Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ginkgo biloba: How psuedoscience becomes science

Ginkgo biloba is a species of plant that has been used in traditional Eastern medicine for thousands of years for memory enhancement and to treat dementia. Until recently, it has been largely ignored by modern medicine as one of hundreds of herbal medicines that have no real, verifiable benefit. It was largely considered to a pseudo-medicinal plant that was used by the "natural medicine" crowd that largely reject science-based medicine. That is not entirely the case any more, thanks to the careful work of a group of researchers that decided to test its effects while maintaining the rigorous standards set forth in the medical and scientific community.

Pierre Le Bars and his colleagues wanted to test if Ginkgo biloba could be used to safely treat symptoms of dementia in patients with Alzheimer's, so they set forth on creating a rather standard, time-tested experimental design -- a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial with a fairly large sample size (309). Great care was taken to control extraneous variables and prevent bias, which is exactly what makes this such a good study.

Since Le Bars and company only wanted to test for the effects of Ginkgo biloba on patients' symptoms of dementia, they only selected patients with no other serious medical problems. This is an important control that helped the scientists make sure that no other condition was either negatively or positively affecting the patients' symptoms. Le Bars and his colleagues also controlled for the placebo effect, which is a phenomenon that causes some people to have either perceived or real improvement in a medical condition even though the treatment has no real pharmacological effect. They did this by giving part of the sample a placebo (a sham medicine containing no active ingredients) whilst telling the patients they are receiving Ginkgo biloba. This group is known as the control group, while the group that actually receives the Ginkgo biloba is known as the experimental group. This allows the researchers to compare the two groups. Ginkgo biloba could only be said to have a real benefit to these patients if it performs significantly better than the placebo. If it works equally well, than taking Ginkgo biloba could be said to be no better for dementia than taking sugar pills.

Le Bars and the other researchers were also aware that they had to be careful not to allow bias to slip into the study and skew the results. To do this, they implied a tried-and-true technique: they double-blinded the study. Blinding a study simply means that you keep which group is getting the placebo and which is getting the real thing a secret to the patients. This prevents the patients who are getting the placebo from knowing, therefore allowing the placebo effect to work. Double-blinding a study means that both the patients and those administering the treatment don't know which is placebo and which is not. This prevents the researchers from either consciously or subconsciously giving away any hints to the patients, and is further protection from bias. Le Bars, et al. also prevented bias by utilizing standardized tests for dementia that were applied in a consistently-controlled manner. So, this study was set up in a fashion that made it all-but-impossible to influence one way or the other, as neither the researchers nor the patients had a clue who was getting the real thing and measurements were taken in the exact same manner every single time.

The fact that 309 subjects were used in this study also adds to its validity, because one cannot perform meaningful statistical analysis on a small sampling of subjects. With a small sample size there is more of a chance that outliers will skew the results, there is less certainty that the selected individuals represent the general population, and there is more of a chance that extraneous variables enter into play in a significant role.

So, what did Le Bars and his crew find? Astonishingly, what was at the time most often dismissed as a bogus remedy actually was found to have a significant effect on patients already suffering from dementia. By the end of the 52-week study, the experimental group fared much better than the control group. In fact, the control group continued to decline while the experimental group's symptoms actually improved over the year. What was once pseudoscience is actually being taken seriously in the scientific community now because of this evidence. That doesn't mean it's all over, though. Other scientists are still having a bit of trouble replicating the study, and studies that investigated Ginkgo biloba's effects on preventing the onset of dementia have come up empty handed. Clearly, more work needs to be done, but the important part of the story is that this natural remedy is being taken seriously by the scientific community because people playing by the rules of science found something very interesting. This is predominantly because the scientific community, as well as the mind of the individual scientist, is primed to change its views when new, credible evidence is presented.

The Study:
Le Bars, P.L., M.M. Katz, N. Berman, T.M. Itil, A.M. Freedman, and A.F. Schatzberg. 1997. A placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial of an extract of Ginkgo biloba for dementia. North American EGb Study Group. The Journal of the American Medical Association 278(16):1327-1332. (PDF)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Is God a Nihilist?

Plenty of apologists, such as William Lane Craig, believe that atheism leads towards nihilism, which can be defined as a philosophy that asserts existence and life are without any meaning whatsoever. This is presumably due to the belief that since God created humans for a purpose, that gives our life meaning. From this view, however, I fail to see how the argument doesn't apply to God, as well.

God was not created for any purpose because, well, he wasn't created. He has existed always; He's the last link in the causal chain. This means, that by this argument, God's existence must have no purpose, and assuming that God is a reasonable fellow, he should accept the philosophy of nihilism. If this be the case, we can also see that the purpose that God created us for is arbitrary and absurd, thus we must also accept nihilism even in a theistic world.

Any argument against this, seems to me, to also be favorable to the argument in favor of non-theistic arguments against nihilism as well, which negates any arguments against atheism that apply the false assumption that meaning can only exist with God. Suppose God creates his own purpose. Well, suppose that man creates his own, much like Sartre and other existentialists suggest. Suppose God is just innately endowed with meaning. Well, again, suppose that man, either through inheritance of certain traits or the influence of the environment, is endowed with certain innate drives that give his life meaning. Nothing, as far as I can see, can save only God from nihilism.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Physicalism and the Mind

Physicalism can most accurately be defined as the metaphysical thesis that everything is either physical or "supervenes" on the physical (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In simpler terms, one can say that it is the idea that everything that exists can be described either as a physical thing (i.e. matter or energy) or a consequence of the interaction of physical things. I happen to be a tentative physicalist. It's my working assumption, although I don't claim to be even remotely certain, and I'm very doubtful that we could ever come to know that something non-physical exists or not. I guess one could say that I am a physicalist in the sense that matter and energy (and the things that supervene upon them) are the only things I believe to exist, as opposed to believing that matter and energy are the only things that exist.

Explaining consciousness is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to a physicalist at this point, which is one of the major contentions that opponents of physicalism have against the principle. Being a tentative physicalist, I really only feel the need to demonstrate that it is possible for physicalism to account for consciousness as opposed to verifying the thesis. That, along with the application of Occam's Razor, is enough to maintain my skepticism of claims to anything not supervenient to the physical. I fully admit that neurology is much, much too young a field to really help verify that physicalism does account for the mind, and thus will refrain from any arguments about how brain functions correlate quite well to mental states. I assume that both physicalists and its opponents accept this as a matter of fact, so I don't believe it to be of any use to argue on this point.

So, there are really only two questions to be answered here. First, how do physicalists suppose that mental states arise from physical phenomena? and second, is it possible? Here, I'll only be answering the first (for now).

Physicalists most often suppose that the mind is a product of complex interactions happening within the neural network of the brain. The neural network of the brain, of course, is purely physical. Neurons are made of atoms, and neural networks are essentially large collections of neurons that interact with each other through chemo-electrical connections. This, according to the physicalist, is enough to account for the phenomenon that we call the mind. One may assert that the mind, or certain aspects of the mind, have no physical properties and thus clearly cannot be physical, but this, in my opinion, doesn't take into account the idea of supervenience.

Physicalists rarely assert that the mind is a physical object, but instead assert that it supervenes on the physical. This idea of supervenience seems a little complicated, but it really is quite simple. To say that a set of properties (A) supervenes on another set (B), it simply means that a difference in A-properties requires there to be a difference in B-properties, or that a similarity in B-properties require similarities in A-properties (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It's important to stress that for something to supervene on another thing, they must not only be correlated but must also be causally linked (a change in B must cause a change in A). So, the physicalist believes that if two minds are different in a particular way, the two brains must be different in a particular way; and if two minds are similar in a particular manner, then the two brains must be similar in a particular manner; and that the similarities and differences of different minds are solely caused by similarities and differences within the brain.

The mind can then be described as a complex pattern that arises from interactions within the neural network of the brain. The staggering complexity of the brain is thought to create processes that don't seem to be able to be pinned down to any particular simple physical interaction, not much unlike how a school of fish seems to behave in a fashion that goes well beyond the relatively simple behaviors of any particular fish. And, just as it seems as though the behavior of fish in large groups tend to cause the movements of the school as a whole, it is thought that the operations of the physical components of the brain tend to cause mental operations to occur. These mental operations aren't "physical" in the most concrete sense of the word (they aren't physical objects), but they are not non-physical either. They instead is supervenient or consequent of the physical, or a process of the physical.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Attempt at Political Satire

These are just a few satirical takes on popular political slogans.

"Don't Tread on Me"

In a 2010 poll, only 16% of Tea Party members supported gay marriage and over half believe that too much has been made of the problems facing black people in recent years.

"Yes We Can"

Obama completely followed through on only five of his top 25 campaign promises as rated by


 31% of the American population are both pro-life and pro-death penalty (Gallup 2010).

"God Bless America"

This one's pretty much self-explanatory. 

"One Man, One Woman"

Same-sex or other "non-traditional" marriages are often regarded as immoral by conservative Christians for "Biblical" reasons. The Bible, however, contains multiple examples of marriages that differ from the "one man, one woman" tradition (Skeptic's Annotated Bible).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Science Education is Failing

Science education can effectively be described as an endeavor to correct preconceived misconceptions that students have about scientific ideas and replace them with scientifically accurate explanations while encouraging scientific thinking. Every student is informed by past experiences that relate to various scientific topics, but many of those experiences are intuitively interpreted in a manner that doesn't agree with a current scientific understanding of the subject. It's the educator's job to facilitate a transition between these intuitive models of the world to a scientific one. Frustratingly, however, it seems like the more informal past experience learners have in a particular area of study, the harder the misconceptions are to correct. This is evidenced in the fact that some of the most prevalent misconceptions that science learners have throughout their education relate to such things as seasons, vision and the properties of light, and photosynthesis (things we come into contact with on a regular basis). Most importantly, there is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that these misconceptions are, for the most part, going uncorrected throughout elementary, secondary, and higher education. Clearly, something is fundamentally wrong with how we are teaching science in this country.

Are we closer to the Sun in summer or winter? If you step back from a mirror, do you see more of yourself? (I couldn't believe the answer to this one until I tested it.) From where does a seed, weighing a few grams, gain the mass that it acquires to become a tree that weighs tons? These questions are answered incorrectly by a surprising number of Harvard graduates, not to mention the middle schoolers that are, according to curriculum content standards, supposed to know the answers (see resources linked below). This demonstrates a profound problem with science education in this country, and that is that teachers often fail to take the students' preconceived notions into account before they teach them. Traditional science education is taught like most other subjects are traditionally taught -- students are treated like empty vessels that teachers act as pitchers that fill the students with knowledge. But, students are not empty vessels. They have past experiences, and they have put together their own explanations of those past experiences. Obviously, those explanations are not necessarily based upon rational thought and scientific inquiry, but instead are more likely to be based upon intuition. Teaching learners as if they are blank slates is problematic because it is like trying to construct a building upon a bad foundation. The traditional approach fails in two key areas, first by not taking into account the students' prior knowledge and second by not taking into account how students learn. When you realize that science been taught like this in America for decades upon decades, it's rather unsurprising that scientific illiteracy is rampant in the US.

The problem is so ingrained in science education in America today that it seems that nothing short of radical reform will do the trick. Future science teachers need to essentially teach in the opposite manner that traditional teachers teach. We've all experienced a traditional science classroom. You're lectured at for several class periods, and then you (ideally) perform a lab that seeks to confirm what you've already "learned" during lecture. Not only does this obviously not work, but it is actually counter-productive, robbing students of actually learning through hands-on experience. If a student is told what result they ought to get in an experiment, laboratory exercises become little more than following a recipe. When someone follows a recipe, the only thing they learn how to do is get the correct end result. Little to no higher order thinking or problem solving is going on in the heads of learners. The traditional "confirmatory" approach does little but encourage students to practice their rote memorization skills and follow directions properly, which is not even close to learning actual science.

Instead, the curriculum should be structured in a manner that encourages students to actually involve themselves in active inquiry about the content. Lessons should be taught in a way that enables the instructor to diagnose misconceptions in order to address them in a direct manner later on. Students should always have access to hands-on activities that not only give them meaningful experiential input but guide them in a way that keeps their minds on the task of learning the concepts ("hands-on/minds-on" as opposed to just "hands-on"). And, most importantly, teachers should, as much as possible without causing undue frustration, confusion, or time-management problems, step back into a facilitating role and let the students learn themselves instead of feeding them the answers. This constructivist approach to science education is radically different than the traditional approach to teaching, but it seems to me to be absolutely necessary given the problems we have seen arise within the education system. I'm skeptical that any real solutions can come from the top-down (every attempt made in the past has largely been a failure and have tended to make things worse), but this is the sort of thing that can easily come from the bottom-up, from teachers and professors of education.

Important Resources:

  • A Private Universe (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 1987) - A video documentary on education research for grade 5-12.
  • Minds of Our Own (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 1997) - A video documentary on education and learning for K-12 educators and parents.
  • Private Universe Project in Science (Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 2011) - A nine-part workshop derived from work pioneered in Project STAR and is an extension of its award winning video, A Private Universe, complete with full bibliography and research citations.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What Is the Root of All Evil?

Whether it's Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, or Dan Barker, most prominent atheists portray themselves in a very anti-theistic manner. That is, not only do they disagree with the various claims made by theists, but they see theism itself as something dangerous and worth opposing directly. They see religion as a primary producer of evil in the world, and something that the world would obviously be better without. But, I think this view is a bit myopic. It demonstrates an obvious failure to peel back the layers and investigate the true root of the problem.

Now, let me be clear -- people do do evil things in the name of religion, and I believe that, as a global civilization, we would do better without it. But, getting rid of religion wouldn't be the panacea that many claim it to be, because religion, especially organized religion, is but a mere manifestation of the real problem. Organized religion is just a product of dogmatic, orthodox thinking, and that's the real root of most evil in this world.

Anywhere where people don't think for themselves, but instead rely on authoritarian or populist viewpoints to draw their thoughts for them, mass ignorance and injustice are likely to follow. This has been demonstrated throughout history time and time again, manifesting itself as a maxim in both secular and sectarian forms. When the Church had an authoritarian influence over much of medieval Europe, there were witch-hunts, inquisitions, crusades, serfdom, oppression, perpetual ignorance, and wide-spread superstition. The typical life was short, miserable, and terrifying. When the various totalitarian regimes asserted their authority over Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, China, and Cambodia, among others, in the 20th Century, much the same happened. The people of those countries were extraordinary unlucky that they were under such authoritarian rule in a time when technology was available that made it relatively easy to kill and oppress millions and wage war on a grand scale.

Clearly, if we can learn anything from what happened under the rule of ardent secularists like Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, it's that the belief in God isn't really the problem. It goes deeper than that. It's not really the beliefs themselves that cause the danger, it's the belief that said beliefs cannot and should not be questioned. How much of a problem would the belief in witchcraft or communism be, if they could be actively questioned by individuals without fear of reprisal? The answer to that question is simple -- look at Western society today. No one is being burned at the stake; no one is promoting the collectivization of business and agriculture (at least no one that is being taken seriously). Why? Because not only do we know that witches don't pose any threat, and that communism simply doesn't work well, but we can also express those truths with no fear. It's the simple fact that we have the ability assess the evidence for ourselves and the freedom to express our honest opinion of them that protects us from the evils of dogmatism and orthodoxy.

This is not to say that we can now relax and let our guard down. On the contrary, we should certainly continue to push the limits of free expression. Freedom requires vigilance and an active participation in being free. It's not out of the question that we can sink back down to the depths of a thoughtless devotion to an idea. You must at least tread to keep afloat, having a thought of your own from time to time, but why not swim with fervency to the shore, walk out of the water, and don't look back?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Logical Implications of "God as Being Itself."

The conceptualization of God as 'Being Itself' was, to my knowledge, first proposed by theologian Paul Tillich in the early 20th Century. It has been brought to my knowledge by a thoughtful blogger, discussant, and professional theologian with the pseudonym Metacrock ( If you can get through his posts (sorry, Meta, your writing style is a bit... difficult), you'll find that they are extremely intelligent in nature and they actually pose even greater challenges to non-believers than the arguments of more well-known Christian apologists. His conception of God is fairly unique and has required substantial thought for me to comprehend it in a manner that enables me to write about it.

When it is said that God is defined as "Being Itself," it is meant in opposition to the idea that God is actually a being, that is a distinct entity that is what Metacrock refers to as "the big man in the sky" concept of God. So, according to Tillich and by extension Meta, God is not a being. But, if God is not a being, what exactly is He? How can a definition of God be meaningful without being a being? These questions seem to me to be serious problems of this view, especially to professed Christians like Metacrock, who hold onto the idea of a personal God.
First, we must understand the difference between entities and properties. An entity is "a thing with a distinct and independent existence," whereas a property is "an attribute, quality, or characteristic of something" (New Oxford American Dictionary). They are related in the sense that entities have properties and if something has properties, it is an entity. Properties are not entities, and entities are not properties, although we are required to define entities by their properties. This is a very important concept to grasp, because many times the syntax of a sentence does not make this distinction for us. Take, for example, the sentence, "The sky is blue." Most every English speaking person would understand what is being conveyed by this sentence. What it truly means is that the sky has the property of being blue. But, it could be interpreted incorrectly as "The sky and blue are synonyms." This, of course, is incorrect, and there is a category error involved in the logic behind the statement. "The sky" is an entity, whereas "blue" is a property. They cannot be the same thing.
The distinction between the conceptualization of God as "a being" and God as "Being Itself" is that the former treats God as a specific entity and the latter treats God as a specific property. A being is a type of entity, namely an animate one. The concept of God as "a being" holds that God is an entity with whatever properties the conceptualizer claims God to have. It is worth mentioning that this concept is not limited to the view that God is a "big man in the sky," as God doesn't need to be thought of as a being with a physical body or even a spatial existence. It just requires us to view God as a thing with properties. The concept that God is "Being Itself," however, does just the opposite — requiring us to view God as a essential property of all things as opposed to a thing itself.
"Being Itself" is an essential property of all entities. It, to the best of my understanding, can be defined as the property of existing. All entities must exist, by definition, and therefore, all entities have the property of existing. This makes the logical necessity of God seem self-evident, as the following syllogism demonstrates:
  1. God is the property of existing.
  2. Entities exist.
  3. Therefore, God is.
The very fact that anything exists is enough to demonstrate that this conceptualization of God is factually true. If God is "Being Itself," then God is, although I'd struggle to say that God exists, and I would also say that it's nothing more than defining God into being by removing any meaningfulness of the word, much like the concept that "God is love" does. 

First, there is an inherent confusion when declaring that a property exists. What is really more correct is to say that an entity exists that has that property. Thus, if God is Being Itself (the property of existing), then it's not really correct to say that God exists, but instead it is more correct to say that all things which exist share the property known as God. 
Second, the idea that God is a property as opposed to an entity leads one to realize that God cannot have properties. Only entities have properties. God cannot be conscious or personal any more than the property "blue" can be salty. Properties cannot have properties, but instead can only be or not be the case in relation to an entity. Therefore, despite the fact that "God as Being Itself" must be, it cannot do anything other than be, and thus any real meaning behind the word is eliminated. This concept of God ultimately leads one to hold that God nothing more than an impersonal, unconscious, purposeless, emotionless, uncaring, albeit necessary state of affairs. So, where the concept of "God as a being" is meaningful, but is not supported by either logical necessity or empirical evidence, the concept of "God as Being Itself" is supported by logical necessity, but is devoid of all relevant meaning. This seems to be a prevailing theme in theology — a complete inability to have your cake and eat it too. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Questioning Self-Interest

As a skeptic, I often find myself questioning my own intuitions. It's a very healthy thing to do, in my opinion. Physicist Richard Feynman once mused, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool." Our intuitions are subject to all sorts of personal biases that have been ingrained in us by genetics and experience, mostly unbeknownst to us, and therefore don't necessarily have any truth behind them. Instead, they do little but serve our desire to pursue our own interests.

As a matter of fact, humans are self-interested. That's just the way it is. And, yes, to a large extent, most human behavior can be descriptively summed up as either a product or byproduct of adaptive evolution. I fully admit that this includes most moral behavior as well. People generally act according to the desires of others because it is within their interest to do so. The point of this post is not to deny this most basic fact, but instead it is to question whether bowing to self-interest is reasonably valid.

Acting in one's self-interest seems intuitively reasonable, but I believe that this is nothing more a product of a very strong bias. There is nothing reasonable about considering your own interests whilst not considering the interests of others. If this is correct, it at least puts a selfless person on equal rational footing with a selfish person. But, I think it can be demonstrated that being selfless is in fact more reasonable than being selfish.

A selfless person views the world in a more impartial manner. Where the selfish person only considers his own interests, the selfless person considers the whole scope of interests when choosing a course of action. He takes more variables into account, and sees himself as but one conscious being in an entire society of beings, all having interests of their own. He understands that, just as he values his own interests, others do the same, and that his own interests are no more intrinsically important than another's. 

This, to me, is a much more reasonable position to take. It is the difference between blindly bowing to the external and biological forces that forged you, and actually applying critical thought to how you ought to act. It's the difference between being little more than a dog tied to a cart and being a freethinking individual.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What is Happiness?

Happiness has been foundational to ethics all the way back to Socrates, who believed that virtue was the greatest good, and that virtue was necessary for true happiness. This was later emulated by the Stoics, such as Epictetus, who argued that virtue was sufficient for happiness. The Cyrenianics and Epicureans both bypassed virtue and embraced a truly hedonistic ethical philosophy, where pleasure is the only good and is sufficient for happiness. All these ethical perspectives assume one thing -- that happiness, for some reason, is good. They all seem to suggest that something else is good in that it is a means to happiness.

Every ethical philosophy since then has at least something to say about happiness. Agreed, many have become ascetic, but I know of no ethical philosophy embraced by any that embraces asceticism for any other reason than to preserve happiness in either this life or the next. The utilitarian philosophers are clearly the most obvious modern proponents of happiness as the foundation of ethics, whereas Kant and other deontologists are probably the most obvious objectors to the idea, and usually replace it with duty and a respect for dignity or another seemingly independent and altogether desirable state of being besides happiness. This issue of whether or not a state of being can be both desirable and separable from happiness is fully worthy of a discussion of its own, but right now I want to focus on what happiness is, and what makes it so important in terms of ethics.

We all know what it feels like to be happy, but that doesn't mean it is necessarily an easy thing to define. The biggest obstacle in defining the term is that different states are experienced as "happiness" by different people. One person may be happy whilst getting whipped, while I would certainly not find that a state with which to be happy. But, there does seem to be a couple of key characteristics of any state in which any person would claim to be happy -- and they are the satisfaction of desires and a sense of tranquility.

First and foremost, for someone to be happy, the indulgence in and satisfaction of at least some desires is necessary. It seems impossible for someone to be happy whilst their most basic needs are left unsatisfied for long periods of time. A starving person is miserable and cannot do anything to improve that state until he has adequate nourishment. The same goes for the thirsty and the freezing. If you are not content and satisfied, you are an unhappy person. Even the Stoic's recognized this, despite believing the contrary in theory. In his Discourses, Epictetus poses the question, "Who then is a Stoic?" He tells his audience to show him "a man moulded to the pattern of the judgements that he utters, ... who is sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy" (Discourses, Ch. XIX). He fully admits that you will find no one of the sort.

Something is still missing from the ingredients to happiness, as if one merely sought to satisfy each and every desire, one would likely be in a state that wasn't anything close to what one means by "happy." It would be the state in which the Cyrenianics pursued. But, happiness is almost certainly more complex than that, as a thoughtful reader should realize. People who seek satisfaction on a whim are often the least happy in that they are easily disturbed when their desires fail to be indulged. Instead, happiness is far more tempered and tranquil than that. It requires that one is relatively free from disturbances of any sort. Epicurus is perhaps the one ancient philosopher that I believe is closest to the concept of happiness that I am proposing. He taught that "pleasure is our first and kindred good," but that we "often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them" and "consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure" (Letter to Menoeceus). In other words, the satisfaction of desires is the foundation of happiness, but we will avoid certain pleasures because they inevitably cause disturbances that cause us to be unhappy in the long run. 

So, happiness requires that we feel both satisfied and tranquil at the same time, and is thus more or less the maintenance of a balance between a Stoic sense of calm and a hedonistic sense of indulgence. This is what happiness is, and as a matter of fact, it is deemed desirable by all those that have the even remotest ability to attain it. It is this very fact, that happiness is desirable (and, in fact, impossible not to desire), that makes it so ethically relevant.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Problem of Sin

I've come to the conclusion that the Problem of Evil is far too open to interpretation by believers to make them realize the actual logical problem involved. They can merely say that atheists do not have a definitive definition of "evil," which seems to be a sufficient rationalization for many. Christians tend to think of the argument as something attune to, "God lets bad things happen, therefore he doesn't exist," which simply isn't the case. It's meant to demonstrate an inherent contradiction in the Christian concept of God without any non-Christian definition of "evil" being necessary. So, I've decided to couch the argument in terms of the Christian concept of sin. Sin is generally what Christians mean when they talk of evil, and it is what non-believers mean as well when they use the Problem of Evil correctly. My argument utilizes the idea that sin is an action that is against God's will. That's not to say that that's all sin is, but that it's a fundamental aspect of what sin is. To say that X is a sin, it is to say that God disapproves of X, or that God wills or desires not-X.
My argument also assumes a concept of God that at least incorporates basic ideas of omnipotence, omniscience, and intentionality. By saying that God is omnipotent, I simply mean that He can at least actualize that which He wills and prevent the actualization of that which He does not will. By saying that God is omniscient, I simply mean that He can at least fully understand what will be actualized by his action or inaction, as well as what will be actualized by the action or inaction of beings that he created. By saying that God is intentional, I simply mean that God acts deliberately to bring about that which He wills, and prevent that which he does not will. And, by "Christianity," I mean a construct that at least incorporates this concept of God as well as the concept of sin mentioned above.
That being said, here's my argument:
  1. Sin is an action that is against God's will. [Premise]
  2. God can actualize what he wills, and can prevent the actualization of that which he does not will. (IOW, God is omnipotent) [Premise]
  3. God knows fully what will be actualized through His action or inaction, or through the action or inaction of a being that he created. (IOW, God is omniscient) [Premise]
  4. God seeks to actualize what he wills, and prevent what he does not will. (IOW, God acts intentionally) [Premise]
  5. Therefore, God will actualize that which he wills, and prevent that which he does not will. [2, 3, 4]
  6. Corollary: Everything that is actualized is what God wills. [5]
  7. If God exists, sin cannot exist. [1, 6]
  8. Christianity incorporates the concept of God and sin. [Premise]
  9. Therefore, Christianity is false. [7, 8]

God Did Not Inspire the Bible

Some Mistakes of Moses by Robert G. Ingersoll is one of my favorite books. It's a very interesting read given that it smacks of “New Atheism” but was first published in 1879 (it just goes to show you that there is nothing new and different about the New Atheism). I mention this because the logic behind this argument is from the book, although I've reworked it a little and put it into a more formal arrangement. It's an argument that attempts to demonstrate the extreme improbability, if not impossibility, of the Bible being divinely inspired. What’s especially great about this argument is that it should address both Biblical literalists and non-literalists alike. 
  1. God is (a) omniscient, (b) omnipotent, (c) purposeful, and (d) honest.
  2. If God inspired a book, (a) He would know how his words would be interpreted [1a], (b) He would be able to convey His will clearly [1b], and (c) His book would be interpreted in the exact manner he intended [1c].
  3. The Bible is far from clear as to how it should be interpreted or even whether it is true, evidenced in the fact that throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity it has been interpreted by countless different sects in countless different ways, viewed by members of other religions to be void of inspiration, been met with skepticism by countless skeptics (and increasingly so since the rise of modern civilization and rational thought), and been used to both support and condemn slavery, polygamy, individual liberties, etc.
  4. If God inspired the Bible, he meant for it to convey His Will in such an ambiguous manner. [2, 3]
  5. Therefore, God would have intended to mislead countless people into believing falsehoods and disbelieving truths. [3, 4]
  6. Therefore, God did not inspire the Bible. [1d, 5]

The Bible is obviously an imperfect means of conveying the will of a divine being, considering that in the centuries that it’s been around, you can barely find two people that agree completely on their interpretation of it. Most philosophers, who are mere mortals mind you, write in a manner that is far less open to personal interpretation than the Bible. They say what they mean, and the readers can understand what they say without much, if any, confusion or disagreement. If men and women can do this, why shouldn’t we expect the same from God? Why shouldn’t we just conclude that such a pitifully vague book is the work of primitive men as opposed to a perfect being?

Did God Create a Perfect World?

It is a commonly held Christian belief that the state of the world today, complete with pain, suffering, and sin, is a result of man's disobedience towards God, and not resultant from a faulty design. This is, in fact, one of the primary arguments against the Problem of Evil put forward by preeminent Christian apologists like William Lane Craig. Genesis 1:31 explains that God viewed His creation as "very good." It can only be assumed that an all-powerful, all-knowing being would hold high standards for Himself, to the extent that His creation would need to be perfect in order for Him to be proud enough to exclaim that it is "very good." After all, anything short of perfection for a perfect being is, well, a bit lazy.
But, how good was God's creation? Clearly, to a reasonable person, a bit short of perfection. The very fact that the world could be made imperfect by the actions of man demonstrates that it was not in fact perfect, and thus short of God's full potential. A world that cannot be sullied is demonstrably closer to perfection than a world that can be made imperfect. God, being omnipotent, could easily create a world that is incapable of being sullied, even while preserving free will. Therefore, if, for the sake of argument, we assume the theistic position to be true, God could be deemed to be at fault and ought to take the blame for at least most of the evils in this world.

Anselm's Ontological Argument, A Refutation

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for the existence of God, which is an attempt at an a priori proof for His existence. The following is Anselm’s argument:
  1. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. God may exist in the understanding.
  3. To exist in reality and in the understanding is greater than to exist in the understanding alone.
  4. Therefore, God exists in reality.
Frankly, this argument always annoyed me because I knew it was fallacious but couldn't really find the fallacy. In Bertrand Russel's words, "The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies." The argument is simple and it has the facade of following logically from one step to the other, but as I will demonstrate it simply does not.
The fallacy behind this simple, concise little argument is a use-mention error in the second proposition (2). The use-mention error is a type of category error where you fail to make the distinction between the concept and that which the concept is referring. In the second proposition, Anselm is not talking about God (the alleged being), but "God" (the concept of the alleged being). 
What Anselm did was try to demonstrate the existence of God through the existence of "God." They are in fact two separate things (which Anselm equivocates), and thus the argument does not follow.

Does Naturalism Lead to Absurdism?

Absurdism is a school of thought that deals with the purported contradiction between humanity's tendency to search for an inherent meaning in life and our inability to find one. It's the idea that there is no inherent purpose in life, that life is ultimately objectively meaningless, and that any claim to life having an inherent meaning is absurd. 

The most accessible outline of an absurdist worldview that I can think of is Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the main character Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time," experiencing his outlandish life out of chronological order. With the help of an alien race known as thTralfamadorians that experience time in much the same way we experience space, he notices that specific events happen simply because things are structured in such a way that they must happen that way. Free will, therefore, is entirely illusory in this fatalistic view. The basic premise of the entire book can be summed up in Vonnegut's response to every single death in the book: "So it goes." I think Vonnegut's point is that death follows from a natural course of events that are inalterable and out of our control. This is how I think he has come to terms with what he saw during the bombing of Dresden in World War II. This, at least to me, provides a sense of stoical comfort to existence. The absurdist would say that things happen because they must, and it's more rational to accept that and find solace and happiness where we can instead of hiding in an illusion of inherent meaningfulness. I don't know if that's true, though.

I don't think this question can be answered with any degree of certainty, at least currently. I completely admit that we may live in a truly absurd world, void of inherent meaning and completely devoid of free will. I can come to terms with that. However, I have something that Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians do not have: uncertainty. That makes the difference, really. It's strange, but it's actually uncertainty in what's to come that allows us to feel fulfilled and content in our existence. Billy Pilgrim and his abductors could never feel a sense of awe or wonder. They could never be mystified because nothing seems mystical. Everything can be predicted; there are no surprises. For the rest of us, being able to do so makes all the difference between a meaninglessness and purpose. And, as long as we have uncertainty, this question is entirely academic.

Empathy's Role in Moral Reasoning

I rarely cry for my own sake. What I do cry over is the suffering of others. I can stoically bare my own grief with almost no problems whatsoever, but as soon as I see a mother crushed under the weight of her grief for her son that passed away, I can bare it no longer. This is wholly due to my capacity to empathize, the ability to understand and share feelings with another. Empathy works in a very interesting way, actually causing us to feel the pain and sorrow of others we come into contact with. When we see someone in pain, the same parts of our brain that are associated with actually feeling that pain become active.¹
This is almost certainly an adaptive trait, forged over millions of years of evolution in order to foster social interactions between individuals that benefit our "selfish" genes. But, even though the "motives" behind empathy are selfish, we can in fact hijack this useful capacity and use it as a tool for our own purposes, namely moral reasoning. 
Empathy is not the foundation of moral reasoning. The foundation must be reason itself, in my opinion, and not a subjective emotional response to stimuli. But, interestingly enough, I think that empathy, even though it is purely affective, actually can be an extremely useful tool for objective moral reasoning. Empathy informs us that another's misery and happiness is as valuable as our own in a very tangible manner. It is a window that allows us to look outside our scope of self-interest and peer, however imperfectly, into a truly impartial world where misery is miserable and happiness is joyous, no matter who experiences it. This is something that could only be done in the abstract without the capacity to empathize, which explains why most sociopaths don't see things this way. They lack this extremely valuable tool, and are thus forced to live inside their scope of self-interest, with not a single window of which to look out.
I, for one, am glad I can look out the window, even though it makes me cry sometimes.

On the equivocation between distinct definitions of OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE

It almost pains me to enter into a discussion of semantics, but alas I think I must. The topic of whether morality is objective or subjective is an important issue, but very few people actually spend time on what they mean when they state that morality is objective or subjective, which definitely confuses the issue, given that there are two completely different objective/subjective dichotomies that could be relevant to a debate on morality.
Dichotomy 1
OBJECTIVE - not dependent on the mind for existence; actual
SUBJECTIVE - dependent on the mind or on an individual's perception for its existence
Dichotomy 2
OBJECTIVE - (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts
SUBJECTIVE - based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions
(New Oxford American Dictionary)
Dichotomy 1 seems to be the one used most by moral subjectivists.  When using Dichotomy 1, it is hardly arguable that morality is or could be objective. But, it's not really a victory for moral subjectivists, because using this dichotomy, it is hard to argue that any field of human thought is objective. Mathematics, for instance, is solely dependent upon a mind that defined the values of the various symbols. "1+1=2" is only true because a mind defines (1), (+), (=), and (2) in such a way that it is coherent. The same goes for other forms of logic (and thus anything that applies logic, i.e. science), which are all based on axiomatic systems that require a mind to relate different ideas in a coherent manner. 
What is clear, it seems, is that to have any useful discussion, we ought to use Dichotomy 2, given that I think we can all bow to the arguments posed in favor of subjectivity in Dichotomy 1. For the discussion to be meaningful, we must discuss whether or not personal feelings, taste, and opinions can be transcended in order to develop a coherent, reasonable, universally binding ethical system.

The Purpose of Ethics

The purpose of ethics, that is the study of morality, is something that we do not often discussed. Instead, we usually make moral arguments that are founded on the presupposition that everyone knows what a moral argument seeks to argue. That, I believe, is not useful, and I think it's important to start with a discussion on the nature of morality itself, as opposed to what is moral and immoral. 
Ethics, being the study of morality, concerns itself with discovering the difference between right and wrong, between oughts and ought nots, between desirable and undesirable, between good and bad. It should not surprise you that all four of these dichotomies are in fact the same exact thing. We ought to do right because it is desirable and good, and we ought not do wrong because it is undesirable and bad. The syntax of that sentence can be arranged in many ways without changing the essential meaning. Why is something right? Because we ought to do it; because it is desirable; because it is good. Why ought we do something? Because it is right; because it is desirable to do so; because it is good. Why is something desirable? Because it is right; because we ought to do it; because it is good. Why is something good? Because it is right; because we ought to do it; because it is desirable. And so it goes. All these words mean the same thing, and it is hard to explain one without using the others. I can only assume that the thoughtful reader has a sense of what these words are referring to in fact. 
This, to me, is a major hang up when discussing ethical questions. People choose different words to describe the same thing, and then end up in disagreement further down the road. Many Christians, for example, do not believe that what is right and wrong is the same as what is (intuitively) desirable and undesirable. But, what is really the case is that they believe certain things are more desirable than other things. They believe, for instance, that obedience to God is more desirable than the pleasure one would get from premarital sex. To them, obedience to God is either desirable in and of itself, desirable as a means to another desirable thing (i.e. heaven), or both. It's much the same for the hedonist that indulges every whim, only opposite. They might say that they think desire is more important than what's right, but what they are really saying is that they believe that base pleasure is more desirable than virtue, or that virtue isn't desirable at all. Now that we hopefully have this problem of semantics resolved, we can actually approach the purpose of ethics itself. 
The purpose of ethics is to find an end or ends of reasonable action, or discover if such an end or ends exist. These ends must be right in and of themselves, good in and of themselves, desirable in and of themselves, and they ought to be pursued in and of themselves. If we say that something is good, right, desirable, or ought to be pursued, then it must either be a means to such an end, an end in itself, or both.

What a Skeptic Requires to Believe in God

An empirical skeptic can be described as someone who does not believe in anything that can be considered superfluous. Given two constructs of equal explanatory power, we are more apt to accept the construct that makes the fewest unnecessary assumptions as the most likely. 
In the case of the question of whether or not there is a divine creator or not, we have two general constructs.
"The universe exists."
"The universe exists and was created by a divine deity."
We can see that the first construct is the simplest, and is thus the default position for any skeptic. Notice, the default position is not, "The universe exists and was not created by a divine deity," but just that the universe exists and the idea of a divine creator is subject to doubt. A person that is skeptical of the existence of God maintains this default position. So, the question is, what is necessary for a skeptic to move past the default position and come closer to accepting the existence of God, or any claim for that matter?
The answer is observations that, when analyzed, demonstrate that the more complex construct has greater explanatory power than the simpler one. These observations analyzed observations are better known as evidence. In order to demonstrate this, the analysis of these observations must be such that it puts the construct through a test, where predictions can be made based upon the construct and observations can demonstrably either lend support or refute it. It's a brute fact of human inquiry that in order to ascertain that an idea may be true, that we can conceive of and possibly observe circumstances that would render the idea false. 
So, in short, what a skeptic requires to move towards belief in God is testable evidence that is far better explained by the existence of God than it could be otherwise. I have yet to hear of any phenomena, including near death experiences, mystical experiences, religious revelations, 'answered' prayers, etc., that are better explained by the existence of God or supernatural forces as opposed to far simpler explanations. In fact, I would argue that most concepts of God are untestable, and thus cannot meet the requirements of belief for a skeptic.