Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Anthropic Principle and Fine-Tuning Argument

Sorry for the absence of posts lately, I have just gone through a move and I've had a lot on my plate lately. So I thought I'd do another post on a typical argument against atheism which is that of the anthropic principle. The principle is rooted in the fact that if one of the physical constant (viz. gravitational constant, the electric constant etc.) were modified even slightly the universe would not be able to facilitate life. From there though, it is argued that because of this the universe was designed specifically to facilitate human life (hence the Greek prefix anthro, meaning man). Nobel Laurette Steven Weinberg explicates it as: "the world is the way it is, at least in part, because otherwise there would be no one to ask why it is the way it is".

The problem with this argument is that exact leap where you go from "out of a number of possible universes this universe is one of the only ones that can facilitate life" to "this universe was made in order to facilitate life". It does not follow that because this universe is able to facilitate life that it was designed to do so.

I'll admit that there is something amazing about the fine-tuning of the universe and about human life. We know that for life to be possible the constants must be aligned exactly as they are, think that if the one of the fundamental forces were altered by the smallest percentile then the structure of the cosmos as we know it would be radically different such that life would not be possible. Such an amazement does make one question "Why; why is the universe as it is? Why is there something rather than nothing?" but it is incredibly audacious to assert oneself as the purpose of the universe.

I'll end with a quote from Diane Benscoter: "Easy answers to complex questions are very appealing when you are emotionally vulnerable".

[A note on semantics: it has been convincingly argued that the use of the word 'principle' in the 'anthropic principle' is a misnomer. Any scientific principle must be falsifiable, the anthropic principle is not, it is an interpretation of the fine-tuning of the universe. This means that it cannot be treated scientifically, nor can it be determined to be objectively false or true. I do not think that this is a reason to discard it altogether from examination, but it is to be examined as an interpretation and not a matter-of-fact.]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ontological Argument: A challenge to Atheism

For a long time now I've been fascinated with various forms of the ontological argument. The most well recognized formulation and the one that I consider to be the most convincing comes from Anselm's Proslogion.

In a nutshell Anselm argues that he can conceive of a being which nothing greater can be thought, this being he argues cannot exist solely in his mind because then it's existence would be limited to his mind so it must also exist within the world.

The whole trouble with the argument centers around the interpretation of the word greater. When you say that something is greater than something else it is often implied that is quantifiably greater as in volume, mass, etc. But greater could also mean a qualitative property such as a great piece of artwork, or a great tasting soup.

One of the earliest rejections of this argument was a number of parodies such as Gaunilo's island where Gaulino argued that he could conceive the greatest island but that does not necessarily mean that such an island exists. But I think Anselm would have objected to this argument by saying that when you imagine a greatest island you have already limited this being by conceiving of it as an island. That is to say it is limited by its property of being an island, it's islandness if you will.

If such a being did exist it would be more of a Spinozan God than a Christian God, as nothing could be conceived as seperate from it otherwise it would be limited by not containing that separate property. Such a God wouldn't be a personal God nor would it be concerned with morality or sin or any other of that Christian goodness.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Burden of Proof

Does God exist? An atheist's answer, by definition, must always be "no". When asked for proof of this claim an atheist will almost always say that the burden of proof for the existence of God lies with the theist, thus they are able to negate this proposition without proof. In the words of Jacob Fortin: "Extraordinary claims presented without proof may be dismissed without proof."

But what is extra-ordinary? What is ordinary? Theists will often argue that everyone has a spiritual capacity and that religion has been around for thousands of years thus it is the norm, ergo the burden of proof lies with the atheist. Atheists will often counter by saying that a few thousands years is very little time relative to the millions of years that humans have been around.

I think of Nietzsche's quote from The Twilight of the Idols where he says that "The apparent world is the only world, everything else has been lyingly added." This could be used as a rallying cry for atheists around the world, but it is really nothing more than an assertion, just as saying that religion is natural is really nothing more than an assertion.

I guess what I'm trying to figure out is with whom does the burden of proof lie, the atheist or the theist? The phrase 'burden of proof' comes from the latin phrase 'semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit' (the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges). But in this case when one demands a burden of proof from whom they believe is making charges they are subsequently implicitly making a charge for what is ordinary. When an atheist charges a theist with the burden of proof they implicitly assert that God is not natural, when a theist charges an atheist with the burden of proof they implicitly assert that God is natural.

What is ordinary? It is a question that both sides must begin to examine in further detail if they is ever to be a resolution to this quarrel. So long as atheism presents itself as nothing more than a negation of theism (as many blogs have done, see: here, here) it will never be able to progress. Instead we ought to progress the idea of 'the norm' as something entirely separate from theism and God.

Follow Up to Yesterday's Post on Abortion

After doing a little more research on some pro-life sites I discovered that the main issue that Christians debate around is whether you need to take your first breath before you are considered living. I have no interest in doing a point-counterpoint of bible quotes around this (leave the theists to quarrel among each other), but it does reiterate my point that the issue of this debate is not centrally "Is abortion murder?" (as I find the media likes to frame it). Yesterday I said that the issue is really "When does life begin?", but now I feel like that is a bad way of framing the question, instead I feel like it is better to say "What is a human being?"

You see, when you ask this question in the form of a 'when' you have already presupposed the 'what'. Once you have defined what a human being is, the 'when' will come naturally. I feel like the debate in the media centers around the 'when' because the 'what' seems so obvious: I am a human. But no one really delves into the question of what exact qualities we need to possess in order to be qualified as a human.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Abortion and Atheism

Congratulations everyone thanks to the murder of George Tiller abortion is back in the news again!

I just finished watching a 2000 documentary on pro-life extremists called 'Soldiers in the Army of God' produced by HBO. The movie follows several individuals from a extremist pro-life group of the same name. One of the men, Paul Hill, was on death row for killing an 'abortionist' during the time of the shooting of the film (he was executed in 2003). One part of the movie shows a convention that the SitAoG held which featured small clips from people who had spent time in jail for bombing abortion clinics (or for a similar crime). At one point one of the people the movie focused around, Jonathan O'Toole, even referred to these as 'acts of terrorism' which he said was justifiable for the greater good.

After watching this movie I couldn't help but think: where is the biblical justification for the belief that life begins at conception? After a little research on some pro-life sites I couldn't find any. Not one explicit quote that even implies that life begins at conception. Obviously there are tons of bible quotes that condemn murder (and a couple that sanction it), but none that explicitly state that a fetus is a human being. This shouldn't be surprising; obviously the bible was written long before our modern understanding of biological conception, ergo they had nothing to say about 'when' we become human beings.

This got me thinking what is the impetus behind this movement? It seems as if there is this religiously motivated grassroots movement against abortion with nothing from the Bible that explicitly supports their position. You see there are plenty of biblical quotes that condemn murder of a human being (and a few that sanction them), but the idea that a fetus is a human being is qualified as a human being does not appear anywhere in there.

Arguments against abortion aren't purely Religious; it does not require a religious conviction to believe that a fetus is a human being and should not be aborted; this is something that is left entirely up to the individual. It is entirely justifiable (perhaps it is better to say non-contradictory) to be a pro-choice Christian because the Bible does not specifically state when life begins (be it at conception or birth), and it is entirely justifiable to be a pro-life Christian for the same reasons.

My point is that the abortion issue at heart really isn't a religious issue at all, but up to each individual's idea of when life begins; this is an issue which one cannot seek guidance from the Bible. Yet Christians from both sides quote the bible to support their own prejudices and feel that they are Biblically justified in their position because of these passages. People do not realize that they have chosen when life begins and then used these quotes to support that choice, they want to make it appear the other way around.

Thanks to Jacob Fortin at The Good Atheist who showed me the link to the youtube video (you can find it here).

First Post

Hey everyone, I thought I'd create this blog because I have been slightly unsatisfied with other atheist blogs that I have read. I that I have something new to add to the blogosphere on this topic and I felt that I need a space where I could vent my thoughts on various topics regarding atheism. I hope you enjoy reading my future posts!