Why Be Faithful As An Atheist?

So I was reading +Melissa Cain Travis's blog where she asks:

"Why Should the Atheist be Faithful in Marriage?"

I really wish she would have asked an actual atheist, but let's pretend she did. Let's also pretend that referring to the Atheist isn't weird either.

But what about in the atheistic worldview? If the atheist determines that he or she can be unfaithful while away on a business trip without their spouse ever finding out (and thus being hurt), on what grounds can they claim their adultery would actually be wrong? Most often, I’ve heard “wrong” defined by unbelievers as being something that causes someone else emotional or physical pain. So, what is there to stop them from satisfying physical urges unbeknownst to anyone that would be upset by the action? If they insist on calling adultery “bad,” how are they grounding that badness? Where’s the measuring rod?

It should be pointed out again, as if it hasn't been pointed out a gazillion times, that there is no singular atheistic worldview. Atheism is a conclusion, not a worldview. We don't sit down and reason from god not existing as some sort of first principle. If apologists could get rid of this absurd notion maybe they will stop asking such ridiculous questions. So my answer counts for me and only me, and has bugger all to do with my atheism, because I was motivated by the same reason when I was a christian.

With that aside, why is it that I remain faithful. There are some very simple reasons why, so let me explain. I don't think I can cheat. Not easily anyway. That's because as I am doing it I will imagine what my wife would feel like if she knew. It doesn't matter if it was impossible for her to ever find out. Inside me I have a concept of what things make her feel like. It's called theory of mind. She occupies a space in my mind that I use when I think of her, and how she would like a joke or a gift, or how she feels about some current events issue. In a way a conceptual version of her lives inside my head, and just as I can't physically beat her or cheat on her, I can't stand the thought of doing it. When I dream of doing anything bad like that, I wake up feeling awful. Cheating wouldn't be fun, because I would be feeling her pain when I do it, regardless of whether she could really find out or not. 

Now I don't know what people who cheat think, but I think they silence the thoughts of that other person in their mind, or they tell themselves the other person is also doing it, or that the other person would not be hurt. I just don't know. The reason I don't cheat is the same reason I don't make jokes about a friend's appearance when they are not around. Quite simply it is because I have empathy, and I find it insulting that anyone would think that atheists are without empathy. 

Regardless of all the poor attempts at philosophy in her post, Melissa doesn't seem to be able to explain a basic constituent of human emotion (empathy) and therefore supposes that it must be from yahweh. It's odd that yahweh felt no empathy for Abraham when he commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, because there is no doubt that even though Abraham did not feel the pain of committing such a terrible act, he still imagined the horror that was about to happen at his hand. I can't imagine any kind of moral grounding emanating from such a monstrosity. 

AS for her Dawkins quote, well... I don't give a shit what Dawkins has to say about relationships because I am not married to him. 

Apologetics And Overconfidence

In a recent interaction I had with an apologist, Nathan Baronthini, I pointed out the overconfidence that he exudes with his arguments, and that his source (William Lane Craig) does not even reflect such confidence. You can check my last two posts to understand the interaction better. There was a specific sticking point for me, reflected by the following quote:
"Therefore, we see that the Kalam argument passes all three "tests," survives all objections, and definitively demonstrates the truth of its conclusion. In other words, Kalam has proven that God must necessarily exist. "
Anyone with even a basic reading of epistemology will wince at this statement, as did I when I responded to it.
"I would like to object in the strongest terms to such declarations. Even William Lane Craig would not make such a bold assertion about the Kalaam, because in philosophy it is almost certain that there will always be objections and unknowns. People like Craig believe that the assumptions (I did say that) of the Kalaam are reasonable ones that we should accept, but that we cannot conclude absolute truths from his arguments. Craig would certainly not present any other argument if his argument was a sure thing."
Nathan saw this as an ad hominem. The reason I had to address his certainty was that if anyone came from his post with his views as accepted, I think it is important to point out the hubris of such a statement. I responded to the idea that it was an ad hominem, but that is not the important part of my response:
"There is no epistemic system which can provide certainty as far as we know. Nathan is simply unaware of the fallibility of human logic and reason. Knowledge as understood by the Greeks as certain truths is an outmoded and ancient concept which every reader of Hume will recognize."
His reply to this was telling:
"Your argument that no epistemic system can provide certainty itself claims certainty, and is self-referentially incoherent."
Nathan literally ignored the second half of my sentence that stated "as far as we know". There is a clear indication that Nathan does not understand epistemology, but his unawareness of his ignorance makes his comment seem even more foolish than his initial assertion that an argument can establish the necessary existence of anything. Knowledge of argumentative fallacies are useful, but blind us when we are ignorant and actively in denial of our ignorance. 

They feed into the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I think is something that Nathan should keep in mind when issuing his confident pronouncements on the universe. The assertion that he makes is so strong that it is hard to understand the ego behind it. Nathan literally thinks he knows the ultimate source of the universe as an indisputable fact, even in the face of the massive uncertainties of cosmology. If Nathan had known any philosophy of science he would have blushed at his poor assessment of what science can tell us. Science by design cannot give us proof of anything. That is why when theologians use science to attempt to demonstrate the existence of god it is a fool's errand. Some theologians recognize this, like William Lane Craig:

Besides the obvious conclusions, why would someone say something like this if they have proven that god exists necessarily? Quite honestly it is how someone talks if they want to make sure they cover their bases. So if cosmology turns out not to support Craig's argument, he is still okay, because he has covered that already. 

Doubt is a built in aspect of science, and indeed one of the most important personal characteristics of someone that cares about truth and one of the most important factors to build into any epistemology, not to mention that the problems of epistemology have made certainty impossible as far as we can tell.

That concludes my interaction with Nathan. It's difficult to drag someone toward more reasonable views of knowledge if they are committed to certainty. The reason for that is that the loss of certainty can be alarming for people who feel a strong need for closure. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for the human mind, which is really unfortunate since we are yet to find certainty anywhere. That does not mean that there aren't people like Nathan that are eager to sell it to us, and their eagerness reflects their happiness at having attaining certainty. The most certain thing I find about certainty is that it is a guaranteed path to foolishness.

What Nathan has done, and what apologists do so often, is excused himself from rational discourse by refusing to accept the entire basis of rational discourse itself. If we don't accept that we can be wrong about something then there is hardly a reason to go out and have a discussion about it. Although I think it goes deeper with people like him. It is not about discourse at all, it is about creating a comfortable echo chamber where people pat each other's backs while ignoring or poorly addressing any outside concerns. These kinds of attitudes are not exclusive to apologetics, but it is extremely common there. If you find yourself agreeing with your peers all the time you should pause and think about that, because something must be wrong. Our in-groups will only be intellectually rigorous if we turn the sceptical gun back on ourselves. It is vital for our own intellectual health that we embrace doubt and uncertainty and actively seek out disagreement. 

Baronthini Responds

A response to Nathan's response to me

Since Nathin included a totally unrelated image, I thought I would do the same:

Herewith, my responses:
"Argumentum ad hominem to start things off and incapable of correctly spelling “kalam”? This isn’t looking promising… "
I would normally thank an opponent for a correction, but done in such poor taste I will refrain from doing that.

Nathan also misunderstands ad hominem arguments. At no point do I make the argument that he is wrong because he is confident, I just point out the lack of humility displayed by Nathan and how distasteful this is to anyone who values the truth or understands the basic problems of epistemology.
"Our author misunderstands the nature of a deductive argument which doesn’t simply supply probabilistic knowledge, but (if the argument passes the three tests I mention in the original post) provides certainty. The classic deductive"
There is no epistemic system which can provide certainty as far as we know. Nathan is simply unaware of the fallibility of human logic and reason. Knowledge as understood by the Greeks as certain truths is an outmoded and ancient concept which every reader of Hume will recognize.

His example is also mistaken, because an argument is only as good as its premises. Deductive arguments only provide predictable outputs based on specific inputs. TRUE && TRUE = TRUE, TRUE && FALSE = FALSE etc... If Nathan can prove his premises true with 100% certainty I would love to see such a proof.
"demonstrate that the universe (and any multi-verse of which it is potentially a part of) have an absolute beginning from nothing. "
This might be true, but it depends on the respective definitions Nathan chooses. As I am not a cosmologist however, I will leave the stage to Sean Carroll:
"[...] the notion of a “cause” isn’t part of an appropriate vocabulary to use for discussing fundamental physics. Rather, modern physical models take the form of unbreakable patterns — laws of Nature — that persist without any external causes. The Aristotelian analysis of causes is outdated when it comes to modern fundamental physics; what matters is whether you can find a formal mathematical model that accounts for the data. The Hartle-Hawking “no-boundary proposal” for the wave function of the universe, for example, is completely self-contained, not requiring any external cause."[1]
So to put it in Nathan's edited words:
"The real lesson here might be to not immediately conclude that serious scientific arguments, which have been debated and defended for centuries by the brightest of men, are quickly and easily refuted on Blogger by someone with very limited scientific knowledge who just happened read, the theologian, William Lane Craig for the first time."[2]
When people make confident pronouncements like the original one Nathan made, they always need to consider those pronouncements may come straight back to bite them in the ass. 

Interestingly, not only does Carroll succeed in undermining the Kalam with his statement about causes, he also undermines the alternate hypotheses of a spaceless timeless material being the cause of the universe that I asked Nathan to consider. However if Nathan rejects what Carroll as to say, my alternate hypothesis remains valid from Nathan's perspective and should be considered.
"A failure to understand the meaning of “eternal” might be the reason our atheist doesn’t understand this. Anything that is eternal must, by definition, exist “sans time.” Far from meaning that something eternal exists at no time, it means something eternal (i.e. not contained in time) exists at all times or, in other words it always exists. A simple dictionary could have supplied the deficiency here. But there’s more… "
Nathan did not understand my objection in his eagerness to respond. I will try to be more clear: Something that is eternal exists forever, which is a temporally laden term. Something which is eternal cannot also cause time to come into existence. Perhaps I should let William Lane Craig speak on this one:
"If God exists but doesn't exist at any time then he does exist but he doesn't exist in time. But I think here Danny is emphasizing the word “never” to say that if God is timeless then he has not existed at any time. He does not exist at any time, and in that sense he never exists. I would say that is right. If God is simply timeless without qualification then paradoxically God never exists. But that doesn't mean God doesn't exist. It just means he doesn't exist at any time. But he exists." [3]
Craig does not give us any idea of what it is supposed to mean to exist timelessly (another topic), but Craig is pretty clear that god is not infinite in his view. God is timeless, which is different. You see, if time is finite god cannot be eternal, because that requires coexistence with an infinite amount of time. Nathan, if you are reading this, I'd appreciate if you asked for clarification instead of eagerly responding and wasting both our time.
"This is dealt with on the original post. I do wish people would bother reading before responding."
Unfortunately I can't respond to a vague reference to another piece of text. Nathan does not understand how to conduct intellectual discourse. Maybe he did deal with my objection there, but maybe I misunderstood his treatment of it and responded erroneously. The point is that you can't respond to lone assertion that an objection has been dealt with. Sorry Nathan.
"Again, no one (except our atheist friend) is discussing Christianity. Leaving that aside, I fail to see how concluding that the creator of an ant farm isn’t necessarily all powerful at all diminishes the unimaginable power that a cause would need to have to produce everything from nothing. This argument is like saying someone who lifts an automobile over his head isn’t strong because I can lift a beer can over mine and I’m not strong."
Nathan, the author of a blog on Catholicism, is denying that the underlying topic is Christianity. I find this hard to believe. I know what this move is, and it is an example of motivated reasoning. What Nathan is doing in the original paragraph, and what Craig also does, is take all the properties they believe Yahweh possesses and then to try and bridge the gap between the conclusion of the Kalam and the Christian deity. My process is to point out the obvious bait and switch that is about to occur. The reasoning is extremely suspect. For example there is no reason to accept Nathan's argument that the cause of the universe must have a will. 

With regards to omnipotence, the problem I tried to point out via analogy is that being able to create a universe does not omnipotent make. Being able to do all things means that Nathan is claiming that the universe comprises all things. This god could live in a universe which itself has a god, the real god. Proponents of the simulation argument will point out yahweh is not able to tell whether he lives in a simulation or not, or is a brain in a vat. This counts equally for yahweh and any generic god that Nathan pretends to be referring to. 
"No one is asking anyone to rely on any intuition"
The rest of that response is essentially sour grapes, so I will save everyone by not quoting. You are however welcome to read about it in the source post. The Kalam is predicated on an a premise which relies on intuition, that everything that begins to exist has a cause. However intuition fights the idea of a timeless entity making a decision or having a will, but the Kalam proponents cherry pick intuitive judgements to make their argument. If we reject intuition wholesale we can't accept the first premise, but if we accept all intuitive judgements we cannot accept that a timeless mind could exist.

I hope this clears things up for Nathan. If Nathan's response follows the same format of responding with little substance and much showboating and declarations of victory, I won't indulge him with another response. I would like to thank him for his time anyway, because I realise that taking time out to respond to something can be inconvenient.

"The real lesson here might be to not immediately conclude that serious philosophical arguments, which have been debated and defended for centuries by the brightest of men, are quickly and easily refuted on YouTube by someone with very limited philosophical knowledge who just happened read, the biologist, Richard Dawkins for the first time."

A Response To Baronthini On The Kalaam

This is a post responding to Nathan Baronthini's* blog post "The Heavens Proclaim the Greatness of God - A Look at the Kalam Argument"

Nathan tries to mount a defense of the Kalaam cosmological argument as defended by William Lane Craig. He makes an arrogant proclamation at the end of his post that "the Kalam argument passes all three "tests," survives all objections, and definitively demonstrates the truth of its conclusion. In other words, Kalam has proven that God must necessarily exist. "

Before I continue, I would like to object in the strongest terms to such declarations. Even William Lane Craig would not make such a bold assertion about the Kalaam, because in philosophy it is almost certain that there will always be objections and unknowns. People like Craig believe that the assumptions (I did say that) of the Kalaam are reasonable ones that we should accept, but that we cannot conclude absolute truths from his arguments. Craig would certainly not present any other argument if his argument was a sure thing.

With that aside, my objections follow:
" If we take a step back and consider what the universe is (all of space, time, and matter)"
This is based on a poor understanding of what materialists mean when they refer to matter. Matter is not a collection of the particles we observe. Matter is the fundamental substance of reality. With that in mind the universe as defined by a materialist does not end at the boundary of spacetime, and thus the Kalaam is weakened to include only the observable universe. Nathan's universe is too small, just like the ancient cosmologists who thought that there was a ceiling beyond which heaven existed. The Kalaam is at least as effective at demonstrating that this fundamental material substance is the cause of the universe as it is at demonstrating that a god is, and it wins in the department of parsimony because it doesn't assume that the cause of the universe also had a fish and wine business in the ancient world. It also meets both causal requirements by being both an efficient and material cause. 
"As the cause created all of time, it must not be contained within time, therefore it must be eternal."
Maybe I don't understand this bit, but something that seems to "exist" sans time (whatever that may mean) cannot be defined as eternal. It exists at no time. In other words it never exists. 
"As the cause created all of matter, it must not itself be material, therefore it must be immaterial. "
If you understood materialism you would not make this argument. Materialists do not claim that material must be extended in space and exist in time. It just refers to the most basic substance of existence. The material that materialists refer to offers a perfectly valid explanatory framework for the existence of the universe, and although admittedly vague and fraught with conjecture, still relies on less assumption than positing a mind that "exists" somehow in the absence of time and space. 
"As the cause created the entire universe, it must be inconceivably, indeed all, powerful, therefore it must be omnipotent."
I don't see how this follows. Do ants in an ant farm that become sentient reason that I, the creator of the antfarm must be all powerful and all knowing? At best I could know everything about the antfarm. What theists presuppose is that yahweh exists ultimately and uncaused, and this assertion is never defended except by sloppily pointing back to the theological definition for yahweh they have crafted, that manages to sneak in the presupposition that yahweh is uncaused even though the entity has not yet been demonstrated. 
"As the universe doesn't exist eternally with its cause (that is, the cause of the universe doesn't necessarily bring forth the universe), the cause must have a will, it must be personal. "
This is based on the reasoning that something needs to decide for the universe to come into existence. However if we consider a realm that is timeless (if that is even possible) there would be no time at which such a decision could be made and so such a decision seems impossible and unnecessary. Proponents of the KCA ask us to rely on our intuition when it comes to things beginning to exist but to throw it out when we need to consider things that are supposed to be timeless but at once also be able to make decisions. 
" Such a being is obviously what men mean when they speak of "God." "
Of course he means yahweh, but he hasn't demonstrated that, so even if his argument succeeds, it fails to demonstrate that said being is yahweh. It is perfectly plausible that yahweh is a fiction and that the god that created the universe has nothing to do with it. Nathan comfortably ignores any alternate hypotheses in order to reason himself back to the conclusion he so confidently reaches in the final paragraph of his post. We are expected to believe that a god that creates the universe also asked middle eastern people to cut their genitals, which contradicts any kind of common sense. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing people do when they try to do philosophy backwards. 

This is only a treatment of one of Nathan's paragraphs. I don't know if my objections succeed, and I will save any confident pronouncements and leave you, the reader, to make up your own mind. 

* I am not linking to Nathan's Google+ profile here as I usually do, because I do that for the purpose of mentioning someone so that they can respond, and since Nathan has blocked me he will not receive the mention.

Pt 3: When To End Discussions: Prejudice

Following closely on the heels of disrespect is prejudice. Prejudice is fairly common and hardly always a reason to end a discussion, however there are particular scenarios in which the best course of action to undertake is to simply end a discourse with someone who is prejudiced against you. 

Almost everyone knows what a kangaroo court is. In case you don't, it is a court where your innocence or guilt has been determined before you appeared to defend yourself. The court exists purely to give the impression of fairness. In the same way some prejudiced people will listen to other positions with the express decision to dismiss those positions out of hand as soon as they have heard them. I think sales people understand the principle best when they approach people or do a cold call and realise that the person they are communicating with is very unlikely to buy the product. So unlikely, that it makes more sense to move to someone else who might be more open and in need of the product. 

In the same way, the amount of discussions you can have are finite, and by spending time with someone who you can see is very unlikely to take your positions seriously you are losing time that could have been used on better discussions. 

There are many reasons to be prejudiced. Maybe you are gay, hold different religious views, are young, perhaps you are less experienced. None of these reasons should dismiss you from a discussion. Who you are has nothing to do with the points you put forward. If you can see that someone is not taking you seriously because of who you are instead of paying attention to the content of what you are saying, the same principle applies as with previous reasons for ending discussions.

Identifying prejudice is usually easy, and you should be mindful of identifying it in yourself. As before, if you find yourself to hold a strong prejudice against someone it might be a good idea not to engage with that person, or to end a discussion if you can't set your own prejudices aside even for a moment. When someone is prejudiced they will make generalisations and use words like all and always to refer to groups people belong to and polarising words like evil, degenerate, subhuman. A statement like "All Christians are subhuman scum" should be a clear problem if you are a Christian. But don't simply end discussions at the first sign of prejudice. We should always try and give people a chance, because if we are wrong we would want them to give us a chance right?

First have a discussion about the problem. Point out the prejudice and ask the other person to put it aside for the sake of the discussion. If someone cannot respond and keeps saying things like "you're too young to understand" or "you don't have enough experience" or "all gays are evil child molesters" there is nothing you can do. I end these types of discussions by pointing out why I feel that I do not have a fair chance to be heard and then ignore subsequent commentary from that person or if it is a discussion in person I change the topic. You cannot convince someone of something if they are already convinced that anything you say is invalid without giving it a thought. 

Pt 2: When To End A Discussion: Disrespect

This is a tough one. Often times people don't mean disrespect when they say things, often times people will say they don't mean disrespect when they actually do. The key with disrespect is a general pattern of behaviour. Someone who is disrespectful may not engage in fallacious reasoning, but rather show disrespect at various opportunities. If someone keeps calling you an idiot for example, you might feel like you can just carry on with the discussion because it doesn't harm you, but there are other good reasons to end discussions besides having your feelings hurt by someone who does not show you respect. 

When someone shows a pattern of disrespect they are probably not open to listening to what you have to say. I think it is rare enough that someone who is disrespectful will take your ideas seriously that discussion with such a person is a total waste of time. After all, who takes what an idiot says seriously. If someone thinks you are an idiot and does not demonstrate any willingness to shift that position then much of what you are saying will likely be discarded. You probably know this already, but sometimes we cling to discussions where people are disrespectful because we are getting defensive.

When someone disrespects me there is an automatic thought process I have that if I reason with the person and show them that I am not what they think I am they will come around and say "yeah you weren't an idiot after all. You proved me wrong. I apologize.". Even though this is possible, I highly doubt that it is common. It's never happened to me at least. 

As with anger, I think it is worth a try to salvage the discussion by pointing out the disrespect. Let that person know that they are welcome to disagree with you, but being disrespectful will result in the discussion ending. Some people are very passionate, and upon realising their overzealous behaviour might change their tune. However sometimes people are very deliberate in their disrespect. By constantly biting at your ankles they get a rise out of you and that gives them something they want. I am not sure what, but it seems that some people revel in making others angry or defensive. It can also be a sign of a dirty tactic to get you on a back foot defending yourself instead of discussing the actual topics. These kinds of tactics can be used in debates, but they are also pervasive in informal discussions with people who seem to think they are valuable tools.

Discussions are not usually about an audience, but you have to realise that someone who employs jibes may appeal to people who like to take sides. If people use disrespect it results in anger and polarisation, and once you have two distinct sides fighting there really is not much more value to be extracted from the discussion. 

Finally, if you feel that you are losing respect for someone and treating them disrespectfully, it may be a good time to end a discussion. Respect goes both ways. If you feel that you cannot treat someone with respect it is also likely that you cannot take what that person says seriously. It is also likely that they will detect the disrespect and discard everything you have to say. I think that if you are unable to do the best possible job at changing someone's mind if they have a bad idea, you are morally obliged to excuse yourself. 

We need to model discussions after the kind of discourse we would like to see. If we start by holding ourselves to high standards and refusing to engage in mud fights our example will lead others to do the same. If you are an interesting person to talk to, someone who may have been disrespectful might come back with a nicer attitude, because they really want to discuss something you said somewhere. I like to think of respect as a fee that people pay to enter the discussion, and the best discussions I've read and taken part in are what they are because of respect.

When To End Discussions

One of the toughest things to learn in any discourse is when to terminate an exchange. I don't think it is tough because it's hard to tell when it is a good idea as much as it remains tempting to keep responding when you can think of a way to respond to something someone else has said. It's right there at the tip of your tongue (or fingers in the case of online exchanges), so why stop the exchange and when does it make sense to stop. 

I've lost confidence in the traditional view of what exchanges supposedly are. The traditional view is that we exchange ideas and if we differ one party changes their mind on the spot. Even though I suspect that people who think and write about discourse know this is false, the belief that exchanges work this way still seems pervasive. This serves to explain much of the frustration we face when we engage in unproductive discussions. If we instead start seeing exchanges as an opportunity to trade ideas without the requirement of agreement, in a series of exchanges spanning an undefined amount of time, I think we can move toward more productive discussions in general. 

Something to keep in mind when ending discussions is that nobody has a right to get answers from you. Demanding responses from you does not mean you need to indulge them. If people play the role of judge or inquisitor you still have a choice to carry on or not. Keeping this choice in the back of your mind can save you from a lot of grief and a lot of bad discussions that make you and your interlocutor unhappy.

With that in mind, I'd like to highlight some of my own guidelines for ending discussions to get the thought running in your mind. My guidelines are probably wrong at least to some degree, but I consider them a starting point. I don't like to write really long blog posts, so I will create small posts on each reason I use to decide when to terminate a discussion. I will try and start with the obvious ones to get them out of the way, and then try and shift to more nuanced reasons. 

I will list the topics here as I complete them, so expect an incomplete list here, with the ever present possibility that more posts may be added later.

Here are the reasons I end discussions:

1. Aggressive Behaviour
2. Disrespect
3. Prejudice