Saturday, July 14, 2012

Examining the Louisiana Psychic Ruling

            I’m not going to waste your time or mine with digging into legal precedent or preparing a proper scholarly paper on this one.  Instead, we’re going to just briefly look at the facts of the matter and then I’ll tell you what I think (and hence what you should think) about all this.
            The back-story in brief: The city of Alexandria, Louisiana passed an ordinance banning fortunetelling, palm reading, astrology, and similar activities within their city.  Good for them--sticking it to the frauds, right?  Well, in 2011, Rachel Adams, a fortune-teller who claims she accepts donations but does not charge for her “services”--and we all know that’s just a ploy--sued after receiving a summons for violating the ordinance which carries daily penalties of up to $500.
            U.S. Magistrate James Kirk (I really couldn’t make this shit up if I tried) wrote a report and recommendation arguing that despite the city’s arguments that the business of fortunetelling is a fraud, it is nonetheless free speech protected under the First Amendment.
            On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dee D. Drell (really can’t make this shit up), in agreement with Magistrate Kirk’s recommendation, declared the ordinance unconstitutional.
            This is the matter on the table for discussion.  You all know that I’m a very vocal supporter of free speech and the First Amendment, and that I’m an extremely vocal opponent of fortunetelling and the various other frauds committed under the guise of some sort of supernatural power.  That’s what makes this one interesting.  We’ve seen how the judge ruled on the matter, but was he right?
            Let us first consider the First Amendment.  Is it absolute?  No.  But neither is it or should it be lightly limited.  It extends to actions beyond just speech and press, as it rightly should, to protect free expression in general, as is exemplified in the Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnston, in which the Court ruled that flag burning is an act of free expression protected by the First Amendment.  They were correct.
            But we also know it’s not absolute.  There are, of course, the old clichés that “your rights end where mine begin” and “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre.”  Generally, they’re trotted out by people who are trying to limit free speech beyond the actually reasonable limitations that the clichés would provide.  These reasonable limitations include, in the first case, making false defamatory statements (and even that is sometimes protected, depending upon circumstances--there’s a body of case law that I’m not even going to begin to discuss), or in the second case, endangering life and limb or inciting a riot by fraudulently claiming that there’s a fire when there is not.  It is clear that speech that people simply find annoying is protected, and that speech which actually damages others is not.
            These are common sense restrictions, and they’re generally reinforced by the courts who seem to only occasionally break away from what one might consider a “sane” interpretation of First Amendment law.
            The other matter worthy of consideration is that of fraud.  Clearly fraud is illegal.  It is prosecuted in all fifty states.  If I go downtown and pull off a Pigeon Drop, I’m going to be prosecuted for that.  Theft by any other name is still theft.  And though we may have a certain admiration for the cleverness with which these crimes are committed (as opposed to simply mugging someone), we’re all in agreement that they are still crimes and should be treated as such.
            So where does that leave us with this case?  Does that mean the judge was right or wrong.  It’s a difficult question, but I lean to the side that says he was wrong, but that answer is conditioned on several things.
            First, lying to someone--and don’t delude yourself into thinking psychics and fortunetellers are doing anything different--is perfectly fine and protected as long as it neither harms someone by defaming their character nor costs someone money under false pretenses.  I’m a magician--I lie to people all the time, and yeah, I get paid for it.  But I don’t do so under false pretenses.  They know they’re going to be lied to, and that’s exactly what they’re paying for.  They want a form of entertainment that serves as an escape from the truths of reality, and that’s exactly what they buy from me.
            When it comes to psychics, this is not necessarily the case.  Sure, plenty of people with a fortunetelling booth might just do it for the fun.  Perhaps they even tell their customers that it’s for entertainment purposes only (because we all know they’ll take that disclaimer seriously) as many cities across America require.  But the fact of the matter is, there is a large percentage of the population who, for whatever reason, believe in psychics, and take it very seriously.  These people pay out the wazoo, and all they get in return is a lie packaged up as supernatural wisdom.  This is fraud, plain and simple.
            There’s a fine line to be drawn here.  For instance, I absolutely loathe the newspaper horoscopes I see whenever I pick up a print edition of one of my favorite publications.  But is that really fraud, in the way that the law sees fraud?  No.  No one pays for that directly, and as long as it does not individually defame anyone’s character, it’s perfectly protected by the First Amendment.  We’ll just have to get people to be smarter about it in order to get rid of those.
            Is it fraud if someone holds a Houdini séance on Halloween?  Again, probably not, depending upon circumstances.  Generally, these are theatrical productions that, whether or not they come right out and say so, everyone understands to be nothing more than entertainment.  It’s become something of a tradition, and even skeptics participate.
            What about someone who claims to be the real deal, and sets up a shop somewhere, but doesn’t charge for any services?  Little more of a gray area, but still legal.  If no money changes hands, there’s no fraud.  If they do charge for their services, on the other hand, that IS fraud.  That SHOULD be illegal.  It’s not prosecuted nearly often enough (probably because politically minded prosecutors don’t want to alienate the believing community), but there’s no way around the simple truth that we should be prosecuting it.
            Now, here’s the gray area in which this case so uncomfortably resides.  What if the psychic doesn’t technically charge for her services, but accepts donations or sells books?  We all know what’s really going on here, don’t we?  It’s a clever way around trade laws.  By not actually charging for the service in question, they can argue that there’s no fraud, but by accepting donations, they’re able to keep raking in the money because they know damn well plenty of people will pay.
            So do I agree with the judge?  Maybe.  I think that, in this particular case, he might have been right, but I think he may have been wrong to throw out the law entirely.  If it is true that Adams never charged for her services, she’s probably in the clear--though if there was any sort of coercion such as claiming the spirits will only help if the victims pay, it’s another matter.  However, a law on the books to prosecute those who do charge should easily pass constitutional muster and should be allowed to stand.
            Make no mistake: this is a difficult issue, and the answers aren’t always easy to come by.  Clearly, we need stronger legal protections against the frauds masquerading as psychics.  But on the other hand, with First Amendment considerations to contend with, I must make the recommendation that I seem to always make about almost every issue: the real answer is education.  While legal protections would be a great benefit, we’ll never actually get rid of the psychic menace until we have a scientifically literate populace, well educated in methods of critical thinking.  When that day arrives, we won’t need to split hairs over constitutional issues, as the psychics will all just go out of business without any legal prodding.

On Ignorance and Idiocy

            Issac Asmiov knew a thing or two about a thing or two.  We all know his work in science fiction, but in addition to being one of the “Big Three” science fiction pioneers, he was an extremely well educated man, a professor of biochemistry, textbook writer, essayist and historian.  The man authored or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.  His works appear in all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System.  He once made an observation that will serve to introduce our topic of discussion for today: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
            In that single sentence, unfortunately, Asimov managed to sum up what being American means to far too many people.  We seem to have come to this conclusion that the freedom for which our forefathers fought means the freedom to enjoy being wrong on any given matter without suffering any of the ill effects typically associated with error.
            Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with ignorance per se.  We are all ignorant of something.  There’s also no shame in making a mistake.  The shame comes when one descends to a state of willful ignorance or refusal to admit error and correct mistakes.  Worse, there are many who actively seem to take pride in their ignorance and mistakes.
            Let’s look at some examples.  First up, I recently watched a news story from an alternative source of news commentary I frequently watch regarding California’s decision to ban the delicacy foie gras, presumably in response to political pressure from animal rights groups.  Without commenting on the reasoning behind the ban itself (parenthetically, I will add that I oppose this insidious legislation, but I’m not offering judgments on the intellectual capabilities of anyone who disagrees with me--that’s a completely different issue), have a look at the news piece I watched.

            The first thing you’ll notice is that I disagree with the hosts, but that’s not the point here.  The point is that both hosts seem to take such pride in their inability to pronounce “foie gras.”  If you slip up and mispronounce it, I would consider it slightly unprofessional (if you’re reading a news story, you should check the pronunciation before filming), but forgivable.  However, there is no call to take such pride in it.  These people have allowed their political views that all rich people are evil (and believe me, that attitude shows clearly in their programming on a regular basis) to influence their work to the point that they are proud of their ignorance.  Indeed, beyond being proud of never having eaten foie gras, which may be defensible if you have animal rights attitudes, they extend this idiocy to a pride in not even being able to pronounce it.
            The role of media is to bring us information.  I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I get good information when the hosts demonstrate an ignorance of their topic.  It’s fine not to know about foie gras--culinary arts are obviously not the hosts’ forte.  But the appropriate action for a journalist to take when presenting a story on a topic he or she knows nothing about is to consult an expert.  The Young Turks, rather than engaging in mental masturbation, might have brought a chef into the studio to comment.  How else are we to trust that the information they provide us regarding the treatment of the ducks is accurate when they can’t even learn how to pronounce the words?
            I’ll treat you to another example, this one even more depressing.  It involves two people I know personally, and I will omit any identifying information to protect the ignorant (not a concession I would generally make as I feel that people should be made to feel ashamed when the demonstrate voluntary ignorance, but in this case, I have personal reasons to avoid identifying who I’m talking about).  During a gathering, Person A remarked on the absolute dangerous lunacy that is the modern anti-vaccination movement.  Person B responded by saying very much like “That’s a very double-sided issue and you sound ignorant when you don’t consider both sides.”
            In addition to just proving ignorance of what the science says on the matter, this person demonstrates a willingness to engage in a particular variety of ignorance that can and will cost human lives, with particularly high risk for children.  Indeed, there is nothing that smacks of greater stupidity than the ignorant calling the educated ignorant.  The simple fact of the matter (which we may discuss in detail in another entry) is that vaccination is a safe way to save lives, and that the anti-vaccination movement is an attempt by the stupid to stroke their own egos at the expense of not only their lives, but their children’s and their communities’ (herd immunity, after all, is a key component of why we’ve managed to beat many of the diseases that are now making a comeback as a direct result of the criminally negligent anti-vaccination movement).  All you really need to know is that the anti-vaccination movement was largely started by a doctor (Andrew Wakefield) whose license has been revoked and whose 1998 paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism is known to be a fraud and whose integrity is further called into question by allegations that his research was motivated by profiteering rather than science and by a woman whose only qualifications are that she took off her clothes for Playboy magazine and managed to have a child who she’s been willing to exploit on the international stage for a little unearned attention.  I’ve complained before and will again that “parent” is not a qualification.  All it takes to become a parent is unprotected sex--that does not make one an expert on anything.  And as much as I have respect for those who take off their clothes for the enjoyment of the rest of us, that also does not qualify one to speak on a matter of scientific importance.
            As Person B said, it may be a “double sided” issue, but on one side is every credible scientific study that’s been written on the topic--ever--and on the other side is a porn star and a disgraced doctor who faked the results of his research.
            Taking sides when one is clearly right is not a problem, and that it is perceived as a problem IS a major concern.  Matters of science are not subject to opinion.  Hell, I’m not even entirely convinced that matters of art and entertainment are completely subjective.  Regardless, when it comes to science, politics, economics--really anything to which there is an objective “right answer,” whether or not we yet know what that right answer is, we needn’t subject ourselves to an “unbiased” discussion of “opinion.”  Because opinions can be wrong, and the goal of the scientist as well as both the journalist and even just the average person considering the information from home is to determine the actual truth, the appropriate course is to argue passionately for what appears to be right, but to maintain sufficient humility to listen if someone presents a contrary argument.  Allow reasoned argument (as opposed to emotionalism) and fact (as opposed to opinion) to settle the matter.  If there is a question on which there is a right answer--and anti-vaccination is one of these as are evolution and global warming, despite what the deniers may say--then presenting an “unbiased” news piece in which “both sides” present their information is, itself, a biased form of distributing information.  It is biased in favor of the WRONG side because it creates the illusion that there is room for debate when there is not.
            People have a tendency to read exactly the wrong sources of information.  Conservatives and liberals both have a habit of ignoring or misusing science.  The conservatives rightly have a reputation for being anti-science, but it’s time for all of us to realize that, though they’re wrong about different issues, the liberals are just as scientifically misguided as their right-wing counterparts.  There are plenty of good sources of information capable of accurately distilling what the studies actually say (myself included, I say with an appropriate level of humility) but ultimately, if you’re reading your information from a political website, or any traditional newspaper, you’re probably getting bad science.  Go to the original study, or find a source capable of distilling the information for you without losing the actual meaning.
            There’s no shame if you don’t know a certain point of science (though there is massive shame in America’s institutionalized ignorance of any science at all).  But when that topic comes up, the honorable and proper course of action is to admit ignorance, and then do some research.  “I don’t know--I’ll read and get back to you,” and “I was wrong, and further evidence has changed my mind” are two of the greatest statements one can make, so don’t think I’m being cruel simply because some people know different things than I do.  Just don’t take pride in ignorance.  Strive to fill those gaps in your knowledge, and you can still be smart no matter how ignorant you are.  Take pride in ignorance--which includes an unwillingness to bow to new information--and no matter how educated you are, you’re nothing but a fucking moron.

Traits of Gods

            Perhaps the theists among you will be inclined to ignore anything a heathen such as myself might have to say about the traits attributed to the gods worshipped by all those various cults humans have invented over the last several thousand years.  Still, I think this is worth paying attention to.  Theists and atheists alike have claimed scientific authority for their opposition positions on the question of whether or not a god or many gods could exist, so closer examination of this issue is warranted.
            What I intend to do here is to offer several definitions and traits of gods that people actually believe in, and then discuss whether these gods may or may not be compatible with a scientific understanding of the universe.
            Let’s begin.

1) God is love. I’ve heard it more times than I can count.  Theists will ask me if I believe in love, and if I answer in the affirmative, they claim victory by defining their god as love.  Well, let’s consider this a little further.
            First of all, if you define god as “love,” you’ve already lost.  Love is an emotion, not a being.  If you want to call it god, you’re welcome, but you lose any claims of the miraculous, any claims that this god could exist as a real entity independent of the human mind, and all the stories about this being that fill your cherished holy scriptures.  The god that people actually worship is not “love.”  You may argue that this god has an infinite capacity for love, and that’s fine--we can then have a discussion about whether or not such a being is real--but saying “god is love” is linguistic trickery, and not even very good linguistic trickery.
            This also raises an interesting point.  What is love, anyway?  Well, it’s an emotion, which means it is a product of the physical brain.  What we call love has actually been identified by psychologists as a series of emotions each governed by a set of neurotransmitters (or brain chemicals) which evolved in such a way to make us more likely to reproduce and raise viable offspring.  We pass through stages of lust, attraction, and attachment.  Each of these are produced by different neurotransmitters, and our conscious “minds” (whatever that word means!) perceive the whole package as “falling in love.”
            York psychologist Professor Arthur Arun conducted an experiment in his research to determine how people fall in love.  He had his subjects complete three tasks.  First, find a complete stranger.  Second, exchange intimate details about one another for a period of approximately thirty minutes.  Finally, stare at one another’s eyes for four minutes without speaking.  After completing these tasks, many of Arun’s subjects felt deeply attracted and two were later married.
            None of this is to say that love is unimportant.  Just because we understand what is happening to cause us to feel emotion does not make the emotion less important.  We know that we evolved to feel these emotions for specific reasons, and we also know that for similar reasons, we find these emotions to be extremely important to us.  Love can be a great thing--just don’t assume it’s some sort of mystical power, because it’s not.  It’s neurochemistry, just like all other emotions.  Indeed, every conscious thought or feeling we have boils down to nothing more than neurochemistry, and I think that’s just wonderful.  I just don’t think most people want to think of their god as nothing more than testosterone and dopamine.

2) God is the universe. Again, if you want to define your god as the sum total of everything in the universe, fine.  But the universe, contrary to what a bunch of new age buffoons want to think, is not a conscious entity.  The universe is the result of a series of processes occurring in accordance with natural law.  Again, that doesn’t make it less beautiful--quite the contrary!--but it does mean it’s not the sort of god that people actually worship.
            When Einstein famously make remarks to “god” in his writings (perhaps most famously his declaration that “God does not throw dice,” in response to Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle), he does not refer to any spiritual or conscious entity.  God is simply Einstein’s poetic way of referring to the sum total of natural law, or the order of the universe.
            Bypassing plenty of interesting (but ultimately useless) philosophy, we can say that yes, the universe exists.  But that certainly does not make it a god.

            With those two bits of linguistic elasticity out of the way, we can begin to discuss the character traits that people ascribe to the gods they actually do worship.  The gods we discuss here are the theistic gods, and the ones whose followers are demonstrating considerable influence in public policy, so this is where the discussion gets really important.  I’m going to separate these gods out so that each represents only a single character trait, but simply note that most people assume their god to possess some combination of several (if not all) of the following traits.  I separate them simply for ease of discussion, and without altering the relevance or accuracy of the arguments.

3) God created life/the diversity of life. These two related claims are separated by a slash for a very important reason.  There is definitely a difference between creating life and being responsible for biodiversity.
            The second of these questions is the easiest to tackle.  Clearly a god who is responsible for biodiversity is incompatible with known data.  The diversity of life is the product of evolution.  Natural selection, which is defined as descent with heredity or nonrandom survival of replicators, drives the evolutionary process, creating the diversity of species we enjoy on our planet, each adapted to different circumstances.  If you disagree with this, then sorry but you’re just dead wrong.  While all science is tentative by design, evolution is as firmly established as anything else in science, and is such a powerful theory that it has implications in fields as diverse as agriculture, industry, and medicine.
            The first question is a little more difficult, because the initial origin of the first life (after which natural selection can handle the rest) is not fully understood.  However, though we don’t yet know the precise process, all evidence suggests that life is a result simply of chemistry occurring without any guiding hand under the correct circumstances.  Indeed, it may turn out to not even be that rare an occurrence.  There is considerable--though not yet anywhere near conclusive--evidence of life (albeit microscopic) on other worlds.
            There’s still plenty of work to be done here, and we could certainly use some more good biologists and chemists working on the problem to fill in what gaps still exist in our knowledge.  However, divine intervention isn’t the answer.  In the case of biodiversity, divine intervention is directly contradicted by the evidence.  In the case of abiogenesis (or the origin of life from nonliving matter--not to be confused with the discredited notion of spontaneous generation), though the data are not as conclusive, current evidence suggests a process devoid of conscious design.

4) God created the universe.  While we do not yet have a complete picture of the formation of the universe, we now do know that the formation of the universe is possible--without violating any physical law--without the need to invoke a designer.
            Thanks to Einstein, we now understand that there is a mass-energy equivalency which becomes key to our understanding of the formation of the universe.  If mass and energy are the same thing (and they are), we need only to understand how we got to a state of having energy rather than not having energy…or do we?  Actually, as it turns out, because there is also such a thing as negative energy which precisely matches the total mass-energy of the universe, the total mass-energy of the entire universe is exactly zero.  I’ll say it again because it’s a bit of a mind-bender unless you’re well-read in physics: the total energy of the universe is precisely zero.  Thus, the formation of the universe does NOT violate the conservation of mass-energy.
            Our understanding of exactly how this all works out is a topic for another (much longer) discussion.  The important point to remember here is that we now know that a godless universe does not violate the laws of physics.  This has been an enormous leap forward in our understanding of our universe and, for me, has proved to be the final nail in the coffin of belief in any sort of a creator-god.

5) God fine-tuned the universe for human life. This one boggles my mind.  In addition to being mind-numbingly self-centered and arrogant to assume that the entire universe (and you can really have no conception of how big it really is) is designed with our pitiful little species in mind, this claim seems self-evidently wrong.
            For one thing, it is clear that the universe predates humanity.  That much is obvious.  In fact, it predates us by more than 14 billion years.  Clearly, then, the universe isn’t made for us, but we are “made for” it.  Humans, like all species, are evolved to be well-adapted to our habitat.
            Let us also consider that, to date, we have found exactly one planet capable of sustaining our kind of life.  Personally, I think it’s likely we’ll find life elsewhere.  And I even think it’s likely that there’s plenty of intelligent life in the universe (though less certain that we’ll ever be able to cross the distances necessary to find it).  Nevertheless, we know of only one place habitable to humans.  On this planet, even, most locations are not habitable.  Even our own planet is full of deep oceans, icy wastelands and violent volcanoes, not to mention the biological threats to humanity that come in the form of all the plants and animals that can kill us.  The vast majority of the universe is absolutely uninhabitable to any life at all.  Even those places where life is possible, human life is still impossible.  Clearly the universe is not fine-tuned for us.  We’re as well adapted to it as we can be, but most of it is still completely hostile to us.

6) God performs miracles. There is no reliable evidence to substantiate any claim of the miraculous.  Many have been demonstrated to be frauds.  For the rest, the evidence simply isn’t there.  Considering how many people claim to experience the miraculous, however, we should expect to see tons of such evidence.  It would not be all that difficult to substantiate.
            Furthermore, any god capable of suspending the laws of physics is incompatible with our understanding of what these laws of physics are.  A law is different from a theory.  While a theory is an explanatory framework of some series of facts, a law does not do any explaining.  What it does is describe a relationship between two entities that always occurs.  Yes, all science is tentative, but a miracle is a direct violation of what our current understanding says is inviolable.

7) God endows people with immortal souls. While this isn’t directly related to the question of whether a god exists or not, it is peripherally related, and is important enough an issue that it merits brief discussion.
            The simple fact of the matter is, we know as thoroughly as we can know anything that there’s no such thing as a soul.  At one time in history, the human character or mind was attributed to this invisible entity.  We now know that everything that happens in the “mind” is the result of a physical process in the brain.  Changes to the brain result in changes to the mind or soul that would not occur if these processes were not entirely controlled by neurochemistry.
            Though I would prefer otherwise to prevent misunderstanding, it’s still possible to use the word “soul” in the way that we use “mind,” simply to describe these emergent properties of the brain.  But in this case, it’s just a bit of poetic license.  The god-granted immortal soul is just a myth.  When the brain stops functioning, so does the mind or soul.

8) God dictates morality. This one bothers me quite a lot, and on a number of different levels.  The idea comes in both a hard and a soft format.  In the former, the theist claims that one cannot be moral without god.  In the latter, they claim simply that god is responsible for endowing us with a moral sense, or that our codes of morality are based on the scriptures.
            The last of these is the first I’ll tackle.  It is true that some people have taken moral codes from the scriptures.  However, it is untrue that modern codes of morality are scripturally based.  There is an evolution of morality and scriptures were one step in that evolution, but we have moved on.  At the time the Bible was written (for just one example--the same kinds of arguments apply to all scriptures), slavery was not considered an immoral act.  Indeed, the Bible contains specific instructions regarding how slave-owners could treat their property.  We would no longer consider this moral.
            Indeed, as morality changes over time, we can infer that morality is a social construct.  Social constructs can be easily identified by two criteria: that they change over time and vary by culture.  Morality is just such a phenomenon.  While humans have evolved a moral sense which seems more or less innate (I won’t go into all the data on this particular topic of heated debate), the specific moral prescriptions both vary by culture and change over time.
            Morality is a trait shared by all peoples, regardless of religion.  Clearly one does not need gods to be moral.  Further, it has been argued that secular morality is superior, particularly on two grounds.  First, it is considered to be more moral to do the right thing for its own sake, rather than because it’s what an external force (in this case, a god, though the same argument could be made of legal systems or any force) commands.  Second, secular morality does a better job of keeping up with the changing moral zeitgeist.  It’s not the secularists, after all, who would deny marriage to homosexuals, ban abortions, et cetera.

9) God communicates through personal revelation. The evidence of this is nonexistent.  It might be strong evidence if someone’s claimed revelation revealed information they could not otherwise have known, but this has never happened.  Further, we can now explain many of the visions of god that people have which would once have been considered indicative of reality.  As we’ve learned more and more about the functioning of the human brain, more and more of these communications from the divine are now understood to be simple hallucinations.  The brain is a funny thing.  It’s capable of comprehending the universe, and can be fooled by the simplest illusion or imbalance.
            In addition, there’s an added problem regarding the character of a god who would communicate with only some people but not the rest of us, which brings us to our tenth and final trait.

10) God is simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.  The idea of an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful god is both internally logically inconsistent and inconsistent with the evidence.
            First, an internal inconsistency.  Omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible.  For one to be omniscient, one must know the outcome of the universe.  To be omnipotent, one must be able to change the outcome of the universe.  This is a paradox that doesn’t interest me very much as an atheist, but for which the theist can have no answer.
            Now, to omnipotence on its own.  The problem here is that if there is an omnipotent being, the laws of physics should not be stable.  The fact of the matter is, the laws of nature remain consistent and are never observably violated.  This should not be the case if there’s an omnipotent being out there somewhere.
            Omniscience actually isn’t exactly impossible.  It’s only impossible in the way it’s presented as a godly trait.  If the universe is fundamentally deterministic (and I go back and forth regarding whether I think it is or not--I would say yes but quantum mechanics makes me question this), then it is possible to imagine that a hyper-intelligent being could know the outcome of the universe.  Such a being is far removed from anything humans can imagine, and the source of knowledge would not be supernatural but advanced mathematics.  Practically speaking, there’s no such thing, but physics does allow for at least some approximation of it.
            Omnibenevolence is a real problem because we’re supposed to believe in a god that does only good, and yet plenty of bad shit happens.  It goes back to that old chestnut: Is god willing to prevent evil but not able?  Then he’s not omnipotent.  Is he able but not willing?  Then he’s evil.  Is he neither willing nor able? Then why call him god?  Is he both willing and able?  Then whence cometh evil?  The fact of the matter is, the world is a beautiful place and a horrible place.  If there were a loving god, it should just be the former and not the latter.