28 September 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 11

Remember earlier when I said that one of my annoyances with this book is that the topics tend to repeat themselves? Well, this time they do so for two chapters in a row. I mean come on. This is a sixteen-chapter book, and it's looking more and more like it could have been, I dunno, ten. The next two chapters deal with the idea that science and religion are inherently in conflict.

Now, in my experience, there are two ways theists deal with this. First is to suggest that science and religion answer different questions – the old non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) argument. The other is to point out that lots of important scientists have been, and are, religious – heck, without religious people there might not even be science! The first is actually a semi-interesting topic; the second isn't really an argument at all. Isaac Newton was a scientist and an alchemist. Does that give alchemy more credibility?

Shockingly, these two chapters stick to the formula. That's a bit of a relief for me, because this book is getting old and I can breeze through these two chapters pretty fast. For today, here's Chapter 11.

Chapter 11: Are Science and Christianity at Odds?

27 September 2012

Sean Carroll responds to William Lane Craig

Sean Carroll has an essay in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology called, "Does the Universe Need God?" I think it's an outstanding rebuttal to first-cause and design arguments, and a thorough overview of modern cosmology and its implications. His arguments buttress what I have read in many other books and articles by modern cosmologists.

Recently, William Lane Craig did a podcast in which he tried to offer a response. I was literally in the process of writing a post about it when it dawned on me that Sean may have responded himself. And indeed, he had. I particularly like Sean's post because it reinforces many of the arguments I've put forth here on this blog in response to Craig's arguments. I am definitely not a physicist, which is why I tend to quote them instead of trying to correct them as Craig does.

Some choice quotes from Carroll's response:
One point he makes repeatedly — really the foundational idea from which everything else he has to say flows — is that a naturalist account of the form I advocate simply doesn’t explain why the universe exists at all, and that in my essay I don’t even try. Our old friend the Primordial Existential Question, or Why is there something rather than nothing?
I have to admit I’m a bit baffled here. I suppose it’s literally true that I don’t offer a reason why there is something rather than nothing, but it’s completely false that I ignore the question. There’s a whole section of my paper, entitled “Accounting for the world,” which addresses precisely this point. It’s over a thousand words long. I even mention Craig by name!
This strikes at a consistent problem: William Lane Craig, like Alister McGrath, is either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Just as in his chapter in True Reason in which he purportedly responds to The God Delusion, Craig seems to be counting on his readers (or listeners, as it were) not actually having read the source material.
The idea is simple, if we may boil it down to the essence: some things happen for “reasons,” and some don’t, and you don’t get to demand that this or that thing must have a reason. Some things just are. Claims to the contrary are merely assertions, and we are as free to ignore them as you are to assert them.
This is the gist of an important idea I've discussed often: if you ask Why is there something rather than nothing?, or more specifically Why does the universe exist?, you are making the assumption that the existence of the universe requires an explanation. Maybe the universe simply is. What we know is this: cosmology does not force us to explain the mere existence of the universe; it allows for the possibility that it is self-contained or (per Carroll) "enclosed". So theologians like Craig do not get to simply insist that the rest of us have a burden of explanation here. They're making an assertion based on an unjustified assumption.

But what about the whole "beginning of the universe" thing?
The second major point Craig makes is a claim that I ignored something important: namely, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem. This is Craig’s favorite bit of cosmology, because it can be used to argue that the universe had a beginning (rather than stretching infinitely far backwards in time), and Craig is really devoted to the idea that the universe had a beginning. As a scientist, I’m not really devoted to any particular cosmological scenario at all, so in my paper I tried to speak fairly about both “beginning cosmologies” and “eternal cosmologies.” Craig quotes (misleadingly) a recent paper by Audrey Mithani and Alex Vilenkin, which concludes by saying “Did the universe have a beginning? At this point, it seems that the answer to this question is probably yes.” Mithani and Vilenkin are also scientists, and are correspondingly willing to be honest about our state of ignorance: thus, “probably” yes. I personally think the answer is “probably no,” but none of us actually knows. The distinction is that the scientists are willing to admit that they don’t really know.
This is vital. Craig is committed to the idea that the universe had a beginning. His faith requires it to be true, so he clearly has a vested interest in cherry-picking the literature, which is exactly what he does. Carroll, being an actual physicist and not just a pretend one like Craig, is not committed to the idea that the universe does or does not have a beginning. Maybe, maybe not. But that's not all:
I don’t think that any result dealing with classical spacetimes can teach us anything definitive about the beginning of the universe. The moment of the Big Bang is, if anything is, a place where quantum gravity is supremely important. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin results are simply not about quantum gravity. It’s extremely easy to imagine eternal cosmologies based on quantum mechanics that do not correspond to simple classical spacetimes throughout their history. It’s an interesting result to keep in mind, but nowhere near the end of our investigations into possible histories of the universe.
In just about every post I've ever done on first-cause arguments and the "beginning" of the universe, I point out that a beginning, in the best case scenario, only applies to the observable universe. No one has yet traversed the Planck Epoch to see what caused the big bang, or what the nature of spacetime really was prior to cosmological inflation. Until we have a theory of quantum gravity, that will simply be a giant question mark.

Carroll concludes with a whopper:
None of this matters to Craig. He knows what answer he wants to get — the universe had a beginning — and he’ll comb through the cosmology literature looking to cherry-pick quotes that bolster this conclusion. He doesn’t understand the literature at a technical level, which is why he’s always quoting (necessarily imprecise) popular books by Hawking and others, rather than the original papers. That’s fine; we can’t all be experts in everything. But when we’re not experts, it’s not intellectually honest to distort the words of experts to make them sound like they fit our pre-conceived narrative.
This illustrates why it is more intellectually honest to be a non-believer than a believer. As an atheist, I am not committed to any particular outcome of cosmology. Contrary to the assumptions of many theists I've encountered, being an atheist does not commit me to materialism, either – I'm simply committed to following the evidence. Perhaps "God" and "supernatural causality" will be part of our growing understanding of cosmology; perhaps not. But I'm not committed to the idea either way. When a believer challenges me with the old canard, If there's no God, then why does the universe exist?, it's enough for me to say, I don't know – and neither do you. There's no reason to believe the existence of the universe requires an explanation at all – perhaps it can simply be. That's enough to show that believers cannot present the mere existence of the universe as evidence for God.

Read Sean's full response to Craig here.

25 September 2012

Attack of the Jack

Old Jack Hudson is back after a bit of a blogging absence, and man did he ever make up for it. I was starting to type up a response at his blog, but then I thought I'd reply here because I think his post is a good insight into just how severe the nutbaggery can be in the mind of a religious conservative.

Jack's new piece is about the catastrophe that is the Atheism+ movement. Atheists divided against each other! Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! As a conservative Christian who thinks we atheists are mostly just a bunch of ignorant, angry, unsaved youths, this little incident has provided ample ammunition for him to point out not only the character flaws of atheists, but the flaws of atheism itself. Or, so he thinks. The truth is that Jack's perception of atheism, and the atheist community, is a cartoonish caricature of the real thing. He begins innocuously enough, but there's a bit of hyperbole that doesn't ring quite true:
New Atheism, the movement that holds that religious belief should be strongly criticized and countered because it is dumb, delusional and dangerous
The much ballyhooed "new atheism" is not really that new. All that happened is that atheism found a foothold in popular culture. Atheists have always believed that religion should be freely criticized. That's kind of a big deal, because even while we heretics aren't burned at the stake anymore, we're still often ostracized for our lack of faith, and we think that stigma ought to be removed – that religious belief does not deserve a sacred place in the marketplace of ideas.

Jack continues,
New Atheism has also dividing [sic] over what it means to be an atheist; whether the movement is merely skeptical of religion or obligated to advance certain social and political concerns like feminism, gay rights and social and economic justice. In short, some want to offer a progressive agenda, or what has been dubbed ‘Atheism+’
Atheism is, by definition, a lack of belief in gods. However, we tend to be united on lots of issues – particularly issues in which conservatives tend to base their beliefs solely on the Bible. That includes things like equal rights for women and homosexuals, freedom of choice, and the separation of church and state. Even conservative atheists, at least in my experience, tend to be social libertarians (that includes folks like Penn Jillette, Christopher Hitchens, the late Ken Pulliam). So some people attempted to create a movement based off this unity. Why shouldn't freethinking people discuss such things?

But, I'm digressing. Back to the post (emphasis mine):
The first thing to understand is that ‘New Atheism’ is primarily the domain of young white males. And not ordinary young white males, but the sort whose lives consist largely of the consumption of video games, pornography and internet trolling.
It's statements like this that prove just how delusional Jack really is. He doesn't actually have any data to back this up – it's just his perception. He thinks gnu atheists are just a bunch of young, antisocial punks who don't have anything better to do than look at porn,"consume" video games, and troll people on the internet. I have a feeling there's probably a fair bit of projecting going on here, at least with regard to the porn and trolling. I have no idea if Jack plays video games. Demographics on atheism in general is hard enough to come by, much less people who specifically identify with 'new atheism', whatever that's supposed to be.* Jack's pulling this entirely out of his butt.

But wait! He's not done:
Whereas it was once expected that a man in his twenties would do something productive and profitable like advancing a career or starting a family, now we have millions of young men who feel completely content to squander their lives engaging in artificial combat to conquer digital worlds while satisfying themselves with virtual relationships.
Jack mentions a book called The Demise of Guys, by Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo, which claims that young men are withering away because they spend too much time playing video games and watching porn. Even if I unequivocally endorsed the dubious conclusions and poorly-researched theses of that book (see here and here), the book has absolutely nothing to do with atheism. Hell, since the vast majority of American young men are still Christians of one stripe or another, Jack might as well take it as an indictment against his own religion and how it has utterly failed to raise strong young men. Instead, Jack makes a completely empirically baseless assumption that atheism is somehow tied up with porn, laziness, social awkwardness and video games, and the old white guys are just exploiting young people's ignorance:
They are ripe for the picking by folks like PZ Myers who created a legion of trolls by whipping fan boys into a frenzy against imagined evil religious hordes. There is little wonder then that the fun was spoiled when real women started showing up at the party, with all their expectations of social maturity and common decency.
Jen and Greta (the two women who kick-started Atheism+) were part of the Freethought Blogs community from the start, and they were already very well-known. And there's nothing imaginary about the struggles that young non-believers face against those "religious hordes".
New Atheism is closely allied with progressivism because they share a common enemy. Progressives see atheism as useful to diminish the power of conservative faiths that are the primary bulwark against leftist agendas.  
Atheists tend to be more progressive or libertarian because many of the issues that conservatives hawk are based solely on their interpretation of the Bible. Opposition to gay rights, the view that women should be 'submissive', dogmatic opposition to abortion, the subversion of science education, attempts to blur the line between church and state – all are overwhelmingly religiously motivated. So of course those who are non-religious will tend to disagree with those views.
Of course the fan boys in the atheist movement aren’t nearly so high-minded – they see religion as bulwark against their chosen lifestyles.
Again, Jack's referencing what he believes is the porn soaked, video game addicted, lazy lifestyle of young atheists. And again, it's empirically unsupported nonsense.

Jack is convinced that the reason everyone was at each others' throats over Atheism+ is because we don't have Jesus in our lives:
The reason conflicts have arisen in the atheist movement is the is the reason conflict inevitably arises in all human movements – the corruption human nature.
No, it's because issues like gender equality, sexual harassment, feminism, what it means to be an atheist, and what have you are all nuanced and complicated issues in which some people have very strong emotional investments.

It's worth noting that atheist unity is doing just fine. The Secular Student Alliance is experiencing rapid growth; conferences across the nation are seeing record attendance; communities are growing, social stigmas are fading. There are, unfortunately, dicks. They happen. It doesn't matter what your beliefs are. Some people will disagree civilly, and others will just be dicks. Being a Christian most certainly doesn't stop anyone from being dicks, and neither does being a non-Christian or an atheist.   
This comports with first and foremost truth advanced by Christians that all men are sinners – that is by nature we are selfish, proud and corruptible creatures. This is why the very atheist hordes PZ Myers used to command against the religious now clog his inbox with messages of contempt. It is the reason the very folks Richard Dawkins inspired to be rationalists now label him a misogynist. And it is why Sam Harris, whose books partly inspired the New Atheist movement, is now labeled among the ‘5 Most Awful Atheists‘ by some of his peers. 
Correction: Sam Harris was labeled as such by one guy, who was not his 'peer'. Richard Dawkins made some off-the-cuff remarks that some people have taken quite badly. PZ got a bit full of himself and alienated some people. People disagree. Some immature people have a hard time disagreeing and remaining civil. It happens. PZ and Sam are still hugely popular, and Dawkins is still the most prominent and sought-after face in the movement.
Atheists imagined that religious belief itself exacerbates conflict and once it was done away with reason would reign
What? Nobody thinks that getting rid of religion will get rid of conflict. It's gobsmacking the way Jack just casually rattles off these ludicrous straw men as if they're well-established facts. There are still plenty of scientific, philosophical and humanist issues that will spark controversy and cause rifts in various subcultures. Getting rid of religion would simply get rid of a lot of bad reasons for justifying various beliefs – many of which are affronts to science, human rights, and civil discourse.
Atheists often cast aspersions on the Church because there are multiple Christian denominations. ‘How can there be one truth with so many different variations?’ goes the reasoning – all the while ignoring the basic creeds that Christians overwhelmingly adhere to and the fact that the Church experienced no significant splits for over a thousand years of its existence.
I suppose that last point depends on whether you consider the Oriental Orthodox and Assyran churches to be "significant" splits. Or the schisms over Pauline Christianity and early Gnostic Christians. But aside from that, it's not just that Christians disagree on a litany of important issues, including the very means by which we are supposed to attain salvation (given that it's central to the faith, you'd think an omnipotent God would have made that point unambiguous enough to prevent such division) – it's that they have absolutely no rational, independently verifiable methodology on which to justify their disagreement. Unlike science, religion has no way to objectively eliminate errors and build a consensus. It's an epistemological problem, not an ontological one.
They tout their movement as one motivated by reason and thus immune to the vagaries that plague many religions;
Yes, an evidence-based world view tends to be amenable to evidence – which dogmatic world views, by definition, are not. But I don't think that's what Jack means, given his above thoughts on conflict.
yet they can’t deal with basic matters amongst themselves with common civility.
Apparently, the fact that some dicks exist in the atheist community (and they do) is an indictment against all atheists. There's not a lick of evidence that the more vitriolic individuals in the Atheism+ controversy are representative of the community at large.
If we can test the truth of a proposition by the consistent agreement about its basic tenants [sic] among its proponents, then New Atheism, a small movement that is splintering almost as soon as it has begun, is almost certainly false.
Well, you can't. That'd just be an argumentum ad populum. But Since atheism doesn't actually have any tenets, that'll probably be kind of hard anyway.

*For the record: I'm 33, in a committed monogamous relationship with a wonderful woman, have worked at the same small business (which happens to be one of the most successful of its kind in the country) for the last 5½ years of my 8+ years as a personal trainer, and I am a devoted musician (I practice guitar 2-5 hours daily). I have season tickets to the opera, attend ballets and symphonies, go to museums, subscribe to Scientific American, have an appreciation for Scotch and red wine, and I love death metal and video games too. I wonder how I fit the profile of Jack's hasty, baseless generalization?

A new Hubble deep field

The Hubble telescope has captured a new deep-field image, revealing thousands of galaxies many billions of light-years away (click for the full-sized image):

Most primitive cosmology myths, including the Biblical one, tended to view the Earth as the center of the cosmos. Like this. I don't think it can be understated how humbling an image like the above ought to be. In light of these kinds of images, it seems to be the height of arrogance to conjecture that all this was "designed" with us in mind – we who took nearly 14 billion years just to arrive on the scene in a cosmically insignificant speck in one of billions of galaxies, each filled with hundreds of billions of stars.

22 September 2012

If I were a theist...

I was pondering what beliefs I might be most likely to entertain if I were a theist of some kind. What would I believe about God?

I think I would be a pantheist. I've always been sympathetic to the idea that there's an intelligent innate to the universe itself. Given the order and design of the universe, it seems to be the most plausible idea of a "god".

It's when this idea is anthropomorphized that I have a problem. I think it's ridiculous, and arrogant, to personify a deity, projecting human values upon it and suggesting that this deity has any vested interest in the affairs of humans any more so that it would have a vested interest in any other form of life, or in the birth and death of stars, or whatever.

So, why am I not a pantheist? Because I think the idea is unfalsifiable and utterly devoid of any explanatory value. We don't need to say the universe is conscious to be the way that it is; that's nothing more than a tautology. And whether the universe is conscious or not, it's indifferent to our needs, interests and values. We might as well say that the universe just is what it is. I don't see why that's something that should have to be explained, since we could just as well push the regress back and ask why a God is the way it is. At some point you have to say... well, that's just how it is.

The brain of God? Or not.

20 September 2012

DADT – one year later

We were all warned by conservative religious groups of the dire consequences of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. This "social experiment", we were told, was a risk to national security. A year later, it's the biggest non-story out there. Peter Singer (not the Australian one) and Aaron Belkin have written a terrific op ed for CNN on the topic:

A year after DADT repeal, no harm done

19 September 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 10

I'll be honest... this has gotten to be a bit of a slog. The best arguments this book has had to offer are ones that I've thought through, and found lacking, many times in the past. The worst arguments are responses to straw men – distortions or misunderstandings of the atheist point of view.

David Marshall, whose previous chapter left me unimpressed, is back for the tenth chapter which, similarly to the previous few chapters, tries to link Christianity and rationality to the degree that not only does the former follow from the latter, but the latter requires the former. And, it's pretty terrible. But I'll save the explanation for the post to follow.

Chapter 10: The Marriage of Faith and Reason

Tulsa church administrators allegedly covered up abuse

Victory Christian Center, one of the largest churches here in Tulsa and easily the largest evangelical church in town, is in some hot water after church officials have been caught covering up sexual abuse. Five administrators are now facing charges after evidence surfaced that they had known about several incidences of abuse, include a girl who was raped.

NewsOn6.com - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - KOTV.com |

More in the pipe

Just in case you were losing sleep at night wondering where all the blog posts are, it's coming. I'll be finishing out my reading of True Reason very soon, starting with my review of chapter 10 which is mostly done. Honestly, I just needed a break. There's only so much apologetics I can take. After I wrap up True Reason, assuming it hasn't reconverted me I'm going to do a series called Why Christianity is False (well... title subject to change, but that's the idea).

In the meantime, here's a really, really great article by Sean Carroll in which he talks about the problems with faith-based beliefs – responding in particular to Sophisticated Theologian™ Alvin Plantiga's claim that faith-based knowledge is a "special gift from God" (which reminds me of William Lane Craig's claim that the "witness of the Holy Spirit" trumps all actual evidence). An excerpt:
Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.
The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”
Read the full article here.

Also, Prometheus is out in digital HD three weeks before the official DVD release. I bought it from iTunes last night, and I'll probably watch it, oh, about 400 times this week. 

18 September 2012

Did Jesus have a wife?

I say no, mainly because Jesus never existed. But a newly discovered text indicates that some early Christians may have believed he indeed had a wife. Other revealing texts indicate he had several kids, lived in the suburbs, and drove a minivan.

NPR: Did Jesus Have A Wife?

Sacrum Profanum

I don't really know how to describe Behemoth. I think you just have to experience their music for yourself. Most will turn tail at the abrasiveness and chaos of it, but those who are left will have found something darkly beautiful.

I greatly admire frontman Adam 'Nergal' Darski, who's releasing an autobiography entitled Sacrum Profanum next month. Like the band, I don't really know how to describe these clips, where Darski reads excerpts from the book. But they somehow capture the essence of what I love about the band, and I think you just have to experience them for yourself.

14 September 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 9

This chapter, like the last, meandered a bit before really getting to the point and could have benefited from being a bit more concise. But... this is probably one  of the better chapters in the book so far. Unlike the chapters by Gilson, Edwards, and Craig, it doesn't rely on misunderstandings of atheist arguments and/or quote-mining atheists out of context. The author, Peter Grice, tackles the topic of what "reason" actually is and, with a little dose of Plantinga (essentially the "argument from reason" I've already covered), argues that Christianity and reason are intertwined such that you can't have one without the other.

The downside is that this chapter is, more so than any other so far, clear evidence to me that this book was written with Christians as its target audience. This isn't for atheists like me, and it's not really even for fence-sitters either. It's for Christians who feel troubled or threatened by gnu atheism, and want some reassurance from presumably educated people that Christians, not atheists, are the reasonable ones.

As always: I don't expect to be re-converted. I'm only hoping I'll hear some original arguments that provoke me to reconsider some of my views.

Chapter 9: Reason in a Christian Context

13 September 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 8

Oy. This chapter was exhausting. Not because it's horrible or anything, but because it's verbose to the point of masturbatory absurdity. The author, Samuel J. Youngs, certainly has a way with words and, to his credit, manages to get in "phlegmatically". Here's a sample of what I'm talking about:
An indifferent universe, an “accidental collocation of atoms,” is by definition a world without meaning, a world where the ships of reasoning and consideration have no horizon by which to plot their course; where the beating hearts of compassion have no higher sun to warm their virtue; where the earth and all its peoples are cast adrift in the cold dregs of harrowing vastness.
Good grief. Not that I don't enjoy creative prose, because I do, but in this chapter it just serves to obfuscate the actual arguments being presented. When you're crafting an argument, it's better to be concise. And in this case, it takes Youngs a good bit of flowery blathering before he gets to the point, which is this: you can't have meaning without God.

As I always do, I'm going to start with the qualifier that I do not expect this book to re-convert me to Christianity; I'm just looking for some clever arguments that will persuade me to rethink some of my key beliefs. But I admit, this is getting kind of boring. I've read CS Lewis, Francis Collins, Alvin Plantinga, John Haught, etc. etc. So far, these guys aren't exactly pulling out anything new. But, I said I would read this book, so read it I shall.

Chapter 8: By It, We See Everything Else – The Explanatory Value of Christianity for Meaning and Ethics

Yahweh's Amazing Test

NonStampCollector is back, this time lampooning the story of Abraham and Isaac:

11 September 2012

Apologies if blogging is kind of slow, but....

....I got a new toy. Fortunately (or not) it's kind of a slow work week, so I should still be able to get through a bit more of "True Reason". Several of the authors have stopped by to offer their rebuttals, so go check out the discussions and decide for yourself whether I am totally off my atheist rocker. Wait, was that a pun?

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 7

As I make my way through the Christian apologetics book True Reason, I'm starting to see a fair bit of redundancy. I suppose that's to be expected given that it's just relatively short contributions from a variety of authors, but perhaps a little bit more editorial oversight would have helped.

In any case, Chapter 7 of the book, written by David Wood, is more or less a collection of some prevalent Christian apologetics arguments with a few new ones thrown in. Some of these, like the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, I've already addressed extensively in this blog so you'll have to excuse the link farm because I have no interest in beating dead horses. And at least one, the "problem of biological complexity", is basically an endorsement of Intelligent Design, and that's an argument that even many Christian leaders outright reject [1, 2, 3] and, while I've written about it before, I don't see much need to dignify an argument for creationism with a response.

I'll begin, though, as I begin every chapter: I'm not expecting to be re-converted to Christianity. I'm simply looking for compelling arguments that provoke me to reconsider some of my key positions.

Chapter 7: The Explanatory Emptiness of Naturalism

10 September 2012

Scott Fraser on why eyewitnesses get it wrong

This is a talk from Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, on why eyewitness testimony is so terribly unreliable. This talk centers on criminal cases, but it may bring to mind a certain deity – the written accounts of whom its followers claim are based on eyewitness testimony some four decades earlier.

Update: some alert readers have pointed out that, in a massive dose of irony, Fraser is wrong about the second WTC tower footage; there was a great deal of live coverage of both towers collapsing.

It is likely that Fraser meant to refer to this study, which shows false memories of the first plane hitting the first tower. That's the footage that wasn't broadcasted until a day later.

Given that TED has a considerable delay before they post these talks online, I'm rather surprised they still put it up despite the error.

05 September 2012

Humans suck at critical thinking

Reflecting still on David Marshall's critique of the "Outsider Test for Faith", I'm a bit surprised at statements like this:
If the OTF shows anything empirically, it shows that Christianity must possess remarkable reserves of plausibility to have convinced so many people, in so many cultures, to risk so much, to follow Jesus.
There seems to be an assumption in statements like this that people are generally good at critical thinking. If someone converts, chances are they were presented with the evidence of a religion, dispassionately examined it and contrasted it with the claims of other religions, and accepted its truth only after a rigorous process of education and logical deduction.

Of course nothing like that happens. It doesn't happen with religion, and it doesn't happen with most things. Politics? It's like an ounce of reason for every pound of rhetoric. Economic forecasters are notoriously awful at their jobs because consumers do not behave rationally.

It reminds me, because I am a nerd, about an article I read recently that criticized Star Trek's Spock as illogical (I Googled for it, but it turns out that there are lots and lots of such articles). The article pointed out that it's illogical of Spock to assume, as he often does, that other sentient races will behave logically (he always seems surprised when they don't!). If aliens are anything like humans, they suck at logic.

And suck we do. We are prone to a litany of cognitive biases that cloud our judgment. Consider, for example the thousands of people duped by exposed fraud Peter Popoff, the evangelical faith healer. Take your pick – conspiracy theories, pareidolia, UFOs, psychics, miracle healings, possessions (be they the Holy Ghost or any number of malevolent spirits), visions, prophecies, ghost sightings... mass delusions come in many, many forms.

The reason why the scientific method has been so successful is precisely because it identifies, and methodologically eliminates, the results of bias. Sometimes the path is tortuous, but it always gets there. Science does not work by eliminating the biases of researchers, because even those of us who are educated about good critical thinking are prone to all kinds of errors – including the ones we know a lot about! Instead, science works by identifying where bias occurs, and requiring evidence to be independently verifiable. Independently repeating results allows us to gradually fetter out cognitive errors.  

There's a positively fantastic blog (yes... bold, italicized and underlined... that's how fantastic it is) called Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking. It's written by Robert Todd Carroll, a retired professor of philosophy, and it's a cornucopia of info on how, specifically, we tend to be lousy at thinking rationally.

There is also a fantastic article that lists and describes some famous experiments in social psychology describing why people do irrational things. The number one cause? Other people. The worst evidence you can give for your belief is that lots of people believe it.

I know that miracles occur, because I say so

One thing that's been grinding my gears as I read through True Reason, as well as read some of the responses, is the tired old "there were miracles!" canard.

I remember back in the debate with Sean Carroll and Michael Shermer, Ian Hutchinson literally resorted to the line of 'argument', if you can even call it that, that he had personally witnessed miracles and nobody can disprove that he did. Francis Collins gave us the same crap with his 'three waterfalls' story.

Today I had a commenter on the previous post tell me "all of these revivals are accompanied by various accounts of miracles and supernatural experiences." That's right on the heels of David Marshall, in chapter six of True Reason, saying, "miracles in fact sometimes occurred." I mean, they just put it out there so nonchalantly, like I'm gonna go, "Oh, really? I didn't know that! What powerful evidence!"

Sathya Sai Baba had millions of followers
People have been making claims about supernatural gobbledygook since the dawn of humankind. That's because human beings are not, in general, rational creatures. We're prone to a litany of cognitive biases and errors in judgment that cloud our ability to view our circumstances dispassionately and rationally. Really, the great accomplishment of the scientific method is that for the first time in human history, we have a way to systematically identify and weed out such cognitive blunders.

What's telling though is how selective believers are with their miracles. Millions of people have seen Jesus on toast! Millions have flocked to see various incarnations of the Virgin Mary! Millions have felt the presence of the Holy Ghost! Millions also believed that the Hindu mystic Sathya Sai Baba performed miracles, that John Edward talked to dead people, or that John Popoff could miraculously heal people. But do Christians feel as though they have to explain away the 'testimony' of millions of people that have been objectively duped?

I'm not sure why it's so difficult for some of these believers to understand that the burden isn't on anyone else to disprove the occurrence of miracles; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Miracles aren't some sort of 'get out of jail free' card, and claiming them as evidence for your specific doctrine just shows that you're not thinking critically or rationally.

Update: After I wrote this, it occurred to me – in reference to the previous post – that trying to pass off miracles as evidence for one's religion is actually great evidence that you haven't treated your own religion with the same skepticism you apply to other religions. Do you have to disprove Sathya Sai Baba's 'miracles'? Do you have to disprove all the sightings of the Virgin Mary?  Do you have to disprove the psychic powers of John Edward? Or the miracle of the angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith? Of course not. No believer thinks they have to disprove miracles from other faiths or superstitions before they reject them, but they tend to take claims about miracles that reinforce their own faith at face value.

It also occurred to me that some people object to the old phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Because, like hey man, what's "extraordinary evidence" anyway? Well first, I can tell you what isn't: hearsay. Because that's all the evidence you're presenting when you claim that you or other people from your own faith experienced or witnessed a miracle. Secondly, extraordinary evidence would be unambiguous, unquestionable, independently verifiable and incontrovertible. So if Sathya Sai Baba claimed to heal people, start with rigorous medical documentation of the illness – and enough independent information to rule out a misdiagnosis. Then have video evidence of Baba performing the 'miracle'. Provide evidence that the person sought out no other treatment and/or did not undergo treatments that would plausibly heal the disease. Then finish with independent lines of evidence that demonstrate the person to be complete healed. Then, just to be a good scientist, repeat the experiment with the identical parameters many times over to demonstrate that it wasn't just an improbable fluke (like, all the doctors misdiagnosed the person and their blood samples were mistakenly swapped).

That'd be a start. Nothing like that will ever happen. Well, obviously not with Sathya Sai Baba since he's dead, but it'll never happen anywhere else either. But if you're going to claim that your favorite deity suspended the entirety of the natural order, you have to have better evidence than "You can't disprove it!" if you expect anyone else to believe it.

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 6

I was wrong when I said that the only author with whom I was familiar is William Lane Craig. I'm also familiar with David Marshall, who has been a frequent visitor to John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity. Appropriately, Marshall spends this chapter critiquing Loftus' "Outsider Test for Faith", or OTF.

As I do with every chapter, I'll begin by reiterating that in reading this book, I'm not expecting to be re-converted to Christianity. I'm just looking for some arguments that will provoke me to re-examine some of my core beliefs.

Like the previous chapter, this chapter is much better than the first few chapters in the book simply because while I did not find Marshall's arguments persuasive (big spoiler, I know), he didn't hinge his arguments on dishonesty and distortion the way Carson Weitnauer and William Lane Craig did.  As far as I can tell, he represents John Loftus' position fairly – although, as I'll argue, he misses the side of the barn with the actual argument.

Chapter 6: John Loftus and the "Outsider-Insider Test for Faith"

04 September 2012

Model-dependent realism vs. metaphysics

Model-dependent realism is the idea proposed by Stephen Hawking in his book The Grand Design that "There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations."

Some other quotes originally from The Grand Design, from the Wikipedia page on model-dependent realism:
"[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth."
"According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation ... then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration."
"It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied." 
When I read The Grand Design, this idea made perfect sense to me. There is no "ultimate" or "complete" picture of reality that we have by which to compare and contrast the validity of various scientific theories. Instead, we build theories, or 'models', of the world, which can be said to be more or less valid based on their ability to be independently verified.

Hawking also said, quite controversially and frankly quite nonchalantly (it seemed to be), that "philosophy is dead". And there seems to be some fuss around a few blogs – notably Why Evolution is True, Rationally Speaking, and Sandwalk – on the utility of philosophy as a tool for generating knowledge. Everyone seems to agree that philosophy, at the very least, helps us identify fallacious arguments and teaches us to use reason. But personally, I don't really think of "critical thinking" as synonymous with "philosophy". When I think of philosophy, I think more about things like metaphysics. Metaphysics, according to the almighty Wikipedia,
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world,[1] although the term is not easily defined.[2] Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:
  1. "What is there?"
  2. "What is it like?"[3]
A person who studies metaphysics is called a metaphysicist[4] or a metaphysician.[5] The metaphysician attempts to clarify the fundamental notions by which people understand the world, e.g., existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility. A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into the basic categories of being and how they relate to each other.
I'm just going to lay it all out there: I think metaphysics, as a field of inquiry or as a means for attaining knowledge about reality, is complete and utter bullshit. It's useless rhetorical garbage. Essentially, metaphysics attempts to do what, according to model-dependent realism, cannot be done: establish a theory-independent model of reality. I don't see how that can be done, in principle. Everything we know about reality is wholly dependent on observed evidence. You cannot learn about reality through reason alone – in large part because, as quantum mechanics and general relativity both demonstrate, reality is often counter-intuitive and defies known laws of logic.

I think, in fact, that quantum mechanics stands as a monument to why model-dependent realism is both true and irreconcilable with philosophical metaphysics: particles can be in two places at once; they interact probabilistically, not causally; they exist simultaneously as waves and points; they can affect each other instantaneously even when separated by vast distances. None of these things ought to be true if the laws of logic were immutable truths about the nature of reality.  Modus Ponens, perhaps the most basic rule of logic – if P, then Q, the process of cause and effect – is simply an invalid description of reality on the quantum scale. But the fact that classical logic does not apply at the quantum scale does not make quantum mechanics any less "real". Like the rules of logic, which are rooted in Newtonian physics, quantum theory is simply one model of reality.

When I read The Grand Design, I took Hawking's controversial statement to mean, essentially, philosophical metaphyics. Natural theology? It's bogus. I do think that philosophy, in terms of discussing rules of logic or subjects like ontology and epistemology, has plenty of value. But it's clear that metaphysics is not a valid means for generating new knowledge about reality, and that it's simply not possible to have a valid picture of reality that exists independently of observation.

02 September 2012

William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law... now on video!

It took a while, but the debate between Stephen Law and William Lane Craig is finally on video. Personally I much prefer videoed debates over audio-only, so this is a nice touch. I think this debate was a sore spot for Craig. He lost, and lost rather badly because he was unprepared for Law's "evil god" argument. There's been a fair bit of discussion about Law's argument since the debate itself, and I must reiterate that even when Craig clearly loses a debate (his debate with Shelly Kagan also comes to mind), arguments are not won or lost in debates. Debates are rhetorical contests that are often "won" or "lost" on the preparedness and eloquence of the speaker, not necessarily on the strength of the arguments themselves.

Nonetheless I like Law's approach here. He's a very sharp guy who is often overlooked by atheists but, being a philosopher by trade, knows how to sort out the sophistry that often characterizes apologetics.

That being said, there are a couple of things I would have liked to see Stephen jump on. He wavered a bit on responding to the Kalam, when it would have been simplest just to point out that the Kalam commits several categorical fallacies.

The second is that he gives the fine-tuning argument a bit of a pass. The fine-tuning argument is even easier than the Kalam, because Craig is clearly begging the question in the first premise. We don't have to explain the 'fine-tuning'; the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for life is what the argument must prove.

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 5 (part 2)

(Read part one here)

Gilson opens his critiques of Harris' responses to Craig by arguing that Harris is "incompetent":
Harris stated, “I hope it’ll be clear to you, at the end of this hour, that religion is not an answer to this problem. Belief in God is not only unnecessary for a universal morality, it is itself a source of moral blindness.” 
Craig had not argued that either religion or belief could supply the grounding necessary for morality. He said that only God himself could. Therefore religion and belief were strictly irrelevant to Craig’s argument. If he thought Craig had erred in pointing to God, rather than belief in God, as the relevant issue, he never took the opportunity to say so.
Perhaps in Craig's imaginary universe of "possible worlds", it makes sense to talk about what God is versus what people claim God is; but here on Earth, you run into a bit of a hurdle with God as the objective moral lawgiver: there has to be a way for people to objectively know what the objective moral law actually is, and one doesn't exist. Instead, we have seers, sages, mystics, prophets, contradictory claims of 'divine revelation', divine books open to an endless array of interpretations, and claims of 'miracles' that can never be independently verified.

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 5 (part 1)

With chapter five, editor Tom Gilson makes a reappearance, this time recounting the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, and explaining to us why, in his estimation, Craig was the decisive victor. I blogged about the debate back when it happened (1, 2, 3) and I've talked a lot about secular morality (4), so I don't want to retread all that stuff. But there are several points that Gilson touts, rather uncritically, as wins for Craig when closer examination reveals them to be resting on some pretty glaring assumptions and poor understanding of atheists' arguments (and, as you'll see, that's sometimes atheists' fault).

I'll start of this chapter review the same as I have with each so far: I do not expect this book to convert me. That's an unrealistic expectation. I'm simply looking for some good arguments that provoke me to critically re-examine some of my key positions. So far, though, the book has been utterly dependent on misinformation and sloppy argumentation to make its points. Is this chapter any better? Well, surprisingly, yes. This chapter is actually pretty good. I disagree with what's here and I'll explain why, but at least, unlike William Lane Craig or Carson Weitnauer, it's not relying on outright bullshittery to persuade its readers.

Unfortunately this is another fairly beefy chapter, so again I'll be breaking it into two parts.

Chapter 5: Unreason at the Head of Project Reason

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 4 (part 2)

In the latter half of this chapter, Edwards tries to argue that life is so improbable that it had to be a miracle, and challenges Dawkins' ideas about religion as child abuse. Read part one here.

The improbability of life

Edwards now moves on to Dawkins' use of biology. He doesn't go after evolution specifically (though the term "Darwinian evolutionary biology" is cringe-worthy). Instead, he tackles the origin of life. It's a classic god-of-the-gaps argument: you can't explain how life started, ergo GodDidIt.