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Showing posts from June, 2014

Hide your kids, hide your wife: crime and the availability heuristic

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The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias in which we overestimate the probability of events we can readily recall examples of, and underestimate the probability of events that are harder to recall examples of.

Recently in Tulsa there's been a series of rapes purportedly committed by the same person. There are eight reported assaults so far, and police are on high alert and have released a sketch of the suspect:


Several of my friends have remarked that they're taking extra precautions, and my mother has express concern for my and my fiance's safety because we live in 'midtown', and most (but not all) of the assaults have been in midtown, and one was around two miles from my house.
There are several interesting things to think about.
Crime exists on a spectrum of probability. Even if you live in the safest neighborhood in your city, there's still some probability that you'll be the victim of a crime, be it a burglary, some kind of assault, or even murde…

Thomism and magical thinking

Occasional commenter 'Dante' linked to an article by Ed Feser (purveyor of all things Thomistic and Aristotlean) called Magic versus metaphysics, in which he purportedly counters the notion that theists believe in 'magic'. I replied to Dante with a massive quote from Harvard physicist Lisa Randall (from her book Knocking on Heaven's Door), which serves as a nice primer and/or companion to what I'm about to argue, but I thought that Feser's post was worthy of at least some level of analysis.
The first question is what exactly what we mean by 'magic', and I think Feser gives a fair summary:
“Magical” powers, as [Hilary] Putnam here describes them, are powers which are intrinsically unintelligible. It’s not just that we don’t know how magic operates; it’s that there is, objectively, no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how it operates. Robert Todd Carroll, at his fantastic (but now retired) blog Unnatureal Acts That Can Improve Your Thinking, defines mag…

Randal Rauser on the 'three wheeled car'

I still read Randal Rauser's blog, despite the fact I've opted to avoid directly interacting with him in the comments sections. I feel that on virtually every occasion, our conversations — to use Randal's words — have "generated more heat than light". He still writes some content I think is worth engaging though, in this case his recent article Three wheel Christianity.

In the post, Randal imagines someone named Oliver who is fed up with three-wheeled cars because they keep tipping over, and goes on to swear off cars entirely.
So Oliver has rejected cars based on his experience with the Reliant Robin, a three-wheeled economy car that was popular in 1970s Britain and which was famous for its fuel economy … and its penchant for tipping over in moderate cornering. Randal's analogy here is that people seem to reject Christianity because of fundamentalist or literalist positions in their church:
Some other common catalysts for rejecting Christianity include b…

A point that bears repeating: there is nothing in the Bible that couldn't have been written by ordinary people

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Sam Harris once said that "[The Bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century."

These days, it seems my discussions with believers get caught up in overlong and obscure discussions like metaphysics and model-dependent realism, but it shouldn't be lost that virtually all of these conversations are with Christians who believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible and the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And while discussing epistemology and ontology has its place in musing over the mere possibility of a coherently conceivable god, ultimately the case for the Christian rests on the Bible.

After all, I for one don't really have a problem with deists. I don't agree with them, but the reality is that a deistic god is, at best, a sort of nebulously defined metaphysical placeholder for grand existential mysteries. You don't pray to a deistic god, and such a god does not care whom you m…

The (pseudo) science of the film "Sunshine"

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Recently I've been bemoaning the fact that sci-fi horror is one of the most woefully underexploited genres in Hollywood. We can easily count the classics in the genre on one hand — Alien/s, The Thing, The Fly, maybe even 2001 if you think HAL9000 is a scary sonofabitch. There are lots of mediocre to good-but-not-great sci-fi horror flicks — Pitch Black, Pandorum, Mimic, Event Horizon...

The only big-budget film in the genre I can think of is the highly divisive Prometheus (personally, I concur with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper). I suppose Gravity, which was obviously amazing, could fit in there too — although it seems to fall more under pure 'suspense' than horror. There have been some lower budget sci-fi horror flicks, like the pretty-decent Europa Report and the rather middling Last Days on Mars, but really I have a hard time thinking of outstanding, classic entries in the genre.

In any case, I decided to add Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyl, to the list. I'd hear…

Do theologians have a good response to the problem of natural evil?

Tonight I was chatting with one of my clients about another client and mutual friend of ours who, like us, errs on the liberal atheist side of the political and religious spectrum. He's the kind of guy who, while being very good-natured and friendly, definitely enjoys getting a rise out of people — especially religious conservatives. 

One of the questions he likes to ask religious people, just to see them trip up, is "Is God good, or his he omnipotent?" Now, being that I've been around the interwebs for many years and have stepped into the writings of various academic theologians, I know that some of the more learned believers will not be caught off guard by such a question. I watched it happen — during one of our workout sessions, no less — when one of the other members who, in addition to being a religious conservative, is also a pretty boastful narcissist whom I'll call Eddie Van Halen. Eddie was rambling on about someone or something, clearly more interested…

On death and dying

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As much as I'm sure everyone is eager to keep talking about Aristotle, Thomism, model-dependent realism and metaphysics, I want to take a break from all that stuff and talk about something that's been on my mind a bit: death.

Contemplating our mortality isn't the most uplifting of topics, but I think it's one that's important to discuss, especially for atheists. Death – or rather, the denial of death – is at the center of virtually every major world religion today, most certainly in Western Monotheism. Because I'm a nerd, I'm reminded of the dialogue between Gandalf and Pippin in Return of the King as the siege of Minas Tirith looms:
Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way. Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.Pippin: What, Gandalf? See what? Gandalf: White shores... And beyond. …

Sye Ten Bruggencate's presuppositionalist argument for the existence of God

Sye Ten Bruggencate, a Christian apologist, recently debated Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience.

Bruggencate is a presuppositionalist, and offered the following syllogism to prove that it's reasonable to believe in the existence of God:
It is reasonable to believe that which is trueIt is true that God existsTherefore, it is reasonable to believe that God exists Well golly, I'm convinced!

An astute observer may notice that this deductive argument is, in fact, logically valid – the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. But it's a great example of an argument that can be valid but unsound, because at least one of the premises is false. 

Obviously we can have all kinds of fun with valid-but-unsound arguments:
It is reasonable to believe that which is trueIt is true that interdimensional space monkeys existTherefore, it is reasonable to believe that interdimensional space monkeys exist Or,
It is reasonable to believe that which is trueIt is true that God does n…

Profundity in ambiguity

A recurring theme in discussions of late has been whether we can use the language of classical logic to make inferences about reality supposedly beyond the purview of empirical inquiry. This is the backbone of natural theology, as well as being subsumed under popular uses of the nebulous term 'metaphysics'. I've consistently maintained that this is a futile endeavor, and that intellectual fields like natural theology, or any 'metaphysical' proposition that assumes a priori truths to make inferences about reality, are fundamentally incoherent. 
A helpful way to think about this is what physicists call a 'frame of reference'. We intuit reality in a classical, Newtonian frame of reference. The reason that quantum mechanics and Einstein's theories of relativity are counter-intuitive is because we don't live in black holes, we don't travel at the speed of light, and we don't live in a subatomic world. The 'laws' of classical logic, and t…