Sunday, December 31, 2006

On On Faith, third enstallment

This week's question is on why Atheism is enjoying a certain vogue right now. It's an annoying one because it hints at a rather ill-informed view of what's going on. Yeah, a few well-publicized books came out in the last three years, but there have always been books. If there's a story to be told about the rise of atheism, it's about talented organizers like Paul Kurtz and Jeff Lowder, as well as the use of the internet by previously isolated unbelievers to organize. (More along this line can be found in the relevant Internet Infidels thread.)

Anyway, I won't waste my time parsing the fundamentalist sources of stupidity, because the commenters there do good enough a job at it. Rather, I want to focus on the essays of Sally Quinn and John Dominic Crossan.

Quinn's entry is about how she used to be an atheist, but now...:
I believe in God and I believe in the Divine. Here is what God is for me: Goodness and love and beauty, humility, kindness and grace, generosity, and the human spirit... I believe there is God in having fun, in laughter, in dancing, in having sexual intimacy with the person you love, in sharing a meal with wine and candlelight with people you care about. There are times when I feel a genuine ecstasy over something of beauty or love or an act of kindness. There is certainly God in my feelings of love for my child, my husband, my family and my friends.
Now, I never was convinced that things like proper spelling and grammar are super important, but there are some offenses against the English language that go to far, and this is one of them. A perfectly well-understood word has been twisted beyond recognition. The semi-popularity of such definitions of the word "God" makes it somewhat difficult to know if anything at all is meant when someone says "I believe in God"--though I suppose some elected officials will breathe easier with such definitions.

As for Dr. Crossan, I sent him this e-mail:
Dear Dr. Crossan,

In you recent blog entry for the Newsweek/Washington Post project "On Faith," you seemed to imply that the first believers in God believed in a metaphorical God. As far as I am aware, this position is not dominant in religious studies circles. Is this what you in fact believe? If so, what historical evidence is there for this position?

Sincerely,
Chris Hallquist
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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Relativism

WARNING: This post is really long. But I didn't write it. It's a cut and paste from another site

Those who have Facebook should should follow this link if you're having a slow Saturday night and are looking for some random amusement. If not, you can just read the cut and paste below.

And the $64,000 question is: is this a joke, or was it meant to be taken seriously?

Group InfoName:
Relativism - Believe What You Want To Believe
Type:
Common Interest - Beliefs & Causes
Description:
Believe what you want to believe. Everything one truly believes in is 100% percent correct.
It works like this: (please read all of it if you start)
The universe is made up of something called Irrelativity. This is the combination of everything and their opposites. So it can be large and small at the same time, or it can be something and nothing at the same time. Because everything is possible in Irrelativity, it is, in the true form, infinite. Each one of these infinite possibilities that makes up this infinity is called a conciousness. Not all of them are fully conscious (in the litteral sense), because, remember, everything is possible. Furthermore, some can comprehend the world of Irrelativity that they make up, but some can't. The ones that can't are what we know as a human conciousness. Of the ones that can't fully comprehend Irrelativity, they interpret it in their own way because they are so unique. This interpretation is called a reality. Every one of these realities are completely true for the conciousness that has created it. Therefor, every religion on Earth is 100% true, so, for example, to a Christian, every one of their beliefs are correct in their reality. This also means that one person might see a table next to them, while others won't see it. But this is very unlikely because each of our realities are bound together because Irrelativity can either by one thing, or many things. For the sake of simplicity, I will call these connections as a network, in which shared thought, action, interpretation, etc. is "transmitted" by a "signal" throughout this network to every reality that exists. The network sends the signal as soon as we think, speak, act, or anything else. When this signal reaches other realities, the conciousness of the reality in question will subconsciously interpret that signal however it likes, and will contribute to the oppinions of that conciousness (which then in turn sends out another, but modified signal). However, the signal can only be easily interpreted in any way if the conciousness that emitted it cannot fully comprehend what it perceived. And similarly, if the conciousness can almost completely comprehend it, then other consciousness(es) are more likely to believe what is sent to be correct. This explains how we all see the world very similarly (as in what is present and what is not, like the table for instance). This "Relativism" can be a religion that is accepted by someone with their own beliefs. So one that believes in the Christian faith can also accept Relativism because of the nature of "every religion is correct."
Join this group if you think Relativism is a good belief, cool thought, or anything else, and wish to spread the word.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

IronChariots article on the resurrection

Here it is: my fourth article for the IronChariots wiki. Next, I plan to do one on Jesus in general.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Useful Behe quote

Ed Brayton dissects a quote from Michael Behe on the falsifiability of Intelligent Design. Here's the quote:
The National Academy of Sciences has objected that intelligent design is not falsifiable, and I think that’s just the opposite of the truth. Intelligent design is very open to falsification. I claim, for example, that the bacterial flagellum could not be produced by natural selection; it needed to be deliberately intelligently designed. Well, all a scientist has to do to prove me wrong is to take a bacterium without a flagellum, or knock out the genes for the flagellum in a bacterium, go into his lab and grow that bug for a long time and see if it produces anything resembling a flagellum. If that happened, intelligent design, as I understand it, would be knocked out of the water. I certainly don’t expect it to happen, but it’s easily falsified by a series of such experiments.
Brayton makes some worthwhile criticisms, but he missed a big one: Behe can't meet his own criterion. He's never going to plan an experiment where he prays over a petri dish of bacteria and sees if they sprout flagella. Intelligent Design simply cannot meet the demands it places on evolutionary theory.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Happy pagan holiday

From The Honest Doubter:

Support his fight against Bush!

A Tehran newspaper runs an advertisement with a picture of Iran's president with the following caption:
Support his fight against Bush
We are also tired of Bush
Iran has the right to produce nuclear energy
No US aggression against any country
Evil US military stay home
Now sit back and think about this for a moment. If you don't see what's so funny about it, go to Orac's for an explanation.

Monday, December 25, 2006

An Arab view of Holocaust denial

My dad pays much better attention to Arab blogs than I do, and was therefore able to alert me to this:
To Muslims, "Holocaust denial" and "Anti Semitism" are not dangerous accusations. They're just strange words.

I didn't know about the Holocaust before the age of 20. And the only reason why I believe the Holocaust actually took place, is because I underwent six years of education at an American University, and because I have been reading The Economist and The New York Times for eight straight years. To the typical Arab on the street, that qualifies as brainwashing.

Being enraged won't help Western opinion leaders. The Iranians are riding Arab and Muslim public opinion to increase their influence in the region, and shouting names like "rogues and fools" changes nothing.

When Aljazeera covered Western reactions to the conference, the undertone was sarcastic.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

On On Faith II

Continuing an excercise I began earlier this month...

The question this week is "Do you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God?" The one entry I want to comment on this time around is Marcus Borg's contribution, who says, "To be Christian is to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God and Lord." Sounds fairly conventional, but Borg is an extremely liberal theologian:
, I see the grand statements about Jesus – that he is the Son of God, the Light of the World, and so forth - as the testimony of the early Christian movement. These are neither objectively true statements about Jesus nor, for example in this season, about his conception and birth. To speak of him as the Son of God does not mean that he was conceived by God and had no biological human father. Rather, this is the post-Easter conviction of his followers.
I cannot help but think that this is the sort of disingenuity that causes people to flee liberal churches into the arms of fundamentalism.

I thought I might also post some of my own thoughts here, as I gave them in response to an e-mail about what I found wrong with Jesus' teaching:
Anyway, as to your question:
-Pacifism: I used to think very highly of Jesus' injunction against resisting evildoers. Now I realize that it would be nice in a perfect world, but a bad idea when dealing with people like Hitler.
-The whole "looking at a woman with lust = adultery" thing. Not practical, not healthy, better to focus on avoiding those things that really do do harm.
-Jesus' apparent belief that the world would end within his lifetime.
-In general, I think the gospels display an unrealistic, extremist, idealism common to small, upstart religious groups. I'm currently doing a history paper on 1950's UFO "contactee" groups, and you see much of the same stuff in them: nice sentiments, not the slightest clue on how to put them into practice.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ignorance kills

Not everything from FSTDT is funny (EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION: This is taken from the website Fundies Say the Darndest Things, which in turn took it from a different discussion board):
"Just recently my son Bobby came out to me. I had been worried for awhile. His teachers said most of his grades were slipping and he seemed depressed and withdrawn.

Bobby said he'd been hiding it for awhile because he was afraid I would reject him. I sat him down and told him that I loved him and that God loved him, but that his salvation was in danger if he did not resist his unnatural tempations. I told him how being gay would mean he would live a shorter life, and that if he couldnt change his orientation he could be celibate like most the ex-gays are. He started crying saying something along the lines of "I knew you wouldnt understand! You're just like everyone else!" before running to his room and slamming the door.

What did I do wrong? I dont want to lose my son, but I fear I already have. I talked it over with his therapist, who had the ludicrous idea that homosexuality was unchangable and that trying to repress could lead to lots of psychological damage (I've dropped him and will try to be finding another therapist with more moral beliefs). I wouldnt be surprised if he's the one who's feeding my son all the homosexual propaganda about how its 'ok' to be gay. That, or how homosexuality has engulfed the media, making it seem 'cool' and 'hip' and how they were just another oppressed minority. You didnt have to worry about seeing two men making out on tv at my age! I dont want to sound like a fanatic, but Im worried what other effects will come out of this increasingly secular, immoral society obsessed with filth.

Am I too late? Or is it possible to save my son


[Note: The thread this originally came from indicates that this boy eventually took his own life.]"
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Top stories of 2006

The world according to The Onion:
1) Thousands More Dead in Continuing Iraq Victory
2) Al Gore Caught Warming Globe tto Increase Box Office Profits
3) Kevin Federline, Wife Divorce
4) Ken Lay's Children Inherit 4,000 Pensions
5) Israel Bombs Anti-Semitism Out Of Lebanon
6) Karl Rove Accused Of Throwing Midterm Elections
7) NASA Launches Probe To Inform Pluto Of Demotion
8) Osama Bin Laden Takes Credit For Crocodile Hunter's Death
9) Generous Vice President Cheney Gives Hard-Working Media Field Day
10) Coretta Scott King's Wiretap Ends

Friday, December 22, 2006

IronChariots article on the gospels

I just finished writing an article for the IronChariots wiki about the gospels.

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It's only funny because...

...they're not in power.

That's the thought I had today while reading Fundies Say the Darndest Things.

EDIT: Wait a second, this is the Bush administration...

Now I suddenly understand what H.P. Lovecraft was talking about when he described being driven insane by learning the truth about the Old Ones.

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Carnivalia

The Carnival of the Liberals is up at Living the Scientific Life.

The Philosophy Carnival is up at The Brooks Blog.

The most recent edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up, and it's written as a Carl Sagan tribute, much like the blog-a-thon I participated in Wednesday.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan, promoter of skepticism and wonder

Yes, I said I wouldn't be posting until the end of finals, but then I remembered that today is the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon, already underway at Joel's Humanist Blog. Among the highlights: Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, has marked the occasion by starting up a blog and sharing some memories of her late husband.

I decided I'd mark the occasion by writing up my thoughts on a book I never had a chance to review here: The Demon Haunted World. I think I must have only first read it a year ago, but I've read it a second time since then, something I rarely do even with books I like. I heard about it simultaneously through a number of different sites: Randi's commentary, the IIDB, etc. I remember, in particular, a thread where people were asked to give reasons for their deconversions, and one poster specifically mentioned two books: Why People Believe Weird Things (by Michael Shermer) and The Demon Haunted World. Neither book is focused on debunking religion. Shermer's gives only a series of brief rebuttals to some creationist arguments. Sagan's doesn't do that much. But after reading it, I must say that I can think of no better book for encouraging critical thinking about religion.

Most of the first half of the book is dedicated to a debunking of alien abduction claims. Though the basic topic the same as Philip Klass' UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game, Sagan's book is set apart from such straightforward debunkings by its broad historical sweep, drawing parallels with Medieval witch crazes, reports of succubi/incubi, and even fairies. Sagan's analysis makes clear that the claims of such modern pseudosciences cannot be seen as an isolated phenomenon of the modern era. Even without his off-handed comment that "no one interested in what religions are and how they begin can ignore them [pseudosciences]," it would be hard to read his discussion and not become at least a little more skeptical of the supernatural claims made by the religions of the world.

It is the witch hunts that provides the subtitle for the book, Science as a Candle in the Dark. It comes from a 17th century work of debunking called A Candle in the Dark by a man named Thomas Ady, aimed at witchcraft. A key theme of Sagan's book is how scientific reasoning can guard against such hysteria. Such a safeguard is as much needed today as in the Middle Ages, as Sagan shows when he turns to MyCarthyism, Lysenkoism, and Satanic Panics. The world Sagan presents is indeed demon-haunted, in a way, though what haunts us are things like hallucinations, an often-stunning lack of skepticicsm, and a willingness to get caught up in dangerous collective delusions.

Though I like Sagan's choice of title for literary force, it only tells half the story of what his book is about. A better summary would be the title of chapter 17, "The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder." Sagan makes a powerful case for wonder, but he also presents the wonder of science. When discussing a driver who asked him excited questions about different examples of contemporary pseudoscience, Sagan comments:
Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in 4-million-year-old colcanic ash? What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how about viruses, built like hypodermic syringes, slip their DNA past the host organism's defenses and subvert the reproductive machinery of cells; or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence; or the newly discovered ancient civilization of Elba that advertised the virtues of Elba beer? No, he hadn't heard. Nor did he know, even vaguely, about quantum indeterminacy, and he recognized DNA only as three frequently linked capital letters.
Later, Sagan comments on how after reading many accounts of strange pseudoscientific claims, it all began to seem rather unimaginative.

The encouragement of wonder doesn't stop at one paragraph comparisons of science and pseudoscience, though. Sagan devotes one chapter, "Maxwell and the Nerds," to telling the story of how the seemingly pointless wonderings of one young man paved the way for technologies that had previously seemed inconceivable. He also makes a case for education as the way out of poverty, and asks what we're doing wrong to cause the excitetment for learning seen in kindergarden disappear in the majority of students by high school.

Most debunking books will be largely forgotten once their targets pass on to make the way for new, superficially unrelated pieces of bunk. They are works of intellectual trash detail, necessary work but wholy negative in function and not terribly fulfilling. The Demon Haunted World, in contrast, deserves to be read for ages to come because of the positive case it builds for skepticism and critical thinking, and even a little sympathy for those duped by the bunk (even if this is accompanied by some breathtaking examples of human credulity). If rationalists ever had to put together a canon (as contradictory an enterprise as that might be), The Demon Haunted World would be my first nomination.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Final exam week

It's finals week now at Madison. I've got two exams tomorrow, one Thursday, and two papers due on Friday. Don't expect any more posts until Friday afternoon.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Disgusting

Via UTI, the military is responding to inquiries into Pat Tillman's death by attacking his family for their lack of religious belief.

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Another good evolution/creation resource

PZ Myers has posted about a new book called The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism by Andrea Skybreak. The basic idea is to use creationism as a tool for explain real science. My current winter-break reading list has gotten a little long as it is, but I will try to pick it up some time in the future.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

History of Technology and popular culture

I'm currently wrapping a history of science course called "Technology and its Critics since World War II." The course is more or less what you'd expect, though we also spend some time on the wildly overblown predictions of technological utopia that have been made. Knowing that bit of history made the title of this blog that much funnier.

We also talked about how computer punch cards were, at one time, a symbol of technology and bureaucracy. That made this music video (found via The Bacon Eating Atheist Jew). For those old enough to remember punch cards, watch carefully and see if you can find what I'm talking about:


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Friday, December 15, 2006

On dealing with bigots

Skatje Myers (daugher of Pharyngula blogger MZ Myers) recently raised hell at her school over some anti-gay comments by the student body president. This is a problem at a lot of high schools, so I'd like to take this moment to float a suggestion for dealing with such people that's been bouncing around in my head for some time. What follows was designed with a full-force anti-gay campaign in mind: some high school students have actually organized anti-gay days, complete with custom made t-shirts that say "homosexuality is a sin" or some such.

Step 1: Ask yourself "can I rely on the mental stability (if not rationality) of my opponents?"
---> If "yes," gather up some fair-sized rocks.
---> If "no," take a collection and buy some Bricks of Silence. Paint over original lettering
Step 2: Mark them with choice verses from the Old Testament
Step 3: One by one, each person on your side hands one rock/Brick of Silence to your targets, each time telling them something about your self. The progression should go something like this:

(Leviticus 20:13): "Hi, I'm gay."
(Deuteronomy 13): "Hi, I'm Hindu."
(Deuteronomy 21:18-21): "Hi, I don't always get along with my parents."
(Numbers 15:32-36): "Hi, I have a weekend job."

And so on.

Such a campaign just might "shock them into sanity" (to quote nuclear critic Lewis Mumford).

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Atheist criticism of Sam Harris

In the New Republic:
The End of Faith starts well and then becomes a bit predictable, because it begins to follow the rules of its rather thin genre. Letter to a Christian Nation, which is an open letter to the many Christians who wrote to Harris in complaint, is even thinner. I have an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheistic texts, but there is a limit to how many times one can stub one's toe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor. There is a limit to the number of times one can be told that the Bible is a shaky text, and that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of really nasty things. Ratio vincit omnia, but the page-by-page demonstration of this rationalist conquering can become wearisome. This may be no especial insult to Harris so much as to his family; Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian made a great initial impact on me when I was a teenager--it was like seeing someone in the nude, for the first time--until I began to get bored with its self-exposure.
Agree or disagree, this writer dererves kudos for having more of a clue than the folks who think Harris represents a "New Atheism." And in a way, I suspect Harris would agree to an extent. He himself described his own book as "the product of a failure--the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it..." I suppose the reasons for this should provide fodder for fruitful speculation, though for now I should point out that there are real signs that this generation may succeed where others have failed.

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He sees you when you're sleeping...

In pretty bad taste, but it does a good job of exposing just how creepy the idea of Santa Claus is. A damn good argument against telling this particular lie to children.

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Second Iron Chariots article

I've written a second article for the counter-apologetics wiki Iron Chariots, this time on Miracles in History. Once again, I'd like to urge knowledgable readers to try contributing to this project. With sufficient support, it could rival Internet Infidels (similar purpose, just in the style of encyclopedia articles rather than academic papers).

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Weinstein in Salon

Michael Weinstein has been interviewed at Salon.com (see previous post). Money quote:
But like I've said before, most of the people who've come to me are Christians. That's been the big sea change here. Look, Sinclair Lewis said it best, in [the 1930s]. He came back from Germany, he was observing it for a number of months ... and he [said] that he had now seen fascism up close and personal, and he knew that when it came to America it would be wrapped in the American flag, carrying a cross. And you know what? He's right.

It's one thing to be pushing evangelical Christianity on prisoners in a penitentiary and to be pushing intelligent design in public schools. That's bad enough, but that's not our fight. My foundation focuses, with laserlike precision, on the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Force, because if we lose them, we lose everything.

Another pastor comes out

James Still has the scoop, along with some thoughtful analysis.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dormitory relativism

Interesting concept. Unfortunatetly, the blog this post comes from seems to be defunct.

Latest on the Dover ruling

ID advocates claim dark revelations about its flaws, Ed Brayton debunks them.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

CotG 55

The 55th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Kingdom of Heathen. Coice pick: a speech by Dan Barker--delivered at a World Religions Conference.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Church and state watch

Yup, faith based programs are government indoctrination.

And today also brings one more bit of news on the evangelical take over of the military.

Just keeping you informed.

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Second reply to Carrier

I've dropped the following comment at the relevant thread on Richard Carrier's blog:
I may try to get in a fuller response later, but I'm currently in the middle of the run-up to final exams here in Madison, so let me just deal with one key issue: circularity. I do not claim to have found a non-circular epistemology. Nor am I reading Carrier as to say we need absolute deductive certainty to believe anything. The fact that he's merely demanding some kind of justification is problematic enough. The reason is that not only to circular arguments not provide an absolute deductive justification, they do not, as a rule, provide any sort of justification at all. Therefore, if as Carrier says all epistemologies are circular, then he cannot meet his own requirement that, "we can believe nothing without justification."
For those of you who haven't followed the debate up until now, you'll want to read these posts:
On Carrier's epistemology, part 1
On Carrier's epistemology, part 2
Reply to Richard Carrrier

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Iranian students protest Ahmadinejad

Iranian students protest a speech by their president. Good work, guys. Could this be the start of something big? It would be nice to get that nut out of office as soon as possible.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Atheist Delusion

Funny, even if the Bible->God->Bible diagram is a little heavy handed.

Left Behind: Eternal Forces

An atheist gives it a decent review. But I still don't think the novelty value is worth the price tag.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pascal's deal with the devil

Probably all of my readers have heard of Pascal's Wager: the argument for belief in God (though not the truth of theism) which can be put as follows:

1) Both theism and atheism are about equally likely
2) Believing in God constitutes a "bet" with finite cost but infinite gains if one has bet correctly.
3) Disbelieving has a finite cost, finite potential gains, and (if the person making the argument isn't queasy about Hell) infinite potetntial loss.
4) It follows that belief in God is the much better bet.

You can find dozens of criticism of this argument floating around both the print literature and the internet, and I'm not sure it's really part of the arsenal of any sophisticated modern apologist. However, I'm not interested in the arguments validity; I'm interested in how it can be extended in a rather disturbing way.

My inspiration comes from John Loftus and other ex-Christians who've reported difficulty leaving Christianity because they were afraid of going to hell. This suggests the following extension of Pascal's argument: we must realize that people are often misled by slanted or simply inaccurate evidence, as well as by arguments that sound plausible but are in fact fallacious. For this reason, taking the correct position on the God question today does not shield us from being led to the wrong conclusion tomorrow. So if we think its at least somewhat likely that God exists (or more accurately, a God like the God Pascal assumed), then not only should we believe, we should take percautions against future unbelief. If we think it even somewhat likely that honest inquiry could lead us astray (say, there's a 10% chance of this happening), then honest inquiry would be a grave mistake. After all, a 10% chance of infinite loss suggests an expectation of infinite loss.

This also would bypass an objection to the wager I thought up when I first encountered it: it is contradictory to both believe in God and believe we don't really know whether God exists (which is what the wager assumes). A similar line of reasoning to the one above could suggest that if we even suspect that a Pascalian God exists, if we find we cannot believe immediately, we should go about convincing ourselves of PG's existence--using a bit of self deception if necessary.

I feel that probably, an objection could be raised to this line of reasoning even granting the assumption that a PG is somewhat likely. But no such objection comes quickly to my lips (or fingers on the keyboard). This suggests that a person does not have to be entirely irratitonal to buy such reasoning--though it amounts to having one's mind enslaved by religious dogma.

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Military resignation over anti-atheist bigortry

Austin Cline has the scoop.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Notes on On Fatih

I recently discovered a Washington Post project called On Faith, which gets together a whole bunch of different people--from Sam Harris to Cal Thomas--and asks them questions about religion. The most recent question got 16 responses, and the full list of panelists has something like 80 members. I've only read a few entries, but it looks like it could serve as a good way to check America's collective religious pulse (as opposed to that of a couple of sects). Brief observations:

The Good: An Episcopal priest encourages adults to think about religion. Good advice, even if it comes from someone whose conclusions I disagree wtih.

The Bad: A nun insists we're all dealing with the same God, he just talks to us in different languages. So "the Pope can make infallible statements" and "the Pope cannot make infallible statements" are really two ways of saying the same thing?

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The believer's problems

Last weekend, John Loftus wrote a post titled The Concept of God Solves All Problems!?, which echoed some thoughts I had been having recently. They were largely spurred by listening to clips from the podcast of the weekly meetings of the local Campus Crusade chapter.

The first was a testimonial (they're big on that) from a girl named Megan who said that she used to base her life around things like school and socializing, and in this old life she's left behind things like bad grades and social problems would be a major disaster.

The second was a sermon (or "message," as they like to call it), on how you need to trust God--and doing so in the face of things like Hurricane Katrina was explicitly mentioned.

Does anyone else see the problem here?

A common thread in testimonials is how accepting orthodox Christianity solves all the problems in your life... so bad things in your life don't throw you into a tailspin. But how, then, are things like unanswered prayer and natural disasters not supposed to throw you into a tailspin? Because you get good at sweeping your problems under the carpet.

Put anotherway, I've heard evangelists go on and on about how accepting Jesus will allow you to be certain that you'll go to heaven, certain about your future, but on the other hand, most honest Christian leaders nowadays admit that doubt is unavoidable.

When these two facts are juxtaposed, it begins to seem astonishingly obvious that the evangelists are selling a lemon, yet countless people have bought into the promises of Christianity while young and lived their lives without ever realizing what was going on.

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Doubt: the perfect gift

I tidy little holiday article from Susan Jacoby.

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SC 49

The 49th edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up at Austism Street.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Counter-apologetics wiki

I recently encountered a Wikipedia inspired project called Iron Chariots, which is designed as a counter to Christian apologetic literature. It's pretty bare-bones at the moment, but hopefully it will go somewhere. I've already contributed a brief summary John Loftus' Outsider test, which includes parallel arguments from other places in the literature. I'll add more when I have time. I encouraged all my readers who are versed in some area relatetd to counter-apologetics (arguments against the existence of God, arguments for the existence of God, Biblical scholarship, etc.) to contribute.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Michael Newdow strikes again

Michael Newdow defends his position on church/state separation and Ed Brayton serves up the best excerpts. This reminds me of something I've thought before: if only he had been given actual column space to defend himself in public newspapers, the public perceptions of what he did would have been very different. In order to wage more effective legal battles, groups like Americans United and the FFRF should try sending out letter-writing guides to members, including statements from the litigants themselves on why they're suing. They'd work so much better if people actually got to hear both sides.

How many times does this need to be said?

Over at Debunking Christianity, Theresa French is forced to devote a post to arguing she really was a Christian once. *Sigh* I guess this is just further evidence on how problematic many facts of reality are to orthodox Christianity--in this case, the existence of honest, informed disagreement. It also suggests that Christians who accept the doctrine of Eternal Security should not feel so secure, because they run the risk of being told they never were saved in the first place!

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"God Says Rebury the Fossils"

Thus reports Everything is Pointless, a blog I found via Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll, and which I'll be watching for some time.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Tabash-Swinburne debate

Recently, Eddie Tabash sent me a copy of his debate with Richard Swinburne, asking me to review it. Previously, I'd given brief comments on his debate with William Lane Craig. The Swinburne debate has previously be reviewed by James Lazarus. Lazarus reported a general consensus that Eddie had gotten a decisive victory, but thought that Eddie's margin of victory was somewhat smaller. Lazarus doesn't go into detail into the specific arguments whoever. To my knowledge, this will be the first more detailed review of the debate.

Swinburne's opening statement

Swinburne opened with a fairly long discussion of confirmation theory and the definition of God. This took up something like 8 minutes of his total time, a mistake, I think. Swinburne apparently did not expect the debate to go into such depth, which may have been why he spent so much time on introductory issues. At any rate, once that was done, he argued that the God hypothesis predicts exactly the world we encounter: a world of free agents with a suitable environment, the ability to make important moral decisions, and the like. This constituted his single argument for the existence of God.

Tabash's opening statement

Tabash opened with a solid set of atheistic arguments:
-Problem with immaterial minds
-The curious lack of observable miracles today
-Problem of evil
-The improbability of God using evolution to create life
-The problem of divine hiddenness
-The problem of religious confusion

The number of arguments bordered on being too many to keep track of, but in general the presentation felt intuitive rather than rushed. Eddie's speaking speed was also slowed down a fair amount from his debate with Craig, which made for a much more effective presentation (talking about your mother's experiences at Auschwitz isn't something to be rushed through).

Rebuttals

In general, I thought both participants did a poor job of addressing eachother's arguments. Eddie's main objection to Swinburne's argument was lack of reason to consider supernatural hypothesis. Swinburne countered with the example of the scientific belief in quarks, saying it wasn't because of some kind of direct proof that we believe in them but because the theory explains the observations. Eddie tried to say that we had scientific confirmation that such things as subatomic particles as a general class existed, but this is problematic because the question could be changed to the discovery of the first subatomic particles, in which case Swinburne would take the day.

I think what Eddie should have done--what would have given him a decisive victory--was to frame his arguments against theism as reasons why we would not expect this universe on theism. This would have allowed him to simultaneously rebut Swinburne's argument while presenting his own, all the while keeping Swinburne on the defensive.

The problems with Swinburnes rebuttals are not so technical. They just didn't make any sense. On miracles, Swinburne said the reason God doesn't do them today is it would be very hard to confirm them. Tabash responded by explaining again how we could confirm them, something he had actually done in his opening statement. I can only think of this section of the debate as embarrassing to Swinburne. Swinburne's responses to the problem of evil immediately became absurd when applied to specific instances.

On divine hiddenness and religious confusion, Swinburne suggested that if God exists, we would simultaneously expect a revelation and for God to leave some uncertainty about religious matters. Eddie delt with this well enough, though he missed a chance to be really devestating. On this issue, it was obvious to me that Swinburne was just looking at the world around him and persuading himself, once he had the data, that it was the data we'd expect on the God hypothesis. Eddie's failure to point this out was rather unfortunate.

Swinburne's response to the problems with immaterial minds failed to grapple directly with the arguments, but he provided a seperate argument for dualism which was not delt with so well. Swinburne cited various issues with clones, split-brains, etc., arguing that there must be a person that goes somewhere in those cases. These arguments, I think, assume an erronous view of the self; I would have argued that point using Hume's ship analogy, but that never happened.

On evolution, Swinburne made an interesting point that God, being infinite, need not worry about inefficiency. I fear, though, that this rather undermines the argument from design, as it suggests an enormous disanalogy between God and human designers.

Unlike Lazarus, I don't think Swinburne got a whole lot of ground in the Q&A--things felt like they were winding down by then. I would say that in spite of some issues with his rebuttals, Eddie won this debate, in large part because his mistakes were more technical that Swinburne's, and he managed to keep things focused on his arguments for most of the time.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Hooray for consistency

An atheist student has been expelled from school for questioning another student's belief... in leprechauns.

It is certainly an interesting development to see officials are begining to treat belief in Gods like belief in leprechauns, even if this isn't exactly what most spektics have been hoping for.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Reply to Richard Carrier

Richard Carrier has taken the time to write a detailed reply to my criticisms of his epistemology. Here is my reply to him:

On memory:

Richard argues that simple deductions do not require memory, and in this he is probably correct. However, the really important reasonings that we go through tend to require several steps, so skepticism about memory would be quite damaging to them. For this reason, I do not see any way to escape the conclusion that we must assume the general reliability of memory in order to reason. Contra this position, Richard says, "If that were the case, we could never identify a false or inaccurate memory." The problem here is that we cannot even identify false memory without a broader trust that memory is, in general, reliable. For example, if I am ever in a situation where I must testify in a criminal trial, I know I would do considerable worrying about remembering the events accurately, but only because I have memories of forgetting things, of comparing family anecdotes and the people involved remember the event differently, and reading about psychological data on this issue.

Indubitable perceptions and the outside world

Again, I agree with Richard that immediate experience is indubitable. The problem is he has provided no indubitable (his standard) reason to think that our experience of apparent physical objects is reason to think those objects exist. At one point, Carrier seems to suggest that the way they cohere with eachother provides such a reason, but this just puts the problem back a step. What is the indubitable source of the claim that the coherence of our peceptions (with eachother) is reason to think that they match some external world?

The problem of circularity

Richard says that "we always end up in some circular argument, a fact even Platinga admits of his own, and in fact every conceivable epistemology." This is a strange statement from someone who thinks we can believe nothing without justification. Traditionally, it has been recognized that a circular justification is no justification at all. Epistemically, it is just as problematic as an infinite regress of justifications, and in fact can be seen as such an infinite regress.

In the interest of interpretive charity, I should say it is possible that Richard is here equating circularity with the incorrigibility of immediate experience. If so, he avoids the above problem. However, this reading does not seem very plausible, though he may tell me otherwise.

The solution to the problem

In my original posts, I argued that Plantiga's epistemology, or something like it, is the only real solution to the problems under disucussion. And when talking about Plantinga's epistemology, I do not think Rihard is correct to say that Plantinga's solution is "Simply to assume Christian Theism is true, and that we are fully justified in assuming this without needing any evidence Christian Theism is true." He appeals to his epistemology to defend Christianity, but it does not seem to be a central feature of his epistemology. Rather, I take the important claim to be that non-indubitable beliefs can be taken as properly basic.

Now, Richard asks, what criterion would I set for proper basicallity? A tempting solution would list the properly basic beliefs as follows:

1) Our senses are generally reliable
2) Our memory is generally reliable
3) Our notions of rational inference are generally reliable

I must emphasize that begining with the general reliability of these things does not mean we cannot refine them over time. Indeed, we can learn when our senses and memory are likely to fail us, as well as discarding bad principles of reasoning for better ones. But this has to be a process of sucessive refinement from what we already have.

My one doubt about the three point system above is that many people are more attached to specific beliefs than to abstract principles of reasoning. Ask the average person on the street their opinion of falsifiablism and they're likely to give you a funny look. Ask them if it's reasonable to believe in an Invisible Pink Unicorn... well, okay, they'll give you a funny look, but they will also have no problem saying that the answer is "no." We develop countless beliefs about the world before working out any complex principles of sound inference. To work out such principles, we often need apparently clear cases whose basis in specific principles of inference is not so clear.

The end result, which will no double seem counter-intuitive to many, is that there are no a priori limits on what can be believed without justification. This may put us in the position of believing falsehoods without evidence, but I don't see a good way around it. What we can do is make a commitment to weeding out mistaken beliefs, and I think we must do this given the countless known cases of mistaken belief in the world. Part of this is trying to formulate general principles of reasonable belief, of how we can trace back common sense beliefs to evidence, starting with the clear cases and working down to the less clear ones. When we do this, I think, we find that it is a mistake to believe specific claims about the external world without reason. But we cannot derive this conclusion a priori, nor can we demand reason for many other sorts of beliefs without running into the classic problems of epistemology.

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Ebonmuse on Sagan

At Daylight Atheism there's an excellent tribute to Carl Sagan. It rememinds me that I really need to get ahold of his new book (among a great many other things I need to read).

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