Saturday, 10 December 2011

The ontological argument for the non-existence of God

Most ontological claims that can be made are false. That is to say, there are more things that can be imagined than really exist. This can be demonstrated quite easily by postulating an animal with 1 eye, 2 eyes, 3 eyes...n eyes. Even if we ignore known physical constraints, we can say that the probability that there exists an animal with 1030 +1 eyes is rather low.

This can seen in the practice of science: There are more postulated entities than discovered entities. If a scientist proposes phenomenon x to explain some feature of a larger phenomenon (example: proposing that convection currents explain some feature of thunderstorms), they need to do work to show both that phenomenon x actually exists and that phenomenon x explains what is observed.

Why is evidence needed? Evidence increases the probability of something being true. This means that before evidence is found, the ontological claim that x exists is improbable. x exists in the sea of all possible ontological claims. Evidence raises claims out of this sea. The sea of all possible ontological claims is essentially infinite in size*

Because of this feature, when a scientist proposes x, the correct response is disbelief in x until evidence is brought forward to raise it out of the sea. The probability of plucking something out of the sea and being right is low - there are an infinite number of untrue ontological claims and only a finite number of true ontological claims. This position, where disbelief is the default position, is normally referred to as 'skepticism'.

Religious folk will make ontological claims as explanations for observed phenomena. Theists often argue that god exists and is an explanation for things such as

  • Morality
  • Love
  • Religious experiences
And theologians have done a lot of work trying to show how God would explain the above. I disagree that they have succeeded, I've yet to see how there is a causal link from God to any of those thing - how the mechanics of the explanation is proposed to work exactly and how it directly leads to the observation. Worse than that though, is that there is famously no evidence for the proposed entity, God. As such God, no matter how good an explanation you might think it is, remains adrift in the infinitely deep sea of all possible ontological claims. The probability that it is one of the true ones remains therefore negligible.
* It might be worth noting that applying known phsyical constraints and the assumption that we know our constraints may serve to prevent this being infinite in practice. Even so, the number is still high enough to warrant skepticism for any unevidenced claim. Of course, if we're even allowing gods and other supernatural/spiritual/magical beings to be considered 'possible' in our sea of possible ontological claims, I think examination will reveal that we're making the pool infinite in size again. After all, whose to say there is not a magical invisible pink unicorn with 1030 +1 eyes, right?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Faith is not a reason

In debate, and whenever else a believer might be challenged on their beliefs - there is often the temptation on behalf of the believer to refer back to their beliefs as reasons why they hold those same beliefs. This is the 'faith' rebuttal. Here's an example:

A: Why do you believe that Jesus was resurrected?
T: Because the Bible says it is so.
A: But why do you believe what the Bible says?
T: I have faith that it is true.
A: I know that, but why do you have faith?
T: I just have faith.

Now, theologians practically make a living out of glamorizing faith and imbuing it with all sorts of connotations, but ultimately faith is just another way of saying 'I trust it'. Even if the theologians are correct, all they are saying is that faith is a special kind of trust.

Normally trust is something that is earned. The process of earning trust is through justification. I trust bridges won't fall down because of the observed safety protocols that are enforced, knowing that an inspector can be held morally and legally liable if they fail to detect structural defects in the bridge, I trust in the innate human tendency to want to avoid getting caught not abiding by duties and being morally culpable for the consequences. The bridge safety system has, in short, earned my trust through closing bridges at the first sign of potential trouble.

Theologians would argue that faith is a mystically unfathomable type of trust. What it seems to boil down to as far as I can see is that faith is special because it doesn't need to be earned. Indeed, faith seems to be homeopathic trust: The less justified the trust is, the stronger the faith is.

By promoting this unjustified trust, faith is seen by many to be a virtue. Con artists rely on exploiting unjustified trust. By thinking that faith is a virtue, you are creating a Trojan Horse of the mind: Clever people may successfully exploit your belief in unjustified trust, to your detriment. You may get off lightly, and merely end up believing in some strange things, but is it worth the risk?

Finally, there is something infantile about saying you believe what you believe because you have faith it is true. It reminds me of

A: Why did you punch B?
C: 'cos.
A: But why?
C: Just....'cos.


Suicide is a difficult subject for many people. This is presumably partially down to the fact that suicide seems so alien or impossible to really imagine. What person in their right mind would do such a thing?

What is suicide?

For my purposes: suicidal behaviour is behaviour whose primary goal is to end the life of the subject. This means that some things that might be considered suicidal by some, are not. There are some classic examples here. One is the example of throwing ones self onto a live grenade. This action might be suicidal, but if the primary goal is to save the lives of comrades, then by my usage here it is not.

Furthermore, suicide attacks such as Kamikaze, suicide bombing, or the September 11 attackers are not suicide by my definition. They all have alternative primary goals. The death of the subject is pretty much incidental to those goals. Sometimes it is a desired side effect, other times an undesired one.

But I'm going to be principally talking about suicide where one's own death is the primary goal.

When is it rational?

To the left is a graph depicting a hypothetical life. The x-axis is time from birth to death. The y-axis is a measure of happiness of some sort. It is a sum of all the pros and cons for being alive at that given moment. When the line is above the axis, life is good and worth living. When the line is below the axis, life is hard and not worth living.

I think everybody would intuitively agree, however, that just because life is tough at period B, suicide would not be a rational response. It is a relatively short period of time, and it is followed by an overwhelmingly positive life for an extended period of time.

However, at the start of period D, life becomes bad, and is going to get worse and worse and worse ending only at the subject's death. The most obvious explanation for this would be a terminal illness of some kind. We might argue, that if a subject knows the shape of their graph, that it might well be rational to kill themselves at or around stage D.

Is it irrational?

Our problem with suicide is one of omniscience. Or rather lack thereof. If stage B represents a depressed stage, it is likely that the subject's estimation of their graph will look more like the one to the right. Depression tends to magnify the perception of the bad, and removes hope regarding the future.

So how can it ever be rational? How can we be sure of our projections into the future to make the decision to end it once and for all? With emphasis on the 'for all'. As ever we have to turn to projected probabilities. If we are acting rationally, we need to estimate the probabilities for the future.

Obviously mental health issues will distort our probabilities, which is why mental illness can be so life threatening.

But what if the subject is very sick at stage B, with a physical illness? One that is so bad it makes one wish one was dead. The subject should work out what are the chances of recovery, and what are the prospects for life once recovery is complete. Hopefully, they will see the first graph as being a realistic possibility and will therefore not kill themselves.

But physical discomfort can be very coercive, and can affect our rational minds just as much as mental anguish.

Is it moral?

Let's re-examine stage B. At stage B it might still be rational to kill one self, though it might not be rational to commit suicide (remember my distinction?). For example, if one knew a secret that if revealed would cost many lives it might be moral to kill oneself to avoid revealing that secret if stage B represents a torture sequence (even knowing that stage C will be swell for us). This would be with the primary intention of saving lives, though, so it would not be the kind of suicide I'm discussing.

Can it ever be moral to commit suicide? Well, why is it immoral? I'm not going to entertain the 'subverting God's will' argument here. I think Hume covered that quite well. If you are curious you can search for Hume's Of Suicide to get the rebuttal to that kind of argument.

There are some obvious moral concerns though: What if you have dependents? What about your other duties and obligations?

These are all difficult issues to resolve, but I think that a moral subject can in principle put their affairs in order to minimize the harm their suicide might otherwise cause. And I think this all lies in tension with our right to life as we see fit (including its voluntary termination). Since suicide is death with consent, I cannot find it intrinsically immoral.

Society needs to adjust to account for this view, and I think it is doing - but slowly. Assisted suicide is becoming something that is accepted morally. For the immediate future, I think that people who want to die, who aren't terminally ill, will be considered mentally ill and thus society will resist their rights to die.

But mental anguish can be as bad as physical anguish, so if it is moral to let someone die to avoid pain, loss of dignity or other suffering - I think a case can be made to allow the mentally ill to die too. Naturally, we would want to try and help the mentally ill person have a good life instead of dying - but that isn't necessarily possible. Today, seriously mentally ill people that would rather die than continue living the way they do are forced to take suicidal actions which are uncontrolled and can result in greater suffering.

It's not an easy subject, but it is better for it to be talked about - than for it to be ignored. Lives are at stake. I recommend, as a starting point for anyone interested, to examine Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Suicide. It goes into much greater depth than I have been able to.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Skeptics and mental health

JT Eberhard has given the talk I was hoping to give one day, rallying the skeptics to address mental health issues and to support those afflicted by them.

Unfortunately I’m a random internet asshole with no power or audience, so the chances of me being the one to give the talk was vanishingly small, but I find comfort in my delusions nevertheless. Although there is a slight bitter taste in seeing someone else do the talk one has been building in one's own head for some time, really it wasn't realistic to suppose I would get the opportunity to give it. So I'm incredibly gladdened to see that the talk was given. And to be honest, it was given in a much more engaging fashion than I could have done - so I'm even more glad that Eberhard did it. Given the reaction on the blogosphere, it seems to have achieved precisely what I dreamed a talk like this could have achieved.

He has urged others to ‘come out’ and there have been lots of skeptics coming out with with their tales (mostly of depression, which given its surprising frequency in the population is to be expected). JT suffered from depression related to anorexia, and his story is very moving.

There is a great deal of stigma for an atheist to come out about being depressed. After all: this just proves that without god, there is no hope, only despair etc. That isn't to say there is more stigma than for a theist, indeed it may be worse for some theists...much worse.

There is an additional stigma on top of this with psychosis I think (not that I’m trying to be competitive over this or anything). JT himself said that he suffered from some hallucinations, and he addressed this very point. Since I am delusional, people can simply write off whatever I say as being the ‘ravings of a madman’ and anything that I say can be explained as being symptomatic.

I haven’t written for a good while in my blog. This is predominantly because of a soul crushing belief that I am not worthy to write. Nobody knows about this blog’s existence, and there’s probably nobody that would care if they did. The despair and apathy combined are powerful factors. Just about any guide on writing blogs suggests that writing be regular/frequent, something I had hoped to attain when I started this blog but I knew it was a big ask. This of course (in my dark periods), underscores what a complete failure I am. Although I love writing, I can’t do it regularly enough to attract an audience.

By sheer coincidence (I assume), PZ posted a “Why I am an atheist” from someone with mental health issues which is also worth highlighting:

So much of my life had been spent seeking help in this invisible being, yet to no avail and to the persistence of very tangible pain. Finally, after years of delusion, something clicked and I punched myself with some brutal honesty and the fear turned into anger. A subservient to this “God” is what I had been, begging and fearing for a life that was barely worth living. That night, the “Fuck you God!” night, shed my life of the false safety net that was actually enslaving me. It was perhaps the most liberating experience of my life.

Finally, skepticism about medication is another issue that JT raised. One the things I struggle with is that I know there was shenanigans about the side effects of the medication I am on. Suffering from paranoia, this information is the kind of thing that might threaten my compliance. It was grotesquely immoral of the drug company to pull shenanigans on a drug used to treat psychotic people, given that psychotic people are very sensitive about conspiracies to drug them. That's a rant for another time.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Faith Schools

I recently wrote about a rather peculiar aspect of British Politics, that certain Bishops are given a seat by right in the House of Lords where they can vote for and against legislation that has passed through the House of Commons. Today I talk about another aspect of the British system: Faith schools.

Faith Schools are schools of a 'religious character'. About 20% of all high schools have such a religious character and nearly 40% of primary schools have a religious character. Faith schools are not like Lords Spiritual - they make up a large amount of the educational system of Britain. The question is, is having these schools justified. Is it even sane?

Richard Dawkins has tried to raise our conscience regarding telling children what religious faith they are, and faith schools may serve to reinforce the notion that the children are of a particular faith. Dawkins has produced a documentary called "Faith School Menace?" in which he sets out his problems with Faith Schools. It contains an infamous scene where he speaks to pupils and teachers at a Muslim school and exposes their ignorance of the theory of evolution and the obvious indoctrination that takes place there.
Richard Dawkins Visits a Muslim School by blindwatcher

The schools are allowed to teach their own religion syllabus which is not subject to Ofsted inspection. While some schools may teach other faiths, and even about secular moral stances such as humanism, there is no obligation to do so and so there are plenty that don't and instead just teach the dogmas of the particular religion that sponsors the school. This seems to me to be a great way of shielding young children from challenging viewpoints - not giving them a fair opportunity to make up their own mind. Which religion, if any, that is correct is a genuine controversy to be taught, and many faith schools don't teach that controversy. Furthermore, in classes which are designed to discuss ethics and social issues, faith schools tend to teach these issues from the perspective of the faith behind the school.

As a way to further shield pupils from dissenting views, the schools can even hire people based on their religion. This means they can refuse to hire someone based on their religion, or lack thereof!

In short, there are potentially bad consequences of faith schools. They can serve as propaganda machines for a given faith, and instead of controls and balances put into practice to defend children from this propaganda, the faith schools are given legal passes to avoid scrutiny in this regard. I'd like to be able to trust them to adhere to the curriculum, but I know there will always be those that don't. And without any inspections, they are given free access to some of the most vulnerable minds in our society.

Not only that, but they are inherently discriminatory and biased. They discriminate on the religious views (or lack thereof) of both the pupils that can be taught there and the teachers that can work there. Their selectionism means they can pick the children who are more likely to do well in education (but saying it is on grounds of religious views, and even doing it unconsciously) to bias their results versus the average as a means to persuade us they produce better educated children.

All of this might possibly, maybe, be forgiven if they were private institutions. But they are mostly funded by taxpayers, and I don't think we should be paying to have children given less than the best information about each other and their religions. As it stands, a sound majority of the British public are against making new faith schools, 64% going as far as to agree with the statement, "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind"

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Male circumcision

Ed Brayton brings up male circumcision. - reporting that California has banned banning circumcision! I am somewhat surprised that this is an active discussion in skeptical circles. Or should I say, an active discussion in American skeptical circles.

After all, there are no actual good reasons to do it, and some good reasons not to do it. So why is it even a serious question?

The Pros

Medical benefits
The medical benefits are minute, or non-existent. Furthermore, the benefits can still be obtained by not circumcising unless specifically medically advantageous. The scatter-gun approach of circumcising before any problems arise seems a little unjustifiable to me.

To make son's penis look the same as Daddy's
This argument would mean we should pierce or tattoo infants penises if the father has had that procedure done. Not only is the argument generally creepy, but it is fallacious.

Women find it more attractive
I don't think this is true. And even if it was true - it will only become relevant when the boy is a teenager.

The Cons

Because it is a non-consensual permanent body modification
And that's really all that matters, surely? The fact that it is of the penis strengthens this argument. The only argument against this is that doing it when the person is very young, means they don't remember the pain and bloodshed. But that argument can be applied to tattoos, piercings or even outright sexual abuse.

I get a very strong sense that people are uncomfortable accepting that a non-consensual body modification on a child's sexual organ is problematic because it paints their family, their friends in a negative fashion. If I suggest that in any other context, divorced from the cultural association, it would be considered sexual assault to cut pieces off a child's penis - it makes people very uncomfortable.

But sexual assault can be done in ignorance and even in love. It isn't that the people that do it are BAD BAD people, but we should really look at the procedure from an objective point of view. Given what the procedure is, the reason for doing it has got to be damned good. And the arguments really aren't even slightly good.

I have no problem with people that choose to circumcise their child, but maybe I should. Nevertheless, since it is an operation that can be deferred until the person reaches an age when they can give their informed consent. I'd wager that most people given that opportunity would turn down circumcision, so what right do we have denying this choice to people just because we have the power to do so?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Religious Representatives in the House of Lords

The House of Lords is a controversial thing. It is an unelected second house that is part of the legislative process in the UK. Seats are appointed, or in 26 cases given to senior Bishops in the Church of England. The senior Bishops are: The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester are the first five, the remaining seats are occupied by the longest serving bishops.

Most people outside of the UK who live in a secular society will probably think this is absolutely crazy, and they'd be right. Lords Reform has been on the agenda for some time, with promises of making it a democratic house being bandied around, as well as the notion of just getting rid of the thing entirely.

The most recent reform ideas contain controversy of their own. Although it proposes to basically half the number of bishops, it also reduces the number of Lords resulting in a net increase in the proportion of bishops to Lords (or rather Lords Spiritual to Lords Temporal). Other suugested ideas include getting rid of the privileged status of the CofE and having Lords Spiritual from other religious denominations (for instance, there are no representatives from the Church of Scotland, let alone any Imams at this time).

Most people who have thought seriously and read widely about the intersection of religion and politics will be able to anticipate the reasons for having Bishops given temporal power over legislation. Place your bets now...

The winner is: Bishops offer unique insight into ethical matters. Of course this reason is bollocks. I would suggest that dogma serves to blind Bishops of a range of ethical and moral considerations that makes them less insightful, not more. Take for example: assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Although most people (including the religious) in Britain are generally supportive of the idea given suitable protections etc, but bishops voted against it (the Lords as a whole did, in fairness).

The part that I find most shocking is that in the most recent Reform proposals the Bishops would find themselves exempt from the serious offence provisions. I cannot find details of what the serious offence provision is exactly, but it is proposed that instead of the procedure that applies to all other Lords, the Bishops will be expected to discipline their own. And we know how poor religious institutions are at doing that.