24 March 2014

Something Sam Harris said

I skimmed the essays that Dan Dennett and Sam Harris wrote to each other (they were way too damn long), and something caught my eye in Harris' response to Dennett (emphasis mine):
2. You believe that determinism at the microscopic level (as in the case of Austin’s missing his putt) is irrelevant to the question of human freedom and responsibility. I agree that it is irrelevant for many things we care about (it doesn’t obviate the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior, for instance), but it isn’t irrelevant in the way you suggest.
Provided we all agree that liberarian free will is bullshit, I don't see a meaningful distinction between the statements
  • I did something by choice
  • I did something voluntarily

Aaaand, discuss.

20 March 2014

Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, is dead

Fred Phelps was bottom-feeding scum, and the world has become a marginally better place with his death. If I mourn anything, it's a life that was wasted on bitter hatred and unwavering fundamentalism – a life bereft of the opportunity to share in peace and happiness with those who are different. I mourn for the pain he caused for so many others, be it the tyranny he held over his own family or the crass cruelty with which he hurled invectives at gay people and mourning families. But I will definitely shed no tears for his passing, nor will I have any sympathy for the life he chose of his own accord and the decisions for which he is solely responsible. Good riddance.

Perhaps the most poignant commentary this morning came from Betty Bowers:

18 March 2014

How not to argue on the internet

I've taken the last week or so off from blogging, deliberately so – I've needed to refocus on the web aspects of my business, and Vanessa and I have had quite a few family obligations of late. But I've still been perusing my favorite sites, which are mostly science-oriented blogs like Preposterous Universe, Bad Astronomy, and Neurologica but also includes a few religious oriented blogs on both sides of the pew (so to speak).

In taking a step back and just reading and observing debates, I've picked up on some things that have been on my mind for a while. I've definitely been in the position where I felt that indulging too much in Disqus comment threads can bring out a side of myself I rather dislike, and I've been trying to be more conscientious about my behavior and think more carefully about the types of words I use. It's easy in discussions involving issues about which we feel very passionate to let our emotions get the better of us.

I've come to the conclusion that there are several major mistakes we can make when discussing and debating, and that most all debates are ultimately an endless morass. It's simply human nature to try to "win" the argument, and in all my years of blogging I've almost never seen interlocutors on any side of a debate concede even the smallest point – at least not in the midst of discussion. The reluctance to concede an erroneous argument is only exacerbated by the use of patronizing or antagonizing language, and the language doesn't have to be overtly insulting or hostile to achieve this effect.

This means that while lengthy discussions can occasionally be fruitful, for the most part it's impossible for everyone to track all of the minor points and still maintain a cohesive overall direction. Discussions often end in tangents, or when everyone feels frustrated from feeling like they're repeating themselves ad nauseum. It's my opinion that the best thing to do is to know when to withdraw. Make your case as clearly and concisely as you can. Odds are that the other person will have some counterargument, and you'll likely feel that they misunderstood or misrepresented your argument in some way. That, I think, is when it's time to let it go. No amount of harping is going to change minds. State your case and let it be, continuing only if you feel there is an atmosphere of productive communication and mutual understanding.

Anyway, those things not to do. Well, I was over at Randal Rauser's blog, and I saw plenty of counter-productive behavior. Some examples:

Now, I know I'm kind of picking on Randal here, but I have to admit it's low-hanging fruit – he's got tons of comments like this. He's certainly not the only one of course, though I'm struck by this behavior particularly because Randal himself has admonished it in his own blog.

First, he's expressing exasperation at having to explain himself again. He's telling this person that the reason they have not come to agree with him, or at least concede this portion of the debate, is solely the result of their willful ignorance of the points he has already "succinctly" argued. There is absolutely no concession of even the mere possibility that he could have explained himself more clearly, or that it was he who failed to properly grasp his interlocutor's arguments. He lays all the blame for the impasse solely on the other.

This kind of behavior is antagonizing to the extreme, and frankly it doesn't matter one iota who is right or wrong – he's put himself well past a discussion that might change any minds. As soon as you adopt this sort of antagonistic and patronizing tone, the debate is over. Everyone is just protecting inflated egos.


The statement here that got my attention is "That shows that at best you're a poor listener". As before, Randal is laying the blame for the impasse solely at the feet of his interlocutor with not one iota of that elusive Christian humility (I hear so much talk, but see so little in practice!). But this time he's taking it a step further and making a comment about this person's general character. That's sort of like when your spouse forgets to take out the trash after you asked them to, and you say "Gawl, you never listen to me!"

We ought to be careful about how much we impugn someone's personal character based on discussions on the internet – particularly ones that are prone to impassioned disagreements, and ones in which people tend to be operating from completely different sets of assumptions.

Now, I know I've been guilty of engaging in similar behavior from time to time. Sometimes, frustration just gets the better of me. But that doesn't excuse it, and I'm making a concerted effort to be more conscientious of the words I use in the future. That's not to say that I don't think one can have a spirited debate on the internet, but I think a few rules should be kept in mind:
  • Stay on topic.
  • If you're baited to go off-topic, don't take it – or at least explain how your answer is relevant to the broader discussion.
  • Be as clear as you can.
  • Be concise – show you respect others' time by avoiding essay-like comments
  • Avoid passive-aggressive behavior. Insults cloaked in a thin veil of intellectual maturity are still insults.
  • Never, ever get personal. 
  • If you feel your interlocutor is out to "win" rather than understand where you're coming from, politely end the conversation. You're not going to change their mind.
  • Once you feel you've made your point, you're not obligated to keep re-explaining yourself. If you don't feel you're being understood, yet you sincerely feel you've done your best, let it go.

03 March 2014

The Kalam Cosmological Argument: not even wrong

During the Craig/Carroll debate, one of my favorite arguments that Sean Carroll used against the Kalam Cosmological Argument's first premise is that it's not just wrong; it's not even wrong.

The first premise is generally stated as:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
... but was re-stated by Craig in the debate as:
  • If the universe began to exist, it has a transcendent cause for its existence

I devoted a post to explaining why I think the new formulation isn't just bad, but one that actually betrays the central problem with the KCA. Carroll took a unique approach in saying that classical notions of causality aren't even relevant to cosmological models, where quantum theory comes heavily into play. That's a good approach, and one I endorse. But, I think that Carroll's statement that the Kalam is "not even wrong" can be applied in an even more simple context.

Skeptics and theists alike are fond of squabbling over complex cosmological theories and theorems when debating the KCA, and I can't help but feel that once you're suckered in to that kind of a debate, you've already lost. Far better to cut to the heart of why the KCA doesn't even get off the ground.

The problem is simply that "causality", even if we are being very charitable and including the antiquated and scientifically irrelevant four forms of Aristotlean causality, is something that was gleamed from observation of the physical universe. Causality, as we understand it, is a principle governing physical objects within space and time according to well-known laws of physics. If we look at the second premise of the Kalam,
  • The universe began to exist
... we run into a similar issue. When we speak of something "beginning to exist", we do so within a very specific context – namely, that of the physical universe. There is a time at which something does not exist, and a time at which it begins to exist.

The Kalam is asking us to disregard the existence of the universe and still entertain the idea that concepts which we only are able to define, describe, and understand within that specific physical context somehow still exist. What does it mean to talk about "cause" when there is no space, no time, no matter, no energy, and indeed not even any physical laws at all? What does it mean to talk about "beginning" when there is no time in which something can begin?

The problem with the KCA is that it takes everyday concepts that sensibly describe the classical, Newtonian frame of reference in which we intuit our experiences and cantilevers them into realms in which they are stripped entirely of the very context that gives them meaning in the first place.

I should be charitable enough here to point out that Craig has indeed addressed these arguments, both here (on causality) and here (on beginnings). Craig's folly is perhaps no better represented by his baffling opening statement in the article on causality:

"I must confess that I'm baffled why atheists would think that causation presupposes time and space or at least time"
That's because, Dr. Craig, our very conceptualization of causality is derived from and made coherent by its context within space, time, and the laws of physics. As soon as you're talking about "transcendent causality" or "non-physical time" (as in the article on beginnings), you're no longer talking about our everyday, commonly-held conceptualizations of these things. You're talking about something possibly sort of like them, yet different in a very fundamental way.

That is why the Kalam Cosmological Argument is not even wrong. It doesn't even get off the ground with its most elementary concepts without becoming mired in equivocation. "Sophisticated philosophy" it most certainly is not. 

"God and Cosmology" – thoughts on the Carroll/Craig debate

After Sean Carroll posted the video of the debate on his blog, I finally got around to watching it. We all have our biases, but I've seen some of Craig's debates where I thought his opponent performed poorly or (more commonly) the two interlocutors simply spent two hours talking past one another.

But this, I thought, was a clear and decisive victory for Sean Carroll. He presented a strong thesis that countered Craig's theistic viewpoint, and answered Craig's arguments directly and incisively. He repeatedly corrected Craig on cosmological issues (such as what the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem actually says, which is something I have personally hammered home in the past) and did a fantastic job tying in the esoteric discussion of science and philosophy with more everyday concerns of meaning and purpose.

Craig, on the other hand, repeated irrelevant and rebutted arguments, often times repeating an argument without adding anything new or relevant even after Carroll had directly countered it. This could be my biases projecting, but I thought Craig looked comparatively (and uncharacteristically) disorganized and confused. Carroll sternly corrected Craig throughout the debate and the Q&A, with my favorite moment being Craig's attempt to claim that Alan Guth simply had some sort of personal desire for an eternal universe to be real; Carroll countered that no, it's because Guth is a scientist, that the BGV Theorem applies only to classical descriptions of space-time, and because Guth (like any good scientist) is looking for the best model to fit the data.

Frankly, the debate went just as I expected. Sean Carroll, as always, was a thrill to watch. He's not just a smart guy and a philosophically-conscientious physicist, but he's a great communicator and does a fine job of translating esoteric science into layman's terms and getting to the meat of why it all matters. While there was no direct cross-examination as there was in Craig's dismal performance against Shelly Kagan (and frankly, I suspect that debate plays a large part in why Craig shies away from that format), I'm confident that if there were it would have been even more drastic of a loss for Craig. This debate showed that despite his pretense of expertise, William Lane Craig is not a physicist but a theologian who is in way over his head. In any case, here's the debate in full: