Friday, September 30, 2016

Criticism of the "New Atheists"

A recent article on had criticism of the "New Atheist" authors, and Christopher Hitchens in particular:

How the New Atheist Movement Blew a Big Opportunity to Bring Acceptance to Non-Believers

The author, Donald McCarthy, is an atheist but considers the New Atheists to be a "crushing disappointment".  He says that the atheist authors, especially Hitchens and Sam Harris, were so obsessed with Islam that they formed informal alliances with U.S. neoconservative politicians.  In the process of opposing Islam, they supported the pro-Iraq War movement, along with many supporters who were fundamentalist Christians.  McCarthy says that the atheists, particularly Hitchens, should have been more concerned with fundamentalists in the U.S. rather than supporting the war in the Middle East.

McCarthy praises the American Humanist Association for its support for separation of church and state and for its arguments that life can be good without God.

Atheists and humanists should be making arguments against religious dogma. We should try to be convincing to our opponents, rather than advocate force by military arms.  Support for the Iraq War was always ethically debatable, and it was never clear that it should have been directed against the Islamic religion as opposed to specific governments or organization, some of which are Islamic.  The best contribution that humanist groups can make is to debate and debunk the religious principles that cause young people to volunteer for movements like ISIS.  Our arguments lose any ethical foundation if we say that overthrowing fundamentalist governments by force is acceptable, except as the absolute last resort for self defense.  (It isn't clear to me that ISIS has reached this threshold, even though they are fundamentalist Islamist and a violent group.)

It is tempting to argue that humanitarian aid is a justification for military force, for example that there are so many deaths in Syria that the U.S. should be involved to prevent civilian deaths.  But pursuing foreign policy based on humanitarian or altruistic motives is not effective in the long term, as recent efforts have shown.  There is only a humanitarian justification if there is a prosocial agreement, not an altruistic one.  The distinction between altruistic and prosocial motives is that a prosocial group is capable and willing to form a beneficial government or social organization that will provide a long-term improvement in the society.  The effort to set up a representative government in Afghanistan may still be valuable and prosocial.  On the other hand, overthrowing the Syrian government by force without any alternative to take over doesn't look promising.  

But there is a bigger problem with the atheist efforts throughout history that is related to the points that McCarthy raises.  Atheist movements has often been associated with a few individual charismatic speakers, including Richard Dawkins, David Silverman, and Hitchens, but also including Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll and many others.  These individuals criticize established religions. Atheist movements have been less interested in building organizations.  There are atheist and humanist organizations, but they tend to be specifically concerned with opposing religion rather than trying to replace it.  One of the goals of modern humanist, secular humanist, ethical culture, and other related groups is to set up social groups that have more to do with living a good life for ordinary citizens.  This is a prosocial effort that will lead to long-term improvements in society.  These kinds of organizations can replace religious organizations.  

There is room in the atheist movement for all these types of organizations.  It is unfortunate that the movement started by the "New Atheist" authors is still mostly known for opposition to religions, particularly Islam, rather than for developing improvements in secular society and government.     

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The essence of theism

By Mathew Goldstein

The RenewAmerica website describes itself as having "evolved into a significant Christian political vehicle — gathering scores of talented new writers (along with a handful of well-known established ones); promoting the core issues of moral conservatism ...".  As with many such religious conservative websites there are no public comments following the articles.  I suspect that this tendency to not provide public commenting on their articles reflects an attitude that it is better to limit people's exposure to competing ideas, which is not an attitude widely shared among the authors of the U.S. constitution who these same religious conservatives nevertheless claim to be emulating.  Ronald R. Cherry, one of RenewAmerica's writers, is a board-certified specialist in lung disease who works in Tennessee.  His recent article titled The essence of atheism warrants a response.

Dr. Cherry's says that after bring raised Christian and going to a Christian University he encountered atheists in medical school.  This prompted him to consider what goes on inside the head of atheists.  He then quotes John Locke contrasting reason with various faith based religious beliefs thusly ".... These and the like, being beyond the discovery of reason, are purely matters of faith; with which reason has nothing to do."  

He then acknowledges that the assertion that an eternal God created the universe is a statement of faith.  Up to this point his article is flawless.  He then proceeds to try to justify his religious beliefs with reason by claiming his Christian monotheism is a better fit with textbook physics than atheism.  However, he omitted explaining what role faith alone should have in justifying beliefs about how the universe functions.  It is unlikely that the atheists he encountered in medical school would agree that faith without reason properly justifies such beliefs.  Maybe his reliance on arguing from reason for the remainder of his article is intended to target an atheist audience? But how many atheists read RenewAmerica?  Or maybe he is implicitly recognizing that faith alone is insufficient? 

The abandonment of justifying belief by faith alone may be attributed to the "corrupting" influence of science.  Except this is not a corrupting influence, it is a wonderfully positive influence.  By faith alone is a mistake.  Maybe belief justified on faith alone was more common in the past.  It was also more common in the past for people to live in caves.  RenewAmerica, like many conservative leaning groups, expresses admiration for the past and advocates for returning to what it claims were the principles, values, and practices of the past. This positive depiction of the past tends to be biased and incomplete.  We would not have doctors specializing in lung disease today if we were unwilling to let go of the past.  To keep living in the past, even given that the past was sometimes good, is not a positive or realistic goal.

Dr. Cherry argues that "We know from the law of conservation of energy that without outside force neither mass nor energy can create its self, nor can mass or energy be destroyed; the sum of mass and energy is always constant in any closed system including an un-created universe."  Neither of us is a physicist, and I am not a medical doctor, but I know that the last half about the sum is true.  It is the first half of what Dr. Cherry is saying above that is dubious.  It is dubious since energy is continuously bubbling in to, and out of, existence inside a vacuum.  Energy resides on both sides of nothingness, gravity is negative energy and the other forms of energy are positive.  Energy can thus newly appear in negative and positive pairs that sum to zero and then promptly disappear as the newly separated positive and negative energies recombine. 

Dr. Cherry then argues "Mass can be converted into energy, and visa-versa, so mass and energy are limited to interchangeability (E = MC2), but according to the law of conservation of energy, outside of supernatural power, only nothing can come from nothing."  This time the first half is correct and the latter half is mistaken.  It is unlikely that the conservation of energy is contradicted by quantum mechanics which nevertheless allows for an energy froth in an otherwise vacuum context.  Quantum mechanics suggests that absolute nothingness is unstable, or to put it another way, it implies that absolute nothingness may be a fiction that exists, like all fictions, only in human imagination (like the similarly imaginary concept of libertarian free will).  Zero energy is locally re-manifested as short-lived and short distanced negative and positive paired energies. When the matter and corresponding antimatter particles are paired together with gravity there are briefly three distinct energy entities instead of zero.

Dr. Cherry then asserts that "... matter-antimatter pairs do not self-generate
from nothing because they are both composed of actual mass with either positive or negative quantum numbers. The term antimatter is thus a misnomer because the mass (and therefore the energy) of matter and its corresponding antimatter is equal and additive – not subtractive."  Indeed, matter and antimatter have opposite charges that sum to zero but both will have positive energy.  While it is true that mass is a positive energy, mass is accompanied by gravity, and gravity is a negative energy.  Thus there is nothing in the law of conservation of energy that is violated by the addition of positive mass energy together with the simultaneous subtraction of an equal negative gravity energy.  Our universe, with both mass and gravity, is thought to sum to zero energy and thus is itself arguably an example of "nothing come from nothing".

Dr. Cherry then continues with the same argument, pointing out that there is no "anti-mass", that "matter-antimatter collisions produce energy", and that "matter antimatter pairs require energy to be created".  Gravity is the "anti-mass", although it is more commonly presented as a holder of debt in exchange for loaning the mass, with no need for a banker god to administer the transactions.  

If the physics Dr. Cherry asserts were factually true and complete than his argument would have merit.  His logic is good, his reliance on reason is good, and he is also articulate.  But physicists have a somewhat different understanding of what is forbidden and what is permitted by the laws of physics than Dr. Cherry does.  In particular, Dr. Cherry ignores the role of gravity (he never mentions it even though it plays a key role as the negative energy) and he discounts the full implications of all of modern physics.  Here is a quote on this topic from Dr. Stephen Hawking: "The answer is that relativity and quantum mechanics allow matter to be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. And where did the energy come from to create this matter? The answer is that it was borrowed from the gravitational energy of the universe. The universe has an enormous debt of negative gravitational energy, which exactly balances the positive energy of the matter. During the inflationary period the universe borrowed heavily from its gravitational energy to finance the creation of more matter. The debt of gravitational energy will not have to be paid until the end of the universe."