Proof from Logical Necessity, or the Ontological Proof (2)

Existence is not Great

A core assertion of Ontological is that it’s better to physically exist than to be a concept. I’m not convinced, and to help illustrate the point I propose a simple thought experiment.

  1. Picture a vertical line, which we’ll declare to be one unit high.
  2. Place a circle around it with a diameter of exactly that line; if you’ve pictured this correctly, you’ll have a circle split in two.
  3. Now, mentally undo the part of the circle that touches the bottom of the line, as well as the top part of the line on the left side. Unwrap it counter-clockwise from the top, keeping the left-most portion anchored to the top of the vertical line, until the line is perfectly horizontal and at a right angle to the original line.
  4. You now have two sides of a rectangle. Complete it by extending a horizontal line from the bottom of the vertical line with the same length as the upper horizontal line, and a vertical line from the end of the upper horizontal line with the length of one unit.

The area for a rectangle is the width times the height. We know the circumference, or length around a circle is π times the diameter of that circle, which in this case is π units. So with a width of π units and a height of our circle’s diameter, or one unit, that rectangle has an area of exactly π square units.

If you had difficulty, the following diagram should help you. Conveniently, this diagram will also prove my point:

Creating a rectangle pi units long by unwrapping a circle.

The final rectangle in your mind is exactly π square units big. The rectangle in this diagram is not. In fact, no real-world diagram will ever be exactly π square units.

For argument’s sake, we’ll say the rectangle is exactly 10cm wide, and the diagram is printed at 472dots per centimetre.[26] The width of this rectangle is thus 4,720 dots, and the height is 1502 dots, for an area of 7,089,440 dots. To convert that to “units,” we need to divide by the size of one square unit in dots, which is 1,502×1,502 or 2,256,004 dots. According to my math, that rectangle is about 3.142477 square units in size. This differs from π after the third decimal place.

The reason is pretty clear. π is an irrational number with an infinite number of decimal places; by definition, it can never be represented by one integer divided by another, or by counting a finite number of elements. And yet if we construct this diagram in the real world, both the width and the height must be finite numbers. Even if the width of the rectangle was the size of the visible universe, it would still be a finite number of atoms in area, and our answer would be wrong somewhere around the 36th decimal place.

There’s no escape from this problem, either. No matter how you try to represent π in the real world, you’ll be forced to use a finite number of decimal places to represent a number with an infinite number of them. And yet, what’s impossible in the real world is easy in your head. You don’t need to convert π to a decimal number, you can treat it as a concept and dodge around the problem. As a consequence, the rectangle in your head is exactly π square units in area.

This confirms something I’ve observed as an artist. Like Anselm’s painter, I too have had a vision of a finished drawing or photo in my head; unlike him, the finished product is rarely more than a shadow of what’s in my head. Something always goes wrong; a line falls out of place, a photo has a branch that’s poorly placed, and so on. The exceptions are usually because I accidentally found an improvement while creating the work, and not through perfect execution.

The Triumph of Irrationality

I’ve also got a beef with another assertion of Ontological, that it’s impossible to think of any being greater than god.

If you’ve heard of Buddhism, you’ve likely heard of its most famous variation, Zen. Part of that sect’s seductive quality comes from an emphasis on “kōans,” or questions that have no rational answer but instead are intended to provoke an enlightened train of thought. Here’s the most famous of them:

“Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”

(Hakuin Ekaku)

That question cannot be logically answered,[27] yet Hakuin had no problems asking it and we had no problems contemplating it. Given a little thought, you should be able to come up with your own kōans: What is the colour of an object in perfect darkness? What is the sound of empty space?

Kōans show that we have no problem thinking irrational thoughts. The Ontological proof uses reason to prove god, however. In order to do this, it assumes that god must be rational. If he is not, he could not be described by reason, and if he could not be described by reason, he could not be proven by it either.

But if a god must be rational, and our thoughts don’t need to be, we can contemplate things greater than the gods. Let’s try it: There is something greater than a god. The consequences of that sentence are not logically valid, yet I had no problems writing it and you had no problems understanding it. If we shift our assumptions, we can make it valid; I’ll use this in the Morality proof later on, for instance.

If we’re not bound by rationality, while god is, then we can easily think of something greater than god, and another assertion is shot down.

Anselm realized this loophole, and tried to close it in Chapter 4 of Proslogion. He separates thought into two categories:

For a thing is thought in one way when the words signifying it are thought, and it is thought in quite another way when the thing signified is understood. God can be thought not to exist in the first way but not in the second. For no one who understands what God is can think that he does not exist.

(Chapter 4: “How the Fool Managed to Say in His Heart That Which Cannot be Thought”, as translated by David Burr)

The problem with Anselm’s counter-counter is that it doesn’t address the counter-argument at all. He clearly wants to put “a being greater than god” in the “signified but not understood” category, where he can safely ignore it, but he doesn’t say why it belongs there, let alone why his categories exist in the first place.

In order to decide which category that sentence goes into, you have to understand the sentence first. For instance, which of the two gets “Yd.p. lprxaxnf co br Ire?” That might be a meaningless statement, making it impossible to understand, or it might have meaning in a language or code you’re not familiar with. In contrast, “There is something greater than god” can be easily understood and thus placed in a category. But because you understood it, there’s only one possible placement: things that are “signified” and “understood.”

You may not be aware of all the rational implications of that statement, or you might know them better then I do, but the underlying concepts must be clear to you before you can make a rational decision. Irrational decisions are another beast, but they only prove my point: the irrational trumps the rational.

Anselm’s defence doesn’t work, and my counter-example still stands.

This cuts the other way, as well. Merely being able to state something does not make it rational or logically justified. The fourth “distilled” proof falls into this trap. “The existent perfect being is existent” is true, in the same way that “the existent @#^*$ is existent” is:

  • “The existent ___ is existent” depends on the assumption “a ___ exists.”
  • If that assumption is true, then there’s no need for the proof!
  • If that assumption is false, then the proof is contradictory and we can conclude anything we wish from it, including the existence of whatever we want.

The fifth earns a medal from me for squashing three separate proofs into one. There’s proof from Witness (“if one person is convinced a god exists, god exists”), proof from Popularity (“multiple believers can’t be wrong”), and just a sprig of Ontological (“the word ‘God’ only means something if a god exists”). Unfortunately, it falls flat on that last assertion, as the trio of Faust, Bilbo Baggins and the Jabberwocky will swear to. We’re surrounded by fictional, non-existent things that provide us with meaning, by setting an example or just giving us a good time. This extends to science as well; Niels Bohr expanded on Ernest Rutherford’s model of the atom to create the boringly-named Rutherford-Bohr model, which has very little in common with the real layout of an atom but is easy to teach. And so it is taught.


[26] For readers who think in imperial units, that’s 3 15/16ths inches and 1200dpi respectively.

[27] It’s a common misconception that kōans have no answer. To the contrary, every kōan has an answer, though that answer varies from Buddhist Master to Buddist Master. For instance, Zhàozhōu’s answer to “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?” to one of his students was “Wú,” Japanese for “no.” To another, he replied “yes.”

Proof from Logical Necessity, or the Ontological Proof (1)

Proof from Logical Necessity, or the Ontological Proof

I’m going to need your help with this one. Relax and get comfortable.

Now, I’d like you to imagine the most perfect being. One that embodies all the qualities you’d like to be in a conscious entity. A perfectly-balanced sense of judgement, say, or a deep pool of empathy and caring, or a graceful ability to forgive and move on, or a wisdom well beyond its years. Picture an entity that manages all that, better than anything that has or will exist.

It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? Don’t you wish such an entity existed?

I bet you’d agree that it’s better to exist than not exist, right? A being that has all those traits would be more perfect if it existed than a similar being that did not. And yet, you had no problems picturing that perfect entity, didn’t you? How could you have pictured perfection without including every portion of that perfection, including the ability to exist?

The ease of picturing perfection, therefore, must mean that perfection exists. And since a god matches that perfection to a tee, that must mean the gods exist.

No Really, It’s Quite Popular With Some People

Most of you are scratching your heads right now. “Really? That’s a proof?”

It is, and it’s been a favourite of philosophers for some time. Despite the “-logical” suffix, most scholars do not think this proof was dreamed up by a Greek. I’m not so sure; while it’s true that I can’t find a single example within their works, you’ll note that it bears a strong resemblance to the Cosmological proof, which was quite popular with them. Indeed, my description above is almost identical to variation of Cosmological. Instead of stepping up one degree of perfection, however, I stepped sideways and invoke the property of “existence.” Thus Ontological proofs do not “step outside” the universe, and are immune to that particular counter-argument.

There’s a better argument for this proof’s origins, that a fan of Greek learning came up with this twist. Avicenna[22] was a Persian philosopher who lived roughly 1.5 millennia after the Greeks, but was one of the few people in the world to have access to their written texts. He claims to have memorized the entire Qur’an by age ten and outsmarted his teachers by age fourteen, which sounds unlikely until you start cataloguing his accomplishments. Avicenna pioneered the use of clinical trials, knew the heart worked as a valve, discovered Newton’s first law of motion, reasoned that light had a finite speed, came pretty close to inventing Germ Theory, was the first psychologist, published a book of medicine that was used for 600 years in Europe, and during a moment of boredom invented the refrigerated coil and scented oils. As if to further rub it in, half of his surviving work is
written in verse.

A lover of Aristotle, Avicenna extended the old Greek’s philosophy and applied it to Islam. I can track down several scholars, such as M. E. Marmura and Parviz Morewedge, who make it quite clear that Avicenna’s proof differed from his classical hero by focusing more on logic and existence, independent of physical reality:

It is not in any sense a proof that infers God’s existence from the observation of His handiwork. On this Avicenna is explicit. After giving one version of his proof from contingency, for example, he writes: “Reflect on how our proof for the existence and oneness of the First and His being free from attributes did not require reflection on anything except his existence itself and how it did not require any consideration of His creation and acting, even though the latter [provide] evidential proof (dalīl) for Him. This mode, however, is more reliable and noble, that is, where when we consider the state of existence, we find that existence inasmuch as it is existence bears witness to Him, while He thereafter bears witness to all that comes after Him in existence” (Ešārāt, p. 482).

(M. E. Marmura, Encyclopædia Iranica, http://www.iranica.com/articles/avicenna-iv, retrieved April 30th 2011)

Other scholars dispute Avicenna’s departure, and unfortunately I can’t track down a translated version of his Šefāʾ or Ešārāt to decide for myself.

I can track down the original texts of Anselm of Canterbury, however. His book Proslogion is universally accepted as a true proof from Logical Necessity. Anselm had a rather interesting life, most notably feuding with two kings of England and being forced into exile twice. It’s a shame the topic of this book doesn’t permit me to go into more details, because those decades of political intrigue would be easier to sort out than Anselm’s writing:

In fact, it [God] so undoubtedly exists that it cannot be thought of as not existing. For one can think there exists something that cannot be thought of as not existing, and that would be greater than something which can be thought of as not existing. For if that greater than which cannot be thought can be thought of as not existing, then that greater than which cannot be thought is not that greater than which cannot be thought, which does not make sense. Thus that than which nothing can be thought so undoubtedly exists that it cannot even be thought of as not existing.

(Proslogion, Chapter 3: “That God Cannot be Thought Not to Exist”, as translated by David Burr)

Since I’m not a cruel person, I’ll spare you from having to parse the original and write up my own translation:

Chapter 2: That God Really Exists

1. No being is greater than God. Even a fool who would deny God recognizes this.

2. That fool has only a partial understanding, however, since he does not understand such a being to exist.

3. Consider a painter’s thoughts of his or her next masterpiece, to the finished masterpiece itself. They have a rough sketch of the painting within their minds, but since it does not physically exist they cannot fully understand that painting.

4. It follows from 3. that it is greater for any object to exist that to not exist.

5. But if point 4. is true, then it would be impossible to think of the greatest possible being unless that being existed. Otherwise, there could exist a greater being, having all the attributes you gave to your greatest being plus the attribute of existence.

Chapter 3: That God Cannot be Thought Not to Exist

6. We can think of a being that must exist, and this being must be greater than one that we cannot think of as existing.

7. By that reasoning, if that being from 4. couldn’t exist, it would be lesser than another thing in our thoughts that could exist in reality.

8. Thus, we’ve reinforced point 5: that being must exist in reality.

9. By extension of points 6 through 8, we cannot even think of this being as not existing.[23]

10. We can’t think of anything greater than God.

11. This “being” we’ve been referring to must be God, otherwise we’d contradict point 10.

12. Praise God, isn’t He wonderful, etc. etc. etc.

Philosophers fell in love with this style of proof. The possibility of finding a proof for god using nothing but logic is like finding a long-forgotten civilization without leaving the house. A number of big-names have come up with their own versions, such as Gottfried Leibniz, Kurt Gödel, and René Descartes. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy lists five more “distilled” variations on it:

1. God is a being which has every perfection. (This is true as a matter of definition.) Existence is a perfection. Hence God exists.

2. [24]

3. It is possible that God exists. God is not a contingent being, i.e., either it is not possible that God exists, or it is necessary that God exists. Hence, it is necessary that God exists. Hence, God exists.

4. [It is analytic, necessary and a priori that][25] Each instance of the schema “The F G is F” expresses a truth. Hence the sentence “The existent perfect being is existent” expresses a truth. Hence, the existent perfect being is existent. Hence, God is existent, i.e. God exists. (The last step is justified by the observation that, as a matter of definition, if there is exactly one existent perfect being, then that being is God.)

5. The word ‘God’ has a meaning that is revealed in religious experience. The word ‘God’ has a meaning only if God exists. Hence, God exists.

6. I exist. Therefore something exists. Whenever a bunch of things exist, their mereological sum also exists. Therefore the sum of all things exists. Therefore God—the sum of all things—exists.

(http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/ , retrieved April 30th 2011)

Missing from that list is Leibniz’s Monad theory, which borrows an ancient Greek idea. A “monad” is a super-atom of sorts; they make up every substance and contain consciousness, yet cannot be changed or destroyed, only divided into infinitely small pieces. No two are alike. They’re classified by the abstract properties they’ve been granted; “Entelechies” do little more than move, “Souls” have the added ability to remember things, and “Spirits” are permitted to reason. While all modads are tied to physical bodies, Leibniz claims there’s a special monad out there that is not attached to a body, and does nothing but continually create new monads. This god monad is stopped from just cranking out “Spirits” by the laws of nature. This system cannot be improved on, according to Leibniz.

None of Leibniz’s contemporaries agreed on that point.

The sixth on that list is a close match for Descartes’ “proof” for God. The scare-quotes are because Descartes would probably object to that argument being called a proof, let alone one of his own. In general, he thought God’s existence was obvious via intuition, instead of rational arguments. As a result he never bothered to write up a formal rationale, but instead randomly scattered bits of logical argument and informal reasons throughout his work. He took full advantage of this sloppiness, by throwing out many variations and forcing his critics to comb through his entire work to clean up his “proofs.” Fortunately for me, his arguments boil down to a mix of proofs that I have or will cover in this book, so I don’t need to elaborate further.

Gödel’s proof, by comparison, is both much better and much worse. Instead of dealing with “perfections” or simplistic “attributes,” his proof works on “positive, morally aesthetic properties;” examples of these include “perfectly just,” “all-powerful,” “merciful,” and “absolutely moral.”

Out of all the Ontologicals I’ve presented, Gödel’s is easily my favourite. It’s much better than Descartes’ “proof” because it is a well-structured logical argument, presented in a formal logical system with well-defined rules. It’s also much worse, for the same reason:

Godel's Ontological Proof

That chart-junk is called “modal logic,” and is a little tough to understand without study. Would another translation help?

Assumption 1: No property in collection P will be the inverse of another property also in P.
Assumption 2: If a property is in P, and if for all objects with that property that implies the existence of some other property in every possible situation, then the collection P also contains the other property.
Theorem 1: If a property is in P, an object might exist with that property.
Definition 1: An object has the “God-like” property if, and only if, that object has every property in P.
Assumption 3: The “God-like” property is in P.
Theorem 2: At least one object might have the “God-like” property.
Definition 2: A property is an “essential property” of an object if, and only if, every property that object has must be implied by the essential property, in every possible situation.
Assumption 4: Any property in P must be within P in every situation.
Theorem 3: If an object has the “God-like” property, that property must be an essential property.
Definition 3: An object has the “Anselmian God” property if, and only if, all its essential properties imply that, in every possible situation, an object exists with that essential property.
Assumption 5: The “Anselmian God” property is in P.
Theorem 4: There must exist an object with the “God-like” property in every situation.

I think this is enough examples to begin pulling out some common threads. To begin with, Ontological proofs ignore concepts grounded in reality and instead focus on using pure logic. The only potential exception is “existence,” depending on whether or not you think ideas have an existence outside or independent of the universe. From there, they start rattling off attributes and properties of god, and through some carefully-constructed logic come to the conclusion “god exists” by proving something god-like has the attribute of “existence.”


[22] This is the Latinized version of his name; in the Middle East, he was known as Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, which was sensibly shortened down to Ibn Sīnā.

[23] Points 6 through 9 match up with the section of Proslogion that I quoted earlier, so you can decide how accurate my attempts at translation were for yourself.

[24] The second version is the rephrasing of Anselm’s argument I quoted earlier.

[25] My best translation from philosopher-ese is “it follows from and is proven from prior knowledge that…”

Proof of God: The Cosmological Proof (4)

Absolutely Nothing

But that isn’t the only nothing out there. I’ve described the best “nothing” we have evidence for. Some of the religious argue this is the wrong “nothing” to be thinking about. Take this review of Laurence Krauss’s book “A Universe from Nothing,” written by Robin Schumacher:

You would think that by the title of Krauss’ book he answers the question that Leibniz posed, but he doesn’t. Instead, he redefines what ‘nothing’ is. ‘Nothing’ to Dr. Krauss would be empty space or the quantum vacuum. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, says in his brief review of the book: “Nothing is not nothing. Nothing is something. That’s how a cosmos can be spawned from the void — a profound idea conveyed in A Universe From Nothing that unsettles some yet enlightens others. Meanwhile, it’s just another day on the job for physicist Lawrence Krauss.” [21]

Fair enough, let’s consider a more basic nothing. First on the agenda is demonstrating that it exists. Here, we stumble badly; Schumacher’s review asserts all “the scientific evidence points to the universe exploding out of true nothingness,” yet as I’ve shown above there is no evidence for this, and we can never find any by definition.

Think about it: we define things by partitioning the universe into “parts of X” and “not parts of X.” A definition of “nothing” cannot throw anything into one of those partitions, because the instant it does our “nothing” consists of at least one thing. Everything we know of must go into the other partition, which means that we are perpetually finding evidence for things that are not nothing. Thus we will never have evidence for that definition of “nothing.”

Let’s ignore those trivial details, though. What would this “nothing” be like? Well, nothing, of course. The scientist’s version of nothing, as I outlined above, includes rules like “Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle” and the “Conservation of Energy;” these would have to go. You’d also have to toss out all the rules of logic, as they too are something.

Which means we also have to toss out “something cannot come from nothing” from this nothing. But if there is no rule that prevents something from forming from nothing, then why couldn’t something spontaniously arise? It’s not against the rules, as there are none.

So even if we accept Schumacher’s “nothing” as possibly existing, it’s still possible for something to arise from it!

So Bad It’s Not Even Wrong

Even if you can somehow find a way past all those problems and patch up Cosmological, you face a minor problem.

The conclusion of Kalam is that the universe was caused… and that’s it. At no part of the argument does it say what that cause was. Do we need a god to cause a universe to exist? As we have no clue how to cause a universe, we don’t know. This opens up the possibility of a non-god creator, which we cannot rule out unless we offer up evidence (which, as I’ve argued, will never arrive).

In other words, Cosmological doesn’t even prove the existence of a god! Its continued popularity in religious circles should be an embarrassment to believers the world over, for that reason alone.


[21] http://carm.org/lawrence-krauss-atheist-definition-of-nothing

BBC’s “Transgender Kids, Who Knows Best?” p1: You got Autism in my Gender Dysphoria!

This series on BBC’s “Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?” is co-authored by HJ Hornbeck and Siobhan O’Leary. It attempts to fact-check and explore the many claims of the documentary concerning gender variant youth. You can follow the rest of the series here:

  1. Part One: You got Autism in my Gender Dysphoria!
  2. Part Two: Say it with me now
  3. Part Three: My old friend, eighty percent
  4. Part Four: Dirty Sexy Brains

 

Petitions seem as common as pennies, but this one stood out to me (emphasis in original).

The BBC is set to broadcast a documentary on BBC Two on the 12th January 2017 at 9pm called ‘Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?‘. The documentary is based on the controversial views of Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who believes that Gender Dysphoria in children should be treated as a mental health issue.

In simpler terms, Dr. Zucker thinks that being/querying being Transgender as a child is not valid, and should be classed as a mental health issue. […]

To clarify, this petition is not to stop this program for being broadcast entirely; however no transgender experts in the UK have watched over this program, which potentially may have a transphobic undertone. We simply don’t know what to expect from the program, however from his history and the synopsis available online, we can make an educated guess that it won’t be in support of Transgender Rights for Children.

That last paragraph is striking; who makes a documentary about a group of people without consulting experts, let alone gets it aired on national TV? It helps explain why a petition over something that hadn’t happened yet earned 11,000+ signatures.

Now if you’ve checked your watch, you’ve probably noticed the documentary came and went. I’ve been keeping an eye out for reviews, and they fall into two camps: enthusiastic support

So it’s a good thing BBC didn’t listen to those claiming this documentary shouldn’t have run. As it turns out, it’s an informative, sophisticated, and generally fair treatment of an incredibly complex and fraught subject.

… and enthusiastic opposition

The show seems to have been designed to cause maximum harm to #trans children and their families. I can hardly begin to tackle here the number of areas in which the show was inaccurate, misleading, demonising, damaging and plain false.

… but I have yet to see someone do an in-depth analysis of the claims made in this specific documentary. So Siobhan is doing precisely that, in a series of blog posts.
[Read more…]

Proof of God: The Cosmological Proof (3)

There Are No Stupid Questions

While Hume has me in a philosophical bent, let me ask a question of my own. Can you prove to me that the universe exists?

It sounds like a trivial question. Shouldn’t the keyboard under my fingers, the photons smacking into my eyeballs, or my ability to think about myself suggest an obvious answer?

But think about it a little more. That keyboard is not the universe, but something that exists within a universe. The same can be said for those photons and even my thoughts.[16] In fact, at no point in my life will I ever interact with the universe, I will only deal with the things contained in it.

We can’t say the same about my keyboard, those photons, or the thoughts bouncing around my skull. I can verify my keyboard exists by looking at it, test my eyes’ ability to detect light by comparing where it says my hands are to what my body has to say about the matter, and hook myself up to a brain scanner and watch the activation patterns of my neurons change over time. These aren’t absolute proofs of existence, true, but by combining multiple lines of evidence I can push my uncertainty down to an arbitrarily low level.

As this simple question demonstrates, the universe is qualitatively different than any physical thing. It is an abstract container, which can only be properly described by referring to the things within it. And yet Cosmological wants us to treat it the same as any other physical object. The sloppy nature of language hides this conflict from us, making the proof seem more rational than it actually is.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

All that would be bad enough, but so far all I’ve discussed is theory. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was also some hard physical evidence that the Cosmological proof fails?

There might be, but it’s going to take a little explaining.

Remember the phrase “you can’t get something from nothing?” Imagine we’re able to break that rule, exactly once. Something would pop out of nowhere, and set off a chain of causes, moves, and so on. This would form its own hierarchy that might intersect the primary one at some point, but would still lead back to separate single “mover.” Applying the Cosmological proof to this tree would result in two gods, one per tree. This is a bit of a problem if you only believe in one god.

Polytheists would be fine with it, but even they have limits. The highest number of gods I’ve heard of is in the 300 million range, for Hinduism, but this seems to be an estimate of historical and forgotten gods instead of the number actively worshipped. Nonetheless, once we get into the trillions of trillions of gods it becomes difficult to keep a straight face. If this exception can happen with no limit, those numbers are easy to reach.

So if we could find some way to get “something from nothing,” we’ve again broken Cosmological. I can think of two: the Casimir Effect has been well-demonstrated but only goes half-way, while Dark Energy is probably a clean break but needs further study to prove this.

Bring two metal flat metal plates really close together, to within a few thousand widths of an atom, then attach a force gauge to at least one. You’ll measure a force tugging the two together, even if there’s no electric or magnetic fields to draw them together, and everything is in a complete vacuum. What’s creating the Casimir Effect is likely virtual particles popping out of empty space unevenly.

Wait, empty space is creating particles? It’s strange, but true. To explain how, I have to tackle a much more fundamental problem: energy.

Philosophers had long thought there was some sort of force or fluid driving life. From the time of Gottfried Leibniz in the 1600’s to the work of Lord Kelvin in the late 1800’s, this definition became more and more abstract:

There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know. [17] The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same.

(The Feynman Lectures on Physics, 1961)

The best metaphor I can think of is money. It used to be a physical thing, a solid coin or token you carried, but in my time it’s been reduced down to a few magnetic disturbances on a computer hard drive in some far-off land. You could exchange some “cash” for tea, chocolate, or a good massage. Likewise, by selling tea or giving a massage you can earn some of this abstract quantity back. Just like energy, money only becomes useful when it’s transformed into an action or something material.

Also like energy, it’s a positive quantity; you cannot have less than zero dollars,[18] and once you reach zero dollars you’re stuck until someone gives you a donation. Forces can front you some funds; if you hold up a ball above the surface of the Earth, it has some money/energy “stored” thanks to gravity, and once you let go it hurriedly starts converting that into motion. The two Relativity theories say that matter itself can also supply some currency, like in a nuclear reactor or radioactive decay.

In empty space, where forces like gravity and magnetism are absent and matter doesn’t exist, you’d expect the bank balance to be firmly at zero. This makes sense; otherwise, you could use empty space to do some useful work, by creating something out of nothing.

There’s another possibility, though. Canada used to have “Vagrancy Laws” which mandated that every citizen must carry a certain amount of change on their person.[19] On the surface, both lead to the same results since you can’t spend below your limit, whether it’s zero or a greater amount. There are some subtle differences, though. For instance, you could temporarily go below the legal amount when consolidating your change at the bank, or during a private card game. If you had no cash on you, however, both scenarios would be impossible. This doesn’t have to break the law, though, so long as you always end up above the limit while in public.

Werner Heisenberg added a key feature to Quantum Mechanics in 1926. His “Uncertainty Principle” states that there are limits to how defined some quantities could be. If you knew the momentum of a particle very well, for instance, you couldn’t be very precise about its location. This perpetual uncertainty is not the fault of the experimenter, but built right into the fabric of the cosmos.

The Uncertainty Principle applies to empty space, too. Thus a perfect vacuum cannot have an energy level of zero, because then you would know its value with certainty. In fact, not only must it contain some energy, but that energy must fluctuate too lest it be known with certainty. So while every other physical theory we know of views an empty void as, well, an empty void, Quantum Mechanics views it as a perpetually churning, frothing hotbed of action.

Just like in our metaphor, a non-zero minimum energy has some side-effects. The twin Relativity theories point out that energy and matter are interchangeable, so the fluctuations in a perfect vacuum wind up creating “virtual” particles that live for incredibly short periods of time before popping back out of existence. These don’t have to play by the rules of normal matter, leading to such oddities as negative energy and time travel. The kind and strength of these particles depends on the size of the void, and this leads to the Casimir Effect. The tiny distance between the two metal plates constrains what particles can pop out of the vacuum, yet the open space behind the two plates does not. The pressure of the interior particles can be less than or greater than those of the outside, depending on the exact distance, and thus the two plates are forced together or apart.

This sounds like a clear violation of the Conservation of Energy, but remember the money analogy. If everyone has the minimum amount of cash, then everyone’s equally poor and no work can be done. Likewise, all that virtual particle action averages out to a minimum value, which cannot be borrowed against.

Does it make sense to call this an “empty void,” then, if it isn’t empty?

This is where “something from nothing” begins to break down. If we call this void “nothing,” then it clearly is creating “something” in the form of matter and forces. It’s tempting to declare it to be “something” and dodge this bullet, but then what can we call “nothing?” If no such thing exists, then the “something from nothing” argument is meaningless since there must always be something!

There is a way around this counter-argument, though. If we redefine “something” as anything above this minimal vacuum energy, then the contraction goes away. Since these virtual particles are exactly at the minimum, we can dismiss them as averaging out to nothing in the long run. I’m not certain the Casimir Effect can be waved away so easily, but some physicists like Robert Jaffe think it can be explained without needing to invoke virtual particles. This would mean the void is not producing force, and thus not producing “something.” The Casimir Effect is very small and difficult to study, so it could take some time to sort out who’s right.

Or, we could look for the answer in the stars.

The calculations of Edwin Hubble[20] and others before him have been tested, re-tested, and verified via other means. Physicists and astronomers are convinced the universe is growing in size. On this grand a scale, the only force that can effect expansion should be gravity; the weak and strong forces have no effect here, and all charged particles average out to zero electromagnetic force. Gravity may be the weakest force on the block, but it only pulls; over long distances, this adds up and has the effect of pulling the universe back together. We should see the rate of expansion slowing down over time, as a result.

Instead, it is accelerating. Two competing teams first discovered this around 1998, and other observations have backed them up. Something within the universe is pumping out extra force and energy that is pushing everything away from everything else, and yet the source of this isn’t visible from our lonely planet. The prime suspect behind this “Dark Energy” is the energy of empty space, as I just described above. These virtual particles create a force or pressure that drives matter apart, and more virtual particles are created as the size of the universe increases. It’s a tidy explanation, which also vindicates the Casimir Effect as I described it.

It isn’t a perfect explanation, though. For one thing, the energy of empty space is at least 1050 times greater than Dark Energy’s observed value, and could even be a staggering 10120 times too strong. It also leads to problems in the early universe, where this energy suddenly turns into an attractive force, and there are some observations related to the density of our cosmic neighbourhood that further muddy things up.

Still, it’s the best explanation we have right now. And no matter what the true answer is, we know that we have something currently within our universe that’s creating energy out of nothing, in clear violation of the “something from nothing” assertion.

Yet again, we find the Cosmological Proof amounts to nothing.


[16] That last one depends on my counter-arguments for the proof from Mathematics, specifically the section on dualism. Feel free to skip ahead, if you’re feeling sceptical.

[17] Feynman may have gotten this wrong. I’ll get to the details shortly.

[18] Yes, some Canadian citizens owe more than they own due to credit and loans, but for this metaphor I’m ignoring those messy details.

[19] That portion was repealed in 1972. In theory, it was to ensure each citizen could call someone to get out of trouble. In practice, it was used to punish the poor and homeless.

[20] Hubble would make a good subject for a book. He was a handsome, charismatic athlete who hung out with Hollywood stars, yet still lied to fluff up his resume and seems remarkably ignorant of the theories his data was supporting or refuting.

Proof of God: The Cosmological Proof (2)

Hume’s Trip to the Pole

This line of thought brings up another objection, one that was first noted by David Hume.

Hume, who lived from 1711 to 1776, was one of the first philosophers to examine proofs of god with a sceptical eye. As my future self will mention, my thoughts on miracles will be little more than his thoughts with a light dusting of cheese and vinegar. He also examined the Design proof, and weighed in on Cosmological as well. While he gives several objections to the last one, I’d like to focus on this one:

… The WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. I answer, that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct counties into one kingdom, or several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I show you the particular cause of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts.

(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 9)

As I’ve mentioned before, at the core of Cosmological’s argument is a hierarchy. I can turn this into a visual metaphor by drawing a series of ever-branching pipes:

[diagram of a tree of pipes]

As we follow the flow down these pipes, we jump from cause to effect, or from mover to moved, or from creator to created, or along whatever relation was used to construct this version of Cosmological.

[diagram of an arrow flowing down these pipes]

Since these pipes have a finite length, we can attach a rope to one point, then swim around the pipes until we run out of pipe but still have some rope in hand. We can just as easily picture the rope attached to the top of this pipe hierarchy, and then pull ourselves along it until we reach the very source of all the flow.

[diagram of a rope feeding through these pipes, acting like a measure of time]

Thanks to the rope trick, it’s easy to ignore the branches and just think of it as one pipe with a well-defined beginning. Note that we don’t care about an ending; so long as there’s a beginning, we can always pull ourselves towards it. In contrast, consider a long pipe with no beginning or ending at all.

[diagram of an infinite but straight pipe]

If we attach the rope and explore, we’ll run out of rope no matter how much swimming we do. Likewise, if we pull ourselves along an attached rope, we’ll still have plenty of places to explore once we’ve reached the end of it.

Cosmological compares these two layouts, and rejects the second one. It claims an infinite pipe or chain of relations is an absurd idea, and faced with no other alternative claims the hierarchical version is the only way to go.

But are those two the only possible choices? Consider instead a loop of pipe, like so:

[diagram of a pipe bent into a donut shape]

We have a finite length of pipe, which satisfies Cosmological’s rejection of the infinite, and yet at the same time there’s no beginning or end to this pipe! If we pull ourselves along a rope we find drifting in the current, we’ll again be faced with a void that we’re free to explore. We can use this rope as a measure of how far we are from the “beginning.” If we just float and let the rope spool out, we note that we get further and further away. If instead we pull ourselves up, our rope gets shorter and shorter until we run out of rope. From this point, everything is after the beginning, since we need to let out some rope to move away from this point. This will come in handy later.

[diagram of a donut pipe with a rope attached to one point]

But for now, we’ve found a third way, one that avoids infinite spaces while also avoiding the need to stop at a First Mover. This derails Cosmological, since it was counting on finite space implying a First Mover, and again renders the proof useless.

No doubt you’re sceptical of my metaphor. We know our universe had a definite beginning, because we’ve found the evidence in and between the stars. Real life is not a one-dimensional loop, but a four-dimensional expanse of space and time. How can the two be similar?

Very easily, in fact, so long as you think four-dimensionally.

Back in 1905, Albert Einstein published his theory of Special Relativity. In this landmark paper, he proposed that space and time are actually the same thing, differing only in what direction you look, and that both of these are warped by gravity. It sounds crazy, but one hundred years of observation have backed up Einstein’s claim, and Special Relativity 2.0 (better known as General Relativity) has become one of the most successful theories ever proposed. [A]

The standard metaphor for General Relativity, handed from generation to generation, is the rubber sheet. Plunk a heavy round object, like a bowling ball, on one that’s been suspended in air, and it’ll sink down and pull the sheet with it. Take a smaller round object, say a marble, and roll it across the sheet towards the big one. It’ll go in a straight line until it reaches a bent part of the sheet, where it’ll veer towards the heavy object. Do this well enough, and you can get the marble to orbit the big ball before friction ruins the fun.

If we’re allowed to warp the sheet, however, what’s stopping us from warping it around until it touches itself? We’ve just reached the other standard cosmology metaphor: the rubber balloon. This is usually used to explain the Big Bang, by showing how space stretches and makes everything look like it’s rushing away from you. But we could also think of it as a potential model for how the universe is shaped. It has a finite area, even if you continue to inflate it, but at the same time you could walk around this shape without ever reaching an edge. This is exactly like the ring of pipes I outlined above, only in two dimensions.

A three dimensional version is too big for me to visualize, unfortunately. That one-dimensional version is actually in three dimensions; I needed to twist the pipe around so that it would meet itself, and the only way to visualize that from the outside is to invoke another dimension, and I also implied the dimension of time indirectly by having our metaphorical swimmer swim. This diver within the pipe has no way of accessing the second spacial dimension, let along proving it exists, so I haven’t spoiled the metaphor. Likewise, to explain the two-dimensional version I really used four dimensions to get the point across. I need one more dimension to describe a three-dimensional extension, but my poor brain was only designed to work in four dimensions and fails miserably when dealing with five.

And yet that hasn’t stopped similar brains from thinking about higher dimensions. Einstein was able to cope with a four-dimensional space-time by using math as a crutch, and other scientists have used the same trick to think about our world in eleven or more dimensions. To name an example, Stephen Hawking has proposed a theory that would visualize time as a sphere like the Earth, with the “North Pole” label replaced with “Big Bang.”

I was never built to be comfortable with higher dimensions, but that doesn’t rule out their existence. We humans were convinced the world was flat for a very long time, until a few of us realized we actually lived on a very, very, very, very big sphere. It only looked flat from our limited perspective. Cosmological makes the mistake of assuming its narrow perspective is the only one, that there must only be two ways to organize the world.

All this talk of spheres brings up another good rebuttal, though. Let’s return to my pipe metaphor again, with the rope attached to the head of Cosmological’s hierarchy. The proof asks us to pull ourselves hand-over-hand up the rope, until we run out of space and rope. It then asks what would happen if you tried to take up one more length of rope. It points out this would take you outside the pipe, and that the only thing which could survive out there is a god. Ergo, god exists.

But does that make sense? In our metaphor, we are constrained to follow the pipes, and to always have a length of rope greater than or equal to zero. We have no way to get outside out of either limit, and yet Cosmological is asking us to think about what’s on the outside. That doesn’t fit into our metaphor at all! David Hume indirectly realized this; since you can’t reach outside of the pipe, once you’ve swam around and reached every point within the pipe, you don’t have any place left to go. If you understand everything within the pipe, you understand everything.

[diagram of person banging on pipe, from the inside]

Let’s now extend the metaphor back to the proof. Note that “cause” and “effect” are exclusive; one object cannot be the cause of, and the effect of, another object. The same applies to creation, movement, and any other system used by variations of Cosmological to organize the hierarchy. This not only creates Cosmological’s hierarchy, it also defines a direction; if we just let things play out naturally then creators create, movers move, and so on. Having established all this, the proof asks us to go against the natural flow and walk back up the hierarchy to the top, being careful never to backtrack. Once it runs out of universe and reaches the pinnacle, it tries to take one more step. The universe defines where we can and cannot go, however, so this is the same as asking us to step outside the universe. The result is nonsense, even though every step before then seems perfectly reasonable.

This assumes a hierarchy, of course, which has a definite start. If our universe is more like a circular pipe or spherical balloon, our choice of start is arbitrary. Fix our metaphorical rope to whatever place you wish to call the start, and then take a stroll. Sometimes the rope will lengthen, sometimes it’ll shorten, but in no direction will you be forced to go beyond the “start.” Even if you make a beeline straight for it, the rope will merely shrink down to nothing then immediately lengthen again, without forcing you to backtrack.

This fits perfectly with our modern view of the universe. Relativity makes time and space interchangeable, so any physical metaphor works equally well with time. While asking “what happened before the universe” seems to be a valid question at first, it’s actually the same as asking “what’s beyond the end of the rope,” “what happened before time existed,” or “what’s North of the North Pole,” all of which are absolute nonsense.

And yet the Cosmological proof requires us to ask those questions, and requires us to think of them as perfectly valid, otherwise it has no place to insert a god. We’ve found another flaw in the proof, only this time there’s no escape hatch.


[A] Whoops, past me screwed this one up. As Rob Grigjanis points out, the Special Relativity papers of 1905 ignored gravity. I also misunderstood spacetime a bit. While space and time are integrated, there’s a difference between purely spatial paths and purely temporal paths through this space. I think one of Brian Cox’s book covers this well for a lay audience.

Proof of God: The Cosmological Proof (1)

Proof from First Cause, or the Cosmological Proof

Have a quick look around you.

Are you sitting in a chair? Did you ever wonder how that chair got there?

I’m willing to bet you or someone else placed it there. I doubt you created it, though; more likely, a team of people fashioned it out of wood and metal, gave it to another group who transported it to a store or warehouse, where another bunch helped deliver it to you. Where did that first team get their materials, though? The wood was probably harvested from a forest, the metal dug up from a mine. The trees got their nutrients from the soil and the sun. No matter which path you take, both trace back to the Earth or the Sun.

So far, everything we’ve discussed has come from something else. The materials came from elsewhere, and somebody or some process helped shape it. The chair was “caused” by human effort and the proper materials, the tree was “caused” (in a loose sense) by sunshine and nutrients gathering in the right place and the right way. We can do this thought experiment for every object in the universe.

We should be able to do this for the universe itself. It’s a material thing, after all, though perhaps a little larger and more complicated than our chair.

At this point, the chain of causes breaks down. We can’t name anything within the universe as a cause, since by definition that’s a part of the universe itself. Any potential cause must come from outside. But what lies outside the universe, in a place we can never hope to explore?

There’s only one being we know of that could live outside the universe. God, after all, is the only possible being with enough power to create a universe, and in countless religions she does exactly that:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

(Genesis 1:1, Jewish Old Testament, King James translation)

They say it happened long ago when there were no people nor anything, and when earth and the black sky did not exist “Let us make the earth and the black sky,” he said. He began to study and talk about how both the earth and sky might be made.

(“Myths and tales from the San Carlos Apache”, collected by Pliny Earle Goddard)

Nights, days, weeks and seasons; wind, water, fire and the nether regions—in the midst of these, He established the earth as a home for Dharma. [11]

(from the Sikh religious text “Siri Guru Granth Sahib”, translated by Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa)

Then, at last, slowly uprises Tane-mahuta, the god and father of forests, of birds, and of insects, and he struggles. With his parents; in vain he strives to rend them apart with his hands and arms. Lo, he pauses; his head is now firmly planted on his mother the earth, his feet he raises up and rests against his father the skies, he strains his back and limbs with mighty effort. Now are rent apart Rangi and Papa, and with cries and groans of woe they shriek aloud: ‘Wherefore slay you thus your parents? Why commit you so dreadful a crime as to slay us, as to rend your parents apart? But Tane-mahuta pauses not, he regards not their shrieks and cries; far, far beneath him he presses down the earth; far, far above him he thrusts up the sky.

(“Polynesian Mythology & Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealanders,” collected by Sir George Grey)

Therefore, there’s only one possible cause for the universe, and that’s god.

Golden Oldies

The Cosmological proof is, without a doubt, the most popular of its class. Surprisingly, it’s also one of the earliest formal arguments we know of, dating back to Plato’s last work, Laws. In the tenth chapter of this dialogue, the wise “Athenian[12] ” scoffs at those who deny the existence of the gods, who claim they were man-made inventions that bend to human whims. To show their folly, he builds a simple proof by cataloguing the types of motion that exist in the universe. After ticking off nine, the “Athenian” describes a tenth type, that is capable of moving itself and other objects. He then points out this tenth must be the greatest of all, and reaches the core of his argument:

ATHENIAN: I mean this: when one thing changes another, and that another, of such will there be any primary changing element? How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved changes other, and that again other, and thus thousands upon tens of thousands of bodies are set in motion, must not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the self-moving principle?

CLEINIAS: Very true, and I quite agree.

ATHENIAN: Or, to put the question in another way, making answer to ourselves: If, as most of these philosophers have the audacity to affirm, all things were at rest in one mass, which of the above-mentioned principles of motion would first spring up among them?

CLEINIAS: Clearly the self-moving; for there could be no change in them arising out of any external cause; the change must first take place in themselves.

ATHENIAN: Then we must say that self-motion being the origin of all motions, and the first which arises among things at rest as well as among things in motion, is the eldest and mightiest principle of change, and that which is changed by another and yet moves other is second.

(Laws, Book X, translated by Benjamin Jowett)

From there, the “Athenian” needs only a little bit of hand-waving to turn this primary mover into what he calls a “soul,” but modern readers would recognize as a god.

The argument next appeared roughly 1,300 years later, in Avicenna’s studies of ancient Greek thought, only this time it proved the existence of Allah instead of the Greek gods. Later scholars, most notably the influential Al-Ghazali, would condemn all of Plato and Avicenna’s work as a corrupting influence, but retained the handy Cosmological proof.

Thomas Aquinas independently claimed Cosmological for Christianity some 200 years after Avicenna, in his Summa Theologica. Aquinas’ version shows why this proof continues to be so popular. Not content to merely repeat Plato’s chain of movers, he created three more variations of the same proof and claimed each as a newcomer. One is the chain of causation I used in my introduction to Cosmological; another is a chain of creation, which traces back to singular creator; and the last is a chain of perfection, leading to the most perfect being possible.

Plato’s original argument has endured because it is so very plastic. To come up with your own variant, all you need is some way to organize every object in the world into a hierarchy.[13] You then claim that an infinitely deep hierarchy is absurd or impossible, then place atop this tower of induction the god of your choice. In the 2,500 years since it left Plato’s mind, Cosmological has been polished down to an invincible single sentence:[14]

You can’t create something from nothing, unless you’re a god.

Because I Said So

It would help if we had a more formal version of Cosmological to run through point-by-point. The Kalām[15] version of Cosmological, as promoted by William Lane Craig, seems like a good start:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

We can easily modify this to cover all other versions of Cosmological:

  1. Whatever begins to exist was created has a cause creator.
  2. The universe began to exist. A finite number of movers must exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause. a being more perfect than all must exist.

Returning to Plato, he rejected the idea of an infinite chain of movers or causes because he didn’t think infinite things existed in the real world. Most thinkers who invoke the Cosmological proof agree, and like Plato stop this infinitely long cascade by placing an infinitely-powerful being in its path. Thus in order to stop an infinite thing from existing in the world… they propose the existence of an infinite thing in the world. Hmm.

And looming over it all is a cherry of a contradiction that Cosmological tries to ignore. If everything has a creator or mover or what-have-you, and god is something, then what created/moved god? After all, this proof rests heavily on the idea that everything can be put into a hierarchy, with no exceptions, but then it turns around and grants one exception. Doesn’t this derail the entire train of thought? If we’re allowed to grant exceptions, what prevents me from saying the universe is an exception too? Philosophers have been fine labeling their god of choice the “First Mover” without any evidence to justify it, so I fail to see why I can’t slap the same label on the universe, given an equal amount of evidence.


[11] “Dharma” probably means “religious path” here, but in other contexts it could be closer to “religious law” or “social structure.”

[12]  Scholars suspect this mysterious Stranger from Athens was supposed to be Socrates. Plato never named the character directly because he bore little resemblance to the Socrates from Plato’s earlier dialogs. The youthful version was perpetually questioning and dripping with excessive humility, while the later one knows the truth and kindly shares his lessons with lesser people.

[13] Why a hierarchy? Let’s take creation as an example: a lump of clay can be used to create many things, like pots or plates, while those pots or plates have only one creator, the clay. The same one-to-many branching applies to causes, movers, or whatever other mapping you use, and when laid out on paper naturally leads to a hierarchy.

[14] Sorry, that’s a lie. The ancient Greek Parmenides nailed it when he said “ex nihilo nihil fit,” and he pre-dated Plato!

[15] “Kalām” refers to an early school of Islam, that valued knowledge and thought theological arguments were best settled by debating it out. I approve, if only because it cuts down on the number of holy wars.

Trump is in Control of the USA

[this is a slight elaboration on a comment I made elsewhere]

I don’t think I’ve said “constitutional crisis” enough. Emphasis mine:

After a weekend spent trying to get the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to comply with the New York and Massachusetts Orders staying the Presidential Executive Order banning immigration from seven countries, a group of attorneys Darius Amiri, Laura Riley, Madiha Zuberi, Nina Bonyak, in coordination with other volunteer attorneys working out of LAX, have been at the U.S. Marshal’s office at the Central District of California since 8:00 a.m. this morning.

These attorneys are demanding that the U.S. Marshal’s office comply with its statutory obligation under 28 U.S.C. 566(c) to serve civil federal orders on the CBP Port Director at Los Angeles International Airport. The Marshal’s office has so far failed to serve process and instead represents that it has been instructed by its Office of the General Counsel to await instruction from the U.S. Attorney’s office. Over the weekend, California Central District Court (CACD) Judge Dolly Gee granted a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) (which was amended and corrected this morning) and this is another of the documents that has yet to be served on the CBP.

Two hundred years of precedent have established that the courts are the final arbitrator of what’s constitutional and what is not. But as I’ve said, the Judicial branch relies on the Executive to enforce its judgments; those court injunctions against Trump’s EO don’t go into effect until they get into the hands of the people enforcing that EO, and by telling the U.S. Marshals to stand down the Executive has effectively blocked those court orders from taking effect.

The Judicial branch is no longer checking or balancing Executive power. You just lost one of your three branches, Americans.

I have been saying that #TheRegime’s big overarching play right now is de-fanging the judiciary, sidelining it, making it subservient.

Now, if objecting to this gets any traction, #TheRegime’s talking point will be that the Marshals have always been part of DOJ, under exec.

Which is *true enough* but beside the point. They are the enforcement arm of the judiciary, grouped under executive because enforcement.

The impartiality of the law enforcement bodies under DOJ (FBI, Marshal Service) is supposed to be–must be–sacrosanct. Sacred. Untouchable.

Making the judiciary’s enforcement wing under the direct command of a handpicked crony AG accomplishes makes the entire judicial branch moot

With the Marshals marching to the president’s orders, court decisions only matter when #TheRegime agrees with them.

To make matters worse, the Executive branch is starting to override the Legislative. Remember how the border patrol refused to meet with Congressional representatives? Emphasis again mine:

“Since my background is a Ph.D. in public administration, I have a good working knowledge of U.S. institutions and policymaking processes,” [Donald] Moynihan told Salon. “Members of Congress are fond of reminding executive branch officials that [the latter] are beholden to them, not just to the president.” It is Congress that supplies every federal agency with its budget, and along with that “specific directives as to [its] role.”

“It’s remarkable to me that when an actual member of Congress would turn up at your doorstep, a manager in that agency would not try to be responsive to their concerns,” Moynihan continued. “It suggests they view obeying the guidance of the president as superior to any other direction. This is troubling precisely because the founders designed a separation of powers so that no single actor (in this case the president) had sole control of administration.”

Trump is also going behind the backs of Congress, borrowing their staffers while swearing them to secrecy. This is a big deal.

This is quite simply unheard of.

To be clear, the executive works with Congress all the time to craft legislation. That’s the President working with members of Congress, though much of the actual work is delegated to staff. All normal. It’s congressional staff working for the executive without telling the members of Congress they work for which is the big deal. […]

I’m not sure this rises to the level of a formal separation of powers issue. But the idea of the White House coopting congressional staff behind the backs of members of Congress certainly runs roughshod over the overarching concept of two coequal and separate branches of government.

Until Congress steps up, or Trump backtracks and agrees to respect judicial rulings, he has [no] checks on his power. He’s become a dictator without firing a single shot.


[HJH 2017-01-31] I just spotted a relevant update from Popehat.

OKAY. Awaiting an official statement, but about that story about the USMS not serving the LA federal court order: /1

/2 Counsel has now appeared for the federal defendants: US Department of Justice, Office of Immigration Litigation – Civil Division

/3 In fact, a stipulation by the parties to move the briefing schedule now appears on the docket (but is sealed)

/4 The significance is this: by appearing, the federal defendants can’t claim lack of service of the order. This should moot service issues.

/5 In fact it should bind the federal defendants to any order the court issues or has issued now that its counsel has appeared, as I read it

/6 That doesn’t answer issue of whether CPD has refused to comply so far or will continue to refuse.

/7 Also doesn’t exclude possibility that USMS dorked around for some period of time until their counsel made an appearance.

/8 But the fact that the ACLU filed a stipulation reached with the feds suggests some level of acknowledgement and cooperation.

In some ways, this is good news. The courts will not be stopped by a technicality like a lack of service, and as of now federal attorneys are respecting the Judicial branch. But if service has been granted, that means that the delays by US Marshals had the effect of deporting potential plaintiffs before they could plead their case before the courts. Any border guard that deported or refused entry to someone as per the immigration Executive Order, as of eight hours ago, is ignoring a court order. And some digging brings up this case.

Mohammad Abu Khadra, who lives in Katy[, Texas] with his brother Rami, traveled to Jordan last week to renew his visa. When he flew into Bush IAH airport Saturday, officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained him at the airport for about 48 hours. He was transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter in Chicago Monday, where he remained as of Tuesday afternoon. The teen has no access to his cell phone or to a computer, his brother said.

 Mohammad is among dozens of visa holders and immigrants to be detained at U.S. airports since Trump signed an executive order Friday indefinitely barring all Syrian refugees from entering the United States and suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days. It also prohibits citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, whether they are refugees or not. Those countries include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Mohammad’s native Jordan is not on the list, and Mohammad is not a refugee.

The Judicial branch is still out of commission.

Proof of God: Introduction (3)

Whither Proofs?

Why must we bother with proofs at all? Most people don’t put much thought into religion, and are content to know the gods exist through feelings of connection and occasional revelation.

One problem: those are proofs!

We’ve picked up a warped idea of what a proof is via math class. Our teachers tried to wow us with long, subtle chains of reasoning that are impressive mental achievements, but on the elaborate side of proof’s definition. In reality, all proofs consist of two things: an assertion, and one or more bits of evidence that the assertion are true. Length and subtlety are optional:

Assertion: At least one number is even and prime.[10]

Evidence: 2.

There’s nothing in the definition that says proofs must be convincing beyond all doubt, either. Take this example:

Assertion: the length of the longest side of a right-angle triangle multiplied by itself is equal to the sum of the lengths of the two remaining sides multiplied by themselves.

Evidence: Draw such a triangle on a sheet of paper, with plenty of margin. Draw three cubes around it, with one side of each shared with the triangle. Cut out both of the two smaller squares, and place one of them over the untouched larger square. Fill in the remaining visible portion of the largest by cutting up the remaining square. Once done, no part of it will be visible, and no part of the last square will be left.

This is a pretty lousy proof. For one thing, it never really explains why the math works out. Since it operates in the physical world, it’s easy to make a measurement error and falsely conclude you’ve shown it to be wrong. Worst of all, it only proves a single triangle at a time. Repeating the procedure for a thousand triangles only shows that there are a thousand triangles that live up to the assertion; any or all of the infinite remainder might not.

A mathematician would reject that proof outright, and for good reason. In the universe of math, we know every law and every way those laws combine. We have no excuse for considering something “reasonably” true, because we have all the tools we need to verify that it’s absolutely true.

In the real world, we don’t know all the rules. We don’t even know if the rules are constant, or change on very long time-scales, and so we’ll never reach absolute certainty. Instead, every proposed proof is given a court trial of sorts; we gather up all the contrary proofs and evidence we know of, and ask if the sum total gives us a reason to reject the proof. If so, we toss it out and either look for something better or put a different proof on trial. If not, we stamp it as “reasonably likely to be true, until further evidence comes in.”

That lack of certainty doesn’t make the above proof useless. It’s unlikely that a misfit triangle would lurk between two tested ones. Even if this assertion is only approximately true, it would be less complicated and easier than the real answer, and gives valuable hints towards a better proof. Absolute certainty isn’t needed, at least in real life.

We can easily rearrange those earlier statements about the gods into proof form:

Assertion: God exists.

Evidence: Sometimes, I can feel his presence.

Assertion: God exists.

Evidence: The world fits together too nicely to be the product of chance, and must instead have been designed.

You won’t see either of those argued about directly in a philosophical journal, yet both make assertions based on evidence just like their more formal cousins. Both, in fact, are just informal versions of the Proof from Transcendence and the Proof from Design, which have been seriously debated in those same journals for longer than journals have existed. By examining the evidence for both, we can evaluate their assertions in the same way. As I hope to demonstrate in later chapters, perhaps that feeling you get from your god has very natural causes, or there are other explanations for design out there that don’t require the supernatural.

Every informal assertion about god can be formalized and turned into a proof. By looking at the simpler and cleaner logic of the second, we can examine both at the same time and see how effective they are at proving the existence of a god.

It’s no wonder believers are uneasy with formal proofs.

Gotta Catch Them All

I’m left with one final objection to overcome. Given the unending multitude of proofs for a god, how could I possibly cover them all?

Let’s turn back to Comfort and Behe’s proofs. While both seem very different on the surface, they share one common trait: they point to some order within the universe, and declare that the only possible source for that order comes from a god. Instead of spending a few paragraphs going into specific details on each, I could have instead demonstrated a way to produce order that does not require a god as a counter-example. I then throw the question back, and ask how either person knows this mechanism, or another like it, wasn’t responsible instead.

That is exactly what I do in the chapter on Proof by Design. By exploiting these common traits, I can cover a multitude of proofs with a single argument. Coming up with counter-examples is much easier than coming up with proofs, and by raising a number of them I can at least call into question the certainty behind such proofs. This saves me a lot of effort, and serves as partial insulation against proofs that are not in this book or that have yet to be invented. It helps that proofs only seem to come in a few categories:

  • Something exists, and only a god could have created that something. Examples include the universe (Proof from First Cause), consciousness (Proof from Intelligence), and holy texts (you can guess this one).
  • There is an order to things that could only be created by a god. Examples include life (Proof from Fine Tuning), and morality.
  • We are required to have a god, in some way. Examples include logical arguments (Proof from Logical Necessity), the universality of belief (Proof from Popularity), and the benefits of belief (The Pragmatic Argument).

As you read through this book, you might notice that even within these categories there’s a lot of overlap. I could have easily placed the Proof from Fine Tuning in any of them, to name but one. In answering the last objection, I’ve dredged up an intriguing question: is it possible to construct a universal counter-proof to any god?

I’ll leave that to the last chapter. In the meantime, I have a lot of intellectual ground to cover…


[10]  Take a pile of X pennies, candies, or elephants. If you can divide them into two equal piles, X is an even number. Now take the above pile and try to rearrange it into a rectangle with no leftovers. If the only one you can manage is one item high and X long, or vice-versa, X is a prime number.

The Three Stages of a Dictator

[this is similar to a comment I made elsewhere, but it deserves a wider audience.]

Lately, I’ve been reading some depressing things. To start, I’m seeing rumblings that Trump admin is deliberately being provocative.

With the #MuslimBan, Bannon et al chose to do something overtly unConstitutional that they knew would be a flash-point for the left.

They *rushed* this through on purpose, overriding objections and failing to coordinate with intelligence or immigration officials.

From their actions, we can infer the #MuslimBan has a purpose that suits their strategic goals and has nothing to do with national security.

A #MuslimBan is a perfect vehicle for them: it’s a flashpoint for opposition from the left and a dog whistle for support from the right.

The #MuslimBan furthers domestic division: it makes many within the U.S. see protesters as aligned with who they perceive to be “the enemy.” […]

Like other ascendant authoritarian regimes, the Trump Admin WANTS an excuse to put down dissent. And to do so violently.

But why would Trump be interested in flexing the military against the American people? It didn’t make much sense at first, until I remembered the basic arc of any dictator: 1) grab power, then 2) use that power to fill your pockets with as much cash as you dare, then 3) escape. Trump is currently testing what sort of power he has.

the administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

To ensure he keeps his power long enough to successfully smash-and-grab, he needs to remove as many check-and-balances as possible. Narrowing down the number of people he deals with is also a wise move, because it decreases the number of people able to check or balance.

There appears to be a very tight “inner circle,” containing at least Trump, Bannon, Miller, Priebus, Kushner, and possibly Flynn, which is making all of the decisions. Other departments and appointees have been deliberately hobbled, with key orders announced to them only after the fact, staff gutted, and so on. Yesterday’s reorganization of the National Security Council mirrors this: Bannon and Priebus now have permanent seats on the Principals’ Committee; the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both been demoted to only attending meetings where they are told that their expertise is relevant; the Secretary of Energy and the US representative to the UN were kicked off the committee altogether (in defiance of the authorizing statute, incidentally).

I am reminded of Trump’s continued operation of a private personal security force, and his deep rift with the intelligence community. Last Sunday, Kellyanne Conway (likely another member of the inner circle) said that “It’s really time for [Trump] to put in his own security and intelligence community,” and this seems likely to be the case.

If this really is the arc of a dictator, though, we need to see step 2 in action. Surprisingly, I thought that piece was missing. Oh sure, a major expansion of your hotel chain paired with a rate hike is a nice start, as is filing to run in the 2020 election so you can fundraise and whip your loyal base into a frenzy, or maybe taking advantage of cheap land that’s just been released. Most of those struck me as too small, or too noisy, or too limiting the escape plan. But then Yonatan Zunger, quoted in the last two paragraphs, led me to this story.

More than a month after Russia announced one of its biggest privatizations since the 1990s, selling a 19.5 percent stake in its giant oil company Rosneft, it still isn’t possible to determine from public records the full identities of those who bought it. […]

“It is the largest privatization deal, the largest sale and acquisition in the global oil and gas sector in 2016,” Putin said. It was also one of the biggest transfers of state property into private hands since the early post-Soviet years, when allies of President Boris Yeltsin took control of state firms and became billionaires overnight.

But important facts about the deal either have not been disclosed, cannot be determined solely from public records, or appear to contradict the straightforward official account of the stake being split 50/50 by Glencore and the Qataris. For one: Glencore contributed only 300 million euros of equity to the deal, less than 3 percent of the purchase price, which it said in a statement on Dec. 10 had bought it an “indirect equity interest” limited to just 0.54 percent of Rosneft. In addition, public records show the ownership structure of the stake ultimately includes a Cayman Islands company whose beneficial owners cannot be traced.

And while Italian bank Intesa SanPaolo leant the Singapore vehicle 5.2 billion euros to fund the deal, and Qatar put in 2.5 billion, the sources of funding for nearly a quarter of the purchase price have not been disclosed by any of the parties.

 

The Kremlin spent two years looking for someone to sell part of a company that was worth $79.8 billion back in 2006, yet is keeping silent on the details. Very strange.

But there might be an answer, and it involves golden showers.

Shortly after CNN published its report, BuzzFeed News published the full 35-page dossier reportedly presented in summary form to the incoming and outgoing presidents. BuzzFeed notes that the dossier “includes specific, unverified and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts documented by the Russians.” It states that Russian intelligence was “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for years, and that they have information that could be used to blackmail the president-elect, who will take the oath of office in less than two weeks.

Yes yes, like everyone else I read the first two pages and got a chuckle out of what Trump did to the bed the Obamas slept in. But, also like everyone else, I failed to read to page 30.

2. In terms of the substance of their discussion, SECHIN’s associate said that the Rosneft President was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sactions imposed on the company, that he offered PAGE/TRUMP’s associates the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatized) stake in Rosneft in return. PAGE had expressed interest and confirmed that were TRUMP elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.

The timeline fits. Trump has been threatening to run for President since the 1980’s. In 2008, Trump’s son says “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” According to the dossier, the Kremlin has been trying to influence him since 2011. In 2013, Trump explored the idea of becoming President. The US imposed sanctions on Russia begin in March 2014, and are a heavy hit to their economy. In August 2014, Rosneft begins the process of selling a 19.5% stake. In June 2015, Trump rides an escalator, and with the help of some Russian trolls goes on to win the Presidency November 8th, 2016. In the meantime, he’s seen hanging out with Russian mobsters. On December 7th, a buyer for Rosneft is finalized with the deal set to close “mid-December.” On December 19th, Trump wins the Electoral College vote. Transferring that much money takes time, probably months. Trump was sworn in as President on January 20th.

If that 19.5% was worth $11 billion, the typical brokerage fee is 2%, and the dossier is on the money, Trump could earn a $220 million payday. No wonder the CIA and five other agencies are looking into monetary ties between Trump and the Kremlin. This also sets the stage for step 3, the escape.

My money is on impeachment, after a string of increasingly draconian and unpopular measures that eventually turns the Republicans against him, followed by a swift exit from the country. Time will tell, of course.