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Showing posts from 2016

Best of 2016: Game of the year

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2016 saw lots of fantastic game releases—Doom, Inside, Far Cry Primal, X-Com 2,Civilization VI, and tons more. Of course, I'm not a professional game reviewer (although, incidentally, I did write for the webzine GameCritics.com for nearly ten years); I just like to game when I have the time. Accordingly, I'm sure some great games have come out that I missed. I did play quite a few great games this year, however, but when it comes to my pick for best of the year, as the great warriors of Highlander declared, "There can be only one."

But first, of course, the biggest disappointment, and the honorable mention.

Biggest disappointment: X-Com 2
I absolutely loved the first X-Com. It was challenging, deep, well-balanced, and incredibly addicting. It could be maddeningly frustrating at times, but only because it was so relentlessly engaging. X-Com 2 made a number of significant changes to the game, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. On paper, it was a brilliant evolution …

I don't need you to respect my beliefs

Randal Rauser just wrote a post imploring people to refrain from mocking others' beliefs—because, in his view, beliefs are "an extension of the person"; mocking a person's beliefs, he claims, is mocking the person.

I wrote a response in the comments section essentially suggesting that some beliefs are more deserving of mockery than irenic engagement (anti-vax, young-earth creationism, homeopathy, Holocaust denial, etc.), and that it's not anyone's job to treat any given beliefs with deference by default; rather, it's the job of those who believe to show that their beliefs are worthy of respect by engaging in rational discourse.

After reflecting on my comment though, I think I could take an even stronger stance: the very idea that beliefs need to be respected is fundamentally misguided. It's true that beliefs are, as Randal says, an "extension" of the person—their experiences, biases, values, etc.—but beliefs need not define a person. Moreove…

Should we support euthanasia?

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A friend of mine recently reported some terrible news: a friend of hers had been in a devastating house fire, suffering severe burns. The woman's son, just two years old, fared much worse—suffering second and third degree burns on over 90% of his body. They were both flown to a burn treatment center in Galveston. Last update I heard on the child: "They'll be able to save his eyelids."

I used to think that losing a child would be the worst thing a parent could go through. It's not. This is. I tried to imagine the absolute hysteria the mother must have felt in learning that her child was on the brink of death in what is perhaps the most painful ordeal a human can experience. If he survives, he could be facing amputations, years of surgeries and rehabilitation, and terrible pain. At two years old. A time for both mother and child that should be filled with joy and wonder and stories about small frustrations that become amusing in hindsight.

It's an absolutely he…

Bill's miracle

I had a lengthy and spirited discussion today with Randal Rauser over on his blog about a story he told regarding an acquaintance of his named Bill Muller. You can read the full story on Randal's blog (as well as read my discussion with him in the comments) but I'll summarize it here:

Bill was on his way to Cameroon in West Africa with a choir group, carrying items that had been requested by local missionaries. He was concerned about being caught up in customs and having to pay duty fees for the items. When things began to look grim after an inspector requested to see receipts for all the items (which Bill didn't have), a young agent arrived on the scene who, in a remarkable coincidence, turned out to be the son of a family Bill had stayed with in Cameroon many years ago. The young agent then allowed Bill to pass through customs swiftly. Bill went on to attribute this to divine intervention. As Randal says in introduction of the post, he doesn't take this to be a mirac…

God does not have morally justifiable reasons

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Over the next few posts, I'd like to revisit some small parts of "An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar" that were tangential to the central topics but nonetheless inspired me to reflect on them. 

For this post, I'd like to examine the refrain that God has morally sufficient reasons for doing... well, lots of things that seem to run counter to the idea of the universe being created, with humans in mind, by a benevolent deity—the indifference of nature to suffering, the hostility of the universe, etc.

Incidentally, this post was partly inspired by the following tweet exchange between the authors of that aforementioned book (click to enlargify):

Schieber is arguing that God is responsible for the suffering in the world, because he could have made a sinless world with free will—like we're presumably being promised in Heaven—but chose not to. Rauser's response is that the atheist has to show that God does not have morally sufficient reasons for going about th…

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar—the review, in a handy PDF

Don't want to wade through the series post by post? You can download my complete review of Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber's collaborative effort here:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/3wty0gogjgeukxl/AnAtheistandaChristianWalkintoaBar...thecompletereview%20%281%29.pdf?dl=0

Or on Google Drive here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1SSDzFnIGIkJX1ytL4tastytwQsaBdNPMdpbWHM_UzR0/edit?usp=sharing

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 7 (with final thoughts)

Rauser and Schieber wrap up the book with a chapter on biological evolution and the integral role that suffering and death play in the cycle of life. Schieber argues that the fact of evolution should be surprising on theism (since God could have instantaneously brought complex life into existence), and that the ubiquity of suffering inherent to the evolutionary process poses a strong challenge to the theist concept of a maximally good creator. Why would a benevolent creator employ such a callous process?
First, a very minor nitpick with Schieber: he defines evolution as being unguided, implicitly (but not explicitly) to accommodate those who believe in the pseudoscience of intelligent design. But I've never liked the language of "unguided"; evolution is guided by survival and reproduction—the non-random selection of randomly varying genes.

Alternatives to evolution?
Rauser objects to Schieber's assertion that if atheism were true, evolution would pretty much have to…

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 6

Do mathematics reveal a designer?
Rauser takes aim at atheism in this next section of the book by positing that the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics is evidence that a rational mind is behind the design of the universe. This is a favorite topic of mine (as I'm a big fan of cognitive linguist George Lakoff and his book Where Mathematics Comes From, which posits a wholly physical and cognitive origin of mathematics), and Rauser stumbles out of the gate with his very first erroneous example—one that to my surprise, Schieber does not object to. 
That example is the famed Fibonacci number sequence. The contention is that this number is readily observable, as Rauser claims, "throughout nature, ranging from the spiral structure of seashells and pinecones to pinwheel galaxies". He then makes a similar claim about the numbers pi and phi (closely related to the Fibonacci sequence), claiming that examples of them are abundant in nature.The problem is, this is …

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 5

There's been a story making the rounds recently that NASA was apparently way off in estimating the number of galaxies in the observable universe; previous estimates were around 100 billion; it's more like 1 to 2 trillion. That raises the number of stars in the observable universe to a mind-shattering 700 sextillion. It's literally an inconceivable number.

This observation carries with it some thought-provoking implications. Most of the observable universe is just an incomprehensible vast void. There are hundreds of known planets in our corner of the galaxy, but Earth is the only one we know for certain to be hospitable to life (though some others could be). Here's another thought: there are more black holes in the universe—those massive destroyers of worlds—than humans that have ever existed.

Most of the universe is cold, empty, and inhospitable for life. One amusing video from Fraser Cain of Universe Today asks "Where can I take off my space helmet?" The ans…

An interjection: did Randal Rauser do his readers a disservice by co-authoring a book with a layperson?

Over at Debunking Christianity, a blog I once frequented authored by someone I once respected, there's been a controversy over the fact that the book I'm currently reviewing, An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar, was co-authored by Justin Schieber—someone who has no formal training in theology. The implication is that this makes the book too lopsided, because Randal Rauser is a doctoral-level academic theologian. Was he picking low-hanging fruit by co-authoring his book with a layperson?

First, I'm highly confident from my reading of the book that Schieber was by no means out of his depth, and that Rauser himself would laud the discussion as spirited and thought-provoking. (And, contrary to what my readers might expect, I don't think a clear "winner" emerges from the book.) Furthermore, the book is intended for laypersons, not academics. But the question here is broader: do laypersons have any business engaging academics in the first place?

Everyone is a…

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 4.2

The implications of moral intuition
Rauser's moral argument is strongly dependent on the notion that we can intuitively access purely objective moral truths, just as we can intuitively access our sensory perception. He says, "I can just see that 2+2=4 and that the sky is blue, and I can just see that particular actions are morally good and praiseworthy and others are morally evil and condemnable." When Schieber challenges Rauser on how this hypothesis can be squared with what Richard Dawkins referred to in The God Delusion as the "shifting moral zeitgeist"—changing cultural attitudes toward the moral context of various actions—Rauser suggests that our moral intuitions can be mistaken, just as our sensory perception can be mistaken.
However, I think Rauser overlooks several relevant differences between moral and sensory intuitions (as an aside, I'd argue that mathematics are not intuitive at all, but that's a rabbit trail for a later chapter). We have d…

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 4.1

Chapter 4 features one of the most critical topics in the discussion, and a major reason I am an atheist: moral facts, values, and obligations. Schieber takes the important step of noting that the view he defends, desirism, is but one of many options available to non-believers—and it's worth noting here that I do not think desirism in itself provides a satisfactory account of moral values and obligations. Rauser takes the view that our intuitions give us access to purely objective moral facts (though he concedes that our perception of said facts may be mistaken from time to time, as is the case with sensory perception). This will likely be my longest critique of any chapter in the book. I want to discuss what I see as the limitations of desirism, and flesh things out a bit with my own view of moral ontology. I want to talk about some of the strengths and limitations of Rauser's approach, particularly with regard to his implicit claim that acts themselves have an intrinsic mor…

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 3

The third chapter finds our authors discussing the problem of "massive theological disagreement", or mtd - why does such a multiplicity of religious faiths exist, and why is faith plagued by such deep disagreements often over fundamental conceptual issues, if God desires us to be in a sartorial relationship with Him? Following some tangential discussions about what constitutes religiously motivated violence, Schieber formalizes his argument:
·Premise 1: On the denial of theism, the observation of mtd is likely.
· Premise 2: On the affirmation of theism, the observation of mtd is unlikely (or less likely).
· Conclusion: the fact of mtd supports atheism more than it supports theism.

The discussion, after a time, begins to fall into somewhat repetitive trappings: Rauser or Schieber constructs an analogy to explain why massive theological disagreement either conflicts or comports with the God of classical theism; they spar a bit over the analogies, then shift focus to another ex…

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 2

Note: I'm blogging remotely from the sunny shores of Jamaica, using the Blogger app on my phone. The app kind of sucks, so unfortunately my first few posts on this book will likely have some formatting issues until I can get back to my desktop later this weekend. Til then, enjoy!
Chapter 2: God, Faith, and Testimony
Faith is a tricky subject, and one that I feel is too frequently subject to equivocation. What is faith? What does it mean to believe something "on faith", and when is it ir/rational to do so?
The second chapter begins with a cursory overview of the concept of faith. Rauser suggests that it can be held to mean either a faith, as in "the Christian faith", or it can mean something equivalent to trust. Schieber rightly opines that most non-believers would simply prefer to use the word "trust" in such contexts, but I feel he missed an opportunity to ride Rauser a bit harder. I would add that the religious concept of faith is, in my experience at…