29 February 2012

Grand Ayatollah or GOP?

Here's a fun little article showing the hypocrisy of the religious right – or how much they really have in common with those they claim are their enemies. Can you guess who said things like, "We believe in democracy and we also believe in freedom, but we do not believe in liberal democracy." Was it.....

Grand Ayatollah or Grand Old Party?

Go read this

Tristan's done a great post on "ignosticism", and has delivered a pretty powerful argument against faith. A snippet:
When the purported experience of God is assumed real, as theists so often profess, we are faced with the challenge of describing that experience, which according to the theist is impossible because that would require us to give a definition of God, but as the sophist theologians love to harp, we cannot pretend to understand God--he is beyond our understanding. 

So in order to first communicate the experience of God, you have to know what God is, or at least describe God, in coherent terms which are comprehensible otherwise you cannot talk of having an experience of "God."
This is a great angle to take against people who claim that their faith is based on the experience of God – like, I dunno, William Lane Craig. Or shoot, even me circa 1997 or so, when I was certain that I had felt God's presence many times.

I don't know if it's the best argument against God ever, as Tristan suggests, but it's a good one – especially if you've had the amusement of watching theologians struggle with theological noncognitivism

Read the whole shebang here.

25 February 2012

Probably not

I'm not a fan of the use of probability arguments regarding the existence or non-existence of God. Richard Dawkins says that God's existence is exceedingly improbable; theologians say that the organization of the universe, with all its precise physical laws, are too improbable not to be the product of design.

The problem is, ascertaining the probability of something requires you to know the range of values that are possible. For example, if I ask you what the probability is that you'll pull any one particular card from a deck, you'd (hopefully) answer that it's 1 in 52. You know that because there are 52 cards in the deck. But if I had a trick deck with several identical cards, you wouldn't be able to accurately determine the probability of a particular card unless you already knew that I had a trick deck, and which identical cards it had. That's the flaw in theological questions like, "What is the probability that our universe would be the way it is?" Well, technically the probability is 1, because it is what it is. But we can't determine a priori probability because we don't know what other options there were, if any.

Probability also runs into problems on the atheistic side. Saying that God's existence is "improbable" is to me quite unsatisfying, because there's no way to determine the probability of supernatural things. Moreover, it depends heavily on how exactly "God" is being defined. Gods in the form of deistic or pantheistic beings that do not intervene with the natural world are simply indeterminable. But if we're talking about a theistic God, we could at least examine evidence of the claims as to how, exactly, God intervenes. Does he answer prayer? Cause natural disasters? Speak to people? Give people visions and/or warm fuzzy feelings? Orchestrate mundane daily events to 'bless people' by saving their lives or getting them that promotion?

These are all empirical claims, and they can be tested. But we can't really ask what the probability is that they prove or disprove God's existence; if the evidence doesn't match up, we could say that people just don't understand God's role correctly, or perhaps we've just looked in the wrong places. We might be able to ask, in a broad sense, what the probability is that such events can only be logically explained by the intervention of a deity – a position which doesn't bode well for the believer given the advances of science in accounting for the above delusions. But that's it. We still can't directly ascertain the probability of a theistic God's existence.

Then again, perhaps we non-believers are simply suggesting that the probability of us being wrong is low. Which it is.

23 February 2012

The Trinity and the law of non-contradiction: a question for Christians

I just sent in a question to William Lane Craig via the Reasonablefaith.org Q&A form, and I wanted to repost it here in case anyone else (Christians, that is) wanted to take a crack at it. Except, for some reason, after I copy & pasted it earlier today, it didn't save so I'll just have to paraphrase what I sent in. It was inspired by a post by Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking, and it has to do with the law of non-contradiction. I thought it was interesting because the law of non-contradiction was brought up in a recent comment thread discussion on logic.

Christian apologetics is essentially the use of logical arguments to deduce the existence of God and make inferences about his nature. This would seem to imply that God himself is subject to, or perhaps embodies, the laws of logic, which is why we could use such laws to make inferences about God in the first place (i.e., if God is exempt from the laws of logic, we'd have no grounds for using those laws to make inferences about him). Logic as part of the nature of God is even used to resolve conundrums about God's nature, such as dismissing the old "Can God microwave a burrito so hot he couldn't eat it?" paradoxes as logically absurd questions.

Which brings us to the law of non-contradiction, or ¬ (P ∧ ¬P), which means that something cannot both be and not be something else. But a central tenet of Christian theology is that God is both three persons and one god -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If the Christian simply attempts to avoid the conundrum by suggesting that the law of non-contradiction need not apply, then they're not being consistent in how they apply the laws of logic; this would show that the Christian is simply cherry-picking the rules of logic arbitrarily – applying them when they seem convenient, but discarding them when a theological conundrum arises.

So the question is, how can the law of non-contradiction be reconciled with the Trinity?

22 February 2012

An ode to Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum is one of those people whom I'm surprised actually exists. He's every stereotype of a conservative religious fundamentalist rolled into one convenient package. He consistently says things that you don't think anyone is really stupid enough to say, and better yet, he believes what he says. Most of the time, people like him are on the fringes. They're the Ken Hams of the world, making lots of noise but not really being familiar to anyone outside of certain circles. Rick Santorum, though, is running for President of the fucking United States, and even though polls show that Obama would beat him soundly, he's doing quite well for himself in the primaries.

Santorum's....uh.... surge (eww)... in popularity reveals a dark truth about our country: a lot of people are really stupid. Santorum hits every low-point on the "how to be a science-denying, bigoted, misogynistic fundie" checklist. Among other things, he thinks that:
  • American policy should be based on the Bible, and (of course) that his view of the Bible and how it should be interpreted to apply to politics is the correct one
  • President Obama is waging a war against religious freedom
  • Liberal Christians aren't really Christians
  • Abortion ought to be completely and totally banned in any and all circumstances
  • Prenatal testing should not be covered by insurance, because it may lead to abortions
  • Birth control, even within a marriage, is dangerous and wrong
  • Gay people don't deserve the same rights as everyone else
  • Women should stay at home and raise babies
  • Climate change is a liberal conspiracy, and that the Earth's resources are ours for the taking
  • Creationism ought to be taught as an alternative to evolutionary science
  • Evolution is a 'religion' that promotes atheism
  • America is being attacked by Satan
  • We shouldn't try to increase college enrollment because universities indoctrinate students into a secular world view
Google with caution
Santorum is obviously a great candidate for '12... 1912. He shows himself on every conceivable issue to be a man who has forsaken reason and evidence-based knowledge for blind religious fundamentalism. All of his views are based on dogma that is not amenable to evidence or skeptical inquiry. It's hard to believe that people like this actually exist in the 21st century, much less that one would be taken seriously as a candidate for the Presidency.

For my part, I hope he wins the nomination. He doesn't have a prayer (pun intended) of courting liberals or moderates, and his archaic views are extreme even for many conservatives. But he's at least more interesting than Mitt Romney, who will probably get the nod even though conservatives don't actually like him.




Sources:
http://slatest.slate.com/posts/2012/02/19/santorum_obama_policies_based_on_phony_theology_not_on_the_bible.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/rick-santorum-abortion-rape_n_1224624.html

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57383106-503544/santorum-opposes-civil-unions-for-same-sex-couples/

http://thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/santorum-evolution-promotes-atheism-creationism-is-academic-freedom/politics/2012/02/22/35131

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/rick-santorum-obama-christianity_n_1291645.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/campaigns/santorum-out-of-step-with-americans-even-most-of-gop-on-birth-control-some-other-issues/2012/02/17/gIQAw8bJJR_story.html

http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/world/Rick+Santorum+Satan+2008+speech+resurrected+2012+campaign/6191536/story.html

www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57384204-503544/santorum-obama-wants-to-indoctrinate-students-by-boosting-college-enrollment/

Sex+ Questionnaire

Courtesy of Laci Green by way of the effervescent Sarah Bee:

Sex+ Questionnaire For: Mike D
Age: 32
Sex: Sure!
Location: Tulsa, OK

Sexual Awakenings
1. How did you learn about sex?
Television, friends, Playboy magazines, and my older brother.
2. Were you able to talk about sex with your parents?
Not really. They never made it a point to talk about it with me, and my dad's never uttered a word while my mom has awkwardly attempted to dole out practical advice from time to time in the form of "be sure to use protection!"
3. Do you remember your first kiss?
Yup. I remember it being really awkward and that I was really self-conscious about doing it 'correctly'.
4. Tell us about an embarrassing moment you’ve had with sexuality/a partner/etc.
I've never been walked in on or anything, so I don't know that I've ever been embarrassed during sex aside from being extremely drunk and/or exhausted and not being able to finish.
5. How old were you when you made your sexual debut? Were you ready for it?
21. I guess I was a late bloomer, which I blame on my uber-Christian teen years. In fact, I came to really resent the fact that sexuality had never been discussed aside from "NO!", and then for whatever reason it's like people were supposed to get married and it would just be there.

Relationships
6. Are you in a romantic or sexual relationship?
Negative.
7. Would you prefer being in a relationship or being single? Why?
Right now, honestly, I want to be alone. The last couple years have been full of passionate highs and painful lows. I suppose that some people heal by getting out and playing the field, but I tried that recently and it just made it all hurt worse. Right now I just want to focus on me. Which in my case means spending nearly every free moment with my guitar, and my hopelessly needy/affectionate cat. When I'm absorbed in music, I'm truly happy.
8. Would you ever consider a polyamorous relationship?
I've certainly thought about it, but I don't think I could do it. One woman is tough enough to figure out.
9. Have you ever cheated on a partner?
No, but I've been with someone who was cheating, and I had plenty of days feeling like a piece of shit for it. A hopelessly in love piece of shit, but a piece of shit nonetheless.
10. What was your longest relationship? Your shortest?
Longest: 2 years; Shortest: 1 day? I dunno, if it's really short does it even count as a relationship?
11. What do you look for in a partner?
Um, wow. Well, a truism is that you often don't really know what you want until you see it, and I'd hate to miss out on a woman who can challenge me just because she didn't fit into my little pigeonhole. But, generally speaking... a fit body, a pretty face, intelligent, funny, assertive, comfortable being social and being alone, non-religious, liberal, sensual, kind, compassionate, and not a ginger.
12. Do you have any “deal breakers”?
Piety, obesity, and worse of all... constantly seeking validation because of horrible self-esteem. I want a partnership, not a self-help course.

Sexploration

13. What is your favorite way to ask for consent?
I don't know, it just happens. Or, I just grab her ass and say, Let's have some waffles and then later some intercourse.
14. What is your favorite position?
I don't even know what it's called, but I'm kneeling over one of her legs while her other leg is on my shoulder, and, well, you can figure out the rest.
15. Would you/have you had a one night stand?
More than I'd like to admit. Sometimes it's just what the doctor ordered, but I'd prefer a friend to a stranger.
16. What’s your favorite place to be touched by a partner?
There's something about the neck that turns me into putty.
17. Is there anything that you’ve wanted to try sexually but haven’t (yet)?
Nah, I've had my share, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what I'm into and what I'm not. But I'm open-minded, so you never know.
18. Would you/have you had group sex (3+ people)?
No. I might if it were a one-off sort of thing.
19. Would you/have you practiced BDSM?
I don't think handcuffs really count, so... no. I'm not into the leather and chains.
20. Would you/have you done role-play?
Yup. The secret, for me at least, is to just not take it even remotely seriously.
21. What is your biggest turn on?
Naked chicks.
22. Biggest turn off?
It's a toss up between obesity and ignorance.
23. How often do you masturbate?
Most days.
24. What do you think is the most erotic part of your body?
My back and arms. That's two, but whatever. Well I guess it's three, since I have two arms, but it would be weird to say that I really loved one of my arms.

Self Love
25. What’s your favorite thing about yourself?
My ability to self-question, natural curiosity, and sense of humor.
26. What’s your biggest accomplishment in the last 3 years?
11 notes per second on my guitar is one I'm pretty proud of. I dunno, really. I can't think of one thing. I'm just happy that I've grown, that have great friends and family, that I'm reasonably financially secure, that I can spend time chasing my passions, and that I haven't let past disappointments turn me bitter. Yeah, but mainly 11 notes per second.
27. Tell us one goal you have for yourself.
I don't really think that way. I mean, I have certain goals as far as fitness, my technical development on the guitar, etc., but I don't worry too much about the future. I just try to spend as much time as I can doing the things I love, whether it's time with family and friends or locking myself away and practicing for hours on end.
28. How do you take care of yourself?
I'm quite introverted, so my therapy is to be alone, playing guitar, reading, writing, and occasionally seeing some close friends.

Hot Topics
29. Do you support a woman’s right to choose an abortion if she accidentally gets pregnant?
Absolutely.
30. Do you think prostitution should be legal?
I think so, but I am on the fence.
31. If you had a baby boy, would you have his foreskin removed (circumcise him)?
I dunno. Based on what I know now, probably not.
32. Should same-sex marriage be legal?
Fuck yes!
33. Should comprehensive sex education be given in high schools or abstinence only?
Abstinence-only is great if you're dumb enough to think ignorance is bliss, and that kids won't start to figure things out for themselves if you don't talk to them and guide them.

To Infinity, and Beyond
34. What do you want to be when you grow up?
I hope I never grow up.
35. Do you want to get married?
I'd like to, but at this point I care much more about being with the right person than walking down the aisle. Besides, I hate weddings.
36. Do you want to have children?
Maybe... it would have to be the right time with the right woman.
37. What do you want to do for others before you die?
I don't really think about that sort of stuff. It doesn't matter. I do my best with one day at a time.

17 February 2012

Quoth the Amazing Randi...


Faith in science?

When we science-loving atheist types point out that faith-based epistemologies are unreliable at best and invalid to the point of being comedic at worst, it's often countered that science itself is based on certain axiomatic assumptions that can't actually be proved; they have to be taken... drumroll... on faith.

Physicist Paul Davies, writing for the New York Times, opines:
All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
Coming from a scientist, this is pretty embarrassing. I've heard similar such arguments, including the notion that science assumes that an objective reality exists at all! See, you take science on faith, because maybe the universe doesn't actually exist!

Paul Davies: physicist, mustache enthusiast
Anyway, this is, of course, stupid. That nature is ordered is not an assumption, but an observation. We do indeed have to make a couple of provisional assumptions: that reality exists, and that our senses provide us with generally reliable information. We don't have to assume that reality's existence is an immutable truth or that our senses are infallible, but if we don't make at least those two provisional assumptions then we have nowhere to go.

But of course, these provisional assumptions are validated through our entire existence. When we are babies, we form a set of behaviors that cognitive psychologists call intuitive physics. We find, as we explore our new world, that solid objects cannot be passed through and that if we let go of something, it will fall. We intuitively follow the assumption that this holds true for all solid objects. Similarly, if we see a mammal giving birth to live babies, we assume that that species always gives birth to live babies; we don't have to observe every specimen on Earth to assume that they don't occasionally lay eggs.

These are all provisional assumptions, not immutable truths. Maybe somewhere out there, there's a region of space where the laws of physics are different and we could pass through solid objects. But we know that our provisional assumption is reliable, because it's been verified by pretty much everyone that's ever lived and throughout each of our entire lives. We have absolutely no reason to believe that there are solid objects that can be passed through or that there are regions of space with different laws of physics (some conjectural multiverse theories not withstanding).

Clearly, this is a vastly different sort of thing than religious faith. Faith means believing in something not because the evidence demonstrates it to be true, but because you feel it to be true and/or because you desire it to be true. The only reason anyone, like Paul Davies above, tries to draw this false equivalency between evidence-based knowledge and faith is because they don't want to feel like idiots for believing in religious fairy tales.

The Discovery Institute: science rebels or comedy troupe?

I can't remember what spurred it, but for some reason I was curious about how well-educated the people behind the Discovery Institute are when it comes to matters of science. Formally, I mean. So I hopped over to their list of Discovery Institute Fellows and just started going down the list. Turns out very few of them are actually biologists, and most of them aren't scientists at all. That shouldn't come as a surprise, really, but... well it still sort of does. Because why would you think that you can spearhead a radical upheaval of the unifying theory of all modern biology when the overwhelming majority of the people in your little organization have no formal education in any field of biology whatsoever?

Here's a list of Discovery Institute Fellows, with their actual degrees (note - a few had no bio, so I didn't include them). I bolded the ones who hold various biology degrees:

Program Director
Stephen C. Meyer - History, Philosophy of Science

Associate Director
John G West - Government

Senior Fellows
Michael Behe - Biochemistry
David Berlinksi - Philosophy
Paul Chien - Biology
William Dembski - Statistics, Philosophy
Michael Denton - MD, Biology
David DeWorf - Law
Guillermo Gonzalez - Astronomy
Bruce Gordon - Physics, Philosophy
Michael Keas - Science History
David Klinghoffer - none
Jay W. Richards - Philosophy and Theology
Richard Sternberg - Molecular Biology, Systems Science
Jonathan Wells - Molecular and Cell Biology, Religious Studies
Benjamin Wiker - Theological Ethics
Jonathan Witt - Literary Studies

Fellows
Raymond Bohlin - Molecular and Cell Biology
Walter Bradley - Materials Science
J Budziszewski - Government
Robert Lowry Clinton - Government
Jack Collins - Hebrew, M.Div
William Lane Craig - Theology, Philosophy
Mark Hartwig - Educational Psychology
Cornelius G Hunter - Biophysics, Computational Biology
Robert Kaita - Nuclear Physics
Dean Kenyon - Biophysics
Robert C. Koons - Philosophy
Forrest M. Mims - none listed; described as "instrument designer, science writer and independent science consultant".
Scott Minnich - Microbiology
J.P. Moreland - Theology, Philosophy
Paul A Nelson - Philosophy
Nancy Pearcey - Theology
Pattle Pak-Toe Pun - Theology
John Mark Reynolds - Philosophy
Henry F. Schaefer III - Chemical Physics
Geoffrey Simmons - MD
Charles Thaxton -Physical Chemistry
Richard Weikart - European History

Staff
Robert L. Crowther, II - Journalism
Janine Dixon - Journalism
Casey Luskin - Law, Earth Sciences
Eleanor Nading - Art History
Andrew McDiarmid - Teaching
Ted Robinson - Business Management
Kelley J Unger - Communication

 
Out of about 50 fellows, only 9 have degrees in fields related to biology. There is no shortage of theologians though, which is of course what ID is all about.

16 February 2012

Oklahoma Senate passes "personhood" bill

Man, what a week in fundie stupidity. We've got fundies saying that employers should be able to restrict women's access to contraceptives, fundies attempting to reinstate DADT, fundies trying to give high school credit for creationism, and the motherload: a backdoor attempt to outlaw all abortions.

It's no secret that many republicans do not understand the difference between a zygote and a living, breathing baby. Or hell, even the difference between a viable fetus and a mass of human cells. No, to them, any fertilized egg is the exact same thing as a human living outside of a womb, and they think that even unviable human tissue deserves the identical rights as everyone else even if that means ignoring the rights of the mother.

So they've been trying to overturn Roe V Wade for nearly 40 years now. But they can't, and they know they can't. So instead, they've been trying to increasingly limit women's access to family planning. They want to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, which they incessantly demonize, because something like 3% of its services are abortions. Now, I'm personally not in favor of unrestricted abortions. But for all their talk about keeping the government out of our lives, fundies sure try their damnedest to cram as much government into our lives as possible.

But I digress. The latest charade in this shallow attempt to strip women of their rights are "personhood" bills, which declare that a fertilized egg is a person. It's a movement driven by an antiabortion group called Personhood USA, and it has the potential not only to wipe out abortion without exception, but also to jeopardize in-virto fertilization and some forms of infertility treatment. Oklahoma now carries the dubious honor of being the first state to get one of these bills past its senate, which as one might expect is almost entirely male.

Of course, I'm sure that if a woman is going to be forced by the state to carry a pregnancy to term, the republicans will make sure that the state provides for all her health care needs during the pregnancy, pays for any work leave she must take if it's not covered by her employer, will provide for child care support while she's raising the child, and will pay for counseling if she was impregnated by a rapist.

No? Oh yeah, that would be the government intruding on people's lives, and we wouldn't want that would we?


The Matrix for chickens

There's a fascinating article in Wired about an architecture student in the UK named Andre Ford who has proposed a "headless chicken" farm, where chickens have their cerebral cortex removed so that they are essentially vegetables (well... figuratively). They would be raised in vertical grids, oblivious to the macabre reality of their existence. Says Ford,
“There are numerous differences between the current dominant production systems and the one I am proposing, but the fundamental difference is the removal of suffering. Whether what I am proposing is an appropriate means to achieve the removal of suffering is open to interpretation."
I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm not oblivious to the conditions to which animals are subjected and I have to admit this is an intriguing solution. It doesn't look like our demand for meat is going away any time soon, and the idea of humane industrial farms, with chickens and cows prancing around happily like in the romanticized images we have of family farms, is probably just a pipe dream.

My initial reaction, admittedly, was shock. This is what it's come to? These are living creatures, not things. And yet, Ford's rationale is difficult to argue with:
“The realities of the existing systems of production are just as shocking, but they are hidden behind the sentimental guise of traditional farming scenes that we as consumers hold in our minds and see on our food packaging.”

12 February 2012

Holytape

I don't remember how I found this website, but it's hilarious. Well... it's hilarious if you have a warped sense of humor like I do. Basically, this guy makes blasphemous art with duct tape. Then he pens these bizarre, Bible-like stories to go along with them. It hasn't been updated much recently, but there is plenty of entertaining stuff there. This site being what it is, I thought this excerpt was fitting:
Unicorns are evil – pure unadulterated evil. Most people don't know it, because they have been fooled. Do you know about those pictures of beautiful unicorns bringing happiness to the world and dancing under rainbows? Well, those picture are all lies – unicorn propaganda -- meant to hide the truth, the awful truth -- that only thing on this green earth that is more evil than one unicorn is two unicorns working together. 
“How evil?” you might ask. Well, there was this unicorn that once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. You might say, “That’s not too evil. That's just plain mean and violent.” Well, the unicorn shot then man, took his credit card, bought an expensive video recorder, came back, recorded the man dying, posted it on you-tube, and then emailed the link to the man's children and wife. And then rick-rolled them. Now that's evil – pure evil.
Have fun:

http://holytape-holytape.blogspot.com

QFT

Religion asks questions like "What is the nature of God?" and "What is his plan for our lives?", but they never answer them. Such answers are impossible for three reasons: God doesn't exist, there's no way to find out the answer to those questions except for the unreliable method of revelation, and those revelations have given different answers to different faiths (and to different people within a faith). Religion doesn't answer any questions. 
— Jerry Coyne
 

William Lane Craig: not even a pretend physicist

If you've ever sat through one of William Lane Craig's academic essays on physics – and I have – it's easy to be impressed so long as you don't actually know that much about physics. This isn't to say that Craig doesn't know anything about physics; he actually knows a fair bit. But the difference between a physicist talking about physics and a theologian talking about physics is that the theologian obviously has an agenda. It's in Craig's personal interest to find information that appears to support his beliefs, and to be highly skeptical or even outright dismissive of anything that contradicts his beliefs.

Physics is complicated stuff, and even physicists are often hesitant to talk about its implications. There's so much we don't know, so many unanswered questions, that it's highly presumptuous to use our current state of knowledge as a boon to one's personal beliefs.

Which brings me to my frustration that started over in the "Apologetics 101" thread. We're discussing Craig's pet argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The argument requires two things
  1. The universe was created out of nothing (it didn't come from another physical reality)
  2. Its cause was external to physical reality (God made it)
Simple as that. Craig is quick to jump on the bandwagon when evidence may support this, like in this excerpt from an essay he did for *cough* Leadership University:
This event [the Big Bang] that marked the beginning of the universe becomes all the more amazing when one reflects on the fact that a state of "infinite density" is synonymous to "nothing." There can be no object that possesses infinite density, for if it had any size at all it could still be even more dense. Therefore, as Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle points out, the Big Bang Theory requires the creation of matter from nothing.[1]

11 February 2012

Verbosity (or, the ontological argument part deux)

Philosophy is a mixed bag for me. I ate up (not literally) Dan Dennett's excellent book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which talks about the philosophical implications of evolution. But I'm also sympathetic to Stephen Hawking's controversial quip from The Grand Design: "philosophy is dead". Hawking's being hyperbolic, especially since his books tend to deal with philosophical implications of physics. I think that what he means, though, is that it is science which is on the forefront of human discovery. We can talk about how science is changing our view of the universe and our place within it, but philosophy cannot reveal any new truths.

I'm convinced that a lot of philosophy – especially religious philosophy – exists only for masturbatory purposes, so that academics can feel impressed with themselves. Remember my criticism of the ontological argument? Well, an alert reader brought to my attention an even more verbose wording of the argument – William Lane Craig's take on Alvin Plantinga's argument. It's a monster:

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

When you get past all of the pedantic bullshit, this isn't even an actual argument. It's literally nothing more than the bald assertion "God exists". Or, more specifically, "God, by definition, exists". A few problems, in handy bulletin format:

10 February 2012

Deep thoughts

Kirk Cameron just gives me kind of a foul taste in my mouth. One only cured with some good Scotch. I almost feel bad for the guy, and I admit that's partly because he looks like a teenager. But what a waste, to spend one's life spreading teh stupid with the likes of Ray Comfort.

Also, I don't know why anyone cares about what Ann Coulter thinks about anything. I think people just invite her on their shows because they know there's a decent chance she'll say something colossally stupid and/or hateful that will make for some free publicity the next day. 

09 February 2012

Prop 8

The question of Proposition 8's constitutionality is likely headed to the Supreme Court. As is usually the case when the court does things they don't like, conservatives blame it on "liberal activist judges". I watched the vile sub-human beast Ann Coulter on MSNBC the other day, and she opined that judges have no right to subvert the will of the people. Since a (slim) majority voted in favor of Prop 8, it's unconstitutional to say it's unconstitutional.

Funny. I always thought civil rights were the kind of things that aren't just up to the majority. I mean come on, lots of states weren't happy about the Civil Rights Act being imposed on them, and I think it's safe to say that if we'd let individual states decide through the vote whether to preserve segregation, lots of us here in the Southwest would still be drinking from "white only" drinking fountains.

The Constitution guarantees two very important things: first, the 14th Amendment declares equal protection under the law. That means that as long as the government – whether state or federal – provides various incentives (tax and otherwise) for married couples, you don't get to say that marriage is okay for some people but not for others. Secondly, Article VI – the Supremacy Clause – guarantees that federal law always supersedes state law. That means that if something is unconstitutional, states can't grant themselves exceptions to the rule – like voting for pro-segregation legislation. It's the same reason why the annual ritual of various backwards idiots in state legislatures attempting to shove creationism into the science classroom is futile – it's already been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. There's no opt-out clause for states, and you know why? Because the Union won the fucking Civil War, that's why.

Prop 8's constitutionality (or lack thereof) will be a major landmark not just for gay rights, but for civil rights in general. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court decides that it's constitutional, they'll be saying that a majority vote can override a fundamental constitutional protection. That would be a defeat not just for gay rights, but for human rights.


07 February 2012

William Lane Craig defends the ontological argument

A few posts back I half-jokingly said I wished someone would really try to defend the ontological argument. It's just such a profoundly stupid argument that I really get a kick out of smart people dressing up its fallacies in fancy academic language. But then I randomly jumped over to ReasonableFaith.org (William Lane Craig's website), and it just so happens that a recent post finds him defending... you guessed it, the ontological argument.

I sarcastically summarized the ontological argument as:
  1. God, by definition, exists
  2. Therefor, God exists
That's really not a stretch – although the argument gets dressed up in masturbatory philosophical drivel (as you'll see in moment), it basically says that the "greatest conceivable being" (God) must have "existence" as one of its properties, otherwise that being couldn't be the greatest conceivable being. Let's listen to what Bill has to say on the matter:
A maximally great being is one that has, among other properties, necessary existence. So if it exists in one world, it exists in all of them! In that sense, such a being is different than contingent beings, which exist in only some possible worlds. A unicorn, for example, exists in some possible world, but not in all of them, for its existence is possible but not necessary.
If that sounds confusing, that's because it is. But to clarify one point, Dr. Craig earlier says,
To say that some entity exists in a possible world is just to say that such an entity possibly exists. It isn’t meant that the entity actually exists somewhere.
In other words, the terminology "possible world" is totally superfluous philosophical bullshit. You can just say, "It's possible that God exists". But of course it sounds way more academic to say, "A maximally great being exists in some possible world."

So, see if you can follow this: if a "maximally great being" includes "necessary existence" (as opposed to "possible existence") as one of its properties, that's saying that it exists not just in "some possible world", but in "all possible worlds", which means that any description of reality must include "a maximally great being exists". That's basically just a tautology, like saying "A being that has to exist has to exist."

As you can see, my sarcastic summary is actually pretty damn accurate.



Why it's dumb

He went there.
This is a stupid argument because "existence" is not a property – non-existent things can't have properties. They can have conceptualizations of properties, but since they don't actually exist they can't actually have properties. Non-existent things, like unicorns for example, are just abstractions, not actual things. To use that masturbatory philosophical language, you could say that a unicorn exists abstractly, but not ontologically – which is just a fancy way of saying that it's something we can imagine existing, but it doesn't actually exist.

You'd think that people with doctoral degrees in philosophy could distinguish between actual things and conceptual things, but apparently that is not the case.



Craig concludes,
Logic doesn’t falter here.
And the audience erupts with laughter. Really, I wouldn't bother responding to such stupid arguments were it not for the fact that lots of people actually take this clown seriously. To me, the ontological argument is proof positive that intelligent people are just that much better at constructing elaborate rationalizations of stupid beliefs.

06 February 2012

Steven Pinker on the history of Christian violence

Props to my friend Harry for bringing this to my attention. Taken from the Q&A page over at Steven Pinker's website, bold emphases mine:

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Wasn’t the spread of Christianity the main historical force that drove down violence? Jesus preached love, peace, and forgiveness. The Spanish missionaries eliminated human sacrifice in Latin America. Abolitionism in the 19th century, and the Civil Rights movement in the 20th, were inspired by the morality of Christianity and led by Christian ministers. The two world wars show what happens when people depart from the teachings of Christianity. 

Jesus deserves credit for stigmatizing revenge, one of the main motives for violence over the course of human history. But things started going downhill in 312 when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the historical facts are not consistent with the claim that Christianity since then has been a force for nonviolence:
  • The Crusaders perpetrated a century of genocides that murdered a million people, equivalent as a proportion of the world’s population at the time to the Nazi holocaust.
  • Shortly afterwards, the Cathars of southern France were exterminated in another Crusader genocide because they had embraced the Albigensian heresy.
  • The Inquisition, according to Rummel, killed 350,000 people.
  • Martin Luther’s rant against the Jews is barely distinguishable from the writings of Hitler. 
  • The three founders of Protestantism, Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII, had thousands of heretics were burned at the stake, as they and their followers took Jesus literally when he said, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”
  •  Following the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Christians killed 60,000-100,000 accused witches in the European witchhunts.
  • The European Wars of Religion had death rates that were double that of World War I and that were in the range of World War II in Europe.
  • Christian conquistadors massacred and enslaved native Americans in vast numbers, and perhaps twenty million were killed in all (not counting unintentional epidemics) by the European settlement of the Americas.
  •  World War I, as I recall, was a war fought mostly by Christians against Christians. As for World War II and its associated horrors, see my answer to the previous question.

Certain Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, did indeed mobilize the abolitionist movement, but they came late to the party.  Christianity had no problem with slavery for more than 1500 years, and agitation against the institution only took off with the writings of John Locke and other philosophers of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, who found plenty of good secular reasons why slavery was abominable. The American abolitionists fought against a slaveholding South that was, of course, thoroughly Christian, including many ministers who defended slavery because it was approved in the Bible.
 
As for Martin Luther King, in his essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” he discusses his inspirations: ancient Greek and Enlightenment philosophers, renegade humanistic theologians who rejected orthodox Christian doctrine, and most of all, Gandhi. And of course the segregationists he opposed were all Christians, and several of the civil rights activists they murdered were Jewish.
 
This is not to single out Christians or Christianity as a source of violence; many of the contemporary alternatives were just as bad. And there have been times in recent history when Christian ideas and movements have been pacifying forces, particularly when they have been influenced the humanitarian currents I discuss in the book. But to say that Christianity has, overall, been a force for peace in history is factually inaccurate.

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I've lost count of the number of times, in conversations with Christians, it's been claimed that Christianity was and is primarily a force of peace and civility. This is quite flagrantly false, and we shouldn't forget that while Christianity has been tamed by the forces of secular modernity, it was historically spread by the sword and inspired some of the most grotesque cruelty in history. 

05 February 2012

The US has a regressive tax system

The rich pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes, right? Nearly half of Americans pay no taxes at all, right? Wrong. It's true as long as you're talking about federal income taxes, and ignoring overall tax rates that take into account local sales taxes, payroll taxes, state income taxes, property taxes, etc. etc. Some sobering statistics by way of Mother Jones:
... it's true that the federal income tax is indeed progressive. Conservatives are right about that—though it's not as progressive as it used to be, back before top marginal rates were lowered and capital gains taxes were slashed in half. But conservatives are a little less excited to talk about other kinds of taxes. Payroll taxes aren't progressive, for example. In fact, they're actively regressive, with the poor and middle classes paying higher rates than the rich.

And then there are state taxes. Those include state income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and fees of various kinds. How progressive are state taxes?
Answer: They aren't. The Corporation for Enterprise Development recently released a scorecard for all 50 states, and it has boatloads of useful information. That includes overall tax rates, where data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy shows that in the median state (Mississippi, as it turns out) the poorest 20 percent pay twice the tax rate of the top 1 percent. In the worst states, the poorest 20 percent pay five to six times the rate of the richest 1 percent. Lucky duckies indeed. There's not one single state with a tax system that's progressive. Check the table below to see how your state scores.

Misquoting physicists

The epic discussion in the comments section for the post "Apologetics 101" has gone, as discussions like that are prone to do, into pretty esoteric territory. The discussion has gravitated toward the First Cause arguments and whether the universe actually requires a beginning, which is kind of disappointing because just once I'd like to see someone really try to defend the ontological argument in a discussion like that. Oh well.

Anyway, the topic of whether the universe has a beginning is a thorny one, but it's a concept that's absolutely pivotal to belief in a theistic or deistic Creator (pantheists are off the hook). As Stephen Hawking so eloquently put it in A Brief History of Time back in '88, "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"

There's definitely a possibility that modern cosmologies will one day make the notion of a creator irrelevant. For now, Christian apologists like to cling to the standard model of the Big Bang, which seems to indicate that the universe began at a finite point in the past – at the so-called "cosmological singularity", where space-time becomes infinitely curved. When one commenter brought to my attention an article about a theorem from Alexander Vilenkin, a few minutes on Google found lots of attention about Vilenkin from Christians, including the notorious creationist blog Evolution News and an essay by the popular apologist William Lane Craig in which he quotes Vilenkin in a way that implies that physicists have resolved the issue:

QFT


04 February 2012

Sam Harris and fireplaces

Sam Harris has picked an odd topic to blog about: the hazards of wood-burning fireplaces. Everyone knows they're a terribly inefficient source of heat, but people still enjoy lighting them up occasionally because it smells good. Sam wants to convince you that this is a terrible idea and an immediate threat to your health:
I am sorry to say that if you feel this way about a wood fire [a "wholesome pleasure"], you are not only wrong but dangerously misguided. I mean to seriously convince you of this—so you can consider it in part a public service announcement—but please keep in mind that I am drawing an analogy. I want you to be sensitive to how you feel, and to notice the resistance you begin to muster as you consider what I have to say.
He then hits with this scientificish condemnation:
Once they have exited your chimney, the toxic gases (e.g. benzene) and particles that make up smoke freely pass back into your home and into the homes of others. (Research shows that nearly 70 percent of chimney smoke reenters nearby buildings.) Children who live in homes with active fireplaces or woodstoves, or in areas where wood burning is common, suffer a higher incidence of asthma, cough, bronchitis, nocturnal awakening, and compromised lung function. Among adults, wood burning is associated with more-frequent emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illness, along with increased mortality from heart attacks. The inhalation of wood smoke, even at relatively low levels, alters pulmonary immune function, leading to a greater susceptibility to colds, flus, and other respiratory infections. All these effects are borne disproportionately by children and the elderly.
And he concludes with a stern warning:
If you care about your family’s health and that of your neighbors, the sight of a glowing hearth should be about as comforting as the sight of a diesel engine idling in your living room.



Fire.... bad? Or fire.... good?
Sam is being dumb. Not because he's wrong about the statistics, not because he's wrong about smoke inhalation being a bad thing, but because the statistics he cites create a false equivalency. He begins the blog by talking about people in the modern industrialized world who use fireplaces only occasionally (and likely briefly). Then to show that it's dangerous, he cites statistics from people who live in developed nations and/or are raised in homes that use wood-burning stoves or fireplaces as primary heat sources.

Well, that ain't the same thing. Sam hasn't offered any evidence that the occasional short fire  produces significant health consequences. Now granted, that's not the same thing as saying it's smart. It's still really inefficient and is producing at least some level of frivolous pollution. But his stats don't jive with his alarmist message. What's really annoying about the article though is that he's posturing it as though it's a critical-thinking exercise that even many self-proclaimed skeptics are going to fail, but the then sticks the root of his argument in a logical fallacy. I'm not impressed.