So what is this, Wacky Hindu Day?

First bandits make off with a holy man’s holy leg, and now, via Skeptico, I discover this delicious little story about a provincial judge in India ordering two gods, Ram and Hanuman, to appear in court to give evidence in a property dispute. The judge is not about to grant any special dispensations to them for being divine, let alone imaginary.

“You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a messenger and later through registered post. You are hereby directed to appear before the court personally,” Judge Singh’s notice stated.

The newspaper notices were published, in keeping with accepted Indian legal practice, after two summons dispatched to the plaintiff deities were returned because their addresses were “incomplete”.

You know they’re just going to lawyer up.

Irrationalism hasn’t got a leg to stand on

None of you is likely to forgive me for the bad joke in the headline when you read this article. But still, I think this little event shows up the practical risks of embracing irrational beliefs in magic and the occult. So the next time some wide-eyed individual calls me a closed-minded old grumpus because I can’t see the “beauty” in the act of confusing fantasy with reality, I’ll just reply that I’d rather have a closed mind than a bloody severed limb. Skepticism: the life and limb you save may be your own.

Our stupid nation: a jeremiad

Not surprising, perhaps, but still sad. I will never understand why people so eagerly embrace fantasy while flushing reality down the nearest commode as fast as they can. [jeremiad] The American Century is definitely over. In the 21st century, expect precious few great achievements from these shores. We’ll be an intellectual third world country, as dependent on other countries for our scientific advancements and quality of life as we currently are for our oil. [/jeremiad]

Halloween and the fundamentalist inability to distinguish fantasy from reality

While the rest of us gather ’round every October 31 for parties, dressing up, taking the kids (if you got ‘em) trick-or-treating, and watching scary movies on DVD till all hours, it’s easy to forget that there is an entire segment of the populace — Christian fundamentalists — who go out of their way to avoid Halloween altogether on the grounds that it really scares them. Scares them because they think Satan and demons are really real, and that the guy with the pitchfork and his wicked minions actually walk the earth on this fell night.

A recent article on ChristiaNet.com points out:

Out of 2,000 Christians surveyed, an overwhelming 66% believed that all Christians should avoid the celebration of Halloween all together. One poller said, “Halloween is evil. It glorifies the Devil!” Others made references to the original roots of the holiday, “Halloween was a Pagan festival and still is. If we participate in it, what are we teaching our children?”

This last quote is particularly funny, because as anyone should know, Christmas and Easter were originally pagan holidays too. Christianity didn’t exactly introduce any new holidays into the calendar. It merely co-opted those that were already there.

As for the question of what they may be teaching their children (and I pity those children), the best guess I can make is that they’re teaching them that their family are a bunch of killjoy weirdos who make them stay home while all their friends get to go out, play dress-up, grab loads of free candy, and have a good time.

Here’s the Good News, folks: demons and monsters don’t exist. The kinds of ooga-booga creatures of the night we all have fun dressing up as on Halloween have always been mere externalizations of humanity’s inner demons, those neuroses to which we affix labels and faces, to detach ourselves from them and make them easier to deal with. Zombies take humanity’s innate fear of death and make it ridiculous by representing it in the form of pathetic, shambling flesh-eating automatons who are easily dispatched with a shot to the head. Ghosts represent people’s belief in (and desperate need for) an afterlife, and though their presense is usually in a scary context, most often, they’re simply trying to reach out to us, to let us know, hey, don’t be scared, there’s life beyond the grave, it’s not all going to end.

Understanding why our cultures come up with such boogeymen in the first place is a helpful way of loosening up and understanding that, on Halloween, we are all getting together to thumb our noses at our fears — death and what may or may not lie beyond — and, in turn, celebrate life more gratifyingly.

But this understanding is lost on those poor saps indoctrinated into fearmongering belief systems that take all of those helpful metaphors and literalize them, until one is so deluded one sees “reality” where sensible people see the smoke and mirrors and wirework. Only this can explain why ChristiaNet.com offers its readers, with a completely straight face, a “Free Demons Quiz,” to “help educate Christians on the topic of demons…” Seriously.

Oh well, while all you fundies are out there girding yourselves for the final battle against Satan’s demonic minions, I’ll be over at the punch bowl. Do give me a sitrep now and then, won’t you?

The Impact of Explanatory Function on Existence: Show #520

For some time I’ve been considering the idea that Christian apologists argue both sides of any issue and call it proof of god or of their doctrine’s validity. Examples would be “faith” versus “reason,” or “god answers prayers” versus “sometimes god answers prayers ‘no,’” or “the world is perfectly suited to human life” versus “the world is an awful place to live because of the horrors we face due to the infiltration of sin via Adam’s disobedience,” and so on.

These no-lose situations reminded me of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that I have come to refer to as “Brian’s Dilemma.” Here is how it works: Brian is trying to convince the masses he’s not the messiah. He says something like, “I’m not the messiah.” And someone in the crowd replies that, “Only the true messiah would deny his own divinity.” Then Brian says, “OK–I am the messiah.” And someone else in the crowd shouts, “Behold! The messiah!”

If everything is proof of X–no matter what the situation or outcome–then nothing can compromise my belief in X. There is no argument or evidence that can penetrate that. But I have to accept the absurdity of my stance that Y=X and –Y=X.

Brian understood that, logically, if only the true messiah would deny his own divinity, then the crowd must reject him as the messiah if he made then made the claim that he was, in fact, the messiah. But Brian overestimated the logical capacity of the masses. He was in a surreal, absurd no-lose (or, in his case no-win) situation–exactly the same situation apologists set up to prove the existence of their god and the validity of their doctrines.

But beyond this absurd apologetic setup is an interesting segue into explanatory power and what X “accounting for” something actually means to the existence of X.

Around this time, I came across two items that also noted the significance of this idea:

http://atheism.about.com/b/a/194807.htm

Austin Cline wrote (regarding parapsychology–not religion): “Hyman’s Categorical Imperative states: Do not try to explain something until you are sure that there is something to be explained. (Quoted from Ray Hyman) Unfortunately, parapsychology appears to be one massive violation of what Hyman advises. There is no particularly good reason to think that there is anything “paranormal” to explain in the first place, much less that parapsychology has anything substantive to offer in terms of explaining human experiences or the universe.”

George Smith, in his book “Why Atheism?” wrote (quoting Thomas Aquinas): “What can be accomplished by a few principles is not effected by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle, which is nature, and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle, which is human reason or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.” (From Summa Theologica).

Just to clarify, Aquinas is simply restating a counterapologetic in this passage and not putting forward this argument himself–as he was an apologist.

Smith considers this as a rephrasing of Occam’s Razor. However, he finds it an odd thing, to imply “that Occam’s Razor, when used to argue that ‘there is no need to suppose God’s existence,’ is relevant to the claim that ‘God does not exist.’ In other words, if there is no cognitive reason to posit the existence of God, if what needs to be explained can be explained by more economical means, then we may conclude that God does not exist.”

Of course, Smith understands that “failure to justify the need for God as an explanatory principle cannot prove his nonexistence,” and “the real existence of a being…does not depend on whether our concept of that being is necessary for explanatory purposes.”

Smith describes belief in Santa. Santa’s main explanatory function is that he is the cause of the many presents under our Christmas trees on Christmas morning. And there is a huge conspiracy one has to overcome to overcome belief in Santa–not just mom and dad, but commercial outlets, media outlets, TV weather tracking (the sleigh’s flight), the postal service (not returning mail to the “North Pole”), and so on. Everyone at every level of our society seems to be a conspirator. And yet one glimpse of those presents in our parents’ closet from “Santa,” and no authoritative claims can hold us to that belief any longer. We don’t rationalize that Santa must simply be using our parents as a means to deliver the presents. (But we do tend to do that for god. And I’m not sure why.)

Smith addresses logical versus material “possibility”–mainly to explain that “logically possible” has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not a thing actually exists–which cannot be too strongly stressed. Both Santa and god are logically possible. But just as the packages sitting under the tree don’t need Santa in order to exist, neither has anyone shown that nature requires god as an explanation. In fact, “nature exists” provides just as much information as “god causes nature to exist,” since nobody has provided any specifics on what “god” is or how exactly it created the cosmos. The answer amounts to “it all got here by some sort of mysterious magic.”

What does it say about the existence of Santa or god if there is no perceptual difference whether either exists or not–if they serve no explanatory function? Once we know the presents will appear with or without Santa–what does that mean for us, intellectually? What would be our reasoning behind assuming X exists, if we perceive nothing of X?

I refer anyone to Carl Sagan’s “The Dragon in My Garage,” if you aren’t already familiar with it, as it beautifully illustrates this point:

http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/Dragon.htm

What Does it say about the existence of X if the world would operate in exactly the same way with or without X? What would be the reasoning behind a claim that X exists? Are we actually using god as an explanation for things that require no explanation? I reviewed the concept of “god answers prayers” that I found at this site, which breaks “how god answers prayer” into categories:

http://www.god-answers.org/Online_Tools/Sermons/PRAYER.htm

I addressed how these “answers” are identical to the results one would get without prayer. In the first category, “god answers prayer through his inspired word,” Christians would find comfort in reading their Bibles whether or not there was any divine intervention, because they believe in god and find comfort in that belief–whether it’s true or not. In the second category, “god answers prayer through natural law,” if natural law is an answer to prayers, it’s fairly obvious that a natural result would occur whether or not one prayed. In the third category, “god answers prayer though people and situations,” it’s very similar to the second; people help one another out all the time–whether or not prayers are incorporated. The fourth category was interesting, as it presumes both a dilemma and a solution, neither of which are not observable or verifiable: God answers prayers “in his own mind” by forgiving sins. Finally, in the event that the prayer is not answered, the Christian should presume god answered “no.” And the Christian is further advised in all prayer situations to “pray like everything depends on god and work like everything depends on you.”

But, if I work to achieve my goals as though I’m completely on my own–how does that differ fro
m how I’d work if I actually was completely on my own? Isn’t the underlying theme in both scenarios simply that “the harder I work to achieve my goals, the more likely I am to actually achieve them”? Does that require a supernatural explanation?

But even with all my hard work, in both scenarios, I still can fail. Remember: Sometimes god answers “no.” Sometimes I get what I want or need, and sometimes I don’t. Interestingly, this is exactly the case for those who do not pray. Why employ a divine explanation for an event that works the same way without divine intervention? Are we simply using god as an explanation for something that requires no explanation?

Creationism/ID also lacks explanatory function while additionally presenting Brian’s Dilemma; however, Brian’s Dilemma, in this case, isn’t even necessary–as Creationism presumes a dilemma that does not appear to even exist (much like the “forgiveness of sins” prayer scenario described earlier).

Creationism/ID posits that the universe, in all its precision, is proof of an intelligent/divine creator who built it for the sole purpose of creating a haven for perfect human existence. But if we point out what would count as flaws in that supposition–such as birth defects, plagues, or tsunamis, we’re told that flaws do indeed exist, because of sin. Ironically, the Creationist and the atheist agree the universe is not a utopia–that it is not perfectly suited to solely and completely benefit humans. Creationists, however, put forward that it was utopian at an earlier stage. Is it necessary to posit that the universe used to be utopian–but later fell into sin and fault–when we could, more easily, acknowledge that universe has probably never been ideally suited to sustain utopian human existence? Aren’t we, in the Creationist scenario, simply using god as an explanation for things that don’t require an explanation?

By making the first unfounded assertion, that the universe should be utopian, we then create the need for the additional explanation for why it’s not utopian. But why claim it was ever utopian in the first place?

If no god had a hand in the formation of this universe, it would make sense that some parts would suit some life–but other parts would not. It makes sense from a naturalistic perspective that when any sort of life arises in this huge, broiling, mostly inhospitable cosmos, that the environment would have to be at least somewhat hospitable–but necessarily utopian? I see no basis for that assertion. And, coincidentally, we all seem to agree that “suitable,” but not “utopian,” is exactly what we’re dealing with in observable reality. But, to support the explanatory need for god, Christians must assert it necessarily used to be utopian.

I also briefly addressed the ID claim of “specified complexity.” One site called it an “unambiguously objective standard” put forward by William Dembski:

http://www.origins.org/articles/indesignfaq.html

“Instead of looking for such vague properties as ‘purpose’ or ‘perfection’–which may be construed in a subjective sense–it looks for the presence of what it calls specified complexity, an unambiguously objective standard.”

I looked up “specified complexity” to see whether or not I agreed it was an “unambiguously objective standard”:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specified_complexity

“Dembski argues that it is impossible for specified complexity to exist in patterns displayed by configurations formed by unguided processes. Therefore, Dembski argues, the fact that specified complex patterns can be found in living things indicates some kind of guidance in their formation, which is indicative of intelligence.”

So, we first assume pattern X cannot naturally occur. We then find pattern X in nature. And rather than acknowledge that, “Well, I’ll be dogged–it does occur in nature,” we simply say that what we’re observing is not possible–even as it sits right before our eyes–and that it actually has to be the handiwork of a god–since our original assumption that this can’t occur in nature can’t possibly be incorrect.

Not only is that not objective, it’s poor, poor science. If a scientist hypothesizes X cannot do Y, then observes X doing Y, he must acknowledge his hypothesis is in error. For example, if I hypothesize that no animal can exist without a brain in nature, and I then discover jellyfish, is it more reasonable for me to assume that my original hypothesis was incorrect, or that jellyfish are unnatural divine manifestations?

Holding to what we believe in the face of independently verifiable, observable facts to the contrary is not an admirable character trait in anyone, but it is most especially egregious for someone commenting in the field of science.

All roads will necessarily lead to god when we start out with the presupposition that the proposition “there is no god” is an absolute impossibility. To such a Christian, there is simply no way the universe can exist without a god; and so, to this Christian, the universe requires a god–no matter what happens in the universe or in what state the universe exists. But even if the Christian could be presented with a universe scenario that would exclude the possibility of an existent god, it’s highly probable that this scenario would simply be set aside as a “mystery,” to be explained later, after we’re all dead—like so many other Christian “mysteries.”

When god becomes the default plug-in explanation for “whatever it is–however it is,” then god can no longer be differentiated from “whatever is.” And god is rendered, in such a case, as serving no explanatory purpose of any kind, exactly like Santa and Sagan’s Dragon, except that god has managed, somehow, to avoid their fate as recognized nonexistent items. Perhaps that’s a mystery that will be explained later, after we’re all dead?

The mindlessness of religion in one convenient, snarky package

In a couple of amusingly juxtaposed incidents that demonstrate how religion is little more than some leftover, atavistic rubbish from our days as hunter-gatherers picking fleas off one another, we have Church of England bishops wagging their fingers and pronouncing a recent rash of heavy rains and flooding to be divine wrath for “Western civilisation’s decision to ignore biblical teaching” (read: gay marriage) — while, over here in drought-stricken Alabama, that state’s governor has just made them the biggest laughingstock since Kansas by actually issuing a proclamation prompting citizens to (I am not making this up) pray for rain. Heck, why not work in a rain dance or two while you’re at it? Or is that the wrong invisible man?

Clearly the solution is simple. Britain needs to export a certain quota of its gays over to ‘Bammy. Say, half. That way, both regions will get just enough rain from their angry God that our southern friends will no longer suffer drought, and England will no longer flood. You know, like the Three Bears’ porridge: not too hot, not too cold, just riiiight.

Reality vs. fantasy: a visual metaphor

Via PZ, a YouTube clip of a martial arts “master” who seems to have watched too many Shaw Brothers wire-fu movies from the seventies, and who thinks he can vanquish all comers by the use of his “qi”. In the video on Pharyngula, you can see him goofily flapping his arms in the general direction of a host of “opponents” who are all several feet away, obligingly falling down, or pretending to convulse as if their bodies are taking vicious blows.

Then, said “master” decides to prove his skills in the real world by taking on a practitioner of regular old-fashioned martial arts…and gets pwned in most humiliating fashion. Go to Pharyngula to see the whole video with the ridiculous wannabe-Jedi playfighting, followed by the real thing. The clip below is of the “master”‘s sad defeat, from a better, clearer angle. (Don’t watch it if the sight of a poor idiot taking a few kicks to the face might upset you. Good grief, I studied tae-kwon-do when in college in Houston, and even today I could block better than this guy. But then, I would know to block rather than just relying on my magical force field.)

The whole ludicrous farce is, as PZ has also pointed out, a grim metaphor for the dire consequences of rejecting reality in favor of irrational fantasy. As people in the US continue to turn their backs on science and empirical truth, so shall we find our collective asses handed to us when other countries who don’t disdain things like evolution, global warming, or any other ideologically incorrect science, race ahead of us intellectually, economically, and in overall quality of life for their citizens.