Monday, March 25, 2013

The Value of Life

Does human life have a negative or positive value?  Or, in other words, do we experience more pain or happiness?

Through the character Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume expresses his belief that human life contains a negative value by claiming we experience more pain than happiness. Fyodor Dostoevsky, on the other hand, believed that, given the correct circumstances, we have a positive value (an interpretation of how the reader is supposed to feel about the characters with “negative” personalities in The Brothers Karamazov that, even if an inaccurate interpretation of Dostoevsky’s personal views, is still a legitimate argument).

This question is by all means incredibly important to ethics, but just how answerable is it? If we discover that we, as a species, suffer more than we experience pleasure, would we alter our actions to fit the principles of utilitarian ethics?  Would we even recognize the negative value of human life? If some are generally happy while others are generally sad, what actions concerning life and death would we consider moral?

Would reaching a conclusion even change the way we treat life?

If there existed a way to know whether or not a life will contain more pain than pleasure, it would be moral to end a painful life or prevent it from ever occurring. This is a bit hard to swallow. Proponents of antinatalism, however, believe the human race should die out by voluntarily preventing all births. 19th century philosopher and antinatalist Arthur Schopenhauer went as far as to call life the ultimate crime against humanity.  He also noted that those who think themselves happy are either in denial or cling to the false hope of being happy in the future. However, Schopenhauer lived a somewhat unfortunate life—the details of which I won’t dive into here—and there is reason to believe he made the claim against life mostly based on his own.

Even if Schopenhauer was a generally unhappy man, we should note that such unhappiness exists.  Neither a god nor evolution constructed humans to exist “happily.” Instead, we simply exist. Antinatalists and philosophers such as Hume point out that happiness is fleeting while pain lingers. I personally understand their point, but it is still difficult to gauge if life has a positive or negative value. It might be best to just come away from all this asking this: we should follow humanitarianism as blindly as the religious follow God?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Christian Visits ISSA

  In a stroke of cunning, or perhaps luck, I already fulfilled my New Year's resolution! That's right: I managed to talk an undercover Christian into attending ISSA meetings. That's right, multiple meetings: two, to be precise. He was there when the esteemed David Fitzgerald bashed Mormonism six ways from Sunday, and he was there when Alex gave his tips on avoiding logical fallacies. My friend is an evangelical Christian, very straight-laced and, shall I say, at times uptight, so it was a miracle (see what I did there) that he was willing to attend any meeting after David Fitzgerald's at all. Unfortunately, he'd had enough after two meetings and didn't show up last week to eat delicious pie at last week's meeting. Overall, he was pleasantly surprised with the experience. He admitted that we were "distinctly un-Christian" in our topics of discussion and tone. I could not be happier.
Good thing we didn't eat this lil' fella while he was visiting. That might've been bad PR.

Here are some things he liked about our meetings, compared with church services:
  • We didn't have any singing.
  • People didn't have to wear fancy clothes to attend.
  • There wasn't an encouraged donation at the end.
  • People laughed.
And here are some things he didn't enjoy very much about our meetings:
  • During Fitzgerald's presentation, he persistently portrayed Christianity as being just as much of a crock as Mormonism (scandalous, I know).
  • We spent very little time praising the glory of Christ the Savior.
  • There was the implication that there would be more fun to be had at Murphy's, implying that we condoned the consumption of alcohol.
  • We didn't take any time to observe the Sacrament.
  • Instead of hiring a guest speaker to talk to us about how to improve our community through good deeds, we hired an angry dude who yelled about how much Mormons are wrong. Thanks, David.
  • Everyone in the room except him was going to Hell (mission accomplished)
     My friend, when I asked him what he might've improved in our ISSA meetings from his point of view, first and foremost recommended that I immediately sever all connections with the group and embrace Christ. Barring that, he said that we were actually less "smug" than he anticipated, which I can only claim as a grand success for the entire group. This is a man who has actually been on a missionary trip to Africa, and he complimented our student secular group on our open-mindedness. I don't think my friend is likely to become an atheist based on his limited exposure to ISSA...but he is willing to coexist with us. That may be a small step towards a more secular world, but it's still a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Atheists Know that God Exists?

There’s a popular field of religious apologetics called “Presuppositional Apologetics” in which the religious apologist, rather than debating the evidence, compares and contrasts different worldviews to show that only the Christian worldview provides a foundation for the existence of knowledge. The claim is that only with God can you know that your thoughts and senses are reliable, and that the laws of nature won’t suddenly change tomorrow, etc.

So how does a Christian worldview claim to justify these ideas? Well these apologists claim to know, with absolute certainty, that God exists, and that God wouldn’t let such bad things happen. In fact, they even claim that atheists know that God exists, but they are “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”.

This whole idea comes from Romans 1:18-20.

"18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

This is a core argument of presuppositional apologetics, and I will dispatch it now. I’d like to present one question I’ve asked presuppers, and then I’ll give my responses to their answers.

The question is: What do you mean when you say I, an atheist, “know” that God exists?

A. You consciously know that God exists, but you lie and say you don’t. Just like if you knew your phone bill was overdue, but you chose to ignore it.
B. You know it unconsciously: you know it deep down, but you don’t recognize that you know it.

And now for my responses to these two answers:

1A. Do you really think that atheists are that stupid? Do you think we’re sitting around thinking, “Man, I really want to watch porn and get drunk and hate God, but I don’t want to go to Hell for it… I know! I’ll pretend that God doesn’t exist! It’s the perfect solution!” 

Actually, in this day and age, speculation about atheists’ inner thoughts is not necessary: we have lie detectors; you could hook me up and demonstrate that I’m not lying. But I doubt many apologists would accept this fact if it were presented to them. 

1B. Not recognizing that I know something is the same as not knowing it. To see how this works, let’s look at an analogous claim:

My favorite color is green; I have green sheets, my bedroom walls are green, my carpet is green, and in general, I like green things. If someone comes up to me and says, “Well, you think your favorite color is green, but it’s actually orange, you just don’t realize it”, in what sense is this true? In what sense is my favorite color “actually” orange if I like green in the way I described above? 

This is an example of the No-True-Scotsman fallacy: Person A presents a universal claim (“Everyone knows that God exists.”), person B presents a counter-example (“I don’t believe in God.”), and person A, rather than debunking the counter-example or admitting that their claim is wrong, superficially changes their claim to try and fit both ideas together (“Well you don’t 'truly' disbelieve.”). But again, what does it mean to disbelieve, but, at the same time, to not “truly” disbelieve? This is a meaningless assertion.

And with that, presuppositional apologetics has lost its flagship: despite what the Bible says, atheists do not, in any sense of the word, know that God exists. That’s why we call them “atheists”. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bigotry and Life

It’s a busy day at work in the ER. Every room is full, and patients are being put on beds in the hallways. Nurses and doctors are rushing back and forth trying to control the flow, and as I walk down the hall to prep a room, I hear:

“Oh great, looks like I’ve got Dr. Mohammed over there.”

Wait, what?

I turn and see a patient sitting on a hallway bed, staring at a Middle Eastern male nurse passing by. I cringe, hoping he didn’t hear her comment. But then I realize: even if he did, it won’t affect the care she receives.

Secularism and freedom of speech are incredibly important to how we as a society operate. Does this woman have a right to be biased against Muslims (is that guy even a Muslim? Who knows!), and probably other religions as well as atheism? Yes. Do the rest of us have the right to ignore her bigotry and get on with our jobs? Yes. But could her bias affect how we do our jobs? Yes, and when it comes to the emergency room, it can have disastrous consequences.

Bigotry is everywhere. But it is my firm belief that secularism, and holding ourselves to a professional level of secularism, combats bigotry. Could I have walked over and told her off, and horrified her with the fact that an atheist had made the bed she sat on and cleaned the room she would eventually be placed in? Yeah, but what good would that do? I knew that whatever she may say, the nurses and doctors would treat her respectfully and work to make sure that she got healthy. And at the end of the day, I think being treated respectfully and successfully by “Dr. Mohammed” will probably do more for her prejudice than any rant ever will.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Back to Basics: Investigating the Foundation of Evolution

It should come to the surprise of no-one that I really like talking about evolution and genetics (they are core features of what I study), and evolution in particular has always been a point of wonder within the skeptic/secular communities. I don't feel like I have to exert myself in proving, on an atheistic blog, that evolution is an undeniable truth; to do so would be beating a dead horse at best, and circularly “beating” something else at worst. What I want to do is go back in time to talk about an experiment that occurred before we had conclusive proof of evolution at the genetic level, and even before we knew what DNA looked like! I am taking about one of the most historically significant genetic experiments of the century, which proved a vital facet of evolution: genetic mutation.
Radioactive ooze use in biology:
More than I expected, less than I'd hoped
For this I am taking you back to 1943, to introduce the work of Professors Max Delbruck and Salvador Luria. They were working with T1 bacteriophage (viruses that infect bacteria) and observed that when a bacterial culture is infected by a virus, the culture would turn clear, indicating that the bacteria had all been killed off. However, every now and then, if they let those cultures sit for a few more days, they would see the test tube become cloudy as bacterial populations rose again. It appeared that bacteria were somehow developing an immunity to the viral infection. Nowadays it's easy to attribute this to the natural variance in a population and move on, but these two scientists wanted to find out what exactly caused this variance.

There are roughly 10X as many bacteria in or on the human body than there are human cells.
Viruses outnumber bacteria 10 to 1.
Good luck sleeping tonight.
Delbruck and Luria came up with two basic hypotheses. I apologize in advance if the explanations get jargon-ey, I'll try to explain as I go. One, that original variants are infected by the virus, but survive due to some sort of predisposition to survival, in reaction to viral infection. This is known as the Induced Immunity hypothesis, and implies that mutation is induced by the virus. Two, that a few original variants are resistant before the virus is added. These mutations occur independently of the virus, and is known as the Spontaneous Immunity hypothesis. Now I use the word mutation a lot there, but I want to remind you again that this was a decade before Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, so they had genuinely no idea how new traits arose naturally, we just noticed a phenotypic (physically observable) change.

Now these two hypotheses are somewhat dense upon initial inspection, but they can make more sense if I can (as all good analogies should) use Batman as a way to explain them. Imagine Batman is your bacteria, and the endless fleet of anonymous bad guys are your swarm of bacteriophages. Batman finds himself pinned down by the bad guys, who cannot be hit by his usual Batarangs thanks to some newly developed armor. If only he had some sort of exploding Batarang? That would really knock them on their butts! There are only two hypotheses for how he could get those explosive Batarangs and survive this perilous predicament:

Holy Mutagenesis, Batman!

          Induced Immunity: Using a standard Batarang, small amounts of C4, duct tape, a piece of wire, and a AAA battery hiding in a corner of the utility belt, Batman MacGuyvers a Bat-bomb that works just well enough to get him out of that sticky situation.
          Spontaneous immunity: Three weeks ago, while rummaging around through the drawers of the Bat-cave, Batman just happened upon a Bat-bomb. He isn't quite sure how it got there, maybe Lucius Fox got bored one day. He shrugs and slips it into his belt. Cut back to Batman's current predicament, and all of a sudden that Bat-bomb is just what he needed! Batman smiles and hoarsely mutters how he'll have to keep more around for later.

To test these hypotheses, Delbruck and Luria designed an experiment now known as a fluctuation test. They grew bacterial cultures for a certain amount of time, then added a sample to an agar plate and added the virus; they would then count the number of bacteria which survived to form colonies. If induced immunity was true, that is if Batman had to rummage around his bat-belt for spare C4 and duct tape every time he encountered those bad guys, then the rate of surviving bacteria would be low but pretty consistent, as each bacteria would have an equal chance of fighting back and surviving. If spontaneous immunity were true, as in Batman acquired the bat-bomb randomly, then the number of surviving bacteria would fluctuate wildly over different repetitions of the experiment, as some bacteria may have never acquired the resistance gene, while others acquired it very early in the experiment, and had been spreading it to their children for generations.

As you can see by the brief data table on the right, the number of survivors is all over the board, with some if not most of the samples having no survivors, and some having what is known in the scientific community as a “jackpot” (sample #11 in particular). Through this evidence they were able to prove the mechanism for which variance enters a population and set in concrete one of the cornerstones of evolutionary science: the mutations introduce variance randomly throughout a population.

Evolutionary science and genetics are bringing us fantastic new developments on a daily basis, but sometimes you need to step back in time and look at what used to be, to truly appreciate how far we've come.

Cite your sources, kids:
S.E. Luria and M. Delbruck. Mutations of bacteria from virus sensitivity to virus resistance. Genetics. 28, 6. 1943. 491-511.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

2013 Is the Year of the Cross

It’s every atheist’s nightmare: you come home to your significant other decked out in crosses. Have they suddenly converted? It turns out that you might not have to worry – the cross is just back in fashion.

Well, maybe not back in fashion; the symbol has never been as popular or widespread as it is now. These days, you can’t cut through a clothing store without running into one. From shirts and jewelry to shoes and tattoos, the roman torture device is back, and it’s never been so glittery. The two most common forms of cross fashion appear as a single large cross (often made up of metallic studs) on the front of a t-shirt, or as a pattern of vertical and inverted crosses. Speaking of which, Christians are much more likely to get upset about sideways or inverted crosses.

A big no-no

The distinction should be made, however, between the cross and the crucifix. The crucifix depicts a cross with the body of Jesus, while the cross doesn’t. Although the cross by itself predates Christianity, it clearly is now closely associated with the religion, and I won’t get into the argument of who has the “better” claim to it.

How did this trend come about? It’s difficult to pinpoint the genesis of any theme in fashion, but some people speculate that pop icons like Madonna, Britney Spears, and Cher introduced the wearing of religious symbols to a wide audience in the 80s and 90s. Now, with many fashion trends from the 90s resurfacing, crosses have naturally followed. The fact that nearly all cross-related fashion is targeted at women may be due to the original female introduction of the trend by those icons as well.

Madonna's Confessions Tour doesn't seem so shocking in hindsight

Opinions about the cross in fashion differ across the board. Some Christians think it’s great to display their religious symbols visually, while others think it is making people indifferent about the meaning of the cross and how it’s worn. Many atheists think wearing a cross identifies the wearer with Christianity. On the other hand, some atheists think it’s just fashion, and not connected to Christianity anymore.

Regardless of whether or not people should be wearing cross related clothing, is it bad that it’s in fashion? I don’t think so. While I don’t think it’s time for atheists to start touting Christianity’s most recognizable symbol, the nonchalant adoption of the cross by the fashion world shows that the church’s conservative influence is dwindling. When Madonna began wearing crosses in her music videos and performances, many people – especially the Catholic Church – were outraged. The crosses current prevalence in high fashion reveals that this is no longer the case. Perhaps some of this is due to desensitization, but I think it must in part be due to the disassociation of Christianity and the cross in people’s minds, and that people aren’t as afraid of offending Christians anymore – both of which I view as progress.