Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Suffering is a Bad Thing

If you know me really well in person you probably know that the suffering of conscious beings is the criterion I take most seriously in determining the moral worth of an action. I am a consequentialist in the way that I think people need to think out the types of consequences that will stem from a particular action before they decide to carry it out. I think it’s probable that a large portion of people would agree with me, at least in a broad sense, that suffering is a bad thing that needs to be avoided. However, what about suffering is it that makes it worthy of being prevented?

This question led me to start thinking about how I would describe suffering to a being that is incapable of feeling emotions or bodily pleasure and pain, and hopefully that would give me some sort of insight in to what exactly is bad about suffering. All I could really think of was try to convey the concepts of good and bad and somehow relay it to sensations, otherwise all I could really think to do is describe analogous feelings: agony, horror, distress, fear, etc. (which I think is a testament to David Hume’s Dependency Thesis), but using feelings to describe feelings wouldn't really do any good to a being that can't feel anything. After this I realized the idea that trying to convey this idea to being like that is ridiculous for a couple of reasons: one, a being like that could never survive natural selection because it wouldn’t have anything driving them to survive (our reasons for not wanting to die are almost entirely, if not entirely, emotional), and for two, they would have nothing to say on the matter of morality, because they probably wouldn’t need it. They may have things that would threaten their existence, but they have no experiences otherwise to attempt to stay away from because there is no reason to.

I’d probably need to think about it more, but given this information, I think it’s quite possible that suffering is a bad thing for merely subjective, self-evident reasons (though suffering to a large degree is a mental cue that something that could end/seriously impair your existence is happening to you, but I think the sensation alone is enough to avoid it). This is not to say that it should have less consideration with respect to morality, and it doesn’t mean that ethics then just becomes a free-for-all and we can do whatever we feel like. What it is though, is a matter of acknowledging that that is indeed the reason, and perhaps the only reason. I think it’s probably “just obvious” to people that they’d rather enjoy themselves than experience pain (though to some people experiencing pain is enjoying themselves, but I won’t get in to that). The types of experiences that are coupled with suffering are inseparable from our concepts of “terrible” and, really “avoid at almost all costs”. We know internally that those experiences are the kind which we wish not to have and thus create dread within us (which is really to say “to think about suffering is to suffer somewhat itself), and since we have this knowledge already in us, at some point, usually early in our lives, we can recognize that it is just as bad to cause that sort of experience within another person.

Note: The suffering I’m talking about in this post is suffering inflicted by one agent to another, intentionally, and without a reason by which it was necessary. Some suffering is necessary to lead to good consequences, or to learn some life lessons, but these are rare instances. What I'm referring to is the malicious, certainly gratuitous type of suffering that can be avoided.

Additionally, there is non-agent-caused suffering (people starving in third world countries), that most people, while not intentionally inflicting it upon other people, passively allow it exist, even in spite of knowledge of its existence. This, I think, can and should be included in the type of suffering that people are in some sense responsible for, because they could certainly help end it, at not much cost to themselves. I have post relevant to this that you can find here.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Email to Petco Concerning Homeopathy

I just sent this email to the people at Petco after finding out last week that they send homeopathy, which hopefully people are figuring out is bullshit medicine. Hopefully I get a response. I'll post more if I do, and make a bigger fuss if I don't.

Dear Petco Management,

Last week, my girlfriend and I were shopping for supplies for our cat at your store in Fargo, and I noticed you had a homeopathic remedy for the treatment of worms for sale on your shelves.  Usually I think your store is a great place to shop for pet supplies as I’ve never run in to a problem such as this before, but this was incredibly frustrating for me as someone who both cares about animals and knows about homeopathy. I would think as the operators of store (a very widely used store at that) which is there to help promote the overall welfare of people’s pets, you would have done the research to know that there is no good scientific evidence to indicate that homeopathy works as a medication for anything. At most, it can be connected to the placebo effect but in humans only. Animals do not have the capability of understanding that they are even being treated for a disease, so they can’t even trick themselves in to feeling better. Even with that being said, feeling better is not getting better.  All studies done in an effort to test the efficacy of homeopathy have come nowhere near standing up to legitimate, rigorous scientific scrutiny. Most, if not all, had one, if not several, significant methodological flaws such as: no control group, being single blind, small sample sizes, in addition to not testing the actual effectiveness of the drug e.g., they simply ask the patient “How satisfied do you feel with this product? Rate from 0-10.” That’s not how you test medicine, that’s how you fill out a comment card. If you wish to be responsible vendors of products for pet owners, you should know about the medical trials that a medicine has gone through before you decide whether or not to sell it.

Even more than frustrating, it is saddening, because I know there will be people out there who won’t know what homeopathy is and assume it is an actual, effective medicine that has gone through and passed the necessary clinical trials in order to be sold on the shelves. They’ll go ahead and purchase the homeopathic treatment and give it to their pets, allowing their worms to go untreated, while thinking they are. I’m sure you all know that delaying real treatment for disease, whether you’re human, dog, cat, etc., is a bad approach to getting better. This makes homeopathy more than simply ineffective, it makes it outright dangerous.

The majority of people who are just going about their daily lives don’t have the time, desire, or even know how to go about researching whether or not a medicine sold at their local pet store is approved for use by a legitimate, reputable scientific journal. Your customers trust you to provide them with treatments that are demonstrably effective and when you put something on your shelves like homeopathy right next to real medicine, you legitimize the fake medicine in the unknowing customer’s eye, which is outrageously negligent.

Please, if you are a company that truly cares about the wellbeing of people and their pets, you will do the responsible and morally correct thing and stop offering this phony medicine.


To show that homeopathy has no active ingredients, many organizations have conducted mass overdoses of homeopathic remedies, which are, in fact, water on sugar pills. You can find videos like this all over YouTube, made in an effort to to expose this fraudulent nonsense.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why I'll Probably Never Vote for a Republican

There are many reasons why I will never vote for a member of the Republican party (as long as it stays in the state that it is now), but if you watch the entire video, you will see why this reason is by far the primary reason why I could never allow myself to vote for one. These are all the current Republican candidates for President, and frankly, I'm fucking disgusted.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I May Have Found an Argument for Eating Meat

As stated in a previous post, I am a vegetarian, primarily for the purpose of reducing unnecessary suffering in the world. I don't think we can really justify killing a being that has an interest in remaining alive, especially when its existence poses no threat to our own survival (we don't need meat to nourish ourselves). I think at the very least we definitely can't justify the modern way we treat animals harvested for their meat, but that's not really the point I want to bring up today.

As we have learned through evolutionary biology and medical science, the appendix is far-removed from its original function. So far removed it's to the point where its pretty much useless, and a threat to our health. Due to this threat, about 1 in 100,000 people are now being born without appendixes, and we know that all of this change in the form and function of the organ is due to the change in our diet from what it used to be. So as the functionality of the appendix no longer affected our survival rate, it was no longer necessary for people to be born with appendixes that functioned correctly; as long as they didn't kill you, they could sit in your torso and do nothing and it wouldn't matter, though, obviously, some of them do kill people.

Why do I bring all of this up? Let's say we have pretty much a thorough dietary revolution, and nearly everyone on the planet stops eating meat (except in extremely rare circumstances). At this point, we have to ask, do we run the risk of developing more vestigial baggage like what's become of the appendix? I'm not a dietary expert and I don't have an advanced knowledge of how the digestive system works, but I can't help but wonder if this could potentially be the case.

I don't think this could be used to support the amount of meat currently eaten world wide (particularly in America), but I think if it is indeed true that we seriously risk acquiring harmful evolutionary baggage we would then have a reason to permit some amount of meat in the diet of the general population, but still significantly less than what we do now.

I'm interested in any thoughts or information on the issue so any comments are more than encouraged.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

The Ontological Argument

The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God is quite an old argument, devised by St. Anselm around 1077 C.E. (revised in the 17th century by René Descartes; recently by Alvin Plantinga), that makes an attempt to prove the existence of God by making it inconceivable/logically impossible for such a being not to exist. This essentially is an effort to define God in to existence, which I think is deceptive and intellectually dishonest. I'm going to post more of the correspondence between me and Marc from Bad Catholic, because he seems to find the Ontological Argument particularly convincing. To be honest with you, I had no idea people even still used this argument. To me it seemed to be the most obviously flawed argument for the existence of God that I just figured everyone stopped using it, because I had never actually seen/heard anyone employ it until now. I may create a post that consists simply of my criticisms of it some time, but for now, I guess just enjoy the debate. Same colors as last time.

Note: This part of our conversation is still ongoing, so it may seem like it just stops at the end. I'll add more to this if we continue to discuss this subject.

I believe in God for the following reason, first posited by St. Anselm:

(1) God is that than which no greater can be conceived.
(2) If God is that than which no greater can be conceived then there is nothing greater than God that can be imagined.
(3) There is nothing greater than God that can be imagined.
(4) If God does not exist then there is something greater than God that can be imagined. (God who does exist)
(5) God exists.

I can't help but enjoy the logic every time I get to thinking about it. 

As far as I’m concerned, Anselm’s Ontological argument (not much different than Descartes’) is basically just a case of defining God in to existence, which, I think you would agree, is fallacious. This argument does a few things wrong and I’d like to point them out. One, the word “God” can be literally any god or being you desire e.g. Vishnu, Thor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a Unicorn, and the argument would prove the existence of that deity as well; just replace the word and you’ve done it. As long as you define God/Vishnu/whatever as that than which no greater can be conceived, you can prove its existence with this. Part of the reason this is the case is because the argument leaves existence up to the (failings of) human imagination. I can imagine really, really great things, but that doesn’t mean that they exist, or that they are intelligent. I’d like to provide you an example:

P1: A world without suffering is a world that no greater can be conceived.

P2:  If a world without suffering is that than which no greater can be conceived then there is nothing greater than a world without suffering that can be imagined.

.˙.   There is nothing greater than a world without suffering that can be imagined

P3:  If a world without suffering does not exist then there is something greater than a world without suffering that can be imagined.

.˙.   A world without suffering exists.

This is an argument that would be based on my idea of the word great (another problem with the argument; great can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people). Hopefully this brings some of the problems of the argument to light.

Now then, I believe you're quite wrong in your points against the ontological argument, though they are certainly reasonable. First of all, you cannot substitute God with anything else. Thor is not the greatest that can be thought, he has all sorts of faults and failings (especially in the latest really-bad movie). Much greater can be thought than a Unicorn, and Vishnu is one of many incarnations of God, so God still remains the greatest that can be thought. 

But the crux of your argument seems to rest on the idea that we just 'made up' the fact that God is the greatest that can be thought, that it is some sort of vague OMG HE'S SOO AWESOME that we throw up to make the proof work. We didn't, and he isn't. It is a definition.

This greatness (which I can see why you would think it could mean many things to many people) is not relative. It is based on the following claim: That every qualitative measure comes from nature, and God is supernatural. If someone is of great size, than it is a matter of atoms, of mass of width and height and all manner of natural measurements. If a thing is of great intelligence, than its intelligence is part of its relation to the natural world. If a thing is old, then it is a matter of time as a dimension of the natural universe etc. etc. etc. 

But God is outside of nature - because the universe contains all nature and he is the creator of the universe - and thus is called supernatural. He is outside of time and thus infinite. He - therefore - infinitely transcends every natural qualitative and quantitative quality that we - natural beings - can think of. (This is only sensible, for as natural human beings our minds are constrained by the limits of nature.) So God is the greatest that can be thought, simply because we don't have the capacity to imagine something greater than infinity. Something more powerful than INFINITE power. Something more intelligent than INFINITE intelligence. Do you understand? GREAT in this context is no adjective, it is the definition of that which is outside of nature. I'll save you some time and tell you; the only way to defeat the ontological argument is to think of something more infinite than the infinite, and it simply can't be done.

A world without suffering - though it could be, with a little tweaking, an interesting proof for the existence of heaven - doesn't work in this case, because it is not a world infinite in all respects. If it was, it would be heaven, and though it exists, it exists dependently of God, and thus a greater can be thought. Any, any, any replacement for God in the ontological argument will lead back to the simple fact, a being infinite in all respects is greater than ________ and thus________ does not necessarily exist. 

I still think you have a case of defining your god in to existence. Basically, we make a grievous error when we include existence as part of the definition of a particular thing. I know that directly, that’s not what you’re doing, but the implication through your definitions of ‘great’ and ‘infinity’, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Existence is not something we should be determining via definitions, but rather, it should be determined through experience and evidence. We can’t just say because we can conceive of something (or can’t conceive of something greater than a particular thing) that therefore that thing must exist, regardless of whether it’s inside or outside of nature, otherwise we are free to define things in particular ways and then conclude whether it exists or not without any real verification, including other gods. It doesn’t matter about the limitations of the gods I’ve provided you with examples with, even with your definition of what a god should be like. What’s preventing other people from having a god that is definitionally the same as the one you’ve defined, but be an entirely different entity (multiple gods like the one you believe in)? Because the only difference between these two is that you weren’t the initial person to define it; you inherited the definition from previous generations.

You asked me to explain my belief "that a god exists, the one traditionally spoken about in the Bible". Now the God traditionally spoken about in the Bible has certain characteristics, correct? For instance; he interacts with his people. Thus when I am considering my belief in God, I must consider whether he interacts with me and with the world. I must use the definition you have given. It would be ridiculous if, having been asked the same question by you, I had replied "I believe in God because he's never interacted with me or his people." It would be ridiculous if, having been asked to prove the existence of a blue dog, I presented you with a stellar proof of a red dog. 

So it is with the Ontological Argument. A definition of the God traditionally spoken about in the Bible is given. He is the I AM outside of nature. The implications of that definition are that He exists in reality, as you have seen.  Because you take unbelief as your base, I understand why this seems a logical circle, and thus: I am defining my God into existence. But I hold that it is a logical circle merely because it is true. If the logical progression is that a being of infinite greatness must exist in reality, I am not defining my God into existence, but following the logic of the definition given when you asked me to defend my belief.

After all, if there was a God, and all things came from Him, including our ability to use logic and reason, it would only make sense that we would experience these brain-wrenching paradoxes when we attempt to use logic and reason to discover Him. And it would only make sense that denying his reality would lead to an absurd statement: that the greatest existence does not exist.

As it seems you’ve put so clearly, the only reason it seems “the logical progression is that a being of infinite greatness must exist in reality,” is because it is a logical circle, which nearly hits the nail on the head, because while not really circular reasoning, it is basically a tautology. Saying “An existing pencil must exist,” is tautological, but not proof that my pencil actually exists outside of that statement; tautologies don’t prove anything as they are in reality, they only prove concepts. The way I confirm my pencil exists is through experience, independent confirmation (through my own senses and those of other people) of the qualities of it, if there are any, and the measurable effects it has in reality. It doesn’t require much to confirm it. However when I say “My pencil, of which no pencil that is greater can be imagined, must necessarily exist because no pencil greater can be imagined,” what you’re doing is saying: 1) It is greater to exist than to not exist, which is in fact a judgment call, because I’m sure many people would probably dispute that it's greater to exist than to not. 2) Since nothing is greater than to exist, since no pencil can be imagined to be greater than that pencil, that pencil must exist, for indeed it is the greatest imaginable, and it’s not possible to imagine something greater than an existing thing, which simply isn’t true. Essentially, what the argument comes down to, after it’s simply asserted (not demonstrated) that “something that’s the greatest imaginable must exist” is “My pencil must exist, therefore it must exist.” You may be able to think of a being who has infinite power, intelligence, age, etc., but that doesn’t make it exist. This disregards the fact that it’s not really possible to imagine infinity or something with qualities that are infinite because it’s not a quantity. Infinity is a concept of escaping zero and ever-growing in quantity. You can imagine seemingly really big quantities, but then you’re no closer to infinity than you were when you were at one. An “infinite amount” of intelligence or power is not possible, and it’s certainly not possible to truly conceive of this being, because there isn’t a true way to conceive of infinity, which undercuts the premise “God is the greatest imaginable being”.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Liar, Lunatic, Lord... or Legend?

Many Christians are huge fans of C.S. Lewis’ (Chronicles of Narnia) “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma as a demonstration of Jesus’ divinity. I’m actually in the middle of an email exchange with Marc from the blog Bad Catholic, who used this to attempt to justify his own belief that Jesus was the son of God and performed miracles, so I’d like to post the excerpt from our conversation that addresses this topic so that you can read it for yourself. The following is taken verbatim from our emails, with the order of arranged so it’s each topic is paired with its response. Marc is in green and I am in red.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God because he said so. In saying so, there were three possibilities. 1. He might have been lying. 2. He might have been crazy. 3. He might have been telling the truth. 

I can tell you’ve read C.S. Lewis because you’ve posed to me the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord trilemma. However, I’d like to suggest a fourth option: Legend. I’m not saying that the story of Jesus is 100% made up, but there is good reason to doubt much of it.

First off, it was not written by anyone who was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. Paul didn’t write until at least 48 A.D. and never claimed to have met Jesus (excluding his road to Damascus encounter). Mark was written around 70 A.D.; Matthew and Luke around 80-90 A.D.; and John around 90-100 A.D. Given that the average lifespan for common people in this time and place meant you were very old if you got to live to be 40, it seems unlikely that any of the gospels were written by any of Jesus’ disciples, much less anyone who was even alive at the same time as him. Anything written that isn’t included in the Bible was written by someone who was born at the tail end of Jesus’ life or after Jesus was dead, which means there’s no way they could have ever met Jesus either, not to mention the fact that nearly all of them almost exclusively talk about Christians, not Jesus (except for the writings of Josephus, which contains about a paragraph about Jesus, of which the authenticity is very much in doubt; nonetheless Josephus wasn’t born until 37 A.D.)

Essentially what this means is we have to take the word of the four gospels and hope they’re accurate in order to figure out what Jesus said and did, and this gets us in to serious trouble. For one, there are some serious discrepancies between the gospels about events that took place within them and I will give you two examples.

What day was Jesus crucified on?

According to Mark, Jesus was arrested and crucified on the day of the Passover, because the previous day was the Day of Preparation for the Passover (Mark 14:12), which means that night was the Passover meal (According to Jewish tradition a new day starts at sundown). The meal where Jesus famously says, “This is my body… This is my blood,” is referred to as the Passover meal (Mark 14:16). Jesus is arrested and crucified the next morning (still Passover) at about 9:00 am (Mark 15:1-25).

According to John, the meal they eat (The Last Supper) is not described as a Passover meal at all. Jesus never asks them to prepare the Passover meal and never says “This is my body… This is my blood,” but he is betrayed, goes to jail and goes before Pilate the next day. It’s very clear that the day he goes before Pilate (the day he is to be crucified) is the Day of Preparation for the Passover (John 19:14).

It is impossible for Jesus to have been crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover and on the Passover itself, so one of them has to be inaccurate. According to a lot of historians, it is very possible that the account in John was altered to make Jesus a “sacrificial lamb” since that day was the day lambs were sacrificed in the temple for Passover. If this is correct, then we have to deal with people who have theological agendas they want to make Jesus fit in to, rather than simply recording history.

When was Jesus born?

According to Matthew, Jesus’ birth occurred during the reign of King Herod, which can be dated to 37-4 B.C. Let’s just say 4 B.C. just so we have a set date.

According to Luke, Jesus’ birth was during the rule of the governor Quirinius. This is dated to 6 or 7 A.D. These two eras did not overlap by approximately ten years. (This is not to mention the census spoken of has no historical evidence, and is a ridiculous way to conduct a census, but I won’t go in to that unless you’d like me to next time)

I think I have established that we have very good reason to doubt the reliability of the gospel accounts, even for mundane things like when Jesus was born or what day was he crucified. If we can’t be sure about the accuracy of those events, how can we be sure about the accuracy of the accounts of miracles?

Even if it was eyewitness testimony and we knew who the authors were, eyewitness testimony isn’t always reliable. If it was we would never need to have a trial for a crime that had at least one witness, but this isn’t the case for many reasons. People can misremember things; misinterpret the initial event, or even lie about what they experienced. The unreliability of a testimony increases the further removed it was from the original event, in this case it is 30-70 years removed, and at least 2 people removed from the people who actually knew Jesus. Think of the children’s game of Telephone. Now imagine that the game was played over the course of 50 years. Do you think it would be likely the final version of the story would be historically reliable? No, probably not. This means that Legend is a perfectly valid option because, like Beowulf, he was quite possibly a historical figure, but over time mythic elements were added to the story for cultural and religious reasons.

I do not believe him to be a liar because he gained absolutely nothing from it, in fact, he was killed for it. No man dies for a lie. Unless he is (2) crazy and honestly believes himself the Son of God, when in fact, he is yer average carpenter. 

Was Jesus a Liar and/or “Crazy”?

You also said that no one would die for a lie, this is also not true. I think you would probably agree that the terrorists who hijacked the planes on 9/11 died for a lie. They probably weren’t crazy, and they probably didn’t just put on a show of belief. I think they sincerely believed that when they died they would greet Allah in Paradise along with 72 virgins. I’m sure you think at least to some degree the doctrines of Islam are false/lies, however these people were willing to die for them. I’m not sure if deluded or just honestly mistaken/mislead falls under any of those categories, but I think it certainly is a valid consideration because these people died for something that most people consider untrue. That being said, I would think it is certainly possible, if the gospel accounts are loosely accurate about the non-miraculous events of Jesus life, then Jesus was raised to believe he was the messiah or the son of God. This kind of reinforcement would allow him (and the people around him) to believe something that was false (a lie), and because he believed it with certainty he was willing to die for it. That also being said there are actually a lot of cases where people will intentionally falsely confess to crimes, including murder (which they could be sentenced to death for), one of the more famous cases of this was with the Lindbergh baby.

But I do not believe the Christ crazy because he is logical, lucid, reasonable and rational - and often genius - throughout the Gospels. There is no suggestion of craziness.

Was Jesus a genius?

I would also like to say that while Jesus said some things that were good, he also said and did some things that seem rather irrational and unwise things. I’ve provided a list of some of the things I think someone who was the son of God probably wouldn’t say:

·         Luke 14:26 – I think regardless of the footnote it’s still a vicious and pretty much selfish thing to say, and I would never expect that from a god.
·         Matthew 12:30; Luke 12:51-53 – These are incredibly divisive and crude things to say if you ask me. I don’t know how a loving god (I always heard God is love when I attended church) would ever say anything that resembled something like that.
·         John 2:14-15 – While I can understand Jesus being upset about the people coming in to the temple to do their business, I think it was a complete overreaction to go and build his own weapon to chase out- and potentially torture- those men. I don’t think the son of God would do that.

I have more qualms with the words and deeds of Jesus but I think a perfect, loving god shouldn’t have even the aforementioned on his record.

And thus I believe his claim to be true. Why do you believe his claim to be false?

However, while all of these I think help my case, they are not the primary reason I don’t accept the claims of miracles made by the Bible. The reason is I don’t think simply testimony is ever good enough evidence to accept that a divine violation of the laws of nature has occurred. I think it is always more likely that those who are reporting to have seen a miracle are either mistaken or lying. Being mistaken doesn’t mean they are stupid, but like I said before, people can misinterpret events, (for example, our brains give us optical illusions) and at this point in time where nearly everyone on the planet is far more educated than any person who lived 2000 years ago ever was, we do not experience miracles. If people tell us they experienced a miracle, most people are skeptical of it, especially if it is of a rival religion. It’s just a matter of fact that the odds that a miracle actually occurred are so heavily stacked against it that we pretty much are never justified in accepting one. (Though I can think of a couple of examples that could conceivably be convincing, I just don’t think written testimony is one of them).

I devoted a full episode of the podcast I help do (the Mental Masturbation Podcast) to the whole issue of whether or not Jesus existed which you can download here, or listen to below.

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