One journey ends...

Today was our final day at Gwinnett Community Church. We started attending there around the time Rachel was born, so that means we were there for some 19 years. There were several reasons for our decision, but I will only give one, which was eloquently stated by David Murrow, in his book "Why Men Hate Going to Church":

God made men for adventure, achievement, and challenge, and if they can't find those things in church, they're going to find them somewhere else.

For me, and to some extent my wife, challenge includes intellectual challenge. With the new administration, that's no longer there, nor does it seem to be appreciated. We both think this particular congregation is now engaged in a race to the bottom, where Proverbs 27:17 is absent from Scripture and the weak in faith are not encouraged to become strong.


Theism vs. Atheism, Part 2

This is a continuation of the "debate" started here. Since this isn't a true debate (Vox doesn't want to debate a Christian), I will simply continue by dealing with the previously listed four evidences for theism. I will attempt to stay within the 2,000 word limit imposed by Vox's conditions for the debate.

Here, I want to address the problem of thought. Some Christians assert that human thought does not follow the laws of physics and that it cannot do so. Man is a body and a soul, or body, soul, and spirit, where at least one of soul or spirit is supernatural and is what makes us human. Atheists, of course, assert that thought is just matter in motion in certain patterns.

An in depth treatise on this won't fit in 2,000 words, so I will just sketch the outline of the materialist case. We know that the logical operations of
and, or, and not are capable of expressing all statements of boolean logic. We also know that the nand (not and) and nor (not or) operators can do the same thing: (nand x x) = (not x), (nand (nand x y) (nand x y)) = (and x y), (nand (nand x x) (nand y y)) = (or x y). This means that we can string together any number of nand (or nor) gates together to implement boolean statements. In addition, nand gates can be used to implement memory, multiplexers, demultiplexers and in, general, the elements of a computer. A set of nand gates in one configuration results in an adder; a different set of nand gates results in something that can recognize whether or not a particular circuit is an adder or not. Both represent electrons flowing in a certain pattern.

We are used to thinking of software and hardware as two different things: but they both reduce to a particular arrangement of
nand gates. Software is just electrons moving in a certain pattern.

Now, software is, at least, a subset of thought, so we have established that human thought, insofar as it is software, is "just" electrons in motion. And, certainly, our brains consist of axons which use chemical reactions to shuffle electrons around. Furthermore, we know that the brain can be damaged with a resultant change in the ability to think. Alcohol, for example, is one way to temporarily disrupt the flow of electrons from their usual patterns.

Is thought more than just complex software? Opinion on this is, of course, mixed. Ashwin Ram of Georgia Tech gives a concise readable look at some of the issues
here. Hofstatder took 832 pages to explore the issue in his landmark Gödel, Escher, Bach. Obviously, the only way to show that our minds are complex software is to build a human-level artificial intelligence, and our ability to do this isn't quite there, yet. But this doesn't mean we can't explore how it would be done. To do this, I have to deal with (at least) two theistic objections: absolute truth and morality.

What is truth?

Christians sometimes argue that materialism does not give a sufficient basis for reason. For example, C. S. Lewis wrote, "One absolutely central inconsistency ruins [the popular scientific philosophy]. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears... unless Reason is an absolute[,] all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based."
1 Similarly, J. B. S. Haldane wrote, “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”2

Earlier I wrote that I'm not aware of a catalog of basic beliefs. Let me start one by citing A. J. Hoover:

Probably the most basic law of human thought is the principle of contradiction. Some call it the “Law of Contradiction,” others call it the “Law of Noncontradiction.” Both terms refer to the same thing. Whatever you call it, this principle is the basis of all rational thought and rational communication.

What is a contradiction? It is not so much a thing as it is an
event. A contradiction occurs when two statements can’t possibly be true at the same time and in the same relationship. If I say, “It is raining here right now,” that contradicts the assertion, “It is not raining here right now.” Both of these statements cannot be true at the same time.

Logicians usually identify three laws that all seem to stem from the basic principle of contradiction:
law of contradiction asserts that A can’t both be A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship.
law of identity asserts that A is A; that every event and every judgement is identical with itself.
law of excluded middle asserts that everything must be A or non-A.

These three laws, taken together, make it possible for us to communicate rationally.

Now, there are multi-valued and fuzzy logics but, leaving those aside, we believe these three laws because we have to. We couldn't communicate without them. They work. Similarly, we hold Euclid's axioms to be true because they work, even though the universe may ultimately be shown to be non-Euclidean. Inference is valid for the same reason -- it usually works (cf. Russell's
On Induction). Lewis' argument fails because "Reason" doesn't have to be absolute. It just has to be good enough to allow us to grow food, build bridges that stay up, land men on the moon, raise children, and argue with one another. Haldane's argument fails because, while there may not be "a reason to suppose my beliefs are true" there likewise isn't a reason to suppose they are false. We are constantly analyzing our body to knowledge to see if it is internally consistent and coherent with external reality (whatever that may end up being). We have to live with uncertainty.

An Algorithmic Basis for Morality

Morality is an area where theists think they have a strong argument. Certainly, Sam Harris' attempt to provide a science of morality in The Moral Landscape was a dismal failure. However, both sides are remiss in that neither side has produced a definition of morality that isn't circular (cf. a very, very early post of mine, "Good and Evil, Part I").

Recall fact D (our brains are goal-seeking engines with variable goals). We understand how to model goal seeking behavior as finding a path in a graph from some initial state to some goal state.
3 A path that leads from an initial state to a goal state is good; a shorter path between the two points might be better (depending on other goals); the shortest path might be best (again, depending on any additional constraints). Likewise, paths leading away from a goal state are deemed bad. Fact A stated that we are partially self-aware. This self-awareness extends to our ability to partially introspect our goal seeking behavior and this is what gives us a knowledge of good and evil.

Note that Harris hypothesized that the brain would show differences when making a moral decision as opposed to other types of decisions. He didn't need to do his neuroimaging experiments to show that this was not the case; after all, a computer uses the same circuitry to compute an integral as it does to evaluate a game tree. They aren't fundamentally different kinds of operations.

Since morality is essentially a search operation through a state space, it is an algorithm that can be encoded in
nand gates or axons, and, therefore, is electrons in motion in a certain pattern. This idea is bolstered by the experiments at MIT where the moral judgements of test subjects could be swayed by the application of a magnetic field to the scalp.4

McCarthy's third design requirement from fact D, "all aspects of behavior except the most routine must be improvable. In particular, the improving mechanism should be improvable" has some remarkable consequences. If everything can be improvable, then nothing is what it ought to be. This gives rise to Hume's is-ought distinction.
5 It also gives a basis for the problem of theodicy: if everything can be improved, nothing is what it ought to be. In particular, god is not what he ought to be. This is why the problem of evil is not a valid argument against theism. It also explains the Christian notion of "sin" (Greek amartia - "to miss the mark") since we are not what we ought to be. It's interesting to note that some brains focus on the former, while some brains focus on the latter. Our brains are in dynamic tension between wanting to settle on a goal and wanting to change the goal and keep searching.6 It would be an interesting experiment to classify where atheists and theists fall in this range. Perhaps theists are those whose bias is to reach a goal, while atheists are those who have a bias toward continuing the search. This might also explain why theists tend to think teleologically and why atheists tend to suppress it.

There is likely a correlation between morality and intelligence. In GEB, Hofstadter wrote:

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it is done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns. (pg. 37)

Over 400 pages later, he repeats this idea:

This drive to jump out of the system is a pervasive one, and lies behind all progress and art, music, and other human endeavors. It also lies behind such trivial undertakings as the making of radio and television commercials. (pg. 478).

It seems to me that McCarthy's third requirement is behind this drive to "jump out" of the system. If a system is to be improved, it must be analyzed and compared with other systems, and this requires looking at a system from the outside.

Earlier, Vox was quoted as saying, "…I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man…" The algorithmic pressure to seek new goals is behind Vox's statement. He "knows" that he can be improved -- that he is not what he ought to be. That man is "fallen" is a teleological interpretation of the inner working of the human mind coupled with the notion that god is the ultimate goal. It is this notion that everything is improvable that is behind morality and intelligence and, coupled with self-awareness, is what makes us human.

Given that morality arises from introspection of our goal seeking behavior, what goals should we seek? That will be the subject of the next post.

Is Theology Poetry, see Argument from reason.
[2] "When I am Dead" in
Possible Worlds (1927)
The Mechanism of Morality
Moral judgments can be altered ... by magnets
The Is-Ought Problem Considered As A Question Of Artificial Intelligence
[6] “Our moral judgments are not the result of a single process, even though they feel like one uniform thing,” she says. “It’s actually a hodgepodge of competing and conflicting judgments, all of which get jumbled into what we call moral judgment.”

Theism vs. Atheism: A Debate?

Vox Day has challenged the atheist community to a debate concerning "the assertion that there is not only substantial evidence for the existence of gods, but that the logic and the evidence in support of the existence of gods is superior to the logic and the evidence for the nonexistence of them." While only a paltry three days has passed, no David has yet stepped forth to challenge Goliath.1 I expressed interest in arguing for the atheist position, but Vox would prefer to debate an actual atheist. Certainly, a cloud of suspicion would remain were I to lose the debate. However, I think I can battle Vox to a standstill. And I have the harder task.

It is common wisdom that "you can't prove a negative." Strictly speaking, this isn't true. Some negatives can be proven, just like some positives can be proven. Circa 300 B.C.E. Euclid showed that there is no largest prime number. In 1995 Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's Last Theorem, which says that there are no integers, x, y, and z > 0 such that x
n + yn = zn, where n > 2. But showing that there is no god (or gods) is a more formidable problem. Such a proof would be like showing that no pink unicorns exist -- the only way to do this is by an exhaustive search and, by definition, god supposedly exists outside of nature where man cannot look. In theory, god can only be found if he/she/it actively broke the natural/supernatural barrier and left one or more clues to his existence.

Since I've already mentioned an attribute of god (supernaturalness), Vox has declined to define "god or gods" and has referred to dictionary definitions. I have no interest in arguing for or against beings that are worshipped (which says more about the worshipper than the worshipped), or beings greater than man that have power over nature (cf. Star Trek's
Who Mourns for Adonis? where Kirk and crew run into Apollo). I will limit my arguments to a supernatural being who created nature. This could be the god of the three main monotheistic religions; it could also be a deistic god or alien scientists who are running our universe as a simulation in one of their computers (many implies one).

How then, to make the case for atheism? Bertrand Russell, in "The Problems of Philosophy", states that all knowledge is based on instinctive beliefs (pg. 25). Aside from
cogito, ergo sum I'm not aware of a catalog of basic beliefs (I'm a software engineer, not a philosopher). Is "there is/is not a god" a basic belief, or is it a derived position? I will argue that both positions are basic beliefs, accepted without proof. Given two axiomatic systems, which one is right? The problem is like that of geometry. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry have the same number of axioms -- five -- but the fifth axiom is different in each. Each geometry is consistent. Which geometry corresponds to the universe we live in? On a very small scale, the universe is Euclidean (i.e. space is flat). But for the entire universe, we don't know, because we don't know the mass of the universe. To make the case for atheism, then, it must be shown that atheism is consistent and that it corresponds to the universe we live in.

Informally, both atheism and theism are consistent, in that neither axiom results in a statement that asserts a contradiction. There are claimed contradictions, for example, the problem of evil supposedly contradicts the existence of a loving god. Likewise, the problem of good has been used to argue against the non-existence of God. But neither hold up to scrutiny. Both systems result in explanations for all natural phenomena, even though those explanations may be wildly different. Does atheism correspond to the universe? That's a difficult question since we have incomplete knowledge. For example, if it could be shown that life could not arise by natural processes, then atheism would fail the correspondence test. This is, I think, one of two weakness of atheism and is what caused the formerly leading atheist thinker Antony Flew to convert to deism in 2004 before his death in 2010. However, this is a position adopted from ignorance informed by incredulity. There is no shame in saying, "we don't know," since incomplete knowledge is a problem in both systems, and the argument from incredulity is a logical fallacy recognized by both sides.

The arguments for theism typically fall into one of four categories:
  1. The problem of origins - God is needed to get things going.
  2. The problem of thought - materialism cannot account for human thought.
  3. The problem of morality - Vox wrote in "Letter to Common Sense Atheism I", "Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man…"
  4. The problem of personal testimony/transformation - God did such and such in someone's life. For a powerful example of such testimony, see John C. Wright's "A Question I Never Tire of Answering". Vox said much the same thing, himself. I, too, have been on the road to Damascus. This would include the category of miracles including, but not limited to, the Resurrection of Jesus and fulfilled prophecy.
To make the case for atheism, compelling non-supernatural explanations must be given for each. To deal with the above, particularly the last three, these facts will be used:
  1. We are partially self-aware. Our self-awareness is partial because it doesn't fully extend to how our brains work. For example, we make decisions, but we can't see the mechanism by which those decisions actually come about. This study, for example, shows how analysis of brain wave patterns enable prediction of decisions before the test subjects were aware of what they were going to do.
  2. Our brains are wired to look for patterns.
  3. Most brains are wired to think teleologically, that is to ascribe meaning to external events. As shown by this study, theists think teleologically, atheists think teleologically but then suppress it, and people with Asperberger's do not think teleologically. Their wiring prevents it. See also the work of Catherine Caldwell-Harris of Boston University. Note that this describes typical behavior; individuals may vary.
  4. Our brains are goal-seeking engines with variable goals. Animals are wired for reproduction and, to support reproduction, have the sub-goals of feeding, fighting, and fleeing. Man, however, is a general purpose problem solver and, according to John McCarthy in Programs with Common Sense, one feature to enable this behavior is that "All aspects of behavior except the most routine must be improvable. In particular, the improving mechanism should be improvable."
  5. We are "selfish" organisms, that is, our default behavior is to maximize our long-term benefit.
Once these facts are granted, it will become very difficult for the theist to make a strong case. Furthermore, the theist must grant these facts. Only D isn't currently backed by experiment, since we haven't yet created a human level artificial intelligence; but it is partially observable through introspection and, furthermore, to deny this is to deny the Biblical account of the Fall in Eden. This would put the Christian theist in an awkward position. I note that D can be used to explain C, but it's easier to assert C on the basis of experiment than derive it formally.

Earlier, I said that both theism and atheism were basic beliefs. C and D show why theism is, for most, a basic belief. It's how most brains are wired. C by itself explains the belief that many gods exist (many things need explanation), D explains monotheism (a goal seeking engine without a fixed goal will imagine an ultimate goal). God belief is also comforting because it can always be used for explanations where our knowledge is incomplete (there is ultimate meaning, ultimate morality, ultimate cause). Atheism is, likewise, a basic belief since it cannot be shown to be true. The atheist claim that there is no evidence for god is misguided, since belief guides the evaluation of evidence. This also applies to the theist.

If this is so, then why the debate? Partly because of the challenge. Partly because I detest bad arguments -- from either side. Proverbs 27:17 says, "Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another." Christians have become dull over time and need a wakeup call. Partly because I think I may have some new insights to offer, particularly since computer science is still in its infancy and I think it has important things to say with respect to theology. And partly because I think the result will be surprising. My position actually contains the seed of its own destruction (earlier, I said that atheism has two weaknesses) but I'm not going to give it away.

[1] Dominic Saltarelli eventually volunteered.