Thursday, February 26, 2009

Get your nerd on, with Castles of Air

I apologize for the self-promotion, but I know we have a big audience and I'd like to drum up an initial following for my newest blog.

Castles of Air is about the art and science of software development. While this is admittedly a very specialized interest, I know we are blessed by a high proportion of nerds and smart people among our fans. I've been a developer for about a decade and a half now, because I've always felt that writing programs is an enjoyable hobby which also, luckily, is often worth good money. I also believe that working with computers is an excellent introduction to rigorous logic and everybody should learn at least the basics as an important part of their education.

You know my strong feelings about science, and I approach programming from a scientific background as well. I expect to be writing several posts about how to approach debugging as a science, making hypotheses about where the problems might lie and testing those to prove them true or false. And of course, I think of the mind as a great big virtual reality machine for modeling the world.

If all that doesn't sound like it could possibly hold the slightest bit of interest for you, just get back to the regularly scheduled programming and forget I wasted your time. But if you are interested, please check out my new blog, bookmark it, follow it, save the RSS feed, or whatever you want to do.

The hilarious self-importance of Brannon Howse

In recent days, we've dealt with headier topics here (though no less incorrect) than one usually gets when responding to religious claims of one sort or another. But it's been a long time since we've let our hair down, so to speak, and just smacked around some village idiots. So, in the spirit of mean-spirited fun, let us observe the recent inanities from Brannon Howse.

Howse is the big cheese over at the beyond-right-wing house of delusion known as the Christian Worldview Network. I get their e-newsletters, and trust me, a more delirious exercise in concatenated crazy you will not find outside Arkham Asylum. It's Christianity stripped down to its ugliest, basest form: ignorance, fear, and paranoia ooze from its every pixel.

Recently, Howse wrapped up a nationwide church tour performing what he called "Code Blue Rallies," in which he and a group of guest speakers basically got up behind a pulpit to display their tenuous grasp of reality in living color for all to see. The usual wackalunacy was trotted out: young-earth creationism, liberal bashing, you name it. If it's on the McDonald's menu of fundagelical stupidity, Howse served it up and super-sized it at his rallies.

One of these, at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth (Howse skipped that liberal cesspit Austin), was attended by newspaper columnist Bud Kennedy, who wrote a mildly snarky and generally bemused piece on the surreal experience for the Star-Telegram.

Howse's response to this was to go into full-on Christian persecution mode, whining on the radio show Crosstalk about how Kennedy's little column was an especially egregious example of the "liberal media and their attempt to characterize and marginalize Christians." Howse is mindful of the fact the Christian Worldview Network audience is made up of the sort of knuckleheads who move their lips when they read, and to whom the very word "liberal" is like Tard Kryptonite. So all he has to do is throw the L-word out, and he knows his audience's reactionary prejudices will do the rest. Later, naturally, he decries the way the "liberal media" unfairly tries to portray Christians as fringe kooks by "taking their words out of context" and using buzzwords to play on anti-Christian prejudices. Gee, hypocrisy from a fundie? What will they think of next?

The comedy begins even before you play the radio show. In the CWN's e-newsletter plugging this episode, Howse claims that Kennedy "slipped into" the rally — you know, like a commie spy or something. What he doesn't mention is the fact these rallies were open to the public free of charge. Now, who needs to "slip into" a free, public, widely advertised event? I suspect Kennedy just, you know, walked through the frackin' front door of the church like every other rube who went to that stupid thing. But Howse needs to give the impression Kennedy is a shady guy in general, so as to shore up his listeners' fear of teh libruls. It may seem a trivially funny little detail, but when you consider how Howse spends his show taking almost every word of Kennedy's column apart looking for distortions to be indignant over, it really underscores what a two-faced little prat Howse is, y'know?

Now keep something in mind: Kennedy's article takes all of a minute and a half to read. Howse, in response, whines and snivels for a full 20 minutes on his radio show about how horribly Kennedy trashed him, and then he takes calls. (By the way, if you ever entertained the idea that fundamentalists can't possibly be as stupid as they seem, you need to listen to a Christian radio show. Nowhere else will you hear scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectualism paraded as proudly, except perhaps at a "Code Blue Rally".)

Kennedy certainly wasn't kind, but the piece was hardly the vitriolic trashing Howse wants us to think it is. (Really, Brannon, if you want "mean-spirited", hang out here for a week. We'll put some piss in your peaches and cream, and no mistake!) Mostly, it was just making fun. Furthermore, Kennedy does not, anywhere in the article, "go after" Birchman or its pastor, Bob Pearle, for sponsoring the event, as Howse claims. Indeed, Kennedy quotes Pearle as being rather surprised at the contents of Howse's presentation, and trying to distance himself from some of its dumber content. Howse puts Pearle on the show as a phone-in guest so that Pearle can backpedal from some of his statements to Kennedy as quoted in the article.

What follows is a hilarious back-and-forth in which Howse and Pearle essentially give each other emergency hugs to reassure themselves both of their victimhood and the fact that these evil liberal newspapers that keep "blindsiding" them and "bashing Christians" are doomed. They gloat a bit about how the Star-Telegram is facing cutbacks and losing sales. It's a claim not confirmed, of course, but assuming it's entirely true, I'd suspect the reason for the paper's recent hard times is less due to their supposed Christian-bashing (just how many editorials in the last year, I wonder, were explicitly designed to mock religion?) than to the same economic crises plaguing, oh, the entire globe. A legacy bequeathed us, by the way, by a conservative Christian president and his policies.

Moreover, what's funny about Howse's whinefest is the way Howse implies that anyone criticizing him is criticizing all Christians and all Christianity. He, Howse, is Christianity, he seems to want us to think. Howse turns anal-retention into an art form as he deconstructs Kennedy's trifling little column sentence-by-sentence, pouncing on even the tiniest point as an example of Kennedy's sinister Christian-hating ways. Of the passage where Kennedy notes, "Howse has also openly criticized California Pastor Rick Warren," Howse huffs and puffs in practiced indignation. Did I say a word about Rick Warren that whole evening? he pointedly demands. Maybe not, Brannon, but Kennedy didn't specify that, only that you have attacked Warren before. (Not something I'd disagree with, but your brand of freeze-dried heat-and-serve moronity is no better.) I know, I get your e-newsletters, and I've seen the anti-Warren headlines.

But mainly, all one can say in response to Howse's show is, "Dude, get over yourself." In Howse's mind, even the slightest criticism equates to intimidation and a desire to silence. If even the tiniest and most insignificant little column like this can get your knickers in a twist, and become the kind of thing you need to blow up into some kind of pretend national scandal, claiming that it's an attempt to "silence and intimidate" Christians everywhere when all it does is poke fun at your stupid rally, then frankly, you have serious self-importance issues to deal with. Again, the strains of Todd Rundgren's "God Said" come back to me: "Just get over, get over, get over, get over yourself..."

Howse, who won't be satisfied until blood is spilled, apparently (and that's exactly the kind of metaphor his little mind would take 100% literally), gave his listeners both Kennedy's email and his editors'. I'll give them to you too, so you can drop them a line. Kennedy, to tell him thanks for the laughs, and to keep it up. And the editors', so you can tell him how good you think Kennedy is.
Publisher Gary Wortel:
Executive editor Jim Witt:
Editorial director Paul Harral:

Kazim's compiled responses to Chuck Colson

To Chuck Colson:

It has taken me a while, but I've replied to the major points in the three letters you sent to me regarding my review of The Faith.  Please visit the following links to see this three part reply.

"To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge.  But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason."

"It’s not the soundness of your methodology that I’ve questioned here; it's the results.  The study looked fine to me, and I certainly can't go back and try to reproduce the results myself.   But I don't need to.  The study you referenced already demonstrates that the program was counter-productive.  In fact, if you look at page 18, it's stated explicitly: 'Simply stated, participation in the program is not related to recidivism reduction.'"

"While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them.  We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery.  For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible.  The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves."

Although I waited longer than I intended to get back to you, I want to say that I did appreciate your response, and continue to enjoy the opportunity to explore our differences.  I'll make no promises that my next response will be speedier than this one, so feel free to take as much time as you need if you would like to get back to me.

Russell Glasser

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is Religion Beneficial to Society?

I’m currently in a correspondence with a person who is offering me the tired line that religion is helpful to people and not in conflict with science and has been involved in some worthy efforts.

This morning, February 25, in the Austin American-Statesman, there were two articles—one on the front page of the National section, and one on the front of the Local and State—that covered dangerous errors in sex education in our schools and legislation undermining the relationship between a woman and her doctor, which also noted that our governor has once again spoken out against medical research that researchers believe could yield beneficial medical results. Make no mistake, these initiatives are designed purely to resonate among religious constituents. Are there nonreligious people who might (and do) support these same measures? Yes, I’m sure there are. Would there be enough people motivated outside of religious initiatives to make these “issues” important to legislators? I highly doubt it. The reason they are “issues” is because they are religiously supported agendas. And religion means numbers.

I agree that religion is not in conflict with science—in any area where science is not in conflict with religion. However, as soon as science puts forward any assertion that does not correlate to religious claims, science comes under attack from religion, and bad things happen. The correspondent pointed out that Islamic nations long ago were among some of the most progressive thinkers in math and science. I have heard this, too. However, I wonder what sorts progressive thinking applied to apostates and heretics in these same ancient Islamic nations? Was a conversion to another religion (outside of Islam) taken in stride, do you think?

I don’t claim that where religion doesn’t conflict with X, religion will automatically oppose X. But where religion perceives that X opposes religion, X will be castigated by religious adherents—often violently and forcefully. We see it daily. And I am unaware of a time when it wasn’t so.

For awhile, I’ve been mentioning to Matt that I would like to see a publication of the letters we get to the TV-List. I would devote a section to all the letters, like this latest, telling me that religion is benign or good for people for the most part. And I would follow that section with all the letters we get from adherents telling us that their religion is good, who after a few exchanges say that mass genocide, mass infanticide, suicide-mass-murder, rape, slavery and child sacrifice are all morally acceptable if, and only if, a god tells you to do these things.

I often hear the question “Name one benefit religion offers that could not be achieved secularly (without the lies and harm that comes with religion).” It’s not a benefit, but I have found that you can get a person to say that “X is not moral in situation Y,” and then turn around in only one or two exchanges and get them to say “X was moral in situation Y because there was an added caveat that god said to do it.”

Religion can take a human being who is willing to condemn an action as immoral in a particular circumstance, and get them to say that same action is moral in that same circumstance, if a god says to do it. Now, there are certainly regimes that can get people to commit atrocities that aren’t religious. But it would be hard to get someone who is not a sociopath to admit in a hypothetical that he’d be willing to slaughter children in droves if a charismatic leader asked him to do it, or that he would kill his own child at the request of some persuasive person. Might he do it for a person if the situation actually arose? Yes. He might. Is he likely to foresee and admit that a human could ever convince him to do it (without some form of immediate duress)? No.

Is a belief system that can take a person’s moral reason and short-circuit that to “obey without question” a benign and harmless system? Aren’t we describing a ticking time bomb? What stands between this person committing atrocities—but something to convince him it’s what his god wants out of him? Is a person who says that killing children is right if god requests it, honestly that different than a person who actually kills children because he believes god requested it? Aren’t they the same person, except that one is merely waiting for some cue?

I recall a particular letter from a father of a nine-month-old who wrote to say that even if his religion isn’t true, what harm is it to raise his daughter in Christianity?

I asked him if he accepted the doctrines of hell and salvation. He did. I explained that in his paradigm, salvation requires a blanket condemnation of all human beings as imperfect for being who and what they are. Salvation and hell don’t mean “imperfect” as in “nobody’s perfect,” but “imperfect” as in “You are so horribly and inherently flawed, that by rights you deserve eternal torture according to god, and as your Christian dad, I have to agree that’s exactly what someone like you, my child, should get.”

I asked him what he thought it would mean to a little girl to know that her father sees her as that sort of a horrible being—inherently flawed to the point of complete and total unacceptability?

Initially he attempted to argue god’s love for us and how god wants us to go to heaven and not go to hell. But he couldn’t really find a way to get around the fact that his doctrines meant that he had to say he thought his daughter was inherently flawed and that nothing intrinsic to her could ever be “good enough” to merit anything but eternal punishment. He finally grasped that if there were something she could do that would make her “good enough” to not merit an eternity of torture, then intervention by Jesus would be unnecessary—negating the doctrine of salvation through Jesus. And without someone like Jesus granting her god’s “mercy” (mercy, meaning it’s not what she really deserves, but what god gives her regardless of her undeserving nature), she was hopeless and despicable.

Most of us would normally have a hard time saying any of our worst recorded criminals should be, by rights, tortured for eternity. But even if we felt that way about a person, I would expect that their actions would have to be, in some regard, fairly heinous. Someone might want revenge on Hitler to the point of hoping for a merciless, vengeful eternity of torture. But an average child? Or even an average adult? It’s hard to believe anyone would say that any of our friends and neighbors should be deserving of torture for ten minutes, let alone eternity?

I asked this dad what he would think of a neighbor who each day sat his own kids down and told them, “I think you are all such despicable children that you deserve nothing less than to be beaten without mercy, but since I love you so much, I won’t do that to you, so long as you tell me how truly sorry you are that you’re who and what you are—utterly unworthy.”

I don’t say there aren’t or couldn’t be secular systems that impact normal people’s minds and thwart their reason and moral sense in this way. I don’t say that nonreligious systems can’t and haven’t gotten good people to do bad things. What I’m saying is that I’d be hard pressed to get a human with a normally developed brain, who isn’t already abusive or a sociopath, to say—in a purely hypothetical framework—that people ought to be tortured simply for being people—and for no other reason.

I have never met people who have told me that any historical or current genocide or mass infanticide was “morally right” for any reason other than “god commanded it.” And I haven’t just met a few of those. I’ve met many. And I’m still meeting them. And I can Google their responses to the Old Testament stories and find site after site attesting to the moral correctness of committing atrocities for the Christian god. And I can’t stress strongly enough that these are not the Fred Phelps’s of the world. These are good, tax-paying, loving, caring, generous people who work and live along side us all in every segment of our society. In fact, any Christian who accepts the Bible as true and god as good, must assert these actions are good in any situation where they are commanded by a god.

There is something unnerving about living in a society where the predominant religion is one that can make a standard, normal human assert that atrocities should never be committed—except when god says to commit them. And then recognizing that in this same society, most of my fellow citizens believe a god exists and in some way communicates or has communicated with them and/or others. And that they further believe that this god, according to their sacred texts, has righteously commanded such atrocities to be committed by his adherents.

Call me crazy?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

We get email

I imagine everybody's good and fatigued by two solid weeks of playing philosophical word games with professional word gamers, so let's dial it back and enjoy a more typical theist email.

You don't get the full effect of these two messages by "J" (full name withheld by me) because they originally arrived as giant unbroken paragraphs, and I'll be breaking them up in order to respond.

hey , while you're so busy trying to get people to prove the existence of God to you on your little low budget talk show, why not prove to us that God does not exist. you can't can you? it's called a stalemate. there is no way for either side to prove anything concerning the subject.

Perhaps you have misunderstood the meaning of the word "atheism." What it means is that we don't believe in the existence of any gods, not that we regard it as a certainty. I also don't believe in, for example, Spider-Man – but I would never claim to conclusively prove that he doesn't exists.

Do you believe in Spider-Man?

i know he exist because of the things i prayed for and other thing i have seen in my life. i have a bulging disc in my lower back which pressed relentlessly against my sciatic nerve. it caused me pain every single hour of everyday for months. i tried multiple medicines, physical therapy, and hot/cold compresses. nothing worked for long. one day my mother convinced me to get prayed for by my sister who had just gotten saved. {laugh if you like} my sister prayed for me over the phone from beaumont, tx to seattle, wa long distance and the very next day all that excruciating pain was gone. you could say it was all a coincidence or it would have stopped on it's own that day anyway. you could also say what my atheist buddy travis said and claim it was the power of positive thinking. whatever. all i know is the day after i got prayed for, after MONTHS of severe pain, it was gone.

There are two fallacies in this argument. One is known as "post hoc ergo propter hoc." Just because one event happened after another event, it does not follow that one caused the other. People experience severe pain all the time, and that pain goes away all the time. People pray all the time. Odds are very high that at some point, somebody who will be praying for their pain to go away and it will go away shortly afterwards. Odds are also high that many people pray for pain to go away and it doesn't.

This leads to the other fallacy, which is called confirmation bias. When you pray for something and it happens, it looks like the prayer did the job. When you pray for something and it doesn't happen, you can dismiss it as not praying hard enough, or "It wasn't God's will." When something good happens without your prayer, you don't notice it. Thus, if you already believe in prayer, then of course your belief is confirmed over time.

the things in this world are to perfectly planned out for it all to be a result of some random asteroid crashing into earth while it was still in it's molten stage and cooling. to perfectly organized for humans to derive from sea sludge to reptile to ape to man. male and female; the ability to mate and reproduce. all random, right?

No. These things are enabled through regular behavior by natural patterns, which makes matter behave in a non-random way. Undirected, but that isn't the same thing.

a woman's clitoris being a focal point of extreme pleasure and the underside near the head of a mans penis being his is all a huge case of random coincidences. i guess our genitalia evolved to experience pleasure. couldn't be because God wanted us to experience these sensations to make us happy and strengthen the bond with your mate while we reproduce.

Look, I um...



Did you seriously just present the clitoris as proof of God? I uh...

I have to confess that's a new one on me. For once, I'm completely speechless.

i could give you example after example, but i know it would not convince a mind as closed as yours. all i can say to you if you desire proof is. die. after that, you and every proud, arrogant, and uplifted human who thinks so highly of themselves will know there is a God. However, it will be a pointless revelation while you are burning.

Nice. When your arguments are this ineffective, I suppose threatening people with imaginary torture is one kind of backup plan. Not a GOOD backup plan, mind you. The clitoris was better, I think.

i guess making yourself feel better by just erasing God from your existence is the thing to do since you will have no restriction on taking part in whatever hedonistic behavior you desire. do you have any idea of the types of thing i would do if i didn't believe in God. i'm bi-polar with an extremely bad temper. if i didn't have God to keep me in check i know i would hurt anyone who pissed me off and kill anyone who did anything bad enough for me to want to kill them. and screw the police since i would not care about jail or the death penalty because there is no after-life. right? i'd probably kill myself afterwards anyway just to prevent them from locking me up.

It's always fascinating to learn what kind of crazy psychopaths are drawn to Christianity. You set a shining example for your religion to live up to, buddy, I can tell you that.

i'd just be going back to the dust right? no judgement. no heaven or hell. point is, what's the meaning of anything if God is not involved in the lives of earth's inhabitants? sorry this email is so long.

i'm j**** by the way.

Nice to meet you, J. I don't think I'll be getting together with you for coffee anytime soon. You might want to talk to a decent psychiatrist about that angst you're feeling... it doesn't sound like the religion is cheering you up much.

That was just one of the two messages. The second is just as bad, but I'm not in the mood anymore.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Slavery and Christianity


I’d like to turn back to your second message, and the question of slavery. I pointed out in my earlier post that, rather than taking it as a given that Christians have always been the natural opponents of slavery, you might acknowledge that the Bible has frequently been used in the past to justify slavery. As an example I brought up the 19th century Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, who wrote a persuasive sermon supporting slavery as a Biblical institution. Your response, in a nutshell, was this:

"There are 1.9 billion Christians in the world today. You cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of any one of them or any group of them, for that matter."

Well, of course you can’t. I agree: you can't judge the value of a philosophy based solely on the behavior of its adherents. But if that is the case, then certainly the reverse is also true: You can't judge Christianity positively based on the good actions of its followers. Yet you do this continually throughout The Faith: you bring up actions taken by historical Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and you present them as if they were some kind of demonstration that Christianity is a good philosophy.

Here's my problem with that. Either you can judge Christianity by its followers, or you can't. I admire Bonhoeffer for his bravery, but I don't regard his actions as a justification for Christianity in their own right. I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. for his work with civil rights, but the respect I have for Dr. King does not require me to accept his faith as correct. It is not that I oppose your pride in members of your faith who exhibited strong dedication to benefitting their fellow man. What concerns me is that your pride in these people is used in your book, as it is in many apologetic works, to implicitly claim that Christianity confers some virtue that is not present in secular individuals like me.

However, if you can judge Christianity by the actions of Bonhoeffer and King, then it is fair game to also judge it by the actions of Reverend Thornton Stringfellow. Stringfellow strongly argued that the Old Testament was explicitly pro-slavery, and having read both the Bible and the speech, I feel like his arguments do have merit. Why don’t we just make an agreement that you cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of his followers, good or bad? Likewise, why not agree that a person such as Joseph Stalin does not represent any kind of coherent atheistic philosophy, and refrain from saying (as you frequently do) that this is where atheism inevitably leads? I am an atheist, and I have no more interest in setting up political prisons or Gulags than you have in owning slaves.

You also write:

"I have made the argument in the book that the Christian church has opposed slavery from the beginning. In no way did I mean to imply that there haven’t been Christians who have been disobedient to the Scripture and the teachings of the church. There have been all through history. There are millions today who claim to be followers of Christ but who do not follow Christ’s commands. All of us, even the strongest believers, are under the effects of the Fall."

While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them. We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery. For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible. The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.

"I also cannot justify the words of the Old Testament. It was a recognition by God to His covenant people of a practice that was wide-spread at that time in every culture, that His people would encounter. But it is in no way carried forward into the New Testament. My argument, remember, turns on the teachings of the Christian church and the New Testament."

Of course. I have to say I appreciate your honest recognition of some ethical failings in the teachings of the Old Testament; I think it's very forthright of you.

Yet, the Christian Bible contains both the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus says "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18) Throughout the New Testament, Jesus never explicitly says that slavery is forbidden; on the contrary, he gives further instructions on how to treat one's slaves rather than taking the opportunity to abolish this practice.

On page 178 of The Faith, you do cite a verse on where Paul of Tarsus says "there is neither slave nor free" (Galatians 3:28) as an example of the New Testament's opposition to slavery. I don't see this as a very strong condemnation, however, considering that the same passage also says that there is neither male nor female. That would have interesting implications for our definition of marriage, don't you think? ;) I find it hard to believe that Paul was literally saying there are no genders; only that a person's identity in life ultimately doesn't matter. That isn't much of a case to free your slaves, any more than it is a case to get a sex change.

You also mentioned 1 Timothy 1:10 as condemning slave traders. It’s hard to be sure that this is what is meant by the context. The King James Version of the Bible says "menstealers," which is somewhat ambiguous. The New American Standard and several other versions simply say "kidnappers." Since many of the Old Testament passages regarding slavery indicate that slaves were either sold by their parents or captured as prisoners of war, this also doesn’t seem to work as a blanket condemnation of the practice.

It certainly is not my intent to argue over what is the correct Biblical interpretation. Clearly you have a more vested interest in that than I do; to me, the Bible is just a book with some good things, some bad things, and some ambiguous things in it. My point here isn't that the pro-slavery interpretation is right or not; it's just that the Bible on its own really can't, and hasn't been, the final arbiter of moral truth. Reading the Bible, it’s clear that reasonable people can disagree, and their interpretation of which meaning is best will likely be colored by their social background. I have no doubt that before the civil war, a relatively large number of people believed the Bible to be pro-slavery, while today relatively few do.

What this says to me is that morality has an undeniable cultural component, and this worldly influence can be a force for positive as well as negative. I don't think you're comfortable with this claim, but I think the whole slavery issue should make it fairly clear that this is true even if the Bible is treated as one possible source of moral values. I would venture to say that we as a society and as a culture are better off now, in terms of quality of life, than we would have been if we had stuck to the old Biblical traditions -- both those that turned a blind eye to slavery, and those that explicitly endorsed it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Open thread on today's show

I'm actually typing this with about 15 minutes left to go in the program. But we've already had the epic 48-minute sequel discussion with Matt Slick, and I'm sure people will have a lot of feedback.

Generally speaking, I think Slick really got his deer-in-the-headlights thing on when Matt D. pointed out the distinction — which Slick pointedly refused to recognize, whether he really didn't or was just pretending not to in order to defend his position — between logical absolutes as essential properties of reality, and the discipline of logic which we as thinking beings use to understand reality. In an uninhabited universe with no minds, a rock is still a rock and not a mushroom. Slick insisted this could not be the case, conflating the logical process by which we understand "A=A" with the physical object "A," the rock. Then, in order to take control of a discussion that was getting away from him, he got Matt D. bogged down by demanding that Matt D. define a "third option" beyond "physical" and "conceptual". I think Matt D. slipped up a little here, in that he let himself get flustered and angry at Slick's little Mexican Hat Dance around his salient criticism of TAG, as well as by Slick's aggressive subject-changing and obfuscation. I wish Matt D. had just asked, "So is God conceptual?"

On the whole, though, Matt D. mopped the floor with Slick, because Slick's only response to Matt's pointing out the contradiction in claiming absolutes to be both conceptual and not contingent on minds was to say, basically, "Nuh-uh." Slick's exercise in distracting and flustering Matt was quite intentional. Having done this for years, I recognize the argumentation tactic of "if you can't beat 'em, piss 'em off" that apologists employ as a matter of course.

But did you catch the part where Slick essentially admitted God could not be omnipotent, because God could not do anything to defy a logical absolute? Which Matt D. then pointed out proved that God had to be contingent upon logical absolutes and not the author of them? To which Slick again responded with "Nuh-uh"? Based on today's call, it seems clear to me that all Slick is doing with TAG is trying to find a way to call logic "God."

Great episode, though. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

They do homophobia bigger in Utah!

If you haven't seen this delirious anti-gay ad that recently ran in the Salt Lake City paper, placed by, one of those patriotism-is-the-last-refuge-of-scoundrels Christian hate groups, you haven't lived. I don't know what's funnier here. Just basking in the raving paranoia and idiocy (seriously, people, if you really believe your own marriages will be devalued by letting gay couples marry, then your marriages aren't worth shit to begin with); trying to count the misspellings and number of fonts used; or simply having a chuckle over the we-didn't-catch-the-irony use of such words as "backdoor".

Enjoy. And, uh, think of the children.

But there's more. Here's an example of thermostupid right from their website, copied as written, without editing or corrections.

They are using intimadation to gain ground and are lying to the public, ALL THEY WANT IS MARRIAGE RIGHTS to valdite their relationship of the same-sex!!! THEY ALREADY HAVE THE RIGHT to Marry, a gay man can marry a gay woman!

Comedy frickin' gold!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Another friggin' post on the Transcendental Argument :)

I'm never prouder of the Atheist Community of Austin than when we all manage to pull together in a discussion about serious topics of philosophy and presentation strategy. Last night six of us got together in an Austin coffeehouse to discuss several issues for the show, and for the first hour we went over Matt Slick's Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) with a fine-toothed comb. I see that Martin has already outlined several conclusions of that conversation admirably, so I won't need to go over all of it. I'll defer to his well-written response.

At this point people who are interested in arguments and not a glimpse at behind-the-scenes process might want to skip down to the bold header below, where I will take up one final argument against TAG.

We have received a veritable flood of comments about the Matt Slick call: by email, on the blog (both here and here), on the Iron Chariots forum, and on my favorite hangout, the Atheist Fools board (115 posts at the time of this writing). All told, there have been several hundred comments about that episode, which I think probably makes it one of the most talked-about episodes ever.

That didn't necessarily make it a good episode, of course. The feedback has been mixed, and I've listened to all kinds of criticism that I take very seriously. Matt D called me almost as soon as the show was over to vent his frustrations about some aspects of the call. While most of the email and online comments have been positive, an uncomfortably high number of them have also said that Don and I handled the call "disgracefully," that we were rude and impatient, and that Matt Slick was right to call us out for interrupting him a lot. A couple even said it put them off the show permanently.

I don't dismiss these comments. We're only human. In a 1997 article from the Internet Infidels library, Michael Martin says:

"Ignorance of TAG is hardly surprising since it plays no role in the position of the most famous contemporary religious apologists and is not covered in standard texts in the philosophy of religion. In fact, I myself was unaware of it when I published a book on atheism in which I spend hundreds of pages refuting theistic arguments (Martin, 1990)."

I wouldn't say that I've never heard the TAG before, but because it's never been a common argument from our callers, I've never given it a lot much consideration at all. I've been told that I was rushing so much to find a contradiction in Slick's logic that I jumped ahead to parts of the argument that hadn't been made yet, allowing Slick to make us look bad by saying that he wasn't saying those things at all.

Of course, reading his argument online, it's crystal clear that he damn well was going to say many of those things, but apparently wild indignation at not being allowed to talk is Mr. Slick's style. Commenter KaylaKaze pointed us to a debate Slick had with the Rational Response Squad. He was allowed to speak uninterrupted for much longer periods of time, and yet he still complained about how he wasn't allowed to keep talking.

It's a fine line to walk. Matt D and others who gave feedback are absolutely right that I should have exhibited more patience and let him go through more of the argument without interrupting. I also regret being a little more jokey than usual, appearing to dismiss and ridicule Mr. Slick. However, give an apologist too much air time and he's liable to pull a Gish Gallop, presenting a long stream of misconceptions that must be gone over in great detail. So as Martin says, Monday morning quarterbacking is easy, and I've done plenty of it myself; being in the position makes it trickier to see the long view.

I received some excellent advice from Motley Fool poster jgc123, who said:

"When you are hearing a new argument, admit that it is a new one or one that you have not worked through as thoroughly as the others. Or just tell the person that you are not sure you understand their version of the argument and keep asking questions until you are really ready to respond. If necessary, pull a Larry King and let them have the stage for the full hour, after which you invite them to come back. You can't win anybody over by not listening to them."

Words to live by. Thank you, everyone, for your feedback, both good and bad.

TAG Redux

Martin already did a great job recapping the highlights of our discussion from last night, but there's just one more point I'd like to raise with regard to the specific form of TAG that Matt Slick used, and he doesn't address this one on his website. Essentially it's a reformulation of the well-known Euthyphro Dilemma, which we refer to a lot on the show.

In point 6A, the TAG argument states that "Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature," and therefore their existence is necessarily contingent on the existence of a mind (such as God's) to conceive them. For example, the law of identity, "A is A," is true only because it is held in a perfect mind. You'll notice that in point 4C, Slick says that "Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people," and the reason he gives is that people's minds are different and may contradict each other. Presumably this includes a mind contradicting itself by having different opinions at different points in time. So here's my question:

Can God change his mind?

I suspect that Slick would say that God is eternally correct and unchanging, but let's clarify that question. Suppose God said "A is not A." Would the laws of logic then change? If he says that they do, then logical absolutes are no longer so absolute; they are subject to the whims of a capricious mind, and we're back to the same problem that Slick highlighted in 4C.

However if, as I suspect, the answer is that God cannot change his mind -- if he is logically bound to uphold the unalterable truth that A is A -- then God isn't the author of logical absolutes at all. His mind is an extraneous addition to the question. With or without God's mind, things would still be equal to themselves.

Thus, as a proof for the logical necessity of God, the TAG fails.

In conclusion, please be sure to catch next week's show with Matt and Tracie. Our hosts have the benefit of a week-long conversation under their belts, and they'll be taking the topic up again. Matt has encouraged Matt Slick to call back again, and while he may not do so -- I am also in possession of a rather testy email protesting his treatment -- there will be discussion on the topic either way.

As I said in my lecture about atheist evangelism, you don't learn to play games well without exposing yourself to tough opponents and acknowledging weaknesses in your own style. The TV show has always been a learning process for all of us, and I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to learn through error as your host.

Should we send PZ a bag of these?

I wonder if they come in Fudge Stripe?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TAG, you're not it

As I've been away from the blog for way too long, I thought it'd be a prime opportunity to get back in the swing of things with my tuppence on the last AE TV show, and the whole dustup with CARM's Matt Slick over his use of TAG, the Transcendental Argument for God. I'm going to comment, not on the show — which, sue me, I still haven't seen, but which sounds to me like it was a terrific episode, due to the response it's gotten from viewers both pro and con; I judge the show's merits by how passionately it engages our audience, and not how well the hosts did or didn't do, as you always find yourself Monday-morning-quarterbacking the damn thing once it's done — but the argument as Slick presents it on CARM's site. He is known to boast that no atheist has ever been able to respond to it, which I find hard to believe, since its flaws are readily apparent.

I won't make this as epic a post as my recent two-parter replying to questions from apologists like Habermas. And it isn't going to be the ultimate in comprehensive refutations of TAG either; there's a lot more that other writers have said than I even begin to touch on here. I'll just cut to the chase: the argument essentially tries to establish that the universe operates logically, and that it could not do so if the Christian God had not set it up that way.

When discussing what he terms logical absolutes, Slick is largely correct. The three laws are accurate as far as I can determine, and he's right when he says that truth cannot be self-contradictory and so on. If there were no minds in the universe to think about these things, a rock on a barren planet would still conform to the law of identity. It would be what it is, and not be what it isn't. Slick's sound on his premises more or less, but keep in mind that what he's talking about here are logical absolutes — that is to say, unadorned, bald, ontological facts about reality — and not the formalized methods of logic as an intellectual discipline. This distinction is important, as Slick will begin sneakily conflating the two as he gets closer to his conclusion.

Where Slick starts wobbling is in 4C.

4. Logical Absolutes are transcendent

    A. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on space.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on location. If we traveled a million light years in a direction, logical absolutes are still true.
    B. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on time.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on time. If we traveled a billion in the future or past, logical absolutes are still true.
    C. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people. That is, they are not the product of human thinking.
    1. People's minds are different. What one person considers to be absolute may not be what another considers to be absolute. People often contradict each other. Therefore, Logical Absolutes cannot be the product of human, contradictory minds.
    2. If Logical Absolutes were the product of human minds, then they would cease to exist if people ceased to exist which would mean they would be dependent on human minds. But this cannot be so per the previous point.

You may have notice how carefully a card has been palmed under C. Slick states that absolutes are not dependent on people. What he should have said here, as it would have been more strictly accurate, is not "people" but "minds." For one thing, minds are what he's talking about, after all, not spleens or toenails. And in points C1 and C2, he does clarify that he's referring to minds. But why set things up by referring to human minds specifically? Because he wants to leave the backdoor open for a transcendent, supernatural mind, conveniently belonging to his God, as an explanation for logical absolutes.

Having palmed his card in 4C, Slick switches it in point 6. Watch carefully:

6. Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature

    Logic is a process of the mind. Logical absolutes provide the framework for logical thought processes. Therefore, Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature.
    1. If they are conceptual by nature, they are not dependent upon the physical universe for their existence.

Did you catch that? Moments ago, Slick was telling us that logical absolutes cannot be the product of minds. Then here, he switches from talking about logical absolutes to logic-the-discipline, which very much is a "process of the mind". Then in his very next sentences, he switches right back to absolutes again, declaring them "conceptual" (that is, the products of mind) right after telling us, more or less correctly, that flawed human minds cannot have anything to do with them. There's the conflation of logical absolutes with logic-the-discipline.

Slick doesn't want logical absolutes to be the product of flawed material human minds, but he wants them to be the product of someone's mind, namely God's. So he has to introduce a bit of legerdemain at the right moment in his proof to get himself to his God. Which brings us to point 7, in which Slick, having laid down a number of observations of logical absolutes in nature, proceeds to pull God out of his hat in the mother of all non sequiturs.

7. Thoughts reflect the mind

  1. A person's thoughts reflect what he or she is.
  2. Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.
  3. Since the Logical Absolutes are transcendent, absolute, are perfectly consistent, and are independent of the universe, then they reflect a transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind.
  4. We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, God.

Sorry, Matt, but absolutely nothing in the preceding six points has supported the conclusion you reach in your seventh. You could just as meaningfully have written, "We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, Gus the Magic Cosmic Hippo."

Let's get down to a few details. First off, logical absolutes. Here is where Don Baker and Slick really tussled on the show, and I think shows how Slick's conflation of concepts in logic have really muddied the waters here. Let's just take one of the three absolutes: the law of identity.

What the law of identity describes is a condition of reality that exists, independent of mind or anything else. That anywhere in the universe, whether there is life and a mind to observe it or not, an existing thing will be what it is, and it won't be what it isn't.

But in determining that such absolutes are not contingent upon minds, and furthermore, that a mind is a flawed thing that can make incorrect judgments about things, Slick is at a loss to explain them. He does not wish to consider that a fact of nature may simply be a fact of nature. So he has to jump to the conclusion that a transcendent mind must have conceived of what the flawed human mind cannot. Then, Slick just decides to call that mind God, even though there is nothing in the entire preceding argument whatsoever to lead one to conclude, logically, that such a transcendent mind must necessarily be that of the Biblical God. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. After everything Slick has constructed in a largely impressive-sounding proof, he simply gives us an upmarket, designer-label variant of "God of the Gaps".

There are other little nagging flaws you could nitpick to death, such as the faux-conclusion "Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind." The natural response here is to ask Slick how he, with his imperfect and flawed human mind, can consider himself in any position to recognize an absolutely perfect thought when he encounters it. And remember, when this whole argument started, logical absolutes were not the product, nor could they be, of a mind at all. Until point 6, when logic-the-discipline and logical absolutes did a brief switcheroo that allowed Slick to shoehorn in his perfect, transcendent mind. Then, the "absolutes" became "conceptual," and thus contingent upon an "absolutely perfect mind."

But there's another problem.

For the "perfect, transcendent mind" Slick proposes to exist, it must conform as well to logical absolutes like the law of identity. If God exists, he must be God. Even if he were a God who could magically change his form into a fish or talking donkey or what have you, he would still, in those situations, be God. He wouldn't be God and Not-God. He couldn't be all-powerful and possess no powers whatsoever at the same time.

So for God to exist, he must exist in a logical framework. Thus logical absolutes cannot be contingent upon God. God must be contingent upon logical absolutes. QED.

Slick purports to address a number of objections, though he doesn't really refute the objections he lists so much as ask questions about them. I'll only deal with the first two.

Logical Absolutes are the result of natural existence

  1. In what sense are they the result of natural existence? How do conceptual absolutes form as a result of the existence of matter?

If you work from a primacy-of-existence metaphysics as I do, then you realize that a logical order is entailed by the nature of existence itself. Existence exists, which is not a statement that requires a proof, I shouldn't think. And to exist is to exist as something, as George H. Smith pointed out in Atheism: The Case Against God. I suppose a person could propose the existence of something that took no form whatsoever (in fact, they've done so: it's God). But then you're stuck trying to offer proofs. And yet, what's the difference between something that takes no form of any kind, and something that does not exist?

Also, notice again how slick Slick is with his language here. Once more, the logical absolutes that are not in any way a product of mind have become "conceptual" absolutes when Slick needs them to. Well, while the law of identity as it is put into words by logicians may be "conceptual," the thing the law describes is an actual, not conceptual, absolute. And actual absolutes are inherent in nature. Unless my imperfect mind is totally misrepresenting nature to me, and I'm just a brain in a vat! Blub, blub.

Logical Absolutes simply exist.

  1. This is begging the question and does not provide an explanation for their existence. Simply saying they exist is not an answer.

But Matt, your whole argument here has been in aid of getting you to God, a being whom you assume simply to exist, and for whose existence, if you were asked, you would say did not require an explanation.

Since I consider existence to be a causal primary, I don't think an explanation is needed for the existence of existence. But even though I'll willingly admit I could be wrong, I think my position is at least more sound than yours, in that existence really does exist, obviously enough so that it shouldn't require proof, as your God does. And as I've explained, your God would have to adhere to logical absolutes like the law of identity himself in order to exist. So I'm afraid you're going to have to do better than TAG in future if you want to demonstrate God's existence, let alone that the universe is contingent upon him.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Slick Transcendental Argument

On the February 15th episode of the Atheist Experience, we got a call from a “Matt Slick” from the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry. Unfortunately, Matt Dillahunty had been arranging this call [edit: No he hadn't, please see comments. -Kazim] and Mr. Slick happened to call in when our Matt was not on the air. Matt has been anxious to debate Mr. Slick, so he was frustrated that he wasn’t on that week. Matt is hoping for Mr. Slick to call again next week.

After a little discussion, Mr. Slick chose to present us a version of the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God. Apparently, it’s the one for which most atheists are the least prepared to debate. Unfortunately, Russell and I took a different debate strategy with our guest and it didn’t come off as well as it might have. I took the strategy of questioning assumptions as they came across, which perhaps bogged down the discussion. Mr. Slick was frustrated he didn’t get to arrive at the latter part of his argument with his assumptions intact, which might have been the real source of his frustration. Eventually, we ran out of time and he gave the link to his version of the argument before we ended the episode.

At dinner, we had some debate about the nature of logic and I seem to have a position that is not the majority one. I’d like to explain my position and why it sabotages Mr. Slick’s argument early on.

Formal logic is a branch of discrete mathematics invented by humans. It concerns the truth or falsehood of logical propositions. The beauty of it is that it is sound, meaning that if the assumptions are correct and the operations are properly applied, the result will also be true. Another important thing to understand is that, like any tool, it’s not universally applicable. It doesn’t apply (without modification) to truth values that change over time, things that are not discrete (think clouds, water droplets, or wave-particle duality), or infinite things. As with any tool, if it’s miss-applied, you will get incorrect results. This is the point I was trying to make in the call.

Mr. Slick was trying to make the point that logic is absolute—that it is true in all times, places, and circumstances. I disagree with this statement. In his argument, for example, he refers to a “Law of identity”, “Law of non-contradiction”, and “Law of excluded middle.” Mr. Slick is trying to lay the groundwork for a Law Giver who will eventually be the author of such laws. What Mr. Slick calls the “Law of identity” is really just the definition of equality. Exactly how you define equality is effectively a human-based assumption built into the model. The “Law of non-contraction” concerns the desirability of soundness of the system, meaning that if you build on false statements, you can no longer trust the conclusion. Soundness is a human-desired property of a formal system and we would reject any system that didn’t have it (and yes, such systems exist). Finally, what he calls the “Law of excluded middle” is an axiom of formal logic. Axioms are assumptions (made by humans) that may not be applicable in all situations. The point here is that no God is involved. Mr. Slick’s argument is on shaky ground from the beginning.

Formal logic is the basis of mathematics, computer science, and other disciplines. It is astoundingly useful, when it is properly applied. Mr. Slick tries to make a rather muddy point that logic is universal and therefore transcendent. The above discussion is necessary to tease apart several possible meanings of this statement.

  • It is not the case that it applies universally and we need to look no further than his own “proof” statements to see some problems:
    • Both conception and death are processes that last over time. There are times where it is ambiguous as to whether or not a person is dead or whether an embryo has been conceived. They are not two-valued things, such as is assumed by formal logic. Likewise, there is no such thing as a “moment of conception” as Christian propagandists would have you believe.
    • Living things change constantly over time, so the notion of what it means to be “the same” from one hour, year, century, has to be carefully defined before any meaningful conclusions can be drawn.
    • Clouds are not discrete objects. Combining two clouds yields one cloud. Does that mean that 1+1 = 1, and one of the first two clouds no longer exists? (Answer: it depends exactly on what you mean by "exist.")
    • Many quantum mechanical events, such as radioactive decay, are uncaused. (Too bad for the cosmological argument for the existence of a god.)
  • It is absolutely true that formal logic is sound. That is, whenever the assumptions and methods are properly used, they yield correct results. It doesn’t matter where, when, or by whom the model is applied. In this sense, it is absolute and universal.
  • It’s even possible that, given just how useful formal logic is, other races will have invented it independently. Nobody has any evidence for this conclusion, but I think it’s likely. We know of no other species that have independently invented/discovered it, so Mr. Slick has yet to prove it’s absolute in this sense. He is trying to hide an assumption that a god created logic inside a proof of the existence of such a god. This is a circularity that renders Mr. Slick’s argument unsound (false).
Mr. Slick then goes on to say that logic is the product of only minds. It is true that humans invented it, but machines can carry it out. There are computer programs called theorem provers that can perform proofs of novel propositions. A version of the famous four color problem was solved by a computer before it was solved by a human. In his proof, Mr. Slick goes asserts that somehow minds are necessary to apply logic. Mr. Slick’s god is apparently not much better than a calculator.

So even before we get to the "meat" of Mr. Slick’s argument, we find it riddled with falsehoods and muddled thinking. I’ll let Matt refute the rest of the argument on the show, should Mr. Slick call back, but essentially, the rest of the argument is a blatant attempt to steal credit from the hard work of mathematicians that Mr. Slick hasn’t taken the trouble to understand.

I find it pathetic that billions of people believe in an omniscient God, nearly all of them claim to be in direct communication with Him, yet together they can’t come up with any evidence for Him. Mr. Slick lived up to my impression of apologists—intellectually dishonest people who are happy to mislead others using logical fallacies and manipulation. The world would be a better place without these con artists.

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Prison Ministry statistics revisited

Now that I’ve discussed the central issue, I’d like to return to the information about your prison ministry that you discussed in your first letter.

In my first message to you I contested the success of your prison ministry, pointing out that your study considered someone to be "a graduate" only if they successfully got a job after release. This slants the data. It allows you to take credit for an achievement that which, whether or not someone took your program, would have a strong tendency to lower their recidivism rate. I argued that it is the job that predicts their success, not their participation in your program. I also pointed out that when you take the recidivism statistics altogether, the people who took your program (including the ones who did not "graduate") had an overall worse recidivism rate than the general prison population.

You replied:

"The grounds for the compilation of empirical data, established by Prison Fellowship in cooperation with the Texas Department of Corrections was that we would measure graduates, that is, those people who completed our program, as opposed to simply people who signed up for it. The reason we did that was obvious: we could not select the people coming in—we had no control over that. The state made that choice, as it did with the people in their control group. If both sides had made their own choices, then you would consider including drop-outs. But we knew the state couldn’t choose the kind of people we knew were motivated to do this."

No, of course you can't. That’s kind of the point of a randomized study. If you could cherry-pick people who were already "motivated," then you would be working with a subset of prisoners who were already inclined to get their lives straightened out, and then your sample would be even more biased.

I mean, suppose you knew how to identify the people who were motivated to turn their lives around. Once you've picked them out of the general population, no further action is needed at that point. I'll bet you could just study them and find out that this group naturally has a lower recidivism rate than those who are not so motivated.

"The researchers from the University of Pennsylvania believed that this was sound methodology. We were very clear about this from the beginning, because we use a process of self-selection. In other words, the initial curriculum was geared to a pretty intense biblical grounding, so only people who really wanted this would take part in it. Anyone who has worked in this area, like Alcoholics Anonymous, will tell you that it’s the motivation of the participant that is crucial. If the person doesn’t want to change, you can’t change him. As Christians, we believe everyone has a free will to choose or not choose to follow Christ. So we’re obviously looking for people in our programs who are at least open to that."

It’s not the soundness of the methodology that I’ve questioned here; it's your spin on the results. The study looked fine to me, and I certainly can't go back and try to reproduce the results myself. But I don't need to. On page 18, the study stated explicitly: "Simply stated, participation in the program is not related to recidivism reduction." This is actually generous, since the final results on page 19 show that the program was in fact counter-productive, once you stop filtering out "non-graduates" and just compare participants to non-participants.

Although I understand why you don't wish to count the program's effects on the people who didn't "graduate," the fact that the presence of the program had a net negative effect on recidivism is a very significant result. As I said before, you can't just define "graduation" to be a set of preconditions which, if met by prisoners who didn't take your program, would ALSO result in lower recidivism. Or you can, but if you do that then you don't get credit for prisoners who meet these definitions.

"The acid test here, however, is what has happened since that data was compiled and released in 2003. We have continued to monitor these programs across the country, and they have continued to produce between 8 and 10 percent recidivism."

Of course they did. Those are the people who already got a job. Again, I'm not questioning the conduct of the study, but your interpretation of the results.

"As for the case in Iowa, we did indeed lose it at the trial level. But the case was appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held in our favor on all of the substantive questions except accepting state funds. ... on the more important question of whether the program is effective and whether it is constitutional without federal funds, the Eighth Circuit, in an opinion joined in by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, did not declare anything we’re doing to be unconstitutional. I consider that a very significant victory."

It sounds pretty hollow to me, I'm afraid. I thought we were discussing whether the program actually helps people by incorporating your teachings, not whether a court allowed you get away with continuing the program. The only reason I brought up the case at all was because you used it in your book as a way to criticize Barry Lynn for hating truth.

"As for the question you raised about whether someone could be paroled, not get a job, and therefore not be counted in our statistics, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that. I’ll ask one of our staff to look at that, but I can’t believe that’s the case. I don’t think the University of Pennsylvania would have accepted that. The researchers who did this study were enthusiastic about the results."

I'll be interested to know whether you have found anything out by now. It seems fairly clear to me from the study:

"A program graduate is someone who completes not only the in-prison phases of IFI dealing with biblical education, work, and community service (usually lasting 16 months), but also includes an aftercare phase (usually lasting 6 months) in which the participant must hold a job and have been an active church member for 3 consecutive months following release from prison." (page 5)

Sounds pretty cut and dried: if you don't have a job, then you are not a graduate.

Assuming that my interpretation is correct, another way I could think of to create a control group for your experiment is to keep track of all those prisoners who were rejected from your program, but went on to be paroled and then got a job. If you could compare that information, then you might weed out the bias. As it is, I certainly don't think you have sufficient grounds to criticize Barry Lynn for hating your program because it helps people.

Open thread on AE 2/15

Since there was no post before yesterday's show, or any post in the last several days, I'm submitting this. If you want to discuss the show with me and Don yesterday, including the final conversation with apologist Matt Slick, then have at it. Note that comment moderation is on, so it might take a while for yours to show up.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Faith and certainty


Hello again Chuck,

Thanks again for taking the time to compose thoughtful replies to my discussion of your book. This time I'll have to echo your apology for taking so long to reply. I’ve had an extremely eventful year, and it took me a while to devote time to giving your three messages the attention that they deserved. I hope you don't mind, but I've chosen to break down my replies into a series of multiple posts, and I will be treating your posts out of sequence.

I'd like to start by discussing the position on faith that you revealed in your second and third messages. I have to say that your perspective surprised me a bit. As I had previously noted, throughout your book you chastised postmodernists for their position that there is no objective truth, only subjectivity. Yet in your recent message, you came out with an extraordinary pro-subjectivity statement:

"All thought begins with faith. All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions. These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith. The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith."

What I found particularly remarkable about this claim was that it almost perfectly echoes claims by the very same post-modernist movement that you have so often decried. Like you, post-modernists believe that reason is just another form of faith, and that there is no way to objectively determine the nature of reality outside your own mind, and the only thing that can be described as "true" is what is "true for me." I disagree with post-modernists: I believe that reality exists, and that it is independent of individual minds or beliefs. While it is by necessity investigated and interpreted by fallible humans, the nature of "knowledge" is that it must be accurate; i.e., it must conform to a reality which is not dependent on belief.

When I read your statement above, it sounded to me as if you don’t really feel the same. When you say “faith,” you appear to be implying that knowledge is a subjective matter, which may be said to be entirely dependent on the observer. If I adopt a position of faith that, for instance, Allah is God, and I will be rewarded with 72 virgins if I die as a martyr, then that belief is "true for me."

I thought I must be mistaken; this couldn’t possibly be your position. Perhaps you meant something different than I do when you use the word "faith." After all, you had claimed that St. Augustine's influence "gave Christians the liberty to use reason when interpreting their faith." (Incidentally, I find this a curious statement. Why should they even need permission to use reason?) In any case, because of this nod to "reason," I thought perhaps you were implying that faith is simply an application of justified belief; a corollary to reason.

However, reading your other statements about faith, it became clear to me that you DO in fact set the concept of faith as something separate and apart from reason. Let me highlight a few examples of other places where you applied the word:

"But if we could prove the existence of God, we wouldn’t have to have faith."

(Clearly, you are setting faith in opposition to the notion of coming up with some kind of objective demonstration of the reality of God.)

"God is that which is greater than that which we can know. It’s almost by very definition what we mean when we say God. And if we could know Him, we wouldn’t love Him. Faith is required for a relationship between the Creator and His creatures."

(In other words, by saying that if we have faith in God, we are explicitly ruling out the possibility that we can actually know God.)

When I look at your response from this perspective, what I get from your declaration of faith is the following: You think we cannot prove anything, even in a conventional sense; we cannot know anything; we cannot claim objective certainty of anything except through the subjective lens of our own fallible human minds. Therefore, we might as well just treat the things we fervently believe as "True." So tell me, how is this not the essence of post-modernism boiled down to its purest form?

What’s interesting is that when it suits your purpose, you freely use the term "faith" as a pejorative, again in the sense of "belief without evidence," as long as it can apply to those with whom you disagree. For instance, when you speak of Darwin, you say this:

"Yet on the basis of naturalistic presuppositions—a faith position—he had to make this argument, and scientists who share that faith position must also support it."

So you ridicule Darwin’s scientific conclusions as "a faith position," yet elsewhere you have repeatedly said that faith is the most important thing there is. I mean, really, it’s right there in the title of your book. This leads me to wonder: how do you, Chuck, go about distinguishing which kind of faith is worth supporting, and which kind is ridiculous?

To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge. But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason. So again, if you’re going to take that point of view, I don’t see a useful way to distinguish your faith from the faith of a Muslim, a Mormon, a Wiccan, or a Jehovah’s Witness – all of whom stand on faith-based principles with which I am sure you disagree.

I wish to turn now to your third message, in which you attempted to justify this style of faith. You say:

"I started thinking about your comment about my being so certain in my convictions that I came across as somewhat arrogant. I think you’re probably right. And the reason, I realized as I was thinking about it, is that I have spent much time over the years pondering this question rationally."

"I suddenly realized I did have a good ability to think. And ever since then I have really enjoyed the life of the mind. But I do apologize if I’ve come across as arrogant. I have nothing to be arrogant about; whatever good I have done is a gift from God."

I don't begrudge you the confidence in your own abilities. I too have spent a lot of time considering these issues, and I have a similar high opinion of myself – I’m confident that what I think is probably right because I’ve already given it a lot of thought. Both of us hold inherently subjective opinions, but we are basing them to some extent on our own past experience, which is certainly one component of reason, and hence a step in the direction of objectivity.

So if you are confident in your own mind that your position is the right one, then that’s great; enjoy your certainty. If your only goal in writing your book is to "preach to the choir," then by all means, just tell your audience that you know you are right from experience, and they’ll probably believe you.

But I was under the impression that you wrote your book at least partly in order to persuade unbelievers like myself that your position is correct. I recognize that you would like to help me get saved from the fire and damnation that you feel certain is in store for me. Unfortunately, I need to point out that merely stating "I know it is true because I am thoughtful and intelligent" doesn’t really achieve that goal. Instead, it is an obvious effort to set yourself up as an authority by fiat: "You should believe this because I believe it, and I must be right."

If I were to accept this sort of rhetorical tactic, I would be basing my beliefs on something truly subjective. Either I just agree to accept you (or somebody else) as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge, or I accept everybody’s beliefs as equally valid, even contradictory beliefs. Neither reaction strikes me as a satisfying approach to knowledge.

The long awaited reply to Chuck Colson (but not quite)

Okay, okay, okay.

Those of you who have been hanging around for a while will remember that I reviewed a free copy of Chuck Colson's The Faith many months ago; he took a couple of months to reply, and then he wrote three separate but very long posts over the next few weeks.  And you'll also remember that I keep on making half-hearted promises to post a substantial reply to those posts, but I keep on not actually doing it.

Part of the reason has been personal life stuff, and part of it is because there are just so many things to criticize, single sentences that take hours to rebut.

I'm thinking of a new approach to get me moving.  I have a long commute with a carpool and a laptop now, so I'm able to write regularly, but I'm still swamped trying to think of how to organize the mega-response I was writing.  So here's my proposal.  Since I've managed to get fired up writing so much about debate lately, I'm thinking I should make this a weekly installment.  I'll post what I have written already, and then each week maybe identify one particular aspect of Chuck's posts, write something during the week, and post something even if it's short.

The question I have for you readers is: Should I send a message to Chuck's liaison immediately after writing the first post, and keep updating him, thereby inviting more replies before I'm finished?

Or, should I do this for several weeks, and then gather up ALL the posts when I've finished having my say, and send a big list of links?

What do you say?

Friday, February 06, 2009

So who is making money during the economic crisis?

Sleazy "psychics" with their usual exploit-the-scared-and-insecure routine.

But you know, you're likely to be astonished — simply slack-jawed in astonishment — over the powerful predictions that come from "psychic" Roxanne Usleman. Prepare to have your skepticism swept into the sea:

The housing crisis will deepen, the country could fall into a depression and laid-off workers may need to start their own business.

Holy shit! How does she do it? Bog knows no real financial advisor would be able to come up with ideas like that! Must be why so many pathetic dimwits concerned, thoughtful people like Bruce Levy (who, of course, was "skeptical at first") consider Usleman someone who "is able to make me see things that I wouldn't otherwise see."

I'd suggest that if Levy is so lame a "businessman" that he cannot see that we're swirling in a financial whirlpool, that it will get worse before it gets better, and that a whole new career game plan might be worth thinking about, and see those things all on his own without paying some dingbat with a really ghastly face lift $20 a minute to tell him, then he deserves to be a broke-ass chump.

I suppose I shouldn't blame Usleman for doing whatever she can do to avert financial hard times on her own. But I have these things called morals, and, well, taking advantage of the mentally disadvantaged or emotionally vulnerable just isn't on my "cool things to do" list.

You weren't wondering, but...

Where has Rhology been trolling since we showed him the door? Well, he's currently being tiresome over at poor Abbie Smith's blog. The usual obfuscation, idiotic premises ("The consistent naturalist can't prove that he is not a brain in a vat."), goalpost shifting, hand-waving and tautologies ("Or perhaps you could prove that evidence is the best way to discover truth. I'd like some evidence for that claim." ...etc) presented as if they were bold challenges, followed by smarminess. His pattern is the same there as it was here: present a load of hopelessly inane questions and risible assertions, and when people point out how inane and risible they are, slip into smirking condescension that they're — ha ha! — avoiding answering you.

Poor ERV. Sure, her commenters are making mincemeat of the guy. But only a few of them have twigged that he's an intellectual poseur who isn't interested in answers, facts, or even genuine discussion, only in getting a rise out of atheists. And once he's done so, he does his little victory lap. Anyway, go have a look if you need a reminder of why the boy isn't welcome here any more.

Case study: William Lane Craig vs. Bart Ehrman

In my ongoing discussion about the need for experienced debaters in the atheist camp, a theist named MrFreeThinker linked to a debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman, in which he asserts that Bart Ehrman was "pwned." In particular, MFT says:

Bart Ehrman made some mathematically poor claims where he equivocated between intrinsic probability and specific probability with regard to miracles. W.L. Craig was able to use Baye's theorem to show how his reasoning was mathematically fallacious. Ehrman was unable to counter Crag's claims but made some backhanded ad hominems later on saying that Craig would be laughed at if he tried to bring his calculations on miracles to any secular university. W.L. Craig then pointed out that philosophers such as Richard Swinburne (a eminent philosopher of science at Oxford University) had also made similar calculations it was a moment of sheer pwnage.

(On a side note Swinburne's calculations on the probability of Jesus' Resurrection and God's existence are available in his books "The Existence of God" and "Resurrection of God Incarnate")

After reading the debate transcript, I have to agree that Ehrman made some missteps. But I don't think they're the ones the MFT thinks they are.

Let's start with the topic being debated. Right now I'm a bit fixated on the issue that theist/atheist debates are routinely set up with fixed, bogus, and stacked resolutions. THIS debate proposed to settle the following question:

Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?

Sigh... here we go again. As I keep saying, theist debaters perpetually count on setting up debates with a loaded topic, so that the unbeliever loses before the debate has begun.

So what's wrong with this topic? Yet again, it allows the theist side to play semantic games with definitions. What qualifies as "historical evidence" for the resurrection of Jesus? I think a naive atheist would assume that this means there is "sufficient, compelling, and persuasive evidence" that establishes the resurrection of Jesus. Fine, if you have a sympathetic audience. But you don't. You never will. So here's what Craig's obviously going to do: he's going to declare that any claim by anyone that indicates Jesus was resurrected counts as "historical evidence." And he wins! Why? Because he's right!

Just like "theory," "evidence" is a word with numerous meanings depending on how it's applied. So if Craig can find one person, from any point in history, who is willing to say "Jesus was resurrected," he's got evidence. Is it good evidence? Duh, of course not. But it's evidence. By the same standard, I could easily lose a debate asking me to prove that there's no historical evidence for Galactic Overlord Xenu. And the Salem Witch Trials provided all kinds of evidence (read: other people's testimony) proving that those women were, in fact, in league with the devil.

Ahem, Bart, I believe the topic you actually meant to debate was this: "Was Jesus resurrected?" Simple. No frills. When you stepped into this loaded topic, you gave Craig a free pass to "win" just by throwing out enough stuff to allow for the vaguest possibility that Jesus was resurrected. You awarded yourself the burden of proof, requiring yourself to demonstrate conclusively that there is no evidence of any kind, good or bad.

So if nothing else, I want to thank MFT for bringing up yet another perfect illustration of my point. Now let's move on to the substance of the debate. I'm not going to go through the entire thing. For now, I just want to focus on the specific case this argument from probability that he brought up.

From where I sit, all I see is Craig doing what creationists always do. He throws up a bunch of obfuscated equations on the board, counts on his audience not knowing enough to understand what the argument is, slips in gigantic assumptions about the natural world, and declares victory.

Obfuscated equation: check.

Pr (R/ B&E) = Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) /
[ Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) ] + [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ]

What value does that equation add to the credibility of Craig's actual argument? None whatsoever. It's a time filler, and it awes a lay audience who are expected to treat monstrous equations as magical incantations.

When you strip away the filler, Craig finally gets around to framing his actual argument, which is this:

"In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.

But that’s not all. Dr. Ehrman just assumes that the probability of the resurrection on our background knowledge [Pr(R/B)] is very low. But here, I think, he’s confused. What, after all, is the resurrection hypothesis? It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead."

That's it. It took approximately five pages and three slides to say that. Five pages of scribbled equations, smarmy insults, cute little nicknaming conventions, and a whole pile of hand-waving. To obfuscate those two simple sentences.

And when you strip the argument down to those two sentences, the argument sucks. It's basically "Jesus could rise from the dead, because God can do magic!" Hey, wait a minute, I thought that was a big part of what we were arguing about in the first place. But Craig just asserts that this is true, and doesn't support his implied belief that magical events are happening all the time. Instead of backing up this claim, he deftly covered it up in those five pages of completely tangential empty academic masturbation.

This is endemic to creationist arguments. Kirk Durston does that too. Michael Behe does it a lot. What these debates have in common is that they use tons of math as a way of befuddling the audience, lulling them into thinking "I have no idea what that guy is saying so he must be smart." Then they have a hook to bring the argument back to the audience's reality. They make a spurious connection between the hook and the math, and then "therefore God exists."

They do this all the time. It's their main tactic.

The thing about math is, it does actually mean something specific, but it's impossible to look up or pore over the details during a live debate. It's also long and it's boring, and they're counting on the audience to gloss right over the equations and assume that the hook is a correct summation of the math.

Okay, so since we know this tactic is going to come up repeatedly. How do we deal with it? I haven't settled this in my own mind, but I have some ideas. First of all, the math is guaranteed to be a smokescreen. There's a place for equations in a scientific journal, or a class full of students who are studying the topic, but if you're trying to persuade an audience of mixed education, it's a sure bet that the intention is to obfuscate rather than explain.

So blow past the math. It's important to watch like a hawk for the moment where the apologist explains what his REAL argument is, and make a snap judgment about whether this argument stands up on its own. You can't study the math or verify it during the debate, so you can assume that (1) it may well be full of lies and phony inferences, and (2) the audience will have no idea if it isn't. So above all else, do not waste time actually addressing the equations.

At any rate, atheists already have a perception problem of being overly nerdy, being concerned with "science" and "evidence" and whatnot. I think a little verbal kung fu is in order, i.e., using your opponent's strength against him. Don't just skip the math... ridicule it. That may sound kind of mean, but pay attention: William Lane Craig is kind of a dick anyway. He resorts to slides with labels like "Ehrman's Egregious Error" and "Bart's Blunder."

Hell, I think it wouldn't hurt to have a slide ready that says "Craig's Cretinous Calculations." And then, fill the page with truly irrelevant equations. Put up the freaking Pythagorean Theorem, or an expanded quadratic equation. Make a joke out of it. The audience will crack up if they realize you were prepared all along to hit Craig with his own nonsense. Odds are that they were probably feeling uncomfortable already because Craig was making them feel stupid, so it should be easy to get them laugh with you. And then, boil down his argument to its unsupported essence, and nail it.

But I digress. We were discussing how Bart Ehrman did. Well, MrFreeThinker, I'm willing to concede that he didn't do all that great. This is right in line with what I keep saying: apologists win debates because they are good at performance art. Ehrman wasn't prepared to act like a circus sideshow attraction.

But don't think that means I'm ridiculing Craig when I say "circus sideshow." That's what an apologetics debate is. Bart should have been prepared to do performance art, and if he can't win at that game then he isn't prepared to debate.

As for Richard Swinburne, I couldn't care less what he thinks. Craig pulled him up because he was name-dropping. Preceding this comment, Ehrman said this:

"I have trouble believing that we’re having a serious conversation about the statistical probability of the resurrection or the statistical probability of the existence of God. I think in any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage."

Ehrman shouldn't have said that. You know why? Because he should have known that for any crazy belief in the world, there probably exists some crackpot academic who will support it.

So yeah, I guess I'll sort of give Craig the point for his name drop. What he proved was that the correct phrasing is:

"In any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage... unless, of course, one of them happens to be Richard Swinburne."