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Showing posts from April, 2011

Cheating and belief in God

Here's an interesting article from the LA Times. This study found no difference in believers and non-believers in their likelihood for cheating on tests – but found that among those who do believe in God that those who envision God as wrathful and vengeful were less likely to cheat than those who envision God as compassionate.
In line with many previous studies, it found no difference between the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But those who believed in a loving, compassionate God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God. This is just one in a long line of evidence that being religious does absolutely nothing to improve one's moral fortitude. Despite the ramblings of fundies who think that all of Western civilization would be doomed without belief in a supernatural superdad, what we observe is quite the opposite. Here in the US, the highest per capita crime, the highest teen pregnancy rates, the highest divorce rates, the lo…

Sam Harris on the ethics of torture

Sam Harris has received a great deal of criticism for his discussion of torture in The End of Faith, and here he offers a lucid response.

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/why-id-rather-not-speak-about-torture1/

A quote:
It is widely claimed that torture “does not work”—that it produces unreliable information, implicates innocent people, etc. As I argue in The End of Faith, this line of defense does not resolve the underlying ethical dilemma. Clearly, the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false. There are cases in which the mere threat of torture has worked. As I argue in The End of Faith, one can easily imagine situations in which even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it—the looming threat of nuclear terrorism being the most obvious case. It is decidedly unhelpful that those who claim to know that torture is “always wrong” never seem to envision the circumstances in which good…

Tim Minchin on Americans' knowledge of evolution

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Tim's anecdote actually raises an interesting topic, one that I just discussed a few posts back in my discussion of Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Why can't God have guided evolution? I mean, that's basically what esteemed and otherwise very intelligent people like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller believe.

It's because evolution undoes the very important theological idea that we were destined to be here – that our existence is the end result of some teleological process. We're inclined to ask, per Aristotle's Fourth Cause, "What is this for?" We want to think that we're supposed to be here, that we were put here quite deliberately. But evolution proves this is not the case.

The reason is very simple. The a priori odds of us being here are quite infinitesimal. That is, if a cosmic observer was around at the emergence of life to hedge bets on what lifeforms would appear in the next 3.5 billion years, humans – or any other particular life form – wo…

Update: Big things coming soon....

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Things have been a little quiet here, I know. Part of it is because I've just been busy at work and doing lots of reading and guitar playing in my spare time (seriously, Darwin's Dangerous Idea is massive). Part of it is because not much has struck me as being blog-worthy. But the biggest part of it is that my attention has been focused on a new project that will be launching very soon, quite possibly within the next few days. I'll save the details for later, but suffice to say that some big changes are in store, and I'm very excited about what's to come...


Bart Erhman on the resurrection

A couple of things I would add to this video:

1. Because the gospels deal with supernatural events, the burden of proof is quite a bit greater than if it were dealing with mundane historical events. If the gospels merely contended that a Rabbi named Jesus lived, had followers, and was crucified, we probably wouldn't think much to dispute it. But the gospels claim he performed miracles, was raised from the dead, and was actually a god. To borrow an example from Sam Harris: the Hindu mystic Sathya Sai Baba has millions of followers who believe he performs miracles. So does Benny Hinn. That's today, in our scientific age. Are we really supposed to believe that illiterate peasants living 2,000 years ago were impervious to such flights of fancy?

2. The de facto response from theologians regarding factual contradictions is that you want a certain amount of disagreement, otherwise you'd think the authors conspired to fabricate the story. But even if you accept the premise that …

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

"Darwin has convinced all the scientists that evolution works. The how and why it works is still somewhat embattled, largely because those who resist can dimly see that their skirmish is part of a larger campaign. If the game is lost in evolutionary biology, where will it all end?" - Dan Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous IdeaI've been reading this famous work of Dennett's recently, and it's a beast of a read – a book that truly command's one's attention. It's a fascinating and well-researched tome on the philosophical implications of evolution. While reading it, I've been reminded of an essay for the Templeton Foundation by the primatologist Frans De Waal, in which he commented on the broader implications of evolution:
Human nature simply cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of nature. This evolutionary approach is already difficult for many people to accept, but it is likely to generate even more resistance once its implications are ful…

Thoughts on Koran burning

Popular Youtube personality Thunderf00t has posted a video in which he advocates the burning of Korans as a way to send a message to radical Muslims that we're not intimidated by their threats of violence toward anyone who would dare desecrate their holy book. Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheistagrees:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with criticizing Islam, or burning a copy of the Muslim holy book, or drawing Muhammad. I see nothing wrong with doing those things in protest of how radical Muslims have reacted against them — to me, that’s different from doing it out of pure hatred of Muslims.I'm going to part with my fellow nonbelievers and say that this kind of thing is, in my opinion, childish and stupid. More than it degrades any holy book, it degrades the people participating in it.

This is because, to my mind, the "message" is simply going to be lost on radical Muslims, who will simply view it for what it is – an act of provocation. In the meantime, Thuderf00t a…

Luke, the force is not with you: a critique of Luke Meuhlhauser's critique of the Harris/Craig debate

I'm a fan of Common Sense Atheism, even if I'm a little put off by the title (common sense is a pretty lousy way of obtaining reliable information). And while I do enjoy many of Luke's musings, I part ways with him rather strongly in several areas, such as his adulation of William Lane Craig, his contention that the "new atheists" failed to make an intellectually sound case for rejecting theism, and his critique of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape.

Given that Luke didn't find TML persuasive, it's not surprising that he was underwhelmed by Harris' recent debate with Craig. He posted his thoughts on the debate in a three-part series (1, 2, 3). I'm gonna lay my cards out on the table here: I think Luke's critique of the debate was sorely misguided, and to explain why I'll have to revisit his criticism of TML – which I felt was similarly ill-conceived.

Luke's central criticism of The Moral Landscape – or at least the one most relevant …

Objectively awful

The movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged was released this week. I've never read the book, and I'm not particularly interested in doing so (I don't read much fiction, and the book is insanely long and generally regarded as subpar literary work). But even if I were totally into Objectivism, this movie looks to be a total box office bust. It came in 14th with only $1.7 million, and the review aggregate on RottenTomatoes.com is 8%. For the record, Catwoman with Halle Berry sits at 10%. Something tells me the sequels (it's supposed to be a trilogy) ain't gonna happen.

For the record (and at the risk of inviting a long debate that I have no interest in getting into) I don't particularly love or loathe Ayn Rand, who inspires an almost cult-like adoration among her followers (I always think of the bodybuilder Mike Mentzer, who was obsessed with Objectivism). I've studied some of her philosophy and have been pretty underwhelmed. Most of the things I th…

A slow crawl toward ontological naturalism

I've often expressed in the past that my atheism is not a founding principle of a philosophy of ontological naturalism, but an outcome of epistemic naturalism: I am not asserting that God cannot or certainly does not exist – only that the absence of evidence for God's existence prevents me from reasonably affirming a such a belief.

But the more I've thought about this, the more I've found it to be not inaccurate, but inadequate.
In the words of anthropologist Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained:
"The sleep of reason is no explanation for religion as it is. There are many possible unsupported claims and only a few religious themes." [p. 31] I'm not an atheist only because I don't think there is any compelling evidence that God exists; that's actually the smaller part of why I'm a non-believer. On the contrary, I'm an atheist primarily because I think there are lots of good reasons to believe that God does not exist. This is not …

Comments disappearing

I recently switched domain names for this blog, and while the archives and search function appear to be working normally, I've encountered another problem: all the Disqus comments prior to the switch have disappeared. That's well over a year's worth of comments, so I've contacted Disqus to see what I can do to restore them. In the meantime, don't fret: I haven't deliberately deleted anyone's comments.

Update: This should be fixed shortly; it'll take a while for the old threads to migrate here. I did notice however that there are still some archiving issues with old posts, so I'm looking into that to see what I can do.

Well, what a coincidence - Michio Kaku on free will

Just when I'm diving into the subject, Michio Kaku weighs in on how physics ends the free will debate.

A musing on determinism, a.k.a. my brain can't turn off sometimes

Last night I could hardly sleep, and for the most nerd-tastic of reasons. One of the contentions William Lane Craig made in his debate with Sam Harris is that determinism, which Sam Harris apparently adheres to (I still haven't read The Moral Landscape), renders free will and, by extension, moral responsibility, moot. And in case he was taking liberties with Harris' position, Craig could just be associating determinism with naturalism, since most naturalists are indeed determinists of one kind or another.

Determinism isn't something I've spent a lot of time thinking about. I know the premise. The idea is simply that all events are subject to cause and effect. Taken to its logical extreme, it would seem to suggest that all the neurological activity in our brains is simply a complex series of cause and effect, thus rendering free will a mere illusion. Even if you accept what is sometimes referred to as the "epistemic horizon" – the idea that we cannot possibly…

William Lane Craig thinks nonbelievers are dumb

John Loftus re-posted on his blog a note that Bill Craig wrote on his Facebook page reflecting on his debate with Sam Harris, and reading it left me.... bewildered. I can't fathom why someone of his presumably admiral academic stature would make statements so utterly dishonest.
Many have remarked on the terribly low quality of the questions following the debate. What you need to understand is that the audience was loaded with people from the community who are part of the local sceptics group. Last year they also dominated the mikes, with the same intellectually dampening effect. Actually, most of the questions were asked by religious students, and all of the stupid ones were. We had one kid challenging Sam Harris on the evidence for modern-day miracles – and I mean the really ridiculous ones, like bleeding statues. Another either very stoned and/or very deluded young man said God had appeared to him the night before and told him that homosexuality is beautiful. One skeptical …

William Lane Craig in the hot seat on morality... with Shelly Kagan

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Alright, I guess I better just own up to it... it's gonna be WLC week here at The A-Unicornist. I still have some stuff from the debate I want to talk about, and I also want to respond to Craig's post-debate comments which he posted on his Facebook page. So, that's all in the pipe.

In the meantime though, here's a treat. We atheists often say that Craig appears to win debates because the format is conducive to his methodology: he inundates his opponent with loosely related claims, repeats them ad nauseum, and contends that they are not addressed.

But in this debate with Shelly Kagan – on the same topic that was the focus of his debate with Sam Harris – we can clearly see that when Craig is forced to stay on one topic, he stumbles on his words and struggles to articulate coherent responses. I generally feel these "conversation-style" debates to be the most informative and productive – much more so than the podium showmanship in which each speaker can ramble fo…

The Harris/Craig debate: dissecting William Lane Craig's opening remarks

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I'm watching the Harris/Craig debate tonight, and I'm taking notes as I do so. Right now I'm mostly through Sam Harris' opening remarks and, while I'm more than satisfied with his performance, I took notes on Craig's position and want to offer my own take on the dilemmas created by his arguments.

Craig's entire thesis can be summed up in a familiar argument, which he articulates toward the end of his opening statement:
If there is no moral law-giver, than there is no objective moral law; and if there is no objective moral law, we have no objective moral duties.So let's examine the foundation for this claim. Craig claims that God's own nature is the embodiment of good:
God's own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, kind, and so forth.

Recommended reading

If no one has posted video of the Harris/Craig debate tonight, I'll just listen to the audio. In the meantime, Harry over at Closet Atheist has posted some thoughts on Harris' arguments.

While we wait...

While we wait for someone to post video from last night's debate, here's a beautiful four minutes in which Harris calmly and concisely eviscerates Christianity.

Bill Craig lets loose another whopper. Checkmate, atheists!

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I really don't want this to become the William Lane Craig Antagonist blog, but I was looking up something on Craig's website Reasonablefaith.org and, stumbling onto his "Question of the Week", simply could not pass up this astounding display of absurdity.

The reader inquired,
I followed your recent debate with Lawrence Krauss, and as usual the debate was very one-sided in favor of the arguments you presented [/asskissing]. I reading a review and comments on the debate at http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2011/03/william-lane-craig-vs-lawrence-krauss.html, one commenter objected to your comments concerning the resurrection of Jesus with the following comments: "I was particularly embarrased for Craig, who I actually admire in many ways, for resorting again to one of the worst defenses he has ever used, in regard to Jesus' resurrection. The argument that, 'It's only improbable if Jesus were raised by NATURAL means, but if GOD did it, then it&#…

Apologies for the mess

I'm ditching the blogspot domain for my own, and apparently the transition is causing some small hiccups in the archiving, including the search function. All should be back to normal soon. In the meantime, I suggest using Google proper if you want to search any of my past posts.

Sam Harris and William Lane Craig: pre-debate thoughts

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I'm looking forward to this debate. I think Sam Harris will "win", although if we're using the strength of arguments as the metric, I don't think Bill Craig's won a debate yet. But we all know that he's an artful dodger, a master of obfuscation and a skilled orator. I have no doubt that shortly after the debate, his fans will be celebrating his victory while we nonbelievers will be typically unimpressed. This time though, I think we'll be generally pleased with the performance of his opponent.

Most of Craig's debates are about the existence of God, which he exploits to cover as much ground as possible. By cramming in as many fallacies as he can muster, his opponent hardly has the time to rebut them all and make their own case. But this debate will be about whether goodness comes from God. The specificity of the topic will put Craig at a disadvantage – whenever the topic is narrow enough to allow for more exposition and nuance, the vacuity of Craig…

Bristol Palin makes a mint off of being knocked up

Wow:
In 2009, Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol joined a teen pregnancy prevention nonprofit called the Candie’s Foundation. Today, the Associated Press reported that the Candie’s Foundation released its 2009 tax information, revealing that Bristol was paid a salary of $262,500. But a closer examination of the tax form by ThinkProgress shows that the group disbursed only $35,000 in grants to actual teen pregnancy health and counseling clinics: $25,000 to the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center and $10,000 to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.As the headline says, her salary is seven times more than what the non-profit paid in charitable contributions. Skewed priorities much?

Lawrence Krauss on his debate with WL Craig

Lawrence Krauss has written an essay on his Facebook page reflecting on his debate with William Lane Craig.
Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe.  If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles.    Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.

Sean Carroll: Does the universe need God?

I mentioned this in passing the other day (Jerry Coyne linked to it on WEIT), but since then I've had more time to peruse Carroll's essay in full. It's going to be part of the upcoming Blackwell Companion to Science and Theology, and I have to commend the editors for inviting a dissenting opinion. There is some really great stuff in there about the issues we face in modern cosmology, problems with theological assertions about cosmology, and the inherent conflict between faith-based beliefs and evidence-derived understanding.

Much of it is stuff I've touched on in past blog posts (though I'm clearly not a physicist, so it's nice to have a pro weigh in), but there was something in particular, toward the end, that I hadn't really pondered before.

We often challenge theists to provide falsifiable evidence for the God hypothesis. Carroll correctly states,
... accounting for the natural world is certainly a traditional role for God, and arguably a foundational one…

William Lane Craig, the artful dodger

One of the reasons I deconverted from Christianity – and eventually became a full-fledged atheist – is because I noticed a problematic pattern in supposedly rational arguments for the existence of God. Namely, the apologist would always take reason and logic as far as they would go; but then, when faced with a conundrum or contradiction, assert that the rules of reason and logic don't actually have to apply to God. William Lane Craig uses these ploys with facepalming frequency. We can demonstrate it in his defense of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Regular readers should no doubt be familiar with it, but here's a refresher:
Everything that begins to exist has a causeThe universe began to existErgo the universe has a causeLet's ignore for a moment the scientific inaccuracies and equivocation in this argument, and simply focus on causality. Causality as we know it exists as an outcome of the physical laws of the observable universe. The laws of the universe provide the frame…

William Lane Craig and probability theorems

In several of his debates, including the most recent one with Laurence Krauss, Dr. Craig trotted out a familiar canard: the use of probability theory to support his belief that God's existence is more likely than not. A typical example, taken from an article over at his website:

For in contemporary cosmology the heated debate surrounding the fine–tuning of the universe and the so–called Anthropic Principle will be greatly clarified by Dembski's Law of Small Probability.
Consider the application of the above Generic Chance Elimination Argument to the fine–tuning of the universe:
One learns that the physical constants and quantities given in the Big Bang possess certain values.
Examining the circumstances under which the Big Bang occurred, one finds that there is no Theory of Everything which would render physically necessary the values of all the constants and quantities, so they must be attributed to sheer accident.
One discovers that the values of the constants and quant…

Quick thoughts on the Craig/Krauss debate

I haven't watched the entire debate, and after watching what I have I'm not sure if there's any particular reason to.

Craig trots out the same five pieces of "evidence" for God's existence, which are:
The existence of contingent beingsThe origin of the universe [first cause argument] The fine-tuning of the universe for lifeThe existence of objective moral valuesThe facts of the resurrectionThis, in a nutshell, is why Craig is a fierce debater: he covers a very, very wide berth with these five topics. Any one of them could easily encompass an entire debate, and Craig is versed enough in esoteric subjects to say things that his opponents get distracted trying to correct or simply get confused by. Craig then claims that his five proofs either weren't disproved or weren't addressed, and *presto*, he's victorious.

WL debated Laurence Krauss

I'll have some thoughts on it later. Meanwhile, the video is here.

Penn Jillette on his deconversion

Penn's story is remarkably similar to my own – particularly because while C.S. Lewis and a broad array of theology and science helped, the Bible itself did more to deconvert me than anything else.

Quick thought and a link

When believers rationalize human suffering as "part of God's will", aren't they essentially just saying that God's divine plan – and how such events fit into them – is unknowable? If God's divine plan is unknowable, then it becomes indiscernible from random events; we'll simply see that bad things sometimes happen to good people, to children, to the innocent. There won't be any apparent rhyme or reason for it.

Even if a believer accepts the absurd rationalization that suffering exists in the world because of original sin, it still doesn't answer why God didn't just fix things straight off – why he's allowed so many innocents to suffer for so many thousands of years. Ultimately the believer will fall back on a predictable appeal to mystery: somehow or other, it's just part of God's divine plan. This is tantamount to suggesting that we ought to believe even if we can find no particular reason to do so. But hey... isn't that, by d…

I've reconverted to Christianity

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I'll be closing down this blog soon, and starting a new one explaining my journey back to theism. The details are too complicated for me to get into right now, but a big part of my inspiration came from this video, by a fellow re-convert. God bless!