Thursday, May 31, 2007

Holding's use of Malina and Neyrey, part 1

Okay, continuing this series.

One of the several sources in the Carrier-Holding dispute whose contents is disputed is the scholarly work Portraits of Paul by Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey. Let's look at how Holding uses it.

First, scholars aren't infallible

At one point in Carrier's reply to Holding, Carrier says "Malina and Neyrey made a serious mistake here (which in turn betrays the fact that Holding is ill-qualified to assess the value of his sources for ancient history)" and provides some reasons for thinking so. Holding's response: "Amazingly enough, Carrier even has the nerve, after prostituting Malina and Neyrey for his own purposes, to say they "made a serious mistake" (and I made one in trusting them) for their claim that women were not trusted in court as witnesses... Let Carrier's bark at these credentialed scholars speak for itself." Holding also sorta gives specific replies to Carrier's criticisms of M&N, though all he can say about a key source that Carrier cited is that he'll check it in the future, which hasn't happened yet, even though Holding's response to Carrier appears to have been written some time ago. What's really galling about Holding's response though is that he appears shocked at the very idea of challenging his scholarly authorities. It's as if he doesn't realize that scholars criticize each other all the time and that's how scholarship gets done. It's one more piece of evidence that Holding is in over his head here.

The converse of my position here is that if one of Holding's sources undermines his thesis, and he's willing to flat out say they're wrong on the particular point, that in itself is unobjectionable, though his criticism would have to be legitimate. However, I've yet to see him do that. He seems to simply misunderstand or ignore his sources.

The need for a venerable history

In Holding's original piece, the first place where he cited Malina and Neyrey was in section four, which argued that Christianity would be at a serious disadvantage because it was innovative. I'm a little unsure what to say about this section. From my reading of Malina and Neyrey I can't see how they support Holding's case, but perhaps I should not accuse Holding of misrepresenting them because I can't see how Holding supports Holding's case either. Basically, Holding says that Christianity was attacked in the ancient world on the grounds of novelty, while noting that Christians defended themselves by arguing that Christianity was the fulfillment of the ancient and respected Jewish tradition. That much, to the best of my knowledge, is correct. Holding thinks this somehow shows Christianity could not have succeeded without miraculous proof of its truth. As far as I can tell, it's actually a good example of early Christians meeting diffuculty through purely human means. I don't know of any record of early Christians saying, "So what if our doctrines are new? We have proof." Rather, they used exactly the strategy Holding acknowledges in his article. Holding's response to this point is to say that critics said that the Christians were wrong, but so what? Does he deny that people who converted to Christianity tended to accept its claim to Jewish roots? Does he think that miracles would be the best way to change people's views about the religion's pedigree? If so why? It's a giant non-sequitur.

Just to emphasize the point, it's worth throwing in some quotations from Malina and Neyrey:
What must be judged by Israelite and Roman judges alike is the legitimacy of Paul's main question, God's having raised Jesus from the dead... Paul presents himself as a person loyal to Israel's tradition. Far from being deviant, he claims to defend God's honor by heralding the great deeds of God, namely, God's raising of Jesus. (pp. 85-86)
This refers to some speech making by Paul in Acts chapters 23-26, from which the authors quote heavily. When these quotes are read in context, it's perfectly clear that much of Paul's rhetorical strategy (as portrayed in Acts) had to do with playing the Pharisees and Sadducees against each other and positioning himself as legitimately within the Pharisitic tradition by connecting Jesus' resurrection with the Pharisees' belief in the resurrection.

I suspect pointing out every misrepresentation of Carrier's position by Holding will get tedious very, fast (indeed it is already doing so), but I'll continue on that effort for the moment. In Holding's response to Carrier, Holding says, "Carrier insists that it 'isn't really true' that for these people, innovation was bad." Here's what Carrier actually said:
James Holding argues next that for the Romans, "Old was good. Innovation was bad," and "this was a big sticking point for Christianity, because it could only trace its roots back to a recent founder." But that isn't really true. From the very beginning in the letters of Paul, every Christian text aimed at persuasion connects Christianity intimately and profoundly with the Jewish scriptures, regarded even by pagans as among the most ancient oracles of man...

Holding is right, however, that as long as Christianity appeared to be a complete innovation, too few would have accepted it.
Carrier more or less agrees that for the ancients, innovation was bad. When he says, "that isn't really true," he's talking about Holding's claim that everyone would have seen Christianity as innovative. Once again, he's misrepresented his opponent.


Same old story, different actors.

You know, somebody should do a study on this, to see just what percentage of Americans are this inconsistent when it comes to religious freedom. Really, it seems to me that the threat to American freedom--religious and otherwise--is not from the self-described theocrats but the large number of people who take insane positions out of intellectual laziness.

Carrier's Master's Thesis

Turns out its available online after all.

The nature of Holding's argument

I was originally going to follow the last post in my series critiquing J. P. Holding with a post evaluating his use of a book called Portraits of Paul by Malina and Neyrey, but I've decided it's important to first try to understand what Holding is, in general, arguing. Answer: I'm not totally sure. The general idea is supposed to be that Christianity had a lot of disadvantages and couldn't have succeeded without irrefutable evidence of a real miracle, but it gets rather muddled as he goes on. I suggest readers look at Holding's original piece, The Impossible Faith, to try to figure it out for themselves. Let me give a run down, though, of the problems:


Richard Carrier, in the opening of his critique of Holding, noted, "One thing that is missing from Holding's paper is any sort of formal logical or statistical argument." In response to this, Holding said, "The expectation is misplaced to begin with; as a work written for a popular audience, no such "formal logical or statistical argument" is required, and in any event, if the logic is not dressed in tuxedo and tails simply to satisfy Carrier's nascent snobbery, that's just plain too bad for him." What Holding doesn't understand is that when academics lay out the steps of their logic precisely, they aren't just showing off and trying to alienate nonspecialists. They're trying to write in such a way that its easy to specify what is right and wrong about their argument. When an argument is laid out in a careful, logical manner, critics get both the benefit and the challenge of saying exactly where the argument goes wrong. If something is wrong, they can show everyone else this in a very precise and convincing, and if nothing is wrong, they are prevented from throwing around lots of red herrings whose irrelevance is hard to demonstrate due to the lack of clarity in the original argument.

Holding didn't need to lay out his argument with numbered premises, but it would have helped if he had clearly laid out how the argument works. As I'll explain below, different passages in his writing suggest contradictory framings of the argument. Holding would likely argue I'm misreading him, but to avoid such misreadings he needs to clarify what he's trying to say.


Continuing from the opening of Carrier's critique:
Despite his rather hyperbolic language, even Holding must admit that the odds of Christianity becoming successful without being true could not be zero even on all of his own assumptions. Human behavior is not that predictable, nor are there any demonstrated historical "laws" that make any conclusion about historical cause-and-effect beyond all probability of error. Rather, Holding can only mean that the probability of Christianity becoming successful, on all of his own assumptions and premises, is so low that we have no rational ground to believe it did--except by some divine aid. In Holding's version of the argument, this fact can only become reasonably probable if we accept as true the premise that the "witness of the resurrection" was (and therefore is) "irrefutable."
Holding's response:
But no: it is not true that even I, as he says, "must admit that the odds of Christianity becoming successful without being true could not be zero even on all of his own assumptions." I admit no such thing and never will. I say indeed: The odds of success, barring the validating evidence of the resurrection, would indeed be, for all intents and purposes, zero.
The "all intents and purposes" clause suggests that Holding does not understand the difference between a very small probability and a probability of zero. This mistake is a common thread that runs through all sorts of bogus claims, which means that it ends up getting pointed out a lot, and ignorance of it is inexcusable. This example from Michael Shermer jumps immediately to mind; I use it a lot because its at such an elementary level. Another example comes from Carrier himself in his article Probability of Survival vs. Miracle when he discusses royal flushes. The example is brilliant because it is so tempting to say that 99.9999846% certainty (the odds against any given poker hand being a royal flush) is pretty much the same as 100% certainty, yet it's not. Carrier uses another excellent example in his actual response to Holding:
Many fantastically improbable things happen all the time, simply because so many things happen. For example, "that's about as likely as getting struck by lightning" is often used as a cliche of an event so improbable it never happens, yet over four hundred people are struck by lightning every year in the United States alone. Some people have been struck multiple times.[2] Hence our intuition often fails us when estimating the improbable.
Holding, perhaps unsurprisingly, misses the point entirely:
The appeal of comparison to being struck by lightning is especially ludicrous. Carrier apparently sees no difference between the odds of one particular person being struck by lightning (which is indeed very unlikely) and the odds of anyone at all being struck by lightning (which is not at all improbable), especially "anyone" whose positions put them at high risk for being struck. Given Carrier's robust inability to perform this very basic critical thought process, we justifiably wonder about the validity of his demands for number-crunching.
Carrier's point was, of course, that what's improbable in one case will not be improbable given many chances to happen. Even if the rise of Christianity was improbable in its specific case, that is irrelevant so long as there is nothing improbable in some religious movement, somewhere would luck out in the required manner. This is exactly the sort of precise distinction that Holding refuses to make. To boot, he's once again shown that he has serious reading comprehension issues.*

The Burden of Proof

Throughout his response to Carrier, Holding whines that Carrier criticizes him for lacking evidence, yet Carrier lacks evidence for his proposed explanations. What Holding fails to recognize is that it's his argument, he has to show it works, he bears to burden of proof. If there isn't any clear evidence either way on an issue, Holding has failed to establish what he claims to establish, which is the main thing Carrier's critique is designed to show, a point Carrier has already stated explicitly. Since Carrier has already pointed this out, this seems a little repetitious, but Holding's whining is so persistent that I can't help myself.

One reason that Holding bears the burden of proof is that the default assumption should be that Christianity was basically like any other religious movement. Countless small cults have existed throughout world religious history, and I see not the faintest reason to think any of them had superhuman assistance. I assume that Holding would agree, because most Christians in the modern world shy away from attributing other religions to demons. If other religious movements got by without superhuman assistance, we can assume that that's what happened with Christianity. It's Holding's job to show otherwise. It's not the job of Carrier or any other critic to prove the point.

Holding manages to misrepresent Carrier's position on this issue as well:
In the end, Carrier hypocritically admits that "[n]ormally, this is not a barrier to historical inquiry, since we need only ascertain the most probable cause of an event, given all we know." His excuse for pleading an exception here, however, runs back to the same old Skeptical canards and presuppositions about alleged improbability of miracles.
Never in Carrier's critique, or anywhere else in the large sampling of his writings that I have read, does he presuppose or even argue that miracles are impossible. Rather, he claims that based on our empirical knowledge of the world, we should hold miracles to be improbable, and not believe one occurred without very strong evidence. I am tempted to say that Holding must be a liar for implying that Carrier claims more than this, but perhaps he is simply dull-witted.

Confusions in Holding's claims

Finally, let me explain what I said above about the apparent contradictions in Holding's case. In the original essay, he appears to claim that Christianity's handicaps could not have been overcome without evidence of a genuine miracle. Yet in his response to Carrier, he appears to make a weaker claim that Chrianity could not have succeeded without belief in a miracle (and no one denies that it had that), but that it's peculiar situation would have prevented it from claiming one without evidential back-up. The evidence for the second reading:
Carrier's first reply only validates my point: A crucified deity would require a vindication to be worshipped. And here, I do not require that "Inanna was really resurrected" since Inanna's death and revival occurred in the world of the gods -- not in the mundane world of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.
Apparently, Holding conceeds people believed in Inanna's vindication (which negated her shaming) without evidence, but argues Christianity needed evidence because of its situation.

Holding considers it a victory when:
Carrier ends up admitting that yes, "divine backing" was essential to the Christian solution to popular social problems.
Even though Carrier was talking about mere belief in divine backing.

In close he appeals to the critiques of Celsus, who claimed that he kept running into this same wall: Christians would simply exclaim "do not question, just believe!" And perhaps he did -- as he would have, hundreds of years after facts could be checked and the apologetic distance became too inaccessible to be checked in the first place. Origen then is right in a sense in his reply that most people don't even have the time for that (since people worked long hours in antiquity just to get by) -- when the evidence is NOT any longer checkable or accessible (as in Origen's day, and before the benefits of scholarship and leisure time in our modern day) "just believe" (with a form of Pascal's Wager) is the best an Origen could offer most people -- and it was no fault of his own, and had no application for the critical formative years when the evidence was still reasonably accessible.
Holding never suggests that Christianity's disadvantages vanished by the 2nd and 3rd century, when Celsus and Origen wrote, so apparently he only things Christians needed evidence in the early years when it was still available.

[EDIT: One last one, which I hadn't been able to find when I first wrote this post:
Naïve as well is Carrier's retort that "nothing supernatural would be necessary" for Jesus to start and maintain a ministry, since the likes of Zeno and Epicurus did the same - as if either of these made a claim to be the hypostatic incarnation of YHWH, thus intimating an ability to perform the supernatural! Other questions of the same type are equally misguided: "Did Essenes and promoters of the cults of Isis, Mithras, Cybele, all require superhuman powers to win converts?" Yes, in fact, they did - Essenes needed to believe in the power of YHWH; Mithraists needed to believe that their god had supernaturally caused the procession of the equinoxes, and so on. That these matters were inaccessible at the time of conversion only magnifies my point inasmuch as this could hardly be of any option for Christianity in its critical formative years.]
The importance of the distinction between the two readings of Holding's argument will become clear later on, but that will involve taking a careful look at the scholarship, so will be saved for another post.

*Note on adversarial misunderstanding: When I say that Holding is misreading Carrier, I should note, for sake of completeness, that Carrier and Holding have already both made that accusation of each other. That is to a certain extent irrelevant to my criticisms of Holding, though, because the problems I noticed were obvious to me without having to ask Carrier himself what he meant. Also, Carrier's responses to Holding show a willingness to acknowledge Holding's accusations and say that Holding may have simply been unclear. Holding, so far as I have seen, has not reciprocated. In place of suck acknowledgements is Holding's usual stream of tedious insults.

This is just funny

HT: Omni Brain

I'm too cheap to buy one, though.

A note on the history of apologetics

In my recent post on J. P. Holding's disregard for what the Bible actually says, I noted that, Holding's thesis is heavily dependent on a projection of modern rationalism back into the 1st century." I attacked his position from the Biblical record, but it's also worth noting that his assumptions are problematic in light of the history of Christian apologetics. Specifically, everything I've read on Christian apologetics as we know it did not exist before the Enlightenment. Of course, humans have always tried to defend their claims by argument after a fashion, and historians of early Christianity think of "apologists" mainly as writers like Justin Martyr, who first appeared in the second century. However, the goal of these second-century apologists was the reconciliation of Greek philosophy with Christianity. Modern apologetics, with its strong emphasis on historical scholarship, is almost entirely a product of the last few centuries.

Case in point: here's the account from William Lane Craig's apologetics text book Reasonable Faith (which seems to do a pretty good job on the history, in spite of all the problems with his arguments):
pp. 18-19: "Augustine's apparent inconsistency is best explained by the medieval understanding of authority... Knowledge of the past was simply accepted on the basis of authority. This seems to have been Augustine's attitude. He distinguishes between what is seen to be true and what is believed to be true. We see that something is true be either physical perception or rational demonstration. We believe that something is true on the basis of the testimony of others. Hence, with regard to miracle and prophecy, Augstine says that the trustworthiness of reports of either past or future events must be believed, not known by the intelligence... Since for Augustine the historical evidence for miracle and prophecy lay in the past, it was in the realm of authority, not reason. Today, on the other hand, we would say that such a procedure would be an attept to provide a rational foundation for authority via historical apologeitcs.
How did Augustine say we should trust scripture?
Augustine must either come up with some reason to accept the evangelists' testimony as reliable, or abandon the historically oriented approach. Since he lacked the historical method, the first alternative was not open to him.
The problem reoccurs in Craig's discussion of Aquinas:
How do we know that the purported miracles or fulfilled prophecies ever took place? The medieval thinkers, lacking the historical method, could not answer this question.
Only with the Enlightenment does the emergence of the historical scholarship allow for apologetics as we know it to take place.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"God is a human concept"

There was recently a debate on religion featuring an atheist who's known for harsh criticism of religion and a Harvard Divinity School grad who defends it. One said "God is a human concept" and attacked his opponent's belief in the afterlife as narcicistic. You'll be surprised at which one that was.

HT: Brian Flemming

Must read books for skeptics

After seeing losts of recommended book lists on Amazon, as well as being asked for book recommendations in person, I decided to put together a recommended reading list of my own. If you think I missed something important, I'll add it, but be aware I was intentionally being selective, picking only the very best books I know of. That said, there are gaps in it. I wouldn't mind adding a book on morality secular ethics, provided its of the same quality as the other six books on the list.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Math and philosophy

Question: why is math easy and philosophy hard?

Okay, so in a sense math isn't so easy. That first sentece set me up for howls of complaint from people who had a rough time in college calculus. Let me be more precise: why is it so hard to reach definite conclusions in philosophy, but relatively easy to do so in mathematics?

I use the comparison between math and philosphy rather than science and philosophy or history and philosophy because of the apparent kinship between that philosophy seems to share with mathematics, which is not shared with science or history. Philosophy developed in Greece about the same time that the art of mathematical deduction was developing, and philosophers have always tried to imitate the methods of mathematicians. Both fields aim for a priori certainty over empirical inference. Since Spinoza, philosophers have gone so far as to habitually borrow from the writing style of mathematicians, listing premises and drawing conclusions from them.

It is easy to make sure that the conclusion of an argument follows from the premises. The difference between that method as used in math and as used in philosophy, then, must differ in the certainty of the premises used. One proposal for what is going on in mathematics is that the axioms are taken as unproven and their truth is ignored, at least by mathematicians, and it is left to physicists to determine whether and to what extent the axioms apply to the real world. Empirically minded philosophers have proposed taking such an approach to philosophy, allowing only analytic truths to be known a priori. Such an approach seems to leave many things out, though. Notably, it has been claimed that it leaves us with no way to show that the approach is the correct one.

I feel like I'm rambling here. This is a problem I got thinking about one day, and I decided I wanted to commit it to computer data. I do not claim anything like an answer, however.

A precise formulation of the problem of evil

The Christian correspondant who I've already mentioned in previous posts has been claiming that the the fact that many atheists are impressed by the problem of evil is evidnece that they are being unreasonable. Here is part of my response:
Here is a short formulation of the argument, more precise than most laypersons would put it, but which I think still accurately captures what they're getting at:

1) Events have happened in the world that are such that any person able to prevent them would be morally obligated to do so.
2) Premise (1) is logically incompatible with God defined as an all-powerful, morally perfect being.
3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Premise (2) I take it, is simply a fact of logic: to be all-powerful is to be able to prevent the sort of events described in (1), and to be morally perfect is to fulfill all of one's moral obligations, so if there were a God so defined, there would be no such events as described in (1).

As for (1), it appears to be almost universally agreed upon. A few decades ago it was reported that a woman named Kitty Genovese had been murdered and no one had done anything to stop it even though dozens of people had heard her screams. The story provoked some deep-soul searching and discussions about human psychology, all of which took for granted that the right thing to do had been to stop the murder. The international community has been harshly criticized for failing to do more to stop the Rwanda genocide. The current administration had been harshly criticized for failing to do more to rescue people from Hurricane Katrina.

Once the argument is put this way, it becomes fairly obvious that most of the traditional responses have no impact at all on the argument. The only available objections, so far as I can see, is to say that human moral intuitions are wildly unreliable, or to say that morality means something wildly different for God than for us.

Bush shouldn't be impeached. He should be declared legally incompetent.

I picked up a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal today, something I rarely do, because the top headline caught my eye. Then I saw the second-from-top headline: Bush claims polls back his war view. It quoted Bush clearly saying that the American public was backing his approach to the war, and that the November elections demonstrated this. Then the article cited a couple of polls showing most Americans want out, and quoted a professional pollster as saying that while in a time of indecision polls could give contradictory results, at this point many polls are consistently showing that Americans want out. This is an absolutely stunning example of the president being out of touch with reality. It's one thing when the president claims something that is very probably false though the data leaves some room for interpretation; i.e. claims about what will happen in Iraq ten years from now. This, however, is an example of Bush failing to realize the simplest, most straightforward data about reality. If he can't get this one right, I have no hope about ability to have the faintest clue about the facts on which he must make serious decisions. This is suggestive of clinical delusions or senility.

On the other hand, there is one expert quoted at the end of the article (not available at the link) suggesting that Bush was simply consciously ignoring reality for rhetorical reasons--still not very comforting.

Oh, and BTW, it is nice to see a news outlet calling a politician on contrary-to-fact assertions rather than fiddling around with nonsense about "balance."

Monday, May 28, 2007

Lurking on Christian Forums

I was introduced to Christian Forums over a year ago by someone at the IIDB who wanted more atheist representatives there. I found their debate forum got boring fast, but it's a wonderful place to lurk. The stuggles with sexuality often does an excellent (if inadvertent) job of showing the level of needless mental suffering that Christianity inflicts on people, especially closeted gays and lesbians. And their Christians-only apologetics forum is a real hoot, much better than their open-to-everyone apologetics forum. Here are some gems found just today:

First, a post titled How is man qualified to judge God:
How are any of us qualified to judge God? How can a fallible mind judge infallibility or a sinful mind judge sin?

It can't because a sinful mind is warped with sin so that it cannot see objectively enough to judge sin. As Psalm 37:1-2 says, "I have an oracle in my heart concerning the wicked; they flatter themselves too much to hate or detect their own sin."

And that's why even society doesn't allow a criminal defendant to judge his own guilt. He will try to commend himself to save his own skin. That's why only the guilty try to judge God just like a guilty man blames the justice system instead of admitting the depth and degree of his own guilt.
Actually, if you're at a Stalinist show trial, the accused is in a position to condemn the judge.

Next up, from a post titled lying for Islam:
Islam is not just a is the Muslim's whole worldview. Religion, homelife, friendship, economy, politics...anything and everything.
Many Christians take exactly the same attitude towards Christianity.

And lastly, someone I'm private messaging:
I just read a story on which says skull fossil proves human ancestors had pea sized brains. It says it was of a high primate which is what humans are and is 29 million years old, according to the story we evolved into humans from this lemur-like creature.

Can anyone prove that we didn't evolve from these creatures but were created human from the beginning? I'm new to all of this as I just recently started going to church recently. I want to believe but I need evidence that is more than just faith.

A modern Ingersoll...

Well, not quite. But Hemant's speech at the Creation Museum rally is well-written. Does part of it come from having only five minutes, and that being forced to be compact can improve writing? Maybe.

Anyway, I do have one quibble with the speech: "This is not a demonstration against the Bible. It’s not a rally against Christians’ right to literally believe what the Bible says." This is like saying that when you teach people about the true causes of eclipses, you aren't trying to stop them from believing it's witches doing it. (Which reminds me, I need to see if I can convince Richard Carrier to put his master's thesis online--something I've only seen alluded to here.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey.
-Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great (a good example of my point that he can indeed write well, in spite of disorganization)

I decided I had to post that one after reading the most recent Daylight Atheism post, Sin and Salvation

Craig-Ehrman revisited

Nearly a year ago, I wrote up comments on the Craig-Ehrman debate. Recently, someone mentioned the debate in personal communication, and I wrote up a new explanation of what was wrong with Craig's position. It occurred to me that this explanation is somewhat clearer than my original, so I'm posting it here:

Take a closer look at Craig's first rebuttal. I think on close inspection it becomes obviously, painfully fallacious, so much so that it made me question my previous assessment of Craig as a fairly bright person.

The short version of the reason is that when dealing with hypotheses all of which entail the evidence to be explained, the one with the higher prior probability will have the higher posterior probability, and this can be proven beyond reasonable doubt--beyond any doubt, really--by using exactly the sort of probability calculus which Craig tried to use to prove the contrary.

Long version: I'll do this as best I can, might want to read the wiki on Bayes' theorem for an aid:

According to Bayes' theorem, the probability of a hypothesis given certain evidence [symbolized Pr(H|E)] is equal to the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis [Pr(E|H)] multiplied by the base probability of the hypothesis [Pr(H)] and divided by the base probability of the evidence [Pr(E)]. The whole thing, in purely symbolic form, is:

Pr(H|E) = [Pr(E|H) * Pr(H)] / Pr(E)

The background probability of the evidence is the same for all possible hypotheses. Now, to simplify further, assume all hypotheses entail the evidence. Note that if a proposall doesn't entail the evidence, it's a perfectly legitimate proceedure to make it do so by modifying the hypothesis to include whatever it would take to guarantee the evidence would be found, with appropriate modifications to the probability of the hypothesis. Once that's done, the only variable term is the intrinsic probability of the hypothesis. Because it's in the numerator rather than the denominator, it will be directly proportional the the probability of the hypothesis given the evidence.

Thus, if the prior probability of the resurrection is judged to be less than some other hypothesis which accounts for all the evidence, then the resurrection hypothesis will not be the most probable hypothesis given the evidence. Craig, as best I can tell, was claiming the contrary. He made this his central objection to Ehrman's opening statement. And he is just undeniably wrong on that count. I strongly suspect he was simply parroting somebody else's argument without understanding what he was saying.

CotG 67

The 67th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Letters from a Broad. Choice pick: Vjack's Letter to a New Atheist. Just the first sentence--"Yes, that's right - I said 'atheist.'"--is enough to make it golden.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hitchens' new book is not great

A review of God is not Great

At one point in my reading of God is not Great, I was seriously considering giving the book one star, which means, according to my recently instituted system, that I can't figure out how the book got published.

Alas, it's all too clear how this book came to be. A set of best-selling atheist books came out, an editor or agent somewhere noticed that Christopher Hitchens was a talented writer with a dislike for religion (and I don't deny for a moment that Hitchens writes well, at least for short stretches), and in the rush to get on the gravy train, Hitchens and his agent forgot to produce a presentation that was well-organized or even well-edited.

Allow me to cite the example that first got me worried about this book, from the second chapter. Hitchens recounts a confrontation with broadcaster Denis Prager. Prager asked him if he found himself in a strange city with a large group of men approaching, would he feel safer or less safe knowing they were coming from a prayer meeting. Hitchens' responded by saying that he had actually had that experience many times, and rattled off a half-dozen examples staying entirely within the letter "B." He then goes on the describe in detail why religion has contributed to problems in each of the cities he mentions.

The passage is absolutely brilliant. The problem is that it is preceeded by a painful muddle. He begins asking why religion does not make people happy, conceeds it seems to, and them slips off into a rant about the problems with religion. I think the point was that if religious people were really happy, they wouldn't spend so much time making trouble for other people, but the connection isn't clear. Hitchens doesn't even transition to the Prager encounter very well.

Such problems do not exist in every chapter of the book. There were perhaps only two others that serious. However, it really ruins the reading experience, because big errors serve to alert you to little ones, and suddenly, small difficulties are popping off every page.

In general, Hitchens' critique suffers from disorganization. In the first chapter he lists what he calls the four ultimate objections to religion. One might expect the rest of the book to be organized around them, but it is not, and at the end it is far from clear that these were the objections he defended with greatest force. The disorganization really hurts when he turns to rebutt the argument that secularism is bad because the worst crimes of the 20th century were committed by secular regimes. Given the way he had been sloppily throwing out criticisms of religion for the entire book, it's a very hard point to avoid. I must emphasize that I really do think religion is responsible for the problems it has caused in a way that secularism is not, but to defend this claim in a non-special pleading way requires an argumentative precision that is absent from Hitchen's book. The things Hitchens says in his rebuttal are, taken in an isolated sort of way, forceful, but the lack of organization saps their strength.

In the end, I think Hitchens inadvertently created an invaluable resource for editors, composition instructors, and aspiring writers who need a case study in what not to do. If you fall into one of those groups, this book becomes a strange sort of must-read for you.

The other serious objection to this book's publication is that it is redundant. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins were, to a significant extent just putting new covers on ideas that had been put in bestsellers decades ago. I take this to be a necessary task, but it can only be done so many times in a four-year span before it becomes old.

There are, I admit, a few things that sets Hitchens' book apart from those of Harris and Dawkins. His time as an international journalism gives him a broader perspective on the problems of religion than most religion critics. He spends more time on various allegedly sacred scriptures than philosophical and scientific argument, which suggests a recognition, often lacking elsewhere, of the fact that religions tend to be more about ancient traditions than the modern reasonings often conscripted in their defense. Also, one of Hitchens' previous books was titled Why Orwell Matters, and his knowledge and interest in totalitarianism adds a fair amount to the book.

What a shame. Had Hitchens' editor forced him to spend a little more time refining the book, it could have been worthwhile. Had Hitchens put some effort into really organizing his thoughts and playing up his strengths, he could have made a solid contribution to modern criticism of religion.

Verdict: Two out of five stars

The paradox of betting everything (which has proably already been discovered and named)

Suppose you are offered a chance to go to a somewhat unusual sort of casino. To get in costs $500 dollars. Only one sort of bet is available: roll two six-sided dice. If they come up snake-eyes, you leave the casino empty-handed. Anything else, you double your money. So, win once and quit, you walk away with $1000 ($500 of which was originally yours). Win twice, it's $2000. Three times, it's $4000. Now the question is: how many times should you bet?

Let's look at the standard expected utility calculation on a round-by round basis. On any given round, if your current total is X, you stand a 1 in 36 chance of losing X and a 35 in 36 chance of gaining X. Thus, the expected value for betting is X * 35/36 - X * 1/36 = X * 17/18. Seems like a no-brainer.

However, this suggests you should never stop betting. The obvious problem is that if you continue betting indefinitely, sooner or later you'll walk out of the casino minus $500 dollars. That seems absolutely certain. So what do you do?

I'm inclined to think that this exposes a fundamental flaw in the assumptions used by decision theorists and game theorists, in a way similar to the sort of backwards-induction problems which, incidentally, Richard Chappell recently wrote about. I think the solution is to recognize that we need to make decisions not one at a time, but with reference to a strategy that will work in the big picture. I'm not absolutely certain of that, however. Thoughts?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Notes on Dennett, part 1

Today I began reading Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, as part of a marathon of philosphy of mind reading I decided I was going to do this summer. The thing is over 400 pages long, and it's part of a series of major works in contemporary philosophy of mind I aim to read which, collectively total over 4,000 pages. Dennett, though I find some aspects of his basic stance puzzling, is immediately recognizable as a readable and thought provoking writer. He has also convinced me, 55 pages in, that he is not a philosopher's zombie as is sometimes suspected, and understands perfectly well what other philosophers mean when they talk about qualia, though I have not yet gotten to the part where he explains how he can deny qualia in spite of this. His book spurred some thoughts that I wanted to get down on paper, er, in computer bits immediately, here it goes.

First, some quotes:
Page 33: "According to the materialists, we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, repriduction, nutrition, and growth."

Page 35: "anything that can move a physical thing is itself a physical thing (although perhaps a strange and heretofore unstudied kind of physical thing)."

Page 37: "The fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adpot the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up
And finally, in a section where Dennett is laying out the "ground rules" for what he will do in the rest of the book:
Page 40: "No Wonder Tissues allowed. I will try to explain every puzzling feature of human consciousness within the framework of contemporary physical science; at no point will I make an appeal to inexplicable or unknown forces, substances, or organic powers. In other words, I intend to see what can be done within the conservative limits of standard science, saving a call for a revolution in materialism as a last resort."
Okay, now, what to make of this. It looks to me that Dennett, though quite intelligent, is going to wrestle with some fatal confusions through the rest of the book. If "dualism" means the doctrine that there is a mental stuff which holds the highest of importance for our mental lives, constantly interacting with our physical bodies, but which will suddently vanish when we try to try to study it scientifically, no matter how far our science progresses, then I agree that yes, dualism is silly. Any mental stuff that can interact with the physical components of our brains should, in principle, be able to interact with the physical components of devices we design to study it, even if the right sort of devices haven't yet been designed. However, Dennett's seems to reject much more than that, using his argument to attack thigns it cannot properly cover. The page 35 statement on physicalism is perhaps not objectionable if one takes it as a matter of definition, though the definition is somewhat odd: typical definitions of mental stuff have to do with lack of spacial location, or thinking, or subjectivity, or some such, not the inability to affect physical things. The real problems, though come with the first and last statements quoted. It is a serious mistake to confuse what is potentially within the reach of science with what science has heretofore succeeded in studying. Dennett shows some signs (in passages not quoted) of recognizing this fact, though he shys away from it. Perhaps he has seen to many calls for intellectual revolution that end in making strange, unsupported, and ultimately useless claims. Such things no doubt have happened all too often, but they should not scare us away from hoping, not so much for a revolution, but the slow progress of science in areas where the truth does not resemble anything we currently understand. Such an approach involves a lot more patience than many of us have, especially philsophers and scientists who want to make their mark on the intellectual world today. Unfortunately, such patience appears absolutely necessary in this matter.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

SC 61

The 61st edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up at Rebecca Watson's place (that's Rebecca Watson of Skepchick fame.) And it's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy themed to boot!

Empty Tomb companion website launched

Now there's a website for hosting FAQs and such for this book

Why relying on the courts doesn't make much sense

Here's another thing that I should have responded to sooner but dragged on thanks to finals. PZ does a post taking a dim view of the court-centric strategy, The Austringer response, PZ responds in their comments. Might be useful to read the whole thing, but I'm going to just quote what PZ says in the comments because he nails the problem so clearly:
Talk about missing the whole point...
First, church-state separation is pretty much it so far as grounds to object to the continuing anti-science menace from the Discovery Institute. I’ve already discussed this point. If PZ disagrees, what I would like to find out is what legal grounds he thinks will serve better.
That’s what I’m saying: about the only round you’ve got loaded is the church-state separation argument. It’s becoming increasingly untenable, as the creationists respond to their defeats by honing their material to avoid ideas that will conflict with the first amendment. You admit that this is your only strategy, and you’re asking me, a non-lawyer, what other legal approaches we should take. Your myopia is apparent.I am also not arguing that we should purge our side of theists. I am stating a plain and obvious fact: the DI is striving for an increasingly secular front, while our side keeps trotting out its favorite Christian scientists. You guys are blurring the association of religion and science, while the bad guys are being more scrupulous about it. The DI may be totally fake about it and are hiding their motives, but they’re doing so with greater and greater skill; meanwhile, you’re enabling the blending of religious reasoning with science. The courtroom approach is looking doomed to me. They only have to win one, we have to win them all, and they are changing their tactics to get that victory, while all signs suggest that you guys aren’t planning to change your approach at all. And you really don’t see the problem with that?
The court strategy is hopeless. A big part of it, I think, is that there is no deep, principled reason why teaching Intelligent Design should be unconstitutional. It's constitutional to teach Holocaust denial, constitutional to teach flat-earthism, constitutional to teach astrology, constitutional to teach phlogiston, constitutional to teach Aristotelian physics... Intelligent Design may not have much more merit than these ideas, but there's no obvious policy reason why school boards should be prevented from teaching it but not prevented from teaching those other things. If there's a legal reason, it's something of a fluke in our constitution and not much more.

The final objection to Intelligent Design must always be that it's claims are false, not that it is religiously inspired. I fear that many of the self-appointed shrewd tacticians of the defenders of science are losing sight of that fact. Meanwhile, Intelligent Design proponents have made it central to their case that their claims are true, even if their true motives lie elsewhere. This does not bode well for the future of science in America.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

SSA eMpirical No. 19

That would be the newsletter of the Secular Student Alliance. I've decided to start linking to it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Free speech and open discourse

This is already very old business in the blogosphere, what with it's six-hour news cycles, but Monday, Austin Cline of About:Atheism posted an article with serious flaws that need to be addressed. Subject: banning of anti-gay t-shirts in a California high school. Local evangelical Christians are upset and screaming persecution. Cline's response:
It would be wrong to suspend students for merely expressing belief in a god or what their religious faith is, but when religion is the context for attacks on particular groups in society — especially groups which include other students — I think that the situation changes considerably. Would Christians be allowed to wear shirts expressing opposition to racial integration? Would Christians be allowed to wear shirts saying that people guilty of miscegenation would go to hell? I sincerely doubt that many, if any, would support the "right" of Christian student to wear such messages in public school.

Americans are guaranteed broad religious freedoms, and it is also important for religious beliefs to be accommodated, but religion cannot be used as an excuse to do things which would not be permitted in a non-religious context...

Christians don't have a religious "right" to intimidate others whenever they have religious objections to the behavior and/or beliefs of others in society. They may sincerely believe that they have a god-given right and god-mandated duty to hate certain segments of society, but none of this translates into a legal right to use that hatred as a means to intimidate others in public school.
The first problem is the general free speech one. A principle of free speech that applies only to non-distasteful statements is no principle of free speech at all. It may leave you free to speak your mind today, but tomorrow the majority sentiment may shift in favor of a party that finds your views distasteful. A more absolutist precedent must be set, no matter what objections may be raised when the single case is taken in isolation. The human penchant for bad decisions does not allow us to make all our decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The second problem is that we cannot afford to force fundamentalism underground. The evangelical tendency to go Xenu with their crazier doctrines needs to be reversed. This is not some strategy they adopted on their own, but one heavily encouraged by liberal religionists who believe that politeness is more important than rational discourse in religion. The result of this policy is that the madness of evangelicalism has proliferated in a criticism-free medium, at a time when many other bigoted delusions have seen their presence in the intellectual landscape decimated. For myself, nothing would make me happier than to see "atheists are fools/suppressors of the truth/going to hell" t-shirts on every student at my college who believes those things. The actual policy, unfortunately, is to proclaim vague disagreements with "hateful street preachers" without actually contradicting the main points of their message.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

But did he write it?

It's the question I've come to instinctively ask whenever a politician delivers a good line. Today, Andrew Sullivan made me ask it about an entire Obama speech.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Why I wouldn't trust J. P. Holding's scholarship

I've been aware of the existence of J. P. Holding for some time. He's gotten into his share of rows from people at Internet Infidels like Farrell Till, as well as Debunking Christianity members like Matthew Green. The consensus seemed to be that he was an arrogant, inflammatory, buffoon, not worth taking seriously. I think Matthew in particular nailed him on his ridiculous attempts to belittle the intelligence of scholars who specialize in ancient history/Biblical scholarship, when Holding only has a degree in library science. (For example, he says Bart Ehrman "needs to take a Metzger reading." Ehrman has not only read Metzger, he studied under him.) It makes for a boring if somewhat strange reading experience. The insults are attached to everything he disagrees with, attached to kooks and scholars alike, until they become a meaningless idiosyncrasy, like making every third word blinky. His insults don't even have much correlation to the content of what he's attacking and often seem to be more about machismo than anything: "I busted Carrier's noggin!" "Michael Shermer'd end up on the business end of a stream roller!" Really quite tiresome.

I did spend some time reading Richard Carrier's Was Christianity To Improbable to Be False?, his reply to Holding's The Impossible Faith, which argues that Christianity did everything wrong as a start up religion and the only explanation for its success was that early Christians had irrefutable evidence for the resurrection. It didn't strike me as badly in need of refuting--it's assertions and quotes slapped together without much careful thought, and the whole approach makes little sense. Aside from the general strangeness of appealing to hypothetical evidence, it ignores the well-established facts that 1) people often believe things that leave you scratching your head saying, "How'd they come up with that one?" and the fact that they can be gotten to believe the most extraordinary things on scant evidence. I don't think Holding is stupid or ignorant enough not to know this; rather, I take it as a simple failure to apply the Outsider Test. My reason for thinking so is Holding claims to be a fan of James Randi and Michael Shermer so long as the piece of nonsense they're targeting isn't Christianity. You can't read their writings and not have some idea of how baffling human behavior is. Both lament the willingness of people to believe things on crummy evidence. Randi seems to have resigned himself to being baffled and embittered by human irrationality. Shermer takes a more cheerful approach, but his assessment of the situation is the same: debunking off the wall claims is easy, what makes writing about them interesting and challenging is figuring out why people believe them. To accept Holding's assumptions is to prove the truth of all kinds of nonsense. To use an example solely because it's the most recent one I've stumbled across, there's apparently a guy in Puerto Rico who's made the novel move of claiming to be both Christ and the Antichrist, who has in fact built up quite a following. Golly! There's no way he could get people to believe it unless it were true, so it must be true!

I don't think Holding needs much more of a rebuttal than that, much less one eight times as long as the original article. The thing is, though, that the material is fascinating, especially in the hands of a good writer who knows the material. Carrier, unlike Holding, has extensive training in ancient history (currently finishing up his Ph.D. dissertation), and even when I disagree with him, his knowledge of the ancient world is impressive and refreshing. I say refreshing especially because in discussions of the Bible, too many of the alleged experts have spent too much time re-reading the same texts, trying to extract information from them we're not in a position to learn, and thinking little of the broader historical picture.

Anyway, I more recently began having regular contact with a local Campus Crusade member who's a huge fan of Holding, so I thought it would be worth the investment of time to give him a closer look. I read the entire original essay and finished Carrier's critique (Carrier's response is book-length and I had only been casually browsing it), and then began looking at the back-and-forth. Holding occasionally shows evidence of reading-comprehension difficulties, something Carrier pointed out at the very beginning of his half of the back and forth:
Most of Holding's criticisms worth responding to are not important enough to warrant emending the text of my critique. Rather than identifying actual errors of fact or critical omissions that significantly affect my arguments, or clear flaws in my reasoning or manner of expression, most responses amount to an unjustified misunderstanding of what I actually wrote, or new groundless assertions or even outright false claims.
To cite just one example I noticed myself: "It is hard to believe that Carrier is so insensate that he does not see that 'insult to honor' and 'shaming' are synonymous!" The original version of the piece this refers to makes perfectly clear that the point is that an insult does not automatically result in people feeling ashamed, rather, they are likely to defend their honor.

The other thing that comes out prominently is that Carrier and Holding disagree wildly on what their sources say. My first thought when I noticed this is that if I were to say anything meaningful on the exchange, I'd have to spend a lot of time tracking down sources. My second thought was that one of the most important sources was something I had already read, in its entirety, and it it was obvious here Holding was flagrantly misrepresenting it.

The source: the New Testament. The point in Holding's argument where this becomes key is section 17, Encouraging People to Check Facts for Themselves. It's a little unclear who wrote the section originally; the original presentation gives the impression it was someone else's idea that Holding wrote up, but he got testy about Carrier attributing it to him before going on to defend it. Anyway, he defended it, he can't disown it now and say it's just something he posted without reading it carefully for accuracy.

The simple truth of the matter is that the general attitude of the New Testament is flatly dogmatic and irrational. This should be obvious to anyone who's read it carefully. An excellent example comes in Galatians 1, where Paul instructs his readers to simply dismiss other theologies (not only other religions, but other versions of Christianity!) even if told to do so by the apostles or even an angel. Unless something is getting seriously lost in translation, which Holding doesn't attempt to argue for a second, this is slam-dunk evidence against early Christians encouraging critical inquiry. Holding's attempted rationalization is that Paul "gave the Galatians all the facts years before!"--so they would be just sticking to a well-evidenced claim and ignoring inferior evidence. I had to re-read that several times to make sure Holding really said what he seemed to have said. Does he think Paul's preaching would have given them enough evidence to ignore a clear supernatural sign? Remember here, we're talking about the only sort of evidence anyone was alleged to have had for Christianity, and probably better than anything the Galatians themselves had seen first hand? Clearly, when Paul talked about his doctrines as something to hold on to even if all the apostles plus an angel said otherwise, he reaching for the best counter-evidence he could think of to show they should not change their minds under any circumstances.

This is conclusive enough that rather than go on at length in this area, I'll just deal with one passage cited in the original article, Acts 17:1. Holding claims that is shows an example of good fact checking.

First problem: Holding's main thesis is that for Christianity to succeed, it would have needed strong evidence for Jesus' resurrection. Unfortunately, the "fact checking" seen in Acts was entirely a matter of looking at the Old Testament. The Jews in the passage showed no interest in the evidence for the resurrection. Thus, in response, Holding claims that "matters such as, 'Was Jesus raised from the dead' were already established beyond a reasonable doubt, and all that remained was matters such as, 'Does Jesus cohere with the OT message?' that would be of concern to Jews who accepted the authority of the OT." This takes the appeal to hypothetical evidence to a ridiculous extreme. Even the Bible doesn't claim that non-Christians in Jesus' time accepted the resurrection as demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. He's imposing something on the text that isn't there, and remember folks, he was originally claiming the passage supported his thesis, it isn't enough to show the passage is compatible with it (which it isn't anyway).

Second problem: The appeal to prophecy is absurdly fallacious. Normally, this would be a controversial point I wouldn't try to press in this context, except Holding agrees, and its point 10 in his list of "Leading Christian Myths." Can't help but point out that even if if you accept Acts 17:11 as an example of converts trying to do the rational thing, they were still using fallacious reasoning, and not looking into the evidence for the resurrection.

This summer, I hope to find the time to read some of the other books in dispute simply because the material is interesting, and its worth getting right. However, I'm fairly sure which side of the debate will be vindicated. Holding's thesis is heavily dependent on a projection of modern rationalism back into the 1st century, and quick look at the New Testament blows this to shreds. Also, Holding has demonstrated that he simply cannot be trusted to accurately represent his sources.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bible translation paradox

Something I randomly stumbled upon in a description of a Bible translation:
The NASB update carries on the NASB tradition of being a true Bible translation, revealing what the original manuscripts actually say--not merely what the translator believes they mean.
This statement strikes me as curious because for the translator to deny it results in Moore's paradox. The paradox was originally "It's raining but I don't believe that it's raining," here it would be "I believe the Bible says X but it does not say X." Of course every translator believes his beliefs about what the Bible says correspond to what it actually says. Or, wait a second, maybe not. A translator could be stuck in the preface paradox, where he knows he probably made a mistake somewhere because everyone makes mistakes, but doesn't know where the mistake is and so goes on believing, on a line by line basis, that every line is translated correctly.

All very interesting... though I suspect the blurb writer was just wanted to say something more impressive sounding than "the translators of this version didn't make mistakes," so made a vacuously verbose blurb that ends up saying nothing more than that, even though it tries to give the impression of doing so.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

This is tyranny. Period.

That's what Andrew Sullivan says on Romney's position on torture. Also, in doing a Quote of the Day from McCain, he asks a very pointed question: "At what point will we have to destroy what's different about America in order to save it?" Old news to those who've seen my excessive linking to Sullivan, but it seems it hasn't been said loud enough yet.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Best campaign ads yet"

That's Andrew Sullivan's verdict on Bill Richardson. Glad someone has noticed. The ads are not only right, they're done with YouTube-worthy humor.

Chuck Norris went back in time to 1775, single-handedly defeated the British, and established ChristianNationLand in the colonies

Well, that's what he seems to think, anyway.

Hemant has drawn my attention to a WorldNutDaily by Norris, claiming that secularists want to outlaw Christianity. It's full of wacky claims, like the Founding Fathers wanted only Christians to be president. Which is why the the Constitution says only Christians can hold office.

Anyway, no, seriously folks: even the U.S. military can't stop Chuck Norris. I mean it. I'm not trying to make a Chuck Norris joke this time. Well, not just trying to make one, anyway. I seriously think that people like him are a threat to the American government, because they apparently cannot tell the difference between having their rights violated and being denied a chance to violate other people's rights. It isn't just him. Google the words Christians + Persecuted + America, and you will get, among other things, a page that cites this shocking example of persecution:
In Madison, Wisconsin, the Freedom from Religion Foundation distributes anti-Christian pamphlets to public school children entitled, "We Can Be Good Without God."
These are people who would outlaw all other viewpoints in the name of freedom. They make me want to get Canadian citizenship.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

CotG 66

The 66th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at The Atheist Experience.

Mother's day

I suddenly feel bad for not writting a mother's day post, especially after reading Jon Swift's post My Mother is a Terrible Person. It's the most touching piece of satire I've ever read.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

Faith is this amazing idea that it is a good thing to hold incredible beliefs in the complete absence of evidence to support them; the more outrageous the belief and the weaker the logic behind them, the stronger your faith and the more virtuous your conduct.
-PZ Myers.

It's a mildly unkind way of putting it, but many accounts given by believers (Rick Warren, William Lane Craig, etc.) do not differ in substance.

Entertaining Impossibilities

Not long ago, I found myself thinking something along these lines: "Suppose, for the sake of argument, Descartes' arguments for the existence of God had worked, would he have a solution to skepticism about the external world?" In fact, I've thought about that question many times. It seems like an interesting question, even though I don't think the theological arguments did work.

However, there is a very simple argument for why such questions ought to be regarded as nonsense. Descartes' arguments purport to be the sort of things that, if they work in any possible world, they work in all. Therefore, if they do not work in our world, they do not work in any. If I'm right that they don't work, there is no possible situation in which the do and some interesting things at least might follow. On a logical level, entailment is traditionally defined such that "P entails Q" means "It is impossible that P be true and Q be false." If it impossible that "Descartes' arguments for the existence of God worked" be true period, then they entail everything, and that is a much less interesting answer to question of "what if they worked?" than I was inclined to hope for.

Still, the question described in the first paragraph does not seem obviously crazy. What is going on ther?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

This is torture merely as a means to gather important information about insurgents. It's routine torture. Over a third of U.S. soldiers, taking the lead from their pro-torture commander-in-chief, see nothing wrong with this, even in a war clearly under Geneva guidelines. Two-thirds won't report it. One in ten say they have abused Iraqi civilians just for the hell of it.
-Andrew Sullivan, in a must read article on the war in Iraq.

Early during the Iraq war, I internally sneered at the naivette of pacifism. I still think absolute pacificsm is a mistake. However, I have come to see that there are many good reasons for thinking war must be a measure of absolute last resort, among them that no matter how noble the cause, war seems to have a proven ability to bring out the worst in human nature. Or, arguably, it meerly brings out the average in human nature, removing the thin restraints that keep people in modern liberal democratic states from acting the way most people have acted throughout history.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous - if they aver that doubt is a crime, then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.
-Robert Ingersoll (The Ghosts), quoted in PZ's friggin humungous quote library

Sunday, May 06, 2007

How easy is it to pass off a forgery? Just ask Alice...

I've had the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" on my iTunes for some time now. A few days ago... Thursday, I think... I was wondering what was up with the lyrics, so I did a Google search. I stumbled upon a comments thread where the book Go Ask Alice, which takes its name from a line in the song, came up. Someone asserted it was a forgery.

Wondering if there was anything to the assertion, or if it was just an online crank spouting off (something that can be found in no short supply), I went to that great source of wisdom, Wikipedia. In the "authorship" section Wikipedia article on Go Ask Alice, a number of points were listed in favor of the work's being a fiction. Rather than recite or cut & paste them all here, I'll just tell readers to read the wiki article, as well as the page, which doesn't hesitate to label the book bogus. I will say that I had to slap my forehead when I found this, as I read Go Ask Alice back in high school, and looking back on it, it seems altogether too ridiculous: the girl didn't decide to start taking drugs but rather was slipped LSD in a soda (a cheap ploy to maintain the character's innocence), she becomes a priestess of Satan at one point, and then when she cleans up the otherwise non-religious "author" rambles off some stuff abouthow she's going to be dedicated to Jesus now, even though there wasn't any sort of dramatic conversion story involved, much less a plausible one. Then the author... okay, let's be honest, main character, gets killed off in an unexplained and too perfectly tragic to be true death, vaguely related to drugs.

The thing is though, and the time I read it, I believed all of it. Even though at the time publishers were already listing the book as fiction, indeed had been since the mid-eighties. I seem to vaguely remember seeing the word "fiction" somewhere in small print inside the book and casually ignoring it; though it may be my memory is playing a trick on me here. The revelation was thus a minor shock.

It immediately got me thinking about how willing many Christians are to assume everything about the Bible's origins is kosher and the authors of the books of the Bible are who church tradition says they are. This is a hideously naive view in light of what we know about how easy it is for people to be taken in by cons. If it can happen to someone in modern America, where a national media to instantly report exposes of lies all over the nation, indeed, involving a fraud that had already been so exposed, then it could certainly happen in a barely-literate society 2000 years ago, prior to any reliable systems of mass communication.

In a sense, I knew this already. It must be at least a year since I found Snopes' Amityville Horror page and laughed at the people who still didn't know it was a hoax, decades after the hoax was confessed. But things like this really don't hit home until they've happened to you.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


I just was looking around, and saw that they had recommended the new Harry Potter book for me. This wasn't terribly surprising as I am planning on ordering it, but I was curious about their rationale. Here's what I saw:

So it looks like both atheist books and sensationalistic pseudohistory are correlated with Harry Potter (I bought Holy Blood, Holy Grail solely because I had heard their reasoning was atrocious and wanted to see it first hand). Or, is it just that so many people have been ordering Harry Potter that it correlates with everything, effectively glitching out Amazon's recommendation system?

Review: I Sold My Soul on eBay

Quick stat: The book's Library of Congress call number is BV 640.M44 2007. BV is the section reserved for "practical theology." How's it feel to be a theologian now, Hemant? And if you think that's weird, Ed Babinski's Leaving the Fold is classified as BV 820.B29 1994. If a book falls anywhere from BV 800 to BV 870, that means it deals with sacraments. You read that right. According to the Library of Congress, apostasy is a sacrament. That's congress for you. Anyway...

It started with a simple experiment: Hemant Mehta, leader of an atheist student group at the University of Illinois, decided to use eBay to auction off the right to send him to church. He said he'd go once for every $10 that was bid, though he didn't expect anyone to bid more than $10. However, his auction got some media attention and the bidding war took off. Three minutes before closing, the bidding was at $300. Then it became $400, then $500, then $504. It happened that the winning bidder was an evangelist named Jim Henderson who first and foremost wanted Hemant to write about his experiences at the church so that Christians could read them, see what churches were doing well, and see what churches needed to do better. He first wrote his reports for Henderson's website Off The Map, and eventually ended up putting them in the form of a book: I Sold My Soul on eBay--published, interestingly enough, by a Christian publisher.

The first thing I should say about Hemant's book is it delivers everything he promises in the online FAQ: His first-hand take on Ted Haggard, a real potential icebreaker for conversations between Christians and atheists, etc. For the sake of the Christian readership, it's also good that he provided sections on how he became an atheist and why he's still one after his series of church visits. Many Christians refuse as a matter of principle to read books written by atheists, and the way Heman't book is being marketed, they might be willing to make an exception for it.

There is, however, one aspect of the book that's both frustrating and hard to interpret: Hemant's repeated bewilderment at Christian hostility to non-Christians. It appears in many places, but I'll quote only the example from his wrap up where he's summing up the good and bad of his experiences:
...many of the churches I visited depicted those who were not Christians as being "lost" or needing to be "saved." Every time I heard this, I felt insulted. What exactly do Christians think they are saving me from? A life filled with free inquiry into life's greatest questions? The ability to draw my own conclusions after weighing the evidence?
My first response: No, no, no. Don't you know anything about Christian theology? They think they're saving you from Hell, which awaits all non-Christians.

Second response, more devious: Well, yeah. They need to save you from free inquiry and drawing your own conclusions, because you might draw non-Christian conclusions, and doing so is a ticket to Hell.

While it may be true that not all modern Christians think this way, a sizable portion of them do, and alongside them is a segment who declare technical agnosticism on whether non-Christians can get to heaven, but think accepting Jesus is the only way to ensure salvation and those who don't are risking damnation, even without guaranteeing it. This is not some random belief that they just happen to have; they sincerely believe it is taught in the Bible, and their reasons for thinking so are by no means trivial. A considerable number of Bible verses at least seem to say that salvation is a Christians-only deal: John 3:18, John 3:36, Acts 4:12, Romans 10:9, and I John 5:12. On top of all this, these are the people who make up the majority of those who spend their days wondering how to improve their evangelism tactics (i.e. Hemant's audience). Thinking you're efforts are necessary to save souls from eternal damnation is a pretty strong motivator for evangelism. You see, though theologians do disagree about some of the details of Hell, there is fairly widespread agreement that it is a Bad Place, a Very Bad Place, in fact the worst place a person can generally go, beating out concentration camps, gulags, and the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition. Like a said, pretty strong motivator.

So, what do we make of Hemant's apparent puzzlement? The obvious explanation is that Hemant, having had little previous experience with Christianity, he is simply unaware of the beliefs of many Christians. The other explanation, roughly, is politeness. Though he does state some of his differences with Christianity, he may have decided he couldn't go too deep into the problems with evangelical Christianity because that was his target audience.

And there is much in the book to suggest he knows perfectly well what evangelicals believe. Early in the book, he discusses a radio appearance with Kirk Cameron and Todd Friel where the hosts went on and on about how he was going to Hell because he hadn't accepted Jesus. After that, he shouldn't have had any questions about what "saved" meant. He also alludes to having read Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith, and though he says nothing about its contents, he should have found plenty in it to clue him in. The entire fifth interview is dedicated to fighting the objection that Christianity says all believers in other religions are going to Hell, and the interviewee (Ravi Zacharias) doesn't deny the assertion for a moment. Both Zacharias and the following interviewee, J. P. Moreland (assigned to deal with the topic of Hell) assert that rejecting God and Jesus is the worst crime a person can possibly commit, with an explicit comparison to mass murder. Previously, I've described The Case for Faith as "a reminder of why fundamentalist Christianity is worth fighting against"--in fact, I think it was instrumental of convincing me of this fact. Hemant can't have skimmed past all the relevant sections.

I could cite more things, but I think readers of this review will have gotten the point by now. After this moderately closer inspection, it sounds almost is if Hemant is saying, in his own very polite way, "Sorry guys, I've tried to give you marketing advice, but the truth is the product you're selling sucks." This is the interpretation I'd bet on, if not for one further twist: his comments on Willow Creek Community Church. This is the church for which Hemant says, "if any church were to convert me, I felt it would be a place such as Willow Creek." Among the things they do to make things friendly to outsiders: keep controversy out of the Sunday services, keeping it to mid-week events for people who already believe.

The message some Christians could get out of this goes as follows: take a page out of the Scientology playbook and keep the details of your beliefs hidden from newcomers. It's advice that might work on a practical level, and indeed is practiced by modern evangelicals to some extent, but I doubt its something they like to think about, and it's the kind of advice that if you're giving it, you have to wonder why you're trying to help at all. Here, though, I have to admit I'm speculating wildly. As I said at the beginning of my criticisms, all this is frustratingly ambiguous.

If there's an upside to all of this, it's that Hemant seems sincere about his wish to improve the image of atheists through diplomacy. The real world being what it is, diplomacy often does require ambiguity. This is a book that will be picked up by Christians who would never touch Harris or Dawkins, and make them a little more familiar with atheists and, yes, their arguments. That's all good. I hope, though, that Hemant isn't laboring under the illusion that his project won't ultimately require getting people to chuck their theologies, even if such problems are ignored in the short run.

Rating: Three out of five stars

Friday, May 04, 2007

Note on future book reviews

I've noticed that as I review books for Amazon, I've been tending to give almost all 4 and 5 star ratings to books that were even decent. I've further noticed that almost every book on Amazon averages 4.5 stars in the long run, so other people seem to have this tendency too. This makes ratings rather uninformative. So, in the future, I'm going to try to be a little more conservative in assigning stars. Tentatively, here's the system I'm adopting:

5: Must read! Example: The Demon Haunted World
4: Rally glad this was published. Example: The God Delusion
3: Worth it. Example: The Empty Tomb
2: Not worth it. Example: The Jesus Puzzle
1: How did this get published? Example: The Resurrection Factor

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Giuliani for president?

The Economist makes a case for him as someone who fixed up New York. I think he does OK on the experience front, New York is a big enough city that being mayor of it is like being governor of a state. On the other hand, as the Economist says, "The city was rotten; the nation is not," and I'm bothered by the fact that the main reason for him running is not that he fixed up New York, but that he happened to be its mayor on 9/11. No matter where I turn, this presidential race seems dominated by unearned name recognition.

So let me say this one more time: if you haven't given him a look already, check out Bill Richardson. (Also check out his Daily Show appearance, where he announced his run).

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pre-school and Kindergarden today

I was doing laundry the other day in my dorm when I heard a couple girls excitedly talking about something. One of them had gotten a job. She seemed way too excited for a simple job, then I found out it was with a program called Jumpstart or some such, for lower class kids who were behind in school. She was very happy about this, because she's studying to be a teacher. The only weird thing was that the kids she was helping would be pre-school age.

I was rather puzzled by the concept that a student could be behind while still in pre-school. I suppose it helped me to have learned the alphabet before getting to kindergarten, but it isn't as if anything crucial was accomplished during those ~180 half-days. If memory serves, we learned very, very rudimentary reading skills, spent a lot of time counting, and, in our greatest intellectual challenge, used snap-together blocks to learn about patterns. (I, the budding genius, insisted on making my pattern more complicated than anyone else's).

In response to my befuddlement, the teacher-to-be explained that kindergarten had gotten a lot more intense in the last ten years. It now requires serious preparation at private pre-schools in order to ensure success. Children who don't get this special preparation end up becoming convinced that they are not as smart as their fellow students, and therefore they despondent and drop out. I quickly saw that this could indeed ruin a child's life. A child that drops out of grade school math, for example, might never succeed in understanding the foundational ideas of pre-algebra, which could in turn cause a failure to learn algebra in the freshmen year of high school, something that would likely be a permanent barrier to developing a thorough grasp of science and engineering, thus forcing the student to become a lawyer. Realizing that made me agree that programs like Jumpstart are a good thing.

However, it remains unclear to me why kindergarten needs to be so rigorous in the first place. In the end, the exchanged renewed my faith in the American ability to respond to solved problems by creating ingeniously designed new ones to replace them.

Another Guantanamo

List list of crimes which, to give it a very charitable spin, U.S. military personnel have committed on Bush's watch is staggering. It goes on and on to the point where the Onion's Middle East blah blah blah is as applicable to it as anything. However, once in awhile something stands up and gets your attention, such as the New Republic's piece on the Bagram detention facility. An excerpt:
During these early years, one of the most notorious figures at the prison was Private First Class Damien M. Corsetti, known in turns as the "King of Torture" and "Monster." Corsetti tattooed an Italian translation of the latter moniker across his stomach. In the end, a military tribunal cleared Corsetti of all charges. His lawyer successfully argued before the tribunal that the rules for detainee treatment were unclear: "The president of the United States doesn't know what the rules are. The secretary of defense doesn't know what the rules are. But the government expects this Pfc. to know what the rules are?"

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Are moral truths necessary?

Here's a question that I'm just throwing out for comment by anyone who's out there. Though I'm a philosophy major, I've yet to take classes dealing at length with either metaphysics or ethics, though I plan to do so eventually (not next semester, unfortunately--that will be philosophy of mind and philosophy of science).


Pro: We recoil at the idea that something could be made right for a trivial reason, such as "because so-and-so says so" or "because this culture thinks so." It should follow a forteriori that something cannot become right for no reason at all. This would require that fundamental moral truths be true in all possible worlds, and therefore be necessary.

Con: The denials of moral claims are typically intelligible in ways that the denials of clear cases of necessary truths are not. I cannot conceive of what it would be like for it to be not the case that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line (to use one of Kant's favorite examples of a necessary truth). In contrast, the denial of the claim that it is wrong to torture infants for pleasure seems intelligible, no matter how shocking it may be.