Thursday, November 30, 2006

Reflections on the Soul, Sam Harris and Reason

I have been reading Dr. Sam Harris’ book "The End of Faith," and have found it intellectually rewarding. Unquestionably, he is a strong writer (though I question his use of the word “reasonableness,” which just seems rather unwieldy). Additionally, he is a man of unique views (best summarized as traditionally atheistic, but with openness to mysticism, along with a strange blend of social liberalism and interventionist neo-conservatism). Perhaps he is rather like Dennis Miller. In any case, apart from his half-hearted endorsement of military torture and his evidence-lacking assertion that morality is somehow bound up with human happiness and suffering, he raises excellent points about the bloody past—and black future—of faith-based religion. Indeed, as the title indicates, Dr. Harris calls for the end of faith itself (except, of course, his faith that morality is tied up with the consequences of human-to-human interaction).

I wish to quote a long endnote included in the book, which I find tremendously insightful with respect to the “soul” issue. I find it baffling that so many people so ardently cling to the patently ludicrous idea that immaterial, immortal souls haunt our fleshy carcasses. Through his advanced education, Dr. Harris is endowed with the ability to dissolve the soul illusion with the solvent known as science.

Dr. Harris writes (bracketed comments in bold are mine):

“...there is no longer any doubt whether the character of our minds is dependent upon the functioning of our brains—and dependent in ways that are profoundly counterintuitive. Consider one of the common features of the near-death experience: the nearly dying seem regularly to encounter their loved ones who have gone before them into the next world. See A. Kellehear, Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996). We know, however, that recognizing a person’s face requires an intact fusiform cortex, primarily in the right hemisphere. [Note, however, that this requirement can be waived if we’re playing on the field of religion, which refuses to accept the scientific realities under which we live, and from which we sprang.] Damage to this area of the brain definitely robs the mind of its powers of facial recognition (among other things), a condition we call prosopagnosia. People with this condition have nothing wrong with their primary vision. They can see color and shape perfectly well. They can recognize almost everything in their environment, but they cannot distinguish between the faces of even their closest friends and family members.

“Are we to imagine in such cases that a person possesses an intact soul, somewhere behind the mind, that retains his ability to recognize his loved ones? It would seem so. [A notion such as that would be problematic for the religious individual, however, because it would imply the primacy of “matter” over “mind”—the dominance of the corporal over the ethereal. Implicit in this line of thinking is the notion that neurological deficit apparently would handicap the soul itself, completely masking its intact abilities.] Indeed, unless the soul retains all of the normal cognitive and perceptual capacities of the healthy brain, heaven would be populated by beings suffering from all manner of neurological deficit. [Heaven’s inhabitants not only would be sputtering idiots incapable of recognizing family members, but also naked (unless clothing, too, has an afterlife to which to look forward).]

“But then, what are we to think of the condition of the neurologically impaired while alive? Does a person suffering from aphasia have a soul that can speak, read, and think flawlessly? [And what kind of God would invent something like aphasia, anyway? If Yahweh is real, then cancer, smallpox, HIV, malaria and polio all are the products of his cloud-enshrouded laboratory.] Does a person whose motor skills have been degraded by cerebellar ataxia have a soul with preserved hand-eye coordination? [And, if so, why is the soul’s endowment so thoroughly masked? Again, we return to the clear implication that “mind” is subservient to “matter” as the two clash, cooperate and rattle around inside our carcasses.] This is rather like believing that inside every wrecked car lurks a new car just waiting to get out. [And, of course, religions are rather vague about how, exactly, the “soul” escapes the confines of the flesh, divorcing itself from matter and propelling itself (somehow) to one of two otherworldly locations.]

I recommend Dr. Harris’ book to all My Case Against God readers. I already purchased his next work, which is sure to provoke further reflection about these and other issues.

Comments are welcome about this bedeviling, and evidence-deficient, soul concept.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Vintage My Case Against God: The BIG Bible Post

This article originally appeared on Good Friday, 2006. Alterations have been kept minimal.

Well, it is Good Friday. That means there is good news and bad news: The good news is I got out of work today at 1:00. The bad news is one may not eat any meat all day. That prohibition is rather curious though, considering there is absolutely no logical or rational reason why one should abstain. But, for Christians, logic and rationality are employed only selectively. For example, on Sunday, Christians across the globe will celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Perhaps it never occurred to them that it is scientifically impossible for a corpse that has been dead for dozens of hours to come back to life. How could billions of people possibly believe something that is so egregiously ludicrous?

Answer: It is in the Bible. For Christians, the Bible offers absolute truth, and mustn’t ever be questioned. The Bible is the crutch upon which Christians lean when they declare their belief in Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, creationism, miracles and all other such nonsense. Indeed, for Christians, the Bible is so powerful that it invalidates scientific studies. In the past couple of weeks, two major breakthroughs have been achieved with respect to evolution. If you haven’t already, be sure to read this article and this one. [Note: This link subsequently has passed away.] Christians can rest easy, though; the Bible’s “Special Creation” story must be true by virtue of the fact the Bible is the infallible, inspired Word of God.

Or so Christians hope. In truth, if the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then God is very fallible indeed. When it comes to the details, passages are often directly contradictory. Sometimes there are contradictions even about major events and lineages. Moreover, there are myriad factual errors, especially in regard to science. My argument, thus, is quite simple: If the Bible can’t even get mundane things correct, why should I believe it with respect to things that are scientifically impossible? Perhaps I would give some credence to the Bible’s veracity if there were no contradictions or factual errors; however, as things are, that’s hardly the case.

To prove I’m not just blowing smoke, let me guide you through 10 clear Bible contradictions. Please note, the next section of this post is credited entirely to a great quiz found on this terrific website.

Mt.20:30 – “And as they departed from Jericho, a great multitude followed him. And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.”

Lk.18:35 – “And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging.”


Jer.52:12-13 – “Now in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month ... burned the house of the Lord.”

2 Kg.25:8-9 – “And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month ... burned the house of the Lord.”


Heb.6:18 – “It was impossible for God to lie.”

Mk.10:27 – “With God all things are possible.”


Jas.2:21-25 – “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”

Gal.2:16 – “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith”


2 Chr.22:2 – “Forty and two years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign.”

2 Kg.8:26 – “Two and twenty years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign.”


Mt.7:21 – “Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Jl.2:32 – “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered.”


John 14:28 – “The Father is Greater than I”

John 10:30 – “I and the Father are one.”


Ezekiel 18:20 – “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son”

Exodus 20:5 – “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me”


John 1:18 – “No man hath seen God at any time.”

Genesis 32:30 – “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”


Genesis 22:1 – “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham.”

James 1:13 – “God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.”

Reading David Mills' wonderful book "Atheist Universe" also brought a major contradiction to my attention: differing genealogies tracing the lineage between David and Jesus. The genealogy according to Matthew has 28 steps. The genealogy according to Luke has 43 steps. This represents a direct and irreconcilable contradiction, much like the ones you already have read.

Of course, there are many more such contradictions. I again would urge the Bible’s writers to get their stories straight before expecting us to believe that the impossible is somehow possible, and nature’s laws can somehow float in and out of existence at God’s whim.

Let me quickly also note some of the Bible’s factual inaccuracies. The source is here.

Leviticus 11:6 states that rabbits chew their cud.

Leviticus 11:20-23 speaks of four-legged insects, including grasshoppers.

1 Chronicles 16:30 and Psalm 93:1 state that the earth is immobile; yet it not only revolves and orbits the sun but is also influenced by the gravitational pull of other bodies.

Having expressed distrust in the Bible based upon contradictions and factual inaccuracies, I will close by presenting a smattering of morally objectionable passages. As such, the Bible will be proved factually shaky (to be generous toward it) and morally loathsome.

Now the LORD had said to Moses, "I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely. Tell the people that men and women alike are to ask their neighbors for articles of silver and gold." (The LORD made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and Moses himself was highly regarded in Egypt by Pharaoh's officials and by the people.)
So Moses said, "This is what the LORD says: 'About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt-worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.
Exodus 11:1-6

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have--you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you.
Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession.
You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.
Lev 25:44-46

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ;
Eph 6:5

Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.
Col 3:22

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.
1Cor 14:34

Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments,
but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.
And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
1Tim 2:9-14

If there is a man who marries a woman and her mother, it is immorality; both he and they shall be burned with fire, so that there will be no immorality in your midst.
Lev 20:14

Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.
Lev 21:9

Speak to Aaron, saying, 'No man of your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect shall approach to offer the food of his God.
For no one who has a defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb,
or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand,
or a hunchback or a dwarf, or one who has a defect in his eye or eczema or scabs or crushed testicles.
No man among the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a defect is to come near to offer the LORD'S offerings by fire; since he has a defect, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God.
He may eat the food of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy,
only he shall not go in to the veil or come near the altar because he has a defect, so that he will not profane My sanctuaries. For I am the LORD who sanctifies them.
Lev 21:17-23

Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother.
But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also.
Gen 38:9-10

and whoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.
2Chr 15:13

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ
1Cor 11:3

But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay [them] before me.


Luke 19:27

Friday, November 24, 2006

Human Beings: Just Another Species of Animal

The following is another “My Case Against God classic,” which originally ran shortly after I first published The Pro-Fetal Ownership Argument. In the following short essay, I attack one of society’s most sacred myths: The idea that humans have a greater intrinsic worth than the rest of our plant and animal brethren. To me, life is life—whether human or aardvark. Enjoy!

As a relatively new blogger, maybe I should hold off on making excessively controversial statements. Maybe I should stick with ideas that are palatable to the general atheist public. Then again, maybe I should not. After posting The Pro-Fetal Ownership Argument, it spread fairly rapidly around the blogosphere. Some Christians had the occasion to look it over, and I kept hearing the same complaint ad nauseam: It does not take humanity into account. It seems Christians, and indeed some of us brights, entirely are wrapped up in this notion that humans somehow are special. In this post, I will state my position: Intrinsically speaking, humans are no more special than any other form of life (animal or plant).

I reached this conclusion not through philosophy, but rather through science. For those who have read many of my writings, please bear with me as I repeat one of my central claims. Evolution taught me the intrinsic equality of all living things. Evolution teaches that there is one Tree of Life. Universal Common Descent, quite literally, means that every living thing has a common ancestor—the first form of life. Since there is only one Tree of Life, every living thing is a branch or a branch from a branch [from a branch]. As such, I cannot conceive of a method by which one form of life would become more intrinsically valuable than another life form. Of course, Christians might cite the fictions of “special creation” or “ensoulment,” but I am not here to argue about fictions.

From whence would humans get this alleged increased intrinsic worth?

Many times, human-enthusiasts will cite some of our unique characteristics, such as sentience, complex emotions, and a sense of right and wrong. Personally, I think such arguments betray a deep, ingrained speciocentricity. We, as humans, note a bunch of our characteristics and then deem them “value-adding” traits. Why? The answer is obvious: We, as humans, have a self-interested stake in our own survival. Therefore, we have selfish reasons for fabricating the notion that humans have greater intrinsic worth.

Other species also have unique traits:

A snail can sleep for three years.

Hummingbirds are the only animal that can also fly backwards.

The only two animals capable of seeing behind themselves without turning their heads are the rabbit and the parrot.

Dolphins sleep with one eye open.

A giraffe can clean its ears with its 21-inch tongue.

Ants do not sleep.

Why is possessing complex emotions a “value-adding” trait, while sleeping with one eye open is not? Why is possessing a sense of right and wrong a “value-adding” trait, while never having to sleep at all is not? The answer is wholly predictable: In both cases, humans possess the former and lack the latter. Our notion of “value-adding” traits is based on speciocentric self-interest. This is not to say these values are arbitrary; they absolutely are not. However, they bear no relationship to intrinsic worth, as they come from an inherently biased perspective. Thus, the conclusion would be humans are more valuable to humans by virtue of their humanity. Just like frogs are more valuable to frogs by virtue of their "froginess."

I have no problem with the “humans are special” assertion when presented in that form. When one admits that the “humans are special” argument is based upon speciocentric self-interest, I have no objection. I take issue when people introduce the word “intrinsic,” asserting that, whether one is a human or an aardvark or a beaver, humans have more worth. I would call that the very definition of speciocentricity, and a notion entirely lacking a basis in science.

Having settled that, I pose a question: If the notion of humans valuing humans more than other life forms solely is based upon self-interest, why is it so immoral to shun that notion? To deny the “specialness” of humans is to be unselfish. Indeed, those that blather endlessly about how special humans are actually are engaging in selfish behavior [“Promoting the supremacy of humanity is in my survival interest, and I will do whatever is in my survival interest.”] Those individuals certainly are acting in accordance with Natural Selection, though. But that, of course, is supremely ironic, since those who promote the supremacy of humanity often deny Natural Selection, the very scientific basis for their manifest speciocentricity!

I have no prepared conclusion to present. However, perhaps this essay will serve as nutritious food for thought.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Pro-Fetal Ownership Argument

On occasion, I re-post articles which I previously have published. I call these “My Case Against God classics.” The following is just such a piece. This essay, titled “The Pro-Fetal Ownership Argument,” originally ran when this blog just was taking off. Its provocative nature attracted droves of new readers. I hope my current readership enjoys revisiting it. Some minor edits have been made.

Lately, there has been much talk in the blogosphere regarding abortion. Specifically, people have been explicating their reasons for being pro-abortion or anti-abortion. I happen to be Pro-Fetal Ownership. That is, I believe the female owns the fetus, until the precise moment of live birth. Believing such, I oppose any and all abortion restrictions: “term” limits, parental consent, parental notification, mandatory counseling, age limits, etc. In my view, abortion restrictions infringe on an individual’s bodily sovereignty, and thus are entirely unacceptable. With this post, I briefly will explore my reasoning, and break down my argument, in order to show its soundness.

Here is my argument, briefly stated:

Premise One: Autonomous individuals own their bodies, and everything that is growing within their bodies.

Premise Two: Fetuses grow within the bodies of autonomous females.

Conclusion One: Autonomous females own their fetuses.

Premise Three: Autonomous individuals may destroy that which they own.

Premise Four: Autonomous females own their fetuses.

Conclusion Two: Autonomous females may destroy their fetuses.

As far as I can tell, the only part of that argument that possibly could be contested would be the first premise. However, I am certain of its correctness. Clearly, individuals own their hearts, lungs and kidneys, as well as any tumors growing within their bodies. Indeed, I cannot think of a single thing that would be growing within an individual’s body that said individual would not own. Before moving on, I want to gut a Red Herring that is easy to anticipate. People do not own that which is in their bodies, only that which is growing in their bodies. So, no, one does not own a dentist’s fingers while he is performing his work.

Going back to tumors, I think they represent the perfect analogy to fetuses. First, both tumors and fetuses are living, growing masses of cells. A little human will grow up to be a big human; a little tumor will grow up to be a big tumor. Second, many tumors can exist without posing real harm to the individual; tumors can be either benign or malignant. Therefore, one may not say tumors and fetuses are different because tumors will kill you but fetuses will not. That is just misrepresenting reality, in a transparent and blatant way [Not to mention the fact that many females still die in childbirth, particularly outside the Western world.]

The main objection voiced to my tumor/fetus analogy is that fetuses are human, while tumors are not. While I understand this objection, I cannot take it seriously. Evolution teaches us that there is a singular Tree of Life. Every living thing is on that Tree, representing a branch or a branch from a branch [from a branch]. Given the fact that all living things are on the same Tree of Life, I find it impossible to say that one living thing has more intrinsic value than another living thing. Sure, subjectively, humans have more value than frogs to me because I happen to be human. But that is a subjective, rather than objective, judgment, based upon my inherent speciocentricity. I do not argue that all species of life are equal—that would be antithetical to Natural Selection itself. I argue only that no species of life is more intrinsically valuable than any other. Such would be impossible, since we are all on the same Tree. So, rather than building my argument upon subjective speciocentricity, I choose to build my argument upon the objective equality (of intrinsic value) of all species of life. And so, my fetus/tumor analogy is appropriate.

If one owns one’s hypothetical tumor, one also owns one’s hypothetical fetus.

Now, I will anticipate a few counterarguments and concisely respond.

Some will ask, “Why does the female’s ownership of the fetus end upon live birth? Why doesn’t it continue?” Perhaps the ownership continues and perhaps it does not. In my view, the ownership ends upon live birth. However, I suppose, an argument could be formulated in which the female continues to own her baby. But, that is irrelevant to my argument. My argument deals only with the nine months in which the fetus is growing within the female’s body. Indeed, the second premise specifically references the fetus growing within the female. Therefore, if the fetus is no longer in the female, then my argument is inapplicable. Notice, I never argued that individuals own that which ever has grown within their bodies, only that which currently is growing.

A similar Red Herring is that this argument endorses slavery, as it endorses ownership of humans. Look at my argument—an argument dealing specifically with an entity growing within the body of an individual—and try to find its application to slavery. The quick answer: There is no such application.

Some also will object to the premise that individuals may destroy that which they own. Often, anti-abortion folks deliberately will misinterpret that statement, alleging I said individuals may do anything they want with that which they own. For example, using that twisted logic, one would be allowed to kill a neighbor with one’s hammer, by virtue of the fact that the individual owns the hammer. However, that clearly is not what I said. I asserted that individuals may destroy their property, not do whatever they want with it. Thus, rather than killing a neighbor with one’s hammer, I am granting permission for the individual to kill the hammer itself.

I see this as the strongest, yet the simplest, defense of the pro-abortion view. All the things that blur the issue—humanity, personhood, etc.—are rendered irrelevant. This is purely a property-rights argument, which does not attempt to flail about in the morality morass.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Jesus vs. "The Mighty Redwood"

Please consider the following two narratives. One story is widely believed (with adherents numbering in the billions), while the other has—to my knowledge—no adherents. Analyze each narrative’s plausibility, and think about whether one is more probable than the other is.

Narrative One: Around the year 33 CE, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified for his perceived crimes against the powers of the day. Jesus, being the Son of God, rose bodily from the dead a few dozen hours later. All the crippling effects of death miraculously were reversed. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus appeared to several individuals, in assorted places, during the course of the next 40 days, apparently fully recovered from brain death’s ravages. Eventually, Jesus ascended to Heaven.

Narrative Two: Around the year 33 CE, in what now is known as the U.S. state of California, a Sierra Redwood spontaneously uprooted itself. There were several eyewitnesses to the event, each one of whom testified that, after the uprooting incident, the Sierra Redwood used its roots as makeshift legs to walk away. What eventually happened to the giant tree is unknown, but, according to historical documents, people from far-flung locales visited the former resting place, marveling at the tree’s wondrous departure.

Which narrative seems more plausible, and why?

Does either story—or both—count as an extraordinary claim?

Do you accept the maxim “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”?

Finally, does one narrative warrant widespread belief, given the evidence we currently possess?

I submit the following answers:

· Both stories are equally implausible, given their violations of the known principles of nature.

· Both stories clearly are extraordinary claims, given the natural principle violations to which I referred.

· I accept the ECREE maxim as a valid, useful tool which helps to overcome human fallibility and achieve genuine knowledge about the world in which we live.

· Given the dearth of extraordinary evidence, neither claim warrants widespread belief or any degree of confidence whatsoever. Both stories should be set aside tentatively, in hopes that better evidence eventually will materialize to either confirm or deny their validity.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Setting America's Agenda

Thank you, US voters! Thank you for rescuing this country from the death grip of the GOP. For the past six years, the Republicans systematically had been ruining this once-great country. Now, with Democrats like Nancy Pelosi in power, perhaps this country will return to respectability and earn back my patriotism.

Here’s my pipe dream list of things the Democrats ought to do:

1. Only approve judges who recognize a personal, unrestricted right to abortion, as well as a personal right to die. By holding those positions, these judges will have demonstrated respect for the crucial principle of bodily sovereignty.

2. Move forward in recognizing gay marriage at the federal level. Civil unions are not an acceptable alternative; separate but equal is a farce because separate inherently means unequal. Only outright gay marriage will do.

3. Eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and eliminate “harsh interrogation techniques” employed against suspected enemies of the state. Torture is not tolerable, ever.

4. Eliminate laws regarding personal, adult drug use.

5. Eliminate laws regarding personal, adult, consensual sexual activity.

6. Eliminate the FCC’s ability to regulate for “indecency” and “obscenity,” as those concepts merely are a matter of personal taste.

7. Leave Iraq tomorrow.

8. Eliminate any connection between Church and State. Worship centers should pay taxes just like every other institution. Worship centers should not receive any federal funding under any circumstances, including school supplies for parochial schools.

9. Abolish the warrant-less domestic surveillance program, and reconsider the Patriot Act in the light of protecting civil liberties.

10. Expand federal funding of stem cell research, and fund human cloning research, as well.