Saturday, November 30, 2013

Well Said [30 Nov 2013]

These are good lines I have either read or heard somewhere. My original idea was for this to be a weekly thing, but I've been busy lately, and some of these have been in my drafts for a while :)

This is from a post by The Wise Fool. I've been thinking about this type of thing a lot lately. Many atheists seem very interested in winning debates, or making theists look foolish. But I would like to change people's minds, and to do that we need to understand one another better.

This one is from Steve Shives at about 8:00 in a riffing on mail call video in response to someone bitching about insurance premiums going up because of Obamacare

This is what I don't understand about the people who want to repeal obamacare so bad. It's like they forget the old system was broken as fuck, and prices were rising like crazy. Obamacare is far from perfect, I wish the people who are against it would identify the shitty things about it and fix them rather than focus on repealing it. Or failing that, draft an alternate plan to put in it's place before repealing it.

This last one is from the Bitchspot Report #37 at about an hour in. Cephus was discussing the ridiculous talking point that people around the world hate us for our freedom.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Is An Actual Infinite Possible?

I recently got into a conversation about infinities with humblesmith spanning a recent post on his blog and an old post on mine. He made some interesting comments on my post and it got my mind working a bit. As I was writing my reply, I realized it was a bit long for a comment so I thought it would be suitable as a post on it's own instead. It will actually spawn a couple of posts, as my long time readers will know, I love talking about infinities.

In this post, I want to address the claim made in the Kalam cosmological argument (and elsewhere) that "an actual infinite cannot exist". I'm not 100% sure what is meant by this, but it seems to be referencing the limit definition of infinities. So let's take a moment to discuss limits.

Infinity as a Limit

Let's say you have a series of numbers, for example:
hastily made with wolfram alpha
The pattern here is simply that the nth number is n/n+1. There are a few interesting things about this sequence, first, no matter how large 'n' is, the fraction is less than 1. Secondly, you can get as close to 1 as you wish by picking a large enough n. (for example, if you wish to be less than 0.01 away from 1, you can do it with n=100). We say that 1 is the limit of this sequence, the fact that we never get there is irrelevant, what we care about is that we can get as close as we wish.

So that's how a limit to a finite number works, what about limits to infinity? Simply put, we say a sequence has infinity as a limit if it grows without bound. In other words, for every number A there is some integer n such that every number in the sequence past the nth is bigger than A. Take for example the sequence of the powers of 2 (2,4,8,16,...), no matter how big a number you pick for A, there is some point when the rest of the sequence is bigger than A. So the limit of the sequence is infinity.

We 'Never' Reach Infinity

I'm pretty sure that this is what people are talking about when they say actual infinite doesn't exist. To borrow William Lane Craig's example in the post that started this whole thing, suppose I am piling up baseball cards one at a time and I continue doing this forever. We can describe the number of cards in the pile as a sequence (1,2,3,4,5,6,...), it's a pretty boring sequence, but it's trivial to see that the limit is infinity. However, there is no point in time when there are an infinite number of cards on the table, therefore, infinity doesn't exist. I am pretty sure this is the idea that is referenced with the statement "an actual infinity doesn't exist".

There is something to this, and it is a very interesting topic for investigation. We say the limit is infinity, and yet we never reach it at any point on the actual timeline. But this is the way it has to be, because once you pick a specific time on the timeline and examine it to see whether or not there is an infinite number of cards, you have cut off the sequence. You have changed the situation to a finite limit of finite numbers, of course the result will be finite. So it is true that in this situation there is never a moment where we have a pile containing an infinite number of things. In this setting perhaps it is reasonable to say that an actual infinity doesn't exist, but to extend that to all situations where an infinity might come up is a bit hasty.

Part of the difficulty here is that infinities can do some crazy things, and you have to be really careful with them, especially when you have multiple infinities interacting with each other, and that's sorta what we have here. "Never" and "forever" are both words that may or may not contain an implicit infinity, depending on how they are used. When we say that we will continue doing this "forever", do we really mean forever or do we mean for an arbitrarily large finite amount of time? What about never, is this referring to an arbitrarily large finite time or a limit? My intuition suggests that never is talking about an arbitrarily large finite time and forever is really talking about in the limit, in this sense we have a disconnect. [Although I'm a mathematician, so who knows how my intuition will line up with yours :)]

Let's Dispense with the Cards

Using the example of piling up cards does seem to illustrate some points, but it also creates some problems (Where do we get the cards? Does this assume infinity from the start? Where do we put them? Will they collapse into a black hole eventually? etc) So let's shift our example to just counting up time that has passed. We will count up seconds "forever", much of what we said above with the cards will transfer over, do we ever get to a point where we have counted an infinite number of seconds? No, we don't for the same reason as above, once we look at a point in time we have restricted ourselves to the finite. What if we step outside of our own universe and look at the whole thing all at once? I would say that in this case we can say that an infinite number of seconds is possible.

One of the things that humblesmith challenged me with is that my argument is circular, and I think this is a good spot to address it. In a sense I have started by assuming infinity is possible (when I said that we could count seconds forever), and now I have concluded that infinities can exist. In a sense he is right, this only works if forever exists which we assumed from the start. However, the key here is that I'm just trying to argue that this is a possibility. As far as I can tell, there are two possibilities, the universe ends at some point in the future (like a big crunch) or it doesn't (heat death for example). If the big crunch happens then my argument wouldn't work, and even from a perspective outside of our universe with a broad view we would not be able to observe an infinity. But if there is heat death (or some less boring eternity in our universe) then we could see infinity from the outside perspective. But again, I'm only arguing for this to be a possibility, so even if it doesn't work in our universe, I think we can argue that it could exist in some universe. Arguing that something is possible is much easier than arguing that something is impossible.

Infinite Regress

Turtles all the way down
Turtles all the way down
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Often when this comes up the claim is that an infinite regress is impossible. As far as I can tell, the argument for this is some version of the baseball card example above. However, an infinite regress of causes is more akin to the infinite number of seconds than the infinite number of physical objects. The only difference is that we are talking about an infinity going backward in time rather than forward. This might seem like a bit of a leap, but it's honestly not that different. By looking forward in time, we can see that an infinite number of moments is possible, why can't we just orient causation backward and have the same thing. Once again, I am not claiming that this is how it is, or that this happened, just that this is a possibility. Remember, the apologist claim is that an infinite regress is impossible, the opposite claim is not that is did happen, just that it could have happened. My assertion is simply that an infinite regress is still on the table.

Any Apologists Reading?

I have seen the claim that an infinite regress is impossible in many places. However, I have never actually seen it explicitly spelled out why that is the case. When it is hinted at, it always seems to be referencing the limit definition of infinity, so that is what I ran with. If there is a different argument as to why please let me know. I'd love to check it out, and if it gives me another excuse to write about infinities, all the better.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Exodus 10: Pharaoh's Free Will is Definitely Taken Away

Today's Podcast


God has been showering the Egyptians with plagues so Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves.

The Eighth Plague: Locusts (v. 1-20)

God tells Moses that he has hardened Pharaoh's heart so that he can show off how powerful he is by plaguing the Egyptians so that the Israelite descendants will tell the tales and they will know that Yahweh is God.

The first 2 verses here are spelled out plain as day, God is keeping Pharaoh from doing what he commands so he can show off by continuing to plague Egypt. How can anybody argue that Pharaoh's free will is not being taken away here? 

Looks like Guzik is going to give it a go:
In hardening Pharaoh's heart, God allowed him to have what he sinfully desired - a hard heart.
Are you fucking kidding me? Why would he desire a hardened heart, and where is it even suggested that he had desired this? On the contrary, Pharaoh is coming around. Why else would it be necessary for God to harden his heart? No, this is simply Guzik trying to justify something horrible that God has done.
God's work was not only for the sake of the generation of Moses and Pharaoh; it was also for your son and your son's son. God does mighty works among us so that we can encourage generations to come.
I suppose that is one way to spin it.
Getting to the heart of the matter, God warns Pharaoh to humble himself or the worst plague of locusts ever seen will come upon Egypt. Pride was at the heart of Pharaoh's problem; he simply didn't want to give into God.
Actually he did want to, but God refused to let him because he wanted to show off his power.

Matthew Henry and Jamieson, Fausset & Brown don't even acknowledge the free will issue. 

Desert locusts feeding.
Desert locusts feeding. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At God's request, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh again and say that if his people are not allowed to worship God a plague of locusts will come and destroy what food remains in Egypt. Pharaoh asks who of the Israelites will go, and they say they will take everyone. Pharaoh says that only the men have permission to go, so the plague is sent to them.

This is pretty stupid of Pharaoh, although it seems very much like a politician trying to save some face. "You will do this on my terms!", very stupid but sadly believable.

Guzik interprets this as Pharaoh trying to keep the women and children as hostages. That wasn't what occurred to me, but it does seem like a pretty reasonable interpretation.

So Moses brings the plague of locusts and every plant that was not destroyed by the hail was eaten by the locusts.

For those keeping track, all of the fish are dead (plague 1) and all of the livestock are dead (plague 5). Also, much of the crops are dead (plague 7), but that is somewhat immaterial now as the rest have also been destroyed. Seriously, how is every Egyptian not dead at this point in the story? Perhaps they resorted to cannibalism?

Again, from Guzik
Now the LORD God shows Himself greater than the Egyptian god Seth, thought to be the protector of crops.
Ahh yes, the real reason for the plagues, a pissing match between gods.

Then Pharaoh calls Moses and Aaron back, says he's sinned again God and wants to make it right. God removes the locusts, but hardens his heart again so he won't let the Israelites go.

How much clearer can this get? Pharaoh is apologizing to God, says he's made a mistake and tries to make things right and God hardens his heart again. How can anyone argue his free will has not been removed? I just don't get it.

Wow, the way this is spun by Guzik is actually impressive in its ridiculousness. First of all, his section title for verses 16-20 is
Another false repentance by Pharaoh
Then his comment on the text is
Pharaoh did the same thing in Exodus 9:27-28. He said the words of repentance but did not follow through with the actions. His heart was only hardened more after God relented and showed mercy.
No, his heart was hardened more after God hardened it. Interestingly enough, Matthew Henry doesn't seem to have an issue with God taking away Pharaoh's free will
Pharaoh's return to his impious resolution again not to let the people go (v. 20), through the righteous hand of God upon him, hardening his heart, and confirming him in his obstinacy
and Jamieson, Fausset & Brown completely ignore the issue.
Seriously though, what's a picture of
darkness supposed to look like?

The Ninth Plague: Darkness (v. 21-29)

God has Moses cast darkness over Egypt. It was so dark they couldn't see each other, and people didn't even leave their "place" for three days. This plague didn't affect the Israelite people.

Presumably this is targeted at another one of the Egyptian Gods, Ra perhaps?

This is the first plague where Guzik hasn't mentioned which Egyptian god it is aimed at, and it if the first one where I even have a guess. Perhaps I'm just easily amused but this made me laugh. He did point out something interesting here though
As was the pattern with the previous plagues, the third in this set of three comes without warning
Some plagues God has told Moses to warn Pharaoh, other times he just has him do the thing. Apparently there is a pattern. I'm not sure I really understand the significance of this pattern, but I suppose it is worth pointing out.

Pharaoh called Moses and said they could go worship and they can take their women and children, but not their livestock. Moses said that they needed their animals because they are going to sacrifice to God.

Same as above, Pharaoh is trying to negotiate. Dude, just let them go. I wonder what it could be that is keeping him from doing just that.

Go hardened Pharaoh's heart and he wouldn't let them go.

I am shocked. Shocked! To think, Pharaoh was acting irrational and it turns out that God was forcing him to act that way. 

Pharaoh tells Moses to leave and never come back. If Pharaoh sees his face he will die.

Moral of the Story:
Same Moral as the last few chapters, worship God or else, nothing to see here.

Verses of note

--Free Will--

Exodus 10:1 Again, God says that He hardened Pharaoh's heart

"Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them"

Exodus 10:16,20 After Pharaoh tries to get right with God, God hardens his heart again

"Then Pharaoh hastily called Moses and Aaron and said, "I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you...But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go"

Exodus 10:27 God is hardening Pharaoh's heart again. It's almost like Pharaoh really wants to relent and God has to continually keep him from doing it.

"But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let them go."

--God's Ego--

Exodus 10:2 God is making the plagues severe so the word of his power will reach further generations

"that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Complain About a God I Don't Believe In?

There is someone on twitter that I have been having a friendly back and forth with lately (well, lately as of starting this post, took me quite a while to write it). He recently asked me an interesting question which touches on some topics I've been meaning to write up anyway, so I figured it would be a good time to get it out. First, here's a few of the tweets he sent me

I think this is a really good question, why do I bother complaining about a God who I don't even think is real? Ultimately it is the same reason any atheist would have a blog, or care about any of this stuff at all, it's because Christians think this God is real. Their belief in God affects their actions in ways that I believe are negative for society overall. A simple example is that we have to fight tooth and nail to get evolution taught in schools, it's a proven science, but people see it as a threat to their faith and do everything they can to prevent it from being taught to children. (I'm sure that's not quite they way they would put it, but that's the way I see it)

Description unavailable
(Photo credit: Tom Paton)
But this question is a bit more focused than the simple "why blog about atheism?" that we get so often. I tweet a lot of bible verses showing horrible things in the bible, much of which involves God directly. Why do I do that? Christians are more than willing to describe their God to us, they describe a God who is loving, merciful, generous, and just. They will also say that this is the God described in the bible, they are wrong. The God described in the bible is very different from the God typically described by the average Christian. The Bible God is a monster, and I think most Christians aren't aware of what is in that book. When I was a Christian I certainly wasn't, and if I had been confronted with these verses it would have prompted me to rethink things, and that is really what I'm after. In fact, much of what I do is aimed at a younger version of myself, these are the kinds of things that would have gotten my wheels turning when I was a Christian, so it is the kind of thing I like to put out there.

One last thing, when I say that the God described in the bible is a monster, I'm a little concerned that it might sound like I came in with this bias. I started this project with no idea what I was going to come across, I knew that Christians will generally reference good things from the bible and atheists will generally reference bad things, but I had no idea how how much of each there is in the bible. I honestly came in prepared for the possibility that the atheists were being super biased and the vast majority of the bible was really positive stuff, that's just not what I have found.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Exodus 9: What Are the Egyptians Eating at This Point?

Today's Podcast


God sent Moses and Aaron to ask Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves, but God wanted to punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians, so he hardened Pharaoh's heart to keep him from releasing his slaves and then sent plagues into Egypt. We have seen 4 plagues so far.

The Fifth Plague: Egyptian Livestock Die (v. 1-7)

(Photo credit: Nottingham Vet School)
Moses asks Pharaoh to let his people go to worship God or a severe plague will hit the Egyptian livestock and kill them all, however, the Israelite livestock will all be spared. However, Pharaoh's heart was hardened and he did not let the people go.

From Guzik(along with the rest of the commentaries on this post):
Let My people go, that they may serve Me: In this appeal, it is clear that God wants Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go for the sake of the LORD Himself, not even so much for the sake of the children of Israel.
I've pointed this out before, but didn't highlight it this time. Pharaoh isn't being asked to let his slaves go free, just to be allowed to go worship Yahweh. I find it interesting that God isn't so much interested in helping them out, as much as he wants them to be able to worship him. It seems quite selfish of God. Furthermore, this fact seems perfectly find to the Christians here. He even goes on
We must treat each other well not only for the sake of our fellow brother or sister, but also for the sake of the LORD. We owe it to Him even more than we owe it to them.
We owe it to God more than we owe it to the people we are interacting with? What an insane way to view the world. This is one of those things that really bothers me about this religion. Suppose we are friends and then you fuck me over in some way, according to this philosophy, you have wronged me, sure, but more importantly you have wronged God. So if you go to confession and get yourself right with God is it over? I'm sure many Christians would argue that you also have to patch things up with me, but doesn't the fact that I am the less important person harmed mean I will be dealt with last, or possibly never? Especially if you really don't want to rectify things, but you feel guilty, this gives you an out. You can feel like you did something, alleviate your guilt, and I'm equally as harmed as I ever was.

I had to double check that. v6 "All the livestock of the Egyptians died". That is fucking harsh. So all of the fish in the Nile died in the first plague, now all of their livestock are dead. What are these people supposed to eat? Also, are we supposed to expect that starving Egyptians are not going to steal the livestock from their slaves?

I'm guessing the real reason for this plague was so that the Egyptians will have nothing to sacrifice to their gods rather than to simply punish the Egyptian people. As we have seen in the previous plagues, this really seems to be Yahweh's intent. 
This plague was directed against the Egyptian god Hathor who was thought to be a mother goddess was in the form of a cow. In addition, Egyptian religion considered cattle sacred and the cow was often a symbol of fertility. God shows Pharaoh and all of Egypt that He is mightier than this imagined pagan god.
There you go, another pissing match between gods.

The Sixth Plague: Boils (v. 8-12)

God then instructed Moses to throw soot into the air and it would cause boils on all man and beast of the Egyptians. It was so bad the magicians could not stand. But the lord hardened Pharaoh's heart and he didn't listen.

First of all, what beasts? All of their livestock just died. Do they have beasts other than livestock? Between the fifth and sixth plagues did the Egyptians rush out to neighboring lands and get replacement animals?

Also, this verse had no ambiguity at all, this time God hardened Pharaoh's heart. He definitely took away his free will here.
This plague was probably directed against the Egyptian god Imhotep, who was said to be the god of medicine; even those who would be thought of as closest to the Egyptian gods (the court magicians) were stricken with this plague.
Again, I find the real reason for the plagues interesting, gods attacking other gods, the humans being hurt seem to just be an afterthought.

The Seventh Plague: Hail (v. 13-35)
English: The Plague of Hail, illustration from...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

God had Moses warn everyone that huge hail would come the following day. Anyone who fears the word of God will go inside and be safe, anyone who ignores God will be hurt or have his livestock or slaves killed by the hail.

That's kind of interesting, he gave fair warning on this one, and anyone who wants to can protect themselves. It is certainly interesting that what God seems to what from the Egyptians is fear.

There was hail everywhere, any man or beast that wasn't under cover was killed. Also, every plant was destroyed. Except this didn't affect the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were.

I guess you could protect yourself unless you're a farmer, then it doesn't matter how much you fear God, you are screwed. Also, if you are keeping score, the plagues have now killed all of the fish, all of the livestock, and all of the grains in the field. Seriously, everyone in Egypt would have to die soon of starvation.

Pharaoh then told Moses that he was sorry and would let the people go, so Moses went out of the city and stopped the storms, but as soon as the rain stopped Pharaoh changed his mind (he hardened his heart).

Again, we have the same problem, is Pharaoh hardening his own heart, or did God do it? Based on the difference in wording from plague 6, it seems that Pharaoh did it to himself this time. In that case, what the hell is he doing? God is destroying his kingdom, just let the damn slaves go do their thing.
This plague was directed against several Egyptian gods. Notable among them would was Nut, the sky goddess.
Moral of the Story:
I guess the moral for all of the plague chapters is pretty much going to be the same, if you worship the wrong God you are fucked.

Verses of note:

--Free Will--

Exodus 9:12 God took away Pharaoh's free will so he could continue punishing his people

"But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them"

--God's Ego--

Exodus 9:1,13 The reason God wants the Israelites to be free is so they can worship him

"Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, "Let my people go, that they may serve me."

Exodus 9:16 God is plaguing the Egyptians so they will know he is powerful and spread his name

"But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth."
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