The Linguistic Laziness of Religion

In September 2013, I published a post called “Grieving as an Atheist”. It was a response to the accusation that atheists are somehow bankrupt when it comes to expressing or consoling grief. I want to change the perspective and argue that religious language is lazy and robs us of the relationships and bonds we could be forming with other people. Religious language is lazy.

There is also, to a lesser extent, a cowardice and patronisation related to religious language, that I don’t want to dwell less on but it worth considering. People who like to speak in secular terms are often heard saying they’d rather a hard truth than a comforting lie. And said speakers are invariably contrasting that maxim against faithful utterances. The truth, carefully received, is the proper foundation for decision making. Imagine if you made a big decision an advice from a friend they didn’t really believe or understand when they uttered it: you’d be furious when you found out, and they only did it to make their conversation easier in that moment.

The main point―that religiously based language is lazy―though, was strikingly obvious in a discussion I had about marriage. The person I was talking with wanted to defend an unchangeable Biblical definition of Marriage and argue that society was neglecting just such a definition. Part of their arsenal of making their point was the word “sacred”. “Sacred” is a very powerful word and is does express something we can relate to: the reports on actions of ISIS destroying Holy, sacred and ancient monuments does enrage most people; the word “sacred” does relate to something.

But using the word is laziness. We can unambiguously use words like “sacred” to describe things we agree we care about, even if we reject the theological or metaphysical implications of the word. Historical and cultural landmarks are an example of such. However, attempting to use “sacred” as a persuasive word―as an objective quality about a thing―is laziness. It attempts to navigate around the need to actually explain why something might be important and just demands we lend something significance. When I was talking to art & life notes and they tried to convince me their interpretation of the Biblical definition of marriage was “sacred”, it killed their entire point. It didn’t mean anything; they may as well have said “because it’s important, now shut up and eat your fries”. It sounded important and persuasive, which is useful in a debate. But it doesn’t mean anything. It was an off-the-peg token sentence. It’s lazy.

But this reminded me of my post Grieving as an Atheist. I remembered the accusation that atheists’ have a bankrupt language that cannot offer certain condolences. I argued that atheists actually lack clichés, not expression. Looking at the language of condolences, it’s just lazy. “You’re in my prayers”, “they’re in a better place”, “God has a plan” or “everything happens for a reason”.

And when you start looking for lazy language, you find more and more of it. A “miracle”, based on it’s usage, appears to be a statistically improbable positive event. That’s what a foreign language student would infer the word meant, based on its context. But that isn’t what people mean, they mean something impossible actually happened, for a profound and personal reason; they mean “paradoxes are”, but they don’t know what they mean because the word has descended into lazy clichéd talk.

I prefer sincere talk. If you listen to Christopher Hitchens on YouTube, I don’t think he ever relied upon lazy language to express himself. He chose sincere, meaningful, original language. Even religious people agreed he was good at that. And, by contrast to that, I think we can see how religion has developed a lot of lazy words that people have become far too comfortable using.

How Lying about Science allows You to Claim Anything You Want

Attempting to look up TEDTalks that have not been broadcast is quite interesting. Essentially, TED has refused to be associated with some talks that have been made at their venues. One such talk is ‘The Science Delusion‘ by Rupert Sheldrake. (To be honest, I am loathe to bring your attention to it.) TED’s statement about this is that, although they do not vet the speakers at TEDx (independent) events, videos can be taken down if they are unscientific or misleading. Obviously, the speaker disagrees with this assessment of the situation. Sheldrake thinks it is censorship of competing ideas.

The Science Delusion is a philosophical discussion that claims to have identified 10 dogmas that underpin the way science operates. The problem is that his 10 claims are not representative of what one must believe in order to do science. Sheldrake thinks his claims are representative of science and, therefore, that if he can tear down these dogmas he will have torn down the pillars of science (thus allowing him to peddle his unscientific beliefs in telepathy and alternative medicine, under a guise of intellectual discussion).

I’m not going to concern this post with all the accusations leveled at science: least of our concerns are the idea of science as a religion or the glancing reference to philosophical materialism (would it kill these people to learn the term “methodological naturalism”?). Instead, I want to address just a couple of these dogmas.

If there is a dogma in science, I think it is this: “if there is a perceptible difference between a claim being accurate and it not, science can perceive that difference”. If there is no perceptible difference, it is not at all clear how you reasonably became confident of your claim, anyway.

One does not have to hold to any sort of mechanistic beliefs about consciousness, or the illusion of consciousness to do science. A science team can land a rover on an asteroid or build a global telecommunications system without a belief in a deterministic mind. It may be believed by number of scientists, but it is simply not a necessary belief for science to operate. (However, in the domain of neuroscience, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reasonably contest claims of a mechanistic mind; this is very different from a dogma.)

To investigate medicine, one does not need to believe this claim: because there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy can work, homeopathy cannot work. If one remains unconvinced by the literature already available on this issue, one need only believe this: there is a perceptible difference between homeopathy working and not, thus we can discover which horn of that is representative of reality. A lot of medicine, particularly psycho-active medicine, were administered on the back of their efficacy regardless of the fact we had (and in many cases, still have) no understanding of the mechanism.

One does not need to believe the mind is entirely material and contained within ones head to be a psychologist. One need simply believe there would be a difference between the mind being communicated by telepathy and it not. That said, it is quite difficult to reasonably argue with the fact that if you take material contained in one’s head out, there are impacts on the mind.

These ideas of mechanical medicine and material minds are not even dogmas of the disciplines to which they relate. More importantly, one can build a well or model the death of a star without even considering questions related to these accused dogmas. These “dogmas” are actually just claims that are becoming increasingly difficult to reasonably challenge (you can always make an unreasonable challenge). These ideas emerge from individual disciples within science. None of these claims are even necessarily applicable; it’s not enough that they’re not dogmatically held, but they don’t even apply.

What science has is the complete opposite of dogma. Claims within science exist within an open, functional meritocracy; they rise and fall based on the reasonableness of their defence and rebuttal. The free light of enquiry and challenge fuels and drives science.

Another dogma, that Sheldrake takes precisely no time over, is that of purpose: science must (apparently) believe there isn’t one and evolution says there isn’t one. This one stuck out because it betrays either how ignorant Sheldrake is or how ignorant Sheldrake believes his audience to be. Evolutionary science doesn’t suggest there is a purpose, but that is not the same as demonstrating there is not purpose. Many people have taken just to the comments of this blog to tell me how evolution proves [sic] a purpose built on self interest and sex. So, to the right people, it can be suggestive of a purpose indeed. Purpose is a subject thing, there is no perceptible different between it existing and it not.

As one would expect, to support things that are misleading one must occasionally lie. Take, for example, the claim that “governments only fund research into mechanistic medicine and ignore complementary or alternative medicine”. This is patently untrue. In some part of the UK homeopathy is available on the NHS and accupuncture is more widely available through the NHS, having had funding for research. The National Institute of Health in the USA also fund alternative medicine.

And, as is always the case, Sheldrake is not a sceptic turning his consistent eye to science. Instead, he is a proponent of another idea which necessitates scepticism of science in order to flourish. (“If it weren’t for law enforcement and physics, I’d be unstoppable” – Darynda Jones.) His idea is morphic resonance (he’s written a book about that, would you believe?). His argument is that there is no such thing as a “Universal Constant” (you may know the Universal Constant from other pseudo-intellectual ramblings, like the modern version of the Cosmological Argument for God). Instead, as there is cosmological evolution that has been happening ever since the “Big Bang”, so too have the “constants” (he prefers: habits) of the universe, that the universe learns and adapts.

Sheldrake mentions a crystal. If you are the first person to create a crystal then there exists no rules on how that crystal forms, but once you’ve made it the rules do exists (or, so the argument goes). It follows then that the second crystal of the same type to be made will crystalise quicker, because the universe has learned to make it. Apparently we observe this, but there’s no citation. Apparently meme theory among migratory animals also counts as evidence for this.

And so TED removed this TEDx talk from the website, on grounds of philosophical reasonableness and factual accuracy. And that seems plenty reasonable to me.

All the rage, none of the content

There is a discourse among discussions of pretty much any controversial issue that I have begun to notice and as I notice it is begins to irk me. I’d love to be serene enough to just notice it, but it does irritate me. I call this new phenomenon “all the rage, none of the content”.

What happens is that someone vehemently and passionately presents an argument, like, say, “Global Warming isn’t real”. They support their claims with assertions like “no scientific consensus” and “no empirical evidence” and “it’s getting colder!”. It is then explained to them that there is a consensus in the only meaningful way a scientific consensus can be measured: the content of the papers published on the question; there is masses of evidence from more frequent and powerful extreme weather to historical climate data in ice cores, paleopalynology, dendrochronology; “Climate Change is the more accurate name, and ‘warming’ is a simplification into the realm of meaninglessness.

Over time, the stance of this person changes to “anthropocentric Global Warming isn’t real”. They continue to cite the prediction that some places get colder, but they add the assertion that this warming isn’t exceptional. And they make this assertion with the same confidence and rage as they originally denied climate change with. It’s as if they had always said this and they keep up their rage. But none of the content is the same.

Creationists have done the same thing when they could no longer sustain denying variation and adaptation, they simply invented the term “microevolution” and acted as if they’ve always maintained this distinction. “Intelligent Design” proponents have done the same thing, claiming to have never claimed theological links to the idea. And opponents of GM crops shifted from ‘obvious danger’ and ‘Frankenfood’ arguments, to ‘no evidence it’s safe’, to ‘environmental dangers’ to ‘risks to indigenous farmers’ and ‘concerns over the nature of big corporations acting as a monopoly’; but they never skipped a beat on their rage, intolerance, confidence and assumed knowledge. Greenpeace did the same thing in response to Bjorn Lomborg’s articles preceding The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Something similar happened over at a blog called Shadow to Light. The poster, Michael, is concerned at characterising a 12 year-old girl in the comments section of a post by The Friendly Atheist. To a considerable extent, Michael has a point: some commenters are being unnecessarily unforgiving and attacking of a 12 year-old. (This is particularly true when you consider she’s probably acting under the advice of a parent and it’s them who deserve the scorn, but that’s a suspicion.)

The story is that the girl, Jordan, was in a lesson with the learning objective of developing her critical thinking ability; more specifically, being able to distinguish between factual claims, opinions and commonplace assertions. One of the statements Jordan was asked to categorise was “God exists”, which the (Christian) teacher had said was a “commonplace assertion”. Jordan had decided this was actually a “factual claim” (see debate here). Somehow, at some point, Jordan introduced the word “myth” and insisted that the teacher had claimed God is a myth. (Jordan remembered “fact” and “opinion” pretty well when testifying to the School Board on the same day, but completely replaced “commonplace assertion” with myth.) For this post I want to ignore much of the detail and discussion, like the fact she was reading from a script and seems to be articulate beyond the level of a 12 year-old who can’t distinguish between a myth and a commonplace assertion, or that the accusation against the teacher are now pouring in from parents about her general aggression to students. This part of the post is about the commenters and Michael’s response.

What counts as aggressive and what counts as pointing out what needs to be said isn’t an easy distinction. The fact Jordan complained and got the teacher investigated (risking disciplinary action) in response to being challenged or a teacher being (possibly) mistaken or poorly organised does need to be mentioned, as does Jordan introducing the word “myth” into the discussion. However, I join Michael in saying the comment “This little bitch is freaking OUT because the question made her stop and wonder for a second” is clearly in the “attacking” camp and not simply pointing out what needs to be said. Which is what makes this post so strange:

Michael keeps up his attack on New Atheists and the Friendly Atheist, saying that the attacking comments are indicative of New Atheists and, because he’s refusing to filter the comments out, The Friendly Atheist as well. In fact, Michael has 3 consecutive posts on this exact issue, pointing out that New Atheists are aggressive, mistaken and only getting worse. So, what’s strange? Simple: “ETA [sic]:  I stand corrected.  Mehta has now deleted the posting and banned the user.  I thank him for this.” This is regarding the commenter that called Jordan a “little bitch”. I picked this comment not because it’s the only one I know of to be deleted, but because I brought Michael’s attention to it. I did that because the first reply to that comment was someone taking that commenter to task, obliterating Michael’s claim that aggressive commenters were not being dealt with.

Michael fully acknowledged that The Friendly Atheist has in fact blocked commenters. Michael’s argument against the Friendly Atheist evaporated entirely: he is editing and removing comments and users if they overstep the mark. Michael has acknowledged this. He even went back into the post, edited to say the comment had been deleted, but did not go so far as to say his accusation against The Friendly Atheist is not supported; neither did he take down the three posts or edit them and his comments to remove the accusations directed at The Friendly Atheist. All the rage; none of the content.

My conversation with Michael went on and we got to the point of discussing “factual claim” and “Commonplace assertion”. It is worth noting, then, that “factual claim” and “Commonplace assertion” carry a considerable overlap: a factual claim is not necessarily correct, it is simply a statement that claims truth and doesn’t contain any value judgements. This showed the exercise the teacher had set up/stolen from (or similar) was very poor: the categories should have been truthfalse, opinion or unsubstantiated claim. Michael’s new content, carried over by the preceding rage, is now the teacher’s failure to understand the basic philosophy that underpins their critical thinking lessons. That is so far removed from ‘saying God is a myth’ that I’m pretty sure everyone can see the “all the rage; none of the content” diet of the argument.

Where I agree with the Bible

I have a number of disagreements with the Bible on topics of history, science, ethics, the role of women and equality of people. I even disagree with the Bible at length about sexual practices, particularly what the LGBTX community can and cannot get up to. But, given a little lenience on the language, I have at least one very solid agreement with the Bible: sex in a committed relationship.

The Bible talks of sex inside of a marriage, and therefore (as we’re using the Bible’s definition of a marriage) between a man and a woman. But if we were to take the advice the Bible offers and extend it across all committed sexual relationships then I think the Bible actually says a lot of good things. Obviously, I am going to disagree with a lot of Christians here, because I think the advice can be extended to homosexual relationship and even openly polygamous or polyandrous relationships. (Be careful to note what I did and did not say there: it must be an openly polyamorous relationship; there cannot be any deceit in how the relationship is functioning. Personally, I don’t think I could be a part of a polyamorous relationship.)

The Bible actually suggests that sexual selfishness is sinful. Isn’t that fantastic? 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 talks of the body of each person belonging to the other person in the relationship and their obligation to give unto their partners their sexual rights. 1 Peter 3:1-7 talk of “giving honour” (King James) or “treating wives with consideration” (NET Bible), which is difficult to interpret other than also making sure the woman gets her rocks off. If one will join me in being liberal enough to accept that when the Bible talks of “marriage” any committed relationship will suffice, we have a new epidemic of sin to consider: men don’t finish the job! This seems expressly commanded against in the Bible, but most of my friends are female and they assure me their partners sin against them with unholy regularity. I challenge you to read Philippians 2: 1-2 without agreeing this is precisely what it says when it talks of “any comfort from love”.

I’m quite happy to speculate that if we all spent a little more time in bedrooms and kitchens throughout the land making sure our partners were thoroughly seen too, many of the world’s problems would start to evaporate.

First They were Wrong About Science and it Got Worse from There

Thanks to Arkenaten, I have read a post called ‘The Big Bang, Children’s Fairy Tales and the Human Genome’ and I am not the only person compelled to reply to it. I replied to the post in the comment section after I read it, but I thought it would make a good post. The original post is a misrepresentation and resulting diatribe against science. (I’m always hesitant to call posts like this “misunderstandings”, because I lack the confidence to say the author sincerely misunderstands science.)

The poster, The Ethical Warrior, admits to not being familiar with science. I think it only fair to follow suit: I have no formal training in science beyond the rather trite requirements of a bachelor of science honours degree’s bare minimum requirements to have heard of “critical rationalism”. I am certainly not a physicist or geneticist; my degree was in Geography and my current master’s degree is also geographic in scope (Environmental Management). I have a long standing interest in science and the philosophy of science, but none of the mathematical knowledge to support proper studies in physics. Despite this shaky grounding in science, the Ethical Warrior’s reflections on science still seemed apparently poor to me. Below is my comment, adapted for the sake of being a post.

I’m glad you begin this post very openly and honestly. You are transparent about your epistemic approach (logic and intuition) and your lack of familiarity with science. You’d be surprised how rare a self-aware opening is. Hopefully, with such an honest opening, you’ll be open to the idea that  the description of science given here doesn’t accurately portray the philosophies or practices of science. This is particularly true of theoretical physics, where the beginning of the post focuses.

Notes on Theoretical Physics

Theoretical physics is about building models to explain observations. You quote Robert Lanza, who is a highly talented medical doctor. But he is not a physicist nor is he trained in the broader discipline of science. When Lanza tries to critique science by saying the science community has allowed speculation to runaway, unfettered by observation, Lanza is poorly representing the methods that underpin openly hypothetical and speculative areas of science. String Theorists, for example, make no bones about the fact it is a near-purely mathematical model. Yet, this is the target of Lanza’s criticism, which he then extrapolates to all of science. The post makes a similar mistake regarding the “multiverse”. The multiverse is a consistent prediction of a number of very powerful and compelling models meant to answer other questions. It also isn’t a “theory”.

In fact, the current goal of String Theory is for the model to produce a prediction that is perceptible, so that we can actually start to build the empirical defense of String Theory (which we don’t currently have).

Relativity, Lensing and Black Holes

Even more oddly, Lanza attempts to discredit spacetime in his diatribe against the practices of theoretical science. Einstein made the observations in his lifetime that supported spacetime. Einstein even speculated about something he said we may never see: gravitational lensing. We’ve observed that now, too.

Einstein claimed that a significant mass out in the universe would bend spacetime so severely that light from stars behind the mass would be bent in a concave fashion. The result of this would be the ability to see two versions of the stars behind the mass. We have now observed this, except there is no obvious mass in the way causing it; out in the universe, there is immense mass without visible material. That’s dark matter. Dark matter is not the mysterious property filled with magic that fiction writers and even some journalists characterise it as. It is simply evident matter that doesn’t interact with the matter we better understand (including photons, making it invisible or ‘dark’). These are all observations that support the claim of spacetime (so I find it odd that Lanza would attack it).

Observations in and Communication of Science

I’m not denying―and I don’t think anyone reasonable would―that observations are never pure; observers are part of the model they observe and building narratives using induction is fraught with human categorisation. But as many people observe the same things, with different methods, and construct similar models that spawn more hypotheses that are also tested, those concerns become less… concerning.

Big Bang cosmology is the interesting one, actually. There’s a hierarchy of concerns relating to knowledge: cosmology, ontology, epistemology, methodology and communication. Exactly what that means isn’t relevant, except to say “communication” is often the weakest link. Certain individuals in the scientific and peer review community fail to be properly ruthless or open to questions on epistemology or ontology, but the community at large is good pretty good at it. In fact, it’s in the individuals’ self-interest to be good at it. Each scientist wants to damage other papers so they can produce a superior one: that makes scientific papers very robust things. The problem is, the currency of “truth” (there’s another conversation for another day) loses value when it leaves the scientists hands and goes into the hands of “the media” for communication. Communication is the weakest link.

In the public eye, Big Bang cosmology is the pinnacle of scientific understanding. But the conversation in universities is very different. The Big Bang model is split into two steps: the singularity and the phase. The Big Bang singularity is still speculative. It’s an extrapolation from winding back the evidence we have now for expansion. The Big Bang phase is different: the phase takes account of the moments immediately after the (hypothetical) singularity. It’s the rapid expansion. The models of the Big Bang phase produce predictions we have observationally verified. So, the model is a lot more complex than the public understands, and that’s the fault of communication. (And then the Big Bang model is not the only model taken seriously in the academic community.)

This failure of science communication is often confused for a failure of science. But it’s a failure of a system of media that uses currency as a currency, and not truth as a currency.

Model Dependent Realism

We know Black Holes violate Relativity, all of quantum mechanics violates Relativity; nothing is so evidently paradoxical as a quantum particle with massive embedded gravity. But science knows that and fully acknowledges that at least one of those two models is incomplete. But “incomplete” is not the same as “wrong”, as the model does make a lot of hugely successful and verified claims and observations.

There are people on working on “quantising” relativity because the observations we have made for both black holes and relativity are so compelling. And there are observations that support the claims of black holes, not least the orbiting of galaxies around a centre emitting Hawking Radiation: it’s not a claim unfettered by observation.

Models of reality that explain large amounts of data and observations are theories. A theory, in science, is the highest level; there is no “proof”. “Theory” and “proof” are words that have very different meanings in colloquial and technical use. Academically, “proof” only exists in mathematics. It portrays the failure of science communication that this linguistic error is so very common: scientists avoid the word “proof” and use the word “theory” and the public isn’t given the tools to understand what scientists are saying.

The success of Relativity as a model has elevated it to the accolade of “Theory” and, despite its evident problem of overstepping into the world of the quantum and then failing to deliver, under the philosophy of “Model Dependent Realism”, relativity is real.


We have a uniquely biased view of life, as our experience of life is only at this far end of 3.5 billion years of evolution; we see life as complex and filled with protein machinery and balanced interdependencies in the physiology of the individual and ecology. That type of life, it seems very fair to say, will not spontaneously arise. However, that is not the understanding of life we currently have: work has progressed a long way since the Urey-Miller experiment in the 1950s. Over the last decade we have been able to demonstrate intermediaries between strictly chemical and strictly biological systems. The origin of life was probably not an event, but a process. (And, as I mentioned earlier, I’d be cynical of a scientist that either has or has been reported as saying something has been “proven”.)


This chemical/biological process is “abiogenesis”, and it should not be confused with Big Bang cosmology or any other cosmogonies. Any given theory, like “The Big Bang”, is only meant to explain a limited set of observations of a particular theme. In the same way Germ Theory of Disease doesn’t explain weather systems, cosmogonical theories are not meant to explain abiogenesis. Equally, abiogenesis is about the start of life and evolution is about the diversity of life: they are not meant to explain the same set of observations and should not be confused (especially not for convenience).

Also, don’t confuse complexity and uncertainty with teleology and intelligence. It does not follow that because life today is complex and human understanding is still uncertain there must be some hidden purpose and design behind it all. As any fan of Google or Apple can tell you, simplicity is a sign of good design, not complexity. Complexity arises in the universe all the time, and not all the complexity is even life. You could claim that me pointing at complexity in more places is more evidence of teleology, but in doing that you are denying the existence of undesigned processes for comparison, else you are begging the question by claiming complexity is design.

To lend credibility to the idea of design, you are not alone in pointing to the interview between Ben Stein and Richard Dawkins, where Dawkins appears to be entertaining the idea aliens designed life on Earth. Ben Stein specifically and repeatedly asked Dawkins to entertain the idea of intelligent design and how it could be a plausible narrative or idea. Entertaining an idea in such narrow parameters, then Dawkins discussed extraterrestrial authorship of DNA, but it is not Dawkins lead theory and neither does it make it into scientific discussion. Knowing that Dawkins was pressured into entertaining such a narrow game of “what if…” I am unsure as to why anyone continues to bring this up, unless it is to knowingly mislead to support their narrative. Is it helpful to the idea of intelligent design to think one of the critics has a silly unrelated idea?


When I take to writing these comments it becomes apparent to me that the topic is actually complex and difficult to articulate. I understand that if one doesn’t hold an active interest in the topic it is not something one can just sit down and intuit unguided by the input of the academic literature and the practitioners of science. But, if one doesn’t have the interest or patience to educate themselves, I also don’t understand why they then take the time articulate what they have intuited or pulled from a source without further research on the quotes they’ve mined or the topics they’re discussing.

What I Believe

This is perhaps a late arrival to the discussion, as I’ve been blogging for about three years now. What do I believe? Atheism is not an apt definition of what I believe, because atheism is a strange expression defining the absence of believe in a god or gods. We only need the term because theism (the belief in a god or gods) is so ubiquitous. If atheism is not what I believe, for the simple reason it’s not a thing, what does motivate me to keep this blog?

I’m not going to enter into my ethical beliefs here, as I have discussed them at length. What I want to outline here is something alluding to my world view regarding the physical reality.

I believe in being sceptical

This blog can often times be very repetitive. Many of my atheist readers and I have the repeated task of cutting grandiose claims down to meet their mediocre evidence. I believe this is the safest element of an epistemology. I’m not sure I believe in The Truth™; even some of our most basic concepts―like something being solid―is a subjective claim: it’s actually empty space and the feel of solidity comes from electromagnetic interactions between the surface of our skin and the object. All direct empiricism is “Middle World” interpretation. What I do believe is that we have claims based on evidence that reflect a much more modest truth. We can never be certain and The Truth™ will probably always evade us. And so I believe it is with the humility in accepting that I think we should proceed sceptically.

I believe in knowing how to know

Agreeing to be sceptical about everything is not the same as believing that everything is an illusion. The Truth™ may escape us, but what we experience and measure does reflect a much more modest truth. I’m repeating that because it is an important nuance. Our experiences tell us stories and we must always be mindful that those stories can be deceptive: we can be deceiving ourselves. Solidity is a prime example of this. However, when our experiences all lead to the same story, tell corroborating stories and are generally consistent we start to build up a modest truth, for all practical purposes (and all academic purposes for that matter).

There is always some story telling in trying to figure out what evidence means. Without some level of story telling or imagination no evidence will ever mean anything to us: a pebble falls to the ground; water vapour floats away; a car falls to the ground; an iPhone falls to the ground; a helium balloon floats away. Without some degree of story telling these would be unrelated points. But by joining these points with just the smallest story we can develop a generalised rule about things denser than air falling and things less dense than air floating. A little more story telling allows us to move beyond our generalised rules and into a hypothesis: denser things will fall through malleable mediums (liquids and gases) and less dense things will float on malleable mediums. This theory works in air and in water and was tested on the moon. That is the Theory of Gravity. A little more prodding made the theory a little more specific, with Newtons equations and the theory was then underpinned by descriptive laws. But it’s still not fully true: planes are denser than air (and here theories of aerodynamics come into play).

For us, in our day-to-day lives, and throughout most of the history of science this has been the method: one of observations leading to hypotheses and upon testing all the hypotheses we start to create and accept generalised rules (or laws); extrapolation of those discoveries become greater hypotheses and so the idea expands. However, in science today―physic in particular―a very different mechanism has been at the forefront of our thinking: maths. Maths in a very strict and logic-based set of rules that underpin the stories physicists can start to tell at the perimeters of their knowledge; it is less about observations and more about what the maths permits. Once a coherent mathematical model exists within the known context of science, then it is time to imagine how to observe that.

Black holes are one of my favourite examples of this. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is a description of the relationship between mass and gravity (energy and spacetime to be precise, but here isn’t the time for that). It goes that increasing the mass of an object increases the related gravity. It mathematically followed that a body could reach a critical density where an object becomes physically overwhelmed by it’s related gravity that is collapses; this creates a lot of gravity focussed in a small area and thus becomes a blackhole (with gravity so strong that it sucks in all mass and energy, forever feeding itself). Blackholes are a mathematical prediction of Einstein’s Theory on Gravity. They were just a prediction, a hypothesis, until we knew to start looking for the evidence. (Notice the difference here: the “observation” started in a mathematical model, not in the conventional, empirical sense.) But we have now seen the gravitational lensing and massive gravitational spirals of blackholes.

The reason blackholes are my favourite is because there was another non-empirical hypothesis about blackholes: Einstein gave us an insight into their birth and Hawking gave us an insight into their death. Virtual particles are tiny bits of mass that condense out of quantum fields everywhere, and then annihilate with each other to nothing. They act as a pair. Hawking speculated, mathematically, that as virtual particles act everywhere then they must also be doing this at the event horizon of a blackhole. The exception being that as the two particles emerge, if one is sucked into the blackhole at the other is just far away enough to escape then that escaping particle is a little bit of mass lost from the blackhole. A completely mathematical and non-empirical prediction, and the speculated result is something called “Hawking Radiation”; blackholes emitting tiny virtual particles. But they have now been observed.

I am more concern with how someone comes to know a thing than the actual thing they know. If there is no sensible way by which something has been discovered, then there is no reason to believe that thing is sensible: a discovery is no more sensible than the method that underpins it.

Good reasons are more important than The Truth™

We need scepticism to motivate us to continue to look for good answers, and we need good methods to assure us what we may know has better odds than hearsay or forming sentences from a dictionary in a washing machine. However, we also need to recognise something about our methods: they define our knowledge. There are very unreliable methods of acquiring knowledge―guessing and intuition come to mind―that are sometimes right. That’s how people win the lottery. But if someone believes something for bad reasons, I am disinclined to believe them. Anyone who says the cure for a headache is to rub a cat on their head because it worked for their neighbour this one time is likely to see my scepticism motivate me to find a real answer, and not my confidence in their methods to assure me of their answer.

I often use the example of a Bronze-Age man entering a neighbouring village and ranting about the ability of some metals―but not bronze―to attract other metals. He can’t demonstrate the claim, as he can’t create the metals, and he can’t explain the theory because no one has sufficient understanding of the topics involved. (Even if the speaker had this knowledge, he would have no way to demonstrate the existence of the major players in the theory; atoms with electrons etc.) Although the man is correct, to believe him is wrong. There are no good reasons to believe him and the baseless blathering he would have been doing would be no difference from the village idiot ranting incoherently after finding some interesting mushrooms.


[UPDATE: There are better ways to describe ‘solidity’ as nonobjective. It’s not subjective per se, as there is a demonstrable difference between a solid and a gas. My point alludes more to the quality of being solid not actually meaning what we intuit. It is that discrepancy that more accurately highlights the lack of certainty in science and better illuminates the lack of immediate clarity: the philosophy is not as simple as the distinction between objective and subjective. I have not updated the actual body of the post; I want it to act as a record of my mistaken conjecture and response to the feedback from Steve (see comments).]

Reflections on the Problem of Suffering and the Moral Argument for God

So far as I can tell, there are four ways a religious narrative can explain the ‘Problem of Suffering.

  1. An Evil God. I believe that any sincere religious person should truly investigate the possibility of God being evil. “There is no true despair without hope” (Bane, The Dark Knight Rises). In this narrative, all the pain, disease and death are God’s goal. All the beauty is there just to lend subjective value to life and health so that death and disease can really give way to despair. The inverse of this doesn’t work: Life can be beautiful without pain. The fear of death cannot lead to despair without hope and value in life.
  2. A polytheism. Stephen Fry said he’s have “more truck” with a Classical Polytheism because the gods are admittedly “human in their appetites”. They were selfish and gave in to temptations and were vengeful and vindictive. But they never claimed not to be. Not only were they imperfect, but a world managed by a committee, each trying to fit their domain into the greater complex, would explain the imperfect universe we exist in.
  3. Freewill. This is limited in explanation. This can only explain the suffering caused by other people. But the argument goes: if we wish to forgo the suffering caused by other people we would have to forgo the freedom to choose to do others harm. It would be a limit to our freewill. This is problematic: give a man a gun and he can express his freewill; everyone else in the room cannot. We do not live in a world where freewill is equally exercised (if you believe it is exercised at all). We live in a world where freewill depends on force and being well equipped. Freewill is violated all the time, for the worse, and God does nothing to safeguard the well being of victims. Even nature―devoid of will―violated our will with force. We are not afforded freewill by a managing agent.
  4. The Fall. This is the most popular explanation. It is a prevalent narrative in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It states that the first act of imperfection allowed all things to be imperfect. It doesn’t explain how the first act of imperfection could be allowed to happen, which is a problem. But it also doesn’t explain why biology is equipped with teeth and claws and defensive mechanisms. Why have teeth, if there is no such thing as death? What would we eat? Why would we eat it? Why would a wolf need claws? Why would a spider need venom? All of biology points towards death having always been an issue.

Nonreligious answers to the question of suffering are easy. Nature has “pitiless indifference”; it does not waver to preference or alter for moral reasons; the laws of entropy will not undo just because you are very sad someone is dead and neither will gravity switch off around you to lift you from a situation that scares you; the sun will not stop dead in the sky because you’re worried about your deadlines. The reason this is preferable is twofold: firstly, it’s demonstrably true, which is nice; secondly, it doesn’t posit that someone is behind all the pain and suffering. There’s no one to blame.

I have received criticism for this because the religious assume that I have no place to be making value or moral judgements. I call this position “religious nihilism”. I call it that because it assumes that all value and meaning is extrinsic; God imbues meaning to things, things do not have their own intrinsic value. Nietzsche called Christianity the “Ultimate Nihilism” (although his reasoning could extend to all monotheisms with an omnipotent God). The reasoning is the Christian (monotheist) must believe that this life doesn’t matter because it is already authored. The real purpose is in the unauthored bit: the “deathless death” (Heaven or Hell, or similar). My argument is slightly different. My argument is that many religious people claim to believe that nothing has any meaning, except with God. I don’t believe them.

I have never heard of a person deconverting and descending into hedonistic sociopathy because nothing means anything. I have heard of religious people doing it, and Peter Sutcliffe is a good example. But all the formerly-religious-now-atheist/agnostics I know, not one of them acts as if they believe “nothing has any meaning, except with God”. Nietzsche’s Madman is an example of what would happen if a person who sincerely believed this did deconvert. I do not believe religious people abstain from murder because they dear God’s wrath,  but because they understand on some human level that it is wrong.

The other reason I don’t believe them is because they don’t offer a mechanism by which this works. To the external observer, this meaning “seems to be that if we don’t devote ourselves to slavishly hitting this god’s Like Button, that we will burn in Hell, forever” (Steve Ruis) It’s a “meaning” and “value” demanded through fear and force. That doesn’t seem like value to me. If a religious nihilist (as defined here) were to wake up one day with the realisation that God is a narcissistic sociopath, demanding our worship in exchange for safety, and were to keep their belief in God (because they don’t believe in God for emotional reasons, so this emotional shock won’t alter their faith), then they too should see the world through nihilistic eyes. The mechanism by which God imbues things with value is a subjective one that can be dissolved.

This has big implications on the Moral Argument for God’s existence. The Moral Argument depends upon God being the only possible author to objective moral laws. But, having value imposed on something does not create objective value. The imposed values are merely the values of an individual and are no less subjective than any tyrannical imposition. It is also entirely subjective on our part to accept what God decrees; sure we can be ultimately punished with Heaven and Hell, but that only shows that we value our own wellbeing, not that we value things or acts inherently. The entire Moral Argument for God falls apart under one or two renditions of trial-by-4-year-old: Why? (Why?)

I would like to ask readers to properly engage with challenges to their ideas they cannot properly account for and to jettison arguments they cannot defend. But experience tells me that isn’t going to happen. So, instead, I implore you to at least act as if you have read these criticisms instead of continuing to recite and recycle the same tired arguments. That is in keeping with the 9th Commandment.