bookmark_borderOperation Clambake

I’d like to give a quick shout out to Andreas Heldal-Lund who continues to maintain Operation Clambake, a clearinghouse of valuable information on the Church of Scientology. Many of us infidels have corresponded with Andreas over the years and I remember a particularly tough time he went through five years ago keeping the secret library of Scientology online despite enormous pressures from the Church’s legal team to remove all traces of these documents from the internet. So if you have burning questions on loony topics such as “operating thetans” with “clear banks” who cognate L. Ron Hubbard’s divine status then click through and give Andreas a visit.

bookmark_borderBeleaguered Minority?

Brad Harrub of Apologetics Press gave a talk at my university last week, to kick off a series of creationist presentations that went on in local churches.

I like talking to creationists — their views at least have the virtue of being wrong, when so much else said in defense of religon is not even wrong. So I hung around with a bunch of students afterwards who peppered him with questions. The students did a pretty good job, and Harrub adopted a defensive position, saying he was only asking that students be made aware of alternative views, and that they shouldn’t be told evolution was a fact (by which he meant 100% certain). I don’t think any of the physics majors I teach graduate without understanding that science is fallible.

But more interesting than the standard creationist arguments was the impression I got from Harrub that as a biblical literalist, he perceived himself to be in small minority of Americans. Most, he thought, were willing to grant that Jesus was a very good man and teacher, but not necessarily divine. Most, in his eyes, took the Bible to be a divinely inspired book, but were also willing to reinterpret or outright ignore it whenever it suited them. Most professional creationists I have encountered (such as those at the ICR) shared this perception.

It’s not, I think, an entirely inaccurate perception. Serious literalists are relatively few; they are overwhelmed by the people with the pragmatic attitudes Harrub deplored. Even many of those who pay lip service to the inerrancy of the Bible and so forth very often take their religion to be a practical, social, therapeutic affair. And Harrub must feel especially in the minority on college campuses. OK, Campus Crusade For Christ and equivalents are often the largest student groups, but the general culture in our universities is positively hostile to fundamentalism. That is precisely why Campus Crusade-type groups devotes so much effort to try and create a conservative religious bubble to protect students from the dire secular influences all around.

Now, Christian fascists enjoy considerable political power in the US, and I don’t want to be naively optimistic about the decline of fire-breathing literalist Christianity. Still, it seems the conseervative breed of Christians have good reason to worry about the corrosive effects of modern consumer culture on their children’s faith. It’s not the atheist evolutionist professors — I don’t think my kind enjoy that kind of influence — but consumerism, pop culture, and the sort of mindless liberal pragmatism that turns religion into therapeutic pap that threatens Harrub and company.

bookmark_borderDennett review in NYT

The New York Times has just published a rather stupid review of Daniel C. Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell. The intelligent design creationists like it, and just about anyone who buys into the traditional self-conception of philosophy as the fundamental intellectual discipline should find much in it to like as well.

Wieseltier, the reviewer (who doesn’t display much evidence of knowing much about any of the relevant sciences addressed in Dennett’s book), starts out with “The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question.” What he means is that there are some questions — Deep, Fundamental Questions — that are specifically reserved to philosophy. And by philosophical he means that the proper way to address them is to get comfortable in an armchair and shove your head up your ass.

I’m not sure I want to come out too strongly in defense of Dennett’s book. I have considerable respect for Dennett. He’s a philosopher who has no truck with the notion that philosophy is an isolated and exalted activity of divining principles fundamental to all the rest of intellectual life. He works on questions I happen to have some interest in, and I generally feel like I’m learning something when I read him, whether I end up agreeing or not. But Breaking the Spell is, somehow, not entirely satisfying.

Nevertheless, what bugs me about this review and some others I’ve read is not that they point out specific errors Dennett might have made, or that they leap to the defense of religion. That’s all legitimate criticism, wrong or right. No, these pompous twits object to the very idea of trying to explain religion within the natural world. And they do it not by engaging the actual debate, but by declaring from on high that the whole thing is a misguided notion reeking of materialist ideology.

bookmark_borderLessons from Primates

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been busy migrating the software that supports the secweb.org kiosk. That’s online now so I can breathe a little easier. Yesterday I read a fantastic article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs by primatologist Robert Sapolsky on primate behavior (also online here). The typical story of evolution, primates, and human history goes something like this: out of the group emerges a few alpha males who claw and tear their way to the top. Once there, they control resources and dispense or withhold food in order to maintain power in the strict hierarchy. The dominant males get to mate with the females, thus passing on their DNA, and life is generally a constant struggle to overthrow those at the top in order to continue the so-called game of “survival of the fittest.” Sapolsky has been studying baboons, bonobos, and other primates for about 30 years and his article debunks this story. He provides many examples of how cooperation, reconciliation, and bonding play a much larger role in shaping behavior than the old story would have it. Well worth checking out.

bookmark_borderSophisticated Critique of Many Worlds Explanation of Fine-Tuning

The following essay was recommended to me by Paul Draper. The paper is not a defense of the fine-tuning argument, but he regards it as one of the best critiques of the many worlds explanation of fine-tuning:

Roger White, “Fine-tuning and Multiple Universes,” forthcoming in Nous
ftmu.pdf (PDF)

Here is some info about the author:

ROGER WHITE, (Ph.D., MIT), Assistant Professor of Philosophy, specializes in philosophy of science, epistemology, and metaphysics. He is currently focusing on epistemological issues in the philosophy of science, particularly those having to do with probability and explanation. His main interests in metaphysics concern matters of identity and essential properties. He is the author of “Fine-tuning and Multiple Universes” (Nous).

bookmark_borderCarrier and Wanchick debate: Argument from Mind-Brain Dysteleology

In the Carrier-Wanchick debate, Carrier gives an argument for naturalism from the fact that minds are embodied in brains. As part of the setup, he writes:

If BT [Biblical theism] is true, then (a) a brainless mind is possible, (b) God could have imbued humans with one, (c) no mind exists that was not deliberately created or allowed by God, and (d) in choosing what to do or allow, God would have obeyed the same moral code that a majority of Christians obey.

Following this, he argues that, if Biblical theism is true, it would be more likely that we have minds without brains and would be a better state of affairs if we had minds without brains. Since we see the opposite, this is evidence for naturalism and against theism.

Wanchick responds by saying that

AMBD quickly derails itself too, as Carrier claims that God could’ve created us with immaterial “brainless minds” (BMs). This entails that human minds are disembodied in some possible world (PW); consequently, human minds are possibly disembodied in every PW. But if anything can possibly exist disembodied, it is not a material substance, since material substances can’t exist without matter. Therefore, human minds are immaterial substances. But since CN [Carrier naturalism] requires that consciousness arises only from a “complex physical system,” CN is false and theism is bolstered.

Wanchick is making a mistake about the structure and nature of Carrier’s argument. Carrier is arguing that if CN is true, then “consciousness arises only from a ‘complex physical system,'” while Wanchick is interpreting the argument to mean that “consciousness arises only from a ‘complex physical system'” is a necessary truth independent of CN. Likewise, Carrier is not arguing for the logical impossibility of disembodied minds, yet Wanchick takes Carrier’s argument to be self-refuting because Carrier says that, if BT is true, there could be disembodied minds.

The mere logical possibility of minds based in “spiritual substance” rather than matter doesn’t entail that minds are necessarily not material, contrary to Wanchick’s statement that “if anything can possibly exist disembodied, it is not a material substance, since material substances can’t exist without matter.” A building can be made out of a variety of different materials; the fact that it could have been built from wood doesn’t mean that it is therefore not built from bricks. The building is more than the raw materials–it is also dependent upon the particular arrangement of the materials–but this kind of supervenience is not problematic for a physicalist and doesn’t require a supernatural theory of buildings.

Note that Carrier spoke of “brainless minds,” not “disembodied minds.” He doesn’t argue that this distinction makes a difference, but I would argue that the functionality of a mind has to be imbued into some kind of substance (which need not necessarily be a biological brain), and that BT has no account or theory of any kind to offer about what “spiritual substance” is or how minds could be instantiated in it. I’m inclined to the view that talk of “spiritual substance” is nonsense and that the notion of a disembodied mind is, in fact, incoherent, and thus that if BT entails such a thing, that the proper inference is a modus tollens–that BT is therefore false.

For this reason, I don’t particularly care for Carrier’s argument, and would prefer Wanchick’s restatement in terms of Perfect Minds rather than Brainless Minds (or disembodied minds). Wanchick states that God does follow the Golden Rule and would want his creations to have perfect minds, and that “God would do this [create all children with perfect minds].” He then goes on to say that, under the rules of the debate, Carrier cannot use this alternative argument, but he doesn’t say how he would respond to it–it is quite clear that human beings do not have perfect minds, so Wanchick must have some additional explanation for imperfection. I presume he would offer an argument in terms of original sin.

bookmark_borderFrivolous Lawsuit on the Historicity of Jesus

Here’s one that belongs in the category, “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.”

When people see the words “Catholic priest” and “stand trial” used together, they will probably assume that the priest is either being prosecuted or sued for some sort of alleged sexual abuse. A recent court proceeding in Italy, however, provides an amusing, if not irritating, exception to that trend. CNN recently reported that Luigi Cascioli, an Italian atheist, had petitioned the local court to force a Catholic priest to stand trial because–brace yourself–the priest had the audacity to assert that Jesus existed as a historical person. Cascioli claimed that the priest’s assertion of the historicity of Jesus violated two laws: (1) a prohibition against “fraudulently deceiving people;” and (2) a law against “impersonation” or “personal gain from attributing a false name to someone.”

The judge rightfully dismissed the ridiculous case. What I find baffling, however, is the idea that Cascioli actually believed that the Catholic priest had violated the law — merely by asserting that Jesus existed. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Jesus didn’t exist as a historical person. Even if it were the case that Jesus never existed, it wouldn’t follow that Catholic priests who assert the historicity of Jesus are doing so fraudulently. In other words, it could be the case that the priest was honestly mistaken and not deliberately spreading information he knew to be false. In order to prove the priest had violated the law, however, Cascioli must not only prove that Jesus didn’t exist, but that the Catholic priest knew that Jesus didn’t exist. And that (the idea that the priest knew that Jesus didn’t exist) strikes me as not only false, but absurd.

Cascioli’s stupid lawsuit is an embarrassment to atheists worldwide. It is not representative of atheistic thought.

bookmark_borderAre Atheists “Afraid” of God?

Imagine a man, Tom, who likes sweets but not ice cream. He has no personal disagreements with anyone who does eat ice cream; he just chooses not to eat ice cream himself. In fact, Tom is friends with several people who will eat ice cream, but no other dessert. Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes an editorial from a prominent TV personality and ice cream lover making all sorts of accusations about people like Tom who don’t eat ice cream. According to the editorial, people like Tom dislike the taste of ice cream so much that they are afraid of ice cream and generally unhappy people.

If you were Tom, how would you react? If you are anything like me, you might have mixed emotions, including confusion, sadness, and even outrage. Has this guy ever actually met someone who doesn’t like ice cream? Who does this guy think he is? How dare he claim that everyone who doesn’t eat ice cream is unhappy! Is society so hostile to people who don’t like ice cream that these sort of bigoted remarks are tolerated by a mainstream journalist?

On the website of KOMO TV 4 in Seattle, Washington, Ken Schram posted an analogous editorial about atheists. According to Schram, claimed that atheists have the following characteristics:

  • They fear God so much that even hearing the word “God” distresses them.
  • He has observed Atheists squeeze their eyes shut when they remove bills from their pocket out of fear that they might see the phrase “In God we Trust.”
  • Some go out of their way when driving to avoid passing churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.
  • Some recoil at the sight of a cross, crucifix, menorah, Star of David, or the presence of Hare Krishna proselytizers.

As the Center for Religious Tolerance points out, however, this doesn’t match the descriptions of atheism that they have witnessed:

Our Atheist staff member reports that they have never performed any of these behaviors. None of the rest of us in this office have either observed them engaging in these behaviors, nor have we seen any of our Atheist friends and acquaintances doing them. They seem to be figments of Ken Schram’s imagination.

Figments of Ken Schram’s imagination, indeed. But this begs the question: why would a mainstream journalist be perpetuating a stereotype against a minority, a stereotype that could be shown to be false by even minimal investigation? His comments must either be the result of ignorance or dishonesty. In either case, it is obvious that Ken Schram is bigoted against atheists.

We next turn to Schram’s armchair psychoanalysis of the millions of atheists around the world. Despite the obvious fact that he doesn’t have a clue about atheists, he then proceeds to inform his readers that atheists derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from making theists suffer. Schram writes:

And even though atheists are free to go about their disbelieving ways, that doesn’t seem enough to make them happy.

No. What makes atheists happy is making those who believe in God cringe.

So atheists go to court a lot.

Imagine if a prominent journalist wrote, “What makes Jews happy is making non-Jews cringe.” Not only would such statements be factually inaccurate, they would be held in moral contempt. Not just Jews, but all reasonable non-Jews, would find such a slur offensive. And while the fact that someone would make such a racial or religious slur would not be news, the fact that a prominent member of the media would make such a slur would be news. There would be protests and calls for the journalist’s termination.

Unlike other minorities, however, atheists are probably the only remaining minority in which it is socially acceptable to openly express prejudice against. There are probably two reasons for this. First, there are undoubtedly many people like Schram who share Schram’s views. That is not the entire explanation, however. Ironically, I believe that the atheistic community also shares some responsibility for this situation and that leads to my second reason. By “the atheistic community,” I don’t mean atheistic membership organizations or the individuals who join them. Rather, I mean the millions of atheists who are apathetic about their atheism and in the closet to their families, co-workers, and neighbors. If we as a community aren’t willing to defend ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to do so?