Monday, April 01, 2024

Feynman, bullies, and invisible pink unicorns

This is the second installment in what I hope will turn out to be a long series about the scientific method.  In this segment I want to give three examples of how the scientific method, which I described in the first installment, can be applied to situations that are not usually considered "science-y".  By doing this I hope to show you how the scientific method can be used without any special training, without any math, but to nonetheless solve real problems.

Example 1

In my inaugural blog post twenty years ago I wrote:

The central tenet of science in which I choose to place my faith is that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Any idea that is not consistent with experimental evidence must be wrong.

This was an adaptation of Richard Feynman's definition of science, given in the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of his Lectures on Physics.  Note that Feynman did not write the Lectures.  The Feynman Lectures were not written as a book, they are transcripts of lectures that Feynman gave while teaching an introductory physics course at Caltech in the early 1960s.  These lectures were recorded, and it is worth listening to a few of them to get a feel for that the original source material sounds like.

It is worth reading (or listening to) Feynman's introduction in its entirety.  It is only nine paragraphs, or nine minutes.

If you read the transcript you will see this:

The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth.”

Note that the word "truth" is in quotes.  Why?  One possibility is that these are "scare quotes", an indication that the word "truth" is being used in an "in an ironic, referential, or otherwise non-standard sense."  This matters because it materially changes the meaning of what Feynman is saying here.  Without the scare quotes, the passage implies that there exists a transcendent metaphysical Truth with a capital T and that science uncovers this Truth.  If that is what Feynman intended, then this would contradict what I said in the first installment, that science converges towards *something*, but that something may or may not be metaphysical Truth.

You might be tempted to argue that there is no way that I -- or anyone else for that matter -- could possibly know what Feynman actually meant, but that is not true.  We can.  How?  By going back to the original source material: there is a recording of Feynman actually speaking those words.  If you listen to it, you will find that the transcript is actually not a word-for-word transcription of what Feynman said.  Here is what he actually said, word-for-word:

Experiment is the sole judge of truth, with quotation marks...

and he goes on from there say some other things that are not included in the transcript.  I'm not going to attempt to transcribe them because there are a lot of clues regarding his intent in his cadence and tone of voice which I cannot render as text.  But one thing should be clear: the use of scare quotes in the transcript is justified because Feynman specifically said so.

Does this prove that this is what Feynman meant?  No.  Nothing in science is ever proven.  It's possible that Feynman, because he was speaking off-the-cuff, said something he didn't intend.  It's possible that he was under the influence of alien mind-control technology.  It's possible that Richard Feynman never actually existed, that he was a myth, and all of the evidence of his existence is actually the product of a vast conspiracy.  But if you think that any of these possibilities are likely enough to pursue, well, good luck to you because I predict you're going to be wasting a lot of time.


I'm going to break down the previous example in some painstaking detail to show how it is an instance of the process I described before.

1.  Identify a Problem.  Recall that a Problem is a discrepancy between your background knowledge and something you observe.  In this case, the discrepancy was the use of scare quotes in the printed version of the Feynman lectures, and the background knowledge that this is a transcript of something Feynman said rather than something that he wrote.

2.  Make a list of simplifying assumptions.  In this case there weren't any worth mentioning.

3.  Try to come up with a plausible hypothesis.  In this case there were two: one was that this was somehow a faithful rendering of what Feynman intended, and the other was that this was an editorial embellishment inserted by whoever produced the transcript.

4.  Subject your hypotheses to criticism.  I skipped that step because this is just a trivial example and not worth asking other people to spend any time on.

5.  Adjust your hypotheses according to the results of step 4.  Not applicable here.

6.  Do an experiment to try to falsify one or more of your hypotheses.  In this case, we had the original audio recording, and so we could go back to the source to hear what Feynman actually said.  And it turned out in this case that this new data actually falsified *both* of our initial hypotheses.  The transcript is *neither* a verbatim rendering of what Feynman said, *nor* is it an editorial embellishment by the transcriber.  Instead, it is a faithful rendering of Feynman's stated intentions, indeed arguably more faithful than a verbatim transcript would have been because (and note that here I am once again engaging in a tiny little example of applying the scientific method in a very abbreviated way) he had to work around a limitation of the medium he was using, namely, speech, which has no way of explicitly rendering punctuation.

7.  Use your theory to make more predictions.  I skipped that step here too.

Example 2

The second example comes from a real incident from when I was in elementary school.  My family emigrated from Germany to Lexington, Kentucky, in the late 60s.  My parents were secular Jews.  I spoke virtually no English.  As you might imagine in a situation like that, I was not exactly the most popular kid in school.  I got bullied.  A lot.  It went on for five years until we moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at which point I was looking forward to making a fresh start.  I was no longer obviously a foreigner.  I spoke fluent English.  I was familiar with the culture (or so I thought).  I would not have my reputation as a punching bag following me around.  So I was rather dismayed when, within a few months in my new home, I was once again being bullied.

Here was a Problem.  I had a theory: I was being bullied in Lexington because I was a foreigner, and the culture wasn't welcoming to foreigners, especially not German Jews, who were just half a notch above blacks in the social pecking order.  But in Oak Ridge it was not obvious I was a foreigner.  I spoke unaccented English, I was white, I never went to synagogue or did anything else to identify myself as a Jew.  So why was I still being picked on?

To make a very, very long story short, I began to consider the possibility that my original hypothesis was fundamentally wrong, and that the reason I was being picked on had nothing to do with what I was but rather with something I was doing, and that I was engaging in the same provocative behavior (whatever that might be) in Oak Ridge as I had in Lexington.  In retrospect this was, of course, the right answer, but it took me a very long time to figure it out.  It's hard enough to think straight when you are being bullied all the time, and it's even harder when you are in the emotional throes of adolescence and puberty.  But I eventually did manage to figure out that the reason I was being bullied was quite simply that I was behaving like a jerk.  When I stopped acting like a jerk, the bullying stopped.  Not right away, of course.  Like I said, it took a very, very long time, and I'm leaving out a lot of painful details.  But I eventually did manage to figure it out and become one of the cool kids (or at least one of the cool nerds).

The point of this story is that I solved a real-world social problem using the scientific method without even realizing that I was doing it.  This happened in junior high school.  I didn't have the foggiest clue about the scientific method, hadn't even encountered it in science classes, and even if I had, the idea that it would be applicable to something besides chemistry experiments would have been laughable.  It is only in retrospect that I realized that this is what I had done.  And by coming to that realization, I have since been able to do the same thing deliberately in my day-to-day life to great effect.  I think anyone can do this, especially with a little coaching, which is one of my motivations for putting the effort into writing all this stuff.

Example 3

My third example comes from philosophy, and I'm putting it in here because it's kind of fun, but also because it actually turns out to be a generally useful guide for spotting certain kinds of invalid arguments.  The Problem we are going to address is: how did the universe come into existence?  (This qualifies as a Problem because the universe obviously does exist, and so it must have somehow come into existence, but we don't know how.)

The standard scientific answer is that we don't know.  Something happened about 13 billion years ago that caused the Big Bang (which is more appropriately called the Everywhere Stretch, but that's another story for another time) but we have no idea what that something is.  Religious apologists are quick to seize on this gap in scientific knowledge as an argument for God, but that is not what I want to talk about here.  (I promise I'll come back to it in a future installment.)  Instead, I want to explore a different hypothesis, one which is obviously ridiculous, and talk about how we can reject this argument in a more principled way than to point to its obvious ridiculousness.

The hypothesis goes by the name of Last Thursday-ism.  The hypothesis states that the universe was created last Thursday in the exact state it was then in.  Before that, nothing existed.  The reason you might think otherwise is that you were created with all your memories intact to give you the illusion that something existed before last Thursday when in fact it did not.

Like I said, obviously -- indeed, intentionally -- ridiculous.  But just because something is obviously ridiculous doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong.  Quantum mechanics seems obviously ridiculous too when you first encounter it, and it actually turns out to be right.  So being obviously ridiculous is not a sound reason for rejecting a hypothesis.

Can you think of a more principled argument for rejecting last-Thursday-ism?  Seriously, stop and try before you read on.  Remember that last-Thursday-ism is, by design, consistent with all currently observed data.

You might be tempted to say that last-Thursday-ism can be rejected on the grounds that it is unfalsifiable, but all it takes to fix that is a minor tweak: last-Thursday-ism predicts that if you build just the right kind of apparatus it will produce as output the date of the creation of the universe, and so the output of this apparatus will, of course, be last Thursday (assuming you get it built before next Thursday).  The cost of this apparatus is $100M (which is a bargain if you compare it to what the particle physicists are asking for nowadays).

Here's a hint: consider an alternative hypothesis which I will call the last-Tuesday hypothesis.  The last-Tuesday hypothesis states (as you might guess) that the universe was created last Tuesday.  Before that, nothing existed.  The reason you think it did is that you were created with all your memories intact to give you the illusion that something existed before last Tuesday when in fact it did not.

You could, of course, substitute any date.  Last Monday.  November 11, 1955.  Whatever.  Last-Thursday-ism is not one hypothesis, it is one of a vast family of hypotheses, one for each instance in time in the past.  And at most one of that vast family can possibly be right.  All the others must be wrong.  So unless there is some way to tell a priori which one is right, the odds of any particular one of them, including last-Thursday, being the right one are vanishingly small.  And that is why we are justified in rejecting the last-X hypothesis for any particular value of X.

Note that this is true even if the prediction made by the tweaked version of last-Thursday-ism turns out to be true!  It might very well be that if we build the apparatus described above that it might very well output "last Thursday".  But this will almost certainly not be because last-Thursday-ism is true (because it almost certainly isn't), but for some other reason, like that the apparatus just happens to be a design for a printer that prints out "last Thursday", and this has absolutely nothing to do with when the universe was created.

Invisible Pink Unicorns

That last example may have seemed like a silly detour, but you will be amazed at how often hypotheses that are essentially equivalent to last-Thursday-ism get advanced.  I call these "invisible pink unicorn" hypotheses, or IPUs, because the canonical example is that there is an invisible pink unicorn in the room with you right now.  The only reason you can't see it is that -- duh! -- it's invisible.  This hypothesis can be rejected on the same grounds as last-Thursday-ism. Why pink?  Why not green?  Or brown?  Or mauve?  Why a unicorn?  Why not an elephant?  Or a gryphon?  Or a centaur?  Unless you have some evidence to make one of these variations more likely than the others, they can call be rejected on the grounds that even if one of them were correct, the odds that we will choose it from among all the alternatives are indistinguishable from zero.

IPUs are everywhere, especially among religious apologists.  The cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the ontological argument, etc. etc. etc. -- pretty much any argument of the form, "We cannot imagine how our present state of existence could possibly have arisen by natural processes (that is the Problem) therefore God must exist."  But "the universe was created by God" is just one of a vast family of indistinguishable hypothesis:  We cannot imagine how our present state of existence could possibly have arisen by natural processes, therefore Brahma must exist.    We cannot imagine how our present state of existence could possibly have arisen by natural processes, therefore Mkuru must exist.  And, as long as I'm at it: we cannot imagine how our present state of existence could possibly have arisen by natural processes, therefore an invisible pink unicorn with magical powers to create universes must exist.

Note that this is in no way proves that God -- or Brahma or Mkuru or the Invisible Pink Unicorn -- do not exist.  It is only meant to show why certain kinds of arguments that are often invoked in favor of their existence are not valid, at least not from a scientific point of view.

This sin is by no means unique to religious apologists.  Even professional scientists will advance IPU hypotheses.  This happens more often than one would like.  String theory is the most notable example.  It is an almost textbook example of an IPU.  String theory is not a single theory, it is literally a whole family of theories, all of which are indistinguishable based on currently available data.  Some string theorists will argue (indeed have argued) that string theory can be tested by building yet another particle accelerator for the low, low price of a few billion dollars, and maybe it can.  I don't pretend to understand string theory.  But the overt similarity with last-Thursday-ism should make anyone cast a very jaundiced eye on the claims being made despite the fact that the people making them aren't crackpots.  Having scientific credentials doesn't necessarily mean that you actually understand or practice the scientific method.

[NOTE] The "read more" link below doesn't lead anywhere.  It's there because at some point I accidentally inserted a jump break at the end of this article and now I can't figure out how to get rid of it.  AFAICT it's a bug in the Blogger editor.  If anyone knows how to get rid of this damn thing please let me know.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

A Clean-Sheet Introduction to the Scientific Method

 About twenty years ago I inaugurated this blog by writing the following:

"I guess I'll start with the basics: I am a scientist. That is intended to be not so much a description of my profession (though it is that too) as it is a statement about my religious beliefs."

I want to re-visit that inaugural statement in light of what I've learned in the twenty years since I first wrote it.  In particular, I want to clarify what I mean when I say that being a scientist is a statement about my religious beliefs.  I thought that there would be enough consensus about the meaning of "science" and "religious belief" that this would not be necessary, but that turns out to be one of the many, many things I as wrong about back then.  In this post I'm going to try to fix that, or at least start to.

Let me start with the easy part: By "religious beliefs" I do not mean to imply that science is a religion in the usual sense.  It isn't.  Religions generally involve things like the worship of deities, respect for the authority of revealed wisdom, and the carrying out of prayer and rituals.  Science has none of that, not because science rejects these things *a priori*, but because when you pursue science you are invariably (but not inevitably!) led to the conclusion that there are no deities active in our universe, and therefore no good reason to accept the authority of revealed wisdom, and hence not much point spending valuable time on prayer and ritual (except insofar as one might find satisfaction in pursuing prayer and ritual for their own sake).

What I *do* mean by "religious beliefs" is that being a scientist -- pursuing science, engaging in the scientific method -- need not be a profession.  It can also be a *way of life*.  I believe that science provides a *complete worldview* applicable to all aspects of life, not just ones that are commonly regarded as "science-y".  Furthermore, I believe that this worldview can be practiced by anyone, not just professional scientists.  You don't even have to be good at math (though it doesn't hurt).  And I also think that if more people did this, the world would be a better place.

In particular, I believe that science can be applied to answer questions about *morality*, and I claim that if you do this properly the results are *better* than those produced by traditional religions.  I also believe that science can provide satisfactory answers to deep existential questions, like what is the meaning of life.  But that will be a very long row to hoe.  For now I want to start simply by describing what science actually *is* because it turns out that there are a lot of misconceptions about that, particularly among the religious.

But let me start at the beginning

What is science?

Science is a process, a method, for solving a particular kind of problem.  The most succinct description I have found of the scientific method is:

Find the best explanation that accounts for all the observed data, and act as if that explanation is correct until you encounter contradictory data or a better explanation.
That is obviously an extreme oversimplification.  It is roughly akin to explaining how to play golf by saying, "Swing the club in such a way that it makes the ball go into the hole."  That's not wrong, but by itself it's not very useful either.

Golf actually turns out to be a pretty good analogy.  The scientific method is a skill, just like golf, and like golf, it is something anyone can do at a beginner level, but achieving mastery takes time and effort.  Unlike golf, the scientific method is good for a lot more than just getting balls into holes.  Golf is a uni-tasker.  Science is the ultimate multi-tasker.  You can even use it to improve your golf game!

Also like golf, you can do it both for fun and for profit.  You don't have to be a professional golfer to enjoy golf and to get something out of it.  Doing science can be rewarding for it's own sake, but there is also a significant side-benefit because, as I said, science is a method for solving problems.  So not only can it be fun and challenging and engaging, it can also give you solutions to problems.  And the kinds of problems that the scientific method can be applied to is much broader than most people realize, and using the scientific method in general is easier than a lot of people realize.  In fact, you are almost certainly already doing it, possibly without even realizing it.  Let me show you.

An example

Look around you (or, if you're blind, feel around you).  You will see (or at least think you see) things -- people, tables, cars, buildings, trees.  These things (seem to) exist in three-dimensional space, and occupy specific parts of that space, that is, the world is such that it makes sense to say things like "this tree is over here" and "that car is over there (and moving in that direction)".

Moreover, you can interact with some of the things around you in very complex and interesting ways.  There are things called "humans" that you can talk to and they will talk back and the things they say to you and that you say to them seem to convey some kind of meaning that corresponds to the properties of other things.  You can say, for example, "Do you see that tree over there?" and a human might respond, "Yes.  I think it's a maple."  And this will resonate with you in a way that saying the same thing to a dog and hearing it bark will not.

How can you account for all this?  How do you explain it?  Well, the obvious way to explain it is that the things you see are real, that is, that there really are trees and cars and other humans "out there" in point of actual physical (and maybe even metaphysical) fact.  This explanation is so obvious that it is hard to even conceive of an alternative.  Some of you might even be thinking to yourselves, "Well, duh, of course trees are real.  This guy must be some kind of moron if he thinks that is a profound observation."

The explanation that the things you perceive are real is obvious and compelling, but it is not the only possible explanation.  Another possible explanation is that you are living in the Matrix, a very high quality simulation created by some advanced alien race with technology vastly superior to our own.  That might seem unlikely, but it's possible, and it's not immediately obvious how you could definitively rule it out (or even that it is actually false!)

It turns out that neither one of these explanations is actually correct.  Both of them can actually be ruled out by experiment.  But it turns out that for the most part this doesn't actually matter.  Remember, the scientific method is not "find the correct explanation", it is "find the best explanation that accounts for all the data", and "objects appear to be real because they actually are real" is a very good explanation that is consistent with if not all of the data, at least the data that most people have access to.

Notice also that the second part of the scientific method is not, "accept that this explanation is correct", it is, "act as if this explanation is correct", and then there is the final caveat, "until you encounter contradictory data or a better explanation".

So the scientific method leads you naturally, without even being aware of it, to act as if the things you perceive are real are actually real, despite the fact (and here I have to ask you to temporarily suspend your disbelief and just take my word for it) this isn't actually true.  However, despite the fact that it isn't actually true, acting as if objects are real will not steer you far wrong in day-to-day life.


Here is another example.  This one is taken from history.  Imagine that you are living some time before the invention of the telescope.  You look up in the night sky and you can see the sun, moon, and stars.  Most of the stars stay in the same location (relative to each other) except that they all rotate around one star -- if you happen to be living in the northern hemisphere, otherwise they will appear to turn around an imaginary point that lies below the horizon.  (Explain that, flat-earthers!)

All of this is already strange enough, but to compound the mystery there are five -- and only five -- things that look like stars but don't move in the same way as all the others.  These are called "wanderers" or "planetae" in ancient Greek.

Two of these planetae, Venus and Mercury, are only ever seen near the horizon around sunset and sunrise.  The other three -- Mars, Jupiter and Saturn -- can be seen throughout the night.  These three all move generally in the same direction (relative to the other stars) but one them, Mars, occasionally stops and moves backwards.

How do you account for all this?

That was a question that occupied the finest human minds for thousands of years and they grappled with it to varying degrees of success.  The explanation that ultimately prevailed for well over 1000 years was produced by Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer living in Alexandria in the first century CE.  The details of Ptolemy's explanation don't matter much.  The thing that matters here is that it was based on the "fact" that what goes on in the heavens is radically different from what happens here on earth.  I put "fact" in scare quotes here because with the benefit of modern knowledge we know that this is not in fact a fact.  But from the perspective of someone living before telescopes, not only is it a fact, it is an obvious one.  The earth is dirty, the heavens are clean.  Any source of light on earth eventually extinguishes itself, but the lights in the heavens burn forever.  Anything moving on earth eventually stops, but the heavenly bodies move forever without ever coming to a halt.  And finally and most obviously, the behavior of things on earth is governed by the law that "what goes up must come down."  Some things like birds and canon balls can rise above the surface of the earth, but they can only go so far, and they can only stay aloft temporarily.  Eventually the canon ball will fall and the bird will roost (or die).  But the objects in the heavens stay there forever.  With one exception.  See if you can figure out what it is before I tell you.

[Spoiler alert]

Meteorites.  Every now and then a stone would fall from the heavens.  Where they came from was a deep mystery because on the one hand they looked like ordinary rocks, but on the other hand they came from the heavens which, as everybody knew because it was just obvious, were made of very different stuff governed by very different laws than those which pertained here on earth.

It was not until Isaac Newton in 1687 that this mystery was solved.  It turned out that the "obvious fact" that what happened in the heavens were radically different from what happens on earth was actually wrong.  The heavenly bodies are in fact made of the same stuff that things on earth are made of, and are governed by the same laws.  Today we take this for granted.  In 1687 it was a radical breakthrough, the dawn of modern science.  And one of the reasons it was accepted is that it explained the previously-mysterious observation of rocks falling from the sky.


At this point I want to go on a small tangent to put this event in its proper historical perspective.  As I write this, in March of 2024, it has been 336 years since Newton's Principia was published.  That might sound like a long time, but it's actually not.  I am almost 60 years old, so I have been alive for almost 20% of the total history of modern science.  Some of the most fundamental scientific theories are surprisingly recent.  The existence of atoms, for example, was controversial as recently as the early 20th century.  Albert Einstein died in 1955, slightly before I was born, but well within current living memory.  Many of the pioneers of quantum mechanics were alive when I was born.  I have personally met and spoken with Freeman Dyson, who died a mere four years ago.  Many of the experiments that provided the foundation for quantum computation were done while I was in high school.  The frontiers of quantum computation and artificial intelligence are being explored even as I write this.  We are very much still in the midst of the scientific revolution.  Quantum computing and AI are today what digital computers were in 1955, what relativity was in 1905, and what thermodynamics and steam power were in 1855.

One of the things that has happened in the 336 years since Principia was first published is that science has become an industry (much like golf has).  Isaac Newton was the first modern scientist, but he was not a professional scientist.  There was no such thing back then.  What we call "science" today was called "natural philosophy" then, and it included all kinds of things that would not be considered science today, like alchemy and astrology.  If you had asked Newton to describe the "scientific method" he would have had no idea what you were talking about.

With that in mind, I invite you to consider the following question: why is science a thing?  Why are there arguments over the definition of "science" but not "astrology" or "alchemy"?  Why is there so much more prestige (and money!) surrounding science than alchemy or astrology?  Sure, there are a few people making money as astrologers, but try getting an NSA grant to find a better way of casting horoscopes and you will get laughed out of the room.

The answer is: science is more effective at producing useful results than alchemy or astrology.  If you are reading this before the coming climate apocalypse, then you are steeped in technology.  (And if you are reading it after, take this as testimony that there was a time before the climate apocalypse when technology was ubiquitous.)  Computers, internal combustion engines, air conditioning, the Internet -- all of these things grew out of science and not alchemy or astrology.  Science is a thing because it works.

Which raises the obvious question: why does it work?  Why is science so much more effective at producing useful results than alchemy or astrology, or, for that matter, any other form of human endeavor?

To answer that, I will need to describe the scientific method in a little more detail.  But before I do that I need to first explain why describing the scientific method is not as straightforward as it might seem.

Why describing the scientific method is hard

If you seek out descriptions of the scientific method on the web you will find that they do not all agree with each other.  For example, Wikipedia says:

The scientific method involves careful observation coupled with rigorous skepticism, because cognitive assumptions can distort the interpretation of the observation. Scientific inquiry includes creating a hypothesis through inductive reasoning, testing it through experiments and statistical analysis, and adjusting or discarding the hypothesis based on the results.

However, if you dig deeper, you will find that not everyone agrees with this definition.  For example, Karl Popper, a highly regarded philosopher of science, argues that induction is not part of the scientific method, that it is a myth.  As an even more extreme example, if you go to Answers in Genesis, a creationist web site, you will find a very different description:

Science means “knowledge” and refers to a process by which we learn about the natural world. There are two different kinds of science; observational and historical. Historical science deals with the past and is not directly testable or observable so it must be interpreted according to your worldview.

The Bible is the foundation for science. Non-Christians must borrow biblical ideas—such as an orderly universe that obeys laws—in order to do science. If naturalism were true—if nature is “all there is”—then why should the universe have such order? Without the supernatural, there is no basis for logical, orderly laws of nature.
How can you tell who to believe?  Specifically, why should you believe what I am about to tell you?

One possible answer is that I was once a professional scientist.  I was an AI researcher at JPL for 12 years, from 1988 to 2000.  I made my living publishing peer-reviewed papers.  I was fairly successful.  I was the most referenced CS researcher in all of NASA (according to citeseer), and I held that title for many years even after I left.  I advanced to the rank of Principal, which is "awarded to recognize sustained outstanding individual contributions in advancing scientific or technical knowledge", which came with the most coveted perk at JPL: on-lab parking.

But that is not a very good answer, for two reasons.  First, just because I was able to make my living as a scientist doesn't necessary mean I understood how the scientific method works.  Being a successful professional scientist has as much (maybe even more) to do with politics than it does with science.  In fact, when my career advancement began to turn more on politics than science, that is what made me decide to quit.

Another possible answer is that what I am about to tell you aligns with things said by even more illustrious names like Karl Popper and Richard Feynman.  Their authority is much better than mine, but it's still an argument from authority, and the bedrock principle of science is that experiment and not authority should be the final arbiter of truth.  At least that's what Feynman said, so it must be true, right?

Ironically, the right answer can be found in the Bible, in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 7: by their fruits ye shall know them.  Remember, the reason we care about science at all is because it is effective at producing useful results.  The reason you should believe what I am about to tell you is that it will explain this effectiveness.  It will not be a complete explanation because that would take much longer than one blog post.  A much more detailed explanation is possible.  The one I am about to give you will be oversimplified.  But it will nonetheless explain the effectiveness of the scientific method, at least to some extent.  In other words, the scientific method can be applied to itself to explain its own effectiveness.  And that is the reason you should believe it.

By the way, an important thing to keep in mind as you read the next section: the scientific method is a *natural process*.  It is a discovery, not an invention.  It is something that happens, something that people (and even animals!) do, at least to some extent, without even being aware of it.  You can, in fact you almost certainly do, engage in the scientific method instinctively, just as you can probably hit a golf ball without any training.  But you'll be a lot better at science (and golf!) with training and practice.  So let's start.

The scientific method

The scientific method consists of seven steps.  It is important to follow these steps carefully and deliberately, otherwise you'll just end up with the scientific equivalent of a wild swing.

Step 1:  Identify a Problem.  I'm capitalizing Problem because it's a term of art which has a more specific meaning that it does in common usage.  A capital-P Problem is a discrepancy between your background knowledge, everything you believe to be true at the present moment, and something you observe.  Examples of currently open scientific Problems include things like, "Galaxies appear to rotate faster than they should based on the amount of observable matter they contain", and "There is life on earth, but we don't know how it started."  But Problems don't have to be Big Scientific Questions.  They can be as prosaic as, "I'm doing a good job at work but I'm not getting promoted" or "My wife seems to be mad at me even though she doesn't have any reason to be."

Note that the existence of Problems is not a shortcoming of the scientific method.  To the contrary, identifying a Problem is the crucial first step of the process.  I mention this because a common criticism of science among creationists is to point to Problems, things that science does not yet understand, and cite them as a reason for not trusting science at all.  This argument is not just wrong, it actually betrays a profound ignorance of how science actually works.  The only way to not have Problems is to already understand everything, to be omniscient.  The existence of Problems is a feature, not a bug.

(A creationist would no doubt respond: but we have an omniscient source of knowledge: God!  To which I respond: OK, but your access to this omniscient source of knowledge doesn't seem to give you much leverage towards producing useful results.  That is a Problem!)

Step 2: 
Make a list of all simplifying assumptions that you are going to make.  For example, in the vast majority of situations here on earth it is safe to ignore relativity and quantum mechanics, but it's important to keep in the back of your mind that you are ignoring them.

Step 3:  Try to come up with a plausible *hypothesis*, a *guess* at an explanation that is consistent *both* with all the data that produced your background knowledge, *and* the discrepancy that constitutes the Problem you are addressing.  At the frontiers of science you will often get stuck at this point because coming up with *any* plausible hypothesis is considered a major achievement.  Sometimes this will happen when using the scientific method in day-to-day life.  That's OK.  Getting stuck temporarily is a normal part of the process.

Note that the term "background knowledge" is a little misleading, because very often a plausible hypothesis will be that some part of your background "knowledge" is wrong.  The use of the term "scientific knowledge" is fairly common, and it implies that this knowledge is immutable and not open to question, but that is not true.  All "knowledge" in science is tentative and subject to being overturned by new data or better hypotheses.  But this doesn't mean that we don't know anything.  Some scientific results are so well established, and backed up with so much evidence, that the odds of it being wrong, while not zero, are extremely low, and the evidence needed to show that it is wrong would be truly extraordinary.  We will sometimes abbreviate that by calling it "knowledge" or "established scientific fact" even though what we really mean is "current-best explanation, one which is so well established that the odds of overturning it, while not quite zero, are so close to zero as to make no practical difference."

Step 4:  Subject your hypotheses/guesses to criticism.  In other words, try as hard as you can to show why each of your hypotheses is *wrong*.  Anything is fair game here, including asking other people to poke holes in your ideas.  In fact, that is encouraged.  You can also participate in the scientific method by helping to poke holes in other people's ideas (this is called "peer review")

Note that -- and this is very important -- you are not trying to show that your hypothesis is valid or correct!  The object here to do the exact opposite: trying to show that your hypothesis is wrong.  Of course, you are hoping that you will fail in this endeavor, but you must nonetheless try as hard as you can and in good faith to debunk yourself.

There a few rules about scientific criticism:

Rule 1: you have to separate your criticism of the hypothesis from criticism of its presentation.  The former is vastly more valuable than the latter.  The latter is ultimately important too, but it's much less important, and doing too much of the latter at the expense of the former gets really annoying.

Rule 2: you have to criticize within the bounds of the assumptions laid out in step 2.  So in this case, if you want to criticize the hypothesis I am laying out here, it's out of bounds to say, "But you've ignored quantum mechanics."  Yes, I *know* I have ignored quantum mechanics.  I *said* I was going to ignore quantum mechanics.  Your pointing that out again is not helpful.

Rule 3:
you can't change the problem statement.  So, for example, you can't criticize the hypothesis I am laying out here on the grounds that science has not (yet) produced answers to various political and social problems.  The problem I'm addressing here is: why does science appear to be so effective at producing *any useful results at all* (and in producing technology in particular)?  Any criticism not having to do with that is out of bounds.  (This is the reason it is important to have a clear, explicit, and unambiguous problem statement.)

Beyond that pretty much anything is fair game.  Here are three particularly valid forms of criticism:

Valid criticism 1: The hypothesis is inconsistent with observation.  It doesn't matter how plausible or mathematically elegant your hypothesis is, if it doesn't agree with experiment (subject to the assumptions laid out in step 2) it goes in the hopper.

Valid criticism 2: The hypothesis is unfalsifiable.  It must be possible, at least in principle, to do an experiment whose outcome would show that the hypothesis is *wrong*.  If there is no possible experiment that could be done whose outcome could be at odds with the hypothesis, then it is not a valid scientific hypothesis.  (I call this the "invisible pink unicorn" or IPU rule.)

Valid criticism 3: The hypothesis contains unnecessary detail.  You can always make any hypothesis consistent with all observations by adding additional details, but a high quality theory will be parsimonious: it will account for a lot of data with as few details as possible.

(In fact, since you live in the information age, you can actually think of the whole scientific method as a data compression process: it takes a vast amount of raw data and boils it down to the minimum amount of information needed to reproduce that data.  This turns out to be more than just a casual observation, but rather a Very Deep Insight that sheds light on why the scientific method works.  But before I can get into those details I will have to talk about the theory of computation and information, and we're nowhere near ready for that.)

Step 5: Consider whether the criticism you have produced or received is valid.  If it is, go back to step 3 and try again.

Step 6:
Sometimes you will come up with more than one hypothesis that withstands all of the criticism that anyone can think to throw at it.  In that case, examine the predictions that these hypotheses make and choose one that is different between them.  Then do an experiment to see which hypothesis makes the correct prediction, and discard the others.  Note that it is entirely possible that the results will eliminate all of the surviving candidates, in which case you will need to go back to step 3.  But if this doesn't happen, if one hypothesis survives, then, congratulations, your one remaining hypothesis has now been promoted to the status of a Theory!  A Theory is a hypothesis that has withstood all attempts to invalidate it.  In science, "theory" is a synonym for "knowledge" or "fact" subject to the caveats described above.

Finally, the last step is:

Step 7:
Use your Theory to make more predictions and test those against experiment too.

It turns out that if you follow this process, by the time you get to step 7, it is extremely rare for the results of those subsequent experiments to contradict the predictions made by the theory.  And that is the magic.  That is the reason that science is effective at producing useful results.  It is because it produces theories with predictive power.  It literally gives you the gift of prophecy, and if you have that, you can choose your actions to more reliably produce results that you want.

This of course raises the obvious question of why this procedure works, and specifically why this particular procedure works so much better than anything else anyone has been able to come up with.  That question also turns out to have an answer, but it is a much, much longer and more complicated answer.  It involves quantum mechanics, information theory, and the theory of computation.  I'm planning future installments about all of those, but if you're impatient this story is told reasonably well in David Deutsch's book, "The Fabric of Reality" (though what he says about parallel universes needs to be taken with a grain of salt).

Does science lead to Truth?

That science produces Theories with predictive power is simply an observed empirical fact.  As time goes by, it gets harder and harder to find Problems, harder and harder to find observations that cannot be explained and predicted by existing Theories, and harder and harder to come up with new Theories that tie up the fewer and fewer remaining loose ends.  It is possible that some day we might even come up with a Theory of Everything that will tie up the last remaining loose end, and the whole project will be complete.

There is another empirical observation we can make about the scientific method: it converges.  Not only does it produce Theories with more and more predictive power, on those rare occasions when a new Theory completely overturns an old one, the old theory (uncapitalized now because it has been shown to be wrong) always turns out to be a good approximation to the new one under certain circumstances, and in particular, under the circumstances that pertain here in our solar system.  To find phenomena that cannot be explained with current scientific Theories you have to go far outside our solar system and look at neutron stars, black holes, and even other galaxies.

One possible explanation for these empirical observations is that there is an actual metaphysical Truth out there, and that the thing that the scientific method is converging towards is this metaphysical Truth.  That's a hypothesis, a possible explanation for the empirical observation that science converges, at least so far.  This hypothesis makes a prediction: that science will continue to converge, and may some day even reach the point where there are no more Problems, where it can explain all observations.  This hypothesis is falsifiable, so it's a valid scientific hypothesis.  And for the last 336 years no data has contradicted it.

Does that prove that science finds metaphysical Truth?  No.  Nothing is ever proven in science.  All knowledge is tentative and subject to being overturned by new data or a better explanation.  But it is, at the moment, the current-best explanation.

This is not to say that there are no extant Problems with the hypothesis that science converges towards metaphysical truth.  There are at least four that I can think of.  The first is the so-called "hard problem of consciousness", i.e. explaining qualia and subjective experience.  The second is "deriving ought from is", i.e. using the scientific method to obtain a theory of moral behavior.  And the last one is the problem of origins and teleology.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  How did life on earth begin?  What is the point of all this?  And finally there is the problem of religion: why do so many people believe things that are at odds with science?

I actually believe that all of these Problems have had some pretty significant dents put into them by the scientific method, much more than is generally appreciated or understood, even among scientists.  I've written about all of these things at one time or another, but usually in the context of developing my own ideas about them, and never as a coherent summary that presents the final results in a unified and organized way.  I'm going to try to remedy that in the future.  But it has already taken me a week just to get this far so I thought I'd go ahead and put this out there and subject it to criticism.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Why I want to repeal the Second Amendment

About three years ago I wrote a blog post calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  I hope it goes without saying that I did not (and do not) harbor any illusions about this actually happening any time soon.  I wrote it in a fit of frustration at having to watch over and over again the futile ritual that America goes through every time there is a mass shooting: condolences are offered, prayers are said, there are calls to Do Something, and then, of course, nothing gets done.  Because there's this pesky Second Amendment.

By calling for its repeal I was hoping to point out that the Second Amendment is not actually a necessary consequence of the laws of physics, nor is it gospel handed down from on high by God.  We actually can change it, and the only reason we don't is because not enough people want to, or even think it's possible.  I was mostly just standing up to say that it is in fact possible if enough of us decide we want to make it happen.

But I want to go one step further here and advance an explicit argument for why we should.  The argument is quite simple: the Second Amendment is both bad law and bad policy.  Note that these are two different things.  I think that either one on its own makes a compelling case for repeal, and the two together actually make it a slam-dunk, but it is nonetheless important not to conflate the two things.  They are completely unrelated to each other.

What makes the Second Amendment bad law is that it is unclear what the amendment actually means.  It has this really weird structure, with its infamous introductory clause: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."  Is that intended to be an actual operative part of the law, or is it merely a rhetorical flourish?  And if it's the former, what does it actually mean?  No one knows.  There are well-informed arguments advanced by scholars in support of both sides, and resolving the dispute to everyone's satisfaction is about as likely as as reconciling Catholicism and Protestantism.  Because of this, the actual intended meaning of the Amendment is unclear, and an unclear law is a bad law.

That is the entirety of the first part of my argument.  At the very least, the Second Amendment should be repealed and replaced with something that actually says what it is intended to mean instead of leaving everything up to politics and the Supreme Court.

But, as I said, I have a second argument, which is that the Second Amendment is bad policy.  How can I possibly argue that in light of the fact that I've just taken the position that the main problem with the Second Amendment is that it is unclear what kind of policy it actually advances?  It turns out not to matter.  Whatever the Second Amendment actually means (if indeed it actually means anything) one thing is beyond dispute: it explicitly enshrines the Right to Bear Arms and so raises it above a whole host of other unenumerated rights.  Like, for example, the right to vote, or to travel, or to not be discriminated against based on the color of your skin or your gender or your sexual preferences.  None of those things are written into the Constitution, but the "right to bear arms" is.  In my humble opinion, that is, at best, a failure to get our priorities straight.

This is not to say that I want to take away everybody's guns.  This is a common canard on the right, but I have never heard anyone call for complete prohibition.  I'm sure there are some peaceniks who would like to see every last gun beaten into a plowshare, but I'm not one of them, and I've never actually heard anyone advance this as a serious policy proposal.  Prohibition is a terrible policy simply because it doesn't work.  But in between prohibition and a Constitutionally protected right lies a very broad range of much saner policy choices, like licensing and background checks, which are now being tossed out the window because you can't burden a Constitutionally protected right even if it means that innocent people, including children, have to pay with their lives.  I don't want to repeal the Second Amendment because I want to get rid of guns, I want to repeal the Second Amendment because that is a pre-requisite to even having a sane policy discussion about guns.

What would a sane policy discussion about guns look like?  I think it should start with the observation that guns are not just dangerous, but inherently dangerous.  Unlike every other consumer product, the *purpose* of a gun is to end life.  This is not to say that guns cannot be used in other ways.  I get that some people simply enjoy target shooting or making loud noises on holidays.  But the fact that ancillary uses exist does not negate that the primary purpose of guns, the reason they were invented and the task they are optimized for, is to kill.

Now, I am emphatically not saying that killing is an unalloyed evil.  There are situations in which killing has value; sometimes it can even rise to the level of a necessity.  My neighborhood is overrun with deer, and shooting a few of them on occasion would definitely be a good thing.  I don't see much wrong with using a gun to hunt for food.  And I am keenly aware that one of the reasons I can safely walk around without a gun is that there are police and soldiers trained to use guns and other weaponry.  I do wish it were otherwise, but it isn't, and that's how it's going to stay.  The existence of violence *is* a consequence of the laws of physics.

The above notwithstanding, I do think that all else being equal, less killing is better than more, and society should particularly strive to minimize the killing of *innocent* people, that is, people who have not voluntarily undertaken the inherent risks of being around guns.  And the only way I see to achieve that goal is to restrict who has access to guns and under what circumstances.  I have to stress again that this does not mean getting rid of all guns.  It means licensing, background checks, and some pretty severe restrictions on carrying guns in public places.  None of that is possible under the current legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, which is one of the reasons I think it has to go.

That is the end of my argument.  But before I close I would like to address three anticipated counter-arguments.

The first is that cars kill about as many people as guns do.  This is true, but this doesn't make guns and cars comparable.  For starters, there is no Constitutionally enshrined right to drive, and that makes it possible to impose reasonable restrictions on driving and cars to make them safer.  Furthermore, the societal benefit of driving is vastly greater than the societal benefit of widespread gun ownership.  If we got rid of all privately held cars, the economy would grind to a halt.  If we got rid of all privately held guns, all that would happen is that some gun enthusiasts would grumble and complain, a few people who work for gun manufacturers would lose their jobs, and a lot fewer people would die.  (Personally, I would call that a win, but please note that I'm not actually advocating for this because I also believe in personal freedom, and there are less draconian ways of keeping people safe.)

The second is that people ought to have the right to defend themselves.  To which my response is: defend themselves against what?  There doesn't seem to be any consensus among gun-rights activists as to what the correct answer to that question ought to be.  And it matters.  A lot.  A lot of the rhetoric around gun-rights advocacy seems to turn on the phrase "personal protection" but that is just as fuzzily defined as "assault weapon".  Does "personal protection" extend to defending my personal property?  Against whom?  Do the adversaries against which I have the right to defend myself and/or my property include the government?  Because the founders were explicitly concerned about allowing states the right to defend themselves against military overreach by the federal government.  If the states retain the right to resist the federal government by force (and Texas certainly seems to think that they do) then why not individuals?  And if I have a constitutional right to defend myself against the government, why can't I have a bazooka?  Or a tank?  Or a nuke?  On the other hand, if I don't have a constitutional right to defend against the government, then how do you justify claiming the right to own an AK-47?

Which brings me to the third anticipated counter-argument, which is that I am just a stupid twit, profoundly ignorant of the history of the Second Amendment and why it is important.  That may be true.  I'm not a historian, just a citizen.  I actually think my knowledge of history is better than what is on display here but I don't think that matters.  The history of the Amendment is mainly invoked as part of the argument over what it means, and as I've already said, I don't think that argument can be resolved, which is one of the reasons I think the right answer here is a rewrite, not a rehash.  But more than that, I don't believe in originalism.  I think it's a completely arbitrary standard invented out of whole cloth to advance a political agenda.  We are not living in 1788 and I see no reason we should allow ourselves to be governed by the standards of that time.  When the Second Amendment was written, the United States did not have a standing army.  Today it does (and marines, and a navy, and an air force, and a space force).  A well-regulated militia (whatever that might actually mean) may have been necessary to the security of a free state in 1788, but it is certainly not necessary any more.

Today all sane people agree that somewhere between a BB gun and a nuke there is a line that ought to be drawn beyond which any individual right to bear arms should not extend.  But the Amendment provides absolutely no guidance as to where that line is because the people who wrote it had no idea that something like a nuke -- or even an AK-47 -- was even possible.  The state-of-the-art technology of the day was a muzzle-loader.  If you were extremely skilled you could get off one shot every 15-20 seconds or so.  It is simply not possible for an individual to use such a weapon to carry out a mass shooting.  You might be able to get off one shot, but you would surely be tackled by an angry mob well before you managed a second.  (It is likewise practically impossible for an individual to use a muzzle-loader for personal defense.)

This is the technical environment in which the Second Amendment was written.  It was simply not designed for today's world, and it is not up to the task.  It is not possible to use the Second Amendment to draw the line between reasonable and unreasonable weaponry for personal use because the people who wrote it lived in a world where AK-47's and nukes not only did not exist, they were inconceivable.

Relying on the Second Amendment to inform us about gun rights today makes about as much sense as looking at horse-drawn carriages to figure out what the speed limit should be on the interstate.  And yet, that is what we are currently doing, and that is what we will continue to do as long as the Second Amendment is on the books.  And as long as that is the case, the decisions that get made will be made on the basis of politics and unprincipled arguments, because there simply are no other possibilities.  There are hard limits to the extent to which 18th-century knowledge and wisdom can inform 21st-century decisions.


In the interest of full disclosure I wish to reveal that despite the fact that I generally side very strongly with individual freedom, I do find gun-rights advocacy to be quite annoying.  Many gun-rights advocates seem to have this fantasy about living out a real-life version of a spaghetti Western melodrama where they play the part of the hero.  I can tell you from both recent events and personal experience that this is indeed a fantasy.  Even if someone breaks into your house, the chances that having a gun on hand will change the outcome for the better are very small.  In 1991 I came home to find a robber in my house, who took a pot-shot at me with a 0.38 on his way out the window.  I escaped serious injury by less than a meter.  The entire sequence of events played out over less than five seconds, and even if I had a gun of my own there is no way it would have made a difference, except that it would have introduced yet another possible way I could have gotten injured or killed.  Under no circumstances would I have been able to use it to deter the thief.

Gun-rights advocates like to brandish slogans like "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  It's simply not true.  A much more effective way of stopping bad guys with guns is to stop the bad guys from ever getting a gun in the first place.  (Another annoying slogan is, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."  That one isn't true either.  A lot of people die in accidents involving guns, in which case it really is the gun doing the killing and not another person.  But even in cases where it is "people" doing the killing, all too often they are doing the killing with guns.

And this is actually what annoys me the most about gun-rights advocates: they don't actually have a principled argument to support their position, and so they rely on sketchy history and sketchy slogans and sketchy politics in order to cling (yes, I'll go there) to their guns.  I suppose they do it because they are afraid, afraid that someone will "come for their guns", upon which someone will come for them.  And yeah, that's possible, though if someone does "come for their guns" it won't be me.  I'll buy a gun myself before I let that happen.  But I'll say this: if some day a generation rises up that gets sick and tired enough of the bloodshed to come for their guns, it will be no one's fault but their own.  I almost certainly won't live to see it, but if that day ever does come, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Why I Don't Believe in Jesus

My old friend Publius posted a comment (which he has apparently since deleted) on my earlier essay about why I don't believe in God, saying "the God which Jesus revealed to us is nothing like [the God of the Old Testament]."  Setting aside the fact that Jesus disagreed, I thought it would be worthwhile expanding specifically on why I don't believe in Jesus.

Jesus is certainly nowhere near as odious as the God of the Old Testament, which I will refer to here as YHWH.  A central pillar of mainstream Christian theology is that Jesus and YHWH are the same, modulo some weirdness having to do with the Trinity which I am not going to get into.  Among Christian denominations that I am familiar with (and that is a very long list) Jehovah's Witnesses are the only ones who deny that Jesus and YHWH are the same.  Frankly, I find their arguments compelling, but that is neither here nor there.  The mere fact that God would have left this crucial point open to argument that is one of the reasons I don't believe that Jesus was divine.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself.  Let me start at the beginning.

I grew up in the American South (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia), a child of secular Jews.  With the exception of one three-day period at the end of a YMCA summer camp when I was 12 (that's another story) I've been an atheist all of my life.  But I've also been steeped in Southern Baptism from the age of 5 until I moved to California at 24.  I have always wanted to try to understand why and how people maintain beliefs that to me are so obviously wrong.  Towards that end I've been studying Christianity and the Bible for over 40 years.  For four years I actually ran a Bible study, first at a local church, and then on-line when covid hit.  I am by no means a Biblical scholar, I do this strictly as a hobby.  But I think I know the Bible and Christianity better than the average bear.

I mention this because a lot of Christians are convinced that the only possible reason anyone could be a non-Christian is either ignorance or willful rejection of what they know in their heart of hearts to be true.  I'm writing this essay in part to bear witness to the fact that these people are wrong.  I am not ignorant, and I do not harbor a secret belief in God.  I have come to the conclusion that there are no deities -- indeed there is nothing at all supernatural in this world -- in good faith after long and diligent study.  I might be wrong.  If I am, then I really would like someone to persuade me, because I don't want to be wrong.  I want to know the truth.  But at this point I'm pretty sure I've heard every argument there is and none of them are convincing.

Let's start with the fact that Christianity is not a unified set of beliefs.  It's a real challenge to come up with even a single claim that all people who self-identify as Christian would agree on.  Even the idea that Jesus is God is denied by Jehovah's Witnesses.  These disagreements go all the way back to the dawn of Christianity.  Even Jesus and Paul had different theologies.  But once again I am getting ahead of myself.

In order to try to avoid getting lost in the theological weeds, I am going to critique a specific hypothesis, one which no Christian denomination espouses in its entirety, but which almost all would agree with at least to some extent, even the Witnesses.  That hypothesis is:  Jesus was a physical being who walked the earth in point of actual fact, like Mohammed or Julius Caesar, and unlike, say, Harry Potter or Albus Dumbledore.  The details are debatable, but there was something extraordinary about him.  He was somehow in communion with the supernatural.  He performed miracles, which is to say, things happened when he was around that could not be accounted for by the laws of physics.  He was executed, crucified, by the Roman authorities, but he rose from the dead, and his resurrection matters because it somehow redeemed our sins and gives us a shot at salvation in the afterlife.  Or something like that.  As you will see, the exact details don't really matter.  What matters is that Jesus was somehow special.

The central evidence advanced to support this hypothesis is the Bible, which was written by humans, but is somehow distinguished from other human writings by again being somehow in communion with the supernatural.  The Bible is "the Word of God" or "inspired by God" or has some property that sets it apart from, say, Beowulf or The Iliad.  The Bible may have mythological or metaphorical elements, but it is somehow in contact with actual metaphysical truth in ways that other works of human literature are not.

The authority of the Bible is generally accepted on faith, but there is actually an argument for it which goes something like this: the Bible was written over a period of many hundreds of years by dozens of different authors.  It nonetheless contains a unified message.  In particular, it contains the story of how we were created by God, how we fell from grace by disobeying Him, how we are now as a result separated from Him by sin, and how Jesus came to redeem those sins and reunite us with our creator.  The reason we can be confident that this is true is, among other things, the Bible contains prophecies which have since been fulfilled by verifiable events, which their authors could not possibly have known except through divine revelation.  And many of those prophecies were fulfilled by the life of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels, and we can have confidence in their accuracy because the Gospels were written by four independent eye witnesses: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In addition we have written testimony from Paul of Tarsus who met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Taken at face value this argument seems rather compelling.  Jesus is better attested than many historical figures whose actual existence is taken for granted, like Socrates.  Like Jesus, Socrates left no writings of his own.  His life is attested entirely through the writings of witnesses like his student Plato.  And yet no one doubts that Socrates was real, so how could any rational person possibly deny Jesus?

The big difference between Socrates and Jesus, of course, is that Socrates didn't claim to be God.  He didn't perform miracles.  He didn't say that it was necessary to believe in him in order to avoid eternal torment in the afterlife.  So the claims made about Jesus are rather more extraordinary, and the stakes are considerably higher.  If we get the question of Socrates's existence wrong, it doesn't really matter; we're not going to suffer any serious consequences.  In the end it really doesn't much matter is Socrates was real or mythological, just as it doesn't really much matter whether William Shakespeare was a real person or not.  What matters are the ideas, not the man.  But in Jesus's case, it is very much the man that matters.  One of Jesus's core ideas is that belief in Jesus is the key to salvation.  So in Jesus's case it's really important that we get it right.

So with that in mind, let's take a closer look at the Bible.

The Bible is not a single book.  It is an anthology.  The exact number of works collected therein depends on how you count.  The Catholic Bible has 73.  The original King James Bible had 80, but modern versions pare that down to 66.  Whatever the number, the Bible can be divided cleanly into Old and New Testaments.  The former is written mostly in Hebrew with a little bit of Aramaic thrown in, while the latter is written entirely in Greek.  The former was written entirely before the birth of Jesus, while the latter was written entirely after his death.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all accept the Old Testament as gospel (with an asterisk in the case of Muslims) but only Christians and Muslims accept the New Testament.

It is generally agreed even among the religious that the Bible was written by humans.  Believers will of course say that these humans were inspired by God, but no one claims that the Bible was literally written by God Himself.  (By way of contrast, the authorship of the Quran is attributed literally to Allah, with the Prophet Mohammed PBUH being a mere stenographer taking word-for-word dictation directly from the archangel Gabriel.)  The authorship of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, is attributed by tradition to Moses, but it is almost certain that he did not write it, at least not all of it.  For one thing, the Torah contains an account of Moses's death and burial in some unknown place, which seems an unlikely thing for Moses to have written himself.  For another, the Torah contains accounts of things that happened long before Moses was born.

We can actually see pretty easily that the Torah is almost certainly the work of multiple authors.  We need look no further than the first two chapters of Genesis, and in particular, in the abrupt transition in narrative style and content that occurs between the third and fourth verses of chapter 2.  Ge2:3 wraps up one creation narrative, while Ge2:4 starts a new, radically different one written in a completely different style.  God is no longer referred to simply as "God" (Elohim) but rather as "the LORD God" (YHWH Elohim).  Apologists claim that the second story is just an amplification of the first, filling in some details that the first one omitted, but two creation narratives are not logically compatible with each other.  In the first one, animals are created before humans, and male and female humans are created together.  In the second, Adam (he doesn't even have a name in the first story) is created first, then the animals are created in an unsuccessful attempt to find suitable company for Adam, and finally Eve is created as the LORD God's final act of creation.

At best, it seems to me that God should have hired a better copy editor.

In any case, the point is that there is considerable doubt about who wrote the various parts of the Bible, and that makes it harder to assess the truth of the claim that the Bible is the Word of God.  What does that claim even mean?  It clearly cannot mean that God literally wrote the Bible.  At best, it means that God somehow guided the process of the Bible's creation over many centuries to make it credible.  But the details of that process have been lost in the mists of time.  We have no idea who wrote most of the Bible.  We have no idea who curated the works that comprise it.  We have no way to assess the credibility and qualifications of the people who did this work because for the most part we have no idea who they were.

This is a serious problem because even if God were real and even if he guided the production of the Bible, how can we be confident that some mistakes didn't sneak in somewhere along the line?  Consider, for example, Leviticus 20:13 and Numbers 15:32-35.  These passages say (or at least strongly imply) that homosexuality and working on the Sabbath should both be capital crimes.  Is that really the Will of God, or is it perhaps something that some unknown author living in a very different time and culture sincerely believed to be the Will of God, even though author was actually mistaken?  How can we possibly know without the ability to trace these ideas back to their roots?

The New Testament has many of the same problems.  It is more recent and so we know a lot more about its authorship than we do about the Old Testament, but there are still only 13 (out of 27) books whose author is named in the work.  All of those authorship claims are the same: the apostle Paul.  There is some dispute over whether some of Paul's works are forgeries, but that is neither here nor there.  What matters is that all of the rest of the New Testament is anonymous.  The Gospels in particular, despite being attributed by tradition to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are actually anonymous works.  And it's actually pretty clear that whoever wrote them, it was not the traditionally attributed authors.  The Gospels of Matthew and John, for example, refers to to their respective putative authors in the third person, which would be a little bit weird if Matthew and John were the authors.

Christians commonly argue that the Gospels are reliable because they are four independent eyewitness accounts of the events they recount, but this is not true.  They are neither independent nor eyewitness accounts.  Matthew and Luke clearly copied from Mark, and we have no idea whether or not they are eyewitness accounts because we have no idea who wrote them.  In fact, Luke specifically denies being an eyewitness, saying instead that he is writing "a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us" and not, say, "those things which I beheld while sojourning in Judea."  In this regard I am happy to take the author of Luke at his word and accept that the Gospel of Luke is an accurate record of those things which were "most surely believed among his peers."  That says absolutely nothing about whether or not those things are actually true.

The gospels are also not internally consistent.  Matthew and Luke, for example, present radically different genealogies tracing Jesus's descent from David.  I've heard apologists explain this by saying that they were skipping generations, but Matthew denies this, specifically citing the number of generations between three key events in his timeline so you can easily see that there cannot be any unaccounted-for gaps.  There are similar irreconcilable inconsistencies in the various accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb.

Apart from logical inconsistencies, there are also a lot of events described there that just seem mighty hinky to me.  For example, Matthew (27:50-53) says:

"Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.  And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."

There are three things that strike me as odd about this passage.  First, it is recorded nowhere except Matthew.  You would think that if zombies really walked the streets of Jerusalem and "appeared unto many" that someone besides the author of Matthew would have taken the trouble to write it down.  Second, Matthew writes that the bodies of the saints came out of the graves after "his (presumably Jesus's) resurrection", but at this point in the narrative Jesus had not yet been resurrected.  That's not going to happen for another three (or two depending on how you count) days.

But the third peculiarity dwarfs the other two.  Jesus's resurrection is supposed to be the deal-closer, the one miracle that proves definitively that he was in fact (the son of) God.  But if we take Matthew at his word, Jesus's resurrection was not a singular event at all!  Jerusalem was already lousy with formerly dead bodies walking around!  So what exactly is it that makes Jesus's resurrection special?  The whole thing just makes no sense to me on both historical and theological grounds.

Now, none of this proves anything.  One of the things I've learned over the years is that apologists have answers for everything.  But the overriding question for me has always been: why are apologetics even necessary?  If there is a coherent truth behind the story of Jesus, why did God not see to it that it got written down in a way that made it self-evident?

Of course, apologists have answers for everything, and so they have an answer for that too, and the answer (at least the one given by my Southern Baptist peers in my youth) is that God specifically does not want there to be definitive proof of His existence.  He wants you to have faith, to accept Him specifically without proof, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.  Jesus makes this quite explicit in John 20:29:

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

According to Jesus, credulity is a virtue (which, BTW, is at odds with what YHWH said in Deuteronomy 18:21-22).  This idea is deeply ingrained in our society.  Being a "person of faith" is generally considered a good thing.

But there is a fundamental problem with faith: if you're going to have faith, you still have to somehow decide what to have faith in.  If you're going to have faith in a deity you still need to decide which deity.  If you're going to have faith in Jesus you have to decide which of the many different versions of Jesus you're going to follow.  And too you will ultimately have to decide how to translate your faith into action, into policy, at least for yourself, if not for others.  You need to decide, for example, whether it is a sin to be a homosexual or have an abortion or work on the sabbath or eat shellfish.

Faith is not a virtue.  It is an invitation to chaos.

For me, the arguments above are sufficient to at least cast reasonable doubt on Jesus's divinity.  But the clincher is what happens when you arrange the books of the New Testament in the order in which they were written.  The traditional ordering of the NT is not chronological.  Paul's writings are the earliest, and they were written 20-30 years after Jesus's death.  (Not a single word was written about Jesus while he was alive.)  Then comes the gospel of Mark, then Matthew, Luke and Acts, and finally the gospel of John.  (I'm going to set aside Revelation and the non-Pauline epistles here -- things are complicated enough already.)  I'm not going to get into the weeds of how scholars figured this out, but it's pretty obvious that Mark must have been written before Matthew and Luke because the latter contain passages copied from Mark, sometimes word-for-word.  But the historical order is not at all controversial.  Everyone agrees on this.

When you read the NT in chronological order, a very clear pattern emerges.  The earliest writings, Paul's, contain no mention at all of any details about Jesus's life.  There is nothing about Jesus being born in Bethlehem or living in Nazareth, no mention of Jesus performing miracles or even having a ministry.  In fact, Paul never once quotes anything Jesus said while he was alive!  Just about the only historical detail given by Paul is Jesus's trial before Pilate, and even that is in a book whose authorship is disputed and is probably a forgery.

It is not until Mark, written several decades after Jesus died, that you get the first narrative of Jesus's life, but even here many familiar details are missing.  There is no account of the nativity, no Bethlehem, no Annunciation.  The character of Jesus is very different from what we will see later in John.  Jesus is very human, full of existential angst and self-doubt.  He never claims to be God, and he is very clearly not the same as God the Father (14:36, 15:34).  Even his followers never say that he is God, only that he is the son of God.

In Matthew and Luke you get the first mention of Bethlehem and the first genealogies that purport to show that Jesus was descended from David.  This is significant because these are supposed to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.  But here again we have a problem trying to reconcile these claims with what is known about history.  Luke says that Joseph and Mary traveled from their home in Nazareth to their birthplace in Bethlehem in order to be taxed, and he says that this happened "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria".  Cyrenius (or Quirinius in Latin) is well documented, and his census is a real historical event.

The problem is that Matthew says that Jesus was born "in the days of Herod the king".  And this is not just an offhand reference, Herod plays a significant role in the narrative.  Having heard of Jesus's birth and the prophecy that he would become king of the Jews, Herod orders the killing of all newborns, which forces Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt in order to save the baby Jesus.

The problem is that Herod died in 4CE, two years before the census of Quirinius.  It is simply not possible for both stories to be true.

My point here is not that there is a contradiction in the Gospels; Biblical contradictions are a dime a dozen and apologists have answers to all of them.  The point is that these stories appear late, almost 50 years after Jesus died.  Before that, there is no mention of any of these details in any Christian writings.

This trend of getting more and more embellishments to the story as time goes by continues in the last gospel to be written, the one traditionally attributed to John.  Here we have a Jesus who is radically different in character than what we find in the synoptics.  All of the self-doubt and existential angst is gone.  John's Jesus is self-assured and claims unambiguously to be God ("I and my Father are one.")  There is no mention of "take this cup away from me" or "not my will, but yours be done" or "Father, why have you forsaken me?"  There is also a whole collection of new miracles which appear nowhere else, including the raising of Lazarus which, again, if that had actually happened you'd think someone would have taken note and written it down sooner (to say nothing of the fact that it makes Jesus's resurrection a lot less noteworthy).

The point is that when you put the New Testament in chronological order you can clearly see a myth developing right before your eyes.  Matthew and Luke put Jesus in Bethlehem not because they had any evidence that he was actually born there (because he almost certainly wasn't born there) but rather because they believed Jesus was the messiah and so he had to have been born there because (they believed) that's where the OT said the messiah would be born.  (There are other places in Matthew where he fills in details like this in order to fulfill what he thinks the OT prophesies but gets it wrong, sometimes to truly comical effect.)

Again, I have to stress that none of this is a slam-dunk.  Apologists have been aware of these problems quite literally for two thousand years and, as I've taken pains to point out, they have answers for everything.  Obviously I don't find their answers compelling; if I did I'd be a Christian.  But they do have them.

My claim is not that my arguments here are correct, only that they are defensible.  But that's enough to make my point, which is simply that I have not arrived at my conclusions capriciously.  I have reached them in good faith after some fairly diligent study and careful consideration of the counter-arguments.  I have not, as some Christians accuse atheists of, "rejected God because I want to sin" or some such nonsense.  I've simply looked at the evidence and the arguments and found them not compelling.  Far more likely, it seems to me, is that the Bible is (mostly) mythology.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Why I Don't Believe in God

People occasionally ask me why I don't believe in God.  There are a lot of reasons, but I've never bothered to write them down before because most of my reasons are pretty basic and uninteresting: no evidence for God, lots of evidence against the Bible being divinely inspired, yada yada yada.  But there is one argument I've started to articulate lately that I've not seen come up very often, and which no one I've presented it to has been able to give an adequate response to.  (Well, no one has been able to give an adequate response to any of my reasons because if they could I would change my mind!  But this is an argument for which no one has been able to produce any response at all beyond something like, "Well, you can't possibly understand this unless you give yourself over to God."  As you will see, that is a big ask.)

The argument has to do with the story of the Exodus.  Everyone thinks they know this story, just as everyone thinks they know what the Ten Commandments are, but the movie got both wrong.   The popular conception goes something like this: Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites.  God, after mulling it over for countless generations, finally decides to intervene and recruits Moses to be His messenger to demand that Pharaoh "let my people go".  Pharaoh refuses, and so God lets loose a series of plagues on the people of Egypt, culminating in the Passover and the killing of the firstborn, which finally persuades a recalcitrant Pharaoh to accede to God's demand.

But that is not actually the way the story goes.  Pharaoh does not actually decide to refuse of his own free will.  Instead, God hardens Pharaoh's heart and forces him to refuse!  And it actually gets much, much worse than that, but just to make sure that there can be no doubt on this particular score, here is the most unambiguous verse:

Exo9:12 And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses.

There are actually two things here that should make you very queasy.  The first, as I have already mentioned, is that it's not Pharaoh making the decision, it's God pulling Pharaoh's strings.  But the second thing is almost worse, which is that it seems as if this was not something that God decided to do in the moment, but actually part of a plan!  And indeed, it was part of a plan:

Exo4:21 And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.  [Emphasis added]

And God reiterates this in chapter 7:

Exo7:3 And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.  [Emphasis added]

In other words, God is going to force Pharaoh to refuse!  And why?  So that God will have an opportunity to show off how bad-ass He can be!

That would be bad enough if God just took it out on Pharaoh, but He doesn't.  All of the Egyptian people suffer despite the fact that most of them probably don't even have clue what is going on, let alone a say in the decision-making.  Egypt is not a democracy.  The proceedings inside Pharaoh's palace are not being streamed live on CNN.  But the plagues come regardless.

And they culminate, of course, in the Killing of the Firstborn, which was also, it turns out, always part of God's Plan:

Exo4:22-23 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.

Of course, everyone focuses on the firstborn of Pharaoh, because it's a lot easier to justify the killing of an innocent child if that child happens to be the son of a hated ruler.  But what about all the others?

Exo11:5 And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.

I can't even begin to imagine the emotional pain that God inflicted on the mothers and fathers of Egypt that day, none of whom had any moral culpability in the enslavement of the Israelites.  Certainly the maidservant that was behind the mill didn't have a say in the matter, but she lost her child nonetheless.

(My sister died three years ago, and it nearly destroyed my mother.  And my sister wasn't even the firstborn.)

These are not the actions of a kind, loving God.  These are the actions of a barbarous psychopathic madman.  A core tenet of Christianity is supposed to be that killing innocents is not justifiable under any circumstances, and yet this is exactly what God did.  And He did it not in service of a higher goal, not to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go (because, as I noted earlier, even Pharaoh didn't actually have a choice) but just to give Himself an opportunity to show off.  It is hard for me to imagine a more evil act.  (And yet God actually manages to top Himself with eternal punishment for non-believers, but that's another story.)

This would be bad enough by itself, but then later, at God's command, the Israelites go on a genocidal spree through Canaan that makes the Killing of the Firstborn look humane by comparison:

Deu2:34 And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain:

Deu3:6 And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city.

Deu20:16-17 But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:

Josh6:21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

And that's just a small sample.

Apologists will tell you that all this slaughter was justified because the Canaanites (and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites) were utterly corrupt and evil and deserved to be destroyed down to the last man, woman, and child.  And what is the evidence that they were so irredeemably corrupt?  They were sacrificing their children to Molech.

Now, I will concede that sacrificing children to Molech is definitely not cool, but there are still two problems here.  First, God demanded a human sacrifice from Abraham, so it is far from clear that God considers human sacrifice to be an unalloyed evil.  At best one could come away with the impression that sacrificing children might be acceptable under some circumstances, like if God demands it (and fails to change His mind at the last minute).  But there is a second, more serious problem: even if we grant (and I am happy to concede this) that sacrificing children is always Really Really Bad, could God not have come up with any better solution to the problem than genocide?  Like, oh I don't know, talking to the Canaanites and telling them that what they are doing is not cool?  Because I'm pretty sure that the Canaanites were not sacrificing their children because they enjoyed it, I think they did it because they had a sincere belief that Molech was real and that sacrificing a few children was necessary in order to avoid an even more fearsome fate from befalling them.

And it must have been only a few children.  The Canaanites could not possibly have been sacrificing all of their children, or they would have gone extinct within one generation.  But God's answer to the problem of the Canaanites killing some of their children is to kill all of the children.  And their parents.  Some of whom were undoubtedly pregnant women.  Sorry, Christians, but you can't have it both ways.  Either killing the unborn is acceptable under some circumstances or it's not.

There are two arguments of last resort that I've had people muster against this.  The first is the potter's-clay response.  The idea is that if a potter makes a pot then he has the moral right to do anything he wants to to that pot, including destroy it.  In this analogy, of course, God is the potter and we are the pots.  The problem with this argument is so obvious that it almost seems condescending to point it out: pots aren't sentient beings.  Humans are.  So even if we were created by God, that does not give Him the moral license to dispose of us however he sees fit.  I believe that sentience entitles one to certain inalienable rights, including the right not to be treated as someone else's property (c.f. Lev25:45-46).

The second response is the one I mentioned at the outset: that I can't possibly hope to understand this until and unless I "give myself over to God" or "submit to God's will" or some such thing.  I honestly have no idea how I would do that, or even what those words could possibly even mean.  But even if I did know, I would be very leery of acting on this advice.  If God exists, and if He really is as described in the Bible, then He is a monster.  He has no moral compass.  Some Christians will actually concede that I'm right about this: God doesn't have a moral compass, God is the moral compass.  OK, fine.  But of what use is a compass that points every which way depending on how the wind is blowing?  Sometimes killing is bad, sometimes it's good, and sometimes it is even obligatory.  How can you tell?  What use is a moral compass that doesn't point in one direction?

My moral compass tells me that I should treat all sentient creatures with some measure of respect and kindness.  That has served me pretty well so far, and so, for now, that's what I'm sticking with.