Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Useful post on Hein vs. FFRF

I knew that the Freedom From Religion Foundation was taking a case to the Supreme Court, but I didn't really know the legal issues involved. Adam Lee has a useful post explaining one key issue: can you sue the government for spending tax dollars to support religion, even if you can't show that it's your dollars, and not your next door neighbor's, that are being spent? Bush administration wants to say no, which would make it impossible to stop missuse of government money. Let's hope the FFRF wins on that issue at the very least.

YouTube taking down videos

Brian Flemming is highlighting some flaming stupidity* with regards to what kinds of videos are allowed and not; the policy has resulted in at least one atheist video and at least one Christian video being taken down with little justification. If you're a fan of YouTube, drop them a message and tell them to fix the policy.

*No offense to flamers intended.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Christians who doubt

John Loftus has a nice roundup on Christians who've expressed their doubts in writing. It includes a book by a friend of John's which will hopefully come out soon. The comments thread also contains this gem from Vic Reppert:
My most serious crisis of faith happened when I was 19 and started reading the Bible from a Calvinistic perspective. Nothing since, including a Ph.D philosophy education, has been so troublesome.

Reply to Reppert on Witherington

Vic Reppert has written criticizing monday's post on Ben Witherington as replying to ad hominem with ad hominem.

I don't think the issue of ad hominem is not so simple as Reppert, among other people, seems to think. This is something I wrote about during a spat with Dean Esmay over his HIV denials, which you can read about here and here. Applied to Witherington, I think it would be a very different situation if Witherington had been arguing "You shouldn't listen to Bart Ehrman because his scholarship has been demonstrably incompetent on important issues" or "You shouldn't listen to Ehrman because he's a crackpot who believes things regarded as clearly false by the vast majority of the experts." Well, strictly speaking, Witherington may have seen himself as making the second argument when saying that Ehrman rejected his previous Evangelicalism, but if that's what Witherington meant to say then he's even further gone than I had first thought. Not only has studying Biblical scholarship causes many Christians to become more liberal, if not outright skeptical, in their views, theologians have been largely unsuccessful at reaching a consensus as to which religion is the right one.

Such points can, I think, be legitimately raised when discussing the credibility of an alleged expert. But that's not what Witherington did. He didn't even say something that anyone might say out of frustration, like "Don't listen to Ehrman because he's a stupid head." Rather, he recommended ignoring Ehrman simply on the grounds that he went from Evangelicalism to agnosticism. You could account for this by a thoughtless dogmatism, or you could account for this by a dogmatism based on a warped view of the current state of the debate in Biblical scholarship, as suggested above. Either way, Witherington's credibility is in question.

Monday's post was written for maximum irony, so let me put in a nuance I left out in the original post: I don't advocate ignoring pseudoscholars or pseudoscientists whose arguments gain widespread credence. If I ever see Witherington's arguments actually quoted in debate I'd address them. However, if someone says "Well, that claims is wrong because this scholar named Ben Witherington said otherwise" (as WL Craig did in his debate with Ehrman), well, I'm going to laugh and call Witherington a hack. And Witherington's work seems to have less popular currency, and is therefore less worth paying attention to, than say Craig's writings (even though, I would agree, he's even more of a fake than Witherington). It's a matter of time management.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Gay culture, atheist culture

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan did a post called The End of Gay Culture, where he quoted from an old essay which predicted:
Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You see it beyond the poignant transformation of P-town: on the streets of the big cities, on university campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have settled, and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact, it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept of gay culture may one day disappear altogether. By that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians will not exist--or that they won't create a community of sorts and a culture that sets them in some ways apart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture itself will expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that "gayness" alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual. The distinction between gay and straight culture will become so blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it may become more helpful not to examine them separately at all.
Here's hoping the same happens to the atheist movement. There's a point of view from which the idea of atheism as an identity group is as silly as the idea of theism as an identity group (yup... Andrew Sullivan, Jerry Falwell, Marc Gellman, Irshad Manji, Osama bin Laden, lump 'em all together for political purposes) . It does make some sense as a short term political thing, given that in America at least atheists are a pretty small minority. But in the long term I hope the classifications change.

I wouldn't pay any attention to Ben Witherington

I've long known of Ben Witherington III as a scholar who says things that make evangelicals happy, but I never took him for a W. L. Craig type hack. Steven Carr [EDIT: broken link fixed] has shown me reason to think otherwise. Here's what Witherington recently said about Bart Ehrman: "I wouldn't pay any attention to that man if I were you. He is now an agnostic who has denied his previous Evangelical faith and is trying to exorcise its influence out of his life." So if someone disagrees with you, or worse, horror of horrors used to agree with you but changed his or her mind based on evidence, you can ignore what they say. Such a position, I think, is fairly good reason to ignore Witherington.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hume and the mind-body problem

In philosophy mind, some people get quite concerned by the question of how mental states could possibly cause physical states and vice-versa. I'm inclined to think the questiton is a rather silly one, and perhaps arises from overestimating our understanding of every-day causality.

Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding argued that we have no impression of cause, only constant conjunction. A brief example, I think, will show that he's right. I regularly go to local screenings of the movie Rocky Horror Picture Show where the audience is allowed, indeed expected to shout things back at the screen. Some of the best of these call-backs involve preempting what the characters say. For example, here is how the callbacks go in the closing narration:

Narrator: And crawling on the planet's face...
Audience: What did you have for breakfast?
Narrator: ...some insects...
Audience: Why is your phone bill so high?
Narrator: ...called the human race...
Audience: Where's Dr. Who?
Narrator: ...lost in time...
Audience: What was the worst movie of 1998?
Narrator: ...lost in space...
Audience: This movie lacks plot, character development...
Narrator: ...and meaning.

A naive audience member, say one brought from back in time from before there were movies, could easily mistake the audience's lines as being the cause of the narrator's lines. The only way they could find out otherwise is not by using a cause meter to find out that this is not the case, but by watching the movie at home without a screaming audience, or watching it in a theatre where those call backs aren't being used, or seeing the audience botch the timing. Then the naive viewer would realize that the narrator's lines will be said no matter what the audience does, and are therefore not caused by the audience's questions.

Now, the pattern of relation here is a little more complicated than mere constant conjunction. Nevertheless, observed relation between events is all we have, there is no special observation of causality.

This observation is easier to make in that unusual case, but can be extended elsewhere: we can observe that a beam of electrons is deflected by a magnetic field, but when we ask "how does the magnetic field cause the electrons to deflect?" the question isn't so clear, and if we give an account in terms of even more fundamental physical entities, then we can ask how they do their causal thing. We don't understand it on as profound a level as we might like to think we do. Therefore, I'd discourage looking for any really profound, causal explanation of how the mind and body could interact.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Silly evangelism tactics

Hemant Mehta comments on silly Campus Crusade campaigns where they try to generate a buzz without telling you what the campaign is about. Incidentally, Which Circle, the CCC-spoofing comic I linked to a day or two ago, has an episode dedicated to this.


Mojoey has made a new addition to his Atheist Blogroll: the Born Again Atheist (that's a link to a rather interesting introductory post).

Friday, February 23, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

When I was growing up in the 60’s, promiscuity was something that only the boys engaged in.
-Some random fundie, being shredded at Fundie Watch

The Watcher does a good job of shredding this guy but he/she seems to miss what's so funny about this statement: if it were true, it would mean that in the course of this one man's life time, homosexuality has gone from being something "the boys" in general engaged in to something that only a few percentage points of the male population engages in. He should be rejoicing!

This is like those surveys that repeatedly find that the average man has had six times as many sexual partners as the average woman. When I first heard a statistic like that, I knew there was some possibility thtat it was all the gay guys' fault, but I suspected something else was going on.

To which the atheists go "te he"

I've been largely ignoring Sullivan's recent writings on religion, planning to save it for when his exchange with Harris is finished so I can write a big meta-post on it. But a recent post called The Dangers of Fake Faith seemed to silly to ignore. The first thing that comes to mind when reading it is "Does it ever occur to Sullivan that Christianity might be fake?"

When I really think and ask myself what's wrong with this post, the problem seems to be not so much that he thinks Christianity is a true religion, but that the thing he's talking about seems disconnected from whether a religion is actually true, that he things the quality of being a real religion is so easily discernable, and the fact that he feels entitled to assume that religious people who he finds obnoxious don't count as really religious. Such an approach to religion conjures up images someone insisting that all politicians are honest, and that Nixon, Clinton, et al weren't real politicians. Now, there may be some politicians out there who are honest, but wouldn't it be silly to insist that the dishonest ones aren't politicians at all and don't count against politics in any way?

The end of cash?

Last week, the Economist had an interesting article on the potential for completely replacing cash with digital money.

It strikes me as more plausible than it might to many people of an older generation. I make the vast majority of my purchases via plastic cards. UW-Madison, rather than giving you a meal plan, has you set up an account that you put money into which is then spent by swiping your student ID through the cash register. The same method is used to pay for things like shampoo and toothpaste and even laundry--we're past the era where doing your laundry as a college student means amassing a vast quantity of quarters. At the public library back in my home town printing and copying meant having lots of dimes, but Madison has switched to plastic print cards. I buy textbooks by credit card, and all my purchases are made by electronic check. I'm not sure of the last time a payed cash for anything other than a movie ticket. And even paying by cash often means indirectly paying by plastic card for me--cash primarily something I get from ATMs.

I think I could almost live in a cash-free world if only debit cards were accepted as widely as credit cards, which is nearly the case but isn't quite true yet. Horror stories of people who run up unpayable credit card bills have kept me from making much use of credit cards; in fact my main reason for shopping Amazon rather than Barnes& is that B&N wants you to use credit card, while Amazon takes e-check. But credit card only places like B&N are getting rarer.

The Economist's objection that a digital economy would mean a loss of privacy strikes me as pointless: I'm already accustomed to using my past purchase data to shove recommended books in my face, and they do get me to bite from time to time. I suspect those worried about privacy will protect themselves through legislation and petitioning businesses to have legally binding privacy policies rather than by using cash.

The one difficulty I see is in person-to-person transfers. Cash is currently the only really effient way to do this; check kinda works but requires a trip to the bank in between receiving and spending. To truly abolish cash would require equiping everyone with a digital wallet that could not only pay for things but also receive payment without too much hassle. Such devices would not be terribly hard to create, though it would take some time to get everyone on using them. "Some time," though, may not be as long as I'm inclined to think at first: look how quickly laptops and cell phones became the kind of thing that everyone owns. I'm guessing that in 20 years, cash will be obsolete, still used occasionally out of habit, but something which most Americans could do without without making the slightest change in their lives.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

CCC spoof

Ed Babinski has just introduced me (via-e-mail) to a web comic called Which Circle, which is dedicated to making fun of Campus Crusade for Christ. The creators are ex-crusaders who, as far as I can tell, have remained Christians, though of a non-fundamentalist variety. It's a great find.

EDIT: Even though they have nice things to say about liberal Christians, there are points in the commentary where they refer to Christians in a distinctly third-person manner, indicating they don't consider themselves Christians anymore. So I'm not really sure about what I said in the original version of this post.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


The Onion had a hilarious piece today titled "Former Editor Can't Believe Shit College Newspaper is Printing," but for some reason it isn't available online. What is the world coming to? I'll post a choice bit anyway:
"This is lousy, lousy journalism," said Bartell, who still scours the paper's online edition for typos desoite graduating in May 2006. "The way the covered the School of Management's Casino Night this year was a slap in the face. Completet and utter fluff. Don't tell me what the people were wearing, damn it--tell me who won thte raffle ar the end of the night, and what the prizes were."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why McCain shouldn't be president

Today, Andrew Sullivan has logged another entry in the long list of critiques of John McCain's cozying up to the religious right. The main charge in this thing is hypocrisy, but independent of anything McCain has said in the past, shouldn't there be an uproar on the simple grounds that the things Falwell believes are (to use the word colloquially) crazy? Liberty University is an institution that has creationism and end-times nuttiness in its doctrinal statement, along with the belief that all non-Christians go to hell. Any politician who associates with these folks should have to go through the kind of embarrassment Bush did when he spoke at Bob Jones University (which likely believes all those things, though Bush only came under fire for the institution's racism). The criticism of McCain is good, but I wish people wouldn't make it look like everything hinges on hypocrisy.

Some questions I'd like to see lobbed at McCain on the campaign trail:

"What do you think of Liberty University's policy of teaching creationism in class? Do you think this is substantially different than teaching Holocaust denial or Afrocentrism?"

"What do you think of LU's stance that the world will end soon? Might this have an impact on long-term efforts for a more stable globe?"

"What do you think of LU's stance that those who disagree with them on certain matters will be punished eternally? Do you think this is compatible with the American ideal of intellectual freedom?"

Apologists can be so tedious at times

For example: a recent post by Christian CADRE's BK claiming scientists who criticize ID don't know what they're talking about. BK's training, by the way, is in law.

Quick note on the creationism issue: How exactly is ID not creationism? Because it's proponents take less extreme positions than the creationists? Nope. Philip Johnson refuses to take a position on the age of the earth, making him less accepting of the current scientific consensus than self-described old-earth creationists. Is it because their arguments are different? Nope. They spread the same blatant falsehoods that creationists used to. No difference in claims, no difference in arguments, what am I missing?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Spain's transition away from religion

Over at a blog called David GX's Liberal Banter, I've discovered a post titled What Happens When a Country Gives Up Religion: as Spain Shows, Nothing Much.

My own thoughts: For those who don't know their Spanish history, Spain was ruled by a fascist, quasi-theocratic dictator from WWII until the mid-70's. Spain's lack of religiosity may in part be a fuction of this: state endorsement of religion just killed off sincere religiosity. That's been cited as a cause of the difference between U.S. and Eurpoean religiosity in general: state sponsorship kills it off. This leads me thinking back to the frustrated thoughts of my old post Where's Trofim Lysenko when you need him?

The other explanation for U.S. religiosity is genetic: people with a genetic disposition not to care about religion were willing to go along with the reigning order and stay in Europe, those with a genetic predisposition to fanaticism wouldn't go along with the existing order and came to America. That would certainly be worrisome.

CotG 60

The 60th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at UTI. Choice picks include Hemant Mehta's list of annoying things he's seen in churches he's visited and Exapologist's quick and dirty refutation of divine command theories (which actually is a fairly involved article).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Moral absolutes

Some people seem to get all confused over this question, though it really doesn't seem that hard. If you think there are no real ethical norms whatever, you cannot consistently say that people shouldn't act as if there are. On the other hand, sloganeering against "situational ethics" is silly. Pick your ultimate moral standard: morality is doing whatever God says, morality is showing respect for persons, morality is maximizing hedonic content, morality is doing whatever will bring about the dictorship of the proletariat, etc. Under any of these systems, you will encounter classes of situations under which there is a fairly clear type of action which will almost always be the right way to fulfill the maxim. Voila! Moral rules that only apply in some situations.

What's really problematic as far as absolutism goes is mistaking a good rule of thumb for a real absolute, as in Kant's infamous reply to the inquiring murder problem.


Andrew Sullivan has a post on how Barak Obama is allegedly a candidate for post-racial America. If I may be so bold, let me suggest that a post-racial country would not be obsessing over a presidential candidate's alleged post-racialness. America is not so much post-racial as getting-over-the-subject-but-not-quite-there-racial.

TBC linkage

Hellbound Alleee and the Ebon Muse have posts up on the Blasphemy Challenge, Alleee's post is particularly thought-provoking (while it's silly to imagine that a project like this can be an entirely non-group endevor, it's also worth remembering that when someone says something on one of those videos, they aren't speaking for some corporate entity.)

Brian Flemming also has an update, which includes a link to a New York Times article on the challenge. This is the best sort of coverage you could ask for, I think--you get mini-profiles of two atheists, and the people they talked to on the other side are rapture nuts who declare, "We are not dealing with human versus human."

Also, the RRS has teamed up with the American Humanist Association on a parallel project. I'll try to get a submission to that together sometime soon.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Moral brute facts

It seems to me that, if moral facts are not really reducible to descriptive facts, say about social norms or what's prudent, then there's going to be no way to deduce them from descriptive facts about the world. The is-ought problem is, then, insoluable.

In defense of this thesis, all I can say is this: try it. The closest that I can see anyone coming is an argument in the form "if X is the case, then you ought to do Y," "X is the case," therefore, "you ought to do Y." This seems to deduce "you ought to do Y" from "X is the case," but you need that first premise, which is at bottom an ought statment, even if a conditional one.

If moral facts are reducible to other things, the situation changes: if "ought" really means "this will fulfill your desires," then moral facts could be established as one would any other fact.

However, we do not normally think of moral facts this way. Thus, if our normal intuitions about morality are correct, then there is no way to derive them from anything. This seems to be a significant result, because it makes the question of "why be good?" as pointless as the question of "why is there something rather than nothing?"

Fox News to launch conservative Daily Show

Fox News is launching a show called The Half Hour News Hour, basically designed to be a conservative version of the Daily Show. Thoughts:

-The title is good, shows they have some idea of what they're doing.
-When a group that's justly the butt of a lot of jokes tries to be funny itself, it looks like a disaster waiting to happen.
-The Obama segment is funny, but not Jon Stewart level material.
-They don't seem to understand that comedians need a certain amount of non-partisanship. They complain about too many Bush jokes, that's only because he happens to be president. Clinton jokes abounded during Clinton's administration. Jon Stewart was once asked if he'd still be able to do comedy as well if a democrat were in office, and he replied he'd have no trouble because the system is inherently absurd.
-Ann Coulter's closing gag in the second clip is good, but the fact that they're giving it to Coulter herself rather than a look alike, and they're aiming it at a conservative audience, says something vaguely disturbing about American conservatism today.

Shermer debates Dembski

And Jason Rosenhouse reports on the debate.

I post this in part because the whole topic of public debating interests me. Shermer had some tactical disadvantages here: without rebuttal rounds, he had to address everything in Dembski's speech in his first speech, and with questions mostly for Shermer, Dembski mostly got the last word on them. Things to think about if you're ever doing a debate on this format.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

As i'm sure everyone has experienced at one point or another, there are times when God seems non-existant and it is extremely difficult to continue believing. As someone going through this problem right now, I can certainly attest to how hard it is to continue having faith. So when you are faced with a difficult situation, what keeps you believing?

Many people consider the universe itself, or the Bible to be evidence for God. To others, this isn't very reassuring and often circular. When constant prayer leads to only silence, how do you keep from admitting to yourself, maybe the atheists are right?
-Jase, Christian Forums

"Religion Critic"

One more thought in response to James Lazarus--was going to wait on this, but this post has a positive proposal to advance.

At one point, Lazarus mentioned a worry that TBC would perpetuate sterotypes of atheists as "bitter, angry people who have nothing better to do than to dwell on religion and insult those who disagree with us." Now maybe we can avoid coming off as bitter, angry, and insulting, but there is an unavoidable core problem: having people think that all atheists have nothing better to do with their time than dwell on religion, criticize religion, sue over church/state violations, etc. No matter how polite we are, the atheists who get media coverage for being atheists (as opposed to getting media coverage for being an actor or writer or scientist or something) are going to be the ones who are vocally critical of religion. No easy way around it.

The problem is linguistic. Look at the situation with debunkers like James Randi. As Sam Harris pointed out, we have no special word for people who merely disbelieve in the things Randi spends most of his time attacking. Randi might be classed in print as a "debunker" or "skeptic," but even the second, milder term denotes more than passive disbelief. For this reason, no one would for a moment think that anyone who disbelieves in psychic powers must be like Randi.

So let me make a proposal: let's make an effort to get media, as often as possible, to refer to people like Richad Dawkins and Sam Harris primarily as "religion critics" rather than "atheists," websites like this one as "websites critical of religion" rather than "atheist websites," and so on. It might make life just a little bit easier on the more passive non-believers.

I guess I have to post this

Everyone in the entire blogosphere is talking about a Republican memo saying evolution is a Jewish conspiracy. So I thought I'd better make a post about it too.

And yes, most of those links are just cut and pasted from Technorati.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Second reply to Lazarus

James Lazarus has posted further responses to Brian Flemming and myself at his blog. Here's my reply.

First, in my original post on the Blasphemy Challenge, I drew a distinction between the Blasphemy Challenge and the "shall we say, debateable" things that have been said on other occasions by Brian Sapient and co. Lazarus has recognized no such distinction, repeatedly bringing up such things that have not, as far as I've seen, been a part of the challenge. He gives the impression that he thinks the project is bad simply in virtue of the fact that the RRS is doing it. I certainly hope he doesn't bring a similar attitude to his interactions with me; from what I've seen of his site, we have plenty of interests in common and should be able to have more productive interactions than the current spat.

Second, I'm puzzled by Laz's insistence that what's okay on a t-shirt is not okay as something designed to end up on TV?

Is it because on TV people will take it as representing atheists as a whole? The assumption that one atheist can speak for all certainly out there, but its the kind of stupid assumption that shouldn't control our activism any more than Fox News should.

Is it fear that it could edge out other things that are worth spending time on? No one is proposing making things like the Blasphemy Challenge the only thing we do, and it's certainly not the only thing the RRS has done. If nothing else, they put together some respectable shows with Richard Carrier (and this is not to dis their other material, it's just the Carrier shows are the main thing I'm familiar with).

At risk of simply repeating what I've already said: yes, I'd love it if instead of reporting on the Blasphemy Challenge, every major TV network would give two hours of airtime to intelligent, articulate documentary work by atheists, by "a bunch of Bertrand Russells," if you like. But the former was feasible, the latter is not. Hearing a guest on Fox News suggest, however briefly, that telling kids they'll go to hell if they don't believe is harmful--that's better than nothing. It's better than nothing even if the host manages to make the guest look like an "extremist whacko."

If we want to reach as many people as possible, the goal should not be to be highbrow or lowbrow per se, rather, the goal should be to avoid being unibrow. That way there's something for everyone.

So by all means Laz, go on doing all the things you do. It's all wonderful. But don't spend lots of time complaining about projects like the Blasphemy Challenge.

Pigliucci on making a secular society

Massimo Pigliucci has a post titled How to do away with religion, which suggests a large part of it will be creating secular social/support systems to take the role that religion currently provides to a large extent. It's worth thinking about the extent to which religion really is an effective tool for social organization. When I've thought about this before, I've thought of the really striking cases: apocalyptic groups that get followers to drop everthing to support the cause, Jewish resistance to assimilation, the survival of the Catholic Church as an influential social organization for hundreds of years. But there's also the fact that, "You should go to church because it's what good Christians do" can make for a remarkably dumb but effective way to get people to form a useful social organization.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Responses from Flemming and Lazarus

Both Brian Flemming and James Lazarus have linked to the post I made a week ago on the Blasphemy Challenge, The Importance of Being Rude.

To Brian: Thanks for the link. You make lots of good points, though on the Fox News interview, I still think you could have done a better job of correcting distortions of the challenge.

To Laz: Thanks for the response. When I first read it, I thought I'd have to do some careful thinking on how to response. Unfortunately, I then read it a second time and realized you had proven my point.

Let's recap. I was defending rudeness not as an end unto itself, but as a way to jolt people out of their prejudices:
Simply put, many people find the mere existence of atheists offensive. Heck, some are at a loss to understand how anyone could doubt their particular sectarian dogmas. Once, when I was out with my "Smile! There is no hell" sign, I had a girl come up to me and look at me with sad puppy dog eyes and ask why I didn't believe in hell. From the look on her face, it was beyond her than anyone could doubt this dogma.
Now look at one of the things Laz holds up as a paradigm example of unacceptably rude activism: a t-shirt that says, "The Bible is FALSE!" Think about what you're saying here. If you saw a t-shirt "The Bible is TRUE!" (or some catchier equivalent), would you say to your self, "Oh, there goes another Christian being offensive"? I doubt it. This looks like clear evidence that for a large segment of our society, what counts as a normal expression of an opinion for a believer counts as an offensive statement for an atheist. Worse, it looks like even atheists can fall into this trap at times, even an atheist who claims to support being "direct and assertive."

Why this would be the case is an interesting question. Part of the problem is what John Loftus was getting at with the outsider test: the majority religious position is granted a sort of credibility just by virtue of being in the majority. I have even fallen victim to this. I once read a post by PZ Myers complaining about something James Dobson had said, and included a remark, "Do people realize how weird this sounds to some of us? What if someone said the same thing about Ganesh?" Though I was an atheist at the time, I didn't find Dobson's remark weird, even though I would've had it been coming from a Hindu talking about Ganesh.

The other part of the problem is that modern pluralists have a tendency to pretend, and insist others pretend, that religions don't disagree with eachother. Thus, you can say what you believe, even if it implicitly contradicts other people's beliefs, but explicitly contradict them--well, that's just rude! That's a time of playing pretend that atheists cannot engage in, because atheism is defined in terms of rejecting certain beliefs. People may dislike it, but we don't have much of a choice.

In the comments, Lazarus aimed another criticism at the Blasphemy Challenge: "the content has been mostly shallow contributions - rhetoric and one-liner arguments, followed by cocksure comments about the falsity of alternative worldviews [emphasis added]." Why, pray tell, should we never use one-liner arguments? It seems to me that we need to be ready to present a range of arguments for a range of comments. If someone's willing to read an entire book defending atheism, wonderful, definitely good to have ready for people who'll read them, but not everyone will be willing--especially people who find the mere existence of atheists offensive. So if the most we can get a person to read is a magazine article, well, we need to have magazine articles for them. If the most we can get a person to read is a pamphlet, well, we need to have pamplets for them. And if the most we can get a person to read is a sign, bumper sticker, or a one-minute video on YouTube, well, we need to have that ready too. There clearly are good, short, arguments along these lines: "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Will short arguments be as effective as arguments sketched in detail? No. However, if we do nothing but write long treatises in defense of atheism, many people will never hear anything ever said in defense of atheism.

Let me give a concrete example: just two days ago, one of the student papers ran an article critical of the legal activities of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I decided to write a letter to the editor in response. Problem: there was a 250 word limit on such letters. So I crammed everything I had to say into those 250 words, just barely fitting it all in. I couldn't devote more than a sentence to some points I made. The result was obviously something not as persuasive as a 1500 word essay on the importance of separation of church and state in Freethought Today would have been. Did that make it a bad idea to write the letter? No! Most of the people who read the student papers will never pick up an issue of Freethought Today. They will be reached to the extent that it is possible to reach them. That's a good thing.

Granted, there are some times where short arguments will be not merely less effective, but totally ineffective. However, this is multiply irrelevant to the question at hand: I've seen no reason to think the Blasphemy Challenge involves such a situation, and we're not talking about offensiveness but merely effectiveness.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A paradox in Bayesian confirmation theory

There are an infinite number of false hypothesis for which we have evidence, many of which are rather strange. Not only that, there are an infinite number of such hypothesis for which we have lots of pieces of evidence.


Let TO be any non-necessary proposition about the world. Let FH be any proposition which entails TO.

1) If FH were false, TO might or might not be true, as it is non-necessary, so Pr(TO|~FH)< 1
2) Since FH entails TO, Pr(TO|FH) = 1.
3) Bayesian confirmation theory states that an observation is evidence for a hypothesis if the probability of the observation is greater on the hypothesis than on its negation.
4) From 1-3 above, TO is evidence for FH
5) 4 is true under all circumstances, so it is true even if TO is true and FH is a proposition which we would not normally grant the slightest chance of being true. For example, TO could be replaced by "the first word in the title of this post is 'A'" and FH could be replaced by any proposition of the form "A team of n demons conspired to bring about TO, where n may be any positive integer." Because there are an infinite number of positive integers, there are an infinite number of propositions of that form.
6) From 1-5 above, there are an infinite number of propositions for which we have evidence but also would not normally grant the slightest chance of being true.

The above argument can also be run with a set of propositions TO(1, 2, 3... m), all of which are entailed by FH, and with m being arbitrarily large. That means there are an infinite number of propositions for which we have an arbitrarily large amount of evidence but which we would not normally grant the slightest chance of being true.


The question of what should be inferred from here is not clear. It may show that there is something fundamentally wrong with Bayesian confirmation theory. Alternatively, one could argue that it only shows we cannot get careless about assigning prior probabilities when using Bayesian reasoning. However, given the difficulty of assigning prior probabilities, this would still create a significant difficulty for Bayesian analyses of evidence.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Random links

Some things encountered quite at random in my netsurfing:

Flame Warriors: An extensive catalogue of the different personality types you'll find in discussion forum flame wars. Though it has some fairly recent updates, reading it feels like I'm being transported back in time to a bygone era where forums were that diverse, as opposed to the hyper-specialized forums of today, where the number of personality types is fewer. Yes, it's a long intro, but wait through it and you'll see something interesting.

Truth: Ever wondered what truth is? Well, this is the truth. (If you don't understand the truth, see here for an explanation.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

Here's a prediction. Most people on the Western liberal left will shrug off the call by Messrs Geras, Cohen, Berman and Lévy to "wake up" to the threat of Islamism. But Mr d'Souza will appal them so much that some may make a sudden dash for the barricades and join the fight against all theocracy, including the American sort.
-The Economist

V-Day Post Secret

I've known about Post Secret for a long time, but only recently added it to my Bloglines feeds, and did it just in time to catch the Valentine's Day edition--check it out! (Though this one ends up being a little more repetative than most.)

Saturday, February 10, 2007


I notice that J. J. Ramsey's got a blog, and he's already provided me with a third endorsement for a header. It's a nice triad: praise for serious stuff, praise for something silly, and something that sounds like damningly faint praise the way I quote it, even if J. J. didn't mean to make it sound like that.

Science and conservatism

I just got an idea for a scientifically-phrased variant of the thesis Andrew Sullivan presented in his book The Conservative Soul: at bottom, chemistry and physics are pretty simple. Yes, the math behind quatum mechanics can be a headache, and theoretical physics has some unsolved puzzles, but in the end you're dealing with just a few types of particles that combine in a few dozen types of atoms.

Biology is a bit more complicated. The molecules are large, and mathematically modeling what they do can strain the best modern computers. This means there are lots of things computers can't tell us, so we're still stuck puzzeling things out one experiment at a time. And it not just the interactions of a couple large molecules that have to be figured out--it's how vast numbers of different, specialized molecules come together to form a functioning organism.

Now on to psychology. In most organ systems, things aren't so bad when you zoom out above the cell level: the mechanics of digestion and locomotion aren't too complex. The brain is another matter: it's a complicated network of neurons, which of course we don't totally understand as individual cells, but the biggest problem is it just isn't clear how it all comes together. The result is that, relative to a reaction between simple organic molecules, human behavior seems almost random

But put a whole bunch of organisms with complicated brains together and try to predict the end result of repeated interactions between them--well, that's going to be nigh impossible.

And yet... we can learn some things, and one of them is that emergent social systems--think market forces, though that's not all there is too it--market forces not fully understood by anyone, can be amazingly effective at getting things done.

What's this mean for the government? It means while governments can and should do a fair amount, there's considerable need to sit back and let forces of self-organization do their work. To think you can say, "Aha! I understand society, and know exactly what must be done to create a utopia"--is naive. Make changes when the need is clear, but be wary of speculative tinkering with the system.

The argument in this post could also be used to support a saner cultural relativism: don't assume you can look at a strange culture and figure out whether what they're doing makes sense. Just because there are, in priciple, absolute standards for what works and what doesn't doesn't mean that a strange practice might be just what is needed in the strange situation the society finds itself in.

Question: would it be unfair to think that many liberals don't understand the above? (Though, heck, I'm not sure many of those currently labled "conservative" understand the above.)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Who ya gonna call? Demon busters!

Flummadiddle has discovered a wonderful site called Demon Buster, a site dedicated to teaching people how to exorcise demons. Read her post. Then get this quote:
In the Bible, God used a donkey to talk and give a message.

So, if you came here from a link that said our site is "funny", or anything but Godly, know this - Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, loves you and wants to help you. Since you are reading this, Jesus has brought you here to offer Supernatural help. This site shows you how to get that help, free of charge. As for the person that is mocking us, the Judgment of God is on them. In the Bible, Acts 9, Saul was mocking and tormenting Christians. Jesus made Saul blind, and said to him, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest... When you make fun of any Christian, you are making fun of Jesus.

Newsflash: religious right still crazy

The governor of Texas is mandating HPV vaccination, and the head of a Christian lobying group declares "The governor's action seems to signify that God's moral law regarding sex outside of marriage can be transgressed without consequence." Sick, evil people indeed. Oh, and today, PZ is wondering how they'll respond to a new vaccine against Chlamydia.

Quote of the Time Being

Sure, maybe God doesn't exist, but that doesn't mean His pronouncements must be stupider than Alec Baldwin's, or your college roommate with delusions of Derrida.
-Jane Galt. HT: James Still

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The importance of being rude

In the comments of a post on the Blasphemy Challenge, James Lazarus objected on the grounds that "It's purposefully insulting (when we don't have to be) and rather juvenile, at the end of the day." And just today, Ed Brayton called the Challenge "I think it's pointless, juvenile and stupid."

Let me suggest that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Whether anything is gained by being as rude as the RRS sometimes is is, shall we say, debateable. But the sort of moderate rudeness expressed in the Blasphemy Challenge is a good thing. Why?

Simply put, many people find the mere existence of atheists offensive. Heck, some are at a loss to understand how anyone could doubt their particular sectarian dogmas. Once, when I was out with my "Smile! There is no hell" sign, I had a girl come up to me and look at me with sad puppy dog eyes and ask why I didn't believe in hell. From the look on her face, it was beyond her than anyone could doubt this dogma. Hopefully, a healty dose of rudeness will jolt such people out of their complacency.

I suspect Laz, at least, knows this. After all, he produces a show which wags the word "infidel" in the face of believers, I believe the site even used to have a thing telling believers that they're infidels too. Now, Live with the Infidel Guy isn't even close to being overboard, but it will certainly give some people a jolt, which will often be just what they need.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Martian invasion fleet

I don't want there to be a Martian invasion fleet making preparations to conquer Earth and exterminate humanity. It's not just that I don't believe there's such a fleet and like being correct about things. It's that I don't want the solar system to be like that. And I would be deeply troubled if there were seemingly intelligent people who believed that there was in fact such a fleet about to wipe us all out.

The above paragraph is meant to demonstrate the seemingly trivial point that just because we want, or don't want, something to be the case, it does not follow that our reasons for taking a sort of view on the factual question are not rational. Clearly, we all have rational reasons for thinking there is no Martian invasion fleet: aside from generally plausibility questions about whether an interplanetary invasion fleet would work from an engineering perspective, astronomers can provide us with pretty strong assurances that Mars is uninhabited and even stronger assurances that Mars lacks the sort of industrial base that would be necessary to create such a fleet.

This seemingly trivial point is utterly lost on Victor Reppert, who posted a statement from philosopher Thomas Nagel saying he didn't want there to be a god, and Reppert uses this to say "See! Atheism isn't a purely rational position!" Now, I find Nagel's statement somewhat puzzeling as long as we're talking about God in the abstract and not, say, the God of Biblical inerrantists, and this is true even though I've tracked down the source (Nagel's The Last Word to find context. Also, Reppert's attempt to extrapolate from one case should shock anyone who's had so much as a high school discussion of how to provide proper justification for a claim. Even ignoring these two points, however, his reasoning makes zero sense.

Christians poking fun at Christians

Via Relignorant, a t-shirt company dedicated to t-shirts making fun of Christians, but run by Christians.

The unfortunate thing about this is that when Christians make fun of Christians who try to get with mainstream culture, the former group often turns out to be hyper-reactionary types. Oh well.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Via Mojoey, I've learned of a blogger called Flumadiddle, who seems to have a talent for finding some of the funniest stuff on the web. Check it out (won't link to a specific post because its all worth reading).

Quote of the Time Being

He then notes that at Oxford he enountered articulate Christians, a sort of person Northern Ireland apparently lacks. I guess I can only say that for me it was meeting articulate, sensible Christians that persuaded me that Christianity has nothing to offer. When I was only familiar with the braying fundamentalists I could still believe that I had not yet seen the real thing, only a bizarre caricature. It was when I started studying Christianity in a serious way that I realized just how foolish the whole thing was.
-Jason Rosenhouse, on Alister McGrath

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Attitudes Towards Technology in the 1950's Contactee Movement

This is the second of two papers I wrote last semester that I'm putting online. The first can be found here.

This paper was written for the class "History of Science 339: Technology and its Critics since WWII." The term "contactee movement" refers to quasi-religious groups in the 1950's that claimed to be receiving messages from extraterrestrials. This paper examines the extent to which the movment was driven by contemporary hopes and fears regarding technolgoy.

It's the longest thing I've posted to this blog by a good margin, but should make for interesting reading if you have the time.

Download "Attitudes Towards Technology in the 1950's Contactee Movement"
OurMedia Page

The Stalinist state known as California

Okay, so I'm indulging in hyperbole, but apparently the state has a law against interfering with religions, and its being used to throw a critic of Scientology in prision. This situation, I take it, needs no comment.

CotG 59

The 59th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Aardvarchaeology.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

God, Inc.

A relatatively well-done YouTube series found via The Martian Anthropologist (episode 5 here).

EDIT: Hey! None of the problems I was worried about!


Okay, I've finally decided to switch to the new blogger system. I've told this can be something of a pain, so it may put me out of action for a day. Hopefully it won't, but just a warning.

Quote of the Time Being

Take it from me, Mary: Explaining to your child, after he heard something hateful on the radio, that his family is very much "real," that it’s not an attack on anyone else’s family, and that his parents are, in fact, fit to be his parents is as distressing and emotionally exhausting as it is unnecessary.
-Dan Savage, (via Andrew Sullivan)

Bible quizes

Via Pharynugla, a quiz on Biblical knowledge:
You know the Bible 100%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

Though this was a relatively easy quiz. The FFRF's quiz is much harder. I just retook it and only got a 44 out of 50, which is still six points up from when I took it last year.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Level of confidence in necessary truths

Some random musings I'm throwing out there:

I'm currently taking a 500-level class in theory of knowledge, and yesterday my professor argued that we don't even have 100% confidence in what seem to be obvious necessary truths such as the law of noncontradiction. Do demonstrate this point, he proposed the following hypothetical bet: if the law of noncontradiction turns out to be true, you have to pay some just-barely-non-trivial cost, such as running up stairs to get something. But if it turns out to be false, you win a million dollars. Would you take it?

This got me thinking about something that was never brought up in class: how would such a bet be administered? On thing that comes to mind is "ask God"--supposing, just for the sake of a thought experiment, that he were available for answering such questions in an unambiguous way. I mean, suppose God were coming to campus in a week to give a lecture with Q&A to follow, and that our level of confidence in this fact were equal to my level of confidence in the proposition "Alvin Plantinga and Dan Savage gave talks on campus last year" (which is actually, not just hypothetically, true, since I went to both talks). Then you could go to the the talk and ask about the law of noncontradiction in the Q&A segment, and since God is infallible, then you'd know for sure.

Or would you? In such a situation, I might wonder if I was really dealing with an infallible God, even putting away my real-life skepticism about God. Of course, in this thought experiment, my model for my level confidence in the proposition "God is coming to campus in a week to give a lecture with Q&A to follow" is my level of confidence in the proposition "Alvin Plantinga and Dan Savage gave talks on campus last year." So all I'm really saying here is "My level of confidence in the law of noncontradiction is greater than my level of confidence in the proposition 'Alvin Plantinga and Dan Savage gave talks on campus last year." But the fact that I'm that confident in the law of noncontradiction is a significant result for a thought experiment.

There's a very simple explanation for this state of affairs. In addition to being simple, the explanation is also wrong. It's the explanation that our level of confidence in necessary truths will always exceed our level of confidence in contingent truths. However, I have it on good authority that Godel's theorem is a necessary truth, but I'm inclined to say that my level of confidence in it is less than my level of confidence in "Alvin Plantinga and Dan Savage gave talks on campus last year."

So what's going on here?

SC 53

The 53rd edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up at Occam's Edge.

More wiki

At, I've added an article on faith healing, in addition to adding a quote from David Hume to the outsider test article.