Monday, July 30, 2007

Two Gods: The Irrelevant And The False

Believing in something for which there is no evidence is not deluded, it's just a rather silly way to waste your time and mental energy.

That is why believing in the deist's god, who set the universe in motion but has no further interaction with it, is not deluded but simply pointless. The very reason the notion can't be disproved is because it makes no practical difference whether such a god exists or not. A universe with a deistic god is indistinguishable from one with no god at all; that being the case, the deistic god can neither be proven nor disproven, nor is it useful in any way for explaining why the universe is the way it is.

The deistic god is therefore, scientifically speaking, profoundly irrelevant.

Believing in a proposition which the available evidence, including internal consistency, contradicts is delusion. The god of the Abrahamic faiths falls into this category.

The characteristics normally ascribed to that god, alone - omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence - cannot logically exist together. Omnipotence is self-defeating; an omnipotent being cannot create a force which that same being cannot defeat, i.e. God can't make a rock so heavy even He can't lift it. Omniscience is incompatible with any power at all, because it includes the ability to foresee an action which can then be prevented, meaning the prophecy was invalid. Omnibenevolence, in conjunction with omnipotence and omniscience, is incompatible with the world containing needless suffering; a god which sees the suffering, is able to prevent it and does not do so is obviously not loving in any recognizable sense of the word, unless you are a particularly talented sado-masochist.

I say suffering rather than evil because the doctrine of free will, which is the best answer theodicy has to offer, does not cover agentless suffering. In the specific case of the Abrahamic god, the distinction is largely superfluous, as most of the actions described as taken by the Abrahamic god in the sacred texts can only be described as deeply and directly malevolent. The unprevented agentless sufferings of humanity outside those texts are simply icing on the cake of disproving that notional omnibenevolence.

These are not new observations by any stretch of the imagination; the problem of suffering certainly predates Christianity and Islam, and probably Judaism but the archaeological record gets scarce that far back. Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians have been struggling to answer the paradoxes for near enough the entire time the faiths have existed, and have not yet been able to do so.

In science, it is perfectly permissible for a theory not to explain everything; at this stage of our development it would be ludicrous to expect anything else. The best and most mature theories will explain an abundance of observable facts, and that is enough to make a theory credible but not useful; to be useful a theory must predict facts before they are demonstrated. A complaint many physicists have about string theory is that while it explains many things it has not yet provided any disprovable predictions. The theory of evolution by natural selection is an example of a theory which is both mature and useful, and not just for enraging creationists either.

What is not permissible is for a theory (or even a hypothesis) to be internally inconsistent or to directly fly in the face of the evidence. The technical term for a hypothesis that does that is false.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Theist's Moral Advantage

The existence of a God automatically creates an ultimate standard of right and wrong because whatever God (often through His priestly class) declares to be right or wrong, is so. Even things which any normal human being would instinctively consider abhorrent, such a mutilating the genitals of a child, become moral if they are commanded by God.

This is very attractive to people who aren't very comfortable working things out (thinking) for themselves, which covers most theists. They don't have to put any real consideration into the morality of their behaviour; it suffices that they do as they're told by the people they consider moral authorities.

If the Pope tells them to campaign against condom use in AIDS-stricken regions, or the God-anointed Tsar tells them to ghettoize and starve Jews, or the local parson tells them to chain and drag a homosexual behind their pickup truck, then they'll obey, because obedience to the Word Of God is the greatest virtue, as is demonstrated time and again in the holy books.

There is no better exemplar than Abraham, who is accounted most holy because of his unquestioning willingness to kill his beloved child because the voice in his head told him to, prior to changing its mind at the last minute. (Pity it didn't change its mind before all the other childslayings and genocides, but ours not to reason why, eh?)

That voice in his head was actually the voice of the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY; we know this because Abraham did rather well for himself afterward, and was even promised that his descendants would be looked after also, as long as they obeyed a few simple rules mostly about diet and genital mutilation. Had Abraham or his descendants done badly at any point, we'd have known that he was just a nutcase after all.

Do you see how superior this system is, compared to that of the rationalist? You never need spend any mental effort wondering what is the right thing to do, because a kindly priest or anointed king is always there to inform you. There's even an automatic feedback system, because if it turn out that they're false priests or kings then it will be obvious when God foils their plans.

The poor atheist, on the other hand, is beset with uncertainty, having to constantly think about what the best course of action is, with no guarantee from authority that they are right; the atheist has to actually consider what is best for everyone, has to see the situation from everyone's point of view, not just their/the priests'/God's preferences.

It's exhausting, really. Small wonder that theism tends to attract the morally as well as the intellectually lazy. Who wants to go to all that trouble of gathering evidence and thinking and testing the validity of your beliefs, when you can just outource it all to God and/or His representatives?

And after all, how far wrong could we go in just following orders we've been assured are lawful?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

My personality defect

Your Score: Sociopath

You are 100% Rational, 42% Extroverted, 71% Brutal, and 71% Arrogant.

(Funny, I'd have pegged myself as a bit more arrogant.)

You are the Sociopath! As a result of your cold, calculating rationality, your introversion (and ability to keep quiet), your brutality, and your arrogance, you would make a very cunning serial killer. You are confident and capable of social interaction, but you prefer the silence of dead bodies to the loud, twittering nitwits you normally encounter in your daily life. You care very little for the feelings of others, possibly because you are not a very emotional person. You are also very calculating and intelligent, making you a perfect criminal mastermind. Also, you are a very arrogant person, tending to see yourself as better than others, providing you with a strong ability to perceive others as weak little animals, so tiny and small. You take great pleasure in the misery of others, and there is nothing sweeter to you than the sweet glory of using someone else's shattered failure to project yourself to success. Except sugar. That just may be sweeter. In short, your personality defect is the fact that you could easily be a sociopath, because you are calculating, unemotional, brutal, and arrogant. Please don't kill me for writing mean things about you! I have a 101 mile-long knife! Don't make me use it!

To put it less negatively:

1. You are more RATIONAL than intuitive.

2. You are more INTROVERTED than extroverted.

3. You are more BRUTAL than gentle.

4. You are more ARROGANT than humble.

The quiz comes courtesy of okCupid

Monday, July 9, 2007

Power Loss

The television dies and I lose the sight
Of Oprah's guests; their clumsy pain
Is silenced. I jump to watch the stormy night
But the lightning, too, is lost in rain.

Flicker, and the light has none to give.
Books are mute. By the radio static pools.
Bereft of professional's life to live
I look at mine, and yours. We're fools.

Clammy, I wonder; Are you alone too?
In the dark? Are you hungering?
Don't open the fridge, you'll rot the stew
You spent a lifetime simmering.

Your form is wiped by sixty sudden watts
Your face erased by a talking head.
I off the tube to hear my thoughts.
I run coatless through rain. Phone's dead.

B.T. Murtagh

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Moral Relativism

Every society has some constellation of predispositions considered good, and some bad. In this sense, good is defined simply as conforming to societal expectations, bad as not; the specifics may be viewed as arbitrary since they are defined entirely within the societal system itself, i.e. they are ultimately self-referential.

If no universal standard can be applied to judge between sets of societal predispositions (which is to say between societies), then no society can be usefully judged except in its own terms; this is the view known as moral relativism. Taken to its logical extreme, the reductio ad absurdum, moral relativism carries all the flaws it is accused of; murder is indeed equivalent to jaywalking, to a hypothetical detached intellect judging the two.

However, there are at least three standards which can be applied across societies which are useful for comparing them irrespective of the specific tenets of the compared. Our hypothetical detached intellect may still, without moral judgment, scale any two given societies (sets of interacting presuppositions) on the bases of internal consistency, of adaptability to change both external and internal, and ultimately of utility in terms of survival.

The former may be judged by the degree to which an individual member of a society can think and act within the society's precepts without conflicting with others doing likewise. A society which values only adherence to a given set of self-consistent values would always score highly on such a scale, and need never fear destruction from within; destruction from without would always be a danger.

Most religions score pretty badly on internal consistency; this is why they either split incessantly into smaller schisms, or actively suppress societal mechanisms (such as widespread literacy) for examining their precepts. The latter tactic badly degrades societal adaptability.

Contrastingly, science by its core methodology incorporates any novelties of data or ideas into its core. Basic inconsistencies, such as the conflicts between general relativity and quantum mechanics, are not suppressed or ignored but rather actively worked upon. Nothing is sacred except the methodology itself, and if you could empirically convince scientist that tossing chicken bones worked better they'd probably order all further lab lunches from KFC.

Adaptability is thus built right into the foundation of science. Contrarily, since religion relies strongly upon revelation for content, and such revelation is normally decreed unquestionable (one might almost define religion in such terms), the bases of any given religion are by definition unchangeable and thereby inapt for adaptation either internal or external.

The remaining criterion by which our hypothetical detached intellect might judge societies is simple ability to survive. The Darwinian viewpoint prefers the society that survives best, but there is no inherent guarantee that the society which survives best prefers the Darwinian viewpoint. It could well be, as you imply, that some particular set of non-true societal assumptions might work better than the truth, and even that some non-scientific societal processes might better serve any given good, including survival. With respect, though, I consider it very unlikely; I have to confess, of course, that what makes me consider it unlikely is largely the application of the scientific method itself.

While the body of societies which have appreciated the scientific method (of testing ideas against reality) is necessarily small compared to those which had no such notion, the former have been far more successful, not only in traditional terms of population and wealth but in terms of adaptability to changing circumstance.

Without knowing it for an inconcontestible fact, I therefore believe that a secular society based on evidence-based inquiry is 'better' than a religious society based on authority-based faith., where 'better' is based on societal survival. Is it possible that a society based on unfounded assumptions and unsound (or no) methods for testing them would be better suited for survival than a society which valued truth and logic?

Well, possibly, but I'm not betting on it. Show me a study, or a disprovable theory.