Monday, December 31, 2007

Problem of evil vs. paradox of omnipotence

Two of the oldest arguments against the existence of God, in the sense of perfect being theology specifically, are the problem of evil and the paradox of omnipotence. The former argues that if there were a God, there would be no evil in the world, but there is evil, therefore there is no God. The latter goes after the concept of God, arguing the idea of being all-powerful makes no sense. A standard version of this second question is "could God make a rock so big even he couldn't lift it?" but a clearer version comes from J. L. Mackie's article "Evil and Omnipotence" (which deals with both problems): can God place limits on himself?

A number of atheists, myself included, have found the problem of evil significantly more compelling, at least on an intuitive level. Why? One temptation is to say that the problem of evil invokes evidence from the observable world, but this is a flimsy rationale: standard versions of the problem of evil involve at least some deduction from abstract principles, and if an idea is incoherent, one shouldn't be stopped from saying so by fears of being accused of armchair reasoning. Another was suggested by Richard Carrier in his book Sense and Goodness Without God: criticisms of the coherence of theism just end up being arguments for the reform of theology. This doesn't seem to hold much weight either, though: the problem of evil can also be evaded by changing your theology.

Another answer to this quandry was suggested to me the other day when I was reading Peter van Inwagen's Giffod Lectures, which deal with the problem of evil. The book on the whole isn't worth buying, as the main material is available elsewhere. However, it does have an interesting section on the divine attributes. Van Inwagen scales them back a bit. For one, he rejects the idea that God knows what free agents will do in the future, a move considered wildly heretical in some circles but which is nonetheless gaining in popularity. More surprising, he rejects the idea that God can do anything logically possible (a common purported response to the paradox of omnipotence), on the grounds that the concept of logical possibility is problematic. Then he tries to draw a distinction between accaptable and unacceptable redefinitions of God. He claims that an understanding of God's attributes must be "loyal to the idea of God as the greatest possible being." This, I think, pretty well captures what theists want, so even if you can prove one concept of God incoherent, they can just fall back to the greatest concept they can get away with.

Maybe, though, you can go after van Inwagen's minimal concept. Maybe you think there are two different but incompatible ways of being extraordinarily powerful (Mackie suggests something like this), or maybe you think for any being there is, there can always be a more powerful one. What are theists to do here? I think many, though they would not say it openly, would be willing to settle for one of the greatest beings they can imagine. That's close enough, right?

Now we see the power of the problem of evil: not only does it show there is no greatest possible being, it shows us how to imagine a being greater than any one that actually exists, by imagining a being that prevents at least some of the horrendous evils that have, in unfortunate fact, been visited upon the world.

William Lane Craig weighs in on the Flew scandal

I've found out from Richard Carrier that William Lane Craig has weighed in on the Flew scandal. The audio is actually an interesting listen--Craig is as slick as ever, and unlike most of the apologists who've weighed in here he appears to have stopped 30 seconds to think before opening his mouth. When all's said and done though, he still manages to sidestep the main issues, and deserves every bit of scorn Carrier pours on him ('cept maybe the childish part--most children aren't that sleazy). Read Carrier's whole article.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Back in the boggity saddle

Okay, after being detained from blogging for two weeks by finnals and vacation, I'm doing it again. I've got a lot to catch up on, tonight I think I'll stick with a link round up.Carnivals
Jon Swift has a best of post for 2007--self selected by participating bloggers, so it's a sort of megacarnival covering the entire year. I'm not even gonna try to read the whole thing, but near the top was a well-written defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which you should read.
There's also a new edition of the Carnival of the Godless.
Philosophy
Taner Edis has a nice little spoof of contemporary philosophy of religion.

Via The Leiter Report, the New York Times has published a shorter, but still negative piece on the Flew scandal.

Atheism
Via Ex-Christian.net, a roundtable between the four most prominent current atheist authors. The second part is the more interesting one, as they get down into disagreements.
Politics
Andrew Sullivan has linked a report of an experiment in self-waterboarding. I've previously had a very faint inclination to do this out of curiosity, now I both no longer need to and know I shouldn't.Also via Sullivan, McCain is gaining in the polls. Here's adding my feeble support in hopes this will gain momentum. Saw McCain on TV last night, and in spite of his flaws, he comes off as having an aura of integrity you don't find anywhere else.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Review: Pale Blue Dot

Okay, my finals are done, just in time to participate in the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon. Haven't had time to read all the posts yet, but the ones by Ann Druyan and Nick Sagan are well worth reading.

Last year, I did a review of The Demon Haunted World. This year, I thought I'd made a point to read Pale Blue Dot, which I had also heard good things about but never gotten around to reading.

The first thing that struck me as I got into the book is this: Sagan's work is horribly dated. This is no criticism of him, just a statement of how fast the world changes. In The Demon Haunted World, Sagan's prime exhibit for rationality was UFO believers, with creationists mentioned only as a "lest we forget" footnote. Today Evangelical Christians increasingly look like the most frightening force for irrationality in the US, with orthodox Muslim's competing with them for that title on a global scale. This is not my idiosyncratic impression, among the people noting that orthodox religion is making a comeback against New Agey claptrap has been Susan Clancy, a psychologist who's spent much of her time studying the UFO-people. This doesn't mean Demon Haunted World is irrelevant; I think it will be profoundly relevant to any era were irrational beliefs are a significant force in the world. However, it is from a different era.

Now consider Pale Blue Dot, which describes our progress thus far for space exploration and looks at future prospects, with an eye towards eventual colonization of planets. Sagan's prose is as ever inspiring, and he pulls of the careful balancing act of dreaming big yet being realistic about the scientific and technological aspects of what he's considering. Still, when I think "human mission to Mars," I immediately think of George W. Bush's short-lived attempt to champion such a project. Frankly, I can't think it was a good idea. In our current financial situation as a nation, it would be yet another instance of several recent instances of fiscal irresponsibility, each individually inexcusable but shocking when put together. Until we get our act together on a number of domestic and global issues, I can't imagine backing such a project, and frankly if I were in Congress right now I'd be sorely tempted to vote against funding any future space missions until we do.

Sagan worries about a natural catastrophe such as an asteroid wiping out life on Earth, and suggests we should move part of our species off-planet for that reason. I worry far more about a possible slide into religious totalitarianism. Democracy seems to be on the march, but I can't be so confident as Sagan, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, seems to have been about its ultimate triumph. I think this might have given Sagan pause, as he talks about needing to get our act together here before moving outwards, it's simply that he was more optimistic than I can be right now. Prospects also don't look so bright for preventing global warming, which could cause significant human misery and might, via economic shocks, have nasty implications for world politics.

Nevertheless, the book's poetry draws me in, and I think it provides an important sense of perspective for our current troubles. It's also just plain fine popular science writing. At first I was thinking of giving this book four stars, because I've told myself that I would only give fives for must-reads, and saying too many of an author's books, even a very good author's books, are must-reads sits a little odd with me. But no. Pale Blue Dot is a Five Star-er.

I'll end with an excerpt from the book that's been floating around the internet, precisely because it encapsulates the sense of perspective that runs throughout the whole:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Finals blog slump

Okay, 'tis finals week, I managed to crack off some blogging Sunday night, but won't be able to again for another three or four or five days. It's not like I've died, so check back then.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Why not?

This afternoon, PZ put up a post titled the atheist marketing failure. I generally see the point, but one sentence got me thinking:
You won't find the works of Bertrand Russell packaged like the latest issue of Self or Cosmo, as the publishing company Thomas Nelson does with the Bible.
Bertrand Russell is actually one of the most readable writers currently available to speakers of contemporary English. Carl Sagan's prose is also beautiful. So, seriously, why not have a periodical that publishes that kind of stuff? Not something with ATHEIST across the cover, but something focused around scientists and philosophers vaguely aligned with rationalism and humanism and with interesting things to say on all kinds of subjects. You'd have to have people putting it together who really knew their stuff. It's easy to botch the aesthetic for a project like this in a way that gives people an uncomfortable tingling under their skin. With the right people, it could work, though.

Okay, so what does "doing it right" mean? Sadly, I have to single out Center for Inquiry here--not everything they do is horrible, but some of the literature they put out comes off as vaguely outdated in style and vaguely fake. A lot of atheist groups succumb to this. The formula seems to be "trying to put on a polished presentation" + "having no relevant experience" = disaster. If you don't know how to put out a quality product, you're better off putting out something that looks like it was made in a basement/dorm room/etc. Actually, some of the best stuff out there is or at least was originally made in a basement/dorm room/etc. Think Internet Infidels. Think Rational Response Squad. And if you want to know how to actually put good production values to good use, think Daily Show.

I'm randomly throwing down thoughts here, somewhat surprised by the fact that I suddenly managed to fill up a second paragraph for this post. The one other thing that comes to mind: to appeal to teenagers,* be funny. And not "hey, look at me!" funny, but wit funny, humour funny, not taking yourself too seriously funny. When I was a pre-teen/early teen, it was the editorial cartoons that got me started reading op-eds, and the cover cartoon that got me to read Philosophy for Dummies. But then, I was the weird kid at my school. Oh, and take the kids seriously. You can't assume too much starting out, but don't insist on hiding the really cool stuff from them because they're kids. Kids like cool stuff.

That's all I've got for now. But I hope to see the comments threads filled up, hopefully by people who weren't necessarily the weird kids at their school. Sapient, are you reading this? Got any general principles you've derived from your RRS experience?

*I speak from authority, as I was a teenager not too long ago. Oh, sweet reason, was I really a teenager not too long ago? At least I've gotten beyond the "crap, I'm 20" stage of my life.

Thought of the Time Being

No, seriously. "Contend in vain" means "contend in vain." Like how the Gods beat the Titans, and that shows how powerful the Gods are? Double that, and you'll start to get an idea of what Stupidity is like.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dembski ties himself into knots over Chris Comer

loldembski(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Get this: recently, there was a flap about the director of Texas' science curriculum was fired for forwarding an announcement of a talk by Barbara Forrest. William Dembski responded with a bet-hedging post, claiming the details of the case weren't clear, but agreeing that if the the director (Chris Comer) had been fired "solely for supporting Forrest," it would have been wrong. Rather than challenge that, he opted for some derisive remarks about Forrest that Ed Brayton aptly exposed. But then yesterday, he came up with a post with the eye-catching title Chris Comer's Actual Email, revealing the shocking fact that... the Center for Inquiry ("a virulently atheistic organization") sponsored the talk. So, it's wrong to fire someone just for telling people about a talk by someone you disagree with, but okay to fire someone for telling people about a talk sponsored by an organization you disagree with? WTF? I'm also not sure what Dembski means by "virulently." CFI is indeed an atheist organization, but they hardly spend all their time giving fiery denunciations of religion. I went to a CFI-sponsored talk by Forrest this summer, and the focus was entirely on the details of the Dover trial. She even showed Dembski's famous "farting Judge Jones" video for him! And we appreciated it! Thought it was hilarious! (Though I admit we weren't exactly laughing with Dembski there...)

Now on to the kicker: a week before Dembski's first post on the subject, PZ Myers had already made the text of the e-mail public, complete with sarcastic comments along the lines of "Oh no! CFI was involved!" Bill, it ain't a good sign when your enemies crack jokes about you and you quickly go do what they imagine you doing in the jokes.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hmmm...

From Scienceblogs:
"Some psychopathic features are not necessarily a bad thing for society - in some professions they may even help," says Hare. "Too much empathy, for example, on the part of a police office or a politician would interfere with the job."
Does this mean we can add psychopaths to geeks on the list of people we can count on to save the world?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sullivan gets it, redux

Today from Andrew Sullivan:
Mormonism really is very different from Christianity in its theology and doctrines. I don't think it's inherently stranger.
I disagree with quite a bit of what Sullivan says on religion, but I'm still regularly impressed by his ability to understand religious issues that many people have trouble with. He gets it.

Murder is murder

The highschool-student-murdered-over-headscarf story is one that I've been content to be briefly shocked by and then move on, but now Black Sun Journal's given me something to get really worked up about: a Muslim group is putting out a really lame spin line about how saying this is about religion is an oversimplification. Sweet reason, I understand spin doctors are expected to throw around nonsense whose purpose doesn't necessarily involve anyone taking it seriously, but still...

Oh, and if you don't read Black Sun Journal frequently, I recommend making a habit of it. They seem to be doing a good job lately of finding interesting angles on beaten-to-death stories.

New and Improved Philosophy Blogroll!

Well, not all that new and all that improved, but I recently finished an extended process of pruning dead blogs, and I've been gradually adding new ones as well. So, if you haven't added the philosophy blogroll to your site, now would be a good time to do it!

An insane, evil ideology

evil(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

An article just came out in Harper's, by David Lewis and Philip Kitcher, suggesting orthodox Christians are evil for admiring an evil God. It's an excerpt from the book Philosophers Without Gods. I'd recommend buying the book over running to the newstand to pick up Harper's, as:

1) The excerpt is rather insubstantial
2) You can get a decent jist from the Leiter Report summary, to which I can only really add that Lewis and Kitcher briefly endorse the logical problem of evil, which will make John happy
3) I know the book contains at least one other good essay by Richard Feldman.

Anyway, when I consider this article against the backdrop of the current intellectual climate, it feels like the most unimaginable breath of fresh air. Lewis and Kitcher have yet to be hit with the "professional atheist" tag, they're just another pair of intellectuals writing a popular article. And yet what they say is at once obvious and unthinkable.

Take, as a random first example, this quote from William Lane Craig:
I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements. According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.
This comes from a discussion of divine orders to kill children. And Craig is not only saying that God has the right to kill children. He must also say that God has a right to starve parents to the point that they will eat their own children, as he is described as doing in a couple of Biblical passages, such as Jeremiah 19:9. What kind of sick monster even thinks of such a thing? If asked to suggest something horrible to do to somebody, I might squirm and suggest electric shocks, but I would never even think to make them eat their own children. If anybody out there reading this been feeling depressed lately, cheer up: no matter how badly you've been doing in life,odds are you can at least take comfort in that you are a better person than the God of orthodox Christianity.

Craig's absurdly arbitrary ethic is indispensable for the orthodox Christian, both because of the difficulty of finding any other justification for the actions attributed to the Christian God, and because of how Abraham is praised for being willing to kill his son simply because God said so. The ring of sophisticated theology has not yet gone sour, though. After all, I was taught the Abraham story in Sunday school at my relatively liberal church.

Or, consider this post by seminary professor Claude Mariottini, which declares that "The reason people believe that the God of the Bible is a savage God is because God exercises divine justice when people fail to meet divine standards." Roll that one around in your head. "The reason people believe that Hitler was a monster is because Hitler was just." "The reason people belive that Pol Pot was a barbarian is because Pol Pot was just." Crazy, isn't it? Yet too many people allow such pronouncements to take on an air of dignity simply because they're made in the name of religion.

We need to be fearless in identifying this pernicious nonsense for what it is. Most of the people reading this will be, in a sense, beyond that problem. But we also need to ditch the idea that we are doing anything extraordinary in doing so.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Criticism of Deconick on Judas

The NYT has published two letters criticizing April Deconick's attack on the first translation of the Gospel of Judas. Against the backdrop of my previous thoughts on Judas, the letters seem spot-on. To her credit, though, Deconick has linked to the letters from her blog.

Thought of the Time Being

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, how do we go about assigning blame?

Questions

Patrick Smith serves up a post full of random questions, and slips in a list of top philosophical movies. I've only seen three of the ten, and I think I'll make a point to see the others when I have the time... which means never.

Mormonisms' brothers

I've heard for some time that Mormonism considers Jesus and Lucifer to be brothers, but suddenly feel compelled to post on it now that I see Andrew Sullivan has found a defense of this doctrine right on the LDS website. Surprised me, as I've in other contexts that Mormons can be secretive about the weirder beliefs of their founders. Let's keep in mind, though, that Mormons may believe Jesus and Lucifer were brothers, but Christians believe that Jesus was God's son.

Have Dennett's critics bothered to read him?

Ed Brayton recently posted an excellent smackdown of an attempt to blame Dawkins and Dennett for a recent shooting spree. I have one thing to add: the suggestion that Dennett blames the worlds' ills on religious people is a bit of a stretch. In his review of The God Delusion for Free Inquiry, Dennett actually suggested that it might be a mistake to get rid of religion. His book is a very different animal than those of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitches, and people who lump him in with them should be embarrassed by their carelessness.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

International free speech

Dispatches from the Culture Wars has always been a good blog, but in the last couple weeks it's come to seem ever more indispensable when it comes to highlighting threats to our freedoms that are on the horizon. Today we have a prime example: a post on how other countries laws can threaten U.S. freedoms. Something I may have to worry about some day, if I ever get a writing career off the ground.

Evolution sped up by civilization

Via Adrew Sullivan, something I've wondered about for a long time. One of the people involved was John Hawks, researcher from right here in Madison who I may end up taking a course from next fall. Hawks has already written up a blog post responding to criticisms of his study.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Just hormones?

I was recently in a conversation about romance, where it was suggested maybe "it's all just hormones." I reflexively responded with a pat answer which I can't bear to reproduce here, because in retrospect it strikes me as scientifically and philosophically careless. This seems a sign that the formal philosophy part of my brain is disconnected from the ordinary conversation part of my brain, a fact which could be the basis for many significant philosophical ruminations. However, that's not what I want to talk about today, rather, my concern is to get a more accurate view of what we should think of suggestions that something is "just hormones."

Let's start with trying to get the scientific issues straight. It's been suggested that the key to multicellularity is communication between cells, and in animals (including humans) the two main systems for doing this are the nervous system and the endocrine system. In the nervous system, signals are transmitted within cells by ions, and between cells by neurotransmitters (mostly--ions are sometimes used for cell-cell communication too). The endocrine system is everything involving hormones. This doesn't entirely cover all of our known mechanisms for cell-cell communication, since there is also shorter-range hormone-like things (paracrines), movement of chemicals through gaps in the cell wall, and direct interaction between two membrane protiens. But everything we know about what underlies how our bodies work is underlied by chemicals and ions.

Perhaps there is some room to think there are other things going on, I'll get to that in a moment, but let me first emphasize that even if there is more to our actions, we can be sure we could not act in any way, even for a few seconds, without these ions and chemicals. Even if our minds were entirely cared for by a Cartesian Mind, with no need whatever for nerves to be involved, we would still need the chemicals and ions of nerve signals to move our muscles--specifically so that calcium ions could enter our muscles, causing the protein fibers within them to contract. Hormones are more than just sex hormones, they also include things fundamental to our metabolism, which, when not working properly, are often responsible for serious diseases. Remove them entirely and we would quickly die--perhaps, in a delirious state markedly different than our normal mental lives.

So, what might there be to our minds beyond these material entities? In contemporary philosophy, the most popular candidate is consciousness, what it is like to have certain experiences. I won't take the time to comment on the reasons for this position, beyond the fact that it seems to me at least respectable: we know of our own consciousness in a very intimate way, and at first glance it seems a very different thing than matter. A great many philosophers who promote this view (Chalmers, Kim, Jackson), though, are epiphenomenalists. They think consciousness is caused by physical events without having any physical effects. If that's true, then everything we do is because of chemicals and such, even if there's more to the result. In a romantic relationship, for example, there would be what it is like to be infatuated, what it is like to kiss, what it is like to have an orgasm, which cannot be reduced to physical events.

The third alternative to physicalism and epiphenomenalism is interactionism, on which our non-physical mental states can have physical effects. However, it is not clear what the consequences of such a view would be. Would we have free will? Consciousness could be governed by deterministic laws just as much as the physical realm. And if the effects of the mind were not determined, what would they then be? Random? Arbitrary? Are random or arbitrary actions anything to celebrate?

The above discussion is about events, but what about personality, broadly defined as everything that is lasting in a person's mind? Here, I cannot see that it is just obvious that there is something radically outside anything what science currently has a handle on. Arguments to that effect seem to me to mostly stem from a failure of imagination, a failure to consider Hume's suggestion that human personal identity is no different than the identity of inanimate objects, that we have nothing more significant than persistence of a ship having it's parts replaced. There is also much evidence that physical changes in the brain affect personality: I have first-hand experience with what drugs (including alcohol) can do to a person, and what brain damage did to my grandmother. Today in my neuroscience class, the professor talked about dealing with his son's schizophrenia, about the genetic component, about how wonderful some medications have been in treating it. One might reason that if there is more to our moment-to-moment life than the physical, there might be more to our persistence over time, but this remains in the realm of bare possibility.

After all of this, what exactly is it that bothers us about something being a matter of hormones? I think it is the arbitrariness of it. They might have been otherwise, but it seems odd that a change in chemical would change what we ought to do, so actions based on them are not particularly likely to be the right one. What more do we want, though? I am not sure that most people can really say. Yet we must act anyway. Thus, as is the case with the problems raised in my post On not knowing thyself, we act without perfect knowledge of our situations. There are a couple variant strategies here: if you like being confident, you can be a Moorian, and declare that you know with absolute certainty the correct answers to many important problems, even if you do not know the correct analysis of many of the relevant concepts. If you are more humble, and less worried about consistency, you can be a Humean, and make carelessness and inattention your remedy to your problems. I myself am very divided between the two.

Quote of the Time Being

A much better idea is to wait until the children are 14 or so. That way you can be sure that most will never actually learn the language in question, and be pretty sure that they will have an unpleasant time while not learning it. That’s what we try to do here in America. Then, if they have failed to learn a language in high school, we force them to fail to learn a language again in college, requiring 3 semesters of a foreign language, usually taught by people who have no teaching qualifications, and often with minimal supervision. This helps cross-subsidise language/literature departments, but ensures that our students remain monoglots. The Balls interview makes me worry that we have someone in post who just doesn’t get it.
-Crooked Timber

For what it's worth, the Spanish classes I took in high school are serving me okay. Not great, but okay.

Jonathan Coulton Friday

Jonathan Coulton was in town Friday. Turns out, a video of on of the songs made it onto YouTube:But be warned that that it only coveys about 3% of how awesome the concert was. Go to Coulton's website and you can listen to all of his stuff for free. He also has a blog post which includes a video from a Chicago appearance this weekend:Finally, the original Code Monkey Dance video:This last one is especially worth watching. It's a great song--some time down the pike, I actually plan to write on why it's one of the best songs written in recent years. But for now, just watch the video.

Oh, and PS: Check out the website of Paul and Storm, who opened for/backed up Coulton. Somewhere in there, Coulton made a joke about being upstaged by them, which didn't quite happen, but he wasn't exactly going overboard flattering them there, either.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

One more on Huckabee

Apparently, Huckabee thinks God is helping him in the polls. Evidence that he not only has a delusional understanding of why things happen in human affairs, but also that he's delusional in a rather self-centered way.

Does this mean Huckabee will go away now?

One post from my friend Vast Left plus two posts from Andrew Sullivan, equaling more than enough reason to think Huckabee is a loon. The only question now is when the media, and Democratic leaders, will catch on. This only reinforces what I said in my post on Huckabee's issues with evolution and non-Christians. One further suggestion: make the stock response to Huckabee's defenses of himself something along the lines of "skilled preaching may win over congregations, but it is no substitute for human decency and grounding in reality."

CotG 80

The 80th edition of The Carnival of the Godless is up at The Jesus Myth. Choice posts include a discussion of humorless religious scholars and the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a Greta Christin post which argues:
Because if religion is mistaken -- and I think that it is -- then that makes it harmful.

By definition.

FishBasing your life on a false premise is going to lead to you bad decisions. It's the old "garbage in, garbage out" saying about data processing.

Phil. religion follow up: a link

After the recent debate over philosophy of religion here, I thought it would be worth to link to a Prosblogion post asking whether philosophy of religion is tainted by apologetics.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The unethical ethicist

Suppose you're a professional philosopher and an ethical egoist, which is to say an adherent to a doctrine denoted by a piece of fancy philosophical jargon, specifically the fancy piece of philosophical jargon denoting the view that one ought to always act in one's own self-interest, or in other words always be selfish. Question: do you publish your views in professional philosophy journals?

A month ago, Eliezer Yudkowsky had a post telling the story of a person who claimed to be totally selfish, and arguing that the fact that the person would say so is evidence that he wasn't totally selfish. The problem, which someone pointed out in the comments, is that advocating your views is a way of gaining status in this world, so the man's actions can be given a plausible selfish interpretation. This becomes even more plausible when you consider the case of a professional philosopher, whose entire career depends on making impressive looking arguments for views on subjects like ethics.

So it isn't obvious that egoists should keep quiet about their views. Then, I think, those really curious about the question in the first paragraph are faced with an empirical question, which I don't really know enough about the profession to answer, but I won't let that from stopping me. I'd guess that much of it depends on whether you're better at coming up with fresh arguments for or against your views. If your reasons are new and clever and not thoroughly discussed enough for most professional philosophers to have a fixed opinion on them, then the obvious thing to do would be to publish those. But if your egoism based on well-established arguments that you don't have much new to say on, and if you can come up clever-sounding criticisms of them, then publish those and pretend to accept them. Sure, if you remain an egoist in spite of the problems you put forth for the view, then presumably you see problems with your own allegations of problems. However, if you keep people from initially seeing what's wrong with the arguments you thought up, you might get people to pay a lot more attention to those arguments.

Glad that that's over with

Via The Boundaries of Language, a rebuttal to a David Chalmers paper which I had previously complained about. My initial reaction was "glad that's over with." The downside: it's seven pages. Should it really take seven pages to refute one page of silliness?

Too close for comfort

Yesterday, Ed Brayton posted a notice about a man who was imprisoned for refusing a program of religious indoctrination. In the United States of America. He's out now, but only after a difficult appeals process. This should never have had to be taken to court in the first place. The fact that it was "merely" done under the guise of a drug rehab program should comfort no one, any attempt to institute theocracy in America will obviously involve lots of lying about what's really going on. This should put us all on notice to be vigilant about these abuses.

Quote of the Time Being

The second flaw is that he simply cannot elide the profound theological differences between the LDS church and mainstream Christianity. Since I'm a secularist - a Christian secularist - this doesn't make a difference to me. But if you are appealing to religious people, especially fundamentalists, on the basis of faith, you cannot logically then ask them to ignore the content of the faith. The religious right have tried to do this with the absurd neologism, the "Judeo-Christian tradition," as if the truth-claims of Christianity and Judaism are not, at bottom, contradictory. But the "Mormon-Judeo-Christian tradition" is a step too far even for those who have almost no principles in using religion for political purposes.
-Andrew Sullivavn

Perhaps not a particularly profound point, but given that many liberal believers are hopelessly confused on this subject, it's good to see one who isn't.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

NRO writer threatens to kill Dawkins

Not really, but by the author's own logic that would be a reasonable interpretation of Damin Linker's piece "Atheism's Wrong Turn." The argument--dare I dignify it with that word?--seems to be that Dawkins and his fellow bestselling atheists think religion is vigorously denounce religion, therefore they are implicitly supporting forcible suppression of religion. By the same principle, one could reason that since Linker vigorously denounces the bestselling atheists, he must want to kill them.

I recommended the article heartily. It contains all kinds of other delightful bits, such as the claim that Hume promoted liberal Christianity. More generally, Sam Harris' RSS feed is a wonderful source to go to if you enjoy reading strange nonsense.

Thought of the Time Being

The U. S. Government works in mysterious ways.

November reviews in short

Here's the second entry in my reviews in short.

The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath

All you really need to know about this book is that the first sentence claims that according to Dawkins, "God is a delusion--a 'psychotic delinquent' invented by bad, deluded people." Following the footnote, I found this sentence from Dawkins' book: "Compared with the Old Testament's psychotic delinquent, the deist God of the eighteenth century Enlightenment is an altogether grander being..." In other words, Dawkins is saying that God need not be conceived of as a psychotic delinquent, almost the exact opposite of the view McGrath attributes to him. I couldn't help but wonder: would it have killed McGrath to wait until the second sentence before misrepresenting Dawkins' views? Incidentally, McGrath never addressed the Old Testament passages that provoked Dawkins' characterization, such as the divine orders to massacre children. Such tactics are par for the course in McGrath's book. To recount all the details would be boring. At the book's halfway point, I was tempted to give this book five stars under the "so bad it's good" rationale, but by the end McGrath has worn out his welcome--and the book is only 100 pages.

One Star

Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price

Somewhat muddled attempt to call in to question our ability to know anything about the historical Jesus. Prominent in it is an inconsistent agnosticism, which applies what looks like principled caution to Jesus' biography, but then throws caution to the wind in confident reconstructions of the history of early Christianity.

Two Stars

Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price

Like Price's previous book, Deconstructing Jesus, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man seeks to cast doubt on the idea of a historical Jesus. Lacks big-picture analysis, is too quick to move from "possibly this did not happen" to "this did not happen," and the section on re-dating the gospels is particularly sloppy.

Two Stars

The Defense of the Faith by Cornelius Van Til

An attempt by a Calvinist theologian to argue against rational scrutiny of Christianity. To an extent it's one of those projects that's worth observing to watch it fail, but the presentation is muddled and all the interesting bits could have been condensed down into a short article.

Two Stars

Introduction to Computer Systems by Yale N. Patt and Sanjay J. Patel

I've never taken a CS course in my life. This book was recommended to me by a friend, and I read it because I've long been annoyed by my lack of understanding of how computers worked. I read through it straight, not taking the time to really master the material, but I still got the jist of it. Not for everyone, but for me it was a must-read.

Five Stars

Rousseau's Dog by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Enjoyable telling of the story of conflict between two of the best-known philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Four Stars

The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza by Richard H. Popkin

Provides historical context for philosophical debates that can often seem extremely arcane; very valuable.

Four Stars

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

More Huckabee

Huckabee's doing a big political event with, among other people, Tim LaHaye. 'Nuff said.

On inciting hatred

A spot on post from Ed Brayton:
Here's where laws against "inciting hatred" lead:
Erol Karaaslan, the founder of the small publishing house Kuzey Publications, could face between six months and a year in jail for "inciting hatred and enmity" if Istanbul prosecutors decide to press charges over the book, which has sold 6000 copies in Turkey since it was published this summer.
Give government the ability to punish people for "inciting hatred and enmity", or whatever similar language they might choose, and you will inevitably find that the government will decide that any opinions they don't like or that are critical of groups they seek to protect do exactly that and must be banned.
We should worry about things like this happening in the US. Far too many Evangelicals have convinced themselves that "persecution" means any time Christianity is criticized.

Thought of the Time Being

Every generation ridicules the old fashions, religiously follows the new, comments on this fact, and thinks itself exempt.

Thought of the Time Being

I'm sick of the partisan hacks dominating our political discourse. Where are the bipartisan hacks when you need them?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Deconick defends herself

April Deconick has put up a blogpost better explaining her reasons for claiming the Gospel of Judas was mistranslated. Glad she put this out, though I still think this more substantial defense of her position should have been in the NYT.

Quote of the Time Being

Once upon a time, there was a man who was convinced that he possessed a Great Idea. Indeed, as the man thought upon the Great Idea more and more, he realized that it was not just a great idea, but the most wonderful idea ever. The Great Idea would unravel the mysteries of the universe, supersede the authority of the corrupt and error-ridden Establishment, confer nigh-magical powers upon its wielders, feed the hungry, heal the sick, make the whole world a better place, etc. etc. etc.

The man was Francis Bacon, his Great Idea was the scientific method, and he was the only crackpot in all history to claim that level of benefit to humanity and turn out to be completely right.
-Eliezer Yudkowsky

I'm so tech-clueless...

How is this even possible? WTF? Just when I thought I was starting to understand computers...

PC 58

The 58th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Philosophy Sucks!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hilarious rap satire

Via Tales of Modernity, a hilarious video poking fun at modern rap music:

ToM also has the text of an unintentionally funny Jessie Jackson press release responding to the video. How unfortunate that Tales of Modernity is apparently defunct, the post presenting the video being the last one in a long time.

Judas scandal? Something smells

In October, Biblical scholar April D. Deconick came out with a book disputing the widely-publicized interpretation of the Gospel of Judas, that Judas was the hero of the story. Then, yesterday, she published a piece in the NYT declaring her views, which a lot of people have picked up on, and are using to heap scorn on the National Geographic.

I don't know exactly what's going on here, but one thing bothers me about the NYT piece: the leading criticism of the work of the scholars brought together by National Geographic is that they translated "daimon" as "spirit" rather than what she claimed was the correct translation, "demon." It is certainly true the "daimon" is a cognate for "demon" and therefore, the English word is "the word" for the Coptic one, but the meaning of words change over time. In the ancient world, it wasn't universally agreed that "daimon"s were all evil, as is the case with the modern English word. This makes "spirit" a more plausible translation in at least some contexts. I'm not an expert, and I don't know what, ultimately, is the best translation. I don't know how the fact that we're dealing with Greek loan words in Coptic rather than actual Greek affects the situation. I do know that the above was almost certainly part of the reasoning of the scholars who did the original translation. It's troubling that Deconick would jump right to condemning them without considering what could be said in defense of their position. It raises a suspicion that Deconick is engaging in exactly the sort of sensationalism that she accuses National Geographic of.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

What's the deal with philosophy of religion?

When people with PhDs in philosophy talk about God, it's called philosophy of religion. It has a somewhat strange aura about it among all the areas of philosophy. What kind of strange aura? Well, since it never fails to begin with a joke, here's something I found on a philosopher's webpage once (after some searching, I unfortunately don't remember where):
If you're at a cocktail party talking with friends and they ask what you do for a living and you say you're a college professor, their eyes will kinda glaze over and they'll lose interest.

If you're at a cocktail party for college professors and they ask what department you're in and you say philosophy, their eyes will kinda glaze over and they'll lose interest.

If you're at a cocktail party for professional philosophers and they ask what your specialty is and you say philosophy of religion...
More seriously, I once had an encounter with the undergraduate adviser for philosophy here in Madison where she told me I should make a point to take as many of the upper-level metaphysics/epistemology-type courses as possible... with the exception of philosophy of religion. What gives here?

I've come to suspect there's a deep institutional problem with philosophy of religion: the atheists just don't care. Or, to be more precise, they care enough to pay attention for awhile but not enough to avoid get bored relatively fast.

I saw this, I think, in my 101 prof. We had a philosophy of religion unit as our first or second unit, with a standard slate of issues: cosmological argument, design argument, argument from evil. We got a little behind, and when we finally got around to Swinburne's response to the argument from evil, with time running low, the prof almost tried to cover it quickly, and then stopped himself and just passed over the Swinburne reading. My impression is that he was simply embarrassed by how bad Swinburne's response was. My experience in that course was one of the main things that prompted a recent comment to a friend that it seems that for many philosophers, philosophy of religion is something they think about as undergrads, and then they realize that God doesn't exist and move on to other things. (The prof, for those who care, is in philosophy of mind.)

Unlike no doubt the majority of atheist philosophers, I can see myself someday publishing a paper or two or even three on philosophy of religion. However, when it comes to where I'd actually like to make my career, philosophy of mind is so much more exciting. And of course, I find religion quite boring at times.

Strikingly, though, this limit of interest seems to be found even among people who've built up a reputation for publishing in philosophy of religion. J. L. Mackie, for example, seems to have been interested in and influential in ethics as much as anything. I've even come across a number of indicators that this is true of Antony Flew, the supposed "world's most notorious atheist" whose conversion to deism was so much touted. Mark Oppenheimer, in his NYT piece, indicated Flew spent most of the interview time talking politics. I've heard a similar report, albeit second hand, based on one Madison prof's interactions with Flew. There are even hints of this the book Roy Varghese co-wrote.

The lack of interest by atheist philosophers in philosophy of religion really distorts the discipline. It seems there are lots of philosophers in philosophy of mind or philosophy of science or whatnot who are content to snigger behind Swinburne's back and snigger behind Plantiga's back, and who just can't be bothered to write up their thoughts. Thus, what's published in philosophy of religion doesn't reflect the thoughts of the profession as a whole. If the published stuff did do that, theists would probably have an image as a hard-fighting minority, but the way publication is skewed, they're allowed to get the impression that they've earned a boundless supply of respect from their colleagues, only to occasionally run up against a puzzling disdain for the specialty they cherish so much.

Stephen Law on the dangers of religion

When I first noticed Stephen Law's blog, I think it was because of his thoughts on religion and society, specifically UK society, making good observations that people in the US aren't in a position to make. Well, he's still at it. Hope you keep up the good work for a long time, Stephen.