Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What is eugenics?

Andrew Sullivan just linked to a post fellow Atlantic blogger Ross Douthat accusing liberals of supporting eugenics. When I follow his links, what do I discover? He's getting worked up about abortion of babies with genetic defects and screening of IVF embryos. Above all else, he asks liberals how they could dare object to the use of the term "eugenics" for these things.

A little history: in the early 20th century, eugenics meant forced sterilization (and, in Nazi Germany) killing of adults by the state. Whatever you think of the practices under dispute, they involve future parents, embryos, and fetuses, not the sort of massive infringement on individual liberty by a central government that we were talking about a century ago.

It reminds me of smear attacks by the anti-birth control people who claim birth control was originally part of a campaign to exterminate the poor. When you look at the original literature, though, you find some surprises. I once read a lecture by Robert G. Ingersoll, in which he argued that birth control among the poor would reduce poverty and crime, but not through compulsion, but because poor women would chose not to have children they couldn't support, and crime, Ingersoll believed, was mainly a result of children not being well cared for. I suppose the anti-birth control folks could hold Ingersoll up--for those who hadn't read his lecture--as someone who wanted to use birth control as a weapon against the poor, but plainly what he advocated was perfectly reasonable.

Douthat seems to be doing little more than trying to erase a distinction for polemical gain.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Me as a Simpson

Partly thanks to inspiration from Katie and Hemant, and partly due to realization that my own pictures of myself are pretty crappy, I'm changing my profile picture to a Simpson, courtesy of the Simpsons Movie site.

EDIT: Argh, still suffering from the grainy picture of doom effect. That will be my first thing to fix if I ever get off blogspot. Oh well, even if the picture looks crappy, I was getting tired of the old one anyway.

The end of Biblical studies?

Higgaion is doing a series reviewing Hector Avalos' book The End of Biblical Studies. Many readers may already know Avalos as a professor who led a petition drive against Ingelligent Design, and provoked some rather silly attacks because of it. From what it sounds like, Avalos' new book makes plenty of good points, but the thesis seems over stated. Liberal scholarship has its share of crap, just as much as Evangelicalism, really, but that doesn't mean the field should be abandoned all together.

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Quote of the Time Being

And while I do feel strongly inclined to form beliefs about God when I read theistic scriptures, the beliefs are of the sort, "Surely this wasn't inspired by God"
-Paul Draper

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Argument from nonbelief on Ironchariots

I've just put up an article on the argument from nonbelief at the Iron Chariots Wiki, a project of Russell Glasser (see also his Kazim's Korner and The Non-Prophets). Check it out, make improvements if you see room for them--it's a wiki, after all.

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Blogspotting... or smelling?

There's a new blog in town, under the title I smell smoke. And he has me listed as one of the blogs he visits daily! Wee! Hey everybody, follow the link, go say high to him. He has posted a series of journal entries he made over the course of a year, they make for interesting reading.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Review: Divine Hiddenness: New Essays

UPDATE: My Iron Chariots wiki article is up.

This book is an anthology of essays of what has been variously called the problem of divine hiddenness, the argument from nonbelief or reasonable nonbelief, or the argument from the existence of atheists. If you're interested in the basics of the argument, the Internet Infidels page (first link) is especially good, with Jeff Lowder's sketch of the different variations. In a nut shell, it argues that that if God existed, he would make his existence more obvious, so probably he doesn't exist.

I looked at every essay in this book, but I can't claim to have read them all in full. They just weren't that worthwhile. The eight contributions by theists were a little repetitive. The contribution by J. L. Shellenberg, the original proponent of the argument, gets eaten up in a clumsy attempt at philosophical dialog. The only really interesting essay is the one by Paul Draper, which argues there are both good arguments for and good arguments against the existence of God, and that it is too difficult to weigh their relative strength. That essay, though, is mainly interesting because the perspective is unusual, not because it says a great deal of interest on the stated topic of the anthology.

Beyond the problems with individual essays, I think this project was actually destined to fail from the start. The problem is that the issue has only been seriously discussed in the philosophical literature since 1993, and the second major work on the subject, by Theodore Drange wasn't published until 1998. The contours aren't yet well enough defined for essays to be written in a vacuum. The two main books defending the argument had to fend off largely hypothetical objections, because there aren't well established actual objections. Some of the authors' guesses as to what objections could be raised were good ones, but the fact that they had to guess limits the usefulness of Drange's book, at the very least (I haven't read Shellenberg's, but what I have heard of it suggests the situation there is the same). The situation isn't much better when the theists in New Essays tried to fend off criticisms of objections no one had originally made.

Public debates have not traditionally played a dominant role in intellectual history, but this is a place where a 90-minute, four-round debate could really advance the issue. The obvious choices for debaters are William Lane Craig and Theodore Drange, a pairing which, I think, would be particularly good given Drange's focus on evangelicalism. Some might fear Drange would flub the technical aspects of debating, but he seems to hold his own pretty well in printed debate, and if he is inexperienced at speaking off the cuff, there is always coaching. Such a back-and-forth could help give much clearer contours for the debate than are presently available.

Final verdict: two stars

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New Chuck Norris joke

Ann Coulter wants to invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity. Chuck Norris wants to tattoo "In God We Trust" on the forehead of every atheist.

Wait a second, that's not even made up.

I can't help but smile at the comment made at the link: "Now, I'm reasonably sure he'll never get elected president, but ya know, I'm sure people who saw Ronald Reagan in all those insipid movies would've said the same thing about him."

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Mini Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This is from a message I sent to a friend, asking what I thought of the book:

It was basically what I expected. The more I think about it, though, the more I think the sort of plot devices that served Rowling so well through the first six books just really weren't appropriate for what was supposed to be the dramatic finish. The very end of the book was in some sense a repeat of the end of four with the wands, only with Harry figuring out what would happen in advance. I guess the intention was that by having Harry figure out a plot twist rather than having it explained to him, it shows he came of age, but I think the situation called for something more dramatic than that.

Final verdict: Three Stars

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Friday, July 27, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

Saw it last night. Was unsure whether to take the time to review it, but then I saw an Economist magazine review that channeled my thoughts on it pretty well, so I'm just linking to that.

For my personal rating, I'd give it four stars. I'm not sure it was as good as the best episodes of the TV show, but it was still the best $5.50 I've spent in some time.

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PZ is wrong on debating creationists, part II

PZ has put up another post arguing we shouldn't do debates with creationists. He didn't answer any criticisms of his position (see my own criticisms of him on this point). He does, however, throw in one new argument for his side, and is the sort of howling non-sequitur that makes me wish everyone was required to take more philosophy to teach them how to avoid bad arguments: "There is almost no creative, original work on the creationist side." Not a word is said as to why this is a reason to avoid only the oral debate format, and continue with online criticism as Myers does. Aside from that, predictable opponents are a debater's dream. There's really nothing more to say about the post, it's so insubstantial. Hopefully, next time PZ will actually deal with his critics on this point, and not make such silly arguments.

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The perks of reading Asimov's

I was a fairly big sf&f reader in high school, but in college I decided I no longer had time to regularly read long novels, so I switched to short stories and got myself a subscription to the magazine Asimov's. I've discovered one of the cooler features of the magazine is the the "reflections" essay, which presents information on all kinds of random subjects. I suppose in theory it's supposed to be the sort of stuff a science fiction writer might work into a story, but almost anything can fit under that heading. One particularly memorable one talked about the author's fantasy of becoming Pope Sixtus the Sixth (there have been five popes named Sixtus thus far).

The most recent issue (September 2007, featuring "The Good Ship Lollypop") contains a piece that makes the entire issue worth buying just for it. Really, go out and buy it. It discusses ancient Assyrian texts in which kings brag about their slaughters of enemy citizens. The writer connects it with the present situation in Iraq and imagines Saddam reading these texts and idolizing the kings, but it has other applications. Readings of such texts are the best antidote to the popular delusion that human nature became suddenly depraved in the 20th century. They're also good context for Biblical accounts of divinely ordered slaughters: it makes clear that the reason for the slaughters was not because God really had a good reason for them, nor, on the other hand, because the Israelites were especially depraved, but rather simply because that was how war was done at the time.

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Cool article on Synesthesia

Hearing Colors and Seeing Sounds: How Real is Synesthesia?

This was sent by a friend in my philosophy discussion group, who, like me, has interests in both philosophy and neuroscience. In his message, he connected it with the issue of qualia, one of the most oft-discussed issues in contemporary philosophy. It's also of interest to me because I have mild synesthesia--when I first heard about the condition, my response was "you mean not everybody sees the alphabet in color?"

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Birthday data dump

When my next birthday rolls around, methinks I'll steal this post concept from Michael Reynolds.

Bush ranked top villian of 2006

Among the interesting things I've learned recently at Hell's Handmaiden.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Atheist Perpective on Dawkins

Atheist Perspective to Moderate Christians: Take some responsibility, stop blaming Dawkins.

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A device that could win a Nobel?

In my readings in the neuroscience literature, I've yet to find any account of how information is sent from the eyes to the brain--what form the nerve signals take. Visual images are complex, so it would follow that the system has to be pretty complex, and it would be a real interesting topic. Knowing how the nerve impulses go would tell us something about the brain: it would tell us that its set up to process information in that particular format. It seems to me like that would be a huge step in finding out how the brain works.

Since this doesn't get talked about at all, as far as I've seen, one of two things must be true: the research has been done and has been ignored (in which case a lot of scientists are being stupid), or the research hasn't been done. I don't think scientists would ignore something as big as this, so I can only guess the research hasn't been done. On the other hand, it would seem in principle simple to do: put a sheep eyeball with intact optic nerve into an apparatus with chemicals able to keep it functioning in the short term, a small video screen, and sensor able to give a very precise account of what's happening at the end of the optic nerve. I can only assume, then, that the technical aspects of building such a device would be too difficult, and therefore no such device has been built. If someone did figure out how to build the thing, though, the hard part of the research would be over, they'd be able to gather some amazing data, publish it, and be a real contender for the Nobel.

All of the above is definite half-assed speculation territory for me. I'd love to have someone who really knows what they're talking about shed some light on this one. But if the above is correct, might it suggest we should start giving scientists engineering training in the interest of being able to develop better experimental apparatuses? Or perhaps, at least, having scientists work closer with engineers?

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Contempt for truth watch

Via Brian Flemming, Max Blumenthal goes to an Evangelical gathering where reporters are forced to ignore the stated opinions of the leaders.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Taner Edis in Free Inquiry

Taner Edis just published an article in Free Inqiry criticizing critics of Islam. In particular, Edis attacks the idea that there is such a thing as "true Islam" to be analyzed. Worthwhile reading.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Carl Sagan reincarnated as a blog

That's the vibe I've been getting off of Too Many Tribbles of late. Here's a taste:


Monday, July 23, 2007

Marx's wager

I've happened across an article by C. S. Lewis, never published in his lifetime, replying to criticism of his books by the famous biologist and Marxist J. B. S. Haldane Haldane was important in the modern evolutionary synthesis, though an odd personality: apparently, he had the habit of subjecting both himself and random volunteers to very dangerous experiments. Anyway, the article had a quote I rather like:
Detestation for any ethic which worships success is one of my chief reasons for disagreeing with most communists. In my experience they tend, when all else fails, to tell me that I ought to forward the revolution because 'it is bound to come'. One dissuaded me from my own position on the shockingly irrelevant ground that if I continued to hold it I should, in good time, be 'mown down'--argued, as a cancer might argue if it could talk, that he must be right because he could kill me.

Albert Schweitzer and early 20th century liberalism

I'm currently working as a research assistant for Madison's history of science department. My supervising professor is working on the history of the concept of technology. I've focused most of my efforts thus far on religious writings. A little while ago, I found what is, for me, the most amazing advertisement in The Christian Century:Okay, they're advertising a biography, what's so great about that? What's great about it is it's Albert Schweitzer, who made his name persuading Biblical scholars that Jesus thought the world would end within his lifetime. And a laudatory biography for him was advertised in one of the most influential Christian publications of the time. And it quotes unnamed "American churchmen" as calling him "the greatest soul in Christendom."

Last fall, when I took a class from the prof I'm working for right now, I was told Schweitzer was one of the most respected men of his day, in connection with an anti-nuclear weapon statement, and I found that pretty amazing. Seeing him lauded in a Christian publication, though, that blows my mind. Can there be any doubt that if Schweitzer had lived a half century to a century later, he would have been denounced as a pseudoscholar who was merely using a veneer of scholarly credentials to vent his deep hatred of Christianity?

Reading Christian Century has shown me other gems: An article titled "Huxley, theologian" which proposed Thomas Huxley would have been a great liberal theologian had he been born in Germany. Another article said one of Bertrand Russell's books would make good preaching material.

Perhaps the liberalism of the time shouldn't be exaggerated, though: in the 50's, the journal published an attack on fundamentalism, which was still defined in terms of the five fundamentals: substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the virgin birth, the second coming, and Biblical inerrancy. Many readers were thrilled, but others responded, in effect, "hey, what's wrong with believing those five things?" At least one letter insisted you could believe those things without being like the sort of creationist that was humiliated at the Scopes trial.

Carrier on the Postmusical Age

For those who don't read Richard Carrier's blog because he posts so infrequently (hint: get Bloglines), he just put up a fascinating post on the nature of 21st century music.

One point he makes is that he can only ever find good music by getting recommendations from friends. He lists some of his favorite stuff in hopes of getting recommendations from blog readers. I think I'll do the same. Note that the current listing has some gaps that wouldn't exist if I spent on music as freely as I spend on books:

*I still listen to some old Weird Al stuff, selectively uploaded to iTunes. But "White & Nerdy" is the only decent song he's put out in eight years. I find the rest impossible to listen to.

*Evanescence's first CD is good. Haven't heard their recent stuff.

*My Chemical Romance's latest CD is good. Because I liked it, I got their first one, which was more punk that I could stand--so loud I couldn't make out the a single word in many songs, and couldn't tell what was going on musically most of the time.

*Occasionally, Communicando Podcast alerts me to something that's both good and available free & legal online. Examples: The Switch and Divisible.

*I think there are a lot of bad movie soundtracks out there, but good ones are some of the best music I've ever heard. I currently own John Williams' Schindler's List soundtrack, wish I had the Godfather.

If this gives anybody any ideas, please tell me.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine passes

Hemant has already posted Greg Epstein's memorial, so I won't repeat that. One comment: when I heard Wine speak in April, what really impressed me was his commitment to maintaining cultural traditions in an intellectually honest way. Epstein's talk of "moving beyond God" is a little misleading, as if the religio-cultural traditions are an absolute must. When it comes to moving beyond God, all anyone needs to do is do what they think needs doing without reference to God, no need to put the "atheist" or "humanist" trademark on it.

Oh boy...

Larry Moran reports that Mitt Romney just called Hilary a Marxist. This hits me as a surprising new level of craziness for politics... but I know it shouldn't.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hemant's questions

I'm following Katie's lead and posting my list of answers to Hemant's atheist questions:

* Why do you not believe in God?

No evidence, and we would expect to see some evidence if there were a God.

* Where do your morals come from?

This can be answered on several levels: From having compassion. From realizing I have no more metaphysical importance than anyone else. From nowhere, because it's impossible to derive a statement about what we ought to do from only statements about the world.

* What is the meaning of life?

42. Or, "the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally." No, seriously, what does this question even mean?

* Is atheism a religion?

Depends on how you define religion?

* If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times?

Say to myself, "I should do something about this." And sometimes I do do something about it.

* Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?

If they feel like it. But mainly, there are other doctrines in orthodox Christianity and Islam that are much more dangerous and deserving of our attention.

* Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?

Some. Not all. Stalin rejected Darwinian evolution--thought it was too capitalistic. What's your point?

* How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?

Because they make the mistake of thinking that if everybody around them believes something, it's likely to be correct.

* Why does the universe exist?

It's not clear that that question is even answerable in principle.

* How did life originate?

Slowly building up from simpler to more complex forms. See here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/abioprob.html#Globule

* Is all religion harmful?

No. But, contrary to what some people want to believe, just because something is harmful doesn't mean it doesn't count as a real religion.

* What’s so bad about religious moderates?

Because the majority of them believe absurd things about religion that serve to give cover to the dangerously orthodox. Examples: "all religion is good," and "it's wrong to criticize someone's religious beliefs."

* Is there anything redeeming about religion?

No. Why do you think there would be?

* What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)?

Liberal/deistic God: pleasantly surprised. Orthodox God: hoping I'd have the guts to tell him off.

* Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected?

Should all political ideologies be respected? Should all claims about science be respected?

* Are atheists smarter than theists?

In absolute terms, no. Statistical averages, I have no idea.

* How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?

Probably, he deceived himself into believing he had miraculous powers and that he had been given the job of heralding in the end of the world (just read Mark 13).

* Would the world be better off without any religion?

Yes. Some religious beliefs are extraordinarily harmful and none have any benefits.

* What happens when we die?

Stop assuming so much about personal identity.

Quotes of the Time Being

And even after twenty-five years in the field of autism, I am still shocked. A Ph.D. student with Asperger’s syndrome said to me last week, "I’ve just discovered that people don’t always say what they mean. So how do you know how to trust language?" Her "discovery" at the age of twenty-seven is one that the typical child makes at age four, in the teasing interactions of the playground.
-Simon Baron-Cohen, in a fascinating article on honesty and autism found via The Edge
Imagine that President Bush decided to indefinitely delay the release of the final Harry Potter book.

There would be furious public protest that wouldn't stop. It would be the top story day after day after day, and the pundits would be scratching their heads about why the President of the United States would do something so pointless and so frustrating to the American people.

Imagine that President Bush decided to indefinitely delay the return of our troops.
-Vast Left, a rather indispensable blog for catching the follies of the Bush administration

Friday, July 20, 2007

Newton, God, alchemy, and numerology.

In religious debates, one often hears what might be called the Newton argument: Isaac Newton believed in God, therefore religious belief is reasonable (or it doesn't conflict with science, or something similar). The most recent manifestation I've seen is in a post by Mark Kleiman attacking PZ Myers. (For those interested in what I think on the main points of the exchange: PZ is wrong to paint believers with so broad a brush, but right on the validity of claiming God is "really" a metaphor.)

For anyone who knows Newton's biography beyond the fact that he invented classical mechanics and calculus, the Newton argument is obvious baloney. Newton was also big on alchemy and numerology, in fact it is believed that his writings on these subjects outweigh his legitimate scientific writings. This doesn't make alchemy or numerology valid. QED.

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Review: Fight Club

I've decided to try my hand at reviewing fiction, and I've decided to start out with one that I think deserves to be a classic: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

The plot in short: the unnamed narrator is a "recall campaign coordinator" for an automobile company, which means his job is to fly around the country, trying to figure out whether it will cost his company more to fix a deadly defect or more to settle each case out of court. He develops problems with insomnia, which his doctor can't cure, but the doctor recommends he sit in on support groups for the terminally ill to see what real suffering is like. After a couple years of that, he meets Tyler Durde. After an explosion destroys the narrator's condo, with its painstakingly accumulated furnishings ("It took my whole life to buy this stuff"), Tyler agrees to let the narrator live with him in exchange for helping him start fight club, where men meet in basements to fight, two at a time, until one goes limp. Men join in great numbers, countless offshoots form, and many members of the offshoots have never met the founders. The narrator says it helps him not care about problems at work; Big Bob, a man the narrator met at the testicular cancer support group, decides it makes a good replacement for the support group. From there, Tyler uses fight club as a foundation for lashing out at society in ever more extreme ways.

I'm pretty sure that more of you will have seen the movie than read the book. If you've only seen the movie, you're missing out. I don't think the movie would have worked at all without character voice-overs, but since the movie makers weren't going to make a book on tape, there was no way they could recreate the original's powerful stream of consciousness narration. And it's not stream of consciousness in the pretentious, unreadable sense, just enough to make you feel you're hearing the narrator's thoughts as he thinks them, rather than hearing about what happened after the fact.

There are a few explicit reasons for the narrator's desire to escape from his normal life: he spent his life collecting furniture that serves no real purpose, and he makes his living as a cog in an organization that puts profits above human life. What really makes the book effective, though, is that while you don't know why the vast majority of the men come to fight club, you still understand it, and can almost see yourself joining them. It masterfully taps a raw, inarticulable dissatisfaction with the world that so many people feel. It does so without having to give the characters supernatural personal problems (the way Anne Rice does) and with a basically unfilmable technique that proves the author is making good use of the medium.

One final thought: the book is loaded with hints as to the final twist, but because I'd seen the movie before reading the book, I could neither catch the hints nor slap myself for not catching them. It's thick enough that I would have had to slap myself really hard if I missed them, but I still wonder if I would have. If anyone reading this read the book before the movie, and without having anyone spoil the ending for you, I'm curious to know whether you saw it coming.

Final verdict: five out of five Stars

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Those Angry Americans

Today from Andrew Sullivan: "The anger is not a function of some derangement; it's a function of sanity." He's talking about Americans angry at the current administration, but this could just as easily be applied to recent talk of angry atheists. I remain ambivalent on the question of whether "angry atheist" is an accurate label for Dawkins et. al. It all depends on what you mean by "angry." Some sorts of anger are a very good thing. The problem with the way the label is used is that it's a tool for avoiding having to address serious criticism. Those of you who've read Andrew's posts dealing with allegations of "Bush derangement syndrome" know exactly the same tactic is used against critics of the current administration.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007


God is Just Pretend has a great YouTube adaptation of the book of Job.

On William Lane Craig's reply to John W. Loftus

I just found out from John that William Lane Craig has replied to his question on Lessing's Ditch. John put up an excerpt and discussion thread at his blog. Before reading what follows, I suggest reading Lessing's original argument, which I quoted in my blog series critiquing Craig.

The excerpt that I found most interesting was different than the one John posted. Here's what Craig has to say on the resurrection of Jesus on this particular occasion:
With respect to the resurrection of Jesus, one needn’t go so far as N. T. Wright when he esteems the historical probability of the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus to be so high as to be "virtually certain, like the death of Augustus in A.D. 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70" (The Resurrection of the Son of God [Fortress: 2003], p. 710) in order to recognize that the evidence is strong enough to establish those facts, as the wide majority of New Testament scholars agree. Whether you accept a miraculous explanation of those facts is apt to depend more on your openness to supernatural explanations than on strictly historical considerations.
It's not even clear to me from this whether Craig understands Lessing's basic point, which was that while we may have pretty good reasons to believe a historical claim is true, that wouldn't give us enough certainty to stake anything of great value on the claim. The quotation of N. T. Wright suggests Craig would simply overcome the ditch by saying we have a lot more certainty about Jesus' life than Lessing realized. The passage John excerpted also seems to suggest Craig thinks that it is only people in previous eras that lacked for solid historical evidence. On the other hand, Craig says "one needn't go as far as" Wright, and then falls back on a mere majority opinion, with no mention of exactly how certain those in the majority are. This misses the fact that Lessing's challenge was meant to apply even when we have pretty good reasons to believe something. This second aspect to Craig's response suggests he either misunderstands or is actively ignoring the point of the question.

In either case, Craig is hoping that if he trumpets the alleged findings of Biblical scholarship loud enough, people will forget that at the end of the day the only evidence we have for Jesus' resurrection is the Biblical books themselves, and then only a limited subset of those, since most of them don't talk about the historical details of Jesus' alleged resurrection. Even on a charitable assessment of their credibility, there is a limit to how much certainty such a small handful of documents could give us. Here, Craig can only hope his fans won't notice this fact.

Nevertheless, the part of Craig's response John quoted does shed some light on Craig's apologetics. In essence, Craig's answer is that it doesn't matter if the evidence is weak because we can believe without it. Furthermore, it should be understood that Craig thinks we should believe Christianity no matter how good the evidence is against it. A consequence of this is that even when doing apologetics, the weakness of the evidence doesn't matter as long as he can convince the target all is well. Lessing's ditch is not a problem for Craig, since apologetics isn't about evidence--heck, evidence isn't about evidence--it's all about persuasion. This needs to be broadcast as loud as possible. I suspect most of the people Craig has wowed in public debates would think twice about trusting him if they knew this was his approach.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Classic neocon joke

From one of Andrew Sullivan's readers:
Q. How many neocons does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. That's an interesting question, one that I'm sure future historians will investigate in detail. Look, let me address this issue up front: I don't know who's been installing light bulbs or who hasn't. That's none of my business. There's a lot of different views, there's a range of views, and a lot of concerns, and we are working to accommodate those concerns. We know at this point that we still have some work to do and we are working very hard to address these issues. We're not making estimates. At this point what you've had are some fairly -- you had some dramatic testimony and comments -- by the way, you can expect people to be ventilating these differing points of views in coming days. Our view is you have to have a resolution that offers a solution. And you're going to have people -- there is sometimes, you'll be surprised to hear, a disparity between comments made in public for domestic audiences around the world, and comments made in private, as well. In short, we don't want to comment on an ongoing investigation.
Though it works pretty well as general politician joke.

Atheists and agnostics a majority at Kalamazoo

Just got off the phone with my mom. My little brother Eric just got done with his junior year in high school, and is therefore looking at colleges. The family is in Michigan right now, and yesterday they went to look at Kalamazoo College. When touring, they were told that a majority of students identify as atheists or agnostics.


In a way, this surprises me. The group I'm involved in running, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison, is one of the tiniest groups on campus, while the largest groups are things like Campus Crusade and the UW-Roman Catholic Foundation. Newcomers at meetings often say they're glad to find a haven from the swarms of religious groups on campus. On the other hand, in casual conversation I know a great many students identify as atheist or agnostic. There's a possibility that if the school every conducted a campus wide survey, we'd come out like Kalamazoo, and discover the only reason anyone thought otherwise is because the religious groups are just a lot more active. Maybe not a huge possibility, but it wouldn't surprise me. How unusual could Kalamazoo be? Anyone know of better data on this?

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Getting adults to read, redux

(or, a shoutout to Michael Reynolds)

One of the first bloggers who ever linked to this little place of mine was Michael Reynolds, then of the Mighty Middle. It was a wonderful moderate/atheist blog, but unfortunately after some time he decided to close it down because he was an author of kids' books and didn't want his younger readers finding his fouler-mouthed political musings online. This was in August 2006, I see looking back through the lamentations of his passing. Now, out of the blue, he shows up and puts a comment on my blog on the post getting adults to read. It turns out he's now blogging under his own name at Sideways Mencken. This is a blog I had found some time ago via technoarti because it had said nice things about me, but at the time I had no idea it was Reynolds. It looks like at some point he went from using a pseudonym to not. I'm curious to hear the story there. Anyway, I think I'll be reading it regularly for at least awhile now. I rather liked his summary of reasons to vote for the presidential candidates.

Now to say something that actually matches the post title: I think perhaps the perspective expressed in the post was skewed a little by the fact that around my senior year of high school, I made a fairly radical shift from a big reader of fiction to a big reader of nonfiction who can barely find time for short stories out of Asimov's. I really have no idea how much earlier fiction reading contributed to my present nonfiction reading. I suspect my current habits have more to do with starting to read newspapers young and getting Philosophy for Dummies, but I don't really know.

Oh, and Michael: I loved your books as a kid. Not the sort of think I go around raving about now, but still not half bad.

books, reading, literature, fiction, nonfiction

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mini Review: Goth: Undead Subculture

Goth: Undead Subculture is a voluminous collection of essays commenting on the subculture, mostly by academics, though there are a few essays written mainly from the point of view of self-identified goths. It made for interesting reading for someone who's high-school experience with goth can be summed up by the t-shirt slogan "I'd be goth but I can't afford to shop at Hot Topic." The discussions of "authenticity" are fun to read from that point of view. The academics seem to aspire to say something profound, but never do, and when the ooze reverence for the pseudo-intellectuals that dominate literary criticism, their writing can be painful. However, as collectors of history and cultural trivia, the academics do quite well, and that's really what makes the book worthwhile. If you're up for 400+ pages of cultural infosnacks, the book is worthwhile (though I must admit I didn't buy it, and only checked it out from the library because it was sitting in the "new arrivals" bin).

Final verdict: three out of five stars

Technorati tags: , subcultures,

You can't prove this statement

In Searle's Mystery of Consciousness, there is a sketch of Roger Penrose' attempt to use Godel's Theorem to draw important conclusions about the human mind. In the course of the explanation, Searle gives a similar argument from another source. It concerns a mathematical system that includes the following:
17. Statement 17 is not provable in this system.
Searle explains: "We can see that 17 is true, because to assume it is false is to assume a self-contradiction. To assume that it is provable that it is not provable is to assume that it both is and is not provable. We can therefore see that 17 is true, and because true, not provable." The argument goes that we do this without algorithms, but computers only use algorithms, so we can do important things computers can't, and this is a wonderful, mysterious fact about the human mind. Searle criticizes the argument on the grounds that "Not all algorithms are theorem-proving algorithms," so maybe we're using an algorithm that isn't theorem-proving.

However, it seems he missed a more interesting issue: the fact that 17 appears to be provable. When he explains why its supposedly true, he doesn't just lead readers to peer into some Platonic realm and witness the truth hanging out there. He provides an argument for it, a proof I daresay. The proof relies on some fairly simple tools, such as reductio ad absurdum and the observation that what is proven must be true. Then it looks like the statement is provable, and therefore false. Thus, what we have here is far more interesting than anyone thought: it's a self-referential paradox, at least for any system that allows in such axioms as "what's proven is true" and "reductio ad absurdum is a valid way to argue."

Perhaps I'm making a mistake here because mathematicians have already defined the term "mathematical system" in such a way as to avoid this apparent paradox--but it isn't clear how they might have done that. Can anyone fill me in?

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Coffee with Vast Left

Yesterday I got a talk to chat for about an hour with the blogger behind Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. He doesn't live in Madison, but he happened to be in town, so I sat down for coffee with him. At the end I was wondering if he had posts on some of the things we talked about so I could link, and he sent them along via e-mail. Here they are:

*His The Atheist is Always Wrong series, something that even many atheists sorely need to read.

*His coining of a new word, Equivalating, which I need to use some time.

*The Itchy and Scratchy Show, which expands on some of these ideas.

Also, he tells me soon he should have out a post on his Bush/September 11th-era transition from complacent to activist non-belief.

PC 50

The 50th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Philosophy Sucks! Like the name, man, it strikes a chord with my own love-hate relationship with philosophy. There are some great posts in there too. I've added Thad Guy to my bloglines, at least for the time being, and Space of Reasons has a great quote in the "About Me":
Today my self-esteem hit an all time low when my logic professor proved that I didn’t exist. I’m quite distressed. Perhaps this explains why my jeans are so loose-fitting. What’s equally upsetting is that I learned that non-existence does not exempt one from local and federal taxes. But if anything could be said for my new status, it is that I now belong to same category as many famous non-entities—such as unicorns, Bigfoot and US military intelligence.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Second Reply to Holding

J. P. Holding has set up a TheologyWeb thread to respond to my criticisms of him. This will be posted in the TheologyWeb thread as soon as I'm done with it--it's mainly for the TheologyWebbers, as people who've actually read my original posts in full won't need much of it.

On my Reply to Holdling:

Holding is missing the point of my post [A note on the history of apologetics]. My point was that Holding's "The Impossible Faith" seems to assume that ancient people would have had a modern persons' notion of evidence, and that this is false. I talked about the history of apologetics because it seemed to me a clear way of showing this. My point was not that this reflects badly on the apologists, as Holding seems to think, but that it undermines the thesis he has advanced.
The point was fully recognized, and it is still abysmally, igorantly WRONG. I am not concerned with what shows "badly" on the apologists. Notions of evidence have not changed one bit from one era to the next. This is Skeptical blah blah blah pulled out of Hallquist's bum. Hallquist tried to use the lack of historical apologetics to argue for a lack of "modern" notions of evidence, and I showed (as did Paulson) that the "lack" was for a good reason: The nature of the opposition that was being faced! So there's not one thing here undermining TIF. Hallquist is just running around in circles trying to prove he actually said something worth ten cents.
Later in the thread, Holding speculates that I got the point of the post from Thomas Paine and Robert G. Ingersoll.

First, I must point out that all Holding himself originally said in response to my post was "What escapes Hallquist is that apologetics is driven by what opponents argue (it is, after all, a defense, so that this point is simply meaningless drivel." That is followed by a long quote from "my patristics consult, Matt Paulson," which includes the phrase, "A few telling examples to disprove the sole factual claim of your opponent [that the 2nd c. apologists were concerned only to reconcile Christianity w/Greek philosophy]." This hardly counts as having "fully recognized" my point that ancient people would not have had a modern person's notion of evidence, indeed, Paulson seems to deny that I ever said that, which makes me wonder if Holding bothered to show him my entire post.

Worse, Holding says the point was "pulled out of Hallquist's bum." This is untrue, and the dishonesty is compounded by the speculation about where I got the idea. I present long quotes from William Lane Craig's apologetics textbook saying Augustine "lacked the historical method," and the general approach of the section suggests the historical method was a much later development, not, for example, something that had existed before Augustine's time and been lost. If Holding had argued that Craig was wrong, or that I had misapplied what he said, it would be one thing, but it is clearly false that the point was "pulled out of my bum."

On my J. P. Holding and Rodney Stark:

First, Holding links to another thread on TheologyWeb, which posts an forward from an anonymous somebody claiming to have asked Stark's opinion on Holding's essay and getting Stark to endorse it on a couple points. I've e-mailed Stark about it, but I'm not waiting around for his reply, because I don't know how it would change what I have to say on this point. I should note on the side that Stark's "Why bother with some obsessed atheist" remark suggests knee-jerk dismissiveness of atheists (unfortunately rather common behavior--I used to be the same way). So back to me and Holding.


Importantly, Holding doesn't dispute that Stark's explanations are good ones, he just says Stark has left unexplained how Christianity got going. So first question: is that true?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: Stark gives no reason to think so, and drops many hints he thinks his ideas apply to all of Christianity's history.

Full answer: On page 3, Stark poses a rhetorical question: "Did Christianity grow so rapidly that mass conversions must have taken place—-as Acts attests and every historian from Eusebius to Ramsay MacMullen has believed?" This suggests he will be dealing with all of early Christian history. Then on page 5, he argues Acts is wrong: "according to Acts 21:20,by the sixth decade of the first century there were 'many thousands of Jews' in Jerusalem who now believed. These are not statistics. Had there been that many converts in Jerusalem, it would have een the first Christian city, since there probably were no more than twenty thousand inhabitants at this time."

Midway through Chapter 6, on evangelism of the Jews, he opens a section on "Networks" by saying, "Let us put ourselves in the position of the evangelists: here we are in Jerusalem in the year 50... (p. 61)" How would you go about getting converts? Go to Hellenized Jews: "In all the major centers of the empire were substantial settlements of diasporan Jews who were accustomed to receiving teachers from Jerusalem. Moreover, the missionaries were likely to have family and friendship connections within at least some of the diasporan communities (p. 62)." This shows that early Christians could have gotten a foothold in many major cities with nothing more than the Palestinian Jewish-Christians they had in 50 A. D. This is even more problematic than the first passage. If Holding is to claim he's using Stark honestly, he must say that it is these original Jewish-Christians that were the inexplicable foothold he was refering to. Yet this is hardly plausible, since that group would have been dominated by pre-crucifixion followers of Jesus, and Holding gives no indication that his argument is of the "how did Christianity survive the crucifixion" sort. Maybe Holding thinks it was vitally important for them to gain the several hundred converts they (maybe) gained in between 30 A. D. and 50 A. D., yet these can be explained with only a slight extention of Stark's social-networking thesis.
Uh, Chrissy? That's an explanation of the MECHASNISM whereby the word was spread, you dip -- not an explanation of WHY people accepted that the claims of Christianity were true in the first place!
The problem is that in Stark's view, networking goes a long way to explaining why people accepted Christianity in the first place. In case I didn't make this perfectly clear in the initial post, let me explain in detail. On pp. 15-16, Stark discusses some Moonies he observed first hand, and notes that the primary member of the group had only ever succeeded in converting personal acquaintances, in spite of vigorous effort to convert outsiders. This led to the conclusion that, "conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one's religious behavior into alignment with that of one's friends and family members. Stark explains that this fits with theories of deviance which claim that the only reason people do not deviate in the first place is that they have a stake in conformity, and "A major stake in conformity lies in our attachments to other people." In the case of the Moonies, "becoming a Moonie may have been regarded as deviant by outsiders, but it was an act of conformity for those whose most significant attachments were to Moonies." Therefore, "conversion tends to proceed along social networks." Thus, when Stark talks about "networks" later in the book, he is not talking about a mechanism they happened to be using, but rather a cornerstone of Christian success--something that could even overcome the problem of deviance.

I understand if readers didn't see the force of this point, but Holding has no excuse, as apparently it was what Holding was referring to when he talked about Christianity's need for a "foothold" in his initial essay. The question was at what point they had a foothold. Stark clearly thinks they had it by the year 50 if not earlier, and in the previous post I gave reason to think little significance could be given to the 30-50 period. Holding didn't dispute what I said there.

On miracle healings, my point was secondary to the other ones, but Holding ignores the fact that Stark linked mistaken belief in miracles in later centuries to the "miracles" (scare quotes Stark's) in "New Testament times."

Next point, me:
Class issues

First, let's see if we can sort out who's right on the facts of this issue (as opposed to the explanations for the facts). Stark claims that Christianity did well among the middle and upper classes for two main reasons. One, an appeal to authority: "Since Judge first challenged the proletarian view of the early church, a consensus has developed among New Testament historians that Christianity was based in the middle and upper classes (p. 31)." On the contrary, Keith Hopkins, an actual historian cited by Carrier, says, "It seems generally agreed that Christianity did not initially attract converts from among the ruling strata of senators, knights and town-councillors, or not in significant numbers, at least until the third century."
HELLO???? Hopkins and Stark are talking about two different things, Chrissy! Stark is alluding to the work done by Judge (and also Meeks) indicating Christianity's success among a literate upper/middle class among citizens -- NOT among senators, knights, etc!!!
It had occurred to me to comment on this issue, but I decided instead to proceed on the assumption that Holding was interpreting Stark correctly on this point--and yes, in retrospect I realize the foolishness of this assumption! All the evidence from Holding's exchange with Richard Carrier indicates Holding was using Stark to claim very elite converts. Carrier made clear in part 18 that he was talking about the very highest class part of society:
First, to say that Christianity appealed to the disgruntled lower classes, and not the elite, must not to be mistaken for claiming that Christianity was only successful among the poor, or that no rich people were attracted to it. A significant number of the middle class would be among the same groups sympathetic to the Christian message, including educated men, and men with middle-management positions in the government, who could easily become disillusioned with a system that wasn't working for them.
Later in the same section, Carrier referred to the author of Luke as "probably... upper middle class." In response to Carrier's comments on elite converts, particularly under the heading "Who Would Buy One Crucified?" Holding argues that just because there is no evidence of elite converts doesn't mean there were any. If he was really concerned about the upper-middle class, why didn't he declare Carrier had conceded his point?

Now onto the reasons Stark gave for higher class converts (leaving aside the issue of how high). First, what I said:
It's the nature of Stark's second argument, however, that's really problematic for Holding:

pp. 37-38: Here it is sufficient to point out that as weaknesses appear in conventional faiths, some people will recognize and respond to these weaknesses sooner than others... Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged.
Now Holding:
Argument? Stark has presented no specifics as to why people were convinced at all, which is the entire point of what I was writing about! There's no "argument" here for conversion; at best there is an argument for giving an initial ear -- and wanting to investigate, which is EXACTLY my thesis, that these upper crusters had the time and interest to look into the claims, and found them true!

On Holding's bewildered "Argument?" (implicitly, "what argument?") yes, Stark provided reasons for his claims, otherwise he'd be a pretty worthless source. All I can figure here is that Holding has some strange nitpick in mind that rests on misunderstanding what I actually wrote. Stark doesn't present original historical research for his claim that Christianity did well among the upper classes, rather he cites other scholars and then argues this makes a lot of sense. Does Holding deny that?

As for the substance of Holding's remark, his original claim was that the people Stark talks about "had the most to lose and the least (tangibly) to gain by becoming converts." Stark's sole contribution to this issue is to argue the upper classes were less invested in existing religious structures. It's an argument about prior probability, that the upper class would have more to gain and less to lose. If Holding is right that upper class conversion was improbable and, on balance, the upper class had less to gain and more to lose, Stark is wrong. Stark doesn't support Holding on this point.

On my Holding's Use of deSilva

Holding accurately quotes a number of passages from deSilva which suggest Christianity had a serious problem in the form of hostility from non-Christians. As it goes, this is accurate. But he ignores what deSilva says about how Christians delt with this problem: mainly by isolating themselves, telling themselves that only the opinion of other Christians mattered:

group members need to be very clear about who constitutes their "court of reputation," that body of significant others whose "opinion" about what is honorable and shameful, and whose evaluation of the individual, really matters. Their eyes need to be directed toward one another, toward their leaders, and, very frequently, toward beings beyond the visible sphere (for example, God or the honored members of the group who have moved to another realm after death) as they look for approval--and thus directed away from those people who do not share the group's values and whose negative estimation of the group threatens to erode individual commitment... Adherents to a minority group (such as the church or synagogue) must believe that, even though the majority of people around them have a different set of contrary values, the majority is really the deviant body since it doesn't live in line with the cosmic order (p. 40).

Like the leaders of other minority cultures in the first century, New Testament authors were also careful continually to point the members of the Christian group away from the opinion that non-Christians might form of them toward the opinion of those who would reflect the values of the group and reinforce the individual's commitment to establish his or her honor and self-respect in terms of those group values(p. 55).

Because the unbelievers will use the power of shaming to impose their values on the believers, and to call them back to a way of life that supports and perpetuates the values of the non-Christian culture, it is imperative that the believers' sense of worth be detached from the opinion of unbelievers (P. 61).
Uh, Chrissy? While this is all accurate about how hostility is dealt with, it has ZERO bearing on my use of deSilva, which had to do with how outsiders were convinced that the Christian message is true. And of course, none of the these techniques for dealing with hostility has anything to do with the truth of the propositions believed by the insiders. As usual, Chrissy has no idea how to critically apply material or how it coheres with points being made; he just found some quotations that appeal to his superior sense as an atheist smarter than all them bone in the nose religionists, and hand-waved them. (Not that his crowd doesn't do the same stuff deSilva describes, of course.)
Um, "none of these techniques for dealing with hostility has anything to do with the truth of the propositions believed by the insiders"? Exactly. The techniques could be used regardless of whether or not the claims were true. They were used by groups with no knock-down evidence of a miracle. They were used by groups, like the Greek philosophical schools, that did win over adherents, in spite of the hostility faced (and Stark's comments on networks should remove any mystery as to how this happened).

On the crucifixion, Holding insists that the answer to what I say is to be found in other things he's written, but he doesn't give a specific example. He also complains my reference to "other groups" is "vague," but in the post of mine in question, I point out that deSilva uses the examples of Jews and Greek philosophical schools such as Stoicism.

Finally, I just don't know what to make of the terminological complaints at the end of Holding's reply to that post.

On my J. P. Holding and Malina's Commentary on the Synoptics

Its worth noting the differences between the two editions, because Holding makes a minor fuss about the discrepancy in page numbering between his 1992 edition and Carrier's 2003 edition. Then he says that the corresponding passage in the 1992 edition doesn't say what Carrier says the 2003 edition says. As someone with access to both editions, I can say that when Carrier directly quotes the 2003 edition he is accurately representing it. I can't find even a small mistake in his transcript.
I never said there was, so why is Chrissy inventing an allegation for me to have allegedly made? Maybe John Loftus Jr. is in the house. The point was that I simply needed to explain the difference in pagination between our cites, and ALSO to note that Carrier could find no causitive statement in the quote he used (re the issue below), and there was certainly none in my edition; if there was one in his edition, he certaibly didn't quote it.

Which leads to the issue, which was Carrier's claim that Christianity provided a "surrogate family" which made joining attractive. Carrier missed the obvious point that a surrogate is only desirable if you don't have what the surrogate provides, which only happened ONCE you joined Christianity if it happened. The surrogate has no atrraction until you lose something, which happens by joining! Chrissy is no smarter than Carrier here, repeating his error:
First, I never said Holding said there was an error. I said Holding made a minor fuss about the the difference in edition. I think the "minor fuss" comment is justified, given the dramatic "..." pause that occurs in the original before stating the difference. I said I couldn't find an error for the sake of any reader who might mistake Holding's pseudo-dramatism for an important point, not because Holding actually claimed there was an error.

On the substantiative point here, Holding's rationalization only works if you assume Christians were the only socially disconnected people in the ancient world. The assumption is implausible on its face, and the quote from Malina I provide gives an example of one other group of disconnected people, non-inheriting sons, and this is just given as one example, not the only one. Also, one would assume that between the well-connected and the disconnected, there were the somewhat-connected for whom Christianity would have presented a more ambiguous choice: not something they'd definitely join, but not something they'd never join.

Holding's claims regarding the story of the rich young man, and Malina's comments thereon, fall apart when the point I just laid out is recognized.

On my J. P. Holding, elites, and disgruntled masses, I'm getting tired, so I'll be quick.

1) Holding dodges the question of whether he believes, as I suggested, "that in antiquity, there was no significant difference between the values of the rich and the values of the commoners," and ignores the fact that I give quotations from him indicating he does take this position.

2) The attraction issue is dealt with above.

3) Holding sets up a system where nothing can ever count as evidence against his position: if Christianity was typical in some way, people would have no reason to join, if it was atypical in any way other than Holding's entirely hypothetical claim of overwhelming evidence, then people would be driven away. He sets up a system where nothing can, in principle, count as evidence against his views.

Finally, I'll deal with one piece of fluff: Holding says "putting me on edge" was one of his main motives for creating the thread. I find this comment interesting, because it suggests that the tedious insult fluff which Holding has made his trademark is part of some strange form of psychological warfare. It's as if Holding wants people to lose all hope of having an intelligent conversation with him, something that has indeed happened in several cases. This makes me feel more confident in my decision to ignore the majority of Holding's fluff.

Superstition bash

I've always wanted to do one of these things. Hmmm... when's the next Friday the 13th coming up?

Norman Geisler's review of John W. Loftus

Those of you who read Debunking Christianity will know that the well-known Christian apologist Norman Geisler wrote a review of John W. Loftus' book and said he was recommending it to his students, in spite of disagreeing with most of it. Both John himself and Former Fundy have responded to the review. After the attention John initially gave the review, I was a little disappointed. If these posts are accurate, Geisler didn't really address many key points: the problem of evil is fended off with the moral argument without any real defense of the argument or common criticisms of it, the charge of bias is tossed off on miracles with out addressing arguments against miracles, the Outsider Test is misunderstood, and so on. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I've read a fair amount of Geisler's work, I even own his apologetics encyclopedia, and it always feels like I'm reading a historical document from an era where there were no outspoken critics of religion and apologetics was something done to combat rumors of dissent. There's also a sort of scholastic tunnel vision that can't seriously consider whether certain philosophical assumptions might be false. I emphasize that these are criticisms I would not make of most apologists; they seem to be Geisler's peculiar failing. The linked blog posts leave me mildly curious to read Geisler's review, but I don't think I'm going to go to the trouble of ordering the single issue. I've been spending too much money on reading material of late. John, if you know where I can read it for free I wouldn't mind, but otherwise I'll pass on it.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

Popes seldom say anything really new (which is why John XXIII was such a remarkable exception). They specialize in nuanced and essentially trivial restatements of old dogmas. People who haven't been paying much attention suddenly notice that they disagree with the pope (as if that weren't an old story in itself) and they shriek in dismay.

Get a life, people.

Discussion with Hemant: podcast and frustration

First, the podcast of my discussion with Hemant is up.

Second, the day after the discussion, Hemant put up a rather frustrating post on his blog. Quick context: during the show, Hemant made clear that when he complains about angry atheists, he isn't attacking Richard Dawkins. Now, the linked story was titled Area Atheists put a friendly face on their convictions, but don't avoid debate or confrontation. The article tries to set up a split between well-known figures such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the lesser-known locals who are the focus of the story:
...while they may hail Harris and company as sorely needed opposing voices in a world beset by the fallout of religious fanaticism, many atheists eschew verbal assaults and online gimmickry, saying they are far more interested in illuminating the nonbeliever's view than casting aspersions on faith.
The story engages in some obvious silliness: The headline is actually a perfect description of Dawkins: he is confrontational while maintaining an almost stereotypical charming-Oxford-professor demeanor (see the picture I posted of Dawkins). Similarly, one of the atheists quoted in the article says, "There is still a social taboo against discussing our honest opinions on religion, and that is a shame," and "Justifying anything on faith is absurd, and allows everything and anything to be believed without being grounded in reason and fact." That could serve as a decent summary of Sam Harris' The End of Faith.

If Hemant had simply linked to the article as "look, coverage of local atheists," I'd have no objection. But here's how he described it: "an article about the not-so-angry atheists... You don’t see pieces that focus on the up-side to non-religiosity very much, so savor this one." All this implies Hemant endorses the silly dichotomy found in the article, even though he'd deny it when asked explicitly.

This rather reminds me of the Greg Epstein controversy, where Epstein kept calling Dawkins et. al. "fundamentalist atheists" even though he conceded the label was inaccurate. When that happened, Hemant had no trouble seeing Epstein's remarks were problematic. In both cases, what makes them frustrating is not a refusal to get the basic point, but an insistence on continuing to score own-goals anyway. Listen to me, Hemant: even if you don't mean to, the way you keep using the phrase "angry atheist" plays into the hands of those who would banish honest discussion of religion from the public square. You know, the sort of people who will call even you, the Friendly Atheist, a punk and an asshole because you don't believe in God. If you want to criticize specific behavior on the part of atheists (as opposed to vague generalities involving some unnamed atheists out there... somewhere), go ahead, but drop the "angry atheist" rhetoric. Please.

In other news, Skatje Myers is telling the ScienceBloggers to "Quit being such drama queens". Maybe applicable here... to what side, who knows.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

My appearance on the Debate Haven

I just (maybe 20 minutes ago) got done with my first appearance on the Debate Haven show, hosted by Reginald Finley ("The Infidel Guy"). He tells me it should be on the Infidel Guy podcasts page within a day or so. The discussion topic was tactics for dealing with theists, and I was sharing the stage with Hemant Mehta, discussing things like his book, angry atheism, and liberal theists.

One final comment: Reg didn't spend much time in his post post-podcast monologue doing follow up (still ongoing), but he did briefly comment on the angry atheist issue. During the main discussion, Hemant made clear he didn't think Dawkins was an angry atheist, even though he described himself as hostile, and I think the consensus was Lori Lipman Brown didn't really count even though she had said we have much reason to be angry. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was offered up as good example of an angry atheist. I didn't object, because I'm mostly unfamiliar with her writings and public statements. Once Hemant and I had both hung up, Reg explained that she was a good example because when challenged, she said she was angry and said other people should be angry too. How is this wildly different the Dawkins-Brown position?


Thanks to Mojoey's atheist blogroll, I've discovered a new blog Bible Study for Atheists, which does chapter-by-chapter critiques of the Bible from a skeptical perspective. Check it out.

I like this picture

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mini review: The Mystery of Consciousness

I just finished reading The Mystery of Consciousness by John Searle. I don't feel like taking the time for a full review, but I'll give a short sketch (originally typed for the "books" application on Facebook):

It's nice little book on the problem of consciousness, focused around reviews of six major books on the problem. The popular literature on consciousness is vast, so I'm not sure I'd recommend the book over other options (such as Susan Blackmore's work), but it has its perks: it helped me inch closer to understanding Godel's theorem, and Searle's insistence that he is neither a materialist nor a dualist (nor, implicitly, an idealist) makes for interesting reading.
They [professional philosophers] think my position must be either "materialism" or "property dualism." How could one be neither a materialist nor a dualist--as absurd an idea as being neither a Republican nor a Democrat!

Final Verdict: three out of five stars

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...and I'm damn proud of it!

Tuesday, Hemant posted a query from a theist titled Can We Have Government Without Faith? and asked for responses. It could be read as making a version of the moral argument. Here's the key passage:
Lets say congress passes legislation on universal health care, and a politician suggests that a certain group be left out of coverage, let’s say people with Downs Syndrome.

Now, most people would be appalled at this suggestion. The argument against it would be that everyone is equal, and deserves equal treatment under the law.

But how do you prove this? In fact, science tells us that we are not all
equal. Some of us are taller, stronger, faster, and have higher IQ’s. The
idea that we are all equal is in contradiction of what science concludes. A person might then argue that we all deserve equal treatment, even if we aren’t equal. But how do you prove this? In fact, science tells us that many species survive by letting the weak or sick die instead of depleting resources for them when they can’t add survival value to the community.

So, if a person has a true atheist perspective, they should be willing to give ideas, such as that we don’t all deserve equal treatment, reasonable
consideration. But, I have yet to meet a person who will.
A couple things jump out at me that at first seem secondary concerns. First, the author seems to suggest that perhaps we ought to ignore scientific facts, even the most obvious ones such as "Some of us are taller, stronger, faster, and have higher IQ’s." Also, it strikes the author as obviously problematic to say that we "should be willing to give ideas... reasonable consideration."

The author assumes atheists would take the opposite position. I wouldn't say this is true of all atheists, but it is true of a great many of them, myself included, and I'm damn proud of it. Our decisions have to take reality into consideration. History teaches us that failure to do so is consistently disastrous: just look at the current presidential administration. Similarly, while time constraints may prevent us from giving literally every idea reasonable consideration, I believe we should give ideas reasonable consideration whenever given at least some reason to think they might be true. I enjoy the writings of ethicist Peter Singer, not because I agree with everything he says, but because he's very good at critical examination of unexamined, indeed often unnoticed, assumptions. Failure to even consider unfamiliar ideas will mean we never getting rid of some very bad ones, and this includes the sort of confusions embodied in the theists' query.

Depending on how "equal treatment" is understood, it could be exactly the sort of thing which many people would like to take for granted but which collapses under any kind of scrutiny. We don't treat strangers the same way we treat long-time friends. We don't treat people with impressive professional accomplishments the same way we treat high-school drop outs who've only ever worked $8 an hour jobs. Admittedly, there's a difference between inequalities in treatment by individuals and inequalities in treatment by government. There are good practical reasons to try to write laws on a general basis rather than giving perfect results in every case. Still, equality under the law isn't absolute. To give just one example, blind people aren't allowed to drive.

While I like to think the position I outline is common among atheists, I want to make clear that I don't see how postulating the existence of God could justify unreflective, reality-disregarding decision-making. Worse, I don't think the inquirer even took a decent stab at explaining why this might be so. The apparent sincerity is appreciated, but the query displays the sort of thoughtless, illogical jump which I see far too often and which gets tiring fast. Again, the sort of mistake that will never be caught unless one is willing to give reasonable consideration to the possibility that one might be wrong.

I also wonder about the use of the phrase "absolute ethics." If the writer just means that there are such things as good decisions and bad decisions, then the author can hardly fault atheists for inconsistency, since atheism is supposed to entail that one can act however one feels like. Conversely, the problem with the query is not that he thinks that there are such things as right and wrong. If there weren't, it would be impossible to be mistaken in ethics, and no one could say the author was mistaken in ethics, or that it is worth putting in effort to avoid ethical mistakes. On the other hand, when "absolutism" is understood to mean dogmatic adherence to simplistic principles, then it certainly is bad, just don't mistake rejection of simplistic principles for rejection of all principles.

I've avoided the specific example of health care and Downs Syndrome thus far because I want to get the questions of principle straight first. What about that question though? I think depriving Downs Syndrome cases from health care would be a serious mistake, for the simple reason that they are the people who most need community support in order to have worthwhile lives. I could be wrong about that, of course, but I wouldn't change my mind without reason.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Truth About Your God

That's the name of a new blog I discovered, but it works just as well as a description of the blog's new post on Pascal's Wager. Read it. It's not terribly new, but the presentation is effective. Think the copy would have worked even better as a YouTube script, but hey, take what you can get.

Dawkins on Wilson: oh, snap!

Via Atheist Perspective, Richard Dawkins has replied to David Sloan Wilson's attack on his book. It is much more effective than Wilson's original piece, but it is also much more effective. In fact, the last two sentences could almost have been Dawkins' entire reply: "I referred my readers to Wilson for a fuller treatment of what he calls group selection, and moved on. I thought it a generous gesture at the time, and I see no reason now to regret my choice to write my own book rather than his."

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fallacies in public debate

(This post inaugurates a policy of trying to link aggressively to the wiki IronChariots.org, not so much because it's a great site as is but because of what I hope it can become. If you don't like what you find at the links, work to improve it.)

Alonzo Fyfe and Richard Chappell have been discussing the problem of fallacies in public discourse. This is one that irks me, and I notice it more and more the longer I take philosophy classes. In philosophy, arguments are usually all you can ever bring in support of a position, so you get very good at making and evaluating arguments. This isn't just something philosophers believe because it makes them feel good: philosophy majors have been shown to make some of the best law students, precisely because of the training in argumentation that a philosophy curriculum provides.

So I share Alonzo and Richard's frustration. I think the problem is broader than just fallacies, but let's ignore that for the moment. I want to comment on some of their proposed solutions, which strike me as problematic.

First, there is Alonzo's proposal that members of certain professions be required to be able to identify fallacies by name. This proposal strikes me as so insufficient as to be almost guaranteed to backfire. People who can name fallacies and nothing more are typically horrible reasoners--they have no real sense of the difference between good and bad arguments, but their ability to stick names on arguments they dislike makes them overconfident about their judgments. I'll use Alonzo's example of the tu quoque fallacy: might the point be that the rule that has been violated isn't a reasonable one? Might it be that the offense is relatively minor and not much can be inferred from the fact that a person has committed it? Answering such questions takes some discernment, especially given that it is possible to lay out a legitimate argument in a perfectly understandable way while leaving some steps implicit. Tu quoque can make for a flaming non-sequitur, but it's a mistake to dismiss everything that kinda sounds like it. As Richard says, we need to support a kind of good reasoning not reducible to such mechanical competencies.

Richard seems to be more favorably disposed to Alonzo's idea of bringing social pressure to bear on those who use fallacious arguments. Here, I think, the problem is that most people would endorse this in principle, indeed it feels natural to them, but they just aren't very good at spotting the fallacies. Philosophical education--which Richard, to his credit, mentions--is not one solution but the only solution.

My first instinct is to say make a certain amount of philosophy required for college graduation, but even that might be under-achieving. When Massimo Pigliucci came to town last April, one of the things I learned from him is that in Italy where he grew up, high school students are required to take something like four semesters of philosophy. Though it might be hard to drum up the political will for that, there seems to me little other reason not to try such a program in America. Massimo mentioned some evidence that the intellectual life in Europe is healthier than that in America, perhaps there's a connection. It might not solve all the problems with intellectual discourse in America, but it might at least make it so that philosophers don't have to groan every time they read an opinion piece.