Saturday, July 6, 2013

God Is Not The Answer

This post is considerably shorter than my usual posts since the point I wish to raise is a very simple one. I want to address why god is never the answer to any question about reality, and why anyone truly interested in understanding the world would never be satisfied with that sort of answer.

Imagine that a friend of yours has you over for dinner one night. For the main course he serves you what is hands down the greatest London broil you have ever had. Being a foodie, you ask your friend to please tell you how he made it. “My great grandmother made it” is his odd reply. This is odd for two reasons: 1. His great grandmother is dead 2. Even if she were alive, it still doesn’t really answer the question you asked. As a foodie, what you want to know is HOW the food was made, not by WHOM was it made.

                When a theist attempts to answer any question about reality with “god did it”, “god must’ve done it”, or even better “how else can you explain it, if not for god” they are doing the same thing. First of all, as far as I know there is no god, secondly that doesn’t answer my question. Whether it is the beginning of life, the source of the big bang, or why some people inexplicably recover from life threatening diseases, while others inexplicably drop dead, “god” is never the answer.

                Any question that falls under the reality/science heading is a “how” question, therefore a “who” answer is ill suited. If I want to know how life first arose for example, saying “god did it” doesn’t help me at all. Unless of course you could give me a sensible description of how god did it, in which case who needs the god part of your answer?

                The philosophical term for this sort of fallacy is the argument from ignorance. Summed up, the argument from ignorance is “we don’t know how this works therefore… [insert any nonsense here]”. It must be one of the most absurd fallacies ever, yet people keep making it.

                As always, if you are truly interested in how reality is how it is, turn to science, it’s your best hope, it’s an honest attempt at the answer, and its accuracy is impressive.

                “God” is not the answer, nor can it ever be. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Arguments For God Part 3: The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument, a.k.a. the watchmaker argument, a.k.a. the argument from design, is one of the older arguments for the existence of god. Although there are many who discuss this argument, I will (for the most part) be addressing this argument as it was presented by William Paley. On the surface of it the argument seems to be a very straight forward, and almost intuitively correct. The essence of the argument is the idea that the world appears to be designed, therefore, as with any other designed thing; it must therefore have a designer.

               The truth is that when one looks out at our amazing world and sees the intricate interconnectedness and complexity that surrounds us; it seems far-fetched that anything but an intelligent designer could be responsible for it. Anyone who has ever tried creating or designing just about anything, knows how much work goes into any product, how many failed attempts must be suffered through before a finished product is finally ready. With that perspective in mind reality seems to scream out for an explanation, who could’ve designed this? Why would he/she/it have done this? Which one of us has not at one moment or another marveled at the human body. If you have not, I would recommend that you do so know. Notice how much input you are receiving from your senses, marvel at the astounding computer which is your brain, immerse yourself in the wonder that is you, a functioning human being, and ask yourself how can this be anything but designed. William Paley asks us to imagine that we were walking across a park (ok, he called it a heath, same shit) and we were to find a watch on the ground. He claims that we would be fully justified in assuming it was designed, simply based on the fact that it functions so well (this example is the source of the term “watchmaker argument”). Again, this seems obviously true; it would be absurd to say the watch was always here, or that it came together itself.

                Insofar as is relevant to this conversation, there are three important points that need to be raised. The first is not a scientific point, it is a logical consequence, and such is more of a philosophical issue, it is the next two points which are really exciting. The first is that if our world with all of its complexity and functionality demands a designer, how much more so does this designer herself demand a designer, and so on ad infinitum. In other words if we say that anything that functions well needs a designer, then a designer capable of designing a reality such as our own must also have a designer. Therefore, postulating a designer does not answer any questions, it simply moves the question up a level. However it is the next two points which I really want to spend time on, because our original sentiments seemed well placed; how could all of this just be here on its own?

                One of the most amazing consequences of science has been the realization that our first intuition is not always correct. From when the ancient Greeks discovered that our earth was not flat, to Einstein telling us that space-time can be wibbly-wobbly, the trend seems to be that our first intuition is not always accurate. There seems to be a misunderstanding that Darwin was the first to propose that all species had a common ancestor, this is false. The Greeks had already noticed the similarities between species, thousands of years before him. However it was Darwin who introduced the mechanism by which one species would gradually change into another. When Paley discusses possible counter-arguments he simply dismisses the idea that there could be a natural law which could possibly explain the complexity we see in life. Yet, that is just what Darwin managed to do.

                What will follow will not be a thorough explanation of the theory of evolution; it will simply be a brief overview. If you have never read up on it, I highly recommend that you do; there are countless fantastic books on the topic. At the heart of it however, evolution is an idea so simple even a child can understand it. Let us imagine an environment in which survival is a challenge, there will be those who will be better adapted to that environment, and they will reproduce and survive; while those are not well suited for that environment will die out. That’s it. That’s the whole theory of evolution by natural selection. The mechanism behind it is also rather simple, what makes me, me, and what makes you, you, is our DNA. Your DNA is absolutely unique; there are no two living things in the world with the same DNA. Most of your DNA comes from your parents, however some of it was never theirs, it’s only yours, and you will pass all of it on to your children. Therefore, when you have any population, each individual is just that, and individual. It some cases, one individual will have some unique characteristic that will give it a better chance of survival, and by extension, a better chance of propagating that gene which allowed that advantage.

                The other important point that I wanted to raise was the distinction between function and design. Imagine you were stranded on an island and you discovered a huge cave where you could live. Imagine the cave had many rooms, a pool of water from where you could drink, and had a perfect sized rock that you could lift and move over to the entrance of the cave like a door. As much as this cave might suit your needs, as much as this cave functions as a home for you, it does mean that it was designed for this purpose. Science fiction author Douglas Adams once gave the following analogy at a lecture

                “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’”

                We find that if we look a bit closer, we begin to notice that life was not designed by a designer at all. As a matter of fact it’s mostly horribly designed (its ability to function notwithstanding). The oft held up human eye while fantastically functioning, is horribly “designed”. First of all we are practically blind; out of the entire electromagnetic spectrum we are blind to most of it. Secondly, it looks as though it were a camera with the sensor facing inward instead of outward. The wiring (our nerves carrying the information to our brains) is in the worst possible place; between the camera and lens. For more read here, or for more on our eyes’ “design” check this out. There are countless examples that show that living species were not designed (at least not by a competent designer) check here for example, or this lecture from the always entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson responding to the idea that the universe was designed for life.

One final point that I would like to mention in passing is that “god” is never a good answer to any scientific question. Since “god” is a “who” answer while scientific questions are “how” questions; however this point needs its own post, maybe I’ll do that next.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Smokey Rain / Rainy Smoke

                I remember, as a fifteen year old in summer camp, making the following observation. Normally when having a cigarette, after exhaling the smoke the smoke would disperse rather quickly. When it was rainy weather however, it seemed to me that the smoke would linger in the air a bit longer. I could give no reason for it at the time, and it was just an observation. Having just had a cigarette tonight in the rainy weather I noticed it again, now however, I think I have a hypothesis as to why this is.
                When you exhale smoke, you are not just exhaling smoke. When the smoke is in your lungs, it gets attached to water molecules there. When you blow out the smoke, you are really blowing out smoke attached to water vapor. This can be noticed by the change in color in the smoke from before inhalation (when it is blueish) to after exhalation (when it is more whiteish grayish). The reason for this is the same reason why the sky is blue but the clouds are gray/white. When light hits a bunch of particles, if the particles are small enough there will be an effect called Raleigh scattering. The effect of this scattering is that the smallest wavelength of light will be scattered the most, which in most cases blue. However if the particles are bigger, all colors will scatter equally, leaving it white. The particles in smoke and in our atmosphere are small enough that the light will scatter blue, while water vapor in clouds or in our breath are too big therefore all colors are scattered equally.

                When it is dry outside both the smoke and water vapor get easily dispersed in the air; however when it is rainy outside there is a lot of water in the air, and therefore the smoke mixed with water vapor takes longer to get dispersed in the air.

                This is just a hypothesis, I don’t actually know if this is true. I’m pretty sure about all of it except for the fact that the water vapor in the smoke will cause the mixture of smoke and water vapor to disperse more slowly.

                On a related note, don’t start smoking, it’s a bitch of a habit and I have been trying to quit for years. DON’T SMOKE.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Arguments For God Part 2: The Kuzari Argument

The Kuzari Argument, is probably the most oft-repeated argument in support of the existence of the Jewish god. Attributed to the Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, it has seen resurgence lately in the works of Rabbi David Gottlieb, Rabbi Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Lawrence Keleman, and many others. There are many different formulations of this argument; however the essential principles of the argument are the same.

There is a tradition amongst Jews that tells of an event in which god revealed himself to them
This tradition is reliable
An event of this magnitude cannot be falsified
Therefore the event must have taken place as described
Therefore god must exist

I am not going to discuss every flaw in this argument, I would rather cover (what I feel) are the two major critiques. The first of these is that there is no evidence that this event ever took place. The second is that even if it did in fact take place, as described, it still would not suffice as evidence for god’s existence.

It should be obvious that to assert that in must have taken place simply because the torah said it did, is a circular argument, and I will not discuss it any further past this simple observation.

Rabbi Keleman, when discussing the argument, claims that if the event did not happen then there are only three options before us; what he calls past, present, and future theory. Past theory – someone got up one day and told the jews that their ancestors had witnessed the Sinai event. Present theory – someone got up and told the jews that they witnessed gods revelation. Future theory – someone got up and told the jews that somewhere in the future god will reveal himself. It seems to me that he set it up this way so as to give the reader the false impression of having covered all of his bases, when in fact two of the options are clearly absurd. Furthermore, he is only contemplating the option that one person got up at some point and asserted that the event took place. It seems that he has ignored the most logical option, the evolving myth. There is no reason to assume that the Sinai event was any different from the typical myth. Perhaps there was a meeting of people near Sinai where they devised a few laws which were deemed “divinely inspired”. It doesn’t take much to imagine that story evolving into what we know today as the story of the giving of the torah. However the real problem with the kuzari argument becomes apparent if we grant, for arguments sake, that the event did take place.

In order for us to accept their testimony, they would have to know what it was they were seeing. Let us compare it for a minute to the UFO phenomenon. The fact that there are UFOs makes perfect sense, as there are many flying things that most people cannot identify. However, for people to then claim that it must therefore be an extraterrestrial spaceship is unjustified. All they know is that they don’t know what it is. If I see a new kind of bug that I have never seen before, I can easily identify it as a bug, because I have seen many bugs before, but if I would have “met an alien” I would be hard pressed to identify it as such since I have no experience with aliens. To bring it back to the Sinai event, how could the average jew at the time know that what they were seeing was in fact a god? They couldn’t. They could do no better than the UFO  case; simply call it unidentified. Furthermore we have documented evidence of thousands of people seeing an event and mistakenly interpret it. In the 1900’s there was an event where tens of thousands of people claimed to have seen extraordinary things which couldn’t have happened on the basis of everything that we know about reality.

More importantly, the issue I take with using Sinai as a basis for belief in god is as follows. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this doesn’t cut it. When it comes to claims about reality, science has noticed that the lowest, cheapest, worst, most unreliable form evidence is eyewitness testimony, and that’s when the people are alive and telling you, in person, what they saw. In order to claim that everything we know about reality is an illusion and that there is a god running the show, not just any god, a prayer listening, commandment issuing, intervening gods, you better have some really powerful evidence. No eyewitness testimony will do, let alone a book claiming that some people thousands of years ago saw it. That simply won’t do. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Arguments For God Part 1: Pascal's Wager

      Its been a while since I’ve last written, I know, but I’ve been busy with school and all that. For the last few months or two we have been discussing god in philosophy class and I have had the opportunity to read and discuss some of the major arguments. After hearing both pro and con I figured I’ll share my reflections with you.
      First up will be “Pascal’s Wager”. Blaise Pascal lived in france in the 1600’s, he was a great mathematician, scientist philosopher. His wager comes from a collection of his notes that were published posthumously. I’m not sure if the wager was ever supposed to be a stand-alone argument for religious belief, however it is cited and used by many theologians (and we discussed it in class), so I’ll address it.
      His wager goes as follows:
                   1.Either god exists or not
                   2. God is infinitely incomprehensible, therefore we cannot decide by reason, what, or even if, he is.
                   3.We must therefore gamble.
                   4.If you gamble that god is; then if you are right you gain everything, if you are wrong you have lost nothing

                  5.“Wager then without hesitation that he is…”

      There have been many people who point out the sort of absurdities that follow from his line of reasoning. One popular example is pointing out the fact that this is not really faith, and what kind of god would be fooled by this. Another popular one is that this whole attitude to what should be a serious topic is rather cheapened by is “c’mon, waddaya got to lose?” attitude, like this one, and I will add one of my own at the end. What I feel that they fail to do, is point out exactly where and why he is wrong; more precisely, where is the flaw in his argument. There has been one notable flaw that has been pointed out by many, that being that he is really only saying that either the Christian god as I understand him is true or it is not, and he is ignoring all the other possible alternatives. However I would like to introduce what I feel is his central flaw, it’s his second premise.

      His second premise is an argument in its own right that can be structured as follows. Premise: god is infinitely incomprehensible; conclusion: reason cannot decide what or if he is. This is false, just because something is incomprehensible does not mean we cannot talk about it. Infinity, quantum mechanics, and relativity are three counterexamples that come to mind of things which although we may not be able to comprehend them, we can still decide if they are true, by discovering necessary consequences of these theories. To bring this into the god conversation, imagine that I claimed that god, who is infinitely incomprehensible, exists, has the attributes that were described in the Qur’an, and that god has transmitted his infallibly true word and that word is the Qur’an. My theory can be disproven, all one would need to do is discover one falsehood in the Qur’an and it would be game over for my theory. As soon as we can find one necessary consequence of a theory we can prove or disprove a theory.
Ironically, Pascal grants this. When he introduces the concept of god and infinity he says the following
          “We know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is. It is false that it is even, it is false that it is odd; for the addition of a unit can make no change in its nature. Yet it is a number, and every number is odd or even (this is certainly true of every finite number). So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is”

      In other words, Pascal must concede that even though something is beyond our comprehension, such as infinity, we can still talk about of it, we can still analyze it, and as later theories in math showed we can say a lot about it, since we can show necessary consequences of it. We need not understand every detail about god in order to be able decide based on reason whether or not we should assume that she does, or does not exist.

      As I promised, here is a funny alternative consequence of his premises 1, 2, and 3.

                   1. God either exists or she does not
                   2. God is infinitely incomprehensible, therefore reason cannot decide what or even if she is
                   3. We must therefore gamble
                   4.  Let us therefore assign probabilities to each option
                   5. Since reason cannot decide we shall assign to each option an equal  50% chance
                   6. If god exists she might be the Christian god or the Jewish god, therefore assign to each one a 25% chance of being true, while the no-god option is still 50%
                   7.  Repeat for every additional religion and flavor of religion

                   8. Wager then without hesitation that she is not…

      Real conclusion: we must always introduce reason, this should not be a gamble.

Friday, November 2, 2012

I Found Democracy!!!

Throughout most of my teenage years, I have been apathetic about politics. It has long since been my opinion, that corporate sponsorship of politicians has more or less destroyed democracy. Politicians never seemed to care about the topics they were discussing, they seemed like actors repeating well-rehearsed lines written by their analysts, played out on a stage, in a drama directed by their corporate sponsors.

For the past few months, I have found myself laughing condescendingly at everyone getting all caught up in the presidential election fever. Before one of the Obama vs. Romney debates, I posted the following on Facebook, “spoiler alert: they are both lying”. That sentence about sums up my feelings toward the whole “game.” I had no intention of voting.

Two weeks ago, I watched a three-part PBS series called “Commanding Heights.” It compared and contrasted the two competing economic theories of the 20th century, centrally planned economy vs. free market economy. This was the first time I had encountered economic theories in my life, and seen how they played out in the countries that implemented them. Now considering myself a “well educated and informed” expert on economic theory, having graduated the prestigious PBS school of economics, I decided to see what Obama and Romney were saying about the economy.

I watched the debates, read up on their respective opinions, and concluded that Romney had his head on straight in terms of the economy. However, I hated almost everything else he stood for. I disliked his views on stem cell research, mentioning god at public events, censorship, LGBT rights, and medical marijuana. I tried to see if perhaps, anyone could justify Obama’s economic policies, but to no avail. I found myself caught between two worlds. In addition, I still could not shake from myself the distrust that I had always felt towards politicians. The lying, the falsely portrayed passion for topics that they did not actually care about, all of those feelings were still there. Additionally, I found the debates very stale and lifeless; there was very little overlap between what people normally discussed and what the candidates were proposing. The whole debate seemed very one-sided, with no real new ideas. I still felt undecided, but I was leaning toward Romney.

In the wake of the recent hurricane, my school cancelled all of my classes, so I found myself randomly surfing YouTube listening to random lectures. I was watching a speech by Penn Jilette at Google when I noticed on the side another clip of him, this time discussing politics so I clicked on it. Two things really stuck out from that interview. 1. In game theory (I know nothing about it, so I can’t say that I know this is true) choosing the lesser of two evils always increases evil. 2. He introduced me to the Libertarian party. He described it as having a right wing economic policy with a left wing social policy (“make a right on economy, a left on sex, and head straight to utopia.”) After hearing him, I decided that rather than support the lesser of the two evils (Romney,) I would watch the “other” presidential debate, between the Green, Justice, Constitutional and, Libertarian parties.
The most refreshing thing I discovered in the debate was a real passion for what happened to America. There was a certain idealistic fervor, which sharply contrasted the other debate. There was audience participation; cheering and booing were fine. Democracy was alive, the people cared, and I loved it. New ideas were discussed, well they were not really, new ideas, I have heard most of these ideas in the past from friends, or read about them. It was new to see politicians discussing them in the public forum; it was exciting to see presidential candidates discussing these “new” ideas. It was refreshing to hear presidential candidates discussing the very problems that I have had with politics for years. They spoke about not allowing corporations to make political contributions, not allowing political action committees and limiting terms in congress.

There was another thing that they had that was lacking in the other debates, a certain informality, which allowed the focus to be on the ideas, not the people. Very little of “Mr this ” “Congressman that” it was almost all on first name basis. There was conversation, instead of speeches. There were ideas, not rehearsed party lines. Regular people were asking the question, through Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

The single greatest line I heard was from the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson “…wasting your vote, is voting for someone you don’t believe in, that’s wasting your vote…” and with that, I changed my mind. I liked that so much that I checked up on him, and his policies and I am considering voting for him for two reasons. Firstly, he meshes what I feel, is the best of the democratic and republican parties. Secondly, he seems passionate and honest, two qualities which are sincerely lacking in the mainstream candidates. As a disclaimer, I am still trying to understand the “Fairtax” which he is proposing, so I am not yet one hundred percent sure that I will vote for him.

In conclusion, if you, like me are feeling that something is lacking in the mainstream candidates, please go and check out the alternatives. If you feel that, why should I vote for him? It’s not like he is going to win. My response to you is this, firstly if enough people feel as I do, he just might. Secondly, voting is not betting on the right candidate so that you can tell all of your friends “I knew he was going to win.” It is not a sports team that you support because you think they will win the World Series. It is a chance to voice your opinion; it is a chance for you to tell America what you think. I will grant you that he probably will not win, but I will be part of a vocal minority if I feel that they are correct. Should he lose, then at least we made some noise for the right cause, and maybe by next election, the noise will have become loud enough, the minority will have grown large enough, and America will at least know enough to make an educated decision.

Third party presidential debate:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Get Nostalgic About Today

                Have you ever had the experience of looking back at your childhood, thinking about all the “major problems” you had? Do you remember being worried about stuff like will the other kids in the class make fun of me? Is the teacher going to hate me? 1st grade classroom politics? Who was popular and who was not? Do you remember the first time you fell in love? All the panic it caused you, the sheer terror, the sleepless nights staying up wondering, does she think of me the same way I think about her? Do you smile now as you think of those innocent times? How simple our lives were, how lucky we would be if only those were our problems once again. However, this is just a perspective we can only afford now, in the soft glow of nostalgic hindsight. It seems like with just enough time and perspective, almost anything can seem so sweet and cute. Now let me ask you another question. When was the last time you looked at your today’s life with the same perspective? When was the last time you looked at all your problems and smiled about how sweet and cute they are? When was the last time you viewed your problems as something enriching, something that gives depth to life, the central theme from which this beautiful story of life evolves?
                That last question may seem odd to you as some of us have serious things that are going on in our lives. You may argue that what you are struggling with today is much more serious than what you ever struggled with when you were younger. If so, indulge me if you will, and imagine yourself in that proverbial state of deathbed reflection. At the end of your life, knowing that you have not much longer left to live, doesn’t everything take on a different feel? How precious does every moment of life seem from that vantage point? How sweet is every problem that life has to offer when life seems almost no more?
                Life becomes very busy sometimes, and with everything going on it, is sometimes easy to forget that we are alive. I don’t mean that we think we are dead. I mean that we forget that WE ARE ALIVE!!! How often do we reflect on that fact? Everything is still possible so long as we are alive. You only get one life, everything you want to do happens now. Every dream you ever had can only take place here, on this world, in that short flash between the cradle and the grave. Today is the day for action, right here, right now, you are alive, did you know that? Celebrate that every day, live it every moment of your life, realize it right now. Close your eyes, and do not reopen them until this has saturated every fiber of your existence. Really, do it, close your eyes and do not continue reading until you have internalized this.
                It seems that we live in a culture that revolves around us being passive spectators. We live vicariously through TV shows, movies, rebbes, rosh yeshivas, and sports stars. We are not used to getting up and doing for ourselves. Our adventures and romances happen on big screens as we sit on the couch with our eyes glazed over stuffing our faces with popcorn. We have spiritual experiences by watching a rebbe or rosh yeshiva doing his “avodah.”  We change the world by going to a little box and pressing a lever to vote for one apathetic puppet over the other.
                What are we doing with ourselves, with our one and only life? Where is the pride that any animal should have of simply living life to the fullest? An antelope in the zoo might be safe, but its true majesty and beauty can only be found in the wild where even food becomes a matter of life and death.
                Get up, look around; you are alive on the most amazing planet for as far as the eye can see. You are alive, you can do whatever you please, just actually get up and do something. If you honestly tried doing something than you cannot have failed, because by just trying at the very least you succeeded at trying, you did something; and if something is just not working out and does not seem like it will, do not waste yourself on it, your time is too precious, go for something else, the options are limitless. 
               This is your life, you are alive, right now, and no matter how much life you might feel that you have wasted, do not waste another precious second of it anymore. The only thing we truly have in this life is time, and too many of us squander it as a billionaire wastes his pennies.
                Every problem your life throws at you is just another facet of this great and strange epic called life, so face it with your head high, it will pass, and you can become a better, stronger person because of it. You can easily tell if a person has mastered this concept, if he has you will see thathe views his problems as beautiful and sweet. Start doing it today, because before you turn around its all over.
                One day in the future you will view today with nostalgia, but why wait until then?
Get nostalgic about today.