Monday, August 25, 2014

On Debating and Bad Arguments

I've recently started listening to the NPR radio program, Intelligence Squared US.  I listen to various podcasts during my daily commute, and since I typically drive home for lunch I spend about forty minutes in my car daily.  The debates have been quite interesting.  So far I've listened to; Was Edward Snowden Justified?Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad?It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power?, and the last debate for this entry was Does Affirmative Action On Campus Do More Harm Than Good?.  I've also listened to More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete, but I'd like to save that one for its own full entry.  A word about the formatting and "scoring" of these debates; there are four debaters, two for the motion two against.  There are three rounds.  I assume the team that gets to go first is chosen at random because in the five debates I've listened to so far they seem to have alternated who goes first.  Each person gets seven minutes to state his or her case.  The second round is a Q&A session with both sides responding off-the-cuff to questions from the moderator, John Donvan, and audience members about the discussion.  Then the third round is another two minutes of uninterrupted time to state closing arguments (again, I'm not certain of the order I haven't really been keeping track if there's a pattern relating to the first round).  The scoring is fairly simple.  There's a poll taken at the beginning (before the debate) and another poll after the debate and the side whose percentage points change up the most wins the debate.

In, Was Edward Snowden Justified? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 29% against (wow even amounts!), 42% undecided
After: 54% for 35% against -- the side arguing that Snowden was justified won the debate.

What do you think?  I think (and as always my thoughts are my own and not the opinion of the US Gov. or the DoD or the US Air Force) that he was NOT justified.  I have a bit of an interesting point of view on this one, given my job.  But, I know there are multiple avenues through which one can lodge complaints, and I don't feel that Snowden did his due diligence to use them.  I understand that he was working within a system, and that he was dealing with appealing to those that perpetuated the situation itself. However, I feel that there are so many better ways he could have handled what he apparently thought were egregious violations of the constitution.  Also, if he were legitimately worried about the constitution he would have been more judicious in what and how he made the information available.  He released so much stuff (according to the debate and some news articles I read some time ago), that there's no way he could possibly know all the harm that he could be causing to the US and it's allies.  If he were really worried about specific injustices, he should have only dealt with and worked with those specific injustices.  The harm that he did, most certainly outweighs the good (if any), that came from his breaking his oath.

In, Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 44% against, 27% undecided
After: 54% for, 39% against -- the side arguing that the president should have the power to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad won the debate.

Honestly, I am still mostly undecided in this one.  I think that we shouldn't handcuff the executive office when it comes to targeting enemies of the state (regardless of their nationality).  Also, I don't think we should restrict such targeting to specific countries, "war zones," or "hot battlefields" etc.  If we say, we won't target US citizens then terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek to recruit US citizens as a type of human shields.  Also, if we restrict our targeting to "hot battlefields" like Afghanistan, the terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek the "safety" of Pakistan and other neighboring countries.  I'm undecided because I think the constitution restricts such power in certain circumstances, but I think that in certain circumstances the power is under the executive's authority to wage war.  The side that argued for the motion did a much better job arguing than the opposing side.  The opposition's numbers actually went down, which is the first and only time I've seen that so far.

In, It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power? the results were:
Before: 25% for, 43% against, 32% undecided
After: 35% for, 58% against -- the side that argued that Russia is not a marginal power won the debate.

I am against the motion, but I feel that though Russia's once-world-superpower status still exists in a certain degree, it is quickly losing it's global meaningfulness and might even someday fade into obscurity.  I doubt that it will happen any time soon and it can be turned around with strong leadership, but it's current road is one towards weakness.

In, Does Affirmative Action (AfAc) On Campus Do More Harm Than Good? the results were:
Before: 22% for, 48% against, 30% undecided
After: 36% for, 55% against -- the side arguing for the motion changed their percentage of votes the most and though they had a lower percentage at the end, they are considered the winners of the debate.

This is a tough one, as it really doesn't apply to me and I don't really know many people to whom it would apply.  I feel like the side that won, those arguing for the motion that AfAc does more harm than good, made better arguments.  The side against, seemed to focus on emotional pleas and things like appeals to 50 years ago status quo.  They had an easier case to my mind, but they didn't make a very strong argument.  The side that argued for the motion cited multiple, peer-reviewed studies that showed that when weaker students were given AfAc bonuses to get into higher-level schools and programs they typically failed out and ended up being discouraged and dropping out altogether.  The much better option would be to place students appropriately according to their abilities and have them in a place that is better suited for their level and they complete their studies and go on to be better, more productive members of society.

What's the point of all this you may ask . . . Well, I've been thinking.  What makes a good argument?  Do passionate pleas of how the status quo is wrong and needs to be changed make good arguments?  I'm not willing to rule out all appeals to emotion, as after all, we're emotional beings.  We should, at least a little, think and act with our hearts rather than our minds.  But, what about issues like the AfAc question?  On the emotional side it seems wrong to criticize a system that has, or at least has as its core goal, helped so many that are unable help themselves; victims of a bad system of sorts.  But, should we let our hearts overrule our minds?  If there are legitimate studies that show the program doesn't work, should we maintain it, just because it's goal is to help these "victims"?

In the Snowden debate, one of the primary arguments against him being justified was the amount of irreparable damage his actions caused.  Is that a very powerful argument?  On its own, I'd say, no.  Just the amount one steals doesn't make it worse.  I know it's somewhat countercultural, but I believe that if one steals a $.05 pencil from one's place of work that person is just as guilty of stealing as the multimillion dollar embezzler.  I do NOT feel that the punishment of those crimes should necessarily be the same.  (I know what some of you might be thinking, "But wait, doesn't the God that you claim to believe in do that?" "Sentencing everyone to Hell regardless of the degree to which one sins!"  You'd be wrong, in fact, because the punishment for sin is death of which everyone is guilty and must submit to, but the punishment of Hell is for the ultimate in rejecting God's forgiveness.  People are not sent to Hell because of their sins, they are sent to Hell for the specific sin of rejecting God.)

I do have some difficulty listening to these arguments dispassionately sometimes.  I have certain arguments in mind when I hear the topic (sometimes, the debate about Russia's marginalism really didn't occur to me to be an issue), and when I am listening to the debate I try to divorce my preconceptions from the discussion and only weigh the arguments based on their individual merit(s).  There is no such thing as a complete tabula rasa, and we will always have some kind of bias.  Though to me, it's a hallmark of a truly thoughtful person to be able to examine one's own biases and understand them and keep them in mind when approaching new ideas.

I haven't been out to see the sunset in a while!  Need to make some time for it.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Atheist Answers “20 Short Arguments Against God’s Existence” (Reblog)

I don't usually do this, in fact it's my first time, but I'm reblogging an article I recently ran across from the atheist blogger Boxing Pythagoras. His piece "An Atheist Answers '20 Short Arguments Against God’s Existence'" is one of the best, most honest atheist pieces I've ever read. Without further ado:


This single-panel comic strip succinctly and adequately describes the bulk of my interaction with the other citizens of the Internet over the last couple of decades. If you think that this is an exaggeration, I’ll refer you to my wife, who will attest that we have had some version of this conversation many, many times. I simply have a strange attraction to correcting bad arguments and inane claims, whenever I see them. Now, since I am an avowed and outspoken atheist, one might think that this generally culminates in my conversing with the religious. However, I tend to spend just as much time correcting many of the lies, misconceptions, and really bad arguments that embedded themselves into the modern humanist/materialist/atheist subculture as I spend in debunking poor religious apologetics. The simple fact that someone’s end point-of-view agrees with mine does not make their claims right. Just like in High School math, it doesn’t matter if you stumbled upon the correct answer; you show your work because the process of finding that answer is more important than the answer itself.
To that end, when I saw a video called “20 Short Arguments Against God’s Existence,” by Hemant Mehta, posted on the Friendly Atheist blog, I knew I was going to have to respond.


1. There’s no evidence

This is actually quite untrue. There’s a good bit of evidence. Particularly anecdotal evidence from believers. This is a common mantra among atheists, but it’s a very bad one to utilize because it is blatantly untrue. When engaging in a persuasive dialogue with a believer, if one of your foundational arguments is as thoroughly untrue as this statement, it gives your audience a reason to immediately dismiss your position.

A better, more accurate claim would be, “I am not aware of any demonstrable evidence which is convincing.” This claim is honest, acknowledging that we don’t have complete knowledge and that there may exist something of which we are unaware. It also clarifies that we are referring to evidence which can be verified by outside parties, eliminating things like anonymous anecdotes and personal revelation from the mix. Finally, this statement acknowledges that some things which seem like good evidence to a believer are wholly unpersuasive to a non-believer– for example, the fine-tuning of the universe or current ignorance as to the process by which abiogenesis may have occurred.

2a. God doesn’t stop the evil in the world

Theodicy, or the Problem of Evil, has been a very common question in philosophy for more than two millennia. As such, it is a question which has been tackled by theistic philosophers and theologians for nearly as long. Unless you are familiar with this area of philosophy– particularly Alvin Plantinga’s work, which is extremely commonly cited by modern apologists– it’s quite likely that a believer will dismiss you as being uninformed on the subject.

2b. According to the Bible, God caused a lot of evil

and

3. Drowning everything alive is not a sign of love

and

4. The opening lines of the Bible are factually wrong

Firstly, arguing against the deity described by the Bible does not constitute a very convincing argument against theism, in general. At best, it might show that the Jewish or Christian conceptions of God are flawed. However, it says nothing at all about whether a God exists.

More importantly, however, is that most atheists tend to be wildly ignorant of the fields of hermeneutics and exegesis. They are so used to dealing with fundamentalist Christians who interpret the Bible literally that they are completely unaware that the majority of Judaism and Christianity has never thought this was the proper way to read the text. Atheists who are unfamiliar with hermeneutics are likely to be quickly dismissed by Christians with even a rudimentary knowledge of this process.

5. Prayer has never fixed anything physically impossible [to fix]

The follow-up question being, “Why won’t God heal amputees?” This is, again, an example of conflating a broad and general belief (“God exists”) with specific claims about that belief (“prayer to God can lead to miraculous healing”). Invalidating the latter does not necessarily invalidate the former. There are plenty of theists who do not believe in any miraculous healings.
Furthermore, the idea that the primary purpose of prayer is to request things for oneself from God is a common misconception on the part of atheists, and not one shared by the majority of theists. Yet again, displaying ignorance of someone’s beliefs often makes it very easy for them to dismiss your arguments, entirely.

6. There are thousands of gods you don’t believe in

Followed by, “What makes yours any different?” Given half an opportunity, a great many theists would absolutely love to tell you about why their god or gods are different from those claimed by others. This is especially true for anyone with even a modicum of apologetics training.

7. Where you are born determines what you believe

This is a particularly egregious fallacy. Noting that people in similar geographic areas tend to have similar beliefs says nothing at all about the veracity of any of those beliefs. This is a version of the argumentum ad populum fallacy, and we should strive to avoid fallacious arguments whenever possible, if our aim is to convince others of the rationality of our own beliefs.

8. Who created God? And how does your answer make any sense?

Once again, displaying one’s ignorance of the millennia of philosophy and theology regarding this question is not very likely to be convincing to anyone with even a modicum of experience in these fields. If you are not familiar with the concepts of non-contingency and eternity, or with the manner in which these concepts are applied to deity in classical theology, you really should not be asking this question. And if you are familiar with these things, you would not be asking this question.

9. Pediatric cancer

This goes right back to 2a and the discussion of the Problem of Evil. Again, if you are not familiar with the philosophy which has been done in this field, you are not going to be convincing to anyone, let alone strong believers.

10. Unconditional love shouldn’t come with a list of conditions

Similar to 5, Mehta is again conflating the general claim over God’s existence with specific claims about God’s nature. Commenting on the latter says nothing at all about the former.

11. Every single supposed miracle gets debunked

There are actually quite a few “supposed miracles” which have not been debunked. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches tend to be particularly adept at listing such events. Amongst Catholic apologists, the Incorruptibles and Our Lady of Fatima are particularly popular. While it is far from convincing, to a non-believer, that these anomalous events were supernatural in origin, neither can it be claimed that these things have been clearly shown to be falsely portrayed (which is the meaning of “debunked”).

12. The 10 Commandments left off “Don’t rape” and “Slavery is bad”

Another instance of conflating the general and the specific, as well as another instance of objectionable interpretation of someone else’s beliefs. Generally, “your god doesn’t behave the way non-believers want a god to behave” is not the most convincing argument.

13. The movies and music that honor God are just awful

While there are some fairly prominent examples of bad Christian art, today, this claim is preposterously overbroad. Even as an atheist, I can absolutely proclaim that much of the best and most beautiful art ever produced has been religious in nature. If we are talking about music, it’s incredibly easy to find extremely good pieces which were written to honor God– Gregorian chants, classical and baroque pieces, choir music, gospel music, and much more. In film, focusing on a terrible movie like “God’s Not Dead” without acknowledging the magnificence of a movie like “The Ten Commandments” is simply willful ignorance.

14. The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike

and

15. No hide-and-seek game lasts this long

Radio waves. Gravity. Dark matter and dark energy. We don’t have to go far to acknowledge a number of invisible things which are almost certainly extant. It’d be better to compare the entirely undetectable with the non-existent, but I wouldn’t even recommend that unless two conditions are first met: your opposition has made the claim that God is entirely undetectable, and you are at least somewhat familiar with the arguments for and against Verificationist philosophy.

16. Science explains so much of what we used to attribute to a god

and

17. The more we learn, the less reason we have to believe in God

Scientific understanding of a phenomenon is not mutually exclusive with the attribution of that phenomenon’s explanation to a god. For example, the people over at the BioLogos foundation will completely agree with all of mainstream biology that the complexity of life can be understood through a combination of the blind processes of genetic variance and natural selection. Understanding the way in which it works does not preclude one from attributing the way in which it works to a god.

18. Explaining your mythology makes you sound crazy

Explaining that the Earth moves around the Sun to someone who has never heard it before sounds pretty crazy, too. Explaining that Time shifts and bends in accordance with an observer’s acceleration or velocity sounds crazy. Explaining that there is an infinite quantity of real numbers that are greater than 1 and less than 2 sounds crazy. “That sounds crazy” is not a particularly good epistemological qualifier.

19. If God didn’t exist, the world would look exactly the same

This is just blatant question-begging. Mehta assumes God is not necessary to the world in order to argue that God does not exist. One cannot claim to be supporting a more rational view than his opposition while supporting that view with logical fallacies.

20. If God existed, he would smite me right now

This is one of the most juvenile, ignorant, and fallacious of all the arguments which could be made against God’s existence. Making this claim is like declaring to your audience, “I have absolutely no intention of addressing my opposition’s beliefs in a fair and rational manner.” You might as well just stick your fingers in your ears and scream, “Nuh-uh!”

The Real Problem

My contention against Hemant Mehta’s “20 Short Arguments” is more than just the sum of its fallacious parts. The real problem is that even attempting to formulate arguments against the existence of God unnecessarily assumes a burden of proof which does not naturally belong to the skeptic. I do not believe in the existence of gods. If someone wants to convince me that some deity exists, the onus is on that person to support their claim. If I want to address the problems in a person’s specific case for the existence of deity, I will do so. However, the minute I try to extend that response into a more general claim about the ontology of deity, I am stepping beyond the role of a skeptic and into the role of a claimant. This is why I tend to steer clear of anti-theist religious antagonism. Why should I take the theist’s burden upon myself?

I do not burden myself with attempting to find arguments against the existence of unicorns or fairies or elves or ghosts or UFO’s. There’s no reason I should do so with God, either.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I have one point I'd like to bring up about "arguments" 2b and 3.

This is a fairly common thing I've read from internet atheists and is a common theme in Dawkins' book The God Delusion. There's a serious problem with critiques like that. If one claims that the God of the Bible did some evil, then one must appeal to some authoritative morality by which one can claim that God did something wrong. If one has no authoritative objective source of morality, then the claim that God has done something wrong rings hollow. It's as powerful as saying, "boo, I don't like that." Your feelings about what I (or anyone else) do or do not do, have no weight. They're just your opinion, and as they say, everyone has an opinion just like everyone has a butthole, and some of them stink. I have every right to dismiss your opinion about what God has or has not done without recourse because so what, you don't like it. If you try to claim some higher authority then what higher authority exists by which you can appeal to judge God?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Atheists, Agnostics, Deists, and Theists

I once read a post on freethinker.co.uk about defining atheism/agnosticism/theism.  Unfortunately, that entry doesn't appear to be available anymore.  I really liked his diagram so I was quite unhappy to not find it again.  So, I'm going to move forward with my own diagram:
The colors are arbitrary, just the standard colors from Microsoft Word.
Now, the original diagram had parts of the extremes cut off.  The original author said he cut off the extremes because there are very few people that hold the extreme positions.  The ideas are NOT from current word usage and more from the traditional concepts behind the actual words.  The word gnostic in the diagram is in no way related to the term given to the heretical view called gnosticism (from ancient Greek) except to use the same Greek term, "γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge" (from Wikipedia).  Also, this table is not an attempt to make new terms.  There is an important distinction to be made though, philosophically.  The discussion about the existence or non-existence of God often asks, "On whom is the burden of proof?"  Well, the burden of proof is on the person that is making the claim.

If a gnostic-atheist stands up and says, "There is no god, and I know it."  That person bears the burden of proving that claim.  Also, the strict (original meaning of the term) agnostic, if he/she stands up and claims, "We cannot know whether or not god does or does not exist."  That too is a claim and must be defended.  Likewise, if the gnostic-theist says, "I know there is a God."  Then he/she must prove it.  Now, this is all philosophically speaking, and thinking like a debate wherein there are rules by which one must abide.  If, you're simply seeking a worldview that makes sense, there aren't really "rules," it becomes more about what evidences and arguments to which one is willing to listen.

I would argue that no truly honest thinking person would ever be on the top half of this diagram.  Here's the problem though, people talk "big talk" and in books, lectures, blogs, etc.  People talk like they know one way or another when really all the "gnostic" positions are lying to themselves and everyone else.  Here's something I heard a while back from Ravi Zacharias and lately I read from an apologist on Facebook, and though I don't know the exact words I'll try to capture it the way it comes to my mind:
To absolutely affirm a negative, is to claim infinite knowledge.  To affirm the negative that there is no God, is to claim infinite knowledge that there is no being that has infinite knowledge.
I assume you see the contradiction there, though some don't see how affirming a negative is claiming infinite knowledge.  Here's one way to think about it, I affirm the negative that there are no such thing as unicorns (an affirmation of the negative).  That means I know for certain that there are no unicorns anywhere or at any time.  Ironically, unicorns are often used as examples of things that everyone knows don't exist.  There's an interesting conundrum with that claim.  Take the initial premise that there are an infinite number of universes, a multiverse.  *This is a common claim which runs counter to the claim that the universe is uniquely fine-tuned for the existence of our galaxy and life itself.  So, here we are with an infinite number of universes, and within at least one of those universes a unicorn must exist.  If you don't think so, then you are misunderstanding the concept of infinite!

Back to the diagram.  There are so many positions on this continuum.  There's rarely anyone on the far extremes, but there are lots of people that sit somewhere in the middle.  People that don't think there's a god, but allow that there might be one.  People that think there might be a god, but aren't sure about his/her/its existence.  There are people that don't care and sit right in the middle.  Let's not redefine terms, let's stick to these ideas.  Language is vague and that makes things difficult.  People might say, "I'm an atheist," and they're really saying they're an agnostic-atheist.  Same with theists, some claim that God exists, and if they're being honest they mean they're pretty sure that God exists, but they're not sure.  I often hear internet-atheists claim that atheists aren't making claims at all, which is pure ignorance.  If you say you don't believe in god because there's no evidence you're not being honest with yourself or those you're dealing with.  There is plenty of evidence, the problem isn't the lack of evidence, it's what you will accept as evidence.  Will you accept a simple straightforward argument?  If not, if you try to explain it away with some kind of untestable theory (like the aforementioned multiverse) then it's not about a lack of evidence, it's about outright dismissal of evidence.

Edit: After a short conversation with a coworker there may be an edit in order for affirming a negative.  Here's a possible exception to the idea that affirming a negative requires infinite knowledge.  If I make the claim that there is no such thing as a square circle, I do not think it requires infinite knowledge to affirm a philosophically contradictory claim.  So, to say, there is no such thing as a square circle or a married bachelor, is affirming an already established contradiction and does not require infinite knowledge.  Here's an interesting point that this route would take an atheist should he/she go down the route of philosophical arguments.  Many atheists, including John Loftus (though to be fair, he only speaks out against the philosophy of religion and not philosophy itself), are against philosophy, and for good reason too.  Looking at this site, the logical arguments against theism are just weak.  I'm only an elementary philosopher and I can see through these arguments like glass.  Also, in all my discussions with atheists both face-to-face and online, they have always appealed to science.  In fact, all I've ever heard from atheists, including in their books, is the mantra "science, science, science."  Philosophy is on God's side, in a manner of speaking.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Finishing Up My Thoughts

Sorry about my last post I suffered from an acute case of blogpostthoughtinterruptictis, and since that post I've been on vacation in Ohio and Michigan so I haven't had a chance to finish my thoughts.

I've talked about how foundational epistemology is dangerous both in my previous post and in this post where I talked about Descartes' philosophy of cogito ergo sum.  If we're to use foundational epistemology, the foundation has to be rock-solid.

This brings me back to the relationship between epistemology, conspiracy theories, and the Jesus myth theories.  Much of my interest in the topic of the historical Jesus started with my listening to Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christ on Audible.com.  I highly recommend you check it out since he puts the case for Christ so much better than I can especially in such a short space.

There are people out there that believe in crazy things and one of the craziest things someone can hold to is that Jesus, as described in the Bible didn't ever exist.  I forget where I read it and I don't remember the exact wording but Jesus the best documented first century person.  Now, many skeptics might say that that kind of statement is biased because it's based on the Bible, which they wouldn't/don't trust.  But, there are many problems in that kind of thinking.  First off, even with only a layman's understanding I know that it's foolish to throw out the Bible as a valid historical source.  The process of textual criticism has been thoroughly studied for so many years that it would be completely foolish to throw out that entire body of work.  And, according to textual criticism there are more sources for the Bible (as we currently have translated today) than ANY historical text.  This chart from Charm.org describes the situation perfectly:
AuthorDate
Written
Earliest CopyApproximate Time Span between original & copyNumber of CopiesAccuracy of Copies
Lucretiusdied 55 or 53 B.C. 1100 yrs2----
PlinyA.D. 61-113A.D. 850750 yrs7----
Plato427-347 B.C.A.D. 9001200 yrs7----
Demosthenes4th Cent. B.C.A.D. 1100800 yrs8----
Herodotus480-425 B.C.A.D. 9001300 yrs8----
SuetoniusA.D. 75-160A.D. 950800 yrs8----
Thucydides460-400 B.C.A.D. 9001300 yrs8----
Euripides480-406 B.C.A.D. 11001300 yrs9----
Aristophanes450-385 B.C.A.D. 900120010----
Caesar100-44 B.C.A.D. 900100010----
Livy59 BC-AD 17----???20----
Tacituscirca A.D. 100A.D. 11001000 yrs20----
Aristotle384-322 B.C.A.D. 1100140049----
Sophocles496-406 B.C.A.D. 10001400 yrs193----*
Homer (Iliad)900 B.C.400 B.C.500 yrs64395%*
New
Testament
1st Cent. A.D. (A.D. 50-100)2nd Cent. A.D.
(c. A.D. 130 f.)
less than 100 years560099.5%*
*Not sure why there isn't a percentage of accuracy for all the texts.  The accuracy percentage was taken from comparing all the different copies and showing what percentage the copies agreed with each other.  The differences in the NT copies do not occur in major theological parts of the NT and do not affect the doctrines espoused by most Christian churches.

So, now that we've established the validity of the copies of the New Testament, let's examine how trustworthy a document of this type would have be in the light of the concept of conspiracy theories.

For these copies to be completely fake, dozens of people would have to all come together and collude to create a document over about fifty years.  They would have to get their stories straight, so they agreed, but not too much, because if the four Gospels were identical, it would be obvious that they were copying one another.  They would have to slowly, over time produce a variety of texts that don't sound like they're all written by the same people.  Then they have to all go out and convince others that what they're writing is a true, all the time knowing that it's a lie.  Think about the vastness of this lie.  The text says that Jesus appeared to over five hundred people at the same time (1 Cor 15:6), and remember these texts were written within 10-70 years of the events described and they even encourage people to seek out these people and seek the Truth.  So, if one really wanted to kill Christianity in its infancy, all one would have to do is point to a grave with a still buried Jesus and go, "Well, they're all liars."  Or, something more gruesome like put his body on display or something.  But no, early detractors from Christianity don't do anything like that.  In fact, according to scholars of ancient literature, the first century Jewish writings agree that there was indeed an empty tomb and they sought to explain away the issue with other stories like grave robbery.

This brings us to another important idea behind debunking the Jesus mythers.  Think about and compare people that believe in the moon landing conspiracy.  In today's day and age the people that believe such things are labeled nutjobs or crazy etc.  But, in all reality what does one risk to oneself by disbelieving in the moon landing or perpetuating a similar lie?  Nothing much, maybe a little ostracization for being abnormal, maybe derision from people who know the truth.  But, what happened to the people that perpetuated the story of Jesus?  According to this site it is highly likely that eleven of the twelve apostles were martyred.  Now, okay it does admit that some of the stories of their martyrdom are more speculative, but to say the least most of the disciples were killed for their beliefs.  Now again, we're talking about a conspiracy theory here right?  So, let's assume these apostles were the original source of this huge conspiracy, what happened to them after they spread this lie?  They paid for it with their lives.  So this conspiracy not only bears no benefit to the conspirators, it will most likely lead to their death.  This brings up an interesting question though.  Others will and have died for their beliefs so that doesn't prove Christianity as right or wrong.  However, there's a clear distinction that this objection misses is this: the many martyrs for various religions died and still die for things they believe with all their hearts as being true.  If they knew for certain that what they believed was a lie, they wouldn't have been as willing to go to their deaths.  According to Wikipedia Muhammad died of an illness, and Joseph Smith died at the hands of a lynch mob for apparently trying to set up a form of theocracy and trying to marry other men's wives.  Every martyr since these founders had set up their respective religions died because they believed the claims of the founders.

Still not enough?  Let's look at other sources.  Even if you still reject the Bible as historical at all, and hold on to the impossible theory that these men died for a huge lie.  There are other sources of evidence for the historical Jesus.  This site has a few of the non-biblical historical references for Jesus and according to the Strobel's book there are a number of things one can learn from non-biblical sources.  I don't remember the complete list as presented in the book, but here's what I remember.  He was born under questionable circumstances, He was considered from Nazareth, He performed signs and wonders, He was crucified, His followers continued to worship Him after the crucifixion claiming that He had risen from the dead, and these followers were regularly martyred for that belief.

So there you have it.  Still think Jesus was just a myth?  If so then you believe in the biggest most implausible conspiracy imaginable.  Hundreds of thousands of people had to be in on a lie and perpetuate that lie knowing that it would lead to their death.

View from Dobong Mountain (도봉산) Seoul S Korea

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Conspiracy Theory and Knowledge

First off, let me point you in the direction of the article that made me think about this topic.  There was this article from HowStuffWorks.com about ten people that are considered really smart that have done really stupid things.  The list was interesting to me because it brought up the idea of how we know what we know and what it takes to convince us of something that we don't believe.  There's also this interesting article that I found more recently about a similar topic.  There was also an article about people refusing to believe in things that have been debunked by science but I can't find that link right now.  When I find it I'll add it.

So let's start off our discussion with defining 'conspiracy.'  Wikipedia defines it like this: "A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation."  Interesting that this definition has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim.  Here are some doozies (that's the technical term) that I can think of myself that I know some people actually believe, this is in no particular order: The assassination of JFK (specifically that more than Lee H. Oswald was involved), the moon landing (it was totally faked), the holocaust deniers, the birth certificate of sitting president Barack Obama, any number of Biblical conspiracies including numerology and "Jesus mythicists," vaccination hysteria (the far extreme being the operative position), the 9/11 cover up, and the Erin Brockovich and the PG&E Hinkley groundwater contamination cover up.  This is just my own list of conspiracy theories that I've been thinking about in regards to this entry; it is by no means meant to be comprehensive here's another wiki article (nearly all the previous links were to wiki articles) that has a much more interesting list.

Starting off with the most difficult one, the JFK assassination.  First off, what is the question?  Is the conspiracy that more than one assassin was involved?  So what?  That doesn't really affect the world in any way.  If the conspiracy is that the US government intentionally covered up the fact that someone in power wanted to oust JFK by assassination, and blame it all on one lone gunman, that's more significant.  Here's my basic answer to that kind of conspiracy: Two people can keep a secret, if one is dead.  This old saying applies to the USG as well!  I recently commented on a video on Facebook about this, "The US can't keep ACTUALLY SECRET things secret (Snowden ring any bells?)! How in the world could someone believe that the US government could keep a secret so huge that thousands upon thousands of people would have to be in on it?"  The same critique applies to the moon landing hoax claim.  Do you really believe that the USG could collude with thousands of people to hide a lie that huge, and get away with it?

The moon landing is so much clearer to me.  Though the actual artifacts left on the moon by the Apollo missions cannot be seen with the Hubble telescope, it can be measured.  So, how much disbelief are you willing to suspend?  Does the movie Watchmen convince you that there really was a JFK conspiracy?  Then maybe the lunar laser ranging retroreflector experiment won't convince you that people really walked on the moon.

Another totally crazy one, basically this one gives even ordinary conspiracy theorists a bad name, is that people that deny the holocaust.  While WWII is fading into memories there have been enough actual eye witness testimonies and legitimately researched and peer reviewed historical texts that clearly document the truth.  How can people really close their minds to truth?

The reason I listed the Erin Brockovich case is this.  The plaintiffs were dismissed as conspiracy nuts at first.  Then, after a thorough investigation, they settled for somewhere around $333 million!  While technically a settlement is not an admission of guilt, it doesn't lend credibility to their counter-claim that there was nothing wrong.  My point was that not all conspiracies are false.  I'm not trying to claim that all seemingly crazy claims are false, but here's the deal, what will you accept as evidence and what will convince you that something is true (or false)?  Also, what will happen to your epistemology?  If your epistemology is foundational and one of these conspiracies is part of your belief system you could be in a world of hurt if it's proven untrue.  Foundational epistemology is dangerous!

Since this post is getting too long and I need some rest, I'll complete this discussion some other time.

If this characterizes your epistemology, you're doing something wrong.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 8: Aquinas’s Metaphysics Part 2

I tried this with the part 1 of this lecture, but it didn't seem to shorten it at all!  I used the the text of the lecture and just commented on what I thought interesting.  Too much of it seemed important and the entry ended up much longer than I wanted.  So here goes part 2.

Here lies an apparent contradiction how is there unity in the diversity of the universe.  Even the word bespeaks of the contradiction, uni and diverse share roots with universe.  Parmenides denied one half of the apparent paradox, manyness.  This eliminates change as well because change is just a manyness in time, before and after.  He was a monist/pantheist everything is one god, the universe, everything because there is only one thing.  The direct opposite can be found in Heraclitus he denied any permanence, saying that all reality was like a river that you could never step into twice.  Plato resolved the problem by distinguishing two worlds, matter where there is manyness and the world of the forms where there was unity.  Aristotle joined Plato’s two worlds with substance being matter and form together.

Aquinas commented on the error of Parmenides and other monists with this:
“They fell into error because they dealt with being as though it were a univocal concept and an essence . . . this, however, cannot be done, for being is analogous . . . Parmenides argues as follows: outside of being there is nothing but nonbeing, and that which is not being is nothing. Since being is one, whatever is outside the one is nothing.’ From this argument of his it is clear that Parmenides was thinking of the concept of being, which appears always to be one and the same, and univocal, for it is unthinkable that something be added to the concept of being so that one concept of being be distinguished from another. For that which would be added to being must necessarily be something outside of and distinct from being. But the only thing outside of or extraneous to being is nonbeing or nothing. Hence it appears that the notion of being cannot be modified, cannot be anything but one, unique, and univocal.”
If there is only one thing, individuality is an illusion.  However, radical pluralism is nominalism: it denies universal ideas existence, and reduces them to mere words.  But, the evidence of our senses shows us both oneness and manyness.  Any good philosophy has to account for all possibilities, not ignore what we don't like or want to understand.

As Professor Kreeft says, "Aquinas explains the oneness of beings by the fact that they all share the act of existence, which is itself one and the same simple act.  But beings are different because this act of existence is received into many different essences."

I also like this quote, "Aquinas calls God the pure act of existence unlimited by any finite essence."

This is not to reduce God to a philosophical abstraction, just a way of talking about God that makes sense.  This does not change how God is the God of Abraham, Isaac etc.  This isn't about just philosophy, it's about the real world as well.

Everything that is real shares a kinship in the act of existence.  And, as God is the infinite pure act of existence this is one way in which God is omnipresent.  "God is existence itself, and existence itself is most intimately present at the heart of every being. Therefore God is most intimately present at the heart of every being."

So here we have it, God is everywhere but this is NOT pantheism, because it’s the act of existence and that transcendent fact that so is intimately present to everything.

Prof Kreeft goes into a long discussion about Angels and their differences from humans, but I'm not going to go into it here.

This is important to Aquinas' philosophy: "Like Aristotle, Aquinas defines change as the transition from potentiality to actuality, and he distinguishes two different kinds of change: accidental change and substantial or essential change. When I get older, smarter, or fatter, that’s only change in accidents, but when I die, that’s a change in essence."

Something remains the same in accidental changes, I am still me even though my entire body's cells have died and been replaced by new cells.

Each person also goes through essential change twice, when we are conceived and when we die.  Corpses are not people nor any kind of a person.

Again "following Aristotle," seems Aquinas was quite enamored with Aristotle's philosophy, "Aquinas distinguishes four causes, four kinds of causality: form and matter are the two intrinsic causes, the formal cause and the material cause; and the efficient and final causes are the two extrinsic causes."

This final point, which Aristotle and Aquinas call a "final cause," has fallen out of modern usage, possibly because it's not considered scientific.  All things act in definite ways.  Puppies always become dogs (assuming they don't die prematurely),  Birds fly, fish swim etc.  Puppies never become horses and rocks can't swim and never will.  This is final causality, things are directed to their specific ends.

As Aquinas argues in one of the five ways, everything that begins to exist needs an efficient cause to account for its existence.  If a thing itself were its own sufficient reason, it would have to exist always.  Either this sufficient reason is eternal or it would have to give existence to itself—which is impossible: nothing can give what it doesn't posses.

Again, sorry no picture!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 8: Aquinas’s Metaphysics Part 1

Part 8 is the beginning of a series of lectures that follow a philosophical order rather than the Summa’s theological order. First is metaphysics and the following lectures will cover philosophical anthropology, epistemology, and ethics.  Metaphysics is foundational because it deals with what is, what is real and what reality even means.  Everything depends on metaphysics.  If one is a materialist then in philosophical anthropology one will have to deny that humans are essentially different from animals, the materialist denies the soul.  The materialist's epistemology will necessarily be a strict empiricism, without a distinction between immaterial, intellectual, rational knowledge and sense knowledge.  Lastly the materialist will concentrate on material goods only.

Some modern philosophers deny the legitimacy of metaphysics.  This is a materialist position, claiming that metaphysics has no distinctive subject because its subject falls outside the material on which the hard sciences and other specific realms of philosophy focus.

Sciences look at beings, but metaphysics looks at universal properties and laws and principles.  What it means to be a being.  As Prof Kreeft says of Heidegger, Western metaphysics after Plato, is guilty of a “forgetfulness of being” because they focused on what things are forgetting to think about the fact that they are.  Aquinas does consider this and the primacy of the act of existence is at the very center of his view of metaphysics.

Another objection to metaphysics is that it claims a kind of God’s-eye point of view.  Looking at the whole of being as if one could do so from outside, forgetting that we are only part of the whole. Aquinas quotes Aristotle that “philosophy begins in wonder.”  He notes that the wonderis not just about some certain beings but about being as a whole. The very fact that we can raise questions about being in general indicates that we are not merely part(s) of that whole.  We can only wonder about something if we are outside that something.  This idea reminds me of the Gödel Escher Bach book by Douglas Hofstadter.

Hobbesian or Humean empiricism, seems to ignore the very mind that’s doing the reducing of itself to “the scout for the senses.”  These views don't seem to account for the very self that’s asking the questions about oneself.  The argument that this goal of knowing what existence is like this.  The very fact that we have the desire to know what existence is like belies that it is knowable.  We wouldn't have a thirst for a knowledge that we couldn't possibly have would be absurd.

Then we have the principle of analogy.  The principle of analogy solves the problem of how we can know anything about God.  If we view God in human terms it's anthropomorphic: we drag God down to the human level, if the terms used for God apply to humanity.  However, if the terms are equivocal, they tell us nothing about God and we cannot know anything about God.  If the attributes of God are analogical, then we know some reflections of God, though pale and remote—we can know something of God.

The first task in analogical analysis is distinguishing between actual existence and merely mental existence.  Aquinas uses the act of existence to separate the two types of existence.  Actual existent things exist by themselves, but mentally existent things do not.  Things that only exist in the mind cannot give real existence to things because they cannot give what they do not themselves posses.

To Aquinas the “second act” is activity and the “first act” is that of existence.  Existence is always acting, always giving itself to something ontologically—self-giving is built into the very nature of existence.  A theological reason for this is that existence is rooted in the very nature of God as self-giving love, and everything else is in the analogical image of God.

This brings us to unity.  Unity is also analogical, I like the way Prof Kreeft puts this: "God is more one than a human soul; and a human person is more one than an animal, because we can meaningfully say 'I;' and an animal is more one than a plant. And even a plant is more one than a rock, or an atom, or a subatomic particle."

This lecture is too long and complicated to give it a fair treatment in one blog post, so I'll save the second half for another entry.  Unfortunately, I don't have a good picture to include with this entry.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Response to, “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey

Another Essay written for my philosophy class.  Here is a link to a copy of the article. 
A Response to, “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey
This essay is written as a response to the article entitled “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey as published in 1968. As this article is clearly an attack on both Christianity and theists in general, we need to be always ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Christ (I Peter 3:15). A verse, which has a much deeper meaning in the context of McCloskey’s claim that because of the problem of evil, “theists should be miserable just because they are theists.”

At first, McCloskey tries to offer snippets of a much grander discussion on some of the primary arguments for God and refers to the arguments as “proofs,” claiming that they cannot definitively establish a case for God. However, these couple pages are not nearly enough to cover such deep arguments and his attempt to dismiss them are reminiscent of Dawkins’ work in The God Delusion, which philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls sophomoric (Plantinga, 2007). McCloskey, like many other atheists, sets up a straw man and easily knocks it down. The arguments for God that McCloskey mentions, ontological, cosmological, teleological, and the argument from design, are combinatorial in nature. If one argument is apparently weak the other arguments more than make up for supposed weaknesses in each other. Also, McCloskey dismisses the ontological argument apparently only because ordinary theists do not typically believe in God as a result of these types of proofs, which isn't an argument.

In terms of the cosmological arguments, McCloskey seems to be commenting on both the temporal and the non-temporal arguments for God at the same time, using what has become a worn-out critique, “Who created God?” That question, used by many atheists who seem to smugly stand up as if they have won the argument, is completely unimportant to the question. The cosmological argument from contingency has nothing to do with an infinitely old universe, which is where the critique only makes sense. Saying, “Who created God?” is like asking who created the uncreated, or who made this square circle, it's nonsense. It is a philosophically useless question considering the contingency of the universe. The only serious issue with the contingency argument, is that just because everything we have experienced in the universe appears to be contingent, does not necessarily mean that the universe itself is contingent. That too can be answered in that, the fallacy of composition, though technically can be applied to certain premises in the argument, the entire argument does not hinge on whether everything is contingent or if the universe itself is contingent. If any part of the universe is contingent then there must be a non-contingent, necessary being.

McCloskey makes the same mistake Dawkins makes in his books and Professor McGinn makes in his lecture series on philosophy, that is, take one argument for God, point out its weaknesses then apply that to other, completely separate arguments for God (McGinn, 2003). No one, that this author knows of, is claiming that the cosmological argument “entitle[s] us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause.” As professor Kreeft says of Aquinas’ “ways,” “They claim to prove only a thin slice of God, so to speak, but enough to refute atheism” (Kreeft, 2009). Why do so many make the logical leap from, “a God exists” to “the Christian God exists” when no legitimate Christian apologist does so?
Then McCloskey turns to the teleological argument for God and claims that one would need “indisputable examples of design and purpose.” Again, a huge logical leap is being made here from the possibility or probability of design to indisputable examples of design. Why, when counterexamples are given from evolution, is plausibility the only thing needed to disprove creative design, and yet one that argues for creative design must give indisputable examples? Many atheist evolutionists seem content to give plausible explanations of how time, chance, and natural selection can explain away professor Behe’s irreducible complexity, however the question isn’t is it certain that a creative designer was involved, merely is it more probable that a designer was involved. In all these arguments the goal is not certainty, but plausibility. It is more plausible that an intelligent designer was involved than mere time/chance/natural selection.

There are so many examples of design it is difficult to choose just one. However, the so-called “fine-tuning argument” seems to be the most powerful argument because it circumvents any natural selection critiques. Though some seem to think there is an evolutionary answer, that some invisible, untestable, un-provable multiverse theories or universe generating machine theories, and no matter how unlikely these objections may be, are accepted by dogmatic atheists. But at its very core the fine-tuning argument is a powerful argument as our knowledge of the universe deepens.

As the fine-tuning argument makes teleological arguments more probable, so does the idea of abiogenesis. There is no designer required in either of these portions of the teleological arguments for God. However, even conceding evolution as true, the question of design is still not answered. The evolutionary process appeals to the laws of nature to work in a certain way, which implies a goal or an end. The very idea of an end or goal in a process requires the existence of a mind to imbue the process with a purpose. Purely natural or chemical processes, though at times orderly e.g. crystal formation, they don’t in themselves have any purpose. One possible critique is that the only purpose is to live and reproduce, but even that is a purpose and requires an explanation. And, if that is true, the entirety of McCloskey’s article is rendered worthless. If all of life has no meaning or purpose or goal save to live and reproduce, the atheists’ attempts at conjuring meaning in life come up empty.

Again McCloskey attacks a conclusion from an argument that has not (yet) been made. He has only answered the cosmological and the teleological arguments and ignored the ontological and the moral arguments for God. The teleological and cosmological arguments only show that it is reasonable to conclude that an all-powerful entity created the universe. These arguments do not speak to the characteristics of this entity other than power, creativity, and intelligence. The problem of evil must be made in the context of a particular view of God, that is, a theological context. It can be said to perhaps show that a particular view of God might be wrong, but it does not show that there is not a God at all. These direct philosophical questions and claims of inconsistency, which William Lane Craig seems to claim that current philosophers (even atheists) have abandoned (Craig, "Reasonable Faith Podcast", 2007), fall short of the goal of proving that God does not exist. The apologist need only show that it is possible that an all-powerful, all-good God to have reasons for permitting the existence of evil, to answer direct claims from the problem of evil.

Despite the more modern philosophers’ neglect of the logical problem of evil McCloskey seems to be clinging on to it saying, “No being who was perfect could have created a world in which there was unavoidable suffering or in which his creatures would (and in fact could have been created so as not to) engage in morally evil acts, acts which very often result in injury to innocent persons.” This completely ignores the concept of the “greater good” “second-order goods.” The former is best illustrated in the heroic soldier falling on the grenade to save his comrades, wherein the death of the soldier is evil but is required for the greater good of saving his comrades. Also, it is required for suffering to occur if one is to learn patience in the face of adversity.

Both Mackie and McCloskey have made similar claims against the free will answer to the problem of evil McCloskey saying, “might not God have very easily so have arranged the world and biased man to virtue that men always freely chose what is right?” and Mackie, “why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?” (emphasis added). At first glance it doesn’t seem like a response is needed, because part of the idea of freedom is the ability to choose otherwise. Even so, Plantinga gives an interesting answer that illustrates how that question forms a possible world that even an omnipotent being cannot create because it hinges on the choices of the created beings’ choices.
As McCloskey closes this article, and indeed the whole purpose as stated from the beginning, he claims how, in light of the problem of evil, atheism is more comforting than theism. There is little comparison between this article and Professor Craig’s “The Absurdity of Life without God” chapter in the book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Dr. Craig references dozens of atheist writers and philosophers who have all come to a similar agreement, there is no meaning in life. Who are we to trust? McCloskey’s blatant appeal to emotion essentially claiming, because theists have to answer the philosophical questions of why God would permit certain evils, their worldview is less comforting than the humanists’ perspective of self-reliance and self-respect. But as Nietzsche, is quoted by Craig from “The Gay Science,” in The Portable Nietzsche, “Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? God is dead. … And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (Craig, 1994, p. 77). Which is actually more comforting, the idea that there is an all-powerful creator that imbues the entire universe with meaning and life, or dust that is only on this dust ball for a blink in the eye of eternity blindly flying through space? The answer is intended to be rhetorical, but the picture is clear. Despite the theists’ need to explain the existence of evil in the context of an all-powerful, all-good God, it is much better than being nothingness’ accidental offspring.
References
Beebe, J. R. (n.d.). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Logical Problem of Evil. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/#H4
Craig, W. (2007, August 5). Reasonable Faith Podcast. iTunes. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/reasonable-faith-podcast/id252618197?mt=2
Craig, W. L. (1994). Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics (Third ed.). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co..
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
McCloskey, H. J. (1968). On Being an Atheist. Question 1, 51-54.
McGinn, C. (2003). Discovering the philosopher in you the big questions in philosophy. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC.
Plantinga, A. (2007, March). The Dawkins Confusion. Books and Culture. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/marapr/1.21.html

Ruse, M. (2003, August 30). Creationism. Stanford University. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/creationism/