31 December 2010

Thoughts going into the new year

I started this blog just shy of a year ago with the goal of expanding my range of topics from my previous religion-only blog into a broader array of skeptic-related topics. Traffic and readership have really picked up in the last few months – I went from maybe a few dozen hits a day to hundreds. That's encouraged me to invest a little more in the blog, as posting regularly does have its reward in more frequent traffic.

But somewhere in all the comment discussions and attempts to post pretty much daily, I started getting burned out. I have a lot of irons in the fire, and I don't really want blogging to become a predominant hobby of mine. I'm far too obsessed with my guitar, and enjoy too many other hobbies – reading, playing video games, eating babies, etc. – to have time to keep up the pace of blogging I was maintaining earlier.

I'm not about to stop blogging or anything. I know myself too well to know I could ever stick to a no-blogging resolution, and as I type this there are a number of topics simmering on my brain that I'd like to commit to print. But I'm definitely not going to sweat posting something every day. If I can post something substantive once a week, I'll be totally satisfied. That'll probably keep my traffic from growing as it has, but it'll also enable me to, y'know, do other stuff.

Have a safe and happy new year, and don't do anything I wouldn't do.

26 December 2010

One more quickie

Bud over at Dead Logic linked to a great blog of PZ Myer's from back in '09 when he took down Alvin Plantiga – one of those "sophisticated" Christian philosophers. I liked Myers' post, but I really liked this comment from the user "Sastra":
This argument (often called The Argument from Reason) comes up regularly in comments, and you've done a great job pointing out some of its major flaws. In addition to the false dichotomy (either we have 'warrant' to trust our brains completely, or anything goes), it suffers from the same problem most theistic reasoning suffers from: they can't get away from the childish idea that Like comes only from Like.
Reason, free will, life, consciousness, morals, love, you name it. If things didn't start out there, they can't get there. Nothing new comes gradually out of increasingly complex patterns and interactions. Nothing grows. Nope. We get Reason from a Reason Force which is made out of Reason and has always been and never was anything else. We get life from a Life Force. How does the brain create mind? It doesn't. There's a Mind Force which uses the brain. Morals come from a Moral Force. And so on and so forth.
You hit the nail on the head. Evolution would give us brains which would be 'good enough' for most things, but which are inclined to error. What it won't give us is a sensus divinitus -- a certain way of 'knowing' God through our intuition. That couldn't "grow." It would have to be "gifted."
I find it remarkable that theists and New Agers love to trot out evidence that our biases mislead us as part of their case against science. See, the fact that we're biased entails that science is also a bias, and therefore we can't trust it any more than we trust our intuitions. But of course, the more flawed we are, the stronger the case for our need for objective methods, which evolved over time to help us cope with the problem.

Quick update

It's been a great Chrimmas weekend. I warned my parents that I couldn't really afford to get them much if anything, and I told them that I really didn't need anything and would be totally happy just with their company. That didn't stop them from being very generous though. They got me some primo cookware (most of mine was old hand-me-downs with the coating scratched off) and, to my utter shock, a totally awesome solid state hard drive I'd been eying.

I'm going to be moving my Windows installation to the new drive this week, which will mean reformatting my old mechanical drive, optimizing the new drive and re-installing all my programs. So blogging will probably be a little slow this week as I get everything set up.

A quick word though, about my family. I'm very lucky to have the family I do, and it's extra humbling knowing that many people spend the holidays alone. They do so many little acts of kindness (and sometimes big ones) that I know I could never possibly pay them back. So, what do you do when you can't pay something back? You pay it forward. I try to do similar gestures of kindness whenever I can. That can be kind of tough when you're living paycheck to paycheck, but often it's just a little time and thoughtfulness that means the most.

I must now return to holiday festivities. I hope all you guys are having a great time, and giving each other much to pay forward.

Oh, and here's a little funny to cheer up your day courtesy of Jesus and Mo:

24 December 2010

That thing is not really a thing

There's a scene in the movie Contact when Ellie, who's an atheist, asks her Christian-philosopher boyfriend Palmer if he can prove God exists. Palmer responds, "Prove you loved your father."

Checkmate, atheists!

This sentiment was recently echoed by Rabbi Alan Lurie over at Huffpo, who asks whether God's existence can ever be proven.
The attempt to prove the existence of God through the scientific method of hypothesis, controlled experimentation, observation and documentable repeatable results is somewhat akin to trying to discover the cause of a person's response to a deeply moving work of art. We can examine the painting, analyze the composition of the canvas and pigment, study the arrangement of shapes and colors, discover the historical context of the work and the biography of the artists, or even conduct psychological experiments and CT scans, but none of this will do anything to explain, understand and share in the person's aesthetic experience. This person may try to explain her experience, but she will ultimately fail to convince someone who only sees pigment on canvas, and who may conclude that her experience is delusional, and that the study of aesthetics is a waste of time. To the person who was so deeply impacted by the painting, though, such an assertion completely misses the point, and does nothing to convince her that her experience is not real, and that she was not touched and expanded by her encounter.
Similar arguments from theists rear their heads all too often – "How do you explain creativity? How do you explain love? How do you explain moral values? How do you explain art, music and poetry?" Presumably, since these things can't be scientifically quantified, therefor they are by implication evidence of the supernatural.

23 December 2010

An atheist Christmas

It's that time of year when a great many theologically conservative Christian like to display their persecution complex – without all the things that go with actual persecution. They piss and moan because people have "forgotten" that Christmas is about Jesus, not about Santa and carols and flat-screen TVs. With the recent spurt of atheist billboards – including one that says, "You know it's a myth. This season, celebrate reason" – folks like Catholic League Head of Nutbaggery Bill Donahue are saying there's a "war on Christmas."

Here's the thing though. Nobody forgot what Christmas is about – they just don't care. Around this time of year, church services are packed with "cultural Christians" – people who identify as Christian but rarely if ever attend church and most likely don't even know the basic theological tenants of their religion. They're Christians because they were raised that way, because of cultural tradition, because it's fun to light candles and sing "Silent Night, Holy Night". They'll go through the motions once or twice a year, then go back to business as usual as soon as they walk out the door. As yes, those people will still check "Christian" on Pew surveys, giving us the inflated statistics about the religiosity of our country.

Ricky Gervais on atheism

I love Ricky Gervais – he's a great comedian and a very smart guy to boot. Last week he wrote an essay about why he's an atheist. This week he answers some of the most commonly asked questions about his essay. Here's an excerpt, about an all-too-familiar misconception about atheism:
In your piece you write, that “Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know.” In fact, mainstream scientific thought has sometimes been wrong, and it is constantly changing and revising itself. So how can you be so sure that science supports your belief that God does not exist?
Ricky Gervais: Science doesn’t concern itself with the non-existence of something. The periodic table of imaginary things would be too big for a classroom- infinitely big in fact, and rather pointless. It’s not trying to prove the non-existence of anything supernatural. All it knows is there is no scientific proof of anything supernatural so far.

22 December 2010

Ray Comfort: "Atheists believe that nothing created everything"

In case you aren't familiar with Ray Comfort, he's an evangelical creationist who has gained notoriety mainly for three things:
  • The infamous "banana routine". In a video posted on YouTube (the original video has since been removed), he called the banana the "atheist's nightmare", and proceeded to describe the myriad ways in which it appears perfectly designed for human consumption — it fits the hand, has a tab on the top for easy opening, etc. etc. Comfort had used this routine in his church with great success, but when he went public with it, alert skeptics were quick to point out that the modern banana is a mutation resulting from thousands of years of human horticulture, and barely resembles wild bananas, which are extremely difficult or impossible to eat.
  • The "Crockoduck". In a truly awful debate televised on Nightline, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron suggested that evolution should have produced a hybrid between a crocodile and a duck, and the non-existence of such a creature is proof that evolution is a sham. This displayed such a face-palming ignorance of evolutionary biology (specifically, speciation) that you can now purchase "Crockoduck" t-shirts on Richard Dawkin's website.  
  • Most recently, the distribution of Darwin's The Origin of Species with a 50-page introduction that aimed to debunk Darwin's theory, met with ridicule from both the scientific and secular communities. 

So, on to the meat of the story. From Comfort's website, peculiarly called "Atheist Central":

An atheist has no scientific creditably [sic], because his "nothing created everything" violates the basic laws of science.

DADT is d-o-n-e.

After strong majority votes from both the House and Senate, the President today signed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

20 December 2010

The Craig-Ehrman resurrection debate

I know that some atheists are impressed with William Lane Craig – not for his actual argumentation, but for his deft use of rhetoric in debates. The result is that in most debates I've seen with Craig, nothing really gets accomplished. Craig usually abides by a five-argument format, and when time constraints prevent his opponent from addressing all five in detail, Craig will make some inane non sequitur like, "we haven't heard any evidence that atheism is true."

But when the debates get more specific (as opposed to "Does God Exist?"), Craig usually gets a beatdown, and there is perhaps no finer example than his debate with Bart Ehrman on the historicity of the resurrection. In his debate with John Spong, Craig presented what he called "four facts" about the resurrection, which he used again in his debate with Ehrman:

  1. That Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority at the time of the Passover Feast, having been arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin and slandered before the Roman governor Pilate on charges of treason.
  2. He died within a few hours and was buried Friday afternoon and was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb which was then sealed with a stone.
  3. Certain women followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, having observed his interment, visited him tomb early on Sunday morning only to find it empty.
  4. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to the disciples including Peter who then became proclaimers of the message of his resurrection.
But Ehrman wasn't about to take that bait, because he's a historian. He's not concerned with minutiae in the storylines – he's concerned with whether the document, as a whole, is historically reliable. In other words, whether Craig's "four facts" are actually "facts" is contingent on whether the gospels can be demonstrated to be reliable historical documents. Otherwise, the claims can simply be dismissed as myth.

19 December 2010

Facing the truth

I recently watched a lengthy debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson from the Westminster Theological Seminary. It was a long and interesting debate, one that maintained a surprisingly civil, even humorous tone throughout, but it was in fact one of the more productive debates I'd watched in a while. (I tend to look at academic style debates rather cynically — I don't think they're often an effective medium for communicating ideas.) Hitchens made a comment that I thought was interesting in light of some of my current thoughts on religion, which is that (and I'm very loosely paraphrasing here) he is not an atheist because he wants to be; he is simply led by the evidence to find atheism to be the most reasoned conclusion, and he accepts it.

In a discussion some time back with my brother (a Christian), I made the remark that if we all converted to Jainism, it would certainly be a net positive for the world. Jainism is a religion of strict non-violence, even toward animals. There would be no wars, no violent crime, no wasting of resources through industrial farming which would alleviate famine the world over. An all-Jain world might not be a perfect world, but it would be a much, much better world than we have today. And yet, I do not want an all-Jain world. I do not want it because, regardless of how comforting or how peaceful or how inspiring it is, I do not think it is true. And, like Christopher Hitchens, I think there is something valuable, something noble, and something special, about facing the world as it really is, regardless of how it makes us feel.

Can science determine human values?

Sam Harris argues yes:

18 December 2010

Atheism as congruence

One of my favorite videos from TheraminTrees, and pertinent in light of an upcoming post. It's about a year old, but I feel it's worth revisiting.

TSA security doesn't work

A while back I commented that personally, I don't really care about the backscatter machines or rock-concert-like "patdowns". But after reading a rather disturbing article over at ABC News, it's clear that despite all the whiz-bang new technology, the Achilles Heel of TSA checkpoints is old-fashioned human error:
According to one report, undercover TSA agents testing security at a Newark airport terminal on one day in 2006 found that TSA screeners failed to detect concealed bombs and guns 20 out of 22 times. A 2007 government audit leaked to USA Today revealed that undercover agents were successful slipping simulated explosives and bomb parts through Los Angeles's LAX airport in 50 out of 70 attempts, and at Chicago's O'Hare airport agents made 75 attempts and succeeded in getting through undetected 45 times.
That's not a slim margin of error. That's a complete and total failure. And while this all happened prior to the wide distribution of backscatter machines (and in fact is what prompted it), it shows that when screeners have to look at the same types of images thousands of times every day, their ability to detect anomalies is compromised.
"We've had a series of reports actually going back several years from the inspector general, from the General Accounting Office, and our own TSA Office of Inspection, where they do, as you describe, covert testing," Pistole acknowledged to George Stephanopoulos last month during an interview on Good Morning America. "And unfortunately, [undercover testers] have been very successful over the years.
Eventually, the process is going to have to become more automated, with computer-based algorithms for detecting anomalies. The TSA keeps their reports classified, so there's no telling whether the enhanced security is effective. I suspect that as long as it's people staring at those x-ray images (whether of people or of bags), we won't see much change.

17 December 2010

They report, they decide

Here's a shocker: A University of Maryland study by its Program on International Policy Attitudes has found, for the second time (the first being in 2003) that regular viewers of Fox News are significantly more likely to be misinformed about everything from tax policy to climate science.

From Media Matters:
Last week, the Program on International Policy Attitudes released another, wider-ranging report on "Misinformation and the 2010 Election," which examined the accuracy of news consumers' views on tax policy, government bailouts, the economy, climate science, and President Obama's background. The findings were in line with the 2003 survey -- Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely" to be misinformed
 In other news, beaches have been found to be composed primarily of sand.

16 December 2010

That's me in the corner

My previous post about William Lane Craig's inane rationalization of what is to him the obvious truth of his religious beliefs got me thinking a bit about my own de-conversion. One comment of Craig's in particular really grinds my gears:
Indeed, Paul says that [non-believers] actually do know that God exists, but they suppress this truth because of their unrighteousness. 
The implication here is that we actually do think it's true – we just don't want to believe (because we'd rather be naughty). I can't speak for other apostates, but this is like a slap in the face given how extraordinarily trying my deconversion really was. Contrary to Craig's assumptions, I was very deeply rooted in the church and my personal faith. It was the center of my social life, an important means by which I connected with my family, and a deeply personal source of strength and inspiration that I believed had helped me through many difficult times. Unfortunately, a helpful delusion is still a delusion.

I never reached a point where I explicitly renounced my faith. My deconversion was a gradual and emotionally trying process of disillusionment. It began with a simple question: why are there so many religions? As one question cascaded into the next, I continually found that satisfying answers were distressingly elusive. But something greater bothered me: that even among answers I found slightly more satisfying (I found none wholly satisfying), I had no way to know that they were true. If you ask ten Christian theologians the same question, you're likely to get ten different answers. But because religion is a matter of faith – believing in spite of, or even because of, a lack of evidence – there's no way to objectively filter out the erroneous information. Ultimately, theology is reduced to a sort of "best guess".

15 December 2010

William Lane Craig thinks atheists aren't real

I'm not sure why I visit Reasonable Faith. It's sort of like a train wreck – you just can't look away! On the site, Craig has a Q & A column in which he assuages the doubts of believers with a powerful combination of academic-sounding rhetoric and obfuscatory logical fallacies.

This week, a reader asks a very reasonable question:
If an [sic] sincere atheist thinks God is a fairy tale, how can he be blamed? If belief is not a choice, no one can be blamed for not believing.
Belief is indeed not a choice. Our beliefs arise out of our best understanding of the information presented to us. If someone is convinced that the evidence is squarely against theism, they can't magically make themselves accept the existence of gods anyway. In fact, this realization was pivotal in my de-conversion. I never outright rejected my faith – I simply reached a point where I didn't believe any of its tenants to be true, and I was unable to hold on to my faith.

So what's William Lane Craig think about this? It's the old, "atheists aren't really atheists" canard. We don't actually think theism false – we're just believers in denial, because we want to sin.

Jon Stewart is mad at Republicans (again)

The Daily Show is always at its best when it satirizes hypocrisy, and here Jon takes Republicans to task for their rejection of a bill that would have given billions in health care provisions to 9.11 first responders.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Lame-as-F@#k Congress
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

DADT repeal is still struggling

Update: The House today voted overwhelmingly – 250 to 175 – to repeal DADT. [link] The vote now goes to the Senate.

A while back, the Pentagon released a report which devastated conservative myths about gays serving openly in the military. Not that this would change any minds; the conservative objection to gays serving openly in the military is ideological, not rational. And now, the House is about to vote on a standalone bill. I'm skeptical that the bill will pass. Maybe it's just cynicism, but congress has consistently shown itself to be not only disjointed from the American public on this issue, but stubborn in holding misguided principle above reason. I hope this time is different, but I'm not holding my breath.

If this legislation fails, it just makes it that much less likely that any repeal will pass before the Republican majority takes over the House next year, in which case you can pretty much guarantee that ideology will take precedence over facts. But even in that worst-case scenario, hope isn't lost. More discharged gay service members are taking up legal arms and filing lawsuits to strike down the law. Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure there's this whole 14th Amendment thing in constitution which says,
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Equal rights under the law means what it says. It means (among many other things of course) that you don't get to deny a citizen their right to serve their country because of their personal sexual preference. DADT is clearly both unconstitutional and rooted in fallacious ideology, but getting rid of it is still an uphill battle. Then again, change always is.

14 December 2010

This is just too good

It's especially funny because he tried again to spam up my blog the other day, this time with yet another pseudonym. Fortunately Disqus is proving to be far more effective than the vanilla Blogger comment system at keeping such douchebaggery at bay. h/t PZ Myers.

"Believing Is Seeing"

A few months back I encountered a guy at a bar, who asked me about a blasphemous-looking tattoo I have on my right arm. I told him that I used to be religious, but now I'm not. He asked me why. Trying to keep things as terse as possible since I wanted to get back to having fun with my friends instead of getting sucked into a debate about theology, I explained that I had been a devout Christian for many years, but after studying theology and logic I found too many things wrong with it to keep believing.

He replied, "Like what?"

Oh boy. I knew where this was headed. I gave a very quick example or two, and finished with, "I believe it when I see it." By which I really meant that I accept it when it can be empirically verified, but I was at a bar for crying out loud. While an evangelical Christian would jump at an opportunity to talk to a nonbeliever, I'm not out to convert people and just wanted to get back to my friends.

Anyway.... He replied with the old, "Believing is seeing" canard. I've actually heard that one quite a bit. There are a lot of believers who insist that by requiring supernatural claims about reality to be subject to the same standard of evidence as any other statement about reality, that I'm missing the point – that if I believed first, without evidence, then the evidence would become apparent to me as God did his amazing work through me.

13 December 2010

The tax cut compromise

So today, the tax cut compromise looks to be on track for a vote later this week.

I'll never quite understand why conservatives are so insistent on cutting taxes for such an incredible minority of wealthy Americans. They insist that these very few people are the ones that create jobs, and that tax increases will hinder that. But clearly the tax breaks haven't helped them create jobs for the last decade, and higher taxes didn't hamper them when the country experience record growth during the Clinton administration. Even if the tax cuts expired, the rates would be lower than they were during the Reagan administration. I really believe that the biggest obstacle facing our country is debt. We simply have way too much of it, and letting the upper-class tax cuts expire would have a much better long-term benefit. The upper-class tax cuts, by the way, will be financed entirely by adding to the national debt.

11 December 2010

Some paradoxical concepts of the Christian god

In no particular order:

1. God is perfect, but needs to be worshiped
A perfect being by definition needs nothing. The canned theological response would be that worship is for us, not God. But if God doesn't need to be worshiped, why would he create beings who need to worship him?
2. God is omniscient (all-knowing), but has free will
A being that is all-knowing knows the past, present and future. He knows all decisions that have been and will ever be made, including his own. This implies that he lacks the ability to make a choice, because he already knows all his future actions. He can't just change course, because he would have to know that he will decide to change course!
3. God loves everyone and desires everyone to be with him, but created people who he knew would go to Hell
God's omniscience carries with it another conundrum: he knows all people's actions as well. He knows all thoughts, beliefs, actions, and the processes by which people arrived at them. He would necessarily know that certain people will reject him and that others will commit great atrocities, and that these people will not only inflict great suffering on others (in the case of the latter) but spend eternity in Hell.

What to do when you're raped! (according to the Bible)

Click for a larger version (h/t - Blag Hag)

09 December 2010

A new study from the Center For The Study Of Totally Obvious Things


A new study has "revealed" what non-believers – especially apostates like myself – have known for a long time: that people are drawn to religion primarily because of its social aspects rather than its theological ones:
"Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction," said Chaeyoon Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. "In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier."
No. Really?

I've known people who converted to different denominations and even entire religions because they got married. I've known people who've casually bounced between denominations because they wanted a church with more youth programs. I can count on one hand the number of Christians I've met who can even articulate a coherent explanation of their theology. How many Christians even know what Calvinism is, what Protestantism is, or what the difference is between Biblical literalism and Biblical inerrancy? People don't come to the faith only after a rigorous study of comparative theology. They stick to what they've grown up with. It's primarily a familial and/or culturally instilled belief.

Of course they stick with it because of the social aspects. Dan Dennett has even studied atheists in the clergy who keep their non-belief a secret because of the devastating ripple effect it would have on the their social and family lives. Most believers have little to no knowledge of philosophical arguments, comparative religion, or the historical scholarship of the Bible. Ironically, one of the reasons it can be hard to talk to believers is because they don't take their faith seriously enough. We live in a nation full of cultural believers.

Religion – The Bad Parent

TheraminTrees is quite possible my favorite YouTuber. His ability to clearly articulate logical concepts is unmatched.

07 December 2010

Policitians: hurting us more than they help

I know I'm not the only person concerned about the national debt. It's astronomical, quickly approaching $14 trillion. The scariest part is that virtually all of that was accrued in my lifetime (I'm 31). The national debt is a tax. It raises interest rates on everything and devalues the dollar. Much of our debt is owned by foreign countries, and we better hope they don't plan on cashing it in anytime soon. How do we fix this mess?

The truth is, no one really wants to do what has to be done. Money does not grow on trees, and there are basically two ways for the government to reduce this horrible, out-of-control deficit spending: raise taxes and cut spending. It really is that simple. Both parties want to cut taxes, but Republicans want to cut taxes for everyone, including the wealthiest Americans. Democrats want to cut taxes for everyone except the wealthiest Americans, because that tax revenue would help reduce the annual deficits. And contrary to the posturing on TV, both parties want increased spending. Congresspeople want spending for their districts – "pork", as it were, and they don't want to give it up because it helps them get elected. And sorry Republicans, but spending ballooned under Reagen, H.W. Bush and W. Bush. Both Reagan and W. Bush doubled the national debt. The only administration in my lifetime that reduced the national debt was Clinton.

I'm gonna write a book

Yeah, I've said this before. But I have way too many ideas to keep them all bottled up, and what I have is just way too big for this blog. For a long time I've wanted to write a book on a secular theory of morality, and I figured it was high time I just got around to doing it instead of putting all my energy into blogs and forum posts. I'll do my best not to let my writing impact my posting here, but it'll probably have somewhat of an impact because as crazy as it might seem, I actually have a life outside of the internets.

I don't really have any grand ambitions for making the NY Times bestseller list or anything. I'm not a world-renown biologist or thinker – I'm just some dude with a blog. So, I'll probably just self-publish as an e-book and sell it inexpensively here on Blogger. But I am going to do this, so prepare yourselves for what could quite possibly be the most important book in the history of mankind. Or not, I dunno.

05 December 2010

The Kalam Cosmological Argument commits the fallacy of equivocation (twice!)

I've dished out some critiques of William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument (well... he didn't make it up, but he's certainly popularized it) recently – here, and more recently here. But today I thought of another angle to approach refuting this argument, and even though I don't want this to turn into Mike D's Official Kalam Criticism Blog, I thought it was worth sharing. I should point out that I'm certainly not the first person to have thought of the basic concepts here, but I'm hoping this will nicely supplement my previous arguments in addition to standing on its own.

The fallacy of equivocation is when you use a word that has multiple meanings, but you're not clear on which meaning of the word your argument is using. The Kalam is actually a fine example, because it commits this fallacy twice, and in doing so commits the fallacy of assuming the consequent, which is when you assume the conclusion – either whole or in part – in one of the premises. A refresh on the Kalam:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Ergo, the universe has a cause

Are theoretical physics the god of atheists?

I mentioned a couple of posts back that I deleted and banned a commenter because he spent two paragraphs tossing out insults after one short paragraph in which he believed to have completely decimated my argument against the Kalam (well, one of them anyway). But I'm actually going to respond to the substantive part of what he wrote, because it's something I hear often.

In that post, I mentioned M-theory. Without fully reading the post, the commenter essentially said that if I can't accept causality existing outside the universe, it's hypocritical to accept gravity existing outside the universe. That's a pretty gross misunderstanding of both my argument and M-theory, but this is how he phrased it, using my own words but substituting "gravity" for "causality":
Our very concept of gravity is derived from the observable universe. Gravity, as we know it, is observable, obeys the laws of the universe, and requires space-time. If there were no universe, gravity would cease to become a coherent or meaningful concept.
Checkmate, atheists!

Virus, ho!

I've been building my own PCs for the last five years. I'm a gamer and I take pride in the overclocked speed and red-LED sexiness of my rig. In my old Windows XP builds, I used AVG, a popular free anti-virus. I used it because it was a) free, and b) light. It caused some conflicts with other programs, so when I upgraded to Vista, I literally didn't even bother with anti-virus software. I stuck with Windows Defender – Microsoft's built-in anti-spyware program – and that was all. After upgrading to Windows 7, I eventually decided that an anti-virus was probably a good idea. So I went back to AVG, since I'd used it before.

But after a while I noticed that AVG seemed to be hogging more resources and behaving more strangely than it had in the past. So I uninstalled it and opted for Microsoft Security Essentials. It's light and free, and from the same guys who made my OS.

The next day (yesterday), I was re-installing my OS after being infected with a virus for the first time ever. And it was a nasty one.

I was browsing the Huffington Post when the Java icon popped up in my toolbar. My hard drive was cranking and crunching. I figured it was just a normal Java auto-update. The hard drive cranking continued, so I clicked my toolbar to see if maybe MSE was updating. To my surprise, the MSE logo was gone. Moments later, it was replaced by a shield-like icon, and I started getting warnings that my PC was infected. I was supposed to click on the warnings to activate my anti-virus protection. Ha! Yeah, right. I might have been born, but I wasn't born yesterday. In fact, in my experience, most people get viruses on perfectly well-protect PCs because they click on scareware. But even though I didn't fall for it and let the virus do further damage, it had already managed to block MSE.

Science and the media: never a good combination

Not so amazing
Back when the Large Hadron Collider was being built, I remember the media fussing over one thing: black holes. Remember? Remember how the LHC was going to destroy us all, sucking our planet into a void the way planet Vulcan was destroyed by "red matter" in the new Star Trek? And don't get me started on all the "Darwin Was Wrong!" or "Power of Prayer Proved!" or "Politician Speaks Truthfully!" nonsense.

The latest has been the hubub over the "discovery" of "new life". NASA leaked some teasers, saying it was a Really Big Deal that would impact our search for extra-terrestrial life. People thought NASA might have actually found life elsewhere in the solar system. The result was really, really boring: a researcher found a strain of bacteria that could use arsenic to assist with growth. Why is that so boring? Biologist Larry Moran of Sandwalk explains:
For a start, even the title of the paper is misleading. The title says "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus" but all of the data show that there was phosphorus in the media and that the bacteria used it for growth and reproduction. This selected strain of bacteria incorporated more arsenic than non-selected species but it by no means did it replace all phosphate with arsenic. Only a few percent (at most) of the phosphorus atoms in DNA, for example, were replaced by arsenic.
Larry's got a link to a thorough dissection of the paper, and if your nerd quotient is sufficiently high I recommend checking it out. But important thing is this: contrary to the headlines, we didn't discover new life. We found some bacteria that could replace a small amount of phosphate with a small amount of arsenic and still grow. I'm not necessarily that fussy about the study. There are criticisms of it and it may indeed be flawed, but that's not my area of expertise. But NASA is guilty of seriously over-hyping this one, and the media bought it hook, line and sinker. Ho-hum.

Growing pains

I hit a small milestone the other day here at the A-Unicornist: I passed 10,000 visitors. I have no delusions of grandeur, of course; my blog is still really small, but all things considered, I'm happy with the growth I've achieved in my first year. My old blog, The Apostasy, was exclusively about theology and philosophy. I figured I could produce more consistent content (while still retaining substance) if I broadened my horizons to include related areas of science and skepticism. I'm proud to say I feel I've achieved that goal.

Along the way, I've garnered some great regulars and had some random visits from many guests. For the most part, people have been courteous to me regardless of their views. I've had some very thought-provoking discussions with some very smart people, received praise from very nice people, received spam from very crazy people, and received insults from some really pathetic people.

Tonight I was perusing my comments – for some reason my Disqus notifications aren't getting to my email all the time (even my junk folder), so I found some new comments. One in particular was from some toolbag who thought that he undermined an argument of mine with a few clever word plays, but all he did was misrepresent my views and display a fundamental misunderstanding of some basic concepts of science. Then he spent two paragraphs dishing out some pretty entertaining attempts at insults. I wrote a whole response, not sinking to his tone but responding to his arguments and then sternly but politely admonishing him for the tirade of insults.

But then I remembered the days when I participated in the forum of a video game webzine. There was one user in particular who was very intelligent, occasionally made interesting points and often stimulated discussion. There was only one problem: he was a dick. He just couldn't resist the urge to treat people as lesser beings, constantly infusing otherwise worthwhile conversation with subtle (and not so subtle) insults, condescending tone and patronizing hubris. I had a number of arguments with the owner of the site in which I strongly urge we just ban him, but the owner just offered frail warnings and pleas for civility that were never met. Eventually, he crossed the line one too many times, and the owner finally agree to ban him. Unfortunately by the time that happened, many regular readers had left because they'd grown tired of the uncivil tone pervading the forum.

So I went back and deleted my response. Then I deleted the original comment and banned the user's IP address. Here's the deal: I can see no reason at all why I should entertain that sort of incivility. We can disagree without being disagreeable. And even if there are some worthwhile ideas embedded within the vitriol, it doesn't excuse such pathetic behavior. To my mind, those who resort to vitriolic tirades and petty insults are only doing so out of their inability to think and converse rationally. Tonight I realized that as my blog grows, more people of all stripes will read it. I have to decide now that there will be absolutely zero tolerance for those who lack the intellectual and emotional maturity to engage with others courteously. I won't warn them. I won't try to win them over by being the nice guy. I won't beg and plead. This is my turf, and I get to make the rules.

To all you regular visitors who've gotten me past my first 10,000 views and especially to those who have offered me praise, commentary and constructive criticism: thank you. Here's to another year!

03 December 2010

CSI examines the "feeling the future" study

A while back I posted about a study in which the author claimed to have discovered scientific evidence of psychic abilities in humans. I've been very skeptical of the study (as many have), and now James Alcock at CSI (that's the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, not Crime Scene Investigators) has taken a crack at it. Among his conclusions:
Just about everything that could be done wrong in an experiment occurred here. And even if one chose to overlook that methodological mess, because of the multiple testing problem his data still do not support the claimed above-chance effect.
The article begins with a look back at historical failures of parapsychology, which I think is highly relevant. Sometimes, as a skeptic and atheist, I'm accused of not being open-minded enough about things like this. But the fact is that parapsychology and paranormal experiments have been going on for a long time, and they have a terrible track record. In fact, they have a track record of 100% failure, and this latest study looks to be no exception. So when someone makes a claim to have discovered paranormal or parapsychological phenomena, a little extra skepticism is warranted. Carl Sagan said it best: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

02 December 2010

Wikileaks: friend or foe?

I'm fascinated by the latest controversy brewing over Wikileaks, this time regarding classified diplomatic cables that show embarrassing diplomatic behavior of many countries, including the United States. Wikileaks has previously released damning footage of U.S. behavior in Iraq, and numerous other documents from all over the world displaying all kinds of corruption and human rights atrocities at the highest level of government.

There's a natural reaction to the leakage of classified information, which is that there's a reason some information is classified. There are legitimate secrets needed to ensure the safety of military and government personnel. But if Wikileaks has shown us anything, it's that a great deal of time and money is spent by governments all over the world to keep secrets not because they're necessary to ensure anyone's safety, but because no one likes being exposed as corrupt. The predictable reaction of most governments is to condemn Wikipedia – unless of course it's exposing unethical behavior in a government they don't like.

I've examined these issues to the best of my ability, and my thought, at least provisionally, is that Wikileaks is doing a great humanitarian service. It's one that must be tread with the utmost caution in order to protect legitimate secrets, but I think there's no denying that power corrupts, and we need organizations like Wikileaks to expose unethical behavior of our world's leaders. The following interview with founder Julian Assange did a fair bit to persuade me, though of course you ought to make up your own mind.

Department of "I swear I am not making this up"

The infamous bastion of pseudoscience colloquially known as Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Kentucky is preparing to build a tourist attraction to end all tourist attractions – a full-sized replica of Noah's Ark. Supposedly it will be finished by 2014, though I'm skeptical whether it will, true to Biblical mythology, be built with a skeleton crew and wooden pegs. Over at their website, they're trying to raise $24 million to build the eyesore, and they're even trying to use loopholes in Kentucky tax law to get a break on it. Fortunately they've barely made a dent in their required funding.

Perhaps most annoyingly, they're trying to claim that the tax break shouldn't be subject to that pesky separation of church and state thing, because what they're doing is "scientific" rather than explicitly religious. For the sake of both science and aesthetics, I can only hope that their odds of being able to fund this thing are about the same odds that the story is true, in which case there is no chance it will ever see the light of day.

01 December 2010

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is a (pseudo) scientific argument

Over on the Reasonablefaith.com forum recently, a user stated that the Kalam argument was philosophical, not scientific. This was my response:

It's false to say that the Kalam isn't a scientific argument, because both its premises are intended to be factual, verifiable statements about the nature of reality.

Three problems:
  1. Not everything that exists has a cause. In fact, the entire field of quantum mechanics defies any causality in the classical, Newtonian sense of "cause-effect" we observe. Quantum mechanics is ruled by probability and mathematical determinism, not Newtonian "cause and effect".
  2. The universe may or may not have had a beginning. The "cosmic singularity" is an artifact of General Relativity, nothing more. When we use quantum mechanics, we do not have a singularity – the universe reaches Planck size, and we simply have no idea what happened before that. Craig's notion that the universe is either infinite or had a beginning is a false dichotomy – in the Planck-scale universe, time may behave completely differently than the straight "arrow" in which we experience it. There isn't a single modern theory of cosmology which presumes the universe requires a beginning.
  3. But the biggest failing of the Kalam is that it presumes what it is trying to prove. One has to presume that causality, which is a phenomenon observed in the universe, exists independently of the universe. But since our concept of causality is derived from the observable universe, the notion of a priori causality is nonsensical – what "laws" might govern and define it if the universe does not exist?