31 January 2013

My reply to Paul Gould of Reasonablefaith.org

In the previous post, I included my submission to the Q&A for William Lane Craig, and Paul Gould's response. So, here are my thoughts on what he wrote:

My name is Paul Gould and I'll briefly respond to your question on behalf of Dr. Craig. You state your question very clearly--well done. 
I just want to point out here that Paul seems like a nice guy. His response is cordial, not defensive
I do not think however, there is any real worry about arguing in a circle, primarily, as you say, because the two quotes you reference are in different contexts. Bill provides a cummulative argument for the A-theory of time (see, e.g., his Time and Eternity). First he gives good reasons to think time is dynamic, second, he gives good reasons to think static time is problematic.
It's worth pointing out that I have only read excerpts from Craig's book "Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity" (the full book costs over $200!), so I'm not certain what Craig's entire case is. However, there's one conclusion that is simply inescapable: that Einstein's theories of relativity proved that time is relative, not absolute. I mean, that's kinda the whole point. Craig's way of getting around that is with the "neo-Lorentzian interpretation" of Special Relativity. In case that sounds Greek, here is the short version: Hendrick Lorentz was a physicist who attempted to advance the theory of the luminiferous aether – a substance throughout space that was the medium through which light traveled. This would provide an absolute frame of reference for all observers – time would be the same no matter how fast you were traveling relative to another person. However, the aether fared poorly in experiments, and eventually Special Relativity made the aether obsolete.

So a neo-Lorentzian interpretation of Special Relativity essentially argues that despite what Special Relativity actually says (and predicts with remarkable accuracy), there is still some kind of "aether" or "privileged frame of reference" (as opposed to a relative frame of reference), even if it's not exactly what Lorentz et al thought it was. The idea is that while we might experience time relatively, "absolute time" still exists in some way or another. The problem? It's completely undetectable. No falsifiable predictions in physics can be made from models that postulate a privileged or absolute frame of reference.

Why then should anyone accept that "interpretation" at all? Craig's answer, in "Time...", was as follows:
"We have good reasons for believing that a neo-Lorentzian theory is correct, namely that the existence of God in A-Theoretic time implies it."
In other words, there's no particular evidential reason to accept the neo-Lorentzian interpretation (since we cannot sync a clock with "absolute time"), but the main reason to accept it is because God supposedly exists in absolute time.

This leads into Gould's next comment:
 His comment of relativity is simply to show that you can accept the mathematics without the Einsteinian interpretation. 
Well, sure you can – on the weak grounds that, if you postulate the existence of an undetectable absolute time, Special Relativity doesn't conclusively disprove its existence. Y'know, since it's undetectable. If you think that's a pretty weak case for the A-Theory of time, well, you'd be right. There are an infinite number of things we can't disprove, but that doesn't mean we're compelled to accept them as true.

Gould finishes:
When it comes to the Kalam, you are correct, that it only works if the A-theory is true, but again, Bill doesn't hang the whole case for theism on the Kalam. He offers many other arguments, including a Leinizian version of the Cosmological argument, an argument from fine-tuning, a moral argument, and the ontological argument, among others. I hope this helps a bit!

I find this to be more than a bit of a dodge. Firstly, Gould never really clarified how Craig is not simply begging the question – i.e., the Kalam (which is evidence for God's existence) is true because A-Theory is true, and A-Theory is true because God exists. Unless there's some nuance to Craig's position that I'm overlooking, that's pretty blatant circular reasoning.

Secondly, while there are certainly many arguments for the existence of God, the cosmological one is absolutely critical to establishing the necessity of a Creator – which is integral to the existence of the Christian god. If the Kalam is false, there is no reason to believe that the god of Christianity exists.

And finally, I'm not particularly swayed by the notion that a multitude of inconclusive arguments make a "cumulative case" for Christianity. It's like saying you can build a bridge with a bunch of half-bridges. Because the various arguments address distinct areas, their effect isn't cumulative; the impotence of the Kalam, for example, allows us to rule out the necessity of a Creator. We might still consider other types of gods (pantheistic, for example), but we have no reason to take the idea of a Creator seriously. That has profound ramifications for Christian apologetics.

I hope that I'm able to hear a response from Craig himself. While I respect Gould for his cordial reply, I think he failed to address the substance of my inquiry.

A response from Reasonablefaith.org

At the suggestion of a reader, I submitted the topic of my post from the other day to William Lane Craig's Q&A section at Reasonablefaith.org. Today I received a response via email -- not from Craig, but from Paul Gould, who occasionally fields questions for Craig (you can find out more about Gould via his website here). Below is my question, followed by Gould's response. I will offer my comments on it later, but for now I just wanted to put it out there for anyone who'd like to read and offer their own insights.

My question to Dr. Craig:

In the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, you state, "From start to finish, the kalam cosmological argument is predicated upon the A-Theory of time. On a B-Theory of time, the universe does not in fact come into being or become actual at the Big Bang; it just exists tenselessly as a four-dimensional space-time block that is finitely extended in the earlier than direction. If time is tenseless, then the universe never really comes into being, and, therefore, the quest for a cause of its coming into being is misconceived."

In another discussion on theories of time in your book "Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity", you state, "We have good reasons for believing that a neo-Lorentzian theory is correct, namely that the existence of God in A-Theoretic time implies it."

I realize these two statements are made in different contexts, but they seem to betray circular reasoning. The A-theory of time is essentially conjectural. Your solution is to create distinct categories of non-overlapping magisteria in "metaphysics" and "science"; in "Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity" you claim that (p152), "relativity physics...is not necessarily saying anything that is relevant for the metaphysician". Or, even if there is no direct evidence of the A-Theory of time (since you cannot sync a clock with "God time"), it still exists in some unmeasurable way. This is the essence of the Neo-Lorentzian interpretation of Special Relativity, which requires us to postulate the existence of an "aether" (or something like that) which is completely unverifiable and superfluous to the observable workings of the universe. In other words, it requires us to postulate something entirely unscientific  which is why physicists abandoned the aether nearly a century ago.

Since there is no direct evidence of absolute time, your justification for accepting the A-Theory of time is that God's existence implies it. And yet the A-Theory of time is the basis for the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which is designed to provide evidence of God's existence. In other words, "The A-Theory of time is true because God exists, and the Kalam is true because the A-Theory of time is correct". I'd like for you to clarify your position here, because as far as I can tell this seems to be a classic case of begging the question.

Thanks for your time,

- Mike D

And Gould's reply:
My name is Paul Gould and I'll briefly respond to your question on behalf of Dr. Craig. You state your question very clearly--well done. I do not think however, there is any real worry about arguing in a circle, primarily, as you say, because the two quotes you reference are in different contexts. Bill provides a cummulative argument for the A-theory of time (see, e.g., his Time and Eternity). First he gives good reasons to think time is dynamic, second, he gives good reasons to think static time is problematic. His comment of relativity is simply to show that you can accept the mathematics without the Einsteinian interpretation. When it comes to the Kalam, you are correct, that it only works if the A-theory is true, but again, Bill doesn't hang the whole case for theism on the Kalam. He offers many other arguments, including a Leinizian version of the Cosmological argument, an argument from fine-tuning, a moral argument, and the ontological argument, among others. I hope this helps a bit! 

30 January 2013

"I gave God 10%" = excuse for stiffing wait staff

Hot on Reddit is a pic of a receipt from an unnamed restaurant in which the patron was unhappy with an included 18% gratuity, complaining, "I give God 10% – why do you get 18%?"

What really grinds my gears about this sort of thing (aside from the whole stiffing your wait staff thing) is that nobody gives their money to God. It's impossible, because God does not exist and, even if he did, he's "supernatural" and cannot physically take your money. So what people really mean when they say that they "give 10% to God" is that they give that amount to their church. That generally pays for the salaries of church staff, capital investments for church property and equipment, and – if you're lucky – some charity work.

There's no magic at work. If you want to give to charity, it'd be far more efficient to just give it directly to charity than to give it to a church. And your money isn't supporting "God", but the propagation of religious dogma that quite frankly our world would be a better place without.

29 January 2013

This pretty much says it all about William Lane Craig

Straight from the horse's mouth:
From start to finish, the kalam cosmological argument is predicated upon the A-Theory of time. On a B-Theory of time, the universe does not in fact come into being or become actual at the Big Bang; it just exists tenselessly as a four-dimensional space-time block that is finitely extended in the earlier than direction. If time is tenseless, then the universe never really comes into being, and, therefore, the quest for a cause of its coming into being is misconceived. [The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, pp. 183-184.]
We have good reasons for believing that a neo-Lorentzian theory is correct, namely that the existence of God in A-Theoretic time implies it. [From Craig's book "Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity"]

If you can't spot the circular reasoning a mile away, you can find something more entertaining to do by clicking here.

I caught a fish this big, I swear!
p.s. – I found a great review of Time and the Metaphysics of Reality by Mauro Dorato* (who teaches philosophy at the University of Rome), which you can download here. A choice quote:
[The] final part of the book seems to oscillate between two contrasting philosophical positions. According to the first, “relativity physics…is not necessarily saying anything that is relevant for the metaphysician” (p. 152), a claim that tends to be advanced whenever evidence coming from physics is against his metaphysical views. The second position is that physics “confirms” certain metaphysical and theological views over others, a claim that is put forth whenever evidence for the existence of a privileged frame (coming for instance from cosmic time or quantum non-locality) seems more reassuring. If this impression is well-founded, Craig’s book is essentially guided by an apologetic attempt and opportunistically uses physics and metaphysics for his purpose.
Gosh... who'da thunk it?

*Not to be confused with the phrase "More Doritos"

The "Unpacking Atheism" simulcast

Why do they keep acting like they want someone to throw them a football?

More baloney from Alister McGrath

This ad has been popping up on my Facebook page:

It's an ad for a page that promotes Christian apologetics.

I've heard several prominent Christians claim they were atheists – McGrath, Lee Strobel, and Ravi Zacharias to name a few off the top of my head. In every case, they seem to characterize atheism as an ideology unto itself – one which can only lead to hopelessness and despair.

But here's the thing – atheism is a lack of belief in gods. That's it! Atheism is not a philosophical framework; rather, atheism is the outcome of a rational, evidence-based view of the world. It is not the belief that gods cannot exist, or that the existence of gods can be conclusively disproved. It's simply the belief that there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in gods.

And yeah, we all have heard the canard about "Well hey, isn't that agnosticism?" No, it's agnostic atheism. A/theism relate to belief; a/gnosticism relate to knowledge. Agnosticism is not a mutually exclusive position – it co-exists with both theism and atheism. A gnostic atheist would be someone who says that no amount of evidence could possibly convince them a god or gods exist; a gnostic theist would be someone who says that no amount of evidence could possibly convince them that there are no gods – y'know, like William Lane Craig.

That's why statements like McGrath's – that he lost his "faith in atheism" don't make any sense. It's like saying you lost your faith in the non-existence Cthulhu. If there's any philosophical framework at work that underpins atheism, it's evidentialism, about which there are these two very excellent videos on Youtube:

28 January 2013

I've never been impressed with C.S. Lewis

..... What?

That's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. Of course that is not the "only logical explanation". In fact, it's a completely illogical explanation that's riddled with baseless assumptions.

Perhaps you just haven't learned to appreciate what you have. Perhaps your desires themselves are irrational and unrealistic. Perhaps you haven't fully explored all the wonders that this world has to offer.

Remember – this quote is from the most influential Christian apologist of the last century. Heck, the guy practically coined the term. Lewis was, ironically, a catalyst of my deconversion from evangelical Christianity many years ago. Even as a teenage Christian I thought his arguments were full of holes, and this quote is pretty typical on the absurd-o-meter.

23 January 2013

Talks from FreeOK... finally!

The Thinking Atheist has posted the videos of the lectures I saw at FreeOK this past summer. I didn't attend the entire day – I saw Hemant Mehta, Abbie Smith and David Silverman. Abbie's was an interesting lecture on biology, but it didn't really have anything to do with secular issues. So I'm just going to post Hemant and David's talks. There are more on TTA's Youtube page. I especially loved David Silverman's talk, and I think that any reasonable person could agree with him regardless of religion.

And just because, here's Andy James on guitar.

22 January 2013

A couple of questions about the Bible (request)

My last post got me thinking about the Bible, and there are a couple of questions I wanted to shoot out toward my readers (both of you!) regarding a few issues. I'm asking these questions because I seriously don't know and I'm looking to find out what is generally accepted as true on these matters. I've done my share of homework but I'm having a hard time coming up with anything solid. Anywho:

1. Evidence for a meticulous oral tradition prior to the writing of the gospels

Christian apologists are always saying that you can trust four decades of hearsay because the gospel stories were passed down according to a very meticulous oral tradition. The thing is, I've never been able to find any direct evidence that this happened. None of the gospels themselves (canonical or otherwise) claim to have been passed on in this way, so I'm not entirely sure where the claim comes from or how it's supposed to be substantiated.

The only such "oral tradition" I can find that might relate is an old Rabbinic oral tradition that relates to the proper interpretation of the Torah (Wiki article here), but that clearly has nothing to do with the gospels. Otherwise, I can't find a lick of anything about oral traditions, particularly anything that would cross from Aramaic to Greek.

2. Evidence that the Greeks didn't make it all up

I'm not one to dismiss a historical Jesus; I think it's plausible, though not provable, that there once lived an apocalyptic Rabbi named Yeshua (or something of that nature) who had a small but devoted following, and perhaps he was even arrested and executed. But what's not clear to me is how the story made its way to the Greeks. It seems plausible (though of course not provable either) that the Greeks may have heard the story (there's that hearsay again) and then they are the ones who, through retelling the story, slowly added more and more mystical elements. Much of the epistles revolved around bringing a very Greek-like god to Jewish people, which seems fairly telling – since the witnesses were supposed to be primarily Aramaic-speaking, shouldn't they be the ones bringing the story to the Greeks? It's an unusual mishmash of cultures to say the least, but... how do we know that the Greeks weren't the ones who made the whole thing up? 

Update: Another one....

3. How do we know when the gospels were written?

I've seen just about everyone – believers and skeptics alike – talk about the dating of the canonical gospels and reference the same commonly accepted dates. The dates estimated for them are all very broad, and the only info I've been able to find about how they were dated makes vague references to "early church scholarship". Well, okay... how did those early church scholars arrive at their conclusions? More importantly, what independent evidence can corroborate the dates they estimated?

Very interesting take on it (found through some Googling) here.

Is being skeptical of the Bible like being a Sandy Hook conspiracy nut?

Jack Hudson says it is:

The foundation of such conspiracies rests on a pernicious distrust of authorities and the media as well an overblown sense of skepticism that proffers if one wasn’t present for the events themselves one can’t trust the accounts of others.

I have found that in many ways skeptics of Christianity are similar. Their arguments against the New Testament accounts sound very similar to the claims of the Sandy Hook truthers – that the accounts are inconsistent, that those giving the accounts aren’t reliable, that there are unreported facts which undermine the ‘official’ story or show that the story we are getting isn’t complete. The fact that people can question the reality of widely witnessed events days after they occurred show our inherent tendency to doubt; and the tendency of some to doubt no matter what facts are presented.
With a very generous nod to this fantastic post from NonStampCollector, I'd like to take the opportunity to run with that analogy.

First, let's say that the first written reports of the Sandy Hook shooting weren't written until many decades after the shooting itself. The earliest report, to be analogous to the emergence of the first written gospel (Mark), would emerge around 2052. Prior to that, all reports of the event would be entirely hearsay, and you'd have to trust that no important details were obscured or altered in the retelling. But to really make it Biblical, the first written reports would have to be in some other language than the English spoken by the eyewitnesses. Once again, you'd have to trust that nothing important got lost or altered in translation.

But of course, to be like the Bible, those early copies would be super secret, and the originals would be lost as various factions of Sandy Hook devotees insisted on retelling the story differently. And to keep this really accurate, there can't be any modern technology like the printing press, photographs, or the internet; every copy of a copy has to be hand-written – which, like the hearsay accounts, is each in a different language than that spoken by witnesses of the original events. Let this hand-copying continue for several centuries (at least), so that ultimately the copies that survive are riddled with contradictions, errors, omissions, and additions.

No Biblical analogy would be complete, however, without adding some supernatural elements to the equation. Let's say that the story, as told in those copy-of-copy manuscripts, recounts that these were not ordinary children – they were in fact human incarnations of deities, and they willfully allowed themselves to die in a ritual sacrifice to save humanity from its own nature. They ascended bodily into a beautiful afterlife, and you can communicate with them telepathically. Oh, and if you don't buy all this stuff? Then when you die, these children will send your eternal soul to the worst place of suffering imaginable, where you'll linger forever and ever.

Let's contrast this with what the Sandy Hook conspiracy loons are saying. They're claiming (I'm sure there are variations, but this is the most common I've heard) that the government hired (trained? brainwashed?) some troubled young man to murder a bunch of elementary school kids in order to sway public opinion against gun ownership, allowing the government to usurp the second amendment... maybe in preparation for the rise of a military dictatorship! There are a litany of reasons why it's all pretty absurd, but what eyewitnesses actually saw isn't really even relevant to the whole conspiracy theory. It couldn't be less like skepticism of the reliability of the Bible. Let's revisit what Jack said:
The foundation of such conspiracies rests on a pernicious distrust of authorities and the media as well an overblown sense of skepticism that proffers if one wasn’t present for the events themselves one can’t trust the accounts of others.
I think that's an oversimplification of the psychology behind conspiracy theories (Michael Shermer has written some great stuff on them), but obviously a non-believer's skepticism of the Bible has pretty much nothing to do with the notion that we can't trust the accounts of others. It's more that some accounts are buttressed by solid empirical evidence, and others – like the gospels – are plagued by dubious claims that undermine their credibility.

21 January 2013

Some reminders of how small you are

First up, we have these two amazing photographs. They are zoomed-in captures I took from this page – a zoomable snapshot of the galactic center of our Milky Way galaxy. The full picture packs an astonishing 1 billion pixels. From a distance (the full shot), it mostly looks like a haze. But zoom in and you'll find millions and millions of stars. Perhaps even more humbling is the fact that this picture contains less than 1/1000th of all the stars in our galaxy. And if we took a similar snapshot of deep space, we'd see millions of galaxies, which would again be only a tiny fraction of the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Check out the page for yourself, and be filled with awe.

Next up we have this great picture of the phylogenetic tree of life. Notice the "you are here" in the upper left corner. The astonishing thing? This depicts less than 1% of known species.

18 January 2013

What's so great about forgiveness?

During my spell as an evangelical Christian, there was a great deal of emphasis placed upon the value and importance of forgiveness. It went hand in hand with "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek" (y'know... the stuff Christians say they do, but don't) – it was an idea of humbling oneself by letting go of bitterness and anger, and following God's example. Of course, I don't remember threatening anyone with horrible eternal torture if they didn't accept my forgiveness, but that's a topic for another day. But in any case, it's right there in the Lord's Prayer: forgive us of our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.

This phenomenon isn't restricted to the church; there's a great deal of pressure in popular culture to "forgive". Families of murdered children "forgive" the killer. Husbands and wives whose marriages were destroyed by infidelity "forgive" their estranged spouses. We're supposed to believe that forgiving those who have hurt us is the right, healthy thing to do. But is it?

Of course, I think it goes without saying that it's probably unhealthy to spend your life harboring grudges. People will hurt you. They'll lie, cheat, manipulate, and abuse you – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in ways that will take years of recovery. In researching for this post, I found scant literature on the psychological benefits (if any) of forgiveness. One study I did find was titled, Granting Forgiveness or Harboring Grudges: Implications for Emotion, Physiology, and Health. It says some vaguely good things about forgiveness, but what immediately popped into my mind is that these aren't the only two options. We can also let go.

Maybe that's just arguing semantics, but I think part of the problem is that the concept of forgiveness is often vaguely and broadly defined. What does it mean for the family of the murdered child to "forgive" the killer, then watch him receive a lethal injection? It's interesting in light of the version of the Lord's Prayer often heard in Protestant churches: forgive us of our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Well, when you forgive a debt, that means it doesn't have to be paid. That's the whole point. So the idea of forgiving someone for something they've done to you or a loved one but then continuing with their punishment all the same seems to make forgiveness little more than feel-good gobbledygook.

I recall one of my more painful breakups, from a few years back. She dumped me totally out of the blue, for someone else. And it was with a text message. Just days before I'd been telling a friend how lucky I was, how madly in love I was, etc. etc. Then the other shoe dropped. I was devastated. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to cry for days. I couldn't sleep or eat, and eventually had to take a day off work just to get some rest.

Do I forgive her? Fuck no I don't forgive her. She said some time later (and also via text) that she was sorry. Well, okay. That doesn't change anything. What she did was cowardly and cold – the least she could have done is to talk to me face to face. But even though I haven't forgiven her, and probably never will, I've let go. I realized that there were lots of positives gained from the relationship itself as well as the fallout, so I focused on those things. I spent time with friends and family, and eased back into the dating life. Now, I'm in a wonderful relationship with a truly exceptional woman. I'm not holding a grudge over the past, but I haven't forgiven either; I've just taken what positives I could from the experience and moved on.

Part of what I gained from that experience was how to deal with that kind of pain. Because at first, I told myself I wasn't angry with her, that I forgave her, etc. I realized though that I was only kidding myself. Of course I was angry! I had every reason and right to be. And what would it even mean to "forgive" her? She hadn't asked for forgiveness, or even understanding. What good would it do me to view her as if she was somehow worthy of something that, in my estimation, she had not earned? I caused more distress for myself by trying to wash away my true feelings. Accepting that I was angry and acknowledging that she hadn't earned my forgiveness was liberating and pivotal in my healing process.

That's just a personal example, and I know many others have fared far worse than I. I haven't been through anything so severe as a spouse cheating, someone stealing valued possessions, someone I care about being abused or assaulted or killed, or anything of that nature. But I suspect the issue is the same – forgiveness is overrated. It's become such a ubiquitous part of our vocabulary that in most circumstances it's been watered down to meaningless nothingness anyway. We don't have anything to gain through unearned and meaningless forgiveness. We can accept our pain and feel justified in our anger. We can let those feelings run their course, grow as best we can from our hardships, and then get on with the rest of our lives.

17 January 2013

The gun problem

I'm no fan of guns. Guns don't kill people – people kill people, goes the conservative maxim. By that logic, knives, nuclear bombs, guided missiles, rocks, swords, brass knuckles or even bare fists don't kill people. They're all simply tools. But as far as efficiency goes, guns rank pretty high among tools of death-dealing. They may not have a will of their own, but for those who do have the will to harm others guns sure make the job a hell of a lot easier than rocks, knives or fists.

Like Sam Harris, I find it eminently reasonable in many circumstances to own or carry a firearm for personal protection. While it's unfortunately true that statistically guns are responsible for far more accidental shootings than home protection, reasonable people can take steps to make such risks negligible such that they are far outweighed by the benefits of owning a firearm. In the unlikely event of a home invasion, it's simply unrealistic to expect police to arrive in time to prevent a confrontation and unless you are the living embodiment of Chuck Norris mythology, there is simply no more effective tool than a firearm for personal defense. 

This week, Barack Obama will be pushing legislation through congress that attempts to curb gun violence through four broad means: universal background checks for all gun buyers, a crackdown on gun trafficking, a ban on military-style assault weapons and a ban on ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets. On its surface, much of this seems sensible. There's simply no pragmatic reason to own an assault rifle, or high-capacity magazines. And while the use of such tools in crime is exceedingly rare, the shooting in Aurora this year is a reminder that the ubiquity of these weapons is not in our best interest.

But there are problems. With any such legislation, it's essential to ask two questions: 1) Are the laws enforceable? and 2) If they can be enforced, will they be effective? I must confess that on both counts, I think the Obama administration's proposal leaves something to be desired. 

The first problem is the prevalence of assault rifles and high-capacity clips already on the market. Even if we were to implement costly buy-back programs as incentives, it's unlikely that most gun aficionados would idly hand over their weapons. Like it or not, we must deal with the reality that these firearms are already widely distributed.

Then there is the issue of background checks and the infamous "gun show loophole" that politicians have been promising to close since Clinton was president. It's difficult to "close" because essentially all it means is that private gun sales are not regulated – the exchanged need not even be at a "gun show". Enforcing the use of background checks in private gun sales is a  dubious venture – there are simply far too many of them to catch and, since they are private sales, few ways to monitor them unless they are indeed in public venues like gun shows. Further, there are a great deal of problems with the background check system and while Obama's proposed legislation would provide some incentives for improvement, the problems are quite severe and will take quite some time (like, years at best) to dissolve. I most emphatically do support closing such loopholes in as many ways as possible, but we must have realistic expectations about what this legislation can accomplish.

And I think what we all wish it to accomplish is simple: to reduce the incidence of gun violence, especially the mass shootings that are front and center in the news. But the shooters in these scenarios need not depend on illegally obtained firearms or high-powered assault rifles; the Virginia Tech shooting – the bloodiest on record – required only two pistols –  a .22 and a 9mm. The Sandy Hook shooter stole the firearms from his mother. The relative ease of availability will make any well-intentioned legislation little more than a bump in the road.

I've said before that I believe the real solution to these shootings comes not so much from legislating firearms, but from improving our health care system so that those who need help can get it and from educating communities so that individuals who are at risk can be identified and helped before they harm others. Unfortunately, this isn't a simple, slap-it-on-a-piece-of-paper solution. It will require a great deal of resources and reform. But it's the right solution.

We should also remember that while we can never realistically expect to eliminate gun violence altogether, we are already living in a time in which our odds of being victims of violence is historically marginal. As Steven Pinker explains in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, it is counter-intuitive given what we see on the nightly news but it is true nonetheless: we are less likely to die in mass shootings or from gun violence now than ever before. So while it's only logical that we take all the steps we can to further reduce violence, we shouldn't forget that things are not as bad as they seem, nor are the solutions as simple as we would like them to be.

14 January 2013

A Christian nation?

Thought of the day

If the only alternative to belief in God is eternal punishment (usually described as being the most horrible torture imaginable) then acquiescing to faith is tantamount to obeying someone holding a gun to your head – it's merely self-preservation under extreme duress. Who would want to be in Heaven with a god who has to threaten people with eternal torment to make followers out of them?

13 January 2013

Gotta love Ray Comfort

Spied on Facebook:

Here's the thing about this sort of gospel preaching style. In order to be swayed by it, you have to already hold a lot of assumptions, all of which are baseless. 

Firstly, you have to assume you have an eternal soul that will survive your death. You have to believe that some sort of god exists. You have to believe that there is an afterlife, neatly parsed into Everything Is Perfect Land and Fuck You Land. You have to believe that this god will, upon your death, judge your eternal soul based primarily – if not solely, depending on your theology – on what you believe, not whether you're a good person. You have to accept the concept of Original Sin, blood atonement, sacrificial covenants, and the bizarre notion of God creating a body for himself then killing it (or allowing it to be killed) as a sacrifice to himself. 

Most insidiously though, it plays off our fear of death and annihilation. Of course we don't want to die. But that doesn't mean the alternative is necessarily more appealing.

I've been watching Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix, and I'm almost through the first season. In an episode I watched last night, called "This Side of Paradise", the crew is infected by spores that grant them perfect health and a blissful state of mind. I thought some of Kirk's lines were quite relevant to how I feel about the whole concept of Heaven:

ELIAS: Captain, why don't you join us?
KIRK: In your own private paradise.
ELIAS: The spores have made it that.
KIRK: Where did they originate?
SPOCK: It's impossible to say. They drifted through space until they finally landed here. You see, they actually thrive on Berthold rays. The plants act as a repository for thousands of microscopic spores until they find a human body to inhabit.
ELIAS: In return, they give you complete health and peace of mind.
KIRK: That's paradise?
ELIAS: We have no need or want, Captain.
SPOCK: It's a true Eden, Jim. There's belonging and love.
KIRK: No wants. No needs. We weren't meant for that. None of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.
ELIAS: We have what we need.
KIRK: Except a challenge.  

And later, with a reference to the Fall...

MCCOY: Well, that's the second time man's been thrown out of paradise.
KIRK: No, no, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren't meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can't stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.  

That's the biggest problem with Heaven: the very concept is paradoxical and antithetical to everything that makes us who we are. Paraphrasing Deepak Chopra (sue me) – if we were in Heaven, we would be doomed to eternal senility. You can have your fantasy, Ray Comfort. 


10 January 2013

Yes, Intelligent Design is still based on a God-of-the-Gaps argument

If you've ever noticed that ID advocates spend vastly more time trying to poke holes in evolutionary biology than they do actually doing research that could substantiate their competing hypothesis, you might have come to the conclusion that the reason they aren't doing that research is because the whole thing is just one big argument from ignorance – if something takes on qualities that are arbitrarily determined to be sufficiently complex, then some "intelligence" must have designed it.

Over at the ironically titled blog Evolution News and Views, they've slapped up a post arguing why ID is totally not a God of the Gaps argument. It fails hard, and I highly recommend you read it just for a good old fashioned chuckle. But if you'd rather not, I've picked a few choice quotes to ream.
My friend Jamie Franklin recently published a post on his website explaining why he has come to reject the claims of ID. His main concern is that ID presents a god-of-the-gaps argument, one that is based on what we don't know, rather than what we do know, about life. Because Jamie's thoughts are echoed in many other sources, they deserve a reply. He writes:
Basically, it seems to me that [intelligent design] is a God of the gaps type argument. This is when we look at something in the world that science cannot currently explain and attribute it to some kind of supernatural force. So, for example, at some point somewhere in history someone probably said that the god Thor was responsible for thunder and lightning in the sky. At that time there was no naturalistic explanation for thunder and lightning. This is a God of the gaps argument.
It is very difficult to envision how someone could offer an inferential design argument based on the occurrence of thunder and lightning. On the other hand, it is not at all difficult to imagine how one could offer such an argument based upon the digital information encoded in the DNA molecule and the intricate nanotechnology that is so abundant in living systems.
That's just a failure of imagination. If you want to talk about the interactions of complex systems that produce thunder and lightening, there is plenty of potential fodder for creationist arguments from ignorance. But this is a moot argument; the fact that something demonstrates an arbitrary standard of complexity does not prove it was designed. Now, it's fine to hypothesize that it was designed and then use the scientific method to test that hypothesis. But it's not proof.

The analogy offered by my friend also confuses observational and historical science. Thunder and lightening are a phenomenon that we can readily observe, repeatedly in real time. As such, the phenomenon is accessible to experiment and measurement (although, admittedly, the causes of lightning are still not fully understood). The origin and evolution of life, on the other hand, are historical events and therefore (since they cannot be directly observed) require a different sort of reasoning process, an inference-based methodology.
This is perhaps the greatest canard in all of ID. Even if something occurred in the past, you can still make falsifiable predictions about what we will discover. I'm reading a book that discusses the inflationary theory of cosmology. You know why physicists think that a period of rapid inflation happened in the early universe? Because the theory made several predictions about the universe that were later confirmed with an extraordinary degree of accuracy through observation.

Similarly, evolution makes a number of falsifiable predictions about the makeup of the genome, the distribution of fossils, etc. etc. A great example is the prediction of a fused chromosome in humans. Primates, our evolutionary cousins, have 24 chromosome pairs. If we share a common ancestor, we should have 24 as well... but we don't. We have 23. So there were two possibilities: either the theory of common ancestry was in big trouble, or one of those pairs of chromosomes had fused. And indeed, we found that the chromosomes had fused. Yes, this all happened in the past, but that doesn't mean it's simply based on inference; all scientific theories require falsifiable predictions to be confirmed before they can be well-established.
Another important problem with my friend's comparison is that ID does NOT invoke a supernatural force to explain biological phenomena. This is because the scientific evidence, at least on its own, does not justify an inference to a supernatural cause.
That last part is true, but "God-of-the-Gaps" is simply one form of an argument from ignorance. ID advocates can try to argue that they're not really talking about God, but of course no one believes them because they're almost all evangelical Christians. They even said so in the infamous Wedge Document. Anyone who says ID isn't about God is flat-out lying. But even if they want to try to get off on the technicality that they're not necessarily invoking a deity, it's still an argument from ignorance because they haven't provided any specific falsifiable predictions that the theory makes. They just argue (wrongly) that evolution can't explain x, therefore the truth must be y. Sorry, that's not how science works.

A design inference is not triggered by any phenomenon that we cannot yet explain. Rather, it is triggered when two conditions are met. First, the event must be exceedingly improbable (so much so that it exhausts the available probabilistic resources).
ID advocates are really bad at calculating probabilities. Here's a great video that shows, in simple mathematical terms, how easy it is to get vastly improbable things:

Oh, but there's more:
Second, it must conform to a meaningful or independently given pattern.
Meaningful is a qualitative term, and "independently given" is just circular reasoning.
On what basis does one argue that the fine-tuning argument, whose logic Collins does accept, is not a "god-of-the-gaps" argument? In fact, if one were to take this way of thinking to its necessary conclusion, any tentative hypothesis at all about anything could be considered an argument from ignorance because a better explanation may be forthcoming in the future. 
The fine-tuning argument is an argument from ignorance. Numerous scientific theories have been proposed that could explain the supposed fine-tuning of the universe – there's no justification for defaulting to a supernatural explanation.

The second argument is astoundingly stupid. No hypothesis is ever accepted as valid unless it is supported by rigorous empirical data. Even then, just one discovery can completely overturn a well-established scientific theory (though obviously that becomes much less likely the more rigorously the theory is supported).
Furthermore, to assume that every phenomenon that we cannot explain yet must nonetheless have a materialistic explanation is to commit a converse "materialism-of-the-gaps" fallacy.
And we finally get to the ultimate canard of theistic arguments against materialism. Note that the above argument flies in the face of the earlier dodge that ID does not assume anything supernatural. It just shows what the real motives of these people are. But no scientific theory requires us to make an assumption of materialism. Science simply requires that things be observable and measurable. If something supernatural has an effect or influence on the natural world, we can detect it with the tools of science. If you want to claim that a supernatural cause has a significant effect but is undetectable by science, then you're just conceding that your supernatural cause is impotent and doesn't actually do anything – and you're definitely not doing science.

The problem with supernatural hypotheses is that no one who advocates them has found a way to detect, observe, or measure them. They haven't figured out a way to make falsifiable predictions from them. So while such explanations may ease the minds of the religiously inclined, they're not scientific. That's why ID, despite being dressed up in scientific-sounding language, is nothing but standard-issue creationism.

08 January 2013

Capitalism and altruism

A friend of mine recently recommend the documentary Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, which is about (according to the description) "the state of the global socioeconomic monetary paradigm, concluding that we need to move to a more resourced-based economy". I haven't watched it yet so I can't offer any sort of review, but my buddy showed me a clip with Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford, and he had this to say:

We in America are in one of the most individualistic societies, and capitalism being a system that allows you to go higher and higher up a potential pyramid, and the deal is that is comes with fewer and fewer safety nets. By definition the more stratified a society is, the fewer people you have as peers -- the fewer people with whom you have symmetrical reciprocal relationships; and instead all you have are differing spots in endless hierarchies, and a world in which you have few reciprocal partners is a world with a lot less altruism.

He makes some comments earlier that seem to idealize tribal society as peaceful and largely devoid of organized violence -- something I think Steven Pinker might take issue with given the data on the decline of violence over the course of human history (although "organized" may be a key distinction there). But I do think the quote above is interesting in light of the fact that countries with less economic stratification, such as the more socialist countries of Scandinavia, give significantly more to charity as a percentage of GDP than Americans do. But on the other hand, here in America where we have fewer social nets, people tend to give more voluntary. Granted, charitable giving is just one form of altruism, and it's interesting how, per the article in Forbes, altruism in countries with more egalitarian economic distribution may come in time, rather than money. How is it all connected? I'm not sure. But it's food for thought.

04 January 2013

It's a new year, baby

Well. So, over the holidays things around here were fairly slow. I had a fantastic holiday (the parents love the girlfriend!), and I'm very refreshed and eager to dig into the blog.

I've made a great deal of progress through Alexander Vilenkin's book Many Worlds in One, so soon I'll be able to finish that multi-part series I started several months ago: How William Lane Craig Misrepresents Alexander Vilenkin. Craig cites Vilenkin's work often, to support the notion that the universe had a beginning (ergo Jesus). Reading the book myself, I find Craig's representation to be so woefully misguided and flagrantly distorted that it borders on outright lying. But then again, this is coming from a guy who literally thinks that Einstein is wrong about General Relativity.


Anyway, yes, more to come on that and much more. Until then, here's something spied on Facebook today:

I think it's kind of hilarious that apocalyptic Christians imagine the returning Christ as looking the exact same as he did 2,000 years ago (except, as the pic above indicates, much less Jew-y). Y'know... sandals, robes, a beard, etc. Hello... he's supposed to be God. He can come back as a 100-story Batman, or as a man made of bees, or as a 20-something wearing True Religion jeans (what else) and a popped-collar shirt with a sideways Ed Hardy hat. Seriously, why would God come back wearing old, nasty looking robes and have a dirty beard? Well, maybe it'll be a soul patch (zing!)...