Infinity—Nothing to Trifle With

Snowflake curveThe topic of infinity comes up occasionally in apologetics arguments, but this is a lot more involved than most people think.  After exploring the subject, apologists may want to be more cautious.

Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig walks where most laymen fear to tread.  Like an experienced actor, he has no difficulty imagining himself in all sorts of stretch roles—as a physicist, as a biologist, or as a mathematician.

Since God couldn’t have created the universe if it has been here forever, Craig argues that an infinitely old universe is impossible.  He imagines such a universe and argues that it would take an infinite amount of time to get to now.  This gulf of infinitely many moments of time would be impossible to cross, so the idea must be impossible.

But why not arrive at time t = now?  We must be somewhere on the timeline, and now is as good a place as any.  The imaginary infinite timeline isn’t divided into “Points in time we can get to” and “Points we can’t.”  And if going from a beginning in time infinitely far in the past and arriving at now is a problem, then imagine a beginningless timeline.  Physicist Vic Stenger, for one, makes the distinction between a universe that began infinitely far in the past and a universe without a beginning

Hoare’s Dictum is relevant here.  Infinity-based arguments are successful because they’re complicated and confusing, not because they’re accurate.

One of Craig’s conundrums is this:

Suppose we meet a man who claims to have been counting from eternity and is now finishing: . . ., –3, –2, –1, 0.  We could ask, why did he not finish counting yesterday or the day before or the year before?  By then an infinite time had already elapsed, so that he should already have finished by then.…  In fact, no matter how far back into the past we go, we can never find the man counting at all, for at any point we reach he will have already finished.

Before we study this ill-advised descent into mathematics, let’s first explore the concept of infinity.

Everyone knows that the number of integers {1, 2, 3, …} is infinite.  It’s easy to see that if one proposed that the set of integers was finite, with a largest integer n, the number n + 1 would be even larger.  This understanding of infinity is an old observation, and Aristotle and other ancients noted it.

But there’s more to the topic than that.  I remember being startled in an introductory calculus class at a shape sometimes called Gabriel’s Horn (take the two-dimensional curve 1/x from 1 to ∞ and rotate it around the x-axis to make an infinitely long wine glass).  This shape has finite volume but infinite surface area.  In other words, you could fill it with paint, but you could never paint it.

A two-dimensional equivalent is the familiar Koch snowflake.  (Start with an equilateral triangle.  For every side, erase the middle third and replace it with an outward-facing V with sides the same length as the erased segment.  Repeat forever.)  At every iteration (see the first few in the drawing above), each line segment becomes 1/3 bigger.  Repeat forever, and the perimeter becomes infinitely long.  Surprisingly, the area doesn’t become infinite because the entire growing shape could be bounded by a fixed circle.  In the 2D equivalent of the Gabriel’s Horn paradox, you could fill in a Koch snowflake with a pencil, but all the pencils in the world couldn’t trace its outline.

Far older than these are any of Zeno’s paradoxes.  In one of these, fleet-footed Achilles gives a tortoise a 100-meter head start in a foot race.  Achilles is ten times faster, but by the time he reaches the 100-meter mark, the tortoise has gone 10 meters.  This isn’t a problem, and he crosses that next 10 meters.  But wait a minute—the tortoise has moved again.  Every time Achilles crosses the next distance segment, the tortoise has moved ahead.  He must cross an infinite series of distances.  Will he ever pass the tortoise?

The distance is the infinite sum 100 + 10 + 1 + 1/10 + ….  This sum is a little more than 111 meters, which means that Achilles will pass the tortoise and win the race.

Some infinite sums are finite (1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + … = 2).

And some are infinite (1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + … = ∞).

(And this post is getting a bit long.  Read Part 2.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • “Zeno’s paradoxes,” Wikipedia.
  • “Zeno’s Advent Calendar,” xkcd.com.
  • “Paradoxes of infinity,” Wikipedia.
  • “Is God Actually Infinite?” Reasonable Faith blog.
  • Peter Lynds, “On a Finite Universe with no Beginning or End,” Cornell University Library, 2007.
  • Mark Vuletic, “Does Big Bang Cosmology Prove the Universe Had a Beginning?” Secular Web, 2000.
  • Wes Morriston, “Must the Past Have a Beginning?” Philo, 1999.
  • William Lane Craig, “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe,” Truth Journal.

Gay Marriage Inevitable?

Jesus and God and apologeticsA century ago, America was immersed in social change.  Some of the issues in the headlines during this period were women’s suffrage, the treatment of immigrants, prison and asylum reform, temperance and prohibition, racial inequality, child labor and compulsory elementary school education, women’s education and protection of women from workplace exploitation, equal pay for equal work, communism and utopian societies, unions and the labor movement, and pure food laws.

The social turmoil of the past makes today’s focus on gay marriage and abortion look almost inconsequential by comparison.

What’s especially interesting is Christianity’s role in some of these movements.  Christians will point with justifiable pride to schools and hospitals build by churches or religious orders.  The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century pushed for corrections of many social ills—poverty and wealth inequality, alcoholism, poor schools, and more.  Christians point to Rev. Martin Luther King’s work on civil rights and William Wilberforce’s Christianity-inspired work on ending slavery.

(This doesn’t sound much like the church today, commandeered as it is by conservative politics, but that’s another story.)

Same-sex marriage seems inevitable, just another step in the march of civil rights.  Jennifer Roback Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute for promotion of heterosexual marriage and rejection of same-sex marriage, was recently asked if she feared being embarrassed by the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage.  She replied:

On the contrary, [same-sex marriage proponents] are the ones who are going to be embarrassed.  They are the ones who are going to be looking around, looking for the exits, trying to pretend that it had nothing to do with them, that it wasn’t really their fault.

I am not the slightest bit worried about the judgment of history on me.  This march-of-history argument bothers me a lot. …  What they’re really saying is, “Stop thinking, stop using your judgment, just shut up and follow the crowd because the crowd is moving towards Nirvana and you need to just follow along.”

Let’s first acknowledge someone who could well be striving to do the right thing simply because it’s right, without concern for popularity or the social consequences.  I would never argue that someone ought to abandon a principle because it has become a minority opinion or that it is ridiculed.  If Dr. Morse sticks to her position solely because she thinks it’s right, and she’s not doing it because of (say) some political requirement or because her job depends on it, that’s great.

Nevertheless, the infamous 1963 statement from George Wallace comes to mind: “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  That line came back to haunt him.  To his credit, he apologized and rejected his former segregationist policies, but history will always see him as having chosen the wrong side of this issue.

Christianity has similarly scrambled to reposition itself after earlier errors.  Christians often claim that modern science is built on a Christian foundation, ignoring the church’s rejection of science that didn’t fit its medieval beliefs (think Galileo).  They take credit for society’s rejection of slavery, forgetting Southern preachers and their gold mine of Bible verses for ammunition.  They reposition civil rights as an issue driven by Christians, ignoring the Ku Klux Klan and its burning cross symbol, biblical justification for laws against mixed-race marriage, and slavery support as the issue that created the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mohandas Gandhi had considerable experience as the underdog.  He said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

(And then they claim that it was their idea all along!)

The same-sex marriage issue in the United States has almost advanced to “then you win” stage.  Check back in two decades, and you’ll see Christians positioning the gay rights issue as one led by the church.  They’ll mine history for liberal churches that took the lead (and flak) in ordaining openly gay clerics and speaking out in favor of gay rights.

If someone truly rejects same-sex marriage because their unbiased analysis shows it to be worse for society, great.  But it is increasingly becoming clear how history will judge that position.

Truth never damages a cause that is just.
— Mohandas Gandhi

Photo credit: Spec-ta-cles

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Are Defenders of Natural Marriage on the Wrong Side of History?” Issues Etc., 5/25/12.
  • “Pure Religion: Revivalism and Reform in Early 19th-Century America,” The Dartmouth Apologia, Spring 2010, pp 20–24.

Witch Hunts, Sex Scandals, and the Atheist Community

I attended The Amazing Meeting 2, the skeptics conference organized by magician James Randi, in 2004.  I’ve been to many conferences before and after, but this one was a big deal for me.  Though not actually an atheist conference, I think it was the first chance I had to publicly kick around my embryonic interest in atheism.  A year later, I heard Sam Harris lecture on his new book, The End of Faith, and my interest in Christianity and atheism was ignited.

I bring this up because of dark clouds gathering over The Amazing Meeting.  I don’t pretend to understand the issue, but an Elevatorgate-like discussion has blown up about an incident of sexual harassment at a previous TAM, how it was handled, and then the inevitable recursive discussions about the descriptions of those incidents, critiques of those discussions, analysis of those critiques, and so on, seemingly to infinity.

Are women welcome and safe at TAM?  That the question is even being asked is incredible to me, but early evidence suggests the fraction of attendees who are women will be half of last year’s 40% because of concern over this story.  It must be an unintended consequence to all sides for a conference that is accused of being unfriendly to women to now become even more populated by men.

Some good has come out of this in that it has encouraged conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies.  That sounds like a positive step to restore confidence, assuming that they’re not extreme by, say, prohibiting a handshake or tap on the shoulder.

I’m amazed at the byzantine turns this topic has taken and the hold it has on some atheist bloggers.  It would take me days to read all that has been written, and let me say again that, not having done that, I don’t pretend to be well-informed about the issue.  But let me summarize an event that happened in my part of the country about 15 years ago that, while much more extreme, may have parallels to today’s anxiety about TAM.

Perhaps you remember the story about the Wenatchee child sex ring, what has been called history’s most extensive child sex abuse investigation.

It began in 1992, when, after much questioning, the 7-year-old daughter of poor and uneducated parents accused a family acquaintance of molesting her.  After repeated encouragement by the Wenatchee police lieutenant who was acting as foster parent to the girl and her sister, the girls eventually named over a hundred abusers and many child victims.

Local Pentecostal pastor Robert Robertson tried to do the right thing and talk sense to the investigators.  For his troubles, he and his family were sucked into the investigation, and the story was rewoven to include his church as a center for orgies with the children.  Others who also tried to rein in the crazy were also charged or fired.  (What explains a defense of the accused but that that person is similarly guilty?)

Child witnesses, mostly from 9 to 13 years old, were often taken from their families and placed in foster care. Many said later that they were subjected to hours of frightening grilling and if they didn’t believe they had been sexually abused, they were told they were “in denial” or had suppressed the memory of the abuse. They were also told that siblings and other children had witnessed their abuse, or that that their parents had already confessed.

Interrogators called some children who denied abuse liars. Children were told that if they agreed to accusations they wouldn’t be separated from parents or siblings. Many of them later recanted. [The police lieutenant] neither recorded nor kept notes of his interrogations.

Recantations were ignored. “It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they say they’ve been abused,” [the] Wenatchee Child Protective Services [supervisor said.] “But (they) are usually lying when they deny it.”

In all, “43 adults were arrested and accused of 29,726 counts of sexually abusing 60 children….  Eighteen pleaded guilty, mostly on the basis of signed confessions.  Ten were convicted at trial.  Three were acquitted.  Eighteen went to prison.”  All confessions were later recanted, all felony convictions related to the sex ring appear to have been overturned, a third of the children claimed to have been abused were at one point taken from their parents and put up for adoption, and the city of Wenatchee had to face lawsuits claiming millions of dollars in damages.

It was a modern-day replay of the 1692 Salem witch trial in which several girls’ accusations resulted in 19 people being hanged and one more pressed to death.

No, just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire, and someone encouraging restraint isn’t necessarily part of the problem.  I hope the Wenatchee example of good intentions gone horribly wrong highlights some potential parallels with the TAM situation and that all parties analyze the evidence dispassionately.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Links about the Wenatchee sex case:

  • “Wenatchee Witch Hunt: Child Sex Abuse Trials In Douglas and Chelan Counties,” HistoryLink.
  • “Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions,” Wikipedia.

Links about charges against The Amazing Meeting:

  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Discussion Podcast (part 1),” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/12/12.
  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Pt. 2, and Some Other Things,” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/14/12.
  • Jason Thibeault, “Harassment policies campaign – timeline of major events,” Lousy Canuck blog, 6/15/12.

The Truth of the Bible

This is an excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study.

♠   ♠   ♠

Do God and Jesus exist?“Let’s discuss the accuracy of the Bible.” Paul looked for approval from Jim, saw nothing, and continued. “Many say that the Bible contains the world’s greatest literature. It’s certainly the world’s most influential book—a book that has inspired mankind for thousands of years.”

“I won’t disagree.” Jim picked up what looked like a clumsily wrapped cigar laying on the sofa and put the soggy end in his mouth. It left a small dark stain on the seat cushion.

Paul wanted to continue but was distracted as the end of the thing bobbed up and down under Jim’s shaggy mustache while he chewed, making gentle crunching sounds. “Is that a cigar?” Paul asked finally.

Cinnamomum zeylanicum—cinnamon bark,” Jim said, his words garbled as he spoke while holding the cinnamon stick with his lips. “It promotes sweating.”

Paul had never considered sweating worth promoting. He tried to ignore the noise, deliberately looking down at his note card to avoid the distraction. “So what I’m saying is that the Bible is very accurate. Researchers have found thousands of copies, enough to convince them that errors introduced from copy to copy have been insignificant. And old, too—less than 400 years after the New Testament originals.* In other words, today’s English translations started with a copy that differed minimally from the original text. Aside from the different language, we read almost the same words as were originally written two to three thousand years ago.”

Jim shook his head. “That’s a foolish argument.”

Paul’s jaw went slack.

“I can say the same of Homer’s Iliad,” Jim said. “It’s quite long and very old—older than much of the Old Testament. We have many old copies of the Iliad, and today’s version may also be a decent copy of the original. Using your logic, must we conclude that the Iliad is correct? Must we say that Achilles really was invulnerable, that Cassandra really could see the future, that Ajax really was trained by a centaur?”

“But that’s not a good comparison,” Paul said. “No one believes the Iliad. Biblical fact is quite different from Greek mythology.”

“Don’t change the subject. You introduced the question of the accuracy of manuscript copies. Does your logic help us judge the accuracy of ancient books or not?”

“I don’t think the Bible and the Iliad can be compared is all.”

Jim sighed. “To your point, no one believes the Iliad now, but they once did. Achilles, Hector, Helen, Aphrodite, the Trojan War—the Iliad tells much of the history of the Greeks just like the Bible is a history of the Jews. And, of course, many of the places and people in the Iliad actually existed. Archeologists have found Troy, for example.”

Jim held up a hand as Paul opened his mouth to speak. “Of course I see the difference. While the Iliad and the Bible were the histories of their people, only the Bible is believed today. Here’s my point. Let’s assume that the Bible and the Iliad are both faithful copies. That doesn’t make them true.”

Paul said, “It’s not just the Bible—other sources confirm Bible stories. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, for example, writes about Jesus.” He glanced at a note card in his hand. “Also, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and other writers from that time.”

Jim jerked a hand as if dismissing a gnat, and his face showed an exasperated disgust. “I’ve read these sources, and they strengthen your case not a bit. They basically say, ‘There are people who follow a man named Jesus’ or ‘Jesus is said to have performed miracles.’ I already agree with that! I’d be interested if an eyewitness from the Jerusalem Times newspaper wrote a report the day after a miraculous event, but that didn’t happen. You’re left with four—not thousands, but four—written accounts that summarize the Jesus story after it had been passed around orally for decades, and they’re not even completely independent accounts. I need a lot more evidence than that.”

Paul thought for an instant how satisfying it would be to take their argument to the street, even though it would be an unfair fight. He rubbed his right fist against his left palm and strained the muscles of his upper body to drain away some rage. In five seconds he might remind this atheist of his manners. But he had to take the high ground and he pushed on, using a response that Samuel had given him. “Why do you need more evidence? You never saw George Washington, but you accept the historical account of his life. The Bible has the historical account of Jesus’s life—why not accept that?”

Again Jim shook his head. “We have articles from newspapers of Washington’s time published within days of events, and there are hundreds of accounts by people who met him. We even have Washington’s own journals and letters. By contrast, Jesus left no personal writings, we have just a few Gospels as sources of his life story, and those are accounts of unknown authorship handed down orally for decades before finally being written. They were even written from the perspective of a foreign culture—Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic, and the New Testament was written completely in Greek.”

“You’re overstating the problem. If you don’t like Washington, take Caesar Augustus—you accept the story of Caesar’s life even though he’s from the time period of Jesus.”

“How can you make this argument? Are you stupid?” Jim leapt to his feet. “The biographies of historical figures like Washington and Caesar make no supernatural claims!”

Paul opened his mouth to protest but retreated as Jim waved his arms as he stalked back and forth in front of the sofa like some hysterical prosecuting attorney.

“They were great men, but they were just men. Suppose you read that Washington was impervious to British bullets during the Revolutionary War or Caesar was born of a virgin—these claims were actually made, by the way. You would immediately dismiss them. Or what about Mormonism: Joseph Smith invented it just fifty miles from my hometown of Syracuse, shortly before I was born. We have far more information about the early days of his religion—letters, diaries, and even newspaper accounts, all in modern English—and yet I presume you dismiss Smith as a crackpot or a charlatan. In the case of Jesus, the most extravagant supernatural claims are made—why not dismiss those stories as well? The Bible has tales you wouldn’t believe if you read them in today’s newspaper, and yet you see them as truthful ancient journalism.”

Paul struggled to keep his hand steady as he glanced at his note card. He had no response but was not about to admit it. He decided to try a new line of attack and took a deep breath. “Okay, answer this one. The Bible has stories of fulfilled prophecy. Early books documented the prophecy, and later books record that prophecy coming true. There are hundreds about Jesus’s life alone. For example, the book of Isaiah details facts about the Messiah’s life, and then the New Testament records the fulfillment of that prophecy.”

“Show me.”

“Okay, let’s look at Isaiah 53.”

Jim walked to his bookshelf and pulled off a large leather-bound Bible.

Paul turned to his own copy. “Isaiah says, ‘He is despised and rejected of men’—Jesus should have been the king, but He was rejected by his own people. ‘He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth’—He could have proven that He was God with a word, but He chose to keep silent. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities’—this describes the beatings He endured before crucifixion. ‘With His stripes we are healed’ and ‘He bore the sin of many’—Jesus was whipped and took the burden of our sins when He died. All this was written hundreds of years before the crucifixion.”

“Unconvincing,” Jim said. “‘He is despised’ doesn’t sound like the charismatic rabbi who preached to thousands of attentive listeners and had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And I notice that you’ve ignored the part of this chapter that was inconvenient to your hypothesis: in the same chapter, God says, ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.’ Jesus is counted as merely one of the great ones and must share with them? That’s quite an insult to the son of God. And who are these equals? Most important, note that there’s no mention of the resurrection here. How can this be a Jesus crucifixion story without the punch line? This chapter is actually a very poor description of the crucifixion because the ‘he’ in this chapter is not Jesus but Israel.”

“But the Gospels themselves refer back to this chapter as prophecy of Jesus.”

“I don’t give a damn—this chapter isn’t about Jesus.”

Paul felt blindsided, as if he were lying on the ground, wondering where the haymaker came from. Samuel hadn’t told him about this rebuttal. Paul said, “Well, what about Psalm 22? It describes the crucifixion experience and has Jesus’s last words, exactly. It even describes the guards casting lots for his clothes. And this was written centuries before Jesus’s day.”

“Come now, think about it! The writers of the Gospels were literate, and they would have read all of the Law—what we call the Old Testament. They could have sifted through it to find plausible prophecies before they wrote the Gospels. Don’t you see? It’s as if they looked at the answers before taking a test.”

Paul leaned forward. “You’re saying that they cheated? That they deliberately invented the Gospel stories to fit the prophecy?”

“Think of the incredible boldness of the Bible’s claims,” Jim said, “that Jesus was a supernatural being sent by an omnipotent and omnipresent God who created the universe. That’s about as unbelievable a story as you can imagine. Deliberate cheating to invent this story—that is, a natural explanation of the Gospels—is much more plausible than that the story is literally true—which is a supernatural explanation. But here’s an explanation that’s more plausible still: suppose Jesus was nothing more than a charismatic rabbi. The original facts of Jesus’s life were then told and retold as they went from person to person, each time getting a little more fantastic. Details might have been gradually changed until they matched a particular prophecy. If people assumed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had to fulfill the prophecies, right? The Gospels were passed along orally for decades after Jesus’s death before they were written down, gradually translated into the Greek culture on the way. No need to imagine the deliberate invention of a false story.”

“But there was no oral tradition. The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.”

“Prove it.”

“Ask any minister!” Paul said with a chuckle that probably betrayed his unease. “It’s common knowledge. Matthew was an apostle, he was an eyewitness, and he wrote the book of Matthew. And so on for the other Gospel authors—all apostles or companions of apostles.”

“The names of the Gospel books were assigned long after they were written. No one knows who wrote them—each Gospel is anonymous, and the names are simply tradition. No Gospel begins, ‘This is an account of events that I witnessed myself.’ Even if they did, should that convince me? You take any fanciful account, put ‘I saw this myself’ at the beginning, and it becomes true? A natural explanation—that the Jesus story is just a legend—is far, far likelier than the supernatural explanation.”

Jim had been noisily worrying his cinnamon stick but now set it back on the sofa. “Besides, we have lots of examples of similar things in other religions—holy books that are really just myth. For example, we can probably agree that the Koran, Islam’s holy book, is mythology. Muhammad wasn’t really visited by the angel Gabriel and given wisdom from God. Did Muhammad invent it? Did a desire for power push him to create a new religion, with him as its leader? Through extreme fasting, did he have delusions that he interpreted as revelations from God? Any of these natural explanations and many more are much more likely than the Koran being literally true. Or Gilgamesh or Beowulf or the Hindu Vedas or the Book of Mormon. They all have supernatural elements and they are all mythology. How can you and I agree that these are mythology and that mankind throughout history has invented religion and myth, but you say that the Bible is the single exception? When you cast a net that brings up Christianity, it brings up a lot of other religions as well.”

“You can’t lump the Bible in with those books. It’s in a completely different category.”

“Prove it,” Jim repeated, and he slammed his Bible onto the table.

“Why should I have to prove it?”

“Because you’re the one making the remarkable claims.”

“Remarkable?” Paul paused, his mouth open, as he collected his thoughts. “How can you say that? You’re in the minority and you reject the majority view. Christianity is the most widespread religion the world has ever seen. Almost everyone in this country is thoroughly familiar with Christianity. They wouldn’t think the claims are remarkable.”

Jim smiled. “I wouldn’t make that majority claim too loudly. Within your own religious community, your views are in the majority, but your flavor of Christianity isn’t even in the majority right here in Los Angeles. Even when you lump together all the denominations of Christianity worldwide, the majority of people on the Earth still think you’re wrong.

“It’s true that the tenets of Christianity are widely familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. A God who can do anything, who has been around forever, and who created the universe? Take a step back and see this as an outsider might. You’ve made perhaps the boldest claim imaginable. No one should be asked to believe it without evidence, and very strong evidence at that.”

Jim picked up his cinnamon stick and waved it as he spoke. “Suppose someone claims to have seen a leprechaun or a dragon or a unicorn. Next, this person says that, because no one can prove him wrong, his beliefs are therefore correct. And since they’re correct, everyone should adopt them. This is nonsense of course. He is making the bold claim, so he must provide the evidence. In other words, we are justified—no, we are obliged—to reject extraordinary claims until the extraordinary evidence has been provided.”

“I have provided evidence!” Paul said.

Jim leaned back on the sofa and looked at Paul, for the first time at a loss for a quick retort. “Son, this is what I expected from you,” he said quietly, almost gently. “But this evidence barely merits the name. What you’ve provided is a flimsy argument that might satisfy someone who wants to support beliefs that he’s already decided are correct. But don’t expect this to convince anyone else.”

Paul sat back in his chair as if hit in the stomach. He had been preparing for a debate like this with increasing intensity for two years, and he thought that he deserved more. He didn’t expect accolades for his cleverness . . . but something? He tried to salvage the discussion and glanced at his note card, almost used up. His voice felt shrill and unreliable as he began. “But you must adjust your demands given how long ago this was. You can’t ask for photographs and diaries when the events happened close to two thousand years ago. It’s not fair.”

“Not fair? Suppose you come to me and ask to buy my house. I say that it’s worth three thousand dollars. You say, ‘I’ll give you five dollars for it.’ I say, ‘No—that’s ridiculous. I must reject your offer.’ And then you say, ‘But that’s not fair—five dollars is all I have.’”

Jim leaned forward, staring at Paul and with his arms outstretched. “That would be absurd. But it’s equivalent to the argument ‘since proving the fantastic claims of the New Testament is quite hard, you’ll have to accept whatever evidence we have.’ No, I don’t! I won’t accept five dollars for my house, I won’t accept pathetic evidence for leprechauns, and I won’t accept it for God.”

Jim paused and then said, “And while we’re at it, neither should you.”

I am the punishment of God….
If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
— Genghis Khan

*Older copies have been found since 1906.

Photo credit: Sheba_Also

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Word of the Day: Russell’s Teapot

does god exist?A couple posts ago, we talked about unicorns.  There are other things that we pretty much know don’t exist.  Some of these were deliberately invented—for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sacred to Pastafarians worldwide, or the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the new church of Kopimism.

But before those was Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

Bertrand Russell proposed the idea of a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars in 1952.  The teapot is too small to detect with any instrument, so it’s impossible to prove this claim wrong.

Russell pushes the teapot contention to the limit:

But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

How valid is the comparison of God with an orbiting teapot?  We know that there are teapots, and we know how to put things into solar orbits.  It’s just technology, and an orbiting teapot violates no scientific laws.  But the God hypothesis is far bolder because it demands a new category, that of supernatural beings.  They may exist, but science acknowledges no examples.

Is there such a teapot?  Maybe, but why live as if there is?  We can’t invalidate the teapot hypothesis, but that’s not the same as proving it true or even showing that it’s worthy of consideration.

We don’t give equal time to the orbiting teapot hypothesis, so why give equal time to similar claims that are equally poorly evidenced, like God?

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Related links:

God is Nonexistent

who is god?Does God exist?  I don’t think so.  But can we prove that?

Proving that God doesn’t exist—or, more generally, that no supernatural beings exist—is impossible as far as I can tell.  An omniscient being wanting to remain hidden would succeed.  That’s a game of hide and seek we could never win.

To see what we can say about God, let’s look for parallels in how we handle other beings not acknowledged by science—Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, space aliens, leprechauns, fairies, or Merlin the shape-shifting wizard.  Any evidence in favor of these beings is sketchy, far too little to conclude that they exist.  Do we reserve judgment?  Do we say that the absence of evidence is no evidence of absence?  Of course not.  There’s plenty of evidence (or lack of evidence) to make a strong provisional case.  In fact, in common parlance we say that these things don’t exist.

While we’re at it, note the error in the adage “absence of evidence is no evidence of absence.”  Of course it’s evidence!  Absence of evidence is no proof of absence, but it can certainly be strong evidence.  If you’ve spent five minutes poking through that drawer looking for your keys and still can’t find them, that’s pretty strong evidence of their absence.

Note also the difference in the claim that Bigfoot doesn’t exist versus the claim that God doesn’t exist.  Science has been blindsided by new animals in the past.  The gorilla, coelacanth, okapi, and giant squid were all surprises, and Bigfoot could be another.  After all, Bigfoot is just another animal and we know of lots of animals.  But the very category of the Christian claim is a problem.  Science recognizes zero supernatural beings.

As definitively as science says that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, how much more definitively can science say that God doesn’t exist when the category itself is hypothetical?  Perhaps more conclusively, what about the claim that a god exists who desperately wants to be known to his creation, as is the case for the Christian god?

Let’s be careful to remember the limitations on the claim, “God doesn’t exist.”  Science is always provisional.  Any claim could be wrong—from matter being made of atoms to disease being caused by germs.  As Austin Cline said in “Scientifically, God Does Not Exist,” a scientific statement “X doesn’t exist” is shorthand for the more precise statement:

This alleged entity has no place in any scientific equations, plays no role in any scientific explanations, cannot be used to predict any events, does not describe any thing or force that has yet been detected, and there are no models of the universe in which its presence is either required, productive, or useful.

The Christian may well respond to science’s caution, “Well, if you’re not certain, I am!”  But, of course, confidence isn’t the same as accuracy.  This bravado falls flat without dramatic evidence to back it up.

Now, back to the original question, Does God exist?  Does this look like a world with a god in it?  If God existed, shouldn’t that be obvious?  What we see instead is a world in which believers are forced to give excuses for why God isn’t present.

Or, let’s imagine the opposite—a world without God.  This would be a world where praying for something doesn’t increase its likelihood; where faith is necessary to mask the fact that God’s existence is not apparent; where no loving deity walks beside you in adversity; where far too many children live short and painful lives because of malnutrition, abuse, injury, or birth defects; and where there is only wishful thinking behind the ideas of heaven and hell.

Look around, because that’s the world you’re living in.

But this isn’t an anarchist’s paradise; it’s a world where people live and love and grow, and where every day ordinary people do heroic and noble things for the benefit of strangers.  Where warm spring days and rosy sunsets aren’t made by God but explained by Science, and where earthquakes happen for no good reason and people strive to leave the world a better place than it was when they entered it.  God isn’t necessary to explain any of this.  Said another way, there is no functional difference between a world with a hidden god and one with no god.

Listen closely to Christian apologists and you’ll see that they admit the problem.  The typical apologetic approach is to:

  1. make deist arguments (for example, the existence of morality or design demands a deity to create it)
  2. argue that this deity is the Christian god rather than the god of some other religion.

Mr. Apologist, are your deist arguments convincing?  If so, you should be a deist, not a Christian.  And why is the first step necessary?  It’s because the Christian god is functionally nonexistent—you admit this yourself.

The God hypothesis isn’t necessary.  God has no measurable impact on the universe, and science needn’t sit on the sidelines.  There is enough evidence to render a judgment.

We apparently have natural disasters whether there is one god, 20 gods, or no god.  Prayers are answered with the same likelihood whether you pray to Zeus, the Christian god, or a jug of milk.  Religion is what you invent when you don’t have Science.

Can we say that anything doesn’t exist?  With certainty, probably not.  But with the confidence that we can say that anything doesn’t exist—leprechauns, fairies, or Merlin the wizard—we can say that God doesn’t.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect
if there is, at bottom,
no design, no purpose, no evil and no good,
nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
— Richard Dawkins

Photo credit: Philosophy Monkey

Related posts:

Related links:

  • August Cline, “Scientifically, God Does Not Exist: Science Allows us to Say God Does Not Exist,” About.com.