, pretty much the only argument for the existence of a “god,” while compelling (with one weakness, which I will get to) in a logical sense does not provide the kind of comfort they are generally looking for.  The question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  is the one that is problematic for atheists.  Unfortunately the answer “god” to that question provides cold comfort the the theist.

We can map how we can get from the Big Bang to today, so it is entirely possible that the “creator” simply set off the Big Bang.  Or maybe hundreds of them, or billions, who could know?  So, “created universe” does not equal “Bible true.”  Even “earth created” does not equal “Bible True.”  And unfortunately the Kalam argument contains the seed of it’s logical doom.

Sometimes the first premise of the argument is “everything must have a cause.”   This obviously leads to an infinite regress which leads nowhere.  Other times “god” is defined as “the uncaused cause,” which is obviously begging the question.  Either way, postulating a creator just raises the question, “Where did THAT come from?”  And still leaves the question,  “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  If god is the uncaused cause, why does god bother existing?

And then, along comes Ockham’s razor to take a few giant hunks out of the last argument standing.  Postulating a god to explain why anything exists simply kicks the can down the road to ask why god exists.  Which is more economical to presume, that the universe simply popped into existence due to some kind of quantum fluctuation or that some kind of pre-existing, powerful, intelligent thing got bored and popped everything into existence.  Obviously the former rather than the latter.

Now, the most economical explanation is not always the correct one, so Ockham doesn’t definitively rule out some kind of creator, but it does raise the standard of proof quite a bit.  And then there is the long, long road from “creator” to all knowing, all loving god.

There is certainly plenty of room for an explanation of the creation of the universe that involves something far beyond human understanding at this time.  But this gap in our knowledge does not presuppose anything like our usual deities that personally have some hand in creating each of us and personally cares what we do with our tallywhackers or honey pots.

A Nice Figgy Pudding, But No Proof

IN my last post I said that I would take up the cudgel and respond to someone who says, “Prove to me that god does not exist!”  Now, psychologically, I know I cannot do that for pretty much anyone who would say that to me.  We know that changing beliefs is a very tough row to hoe.  But I am willing to take up the challenge.

I will also say that the amount of “disproof” depends on the claims that are being made.  I don’t think, for example, it would be possible to disprove Thomas Paine’s deist god.  The claim that the universe was somehow supernaturally kicked off is impossible to disprove.  And Paine does not claim much else for his god, no interactions with history, no miracles, etc.  You can say that such a god is “not necessary to the hypothesis,” but you could never disprove it.

I think there is a better chance of disproving the general conception of the Christian god, all knowing, all powerful, all loving, etc.  There are plenty of claims being made here, claims which intersect with our natural world, so we can examine the evidence for those claims.

With that, here are a few ideas for answering the “prove me wrong,” challenge as it relates to god.

The first piece of evidence against the proposition, is the need for the proposition itself.  Even very devout believers (Anselm, Aquinas) have felt it necessary to provide “proof” of god’s existence.  Obviously the existence of god is not self evident, apparently even to those who claim to believe.  This seems to contradict all the “omnis” which we lavish on god.  Surely if we were his favorite creatures he would show himself more clearly.  And I do not buy the free will rebuttal to this argument.  Even if god presented himself more clearly, people could still choose not to believe or interact with him.  People don’t believe in all kinds of things for which there is more than adequate evidence.  I think an multi-omni god is incompatible with a god who hides, therefore no multi-omni god.

A second argument is similar.  Surely if a multi-omni god cared about mankind, his message to us would have been clearer.  The existence of so many religions is definitely a problem.  How could his message get so garbled?  Yes, man is imperfect, but surely a multi-omni god could make himself clear.  Even the story of the Tower of Babel speaks against such a god.  Surely he would want a way to communicate with all his beloved subjects, and a common language would have facilitated that, but no go.  If Jesus was his representative on earth, why didn’t Jesus write his own book?  With everyone speaking of god in so many different ways, then there is no multi-omni god to be speaking for.  The counter argument that god is so far beyond human comprehension that these different views are like the proverbial elephant of the blind men is a non-starter.  The understandings of god are so inconsistent and contradictory that an omni god who cared would seek to correct them.  He goes to the trouble to create the universe just for us, then allows only a tiny percentage of people to understand him correctly?  That does not seem very omni god like to me.

The argument from design is a lousy argument for the existence of god and also a pretty poor one against his existence, but so many people hold to this one, that I feel it needs to be mentioned.   Some people want to say that creation is perfect, therefore god.   If it were not for confirmation bias, no one would take this argument seriously.   The list of imperfections in creation is pretty much endless and if man is created in the “image” of god, that pretty much ends any argument for an omni god.  But the imperfections of creation do lead to the last argument.  The Problem of Evil.

Theists often cite “free will” as an answer to the Problem of Evil, but it is not that simple.  First there is the problem of “natural evil,” bone cancer and the like, but natural evil is not really a strong argument against the omni god.  As many have pointed out, such things could be part of some grander plan.  Personally, I don’t buy that, but I will concede the point, as it could also be argued that such unpleasant things are not actually “evil.”  But even with that, the Problem of Evil remains.

Evil and malice clearly exist in the human species and this can is usually kicked back down the road to “The Fall.”  But clearly, evil did not enter the world after the fall, it was pre-existing.  Eve could not have been tempted unless she was “temptable.”  So, the capacity for disobedience, was pre-existing before the fall.  Yes, I know, this is where “free will” comes in.  But that is not a fully satisfactory answer.  The fact is, we had a pre-existing capacity for evil, and where does that come from?

To begin to answer that question, we have to kick the can even further back up the road to the  first fall.  Here I am referring to the fall of the angel Lucifer.  Now, some theists argue that the devil does not literally exist, but most churches say he does, especially the Catholic church.  As the story goes, Lucifer got it into his head to lead a rebellion against god.  Let’s think about this for a moment, an angel, who god presumably created, looked god in the face and said, “screw you, I’m taking over!”  Surely the angels would have realized the fruitlessness of rebelling against an all powerful god, but they were not deterred.  Did they know he was not all powerful?  Maybe they did!

Again, you can invoke free will (or sheer stupidity), but it also points to evil pre-existing in Lucifer.  And maybe pre-existing stupidity.  And where did all that come from?  I think you could create creatures with free will that are neither evil nor stupid.

After the rebellion, does god destroy Lucifer?  No.  Why not?  Even Bill Cosby’s father supposedly said, “I brought you into this world. I’ll take you out.”  Apparently god could not (or would not) destroy Lucifer, therefore he is probably not omnipotent.  And since the capacity for evil exists in all of god’s creations, there for he himself is not omnibenevolent.  Somewhere deep in his heart, god has evil (which explains much of his behavior in the old testament.)

There may be a god, but it cannot be the Christian god as we normally conceive him.

And with one final logical nail for the coffin, (thanks to a preacher I heard yesterday) we can bury the Christian omni-god and his son as well.

The preacher pointed out how wonderful it was that Jesus asked for forgiveness for his killers.  And yes, it is true they were mere pawns in god’s game therefore blameless.  But it then follows that if god can forgive his own killers, certainly he could have forgiven a couple of clueless teenagers for crunching an apple.  If Jesus could ask for forgiveness for those Roman soldiers, then why not beg for the same forgiveness for Adam and Eve?  “Aww, c’mon dad, they are just kids, give them a break!”  And here I don’t buy the “perfect justice” argument.  What kind of justice is it for sin to pass down thousands of generations?  But also, why should god demand recompense for this infraction?  Was god hurt?  How can an all powerful god be hurt?  If he is not hurt in anyway, why demand atonement?  Real justice in this case would have been to hold them personally accountable in some way, and then fully forgive them.  If god’s feelings were hurt so much that he needed a blood sacrifice to appease his “wounds” from this sin, then he certainly is not an omni-god.

Also, when it was time for the flood, why not drown everyone and start over?  And don’t give me the “Noah was the only righteous person.”  Surely many innocent children were drowned.   Why not drown the last eight and try again?  Surely it would have been better to drown the last few tainted human beings than to bring billions more into the world, most of whom will apparently end up in hell.  What kind of benevolence is that?  Does his inherent evil make it impossible to create people without the capacity for evil?

By the evidence that Christianity presents, the multi-omni god cannot exist.  A deist god may exist.  A malevolent god may exist.  But an all powerful, all knowing, all loving god is not out there anywhere, at least as attested to by Christianity.

The Burden of Proof

I am moderately a fan of the Armoured Skeptic.  I definitely like what he says and how he says it, but I don’t know if I am a fan of giving religious fanatics a further platform for their extreme views.  But one of his recent videos, though in my view overly long, was interesting because the person he was dueling with kept bringing up the idea of “proof” and the discussion centered around where the burden of proof lies.

Mr. Skeptic (as the New York Times might refer to him) pointed out numerous times that theists are the one making a positive assertion and therefore have the burden of proof.  The maker of the theist videos says he continually asks atheists, “Can you prove god does not exist?”  To which Mr. Skeptic continually reiterated, “You have the burden of proof to show that he does!”  Which is true as far as it goes.  But there is much more going on here, that I feel Mr. Skeptic missed in his video rebuttal.

The first problem we have here is that neither side (at least in this case) is asking, “What is acceptable proof” for the holder of the opposite view?  The theist in this case offers the wonders of the world as “proof” which TAS does not (correctly in my view) accept.  But what “proof” would it take to prove without a doubt that there is a god?  But before we get to that, we have to see what the theist is actually claiming.

Christianity actually makes a whole series of claims, but they usually make them in one sentence that has to be unpacked.  The claim is something like this: “God created the universe and especially the earth and then sent his son to save us.”  Of course there is often much more than that, but even this needs to be unpacked.

Because this is presented as one claim (when it is actually a chain of reasoning) they often commit the logical error of using evidence for one part of the chain to prove the whole chain.

For example, creationists will argue that evidence for a created earth also proves the end of the chain, that is to say “Jesus saved us.”  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The universe could be created (in some way) and the bible still could be the  made up stories of a couple of thousand years ago.  It could be that the universe is uncreated, but some alien race (or god) created the earth and seeded it with life.

So, when a theist creationist to say that god created the universe (and or the earth) the more interesting response is not “Did not!” but rather, “Interesting, and what does that prove?”

A created universe (if such a thing could be proved) does not in any way the entirety of the Christian claim.  For example, of course, Jews can believe that Genesis (the book, not the band) is 100 percent literally accurate, but also believe that the new testament is just misguided quote mining of their scripture.

An early bishop of the Christian movement, Marcion, believed another scenario that could also follow from a created earth or universe.  Marcion believed that Yaweh  was a petty and even evil god who created the earth, defectively at that.  Jesus was sent by the actual creator of the universe, a benevolent being who wanted save the world from Yaweh.  Marcion was denounced as a heretic, but apparently it took Tertullian five books to show why Marcion was wrong.   A philosopher said recently that the evidence looked to him that if the world was created, it was created by a being who was 80 percent effective and 80 percent malevolent.  There are, of course literally millions of other scenarios.

And even if I were to look around me and conclude that, by golly, the universe (or the earth) must have been created, there is still a long way to go before you can prove that the bible describes that same creator.  And using the bible to prove the bible is, of course, simply begging the question.  To be able to use the bible in your proof, first you need to prove that it reflects the thoughts of the actual creator god, not just the philosophical and political ramblings of a iron age tribe.

So, the burden of proof on a Christian theist is quite high, especially when they say they want to give this proof according to the rules of science.

Steven J. Gould wrote a book that said that science and religion were “non-overlapping magisteria.”  Which can be true.   But this is only true to the extent that there is no claim of god (or other religious constructs) interacting with the world.  Science is a way of investigating how the world works, it is a method, not a collection of beliefs.  As soon as religion says that something happened in the world, we can use the rules of science to investigate it.  But following the rules of science means following the data all the way to its conclusion, no matter where the data leads, even to the “no god” conclusion.

Using science inappropriately weakens the proof, not strengthens it.  I found this little gem in a document promising “undeniable proof of god’s existence:”

“Many evolutionists have tried to argue that humans are 99% similar chemically to apes and blood precipitation tests do indicate that the chimpanzee is people’s closest relative. Yet regarding this we must observe the following: ‘Milk chemistry indicates that the donkey is man’s closest relative.’ ‘Cholesterol level tests indicate that the garter snake is man’s closest relative.’ ‘Tear enzyme chemistry indicates that the chicken is man’s closest relative.’ ‘On the basis of another type of blood chemistry test, the butter bean is man’s closest relative’” (Morris, Henry M., The Twilight of Evolution, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967).

The author of the pamphlet is was contained  in says that it somehow debunks evolution.  Even in it’s “wrongness” it actually shows evolution at work.  Because what it does say is that biochemistry is the same across many living things (we share the same neurons and neurotransmitters with insects).  Similar biochemistry argues for common ancestry.  But ultimately, if we want to determine the father of a child, we don’t compare blood chemistry, or tears or sweat, we compare DNA.  And on that the data is clear, humans are much more closely related to chimps than horses or butter beans.  So, sorry, Henry Morris, evolution is upheld by the DNA evidence, and your evidence is just nonsensical.

Which is why, many of us are not convinced by evidence that is put forth for creation, god, and Jesus.  It is pretty weak evidence indeed.  But just to help out the rest of you fellow atheists who may be asked to prove the non existence of god, I will take a shot at that next time.

A Creationist Moment

One argument from theists that always grates on my ears is that of the “perfection of creation.”  “Just look around” they say, “Everything is beautiful and perfect, it must have been created by a loving god for us.”  Which is a nice sentiment, and there is much beauty and order in the world, but there is much more as well.  Here is an example.

Everyone likes zebras, right?  And this creation moment tells us that zebras are in fact white with black stripes.  Well actually they are reading from real science reports that say that.   And further, wasn’t it wonderful of the creator to give those cute zebras stripes to avoid the bites of the nasty flies, especially tsetse flies.  Thank you creator!  All praise the creator!

But wait a second, what about those tsetse flies?  Weren’t they also created in this scenario?

The tsetse fly is famous for carrying sleeping sickness, which in 2010 killed some 9,000 people.  This is quite an improvement over 20 years earlier when 30,000 were killed by the disease.  Why didn’t the creator make us with stripes?  The disease also affects livestock, with some breeds of cattle being resistant, but others susceptible to the disease.  Why did the creator not make all cattle resistant to the disease?

Scientists have sequenced the DNA of the tsetse fly, but I don’t think you will be hearing a creation moment on this.

The genome of the fly reveals that it can only digest blood, it has no enzymes to digest sugar or any other food source.  In other words it was “created” as an obligate vampire.  Blood and blood alone!  But even for flies, blood lacks some vital nutrients, but don’t worry, the creator has provided.  According to National Geographic, “The fly makes up for nutritional deficiencies by playing host to a variety of symbiotic bacteria that synthesize some of the vitamins its blood-only diet lacks.”  Thank you creator for making the bacteria that allow the tsetse fly to live!  And kill thousands of people each year.  And the livestock they depend on.

In an surreal bit of evolution, the fly, which depends on mammalian blood has an oddly mammalian life cycle, scientists say.  Unlike mosquitoes which lay hundreds or thousands of eggs, most of which never develop to bite anything, tsetse flies nurture one young at a time, even feeding their young milk!

“Tsetse biology is just freaky,” said Leslie B. Vosshall, an insect neurobiologist at Rockefeller University. “This is an insect that breast-feeds its children.”

This from the New York Times:

While most flies lay hundreds of eggs in rotting fruit or carcasses, a tsetse mother gives birth to a single larva that weighs as much as she does.

Inside her uterus, it nurses on a milk gland, drinking proteins that do what different but similar proteins in human breast milk do, including blending fats with water, passing on hormones and making iron digestible.

“It’s an example of convergent evolution,” said Geoffrey Attardo, another Yale team leader and a co-author of the study, which was published Thursday by Science along with 11 companion papers in several PLOS journals.

At birth, the larva, resembling a squirming sack of milk, wriggles beneath the soil and spends up to a month there before hatching as a hungry adult.

“Other insects produce many progeny and hope a few survive,” Dr. Aksoy said. “With tsetse, the hatch rate is nearly 100 percent.”

You would think creationists would be jumping all over this.  The fly that feeds on mammals lives like a mammal.  Only an intelligent designer would have come up with that one!

Well, actually, I presume that you won’t be hearing about the tsetse fly in a creation moment anytime soon.  I will be pandas and otters and giraffes and other cute animals that make you think the creator is all warm and fuzzy.

The Proof is in the Pudding

One of the interesting things I find about about people is the wonderful way that they can contradict themselves, seemingly without noticing.  In religion this is seen all the time.  One example that arises time and time again is Christians who offer “proof” of this or that tenant of the religion, even though “faith” saves them and “faith” is belief without proof.

So it was that on Easter Monday, Drew Hystriani of Relevant Radio was offering “proofs” of the resurrection.  Here is a printed list of similar proofs, so that you don’t have to listen to him.

Unfortunately, none of the “proofs” either by themselves or total are very compelling.  Let’s look at a few.

Proof Number 1: The Empty Tomb.  This might be compelling if we had some independent confirmation of this “fact.”  Unfortunately, we know that the gospels are cribbed from each other and not anything close to eyewitness accounts, as Mr. Hystriani and many others would have you believe.  They were written many years after the alleged events and get many historical details flat out wrong.  Trusting in the gospels is a bit like believing your four kids after you return from vacation that there was “no party” in your house while you were gone.  Especially when the scent of beer is still detectable.

One smell of beer in the gospels is Joseph of Arimethea.  He appears out of nowhere to offer the tomb that will later be found empty, and then is never heard from again.  A couple of problems though.  First, no one seems to know where Arimethea actually is.  And some authors surmise Arimethea might be a bit of a pun that means “Best Disciple Town.”  Which is almost too fictional to be true.  He is also described as a member of the Sanhedrin which unanimously condemned Jesus.  So, he must have voted for Jesus’s death, but then turns around and secretly he is a follower.   A bit of a stretch.  But the story needs someone like Joseph for an “empty tomb.”  Is he an invention?  Otherwise Jesus goes into a mass grave with other troublemakers the Romans did away with.  Again, no Joseph, no tomb to be empty.

But even if we grant the tomb, there are many reasons it could be empty, only one of which is resurrection.  This “proof” looks pretty shaky to me, and frankly it might be the best one.

Proof Two: The Women Witnesses.  Much is made of the gospels’ use of women as witnesses.  It is said they are second class citizens (somewhat true) and their testimony was not admissible in court (mostly not true.)  This “embarrassing” detail is used as proof, “it must have happened this way, because a made up story would be different.”  Maybe.  But even a made up story needs a reason for someone to go down to the tomb.   In Mark, the Apostles are presented as incredibly dense, they never understand what Jesus says about anything, including his impending death and resurrection.  In the story the men are hiding out, afraid of the Romans or Jews adding them to the tomb.  The women head down, not to see if Jesus has risen, but rather to finish the burial preparations that should have been done on Friday, but there was not enough time.    So, fiction or non-fiction, it is the women who have the best motivation to head out early on Sunday.  What they found and how they reacted is completely different in the four accounts.  So, the smell of beer is still there.  Not very proofy.

Proof #3: The Apostles New Found Courage.  Well, except they are not very courageous.  Even after the tomb is found empty they are still cowering in the locked room.  Even after Jesus ascends into heaven, they still cower in the upper room for another 10 days until the Holy Spirit shoos them out into the public square.  It takes 50 days for them to screw up their courage — after seeing a guy walk out of the grave?  This is more like proof that nothing happened.  “Of course you can’t see him now, he’s in heaven!”  And what good are tomb tours almost two months later?  Proclaiming a miracle two months ago is a great cover for why you don’t have any proof.  So Proof #3 is anti-proof.

Proof #4:  Changed Lives of James and Others.  In Not the Impossible Faith, Richard Carrier shows that the growth of Christianity was some kind of miracle of exponential growth.  In fact, it limped along until it was accepted by Roman Emperor Constantine some 300 years later.   The Mormon Church has grown at a similar rate to early Christianity, does that make it real too?  Islam started later and has almost as many believers as Christianity.  Is it true?  Also, if we allow that fervor means that an event was real we have to say that Mohammed and Joseph Smith both had real experiences with god.  If you buy this as proof, you need darn good reasons why similar conversions are not proof for other religions.

Proof #5: Jesus seen by large crowds.  Here is what Paul said about the resurrection:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters[c] at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[d] Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

This seems like a very strange list.  First of all, it seems that Paul got this list from somewhere else, as he says he “received” it.  Maybe he got the information from a person or writing, or maybe through private revelation, it certainly is not clear here.  But beyond that, it doesn’t compare to the gospels or Acts in any straight forward way.  Paul never mentions Pilate or any other historical anchors for Jesus’s death or resurrection.

But this account seems to start well enough, with Jesus appearing to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve.  Wait?  What?  Isn’t Peter one of the Twelve?  Besides, at the time there were eleven as Judas had checked out.  So, the list is actually off to a rocky start.  Next comes the appearance to the “five hundred.”  This sounds like pretty good proof, five hundred people see Jesus alive and well and it is often pointed out that mass hallucinations don’t happen.  Without arguing whether or not mass hallucinations can occur, we still have a problem.  No one but Paul mentions these 500 people.  Not the gospels or acts.  Paul doesn’t say who they were, when they saw Jesus or how.  So, even though some of these people were supposedly alive when Paul wrote, no one can check in with them.  And not a single one of them wrote an independent account of seeing the guy who came back from the dead.  Not one out of 500.

Next Jesus appeared to James, who we have discussed, and then “all the apostles.”  Wait, I thought the twelve were the apostles.  Who are “all” of these people.  Paul never says.  Certainly other followers of Jesus were mentioned in the gospels, might have been them.  Or not.  Or they could be anyone at anytime anywhere, because Paul includes himself as an apostle.

Paul says that Jesus appeared to him, but the description is not of a flesh and blood encounter, but more of a spiritual one.  Paul had a vision of the risen Jesus many years after the crucifixion.  This hardly counts as proof of any kind of resurrection.  My mother swore she was visited by her mother several times after my grandmother passed away.  I don’t think that is proof that my grandmother rose from the dead.  Paul’s vision also calls into question all of the other Jesus sightings.  He puts his vision in the same list as their experiences, so maybe they had visions too, just like he did.  Using Paul as evidence is not exactly “proof.”

And just as an aside, I find it strange that Paul says he received the gospel in his vision and nowhere else.  He says this several times.  And yet when he meets up with Peter, Paul acts as though his experience is at least as good as, if not better than, Peter’s.  But Peter actually walked with Jesus for several years, and then hangs with his brother.  But Paul still feels free to disagree with Peter about things that Jesus supposedly says.  Kind of strange.

Proof #6: The Conversion of Paul.  Sorry, this does not count as proof at all.  Paul had a vision inside his head, this no more “proves” the resurrection than someone who converted last week.  Just because someone believes something, no matter how smart or reliable they are, doesn’t mean it happened.

Proof Number #7: People willing to die for Jesus.  This may be the worst “proof” of all.  People are willing to die and unfortunately to kill, for all kinds of beliefs.  If everything people died for was true we would be hip deep in aliens and pretty much every religion ever conceived of on the face of the earth would also be true.  Only people with no sense of history would even offer this as “proof.”

Of course, refuting these “proofs” doesn’t mean that the resurrection didn’t happen.  But I do have to wonder why the most extraordinary event of all time has so little support that even the most ardent believers can only come up with this list as “proof.”