Friday, 30 December 2011

2011 In Metal

My top 10
1. Aenaon - Cendres Et Sang
2. The Atlas Moth - An Ache For The Distance
3. Fen - Epoch
4. Looking Glass - III
5. 40 Watt Sun - The Inside Room
6. Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events
7. Amebix - Sonic Mass
8. Mastodon - The Hunter
9. Floating Me - Floating Me
10. The Gates Of Slumber - The Wretch

The best of the rest
Wolverine - Communication Lost
Textures - Dualism
Azarath - Blasphemer's Malediction
Infestus - E x | I s t
Sorgeldom - ...From Outer Intelligences
Machine Head - Unto The Locust
Negative Plane - Stained Glass Revelations
Rwake - Rest
Symphony X - Iconoclast
Appearance Of Nothing - All Gods Are Gone
Hammers Of Misfortune - 17th Street
Comorant - Dwellings
Yob - Atma
Wizard Smoke - The Speed Of Smoke
Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions

My favourite EPs
Cynic - Carbon Based Anatomy
Giant Squid - Cenotes
Blotted Science - The Animation Of Entomology

The only redeeming thing about Lulu

Friday, 23 December 2011

How Religion Poisons Morality

I recently came across a tweet by Harun Yahya, proclaiming "Until the morality of Islam dominates the world we will not sleep a wink." The question I had was why anyone would actually wish for that. Harun responded with the good virtues of Islamic values and kindly asked me to learn more about Islam. To which I highlighted some of the problems I saw in the application of Islamic values, and asked of values that I consider to be universal - such as equality for women and freedom of expression.

The question of what Islamic morality holds to is, for a large part, a non sequitur. If it is good because it is holy, then it shouldn't matter whether or not that's appealing to me. But if it's good because it embodies basic human dignities (to which I am very sceptical of), then why not aspire to the basic human dignities instead?

With any of the religious attempts to own morality, the same thing happens. The good of the religion, it is touted, is an appeal to the goodness of the values in themselves. One could, with enough linguistic dexterity, that inself can be directly attributed to the goodness of the divine source, but we're still left with the problem of trying to see the goodness of the values of the divine source in values that we would normally consider good anyway.

Any aspiration to the imposition of religiously-defined morality has to face up to the question of just why it is we need religion for. It's not discarding the baby with the bathwater to deny religious value, but to see religious value for what it is: an attempt to codify the good.

If a value is worth having, it's worth having irrespective of the source. There would be no need to call it Christian values, or Islamic values, they would be just good values. Religious attribution is an unfair attempt to claim ownership of something it has no right to do. And to make matters worse, by codifying the good, it also carries along that which is not good; not least an absurdly false metaphysics and an undying desire to yield authority to those who conflate their own ego with the powers of the divine.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Digital Solipsism: A Skyrim Review

There's a lot one could say about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and a lot of it good. Bottom line about the game, if you enjoyed its predecessor Oblivion, and Fallout 3 then this game should similarly peak your interest. Given I easily racked up 200 hours on both games, and the 72 hours I've so far dedicated to exploring the land of Skyrim, I can safely say that the game has more been worth the Australian retail price I paid for it.

Perhaps it's that I've effectively played this game twice before, or that I have a dread about encountering more giant spiders, that the time I've spent playing is more to do with the sheer scale of the game than anything else. There is a lot to do, though each "quest" seems to follow the same pattern. Someone gives you a quest, you run off halfway around the map to discover the new place, clear the dungeon, then return to get a reward. By the time I've done this for the 50th time (marked with a Steam achievement) the whole process was getting tiresome.

In Oblivion, the gradual progression in the storyline was marked by gates opening all over the world. In Skyrim, it's marked by dragon attacks. This gets a little tiresome for a couple of reasons. First is that it can get in the way of any actual quest being undertaken. Unlike Oblivion gates, dragons can't be ignored. Any kill of a dragon comes with very valuable and very heavy dragon bone, which meant for me needing to stop whatever it was I was doing in order to take the dragon bone back to where I could store it. Second is that the dragon souls that are absorbed accumulate at a faster rate than what they can be spent on. Much of my recent gameplay has been solely in search of shouts to spend the dragon souls on.

The leveling system has been tweaked slightly, taking away the annoying (or useful, depending on how you played Oblivion) task of managing how you progressed your character. I'm now levelling up from selling all the loot that pours out of Skyrim dungeons - speech is my 3rd or 4th highest skill without even trying, meanwhile Destruction magic is barely level 50 despite how often I use fire spells. Lockpicking is similarly a skill that goes up very fast out of pure necessity, so it does seem a little odd that more difficult enemies are generated on the basis of being better with one's tongue and fingers. Skillpoints do help with that.

It does seem odd, as well, that the shopkeepers will turn their nose up at the very idea of something being stolen, yet you're largely dealing with stolen goods anyway - it's just that you've normally killed a bunch of people first. It seemed strange in Oblivion, and still seems strange now, that shopkeepers can tell the difference between bought, stolen, looted off a dead corpse, or taken from a dungeon. The difference, it seems, is a marker in my inventory, which could be avoided by not labelling stolen goods as stolen. Can people really distinguish between which skooma I found in someone's house and in a bandit-filled cave?

Before I go on too long, I should probably mention the quests. Like any sandbox game, there's more than enough to keep you busy beyond the main storyline. My list of unfinished miscellaneous quests is quite high, as is the various quests from the various factions. In the 72 hours I haven't decided which side to take in the war (given that the main quest has the potential of the world ending, what importance is it over who controls Skyrim?), but as Dragonborn I suppose the events of the civil war can't happen without me. Likewise, I'm sure the end of the world is going to wait until I do enough of the main questline. If a tree falls in Skyrim and you're not around to play an integral role in that event, does it even occur?

It is probably a bit much to ask for; a world where events unfold over time isn't in the spirit of sandbox gaming nor in the economic interests of the developers. While it would be cool if the thieve's guild didn't just sit there waiting for me to restore it to their glory, I'm not sure whether or not they'd really put up with the amount of time I've spent at the mage's college. Would they be so understanding that I'm fighting a dragon in Riverwood while they're sitting in the sewers pining for the good ol' days?

That's the problem with the sandbox experience. As much as it's trying to create an immersive world, it can't create a world that's alive - only one that's alive so far as you interact with it - a sort of digital solipsism. Yet how to progress? With so many things to do and possible means of exploration, at times the question of what to do next is a vexing one. Have I neglected the main quest for too long? Is it finally time to go visit a Daedric shrine? What's actually in this blank part of my map?

In this, as much as anything else, Steam achievements play a role. They're meaningless rewards, but they are a good indicator of what to do. And when I only need to read 2 more skill books to get an achievement, it seems as good a reason as any to dive into more dungeons in search of what I've mostly done anyway. Need 4 more places to get the explorer achievement? Time to go exploring. It's probably a lot of stuff that I'd do anyway, only giving a reason to go through with it. As I race towards level 50 I'm trying to make sure at least one skill gets to level 100.

With so much to do, but limited gameplay mechanics in which to do it, a large part of the sandbox experience is quite tedious. I found this same problem with GTA IV, where by the end I was just doing the story so I could have a sense of completion. I'm not quite there yet with Skyrim, even after 72 hours, because the world is still exciting and interesting - even if at times it gets bogged down by repetitious gameplay.

Friday, 16 December 2011


"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." - Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, 1 December 2011


It's Australian summer, once again, meaning a new season of cricket. And a new season of cricket means once again it's time for us to analyse, praise, and criticise, the players and events of our beloved sport.

When we talk of a bowler bowling too many bad balls, or a batsmen playing a good shot, just what does that mean? It seems a fairly odd question to ask. A bad ball is one that allows the batsman an easy scoring shot or is unlikely to take a wicket, or a good shot is a deliberate stroke that is able to beat the field as it is set. A bad ball can still take a wicket (a long hop that gets lofted to the fielder) or a bad stroke can still get runs (a french cut), but it's clear the words actually mean something.

When it comes to cricket, or any other sport, we can have this conversation about the IS and OUGHT of the game without so much as an eyebrow raised. People can and do disagree about the quality of players, balls, strokes, tactics, etc. Yet there's no real problem with this conversation turning into one about prescriptive nihilism, or that the objective description of cricket is proof of God's existence.

Perhaps if we examined cricket closely enough, any sense to talk about it would be futile. That there are no good or bad balls, or that good and bad are merely human contructs imposed onto the game. Or that there's only one's subjective opinion about what constitutes a good or bad ball, a ball dispatched to the boundary and one that traps the batsman are merely expressions of our preference. Or that objectivity of cricket would have to be imposed onto our material universe, and thus would qualify as a miracle.

Or we could go further and ask what it means to be good. Can a ball really be a bad one if it leads to a wicket? Perhaps we should be consequentialist about cricket. A run is a run, a dot ball is a dot ball, a wicket is a wicket. A long hop dispatched to a fielder would be a good ball, while an inside edge for four is a good shot. Would cricket fans go for such a view?

Perhaps consequentialism is not for them, and instead they are virtue cricketers. A spell of bowling that fails to yield a wicket can be good if the ball is put in a place that would more likely yield a wicket than a spell that yields a wicket but was there to be punished. An inside edge for four would be a bad shot while a defensive stroke would not be, even though one puts runs on the board.

It would seem absurd to see an argument like:
  1. If God doesn't exist, then objective cricket values do not exist.
  2. Objective cricket values exist.

  3. Therefore, God exists
while giving a justification along the lines of knowing that playing a hook shot to a yorker on the stumps is really the wrong shot to play. And it would seem absurd to say that two people disagreeing about whether an inside edge to the boundary is a good shot would mean both are right because it's true for one person and not true for the other person. Or that there's no such thing as a good or bad field setting, there's just field settings.

There may be reason, at times, to take a step back and reflect on how it is we describe cricket. To try to see the game from different perspectives and look to concepts as a means of resolving disagreements. But at the end of the day, it's still cricket we are talking about. Abstract it too much, bury it in idealism, or try to dissolve any grounds for disagreement, and, well, it's just not cricket anymore.

Friday, 18 November 2011


"[T]wentieth-century computer technology should at least make us cautious about laying down a priori what material structures could not do" - J. L. Mackie

God Is A Myth - Afterword

A note on methodology
The five talking points above wouldn't, at least to my mind, represent the greatest case for God being a myth. For example, the moral question and the historicity of the resurrection have interesting points to be made but require extrapolation of things that are off-topic. Without spending time arguing for some form of moral standard, criticising objective moral value as myth can be (and often is) taken as an admission of moral nihilism. Likewise the historical Jesus question is useful to the extent that it can be used to highlight the problem of miracles and the reliability of testimony.

Perhaps because Craig was the subject at hand, or more likely because I fancy myself to show Craig up on multiple levels, it seemed like a good idea to take Craig's arguments and even some of his words as a template to lay out my case. I found a transcript of one of his debates (with Dr. Tooley) and grabbed out the five standard arguments he normally uses, changing a few words to argue the contrary.

I also tried to mimic Craig's argument style, and in particular the way he uses authorities to make his point for him. Generally, I find this tactic deceptive, as can amount to using authorities as mouthpieces for his own case, especially when he does so deceptively. I did try to be fair to those I cited, and in many cases those who I've cited have played a part in shaping my position.

There were a few main points I wanted to hammer home. The first was the cultural nature of belief, and that culture can even go so far as to shape perception of reality. The second was the role of the mind in shaping how we perceive reality, and that gods are explicable psychologically. And the third was that scientific explanation has not only replaced invocations to gods, but shown why the projection of gods is unjustified.

The case for God being a myth doesn't prove that no gods are out there, God as we conceive it could exist while our understanding of God could be born out of ignorance and projection. A real alien ship landing won't stop a lot of what is currently attributed to aliens being anything other than a fiction. There may be a god, but we have every reason to think that God is a mythic construct. If we're not following reason and evidence to a conclusion, then it's taking a leap of faith - a leap of faith that's unjustified given how we treat all other mythic constructs.

What Craig's argument proves
I don't think it's an unfair assessment of Craig's debating strategy to say that he deals in superficial plausibility. His rapid fire elucidation of his cumulative case combined with a similar strategy for each argument themselves makes it seem like he has a very compelling case. It certainly makes it hard to refute in the short time allowed for rebuttal. But does the case have the powerful cumulative nature that Craig claims? I'd contend not.

Taking Craig's five standard arguments that constitute his cumulative case, only two constitute arguments for theism and only one of those is an argument - as Craig himself admits. There's a big gap between the cosmological, fine-tuning, and moral arguments, and the monotheistic deity argued for by Craig. One could accept those arguments and be reasonable in rejecting theism. There's the additional problem of whether the arguments reach the same conclusion - is the designer to account for fine-tuning the same as the creator who brought existence from nothing?

So the only argument for theism is the historicity of the biblical Jesus, and even then Craig hedges his bet and puts knowing the historicity beyond the argument and into personal experience. Here, I think, there's a reasonable case to be made that if the argument holds then it's a powerful case for theism. In the sense of a cumulative argument, however, I can only take the first three arguments as a means to create the case for the possibility of a resurrection. But again, there's the problem of establishing that Jesus is the creator of something from nothing, or the grounding of objective moral values.

His final argument about personally knowing God isn't an argument, and as such doesn't contribute to the cumulative case. Indeed, the message of the final argument is that one can know it's all true irrespective of whether there is a case. It seems that one has to follow on arguments 1-4 to establish a theistic God to be justified in 5. But more likely, since this argument is meant to be a means to knowledge of 1-4, any attempt to justify 5 through 1-4 is circular.

I think there are two approaches one could take with Craig's case. The first is looking at it as if Craig is trying to make the case for God from the facts about the universe. The second is that Craig's case depends on that experience of God. And reading through his arguments in a number of debates, I think his case makes more sense the second way. That once one accepts Jesus and experiences the holy spirit, questions about the origin of the universe, morality, and even the resurrection, are explained by God as the best fit.

So given arguments 1-3 have a gap to theism, I'd argue that Craig's case either rests on whether the historical evidence for a resurrected Jesus is compelling enough to justify the witness to the holy spirit, or whether the witness to the holy spirit is compelling enough to justify a resurrected Jesus.

Craig's use of language
In Craig's debate with Dr Tooley, he started off his moral argument this way: "For example, the late J.L. Mackie of Oxford University, one of the most influential atheists of our time, admitted, [Mackie quote] But in order to avoid God's existence, Mackie therefore denied that objective moral values exist."

Such a statement is incredibly misleading, as J.L. Mackie didn't make any admission as if it was some failing of his position, rather he said it matter of factly and gave arguments in support of his position. He started out his book Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong with "There is no objective ethics." Nor was he holding that position in order to avoid God's existence.

Later on Craig argued: "But the fact is that objective values do exist, and we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of physical objects." Again, Craig is posturing through language rather than actually establishing it. His moral argument isn't so much established as it is appealed to through his sentence structure. "Even Ruse himself admits" is putting the icing on the cake of a wholly misleading argument.

He did the same thing in his recent defence of the Canaanite genocide: "Emotional outbursts take the place of rational discussion", "So at most the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency [...] It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists.", "If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all."

And on his original article: "Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation." Remember, he is talking about the command to exterminate infants! "Death" in this case was the order from God to slaughter children! To "die in infancy" was to be violently slaughtered by Israeli soldiers.

"I’ve had the pleasure of debating Craig twice, a number of years ago. [...] Apparently, by that time I had gotten a degree in philosophy, I knew much more about his rhetorical tricks and pomposity (“Surely, Prof. Pigliucci does not believe that...” — implying that if I believed it, I was a certifiable idiot)." - Massimo Pigliucci

Thursday, 17 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 5: Experience

5. Myth can be immediately known and experienced. In the last 50 years, calls to authorities about UFOs spiked at points in time when there was science fiction about aliens in the popular culture. Particular spikes happened around Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and The X-Files. Yet there's no hard evidence of any such craft, and the people who spend the most time looking into the sky (amateur astronomers) don't seem to spot anything at all.

Crop circles, alien abduction accounts, cattle mutilations, the Roswell incident, secretive government behaviour, ancient architecture - all of these have been taken as part of the alien accounts on earth. Yet despite the preponderance of anecdotal accounts, we have no hard evidence to think that there are aliens among us. All the accounts associated with aliens may or may not have down-to-earth explanations, but the missing ingredient is that none of these accounts have any causal link to aliens. Aliens are a hypothetical answer for our ignorance, so any new explanation that's explained in light of aliens is building on an unsubstantiated hypothetical case.

Could we make the case for God as separate from the cultural and psychological drive to answer in terms of God? A recent newsworthy story was a man who became a Christian because his mother won the lottery; yet how could he know that was God? It was like another recent, and somehow newsworthy, story of a man who won the lottery after following the advice of a feng shui expert. To take a more objective case, how do we know that the origin of life was something God did? We're left trying to establish something without any known causal link, just an unsubstantiated hypothetical.

Furthermore, how can we know that someone who claims to experience God is actually experiencing God? If someone is psychologically disposed to interpreting such experiences in light of God, then what surprise is it that they have an experience of God? William Lane Craig puts it: "If you're sincerely seeking God, then God will make His existence evident to you." Why only those sincerely seeking God? The Lord may have his reasons, but the most apparent reason would be that people who are seeking God are psychologically-primed to have a religious experience of God.

People who believe in psychics will find people with psychic powers, and even come to believe in their own psychic ability. People who believe in ghosts will be drawn to testimony of ghosts, and even see ghosts themselves. Once a belief is established, we are prone to confirmation bias and ignoring disconfirming information. Indeed, psychologists have shown that disconfirming evidence can make people even more convinced of their own position. Psychologist Leon Festinger, when infiltrating a UFO cult to observe cognitive dissonance, found that disconfirming evidence led to believers proselytising in the aftermath of the failed prediction.

With confirmation bias, our tendency to anthropomorphise, our capacity for rationalisation, and expectation and interpretation of culturally-laden patterns, what can be salvaged of a personal experience of God? Paranormal investigator Ben Radford, in his search for the origins of the chupacabra, found that the initial description matched with the alien from the film Species, and that the original eyewitness had seen the film only a month prior. The chupacabra is now the third most well-known cryptid in the world, with many reported sightings, despite the fairly conclusive fictional nature of chupacabra.

That people experience God personally who are in a culture where people talk of experiencing God personally is no surprise. As A.C. Grayling so bluntly put it: "The nature of religious belief, the reasons for it, and the reasons for its persistence are all explicable without any need to suppose the truth of any part of it."

To wrap it up, I'll give the final word to Richard Dawkins "If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings."

In conclusion, then, we have yet to see any reasons to think that God does exist, and we have seen five reasons to believe that God is a myth. Together these reasons constitute a powerful cumulative case against the existence of God. Now if anyone wants us to believe theism instead, then they must first tear down all five of the reasons that I gave in favor of God being a myth and then in their place present a case of their own as to why theism is true. Unless and until someone does that, I hope that we can agree that God is a myth is the more plausible position.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 4: Jesus

4. Myth provides the best explanation for the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. First, a qualification. I'm not advocating the Jesus myth hypothesis; I don't particularly care about what historical truth lies at the core of the biblical account. Myth, in this context, should be taken to mean a fiction as we would the claim that Uri Geller bends spoons with psychic powers or that homoeopathic remedies heal through the memory of water.

Uri Geller was able to convince many people he had psychic powers, demonstrating his "powers" to audiences around the world. There are people who swear that mediums like John Edward have contacted their deceased relatives. People have not only claimed to witness alien aircraft, but have claimed to be abducted as well. Many people have claimed to have seen or felt the presence of ghosts. Eyewitness accounts of cryptids such as bigfoot or chupacabra abound. All kinds of alternative "therapies" have been dubbed miracle cures with no shortage of people willing to testify on behalf of a "treatment". And so on.

All these are extraordinary claims. Not extraordinary in the sense that the claims are infrequent, but extraordinary in the sense that they violate how we've come to understand the world works. A claim that someone gives a lecture at a given time might be a unique event, but if they're said to have given two lectures simultaneously in two cities halfway around the world, we have good reason to think that there's something wrong with the account. People just aren't in two places at once.

This is not to say we can rule it out a priori. Perhaps the lecturer has found a means to travel through time and can be in two places at once, or that the lecturer has cloned herself and each clone gave a simultaneous lecture. But those cases have to go up against what we know about how the world works. That people can be mistaken, that people can make up things, that people cannot be in two places at the same time. So if we were to accept an account of that lecturer being in two places at once, we would need very compelling data to be able to overcome the implausibility of such an event.

Carl Sagan, channelling David Hume, remarked that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An eyewitness account of a bigfoot sighting differs to an eyewitness account of a bear sighting because we know bears to exist. Even if bear sightings are unusual, we have reasons outside of the testimony to suspect that a sighting did happen. If it were a sighting of a creature thought to be extinct, such as the thylacine, we'd have reason to be sceptical such a sighting. Anecdotal reports might give reason to search an area, but are by no means enough to establish the existence of something thought gone from the earth.

With all that in mind, it's time to turn to the accounts of Jesus. Considering the extraordinary accounts of the gospels, there's very little written about Jesus outside them. For someone who was meant to be God on earth, and performed miraculous events, no pagan writer in the first century even mentioned Jesus.

Take one account from the Gospel of Matthew: "And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God." (Mt 27:51-54)

It's a curious account to have included in a historical attempt. Yes, earthquakes do happen, but there are no accounts of an earthquake at this time. The dead coming back to life, however, is unheard of and contradicts everything we know about biology. This is good reason to think that the account is fiction.

But what of the gospel accounts? We're left without almost all relevant knowledge as to their reliability of testimony. Who were the original authors? What were their sources? How many mouths had the accounts of Jesus gone through? What were the motivations of the individuals involved in the eventual outcome? What was lost in translation? Were multiple accounts conflated? We simply do not have much evidence to go on at all other than the accounts claiming the miraculous.

We have people who lie to promote faith. We have people who use faith for political purposes. We have people seeing God's hand in a piece of burnt toast! And that's on top of all we know about human nature, including that people are prone to confirmation bias, embellishment, conflating accounts, misremembering, trusting anecdotes, etc. How are we meant to trust the gospel narratives in light of all we know about human nature, and the near complete absence of any data to assess such claims?

One approach to get around this problem, and the one taken by William Lane Craig, is to take the resurrection as the best explanation of the facts as they stand. It might be implausible, but it's the only explanation that can give a satisfactory account of the facts as it stands. At best, the lack of a satisfactory naturalistic account just means we don't know. But given the lack of knowledge of the situation (like any historical account), we can't hold the facts with absolute confidence. Not being able to come up with a naturalistic account of how Moses and the Egyptian sages could turn staves into snakes doesn't mean that staves were really turned into snakes.

The biggest problem with any discussion on the historical Jesus is that people have theological reasons for believing in the resurrection. William Lane Craig put it in his debate with Bart Ehrman: "[E]ver since my conversion, I believed in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of my personal experience, and I still think this experiential approach to the resurrection is a perfectly valid way to knowing that Christ has risen. It’s the way that most Christians today know that Jesus is risen and alive." How objective can one be when acceptance of a claimed historical event is external to that event? Furthermore, when the historical claim of the resurrection is at the centrality of the Christian doctrine: "if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain;" (1 Cor.15:17), how can we expect an impartial look at the historical question?

As Bart Ehrman argued in the aforementioned debate: "But even if these stories were the best sources in the world, there would still be a major obstacle that we simply cannot overcome if we want to approach the question of the resurrection historically rather than theologically.[...] this cannot be a historical claim. Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past. The problem with historians is they can’t repeat an experiment. Today, if we want proof for something, it’s very simple to get proof for many things in the natural sciences; in the experimental sciences we have proof. But we can’t repeat the experiments in history because once history happens, it’s over. [...] Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did."

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 3: Morality

3. Myth provides the best explanation for objective moral values. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point. For example, the late J.L. Mackie of Oxford University, one of the most influential atheists of our time, admitted, "If [...] there are [...] objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus we have [...] a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god."

But Mackie denied that objective moral values exist. He wrote, "It is easy to explain this moral sense as a natural product of biological and social evolution." Indeed, much of our moral drive is innate. Work by psychologists including Yale professor Paul Bloom has shown that even infants will show a preference for "moral" behaviour, and that we even apply our moral sense to inanimate objects.

Biologist Jerry Coyne sums up the current state of research in ethology: "Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we'd expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors." Primatologist Frans de Waal points out: "[T]he latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves." And adds: "Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good."

To think that there are any such intrinsic moral values would be absurd. What would such values be? Would anything humans do matter outside the existence of humans? More importantly, how does how we treat each other have anything outside of that interaction? The notion that there's some value of right or wrong intrinsic to our existence is a very queer one.

Yet this doesn't have the fatal consequences that the likes of William Lane Craig suggest it has. As empirical support, one only needs to look at attitudes concerning homosexuality or women's equality to see how well societies can change without any form of objective moral standard. It simply doesn't matter whether or not homosexuality is objectively right or wrong; what matters is that attitudes towards homosexuals have shifted in a positive direction without any sort of worrying about such silly notions as moral objectivity. Ethics in scientific research has improved remarkably in the last 100 years, yet no concern is given to whether or not it's objectively wrong to be unscrupulous in research.

Not having objective moral values doesn't mean that any action is of equal value, either. One would be perfectly justified in saying rape is wrong without having any notion of objective moral value. The notion of right or wrong is something we impose onto the situation. Most people, I would wager, would be content to say rape is wrong because of the harm it does, or the violation it imposes. And, really, what more ought to be needed? If that isn't enough, then what is? To come back to J.L. Mackie: "Morality does not need a god as a supreme source of commands or as a wielder of decisive sanctions. [...] There is no good reason for introducing a god even as an essential part of the content of moral thinking."

One more problem remains. Even if objective morality exists and is grounded in God, we have good reasons to doubt any claim to objectivity. On a sociological level, moral prescriptions are culturally-contingent. On a psychological level, different people espousing different moralities under the same justification. Believers who think that God is a source of morality tend to think that God's morality matches their own. From Epley et al. on the results of neuroimaging patients asked this question: "A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one’s own beliefs and God’s beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person’s beliefs. In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs."

The same problem is encountered as with invoking God for causation or design - even if the beliefs are true they are indistinguishable from a projection of our minds. We have every reason to be sceptical of anyone claiming that they have God's objective moral truth; because it's indistinguishable from the illusion of it.

Monday, 14 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 2: Projection

2. Myth provides the best explanation for invoking God to explain order in the universe. During the last four hundred years, scientists have discovered that what was once thought the domain of the deity has been explained without a mind as the organising force.

Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind ever to have lived, argued for a divine hand in the ordering of the solar system: "For while comets move in very eccentric orbs in all manner of positions, blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentric, some inconsiderable irregularities excepted which may have arisen from the mutual actions of comets and planets on one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this system wants a reformation." Yet such ordering has now found to be unnecessary, there's a good understanding of how planets form around a star and how they hold their orbit.

William Paley, foreshadowing many intelligent design proponents, argued for design by way of analogy: "Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation." His application of the design argument to biology: "every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation."

But, as we know, this turned out to be spectacularly wrong. The organising force behind biology has turned out not to have any mind-like qualities at all, and function is emergent from the process. The great biologist and science historian Ernst Mayr put it: "Darwin taught us that seemingly teleological evolutionary changes and the production of adapted features are simply the result of variational evolution, consisting of the production of large amounts of variation in every generation, and the probabilistic survival of those individuals remaining after the elimination of the least-fit phenotypes. Adaptedness thus is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal seeking."

Biologist Richard Dawkins put it rather more poetically: "Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye, It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker."

Psychologists have noticed a tendency in children especially to see nature in terms of design. The phenomenon, known as promiscuous teleology, where the world is seen in terms of function. We as adults, Bruce Hood argues in Supersense, would have no trouble in seeing how one could walk down a hill, but a child would see the hill in terms of that function. Most children grow out of such thinking by the age of 10, but it can be carried into adulthood and is affected by cultural religious factors.

In addition to seeing design, it's well established that people, and children especially, anthropomorphise. Children especially have been observed engaging in egocentric projection that stems to inanimate objects. Yet this point was not lost on philosopher David Hume, who 250 years ago observed: "There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, which which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to everything, that hurts or pleases us."

It's well established that people see and attribute agency where there is none. While this doesn't exclude there actually being agency that fits our preconception, it should set the burden of proof as needing to overcome the inherent biases in our cognitive abilities. Ghosts, gods, aliens, cryptids, conspiracy theories, even the way we treat pets - they are all testament to our mind's capacity to shape an understanding of reality in very human terms. It may be that there are other agents akin to us out there, but our minds are wired for seeing such agency irrespective of actually detecting such agency.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 1: Creation Myths

In this discussion I'm going to defend two basic contentions:

I. There are no good reasons to think that theism is true, and

II. There are good reasons to think that God is a myth.

Let's look at the first major contention, that there are no good reasons to think that theism is true. Theist philosophers have tried for centuries to prove the existence of God. But no one has been able to come up with a convincing argument. So rather than attack straw men at this point, I’m going to wait to hear any answer to the following question: What is the evidence that theism is true?

Let's turn then to my second basic contention, that there are good reasons to think that God is a myth.

Now I'm not claiming that I can prove that God is a myth with some kind of mathematical certainty. I’m just claiming that on balance the evidence is such that God is a myth is more plausible than not. Let me present, therefore, five reasons why I think it’s more plausible that God is a myth than that theism is true.

1. Creation myths explain why there are gods. Have you ever asked yourself why anything at all exists, or where the universe came from? Typically, theists have said that the universe is the creation of God. But surely this is unreasonable. Just think about it for a minute.

Creation myths are a part of human culture. Throughout human history, different explanations involving gods and supernatural agency have been passed down through oral and written traditions. Creation ex nihilo is a common feature of many belief system, including those of ancient Egypt, of Hinduism, and if many animistic cultures throughout the world.

Elizabeth and Paul Barber, in their work When They Severed Earth From Sky, talk about the Wilfulness principle. They argue that it may seem absurd now to think about a tree falling over as anything other than wind, but wind as it’s conceived now is a result of thousands of years of data collection parsed through genius minds. To the ancients, how could they have conceived of huge quantities of near-infinitesemal invisible particles acting in accordance with the fundamental forces of nature? Thinking in terms of wilful agents, and invisible agents at that, would be the only possible source of explanation.

H. and H. A. Frankfort, in their paper Myth and Reality posit: "The fundamental difference between the attitudes of modern and ancient man as regards the surrounding world is this: for modern man the world is primarily an "It"; for ancient man it is a "Thou." [...] An object, an "It," can always be scientifically related to other objects and appear as part of a group or a series. In this manner science insists on seeing "It"; hence, science is able to comprehend objects and events as ruled by universal laws which make their behavior under given circumstances predictable. "Thou," on the other hand, is unique. "Thou" has the unprecedented, unparalleled, and unpredictable character of an individual, a presence known only in so far as it reveals itself."

This doesn't necessarily exclude gods, but it does raise major problems for the idea of gods. The first problem is the sheer abundance of myths, so why should we privilege one mythic explanation above any other? Do we accept, as CS Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, that God solely revealed Himself to the Jewish people some 3500 years ago, and that the bible is the inspired word of God? That the commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." is the one true instance of a correctly-identified god cautioning against all other imaginary gods?

Or perhaps, as J.L. Mackie notes in The Miracle Of Theism: "The advocate of one religion will now often allow that a number of others have at least some elements of the truth and even, perhaps, some measure of divine authorization." But this raises the further problem that Mackie immediately elucidates: "Carried far enough, this modern tendency would allow Christian miracles to support, not undermine, belief in the supernatural achievements of stone-age witch doctors and medicine men, and vice versa." He was talking in the context of miracle reports, but the same principle applies. Lewis advocated a view similar to this, but had the marker of the truth of other religions as his own.

Though, what would seem the most reasonable assumption, is that none of them are correct. That gods as explanations are sufficiently misguided as to not think of the myths as containing a literal truth about the nature of the beyond. Jerry Falwell claiming that 9/11 was God's punishment for the ACLU highlights just how it is that people can see God's hand in nature where there clearly is none.

The second problem, and the most significant challenge, is how to take prescientific ideas like God in light of modern science. As Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow put it in The Grand Design: "In the first two thousand years of scientific thought, ordinary experience were the basis for theoretical explanation [...] we began to find nature behaving in ways that were less and less in line with our everyday experience and hence our intuition." Invoking gods seem more and more archaic a thought the more that nature is understood. "Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis", the words of Laplace echoed today by top scientists of various disciplines.

Personal causation, too, has come under the lens of scientific inquiry. Personal causation isn't something removed from the physical, but an expression of it. Without the brain and without the physical systems throughout the body, it would make no sense to talk of personal causation. Thinking is what the brain does, and experiments such as the Libet experiment show that conscious awareness happens after decisions are made in the brain. As Dan Dennett pointed out in his debate with William Lane Craig, personal causation is a special kind of physical causation. Psychologist Stephen Pinker characterises this as "the mind is what the brain does".

Even if physical accounts of consciousness are lacking, there are two observational facts that really seal the relation between mind and brain. Observations have shown time and time again a link between particular brain activity and behaviour/experience. Damage regions of the brain and lose functionality. Manipulate the brain and alter experience. Out-of-body experiences can be induced with magnetic fields, as can altering moral decision making. Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland has talked of one case where a tumour in a man's brain resulted in paedophilic sexual urges. Removing the tumour meant the cessation of those urges.

The second observation is that despite all the research probing the brain, there's no indication of anything other than brain activity being involved in cognition. Descartes, when he first posited mind-body dualism, identified the pineal gland as the interface between mind and body. Yet with all the possible opportunities to find anything outside the brain, nothing has yet shown up. It may be that there's something outside the brain, but the evidence is to the contrary.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Preface

It all started with this comment from theist, and occasional Pharyngula commenter, Eric:
You may dismiss his methodology (but be prepared to pay the consequenses — think about it), or you may reject one of his premises, but let’s not fall into the trap of pretending that Craig isn’t doing some serious philosophy here.
A response to a comment of mine of the absurdity of finding personal causation at the beginning of the universe. Projecting our own minds onto the origin of the universe as serious philosophy? Yes, yes, I know... scientism and all that.

Anyway, the discussion led to me bringing my own "serious philosophy" to the table:
  1. If God is a myth, then Craig’s arguments are fallacious.
  2. God is a myth.

  3. Therefore, Craig’s arguments are fallacious.
To which Eric challenged me:
That’s fine, Kel, but can you defend that second premise as robustly as Craig defends any of his?

What will follow in subsequent posts is my defence of premise 2.
Part 1: Creation myths explain why there are gods
Part 2: Myth provides the best explanation for invoking God to explain order in the universe
Part 3: Myth provides the best explanation for objective moral values
Part 4: Myth provides the best explanation for the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
Part 5: Myth can be immediately known and experienced
Afterword: Methodology, Craig's argument, and Craig's use of language.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


"If religion really were a private matter, I doubt that many of us would spend so much time going after it." - Jerry Coyne

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Sophistry And Illusion

"If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." - David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

A counter-argument to the cosmological argument, that who created God, is not a valid response because God is eternal and needs no creator. Asking who designed the designer for arguments to design, likewise, is not valid for the same reason. God isn't affected at all by the Euthyphro dilemma, as morality cannot be conceived in the absence of God.

Sometimes I get the impression that philosophy of religion is practised in order to buttress faith; in order to give a validation to something they already believe in. It's the only way I can comprehend how such definitional arguments are made and maintained.

What good does it do to say that God is an undesigned designer, or an uncreated creator? Do we know those are even coherent propositions? Let alone making God a possible answer to questions of creation or design. After all, all the creators/designers we know are designed so it only seems fair to question whether that is possible.

I was once asked why I thought aliens in another universe were a better answer than God to explain fine-tuning. The reason is that aliens are a proposition by which we can account for designers. We know that intelligent beings can evolve, that they have physical bodies by which they can manipulate their environments, that they fit into a framework of space-time, and that designers are accounted for in terms of something other than design - abstract processes. By contrast, what is the supernatural? What does it mean to be a supernatural intelligence? If the supernatural is outside of time, then how can it act? While aliens might not be the only answer to why the universe is fine-tuned, at least it's an answer that's explicable.

There might be a reason for all this, found within a deep understanding of the philosophy of religion. For that reason, however reluctantly, I push on trying to learn more. Though it is so tempting to subject the arguments to Hume's Fork and be done with it, because such arguments as far as I can tell have no substantial content to them whatsoever.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Materialism: The Ideology

Many creationists try to make a big deal out of the link between evolution and atheism. Those who stand up for teaching evolution are often branded as atheists, including many devout theists. It seems there are two central claims behind such links. The first claim is that evolution is incompatible with a belief in God - that it either leaves God redundant or diminishes our species to a mere accident. The second claim is that evolution is being used to push God out of the picture - that it's a materialist ideology masquerading as science.

The first case is one best left to theologians, but the second case pertains to the validity of evolution as a science. The relevant question seem to be whether something held for ideological reasons can also be valid. Even if it were true that evolution was purely materialist ideology whose leading proponents sought to exclude God, would this invalidate evolution as a science?

To look at this question I'm going to invoke a historical parallel. Jesus is the central figure to Christianity, without a historical Jesus most forms of Christianity would be wrong. So does the historical case for Jesus need exclusion on the basis that Christianity needs a historical Jesus?

I'm fairly sure I know the answer to this. Of course not! The case for a historical Jesus should be decided by the historical evidence. Indeed, I've heard the argument that the historical Jesus is the main reason to be a Christian.

So when it comes to evolution, even if there's people with an ideological agenda, surely evolution's status as a science depends on whether or not the theory is able to fit with observation and evidence. It could be that evolution is good science and good reason to be a materialist.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to evolution there is no divide among experts down religious lines. And when experts do speak about evolution, they talk about the evidence for evolution. Meanwhile the link between evolution and atheism is highlighted by creationists, who don't talk about evidence at all. It may be that Francis Collins has been brainwashed by materialists, or that he's not a True Christian™ if he's so willing to speak in favour of evolution, but either way such a statement shows where the ideological hand in the evolution discussion really lies...

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Vacuous Nonsense

I got into a bit of an argument with a creationist recently, which is nothing unusual for me. In the ensuring discussion I asked them what evidence there was against evolution. They brought up intelligent design, together with a sarcastic quip that I reject it without having reasons why. The phrase vacuous nonsense comes to mind, though it's easy to demonstrate how intelligent design is vacuous nonsense.

What I find interesting about those who try to defend intelligent design as a science is that they don't operate on anything remotely resembling a scientific definition. My complaint that Intelligent Design makes no specific prediction and thus there's no way to know whether or not a designer was involved. It's an irreconcilable problem as far as ID as a science is concerned. Yet I've found that's not what people see ID as. A better working definition would be:
A designer must have been involved somewhere and somehow in the history of life.

In other words, what ID proponents hear is a denial of any role for Goda designer. It's not a scientific hypothesis in any way, it's touching on something far deeper and more personal. Whether or not current evolutionary theory is sufficient to account for what is seen in nature doesn't make the case for Goda designer any better, as all that would do is be making Goda designer an expression of our ignorance. Yet in the absence of making any predictions about patterns, there's really no way to tell whether designers were involved or not. Intelligent Design is making one big argument from ignorance.

Yet if we look at life as it is, we can and do have intelligent design mechanisms operating in nature. We have artefacts that are the product of intelligent designers, along with an understanding of how such mechanisms work. Even in nature, we have products shaped by intelligent designers. We couldn't account for agriculture as it is without including intelligent hands involved. Likewise with the domestication and modification of animals. And now the era of genetic modification has opened a new way that designers can act in nature.

All of these instances of design in nature are accounted for scientifically, we know the nature of what the designers can and can't do, and how the design happens. How cats and dogs became domesticated, for example, is something that is being scientifically studied. Deliberate cross breeding has been used to feed billions.

Contrast this with the nondescript statement that Intelligent Design proposes - that there was a designer who did something at some stage. Without knowing anything about the nature of the designer and the methods, and without making any specific predictions about how the designer operates, it's a useless speculation. Yes, a designer could have done something, but if we don't know anything about what the designer did or how, then how can we distinguish it from there not being any designer at all?

This is why I think Intelligent Design is vacuous nonsense. It's the pretence that there's something scientific about invoking God to explain life, without having the hassle of trying to substantiate that in any way.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Gay Marriage

In many of the ethical quandaries of our time, most case involve having to give up something. In the case of animal welfare, for example, those arguing for animal freedom are asking others to give up eating meat and using animal products. In the case of climate change, we are being asked to cut back, or even give up, on certain greenhouse-emitting products and activities.

The case of gay marriage is odd in that respect, as there is really nothing that anyone has to give up. If there is an inequality, it seems quite trivial that it be rectified. Of course, it doesn't really stop reasons to that effect being proposed. The most common one is the institution of marriage itself - that marriage itself is what loses out. Or more precisely, the notion of the family unit.

While it seems irrelevant to the discussion, a lot is made of reproductive capabilities. Marriage, as the argument follows, is an institution to support procreation. Homosexuals since they can't procreate, therefore should have no rights when it comes to marriage. While straight childless couples can still marry, it doesn't matter because the practice is to support the procreation and raising of children.

The problem with this line of argument is that even if that is the reason to have marriage as an institution, in no way is that capacity diminished by gay marriage. Married heterosexual couples still have exactly the same rights as before, only that homosexual couples are able to have the other benefits that stem from marriage.

I tend to think that the problems with gay marriage aren't so much about reproductive rights, but that it would be affording homosexuality equal societal recognition. The real loss, in this case, I suspect is the perception of superiority of a particular kind of relationship. it's a threat to the ego in much the same way as giving women or aboriginals the right to vote, and realistically has as much justification for failing to grant such a right.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Defending Genocide

Normally I try to stay away* from biblical interpretation, but sometimes it can be downright hilarious. Creationist accounts of the history of the universe to fit into Genesis is comically absurd, for example. It's sad in a way, too, as the absurdities are consequences of untenable premises.

One of the charges against such biblical interpretations has been the monstrous accounts of God in the bible. From flooding the entire globe bar a few people and animals, to killing the first-born son of every Egyptian, and slaughtering entire tribes, there's plenty of examples of acts attributed to God that could easily take the title of "moral monster".

William Lane Craig sees it otherwise. He's copped criticism of his defence of God's slaughter of the Canaanites, especially brushing off the slaughter of infants as a good thing**! When I listen to Craig argue, I worry for his safety at zebra crossings, lest he argues that black is really white.

Anyway, to his defence of his defence:
I’ve seen those kinds of responses, too, Peter, and find them disappointing because they fail to grapple intellectually with the difficult questions raised by such stories. Emotional outbursts take the place of rational discussion, leaving us with no deeper understanding of the issues than before we began.
We use emotion in our reasoning, when it comes to issues of morality we cannot help but be emotional about it. Contrary to what Craig alludes, the outbursts don't take the place of rational discussion but are part of it. But of course we should think about it rationally, so let's continue.

I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong. As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, “The universe doesn’t care.”
I remember getting into an argument with a believer who argued that logic presupposed God. I pointed out that his logic was circular, to which he responded "how can you say it's circular if you have no foundation for logic?" In other words, I had no right to use logic unless I acknowledged God. I could point out that the universe is indifferent is a straw man as you don't need the universe to care about our behaviour to have morality, there are many naturalistic accounts of morality that don't require the universe to care.

So at most the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency in affirming both the goodness of God and the historicity of the conquest of Canaan. It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists.
At least there is the acknowledgement of the possibility of internal inconsistency. If a murderer is a morally evil person and God murders, then why doesn't that make God as morally evil? "At most"? I'm getting the impression that Craig is using language to diminish the concerns raised.

If there is an inconsistency on our part, then we’ll just have to give up the historicity of the narratives, taking them as either legends or else misinterpretations by Israel of God’s will. The existence of God and the soundness of the moral argument for His existence don’t even come into play.
Interestingly enough, this is the argument that's put forth. If God is the God of the bible who ordered the slaughter of infants, then that God is incompatible with the description of God as being all-good, and thus doesn't exist. Same thing goes when someone is arguing against Creationism - it's not saying that every and all possible description of God necessarily has to be the YEC interpretation of God and thus God doesn't exist, but that the YEC God as described by people is incompatible with everything we know about reality. There are some 2 billion believers, and God isn't the same thing to each of them. Certain premises and the arguments surrounding them differ depending on who you ask. Plenty claim to speak for God and of God, one cannot expect any argument to address every believer.

My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so.
The argument, as it goes, is that the commands are morally repugnant and not characteristic of what we would call all-good. It's not whether or not God has the moral right to do whatever he likes, but that his character by choosing certain actions is showing what we would consider a human to be a moral monster.

I want to challenge those who decry my answer to explain whom God wronged and why we should think so. As I explained, the most plausible candidate is, ironically, the soldiers themselves, but I think that morally sufficient reasons can be provided for giving them so gruesome a task.
The Canaanites who were slaughtered weren't wronged?!?

The judgment of God upon these tribal groups, which had become so incredibly debauched by that time, is that they were being divested of their land. Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.
How does this make it any better? Even in this scenario, the Caananites are being displaced from their land. One might make the parallel with home invasion. Is home invasion really right because God says so? And if the people refuse to leave, does it make it right to kill them? I'm thankful that the law cares much more about the rights of the individual than God does...

It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated.
And that makes it so much better... Seriously?

No one had to die in this whole affair. Of course, that fact doesn’t affect the moral question concerning the command that God gave, as explained above. But I stand by my previous answer of how God could have commanded the killing of any Canaanites who attempted to remain behind in the land.
This doesn't really solve any of the moral problems, it's just trying to downplay it enough that it doesn't carry the weight that genocide does.

In all likelihood, there was no slaughter of the Canaanites. The archaeology is pointing to the Canaan cities being abandoned much earlier***, the destruction characterised by destruction within. Historically there's nothing to argue about, no slaughter to argue away any more than there is a global flood in which all but Noah and his children's families were drowned. But the arguments are about their consistency and their accuracy with explaining the world, that we would describe a mass murder as a moral monster yet describe God as all-good for being described as carrying out much worse acts doesn't seem right. Perhaps Craig can dissolve the problem in a puff of logic, but there does seem to be a fundamental contradiction between how people describe God and how people describe God's actions.

* For the same reason that I really don't care whether Han shot first.
** "Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation."
*** Among other sources, watch the PBS Nova documentary The Bible's Buried Secrets

Friday, 5 August 2011


"The concept of God has gradually retreated from the concept of an anthropomorphic creator figure, judge and overseer to a mystery-shrouded Wonderful Something-or-Other utterly beyond human ken. It is impossible for me to believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods, because they are simply ridiculous, and so obviously the fantasy-projections of scientifically ignorant minds trying to understand the world. It is impossible for me to believe in the laundered versions, because they are systematically incomprehensible. It would be like trying to believe in the existence of wodgifoop - what's that? Don't ask; it's beyond saying." - Dan Dennett

Wait... What?
The New South Wales Upper House has begun debating the future of school ethics classes, with Christian Democrats MP Fred Nile comparing them to Nazi philosophy.

Reverend Nile introduced a private member's bill in May to repeal the legislation that allows ethics classes to be offered as an alternative to scripture lessons.

The State Government used its numbers to bring the bill forward for a second reading this morning, but Premier Barry O'Farrell insists it will not be supported by Coalition MPs.

Reverend Nile told the chamber the classes do not teach ethical behaviour.

"[It is] a course which I believe does not teach children right from wrong but promotes the secular, humanist relativist philosophy," he said.

"I believe this is the philosophy that we saw during World War Two with the Nazis and the communists."

"Outrageous," interjected one MP in response.

Reverend Nile says the Premier privately supports his bid, but Mr O'Farrell flatly denied the claim when questioned by the ABC today.

Further debate on the bill has now been adjourned until September.

I'm lost for words here. I was at least expecting something to do with the content being from Nietzsche or Heidegger, but that it's the philosophy of Nazis? There's lots of arguments that could be made against this, from him misrepresenting the content of the ethics classes, to not understanding what secular humanism is, or having a completely distorted view of history, but I think the best approach is just to quote Hitler.
Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith ...we need believing people. - Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933

It's interesting that Nile has to demonise teaching secular knowledge in order to advance his position, not to evaluate it on its own merits, but to lie about it and tarnish it with the atrocities of history. All this over giving students an alternative to sitting around doing nothing while other students are at scripture.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

My Problem with Dualist Arguments

There are plenty of reasons to believe in some sort of physicalist account of mind and reject the notion of dualism. Yet when I talk to dualists about it, they feel the same way about dualism. Of course this should be no surprise, as Catholics tend to feel that there are good reasons to be Catholic, and those who believe in psychic powers don't do so despite thinking there's a weak case for it.

Yet that we can justify what we already believe in doesn't mean that the case is very good. Perhaps the case for physicalism is really poor and the case for dualism overwhelming, from my perspective I try to understand where the case to the contrary is coming from and see whether that fits. At least in my head, I've got a list of certain things that dualism would have to account for in order to be considered a possibility. I've put these forward numerous times to dualists - yet I don't get any answers back at all.

Perhaps from their perspective, the problems are insignificant. Or perhaps I have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the problems involved in the philosophy of mind. I don't know, all I can do is keep reading, listen to experts, and discuss the issues with others. Which brings me to the point of this post...

When it comes to intelligent design, most arguments for intelligent design fixate around the notion that there are certain patterns we can see in nature that are hallmarks of being designed. How a designer acts in order to design is a different question that a designer was involved - that a watch has a watchmaker can be inferred without knowing how the watch was made. So while evolutionary biologists will ask for a mechanism, the ID proponent doesn't claim to be able to show that - just to show that a designer was involved. This is done by trying to show that natural mechanisms cannot account for what we know designers can.

In a recent discussion with a dualist, I encountered the same such argument. That it didn't matter how mental phenomena worked, but that mental phenomena by definition could account for what physicalist models couldn't - and thus dualism. My objection to this is that labelling them mental stuff doesn't actually explain anything at all, but the goal of the argument isn't there to act as an explanation; it's there to demonstrate dualism - whatever that means. So me calling dualism incoherent and not actually explaining those things any better than a physical model would be missing the point.

Yet to what extent does this explanation carry? To my mind, such arguments are merely labelling our ignorance. What does mental causation mean, for example? To say that mental causation is part of the definition of dualism doesn't give any conception of possibility. A physicalist account involving neural networks and firing synapses is at least an attempt to make sense of mental causation. Dualism makes no such attempt, yet physicalism is judged on what is seen as a failure of explanation.

It's in that respect that explanations like Intelligent Design, God, pyramid-building aliens, or mental forces have a distinct advantage over any naturalistic explanation. The naturalistic explanations try to explain how something works, which for the most part are going to be imperfect and incomplete, yet the failure of such explanations is seen as evidence for explanations that don't even try to explain the evidence. In other words, just arguments are just taking our ignorance and giving it a label.

If such explanations were true, however, they would have empirical consequences. If dualism was true and there was mental causation outside the brain, then that would have empirical consequences. No matter how much personal introspection one does, if the brain is shown to be closed causally, then mental causation has no place in which to operate. This problem was not lost on Descartes, but it seems to be ignored some 400 years later by modern-day dualists. That we're living in an era of exploration of the brain should be all the more reason to be more empirical about it. It says a lot in the age of empirical inquiry that people are avoiding putting would could be scientifically-testable to the test.

Of course, all this might be a rationalisation on my part... but I really don't know why there's not even an attempt to turn dualism into an empirical model that can be tested and potentially falsified by scientific inquiry. Being "not even wrong" shouldn't be a selling point!

Friday, 29 July 2011

Newspeak Emergent

Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of those books I read as a teenager that helped shape my views on personal liberty. I'm not sure how much I still hold to those near-anarchic ideals, but individual liberty is still very much a concern of mine.

Of many of the themes explored in Orwell's classic, Newspeak stands out for me as the most striking. For those unfamiliar, Newspeak involved impoverishing the English language in order to control the thoughts of the population.

Any look at political language today involves such revisions, as it did back in Orwell's time. We, as a population, in general recognise this as political speak and are generally distrustful of politicians who use it. That top-down abuse of language remains a concern, though what I find more concerning is the bottom-up abuse of language - especially when it comes to words that carry moral condemnation.

When making analogies there are always some similarities between the two situations. The strength of analogies is they can help convey understanding by giving another way to look at it. Weak analogies have the problem of being easily misunderstood, and analogies that come with implied moral condemnation that may or may not apply.

Godwin's Law is the name for the idea that the longer a discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone being compared to Hitler. Yet in any sense that carries the implied moral condemnation, what behaviours could possibly fit the analogy? Giving people healthcare? Teaching evolution? Eating meat? Supporting legal abortion? Arguing against US military aggression*?

The moral outrage in all those situations is very real, but the whole point of those discussions is that there's disagreement between how people see those moral behaviours. Telling people their views are akin to a deliberate and vicious genocide is hardly fair - at least in all those circumstances. It's not like people are comparing people to Hitler when there's ethnic cleansing in Africa...

Words like homicide, sexism, racism, slavery, genocide, persecution, all mean something. Using them out of context, or stretching the definitions to include the moral condemnation is pushing language towards a state of Newspeak - a Newspeak of our own making, emerging from our personal disagreements and shifting the lexicon away from a sense of perspective.

The key difference in this case, is that while Newspeak sought to remove language that could convey concepts that would undermine the totalitarian state, we're participating in the devaluing of meaning. The words still exist, but become effectively meaningless. Any minor controversy being given the suffix "gate" has succeeded in devaluing what Watergate symbolised.

But we still value, and value greatly. We may value individual liberty or the rights of the animal, we may value autonomy or equality for all in a society. We may value security or the propagation. And it's because we value that the forces that look set to destroy such values as being fascist in nature. But it seems that the valuation is at the expense of the valuation of language itself, the importance only conveyed in such a way as to make what seem innocuous transgressions as grievous acts against all that is good.

In some cases such moral outrage is just stupid (universal healthcare**), yet that doesn't take away from the underlying pernicious nature of such arguments. We're left arguing in terms of moral outrage; not in terms of outcomes - moral or otherwise. We are creating our own Newspeak, and doing so with great enthusiasm.

* Back when I was a bit younger and new to internet arguments, I got photoshopped with a Nazi symbol on my shirt for arguing against US foreign policy.
** I'm still baffled by this, in what possible world can this even begin to make sense?


"It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." - Charles Darwin

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Irrelevant Arguments

How it is people come to believe what they do and why is a very different story to the arguments and reasons used to defend such beliefs. As Michael Shermer argues in The Believing Brain, beliefs come first then come justifications. The danger for all us who wish to hold beliefs for rational reasons is that often those reasons are mere rationalisations.

I've been reading a recent back and forth between various academics about the cosmological argument, and it's got me wondering just why the cosmological argument matters. What does the origin of the universe say about the role of an interventionist deity who shares many anthropic traits and will grant us eternal life if we only would believe the right thing? Very little really, even if it were an argument for a deity it wouldn't be able to infer any of the traits and characteristics that we call God. So why waste any intellectual energy on it?

Perhaps it's that philosophers of religion waste intellectual energy on it, perhaps it's that the origin of the universe craves an answer. Though from my perspective, it's an irrelevant argument. Would the failure of the cosmological argument disprove God? would the success of the argument demonstrate God? In both cases, I'm pretty sure the answer is no. It's no, not because we've sat through and worked out the metaphysical implications of the argument, but it's no because the cosmological argument has little to do with the belief in God itself.

A few months ago, I got into an argument with someone who was obsessed with the notion of a necessary being. His argument went something akin to the following:
  1. X is necessary
  2. If X is necessary, then there needs to be a necessary being

  3. Therefore, God exists
What the X was is irrelevant, as is the argument in general. Why if something is necessary there's a further necessary step to a being is beyond me, but what was even more beyond me was how that related to an interventionist deity who the person had a personal relationship with.

I don't think this is true of all arguments, at least some arguments (like the design argument or personal revelation) seem consistent with what this interventionist deity is meant to be. A weeping statue or cancer going into remission at least have that sense of being about what people profess to believe in. If something is outside of space and time, can it have actions within it? It seems an odd question, especially when it's placed up against having a personal experience of God's presence.

This is no-doubt going to come across as arrogance from a non-philosopher who doesn't properly value philosophy of religion; that I don't grasp the nuances of the arguments that otherwise make them self-explanatory as to their value in the search for God. And if that is the case, please don't just dismiss me on those grounds, but explain why it's important. Why are arguments like the cosmological arguments, so abstracted from what it is people believe and why, are arguments that need to be taken seriously? To quote philosopher Julian Baggini:
Academics in particular maintain the illusion that, on the contrary, things like the complex details of the latest revision of the ontological argument might actually matter when it comes to determining whether or not God exists. If they did, we might see more regular changes of mind. As it is, philosophers of religion seem to be at least as consistent in their fundamental commitments as anyone else.

Friday, 22 July 2011


"We can treat others badly who do not share our values because it feels right." - Bruce Hood

Sunday, 10 July 2011

When Price Fixing Goes Wrong

The regional price fixing on Steam is frustrating; my general way of dealing with it is to not buy a game until it's reduced to nearly nothing and make a complaint on the Steam Facebook feed.

In any case, it's funny when there's a loophole in the price fixing, where the game is available cheap by getting it through a package that isn't marked up for the privilege of living in Australia. On the Steam sales today (10/07/2011) this happened with Dead Space 2:

Buying the game on its own, with the 50% discount comes to a total of $35USD. But if you buy it in a bundle with the original Dead Space, it comes to $20USD. You can save $15 and get an extra game too!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

My Own Personal Deepity

As I've explained on the blog before, a deepity (coined by philosopher Dan Dennett) is a statement that is true in the trivial sense, but profoundly wrong in its implication. The classic example being "love is a four letter word" which of course is true but profoundly wrong about the nature of love.

My wife recently reminded me of a deepity I had said many years ago, not quite so obvious as the love example, but still absurd in retrospect. My deepity?
Everyone is shallow.
Not quite so poetic nor bearing a superficial profundity, but nonetheless a clumsy attempt at saying something insightful that borders on the meaningless.

What I meant by the statement was that everyone has things they look for in a partner; that some people go for particular looks or personality traits seemed to me no different than someone who preferred a great conversationalist or someone with the same interests or political views.

I really couldn't see what made mate choice on looks any more or less desirable than mate choice on personality or political attitudes or whatever else people use. The view I was arguing against, in retrospect, was not to defend aesthetically-attracted people but to deflate what I saw as some sort of inherent superiority from the notion of being able to look beyond looks.

My redefinition of shallow put me very much in deepity territory; the underlying truism that we all have standards and desires in mate choice doesn't mean that there's no problem in being shallow in the proper use of the word. Whether or not being shallow is a good thing shouldn't be settled by such trivial statements. The best that could be said for it is that it might get people to think in a different way, but really adds nothing in terms of understanding the problem it was trying to shed light on.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Holy Books And Science

It's common to see believers claim that holy books contained truths that only modern science has discovered - presumably as a way to claim divine intervention because the knowledge would be blind to the ancient authors.

It's a bad argument for a number of reasons - mainly that it doesn't actually show divine authorship (see Shermer's last law). But one general criticism would be that people are reading into it what fits; I've heard a number of interpretations of Genesis in line with modern scientific findings.

Isn't it convenient that one can find the evolution of eyes in Genesis 1, or the evolution of colour vision in relation to fruit-eating in Genesis chapter 3! Neither Genesis 1 nor Genesis 3 explicitly nor implicitly state either claim, but as a metaphor it works nicely. I still remember the first time I read Genesis 1 thinking it was a very fuzzy description of the evolutionary process.

What seems apparent is that we're reading into these books what makes sense to us, always happening after scientific findings but never making any specific predictions themselves. Why didn't people derive from the bible that revelation about fruit on our evolution? Why didn't the evolution of eyes in context to the Cambrian explosion come out of Genesis? Where is the Big Bang theory in Genesis?

That we can fit symbolism with our empirical understanding doesn't show much at all beyond our capacity to weave narratives. What would be impressive is if these holy books were used as research paradigms, whereby experiment and observation were derived from an understanding of the works, and we learnt new things about the universe through the success of experiment and observation. But the holy books aren't science texts, they are mythic narratives. Hence it is much easier to say the narrative fits with the data than it is to predict data from the narrative.

We are in the scientific age, after all, and the fruits of science as an epistemology is there for all to see. So for a holy book to sit with modern knowledge should be befitting of the all-powerful all-knowing creator, so the retrofitting of divinely-given knowledge with science seems a mere formality. One other thing it allows some to do, it seems, is since X must have been divine authorship then the entire holy book is divine authorship and reject the science that outright contradicts their holy book. I've heard creationists bring up the bible predicting jet streams in order to bolster their creationist position. Jet streams!

In a discussion, such claims have the added bonus of adding confusion. I wouldn't know for the most part what's in The Bible or the Koran, whether or not the Koran gets it right on embryology is something that would be lost to me. While I don't doubt the sincerity of the person making the argument, it's a red herring to even go down this path. Whatever the Bible or Koran say, or any other holy book for that matter, as books of science I can only take them seriously when they're used as research paradigms that yield new information about the universe. Retrofitting existing knowledge just isn't the same...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Richard & Me

Expelled as a documentary was a failure in so many ways. It failed in terms of being an informative documentary - seen through by almost every critic who viewed it as bad propaganda; it failed in terms of being an entertaining documentary - it was quite frankly boring; and at the end of it there wasn't even a coherent message to the picture. Some people got Expelled or something, and big bad atheists like Hector Avalos are glad that they're playing a role in it - and something about a holocaust.

When I watched it, I tried taking notes but gave up after about 45 minutes when they started talking about the origin of life. I should have known from the interviews Ben Stein did where he complained about evolution not being able to explain gravity. Seriously! Not to mention the interviews with John Lennox and Alister McGrath talking about Dawkins atheism; then the grand finale interview where Stein asked Dawkins about what gods he didn't believe in. Like I said, one huge incoherent mess.

But to be fair, I think the film could have taken inspiration from Michael Moore and delivered what would have been a far more interesting film. Richard Dawkins won't appear in creationist documentaries, so the entire movie could have been about trying to get an interview with Dawkins while showing the moral and social demise of America.

It's not hard to picture the film. Start with pictures of America's glory - show the prosperity and community spirit that accompanies 1950s fantasies, then show the impact that the 1960s brought, overladen with explanations about the focus on American scientific education once Sputnik launched.

Next, have someone other than Ben Stein interview those high school teachers who have lost their jobs for teaching creationism in the classroom. Have parents complain about how their children have been lost to the world of sex and drugs, while showing the popular song by The Bloodhound Gang "The Bad Touch" and singing "you and me baby ain't nothing but mammals so let's do it like they do on the discovery channel."
And surely someone could follow the personal lives of students as they struggled against the evil dogmatic evolutionist teaching, showing the discussions in high school between students over the issues, and taking it to a discussion with the parents and church peer group. For dramatic effect, even include a scene of a child praying in school and being kicked out of class.

But all the way through, there's clips of Dawkins joking about Creationism and God. And the central theme of the movie would be to try to get that elusive interview with Dawkins, so he could answer for the harm done to American society by evolutionary theory. The climax would be having the narrator ask Dawkins a question in the Q&A about the decline of True America and if he even cared about all those people affected by the teaching of evolution.

Blatant propaganda? Yes. But it would be better than the faux intellectual propaganda of Expelled. It would have a more central message, and one that people would take home - about the plight of Christian America. Better still it would humanise the issue, something that was sorely lacking from Expelled. Overall I think it would make for something much more enjoyable, and something that would have gotten the message out a lot better. If one is going to make a Moore-style documentary, as Expelled seemed to attempt at times, then capture what Moore does well. You can propagandise while still making a good film out of it!

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Life's Purpose

In the documentary The Nature Of Existence, one of the things that stood out to me was just how poor some of the answers people gave were. For example, a Christian wrestler gave the purpose of existence to be recognising Jesus as our Lord an savior - which I guess for him is luck he was born into a society (and probably a family) that just happened to hold that as true.

Now I don't take that person as a bastion of Christian dogma. What I do wonder, however, is where someone goes from there. By accepting Jesus they've not only found the purpose of existence but fulfilled it - many of them doing so as children. Could trivial answers like this be the motivation behind belief in the rapture? Is it the underlying motivation behind proselytism - as what else is there to do?

A belief taken as a child or a young adult has to on average last some 70 years, through coupling and raising a family, through trials and tribulations that the world brings, through the good times and bad, and in the end dying. How much of that purpose is related to any of that? Perhaps one could make the argument that it does so in a secondary sense, as it allows for things such as community and a means to get through hardships. But if that's meant to be the purpose-driven life, as Rick Warren puts it, then it hardly seems a purpose worth having.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Atheism And Morality

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers received an email from a conservative atheist about whether one can be an atheist without being a progressive. From the email:
Can one be a conservative and atheist at the same time? It seems to me that atheism goes hand in hand with progressivism, which is not my thing...

And PZ's response:
It is entirely true that one can be an atheist, in the very narrowest sense of the word as someone who does not believe in gods, and a conservative.

I do wonder how statements like "in the very narrowest sense" can be justified. Aren't the metaphysical questions separate from the political and social questions that conservatism addresses? Surely the arguments against the existence of gods are something that can be understood and embraced by any person irrespective of their ideology.

It does, however, make me wonder just how such beliefs could be justified sans religious beliefs. While it may or may not be bad theology, there are those who push such views justified by their religious beliefs. I have no stake in the theological argument, nor do I think the theological argument should get a free pass, but I would be hard-pressed to think on what grounds one could hold the views that the conservative atheist put forward.

My personal opinion is that while these metaphysical positions surely do impact on and resonate with our political leanings, to claim ownership of political views into that metaphysics is making an unjustified step. The worst thing that could happen is if we tightly couple moral views to metaphysical ones.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Pyrrhic Arguments

Some arguments are just worth winning, the intellectual ground sacrificed is just too great. Ken Miller's argument for an interventionist deity that worked in the uncertainty of quantum mechanics would be one of those instances because it treats an interventionist deity as indistinguishable from no deity at all.

These arguments are Pyrrhic victories, and it baffles me as to why people would want to take them. I've found this in creationist arguments often when something that's treated as bad design or a remnant of evolutionary history is searched for even the most tenuous of function in order to serve the view that it was all designed by an omnipotent being.

Biologists treat the appendix as a vestigial organ, the argument goes, but the appendix plays a [minor] role in our immune system so it has function. of course that doesn't address what a vestigial organ is, but it does seem to save the day on the topic of useless design - except...

The appendix can also cause problems, it's prone to infection itself and can be both very painful and potentially fatal. And it can be removed without serious problem, so what little it gives is hardly something that gives a supposedly omnipotent omniscient deity credit. As a design solution, it's hardly an elegant one, and conjures up the problem of evil. It might be a victory of rhetoric, but the cost is far too great.

I think part of the issue is that, in general, we aren't good at thinking through the implications of what we say. And in a discussion, not being able to answer a question is in a lot of cases worse than giving a bad answer. After all, it takes understanding the topic at hand in order to be able to show why its not a good answer. So I would suggest that it's an exercise we all should try to do, to see whether or not such arguments give us a victory worth having. Otherwise arguments just serve as a rhetorical tool - something that does nothing to advance a position and will be picked apart by knowledgeable opponents.