Thursday, November 29, 2007

How the Democrats can destroy Huckabee

Huckabee(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

It's becoming increasingly likely that Mike Huckabee is going to be the Republican nominee. The Evangelicals will take one of their own if they can have one, they can have Huckabee, so they aren't settling for a Mormon (Romney) or a vaguely secular type (Giuliani) or someone who only recently made friends with Jerry Falwell (McCain).

Today, Andrew Sullivan approvingly linked to a Mark Kleinman post declaring that one of the things Huckabee has going for him is that "he's not a hater or a lunatic or a fool."

I beg to differ.

Back when it looked like Romney might get the nomination, smart atheists like Brian Flemming were salivating over it as a chance to provoke more discussion about religious belief in this country.* Is Huckabee really all that much worse of a target, though? Sure, the lack of foreignness means its harder to get the ball rolling. But there's a guarantee that the conversation won't get bogged down on the mere foreignness of his beliefs, and we can get on to what really makes them crazy.

First, of course, is the evolution issue. The attack here is straightforward. If official Democratic party types want to put together something that will appeal to a mass audience, I'd suggest they start off with a good fossil line up, maybe a quick mention of DNA analysis, and then ask: If Huckabee can ignore such a well-established scientific fact, what other elements of reality will he succeed in ignoring? Do we want to be giving someone like that control of the most powerful military on Earth, including, let's not forget, a good-sized nuclear arsenal? Have we forgotten what happened the last time a president was willing to ignored reality [cue photo of newspaper with headline announcing no WMDs have been found in Iraq]? The task is made even easier by the fact that Huckabee is officially agnostic on whether the Earth is a year over 6,000, so throw in something like DefCon's Top 10 Reasons the Earth is not 6,000 years old. The dirty little secret of modern Creationists is that while they may find a lot of people who will tell poll takers they don't believe in evolution, once the public controversy gets serious they don't do so well. Dover voters eventually booted the creationists off their school board. Plenty of conservative pundits have quietly aligned themselves on a quasi-secular stance, and aren't going to be too serious about defending him. Heck, while the number of creationists among the current crop of GOP presidential candidates is depressing, they're still in a minority even among their own kind.

While the evolution angle would be an effective line of attack, it's nothing compared to the mileage that could be gotten out of the whole eternal damnation issue. An ideal set up would require some good dirt-digging ability, but here's a sample way of posing the question:
Rev. Huckabee, in 1998 the editor declared the fact that some Christians believe that non-Christians may go to heaven is a significant problem, and in fact an entire issue of the journal was dedicated to advocating this view. Do you agree or disagree?
If Huckabee, in responding, lets slip that he believes all non-Christians are going to Hell, hand it to the Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations and let them run with it. Talk about again and again until they do. Underline it with stupid-but-necessary questions, like, "If only Christians are going to Heaven, does this mean that no religious Jews are going to heaven?" After that, Huckabee's gone. Even more so than with Creationism, the Evangelical doctrine of the Damnation of Everyone Who Disagrees With Us is something that may be widely preached when non-believers aren't listening, but which Evangelicals recognize on some level as being completely indefensible. Heck, these days you can't even get away with saying Jews would be somewhat better off as Christians (and I personally don't think the shitstorm over Ann Coulter saying that made any sense). Baiting Huckabee on this issue makes the evolution thing look like an insanely risky gambit by comparison.

Sadly, this is all just a fantasy, as it's very unlikely any Democrat will work up the backbone to do that. Unless... does anyone know if there are any chances left for average people to pose questions to candidates for the debates?

*and I'm not sure who Kleinman's alleged hypocrites, mentioned at the bottom of his post, are.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Double Review: The Handmaid's Tale vs. 1984

Both The Handmaid's Tale (by Margaret Atwood) and 1984 (by as if you need to be told) are books that I read largely because they were famous, because I thought I should read the famous examples of dystopian literature. Less so, ironically, with 1984, in that case there was also the point that my mom happened to have a copy sitting around the house, and the fact that I needed something to read during a plane ride. The Handmaid's Tale, though less famous, was read simply because I had heard it listed as a famous example of dystopian literature.

1984, it must be admitted, is a rather didactic novel. It starts with the hero, Winston Smith, hating the IngSoc regime but nevertheless working for it in the Ministry of Truth, whose main job is lying to the public. He looks for ways to strike out against the regime, and eventually gets in contact with a subversive group that gives him a book explaining the nature of the regime. He is then captured, and given more instruction in the nature of the regime. At the end, there is one last appendix of information on the nature of the regime. That, perhaps, sells it a little short, there is substantial narration and it gives a picture of the society that mere essay could never have given, but the didacticism remains.

One of the most noteworthy features of Orwell's is Newspeak, the subject of the appendix. Several times throughout the book, the Party's attempts to create this artificial language and eventually have everyone speak it are discussed. It is designed to stamp out all independent thought. In addition to expressing Orwell's belief in the power of language, it provides a number of examples of very useful words for concepts endorsed by Orwell's despots but which Orwell, of course, rejects. The first, and most frequently used, is "doublethink," which means:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.
Blackwhite, similarly, is defined as:
a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that white is black, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.
Last, crimestop:
The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak.

He set to work to exercise himself in crimestop. He presented himself with propositions -- 'the Party says the earth is flat', 'the party says that ice is heavier than water' -- and trained himself in not seeing or not understanding the arguments that contradicted them.
As I've mentioned once before, my initial response to 1984 was incredulity: nobody is as crazy as Orwell's villains. On the plane ride home, I picked up Ann Coulter on a lark and reversed myself: there are indeed people as crazy as Orwell's villains, i.e. Coulter herself. I've heard comments that people who've lived in totalitarian countries find Orwell a remarkably accurate account of what it's like to live in them. With time, I've come to think that if anything Orwell is guilty making the things he describes look more far-out than they really are.

The Handmaid's Tale, while not regularly listed alongside 1984 the way, say, Brave New World is, is much closer to it than Huxley's work. Whereas Huxley presents a hedonistic and stable society, both Orwell at Atwood present repressive (sexually and otherwise) societies in a state of war, maintaining order only by terrorizing their own populations. Atwood presents a fundamentalist Christian dystopia rather than a socialist one, but the mood is the same. The key difference is in presentation. Atwood eschews long didactic passages in favor of carefully rationed flashbacks. While in some sense the result is smoother than Orwell, but at first the situation is so unclear that I got the false impression Offred (the narrator) was not supposed to understand the society surrounding her, a condition so apparently severe that I wondered if she has been the victim of a lobotomy. Yet when it finally comes out it all looks so elegantly constructed. At first glance, the players are made more apparently believable by their humanizing qualities (without spoiling anything: look out for the word "Scrabble.") On this basis, it is tempting to say Handmaid's Tale is the better book.

Where it fails, however, is in expressing the level insanity that repressive regimes can and do reach. Oh, a kind of insanity swirls around Offred and the people she knows, but she never quite confronts it face to face, the way Orwell's hero does. Handmaid's Tale may be more believable, but believability is not the same as expressing the way things are. As TVTropes.org says, Reality is Unrealistic. Atwood takes a crazy situation and makes it feel all-too mundane. Orwell takes mundane elements of modern political discourse and makes it alien and strange. Both make for good stories, but I think Orwell's project is more important. What neither of them does--and which an ideal dystopian novel would do, I think--is artfully make the mundane become frighteningly alien and then travel back to being all to0 believable. I do not know whether any novel has yet pulled off that feat.

Final Verdict, Atwood: four stars
Final Verdict, Orwell: five stars

Quote of the Time Being

He has fewer genuine moral convictions than I do, and that's just not right.
-Michael Reynolds, on Romney

The Golden Compass

Apparently there's a big brouhaha over the upcoming movie. Andrew Sullivan has a link roundup, which I started reading, but then stopped myself. The more I read about the author's random philosophizing, the more I get the gut instinct that the original books are the sort of thing that deserve to be trashed not mainly for bad ideas, but bad writing/presentation, much like The Da Vinci Code. Any remaining chance I'd enjoy it if I read it seems to diminish with each paragraph I read about the thing, so I'm laying off. But this then means I have to read the things to find out if they're any good.

Significant excerpt of the good long while

The following is from Rad Geek People's Daily, though I can't get a permalink to the source:


To prove, that these Sort of policed Societies are a Violation offered to Nature, and a Constraint upon the human Mind, it needs only to look upon the sanguinary Measures, and Instruments of Violence which are every where used to support them. Let us take a Review of the Dungeons, Whips, Chains, Racks, Gibbets, with which every Society is abundantly stored, by which hundreds of Victims are annually offered up to support a dozen or two in Pride and Madness, and Millions in an abject Servitude, and Dependence. There was a Time, when I looked with a reverential Awe on these Mysteries of Policy; but Age, Experience, and Philosophy have rent the Veil; and I view this Sanctum Sanctorum, at least, without any enthusiastick Admiration. I acknowledge indeed, the Necessity of such a Proceeding in such Institutions; but I must have a very mean Opinion of Institutions where such Proceedings are necessary. …

I now plead for Natural Society against Politicians, and for Natural Reason against all three. When the World is in a fitter Temper than it is at present to hear Truth, or when I shall be more indifferent about its Temper; my Thoughts may become more publick. In the mean time, let them repose in my own Bosom, and in the Bosoms of such Men as are fit to be initiated in the sober Mysteries of Truth and Reason. My Antagonists have already done as much as I could desire. Parties in Religion and Politics make sufficient Discoveries concerning each other, to give a sober Man a proper Caution against them all. The Monarchic, Aristocratical, and Popular Partizans have been jointly laying their Axes to the Root of all Government, and have in their Turns proved each other absurd and inconvenient. In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!

—Edmund Burke (1757), A Vindication of Natural Society

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Blogspotting

John Casey has brought my attention to his site, The NonSequitur, which he describes as focusing on doing "a kind of logic takedown of op-ed stuff." I heartily approve. It will be added to the philosophy blogroll momentarily.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Two quick Flew links

John Haldane, who I mentioned in my last post on the Flew affair, has sent me a longer article giving his take. Also, I've noticed that in addition to his blogging on the subject, Richard Carrier has continued updating the Internet Infidels page on it. I could pick some nits with both pieces, but overall they're worthwhile reading.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Philosophers do it for greater employer demand

Eat this, Dad. And this. I don't need to worry that much about getting a job. Via Brian Leiter.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Flew affair: wrapping up the spin

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

AntonyFlewA couple of weeks ago, I declared I was taking a break from my blogging on the Antony Flew scandal. I've decided to come back to wrap up on the spin apologists have been putting out. For those new to the story, read the New York Times piece by Mark Oppenheimer on Flew first. It's what touched off the controversy, and the defining feature of the whole thing is that the Evangelical apologists rushing to exploit Flew seem incapable of addressing it as it stands, but rather compulsively misrepresent it.

Christianity Today is just baffling:
In "The Turning of an Atheist, "Mark Oppenheimer raises questions galore without actually proving any of his points.
Oppenheimer supports everything he says with statements the people involved. What more proof does CT have in mind? It's never explained.
He questions the degree of Flew’s involvement in writing the book...
Everybody agrees that Roy Varghese did most of the work writing the book, and this should not be much of a surprise to anyone who understands that "with" is frequently used as a euphamism for "ghostwriten by."
...the credibility of scientists whose perspective Flew adopted...
I've read the article through many, many, times, but if Oppenheimer himself ever questions the credibility of the scientists involved, I keep missing it. Oppenheimer does quote Richard Carrier and Paul Kurtz doing so, but so what? I don't know how he could have covered this story without mentioning the fact that the claims made in Flew's book are controversial.
...and even Flew’s mental competence at the advanced age of 84. (Oppenheimer suggests that Flew may be "a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates" and raises the possibility that his "memory [is] failing" and that "his powers [are] in decline.")
This point is supported with a fair amount of details from Oppenheimer's own conversations with Flew. Flew couldn't remember relevant people, concepts events, and explicitly admitted he had erroneously endorsed a view because he had simply forgotten one of the main objections to it he had spent his life promoting. Again, what kind of proof does the CT author have in mind?

Bruce Chapman has put up a couple of posts at a Discovery Institute website so lacking in substance that it's hard to find anything to criticize in them. In the first post, Chapman accuses the Times of having sent Oppenheimer to discredit Flew. The possibility that Oppenheimer simply set out to cover it and followed the facts where they lead is ignored without an attempt at justification. Then he calls the idea "that Flew is getting old and forgetful" a "conceit," simply ignoring the grounds given for this conclusion. The second posts suggests a lawsuit against the times, without explaining what possible grounds there might be for such an action.

William Dembski, that paragon of honesty, has called the Times piece "vile" and "despicable," without actually finding anything to criticize about it.

Journalist and philosophical wanabe Dinsesh D'Souza is another entry in the flat-out-lie school of spinning this one:
The only evidence that Flew has lost his mind is that he's 84 years old.
No, the evidence is specific failures of memory documented by Oppenhiemer.
A man of 84 naturally loses some of his memory, especially for names, but this does not mean he has lost his marbles.
This next sentence should make us pause and wonder if even D'Souza knows what he's trying to say. He acknowedges in a way that Flew's memory failures are documented, but readers of D'Souza who haven't read the Times article won't be clear on this. He also seems to suggest that if you're at an age where a problem is common, your having the problem doesn't count as having the problem. If that's D'Souza's argument, all I can say is that it's one of those things for which the phrase "WTF, mate?" was created.

Most of the positive Amazon.com reviews aren't worth reading, much less responding to, but I'll look at one because it's from the literary agent for the book. The main criticism is rather confused:
The NT Times Magazine article referenced in other reviews could be categorized as an ad hominem argument (defined as "appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect, or attacking character and not content"). In an attempt to find a "story behind the story" the article sidesteps the actual story itself, which is that Antony Flew, a brilliant atheistic philosopher, has changed his mind about the existence of God.
First, the definition of ad hominem is weird, as standard definitions include only the second part. Second, the fallacy is only there if the inference that the arguments are unsound is drawn from the character flaws. If the information is simply presented as worth knowing (which it surely is), no fallacy committed. Finally, if the story is the conversion, not the arguments, how on earth can the agent complain about focusing on the man?

This is followed by a childlike statement from Flew, of whose authenticity I sadly have little doubt:
"My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 percent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I'm 84 and that was Roy Varghese's role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I'm old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking."
Lastly, there is a quote from the publisher containing an outright lie: "the NYT Magazine writer generalized from Flew's aphasia to senility." For the half-dozenth time, Oppenheimer explicitly describes observing evidence of memory problems going far beyond Flew's self-described "nominal aphasia."

I have to say I'm surprised by the number of prominent Christians rushing to dirty their hands with such nonsense. In a way, I'm disappointed; it wasn't supposed to be this easy to show the world what scumbags they are. Then again, I've already commented on how boring such frauds can be.

In lighter news, John Haldane wrote the Times to say his involvement with Flew was limited, and that Haldane "sensed that his vigor was reduced." (Also published was a letter from Varghese, which I dealt with when it was published by Vic Reppert. The Times edited Varghese for length, but the stuff they cut wouldn't change the blatant falseness of Varghese's claim that "The only reason that people ask questions about his mental faculties is that he dared to change his mind.") Valarie Tarico has an excellent post on the subject, which sets aside addressing the spin to actually understanding it. Finally, via ExChristian.net, there's a somewhat outdated but still nice video of Richard Dawkins speaking on Flew.

Rejecting debate

Found quote at Andrew Sullivan's:
I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed an statement he disagreed with and said something like "yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory." To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle.

Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.
I've long been baffled by the people's lack of willingness to discuss religion openly, but perhaps the problem isn't just religion? I've never noticed the problem in quite the terms given above, though serious debate in social settings is unusual enough that I could make the following joke through the Facebook page of the campus philosophy club:
The first rule of philosophy club is you don't talk about philosophy club.

The second rule of philosophy club is you don't talk about philosophy club...

This week, each one of you has a homework assignment. You're going to go out, and you're going to start an argument with a total stranger. And you're going to lose.

Now this is not as easy as it sounds. Most people, normal people, do just about anything to avoid an argument.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thought of the Time Being

In a world where many people have trouble facing reality, I admire those who can look reality in the eye, confident in their belief that reality will blink first.

Carrier on birth control and abortion

Richard Carrier presents evidence that birth control pills sometimes cause abortion. He deserves kudos for saying something that goes against the usual PR line for his broader pro-choice position.

Profs vs. hacks

One of the great things about the internet is that when a hack misrepresents the work of a scholar, the scholar himself can get the word out very quickly. Brian Leiter provides us with an excellent example of this.

Likeability vs. respect

Sullivan links to this article, apparently because it confirms his Hillary as Nixon narrative. I'm linking for another reason: "Voters didn't need to like Nixon to elect him. He only needed to earn their respect." I'm definitely on the "respect" end of the voting voter spectrum. Am I the only one who remembers what happened the last time we elected someone based on likeability?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Balancing cancer and apoptosis

Oftentimes in my science classes I feel like I haven't learned anything. This feeling often sweeps over me when I'm taking a test, which is not a good thing. However, when I'm out of the class room, not preoccupied with getting a halfway decent grade, and just reflecting on the experience as a human being, I realized I've learned lots of things. Like how when nonspecialists try to talk about science, they typically don't have the faintest clue what they're talking about.

Two prime, and interrelated, examples of this are (1) people who think we're going to cure aging and (2) people who think we're going to cure cancer. What's the deal here? Simply, a big part of aging is the death of needed cells. However, a big part of cancer is cells not dying when they're supposed to. Your cells have mechanisms for something called apoptosis, programmed cell death, and when those mechanisms are screwed up, you tend to get cancer. One cell-killing gene, p53, turns out to be screwed up in (if I remember correctly) a fairly solid majority of cancers.

There have been experiments on lab animals where they try to put a stop on mechanisms associated with aging, and the result is the things die even younger, because they get cancer. Keep cells alive to stop aging, cancer risks shoot up. And kill cells to stop cancer, and well, you don't have those cells.

I predict a very long period in human medical history where one of the key issues is figuring out how to balance the two things: cells dying and cells not dying. We may find ways to keep the balancing going longer, but it's going to be a darn long time before we find a way to keep that balance from eventually unraveling.

Which Popes belong in Hell?

Loren Rosson compares lists, and writes his own.

PC 57

The 57th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Movement of Existence. Highlights include a piece on the analytic-continental divide, and one looking at the suggestion that we are tired of democracy.

Monday, November 19, 2007

John Searle's Chinese room

I think I must have first heard about John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment about a year ago, when I first decided to begin doing readings on philosophy of mind on my own. The idea is this: a guy, who doesn't speak Chinese, is in a room with a rule book on processing Chinese symbols that is equivalent to a computer program of a Chinese-speaking computer program. The man successfully uses this to make it appear tp people on the outside, who send and receive Chinese communication through slots, that they're conversing with a Chinese speaker (the man works really fast). Does he understand Chinese? No, says Searle. Therefore, understanding has to be about more than running a computer program.

This is one of those things that (cliche alert) sounds great until you think about it for a minute. I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I failed to see what's really wrong with it, until I got Searle's own account (which he doesn't ultimately buy) in his original article. He gives four different possible objections to his position, allegedly based on conversations with people in different places: the systems reply, the robot reply, the brain simulation reply, and the combination reply. Each of these is accompanied by what Searle thinks is wrong with it.

For me, the whole thing fell apart at the systems reply. The objection there is that while the man in the room doesn't understand Chinese, the room as a whole does. Searle's counter move is to imagine a man who's internalized the rules, who still, he claims, wouldn't understand Chinese. From there, the next obvious step is to insist that he be able to incorporate sensory information and respond non-verbally. Searle misses this suggestion, even when he gets to combinations of previous replies. In that case Searle could stipulate that since the man is just following rules that seem arbitrary to him, he can't integrate the Chinese stuff with his English-language knowledge, so he doesn't understand it. However, even under such a stipulation, it's not clear what on Earth is happening. It's as plausible as anything to say that the man suffers from a bizarre split-mind mental disorder, and the Chinese half of his brain does in fact understand what's going on.

I was tempted to write this up for my term paper, but then I realized that Searle's had his handed to him at least a half-dozen different ways on this issues, and suddenly the idea didn't sound like so much fun anymore. It's another personal letdown for me--Searle's refusal to be described as a materialist or dualist briefly sounded very good to me when I was stewing over unclear definitions of the terms, but here it's clear to me that Searle's been making a name for himself on some really bad philosophy--and I've found some reason to think no one really knows what he believes (a topic I may say more on later).

Thought of the Time Being

People are always telling me I should trust Jesus to change my heart, but I'm more inclined to trust a surgeon.

lol sin

I love lolcats:

Funny Pictures
moar funny pictures

Sunday, November 18, 2007

John McCain, and other notes on the campaign

Now something where I can feel good about Sullivan: he's written a favorable piece on John McCain. I'm still upset about his cozying up to the religious right, and in an ideal world he'd face some awfully hard questions about his embrace of Falwell, but frankly, of all the people who actually have something resembling a chance of getting a nomination, he's slowly become my top pick, for his experience, integrity, and lack of dynastic baggage. Sullivan quotes David Brooks, whose column on McCain is must-read material: "There have been occasions when McCain compromised his principles for political gain, but he was so bad at it that it always backfired."

I'm less impressed by his conspiracy mongering/drooling over Hilary-floated rumors that she has dirt on Obama. Really, this one isn't hard to understand: humans aren't naturally pure, if you want them to play nice with you, it helps to have a tit-for-tat policy for cooperation and retaliation. The thinly-veiled threat, "you trash me and I'll trash you," is completely rational, and it's exactly what I'd do if I were in Hillary's place. And if this is about Bill's philandering, and Hillary is intent on looking the other way, it's her own, er, fucking business. I believe that strongly enough that if she used some transparently insincere rationalization to hush it all up, I'd cheer. (See also Michael Reynolds' piece Character? No. Competence.)

Finally, I've thought of one more reason to vote for Hillary:


When I first saw this mash up of the old Mac ad, it struck me as a good expression of how fake she comes off as being. But you know what? That means she is a woman who couldn't sell a false pretense for war if her life depended on it. That, plus the fact that by Sullivan's own admission, she's extremely hardworking, intelligent, etc? Even if the dynastic thing yet drives me to vote Jon Stewart, I'd still take her over Obama.

Word of the day: Chthonic

I came across this word while reading the book Rousseau's Dog, about the conflict between Rousseau and Hume. It was used (on p. 174, for those who want to take a look) to describe Rousseau's paranoid mindset when he was Hume's guest in England, "a chthonic realm of shadows and hidden menace." The "Cthulhu" association came immediately to mind. Then I checked Wikipedia, and had something of a double take when I learned it was ancient Greek referring to the Earth--only the dead part, giving it associations with the grave. And it definitely has picked up Cthulhu associations in recent years. Interesting to watch words acquire subtle new shades of meaning like that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

On not knowing thyself

In my philosophy of mind class, the very first article in our course reader was not a philosophy article at all, but rather a 30 year old piece by a couple of psychologists. * It discussed just how wrong many people are when it comes to understanding their mental processes.

In one sample experiment, they presented people with four identical white shirts, and asked which one they liked the best. People invariably picked the one on the right. When asked why, they gave every answer but the fact that it was on the right, and acted as if the researchers were crazy for suggesting that perhaps that was the reason.

They give several other examples, but that one alone is enough to make me stop and go "WTF?"--and bug the shit out of me. Bugs me bad enough that I tend to babble about it in ordinary conversations.

You see, we're told from a young age that it is important to "know thyself," and the standard thinking on that issue seems to be that once you've imbibed the wise maxim, it's just a matter of applying it by being mildly more conscientious than you used to be. Not so simple it turns out.

Or: a few weeks ago, I mentioned becoming somewhat obsessive about honesty. Honesty, it would seem, involves telling people why you're really doing things, not the reasons that will make them think well of you. And of course, that's absolutely mandatory, because you know why you do things. Except you don't.

And it gets even worse, as the folks at Overcoming Bias tell me that there's all kinds of fakeness people people engage in, starting with fake morality (an obvious enough threat I can deal with looking out for), but also fake optimization criteria, explanation, justification, causality, and even fake selfishness. The last one has got to be the buggiest of them all, because it seems like a fairly safe way of avoiding self-deception is to think of what selfish motives you might have for doing something, and take seriously the idea that they might be your real motives. However, the arguments in the fake selfishness post suggest it's actually easy to attribute selfish motives to yourself incorrectly.

How does one live with all this? I think I need to start by telling myself that I needn't go overboard with all this skepticism about myself, given that it's based on the idea that I do know a few things about myself. However, knowing that's of little comfort if I don't know nearly as much as I used to think. To answer questions about motives with an insistence that one doesn't know risks a kind of self-deception in itself if one does, in fact, know. A compromise strategy would be present any possibly risky claims about why one did something as only your best guess. Sure to annoy people you talk to, but may be the most you can do, until you've done far more towards obeying the old slogan than most people ever dreamed was necessary.

*Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson. "Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes." Psychological Review May 1977, p. 231

What's going on here?

It would be too easy to shred this article on atheism, reprinted at Sam Harris' website. It attacks atheism on entirely pragmatic grounds, without giving a damn about what's true. Did no one warn the author about making appeals to adverse consequences when she was in writer school? With such a faulty approach, it would make a great target for line-by-line ridicule were I in the mood. However, I'd like to do something (in some sense, at least) more productive: ask why nonsense like this gets published. It doesn't seem to form such a major part of our discourse on other subjects. Would I see this as par for the course in politics if I were paying more attention? Is it perhaps that in politics, you're concerned with policy, so people forget how to debate truth claims?

My deep suspicion is that a lot of people have been raised to be adverse to discussing religion rationally, and that's why they say things like the above. But I wish I understood it better.

Update: In the comments, JJ Ramsey raises a question serious enough to merit being mentioned in the body of the post: is the article actually intended to attack atheism? The "atheism is bad" conclusion, I admit, isn't explicitly drawn. To me, it comes off as a member of a familiar type, a piece that sounds an awful lot like the author has a specific point to make, even though it's never drawn. Thoughts?

E-mail from Hector Avalos

Hector Avalos sent me the following e-mail, which he gave me permission to reproduce with comments. You can read what he's responding to here:
Hello, Mr. Hallquist,
Thanks for your review of The End of Biblical Studies, even though I regret that you thought it was, as you phrased it, "a letdown" in your post of September 23, 2007, which also says:

I learned two things from Hector Avalos' The End of Biblical Studies: First, the meaning of Psalm 22:16 is a little more than uncertain (which I already knew), since a literal translation of what appears in the text would be "Like a lion my hands and feet." Second, we have what appears to be an original manuscript of a text about Augustus Caesar. These are nice things to know, but it hardly counts as getting my money's worth.


If you indulge me, let me just note couple of issues that might mitigate your criticism.
The section on Psalm 22:16 was not meant to show you something new (see again p. 314). It is the opposite. The section was devoted to showing you that the Journal of Biblical Literature spends a
lot of time discussing things that are not new. Your comment ("which I already knew"), therefore, only supports my point.

However, if there is not much that is new in my book, then could you tell me where
you have seen the following?

1. A critique of Raz Kletter's use of figurines to delineate the boundaries of Judah
(EOBS, pp. 145-150);
2. A study of how Arthurian scholarship has been similar to biblical scholarship;
3. A critique of W. G. Dever's dating of tenth century pottery and his retreat from
the 10th century dates he assigned to the gates at Gezer, Hazor, and Meggido?
4. A statistical study of the job prospects in biblical studies found on pp. 316-19.
5. Critiques of the use of the prophets in liberation theologies found on pp. 273-280.
6. Critiques of Brueggemann and Levenson on pp. 257-70.
7. The argument that Windschuttle, the anti-postmodernist, is a postmodernist in some ways (pp. 115-21).
My comment: with the excention of 2), this all went over my head. It may have been there, but I didn't learn it. As I noted in the original review, this may have simply been a matter of ineffective popularization, which leads nicely into...
And, while you mention Ehrman's study of Jesus, where else is there a systematic
critique of all the main subfields of biblical studies--subfield by subfield?
Quite possibly, Ehrman's popular books wouldn't work as well as they do is because they don't try to be comprehensive. It takes time to provide proper context for your key points.
Jacques Berlinerblau is indeed an ally in the secular study of the Bible. He is on the more
moderate side of things. He believes secularists should not spend time trying to
overcome religionist thinking (especially among the general populace), while I hold that this is one of the primary missions of secularist scholarship.

I dealt with the charge of intellectualism already on pp. 24-26. I do not think we should
abandon all historical study, as you imply I might. What I am contending is that, in the
case of the Bible, we must have historical study that is free of religionism. I do believe
historians fulfill an important function, one of which is to ensure that false and religionist views of
the past are exposed for what they are.
On the anti-intellectualism point, I had somewhat lazily assumed that readers that readers would take a look at Heard's critique, leaving those who didn't in the dark. The bottom line is that even if Avalos didn't mean to draw broad anti-intellectual conclusions, it seems that some of the things he says would end up there if taken to their logical conclusion. Here's Heard:
Finally, and not insignificantly, if one accepts Hector’s criticism of textual criticism of the Bible as an "elite leisure pursuit" yielding "little benefit," one must also apply this judgment to textual criticism of Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, and any other literature that survives in multiple manuscripts or manuscript traditions. It’s possible that Hector would wish to go there, as his essay in the SBL Forum (which read like a prĂ©cis of this book) seemed to suggest that any pursuit that does not materially benefit others is at least suspect. However, the argument eventually leads to an indictment of all of the humanistic academic disciplines, not just biblical studies. It’s easy to toss out lines like this, but it’s a bit harder to mount a comprehensive justification of a stance that invalidates not just departments of biblical studies, but of classics and literature as well.
Back to Avalos:
I think in general good book reviews should at least engage more of the material, as
is the case with Chris Heard's reviews, which I enjoy reading even when I disagree. That is one reason that I asked him to be a panelist at a session that will critique EOBS at the SBL in San Diego.

Of course, what counts as "talented" writing can be subjective. I can document, however,
that some of my readers found it to be: "an extremely well written book, but written at a sufficiently popular level that even someone not well versed in biblical studies can benefit from it." (review by the philosopher, Gene Bammel, on Amazon.com website).

A final question perhaps should be whether the book was successful in showing
how permeated each subfield of biblical studies still is by religionist thinking (see my thesis statement again on p. 16). If I did that, then I count my book successful. If I did not do that, then it would indeed be a "letdown" even to me.

Respectfully,
Dr. Avalos
It's nice to know that someone else outside the field had better luck with this book than I did. The review was, admittedly, hastily put together; the sort of amateur thing which comes with an implicit disclaimer, "hey, this is just some random guy who signed up for blogspot." If you didn't get that the first time around, I'll make the disclaimer official: when you read reviews of books I have no particular expertise regarding, don't form any definite opinions based on them. And of course, if you are an expert and are looking for an academic discussion rather than a popularization, all bets are off.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sullivan's still at it

A month ago, I slammed Andrew Sullivan's attacks on Hilary Clinton, and he's still at them. A few days ago, a reader asked for an anti-anti-Hillary post filter, a request I frankly sympathize with. Sullivan is a valuable blogger, but his anti-Hillary stuff isn't him at his best by a long shot. Today he had a post which nicely ties together two of the most annoying strands of it: first, he poo-poos pragmatism with idealistic blather, totally forgetting his previous self-described empiricism and "conservatism of doubt." Second, he denounces Hillary as "polarizing," which can only mean that we should dislike her because many people dislike her, a stance which would be cynical and cowardly if it weren't so disingenuous.

Mirror-Touch Synesthesia

Via Philosophy Sucks!, an article on a type of synesthesia where people feel touches that they see. As I've mentioned before, synesthesia is one of those topics I want to learn more about, and I totally sympathize with the "doesn't everyone experience that" comment.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sticking it to airlines

Michael Reynolds proposes "an informal arrangement in which bloggers would try always to link to critiques of bad service." I'm in.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Training a theocratic military

Ed Brayton has more horifying bits from inside the Air Force. If this is totally new to you, you really need to read the book With God on Their Side, which tells the story of Michael L. Weinstein's fight against this stuff. If you aren't new to this, there still stuff that will catch you off guard, so read it. I do have a nit to pick with Ed's wrap-up, though:
No military commander should ever even ask anyone under their command about their religion; it is absolutely none of their business, nor is it relevant to their job or their competence in performing it. The only thing that can result from such intrusions is to damage relationships and cohesion and bring pressure to bear on a young recruit over an issue that the government should take no cognizance of at all.
The only thing that can result? He's forgetting about the fact this prepares them to be used to stamp out religious dissent at home.

Quote of the Time Being

In the 60's, people took acid to make the world weird. Now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal.
-Chain letter passed along by Ben Witherington

Angry atheists or angry theists?

Austine Cline asks.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Why atheists snigger at Plantinga

A commenter at Vic Reppert's place asks, The Ooblog answers:
To answer that question, scroll down Plantinga’s talk to “(U) The Mozart Argument”. As far as I can tell, it’s basically:

1. I like Mozart’s music
2. If evolution had taken a different course, Metallica’s music would have been considered beautiful
3. But it’s not
4. Therefore, God exists

As Dawkins put it in The God Delusion, "That’s an argument?"
The post also mentions Plantinga's obscurantism. I feel this in a big way. When I did my review of William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith for Internet Infidels, I almost included a short section on Plantinga, because Craig references him, but cut the section after editor Keith Augustine and I realized we couldn't quite make out what Plantinga's position was on one of the main issues he's known for writing about. That's not a good thing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

I am a privileged, white sexist patriarchal rich HIV-positive-with-meds guy.
-Andrew Sullivan

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Apologists' Abuse of A.N. Sherwin-White

Some conclusions that I was already aware of due to my own fact-checking, but nice to have out there on the internet.

Sanity break: questions from John Hobbins

The apologetic community is continuing to produce reams of spin on the Antony Flew scandal, and tempting as it is to try to keep up with it all, I could waste days doing that. Once I've spent more time on other blogging that I want to get done, I'll probably post an update on the affair, but I'm forcing myself to put that other blogging first.

One such piece of blogging is a response to some questions from John Hobbins, who's not only a UW-Madison alum who studied philosophy of religion under Keith Yandell, but also called me "a smart and funny philosophy student," which means I have to oblige, or at least do my best, given that I know next to nothing about the things referenced in the post:
...Life is all about differences. Logical, ontological, moral, and aesthetic differences, to name a few. All kinds of differences.

But is there a need for a difference-maker beyond the human individual or a human collectivity, depending on the circumstances? If so, what kind of need?

I think Samuel Beckett thought there was a need. That’s why he replied, in answer to a defense counsel question during a libel action undertaken by his uncle as to whether he was a Christian, Jew or atheist: "None of the three." His famous play, Waiting for Godot, seems to express the sense he had of this need. He thought of it as an unmet need, but a need nevertheless.

What is the difference between Beckett’s view of the human situation, and that of an atheist? The atheist, it seems to me, opts for what has been called the Stallone/ Schwartzenegger/ Eastwood ending to Waiting for Godot: Didi and Gogo get tired of waiting for Godot and they hunt him down instead. When they corner him, they pump him full of lead for making them so miserable all this time. The world is a better place without slime like him...

(1) Is there a need for a difference-maker beyond the human individual or a human collectivity, depending on the circumstances? If so, what kind of need?

(2) What is the difference between Beckett’s view of the human situation [or my (mis-)understanding of his view; I don’t want this to become a debate, at least not primarily, about the correct interpretation of Beckett’s work], and that of an atheist?
What's a difference maker? First making a difference about what?

If the former, I take for granted that external reality exists, and makes a difference. There are also facts about us that go beyond what we think about ourselves, and those make a difference two. Maybe abstract objects could make a difference too, though I've never been quite sure what to make of the abstract objects debate (for those who are as uncomfortable with the phrase "abstract objects" as I am with "difference maker," basically the idea is that things like propositions and mathematical truths have some independent existence of their own in a way that is different from that of material objects but is nevertheless very important. Beyond that, don't ask me, I don't understand it either).

If the latter, I don't see any need for non-human agents to exist, though if they did, they'd certainly make a difference, just like everything else.

When I turn to try to answer the second question, the talk of Godot's "need for a difference maker" makes me think I must be missing something, but I cannot see what. I don't think it quite could have been meant as a synonym for "God," but it seems to be something in the ballpark. If Godot = God, though, I would suggest an alternate alternate ending to the play: "Dude, they must have been putting us on about this Godot guy, we got punk'd."

Thought of the Time Being

Do as I do, not as I say.

Yes, I did just give you a self-referential paradox. Good job catching it.

Quote of the Time Being

This tends towards being linkage, but the post is just barely short enough to quote in full:
Bob Dylan, in Chronicles, the first volume of his memoirs, discusses his early influences. In commenting on the collection of classic literature of some Greenwich Village friends with whom he was staying, Dylan sensed:

"an overpowering presence of literature…you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness."

That is about the best description I have seen of the aim of undergraduate education, especially the study of philosophy–to overcome the seductions of incuriosity and laziness.

Is there a standardized test to determine when this occurs?
-Dwight Furrow

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Varghese's misrepresentation of Dennett

Today, I sat down to-re-read Varghese's preface for the sake of assessing the line, being promoted by Vic Reppert, that apologists weren't really making such a big deal about Flew's change of mind. The short of it is that while Varghese doesn't quite come out and say "this conversion is evidence that God exists," he does want you to think it's really, really, important, exaggerats his significance as a philosopher in silly ways, and is so desperate to show how much more important Flew is than recent well-publicized atheist writers (Dawkins et. al.) that he actually manages to lodge contradictory criticisms of them in the space of three sentences, first claiming they're logical positivists and then claiming they should be condemned for ignoring an important insight of the logical positivists. There are also some run of the mill misrepresentations of Dawkins, so boring they're barely worth mentioning ("Dawkins admits to believing things he can't prove, therefore he's admitted to believing things on blind faith!"--a confusion Dawkins took pains to clear up in The God Delusion.)

There's enough going on with this controversy to make me hesitate to write all that up in detail, but I did stumble across one point worth looking at closely. Here's Varghese, Talking about Dawkins et. al.:
In the first place, they refuse to engage the real issues involved in the question of God's existence. None of them even address the central grounds for positing a divine reality (Dennett spends seven pages on the arguments for God's existence, Harris none). They fail to address the issue of the origins of rationality embedded in the fabric of the universe, of life understood as autonomous agency, and of consciousness, conceptual thought, and the self. Dawkins talks of the origins of life and consciousness, conceptual thought, and the self. Dawkins talks of the origins of life and consciousness as "one-off" events triggered by an "initial stroke of luck." Wolpert writes: "I have purposely [!] avoided any discussion of consciousness, which still remains mostly poorly understood." About the origin of consciousness, Dennett, a die-hard physicalist, once wrote, "and then a miracle happens."
There are a number of misrepresentations here, but the bolded [by me] sentence is what really caught my attention. Varghese clearly wants his readers to think Dennett's solution to the problem of consciousness is a hand-waving declaration that it's miraculous. Immediately, it smelled funny: my first guess was that it was a rhetorical gesture by Dennett describing an apparent problem in his view, which would have been followed by an attempted demonstration that the problem was not what it appeared. So, I looked up the citation and went to the library to get the journal article. When I read the relevant section, my immediate response was to slump back on my stacks-browsing stool and think, "Oh my god, it's worse than I thought." Then I sat up and thought, "why on earth would I expect better from Varghese?" Here's what I had found:
This raises Foster's main point: isn't this way of characterizing the difference the difference between unacceptable dualism and tolerable expansionist materialism vacuous or question-begging? Why, Foster asks, should the dualist be required to explain things more deeply than the materialist? I'd pose a more lenient demand: that the dualist offer any articulated, non-vacuous explanation of anything in the realm of psychology or mind-brain puzzles. Since I am simply proposing a constraint on what sort of theory to take seriously, it really doesn't matter to me (except as a matter of communicative convenience) whether the term 'dualism' is defined in such a way as to permit varieties of dualism to meet the constraint. Indeed, Nicholas Humphrey declares that his position is, in a certain sense, a kind of dualism, and yet since it undertakes to meet the demands of objective science, I consider it radical, but eminently worthy of attention, now - not a theory to postpone till doomsday. And if Penrose were to declare that his position, too, was really a sort of dualism, and if this understanding of the term caught on, I'd want to shift nomenclature and find some new blanket perjorative for theories that tolerate 'and then a miracle happens.'
In other words, Dennett isn't describing his own view of consciousness, he's describing what he believes to be a common flaw in the views of some (but not all) of his opponents.

Notice the trick in Varghese's presentation: he gives every reason for his readers to think the quote refers to Dennett's views, but only says that Dennett wrote the words in a discussion of consciousness. I think this provides a useful piece of context for evaluating Varghese's statements elsewhere. In much of what he writes, he comes off as a crackpot whose follies are best explained by abysmal reading comprehension and reality-blindness caused by a fanatical need to "get those darned atheists." His attack on Dennett, however, suggests that he is capable of sitting down and calmly contemplating subtle ways to give a false impression of the facts. Chilling.

The Christian CADRE spin on Flew

Like Vic Reppert, Layman of Christian CADRE is also trying to downplay the NYT piece on Antony Flew. He opens with the same silly bias charge being aired by Reppert:
In my opinion, the article is rather biased towards the atheists. For example, the author simply outright refers to Richard Carrier as "brilliant" and refers to his "magnum opus" written before getting his doctorate (the relevance of the timing is unclear to me). The Christians, on the other hand, are trying to foster their "scientific proof" of God (air quotes in the original).
At least he didn't use the "fair and balanced" line (who can say that with a straight face these days?) These days, both "fair and balanced" and "unbiased," when used in reference to journalism, seem to mean "making both sides look equally good," a silly constraint for journalists to operate under. Even under less-silly understandings of the phrases, it's hard to see the significance: the damning parts of the article are matter of fact claims about what the publisher told Oppenheimer about the book, the details of Oppenheimer's face to face interaction with Flew, and so on. They aren't subtle bits of analysis easily thrown off by personal prejudice.

What's more, Layman's evidence of "bias" is ludicrous. Yes, Oppenheimer called Carrier "brilliant," but also said he was "obsessive" in a way that's "a little debilitating" and described one of Carrier's letters to Flew as displaying "chutzpah" and having elements that were "invasive and rather trivial." Even on it's own the "brilliant" comment wouldn't be all that noteworthy; I remember the InfidelGuy episode where Christian apologist Mike Licona gushed about how much smarter than he Carrier was. It's a common reaction to meeting Carrier, apparently.

Two paragraphs later, Layman gives away the whole game by trumpeting how the article "forced to concede a few things." Really? Why not say that those things are evidence of bias towards the Christian side, and Carrier's brilliance is a mere concession? What silliness. On the other hand, the concessions aren't much: no one's disputing that Flew minimally believes in God, and Carrier's correspondence with Flew was first publicized by Carrier himself. In other news, the NYT conceded that Flew's first name is "Antony."

This is followed by quotations from the Varghese letter published on Reppert's site, which has already been delt with by comments there, so I'll restrict myself to what Layman infers from it:
Moreover, if you are looking to the internet for fair coverage of the back-and-forth, you likely are missing out:[quotes Varghese again]
Did Layman forget he was writing a blog post and quoting a blog post for evidence?
Atheists have swarmed him trying to convince him he had been duped, but failed.
What constitutes a swarm? Carrier contacted Flew at other's prompting, and Flew reportedly thanked him for the information Carrier sent. Flew discussed some of the relevant issues with Dawkins, and it's unclear who initiated that, but Flew later thanked Dawkins for it in print (the closing essay to Flew's debate book with William Lane Craig, Does God Exist?). He chose to put out an edition of one of his books in 2005 with an atheist-run publishing house, and obviously had to interact with some atheists for that. That's about it, to my knowledge. Only Carrier showed any signs of being particularly aggressive; not much of a swarm.
Having failed to get him to recant, the atheist orthodox are attacking his intellect, unable to admit that a "true" atheist could convert to theism based on reason and evidence. It simply has to be the result of those deviously clever idiotic Christians taking advantage of an old man.
No one's said "no true atheist could convert to theism based on reason and evidence, therefore Flew must be senile." Some people suspected mental impairment because of specific signs of confusion in Flew's public statements, but people didn't start stating it definitely, loudly, or widely until Oppenheimer presented specific evidence that this was in fact the case.
What seems to be truly inappropriate, however, is the atheists attacking an "old man" with outright or implied accusations of a failed intellect.
No one's attacking Flew. People decline in old age, that's the way it is, it isn't his fault. What is blameworthy, and drawing considerable venom, is the way Flew is being used in his current condition.

It's somewhat upsetting for me to see this last point distorted, given my own personal experience with these issues. When my parents told me that medical tests indicated my grandmother was suffering from dementia, they weren't attacking my grandmother. They were giving me an unfortunate piece of family news that we all had to deal with. Similarly, when we saw people like her targeted for dubious financial deals, we didn't get mad at her for being vulnerable to them, we got mad at the vultures trying to cheat vulnerable seniors out of their money. That's what's going on with Flew and Varghese, only Varghese's goal has been to score propaganda points rather than money. And that's what has everybody so disgusted--at least, everybody who isn't blinkered by their apologetic agenda.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Oxytocin and generosity

Via Natural Rationality, a new paper linking oxytocin to generosity. Makes for interesting reading, but raises more questions than it answers--how the hell could a chemical raise generosity?

Richard Carrier on the Flew scandal

Over at his blog, Richard Carrier has put up his comments on the Flew scandal. The information is not absolutely essential, but it is nice to see and there's at least one point which I had been annoyed to see left out of the Oppenheimer piece.

I do take issue, though, with Carrier's suggestion that Flew didn't even read the drafts of the book. Carrier offers some arguments for this position, and they seem reasonable at first, but the case is severely undermined by the facts about how badly shot Flew's memory is. All the evidence can be accounted for on the hypothesis that Flew read the drafts, but was unable to remember the information that would have stopped him from signing off on them. Such a hypothesis would seem extravegant under normal circumstances, but Oppenheimer's account of his encounter with Flew indicates Flew's memory really is that bad. Therefore, the suggestion that Flew didn't read the chapters is unwarrented.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Reppert on the Antony Flew scandal, again

Vic Reppert is continuing to attack Mark Oppenheimer's expose of the Flew scandal. A commenter posting under the name "bad" dispatches the post perfectly:
"Why is this so intolerable to the hard-core atheist crowd. Why the character assassination?"

Well, sometimes people act with a real lack of character, and it's worth pointing this out and condemning it. In this case, the salivating over Flew's rather meager and almost seemingly disinterested embrace of deism amongst evangelicals really IS remarkably ghoulish, and if you think it helps your cause to say that this judgment is just a defense mechanism on the part of non-believers, I guess you have to go with whatever tactics satisfy your needs.

But speaking as a non-believer who has plenty of full on Christian believing friends I think are perfectly intelligent, the argument that I'm threatened by Flew's deism seems pretty silly to me.

"The mere fact of Flew's conversion to deism undermines the hard-line atheist conviction that there are no real, intelligent ex-atheists."

This, as I noted, makes no sense.

There are plenty of intelligent people who believe in god: but seeing as being intelligent does not prevent one from being wrong, that is neither here nor there as an argument for belief in a god.

Flew seems to have been convinced by arguments that, frankly, seem pretty darn flimsy to me. But it's no real skin off my back: lots of theists buy those arguments (though many other theists agree that they are bunk and use different arguments instead, or are just fideists).

What is of note, however, is the spectacle here. None of Varghese's "side" really seems to contradict the article: it just sort of sidesteps the more embarrassing implications and somehow manages to continue to avoid the fact that the book is being promoted as Flew's, when in fact Flew has many times said that he really isn't in a state to write or really even consider the arguments or scholars rigorously.

Flew, again by his own admission, doesn't seem able or willing to spend lots of time considering the counter-arguments to his new position, or the scientific scholarship involved, and so forth. Which is, in fact, not a really a big deal: no one is obligated to while away their remaining years on this or that intellectual debate. He can believe whatever he likes.

But when Flew is treated as a sort of trophy by everyone from creationists to, well, creationists (since more mainstream believers seem to find the situation sort of icky as well), and presented as a sort of argument from authority for theism, that, like it or not, calls into question the issue of what sort of authority Flew is on the matter.

The whole thing is made even more ghoulish and silly in the face of the fact that if you want to argue that there are intelligent believers, there are plenty of folks in the prime of their lives and careers defending theism. It's not like any of this spectacle was particularly necessary to make that point.
I also threw in my two cents:
I was going to respond, but bad said most of what needs to be said, so I'll restrict myself to two points:

(1) Oppenheimer plainly did talk to Varghese. He first mentions having done so on page 2 ("Varghese told me in August"), and then mentions confirming something Flew said with Varghese on page 5, indicating that he talked to Varghese after talking to Flew, so Varghese would not have been blindsided by Oppenheimer's account of his encounter with Flew. That does not mean Oppenheimer showed him a draft of the article, but nor is that standard practice for journalists. I don't know how that would have changed things, as the most damning parts of the article are matter-of-fact statements about things Flew has said, and I don't see what Oppenheimer is supposed to do to be more responsible there, short of dragging a second journalist around with him through the entire course of writing the article to make sure he wasn't making things up wholesale.

(2) If you care so much about letting people hear both sides, link to the Oppenheimer article so your readers aren't dependent on people like bad and me to tell them what the article said. Wait, never mind, I'll provide the link myself.

Monday, November 05, 2007

PC 56

The 56th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Philosophy and Bioethics. Includes a fascinating post on moral paradoxes, and another on the rights of embryos, though the latter will only really be interesting to those who enjoy mutilating dead horses.

Antony Flew's manipulators continue to sink to new lows

Update: For those coming here from The Carnival of the Godless, I have a number of other blog posts on Flew, with I think at least one more to come.

News of Antony Flew scandal is continuing to spread. It's been picked up in a number of places, from God is for Suckers! to Atlantic Monthly blogger Ross Douthat. Brain Flemming has a perfect account of why the exploitation of Flew is reprehensible:
Imagine that in Ronald Reagan's twilight years -- the "long goodbye" of the neurodegenerative disease Alzheimer's -- some opportunistic political hack gained access to Reagan, manipulated a few quotes out of this mentally compromised old man, then penned the book, "The Democrats Were Always Right: Why I Am No Longer A Republican by Ronald Reagan."

Sleazy wouldn't begin to describe this behavior.
Now, the worst/best part of it is that they aren't backing down. Vic Reppert has put up a post passing along something gotten via Gary Habermas: Roy Abraham Varghese's response to the NYT piece. By passing this along with no disputing comment, both Habermas and Reppert are giving this their implicit endorsement. Part of me's saddened to see that there are people so morally bankrupt that they're willing to help in a project like this, but I have to confess to also being thrilled: if such people must exist, I'm glad that they're willing to expose themselves in such a public manner.

Let's look at the details of Reppert's post now, shall we?
I personally thought that the Oppenheimer piece was pretty clearly biased, in that it sounded as if he had talked to the people on the atheist side (like Carrier), but had not spoken to anybody on the theist side.
This is at best sloppy reading. Oppenheimer explicitly says he talked to Varghese. On page two, he says: "'I’ve been involved with him for 20 years or more,' Varghese told me in August." Even if that weren't the case, Oppenheimer's most damning revelations come from his direct interaction with Flew himself (see the first quote in PZ Myers' post). Note that Reppert doesn't link to Oppenheimer's article, making it difficult for his readers to check these things out for themselves. Now let's look at what Varghese himself has to say:
Among those who have personally been most influential in Tony Flew’s pilgrimage of reason is Professor Gary Habermas. Both intellectually and at a personal level Gary has become one of Tony’s closest friends and advisors. I know this from discussing the matter with Tony. As is their wont, the freethinking blogaholics (with their single digit audiences and gnat-sized attention spans) have turned their guns on all those (including Gary) who are associated with Tony. Since they have no interest in truth or even serious debate, there’s no point spending time or energy on their daily diet of diatribe. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. These folks interpret this as a continuous obligation. But that’s no reason for the rest of us to share their fate.
"I have no interest in debating them, based on an unsubstantiated assertion by me that they don't want to debate!" Talk about projection; this is one of those times when I think Freud doesn't deserve all the shit he gets.

After that, Varghese spends most of his time bolivating about issues that aren't in significant dispute, so I'll skip to the last paragraph (though follow the link if you're curious--unlike Reppert, I provided one):


Is Tony Flew "all there" mentally? Oppenheimer asks if he is "a senescent scholar" with a "failing" memory. As he himself notes, Tony cheerfully volunteered the fact that he has "nominal aphasia", the inability to reproduce names. Now, starting at the age of forty, the average human being progressively forgets recent names, events and the like. So nothing out of the ordinary there. Is Tony slower to respond when asked a question than a younger person? No question about that – age certainly leaves a mark with each passing year and he is now eighty-four. But then again there are numerous scholars in their seventies and eighties who have trouble remembering recent names and events. And yet in most such cases, the thinkers concerned have been clear and consistent in their reasoning whether or not we agree with their conclusions. The same holds true for Tony. When he sets pen to paper (as will be seen in the most recent issue of Skeptic), he is as cogent and coherent as you could want (and also as terse as he was in his 1950 article). The only reason why people ask questions about his mental faculties is because he dared to change his mind. But let’s not forget that his new view of the world is one embraced by many of today’s leading philosophers in the Anglo-American world as well as most of the pioneers of modern science. This is the dirty little secret that the "new atheists" and their drum-beaters never talk about. It’s so much easier to shoot the messenger!
Pure obfuscation. Again, as Oppenheimer said, "he forgot more than names"--again, see PZ's snippings for details.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Disseminating parallel realities

Wednesday, I had another article come out in the SSA eMpirical, titled Disseminating Parallel Realities: What Secularists Should Know About their Local Evangelical Groups. The issue also includes another nice article along broadly similar lines, Student Article: Christian Recruiting: Amusing for Many, Harmful for Some.

Amazon.com and Antony Flew's new book

Update: My Amazon review is up, along with two other reviews drawing on the NYT piece. Do Amazon customers a favor; go over there and give some "this review was useful" ratings to the negative reviews, so the reviews will be displayed more prominently and Amazon customers won't be taken in by this sham.

About a week ago, I bought and read a book published under the name of alleged atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew. The cover said "with Roy Abraham Varghese," which seemed like a tip-off for ghost writing, and the book was of such poor quality that I concluded that it couldn't actually have been written by a professional analytic philosopher. Then, on Pharyngula today, I saw that a New York Times article had established beyond all doubt that Flew has gone senile, and is being cynically exploited by religious propagandists.

Lying apologists are old news, but Amazon.com is, for the moment, protecting them. They silently refused to publish two of my reviews airing my suspicions. Please write to them insisting that they allow people to freely post negative reviews, and asking that they include excerpts from the New York Times article under the Editorial Reviews section.

For those who want as full of a story as I can give, here is the second review I wrote of the book, the third review, and the letter of complaint I wrote to Amazon.com:
A disappointing exercise in propaganda

In theory, a book like this is something to be excited about. In reality, the execution is horrible on several levels.

Why would this book be something to be excited about? First, for those who’ve followed philosophy of religion news, Flew’s position change from atheism to deism was a big story that, unfortunately, came with little explanation. Flew simply didn’t invest much work to make what he believed and why clear to the world (for those who don’t have the background, the Wikipedia page is pretty good as of this writing, and you may also want to look up Richard Carrier’s article "Antony Flew considers God... sort of" on Google). This book had the potential to clear up those questions.

More broadly, Flew was in a position to bring a fresh perspective to philosophy of religion. I know from experience that Paul Draper’s position as an agnostic who thinks there are both good arguments for and against the existence of God, and that it is not clear how they should be weighed against each other, makes for excellent reading. It would be tempting to hope Flew could provide something similar.

Unfortunately, the end product is simply dismal. I’ll do my best to explain why in the rest of the review, but if you really want to understand what’s wrong with this book, I recommend reading any of Flew’s earlier books on philosophy of religion and comparing. While not perfect, Flew’s earlier writings display a care for careful argumentation that is entirely lacking in this book.

Indeed, I would go so far to say that this book fails to answer any of the questions raised by Flew’s previous work, and by the very public vacillations he engaged in during his turn around. The first section deals with his previous views, and on two key points, just says what other people have said in response to them without giving Flew’s current position or explaining how he reached it. On free will, there is a statement that Flew used to believe that it exists and is compatible with determinism, now believes it exists and is incompatible with determinism, but no clear explanation for the turn around. Instead of a discussion of any depth we get a brief exposition of a version free will that looks plagiarized from a pop theology book.

The first section was pretty bad, but the second, which was supposed to give Flew’s reasons for believing in God, disappointed even my lowest expectations. First it declares that scientists were wrong to criticize him for getting the facts wrong, and that the scientific facts don’t matter. Then, in place of substantiative arguments for the existence of God we get a parade of quotes that aren’t critically analyzed at all. Some of the quotes are from philosophers, but the focus is on scientists, making the previous disregard of science utterly hypocritical.

The book ends with two appendices. Only the second one has anything to do with Flew, so I’ll focus on that. It begins with roughly two and a half pages in Flew’s voice, saying he has some reasons for being skeptical of the resurrection, followed by twenty-five pages of theologian N. T. Wright arguing there are good historical reasons for believing in Jesus’ resurrection. The stuff in Flew’s voice barley gives any idea of the substantial criticisms of the resurrection Flew has logged in the past. I suppose this would be difficult to do given its shortness, but why then wasn’t the section made longer? Wright’s discussion boils down to "It’s odd that the early Christians would come to the specific beliefs they had, so Jesus must have really risen from the dead." The same argument could be made for UFO crazies. This is followed by a brief bit in Flew’s voice which amounts to "it’s possible"—a baffling comment, given that Wright claimed much more than that.

What’s going on here? Notice that the cover says "with Roy Abraham Varghese." "With" is a common publisher’s euphemism for "ghostwritten by," and given the vast gap in quality between this book and Flew’s previous work, I can only assume Flew’s actual role in writing it was minimal. There are two possible explanations here that I see: one, Flew was so dead set on retiring that he refused to put much work into the book, and two, that he has lost the mental capacity to do the work. I do not put forth the second possibility for laughs: such things do happen as people get older, and if it has happened in this case, the people behind this book have done something truly appalling in so exploiting an old man for their propaganda purposes.

The word "propaganda" there is important. After reading this book, it’s clear to me that the people behind it never had any intention of advancing the state of the discourse in philosophy of religion. Nothing else can explain their ludicrous exaggeration of Flew’s status as an atheist. An important atheist philosopher of religion, yes, but those who know their way around contemporary philosophy of religion know this hardly is the equivalent of being the single most important contemporary atheist. The appendix by N. T. Wright also makes no sense except in the context of a tool for Christian evangelism, and was even presented in such a way as to obscure the fact that all previous reporting on the Flew affair agreed that he had become a deist and most definitely not a Christian.

Don’t buy this book. But if you must, I reiterate my recommendation to read it alongside a real work in philosophy of religion, so you can see the difference between serious analysis and propaganda.

******

Most of what you really need to know about this book is contained in the New York Times Magazine article, "The Turning of an Atheist." It makes clear that Flew did not write the book, his memory has declined to the point where he is incapable of understanding the issues discussed in it, and is in fact being cynically exploited by religious propagandists.

Since I have, in fact, read the book, I’ll offer some comments on the end product. One way to understand what’s wrong with this book is to read any of Flew’s earlier books on philosophy of religion and comparing. While not perfect, Flew’s earlier writings display a care for careful argumentation that is entirely lacking in this book.

This book fails to answer any of the questions raised by Flew’s previous work, and by the very public vacillations he engaged in during his turn around. The first section deals with his previous views, and on two key points, just says what other people have said in response to them without giving Flew’s current position or explaining how he reached it. On free will, there is a statement that Flew used to believe that it exists and is compatible with determinism, now believes it exists and is incompatible with determinism, but no clear explanation for the turn around. Instead of a discussion of any depth we get a brief exposition of a version free will that looks plagiarized from a pop theology book.

The first section was pretty bad, but the second, which was supposed to give Flew’s reasons for believing in God, disappointed even my lowest expectations. First it declares that scientists were wrong to criticize him for getting the facts wrong, and that the scientific facts don’t matter. Then, in place of substantiative arguments for the existence of God we get a parade of quotes that aren’t critically analyzed at all. Some of the quotes are from philosophers, but the focus is on scientists, making the previous disregard of science utterly hypocritical.

Don’t buy this book. But if you must, I reiterate my recommendation to read it alongside a real work in philosophy of religion, so you can see the difference between serious analysis and propaganda. And read the NYT article—you’ll be shocked by it’s revelations.

*****

Not sure this is the correct place to make this complaint, but it's where the relevant links took me. Over the past week, I have twice attempted to submit reviews of the book "There is a God," officially attributed to Antony Flew but which had multiple layers of ghostwriting behind it. Both times, I waited the requisite 48 hours and failed to see my review appear. The first time I thought it might have been because I had not noticed the rule against including URLs, but the second submission included no URLs. I have just entered a third submission, written with recently gained knowledge from the NYT article on the Flew affair, which confirmed the suspicions voiced in previous submissions and allowed me to state them as facts rather than submissions. If you care about being honest about the nature of your products, you will allow my most recent submission through, and consider posting excerpts from the NYT article in the editorial reviews.

If this does not happen, I, a customer who as you can confirm has spent hundreds of dollars at Amazon.com, will boycott your company without hesitation. Furthermore, I have contacts with national freethought activists, who I will ask to encourage others to boycott Amazon.com.

I await your reply.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Campus Crusade for Cthulhu









I had a fun time this Halloween.

Getting the IIDB kerfluffle

A commenter here PM'd me with links explaining what happened at Internet Infidels. He may have meant them to be private, but I think they need to be publicly aired:

EverLastingGodStopper's story
A demoted admin's story
The leaked statement from the board

I'm appalled. Unless someone contacts me saying "The IIDB is great again, better than great even, and you're really missing out if you limit yourself to Richard Dawkins' forums and the Rational Response Squad's forums," I'm never going back there again. I'm still hoping the Internet Infidels library will stay strong, though.

Friday random linkage

In which I throw together a bunch of links I had been meaning to put up for awhile.

Biblical Studies Carnival 23 is up! Probably the highlight is Why Aspiring Scholars Shouldn't Blog, which ends with this sage piece of wisdom: "After all, the goal of tenure is to achieve, finally, total irrelevance." I also liked this more serious suggestion on how to avoid being made to looks stupid by blogging in the body of the carnival: "My proposal: that comments to posts of the following format become standard practice: PC (Please correct): [x should read y]. ETC (Erase this comment)."

One of PZ's student guest bloggers writes about the effect of alchohol on the rat brain. Some are worried about this; at present point in time I worry more about the long-term effects of caffeine on my brain.

Richard Chapelle offers up what would make a good Quote of the Time Being:

Yet people keep telling me that my penchant for intellectual honesty is too naive and idealistic to be worth adhering to in the real world of politics. We've gotta play dirty if we want to win. My worry is, when we look at where playing dirty might get us, it doesn't look to me much like victory at all.
Finally, I recently popped in at Sideways Mencken for the first time in awhile, and there's lots of good stuff there: a post on racism, some anti-Obama blogging giving me a needed break from Sullivan's Hilary Derangement Syndrome. Oh, and do me a favor and follow folow this link. The person concerned is, uh, a really cool guy.