Monday, September 21, 2009

Stein's Dirty Tricks

One of Jacob Stein's favorite techniques is quoting out of context. In this post JP misrepresents Charles Darwin as promoting a philosophy of racial supremacy and discrimination. If one simply follows the link in his post and reads a few lines before and after the quotation, it becomes obvious that JP is lying. In many of his post posts and comments he intentionally confuses between a descriptive, scientific theory of natural selection and a political philosophy of racism and "survival of the fittest".

What is even more ludicrous is that this claim comes from a man who believes in and defends the biblical "ethic" of wiping out of Amalek and the seven nations in Canaan.

Stein is a straw man too good to be true...I still wonder if he is a closet atheist and his blog is just a gag.

Let's give Stein a little of his own medicine and include a juicy quote from his post:

Stein says that, "we should probably start investing in companies producing hydrogen cyanide and crematoria."

There it is! Stein thinks we should have another holocaust. Yea! Boy, some Torah morality!

I know it's out of context, its just demonstrates what a dishonest and brainwashed person Stein really is. Stein's little bag of dirty tricks include ad hominem attacks, overgeneralizations, straw man arguments and outright lying. One would assume that in a real, moderated debate in which he was forced to defend his religious beliefs, he would be disqualified or suffer humiliating defeat. I recall some time back a fellow named Avi used to comment on his blog, and offered to debate JP but to no avail.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Is Atheism Just Another Religion?

A very common claim by theists like JP is to say that atheism is just like a religious belief, in the sense that it is no more rational or logical than classic religious beliefs. In doing so he attempts to put atheism, along with "darwinism" and evolutionary biology on the same plane as other authority-based claims. This is disingenuous and hollow, and here is why:

At a meta-cognitive level people's ways of looking at the world are influenced by many factors, including psychological and environmental factors. In this sense, any of a person's beliefs, preferences, and knowledge could be said to be subjective and be based on "belief". This causes confusion between the term "belief" in its psychological meaning, and the word "belief" in its more formal meaning-- an element in a set of predetermined assumptions and rules associated with organized faith.

For example, I can believe that Jesus Christ was our messiah and savior. I can "believe" this in the sense that I see this as true--the "psychological" form of belief. This assertion is one of many in the Christian faith, so we can see it as a religious belief as well. I can also NOT believe that JC is my savior. In this case I "believe" that JC being my savior is not true, but we would not say that my non-belief is "faith" or "belief" in the dogmatic or religious sense. Just as I don't believe in Thor or Zeuss, I can also not belief in the fundamentalist Hebrew God, and yet it would be incorrect to say that I have a "faith" in my nonacceptance of these assumptions.

Some might claim that atheism is relatively recent in history and is therefore a deviation from the default assumptions, and therefore it is atheism that should be considered "faith based" and has the burden of proof. But this argument is fallacious for several reasons. Many historical beliefs about the physical world, including the fields of astronomy, physics, medicine and chemistry were the "default" until they were disproven. Additionally, "non-atheism" includes a very large collection of incompatible faiths and traditions. Therefore, lumping all "theists" beliefs together, then claiming that any skeptic who rejects any one or all of those beliefs as being a "believer" in a novel "belief" called "atheism" is dishonest and a misuse of the word. And as demonstrated by the flying spaghetti monster, the celestial teapot, or Christian claims about Jesus, the burden of proof rest squarely with the likes of Jacob Stein and his cohorts to prove their claims. It does not rest with me to reject it.

So if I don't accept Jesus as my savior, and reject Thor as a God, I would be a skeptic. All Jews are skeptics, from the point of view of Christians and Muslims. So why if I reject ALL religious claims, not just some of them, am I a "believer" in "atheism"? It is like JP is saying, "take your pick, but you have to choose at least ONE faith based claim, and that always makes more sense than the 'atheist' belief".

Another common distortion that JP uses is that atheists also have their "authorities", making them no different than religionists. He ridicules Darwin, Dawkins, and others as being atheist authorities. The truth is that they became authorities because their ideas have survived the test of time and scrutiny of peer review in the academic world. Besides, atheists don't blindly accept a scientific idea just because an expert says so, unless his ideas survive this scrutiny. As far as talmudic rabbinic authorities, their assertions have been rejected by the vast majority of Jews and non-Jews alike, so these people are "authorities" only to a tiny self-selected minority of humanity. We can acknowledge that there is also controversy and disagreement in the scientific community, but this is part of the process of inferential reasoning. We posit theories to explain what we see, and we test to see if the theory holds up. If it doesn't, it is rejected.

The fact that Orthodox Jews, along with various other minority groups in the world, continue to cling to their faith is a sociological phenomenon, which says nothing about the truth or falsehood of their claims.

The rejection of these or other religious claims, due to more plausible scientific explanations for what we see, could hardly be called a "faith" any more than the germ theory of disease or quantum physics. To rehash:

1. Atheism is not authority based like religion.
2. Atheism is not a belief like religion, since rejection is not a belief.
3. Atheism is a reasoned alternative to the hundreds of different and contradictory theist theories in explaining the world and life, and in fact explains our observations much better.
4. The burden of proof is on the theist, not the atheist.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

JP's Phallacies-- a Rehash

No, it's not a spelling mistake. Its just a joke about JP's obsession with sex.

I'm going to briefly recount JP's false arguments "proving" god and the divine origin of Torah, along with a 1-line rebuttal.

Claim: There is no morality without God or the Torah.
Rebuttal: People make laws to make livable societies, while individual guilt, conscience, and empathy are part of human nature (except for psychopaths), and give an evolutionary advantage in helping perpetuate our genes.

Claim: The watchmaker analogy proves that there was a Creator.
Rebuttal: The watch is not analogous to biological material, which we observe to grow, replicate and change itself without "intelligent" intervention.

Claim: The mass revelation claims made in the Torah could not have been fabricated.
Rebuttal: Yes they can, as can be all claims made by other religions.

Claim: The feeling of free will and self-awareness proves that we have an immortal soul.
Rebuttal: That we have those feelings says nothing about what causes those feelings.

Claim: Atheism produces immorality and degeneracy.
Rebuttal: As a proportion of the population, violence in the world is decreasing, as the world is becoming more secular. (Proof: average lifespan has increased despite wars)

Claim: The Torah contains unique wisdom that could only have been written by God
Rebuttal: The Torah contains plenty of mistakes (factual errors, contradictions and anachronisms) as well as customs and stories copied from neighboring peoples.

Claim: The Torah and Judaism don't change.
Rebuttal: The Talmud and subsequent rabbinic interpretation completely changed Judaism, nullifying some laws and adding new ones.

Claim: The oral law is from God and was given to Moses
Rebuttal: The Bible itself contradicts this in many places. The Talmud at times completely twists the words of the Torah.

Claim: Justice is administered through the afterlife and hell.
Rebuttal: Absolutely no evidence for this other than rabbinical statements in post biblical times.

Claim: Skeptics most prove their skepticism, i.e. that God doesn't exist or didn't write the Torah
Rebuttal: The flying spaghetti monster and celestial teapot arguments demonstrate that the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.

Claim: Evolution is an unproven theory promulagated by atheist crackpots.
Rebuttal: The overwheming scientific evidence (direct observation+inductive reasoning) shows that it is correct, and it is held to be true by the vast majority of biologists and has stood the test of scientific scrutiny. (Had it not withstood this scrutiny it would have been dropped long ago like blood-letting or exorcism).

Having said all of this it may still be rational for a person to believe in God and OJ, as long as he recognizes that it is a leap of faith for which there is no proof. I wouldn't call all of the religious people on earth "irrational", unless their faith brings them to do destructive actions to themselves or others.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Soul Delusion

People much smarter than I, and certainly smarter than JP, including the great philosophers, have long debated the mind/body problem. It is difficult for us to fathom that we are essentially just bags of organic material. The mind/body issue is parallel to the question of whether life itself is just a collection of chemical reactions, or is there some other non-physical essence that adds another layer to our existance.

JP claims that the soul exists based on 2 observations. First, our self-awareness. We feel ourselves to exist, as something inside us but separate from our bodies. This is a very compelling argument. Rene Descarte eloquently argued for dualism, that the mind and the brain were essentially separate entities. Most modern philosophers acknowledge that the mind is comprised only of the material physical brain. This self-awareness, although a non-physical concept, is simply a function of the brain.

JP's second claim is that our sense of "free will" proves the existence of a soul.

I think much depends on how one defines a soul, and herein lies the problem. If one asserts the existence of a soul, then he is required to define and describe what he is talking about. JP likens the soul to a radio transmitter, with the brain as a receiver. This is certainly an interesting analogy, but it is nonetheless a silly assertion for which there is no evidence. It is sort of what people who claim to have clairvoyance claim. In fact, the evidence would mitigate against such a "transmitter". Besides the obvious distinction from radio waves, which can be measured and observed indirectly, consider the following problems and contradictions inherent in this argument:

1. Where was the soul before the person was born? Did it always exist? Was it born when the person was born? If so, why doesn't it die when the person dies?
2. When a person is mentally ill, or incapacitated, is the soul similarly mentally ill? Since JP asserts that a person's free will and self-awareness are part of the soul, when a person doesn't have these things, does the soul continue to exist and have free will?
3. What about non-humans? Do they have souls, too? Although they don't have the same level of thought and self-awareness as we do, they certainly have feelings, desires, and fears.

Basically, the argument for a soul is like Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. Its an authority-based assertion without evidence, that cannot be tested and is not falsifiable, and therefore the burden of proof is on he who claims the existence of a soul, not one who denies it. Before the advent of modern cell biology and biochemistry, man could not fathom many physiologic processes in animals. They seemed like magic. Now we understand them, and they can be readily explained on the basis of known physical laws. Morever, these explanations are specific and readily testable, and can be used to make predictions. We can posit a chemical explanation for a certain disease, then test the effect of a drug that we know affects this process and observe its effect on the disease. Similarly, neurobiology is steadily unlocking the biological and electrochemical basis of many cognitive functions, such as mental illness, memory, sensation, and emotions.

Interestingly, the biblical and rabbinic ancients, who claimed to be connected to the spiritual world and thus in possession of the knowledge that a "soul" exists, don't answer these questions. Why? For the very simple reason that they were ignorant. They simply didn't know. They were guessing, because they understood so little about the physical world around them.

If I can explain these phenomena on the basis of physical principles, what good does it do to add an additional "layer" to the explanation by adding a "soul"? This is Occam's Razor. A soul is simply unnecessary in order to explain things. JP will answer of course, that the Torah and rabbis tell us that there is a soul, an afterlife, and hell, because he has to. For without an afterlife, it is obvious that there is no justice on this earth, so justice must be served in the afterlife. It is also a good scare tactic which was used by the rabbis against ignorant ancient people, to coerce them into compliance. JP also likes to use it as a threat against us skeptics, who are condemned to burn in hell forever. Perhaps it helps as a consolation to him, thinking that there will be a heavenly reward for all of the sacrifices he has made in his own personal life on behalf of an imagined god.

Another claim that comes up repeatedly in JP's post is that without God or Torah, there is no morality, no conscience, leaving us to be just a brutal and viscious people. This assertion is blatantly wrong and ignores everything that we have learned in the past 100 years about psychology and sociology. Man has a conscience, and it has nothing to do with religion. I do not deny that people can have violent impulses, or that they do bad things. But as a social animal, he has evolved modes of thinking and behaviors that help the species survive as a group and perpetuate their genes. These traits include empathy and self-sacrifice for loved ones and close friends. Morality extends this natural empathy, by social agreement, to larger groups-- community, co-religionists, or a nation. The traits of conscience and morality give survival advantage and in fact support the theory or natural selection.

JP's claims about having no guilt or conscience without god, would suggest that he is a psychopath. Pyschopaths have a personality disorder, in which they have no natural empathy towards other people, and thus no conscience or guilt in regards to causing other people to suffer. Research has shown that these people suffer from defects in a specific parts of their brains. So I challenge JP to deny being a psychopath, by acknowledging that he, along with other normal people, have natural feelings of empathy, guilt and conscience, having nothing to do with God. For if Jacob Stein denies this, he is in fact a psychopath (as well as being woefully ignorant about psychology and many other things).

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Miracle of a cellular telephone

In response to this post, I propose the following:

The cellular telephone is a modern man-made miracle. People on opposite sides of the earth can talk to each other as though they are in the next room. The device is made up of tens of thousands of interconnected microscopic parts, that work together with a global antenna network, to allow people to communicate. A few additional observations about this miracle:

1. 200 years ago such a device was unfathomable. If two distant people claimed to communicate with each other, it could only be through spirits or divine intervention.

2. As far as I know, no god had ever succeeded in making a cell phone.

The fact that JP cannot fathom an artificial liver has no bearing on the question of whether or not the liver is "divine" or natural. 200 years ago flying wasn't possible, and a modern jetliner would have been unimaginable.

The liver and other body organs are indeed remarkable structures, whose complexity we are still understanding. Yet ultimately JP's argument boils down to the watchmaker analogy, which I have already rebutted in a previous post.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Before Rosh Hashana

Because this blog is intended to repudiate JP's claims in a fair manner, and not to use harassment, I decided to remove my post "Is JP an Atheist?".