bookmark_borderChanging the Boy Scouts of America’s Policy on Gays from Within

Interesting news on the BSA:

A high-profile member of the Boy Scouts of America’s governing board says he doesn’t support the Scouts’ policy of excluding gays and will work from within to seek a change. Ernst & Young CEO James Turley, whose accounting firm has welcomed gays and lesbians in its own work force, becomes the first member of the Scouts’ Executive Board known to publicly disapprove of the policy. “I support the meaningful work of the Boy Scouts in preparing young people for adventure, leadership, learning and service, however the membership policy is not one I would personally endorse,” Turley said in a statement released by his company. “As I have done in leading Ernst & Young to being a most inclusive organization, I intend to continue to work from within the BSA Board to actively encourage dialogue and sustainable progress,” Turley said.

bookmark_borderExtraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence (ECREE), Part 3: Is ECREE False? A Reply to T. Kurt Jaros

As a follow-up to my last post on extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (ECREE), I’m going to respond to a blog post by T. Kurt Jaros. As in my previous posts,let B represent our background information; E represent our evidence to be explained; H be an explanatory hypothesis, and ~H be the falsity of H.

Objection: “The trouble with the first part [of the phrase (“extraordinary claims”)] is that we’re not quite certain what precisely are extraordinary claims. Again, whether a claims is extraordinary or not depends entirely upon what you know and believe.  Put nicely above, if you know nothing, then everything is an extraordinary claim.”

Reply: According to the Bayesian interpretation of ECREE, the relevant probabilities are to be understood as epistemic probabilities (as opposed to the classical, logical, or other interpretations of probability). So the objector is correct that the Bayesian interpretation is inherently subjective in the sense that it depends entirely upon what a person knows and believes. So what? It doesn’t follow that we can’t figure out what are extraordinary claims.

Again, as I wrote in my previous posts on ECREE, an “extraordinary claim” is an explanatory hypothesis which is extremely improbable, conditional upon background information alone, i.e., Pr(H | B) < x, where x can be any real number between 0 and 1. I proposed that x be some real number that is very much less than 0.5, but the value of X ultimately doesn’t matter. In terms of calculating the final probability of H, Pr(H | E & B), we use the same formula–BT–regardless of whether H is an extraordinary claim.

Thus, even if it were true that, “If you know nothing, then everything is an extraordinary claim,” absolutely nothing of significance would follow from this fact on the Bayesian interpretation of ECREE. As we shall we see below, we use the same formula for both ordinary and extraordinary claims to determine the evidence required to establish a high final probability for a claim.


Objection: “The second part of the phrase [“extraordinary evidence”] is also troublesome.  For what precisely counts as extraordinary evidence?  Any thing that could be brought forth as “extraordinary evidence” would, in actuality, just be ordinary evidence. Evidence is simply the available facts or data about any given proposition.  Therefore, referring to some evidence as “extraordinary” is redundant.  It also is subjective.  Person A may think that evidence x categorizes as extraordinary evidence but person B may just consider it as ordinary evidence. So once again, how are we to define what qualifies as extraordinary?  Like the first part of the phrase, the second part seems to lack clear understanding of what constitutes as extraordinary evidence.”

Reply: It is a truism that, according to the epistemic interpretation of probability, probabilities are subjective. It doesn’t follow, however, that “extraordinary evidence” is hard to define. Applying BT, we can define “extraordinary evidence” as any evidence E that makes the following inequality true:

whenever H is considered an “extraordinary claim,” i.e., Pr(H | B) < x, where x can be any real number between 0 and 1. Now consider the definition of “ordinary evidence.” Ordinary evidence is any evidence E that makes the following inequality true:

whenever H is not considered an “extraordinary claim.”

Notice that the inequalities are the same for both ordinary and extraordinary evidence. This might lead one to wonder, “Then why bother with the ECREE slogan at all?” The answer is this. ECREE emphasizes the common sense notion that the more implausible (i.e., antecedently improbable) we initially regard a claim prior to considering the evidence, the greater the evidence we will require to believe the claim. (In the jargon of Bayesianism, we might say that ECREE captures the common sense requirement that a hypothesis’s explanatory power is proportionally high enough to offset its prior improbability.) The Bayesian interpretation of ECREE, like BT itself, specifies the pattern of probability relations which must exist in order for a claim to have a high epistemic final probability.[1]


[1] I owe this point to Robert Greg Cavin.

bookmark_borderHow to Think or What to Think?

John Loftus raises an issue that I would like to address:

Should professors teach students how to think or what to think?

 John gives a link to an article by philosopher Peter Boghossian:

Boghossian challenges what John calls the “received” view of pedagogy. The received view can be summed up by the slogan that the instructor’s job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. The motivation behind the received view is the insight that education is something very different from indoctrination. Indoctrination is the inculcation of an ideology or worldview, with the aim of insulating dogmas from doubt and creeds from questioning. Indoctrination aims at making True Believers. Totalitarian states and the Christian Church have been the major practitioners of indoctrination. (“Give us a boy of seven,” the Jesuits used to say, “and he will be ours for life.”) Education, on the other hand, aims to create Free Inquirers rather than True Believers. Hence, the received view has rightly emphasized the nurturing of students’ critical thinking abilities and not the imposition of doctrine.

However, as Boghossian notes, the received view can appear to have paradoxical and perhaps pernicious consequences that promote ignorance rather than oppose it. Boghossian cites an instance in which he had attempted to debunk students’ belief in creationism, and was chagrined to find that his efforts had been in vain. Two of his colleagues chided him and indicated that instead of aiming to debunk students’ beliefs, even one as odious and irrational as creationism, he should have aimed to present students with the necessary data to draw their own conclusions. Explicitly aiming to debunk a student’s creationist beliefs appears to violate the received norm and to constitute an effort to inculcate a specific set of beliefs, i.e. that creationism is false and that the evolutionary account is true. However, I think that Boghossian’s colleagues offered a wrongheaded defense of the received view. You do not necessarily violate the distinction between education and indoctrination by presenting some claims as true, or, indeed, as beyond question.

Yet it is necessary to keep firmly in mind the essential distinction made by John Stuart Mill: There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. I see no problem with presenting Darwinian evolution as correct precisely because, for the past 153 years, opponents have been given abundant opportunity for proving it false and have failed to do so. In presenting the Origin of Species to my class, I present Darwin’s basic conclusions as correct, i.e. that present forms of life originated through a natural process of descent with modification, as Darwin put it, and that, as Darwin claimed, natural selection has been the main driver of evolutionary change. I do not present this conclusion dogmatically or with contemptuous or condescending references to creationism. Rather, the emphasis is on the evidence and arguments. I also present the objections to the theory noted by Darwin and how he successfully addressed those objections. I also indicate how more recent research, such as the remarkable series of Eocene fossils linking mesonychids to cetaceans, adds much support to Darwin’s arguments.

Should we go further and teach, as John reports of Boghossian, that “…faith is a cognitive malaise and should be given no credence in the classroom”? At what point is a professor no longer presenting facts but exploiting his position to browbeat students from a bully pulpit? I really do not think that this is a very hard question. Consider two assertions:

1) Evolution occurred.
2) Faith is a malaise.

(1) is an established scientific fact. (2) is Professor Boghossian’s opinion. It may be an informed opinion, but it is an opinion. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that (2) is true in whatever sense Prof. Boghossian intends. Still, if Prof. Boghossian presents (2) to his classes as an established fact on par with (1), then he is doing a disservice to reason. That one regards an assertion as true, or even its actual truth, is insufficient justification for presenting it to a class as established fact. Here, just off the top of my head are some assertions that I happen to regard as true: 1) Mozart’s music is better than that of [insert name of leading pop idol of the moment]. 2) Much if not most of the animosity of “Tea Party” types to President Obama is motivated by racism. 3) The highest division of college football should quickly move to a playoff system. 4) Excessive use of standardized testing in the public schools has left my students less knowledgeable and with less aptitude for critical thinking. 5) Congress is now a forum for legalized bribery. 6) The war in Afghanistan is a waste of lives and treasure and should be ended immediately.

Now, I regard each of these assertions as a justifiable claim—i.e. supportable by rational argument—and not simply the grousing of a grumpy old liberal academic. However, none of these claims should be presented as established fact. They are my opinions, defensible opinions, but opinions. I fear that Prof. Boghossian, and maybe John, are not sufficiently respecting the very real difference in epistemic credentials between established fact and informed opinion.

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 24

In Joseph “Rick” Reinckens’s webpage A Lawyer Examines the Swoon Theory we get a short snippet from Origen that allegedly confirms a Roman practice of stabbing victims of crucifixion with a spear: 

In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, says the lance thrust to Jesus was administered “according to Roman custom, below the armpit.”  (See Humber, Thomas.  The Sacred Shroud. New York, Pocket Books, 1977) 

In my last post on this topic (Part 23), I identified the passage that I believe Humber was referencing, in an early Latin translation of Origen’s Commentary on Matthew.  Here is an image of the relevant passage (GCS, His Origenes Werke, v. 11, p. 290):

I paid a Latin-translation service to translate the portion of the text circled above, and here is the translation I received:

Looking up he was amazed and said: ‘Truly this man was the son of God’. Yet according to the second interpretation it would be the case that since perhaps Pilate wished to surpass the wishes of the entire people who had said: ‘Crucify, crucify him’, and since he was afraid of unrest among the entire people, he did not follow the Roman custom in respect of those who are crucified and order Jesus to be pierced below the armpits. This [i.e. not piercing] is done at times by those who condemn those who have been found guilty of more serious crimes (since those who are not pierced after being fastened to a cross suffer greater torture, and live longer while suffering the greatest torture, and at times survive for the whole of the night and even for the entire day which follows). Jesus therefore, since He had not been pierced and it was hoped that by hanging on the cross for a long time He would suffer greater torments…

Assuming this translation (from Latin to English) to be accurate, the passage does appear to speak of a Roman custom of piercing (stabbing? spearing?) a crucified person in order to either kill them off or to hasten their death, as an act of mercy, or (perhaps) in order to bring the death sentence to it conclusion more rapidly (so soldiers would not need to stand guard for two or three days).

INDEX to Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

bookmark_border“Alvin Plantinga on Paul Draper’s evolutionary atheology: implications of theism’s noncontingency” (DOI) 10.1007/s11153-012-9361-6

My article with the above name will appear in an upcoming issue of The International Journal of Philosophy of Religion, and has just been made available online to anyone with access to an institution with a SpringerLink license.  Here is the abstract taken from SpringerLink (

In his recently published Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism 2011 Alvin Plantinga criticises Paul Draper’s evolutionary argument against theism as part of a larger project to show that evolution poses no threat to Christian belief. Plantinga focuses upon Draper’s probabilistic claim that the facts of evolution are much more probable on naturalism than on theism, and with regard to that claim makes two specific points. First, Draper’s probabilistic claim contradicts theism’s necessary falsehood; unless Draper wishes to acknowledge that theism is necessarily true, his claim commits him to theism’s contingency and so sets him at odds with a mainstream that sees God’s existence as decidedly noncontingent. Second, Plantinga argues that Draper’s probabilistic claim is, even if true, overwhelmed by counterclaims about facts that are more likely on theism than naturalism. I argue this critique of Draper depends upon a serious error, and that Plantinga overlooks the full implications of his own presuppositions. Correcting these shortcomings shows that Plantinga’s own probabilistic-apologetics (e.g., the ‘Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’) requires theism’s contingency no less than does Draper’s atheology.             

The “serious error” to which the abstract refers is the claim, made on page 50 of Plantinga’s book, that “the probability of a contingent proposition on a necessary falsehood is 1”.  Rather, the correct result for the probability of any proposition (contingency or otherwise) against a contradiction is “undefined”.  My paper shows how this correction, combined with an assumption Plantinga seemed keen to make in his argument against Draper (viz. the noncontingency of theism), decisively undermines his two-point case against Draper’s evolutionary atheology.

After submitting the paper I was spurred by an anonymous reviewer (for the 2012 meeting of the CPA) to ask Professor Plantinga why he had made this mistake.  I am grateful to Professor Plantinga for kindly taking the time to answer my questions (his reason for the mistake, by coincidence, was the speculative reason I offer in my paper).  His final email pointed out that in the second stage of his case against Draper (the ‘overwhelm with counterclaims’ stage) he was granting theism’s contingency.  Just before beginning that stage, Plantinga writes:  “Draper is of course assuming that theism is contingent; hence his argument won’t be relevant if theism is noncontingent.  But let’s set this limitation aside and look at his interesting argument” (pp.50-51).

While writing my paper I had not realized that the text just quoted meant that theism’s contingency was being granted in what followed (while I think it is a possible meaning, I did not then and frankly still do not think it is the obvious meaning).  But given Plantinga’s clarification of what he meant, this hypothetical presumption defuses the argument of my second section, an argument which uses the assumption of theism’s noncontingency against Plantinga’s counterclaims, an argument which clearly won’t work if theism is being presumed contingent. 

Unfortunately, neither Plantinga’s clarification, nor the afterword I wrote in response (along with other revisions, some substantial), could make it into the published version of the paper.  I also regret that other interesting items suggested to me after I had submitted the paper were unable to make it in (and here I am thinking specifically of Felipe Leon’s suggestion that the assumption of theism’s noncontingency may not be so widespread among the community of thinking theists as Plantinga suggests, and Keith Parsons’ reminder that Richard Swinburne defends logically contingent theism).  I hope to turn the afterword (at least parts of it) into a future paper.

bookmark_borderThe Poverty of Theistic Morality

In an effort to increase visibility of an article that has been largely ignored by theists, I thought it would be interesting to discuss what Adolf Grünbaum has to say about the theistic implications of morality in his excellent essay, “The Poverty of Theistic Morality.” He writes:

One vital lesson of that analysis will be that, contrary to the widespread claims of moral asymmetry between theism and atheism, neither theism nor atheism as such permit the logical deduction of any judgments of moral value or of any ethical rules of conduct. Moral codes turn out to be logically extraneous to each of these competing philosophical theories alike. And if such a code is to be integrated with either of them in a wider system, the ethical component must be imported from elsewhere.

In the case of theism, it will emerge that neither the attribution of omnibenevolence to God nor the invocation of divine commandments enables its theology to give a cogent justification for any particular actionable moral code. Theism, no less than atheism, is itself morally sterile: Concrete ethical codes are autonomous with respect to either of them.

Just as a system of morals can be tacked onto theism, so also atheism may be embedded in a secular humanism in which concrete principles of humane rights and wrongs are supplied on other grounds. Though atheism itself is devoid of any specific moral precepts, secular humanism evidently need not be. By the same token, a suitably articulated form of secular humanism can rule out some modes of conduct while enjoining others, no less than a religious code in which concrete ethical injunctions have been externally adjoined to theism (e.g., “do not covet thy neighbor’s wife”).

Grünbaum then discusses the moral permissiveness of theism with respect to the problem of evil. After discussing various failed theodicies for the Holocaust, Grünbaum makes the following observation.

It is scandalous that Judaism is sufficiently permissive morally to enable some world-renowned rabbis to offer a Holocaust-theodicy at all with theological impunity: It attests to the moral bankruptcy of the notion of a theological foundation of Jewish ethics. Cain (and other apologists for Judaism) ought to be deeply embarrassed by this situation, instead of offering the witless complaint that the rabbinical Holocaust apologists made “easy targets” for me, like “fish in a barrel.” Rabbi Jacobovitz and Rabbi Schneerson, who both vindicated the Holocaust as divine justice, are world-figures in orthodox Judaism! Clearly, I submit, precisely the statistics on the depth of the cleavage among the moral verdicts of Jewish theologians on so over-arching an occurrence as the Holocaust bespeaks the ethical bankruptcy of their theology. By the same token, Cain’s complaint that I made no allowance for that statistical dispersion boomerangs.

In other words, if theism requires us to believe that no matter what evils occur in the actual world, God still exists and has some reason for allowing them, this shows that generic theism is empty of ethical rules of conduct. Or so Grünbaum argues.

ETA:  I think Grünbaum’s argument regarding the alleged moral permissiveness of theism is interesting, but I haven’t take the time to form an opinion on it. What do you think?

bookmark_borderVictor Reppert on Atheist Responses to Moral Arguments

Commenting on how atheists have responded to William Lane Craig’s moral argument, Victor Reppert writes this.

Yet, when I hear atheists talking about moral arguments, they always assume that the advocate of the moral argument is saying that we have to believe in God to lead moral lives, (and indignantly argue that we don’t have to believe in God to lead moral lives) in spite of the fact that Christian advocates of moral arguments, at least the ones I am familiar with NEVER say that. 

I agree with Reppert that many atheist debaters have misunderstood William Lane Craig’s moral argument. On the other hand, surely Reppert as a professional philosopher can recognize the over-generalization in his post. He makes it sound like all atheists “always assume that the advocate of the moral argument is saying that we have to believe in God to lead moral lives.” This is, of course, false.

It’s useful to distinguish between atheist philosophers and atheist non-philosophers. Among non-philosophers, it does seem like scientists have done particularly bad in offering a relevant rebuttal.  As for philosophers, I don’t claim that atheist philosophers have a perfect track record on this topic; see here for my summary of Craig’s debate with Paul Kurtz, where Kurtz poorly responded to Craig. But that is beside the point. Did Reppert really mean to imply that every atheist philosopher who has responded to Craig’s moral argument has misunderstood Craig? I could cite many counter-examples, but I’ll mention just one: Erik Wielenberg, author of Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.

In his book, Wielenberg clearly demonstrates he understands Craig’s argument and offers a refutation. Why hasn’t Craig responded to Wielenberg? For that matter, if we consider theistic critics of his moral argument, why hasn’t Craig responded to Wes Morriston’s criticisms (see here and here)?

ETA: For a critique of Craig’s moral argument by an agnostic, see Paul Draper’s essay in Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate. I quote a snippet of Draper’s essay on The Secular Outpost before.

bookmark_borderWilliam Lane Craig’s Critique of Bart Ehrman on the Probability of Miracles

As the saying goes, I have to “call ’em as I see ’em.”

I just read, for the first time, the transcript of William Lane Craig’s debate with Bart Ehrman. I read, with great interest, Craig’s first rebuttal, where he makes extensive use of Bayes’s Theorem (BT) to critique two of Ehrman’s statements. Those two statements were:

(1) Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred.
(The Historical Jesus, part 2, page 50)
(2) Since historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, they cannot show that miracles happened, since this would involve a contradiction — that the most improbable event is the most probable.
(The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, page 229)

Before commenting on Craig’s critique, let me review some basic notation. Let B be our background information; E be the evidence to be explained; and R be the resurrection hypothesis.

Let us now turn to Craig’s critique. 
Regarding (1), while I join Craig in rejecting (1), I disagree with his reason for doing so. Here is what Craig said in the debate.
In other words, in calculating the probability of Jesus’ resurrection, the only factor he [Ehrman] considers is the intrinsic probability of the resurrection alone [Pr(R/B)]. He just ignores all of the other factors. And that’s just mathematically fallacious. The probability of the resurrection could still be very high even though the Pr(R/B) alone is terribly low. 
With the caveat that I have not read Ehrman’s books and so I am assuming that Craig has not quoted Ehrman out of context, I am inclined to interpret (1) as the following claim.
(1′) Pr(R/B) is so low that it is impossible, even in theory, for there to be sufficient evidence to confer a high final epistemic probability on R, i.e., Pr(R/B & E) > 0.5. 
The only way to reconcile (1′) with BT would be to assign Pr(R/B) a value of zero. If Pr(R/B) = 0, then it follows from BT that Pr(R/B&E;)=0. So, on the basis of (1) alone, as Craig has quoted Ehrman, I think it is premature to assume that Ehrman “just ignores all of the other factors.” Maybe he does do that, but the quotation provided in (1) doesn’t show that. What I can say is that either Ehrman ignores all of the other factors or Ehrman assumes that historians must assign Pr(R/B) a value of zero. If the latter, then I think that is false. I don’t know why historians qua historians would be required to assign Pr(R/B) a value of zero. Assuming that Pr(R/B) is an epistemic probability, the value of Pr(R/B) is subjective. It is going to vary from person to person and from time to time. Theists, including theistic historians, are obviously going to assign Pr(R/B) a value greater than zero. It’s not obvious to me why they would be incorrect to do so, given the content of their background information.
Turning to (2),  I don’t have much to say, other than I think Craig is 100% correct when he says that Ehrman “Confuses Pr (R/B & E) with Pr (R/B).”