Why would God bother at all?

It’s a very simple question and one I’ve asked a number of believers over the years, but have yet to get any kind of a reasonable answer. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of it’s been kicking around in my brain the past couple of days so I thought I’d take the time to write it down.

For the sake of the argument we’ll have to assume that God does exist and he has a reason for doing the things that he does. We should also try to define his basic properties; what we mean when we use the word “God.” To keep it simple let’s go with the basic assumptions present in most of the big religions:

  1. God is perfect.
  2. God is all-powerful.
  3. God is all-knowing.
  4. God is eternal.

Right off the bat with the first aspect of God we have a problem of motivation that I’ve never been able to get past. A common interpretation of the word “perfect” is: entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings, thorough; complete. A truly perfect being would need nothing and thus want for nothing and, logically, have no reason to do anything. All the usual motivations us mere humans have for doing things would be of no concern to a God. Our motivations are driven by needs, both real and perceived, and even when we claim we’re doing something for no reason that’s often not the reality of the situation. God wouldn’t need anything. Not food, companionship, entertainment, sleep, sex, or anything else.

So why would he create anything? He has no need for Heaven, angels, universes, planets, people, critters, and so on and he couldn’t possibly gain anything from the creation process he doesn’t already have because he’s perfect. If he needed any of those things or even if he just had a need to create he wouldn’t be perfect. If God has no good reason to create anything then why are we here? I recognize that this implies that God could exist and not be perfect, but most religions reject that possibility.

The second attribute of God invites all manner of logical paradoxes. Most folks interpret all-powerful to mean that God can do anything which invites classic questions like, “Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?” The obvious answer being no which means that there’s a limit to God’s power (it’s a limit on what he can do and thus not all-powerful) and at the same time if he could do it then there would still be a limit to God’s power (a limit to how heavy an object he can lift, but not how heavy he can create). Of course that assumes that God has a physical form to lift things with, unless you assume he does his lifting by some other means (telekinesis perhaps?), and the further your pursue that rabbit the deeper you’ll find the rabbit hole goes. Of course it’s a moot point in the face of attribute one which removes any need to create a heavy stone and then try to lift it. Still you can have a lot of fun thinking up various paradoxes like “can God get lost” which ties into aspect number three as well as two.

Speaking of the third attribute, this introduces yet more motivation and paradox problems. Most of the big religions consider all-knowing to mean that he knows everything there is to know from the past, now, and the future. Ask how this is possible and the most common explanation you’ll get is that God exists outside of the universe and thus can see the whole thing from beginning to end. The obvious logical contradiction this causes is in regards to free will. Most of the big religions believe that you have free will, but they also believe that God knows everything you will do before you’re born. God, being all-knowing and perfect, can’t be wrong so logically you have to live out the life that God knows you will live which means that you don’t really have a choice and thusly don’t really have free will, but the believers will insist that you do because otherwise you can’t be held accountable for your actions by God. It’s a paradox and one that people will happily argue with you about until you’re blue in the face without ever grasping that it’s a paradox.

But assuming for the moment that God went ahead and created everything for no reason and assuming that it’s possible to have free will in spite of God knowing ahead of time what you’re going to do, the fact that he’s all-knowing still makes the exercise pointless. Before God created even the first elementary particles for the first atoms at the very start of creation he already knew how it would all play out in the end. Again this begs the question of why even bother if it’s all just going through the motions? What does God gain from this that he wouldn’t have already had if he’d not done anything at all? Again, by definition, God doesn’t need anything and is complete unto himself. What value could an exercise like reality hold that would motivate a being who doesn’t need any of it to be complete?

The fourth attribute is an interesting one because it’s hard to really wrap your head around the concept of forever. We are finite beings and everything we see around us is also finite. Though bits of reality have mind bogglingly long existences that they may as well be infinite as far as the length of our puny lives are concerned, the point remains that everything appears to have a beginning and, at some point, an end.  The universe itself is finite as far as most of the big religions are concerned. It has a beginning and will have an end and while the length of its existence is beyond human comprehension it’s also ridiculously short in comparison to “forever.” Which brings us once again to asking why God would bother? Consider that God may have existed for countless eons compared to the universe (though most would argue that time is meaningless where God resides) and will continue to exist for countless eons after the universe is gone. What does he gain with the relatively short experiment with reality that he wouldn’t have had prior to it? Being perfect he doesn’t need anything and he was perfectly comfortable with existing on his own for, if you’ll pardon the pun, God knows how long prior to bothering with creation and he’ll continue to exist – unchanging by most religion’s definition – long after the universe has gone the way of the dodo. Reality is a pointless exercise on that time scale.

All of these problems are before we even start in on what reasons a particular religion’s take on God might have for the various rules and regulations he’s laid down, which, when you consider the source, are almost entirely arbitrary. These questions imply a single God, but most of them apply to religions with many Gods as well. Perfect beings, as a whole, would have no motivation to do anything. That’s the sort of thinking I do when my brain gets going.

Man thinking hand has mark of the beast, cuts it off and microwaves it.

And, for some strange reason, people think he’s crazy:

HAYDEN, Idaho (AP)—A man who believed he bore the biblical “mark of the beast” used a circular saw to cut off one hand, then he cooked it in the microwave and called 911, authorities said.

The man, in his mid-20s, was calm when Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies arrived Saturday. He was in protective custody in the mental health unit of Kootenai Medical Center.

“It had been somewhat cooked by the time the deputy arrived,” sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger said. “He put a tourniquet on his arm before, so he didn’t bleed to death. That kind of mental illness is just sad.”

There are a lot of people out there who claim to believe every word in the Bible as being literally true. That Bible contains passages about the mark of the beast and where it might show up (head and hand) and it also says what to do if a part of your body (hand) causes you to sin (cut it off). Based on all of that and assuming that A) this guy really believes those passages to be The Truth™ and B) this guy really believed his hand had the mark of the beast on it then his action C) of cutting it off was a perfectly rational act. Microwaving it was probably unnecessary, but then perhaps he’d recently watched Evil Dead and wanted to make sure his hand didn’t come back to haunt him. When you consider that he had the presence of mind to put a tourniquet on prior to cutting his hand off then there’s really no reason to think he’s nuts.

And yet people do. How strange is that?

Another example of faith standing in the way of progress.

Over in India the government is attempting to build a shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka that would provide a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian peninsula reducing travel time for ships by hundreds of miles and boosting the economic and industrial development of the region. Sounds like a great idea, right? There’s just one teensy little problem:

Hindu hardliners say the project will destroy what they say is a bridge built by Ram and his army of monkeys.

Scientists and archaeologists say the Ram Setu (Lord Ram’s bridge) – or Adam’s Bridge as it is sometimes called – is a natural formation of sand and stones.

Ram is one of the Hindu gods and supposedly he got an army of monkeys together, which just proves how cool a god Ram is, and built a bridge to Sri Lanka so they could go out drinking or beat someone up or something. I don’t recall the specifics at the moment, but you can be damned certain they had a good reason to build that bridge and the faithful believe that the bridge in question just happens to lie in the path of this canal project.

So the Indian government, using an uncommon sense of reason not employed by the U.S. Government, decided to get together with the Archaeological Survey of India to see if there was anything in the way of cold, hard evidence to back up this religious story which is “solely based on the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana. They looked at the facts, they wrote it down in a report, and they presented it to the courts:

They said there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in Ramayana ever took place or that the characters depicted in the epic were real.

The Indian Hindus, being perfectly reasonable and thoughtful people, agreed that the report was a fair and accurate accounting of the facts and dropped their opposition to the canal project.

Ha ha! Just kidding! What they really did was go batshit insane:

In the last two days, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has launched a scathing attack on the government for questioning the “faith of the million”.

On Wednesday, Hindu hard-line organisations blocked roads across India to protest against the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project.

Commuters in the capital, Delhi, were stuck in traffic jams for hours as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal blocked roads at various places.

Road blocks were also held in Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, on the Delhi-Agra highway and on the Jaipur-Agra highway.

Train services were disrupted in many places across northern India.

It’s always a bad idea to tell deluded people that they’re deluded and reality is something other than what they think it to be. The government, realizing that it governs over a lot of crazy people, decided to withdraw the report from the court:

Worried about the adverse reaction from the majority Hindu population of the country, the Congress Party-led government has now done a U-turn and withdrawn the statement submitted in court.

The government asked the court for three months to try and sort out the issue.

Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam, appearing on behalf of the government, said they would set up a mechanism to hear concerns expressed by those opposed to the canal project.

The court adjourned the matter for three months saying they would take up the case again in January.

In the meantime, the court has said that dredging work for the canal could continue, but Ram’s Bridge should not be touched

Now it’s important to have an idea of just what’s at stake here so here’s a picture of this land bridge and here is Wikipedia’s description of the bridge:

Adam’s Bridge, known in India as Rama’s Bridge or Rama Setu, is a chain of limestone shoals, between the islands of Mannar, near northwestern Sri Lanka, and Rameswaram, off the southeastern coast of India.

The bridge is 30 miles (48 km) long and separates the Gulf of Mannar (southwest) from the Palk Strait (northeast). Some of the sandbanks are dry and the sea in the area is very shallow, being only 3 ft to 30 ft (1 m to 10 m) deep in places, which hinders navigation.

So what we’re dealing with here is basically a partially submerged land bridge that a bunch of people at some point in the past made up some religious story about that has now made it into some sort of sacred place that can’t be touched for fear of a monkey army revolt. Or something. The upshot of it all is that thanks to a majority of the Indian population being True Believers™ ships are forced to travel all the way around the peninsula because a canal is out of the question. Just one more example of superstition slowing down progress.

Update: Forgot to mention this was sent in by Tom McCann.

Jesus is Not Coming Back

I found this while reading The Skepchick:

Jesus is not returning
John Bice

According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “An overwhelming percentage of Christians (79 percent) say they believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ.”

That statistic isn’t surprising when one considers that most Christians also believe in the devil, resurrection, angels, heaven, hell and other fairy tales. Irrational beliefs can be benign or directly harmful. For example, the silly assertion that Jesus was born of a virgin probably doesn’t negatively influence opinions on important matters and policies. The widespread belief in the “second coming,” however, can have significant public consequences.

Voters convinced the return of Jesus is imminent may find themselves rather unconcerned with solving problems requiring long-term perspective and commitment.

A 2004 article in The Christian Science Monitor on apocalyptic end-times theology, quoted one man as saying, “I know people who have sold their houses and lived with relatives because they thought the world would soon come to an end … I know others who’ve cut their education short because they thought it more important to witness to people than to get their degree.”

An Associated Press poll, conducted in late 2006, found that 25 percent of Americans (and nearly half of white evangelical Christians) believed there was a good chance that Jesus would return in 2007.

Translation: Tens of millions of Americans expect Jesus any day now.

For these people, issues like energy independence, the federal budget deficit, sustainable environmental practices or global climate change aren’t a big priority. Instead, their attention is focused on religious “moral issues,” like protecting marriage from homosexuals or arranging burials for embryonic stem cells.

Earlier this year, the National Association of Evangelicals, an erudite group to be sure, rebuffed forward thinking religious leaders for suggesting that global climate change represents a genuine crisis. They claimed that such talk shifts “the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time,” such as the “integrity of marriage,” and promoting “sexual abstinence.”

Preserving the global ecosystem for future generations simply isn’t an important moral consideration for anyone convinced Jesus is rounding the corner with a fistful of tickets to heaven. For this reason, and others, I think it’s important to point out something rather obvious.

Jesus isn’t coming back.

Consider the most obvious reason. Assuming someone resembling Jesus ever lived, the guy has been dead for nearly 2,000 years. This fact represents very compelling evidence for why Jesus won’t be coming back. Actually, it’s so compelling, rational people are quite satisfied to stop there.

Bible fans, however, also may wish to consider what Jesus allegedly said. Many passages in the Gospels make clear that Jesus believed the end was nigh. He predicted an imminently approaching apocalypse, which would establish the Kingdom of God (aka Kingdom of Heaven) on earth.

In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus asserts that the end would occur within the lifetime of some he was addressing, “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

In Matthew, Jesus says, “The Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

That simply didn’t happen. Jesus was wrong. This creates quite a problem for Bible believers, which they solve in their normal way. Passages fitting their particular brand of Christianity are to be taken literally, whereas passages that disagree, make no sense, or are obviously incorrect need to be somehow “interpreted.”

However, the writings of Paul make it absolutely clear that early Christians took Jesus at his word, literally, and were convinced the end would come quickly. In First Corinthians, for example, Paul’s advice to single followers was to not bother getting married. Paul wrote, “the time is short … this world in its present form is passing away.”

Jesus was a false prophet. The end simply didn’t come as he claimed. His followers have been proven wrong.

Believers need to shed their puerile fantasies.

http://www.statenews.com/index.php/article/2007/09/jesus_is_not_returning

I realize John isn’t saying all that much that hasn’t already been said, but it is worth noting.  Especially the part about True Believers doing crazy things because they believe the world will end any day now. I personally quit attending college when I was a fundy with the intent of attending Bible College and spreading the word.  I don’t know where I would be today if I had decided to get the degree that I was working toward instead of preparing for the Rapture. 

The comments on the article are what you would expect.  My favorite (though I haven’t read through all of them) has got to be this one:

And if you are correct Mr. Bice, what good does it do to destroy people’s faith? How are you helping society by undermining the foundations of morality?

Europe has gone down the path you recommend, and the results are too promising, Europe is dying because of the secular, egalitarian values that people like you prescribe.

So what if it is a lie, assuming it is. Read your philosophy a little deeper, start with the Republic and contemplate the idea of the Noble Lie.

Better than your prescription for nihilism.

 

Examining the fictional morality of “Star Wars.”

I have to admit that I really didn’t care much for the Star Wars prequels and I thought it was because of idiotic plot devices such as the “midichlorians” and JarJar Binks, but perhaps the reason I didn’t like them was more involved than that. Perhaps I didn’t like them because the morality they present just plain old sucks. And not just in the prequels, but in the original movies as well.

I came to realize this after reading Fictional Morality: Star Wars over at Action Skeptics which turns a critical eye on the “Jedi Code” and explains why it’s one of the worst moral systems ever imagined:

Even bigger problems arise when we look at the Star Wars universe as context. The biggest implication of this part of the Jedi Code is that Jedi are urged to be completely emotionless. On one hand, this allows them (potentially) to deliver impartial judgements. On the other, it denies them things that might well make them better people, put them more “at peace,” so to speak. Anakin Skywalker could have had a perfectly fine marriage were it not for this code. Instead, he hid his marriage and was wracked with (poorly acted) anxiety over his breach of the code. Were this tenet absent, he would have had emotion and peace. Instead he had emotion and emotional turmoil because he was breaking Jedi dogma.

This tenet is also inherently cruel given the structure of Jedi training. The Padawan learner inevitably builds a strong emotional bond with his teacher, all the while being told that such emotion is immoral and wrong. We have problems from the outset. It is almost reminiscent of the oft-told story about various militaries through time: the troops are each given a puppy and told to love it and take care of it, then once they have bonded with it are instructed to kill their puppies. The Padawans are thrown into a situation where emotion is inevitable but are led to believe that such emotion is wrong and should be eliminated.

I hadn’t really sat down to think about it, but seeing it spelled out by Akusai in this essay really brings home one what is arguably the most irritating thing about the whole Star Wars universe. Namely that its system of morality sucks and results in some pretty piss-poor storytelling as a result. In the original trilogy the Jedi mythology was kept murky enough that you could overlook it, but we become much more familiar with the Jedi in the prequels and it’s then that the problems with the morality become more pronounced. Why it never occurred to me prior to reading Akusai’s excellent essay about it is puzzling. It’s a good read and you should check out the full essay. Next up is the morality of Dungeons and Dragons and I can’t wait.

The real problem with the brain is that it’s so easily fooled.

When people find out I’m an atheist it often results in a lively discussion on God, reality, and the nature of belief. One of the questions that invariably comes up is how I can discount the claims of miracles witnessed by so many people. It’s easy, I usually say, because the human mind is pretty bad about interpreting reality accurately. All it takes is a visit to a good magic show to see how true that is. I’ve seen various magicians cut assistants and themselves in half, walk on water, fly, walk through walls, make whole mountains disappear and more, but I know they didn’t really do those things.

Which is why it’s entirely appropriate that a number of magicians would be making presentations at the annual Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in Las Vegas that recently took place:

It was Sunday night on the Las Vegas Strip, where earlier this summer the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness was holding its annual meeting at the Imperial Palace Hotel. The organization’s last gathering had been in the staid environs of Oxford, but Las Vegas — the city of illusions, where the Statue of Liberty stares past Camelot at the Sphinx — turned out to be the perfect locale. After two days of presentations by scientists and philosophers speculating on how the mind construes, and misconstrues, reality, we were hearing from the pros: James (The Amazing) Randi, Johnny Thompson (The Great Tomsoni), Mac King and Teller — magicians who had intuitively mastered some of the lessons being learned in the laboratory about the limits of cognition and attention.

“This wasn’t just a group of world-class performers,” said Susana Martinez-Conde, a scientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix who studies optical illusions and what they say about the brain. “They were hand-picked because of their specific interest in the cognitive principles underlying the magic.”

“In real life if you see something done again and again, you study it and you gradually pick up a pattern,” he said as he walked onstage holding a brass bucket in his left hand. “If you do that with a magician, it’s sometimes a big mistake.”

Pulling one coin after another from the air, he dropped them, thunk, thunk, thunk, into the bucket. Just as the audience was beginning to catch on — somehow he was concealing the coins between his fingers — he flashed his empty palm and, thunk, dropped another coin, and then grabbed another from a gentlemen’s white hair. For the climax of the act, Teller deftly removed a spectator’s glasses, tipped them over the bucket and, thunk, thunk, two more coins fell.

As he ran through the trick a second time, annotating each step, we saw how we had been led to mismatch cause and effect, to form one false hypothesis after another. Sometimes the coins were coming from his right hand, and sometimes from his left, hidden beneath the fingers holding the bucket.

He left us with his definition of magic: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.”

The article is three pages long and touches on some of the various experiments that have been done on human perception and the limits of consciousness. One of the best quotes comes at the end from James Randi himself:

“Allow people to make assumptions and they will come away absolutely convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact,” Mr. Randi said. “It’s not necessarily so.”

So getting back to those inevitable discussions, I usually point out that the reason I don’t put a lot of stock into eyewitness accounts of anything without something else to back them up is because all too often what we think we see and what we do see are two different things.

It’s all the Baby Boomer’s fault…

Prometheus has an entry up on his blog A Photon in the Darkness that talks a little about the Age of Unreason that we appear to be living in these days in America in which he lays the blame for the rise in magical thinking at the feet of the Baby Boomers:

So, the Baby Boomers spent their twenties trying various magical means to bring about world peace and brotherly love (or just getting stoned out of their minds) and then got distracted by making a fortune in the stock market, buying loft condos and finding a way to keep from getting old.

However, the magical thinking never left them – and they’ve passed it on to succeeding generations.

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but in stopping to reflect on the above I have to admit that I agree with his assessment. Quite a few of the Baby Boomers I know tend to be afflicted with a tendency toward magical thinking. Prometheus then goes on to offer a few things he feels provides evidence of this problem from the promotion of Intelligent Design to all the Quantum Connectedness woo-woo that’s going around these days.

The whole entry is worth a read, but I particularly liked his closing statement and wanted to share it here:

Our society is growing more and more dependent on rationality, science and technology to keep it from collapsing. It’s too late to turn back, now – giving up on reason and returning to magical thinking will cause a human (and probably environmental) catastrophe that would beggar the imagination. And, at the same time, the forces of Unreason encourage us to turn our back on reality in favor of “The Secret” or other such nonsense.

The technology that most people take for granted is far beyond the knowledge of the “average” citizen – not because they can’t understand it, but because they don’t. We run a very real risk of having an increasingly smaller proportion of our population that understands how critical technologies work or – even worse – the principles behind them.

Now is the time to take a stand – to come out on the side of Reason over Unreason, of Science over Magic, of Reality over Fantasy.

Or, we can all sit and meditate on a happier future.

I hadn’t come across his blog previously, but I’ll be adding it to my blogroll soon.