Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I Don't Believe in God

Before I get to my reasons, I better address something else first: why I’m even posting this. Part of it is because it took a lot of time and research to get to where I am now, and by being open with what I’ve learned, it might help someone wondering about these issues. It’s also out of the hope that if believers see that there are respectable, logical reasons for coming to the conclusion I’ve come to, then maybe they’ll respect atheists like myself as being genuine and sincere in our search for truth, and as being good people.

The first thing anyone asks me when they find out I don’t believe in God anymore is: “So, what does your wife think about that?” She obviously wasn’t thrilled when I decided to come out as an atheist, but she loves me and wants to make things work in spite of our religious differences. She respects my views enough to let me publish them and represent them, and I respect her views as well.

Now to the meat of the post: why I don’t believe in God. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’m going to argue that the existence of God is a very extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence. To make that more clear, I’m going to put it in terms of Bayesian statistics:

Pr(God exists given evidence) = Pr(evidence given God exists) x Pr(God exists) / Pr(evidence)

“Pr” means probability. What I mean by “evidence” is the claimed evidence that God exists. Pr(God exists) means the pre-existing probability that God exists, prior to examining the evidence. Some people seem to think that this probability is entirely subjective, and personally determined. I believe that it can be determined more objectively.

The chances of something complex spontaneously self-assembling is very low. For example, you would not expect that junk thrown in a junkyard would just happen to form a Boeing 747. The traditional Christian view is that God has always existed, so atheists have considered the likelihood of His existing as being the same as the likelihood of His spontaneously coming into existence. Some Mormons, based on some statements of Joseph Smith’s, think that our God was created by a previous God, who was created by another God, and so on infinitely back through time. It’s basically pushing things back in time but doesn’t resolve the central question of how Gods first came to be, so I’d calculate the probability of the first God existing in the same way. The most reasonable suggestion would be that Gods originally arose through evolution, but then you’d still be unnecessarily postulating a whole lot of complexity in that case too.

The question then becomes: is God necessarily very complex? What we know about intelligence indicates that all intelligence arises from very complicated structures. We are the most intelligent thing we know of, and we do our thinking with our brains. Our brains are made up of something like 100 billion neurons, connected together with around 100 trillion synapses. Researchers have determined how individual neurons work, and which areas of the brain are responsible for which tasks.* We know this because when a certain area of the brain is damaged, it dysfunctions in a predictable way and because when people do certain things, electrical activity spikes in certain areas in a predictable way. We can also observe which chemicals tend to transmit a certain type of information, and how adding drugs can affect our thinking, even our moral thinking. This evidence leads me to the conclusion that our brain does our thinking, not a spirit, and that our intelligence is the result of the very complex organization of our brains. There is no example of intelligence that does not arise out of complexity. I conclude that if God exists, his intelligence also arises out of very complex organization.

There is another reason I think God must be complex: He must follow the Law of Conservation of Energy. You might assume that God can violate the Laws of Physics, but there’s a good reason to conclude that He can’t. Any existence with predictability has laws. In other words, a law can only be a law if is able to predict things, and it can’t predict anything unless it includes point-of-view invariance. Physicists can derive what laws must exist if point-of-view invariance is maintained, and they include Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Law of Conservation of Energy, and even the special theory of relativity. This means that these laws will exist not only in our universe, but in every universe with laws. It also means that God did not create these physical laws, but rather he is subject to them.**

Now that we understand that God must be subject to the Law of Conservation of Energy, let’s consider some of the things he’s supposed to be able to do. We’ll start with hearing and answering prayers. He would have to be aware of the state of each person’s brain. That is, he’d have to know the physical state of the 100 trillion synapses in each of the brains of the 6 billion people on the planet, and exactly how to change the state of those synapses to communicate the information he wants to communicate in order to answer a person’s prayer. That can’t be done with electromagnetic waves, so we have to assume he’s using a method of data transmission currently unknown (even theoretically) to physicists. The main point, though, is that it takes energy to change the states of people’s brains, and retrieving data, processing it, and sending it back by making those changes while observing the Law of Conservation of Energy would require a complex structure in the same way that our brains and bodies are complex structures.

Now let’s go back to that statistical equation I put at the beginning of the article, which I’ll repeat here for convenience:

Pr(God exists given evidence) = Pr(evidence given God exists) x Pr(God exists) / Pr(evidence)

All of the arguments I’ve stated aren’t about observing evidence, they’re about computing the likelihood that God exists before considering the evidence for his existence, Pr(God exists). I’ve concluded this probability is very low, something on the order of 1/(10^80). That’s a pretty darn small number. Now let’s say someone is able to predict something very specifically, say, the civil war and where it started. If God didn’t exist, the likelihood of their being able to predict that thing is very low. We’ll say it’s 1/10000. That’s Pr(evidence). If God does exist, the likelihood is much higher, say, 1. That’s Pr(evidence given God exists). When I plug these numbers into my equation, I conclude that given this evidence, the likelihood of God existing, Pr(God exists given evidence), is about 1/(10^76). In other words, it’s not even close. The alleged evidence isn’t even remotely close to the order of magnitude that would be necessary to justify belief in Him.

Update: As some people have noted, Pr(evidence) and Pr(God exists given evidence) are really the probabilities of every outcome of every experience that could have resulted in evidence for God, all multiplied together. Of course that makes them fairly subjective, so I respect the opinions that maybe they are far different than I've stated here.

The basic conclusion from this whole discussion is that if the nature of reality is what it appears to be according to science, then God almost certainly doesn’t exist. The alleged evidence isn’t even close to substantiating belief in a God that exists in the same type of reality that we exist in. So I conclude that all arguments that God exists have to center around asserting that the nature of reality is totally different than what science has revealed.

Now if you are comfortable with that, or if you think that some of my logic is shaky, or just plain would rather believe in God because you’re happier that way and just don’t care about these types of arguments, there’s nothing wrong with that. The whole purpose of this article is just to gain respect. I hope that I can at least convince some people that atheists have good reasons to not believe in God, even if they disagree with those reasons. I didn’t lose my faith in God because I was sinning. I was doing my best to follow the commandments and do everything asked of me by the church. It wasn’t because I found it more convenient (I didn’t), or was offended by someone at church (I wasn’t), or would rather God didn’t exist (I don’t), or wasn’t receptive to the spirit. I’ve had very powerful spiritual experiences. But I still lost my faith in God because I found the logic of standard atheist arguments to be convincing. So regardless of what you believe, I hope that you can accept me and my fellow atheists as genuine and sincere seekers of truth.

* My understanding of Neuroscience comes from having read this book:

The point of the book is that there is strong evidence in the organization of our brains that they are the product of evolution, but the evidence it presents is equally applicable to demonstrating that our brains do our thinking, not a spirit.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Same Sex Marriage

A lot of my views on same sex marriage were formed while reading Brad Carmack’s book,“Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student’s Perspective.” It was very informative, but also very tedious and long. He makes a good case for legalizing same sex marriage, and then addresses every counter-argument I’ve ever heard. I’d recommend reading parts of it, like “A Case for Compassion,” and skimming through the section on Causation (especially if you’re not convinced there’s a biological basis for homosexuality). But this blog post isn’t about his book, it’s about my thoughts on the subject.

In my opinion, morality questions are really questions about the well-being of people. The question of whether we, as Americans, should legalize same-sex marriage boils down to a simpler question: Will Americans, on average, be better off or worse off if same-sex marriage is legalized? Homosexuals are the ones that will be most affected, and for them, I think the answer is obvious: better off. I don't think the rest of us will be very affected at all.

Allowing homosexuals access to marriage will increase their chances of obtaining a harmonious family life. Things like allowing one partner to receive health insurance benefits from the other’s job will allow them to split up responsibilities like heterosexual couples can. Joint ownership would mean that If one partner died, the other could keep the house they were living in. Unmarried people can have children, so homosexuals can too. If they do have children, those children would be better off if their parents were both legal guardians and able to work with their children’s teachers and school. It would also promote social acceptance of homosexuals, which would help deter discrimination and violence against them.

If light of the obvious and substantial benefits that homosexuals could reap from marriage, are there any definite drawbacks? Some people are worried that legalizing same-sex marriage would encourage homosexuals to have children, and those children would be worse off than with heterosexual parents. The research on the subject is not conclusive, but it appears that children raised by homosexual parents are fine. It’s not a clear drawback like the advantages are clear. In fact, I don’t believe there are any clear drawbacks.

Would legalizing same-sex marriage encourage homosexuality? Even if you think homosexuality is wrong, you should allow homosexuals the right to choose their own way of life. Our goal as a society should be to help everyone live better, happier lives, and that will not be accomplished by trying to force homosexuals to become straight. What if someone just doesn’t care about the well-being of homosexuals? Thieves don’t care about the people they steal from, but the more thieves there are the worse off we all are. A good society can only be achieved by caring for each other. I believe we have a moral duty to care for each other. Nothing in civilized society works if we don’t care about each other.

Notice that in making my case for same-sex marriage, I didn’t even consider whether there is a biological basis for homosexuality. I would strongly support legalizing same-sex marriage even if being homosexual was entirely a choice made by an individual. However, if there is a biological basis for homosexuality (and I think there is), then there is a legal case for Constitutionally-protected rights, including equal access to marriage. It is my prediction and hope that the Supreme Court will grant homosexuals full rights, including equal access to marriage, but in the meantime, I hope that you will join me in accepting and loving homosexuals by supporting their case for equal rights.

If you think you have a good argument against same-sex marriage, check and see if it's addressed in Brad's book. If it's not, feel free to email me. I'd be interested to hear it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mormon History

I’ve been thinking about doing this blog post for a long time.

I’ve read a lot of books about LDS church history, both controversial and non-controversial. Books about the church seem to be pretty polarized, and determining which sources are credible can be a daunting task. Although a lot reviews are already available on the internet, I decided to write this post because I thought maybe some friends or acquaintances might trust me and want my input on the matter.

The first myth to dispel is that books are split into pro-Mormon and anti-Mormon camps. Just because a book gives the best available secular explanation of the history of the church does not make it anti-Mormon. There are anti-Mormon books too, but then there are just good history books giving a reasonable secular explanation. And yes, Hugh Nibley, that IS history. I’ll go in order of most highly recommended to less recommended.

No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie.

This book was first published in 1945, and was one of the first books by a professional history to document the early history of the church with a secular explanation of events. Of course it was controversial because Mormons didn’t like the possibility that there was a reasonable secular explanation, but it’s really a pretty good book. It’s primarily a history book, not an attack on the church, so I don’t consider it to be anti-Mormon at all. If you’re primarily interested in the real history, and not specifically controversial subjects, this is a great book to read.

An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, by Grant Palmer.

This is a great one for questioning Mormons. It’s not primarily a history book, but it’s a pretty fair overview of the controversial parts of early Mormon history without being anti-Mormon. If you know the basic history taught in seminary, and want to read an unbiased (if that’s possible) review of some of the historical evidence ignored by the standard narrative, read this. It’s written by an active LDS member who was an institute president. He’s honest, and there’s no bitterness or anger in his book like in anti-Mormon books, but he concludes that the Book of Mormon may not be true. He hopes that members anchor their faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of whether the Book of Mormon is true history or not.

Church History in the Fulness of Times

It’s a textbook, but it actually makes for enjoyable reading. I read it cover-to-cover during the first parts of my mission. It does mention some controversial things very briefly, but doesn’t really delve into evidence. It’s not just early history, either. There’s a lot of very interesting things that happened after 1844 that I didn’t know about before I read them here. It’s amazing how quickly things are never mentioned in the church. I wasn’t even aware that the First Quorum of the Seventy was reconstituted in 1975, or that there were Assistants to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles before then, until I read this book. It amazed me that I was totally unaware of something that significant that happened that recently. If you want the basic, church-approved history, this book is well-written and interesting.

The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, by D. Michael Quinn

D. Michael Quinn is a very interesting guy. He is a believing Mormon, and one of the best scholars the church has ever had, but was excommunicated for publishing the truth about when polygamy really ended (at least I think that’s why). The Mormon Hierarchy throws down a lot of interesting facts, but sometimes it feels like it’s just a long list of facts. It can get difficult to remember all the details and sometimes you miss the big picture because it’s so focused on fact after fact. It does have a lot of interesting tidbits here and there though.

Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Bushman

It’s not irked Mormons that Fawn Brodie’s book is still considered to be the best history of the church by mainstream scholars, so Richard Bushman tried to write a fair and balanced history that would be accepted by the world. To do this, he just ignored any discussion of evidence for or against the church. He also (for some reason unknown to me) spent a lot of time comparing the church to other religious movements of the time period. The result is that this is some of the most dry, boring text I’ve ever read. I had to take a break for a year about halfway through because I couldn’t take it any longer, but I did eventually finish the book. That’s more of an accomplishment than you realize. It’s almost as bad as the Old Testament. But if you can handle the unbelievably dry text, and aren’t interested in controversial things, then it does give you a lot more detail than Church History in the Fulness of Times.

The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, by D. Michael Quinn

This follow-up volume has a great chapter about Ezra Taft Benson. It’s really eye-opening to realize how much is going on behind the scenes that normal members are totally unaware of. It’s great history.

The Changing World of Mormonism, by Jerald and Sandra Tanner

This one is definitely anti-Mormon. If you want to hear someone throw everything and the kitchen sink against Mormonism, then you can read it. But be warned: it’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth. Their facts are generally correct, and they know their stuff, but it’s not enjoyable to read. I still think they deserve some respect as good historians, good enough to recognize the Salamander Letter as a fraud, but they’re not the best writers. I decided not to finish this one after enduring about half of it.

The God Makers, by Ed Decker

It’s definitely anti-Mormon. I haven’t read this one, but I mention it because it attracted a lot of attention back in the day. It’s a crappy book, by all accounts. Don’t waste your time.

So there you have it, some of the best (and worst) books on Mormon history, and my opinion of them. If you want an online source for the controversial parts of Mormon history, I’ve heard if pretty good, and what I’ve read on it has been very good. Just remember: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of google, which giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given to him. Good luck in your search for truth.

I'm excited!

I've been thinking about starting this blog for a LONG time.

I read a lot, I study a lot, but I write very little. I feel like there's so much going into my head, and so little going out. So I'm going to try and change that. I'm going to blog :)

As a few of my friends have discovered, I'm always up for a good debate. I know a lot of my friends aren't going to agree with the liberal and progressive opinions that will be posted here, but that's okay. I know I won't convert many, but I do hope I can convert somebody to my way of thinking on some point or another. And that would be good enough for me.

Don't hesitate to comment, I'm always interested in a conversation :)