Monday, April 30, 2007

Richard Carrier on old scholarship

Short version: don't trust anything before 1950. This is something he's explained in interviews, but I think it's the first time he's put it in text for the whole web to read.

Interesting Internet Infidels thread

Most of what goes on at Internet Infidels is pretty bland, but recently Chris Weimer through out a mystery text and asked people to do their best to analyze it. They've made some definite discoveries about it, but they're still in the dark to a significant extent. I think he's trying to make a point about how hard it is to learn anything from next to no data (which is the story of Biblical scholarship), but the effort is interesting in and of itself.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Atheism is not, and ought not be, a cohesive movement...

Several days ago there was a post called How Not to Explain Atheism at Hemant's blog that irked me, and I've decided I have to get it off my chest.

It takes as its basis a post by another blogger, which recounts hearing one co-worker tell another, "you know Kelly***, there is no afterlife... There is no heaven, no hell, no god... When you die, your body will rot and be eaten by maggots. Life really has no point."

Hemant uses this as the occasion for a brief lecture on presentation and tactics, implicitly directed at the first co-worker and anyone who would say things like him. To which I say: please. Lecturing someone on tactics assumes that they're to some extent on your side, but what basis did Hemant have for that assumption, in this case? The original post gave very little biographical information: the co-worked was an atheist and had a voice like somebody named Ira Glass. The idea that being an atheist makes you part of some movement--Hemant's movement, whoever's movement--is silly. Does anybody imagine for an instant that being a theist automatically makes you part of some coherent movement?

Maybe the co-worker honestly thinks the way he expressed himself, believes in being honest with other people, and sees no reason to hold PR to be so lofty a goal as to justify sugar-coating. Hemant may think he's wrong to take such a position (I do!), but to jump right to tactical advice without stopping to realize not all atheists will share his goals is incredibly obnoxious.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

My first live debate

Yesterday, I did an atheism/Christianity debate on campus. My opponent was Tim Leisz, a Campus Crusade staff member who graduated from UW last year with a degree in philosophy and English. Here's the recording.

I checked it in a couple spots, and I think it turned out okay, though the set up was about as primitive as it gets: just a cheap microphone picking up what came over the speakers (I had no luck figuring out how to wire my laptop into the system).

Download "Hallquist-Leisz debate"
Ourmedia Page.

An unlikely fan

Andrew Sullivan has linked to PZ Myers four times in the past two months. Oh, and by the way, his blogalogue with Harris is finished, or nearly so. I'll try to find time to write a commentary sometime this summer.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Harvard Humanism conference

Okay, here's my write up of the conference I spent last weekend at:

The first day (Friday) mostly consisted of a seminar on how to run a student group. Some of the material was fairly obvious, but there were some interesting ideas in there, and we also got time just to talk with people from other groups, which was cool, especially because there were six people there from the University of Minesota's group, which is quite large (the figure 160 people comes to mind, though I'm not quite sure on that one).

That night, we also got to hear Salman Rushdie read selections from his latest book. I tried reading The Satanic Verses in high school and found I couldn't make it through, but the selections he read were pretty good, it may of helped to have him reading them; I often suspect I don't read things in my head the way the authors originally thought them. I heard later that on the way home, a few students crossed paths with Rushdie, and one of them told him, "I loved your work in 'Bridget Jones' Diary'" (in which he makes a brief cameo). His response: "Finally, somebody takes me seriously."

Saturday was the bulk of the conference. Lots of speakers, including a panel discussion with people like Hemant Mehta and Rebecca Watson, titled "The Next Generation" or some such. It was nice to get to see them and other people I'd only had contact with online, like Alison Bates, the Secular Student Alliance's campus organizer (it was a sort of "Wow! They really exist!")

A large part of the conference was dedicated to the issue of how religion can be accomodated by nonbelievers. For example, there was a panel on humanistic takes on the Abrahamic religions. Rushdie was there to provide the perspective on Islam, and talked about how in India at the time he grew up, it was seen as perfectly natural for "Muslim" to be used as a cultural, not religious identifier. His father, for example, wasn't much of a believer, but took enough of an interest in the Qu'ran that he hoped to one day work out the original order of its different parts (apparently, the stream of thought jumps around wildly at times). There was also a very good speaker named Rabbi (yes, Rabbi) Sherwin Wine, a leader in the Humanistic Judaism movement. He was quite clear that he didn't believe in God, and viewed Judaism as a cultural marker. Also a very funny speaker, though I can't remember any of his jokes. Yet I did get some of the same sense of going overboard expressed by Rebecca and Hemant. I guess the benediction thing wasn't horrible, I was willing to take a "when in Rome" type attitude, but it does seem to be a symptom of trying to copy religious institutions without being careful to always think "is this something we ought to be copying?"

Anyway, it was all in all a good experience. Not sure I'd go again, not because it was really bad, but because it took so much out of me: getting up at 6:30, going to bed at 12, stuff like that. But I'm still glad I went once.

The Blasphemy Challenge and the Media

I recently wrote an article for the SSA's newsletter called The Blasphemy Challenge and the Media. This is the link so those who only read my blog can find it. Enjoy.

Also, a head's up: I attended the 30th aniversary thingy for the Harvard Humanist Chalancy this weekend. Hemant's already written it up; I'll give my take when I find the time. Which will be hard, because my local group is also doing a debate Wednesday, which I will also try to get up. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The college view / obscene jokes

No, this is not about sex jokes told by college students... it's about two policies applied to college students, which, from my vantage point as a student, are pretty clearly jokes: there's a huge gap between theory and reality, and someone needs to change things.

First, distribution requirements. This gripe came to mind while reading the framing debate over at ScienceBlogs.com (that's a recent salvo in the debate, not going to try to provide a comprehensive link bibliography). Anyway, a big part of the problem is that the public in general, even the college-educated public, doesn't understand science very well. And when we're seeing this problem in the college-educated population, I think a lot of the problem can be chalked up to how we do distribution requirements.

The theory is nice. A liberal arts education is supposed to produce a well-rounded person, so everyone is required to take 12 credits each in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The result, though, is a lot of people taking food sciece, or Weather 100, or Physics in the Arts, or whatnot, and does anybody believe those things increase scientific literacy much? No, what's needed are introductory courses more like the chem course I took freshmen year, where the big project of the semester was to take a science story in the popular press and look into the science behind it. Now, I suspect we can't make a class exactly like that one; it was very math-heavy, put stress even on hard-core science people, and most humanities-types couldn't handle it. But keep the paper idea, advertise that the papers only have to be understood on a qualitative level, that it requires looking up jargon but no particular science talent, and focus course material around understanding why scientists believe the things they do about atoms, Newton's laws, evolution etc. And have every college student everywhere take a class designed along those lines.

Now, the other thing, the drinking age, prompted by an Andrew Sullivan guest blogger linking to calls for getting rid of it from the right and from the left. And, as a college student, one who spent his last summer in a frat house to boot, I can tell anyone who hasn't figured it out already that the drinking age isn't even halfway enforced. Widely ignored laws are a bad thing, folks. And I don't think most people really want the drinking age enforeced, even though people in officialish places pay lip service to it because they have to.

The think like a decent argument I've ever heard for the drinking age is it cuts down on drunk driving. However, why not just crack down on drunk driving? Some European countries give out prison time to first time offenders and, unsurprisingly, have very low drunk driving rates as a result. It's sure a better idea than a law no one really has much interest in enforcing.

The power of self-deception

A couple days ago, PZ posted a video comprising two short clips: one of a self-described "chi master" appearing to take down a stream of students without even touching them, the next of the same guy going up against a mixed martial arts fighter and losing badly.

I must dispute one point of PZ's description. He describes the actions of the martial arts students as "pratfalls," but they hardly come off as clowns, not in the literal sense anyway. Insofar as I can determine anyone's mental state from just over a half-minute of video, the students appear to be true believers whose belief has destroyed their ability to do a basic task. It's almost like the stories you hear about aboriginal tribesmen who curl up and die because they believe they've been cursed. The human capacity for self-deception continues to fascinate me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hume as a critic of religion

I have two little books, bought from the University books store for philosophy classes, containing David Hume's works. One has his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (typically considered the best short statement of his philosophy in general), along with two other short pieces, while the other has his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and his Natural History of Religion (his two main works criticizing religion in general).

The back cover of the second book proclaims the works it contains are "the most formidable attack upon the rationality of religious faith ever mounted by a philosopher."

I also have a copy of the Hume entry in Oxford's "A Very Short Introduction Series," whose author claims that "In my view, indeed, the discrediting not only of theism but any form of religious belief was one of the principal aims of Hume's philosophy." And I have no doubt that this is the case, that the author takes the view he claims to take.

It is worth asking how effective Hume's corpus as a whole functions as a critique of religion. Certainly he made many good individual points. But I shall argue that, taken as a whole, his philosophy in this area is a "miserable failure," to borrow a phrase that was so popular in 2004.

Those unfamiliar with philosophy should know that Hume was a skeptic (or sceptic, as he spelled it) in the old philosophical sense of someone who challenges all claims to knowledge whatever, or at least a broad area of things which we normally think we know quite certainly, say that the sun will rise tomorrow, to take an example strongly associated with Hume's memory. He explains the function of this skepticism in his Enquiry, Section V, Part I:
The passion for philosophy, like that for religion, seems liable to this inconvenience, that, though it aims at the correction of our manners, and extirpation of our vices, it may only serve, by imprudent management. to foster a predominant inclination, and push the mind, with more determined resolution, towards that side which already draws too much, by the bias and propensity of the natural temper. It is certain that, while we aspire to the magnanimous firmness of the philosophic sage, and endeavour to confine our pleasures altogether within our own minds, we may, at last, render our philosophy like that of Epictetus, and other Stoics, only a more refined system of selfishness, and reason ourselves out of all virtue as well as social enjoyment. While we study with attention the vanity of human life, and turn all our thoughts towards the empty and transitory nature of riches and honours, we are, perhaps, all the while flattering our natural indolence, which, hating the bustle of the world, and drudgery of business, seeks a pretence of reason to give itself a full and uncontrolled indulgence. There is, however, one species of philosophy which seems little liable to this inconvenience, and that because it strikes in with no disorderly passion of the human mind, nor can mingle itself with any natural affection or propensity; and that is the Academic or Sceptical philosophy. The academics always talk of doubt and suspense of judgement, of danger in hasty determinations, of confining to very narrow bounds the enquiries of the understanding, and of renouncing all speculations which lie not within the limits of common life and practice. Nothing, therefore, can be more contrary than such a philosophy to the supine indolence of the mind, its rash arrogance, its lofty pretensions, and its superstitious credulity. Every passion is mortified by it, except the love of truth; and that passion never is, nor can be, carried to too high a degree. It is surprising, therefore, that this philosophy, which, in almost every instance, must be harmless and innocent, should be the subject of so much groundless reproach and obloquy. But, perhaps, the very circumstance which renders it so innocent is what chiefly exposes it to the public hatred and resentment. By flattering no irregular passion, it gains few partisans: By opposing so many vices and follies, it raises to itself abundance of enemies, who stigmatize it as libertine, profane, and irreligious.
All of this sounds wonderfully noble: encouraging a love of truth, discouraging harmful passions that have caused strife in the world (which no doubt includes religious sentiment). Furthermore, Hume goes on to explain that there is no danger that this philosophy will turn everyone to vegetables:
Nor need we fear that this philosophy, while it endeavours to limit our enquiries to common life, should ever undermine the reasonings of common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action, as well as speculation. Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever. Though we should conclude, for instance, as in the foregoing section, that, in all reasonings from experience, there is a step taken by the mind which is not supported by any argument or process of the understanding; there is no danger that these reasonings, on which almost all knowledge depends, will ever be affected by such a discovery. If the mind be not engaged by argument to make this step, it must be induced by some other principle of equal weight and authority; and that principle will preserve its influence as long as human nature remains the same.
Similar themes appear again at the end of Hume's enquiry, where skepticism is advocated as an antidote to dogma and wild speculation:
129. There is, indeed, a more mitigated scepticism or academical philosophy, which may be both durable and useful, and which may, in part, be the result of this Pyrrhonism, or excessive scepticism, when its undistinguished doubts are, in some measure, corrected by common sense and reflection. The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments. To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passion, and suspends their action. They are, therefore, impatient till they escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy: and they think, that they could never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief. But could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state, and when most accurate and cautious in its determinations; such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists. The illiterate may reflect on the disposition of the learned, who, amidst all the advantages of study and reflection, are commonly still diffident in their determinations: and if any of the learned be inclined, from their natural temper, to haughtiness and obstinacy, a small tincture of Pyrrhonism might abate their pride, by showing them, that the few advantages, which they may have attained over their fellows, are but inconsiderable, if compared with the universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature. In general, there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.

Another species of mitigated scepticism which may be of advantage to mankind, and which may be the natural result of the Pyrrhonian doubts and scruples, is the limitation of our enquiries to such subjects as are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding. The imagination of man is naturally sublime, delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary, and running, without control, into the most distant parts of space and time in order to avoid the objects, which custom has rendered too familiar to it. A correct Judgement observes a contrary method, and avoiding all distant and high enquiries, confines itself to common life, and to such subjects as fall under daily practice and experience; leaving the more sublime topics to the embellishment of poets and orators, or to the arts of priests and politicians. To bring us to so salutary a determination, nothing can be more serviceable, than to be once thoroughly convinced of the force of the Pyrrhonian doubt, and of the impossibility, that anything, but the strong power of natural instinct, could free us from it. Those who have a propensity to philosophy, will still continue their researches; because they reflect, that, besides the immediate pleasure, attending such an occupation, philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected. But they will never be tempted to go beyond common life, so long as they consider the imperfection of those faculties which they employ, their narrow reach, and their inaccurate operations. While we cannot give a satisfactory reason, why we believe, after a thousand experiments, that a stone will fall, or fire burn; can we ever satisfy ourselves concerning any determination, which we may form, with regard to the origin of worlds, and the situation of nature, from, and to eternity?
Finally, there is the famous finale to the enquiry:
When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
The philosophy professor I have had for the past two semesters is convinced that Hume meant to destroy all theology; I think, based on reading the dialogues, that here Hume was only after the more metaphysical arguments and conceded that empirical theology had to be dealt with on its own terms. In any case, it would be a significant blow to religious thought, especially the dominant tradition of Hume's day.

Unfortunately, all of this is painfully, obviously, fallacious. The reason is expressed clearly by Hume himself, written to defend himself from the charge of irreligion, included with my copy of the enquiry:
And must not a Man be ridiculous to asser that our Author denies the Principles of Religion, when he looks upon them as equally certain with the Objects of his Senses? If I be as much assured of these Principles, as that this Table at which I now write is before me; Can any Thing further be desired by the most rigorous Antagonist?
Experienced readers of Hume will detect his standard ironic assertion of religious principles, but the problem is he was absolutely right. If the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow is completely uncertain, how can any dogma be any less certain or reasonable? This applies no more to the existence of God than to the most absurd claims made by any cultist. If one is to dogmatically believe regarding one's desk, why not dogmatically believe anything at all?

I think that the only really sincere and consistent Humean I have ever seen is William Lane Craig, who joyfully abandons reason (for analyzing his own beliefs, not persuading others) on the old skeptical grounds, and declares his doctrines above all rational critique. Such a position is at least as logical a deduction from Hume's principles as what Hume actually said. His skepticism is no reason to be cautious in matters of religion.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt is up in heaven now.

So it goes.

I can't say I read much of his work, but Slaugherhouse-Five is still one of my favorite novels of all time.

Hat tip and title explanation: PZ Myers

Sunday, April 08, 2007

This just in: First Amendment rights still crumbling

Item one: Emeritus college professor put on no-fly list for saying George Bush has taken unconstitutional actions. Money quote: "This effort to punish a critic states my lecture's argument far more eloquently and forcefully than I ever could."

Item two: Bush administration claims right to set up taxpayer-funded churches without any challenge from anybody. Conservative SCOTUS judges appear to be siding with the administration.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programing.

Obligatory Easter post

Atheist bloggers like John Loftus, Matthew, and Brian Flemming have been trying to do special posts for Easter, which made me wonder: should I pitch in? My response: eh, don't feel like putting in much effort. But I did do a debate on the Resurrection awhile back that kinda fits the occasion. Go read that if you like.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Socrates--what a moron!

Just today, I was thinking about how difficult many of the central problems in philosophy are. At times, it is very tempting to say something along the lines of "the great problems in philosophy are unsolvable" or "philosophical inquiry never gives us any definite answers."

This quickly reminded me of a claim often attributed to religious skeptics and attacked by believers: only what science proves is true. This is attacked on the grounds that it is self-refuting: science doesn't prove it, so if it were true, it would be false. Frequently, people making this criticism fail to cite anyone who actually has taken that position, though there are exceptions, such as this post from Vic Reppert, "What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know." The tone of these attacks is typically dismissive, and I notice that the same attack could be applied to the sort of statements about philosophy above. On the first one: "The question of whether a problem can be solved is itself a great problem"... etc. On the second one: "The only way this could be determined is by philosophical inquiry"... etc. So it might seem we can dismiss claims like the above as obvious foolish.

The problem with this approach is that it would force us to conclude that Socrates was one of the greatest idiots who ever lived, because he is reputed to have said, "I know that I know nothing." Yet surely the sentiment behind this saying is not foolish or an obviously false idea. It may alert us to the difficulty of making statements about the limits of our knowledge in such a way as to make clear exactly what we mean, but to greet all such statements with derision and say we cannot possibly claim any limits on human knowledge seems, well... obviously foolish.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Young memoirists: U.S. versus Sierra Leone

Another article I'll want to be able to find later on (HT: Andrew Sullivan).

In a way, I feel strange about it. I'm currently reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It is an autobiographical work that describes torments much worse than the things that normally pop to mind when Westerners hear about Islamic oppression of women, like having to wear a veil and not being allowed to drive or whatever. Rather, it describes things like female genital mutilation and being beaten nearly to death by a Qur'an tutor. There were other things that were simply a product of living in the countries she lived in: having her father thrown in prison by a tyrant, family worrying that her grandmother would be thrown in jail because her brother was throwing rocks at a picture of the tyrant, having to go to the black market for basic food... all things that are utterly beyond my experience, which no amount of eloquent writing will ever allow me to grasp...

EDIT: Since I really do want to be able to find this later, even if the link breaks, I should post the source: It's the LA Times, titled "Wannabe writers shot down by a child soldier," by Meghan Daum, and was published on April 2.

Greg Epstein and Harvard Humanism

Greg Epstein is really taking a beating at Brian Flemming's blog. I feel like I need to jump to the defense of, if not Epstein, the conference he's involved in organizing. I myself am going to the conference, and it looks like it's going to be a great event, with speakers including everybody from Paul Kurtz to Hemant Mehta.

That said, Epstein is a grad student who, as far as I can tell, has made no important contributions to the secular movement. He isn't even halfway to being a spokesperson for anything. I don't know if the current attempt to make him one is something he's sought out or something that's been thrust on him by journalists who took too lazy a glance at the press releases for the conference. If the former, though, he deserves a lot of what he's getting over at Flemming's place.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sums it up too well...

From Andrew Sullivan:
I never thought I'd read a post like this in America in my lifetime. Isn't this power of a sovereign to detain any citizen without charge at any time part of the reason this country was founded? And now it is simply assumed that this kind of monarchical power is fine. A country that grants its executive the power to do this is definitionally not a free country. It really is as simple as that.