Sunday, April 26, 2009

Logic Rules Out the Christian God

Let me start by saying that the logical arguments that follow are not against the existence of a supreme being per se. I am not an atheist, but an agnostic. I acknowledge that a god might possibly exist. The arguments are against the premise that the Christian God exists.

So let us first define some terms:

The Christian God is the god of the bible, the main characteristics of whom are that he is a personal being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He also has, and has granted us, free will.

A personal being by the Christian definition is one who has free will. Omniscient means all-knowing. Omnipotent means having the ability to do anything at all. Omnipresent means existing everywhere at all times.

Free will means the ability to make a decision, to choose. The act of choosing simply means there must be an alternative present, one which could possibly be chosen. It also implies a deliberation, even if only a short one. And deliberation requires the passage of time.

First, let me concede that a god can be omnipresent, since omnipresence can be a characteristic of other entities, such as time itself.

But if God is omniscient he cannot also be omnipotent. An omniscient god knows everything – past, present, and future. If he knows everything, he already knows every decision he is ever going to make. If he already knows every decision, he cannot change his mind about them. If he cannot change his mind he is not omnipotent, because changing his mind is something God cannot do. If, on the other hand, he does change his mind, then he didn’t know everything from the beginning, so he is not omniscient. An omniscient being cannot also be omnipotent.

But what if God is omniscient? That means he already knows everything that is going to happen. It also means God is outside of time. Only a being who is outside of time can look at the fabric of time in its entirety. But if God is outside of time, it means he cannot deliberate, since the act of deliberation requires time. Therefore, God cannot make choices; he is stuck with the choices that he made when he created everything. Therefore, God cannot have free will. He is a robot.

If God is omniscient, it also means we have no free will. If God knows that tomorrow I will go to the store and purchase a gallon of milk, then I don’t have a choice to do otherwise. I might think I’m deciding to go to the store rather than stay at home, but if God already knows what I’m going to do, then how can I change my mind? If I cannot change my mind, then I don’t have free will.

What if I do change my mind? What if I had decided to stay home but then changed my mind and went to the store instead. If God is omniscient, he already knew I was going to change my mind, so it makes no difference. I still didn’t really have a choice. It was an illusion.

If I don’t have free will then prayer makes no sense. God already knows that I’m going to pray or not pray, so I have not made the choice myself. Also, if God is omniscient, he already knows everything that he is going to do in the future, so praying cannot alter God’s predetermined plans. Remember, God cannot change his mind if he is omniscient, and if he cannot change his mind, praying for something different to happen is futile.

God also cannot change his will. If God is omniscient, then his will is predetermined and unchangeable. Praying that something is God’s will is pointless. If it is God’s will, it will happen and not even God can change it, regardless of what you pray for. Prayer is a completely useless act.

In summary, I have logically shown that God cannot be both omniscient and have free will. He cannot be omniscient and also grant us free will. He cannot be omniscient if he is omnipotent. If God is not omniscient, if he does not have free will, and if he cannot grant us free will, then he is not the god of the bible. In fact, the god of the bible cannot exist.

Perhaps some lesser god does exist, one who is neither omniscient nor omnipotent but who is vastly superior in both knowledge and abilities to any human. In our view, he would still be worthy of the title of “god,” just not the god of the bible. The god of the bible cannot exist because the characteristics assigned him by Christian beliefs are mutually exclusive.

Prayer and free will only make sense if we assume that God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. But if we make those assumptions, we are assuming that the Christian god is a fallacy.

I’ve heard all the counter-arguments. God is so far above us that he can do things we cannot possibly understand. That’s a cop-out. Even God cannot defy logical thought. If A is less than B and B is less than C then C has to be greater than A.

And then there is the observational God model. God knows what we are going to do in advance, but we are the ones who choose to do it. That’s fine if we assume that God didn’t create the universe and all the laws of nature that govern it. If it is his creation, then everything we do is caused by him.

Let’s use a metaphor. God’s creation is a gigantic quilt. Every thread in that quilt represents a timeline. We, being on the quilt, cannot see where the thread meanders ahead. We can choose to turn left or right onto thread after thread, but we can’t see where the threads end or where new ones begin. But God, being on the outside, can see the entire quilt. He constructed it. He knows where every thread goes because he put it there. In other words, he created our destiny; our choice of threads has already been made for us. We only think we get to choose.

If you can come up with a logical way out, then you are free to leave a comment. But if your logic is based on nothing but faith, then it isn’t logic at all. I don’t see a way around the logic outlined above. If you do, please let me know.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Zygotes are Human Too?

Pres. Barack Obama is facing criticism for his decision to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell funding that George W. Bush ordered early in his presidency. He is facing criticism for lifting a similar Bush ban on aid to countries that offer counseling on abortion. The University of Notre Dame has faced criticism for inviting Obama to speak at its commencement and to bestow an honorary degree because of the president’s pro-choice views.

But as irritating as all the criticism is, it just means that the president is doing his job the way it should be done. He is allowing individual citizens to choose for themselves whether or not it’s moral for them to have an abortion. He is allowing research institutions to do their jobs in the best interest of the public. He is placing human interests above ideology.

What bothered me the most about the Bush Administration is that much of its policy was shaped by religious dogma. Bush’s own compunctions against abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells meant that those who did not share these qualms had their freedom restricted. Bush was, in a real sense, forcing the rest of us to abide by his religious views.

Obama is doing just the opposite. If you believe it is ok to have an abortion, then you are free to have one. If researchers believe that embryonic stem cells hold promise for future cures for grave illnesses, they are free to develop those promises with government assistance. But for those who hold the same moral principles as Bush, they are not being denied anything. Nobody is forcing them to have abortions. Nobody is forcing researchers who do not want to use embryos to use them. And for those who feel that the use of embryonic stem cells is immoral, they don’t have to take any future treatments that might one day save their lives; they can opt out.

I always had a big problem understanding the viewpoint of the so-called right to life crowd. They claim that an embryo, even a tiny one-celled zygote, is a potential human and therefore must be granted the same rights as an adult human. That’s just nonsense.

They consider the soul to have been created, or placed into the zygote, at the moment of conception. But just assuming that we really do have souls that live on after our bodies die, what would the soul of an embryo be like? It has no feelings, no memories of any kind, no wants or desires, no plans for the future. So if we deny its existence, what has it lost?

If, as some claim, it will be provided with a new body upon its resurrection, then it still hasn’t lost anything. If a mother really wanted to do what was best for her child, she would have it aborted so it could go on to heaven without having to endure the trouble of living first, with all the hardships that go with growing up, going through adolescence, paying bills and taxes, getting sick, and dying.

Nobody knows for sure if we even have souls. If we do, nobody knows when we acquire them. Nobody knows for sure what happens to them when we die or what they will be like. We only know what our belief systems tell us, and there is more than one belief system.

Do we really want the beliefs of one person in charge to dictate to the rest of us what we should believe, too? Bush didn’t force anyone to believe one way or another, but he did make it impossible for those who didn’t believe as he did to do what they wanted to do with their lives and bodies.

Some people say that the fetus has just as many human rights as the mother who’s carrying it. But does a child of three have as many rights as its parents? No, of course not. A fetus, an embryo, or a fertilized egg should have only the rights that its mother grants it. If the mother is trying to have a baby and wants to be pregnant, then the fetus should have basic human rights. If the mother doesn’t want it, then the fetus has no rights at all.

A potential human is not a human. The potential is only there if the person who is carrying the embryo is expecting to carry it full term and give birth to it. Embryos in Petri dishes that are about to be discarded have no potential. Fetuses that are about to be aborted have no potential. So whether or not an embryo is a potential human pretty much depends on those who are handling it. Its potential for being human is not innate.

We could all get along so much better if we could agree on just a couple of very simple, and seemingly obvious rules of life: A human should have the right to do whatever he or she wishes, in private, as long as it does not deny others the same right. And being human doesn’t start until you are born. Before that you are either a potential human, if your mother is looking forward to your birth, or a lump of tissue, if you’re sitting in a lab waiting to be discarded or if you are in the womb of a reluctant mother.

For those who believe in souls, believe what you will, but don’t force those beliefs on everyone else. That would be violating the first rule of being human.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

I Ordered Decaf; Get it Right

This blog and my newspaper column, which ran in local newspapers from 1993 until late last year when it became a victim of the bad economy, is called Over Coffee. As I explained in one my early columns, I got the name from another column that ran in the Edinburg Daily Courier, my hometown newspaper, in the late 1960s. I wrote a daily weather forecast and almanac piece in the paper back then and the Over Coffee column contained some of the ramblings of my editor, Bill Hale.

Anyway, I have been drinking coffee since I was five years old. Back then, I took it with a lot of cream and a lot of sugar. I still do, except replace the sugar with artificial sweetener. I also loved, and still enjoy from time to time, a concoction made by crumbling a biscuit into overly-sweet coffee and cream with a tad of butter. Don’t laugh until you try it.

Throughout my young adult life, and up until the time I was in my early 40s, I didn’t think much about caffeine. I drank regular coffee or decaf; it made no difference to me. My father was a decaf drinker. He said caffeine made him nervous.

Then, I started developing some anxiety. I even had a panic attack occasionally. As they became more numerous, my doctor advised eliminating caffeine. I also have had a heart arrhythmia since I was 18. It is exacerbated by too much caffeine. And the effects started to become more pronounced as I grew older.

So now, I avoid caffeine like the plague. I still like coffee in the morning, but usually one or two cups will do. I’m not one of those people who have to have a cup next to them all day. But I make sure I always drink decaffeinated coffee and caffeine-free soft drinks.

So when I order coffee in a restaurant, I always ask the waitress when she brings it to me if, indeed, the cup contains decaf. I don’t want to be rude, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

There is a new Dunkin’ Donuts franchise that opened in downtown Indianapolis recently and I’ve started to drop by on Friday mornings on my way to work for a cup of decaf and a donut. Sometimes I’ll stop on Thursdays, too. But the first time I stopped, I happened to notice the server pouring regular coffee. She brought it to me and I told her I had ordered decaf.

Well, she replaced it and apologized. But the next time I stopped in for my donut and coffee, the same thing happened. I figured I better make sure I watch what they pour from now on.

It’s a good thing, because for seven times in a row I ordered decaf and the lady behind the counter always poured regular. It got to the point where I would tell them the number of times in a row it had happened, and they started taking off the price of my donut from the order.

I’m all for free donuts, but one should not have to keep a constant vigil on the professional coffee pourers to make sure they are giving you what you order. They probably think that decaf is just a preference for me and that having to drink regular coffee is no big deal. But it is.

If I drank a large cup of regular coffee, it would most likely trigger a panic attack and heart arrhythmia at work. It is a health concern. Servers who work in restaurants or behind the counter of donut shops should keep that in mind when serving coffee to their customers. For most, it’s probably not a huge deal. For others, like me, it can make a big difference to our well being.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

God is not Required

During this Easter season I am reminded of all the things that I was taught while attending Sunday school as a kid and while going to grown-up church as an adult. I didn’t attend church much beyond the age of 12 or 13 until I was about 40. Then, after my father died, I decided to be with the rest of my family in church every Sunday. I did that for 10 years, religiously. I even went to Easter sunrise services almost every year.

I already knew the story. Jesus was brutalized and then crucified. Three days later, three women went to his tomb and found the stone had been rolled away. But he came to them and told them to go tell his disciples what had happened. He later appeared to his disciples. But one of them, Thomas, required proof. Jesus offered that proof and Thomas believed.

Later, Jesus ascended into heaven, but promised he would return one day to claim his people, those who believe in him.

Since then, the church has mangled and politicized the message to serve its own purposes. The Roman Church, what we now call Catholic, created the bible from various manuscripts that a committee decided would fit with the church’s, and Emperor Constantine’s, best interests. They left out many contemporaneous manuscripts because they did not fit their prescribed dogma.

What we get from all this is that if we believe in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of mankind, and if we live our lives with Jesus always in mind, we will go to heaven and have everlasting life, singing with the angels and praising God. If we don’t believe, we go to hell where we’re condemned to burn forever in a sea of fire and brimstone.

Ah, if it were only that simple. No, I don’t wish for the existence of hell. But heaven and hell come as a package deal in Christianity. If you believe in one, you are obliged to believe in the other. If you believe in Jesus, you must also believe in Satan.

But if it were that simple, all I would have to do to guarantee my immortality would be to believe in Jesus as my savior. I’ve already been baptized, which was Jesus’ only command of us other than our belief.

But it’s not really that simple, is it? You can’t force yourself to believe that the sky is green when you can clearly see that it’s blue, even if your eternal soul depends on it. And no matter how often you go to church, pray, sing hymns, or listen to eloquent sermons, you can’t force yourself to believe in something that, down deep, you know is very suspect.

I sort of envy (one of the seven deadly sins) those who know that they know. They have no doubt that Jesus lived, was crucified, and then was resurrected. They know for certain that believing in his divinity will send them to heaven. And, even though some of them are well-mannered enough not to say it out loud, they know for sure that I and others like me are going to hell for our lack of belief or our blasphemy.

But I am not a gambling man. I went to a casino once and allowed myself to gamble $200. When that money was gone, I quit. It was, to me, just an investment in an evening’s entertainment. And if I had won something, that would have been just gravy.

So do you think that, as a non-gambler, I would risk sending my immortal soul to hell if I actually believed such a place existed? I would be the world’s biggest fool.

As an agnostic, I can proudly proclaim total ignorance about God, if there is one, or the devil, if there is one. I can say I have no idea whether or not Jesus died on the cross because there is no corroborating historical evidence of it, and the Romans kept pretty good records. But what I can say with a great amount of certainty is that there is enough doubt about the biblical stories of Jesus, heaven, hell, and the devil that I don’t live in fear of ever being condemned to everlasting torment for my beliefs.

I am concerned that there might not be an afterlife at all. Not knowing for sure makes death a very scary proposition. And that’s why it would, in a way, be nice if I had the certainty of a fundamentalist Christian. But I know better. My mind works in a rational manner. I know what makes sense and what doesn’t. I also know that just believing in something doesn’t make it true. So even if I could force myself to believe, it wouldn’t make any difference. The truth is exactly what it is, regardless of what we believe.

The only thing that believing can do is make you more comfortable while you’re alive. But before it can even do that, you have to really believe it, not just go through the motions of believing.

I used to go through the motions, trying to convince myself. I finally confronted the truth, that I didn’t really know what the truth about God is. It actually made me feel better to have that epiphany.

Christians are always telling me that they have all the proof they need in the beauty of nature, the miracle of birth, or the intricacies of life. They claim their proof is that they “feel” the presence of God within them. Well that’s all nice for them. But everything that they describe as proof can be explained by science. God is not required.

I am like Thomas of the bible. I need proof, or at least compelling evidence. According to the story, Thomas got that proof directly from Jesus. Faith was not required of Thomas. All I’m asking for is the same consideration. I need proof; faith just doesn’t do it for me.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Why Help the Surplus Population?

This week’s topic is a little taboo and very politically incorrect. A lot of people believe what I’m about to say, but few will say it publicly for fear they will be labeled a pompous, greedy ass. Well, I’m willing to take that risk.

My daughter’s friend was invited as a VIP to attend a fundraiser concert to help fight AIDS in Africa recently. She was excited because her favorite band was one of the acts and, as a VIP, her friend got to meet them, take pictures, and ask questions. And that’s all fine and well, except that the whole concept of helping to fight AIDS in Africa is bogus. It’s a waste of time, money, and effort.

That being said, if you want to donate to a hopeless cause because it makes you feel better, go ahead. If you want to give some of your hard earned money or valuable time to help the starving children in Africa because you believe you’re making a difference, that’s your right. But understand something; you’re not making a difference, at least not a lasting one.

You know those supposedly heart-wrenching commercials showing a poor little girl wandering through a filthy dirt street in an African village while the narrator reminds us all that for just a dollar a day, she could actually attend school and eat better? Well, the guy in those commercials actually makes me shake my head. Who does he think he's scamming? Sure, I feel a bit of sympathy for the poor little girl, but I realize that there is a limit to people’s ability to care. And, more importantly, there is a limit to what we can accomplish in Africa, or in any third-world region. Those kids were born victims and there's no need to bang our heads against the wall over it.

Americans have a very high standard of living, as do most people in Western Europe and Japan. To maintain that standard of living, the U.S. uses more than a quarter of the resources available to the world. A little quick math will tell anyone that the third-world nations, like those in parts of Africa, can never hope to maintain a standard of living similar to what we enjoy. There simply are not enough resources to go around.

So, should we suck it up and lower our standard of living so that third-worlders can have it better? How much should we sacrifice in order to make sure poor African kids get to eat three squares a day? My answer is, we should not sacrifice much if anything. I agree that consumers in America waste far too much. For the sake of our natural resources, we should find ways to stop wasting.

But mostly, we should stop wasting in order to preserve our high standard of living into the future, not so we can give it away to people who, ok I’ll say it, don’t really matter. Who am I to say who matters and who doesn’t? I’m not talking about their souls, if indeed we actually have souls. I’m talking about their productivity. If we feed a starving family in Africa for a week, they get to live for a week longer. But what have they given back to the world? Nothing except their miserable existence.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a modern nation with lots of resources are not so much lucky as we are resourceful. We have a high standard of living because we got our act together. We earned it. We can share if we want, but it won’t do any lasting good until those we are sharing it with learn how to make their own living.

In some African nations, the problem is constant regime changes and military dictatorships. There is eternal fighting for power with endless coup attempts and genocide. No matter how much we try to help the people, their leaders-du-jour will never allow any of them to be productive.

Other parts of Africa are hindered from being useful due to climate conditions. The people live in constant drought conditions where crops won’t grow. Maybe it never occurred to them to move elsewhere.

The fact remains, in a world of limited resources, not every country can have a high standard of living. So those countries who earned it first get to live well at the expense of those who never got their acts together.

The bottom line is, America has a high standard of living because of the hard work and ingenuity of those who built this country. That work ethic continues for most of us today. And, we are lucky enough to have a lot of natural resources and a decent climate. We shouldn’t feel guilty about what we have; we mostly earned it.

There have been societies in Africa a lot longer than European settlers have been in America. Africans have had every opportunity to become modern, thriving nations. It obviously isn’t in them to make it happen. So I don’t feel any obligation to help them out.

The AIDS epidemic in Africa is a condition of its own making. But it has not been helped by the unbelievably brainless advice from the pope who said that condoms only make the problem worse. I mean, who left this guy in charge of doling out advice on reproductive health? They say he is spiritually infallible and that he gets his marching orders directly from God, but would Jesus have made his home in such a palatial residence? I don’t think so. Popes do nothing but harm and bring nothing but confusion to the Catholics who believe in them. The current pope would do the world more justice by sitting on this holy thrown and playing Tiddly Winks all day and keeping his holy mouth shut.

But the pope aside, most of the poor African nations are going to remain poor, no matter what we do. Their citizens are leeches. And no matter how much empathy or sympathy you may have for them, you can’t help, at least not in the long run. The more we give to third-worlders, the less we have here. And there are plenty of people here in America who need help through no fault of their own. If we help them, they will eventually become productive. If we help those in Africa, they will eventually become dependent.

Let’s keep our money and our charitable contributions at home where it will do the most good. Let the Africans fend for themselves. And with all due respect to Dickens, if they be apt to die, let them do so and decrease the surplus population. Whether we want to admit it or not, the human species is still under the control of natural selection, and the fittest will survive.