How to conquer atheism in 8 minutes – or not

So, there are all these “Questions atheists can’t answer” videos out there. Most of them are by Christians and most have been responded to by several atheist video bloggers. I decided to try and respond to a Muslim one for a change of pace since this seems less common.

The video I watched was: “How to Conquer Atheism in 8 minutes” by Mohammed Hijab.

I wrote my comments as I watched … so there is some repetition and I mention stuff that I’ll get back to which I don’t since he didn’t go in the direction expected. In a few places I went back and commented on this, others I didn’t bother.

He first asks the following question from the quran 52:33

“Were they created from nothing? Or were they creators of themselves?”

We’ll get to the nonsense of this passage soon enough (note: he never actually discusses this passage, just throws it out there, so I never bothered getting back to it). But first he goes on to say that all educated atheists agree that the universe had a beginning and claims it is scientifically proven. I don’t know if this is an intentional lie or if he is just ignorant, but this is simply not true. To have a serious discussion about this we’d have to start by defining what we are talking about when we say “universe”, which is not at all obvious if you dig into it. But if we assume it to mean something like our locally continuous piece of spacetime, then no, it is not at all clear it had a beginning.

He then talks about asking atheists what happened before the beginning claiming the atheist answer is “We don’t know!”. The real problem here is that this question doesn’t necessarily even have any meaning, and the issue may just be a failure of imagination on the part of the theists. If our local spacetime had a beginning, then that was when time itself started. There is no meaning to talking about anything “before” time itself existed.

But, let’s go with the “I don’t know” answer to keep things simple for those who have trouble and are potentially afraid of difficult to grasp abstract concepts.

He then seems to make a common but outdated semantic argument about the meaning of the words atheist and agnostic. I’m not going to argue the “actual” meaning of words, since that is a pointless exercise. Words change and their only meaning is that which is agreed upon by their users. Most modern atheists take the word “atheist” to mean the lack of belief in a god or gods, not the claim that one doesn’t exist. So that whole line of arguing is a waste of time. On top of that, even if we take atheism to mean the active belief that a god doesn’t exist, there is no contradiction with saying “I don’t know how the universe began” and being this type of atheist. It’s a bit strange to even claim there is a contradiction here which is probably why he hurries past this part and goes on to something else without elaborating.

At 1:53 in the video he starts in on the Kalam (after a big build up). I’ve already debunked this nonsense in my first blog post. No need to repeat myself here.

At 3:28 he puts forth the challenge “try and break down this logical argument”. As already mentioned, I (as well as many others) have completely broken down this illogical argument. It’s just slight-of-hand nonsense.

At 3:38 he stats in on the fine turning argument.

He starts by making another false statement (again I don’t know if it is an intentional lie or just ignorance). He claims that there is broad agreement by scientists that the universe is fine tuned for human life. This is a misrepresentation of the facts. There has been much written on this already by scientists (proving the untruth in his statement), so I will only touch on the highlights (note: I never got back to this since he didn’t actually develop the fine tuning argument as I thought we would, but only gave one value as his evidence).

He then goes on to say there are only three options to “how this universe became so finely tuned”. Besides assuming the fine tuning to start with, claiming these tree options are the only options only shows a lack of imagination in the speaker. There is no support provided for why these the only three options.

His first option is “It evolved somehow”, which he doesn’t even explain. What does this mean? It is using the common theist trick of vague and poorly defined words to make something sound meaningful and obvious when it isn’t. It is the ultimate strawman tactic. Since he never explains what he actually means, it is impossible to even discuss it.

His second option is that “It was a product of chance”. Which he claims most atheists say. It doesn’t really matter what most atheists say on this topic, but rather what most cosmologists would say. Now, again, he is not really being clear on what he is talking about. But if we are generous and assume he is talking about the values of the physical constants of the universe, then no, most cosmologists do not make the claim that they have their values based on chance.

He then follows a now clear pattern and twists some quotes from Roger Penrose. Now, cosmologists are concerned with some questions of entropy, this is true, but not in the way put forth in the video. I mean, if you are going to quote Penrose, then you should go with more of what he proposes and thinks for a starter. Like, that this is evidence for a cyclical universe, so that, in effect, Mohammed Hijab is now arguing against himself by bringing up Penrose. But I’ll just include a quote from Sean Caroll which I think covers it well. He says a lot more, but this about covers it:

“We have a universe with a certain amount of stuff in it, and we can think about all the different ways that stuff (photons, neutrinos, atoms, dark matter) could be arranged.  Almost all of those ways look like thermal equilibrium — basically, huge amounts of empty space plus a few particles with some extremely low temperature. But that’s not at all what the universe actually does look like; the matter is arranged into planets and stars and galaxies.  So we are “low entropy.”  The early universe was an even more non-typical arrangement (even lower entropy), with all that matter very smoothly distributed over a large region of space.  If you randomly chose a configuration that the universe could be in, the chance that it would look like our early universe is about 1 in 10^(10^120).  Very small, and certainly something that cries out for an explanation. (If you explain the low entropy of the early universe, you also explain the not-quite-as-low entropy of the current universe, since we’re in the midst of the gradual march toward equilibrium.)

From this we can safely conclude that our early universe is not well explained by choosing a random configuration of stuff. Nobody disputes that, and people like me are hard at work trying to come up with physics mechanisms to account for it.

However, we certainly can’t conclude that it’s designed.  Indeed, theologically-minded folk who pick on this particular cosmology problem have fallen completely into a trap.  The point is that if the universe were designed for life (in particular, for human beings), there is absolutely no reason why the entropy at early times would have to be anywhere near as small as it was.  The “God did it” theory, to the extent that it accounts for anything at all, makes a prediction: the universe should be finely-tuned enough to support us, and no more.  Every galaxy in the universe has a much lower entropy than it might have, and none of those galaxies (over 100 billion) is at all relevant to the existence of life on Earth. Indeed, the other stars in our galaxy aren’t really relevant.  You could have done with just the Sun and Earth, maybe the Moon if you’re picky.  (You need some heavy elements to create biochemistry, which in the real world come from supernova explosions — but God can just snap His fingers.)The rest of the universe should be in thermal equilibrium — a smooth gruel of ultra-cold particles spread thinly throughout empty space.”

Hijab’s third option is “There was a designer”. There is no reason to believe this is even an option, and there is certainly no evidence that this might even be true. This three options nonsense is just a strawman argument. It is akin to me saying “There are only two options, Mohammed Hijab is either a frog or he is a liar. Everyone agrees he is not a frog, so he must be a liar.” This is nonsense in exactly the same way as his three options are nonsense.

He then abandons his whole fine tuning argument. So he never went into any detail about it, and his whole argument rests on just the Penrose entropy calculation. That isn’t even a strong fine tuning argument … there are much more detailed ones out there, and they have also been discussed (and countered) in great detail. Since he didn’t go into any more detail, I won’t either in this response. I may eventually write another blog post on just the fine tuning argument having to do with the universal constants (which is what I initially assumed he was going to discuss).

The best part is that around 6:30 in video he then says all his arguments don’t matter. He claims they are logical (which they are not), but then says they are irrelevant. So he basically threw out all his own nonsense. That makes this even easier.

His argument then turns to it being “natural” to believe in god as his main argument. He says we are predisposed to believe in god. My favorite part is where he says you don’t have to be a smart person to believe in god. I’ll let that one sit without comment.

This is his silliest argument yet. I’ll agree that humans are predisposed to magical and supernatural thinking. That has nothing to do with it being true. This is such a meaningless argument it boggles the imagination.

It gets funnier from there. He then says we need to be released from the “oppressive shackles of atheism”. A religious person saying this is about as ironic as it gets.

So, that was 8 minutes that didn’t even come close to “conquering atheism”. Didn’t even pose any challenging questions. Kind of disappointing.

 

 

 

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Morality

It’s not uncommon in discussions with theists for them to bring up the issue of morality. They often make the claim that there can be no morality without religion. That without the rules from god/religion people would being murdering and stealing and doing all manner of horrible things.

It’s at this point that I become terrified of the person I am talking to and realize that I am in a conversation with a monster. What I hear when they say this is that they want to run around killing and raping and committing all manner of atrocities and the only thing stopping them is some rules in a book. I find this a terrifying prospect and do not wish to be in the company of such horrible people. It’s terrifying to think that this might be true of many theists.

I don’t really understand what is wrong with all these theists that they lack any ability on their own to know that killing and raping is really bad. I wonder if it’s a genetic defect?

In general, I find myself uncomfortable around anyone who is advertising by either dress or other methods deep seated religious beliefs. To me this means that this person has abdicated the ability to judge right from wrong and receives this rules externally as unquestionable law. This means they are literally capable of any sort of horror and atrocity as long as they believe it is what their god wants. That is a truly terrifying prospect.

Take the Abrahamic religions … they are all founded on the same story, one that is at the heart of their beliefs. God told Abraham to kill his son and he was willing to do it to prove his loyalty to god. This is so incredibly horrible it’s hard to find words to describe it. The best part is the utterly inane defense Abrahamic theists give – “but god stopped him”. That is as from from the point as you can get. The point is that Abraham was willing to kill his son because god told him to. That is the only issue that matters. To these theists this is a great story of worship, to anyone with with an internal sense of morality it is a nightmare. Abraham as described was a horrible human being and unfit to be a father. And if the god described had any sense of decency he would have struck Abraham down for failing the test. The fact the Abraham is considered to have passed this test only shows the utter lack of morality of the god described.

The point here being these theists think it is a good thing to be willing to murder your own child if god says so – or if you think he says so (is there a difference?).

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”
― Steven Weinberg

Free will paradox – or not

Many atheists like to bring up an apparent paradox having to do with free will and an omniscient god. The common version goes something like: if god knows what you are going to do, how can you have free will?

I call this the soft version. The most common response is that you still get to choose, it’s just that god knows what you are going to choose. As far as logical paradoxes are concerned, this answer seems fine, if unsatisfying. Though not the point of this discussion, it is worth noting that this answer implies that god is a horribly evil and immoral creature far worse than the most evil human that has ever lived. But we can save that one for another post.

There is a harder version of the paradox that claims that it is not possible for god to be both omniscient and omnipotent if free will exists. You can create a simple situation to highlight the paradox. Let’s say I am going to either raise my right hand or my left hand. Assume god is omniscient, then she knows what I will choose. Assume god is omnipotent, then she can tell me what I will choose. Assume I have free will, I can then choose to raise the other hand. Thus a contradiction.

I have never met a theist who could even come close to resolving this paradox for me. Ironically, I, an atheist, came up with a resolution myself that nullifies the logical paradox. Seems a tad ironic. I’m not going to share my solution here, since I don’t have any motivation to help justify a theistic world view that I think is nonsense, but I just wanted to point out to other atheists that it is not really a logical contradiction even if it seems so.

There are plenty of other elements of utter nonsense and contradictions in a theistic world view, so it’s not a big deal giving up this one. It was low hanging fruit anyway.

Who cares about free will?

Discussions about religion and god often eventually get around to the question of free will and whether or not we have any. I have seen heated and detailed discussions on this topic. For me, the issue is extremely simple: who cares?

I seem to have free will, so for all practical purposes I might as well act as if I have it. I fail to see any relevance to the question of whether or not I really have it. I feel like I have it, acting as if I have it produces a consistent experience of reality, and I see no way to actually test whether or not it exists.

Since I assume most humans have the subjective experience of free will, why bother discussing it? The only reason I can see it actually mattering is in some philosophically abstract sense having to do with questions of moral responsibility. But again, who cares? We believe we are, for the most part, responsible for our actions, so it only makes sense to act as if that is true.

In a way, this a variant of Pascal’s Wager that actually makes sense (as opposed to the original one, which is nonsense). I am unable to see any downside to assuming we have free will so I find the topic of only academic interest.

Problems with the Kalam

There are a number of different cosmological arguments for the existence of a god. One of the more common in recent years is the Kalam, which has been popularized by William Craig. I wanted to discuss some problems with the premises that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere. Here is the argument for reference:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause

I would divide the problems here into two broad categories: 1) a failure of imagination and 2) confusing, ambiguous and incorrect use of language.

It seems so simple to make a statement like “whatever begins to exist has a cause”. I mean, it’s obvious, right? Common sense? Good old fashioned street smarts? Most of us are familiar with the idea of cause and effect. Cause precedes effect, an effect is dependent on a cause. This is a useful language shortcut for talking about our everyday experiences, but a problem comes up when you start to dig into the details and think more closely about what you really mean.

In simple terms, the first premise is a meaningless statement. We have no experience at all with things beginning to exist (I’m going to leave out discussion of virtual particles here which can be debated as not really coming into existence in the way implied). Our only experiences and observations are of things within our “universe” by which I mean the chunk of continuous spacetime immediately around us. As far as we can determine, the mass-energy of this universe is constant. Nothing comes into existence, nothing ceases to exist. Everything just changes form and moves around.

So how can we make such a statement about causes? We have no idea what it means to “begin to exist”. It is completely outside our experience. We don’t even know if it is possible for things to “begin to exist”, nor what this would look like, under what conditions it might happen, or if the term “conditions” might even apply. This idea is so far outside of our experience that we don’t even have any good language for discussing it.

We have no basis for comparison, no ability to even begin to test its validity, no theory or science to even start to discuss the idea. So anyone can say anything they want about things beginning to exist and it is all equally meaningless.

And, to top it all off, we aren’t even sure the universe “began to exist” in the first place.

Other cosmological arguments that focus on just causes and effects (using the “first cause” idea) have similar issues. The word “effect” is the one being used ambiguously in this case. Here, in our universe, we mean that when some amount of mass-energy gets rearranged, we can usually attribute this to some other state of some mass-energy in a direct way. This is usually done on a very course scale, which is great for daily use. I hit the ball with a stick, so the ball flew away. Great for day to day use, but you can’t be this vague and general if you want to dig into the details.

And, to top it all off with this version, we have things like radioactive decay which may not even have a “cause” in any sense that is commonly meant. As far as we can tell, this process is random. So the cause and effect assumption might already be wrong within our universe, let alone trying to apply it in a completely different context to some sort of “beginning” of the universe, which is a completely different, and meaningless, use of the words.