26 February 2014

Farewell, Paco de Lucia

While I can't say that Paco directly influenced my own guitar playing much, I always loved listening to his music.

Spanish Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia dies at 66

25 February 2014

William Lane Craig on what God is made of

From Reasonablefaith.org: 

This strikes me as exemplifying the central problem with theism: that it's so ill-defined.
  • God is immaterial, so he's not "anything", but he's not nothing.
  • God is an incorporeal mind, but is not like minds we've observed, which are governed by subconscious cognition that arises from embodied physical brains.
  • God is omnipotent or "maximally powerful", but there are many things God cannot do, so he's only conditionally omnipotent.
  • God apparently created natural laws, yet seems somehow descriptively constrained by the laws of classical logic (i.e., God cannot embody a true contradiction). If this is a limitation of human minds, then we can only conclude that God is ineffable and that natural theology is a farce. 
  • God can exist timelessly, but is still capable of change (including cognition).
  • God is perfect, but can have a change of his conscious state.
  • God is perfectly good, but allows natural suffering because it's part of his ineffable divine plan.

And so on. 

Sean Carroll nailed the problem in his post-debate reflections (h/t Tristan Vick):
If we would presume to contemplate theism from an intellectually honest perspective, we would try to decide what kind of universe we would expect to live in if theism were true; then we would do the same for naturalism; and finally we would compare those expectations to the real world. But when we do that we find theistic expectations failing to match reality over and over again. Now, I know perfectly well (from experience as well as from cogitation) that you can never make headway with theists by claiming “If God existed, He would do X, and He doesn’t” (where X is “prevent needless suffering,” “make His existence obvious,” “reveal useful non-trivial information to us,” “spread religious messages uniformly over the world,” etc.) Because they have always thought through these, and can come up with an explanation why God would never have done that. (According to Alvin Plantinga, our world — you know, the one with the Black Death, the Holocaust, AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, and so on — is “so good that no world could be appreciably better.”) But these apologetic moves come at a price: they imply a notion of theism so flexible that it becomes completely ill-defined. That’s the real problem. Craig’s way of putting it is to suggest that God is “like the cosmic artist who wants to splash his canvas with extravagance of design.” That’s precisely why naturalism has pulled so far ahead of theism in the intellectual race to best model our world: because it plays by rules and provides real explanations for why the world is this way rather than that way.

24 February 2014

Did William Lane Craig really do that?

I was reading Sean Carroll's post-debate thoughts, and I had remembered seeing William Lane Craig's rephrasing of the Kalam somewhere else just after the debate. Sean confirmed it in his blog, and I just can't believe what I'm reading. Surely a professional philosopher (as he certainly likes to think of himself) can see the barn-door-sized fallacy here. This is the version of the Kalam that Craig used in the debate:
  1. If the universe began to exist, it has a transcendent cause for its existence
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a transcendent cause for its existence
What's changed from previous renditions is the first premise, which used to simply say "Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence". Craig added the term transcendent.

Now, I have personally argued in the past that this much is obvious. We clearly can't be talking about the mundane type of physical causality we actually observe in the universe, because the universe would not have existed. So if the universe came into existence by way of some cause, it must be a cause that's transcendent of physical time, space, and law.

Here's the elephant in the room: there is no evidence whatsoever that transcendent causes exist. Sean remarks that Craig seemed to just take the first premise as a given and focus his energy on the second, and that is a huge mistake from Craig. The existence of transcendent causes, while certainly not impossible, is by no means a well-established and uncontroversial fact. If you think String Theory is speculative, well, you'd be right – but String Theory is at least premised on well-established mathematics and laws of physics; there are many parameters it simply cannot violate and still be a viable theory. But a "transcendent cause", well, what the deuce is that supposed to be, exactly? How does it work? What rules govern its interactions? How can it be observed? It's speculative to the point of being absurd, because by definition it would unbound by the constraints that we conventionally use to clearly define the very concept of causality.

Craig can't just assume that transcendent causes exist in order to prove that the universe began to exist with a transcendent cause. That's a classic case of begging the question, and one so elementary that I'm stupefied that someone who fancies himself an academic philosopher can make a mistake that wouldn't fly in an introductory undergraduate philosophy course.  

Read Sean Carroll's full thoughts on the debate here.

23 February 2014

Why I'm an atheist: a reply to Tom Gilson

I last encountered Tom Gilson back when I did my 13-part review of True Reason, a book that attempted to offer a Christian counter to the perspective of the so-called "new atheists". Tom popped over in the comments and, suffice to say, we did not see eye to eye.

I highly doubt that's going to change any time soon. But Tom does have a cool idea for a project: a series called Why I Believe – Evidence for the Faith. His plan is to offer a cumulative case for the truth of Christianity through philosophical, historical, and theological arguments.

My deconversion was sort of a two-step process: first in the rejection of Christianity in exchange for a sort of vaguely defined agnostic theism, and then from there into full-fledged atheism. And since, judging by the table of contents, Tom's series appears to be covering a lot of the ground the led me to deconvert, this seems like an opportune time to provide a contrarian point of view.

I'll be offering replies to each of Tom's posts in the series. But before I go down this road, I want to make absolutely clear the spirit of discourse I'm aiming for with my replies.

Firstly, I'm calling them "replies". Not "rebuttals" or "debunking"; I'm not going to engage in anything that could be misconstrued as condescension or self-aggrandizement. My goal isn't to cross swords with Tom on an emotional or personal level; I'm currently rewatching the first season of the superb television show Hannibal in preparation for the forthcoming second season, and I'd like to think that my replies will reflect the calculated detachment Mads Mikkelsen so deftly displays as the titular character.

The reason I want to make this abundantly clear is that I've been over at Randal Rausers blog, and it's a damn disaster zone. I thought his posts about Peter Boghossian's book were vitriolic enough (disclaimer: I haven't read the book and I have no interest in doing so), but the recent spat with John Loftus, to me, stands out as precisely what not to do – on both sides. It is, as one keen commenter put it, ugly ideological warfare. I've been in the midst of those types of discussions (and, at times, helped perpetuate them), and it's fucking exhausting. I hate it. It's stressful. I've got a wedding and honeymoon to help plan, and a personal training business to grow – I can't waste my time getting agitated over arguments on the internet.

I originally began this blog because writing about topics that vex me is a useful way for me to sort them out. Because my blog is so personal, I haven't shied away from my share of snark because it sometimes accurately expresses what I'm feeling. But for this series, I'm going to try my hardest to avoid inflationary quips and hyperbole. I'm going to do my best to read Tom's series charitably and respond to his posts dispassionately.

I'll begin with a definition of atheism that I'm advocating, as a counter to Tom's explanation of which type of Christianity he is defending. This will obviously be more of a personal note than a point-counterpoint, but it should serve as a valuable starting point. From there I'll continue to address each of his posts individually. He hasn't finished the series, so this will likely be a long-term project interspersed with other posts. But, I'll get cracking on his first few posts right away. Stay tuned!

The darker angels of our nature

Nazis turned people into soap.

Simon-Baron Cohen's outstanding book The Science of Evil begins with an unsettling account of the Nazi's ruthless efficiency, turning humans into slave laborers and, in some cases, into a variety of household products. The question, Cohen explains, is how humans can turn other humans into objects – to completely strip ourselves of empathy toward their suffering and view them as products, as bags of meat.

Bags of meat. When I watch this short silent clip from the documentary Samsara, I sense the same sort of erosion of empathy. Don't worry, the clip is not graphic, at least not in the sense of being violent or bloody:

I watch this and see an unsettling reason why, if we don't simply start going vegetarian entirely, we should be reducing our dependence on animal products and – when we do consume them – buying local, grass-fed and organic meats and animal products. They don't show the slaughter in this video, and it's not the cold efficiency of the slaughter that bothers me; it's the cold detachment from the suffering of animals. The pigs nursing their young was for me the most heartbreaking to watch, and it's all the more heartbreaking knowing the "lives" that await those piglets. 

I can't help but wonder if in a hundred years we will look back on factory farming as a holocaust of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The more we have learned about the cognition of animals, the more we've learned that they are not dumb creatures acting purely on "instinct", but intelligent creatures with a broad range of cognitive and emotional experiences. And while we may tell ourselves that factory-raised animals aren't having existential crises or yearning to be free, the truth is that humans raised in identical conditions would not be yearning to be free either – they simply wouldn't know any other reality. 

So, what can we do? The seemingly obvious answer is to go vegan. But for many (including myself), that's not a practical or desirable choice – though omnivores such as myself can make efforts to purchase more local and humanely raised meat, such as those labeled through the Certified Humane program. Labels like "organic" or "cage-free" may be a marginal improvement, but many of those labels are trivial.

But the darker reality is that since animals are used not just for meat but for hundreds and hundreds of various consumer products, all the vegan activism and humane-treatment certifications in the world will never be enough to significantly erode the use of factory farms. Even the most conscientious consumers will have difficulty eliminating animal products from their lives. The solution must come as a society – we must actively work to erode the prevalence of factory farming by dramatically reducing our dependency on all animal products.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argued that inter-human violence has declined, and that – perhaps counter-intuitively – we are living in the most peaceful era in human history. But while Pinker may be right, our systematic detachment from the suffering of animals through the indifferent efficiency of factory farming is an issue that has grown too salient to ignore – a darker angel of our nature whose shadow will loom as long as we choose to ignore the consequences of our dependency on animal products. 

21 February 2014

Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig will debate tonight, and I'm already disappointed

William Lane Craig is an experienced debater and a skilled rhetorician – that much is not in doubt. Whether you think he's a capable philosopher skillfully undermining the case for atheism or a glorified Christian apologist polishing tired and ineffectual arguments with a new sheen of obfuscatory rhetorical bullshit is likely a matter of where you sit on the fence with your own religious beliefs.

Craig's opponents over the years have ranged from the rhetorically skilled and intellectually incisive to the blundering and confused, and I'm confident that tonight he'll be facing one of the former: Caltech physicist Sean Carroll. Often, Craig gains an edge over his opponents by knowing enough science to appear authoritative, which confuses philosophers (as was the case recently with Alex Rosenberg); or, he gains a rhetorical advantage over scientists with his rich vocabulary of philosophy. Carroll, however, is a scientist well-schooled in philosophy. Better still, Carroll is an outstanding educator, one who is capable of explaining complex concepts in layperson's terms while Craig seems to more often than not delight in the ambiguities of esoteric philosophical rhetoric.

And yet, I think this "debate", if we can even call it that, will be mostly a dud.

The reason is the format: 20-minute opening presentations, followed by 12- and 8-minute rebuttals, and finished with 40 minutes of audience questions. Conspicuously absent is any sort of conversational format or cross-examination. Craig favors tonight's rigid format, and if one watches his cross-examination with Shelly Kagan or Stephen Law, it's not hard to see why: without the formality of uninterrupted stumping that allows Craig a sort of Gish Gallop approach to his debates, he's left struggling to keep pace with the his opponent and he loses his greatest advantage: his rhetorical flair.

The formal academic style Craig favors is problematic, for several reasons. Firstly, the audience has the burden of keeping tracking of 40 total minutes of uninterrupted stumping from each speaker. It simply humanly impossible for anyone to track all the minutiae of the various arguments and rebuttals each speaker is trying to cram into their allotted time.

Secondly, both interlocutors have the goal not just of rebutting one another's arguments, but of establishing their own case – Craig, for Christian theism, and Carroll in this case, has stated that he wants to "make the case for naturalism". That means that the two debaters will spend a significant amount of time operating from different assumptions and simply talking past one another – as the comedian Tim Minchin said, like trying to score well-executed shots from opposite ends of separate tennis courts.

And finally, and worst of all, the debaters themselves have an extremely difficult time keeping track of all the arguments (including supportive sub-arguments) made over the course of the debate. The result is that by the end of the 2-hour debate, numerous conversational threads are left dangling and relevant concepts are only cursorily explored.

I'm sure Sean Carroll will be as entertaining and informative to listen to as he always is, and I'm sure Craig will be as exasperating and vacuous as he always is. But I'm not naive enough to expect anything like a conversation, or to hear anything from either speaker that I haven't already heard a hundred times. 

17 February 2014

An atheist and a theologian had a talk about evidence...

I don't remember where I saw it recently, but I read something discussing evidence of the roundness of the Earth. It's something that so many of us take as a rigorously established fact that we're pretty confident that flat-Earthers are a bunch of nutcases. But the point to consider is that our knowledge that the Earth is round is, itself, predicated on a litany of epistemic assumptions that we tend to take for granted in our everyday discourse.

It's predicated on the reliability (or "truth", if you want to go there) of mathematics, the reliability of the laws of optics and of our optical equipment. And yes, even though there are people who have gone into space and actually orbited the Earth, some might say that even that evidence is predicated on the nature of our phenomenal conscious experience, the reliability of intersubjectivity, and on and on.

When you throw theology into the mix, these concepts can rear their heads pretty quickly:

Atheist: What is the evidence that the Earth is round?
Theologian: We have mathematical evidence, astronomical evidence, and direct observational evidence. It's integral to how satellites work, and even how the GPS on your phone works. The evidence is overwhelming and corroborated by lots of independent disciplines and observations.

Atheist: What is the evidence for evolution?
(Really liberal) Theologian: Evidence from fossils and molecular genetics, which are independent fields of inquiry, give us the same phylogenetic tree. This allows us to predict the distribution of genetic diversity, and observations have been in remarkable agreement with those predictions. We find fossils and gene distributions precisely where we'd expect to. This includes predicting the distribution of latent genes, like the fact that chickens have latent genes for producing teeth.

Atheist: What is the evidence that God exists?
Theologian: Well.... That depends on what you mean by evidence!
Atheist: Well... I suppose I mean the same kind of evidence we've been talking about... empirical evidence that can be independently corroborated, predictions that can be verified or falsified.
Theologian: So you subscribe to verificationism? How do you know verificationism is true – can you verify it? If you insist that we are constrained to empirical evidence for justifying beliefs, you need to justify your evidentialist assumptions.
Atheist: Uh... but... sigh. Okay. Let's say there are other ways of justifying beliefs. What does that have to do with demonstrating the existence of God?
Theologian: You're clearly ignorant of classical foundationalism and reformed epistemology. Perhaps belief in God is properly basic, and needs no a posteriori justification! You shouldn't be commenting on the justification of beliefs until you've read the relevant academic literature.

And down the rabbit hole we go. Broadly speaking, theologians have one of two routes to take when trying to convince others that God, as they happen to define it, exists:
  1. Natural theology, in which observational evidence about the natural world is used to logically infer the existence of God.
  2. Claim that evidence is irrelevant
The former is the William Lane Craig route (not withstanding his "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" argument). Personally, this is the route I have more experience dealing with, and it's one I find more persuasive because at least they're admitting that evidence is relevant. As long as there's evidence to consider, we're all on equal footing. We can agree or disagree regarding the veracity of said evidence, but we're all operating on the assumption that evidence is directly relevant to the justification of beliefs.

When theists go the other route, which is to argue that there's some "other way of knowing" that God exists – whether it be a sensus divinitus, the anecdotal testimony of others, or some convoluted system of a priori philosophical justification, then the discussion might as well be over. The theist is arguing that they have sufficient justification for believing in God. They may not be able to demonstrate it, they may not be able to actually proffer any evidence, but dammit, they just know. Perhaps it's best summed up by an actual comment from a recent thread on Randal Rauser's blog:
I actually love the idea of being able to believe whatever I want. Since the reality can be literally anything, I'll take my chances and believe in a being that can give us all justice and eternal happiness. It's emotionally appealing as hell, and just prudent.
Well, cool. More power to you. Me, I don't like being able to believe whatever I want. I want my beliefs about reality to be contingent on the best available evidence. I want to acknowledge and account for my flawed human memory and my cognitive biases. And I definitely don't want to believe in something just because it makes me feel good. 

We don't rehash the fundamentals of our epistemic frameworks every time we have a discussion in which the roundness of the Earth is assumed. We don't have to peel back layer upon layer of epistemic warrant to feel justified in believing something that is corroborated by so many different sources. Why, then, do discussions about God lead down these rabbit trails? I propose it's for a simple reason: If God exists, there should be abundant and uncontroversial evidence; but there isn't any evidence, so theists resort to convoluted theology and philosophy as a smokescreen to shield their beliefs from skeptical inquiry. If you can't justify your belief in God the same way you justify your other beliefs about reality, you have to conjure up some other way to convince yourself it's all true. 

16 February 2014

Worst. Weekend. Ever.

A handful of you may have noticed that I let a few conversation threads slide the last couple of days both here and over at Randal's blog. Early Friday evening I started feeling sick to my stomach, and I ended up in pretty bad shape. Fever, projectile everything, even fainted at one point and slammed my head on the bathroom floor. Luckily my lovely fiance stayed by my side and took care of me, but needless to say it's been a hell of an ordeal and definitely not how we envisioned spending Valentine's Day. My appetite is gradually returning, as is my strength. I got extremely dehydrated, so for now I'm just trying to slam down all the water my stomach will tolerate. Hopefully I can get plenty of food and rest today and be back to normal Monday.

10 February 2014

What is God's mind like?

Warning: George Lakoff's book Philosophy in the Flesh is probably going to be giving me ideas for posts for a while. Apologies if it gets annoying.

In the previous post, some conversation arose on the nature of God. Theists generally claim that God possesses clearly-defined ontic properties – most notably among them (for this post) conscious thought. God, as William Lane Craig would be quick to tell you, is a "disembodied mind".

One of the bizarre paradoxes of consciousness is that we are not aware of our own process of reasoning. Lakoff illustrates this early on in his book:
Consider, for example, all that is going on below the level of conscious awareness when you are in a conversation. Here is only a small part of what you are doing, second by second:
Accessing memories relevant to what is being said
Comprehending a stream of sound as being language, dividing it into distinctive phonetic features and segments, identifying phonemes, and grouping them into morphemes 
Assigning a structure to the sentence in accord with the vast number of grammatical constructions in your native language 
Picking out words and giving them meanings appropriate to context 
Making semantic and pragmatic sense of the sentences as a whole 
Framing what is said in terms relevant to the discussion 
Performing inferences relevant to what is being discussed 
Constructing mental images where relevant and inspecting them 
Filling in gaps in the discourse 
Noticing and interpreting your interlocutor's body language 
Anticipating where the conversation is going 
Planning what to say in response

We aren't aware of these underlying process of cognition even as they frame our very process of reasoning. We could take it a step further, and say that we aren't aware of the physical processes that underlie the production of these processes – that is, the billions of neurons and synapses that are continually firing to give rise to cognition. And we most certainly aren't aware of the quarks and leptons interacting on the quantum scale that form our our brain matter to begin with.

I think the type of example above is a powerful argument against Cartesian dualism, because it shows that the subconscious cognition that necessarily comprises our conscious thought is produced by the brain. I'm not sure how a substance dualist would conceive of the conscious mind arising at all without that subconscious process being produced by the brain.  

This is precisely where the difficulty lies in envisioning God as a disembodied mind. First of all, we've never seen or studied a disembodied mind. All the minds we're aware of require this process of subconscious cognition arising from the brain to produce conscious awareness and linguistic meaning. But more to the point, if God is omniscient as he is generally conceived, then he must know his own mind. He must be consciously aware of what are, for us, subconscious processes that allow us to experience a coherent conscious experience. But how can this be? It's a paradox in terms.

If I had to play the devil's advocate (or the God advocate, as it were), perhaps I'd try to argue that God is not a disembodied mind, but a disembodied conscious mind that, somehow, does not need that underlying process of cognition at all. In fact that's really the only way to argue that God is a disembodied mind, because if God possesses a subconscious then he is by definition not aware of it (hence subconscious). But that ultimately just confuses the issue. What does it mean, after all, to talk about a "mind" if we have to toss out what we know about the mind and how it works?  If God is only consciousness and his mind is not governed by processes of which he is not aware, how is he able to experience linguistic meaning?


Part of what makes dualism "bulletproof" is that it can never be falsified. No matter how integral we find the connection between the brain and conscious experience in our Earthly bodes, dualists will always claim that it doesn't prove that the mind can't exist without the body. And in a purely trivial sense, that's true.

But that trivial truth also betrays the utter vacuity of dualism – it completely lacks any explanatory value whatsoever. Worse, it requires us to abandon our understanding of how the mind works and assume that not only can the mind exist independently of the brain, but that it operates by completely different rules entirely once it's disembodied. 

Throw God into the picture, and we realize that we have to throw out even more rules because God, if he is omniscient, cannot have a subconscious mind at all. But what does it mean to have conscious awareness without a subconscious mind giving context and meaning to one's experience? And if God somehow has a subconscious (he's only conditionally omniscient, you silly atheist), what governs it if not the laws of physics that govern our own physical brains? Why assume it's anything like our own subconscious at all if it's completely detached from physical law?

I'm waiting for this to become the next branch of "sophisticated theology": gluing together the pieces of substance dualism with modern cognitive neuroscience and trying to fit God into the picture without throwing coherency out the window entirely. Let's not hold our breath.

06 February 2014

Do new atheists look down on philosophy?

Massimo Pigliucci, who is both an academic philosopher and an atheist, hasn't pulled any punches in his criticism of "new atheists" (srsly, the term is getting pretty old, people) supposedly thinking philosophy is a waste of time and/or just being really totally ignorant of the vast annals of philosophical literature. He's ignited the criticism again recently, and it's resulted in an all out... wait for it... Twitter and blog war (oh my!) of epic proportions.

Other atheist philosophers who are friendlier with the "gnu" crowd, like Dan Dannett and A.C. Grayling, don't seem to indulge in the kind of fierce attacks on other people's intellectual credibility that Pigliucci does. So, what's got Massimo in such a tiff?

It's notable that I've recently been revisiting a book by George Lakoff called Philosophy of the Flesh, in which he basically says that pretty much all of Western philosophy is a farce. The problem is that traditionally, philosophers have believed they can understand both the mind and our external reality  through rational introspection – that thinking about ourselves and the world is a way to attain knowledge of those things. But while Lakoff may or may not be as successful in establishing a new, empirically-conscientious philosophy, one things for sure: he nails the problem square on the head.

The problem is that, as cognitive scientists have discovered, the overwhelming majority of our process of reasoning occurs subconsciously. In other words, you don't have access to your own mind. We can speak in analogies and metaphors, but that's about it. From chapter 2 of Philosophy of the Flesh:
For the most part, philosophers engaged in making metaphysical claims are choosing from the cognitive unconscious a set of existing metaphors that have a consistent ontology. That is, using unconscious everyday metaphors, philosophers seek to make a noncontradictory choice of conceptual entities defined by those metaphors; they then take those entities to be real and systematically draw out the implications of that choice in an attempt to account for our experience using that metaphysics.
Then you have the problem of knowing things about the external world without actually looking at it – what's known as a priori knowledge. This type of reasoning is inherently problematic because, as Lakoff is pointing out, you simply start from a set of axioms and extrapolate their logical consequences. The problem is that this type of reasoning cannot tell you which set of axioms actually corresponds with reality. In order for that to happen, you actually have to look at the world. This is precisely the reasoning behind Stephen Hawking's idea of model-dependent realism. We don't have access to some absolute truth or reality; all we can do is construct models that agree with observation with varying degrees of reliability.


I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and speculate that for most of the new atheists with whom the Pigliuccis of the world are picking fights, this stuff is relatively uncontroversial. But I think Pigliucci, like most philosophically-inclined individuals who criticize more scientifically-inclined atheists, is fighting a straw man. Most atheists, in my estimation, would agree that philosophy is useful for framing questions – it's just not very useful for answering them. Take for example this excerpt from a guest entry on Jerry Coyne's blog:
I’ll mention two things here that relate to philosophy of science in particular.
First, there’s conceptual clarification. Some ideas in science are difficult and complex, and philosophers have often contributed to the elucidation of the implications and assumptions underlying our ideas. Philosophers, qua philosophers, do not contribute empirical data, but by helping to clarify our ideas they help us think more clearly about our data and the world. Work by the late David Hull on species, and by Elliott Sober on the nature of selection are two examples that spring immediately to mind.
Second, understanding scientific methodology, and how/why it works, is a branch of epistemology– the study of how we know things. I found reflection on scientific methods, and what they imply about the nature of science, indispensable in my own development as a scientist (something I began thinking about in grad school). The understandings I achieved then, and their development over time, have been at the core of my nearly twenty years of teaching general education students about the nature of science, how we can evaluate claims about the world, and what claims can be said to be more or less reliable.

I agree that these are good uses for philosophy: they help us work out the consequences of certain axioms and frame questions in a meaningful way. Stephen Hawking's concept of model-dependent realism, for example, is indeed a philosophical concept despite his proclamation that "philosophy is dead". But it's a conceptualization of how we ought to form questions, not an attempt to establish ontological truths about reality through rational introspection. And I think much of the resistance from atheists toward philosophy comes from the fact that many theists seem to reject the idea that you have to look at the world to know anything about it – they think that God's existence can be inferred based upon some sort of a priori 'truth'. Where modern atheists and skeptics reject the utility of philosophy is in making ontic claims about our minds or our external reality. Centuries of philosophy have simply never taught us anything in that regard, because as Lakoff so incisively demonstrates, it can't.

22 questions from creationists – answered in one sentence

My pick for the dumbest question
Following the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, an article from Buzzfeed in which 22 creationists pose questions for people who believe in evolution has been floating around Facebook a fair bit, so I decided to answer them all. In one sentence.

1. Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

He teaches kids about science, so yes.

2. Are you scared of a Divine Creator?

I can't be scared of something I don't think exists, but it's a false dilemma because lots of believers still accept modern science – including evolution.

3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings… Adam created as an adult…

Yes, because it conflicts with everything we've learned from multiple disciplines of science over many centuries.

4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?

The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that entropy never decreases in a closed system, but the Earth is not a closed system because it has a massive, continual source of energy in the sky.

5. How do you explain a sunset if their [sic] is no God?

The rotation of the Earth.

6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?

First, see #4; second, the laws of thermodynamics wouldn't have existed before the Big Bang.

7. What about noetics?

Noetics are a branch of philosophy, not science, and like most branches of philosophy it's useful for framing questions but not answering them.

8. Where do you derive objective meaning in life?

I don't believe in an objective meaning to life, but that doesn't diminish the fact that my life is meaningful to me.

9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?

Chance, or rather probability, played a role, but we don't yet know how the first single-celled organisms originated; we think they probably evolved from simpler RNA protein structures in the primordial ocean. 

10. I believe in the Big Bang Theory . . . God said it and BANG it happened.

Well cool, but that's not actually the Big Bang Theory.

11. Why do evolutionists/secularists/huminists [sic]/non-God believing people reject the idea of their [sic] being a creator God, but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?

They don't. 

12. There is no in between . . . the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an "official proof".

As Sean Carroll says, science is not in the business of proving things; but in any case, there are countless transitional forms – Google is your friend.

13. Does metamorphosis help support evolution?

Evolution provides an explanation for why some animals metamorphosize. 

14. If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) then why is evolution taught as fact?

In science, a "theory" is a model that explains facts through observation and experiment – evolution and common ancestry explain the fact of modern genetic diversity.

15. Because science by definition is a "theory" - not testable, observable, nor repeatable why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?

Actually, the scientific method by definition means that hypotheses must be testable, observable, and repeatable. 

16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase in genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?

The most common way that information in the genome is increased is that genes are duplicated and altered. 

17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?

I make my own purpose, thanks.

18. Why have we found only 1 "Lucy" when we have found more than 1 of everything else?

There's only one "Lucy" because it refers to a specific fossil, but there are lots of fossils of her species, australopithicus.

19. Can you believe "the big bang" without "faith"?

Yes, because the Big Bang theory is supported by observation and experiment – most notably the observation of the precise degree of anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background that was predicted by the theory. 

20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone created/thought of it? It's Amazing!!!

It's amazing, yes, but it's also unfathomably vast, empty, and hostile to life.

21. Relating to the big bang theory . . . where did the exploding star come from?

The Big Bang refers to the expansion of spacetime from a finite point in the past, not an explosion in space. 

22. If we come from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

We didn't come from modern monkeys; modern monkeys and humans share a common evolutionary ancestor.

I think it's interesting that this was posed as "questions to people who believe in evolution", but it was actually a lot of questions about cosmology, abiogenesis, and atheism as well. There seems to be an assumption that if you accept evolution, you must be a God-hating atheist who believes everything came from nothing. Or something.

The questions show a total disconnect from reality; most of these people haven't the slightest clue how evolution, cosmology, or science in general actually works. The only thing they know about atheism is what they've been fed by people like Ham, which is to say they know nothing. The only way to think these are credible questions is to be totally insulated from critical inquiry of your doxastic community. Or, to quote Christopher Hitchens speaking to Sean Hannity: "You strike me as someone who has never read any of the arguments against your position, ever."

p.s. – It looks like my partner-in-blog Bud from Dead Logic has tackled these as well, both more thoroughly and more creatively than I.

04 February 2014

Moar debates! Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye, Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig

I'm really not a fan of debates. They're a contest of rhetorical aptitude, not a way of disseminating truth from falsehood. And I've seen far too many formal academic-style debates in which the two interlocutors spent most of their time talking past each other rather than in dialogue with one another, so predictably no one's opinions on either side is either changed or challenged. But there are two interesting debates coming up that just might be worth checking out.

1. Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham


So. Bill Nye "The Science Guy" (he's not actually a scientist) vs. young-Earth creationist and Biblical literalist Ken Ham, who is probably most famous for heading up the unintentionally hilarious Creation Museum in Kentucky, as well as heading up Answers In Genesis.

There's quite a bit of hoopla over whether it's appropriate to give someone like Ken Ham a forum for their nutbaggery. There's also concern over whether Nye is actually going to take the time to tackle the arguments with precision, or if he'll underestimate Ham and get his ass kicked.

The thing about creation arguments is that they're laden with just enough science to sound convincing to the layperson. When you toss in the fact that some of the arguments are made by various PhDs, then even the most ridiculous arguments maintain a veneer of credibility. More importantly though, the arguments can be confusing even for someone like, golly I dunno, me, who has a relatively solid understanding of biology. Sometimes it takes a fair bit of specialized knowledge to be able to cut through the crap and expose creationism for the farce that it is.

That also raises the "small fires" problem. One thing that William Lane Craig likes to do in his debates is raise a litany of minor, often unrelated points. His opponent flusters when trying to put out these small fires and fails to make their own case; and if the opponent spends more time making their own case, Craig claims that he won because his opponent didn't address this or that argument. Ham could easily use the same tactic, making small scientific-sounding arguments about creationism for Nye to chase down, in the process distracting Nye from making a more cohesive argument against creationism.

Really, the problem with creationism can be boiled down to what Ken Ham said in an op ed regarding the forthcoming debate:
I have decided to accept an authority our infallible creator and his word, the Bible over the words of fallible humans.
The elephant in the room is that it was "fallible humans" who told Ham what he ought to believe about the Bible. Fallible humans taught him about belief in God, compiled the Bible, and griped for millennia over proper orthodoxy. It's Ham's reverence of the Bible, his belief that the Bible itself is immune to skeptical inquiry and criticism, that renders his creationism a farce.

What I hope happens:

I hope Nye is prepared to make concise rebuttals to specific pseudoscientific arguments while building the case that the free inquiry of science is incompatible with dogmatic reverence of a specific interpretation of an ancient holy book.

2. Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig

A more interesting and certainly much more cerebral debate will be been Caltech physicist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig.

As with the Nye-Ham debate, lots of people are jumping on the train to tell Carroll not to underestimate Craig. But, I don't think this is going to be a problem. Craig can sometimes get a leg up in debates because he's sufficiently knowledgeable in philosophy to bullshit effectively, and he knows enough about science to confuse laypersons into thinking it supports their argument. Carroll should be an effective opponent for Craig, then, in several ways:
  1. Carroll is a physicist, and will have the knowledge to shoot down Craig, who will likely attempt to paint Carroll's views as fringe. But, Carroll should be able to better clarify the concepts that Craig is referencing to support his case.
  2. Many of Craig's science opponents are not well-read in theology and philosophy, and vice-versa; but Carroll is very well read on both subjects. 
  3. While Craig revels in academic-sounding obscurity and semantic ambiguity, Carroll is an effective science popularizer and speaker because he has a gift for explaining difficult concepts in both science and philosophy in layperson's terms.

What I hope happens

I hope Carroll, once and for all, gets Craig off the whole stupid Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem. Not that the theorem is stupid, of course, but that it doesn't actually say what Craig wants his audience to believe it says. Craig's pet argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, relies on some serious equivocation, and I hope Carroll confronts him relentlessly on it.

From what I understand, the format of this debate will be more conversational. If that's true, it's great news for everyone but Craig. Craig likes being able to inundate both the audience and his opponent with sophisticated-sounding arguments that are often far too complex to thoroughly rebut in a 20-minute stump, particularly when his interlocutor desires to make their own case as well. A more conversational format could take Craig's greatest strength away – his skill as a rhetorician – and give Carroll more opportunities to prevent Craig from setting too many fires.