Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blasphemy TV

Brian Sapient goes on TV to discuss the Blasphemy Challenge. The presentation is fairer than when Flemming went on Fox News; we even get to see (in the Sapient show) a religious-type saying they'd better be afraid, shortly after Sapient said part of the reason he was doing it was so that people wouldn't be afraid. And the Fox News bit was offensive, he tried to make a case that Flemming was manipulating kids when I'm pretty sure most of them reacher their conclusions on their own before hearing of Flemming and his work (similar goes for the female Episcopalian priest on Nightline, though).

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Out of action

My laptop's malfunctioning, and I won't be able to get it in to have it fixed until Thursday. I'm posting from a computer lab right now, but have no plans to blog until I get the laptop back.

Right-winger plays Neville Chamberlain

Dinesh D'Souza's recent babblings about liberals being at fault for 9/11 are old news, but PZ's takedown is good enough to deserve reprinting:
I was thinking, though, that D'Souza is also wrong in principle. If extremists and jihadists despise our culture and are using violence and threats to try and compel us to change, isn't it the grossest kind of cowardice to throw up our hands and say "they're right, we need to align our culture with that of our enemies"? That's basically what D'Souza is suggesting—not a military retreat, but instead the abject, unresisting abandonment of portions of Western culture, simply because terrorists demand it.

It seems to me that instead of surrendering, we ought to be celebrating those aspects of our culture that they find most objectionable: things like diversity, secularism, atheism, sex, independent women, and irreverence.

PC 42

The 42nd edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Show Me the Argument.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Four more years of Hell


Yeah, I know, I'm a late show to this one by more than a week

Anyway, the theory behind this post is as follows: Bush would have never had a chance at becoming president if not for his father. He turned out to be incompetent. Hilary would not have a chance of becoming president if not for her husband. This suggests a strong possibility that she will turn out to be incompetent. Or, to put it without referencing Bush: If she wouldn't be considered a contender if not for Bill, why should we consider her one given the actual state of affairs?

There is a second reason for being leery of a Hilary presidency: suppose that the above argument is wrong and would in fact be a marginally better president than anyone else running: do we really want to continue building up the precendent for dynastys started by Geoge W? I don't, and would be willing to take a somewhat weaker candidate to avoid doing so.

Somewhat is a key word, though. The election is along way off, and I can conceive of voting for Hilary over a sufficiently scary Republican. And I would of course vote for her over Jeb Bush. I can't see voting for her over a moderate Republican or any Democrat in the offering, however.

For a nicer view of her cadidacy, check out The Economist's "Hating Hilary."

As an aside, I admit there are about one and a half good points about the possibility of Hilary winning the nomination. The bizarre ideas that right wingers have about her could get in the way of a truly professional smear campaign, and considerably increase the chances of a Democratic win in 2008. And if she were running against Condoleeza Rice, we would get to see partisants on both sides expressing latent sexism and homophobia (and this would be true regardless of the candidates' actual sexual orientations). This would be followed by people from both sides complaining about the other sides' sexism and homophobia. That would in turn be followed by people from both sides telling the other side to clean up its own act first. And so on and so forth. But I do not think the entertainment benifits of such a situation would outweight the drawbacks. So I hope that Hilary does not get the nomination.

On On Faith, fourth installment

This week's question:
As the presidential campaign begins to take shape, do you think it is appropriate and or important for the candidates to express their personal religious views and to use religious rhetoric? Why?
One of the statements that jumps out is this one from Welton Gaddy, leader of a group called the Interfaith Alliance. He describes some guidelines for politicians drawn up by his group:
Be authentic about how their personal beliefs will guide their decisions and actions in office; never use an elected office to favor one religion over others or religion in general over non-religious beliefs; remember that any use of religious language must be sensitive to voters from a wide diversity of religions and belief systems; and never use religion as a form of political strategy to gain admiration, loyalty, and votes.
I see a potential conflict between the first and third points: what if a politicians beliefs include items that a great many Americans would find insensitive? I can think of no better an example than a previous post here about one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson's belief that all Jews are going to burn in hell. One rather air-headed pundit assessed Robertson's statement on that matter as follows: "While most of them would put it more delicately than Robertson, it is an article of faith for millions and millions of evangelicals that the only way into heaven is through belief in Jesus Christ." I take a different view: I hope every politician who believes as Robertson does is as un-delicate as Robertson so that the political campaigns can go down in flames. Per the David Hume quote I posted recently, politicans' religious beliefs aren't going to affect policy as much as one might rationally expect, but they still will affect policy some. This is true whether or not a politician maintains a polite silence about his beliefs, or whether he cloaks them in euphamisms. Therefore, I very much want to see politicians saying what they think on religious matters, no matter what those beliefs are.

Some incidental notes:

A Pagan panelist mentions "the values of compassion, caring and inter-connection that all religions teach," so yes, some people still do accept that notion.

This guy seems oblivious to the modern religious landscape, where divisions within denominations are often more important than divisions between them. And the argument against abortion is dumb: blood samples also have their own DNA and chromosomes.

And the statement "Something that must be taken by faith alone does not allow itself to be tested in the free marketplace of ideas, a quality essential for democracy to work" catches my eye because of the causual concession that religious beliefs are not rational.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A simple refutation of moral skepticism

Or at the very least, the claim that we ought to accept moral skepticism: If there are no genuine ethical truths in the sense of any "ought-type" truth, then it cannot be true that we ought to accept that truth. So, whether it's true or not, nobody can possibly be blamed for thinking otherwise.

This tiddy proof is something I hit on a day or two ago, and it seemed worth posting, though I suppose there is room for philosophers to debate its significance, though it seems clearly correct.

Religion and delusions

Though I don't care for all the terminology, recent posts at God is for Suckers! on the connection between religion and delusions make for interesting reading. One is on the topic in general, and the other deals with the religious persecution complex.

Quote of the Time Being

...have you ever had an experience that you could not scientifically explain? If so, what was it?

Yes, many. The first mitotic division I made as a zygote is incompletely defined scientifically — scientists wouldn't be interested in cytological processes if they could all be scientifically explained. It's why we're in this business, because we love the interesting questions and the pursuit of the answer.

That something is incompletely explained by science does not imply, however, that fairies did it.
-PZ Myers

Friday, January 26, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

If there exists one uniting cultural force that crosses civilizations and connects the vast majority of humankind, it would have to be not being Canadian.
-Infophilia

(Sorry Canadians. I still love you. This one was just too good to miss.)

Wiki article on The Da Vinci Code

I've written a brief article on the historical errors of The Da Vinci Code for the wiki of IronChariots.org.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

Hear the verbal protestations of all men: Nothing so certain as
their religious tenets. Examine their lives: You will scarcely think
that they repose the smallest confidence in them.
-David Hume, Natural History of Religion

Just finished reading that entire work for my philosophy of religion class. The whole thing is worth reading if you have the time.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Media and the Hockey Stick

Last semester, I wrote a couple of papers for classes on subjects which I think may be of interest to readers, therefore I'm uploading them to Ourmedia so you can download and read them. This one is about media coverage of the controversy over the so-called global warming "Hockey Stick". It's a little over six pages double spaced in Word. The other will be uploaded in a few days (give people time to read this one).

Download "Analysis of Media Coverage of the Global Warming 'Hockey Stick' Controversy"
Ourmedia page

End of the current Frank Walton mess

Here's roughly what happened: Accusations of sock puppetry and impersonation flew. One (made against Frank) looked very plausible at first, though I may have been misreading the evidence, I'm not sure. I'm pretty sure of of the accusations is false. But Frank is continuing on with his, without providing any evidence, and insisting that I act on his accusations anyway. This is bizarre on his part, but not the strangest I've seen him do.

Anyway, I'm ending this, or at least my involvement in it. For awhile I was concerned with figuring out what was going on, but I've gotten sick of this thing. Second semester at Madison started two days ago, I need to get it started off on the right foot, I've already wasted a few hours of my life on this nonsense, and I don't have any more time to waste.

Discuss this stuff here if you want, though I probably won't respond to any comments on this subject.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

While you wait

This was supposed to be the day I got back to serious blogging, but time I might have otherwise spent blogging has gotten eaten up with craziness involving Frank Walton (some of which you can witness in the comment thread below). While I sort that out, here's a little philosophy quiz I found at Philosophy, et cetera. I hope you find this interesting.












Intuitionist

You scored 80 Objectivism, 36 Naturalism, and 73 Cognitivism!

Many judges and much of the legal system is Intuitionist (as far as it goes, philosophically) in outlook to some degree.

"Ethical intuitionism is usually understood as a meta-ethical theory that embraces the following theses:
Moral realism, the view that there are objective facts about value,
Ethical non-naturalism, the view that these evaluative facts cannot be reduced to natural facts, and
The thesis that we sometimes have intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, which forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge."
















My test tracked 3 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on Objectivism
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on Naturalism
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on Cognitivism




Link: The Meta-ethical Theories Test written by jacostyle on OkCupid, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Frank Walton is banned

I was tolerating him for awhile, but from this point onward Frank Walton is banned from this blog. Frank, if you post here, even in response to this thread, your comment will be deleted. Then I will turn on comment moderation and not let any of your comments through, even though this will be a pain to everyone else.

This ban was prompted by a comment made by Walton in which he claimed that the members of the Rational Response Squad advocate shooting Christians. I followed the posted link, and found that the main basis for this claim was not not anything said by the actual members of the RRS, but a guest (one time, as far as I can tell). The comment was not even made on their show. His other basis was a comment made by Rook Hawkins about getting rid of people like Walton. This comment said nothing about actual violence, and occured in the context of Hawkins calling Walton on another bogus charge, in this case a charge of plagarism. It was the equivalent of saying "we should get rid of politicians who lie their way into office"--not in any way applying they should be killed.

Those familiar with Walton will know that this is part of a long pattern with him. I know Daniel Morgan consulted with a lawyer who said that if Walton's targets wanted to prosecute, they would have a strong libel case. I assume the RRS is fully aware of Walton's claims and has their reasons for not prosecuting.

In any case, this blog will not be a venue for libel. I have no intention of rescinding this ban at any point in the future--I once started deleting his comments before but let him back, and after a second offense I see no reason to be so forgiving.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Gone skiing

In a couple of hours, I'll be heading off on a weekend ski trip, and then I'll be going back to school. May take a couple days to get settled in; probably be back posting Tuesday.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Mind disease?

Probably one of of the things the Rational Response Squad is more infamous for is their sologan "Fighting to Free Humanity from the Mind Disease Known as Theism."

Tactics wise, this looks idiotic on its face, though I have no intention of getting into a tactics argument here. It won't go anywhere. They've indicated that they know damn well what they're doing, and have agknowledged that there are some benifits to striking a friendlier tone, but that's going to be their way of doing things.

My objection is one of accuracy, but it's not the obvious one. The problem with their sologan is that while western monotheism is not clearly more rational than any number of beliefs most westerners would dismiss as crazy, the mental-problem-as-disease paradigm is something we need to junk.

Let's get away from belief and look at depression: clearly, we don't want people killing themselves in the prime of their lives, and such things can result from a what we call "depression." But "depression" is not like pathogens or canerous cells which most people don't have in any amount, and any amount is clearly bad. Emotions of sadness are like fat cells: your abnormal if you don't have any, in fact its unhealthy not to do so, the problem is having too much. With depression, there's also the wrinkle that there's some evidence suggesting people who are diagnosed as depressed have a more realistic view of the world.

Now let's move to delusions. The technical definition runs along the lines of "false belief held in spite of contrary evidence and which is harmful to the subject." While this may not be a good thing in any degree, the ability to hold beliefs without regard for evidence seems to be part of being human. Politics as we know it would cease to exist if not for the ability of partisans to believe their side is right no matter what evidence comes along. We do not, however, classify them as mentally ill.

Moving on to a more extreme case, people who've had contact with alleged alien abductees have generally reported that "crazy" doesn't quite describe them. If you've read Susan Clancy's book on the subject, you know what I'm talking about. If not, I'm afraid I can't explain it nearly as well as she does, though I can refer you to what I wrote last year about meeting believers in astral projection.

It is not in any way clear to me that believers in these two things are less rational than believers in God. Arguably, the other guys deserve props for not merely going along with whatever happens to be universally accepted--and indeed, expected--by the wider society. But "crazy" doesn't fit any of them.

Richard Carrier on the supernatural

Richard Carrier has produced a mamoth post on the definition of the supernatural. I'll read it when I find the time, but for now let me say I agree with what he says in the opening paragraph:
There is a trend in science and law to define the word "supernatural" as "the untestable," which is perhaps understandable for its practicality, but deeply flawed as both philosophy and social policy. Flawed as philosophy, because testability is not even a metaphysical distinction, but an epistemological one, and yet in the real world everyone uses the word “supernatural” to make metaphysical distinctions. And flawed as social policy, because the more that judges and scientists separate themselves from the people with deviant language, the less support they will find from that quarter, and the legal and scientific communities as we know them will crumble if they lose the support of the people. Science and the courts must serve man. And to do that, they must at least try to speak his language. And yet already a rising tide of hostility against both science and the courts is evident. Making it worse is not the solution.
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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Andrew Sullivan debates Sam Harris

It starts here, and continues at Sullivan's blog. They're really just getting started, but it should be good.

So far, Harris has avoided the mistake of thinking all believers accept inerrancy (which sometimes seems implied in his books) and Sullivan is talking about the need to make room for doubt in religion. I think Sullivan is missing that many fundamentalists have learned they have to work around doubt. There's an urgency to keep doubt from turning into unbelief, but in practice its only moderately different than Sullivan's approach.

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Mainstreaming nuttiness

Ed Brayton has a post on plaintiff intimidation in church-state cases. The most troubling part is that the harrassment is being cheered on by DaveScott, a friend of William Dembski. Dembski is, sadly, a leading light of a perfectly mainstream movement, and one of his allies is advocating using illegal violence against the opposition. What is this country coming too...

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Da Vinci Code lawsuit

Awhile back, two authors of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail sued Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, for stealing their ideas. They lost in court, but now they're appealing the decision.

It looks like they're right to appeal. I've read both books, and it is abundantly clear that Dan Brown took their non-fiction (if crackpot) book and built a novel around it. For all I know, it may be legal to build a novel around a non-fiction work with an unusual thesis. But the judge didn't dismiss the suit on that basis. He dismissed it on the grounds that "Baigent and Leigh's claim had been based on a 'selective number of facts and ideas artificially taken out of (the book) for the purpose of the litigation,'" which is patently false. It will be interesting to see where this suit goes.

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God Delusion review

J. J. Ramsey has brought to my attention a series of reviews on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion:

Introduction and Chapter 1
Chapter 2, parts 1-3
Chapter 2, parts 4-8
Chapter 3, part 1

They make some interesting points, especially with regards to straying from his stated purpose; a sort of "things to avoid" list for writers that's worth reading if you're in to writing as I am. I must dispute what this blogger says on Dawkins' treatment of Aquinas' Fourth Way, however. I do not think Dawkins' was proposing that Aquinas' God must be a "pre-eminently peerless stinker," only that his arguments imply such a being must exist, which is obviously absurd, and therefore something must be wrong with them. This is more or less what the reviewer says when he says Aquinas was clearly wrong about there being an exemplar of heat.

As to my own view of Dawkins' book, I think it's strong on the science writing, mediocre on other things, and ultimately, the only justification for its existence is the one suggested by Jason Rosenhouse: "He has a view of this subject that is not well-represented in mass-market literature, especially in this country, and he has the clout and the recognizability to actually get such a book published." So curious believers are slightly more likely to buy it than George Smith's books, libraries without many atheist books will stock it, a few more believers will pick it up in those libraries, Westerners as a whole will become somewhat more familiar with the views of atheists, and a few will actually be won over. Nothing special going on, just a guy with name recognition making what contribution he can.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Preparing for war

Via The New Atheist, I've found a lengthy article on fundamentalist theocrats, with a particular focus on their propagandistic use of history. One more thing to keep me up at night.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Atheists in Alabama

An interesting if somewhat old article from North Alabama Rant:
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The note on Blair Scott’s windshield wasn’t a nice one.

The anonymous writer had to have seen Scott’s atheist-themed bumper sticker, an uncommon sight in the small south Alabama town where he lived at the time.

"It just amazed me that people would take time out of their day to return to their car, grab a pen and paper and write a ‘You’re going to hell and you’re going to burn in a lake of fire,’ and stick it under my windshield," said Scott, a 36-year-old veteran who installs computer systems in prisons.
There's a girl in my dorm from Texas who's told me that in her home state, my Smile! There is no hell schtick would get me shot. (This girl, by the way, is a neopagan.)

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

On Thomas Aquinas

I assume that most of my readers are by now familiar with the criticism of Dawkins that he's not well-versed in theology, as well as Dawkins' response that theology is a non-subject, which was put so eloquently in PZ Myer's The Courtier's Reply.

I recently came across an Wall Street Journal piece in that vein that specifically mentioned Thomas Aquinas. This, I think, is a rather bad choice. For all the work Aquinas put into synthesizing Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy, he was, in final analysis, and unphilosophical buffoon who can not even be said to have been among the more enlightened thinkers of his day.

You see, in Aquinas' there were people who, while not necessarily denying the great truths of the Christian religion, worried that perhaps they were not so certain as the conclusions of deductive disciplines such as mathematics. Against this view, Aquinas made a brilliant observation: human reason is fallible, but divine revelation is not. It does not occur to the esteemed theologian that his ability to know whether God has revealed a given claim to us might be falible.

To say that critics of religion need to contend with "great thinkers" like Aquinas is like saying they should do more to engage the ignorant street-corner ranters that trouble so many cities.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Keith Ellison flap: weirder than we knew

Over at Ed Brayton's place, I've been following the Keith Ellison flap, which revolves around a bunch of right wingers getting their underwear in a bunch because an incoming congressman (Ellison) wanted to swear on the Koran rather than the Bible. Then, via Mojoey, I found this Chris Hitchens piece which says:
In the first place, concern over Ellison's political and religious background has little to do with his formal adherence to Islam. In his student days and subsequently, he was a supporter of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, a racist and crackpot cult organization that is in schism with the Muslim faith and even with the Sunni orthodoxy now preached by the son of the NOI's popularizer Elijah Muhammad.
Hitchens' revelation is indeed troubling. But I don't think its accurate to say that it's what the flap is about. If you look at the original essays by Denis Prager and Roy Moore, they made it just an issue of his use of the Koran.

In other words: we elect to congress someone who has at least former ties to a group of racist nutjobs, and he gets flack not because of the possibility that he is a racist nutjob, but because he doesn't conform to the theocratic vision of some right-wing pundits. This is one of those situations for which the phrase "WTF, mate?" was coined.

Digg this (by the way, does anyone understand how to make fancier Digg buttons?)

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

None of us [the science blogs crew] were selected for our political views, and any liberal bias here is entirely a side-effect of the representation of conservative thought in America by a rather nasty know-nothing party of anti-science ignoramuses, which does tend to alienate people who favor science. If we were a country of Rockefeller Republicans and Shirley MacLaine Democrats, we'd have more blogs railing at the Democratic party (and if in continued political evolution, the two parties transformed themselves in that direction, I'd be among those railers.)
-PZ Myers

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Iron Chariots article on Jesus

In this case, the article already existed, but I greatly expanded it. I'm curious to know what people think of the "historical Jesus" section--I have my own view on this subject, as long term readers of this blog will know, but did my best to provide a balanced presentation of major secular views.

Digg this

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When prophecy fails...

...the date just gets set back a year.

The Ebon Muse has spotted a survey that shows a quarter of Americans expect Jesus to come back this year. It isn't just small cults that never learn.

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On keeping an open mind

In response to yesterday's post on "fundamentalist" atheism, someone suggested, roughly, that fundamentalism is a failure to keep an open mind.

Immediately, I was reminded of a passage from a book I read recently, The Full Facts book of Cold Reading:
An open mind is appropriate in situations where we have no good evidence on way or the other... However, it is inappropriate to retain an open mind in cases where there is already plentiful evidence backing one view as against another.

Imagine you are in a plane flying at 20,000 feet. The captainof the plane starts thinking along these lines, "Gee, everything in the history of aeronautical science, and every experience of every airline pilot in history, suggests that to keep this thing in the air I need to keep the engines running. But hey, I'm going to keep an open mind. I'm going to cut all the engines, and dump our remaining fuel. Who knows, maybe the plane will still fly." Do you really want the captain to keep an open mind about this?

Or imagine you're dining with friends at a favourite restaurant, and you have ordered tomato soup. Do you really want the chef to be thinking, "Well now, everything we know about human nutrition, and every ounce of gastronomical training I have, suggests that I should not add a large dose of cyanide to this soup./ But hey, I'm going to keep an open mind. Maybe it will taste better, and everyone will love it.
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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Fundamentalist" and "militant" atheism

Recently, someone put up a post at Internet Infidels saying the poster would embrace the term "militant atheist," partly on the grounds that it's just not worth fighting.

I thought I'd go and do a Google search to see how the term is being used, along with similar searches for Militant Christians and Militant Muslims. The results? 10 out of the top 10 hits for Muslims deal with actual violence. 3 of the top 10 for Christians deal with violence that has in fact been committed, and another 2 deal with end times nuts who want to see the Dome of the Rock. For atheists, all there is is 1 reference to a group from the early days of the Soviet Union--no modern atheists using actual violence.

This is, I think, clear evidence of a ridiculous disparity in how the term is being used. We'd best get back to using "militant" only in the literal sense, and dispense with the current nonsensical usage that lumps Sam Harris with Osama bin Laden.

The "militant atheist" phrase is, in a way, not as bad as "fundamentalist atheists." There is some precedent for using "militant" to mean "hard core," in spite of the inconsistencies. But outside slamming atheists, fundamentalism has always mainly applied to people who believe their given holy book is infallible. Sometimes, this is taken to the point of people becoming convinced that "God exists because the Bible says so" is a good argument. Generally, people who are called fundamentalists are hard core about doctrines that at least seem to be taught in the Bible, such as Young-Earth Creationism and the belief that everyone who disagrees with their religious opinions goes to Hell. Now, where are the atheists saying, "God does not exist because Le Systeme de la nature says so"? Where are the atheists who insist, as a matter of principle, that Carl Sagan was right about everything he ever said even when the scientific evidence is against it? Where are the atheists who stand on street corners shouting "All who do not accept Giordano Bruno as their personal Lord and Savior deserve to suffer the worst fate possible"?

I feel I ought to end by saying we should do something about such nonsense, though most of the people who spout it aren't the type to listen to reason.

Monday, January 08, 2007

An evolutionary epistemology

Here's something I'm tossing out for the philosophy buffs who read this blog: I seem to have discovered a view in epistemology (theory of knowledge, for non philosophers) which is plausible and internally consistent, but nobody who holds it can claim to be rational in doing so. The view is that none of our beliefs are rational in any deep sense, but we nevertheless cannot help but belief many things, a large portion of them true, because that is how we evolved. Clearly, if you hold the view, then you cannot believe you are doing anything profoundly rational in holding it because it says that none of your beliefs are profoundly rational.

The view that we cannot help but believe certain things even though we have no rational reason to do so goes back to Hume, but evolutionary theory lends Hume's view a certain plausibility it could have had before. Then again, there is a theistic counterpart to the view: none of our beliefs are rational in any deep sense, but we nevertheless cannot help but belief many things, a large portion of them true, because that is how God made us. I am curious to know if Hume ever suggested such a thing. It's possible, given that he was not above making theistic noises to placate his critics.

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CotG 57

The 57th Carnival of the Godless is up at Daily Irreverence. Among the highlights: I believe in Santa Claus, Intelectually Lazy? You bet it is!, and Is our children learning?.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

1984 book drive

Via a comment on a previous post, I've become aware of a book drive to send copies of 1984 to congressmen who voted for the Military Commissions Act. The mailing address is here:
Ministry of Love
Box 655
Guilford, CT 06437
Pitch in if you can. I'm going to buy a couple of used copies off Amazon.com and have them delivered straight to the address.

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Formative (ir)religious experience

The question for this week's On Faith is "What was your own most formative religious experience, if you had one?" Personal stories are not open to critique the same way that an essay's ideas are, so let me just suggest to everybody to read Susan Jacoby's essay Memories of a Skeptical Girlhood. Sound bite:
As a child, I always assumed that my classmates were as skeptical as I was about the religious indoctrination to which we were subjected on a daily basis--and that they remained silent only because they feared the wrath of the nuns. I was wrong.
Also worth reading is a contribution of a Muslim, interesting for its parallels with common Christian conversion stories.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Polytheism vs. monotheism

In debates over religion, polytheism is often held up as an example of the sort of belief most people in America dismiss out of hand. Jeff Lowder has also suggested several times that monotheism is inherently more credible than other forms of supernaturalism. Over at Letters from a Broad, there's an interesting post challenging this notion.

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Jose Padilla

Like so many stories in the news, I feel I haven't followed this one as closely as I should, but Andrew Sullivan has, as always, been covering it fairly well. One fairly recent development is that it looks like as a result of his detention, he is no longer fit to stand trial. Now it's been suggested that this was the plan all along: "'As one high-ranking official put it, "the objective of the government always has been to incapacitate this person."' Or, in Orwell's words, the point of torture is torture." And all this was apparently done on the basis
seven phone calls. And it was done to an American citizen.

Oh, and via Jim Lippard, I find a top ten list of most outrageous civil liberties violations of the year.

No, the U.S. hasn't really turned into a Stalinist hellhole. But much of the legal, institutional, and psychological safegaurds that are supposed to exist are gone. At least Bush will be out of office in two years. As long as we can avoid electing someone who will continue his policies...

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

SC 51

The 51st edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up.

I deny the Holy Spirit (and the rest of the Trinity)

Some of you may have heard of the Rational Response Squad's Blasphemy Challenge. If not, I suggest reading the official website as well as the Internet Infidels discussion. Anyway, here's my contribution:

As an aside, it's interesting to watch theologians talk about the correct interpretation of the Bible verse this is based on. John Loftus has put together a nice little discussion. Realize of course that for evangelicals, this is a deadly serious issue--well, actually, more serious than death. It's interesting to note that J.P. Holding says the unpardonable sin is simply unbelief--which makes it extra-easy to commit. (So much for softening difficult passages.)

Conservative comes out as atheist

Some interview soundbites:
Up to half of the conservative writers and thinkers whom I know are non-believers. And yet because of the rule that one may never ever question claims made on behalf of faith, they remain in the closet. At some point, however, they may emerge to challenge the idea that without religion, personal and social anarchy looms.
...
As for the conservative intelligentsia, I was surprised-but that is my fault. I was ignorant and naive enough that somewhere in the back of my mind, I think, I might actually have assumed that presenting what strike me as pretty strong empirical arguments against the claim that God is just and loving, say, would end the matter. And I was unaware of the depth of commitment to the idea that religion is the source of values and that conservatism and religion are inseparably linked. For me, conservatism was about realism and reason.
Via Internet Infidels

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Anthony Flew on miracles

Previosly, I've defended Hume's argument against miracles. As I see it, the problem is this: we must judge the plausibility of historical claims by experience. There is no question that miracles fall quite far outside of our experiences. Therefore, we must judge them extraordinarily implausible, requiring an extraordinary amount of evidence to establish ("the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish," in Hume's words).

Now, it is clear that miracles in fact lay outside of our experience, but need this be the case in principle? Anthony Flew has answered "yes." He does not deny that seemingly miraculous things could be established by repeated experiment. In fact, he was at one time involved with the Society for Psychical Research, though he believed, on Humean grounds, that parapsychologists needed a repeatable experiment to establish their claims. Nevertheless, Flew says, if such a state of affairs ever came about, the commonness of the events would mean they would cease to be evidence of anything theological. For example, if resurrections happened every day, the resurrection of Jesus would not be evidence of his divinity.

A little thought should show that this is clearly wrong. Consider the following hypothetical state of affairs: there is certain condition which strikes without warning, causes victims become violent, as well as developing extraordinary strength and the ability to levitate. There are hundreds of documented cases each year in America alone. The existence of the condition is undisputed to the point that police officers are trained to deal with superstrong, levitating perpetrators. Careful investigations show that Catholic priests have a high sucess rate in dispelling the condition, while Protestant clergy, non-Christian clergy, and scientists are totally unsucessful in stopping it. Clearly, such a state of affairs would have important theological implications, and the fact that the events in question would be frequent would not change this in the least.

The nuances of the new year

The Ridger has highlighted a post by the Bad Astronomer about all the messy details of the New Year. Hint: it isn't a straigtforward thing involving a ball in New York. Try to understand it if you dare.

Religiously correct

Andrew Sullivan has posted an excerpt from a New York Times Op-Ed that ran Dec. 21st. I was going to link to it, but it's for subscribers only. I may as well repost the excerpt that's already available:
For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.
The jist of the rest is that recently, the professor writing the article has had to deal a lot more with students who don't want him calling their beliefs into question. One more sign of increasing religious craziness in America.

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