Sunday, July 22, 2018

Dr. Lightman on the existence of God

In a 2011 Salon article titled "Does God exist? The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine — and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins", Alan Lightman, a professor of humanities who was initially an astronomer and astrophysicist, first at Harvard and subsequently at MIT, argues as follows:
"As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science. The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it."
Seven years later, in his new book "Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine", he reiterates that this "Central Doctrine of science" is "an article of faith" because it "cannot be proved" and it "must simply be accepted".
Nineteenth century explorers had some evidence backing their belief that the North Pole was accessible. They knew that the surface of the ocean is frozen solid as a result of the cold temperatures and accumulated snow, and they were committed to confirming or disconfirming their belief by traveling there on sleds. People who believe that there is a complete set of laws for all properties and events in the physical universe also have evidence backing their belief, and they are also committed to confirming or disconfirming their belief. Beliefs are properly justified in proportion to the available supporting evidence, not with proof (outside of logic/mathematics is there is no such thing as "proof" in an absolute sense). The 19th century explorers had, and today's scientists have, some evidence for their respective beliefs. Therefore these beliefs are not "an article of faith". This should not be confused with the explorers faith that they would survive the difficult journey, which has no relevance to the question of whether they were properly justified in believing their journey was technically feasible or we today are properly justified in believing that our universe obeys laws.
One possible reason that scientists do not talk explicitly about the Central Doctrine is that, contrary to what Dr. Lightman asserts, they do not assume it must be true. It is more accurate to describe scientists as people who have committed themselves to try to determine what is true regardless of where that search for truth takes us. Despite the fact that Dr. Lightman is a (non-practicing) scientist, what he is doing here is endorsing and promoting a negative and unfair stereotyping of science. While it is plausible that many scientists are inclined to believe that a complete set of laws exists and, at least in principle, is discoverable, it does not follow that they also think this belief "must be accepted". On the contrary, if science demonstrated that the universe operates as described in a holy book that is authored by a deity then that is what scientists would believe. There is nothing intrinsic to science that a-priori precludes one conclusion over all others on any question, including the question about the role of laws in the operation of our universe. Furthermore, it can be reasonable to infer that the way the universe operates is the way it must operate. People who believe our universe obeys laws are being reasonable when they infer that this probably is a necessary characteristic of the universe.
Is the belief that all events and properties are governed by laws a properly justified belief ? We arguably will not have finally resolved this question absolutely until we have indisputable explanations for all events and properties, past, present, and future. That is impossible. There is no point in demanding we reach an impossible goal, nor is there any need to do that. Sensible people instead set for ourselves the achievable and useful goal of matching our conclusions to the available evidence. The impressive success of mathematical equation based models, including the Standard Cosmological Model and the Theory of Relativity, and the lack of evidence for lawlessness, support the conclusion that our universe is governed by laws. Does Lightman cite any empirical evidence for lawlessness in his new book? The conclusion that our universe is governed by laws appears to be a better fit overall with the available empirical evidence than the contrary conclusion.
Dr. Lightman cites his personal experience of feeling a transcendent connection with the universe (on an island in Maine), of human desires for permanence and absoluteness, and the like, to buttress his argument for the validity of religious knowledge claims. Those are very weak arguments. He is confusing human emotions and sentiments for evidence regarding how the universe operates. We have lots of empirical evidence from studies of human cognition that basing our conclusions about how the universe operates on our feelings and hopes is a recipe for failure. We know, from hundreds years of success and failure, that our universe is pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive and as a result beliefs originating mostly or entirely from within our own minds are fictions.

Dr. Lightman is contributing little, if anything, of substance to properly resolving the question of whether or not the universe operates according to discoverable laws. He is advocating against disciplined, critical thinking, as if humanity does not already suffer enough from a surfeit of irrationality. He is starting from an unbalanced and unjustified perspective that the proper goal is to reconcile science and religion as methods of attaining valid knowledge about how the universe operates. He ignores the pervasive failure of religion to demonstrate it has the capability to attain knowledge. His claim to have reconciled the scientific with the divine is unpersuasive.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Another theory about why evangelicals like Trump

This article is another theory on the improbable alliance between evangelical Christians and Donald Trump, the formerly secular, thrice married, "baby Christian" who had affairs with porn stars: 
The article is by Paul Rosenberg, originally on  It is a review of a book by a formerly evangelical historian names John Fea, called Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
Fea argues that white evangelicals are concerned with power, nostalgia, and fear of the future.  He discusses the election of Trump on several timescales.  The most recent events leading to the 2016 election caused the selection of Trump by evangelicals in spite of some much more likely candidates, including Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz.  Fea argues that these likely candidates understood evangelicals too well.  They tried very hard to frighten the evangelicals about the consequences of the Obama Administration and their loss of political power.  The evangelicals were so alarmed that they decided a strongman was needed to restore their power, and Trump fit the bill better than Rubio, Huckabee, Carson, or Cruz.  Trump also had the background of his birtherist attacks on Obama as a racist introduction.
Fea also discusses Christianity as it's evolved from further into the past.  Rosenberg adds comments from Seth Dowland from his essay for Christian Century, “American evangelicalism and the politics of whiteness.”  American Christianity was deeply divided by the Civil War, and it remains divided.  The church became segregated and divided between northern white Christians, southern white Christians, and the black churches.  Each strain developed its own culture and concerns.  Black Christians were more interested in Christian hope.  Whites, especially southerners, gravitated toward fear.  They felt that they needed political and financial power, and they didn't seem to trust God to sort out human affairs.
Rosenberg points out that Fea's book seems to disregard that evangelical leaders have learned that politics and religion don't go well together.  This is something that the American Founders tried to guarantee with the First Amendment.  But white evangelicals still seem to be trying to hang on to political power, regardless. 

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Rob Boston on the Founders

Rob Boston is director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and he is a long-time member and friend of WASH.  He recently wrote an article on the religious beliefs of the Founders, including the first four presidents and Thomas Paine:

Here Are 5 Founding Fathers Whose Skepticism About Christianity Would Make Them Unelectable Today


He argues that the beliefs of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Paine would make them unelectable in today's political climate. 

He is probably right, but this issue points out that the political and religious climate of the Founders was radically different from the one today. For example, in the days of the Founders, they expected to make intellectual judgements about their beliefs as a matter of integrity an honesty. So they questioned the odd, supernatural dogma of Christianity, such as the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the resurrection. 

Today, many Christians seem to be unaware of the odd things that they claim to believe. (However, it is quite possible that the common people in the time of the Founders were also largely unaware of the odd aspects of Christianity or that they refused to ask troublesome questions.) The main attraction of Christianity comes from the nostalgia value of growing up with it, and the feeling of belonging to a congregation. These emotional connections are exploited by the Religious Right in their effort to influence the political decisions of voters, even at the expense of solving their own personal concerns.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Maryland didn't make the top 10

Greta Christina recently wrote an article, "Here are the Top Ten Scariest States to be an Atheist".  The good new is that Maryland and Virginia didn't make the top ten.  The bad news is that Maryland got a (dis)honorable mention.  According to Christina, in Maryland "yet another atheist high school student started a group, whose posters were torn down by other students -- and where actual parents of those students wrote letters to the editor supporting the vandalism, and calling the atheist posters 'an atrocity.'"  The state of Virginia didn't get mentioned.

Many of the people quote in her article are good friends of Washington Area Secular Humanists, and it's good to see them being quoted.  WASH is affiliated with several local Coalition of Reason organizations.  As WASH is in its 29th year, we will continue to work for the benefit and education of secular humanists, and against the discrimination against atheists and people without religion.  

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Why does Judas get resurrected in "Jesus Christ Superstar"

NBC-TV showed a live production of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Sunday, April 2, 2018, with John Legend as Jesus. I never saw the stage production before, but I heard the album when it came out in the 1970's.

When the Broadway production and the movie came out, there was some controversy about it. Christians thought it was blasphemous. Jews thought it was anti-Semitic. But after reviewing Google, there wasn't any mention of the part of the production that bothered me the most.

I noticed when listening to the album that Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus. But soon after, Judas reappeared to sing the big show-stopper song "Superstar." When I listened to the album, I assumed I must have just missed something. But on the NBC-TV live version, the same thing happened. Judas committed suicide, overcome with grief and guilt. Then a few minutes later, clad in a sparkly outfit and escorted by women in sparkly minidresses, Judas was back to sing and dance.

What happened?? There was no explanation for Judas's reappearance. It might have been that the writers wanted the final upbeat number to close the show, and the actor playing Judas was the only one who could sing it.

But as a matter of theology and even of plot, it makes no sense. The production doesn't show Jesus's resurrection, ending on his crucifixion. According to Christian dogma, Jesus was resurrected, and every Christian seeing it knows that, even if it isn't shown. (Actually, the original version of the Gospel of Mark doesn't describe the resurrection either; it ends with the empty tomb.)

But why is Judas back? Certainly, the reason for Jesus's death and resurrection is said to be to save everyone from death. But Judas is back before Jesus died in the play, and Jesus never forgives Judas or raises him from death like Lazarus. Judas is back before there is any theological explanation for it.  He doesn't get touched by Jesus or even have a chance to get an explanation for why he is a cog in Jesus's plan.

The Gospel of Matthew has a passage that describes what is sometimes called the "zombie resurrection." At the moment that Jesus dies, "The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people." (Matthew 27:50)  Maybe Judas was raised as a zombie in this event. He was very energetic for a zombie, though.

The song "Superstar" really should have been sung by someone else.  It could have been sung by Peter, the rock of the church and the first pope, who is known in the play only for denying Jesus three times.  They could have even introduced Paul as the one who not only sang the song but actually turned Jesus into the Superstar.  He had more to do with it than perhaps anyone else.

Although the reanimation of Judas bugs me, what bothers me more is that I haven't seen a comment about it from Christians. The current production hasn't gotten any controversy or criticism, even from hard-core right-wing conspiracy theorists.  Don't these Christians know their Gospels?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is Star Wars a Religion?

CNN recently had an article about whether Star Wars was related to religious ideas:

The article had a few good comments about the ideas in Star Wars that come from actual religious traditions.  There is no question that a lot of people think of the Jedi in the movie as a legitimate religion and take it very seriously.

But it is worth remembering that these are fictional movies.  In the movies, the supernatural "Force" is shown to be something that at least some individuals can manipulate.  In that way, the Force is not supernatural in the Star Wars universe, since it is part of that natural system.  Since people can actually make something happen because of it, there is objective evidence that it exists.  With human religions in the real world, there is no objective proof that religion actually works.  So believing in the Force in a universe in which there is evidence that it works is considerably different from believing in a religion without evidence.  Of course, there isn't any evidence that the Force works in the real world, since the movies are fictional.

As the article points out, the Star Wars philosophy owes a lot to Asian religions like Taoism.  It is much different from the European and Middle Eastern traditions in the major religions of Christianity and Islam.  The Force doesn't seem to have a personality or will, unlike God.  It also doesn't dictate a morality or ethical system, since there can be both good (Luke) and evil (Darth Vader) people who can use it.  Although certain people can  be trained to use it, there isn't an omnipotent, benevolent entity who looks out for everyone.  So people who want to follow the Jedi philosophy have a major break with traditional religions.

But the biggest question that was raised by the article was about the meeting of Star Wars believers.  That meeting was discussed by CNN even though only 40 people were there.  How do we get CNN to cover a WASH meeting when we have an attendance of 40 people?  Maybe we should all come with light sabers!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Consider counter-evidence to avoid bias

By Mathew Goldstein

Neurologists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of South Carolina (USC) Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science watched the brains of 40 self-declared liberal students in a functional MRI. USC neuroscientists compared whether, and how much, people change their minds on non-political and political issues when provided counter-evidence. During their brain imaging sessions, participants were presented with eight political statements that they had said they believe just as strongly as a set of eight non-political statements. They were then shown five counter claims that challenged each statement.

Participants rated the strength of their belief in the original statement on a scale of 1-7 after reading each counter claim. The scientists then studied their brain scans to determine which areas became most engaged during these challenges.  Participants did not change their beliefs much, if at all, when provided with evidence that countered political statements. But the strength of their beliefs weakened by one or two points when provided with evidence that countered non-political statements.

The study, which concluded last month, found that people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs had more activity in the amygdala (a pair of almond-shaped areas near the center of the brain) and the insular cortex, compared with people who were more willing to change their minds. “The amygdala in particular is known to be especially involved in perceiving threat and anxiety,” said USC Psychologist Kaplan, explaining that “the insular cortex processes feelings from the body, and it is important for detecting the emotional salience of stimuli. That is consistent with the idea that when we feel threatened, anxious or emotional, then we are less likely to change our minds.” He also noted that a system in the brain called the default mode network surged in activity when participants’ political beliefs were challenged. “These areas of the brain have been linked to thinking about who we are, and with the kind of rumination or deep thinking that takes us away from the here and now,” Kaplan said.

People will flexibly react to changes in their environment. If a sidewalk or road is blocked then we have no difficulty understanding that we need to consider finding a different route to our destination. But we are not consistently rationally flexible, particularly with regard to beliefs that we link to our self-identity. Instead of prioritizing best fit with the overall available evidence, we may negatively react to evidence that conflicts with our self-identity linked beliefs similar to the way we negatively react to a threat.

People tend to link their religious beliefs to their self-identity at least as much as they do their political beliefs and they also may link their religious and political beliefs together. This is one reason why we should be careful about how we go about justifying our beliefs. We need to be careful to open-mindedly allow the overall available empirical evidence dictate to us what our beliefs about how the universe functions should be. We are prone to reversing this sequence and telling the universe how it functions as if we are each master of the universe deities. The universe is not about us, so what we think should be true, or what we want to be true, or how we define our self-identity, are irrelevant.

To try to avoid this error, my advice to everyone, regardless of whether you are a metaphysical naturalist or supernaturalist, is to consider what would need to be different about our universe to convince you to change your conclusion. Too often, when I ask this question I get pushback directed against the question itself. Not all atheists are empiricists. People react negatively to the question, claiming that it is wrong to talk about an alternative universe, that it is wrong to consider other possibilities, because that is a place of falsehood. It is said that our universe is naturalistic because supernaturalism is impossible, and to even ask such a question is to accept that supernaturalism is possible and thus is a mistake. It is said that supernaturalism is a non-starter and to even entertain it as a possibility is an unwarranted concession.

My response is this: We cannot trust our intuition, or anything mostly rooted in intuition, like faith or hope, to answer the big questions about how the universe functions because the answers to the big questions are mostly non-intuitive and counter-intuitive. So it is a mistake to rule out anything a-priori or to rely only on logic not anchored in evidenced. It is often inconsistent for some assertion to be simultaneously true and false. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that given that X (naturalism) is true it is probably also the case that the opposite of X (supernaturalism) is impossible. But the impossibility of X being false when it is true is not a proper justification for concluding X is true, we still must justify our conclusion regarding X. To justify the conclusion that it is impossible for X to be false, we paradoxically should consider what is missing that would be required to properly justify a conclusion that X is false.

A-priori ruling out even identifying what qualifies as missing evidence favoring alternative conclusions is bad epistemology. Fairly considering what is needed to justify a conclusion entails also considering what would be needed to justify a contrary conclusion. Our justification for reaching a particular conclusion about how the universe functions is incomplete if we cannot identify missing justifications for concluding otherwise. When a conclusion is consistently supported by an abundance of highly diversified, interconnected, and direct empirical evidence it becomes unlikely that the available evidence will change so drastically as to favor the contrary conclusion, so we need not worry that our beliefs will be unstable if we allow the evidence to dictate. When a conclusion is inconsistently supported by rare, narrow, unconnected, and indirect non-empirical evidence then we should not have a strong commitment to that conclusion. Either way, there is no harm in identifying what evidence is missing that would change our conclusion if it was found.

Academic endeavors like science are publicly funded and some Senators and Representatives are prone to threaten to cut funding if they think scientific outputs interfere with their preferred political ideology. Elected school boards make decisions regarding educational curriculums, and elected governments decide if they fund private schools that set their own curriculums. Theism is a popular and often strongly held belief and educators and scientists fear popular antagonism if science is perceived as being anti-theistic. Theists falsely claim that science has a built in bias favoring naturalism, that science has a built-in self-dependency upon naturalism, and therefore science cannot fairly adjudicate the naturalism versus supernaturalism question. Some educators and scientists, many of whom are themselves theists, actively promote this false claim of bias at least in part because it is convenient as a means for avoiding provoking theists. Yes, modern knowledge favors naturalism. But our process of acquiring knowledge is not the source of this bias, the source of this bias is the nature of our universe.

People who imagine themselves living in a supernatural universe are not going to then respect a belittled empiricism that is deemed to lack the ability to challenge theism (note that most of the same theists would probably enthusiastically cite a scientific consensus that prayer works as a confirmation of God). With the false claim that empiricism has a built in bias for naturalism widely accepted it can be small additional steps to conclude that empiricism is similarly biased in multiple other contexts, that empiricism is not the best way to determine how the universe works, and that religion, wealthy business, popular entertainment, and political leaders are the most reliable sources of information about how the universe functions. Not all theists generalize away empiricism, expertise, and modern knowledge this way. But it appears that enough people generalize like this to cause mischief. Today we have wealthy businessman President Trump, maybe in 2020 it will be wealthy talk show host President Winfrey?

Martin Luther King's Why I Cannot be Silent speech

 Here is a link to Martin Luther King's "Why I Cannot Be Silent" speech, posted on  How is it possible that America has gone from a leader who speaks like this:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…" We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. one who speaks gibberish like Trump?? 


But seriously, it is worth reading this speech to see the way that King uses religion as a basis for his call to action.  Humanists need to find a way to do the same thing, but without the religion bit.