Saturday, April 30, 2016

Does God have no choice over natural evil?

On one view God allows various natural evils because they serve a useful purpose for the natural world. For example, what about tsunamis that kill people? Well this website says this (after talking about some earth science):

When earthquakes occur under the oceans, the plate's movement dissipates its energy through the ocean in the form of waves known as tsunami. When these waves make landfall, they can be up to 100 feet high and travel inland for several miles. The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused widespread devastation to surrounding coastal areas, while killing over 200,000 people. A very large tsunami struck Japan, following a massive earthquake in 2011. We have already discussed the problems involved with stopping earthquakes and have determined that stopping them would result in a greater evil (lack of continental land masses and excessive solar radiation on the surface of the earth).

I’ll save my rebuttal for later, but first I’ll give a few other examples. Atheist philosopher William Rowe gave the example of a deer suffering a slow and painful death in a forest fire as a natural evil he argued that a good God would not allow.

Surely, a good God would want to prevent the suffering caused by fires.

As you learned in your elementary science classes (or Boy Scouts), fire requires three things—fuel, heat and oxygen. In most cases, the fuel is plant material. Obviously, God cannot eliminate plants, since all life is dependent upon the food and sequestered energy produced through photosynthesis.

Eliminating heat is problematic....One cannot eliminate oxygen from the environment

You get the idea. What about pain and suffering? From the website:

Atheist tend to assume that all pain, suffering, and death are bad or evil. However, physical pain is absolutely vital to our survival and well-being. If we felt no pain, we would do things to ourselves that could be very destructive.

One large problem with this is that God creating a universe of sentient creatures not susceptible to such pain and suffering seems to be within the realm of omnipotence. Why not create a world in which people are as invulnerable as Superman with there being no kryptonite? Moreover, what about heaven? Will people suffer horribly there because God can’t think of a way to do it better?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Eyewitness Testimony and Miracles

I mentioned in my review of the William Lane Craig vs. Alex Rosenberg debate that the “eyewitness testimony is unreliable” objection is a bad one to use against e.g. arguments for the resurrection of Jesus. Here’s a somewhat obvious problem if eyewitness testimony is unreliable to the point where anything relying on eyewitness testimony should not be accepted as true: if you follow that rule consistently, then pretty much every fact of ancient history is tossed in the rubbish bin.

At the very least the “eyewitness testimony is unreliable” objection needs to be fine-tuned more; preferably there should be some explanation for why we shouldn’t trust eyewitness testimony in the case of miracles even though eyewitness testimony is often reliable in many other cases (remember, pretty much every scientific fact we have relies on eyewitnesses who recorded e.g. results of experiments; think of that next time you read a physics textbook). That’s what I’ll do in this article.

Happily, there’s an XKCD comic to help illustrate the idea. Behold:

In this case the neutrino detector serves as a representation for a generally reliable eyewitness (it’s accurate about 97.2% of the time), and the sun explosion represents a fantastical event with an extremely low prior probability. Don’t know what a prior probability is? Here’s one version of Bayes’ theorem:

P(H|E) =  P(H) × P(E|H)

In this case, P(H) represents the prior probability. Let’s use the following symbolization key:

  • H = The sun exploded
  • ¬H = The sun did not explode.
  • E = The neutrino detector reports the sun has exploded.

Suppose there’s a one in a million shot that the sun exploded (I’m pretty sure that’s an overestimate, but this will suffice for our purposes).

P(H) =  1

The probability that our neutron detector is telling us a falsehood is 1 in 36. So on average, of the times that the sun does not explode, it will inaccurately report it 1/36 of the time. Thus:

P(E&¬H) =  1  ×  999,999  ≈ 0.027778

Of the times that the sun does explode, it correctly reports it 35/36.

P(E&H) =  35  ×  1  ≈ 0.00000097222

Note that since the sun not exploding is a far more likely event, the frequency of false positives (≈ 2.778% of the time) vastly outweighs the frequency of true positives (≈ 0.000097222% of the time) given that the neutrino detector reports the truth only 35/36 of the time. According to the law of total probability:

P(E) = P(E&H) + P(E&¬H) ≈ 0.027778

Also, given the following equation and plugging in the values above for P(E&H) and P(H):

P(E|H) =   P(E&H)  ≈ 0.97222

Plugging in our values for Bayes’ theorem gives us this:

P(H|E) =  P(H) × P(E|H)  ≈ 0.000035

In the XKCD comic, the “Frequentist Statistician” committed what’s called the base rate fallacy, concluding that the sun probably exploded because the “base rate” reliability of the neutrino detector seems (to this statistician) to suggest the sun probably exploded. The problem, as I suggested before, is that on average the frequency of false positives vastly outweighs the frequency of true positives. This sort of effect is known as the paradox of the false positive, a.k.a. the false positive paradox. Very roughly, this paradox is where false positives are more likely than true positives when the overall high reliability of the “test” (most of the times the test results accurately report the situation) might lead one to believe that a positive result (e.g. the detector saying the sun exploded) means that a positive case is likely true.

What’s our application to eyewitness testimony and miracles? Miracles have extremely low prior probabilities, and as the case of the XKCD comic illustrates, with a low enough prior probability a fairly reliable information source could lead to false positives being more likely than true positives. This sort of thing is why we can rationally reject crazy alleged eyewitness reports like being abducted by aliens. It is also why we can be skeptical of alleged eyewitness testimony of miracles.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Murray and William Lane Craig on Animal Suffering

I once saw this YouTube video a while back titled, “Can animals suffer? Debunking William Lane Craig and other philosophers who say no.”

This is in response to William Lane Craig’s (and Michael Murray’s) bad argument attempting to mitigate the problem of evil with respect to animal suffering. The problem is, it doesn’t quite get Craig’s argument right. Neither William Lane Craig nor Michael Murry claim that animals don’t suffer; they say that animals don’t suffer as human beings do. The YouTuber wastes most of her time arguing that animals suffer or can’t feel pain, which was never quite really the issue. (They sometimes address the self-awareness aspect, but even then the people in there don’t always seem to correctly understand the claim.)

William Lane Craig speaks of these three levels of pain:

Level 3: Awareness that one is oneself in pain
Level 2: Mental states of pain
Level 1: Aversive reaction to noxious stimuli

Organisms which are not sentient, that is, have no mental life, display at most Level 1 reactions. Insects, worms, and other invertebrates react to noxious stimuli but lack the neurological capacity to feel pain.
Level 2 awareness arrives on the scene with the vertebrates. Their nervous systems are sufficiently developed to have associated with certain brain states mental states of pain. So when we see an animal like a dog, cat, or horse thrashing about or screaming when injured, it is irresistible to ascribe to them second order mental states of pain. It is this experience of animal pain that forms the basis of the objection to God’s goodness from animal suffering. But notice that an experience of Level 2 pain awareness does not imply a Level 3 awareness. Indeed, the biological evidence indicates that very few animals have an awareness that they are themselves in pain.

Best I can tell, by “Level 3” pain William Lane Craig is talking about the sort of pain that requires (among other things) being self-aware. It has been argued that while many brain-having species are sentient (capable of perceiving, having consciousness) relatively few are self-aware.

Suppose it’s true though that animals don’t have this “Level 3” plan. There’s still a big problem: Namely, by Craig’s own admission, the animals still suffer! A dog or cat might not have the self-awareness while suffering, but so what? As anyone who witnessed a beloved pet mewling in pain knows, these animals really suffer! Noting they lack self-awareness thereby preventing them from suffering in the same way we do does very little to resolve the problem.

It’s worth mentioning that Murray does claim that in addition to having merely Level 2 pain, it might be that animals don’t have the “negative-feeling” aspect of pain. Quoting Murray:

Finally, even if non-primates have PFCs, the human PFC is completely different from every other type of organism. Indeed one recent survey of primate neuroanatomy describes the human PFC as “absolutely, obviously, and tremendously” different (Rilling, Trends in Cognitive Science, vol. 18, no.1 (January 2014)). If those differences (which are destroyed in a lobotomy) are what makes negative-feeling-pain possible, then perhaps animals do not have such pain.

But I don’t buy it; empirical observation of suffering pets strongly suggest that the negative-feeling-pain exists even if only at a Level 2 state.

While we’re here though, I’ll address the issue of whether certain animals have a “pre-frontal cortex” (PFC) and whether animals other than the higher primates have it. The YouTuber says yes, Murray and William Lane Craig say no. The confusion seems to come down to (at least in part) different definitions as to what the “pre-frontal cortex” is. Quoting Michael Murray:

Second, it is not obviously correct that animals outside of humans and higher primates have PFCs. As even the folks at skydivephil note, there have been different ways of demarcating the PFC over time. For those not familiar with neuroanatomy it is worth pointing out that identifying regions of the brain is not like opening up the abdomen and distinguishing the stomach and kidney and liver. Brain regions are contiguous with each other, and there are different criteria that can be used to discriminate between regions. In the early twentieth century, the PFC was demarcated by location and cell type. Humans and higher primates have a certain cell type (known as “granular”) that composes a specific cortical layer, and the PFC was identified with this layer. Some later anatomists discarded this criterion for demarcating the PFC, in part because it made it hard to find a PFC in non-higher-primates. Thus, later anatomists defined the PFC functionally as the projection zone from another part of the brain known as the thalamus.

So the part of the brain that Murray was calling the PFC isn’t necessarily the same part that the YouTuber was calling the PFC. Was it a good idea to use a different, older definition of PFC? I think not. For what it’s worth here’s one peer-reviewed article they cited that I was able to confirm; quoting from the abstract Do rats have a prefrontal cortex?:

The lateral MD-projection cortex of rats resembles portions of primate orbital cortex. If prefrontal cortex is construed broadly enough to include orbital and cingulate cortex, rats can be said to have prefrontal cortex. However, they evidently lack homologues of the dorsolateral prefrontal areas of primates. This assessment suggests that rats probably do not provide useful models of human dorsolateral frontal lobe function and dysfunction, although they might prove valuable for understanding other regions of frontal cortex.

So evidently it does get at least a little bit messy.

For those who want to see a debate between Phil Harper (of SkyDivePhil) and Michael Murray on this issue (I know I did) see this Unbelievable podcast. Who won? In my opinion it wasn’t Murray, but you make your own judgment.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Evil Is Evidence for Atheism or Theism?

One variety of the argument from evil goes like this:

  1. If horrible evils exist, then God does not exist.
  2. Horrible evils do exist.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

How might one justify premise (1)? Where “If P, then Q” is symbolized as P → Q, it is a theorem that Pr(Q|P) ≤ Pr(P → Q), so “Given P, probably Q” entails a high probability for “If P, then Q.” The likelihood that God does not exist given that horrible evils exist is high, so (1) is true.

A theist might argue that evil proves the existence of God because in the absence of God, there would exist no moral dimension to certain states of affairs; the moral property “moral badness” would not be associated with any action because if God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist. The argument might go like this:

  1. If God does not exist, then horrible evils do not exist.
  2. Horrible evils do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Atheists are divided on the probability of morality existing on atheism; some think morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true and would agree with (4) while disagreeing with (5), whereas some atheists agree with (5) and reject (4).

For those atheists who believe that moral values probably don’t exist on atheism and agree with (4), is it possible that evil (if it exists) renders God’s existence unlikely, evil is unlikely on atheism, and yet atheism is probably true?


Let’s use the following symbolization key:
  • G = God exists
  • ¬G = God does not exist
  • E = Horrible evils exists
  • ¬E = horrible evils do not exist

Consider the logically possible probability distribution values:


So for example P(¬G & E) = 0.09 in the table above. An important math equation where P(A|B) is the probably of A given B:

P(A|B) =  P(A&B)

The following are true:

  1. P(¬G|E) = 98.9011%
  2. P(¬E|¬G) = 90%

So statement (7) implies that premise (1) is probably true, and statement (8) implies that premise (4) is true. So for the atheist that denies objective moral values, he can accept both (1) and (4) are likely true while also maintaining a high probability for ¬G (perhaps via the presumption of atheism) but would of course deny premise (5).

Moreover, statement (7) basically says “The likelihood that God does not exist given that horrible evils exist is high” and so the atheist can affirm that even while denying the existence of evil. Even if the atheist denies the existence of horrible evils, the theist surely believes horrible evils exist, and so a high probability for P(¬G|E) is problematic for the theist in a way that isn’t for the atheist.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Crazy Clowns!

It’s Halloween, so how about some crazy clowns? Some thrilla killa clowns? I’ll deliver the former before delivering the latter.

First there’s this drivel by some religious rappers who don’t (usually) have religious lyrics:

Here’s a sample of their lyrics:

Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying and getting me pissed.

Yes, screw you science! We have religion!

Now that you know the video, please see this great SNL parody of the music video. Trust me, this brief blog post is worth getting the references to SNL’s spoof. ☺

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Richard Dawkins and a Boy’s Clock

Richard Dawkins got slammed for accusing Ahmed Mohamed of “fraud” in presenting the clock as his invention (see Huffington post, The Verge, Time). This isn’t the first time Dawkins came under fire for some controversial twitter remarks on Muslims. Some Dawkins-haters might chalk up his comment to irrational Islamophobia. Behold the tweets of Dawkins:

The thing is…Richard Dawkins is probably kind of right here. If we’ve been duped into swallowing the claim that the kid made the clock and the media failed to do its due diligence in this matter, that’s pretty newsworthy. There’s this Art Voice article by an electronics expert, and also this YouTube video:

Having some experience with electronics myself, my first reaction to seeing the picture of the clock that Ahmed allegedly built is that it’s an electronics kit, kind of like this one. The circuit board is already made but the electronics enthusiast still has to put the pieces together and solder the components. The YouTuber, I think, creates a misleading impression by showing another electronics clock that someone might construct that looks nothing like a circuit board.

Still, all things considered, the Ahmed Mohamed probably didn’t build the clock. Why have a such a hoax? My first impression is that the boy wanted to impress other people with displays of intelligence, and to do that fibbed about building a clock to appear smart. But there are other theories and a few other facts that make this whole affair at least a wee bit suspicious.

Ahmed Mohammed’s father El-Hassan claims his son was tortured after making the clock, saying, “My kid was hurt and was tortured and arrested and mistreated in front of his friends inside of the school.” How plausible is that he was tortured? Not very.

El-Hassan has also been something of an activist on behalf of Islam; you can see him in a televised debate here. Quoting from the New York Daily News:

One of the earliest instances of the standout citizen making national news was in 2011, when he sensationally stood up to an anti-Islamic pastor and defended the Koran as its defense attorney. That mock trial at a Florida church ended with the book's burning, to ElHassan's claimed shock.

In an interview with the Washington Post at the time, the devoted Muslim said he'd take on Rev. Terry Jones' challenge because the holy book teaches that Muslims should engage in peaceful dialogue with Christians.

And now, coincidentally, El-Hassan is in the news again with his son being arrested for building a clock—which we now know to be a fraud—in a case that happens to further his activist agenda. It’s not a smoking gun that this was a set up by El-Hassan (have his son claim to build the clock, a clock that probably would have one pulled over by airport security if one tried to bring it aboard an airplane, and have the clock’s alarm go off in school to provoke an arrest), but it is suspicious. Given El-Hassan’s activist background and that his son didn’t build the clock, we should at least be asking questions here.

All things considered then, it’s perfectly legitimate under the circumstances to note that the teenager didn’t build the clock. Dawkins was right, and his detractors were wrong.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Rebuttal to Bayes’ Theorem and the LCA

In my first article on the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (LCA) I gave a bit of credit to the LCA proponent. If the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) were true with respect to the universe, if there were an external cause to physical reality, the cause would have to be nonphysical, and a nonphysical cause would imply a supernatural cause. Yet I also said this:

Typically we accept a theory explaining something (when there is no better explanation) as evidence for a theory, e.g. the big bang theory explaining the cosmic microwave background radiation. But there’s a weakness to exploit here that I think is all too often overlooked with theistic arguments. One way an argument can fail to be convincing is if it provides no rational support for its conclusion, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that’s the only way an argument can fail to be convincing. Another way is if the argument provided nonzero but nonetheless too little support for its conclusion. So we can accept that ceteris paribus a worldview that explains e.g. why there is something rather than nothing is better than one that doesn’t, but given the high plausibility of physical reality existing eternally without an external cause, the degree of evidential support this provides is quite small. This, I submit, is the real weakness of the LCA and the real reason atheists should embrace for thinking the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument to be not a particularly good argument. The alternative hypothesis that the universe exists eternally and uncaused is conceivable and too plausible to ignore, with only very weak grounds for thinking it does in fact have an external cause.

A blogger named Maverick Christian responded in an article called, Bayes’ Theorem and the LCA. Maverick Christian’s response is a bit convoluted (it’s five pages long) so I’ll do what I can to give a brief version of it. Basically, he uses a version of Bayes’ theorem to show that the existence of the universe gives non-negligible evidence for the hypothesis that the universe has an explanation of its existence. Where H stands for the hypothesis and E stands for the evidence, the version of Bayes’ theorem Maverick Christian uses is the following, where Pr(X) is a shorthand for “the probability of X:”

Pr(H|E) = 
Pr(H) × Pr(E|H)
Pr(H) × Pr(E|H) + Pr(¬H) × Pr(E|¬H)

Using the following symbolization key:

  • E = The universe exists.
  • H = The hypothesis that the universe has an explanation (a sufficient reason) for its existence,.
  • ¬H = The universe does not have a sufficient reason (explanation) for its existence.

Maverick Christian imagines a fictional character he calls “Agnostic Al” for whom Pr(H) and Pr(¬H) are both 0.5. He imagines the values for Bayes’ theorem to be as follows:

  • Pr(H) = 0.5
  • Pr(E|H) = 1
  • Pr(¬H) = 0.5
  • Pr(E|¬H) = 0.5
When those values are plugged into Bayes’ theorem, we get ⅔ or about 66.7%. Not large, but enough to make the intelligent atheist a little bit uncomfortable if she wants to avoid believing in a supernatural cause. There are however weaknesses the intelligent atheist can exploit.

Maverick Christian estimates the likelihood of E given ¬H (i.e. the probability that the universe would exist in the absence of a sufficient reason for its existence) is 0.5, so that Pr(E|⫬H) is 0.5. But how do we calculate the probability of the universe existing in the absence of a sufficient reason? What are our grounds for thinking it’s something like Pr(E|¬H) is 0.5 instead of 0.6 or 0.4 or some other number? Arguably, Pr(E|¬H) is too inscrutable for the Bayesian approach to be a successful argument.

But should we be like agnostic Al in the first place? I will argue the answer is No. The best way to attack this Bayes’ theorem approach is to attack the prior probability of H, or what we can call HE (the hypothesis that the universe has an explanation of its existence) as opposed to HN (the hypothesis that the universe exists but has no explanation for its existence. Note that the following equation is also true:


Note that both Pr(E|HE) and Pr(E|HN) are the same (they both equal 1, since both HE and HN entail the universe’s existence). What the above equation means then is if HN and HE are of equal prior probability (i.e. if Pr(HE) equals Pr(HN)), then E (the evidence of the universe’s existence) doesn’t permit us to favor HE over HN. That is, while it make HE more likely than it was before (i.e. Pr(HE|E) > Pr(HE)), it won’t be enough for Pr(HE|E) to be higher than 0.5.

But why think Pr(HN) ≥ Pr(HE)? Because HN implies a magical force creating the universe, and magical forces creating stuff is the sort of thing that substantially deviates from the sorts of things we know exist (I used similar reasoning when arguing for the presumption of atheism), whereas physical reality existing eternally without any external cause is very plausible and doesn’t require positing anything so extravagant as a magical being or force creating something. Thus, Pr(HN) ≥ Pr(HE), and while Pr(HE|E) > Pr(HE), the fact remains that Pr(HE|E) ≤ 0.5, and thus Pr(H|E) ≤ 0.5 even though Pr(H|E) > Pr(H).