## Atheist App Gets High School Physics Wrong

I have to admit I have a kind of morbid fascination for groups who are pushing anti-scientific positions: YECs, climate change deniers. But more recently a new group has stepped into the ring, the new atheists. This group is prone to conflating atheism with science, and sometimes seem to assume just because they’re atheists what they say about science is correct - even when they seemingly know little science at all.

An example is Peter Boghossian’s denial of the reality of basic physics. He’s back with installment two, the “Atheos” app. For the low, low price of $8 you too can be taught to use strawmen and long series of disingenuous loaded questions to make your conversations “better”. If you’re not facinated by an app which says it is in place to promote good reasoning, but actively tries to promote fallacies, perhaps you’ll be entertained by the app’s attitude to science. The app is not backward in making bold claims about science, The fact that quantum mechanics is a scientific theory doesn’t mean it’s a fully fleshed-out theory or that it’s even been consolidated into a coherent whole. Thank you, “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science” for letting us know that quantum mechanics isn’t a “fully flested out theory”, and that it’s “not even a coherent whole”. I’m sure those supporters who paid tens of thousands of dollars to promote science feel they spent their money wisely. These comments aren’t isolated. ## Photons and Fallacies A simple example of the app’s bad science what it teaches its users about photons. Even in high school physics, children learn that different colours correspond to different frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation. As Einstein showed (via the photo-electric effect) light with a particular colour/frequency comes in discrete ‘packets’ energy,$E=h\nu$, which we call photons. A photon has a well-defined frequency,$\nu$, which corresponds to a particular colour. All of which is pretty straightforward. Apparently not for the app, which sloppily implies that photons don’t have a colour/frequency: “Photons are colorless. Light is composed of photons. Light is therefore colorless.” The fallacy is equating properties of the composition of the parts with that of the whole. The statement is badly reasoned, but is not a fallacy for the reason the app suggests - it is badly reasoned because the premise of the argument (that photons are colourless) is false. All that is demonstrated here is that the authors - who bill themselves as “expert atheists”, whatever that means - are ignorant of high-school physics. ## Composition is not always a fallacy Not only is the science bad, but the logic is too. In alleging a fallacy of composition, the app is itself reasoning badly. Although fallacy of composition is a legitimate fallacy, it is not always applicable. Sometimes (often, in fact) the properties of the whole do depend on the parts which go to make them up- and this is the case with the light. The colour of a coherent light source is determined by the combination of photons which go to make it up. Why? It follows from (again, school-level) mathematics, that the sum of two waves with the same frequency,$\nu$, is another wave with the same frequency. So, therefore, no matter what wacky combination you choose, if you have combine only photons of only one colour, the resulting light will be of the same colour. While not all light is monochromatic, it is not hard to find light which is. For example a coherent state (such as is emitted by a laser), can be represented by a superposition of photonic states: $|\alpha\rangle = e^{-|\alpha|^2/2} \sum_n \frac{\alpha^n}{\sqrt{n!}} | n \rangle$ where$| n \rangle\$ represents a Fock state representing the number of photons in the mode (ie. of a particular frequency).

Opposite to what the app claims, basic science says that light containing only red photons must be red.

## Conclusion

The conclusion is not tricky or difficult: The Atheos app makes gradiose claims running down science, but gets even basic science wrong.

## Principle of Sufficient Reason

Lucas is an atheist apologist who doesn’t like the principle of sufficient reason.

This idea that the universe needs “Sufficient Reason” is, to me, totally BS. What “reason” does a tree have? What reason do “I” have? Some things just “are”.

In this post, I’d like to explain what I understand of the principle of sufficient reason, how it could apply to trees, himself, and why (IMHO) it doesn’t necessarily lead to infinite regress. I apologise in advance that I’m not a philosopher, so (although this is the way I see things) sorry if I have butchered other people’s arguments.

## On Being Rational

The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) says that “For every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case.”

To think that PSR is true, is simply what it means to be rational. There is a reason, even if we don’t know what it is. It’s this principle which underpins science, and motivates us look for those reasons. The principle I use for every question, not just when I’m thinking about science or God: For every fact there is an explanation or a reason. That’s what it is to be rational.

Of course, you don’t have to accept reason - you don’t have to be rational. And if you reject reason, there’s no argument I could ever offer you. How could you reason with someone who rejects reason? You can’t.

What reason does a tree have?

The principle of sufficient reason says that for any fact about the tree, there is a reason why that’s the case.

Take, for example, the apricot tree growning in my back yard. There is a reason why it is growing there. A seed was planted in a nursery, and that seed grew into a small tree, at which point it was bought by a couple of homeowners, and planted in their garden. There it was cared for, and grows there until today.

What reason do “I” have?

Not to be rude, but when a mummy and a daddy love each other very much…

## Contingent and Necessary

One important thing to realize is that there are two different types of reasons that can be given:

Therefore we must assign some positive cause, or reason, why [a thing] exists— either an external one, i.e., one outside the thing itself, or an internal one, one comprehended in the nature and definition of the existing thing itself.

I would call things of the first type ‘contingent’ - they depend on things outside themselves. And things of the second type ‘necessary’ - their reason for existing is bound up in the thing itself, not something external.

Lucas' examples, of a tree and of himself, are of the first type. There’s no reason intrinsic to either why they have to exist. In reality they demonstrably depend on other things. Physics, botany, biology and chemistry describe many of these dependencies.

Which brings us to a pretty basic point: You can’t just arbitrarily ascribe being necessary to anything you like. You can’t just declare that trees (or other physical objects) are necessary, any more than you can say that green objects are actually blue, up is down, or that the current West Indes cricket team is actually good.

So how do we avoid infinite regress? If someone thought there were only contingent things- that would lead to an infinite regress. No matter how far we’d explained, we’d still have to explain further. It wouldn’t even matter how long the chain was, we would still have to add more, and there would still be no ultimate justification for existence. Only if the chain led back to something necessary, we could validly terminate it.

To be well justified, ultimately something necessary must exist.

## Conclusion

I’m far from a philosopher, but describing the Principle of Sufficient Reason - the idea that there are rational explanations for facts as “totally BS” is arrogant. It’s this idea which motivates science, and this idea which distinguishes between someone who is rational and someone who is not.

I introduced being necessary and contingent. While Lucas might want to say physical objects (like trees and leaves) are brute facts not requiring an explanation, in reality that a plant exists is a contingent fact. A plant depends on seed, sunlight, water, fertilizer, good soil, not to mention a multi-million year long evolutionary pathway for its existence.

Finally we reasoned that having only contingent things alone lead to infinite regress, and so to avoid that absurdity, something necessary must exist to terminate it.

That’s a lot to write in one waffle. I hope I haven’t butchered the philosophy too badly. Seriously, the thing to do is to go and read. A lot of this stuff, argued infinitely more rigorously than some amateur hack like me does for fun, is at your fingertips. Just google, and you can read what some of the greatest minds mankind has ever produced (like Leibniz, Spinoza and Kant) have to say.

## Can Explanations Lead to More Questions?

One of the benefits of being a Christian online are all the wonderful atheists who are drawn to us, like a Jehovah’s Witness to a doorbell convention. The latest atheist apologist to try their luck to deconvert me is Lucas. Although he claims to want to talk about epistemology, he prefers push the conversation to arguments made by all-round nice guy, Richard Dawkins: Lucas claims that God can never be an explanation, because that only leads to more questions.

Originally Lucas claimed belief in God leads to an infinite regress because “If everything needs a creator, what created your creator?”. Far from the faith-destroying zinger it’s meant to be, claiming everything needs a cause is demonstrably the opposite of the cosmological argument. The cosmological argument does not assume that everything needs a cause, but shows the exact opposite: that there must be at least one thing which does not (which most of us identify as God). Lucas now realizes this, “It’s not my argument, I agree not everything has to have a cause.”

Instead he now appears to say:

Explanations which lead to more questions are not good explanations.


Its this watered down Dawkinsidity I’d like to talk about here. This modified claim is just plain false.

## Genuine questions are good

Imagine that you are with Captain Cook on his voyage to the South Pacific. Having sailed to exotic Pacific islands to observe the transit of Venus, you sail South West. Then, over the horizon, you spot Australia. No doubt you would have many questions about the new continent, like: ‘How big is it?’, ‘What sort of animals are there?’, ‘Is it suitable for founding new settlements?’, ‘How did a spider grow that big?’. I can guarantee that nobody aboard, doubted the they had just discovered a new landmass just because that would lead to more questions.

Any discovery, in any field, leads to more questions. That’s not just true in geography, but in any field such as the sciences, history, or medicine. In none of them do people suggest that just because an explanation leads to more questions that it is a bad explanation. In the same way, there’s no reason to reject God just because belief in him leads to more questions.

In fact, this isn’t just a bad argument (in the sense it is illogical). It’s a bad argument because it tries to get us to do exactly the wrong thing. When we discover a new fact in history, or geography, or any field we should be led to ask questions. Curiosity and genuine open questions are wonderful, wonderful things.

This morning LIGO directly detected gravitational waves for the very first time. Two black holes coalesced together producing a chirp signal, exactly as predicted. If your head isn’t running with questions: ‘What are gravitational waves?’, ‘Is it too good to be true - why didn’t we see any two and three sigma events?’, ‘Where were the black holes which produced it?’, ‘How big were they?’, ‘Can we detect other objects?’, ‘How can we get the current noise floor down’, then it should be.

## Conclusion

The argument that good explanations can’t lead to more questions is obviously wrong. There’s no reason why explanations shouldn’t lead to more questions. The exact opposite is true. They should!

Thanks for reading my waffle. In the next one I’ll discuss one of Lucas' objections the cosmological argument. Feel free to comment below, or tweet to me @sillymuddle.

## Why 'Street Epistemology' Is Broken

Peter Boghossian (PB) is a new atheist goes around the world teaching atheists how to argue Christians out of belief in God. He calls his method “Street Epistemology”. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which “how you know what you know”. PB claims that if people can be taught the “correct” epistemology then we will automatically reject belief in God.

Despite his epistemology about both science and religion being incredibly skeptical, he makes some pretty big claims about his persuation techniques. He claims that those people who come into contact with them, and appear not to agree, either secretly agree with him or are brain damaged:

This section will unpack the two primary reasons for this appearance of failure: either (1) an interlocutor’s brain is neurologically damaged, or (2) you’re actually succeeding.

The problem is that his epistemology is one which nobody, regardless of our religious belief or lack of it, should agree with.

## So what is Peter Boghossian’s epistemology, anyway?

According to an article he published in the popular magazine Scientific American, Peter Boghossian argued in favour of an extreme form instrumentationalism. That’s a big word, what does it mean in plain language?

Most people think when we’re doing science, we’re finding out about the real world. When we image electrons in the lab, those electrons exist in reality. When we measure their properties, we measuring something about reality. That’s known as scientific realism. Science reveals reality.

In contrast instrumentationalists (and PB) are anti-realists. If you’ve ever heard science described as “just a theory” - that pretty much the view PB puts forward. When we are doing science, PB claims, all we are doing is making theories. It is invalid, in PB’s view, no matter how much evidence you have to say something is true, to go from theory to saying anything is ultimately true in reality.

However, most instrumentationalists I know wouldn’t describe their views the way PB does. The normal thing to say is that we know at the point of measurement what is true (ie. that electrons, electric and magnetic fields exist because they are directly measured) but we can’t reliably say what happens between the measurements - rather than denying the scientific realism wholesale.

But PB is more skeptical than most self-described instrumentationalists: he even can’t say electrons, magnetic fields, electric fields, or photons exist.

We test our models to find out if they work; but we can never be sure, even for highly predictive models like quantum electrodynamics, to what degree they correspond to “reality.” To claim they do is metaphysics. If there were an empirical way to determine ultimate reality, it would be physics, not metaphysics; but it seems there isn’t.

So, for example, the fact that we can image electrons directly using scanning tunneling microscopes STM is not an indication electrons actually exist. Going from a scientific theory to reality is “metaphysics”, and “metaphysics” is not to be given any respect at all:

Whatever may be the branches of philosophy that deserve the esteem of academics and the public, metaphysics is not among them. The problem is straightforward. Metaphysics professes to be able to hook itself to reality—to legitimately describe reality—but there’s no way to know if it does.

According to Boghossian’s garbled definitions, the definition of “faith” is claiming to know what you do not know. In this case, he is accusing scientists of claiming to know what we do not know - that our theories correspond to reality. Scientists claiming to know our theories correspond to reality are, according to Boghossian’s definitions, demonstrating faith.

## The particles and fields of electrodynamics exist

I am a physicist.

I cannot unsee scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) images of electrons: individual electrons measured in solid state devices down to sub-nanometre scale. But it’s not just the fact that we can actually ‘see’ individual electrons. We have multiple ways to measure them, even individually. One of my favourites is single electron transistors, capable of detecting the presence or absence of individual electrons. Using quantum point contacts, you can see the effects of individual electrons tunelling. Using SQUIDs you can detect the magnetic fields they create. In scattering experiments, and in many different types of spectroscopy you can infer their properties. Using ESR you can manipulate and measure their state, the same with EPR. Even at a school level, you can do the oil drop experiment (and many of us have), build simple electric and electronic devices, use a Van De Graaf generator or experiment on cathode rays. You can see their tracks in a cloud chamber… I could go on and on: the sheer volume of straightforward evidence in favour of electrons existing, from multiple independent sources, is overwhelming.

As Seth Lloyd puts it:

I cannot prove that electrons exist, but I believe fervently in their existence. And if you don’t believe in them, I have a high voltage cattle prod I’m willing to apply as an argument on their behalf. Electrons speak for themselves.

But it’s not just the direct evidence, it’s also that you can make novel predictions with electro-dynamics, which constistently turn out to be right. Electronics, like the computer you are reading on, the mobile phone you carry in your pocket, right the way up to the operation of a light can be accurately designed and predicted using electrodynamics. PB uses all these things, even though he doesn’t believe in the particles and fields which make them work exist in reality.

It’s not just electronics either - Today is Dmitri Mendeleev’s birthday. All of chemistry relies on our description of electrodynamics, as does the periodic table. That electrodynamics corresponds to reality is what chemists and engineers around the world do every day.

It’s also about coherence. Electrons form a part of the standard model, a beautiful description of the physics that we see. By contrast attempts of instrumentalists to even replace the language of scientific realism with that of instrumentationalism totally failed. When words like “electron” were replaced with “the white streak in the bubble chamber” the resulting jibberish quickly descended into utter chaos.

The point is simple: Even on questions where there is overwhelming evidence, unbelievable explanatory power and coherence, Peter Boghossian withholds belief. It’s not just God which Peter Boghossian’s philosophy doesn’t allow belief in, it’s the reality of everything described by science.

## Two Brain Damaged People

Boghossian claims that those who reject his philosophy are either brain damaged or secretly agree with him. Many people reject PB’s philosophy of instrumentationalism. To pick just two famous scientists:

Einstein rejected instrumentationalism,

I recall that during one walk Einstein suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked whether I really believed that the moon exists only when I look at it.

Heisenberg rejected instrumentationalism,

The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.

Neither Einstein nor Heisenberg were brain damaged, and both clearly rejected the epistemology that Boghossian is pushing.

So, considering Boghossian’s claims about those who disagree with his epistemology are outright false, why might he make them? Perhaps it is because accusing people who disagree with you is good propaganda, dehumanizing people who genuinely disagree with you, so they don’t need to be listened to. It shows a great disrespect for his followers, implying that he believes they will be swayed, not by reason or evidence, but by the oldest techiques of propaganda and persuation in the book.

## Good Epistemology

A good epistemology seeks to do two equally important things:

1. To maximize true beliefs we hold.
2. To minimize the number of false beliefs

Neglect either one of these two epistemic duties, and your epistemology is irrevocably broken.

The problem with Peter Boghossian’s (and many skeptical epistemologies) is that they don’t value both of two epistemic duties, but only one. If we only value one, life becomes easy! The easiest way to minimize false beliefs (2) is by simply rejecting virtually every belief, even the most well evidenced things.

But to reject almost every belief, neglects on our duty to hold true beliefs (1).

We can never know if [a theory] will not someday be replaced with another more powerful model that makes no mention of fields (or particles, for that matter).

It is true is that we can never be sure if our particular model, and the existence of particles and fields of that model are correct. But does not being pedantically certain mean we should withhold belief? No, because we want to fulfil both our epistemic duties, not just one. We want to believe true beliefs. We don’t have to show that no other view is even possible, only that there we have good reasons for believing the one we do. If we do that future models will most likely include the elements of our model, for the simple reason that they really do exist in reality.

It’s always possible, for example, that evolution is not true. It’s possible. It’s just not likely. When you consider the evidence, it becomes ridiculously unlikely- dropping exponentially with each new piece of evidence, and not accepting it becomes a sign of a broken epistemology.

Similarly, when we’re talking about physics - about the existence of electrons, photons, electric and magnetic fields, it’s always possible that science is completely wrong about them and they don’t exist. It’s just not likely. When you consider the evidence, the coherence and the explanatory power of electrons, the probability that we are mistaken becomes exponentially small, and not accepting them is a sign of a broken epistemology.

The reason why PB’s epistemology is broken is clear: It only values one of the two epistemic duties. It values rejecting false beliefs, but not believing the true ones.

Considering both (1) and (2) is tough to do. Of course, it would be easy to neglect one or the other. You wouldn’t have to carefully consider and weigh up the different options ever again. It is tough to try to do both, and definitely not an easy way out, but that’s the only mature thing to do. And that, despite the absurd way that PB characterizes anyone who disagrees with him, is what many of us do.

## Conclusion

I’m not arguing here that you should believe in electrons. You should. That is just an example to illustrate PB’s flawed epistemology. I could have chosen many others. I could have taken any of the views he and his group express - about history for example, and made a similar argument. But the reasons why PB’s epistemology is broken would remain the same.

Peter Boghossian’s view is an unbelievably skeptical one. It leads him to reject the existence of particles and fields of electrodynamics. Put simply, his epistemology is far, far too skeptical. It witholds belief in situations it shouldn’t. It rejects the truth even in situations when there is more than enough reason to accept it.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, PB’s epistemology is not reasonable. It demonstrably rejects straightforward evidence based on bad philosophy. It rejects the truth even in situations when there is more than enough reason to accept it. As a way of coming to the truth, PB’s epistemology is broken.

Thanks for reading this waffle. Next waffle I’ll reply to PB fan Lucas, who claims we can never have evidence for God.