Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

All Dualism is Sloppy Dualism

This is in response to a post at Good Math, Bad Math by Mark Chu-Carroll.

In it, he criticizes Phil Plait for what, to me, sounds almost boringly obvious. Phil sez:

You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us. It’s not just a matter of cranking all our atomic states and field equations through a black box and determining what we must perforce do; there are probabilities involved, so that our actions may be predictable in a sense but are not fundamentally determined in advance

I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, but I agree with it.

Mark counters:

This is what I call “sloppy dualism”… He’s claiming to argue in favor of a purely scientific universe, with no room for the supernatural. But he tries to sneak a little bit of space in to the fuzziness of how things work to make room for his own free will.

I think Mark is much too caught up in the philosophical and religious history of dualism here. I would rephrase Phil’s statement this way: that complex biological interactions (and thus physical interactions) give rise to the illusion of free will. And this illusion is of such persistence and seeming complexity that, to any being under its spell, it simply feels real. And objectively speaking the presence of this illusion clearly classifies objects in the universe. A nebula does not have this ‘free will’, because it doesn’t exhibit the requisite complexity. But a human being does.

Mark objects to classifying objects this way, calling it a kind of dualism. And I ask: why? Using the term ‘dualism’ for this kind of thinking offends the historical definition of that term. Phil’s description isn’t anything less than completely materialistic. There are no spirits involved. There’s simply a hierarchy of physical laws with a range of complexities. At the lowest hierarchy are ‘simple’ objects, such as electrons and muons and atoms that express relatively simple behavior. At the higher echelons are more and more complex objects and phenomena, like ‘free will’. But these higher echelons obviously depend on the lower ones and are determined in some way by them. Whereas the spirit and body are only connected via divine intervention in a classical dualism (and are completely detached otherwise), Phil’s ‘dualism’ is nothing of the sort. And so I would argue that it doesn’t make sense to even put it in those terms.

What Phil is doing is asserting that we are, somehow, different. He starts off OK; the way that physics appears to work, things are not completely deterministic. There’s a lot of fuzziness and probabilistic nondeterminism.

But moving from non-determinism to choice is a problem. If you’re consistent, and you reject non-physical entities and influences in the world, then you are no exception.

It’s not a problem at all if this choice only appears to be a choice to the one making it. If I were to further interpret Phil’s description of choice, I would appeal to a kind of complex if-then ‘rule’ schema. If A happens, I will choose B1. But there are mitigating factors C, D, E, and F. If C goes a certain way, but D doesn’t, I will choose B2 and not B1. But if C, D, and E are all go a certain way I’ll choose B3. One can imagine this schema extending into a very large ‘tree’ of if-thens, perhaps with some degree of probability in the decision-making. To a being controlled by such a schema it would appear that they had innumerable choices at every turn–the definition of free will. To that being’s biology, however, there would exist a very definite rule set.

Is this how free will works? Perhaps not. But this is what biology suggests. This is how all other kinds of organisms work. They have rules for responding to stimuli. If you imagine the simple rule set for a paramecium scaled up a billion, billion fold, it’s not hard (at least in my mind) to fathom how free will (or the illusion thereof) arises.

There’s no scientific reason to believe that we have free will. There’s no buffer zone that we’ve found in any of the physical laws of how the universe works to make room for free will. There’s non-determinism; but there’s not choice.

Yet. I suppose we should give up, though, in light of these destructive arguments. 🙂

Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn’t part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they’ll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.

There’s definitely no scientific reason to believe that.

There’s nothing wrong with believing that there’s something more than the simple physical to the world; something that allows this thing we call consciousness. But it’s not a scientific belief. And for all his hedging, Phil is clearly saying that he believes that the math of physics isn’t, and can’t be all that describes how the universe works. And once you make room for that kind of supernatural, it’s hard to explain just why your kind of supernatural belief is perfectly rational, and someone else’s kind of supernatural belief is silly.

This is really a weaselly argument. Nothing is a scientific belief until it’s demonstrated in an experiment. That doesn’t mean that some arguments aren’t more scientific than others, that some arguments aren’t more presupposition and wish-thinking than others, and some arguments aren’t more based in facts than are others. I hate to trot out the cliche, but the belief that unicorns don’t exist is not a scientific belief nor a rational one. But my confidence in that belief, based upon everything I know and everything science and history tells me, sets it apart from a toddler’s belief that unicorns really do exist. To think otherwise is post-modernism at its core.


Replace with Synonym, Put in Italics

Jerry Coyne and Andrew Sullivan are having a conversation about suffering and religion.

Jerry Coyne writes:

Humans do not have a unique capacity to “rise above suffering.” Every animal rises above suffering. It has to, if it is to live and leave offspring. It’s ADAPTIVE to be resilient!

Andrew responds:

One feels as if one is talking past someone.

Yes, resilience is obviously built into our genetics, but my point was the unique ability to transcend suffering, not just endure it.

Replacing a word with another word isn’t an argument. I don’t know why religious people think this is true (it’s probably one of those transcendent things). But if I were to interpret Andrew’s response, perhaps thinking too deeply about what he was even trying to say, I would respond this way:

In my humble experience, humans respond to suffering in two ways. They either forget their suffering (or more precisely, the reality of the suffering becomes duller over time) or they consciously (or unconsciously) avoid things or thoughts that they know cause suffering. Contrary to pop psychology, consciously recalling traumatic events in order to “deal with them” is incredibly damaging. That’s why PTSD is so insidious. Soldiers with PTSD can’t bring themselves to forget the extreme suffering they went through in the war zone. Their brains won’t let them forget. And that’s some of the most profound suffering I can imagine. I wish Andrew would give an example of someone ‘transcending suffering’ to better know what he meant. The only example he did give (getting over the pain caused by a close friend’s death) is (even if tragic) really not valid. As Coyne notes, and Andrew helpfully ignores, atheists experience the same exact phenomena in response to the death of a loved one. What Coyne doesn’t say, but I think he implies, is that there are bookshelves full of examples of other mammals expressing the same kinds of mourning behaviors that humans express. There are what look to be evolutionary precursors to the kinds of supposedly spiritual or transcendent behaviors that make humans unique. There are also examples of animals which starve themselves to death in response to stress or the loss of offspring.

If I were to guess, I would say that Andrew wouldn’t particularly disagree with anything I’ve written here. And yet he disagrees. But who knows why? I think the one who knows the least about why is Andrew himself. I certainly have no idea.

Blatant Huckster is Blatant

You might think that a moderator should not, when introducing the parameters of a supposedly intellectual debate on the existence of the so-called Kerishten deity, first plug his own book, and then go on to offer the audience a magazine subscription, and then try and whore out religious pamphlets to college students. Within the first two minutes.

Oh, you naive, quotidian peasant.

Watching this debate between Christopher Hitchens and various religious-clerics-or-whatever still has some merit, though, if only to watch Hitchens interject mercilessly in between some pretty weak sauce apologia. Which is entertaining every now and again.


I know the laws of the Blogoverse dictate that I’m supposed to feign unwillingness before kowtowing unabashedly to a popular controversy–citing, I dunno, journalistic integrity and civic duty? Sadly, I am no such hero. Because I just found this whole episode freakin’ funny. It provided many lulz, many in disbelief, most in hilarity.

Obligatory summary: Scienceblogger P.Z. Myers threatens a cracker. Turmoil ensues. Cracker gets poked with a nail. Epic anti-climax.

Survivors of the massacre

But this thing isn’t just crackers and circuses (see what I did there?). Yes, here’s where I pretentiously tell detractors of the kerfuffle that they don’t understand its subtleties. No, not really. But know that I’m thinking it. And feel scorned, won’t you please, in the process.

Seriously, though, (no not really) the only blameless people in this whole situation are those teasing P.Z. for claiming not to care about the cracker while devoting multiple posts to it. They haven’t yet figured out, poor souls, that web pages can be generated seamlessly via online user interfaces in mere minutes, and need not be coded painstakingly by hand in HTML anymore. And for that they deserve our collective pity. And a free Geocities account.

On a more important note, I get to leave work twenty minutes early today. Who’s jealous?

Pirates, Kitties, and People Talking to CCDs

Honestly, who watches TV anymore when you can watch YouTube instead? Aside from Battlestar Galactica last Friday, I haven’t turned a TV on once in the past three weeks. And here’s another reason to perpetuate that habit.

There’s a bloke on YouTube named Paul Harrison. He’s a former Christian (as of six years or so ago, I believe), and he runs a channel where he discusses his former Christianity, atheism, and intelligent design, and reviews Christian apology books. Take a look see.

Logic: You’re Doing It Wrong

Mark Chu-Carroll, over at one of my favorite blogs, Good Math, Bad Math, writes about the discussion over Expelled::

…what strikes me is that we haven’t paid enough attention to something even more important than whether or not there’s a link between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the nazis.

Suppose that it was true that Darwin’s writings about evolution were the primary thing that motivated the Nazi’s genocide against the Jews, the Romany, and all the other “undesirables” that they killed. Forget, for a moment, that the linkage is a crock. Pretend that it’s the truth.

What difference does it make?

Does the truth become less true because some idiot used it to justify something awful?

Continue reading

More or Less Hit or Myth

When I was a good Christian boy, I was taught a legend that really served as the backbone for the beliefs I was taught to have. Most Christians will immediately identify with this legend, because it’s more or less integral. Without it, you devolve into deism or, heaven forbid, the “Love” god. This legend involves a rumor about Señor Jesus Christ… Romanssexintrigue! (Mostly not the last two.)

It goes like this:

Well, you see, lots of non-Christians wrote about Jesus’ resurrection and miracles, and you see, they have no reason to lie. See? It’s all true!


There are no credible non-Christian sources, whether Jewish in origin or Roman in origin, which describe, from a first-hand account, Jesus performing miracles, including resurrecting. There are plenty of sources talking about the persecution of Christians, and about the crucifixion of Jesus, and about the evangelizing of Christians. None of them describe first-hand accounts of Jesus performing a miracle. Not one.

The classic example Christians usually give is Josephus, who was a Jewish historian. Problem 1: Josephus was born after Jesus had already been crucified. He couldn’t have witnessed Jesus performing miracles. Problem 2: Most historians believe that most of Josephus’ writings on Jesus were fabricated. Assuming they aren’t, it’s quite clear that Josephus could’ve only known about Jesus second or third-hand. And he doesn’t write anything about miracles performed by Jesus’ followers. What we have, in essence, is a “my cousin’s daughter’s friend said.” Not credible in the least.

So we have a situation where Christians write about the miracles of Jesus, but for some reason no one else does.