Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Reason for God, Chapter 2

Quite a few people have recommended that I read the book The Reason for God. I was not impressed.

I do not expect to blog through the whole thing, so I’ll start with the most interesting chapter(s). Chapter 2 easily makes the cut: How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? My section headers are mostly copied from the section headers in the book.

Chapter Outline

  1. Maybe there’s some reason justifying evil that we simply haven’t thought of.
  2. Sometimes bad things turn out well, so maybe evil and suffering isn’t all that bad.
  3. There’s no basis for evil without God, so evil is evidence for God.
  4. Jesus was overwhelmed by torture, and that's because he was separated from himself. Thus, God suffered too. So How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? Answer: Jesus.
  5. People like the idea of Christianity.

Page 22-23: Introduction

I will begin with a paraphrase of the opening paragraph of a paper by William Alston:

With the problem of evil, there are two different arguments. The “logical” argument claims the existence of evil provides a logical proof of the nonexistence of a good God. The “inductive” (or evidential) argument claims that evil is strong evidence that God does not exist. Alston writes, “It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt, but the inductive argument is still very much alive and kicking.”

Tim Keller begins his chapter by misquoting the final sentence.
The effort to demonstrate that evil disproves the existence of God “is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides to be completely bankrupt.” Why? (p.23)
The sequence of words inside the quote marks do not appear in Alston’s paper; Keller added the word “completely.” But doctoring a quote is a small mistake compared to what follows.

Keller places the quote immediately before the section header “Evil and Suffering Isn’t Evidence Against God.” This deceives readers into thinking “almost all sides” agree the inductive/evidential argument is wrong, despite Alston directly stating the exact opposite! In the future, I’ll recommend that Keller finish reading a sentence before publishing it in a New York Times bestseller.

While I don't know for sure, this certainly looks like a deliberate lie. Furthermore, it was strategically well-chosen; I would not expect readers unfamiliar with the topic to type in URLs from footnotes. Sure, people like me can point out what Keller has done, but still, its primary effect is to help build the faith of Christians.

The alternative to a lie is that Keller is unfamiliar with the concept of evidence and how it differs from logical proof. But later in the book, Keller makes a big deal out of how his pro-God arguments are “clues” and not “proof”, so I can think of but one explanation matching the data: Lying for Jesus.

Page 23-24: Evil and Suffering Isn’t Evidence Against God
Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless. (p.23)
As usual, Keller responds to evidence by saying it isn’t proof.

The phrasing “evil appears pointless to me” is designed to downplay the logic and data justifying the conclusion and instead attack the people reaching the conclusion. He doesn’t have an answer for why God lets it happen, which is to say, evil appears pointless to him too. He could use fewer words to communicate more: “evil appears pointless.” But then he wouldn’t be able to talk down to skeptics for daring to arrogantly use reason against Christianity.
Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order. (p.23)
It’s a testament to the strength of the evidence of evil that Keller resorts to sputtering about hypothetical answers, rather than giving one.

Imagine Congress is voting on a new law. Its opponent tells us, “Our minds can’t think of any reason the law might be a bad idea, but still, there might be one! To assume that you automatically know all the side effects, and all side effects of the side effects shows blind faith of a high order!” Speculating about a hypothetical harm while refusing to name one would be an inane rebuttal, even by the low standards of political logic. If the best a law’s opponents can do is speculate over an unspecified hypothetical disadvantage, then either the law is extraordinarily well planned out, or its opponents are unusually inept. Keller is in precisely this position by simply speculating over an unspecified hypothetical disadvantage to creating a world with less suffering.

Next, Keller uses an analogy: If you don’t see a St. Bernard in your tent, you can conclude it’s not there, but if you don’t see a no-see-um (the insect), then you have no basis to conclude anything. Likewise, our inability to see the reason for suffering doesn’t tell us if God has a hidden reason:
If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. (p.25)
Yet again, we see the false dichotomy of “suffering is not evidence at all” versus “suffering is proof that God does not exist.” I would say God’s reason for allowing suffering is rather like a weasel. If there’s a weasel in my tent, I’d definitely expect to see it, but I’m less than 100% certain I would. When I look in my tent for a weasel and don’t find one, this is strong evidence that there isn’t one.

The Christian God wants to be known and wants to be worshiped. The Christian God inspired several thousand pages, and one of its goals is to teach us about God. Theology books are filled with millions of pages of speculation about God’s motives and character. Before we even approach the question of my ability to divine God’s purpose, my first guess is that God would simply tell us. Or perhaps there would be many plausible explanations, and we’re simply left in the dark about which one is true. The Bible’s failure to provide an explanation and the failure of theologians to patch the hole is not the fault of skeptics. It’s the failure of Christians to invent a God with a credible backstory. If Keller can’t think of a way that God’s actions could be good, then he should stop calling them good.

Evangelical Christians would have us believe that if the Emperor looks naked to us, then something is wrong with our eyes. The moment you have an Emperor grand and powerful enough to be worthy of the title, you have Emperor who knows more about fashion and clothing than some arrogant little brat who thinks himself wise enough to know what an Emperor looks like naked.

Also, God need not be particularly great and transcendent for me to take issue with His inaction. Were I to learn that there’s a real world Spiderman sitting on his hands, I’m going to conclude his inactions reveal that he isn’t good.

Postulating not just a God but an extra great and transcendent God doesn’t avoid the problem. Suppose the Emperor is a super-duper-awesome Emperor, with an omni-suave sense of fashion, whose fashion opinions are the very definition of Fashion Truth, and with the ability to shut down entire lines of clothing with a single withering scowl. He’s still naked. I’m disappointed by minds who think imagining that God is beyond criticism automatically makes God beyond criticism.

In defense of the Emperor, at least he gave his subjects proof of his existence. Likewise, it was clear that the Emperor himself believed in his clothing; his subjects didn’t have to wonder if the Emperor simply felt like being a nudist today. It really was as simple as the authority of the Emperor versus their own eyes. By contrast, the Bible’s message is delivered not by God, but by ordinary people asserting that their invisible friend is very different from what my eyes say he is. So what Keller is doing is kind of like an argument from authority, except without the authority.

Page 25: The Benefits of Suffering
Though none of these people [in the preceding anecdotes] are grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything. With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them? (p.25)
A few pages later, Keller rebuts it himself:
A woman in my church once confronted me about sermon illustrations in which evil events turned out for the good. ... She insisted that for every one story in which evil turns out for good there are one hundred in which there is no conceivable silver lining. (p.27)
The woman’s main point is true, and it shows why Keller has failed to rebut the inductive argument. Anecdotes of bad turning good are useless against the knowledge that this is not how things usually work, and that sometimes apparently evil events turn out even worse than expected.

In addition, I suspect that many of the fortune-reversal stories are told by people who started with the healthy perspective of looking for the good in the bad, and ended up forgetting that the bad actually was more significant than the good. Or perhaps they maintained a positive outlook without ever making this mistake; perhaps Keller twisted their words just like he did with the Alston quote back at the beginning.

Keller makes no attempt to actually respond to her point. Without even a paragraph break, he ignores the logic and pretends she was just getting emotional. This is simply another example of Keller changing the subject away from the actual argument, and instead criticizing the person making it. Here’s the quote again with more context:
A woman in my church once confronted me about sermon illustrations in which evil events turned out for the good. ... She insisted that for every one story in which evil turns out for good there are one hundred in which there is no conceivable silver lining. In the same way, much of the discussion so far in this chapter may sound cold and irrelevant to a real-life sufferer. “So what if suffering and evil doesn’t logically disprove God?” such a person might say. “I’m still angry. All this philosophizing does not get the Christian God ‘off the hook’ for the world’s evil and suffering.” (p.27)
Page 25-27: Evil and Suffering May Be (If Anything) Evidence for God
[M]odern objections to God are based on a sense of fair play and justice. ... On what basis then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair and unjust? (p.26)
When showing how evil and suffering are evidence against Christianity, my basis for fair play and justice is Christianity’s sales pitch. Evangelicals will sell people on a “good” God who “loves” people, and then fault anyone who notices how much this differs from God’s inaction.

I’ve already written more than enough about the moral argument. Using it as a rebuttal to the problem of suffering makes it even more wrong than usual.

Page 28-29: Comparing Jesus to the Martyrs

Let me begin by recounting Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross. Jesus says of the people torturing him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The thief beside him acknowledges Jesus as sinless, and Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Moments before his death he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” In Luke, Jesus is fully in control of his mind even as his body is destroyed. Note that these are not cherry-picked examples, but a comprehensive list of everything Jesus says during his crucifixion in Luke.

Likewise, in John, after Jesus has been flogged and given a crown of thorns, he defiantly replies to Pilate’s death threat, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” By contrast, Keller writes:
The gospel narratives all show that Jesus did not face his approaching death with anything like the aplomb and fearlessness that was widely expected in a spiritual hero. The well-known Maccabean martyrs ... were famous for speaking defiantly and confidently of God even as they were having limbs cut off. ... Why was Jesus so much more overwhelmed by his death than others have been? (pp.28-29)
How is it that Keller gives such a backwards description of how Jesus faced his death? The issue is that Luke and John’s portrayals do not match Matthew and Mark’s. In these accounts, Jesus is overwhelmed. There are no words of forgiveness for the soldiers killing him. He provides no words of encouragement for the penitent thief. In fact, there is no penitent thief at all; Matthew explicitly tells us “the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him.” Jesus even asks God why he has been forsaken. In his final moment in Matthew and Mark, rather than affirming God as his father and as the destination of his spirit, he utters a loud and wordless cry.

(Keller tries to defend his point using Jesus’ agony the night before his death. But Keller wasn’t making a comparison with the Maccabean martyrs anticipating their deaths in private the night before, but to their actual executions, so I focused on the parts of the Bible that are actually relevant.)

There are three issues raised by the diverging portrayals of Jesus’ death. The obvious problem is the challenge to the idea that the Bible is without error. The worse problem is that the Bible can’t keep its story straight even on topics of importance. Keller uses Jesus’ reaction to build an argument about the Trinity, thereby accidentally showing how Jesus’ reaction is not a trivial detail, but a matter of theological consequence. The third problem is that Keller’s main point in the chapter is already undermined by the time he starts making it, as we will see.

Page 29: The Suffering of God
To understand Jesus’s suffering at the end of the gospels, we must remember how he is introduced at their beginning. (p.29)
We “must remember” this. Here’s my understanding of why Jesus suffered so much: the nails in his hands and feet. The point would be utterly absurd even if all four gospels mirrored Matthew/Mark’s description. Keller is implicitly asserting that a spiritual hero would not be overwhelmed by torture, and his evidence is several anecdotes from ancient history.

Keller tells us Jesus suffered so much because God is three in one, and Jesus was separated from his better third.
We cannot fathom, however, what it would be like to lose not just spousal or parental love that has lasted several years, but the infinite love of the Father that Jesus had from all eternity. (p.29)
The separation part sounds pretty easy to me; it’s not like Jesus “lost” God’s love permanently, or was otherwise confused about how things were going to turn out. In a stable relationship, being separated for several days isn’t something you volunteer for, but if you have to do it, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s new relationships and strained relationships that are the most challenged by a short term separation. Jesus and God the Father have been together for, what, an eternity? Time to themselves for a bit might have done some good. Maybe God the Father should have even kicked the angels out for a bit so that he could have heaven all to himself for a change.

I have no doubt that many of the same Christians who found Keller’s human relationships/Trinity analogy to be insightful theology will in turn find my counterpoints to be utterly blasphemous blind faith in my own cognitive faculties. How dare I try to understand God by assuming the relationship of the Trinity is anything like that of human relationships!

Page 30: Redemption and Suffering
Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. ... He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us. (p.30)
Christianity claims this. That’s wonderful. And now in the chapter’s climax, Keller treats the claim as fact:
Let’s see where this has brought us. If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition.  God takes our misery and sufferings so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself. (p.31)
Here, he plays his theological assertions against physical evidence and then tells us that the latter must give way to the former. This is a blind assertion followed by a jarring willingness to simply ignore the evidence. This isn’t even faith without evidence, it’s faith within the teeth of evidence to the contrary. Trimmed of it’s unjustified assertions, here’s what remains:
If we ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’, we do not know what the answer is.
Page 31-34: Resurrection and Suffering

Keller spends the last fourth of the chapter talking about how people want Christianity to be true, particularly if they are suffering.
I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is ‘not in vain.’ ... Embracing the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and Cross brings profound consolation in the face of suffering. The doctrine of the resurrection can install us with a powerful hope. (pp.31,33)
This is an example of what I like to call the Argument From Sadness:

  1. If there is no God, there is no heaven.
  2. If there is no heaven, that would make me sad.
  3. I am not sad.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

I’m being only slightly satirical. Keller really is trying to persuade people to believe God exists, and he really is basing this on people wanting it to be true. The only difference is that the Argument from Sadness pretends to be reason. But if you look back at the title of the book, it’s not so clear that even this is a real difference.

I'm not saying Keller is too stupid to understand the difference between a reason to want something to be true and a reason to think it is true. What I'm saying is that Keller is too dishonest to care.

Far from giving a Reason for God or answer to the Problem of Suffering, in this chapter Keller has given an example of how evangelical Christianity is completely and utterly without intellectual merit. And so naturally, the book is a bestseller.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Election of Trump Will Destroy Evangelical Christianity

Trump’s defeat was supposed to destroy the Republican party. Instead, Trump’s victory will destroy evangelical Christianity. The damage of muted support for his losing candidacy could have been mitigated; the damage of enthusiastic support (as measured by actual votes) for his victory will never be forgotten. Millennials were already rejecting Boomers’ faith, through taking a different approach, through being openly more liberal, and through outright rejection of Christianity. What effect do you imagine enabling 4 years of a pussy-grabber-in-chief will have on them?
The destruction will come from the outside, from countless people like me who are newly motivated to expose the sham of evangelical thought. It will come from people who previously may have thought it unkind of me to do so, but who will now cheer me on.
But above all, it will come from within, from Millennial Christians who will look at what their religion has been exposed to be and seek to reform it before giving up with disgust. Evangelical Christianity has always been utterly impotent at winning peoples’ intellect; the only remaining sales pitch is “come to us, we will teach you how to be a better person.” With this final sales pitch undermined, no excuse for its failure could be sufficient.
Trump’s candidacy opened a rift within conservative Christianity, and with Trump’s victory, the rift will never be closed. The line is not drawn in conventional theological terms, it’s not denominational, and it’s not degree of devotion. The rift hinges on a question that evangelicals may ask themselves privately but dare not ask out loud without considerable dancing around the topic, lest they be branded as having weak faith.
The question is this: Does God do anything?
The old guard of the Religious Right will say “yes”, while thinking “no”. Or rather, “no” is simultaneously a briefer and more precise version of, “God wants to work through our political actions. When we watch millions of Christians voting for godly principles, we are seeing the work of God.” That is, God doesn’t do anything, Christians do it for him. Such a view accurately describes how the world works. Prayer is more powerful than voting, they say, while using calls to prayer to get out the vote. And thus, cutting a deal with Trump is not surrender, it’s practical. The goal is not a show of character, the goal is to seize power and use it to enforce Christian norms. They must do it themselves, because God won’t. If they take a principled stand and lose the election, they just lose. To put it mildly, this is the face of evangelical Christianity, both in raw numbers at the polls, and especially in terms of who holds the positions of leadership.
The next generation of evangelicals say “yes”, God does do things, and they mean it. (Or rather, vastly more Millennial Christians think this than Boomers.) They may not know God’s reason for allowing abortion and gay marriage, but they know he does allow it. If God’s top priority were stopping it, it would be stopped already. When presented with two not-equally-evil options, voting third party is to throw away an ultimately useless commodity, a vote, in exchange for a more powerful one, a testimony. The central question is not which of the two candidates would be better; the central question is which stand will lead more people to Jesus. These evangelicals have a complete understanding of what was chosen this week. Their religion of trying to save people from their sins is gone, it has become a political organization clawing for power at any cost.
The rift cannot be healed, once opened. One group bases their point of view on their understanding of how reality works, and they are correct: the only justice to be found in the world is the justice that people fight for. The other group bases their point of view on an accurate understanding of the tenants of their faith: God is in control and we should act like we believe it. Many will learn to see the other sides’ point of view, only to discover that this shines a light on the central problem, the contradiction between how their faith suggests the world should work, and how the world works. Both sides will thus correctly infer the other side to be a path out of Christianity.
Such a rift is nothing new. Evolution presents exactly the same problem, with creationists believing that evolution is a path out of faith, and Christian evolutionists believing the same of creationism. Both sides are right. The Trump rift will much deeper; to not have an opinion on evolution is a live option. With Trump, the options included not voting, but a decision was forced.
Trump is perhaps the greatest tool for making atheists I will ever receive, and God knows I will wield it. But I wish I didn’t have it. I fully expected Trump to lose in landslide, because I expected evangelical Christians to vote their conscience. I wish evangelical Christians continued to have as strong of a claim to sincerity as Mormons.

A Deal With the Devil

And then Trump took Evangelical Christians to a very high mountain and showed them all the Cabinet posts in the world and their glory. And he said to them, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."
And they replied, "We like saviors who weren't crucified."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ken Ham, the Anti-Scientist

Much of this critique will be based on the content of the Ham v. Nye debate, although virtually everything Ham said is simply what he's been saying for decades.  Throughout this post, I'll be providing direct links to the relevant parts of the debate.

Ham opens by noting that our culture does not consider creationists to be scientists, using language like "scientists v. creationists." In this post, I will be arguing that Ham's views are anti-science. I mean this not as (just) an insult, but as a factually accurate description. Thus, Ham provides a perfect example of why drawing a dichotomy between scientists and creationists is entirely justified.

Ham counters the dichotomy with an example of a creationist who is also a scientist. I'm not familiar with the particular example, but I agree that people like this exist. One could have an anti-science view of origins while fully deserving the title of scientist in another area, simply by taking a scientific approach to only the latter. Similarly, someone could axiomatically assume that the Roman Empire never existed, and still do excellent historical work on ancient Egypt. It may seem surprising that someone could refuse to use reason regarding one topic while being quite skilled at using reason in another, but this happens regularly, and to far more than just creationists.

Next, Ham makes a distinction between historical science and observational science. "Historical science" and "non-historical science" sound like accurate phrases to me. "Observational science," on the other hand, carries a false assumption. The implication is that questions of historical science cannot be settled via observation. This is equivalent to saying that the scientific method is not a useful tool for learning about the past, which is precisely what it means to be anti-science on questions of historical science. It's quite ironic that moments after Ham criticizes the language "scientists v. creationists" for bringing in an assumption, he shows the assumption to be true by defining terms in a way that bring in his own anti-science assumptions.

There is a very good reason both historical and non-historical science are lumped together as simply science. In both cases, theories are tested based on their ability to make true predictions. Many data points are desired, and the more the better. If a theory makes many true predictions but then several false ones, we go back to the drawing board, and see if the theory needs to be modified slightly, or even fully replaced by a more accurate one. When the predictions are consistently right (or at least close), we have strong evidence that the theory is at least very close to accurate. No step of this reasoning is affected by the theory dealing with a historical question – with both historical and non-historical theories, all we need is sufficient data. This is simply the scientific method. I've explicitly explained something so basic because a grade school understanding of the scientific method is sufficient to expose the error in Ken Ham's anti-science views.

With a particular historical question, we may have enough clear evidence to settle it by means of the scientific method, or we may not. Ham assumes axiomatically that we do not. This is distinctly different from claiming that, in this particular case, we lack sufficient information. To know that the evidence cannot exist without looking is equivalent to saying that the scientific method does not help us figure out what is true. When a theory makes testable predictions, the results of the test give us evidence one way or the other. To disagree with this statement, as Ken Ham does, is to be anti-science.

Ham admits that his view of historical science is based on the Bible. So both sides agree that creation is not based on evidence – I'm glad he cleared this part up. He claims that mainstream science is similarly not based on evidence, but again, he's forgotten about the scientific method.

But then he further explains an already explained position and seems to contradict himself: "creation is ... confirmed by observational science." What role is left for evidence? Ham has systematically ruled out any way that evidence could influence his beliefs. The Bible is sufficient for him to be certain, and he cannot even imagine hypothetical evidence that could change this. Ham is talking out of both sides of his mouth, momentarily playing lip service to the idea of supporting a historical claim using evidence, despite the fact that his worldview provides no room for something so rational.

Ham claims the debate isn't evidence for evolution versus evidence for creation, but rather dueling interpretations using the same evidence. Ham seems to be thinking in terms of a static set of facts that both sides are trying to explain. What he's forgotten, again, is none other than the scientific method. A theory makes a prediction regarding currently unavailable data, and then scientists proactively search for new data to either confirm or disprove the prediction. The results of the experiment are quite likely to produce strong evidence for or against the theory. Denial of this fact is not merely anti-science, it is anti-math. Furthermore, as a couple examples will show, Ham does seem to think in terms of some facts being evidence for creation, and others as evidence for evolution, despite his assertions to the contrary.

Ham showed some charts that illustrate how species vary within a "kind" as would be predicted by creation. The question is, does Ken Ham think the data behind these charts are evidence for creation? If no, then how can he claim that this data confirms his creation model? If yes, then why claim that evidence can't support one side or the other? It seems that Ham wants people to think "there's no such thing as objective evidence" when looking at evidence for evolution, while applying ordinary scientific reasoning when looking at evidence for creation.

Of course, Ham doesn't even hint at how his "orchard of kinds" differs from looking at the branches of the evolutionary tree with the trunk not pictured. Perhaps the goal was to give us an example of an invalid evidence-based argument in the hopes of persuading us that all evidence-based arguments are invalid?

Most blatantly of all, Ham pulls up a chart titled "hundred of physical processes set limits on the age of the universe" proudly asserting, "more than 90% of these processes give an age less than billions of years." There you have it. According to Ham, we have more than 90% of the pieces of evidence supporting a young(ish) universe on one side and less than 10% supporting an old universe. So the debate really is about comparing evidence for evolution against evidence for creation. (Although, I wonder what Ham thinks we should conclude if, hypothetically, all the valid techniques give an old age?  Never mind, he's already answered that. If all the dating methods all said 4.5 billion years, we should trust the Bible and conclude that reality is in error.)

I'm overwhelmed by the audacity of this snake oil salesman maneuver. He puts up the slide, claims huge amounts of evidence against an old universe, and then moves on in 11 seconds before anyone has had a chance to read it. If this slide is what he says it is, it should have been a focal point of his opening speech. Ham does not name a single process giving a young age, but instead uses a bare assertion of lots of evidence as a throwaway line. After all, evidence is boring and the real point is the Bible anyway, so let's talk about something else.

But I'm not bored by the evidence! In fact, I find the list to be absolutely fascinating!  "5. Human population." But the universe is older than the human race. My understanding was that this is actually a point of agreement between scientists and Ham. "22. Oldest living plants." Similarly, the oldest living person limits the age of the universe to an absolute maximum of 115 years old. What's going on there, Ken? Are you assuming that plants never die? Did you move on so quickly because the arguments for creation make the most sense when thought about for only a fraction of a second? (Or better yet, don't think at all, and just believe the Bible.) This slide doesn't give us evidence that mainstream dating methods are unreliable. It gives us evidence that Ken Ham is a pathological liar.

Think about the outrageousness of this error a bit longer. Creationists have presented scientists with their champion, and their champion thinks mainstream science's methods of dating are unreliable because there aren't any plants that are billions of years old. The remaining question is if the debate is "scientist versus creationist" or if it's really "scientist versus liar." In principle, we could have enough evidence to decide between the two, although I'm not persuaded that we do.

When Ken Ham is called anti-science, this is not merely an indictment of Ham's conclusions. This is not simply defining scientist as "someone who agrees with me." Ham is an anti-scientist because Ham teaches people to distrust evidence and to reject the scientific method in favor of the Bible. Ham is an anti-scientist because he uses lies as a substitute for evidence.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Area Man's Near Death Experience Leads Thousands to Rethink Their Faith

During a hockey game dangerously late in the spring, an Area man fell through the ice. His body remained submerged for nearly an hour as he floated under the surface. Eventually, his body was retrieved through a hole in the ice and non-miraculously revived through the purely materialistic process known as CPR. But what has truly captivated the hearts and minds of the nation is his experience while unconscience.

"As best as I can remember, the ice just suddenly broke under me. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground shivering."

Dinesh D'Souza was among the first to understand the full significant of these events. "While unconscious, he didn't experience anything! Most people don't understand just how the brain works, so let me try to explain it. When you almost die, all sort of secrets just pop out. And the greatest secret of all is what happens to us when we die.

"I have spent much of my life thinking through the implications of this truth. And now I finally know where it leads. This man's experience tells us that … it's just nothing. Nothing happens to us when we die. It's like falling asleep forever. While I find this conclusion to be deeply disappointing, my intellectual honesty compels me to embrace it."

Ray Comfort could not be reached for a full interview. When contacted by phone, he repeated over and over, "Domesticated! Domesticated! Bananas are domesticated!" Kirk Cameron mentioned that after Ray went on a rampage through a produce section, local grocery stores have banned him. He added, "I'm really worried about him right now."

Perhaps most enlightening of all, an Area nerd managed to spare time for an interview between raids. "Almost dying is like when a computer crashes and starts spewing long sequences of text. Those aren't random bytes. It could be registers, memory dumps, or really just about anything. These are secrets hiding deep in your box. They really mean something."

Others were less moved. William Lane Craig was quick to dismiss the inference. "What you have to remember is that if hell is real, and NDE are but a shadow of what is to come, then we should have expected the NDE of an atheist to be a small amount of heat. However, once all the facts have been carefully considered, we will remember how cold the lake was. What if the heat and the cold merely canceled out, and produced a feeling of nothingness? It should therefore be clear that the Logical Argument From Near Death Experiences is invalid. In order for the argument to succeed, the atheist must know with absolute certainty all of the possible temperatures of hell, and how a fraction of the experience would interact with a numbing cold."

J. P. Holding was merely irritated by the suggestion that this was in any way significant. "These atheists always claim to base their views on repeatable experimentation. If this Area Man wants us to believe his story, he should walk back to the lake and throw himself in, just to see if the experience repeats itself."

What has been overlooked until shockingly late in this article is the Area man's own thoughts on the commotion. "What the hell? People are making deep philosophical inferences from my malfunctioning brain? I'm all for people figuring out that religion isn't true, but this is just ridiculous. If religion is replaced by using my dreams as a basis for a beliefs, well, we're really just back to where we started."

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Rebuttal to the McGrews - Rewritten

I posted the first version of my rebuttal to Tim and Lydia McGrews' argument for the Resurrection last year, and it was more difficult to understand and more heavily mathematical than was necessary. This was unfortunate, for I believe that it is still the Internet's only rebuttal that engages the math head on. Many people have noted ways the argument is “obviously” invalid, and my first impression was exactly the same. But the “obviously” invalid step isn't shoved under the rug – the McGrews give specific reasons in defense of this step. In my opinion, it is not at all obvious what in particular is incorrect about their defense.

Although, there is a limit to how simple math can be made. The McGrews' argument uses Bayes factors, and so neither their argument nor my rebuttal can be understood without some knowledge of probability. This second try should be simple enough that if you understand Bayes' Theorem, you should be able to understand this post.

The McGrews' Main Point

Tim and Lydia McGrew have written a chapter in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology titled The argument from miracles: a cumulative case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Their argument needs to be understood in the context of the standard argument for the Resurrection based on the disciples' testimony and death:

Claim 1: The disciples believed that they saw Jesus after rising from the dead, and they believed with enough sincerity to die for this belief.

Claim 2: Based on these beliefs, it is probable that Jesus rose from the dead.

This is not the McGrews' primary argument in the chapter. They are not making a full argument for the Resurrection. Their primary claim is not even a full defense of Claim 2, although it comes very close.

Let R be the Resurrection of Jesus, and let P, D, and W be the events that each of Paul, the disciples, and the women at the tomb claimed to have seen Jesus, and in many of these cases, died for this belief. The McGrews' primary claim is that P & D & W together provide a Bayes factor of 10^44 in support of R over ~R. Within this post, I am rebutting exactly one thing: their primary claim.

Edited to add: I need to be very specific about the sort of death it takes to qualify as D. What if the disciples died for their belief in a moralistic religion based on Jesus, but not the Resurrection in particular? What if Jewish leaders in general were rounded up and killed, and the disciples qualified as leaders? What if they didn't have the ability to recant? In this case, lying disciples dying for their faith is plausible. If these possibilities still count as D, then Claim 2 is weaker. If these don't count as D, then D is less likely and Claim 1 is weaker. I'm defining D to be the event that they died for their belief in the Resurrection in particular, and they had the ability to save their lives by recanting. I'm defining it this way to make the McGrews' argument stronger and show that their fundamental argument is wrong regardless of details like this.

The McGrews' Argument

There are 13 disciples in the argument (the twelve minus Judas plus Matthias plus James the brother of Jesus.) Under the hypothesis ~R, the probability that, say Matthias would persevere as a Christian is about 1000 times smaller than that probability that he would do the same under R. From this it follows that for each disciple and for Paul, we have a Bayes factor supporting R over ~R of 1000. They estimate the factor for W to be 100.

First, suppose these are independent. If so, the cumulative Bayes factor is found by multiplication, which gives 10^3 * 10^(3 * 13) * 10^2 = 10^44. This would be strong enough to overcome a prior probability on R as extraordinarily small as 10^-40, and make R 1000 times as likely as ~R. (Of course, they aren't independent, and this is what makes the argument “obviously” wrong.)

The fact that the events are not independent is recognized by the McGrews and responded to on pages 40-46. While dependence could lead to overestimating the factor, it could go the other way too. While it's possible that killing one martyr encourages the others, the more likely effect is that it scares off other people, who now realize that their life is in danger. So while the McGrews recognize that these aren't independent, their claim is that factoring in the dependence makes the Bayes factor even larger.

Rebuttals I'm Omitting

The bulk of the factor comes from the 10^39 factor for D, and so I will focus my rebuttal on that point and make no further mention of P or W.

One could argue that D is not true. This completely fails to rebut the McGrews' argument. They are defending Claim 2, and changing the subject to Claim 1 does not rebut Claim 2.

One could argue that the factor of 1000 used for each disciple is too large. Most rebuttals used against Claim 2 in the standard apologetic argument fall in this category. While these are important rebuttals, they are ineffective against the McGrews' version. Suppose the correct factor is 30 per disciple – then the Bayes factor for D is still over 10^19. Clearly, either the McGrews' argument is mostly correct, or there is a much bigger error somewhere else.

The primary reason the calculated value is so big is that they are multiplying the factors together. I will show why this is incorrect.

A Telekinetic Digression

I'm going to start with a related (and fictional) story that more cleanly illustrates the McGrews' mistake. As a digression from my digression, the reason mathematicians and economists often make up unrealistic and fictional scenarios is that they are instructive. Clearly reasoning through simplified examples is an essential prerequisite to reasoning through the more complicated and more realistic scenarios.

While at a carnival, I found a traveling circus performer who claimed to be able to control the flipping of coins with his telekinetic powers. He wrote down a sequence of three heads or tails and gave me the piece of paper. Next, I took a coin out of my pocket, and I flipped the coins myself while he started very intently at the process. To my surprise, all three predictions were correct. What should I make of this?

First, I will use the incorrect argument employed by the McGrews:

I can't think of a plausible way the performer could have known the result in advance, and controlling a coin that I will provide and I will flip is very difficult. But a very plausible idea comes to mind: maybe this is just a probabilistic trick. The idea behind the trick is that while it totally flops 7 out of 8 times, 1 out of 8 audiences are dazzled. The performer hopes to earn sufficient tips from the hapless few who happen to see the trick work. Or maybe he has a hidden video camera, and sells the recordings of the trick working.

Before flipping any coins, I thought that the odds that this was a probabilistic trick relative to telekinesis were 1,000,000,000 : 1. Maybe this is the wrong number – I don't care. This example is about what to do with the numbers, not about which input numbers are correct. If telekinesis were being used, I would expect every flip to be called correctly. Each flip gives a Bayes factor of 2 supporting telekinesis over luck: this value is computed via P(correct prediction | telekinesis) / P(correct prediction | luck) = 1 / (1/2) = 2. Three flips give a Bayes factor of 8 in support of telekinesis. So now the odds are 125,000,000 : 1. I continue to accept the usual laws of physics.

But then I pressed the performer, and in violation of the usual practice of magicians, he agreed to perform the trick as many times as I wanted. To my skeptical shock and dismay, he called 150 coin flips in a row! The cumulative Bayes factor supporting telekinesis over luck is now 2^150. This is about 10^45, which means that odds of a probabilistic trick to telekinesis are now 1 : 10^36. Have you spotted the mathematical error? I hope not, for I haven't made it yet. So far, all of my statements have been completely true.

And so I conclude that it is highly probable that the performer has telekinetic powers. Now there's the mistake. Although it should be obvious that something is wrong with allowing every talented illusionist to convince you of the paranormal, it's far less obvious what in particular is wrong with the argument.

But to explain why the inference is a mistake, let me go back to the start and name the possibilities more explicitly:

A: There was no illusion and no magic. He got lucky.
B: There was an illusion, or some other scientific means of controlling the coins.
C: It was his telekinetic powers.

This time I will not bury possibility B. While I can't think of a plausible way for B to work, I can think of some implausible ones. Maybe his assistant will sneak a magnetized coin in my pocket and will be using a hidden electromagnet to make it land properly. Maybe the first toss will be probabilistic, and then he will find a way to swap the coin out after it's out of my pocket. Maybe he writes out eight predictions, and finds a way to swap the pieces of paper. However, I know that the trick is rarely this complicated, and that these wild guesses are very likely to be wrong. (Alternatively, B can be thought of as the possibility that it's an illusion using a mechanism that I can't think of.) I would guess that A is 100 times as likely as B. Before flipping any coins, I would expect the odds of A, B, and C to be about 1,000,000,000 : 10,000,000 : 1.

Just as before, each correct call gives a Bayes factor of 2 supporting C over A. However, the same factor supports B over A, which provides us with no information in helping us decide between B and C. After the first three coin flips, the odds of A, B, and C are now 125,000,000 : 10,000,000 : 1.

After ten coin flips, the odds of A, B, and C are 1,000,000 : 10,000,000 : 1. At this point, I'm pretty close to convinced that there is a trick, and that the trick isn't probabilistic. (Actually, the trick could be partially probabilistic, but most of what's going on is something else.) So at this point, I think it is likely that the performer will call my coin tosses indefinitely.

When he does so, the odds of A, B, and C end up at 10^-36 : 10,000,000 : 1. As I claimed, it's actually true that telekinesis is more likely than luck at this point. Telekinesis really is supported over random chance by a massive factor. However, a known (or unknown) mechanism is also supported over random chance by a similarly massive factor. The result of these two is that the known (or unknown) mechanism goes from implausible to a virtual certainty, while telekinesis only goes from very, very, very unlikely to very, very unlikely.

Here's the general set-up of the mistake. Start with three possibilities where the first is likely, the second is unlikely, and the third is astronomically unlikely. Next, show the second possibility to be unlikely, and ignore it beyond this point. Next, reveal evidence that absolutely buries any shred of reasonableness in the first possibility. If you continue to ignore the (initially) unlikely possibility, only the astronomically unlikely option remains.

The next question is how to measure the degree to which evidence for telekinesis has been provided. I'm not asking for a number. What do we measure to determine the strength of the evidence? The answer is the obvious one. The strength of the evidence is measured as the initial degree of certainty that a non-probabilistic solution is impossible. I don't know how to compute an actual number for the strength of this evidence. But I do know how not to: 2^(number of flips).

On to the Resurrection

With the telekinetic coin flipper in mind, most of what needs to be done to refute the McGrews' argument is to label the relevant events. As would be expected, the flaw starts with the independence assumption. Although, I hasten to add that it's not really an assumption. What I really mean is that the flaw is in their justification for why this assumption doesn't mess up the calculation.

If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, the disciples' behavior would certainly influence each other. It's possible that circumstances would cause their behavior to be negatively correlated. It's also possible that circumstances would cause their behavior to be positively correlated. I suppose the McGrews and I agree so far.

I will divide the possibilities as:

A: Jesus didn't rise from the dead, and the disciples' reactions were close to uncorrelated or negatively correlated.
B: Jesus didn't rise from the dead, and the disciples' reactions were strongly positively correlated.

The McGrews go on to argue that A is much more likely than B. I don't know if I agree, although their argument does not work either way. They write: “If their belief that Christ was raised from the dead was false, either they had good reasons to believe it or they did not. The analogy of their belief to the subjective enthusiasm of religious zealots assumes that they did not. But their actual actions would be highly improbable under this condition.” Well, how improbable is it? Is it one in 100? One in a billion? We will see that justifying a Bayes factor of 10^39 for D requires justifying a similarly astronomical improbability of B. The McGrews do not attempt to quantify “highly improbable.”

I'll go with one in a billion as the probability that the disciples' behavior was strongly correlated. This includes the naturalistic explanations that have been suggested, and it includes the explanations that we haven't thought of. The McGrews hypothetically suggested prior odds of R as 1 in 10^40. I'm leaving out W & P, and so I will already include their factors of 100 and 1000 by thinking through the implications of the prior odds of R being 1 in 10^35. I have no reason to think any of these numbers are reasonable – my topic is what should be done with the input numbers, not what the input numbers are.

From here, the argument proceeds in much the same way as the telekinesis argument. The odds of A, B, and R start at about 10^9 : 1 : 10^-26.

The death of the first disciple is a 1 in 1000 surprise to both A and B, while R saw it coming. This changes the odds to about 10^9 : 1 : 10^-23. Note that the odds of the Resurrection went up by a thousand due to the first disciple – this much of the McGrews' argument is true.

But the death of the second disciple is very different, and the odds start acting like they did with telekinesis. Hypothesis A is shocked by the second death, B isn't all that surprised, and R knew it was coming. If the disciples are bound to act the same way and disciple 1 willingly died, then disciple 2 was reasonably likely to willingly die too. The effect is that the ratios P(A)/P(B) and P(A)/P(R) are drastically reduced, while P(B)/P(R) does not change much. (How much it changes depends on the precise meaning of “strongly positively correlated.”) Suppose that under B, after the first death the probability that the second disciple will die is about 1/2. Just as before, R is supported over A by a Bayes factor of 1000. However, R is supported over B by a Bayes factor of only P(second martyrdom | R & first martyrdom) / P(second martyrdom | B & first martydom) = 1 / (1/2) = 2.

After two disciples, the odds of A, B, and R are about 2*10^6 : 1 : 2*10^-23. (The math: Because R is supported by a factors of 1000 and 2 over A and B respectively, this means B is supported by a factor of 500 over A. Thus, I divided the number for A by 500, left the number for B the same, and multiplied the number for C by 2.)

The final odds of A, B, and R will be about 4*10^-24 : 1 : 4*10^-20. The Resurrection is as it started – drastically implausible. (The math: the last eleven disciples give a factor of 2^11 = 2*10^3 supporting R over B, and a factor of 500^11 = 5*10^29 supporting B over A.) It is true that R ends up more plausible than A. This fact is also completely irrelevant.

The final question is what to measure to determine the degree to which the Resurrection has been supported. The first relevant number is the odds that the first disciple would die for his faith. The second relevant number is the odds that their choices were strongly positively correlated. The third relevant number is just how strong this correlation would be.

We have returned full circle. These are the same questions that must be answered to assess the strength of the standard argument for the Resurrection based on the disciples' testimony and death. I have not shown the standard argument to be invalid, as that was not my goal. What I have shown is this the McGrews' Bayes factor of 10^3 * 10^(3 * 13) * 10^2 = 10^44 is of absolutely no use in evaluating the argument for the Resurrection.

The Second Problem

There is a second problem with the McGrews' use of math in the argument, which is essentially the first problem in a different context. Until now, I've considered the question “If D is mathematically certain, how does this affect the probability of R?” Except this really isn't relevant, except as a means to finding the answer to the correct hypothetical: “If conservative Christians are correct, and the most reasonable explanation of the data is D, how does this affect the probability of R?” Quantifying “most reasonable” will put an upper limit on the Bayes factor supporting R.

Suppose that the data is overwhelming, and the odds of D are 10^9 : 1. Suppose further, that the McGrews are correct and D supports R over ~R by a factor of 10^39. As before, suppose the prior odds against R are 10^35 to 1.

A: The disciple's died for their false belief in Jesus
B: The disciple's didn't die for a belief in Jesus
R: The disciple's died for their true belief in Jesus

The odds of A, B, and R start at 10^35 : 10^26 : 1. The McGrews' argument gives a factor of 10^39 supporting R over A and supporting B over A. However, the McGrews' argument does not give any information helping one choose between B and R. The odds of A, B, and R end up at 10^-4 : 10^26 : 1. R has been supported by 10^9, which is the number in the initial odds of D.

So even if the McGrews' argument gives a valid conclusion when taking D as a mathematical certainty, the way to measure to degree to which the Resurrection has been supported is to look at the chance of ~D. The factor 10^39 is again of no use in evaluating the strength of the argument for the Resurrection.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why did God kill Himself?

Within Evangelical theology, Jesus did not merely choose to die for Christians' sins. The wages of sin is death, and someone had to pay that penalty. Jesus had to die, or else everyone would go to hell.

This fundamental belief is not merely unsupported by evidence, which goes without saying in theology. There are also three fairly obvious problems with the basic idea.

The first problem is that it portrays God as a judge who is in the unpleasant position of having to uphold a law that calls for mandatory sentencing. Sin calls for death, so God's hands are tied. The obvious flaw here is that the reason sin calls for death is because God chose for that to be the penalty. Or perhaps rather than the penalty being the result of God's choice, it's due to God's nature, God's will, or God's character. I don't care in the slightest which aspect of God is to blame for this.

The second problem is that the punishment is set up as something that's transferable. Punishments aren't like that. I can't go to prison in someone else's place. I can't have points put on my driving record in place of someone else. I can't die in the place of someone on death row, even if I and the criminal agree. If any of these happened, it would be called “corruption.”

A monetary debt analogy is often used to explain how someone could “pay” a penalty for someone else. However, the analogy is flawed at precisely the point that the analogy is designed to make. With a monetary debt, it's not that the debtor has to pay, the point of the agreement is that the creditor needs their money back. Someone else can pay the debt, just as someone else can give money to the debtor who can then give it to the creditor. This isn't some special exception; it simply follows naturally from the fact that wealth is transferable. Non-monetary penalties aren't like that. The point is not that the victim of a crime needs someone, anyone, to serve 20 years for them. The point is that the criminal needs to serve 20 years. Either the criminal “pays” the “price” himself or it goes unpaid.

The third problem is that Jesus didn't pay the penalty for sin. Precisely what are the wages of sin? Death is a fairly clear answer in ordinary language, but theology has a way of mincing even the clearest of words. Death could mean the destruction of the body, death could mean eternal separation from God, death could mean an eternity in hell, or it could be some combination of these.

Here's the key question: do the wages of sin include an eternity in hell? Certainly, the answer must be yes or no, although multiple positions are encompassed by either answer. If no, then what's the point of hell? God just keeps a torture chamber around not because it's demanded by justice, but simply because he's the sort of being who wants hell to exist. Furthermore, if the wages of sin do not include hell, the fact that Christians still physically die means that Jesus' death didn't take away the penalty. If yes, then Jesus didn't pay the penalty for sin. The penalty for sin includes hell, and Jesus certainly didn't go to hell for eternity.

Furthermore, Jesus' only paid the penalty of physical death in a legalistic sense. Suppose a judge sentences a convict to be executed, legally declared dead, and then revived afterward. Assuming everything goes as planned, this is not capital punishment. There is no real difference between sentencing someone to death followed by resurrection and sentencing someone to a painful experience. So it's not even clear that Jesus paid the penalty of “death” in any sense of the word.

Using clear language, here's a fairly common Evangelical position:
An eternity in hell is the penalty for sin. Jesus paid this penalty by temporarily dying. Notice how different this sounds when you use “death” to equivocate between literal death and hell: “The wages of sin is death. But Christians don't have to pay the penalty, because Jesus' paid the penalty of death.” “Death” is one of the many weasel words concealing flaws in Christians beliefs that become crystal clear whenever the beliefs are stated clearly.

Were I engaging a position that gives more than lip service to reason, I would expect the usual response to this to at least have the general form of “here's why the substitutionary atonement makes sense.” But rebuttals to reasoning about theology are usually of the form “even though it doesn't make sense, here's why you should believe it anyway.” For instance, it is suggested that we shouldn't expect the mysteries of God to make sense to our minds. More educated Christians are likely to give a very long and drawn out analysis of first century culture and Jewish sacrificial traditions, and buried within the explanation will be the assertion that we have no right to question God's plan.

But notice that Christians never object to reasoning about the things of God when it is used to support their ideas. Jesus had to die because someone had to pay the penalty of death. The reason that someone had to pay the death penalty is because people sin. The penalty for sin is infinite because the sin is against an infinite God. If Christians really don't think that the things of God can be reasoned about, Christians need to stop giving the impression that they are intending to have a coherent position.

The real reason that Christians object to skeptics' reasoning about God is that the conclusions of reason differ very sharply from Christian beliefs, and so they wish to downplay the role of thinking. It is absolutely vital to the Christian faith to have the word “mystery” and other synonyms available to serve as blank checks to wish away all ways in which faith clashes with reality. What could hold together an obviously false belief more securely than a justification for believing even in the teeth of the realization that Christian beliefs do not hold together? As Mark Twain put it, “faith is believing what you know ain't so.”