Monday, April 30, 2012

The Purpose of Hell

Everyone agrees that criminals should be punished, but what many people don't realize is that there are several different theories about why punishing criminals is a good idea. Here I'll examine whether any of these penal theories apply to an eternal punishment in hell. I'll assume in this post, purely for the sake of argument, that unbelief is in some way a bad thing. But even granting this, what we find is that these five rationales either don't apply in the case of the Christian God punishing us in hell, or imply that some other punishment would be more just.

The first reason that one might be justified in punishing a wrongdoer is rehabilitation—punishment for the purpose of morally improving the criminal. But since people stay in hell forever, anything they might learn to better themselves could never be put to use. At most it would result in morally upright people suffering forever, which is clearly even worse than if hell was only filled with the unrepentant.

There's also restoration—punishment for the sake of repairing the damage resulting from the crime. But there's no reason to think that suffering endlessly in outer darkness would benefit God or any other possible victims in the slightest—unless we label God a sadist, who takes pleasure in our boundless pain. In fact, if we take at face value the apologist's claim that God is quite upset about having to punish us, hell seems to work against restorative justice.

The third is deterrence, which is intended to prevent crimes from being committed in the first place. Perhaps hell is a way to bully people into obedience. But there are two problems with this: First, given that 70% of people on earth are non-Christians, the threat of the Christian hell has been largely ineffective at the global scale. Second, by attempting to threaten people into genuine belief when in fact belief is not generally a choice, this form of justice would fall into the same trap as Pascal's Wager.

The fourth is incapacitation, or punishment for the sake of protecting potential victims from further harm. If believers are the victims here, hell would keep the evil heathens from corrupting them—but there are other ways to do this that don't involve excess suffering. If God is supposed to be the victim, it's unclear how hell is "protecting" him from unbelievers. Presumably he isn't so fragile that unbelief or even rebellion would cause him the slightest amount of harm. Perhaps rebellion harms God in some emotional sense. But in that case, hell is once again totally counterproductive: it's the perfect way to stir up even more resentment against him.

Finally, the crudest and most basic reason for punishing wrongdoers is retribution: the idea that evil deeds inherently deserve to be punished, apart from any tangible benefits that will result from such punishment. This may feel like an appropriate reaction, but it's really nothing more than barbaric, institutionalized revenge. What some perceive as punishment for the sake of some idealized "pure justice" is actually a combination of the other rationales listed above. Even if we accepted retribution as a legitimate penal theory, though, it still wouldn't justify hell. Retributive justice carries with it a sense of proportion: the punishment must fit the crime, and eternal punishment for even the tiniest sin certainly doesn't qualify in that sense.

There really is no justification at all for hell as a punishment. This is true because many sins are essentially victimless crimes, and because eternal punishment for sin results in no benefit to any party. However, apologists sometimes sneak around this by saying that hell is a choice: if we willfully reject God, he grants our wish by taking us to a place where we can be completely separate from him. Nonsense. He could accomplish the same thing by simply snuffing out our existence altogether, and avoid all the unnecessary suffering. This would serve as a perfect form of incapacitation (it's impossible to cause any further harm) as well as a more reasonable form of retribution (more proportionate with the perceived crime).

One last defense apologists occasionally give is to claim both that retributive justice is valid and that hell is a proportionate punishment, because our crime has somehow caused infinite offense against God's infinite dignity. Ridiculous. The relevant factor is not dignity, but actual harm. A crime against a king would deserve no more punishment than the same crime against a peasant. If the king threw a fit, demanding the culprit's execution due to some abstract violation of dignity, we would rightly label him a tyrant. If anything, the more power this king has and the more severe his demanded punishment, the more petty and unjust he becomes.

Hell is not only useless as a punishment according to most penal theories, but also highly unjust and even counterproductive. The onus is on Christians to show that this unending punishment can somehow be justified, and they certainly have their work cut out for them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Ultimate Significance

It's only a matter of time.
Have you ever made a sandcastle near the ocean shore at low tide, knowing that it would soon be erased by the waves? It probably happens thousands of times every day. Kids (and kids at heart) carefully craft the moat and courtyard, drizzle a spire of wet sand on each lofty tower, stand back to admire their work. All while keeping in the back of their mind a solemn understanding that all good things must come to an end.

Of course, it may not even occur to the youngest beach builders that their efforts will be washed away. They work with such determination that the incoming surf takes them by surprise. When the water finally crashes through their frantic attempts at a defensive wall, they can only watch and mourn the ruins of their once-mighty fortress. But even for these naïve castle-makers, their sorrow at the destruction of their castle does not outweigh the satisfaction they got from creating it. If you asked them, most would say it was all worthwhile.

Those who believe in eternal life sometimes wonder how the rest of us can live with the fact that it's all going to end someday. Even if we could use technology to achieve biological immortality, we would still ultimately be limited by the heat death of the universe in roughly 10100 years. So, they ask, what's the point of trudging along each day if it's all futile and meaningless in the grand scheme of things?

To which I answer: Why build that sandcastle?

Because you enjoy it while it lasts. Because you treasure the memory as long as you can. Because its very impermanence is what makes it so special.

Further, I put it to them: What is it about the prospect of eternity that imbues our existence with meaning? I don't see how the mere existence of an endpoint in any way negates our current actions, or how the lack of one is needed to validate them. In fact, the more you start really thinking about what really eternity means, the harder it is to imagine it as anything other than a fate worse than death. If you lived for another 101,000 years, you'd probably be too busy going mad with boredom to think back on how significant your life was 101,000 years ago.

Savor your life in the here and now—everything, from your fast food burger to your wedding day. If not for you, then out of respect for all those who will never get to. Because out of the countless quadrillions of people that could have been born to live a short life on this little blue planet, you are here.

You are here to gaze up at the stars and ponder your kinship with the universe. Be glad that you can reflect on the past, relish the present and make your mark on the future. And even though that mark will eventually be washed away in the waves of time, be grateful.

Be grateful, because you didn't have to be here—but you are.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My 5 Favorite Freethought Quotes

Now that I've done five installments of my Powerful Thoughts series, I thought it might be a good time to go back through and pick my five favorite quotes from among them. There were so many great ones that it was almost impossible to choose, so I made a Google doc for my 15 favorites. Here are the top five along with my comments:
5. "Answers are a luxury enjoyed only every now and then. So early on, learn to love the questions themselves." –Neil deGrasse Tyson
Curiosity is a great thing because it so often gives rise to discovery, but sometimes the answers elude us. It's easy to grow impatient and settle on the first convenient explanation that comes along even when the real answer is still out there. So we need to value the process of forming and testing hypotheses as much as actually arriving at conclusions—to value the journey as much as the destination. It requires us to think of unanswered questions not as obstacles to be overcome, but as invitations to explore our world.
4. "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." –Thomas Jefferson
How wonderful it is that the same man who authored this quote was also a central Founding Father and our third president. We needed someone of his wisdom to guide this country in its formative years. During this period of American Enlightenment, intellectuals were already starting to question Christianity and embrace deism. But in a letter offering advice to his nephew, Jefferson had the audacity to suggest something that would be unthinkable to most people at the time.

The quote, highlighted on a page of the original letter.
This encouragement of radical, intrepid questioning should be an inspiration to skeptics everywhere. And he follows this by steamrolling the most common obstacle to investigating one's faith—the fear of divine retribution—in a way that beautifully echoes Galileo's disbelief that "the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use".
3. "Forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today." –Lawrence Krauss
Plucked from a legendary 2009 physics lecture entitled "A Universe From Nothing," this statement on our origins may at first seem shallow in its irreverence, but I don't see it that way. Too often religions like Christianity rely on the beauty of ideas rather than their truth, making reality look cold and alienating by comparison. People take solace in God's invisible guiding hand and fear that a world without him would be desolate, chaotic, meaningless.

But Krauss shows that in some ways, the natural world can beat the supernatural even at its own game. An innocent god-man being tortured and killed on our behalf is an inspiring tale (if a gruesome and illogical one), but it can't hold a candle to the breathtaking magnificence of cosmology. All the heavier atoms in your body—the oxygen and carbon, the nitrogen and calcium—had to be forged within the blazing furnaces of stars. They later became supernovae, exploding so chaotically that they briefly outshone entire galaxies, forming nebulae rich with heavy elements that then collapsed to form solar systems—and eventually, in our case, intelligent life. Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson again, describing this process:

As Carl Sagan said, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." Truth, it seems, is far more worthy than fiction of our awe and admiration.
2. "Mythology is someone else's religion, different enough from your own for its absurdity to be obvious." –Anonymous
What a perfect summary of the double standard inherent within every exclusivist religion in history. It's so easy for Christians and Buddhists and Muslims to look at each other and scoff at those other peculiar beliefs, all while retaining an intense blind spot with regard to one's own. So persistent is this bias that even I as a former Christian suffer from it, despite my deconversion.

This is why I love Daniel Dennett's suggestion that schoolchildren be taught a mandatory, neutral, fact-based class on world religions. Only the most cripplingly stubborn parents could object to an impartial presentation of alternative belief systems. Yet many students would come out with a more critically informed view of each religion—including their own. The more information kids can access about religions from all cultures, the less likely they are to succumb to the ingroup-outgroup bias that allows religious exclusivism to thrive.
1. "I had no need of that hypothesis." –Pierre-Simon Laplace
This famed quip was in reply to none other than Napoleon, who told Laplace, "They tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace's response encompasses so much in just a few words: the principle of parsimony, the relentless march of science, the ever-diminishing God of the gaps. Although it was probably just an offhand remark, his calm yet firm rejection of God as explanation is emblematic of the human race's steadily increasing storehouse of knowledge.

No need of that hypothesis.

After millions of years of cowering at shadows, we have finally begun to crawl out from the darkness and into the light. We need only to let our eyes adjust to the dazzling brilliance we've discovered. It is my hope that for any incredible explanation that lacks equally incredible evidence, we, as a civilization, will soon have no need of that hypothesis.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Uncertainty of Intuition

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."  —Richard Feynman
I'm only a novice when it comes to philosophy, but I think I've noticed a general trend within the field. First, someone comes up with a philosophical framework for explaining a certain phenomenon. Then someone else comes up with a counterexample that intuitively appears to falsify that framework. Philsophers are then faced with a couple of options: They can follow their intuitions and either modify the framework or reject it entirely, or they can continue to accept the framework and claim that it's in fact our intuition that's faulty.

Let me give a couple of examples, starting with one in the field of ethics. Utilitarianism, generally speaking, is the ethical theory that one ought to maximize the overall amount of happiness that exists. It seems like a perfectly sensible way of approaching the subject, but some versions of this concept are vulnerable to what Derek Parfit calls the Repugnant Conclusion. In the diagram below, each box represents a population; width measures group size and height measures average happiness. The Repugnant Conclusion is that according to some forms of utilitarianism, Z is preferable to A because Z's total area is greater than A's. In other words, having a massive number of people whose lives are barely worth living is preferable to having a (relatively) small number of people whose lives are extremely happy.

Intuitively, this conclusion does seem repugnant—but is it our ethical theory or our intuition that we should modify in response? Perhaps we look at Z and imagine throngs of people toiling away in a wretched struggle to survive, when what we should realize is that a life "barely worth living" is still worth living. If these people looked back at their lives in their golden years, they could honestly say they were glad to have lived. Hmm... maybe such a world wouldn't be as bad as we think.

In the previous case it was pretty easy to imagine our intuition being wrong. But now let's take on a tougher example, this time from philosophy of mind. The leading philosophical framework for understanding what constitutes a mind is called functionalism (see also the SEP). Basically, it says that what makes a mind is not any particular material (e.g. neurons), but a way of functioning: it must receive inputs which alter its internal state and produce outputs. It could be made of neurons, silicon or anything else as long as it's properly organized and functional.

Enter the China Brain. Ned Block asks us to imagine the entire population of China hooked up to one another in some way (walkie-talkies, for example), with each person corresponding to a neuron. The individuals then communicate in a rudimentary manner that mimics the firing of interconnected neural pathways. The result is sometimes known as a Blockhead.

Haha. Blockhead. Because his last name's Block.
Can this vast collection of people buzzing at each other on walkie-talkies really have mental states? Can it experience sadness or the color red? Block wants us to intuitively conclude that such possibilities are ridiculous, and certainly they seem to be. But how much of this intuition is due to the fact that we normally think of minds as embodied and centralized?

Imagine that we could somehow shrink this crowd of a billion, put them inside a human skull and attach them to the appropriate sensory inputs and motor outputs. If you had a conversation with this entity, who looks and acts exactly like a normal person, would it really be so hard to think of them as having a mind? Conversely, imagine that we could take someone's still-living brain out of their head and the stretch the neurons out across hundreds of square miles. If you walked into the middle of this silky net of microscopic axons, would it seem any more like a thinking, feeling, experiencing mind than the China brain does? Suddenly, the obvious conclusion may not be so obvious anymore.

This post is partly an excuse to share some really cool thought experiments, but I do have a point to make as well: We need to be careful about accepting intuitive philosophical arguments, because they can be engineered (intentionally or not) to push us toward an unwarranted conclusion. Daniel Dennett coined the term "intuition pump" to describe such cases. Often these arguments employ sophisticated misdirection to make us ignore factors that would dramatically change our judgment if properly understood.

Sometimes, too, an argument has at its core a subject that we as fallible humans are just flat-out bad at making judgments about, or even one that lies completely outside our realm of experience. I'm referring specifically to the cosmological argument, which I hope to eventually delve into more deeply. In arguing for Kalam, William Lane Craig proclaims that the temporal universe cannot always have existed because actual infinites cannot exist. He uses the Hilbert hotel paradox as a demonstration of this, but all he's really demonstrated is that the math of infinity is incredibly unintuitive. He also asserts that whatever begins to exist has a cause, and it again seems staggeringly unintuitive to think that the universe could have sprung up uncaused out of absolute nothingness. But a complete lack of everything—space, time, even physical laws—is in such opposition to our everyday experience that making any definitive pronouncements about its properties would be pure folly.

So here's the moral of the story: In all aspects of life, theological and ordinary alike, be skeptical about relying on intuition to solve problems. Your minds is better suited to some tasks than others, and it's beset with biases at every turn. It's easy for subtle yet crucial details to escape your notice, drastically skewing your judgment. Consider a given issue from many perspectives and try to think of what variables you may be leaving out—even when the answer seems clear-cut. Because as satisfying as it is to debunk pseudoscientists and expose charlatans, the most important part of being a skeptic isn't questioning other people. It's questioning yourself.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Born at the Wrong Time

I've had less time for writing due to longer work hours, and I'm in the process of finishing a couple of other posts, but I thought I'd quickly share a mildly interesting experience of mine from this past Sunday.

I don't go to church much anymore, but I did go to Easter service at my parents' request. It was pretty unremarkable and mediocre as far as "Sonrise" sermons go, but one thing really did stick out to me as particularly insightful—though not for the reasons it was intended to be.

The pastor's daughter made a very telling comment. She suggested that God was evident to us in the past (in the form of his interaction with the Israelites and his incarnation in Jesus) and will be in the future (in the form of the Second Coming), but that modern society is caught in a kind of "temporary atheism" because direct access to the divine is unavailable at the moment.

Well, how conveniently inconvenient.

What an odd coincidence it is that we happen to be living in the precise sliver of time during which God isn't overtly interacting with humanity. Christians who subscribe to this line of thought would have us believe that we happen to exist in a sort of divine "blind spot"—one in which God can't be empirically verified, one that looks exactly as if he was never there at all.

Do believers really find this kind of reasoning acceptable? Why doesn't it occur to them that God's "temporary" aloofness might be the rule and not the exception? And if we do reside in the one cursed era of an otherwise God-filled timeline, isn't that a needlessly cruel twist of fate? If he actually wants us to believe in him, why not give everyone the same strong evidence he supposedly gave in antiquity?

In John 20, Jesus lets Doubting Thomas put his hands in the crucifixion wounds and says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." It's an appalling endorsement of belief without evidence, but at least he gave evidence when asked. As for the billions of skeptics who followed in Thomas' footsteps, I guess we'll be punished eternally for the crime of being born at the wrong time.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Powerful Thoughts, Vol. 5

It's only been a few weeks since the previous installment of Powerful Thoughts, but what can I say? My cup of skepticism runneth over; there are just too many good quotes to choose from. So once again, here are some about God:
  • "God is dead: but considering the state Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown." –Friedrich Nietzsche
  • "Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions and you are a conqueror. Kill everyone and you are a God." –Jean Rostand
  • "If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of all my efforts." –Bertrand Russell
  • "If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him? If he is just, why fear that he will punish the creatures that he has, filled with weaknesses?" –Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • "You know when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God's the guy that ignores you." –from The Island
On Christianity:
  • "Those who defend their abusers are the most comprehensively enslaved." –QualiaSoup on rationalizing religious atrocity
  • "'Oh great, you ate the apple. Now I have to kill my son.' –God" –from reddit
  • "There is no such thing as a Christian child, only a child of Christian parents." –from reddit
  • "Moderate Christianity seems like a contradiction because its teachings are not something to casually think about here and there." –from reddit
  • "That's an awfully nice soul you've got there. It'd be a shame if something happened to it..." –reddit on Pascal's Wager
  • "So far as I can remember, there's not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence." –Bertrand Russell
  • "What could be more terroristic than 'Believe this or burn for an eternity'? The answer is nothing." –Brian Sapient
  • "To say that God was communicating in metaphor through the Bible writers is to say that God needed communications training." –Valerie Tarico
  • "If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be—a Christian." –Mark Twain
On religion in general:
  • "Religion claims to set its followers free... while insisting they kiss the hand of their jailer." –Paula Kirby
  • "All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays." –Cathy Ladman
  • "The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him a ride." –H.L. Mencken
  • "Rooting morality in a being beyond our comprehension only pushes morality beyond our comprehension." –QualiaSoup
  • "The day gay marriage is legalized, nothing will change. And that is what religions are afraid of." –from reddit
  • "[Religion] is partly the terror of the unknown and partly...the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes." –Bertrand Russell
  • "Religion. It's given people hope in a world torn apart by religion." –Jon Stewart
On reason, science and skepticism:
  • "Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you." –Thomas Jefferson
  • "I had no need of that hypothesis." –Pierre-Simon Laplace, in reply to Napoleon, who asked why he didn't include God in his calculations of planetary orbits
  • "Don't think that because the light of science is dimmer today than tomorrow that you are justified to sneer in the dark." –from reddit
  • "Earth is a bacteria planet with a temporary infestation of vertebrates." –from reddit
  • "[W]hat is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to ideas." –Carl Sagan
  • "You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don't see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it." –Carl Sagan
  • "[Some] think: 'My God! How Horrible! I am only a machine!' But if I should find out I were a machine, my attitude would be totally different. I would say: 'How amazing! I never before realized that machines could be so marvelous!'" –Ray Smullyan
  • "[S]cience is a form of arrogance control." –Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
  • "Answers are a luxury enjoyed only every now and then. So early on, learn to love the questions themselves." –Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • "The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks he has found." –Miguel de Unamuno
And a few more cringeworthy quotes from fundamentalists and other extremists:
  • "Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity." –Joseph McCarthy, at the onset of McCarthyism
  • "The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have... whether you like it or not." –Josh McDowell
  • "[T]here's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas." –Rick Perry
  • "Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. It's no different. ...It is the Democratic Congress, the liberal-based media and the homosexuals who want to destroy the Christians. Wholesale abuse and discrimination...[m]ore terrible than anything suffered by any minority in history." –Pat Robertson
  • "Just because public opinion says something doesn't mean it's right...people said blacks were less than human." –Rick Santorum on gay marriage
You read that last one right, by the way: Santorum used the wrongful discrimination against one minority group as an example... to justify discrimination against another minority group. It's unbelievable what politicians can get away still with saying in the second decade of the 21st century. A couple of decades from now, society will look back at those quotes from Santorum and Perry with the same disgust we have for the racism of politicians like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond.

On a brighter note, plenty of the more clever and insightful quotes from this batch come from the younger generation—the denizens of YouTube and reddit. This dovetails nicely with Adam Lee's observation that the demographics of the recent Reason Rally skewed decidedly toward the youthful end of the spectrum. With all the bright, budding minds sprouting up, maybe there's a little hope for us after all.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

January–March in Review

My situation has settled down considerably in contrast to the last couple months of last year. My parents tend to bring up my lack of belief only when necessary, and that's fine with me: our relationship remains more or less as healthy as ever. The biggest blog-related development of the past three months has been the creation of the 30 Questions Project website. I'm quite happy with it now that it's pretty much finished, although I haven't decided what (if anything) I'm going to do with it from here.

In any case, let's review. Here are my posts from January:
From February:
And from March:
The pace of my posting has slowed a bit more, but I'm not too concerned about that. I'm still happy with the quality of the content, and I have plenty of ideas for topics I want to cover in the future.