Archive for June, 2011

Ideological Turing Test ..

June 30, 2011

So, over at Unequally Yoked, they’re running an ideological Turing Test to see if atheists can pretend to be Christians and vice versa to see how well the two groups understand each other.  I unfortunately was too late to get into the first round, but the questions are up and I’m going to answer them anyway:

It’s also nice to not be in because it means that I can comment exactly how I want and not have to worry about, say, being too flippant.   Like the first question for Christians:

“What’s your best reason for being a Christian? ”

As one editor at Marvel always used to reply (to any question about favourites) “Can anyone ever really have a best reason for being a Christian?” [grin]

This is a tough one.  Probably the best supporting reason is unfortunately a variation on an argument ad populum:  it’s been a long-held societal belief that at least has not [edit] contradicted the world enough to be dismissed as false.  Which looks a lot like “A lot of people believe it”.  But for beliefs, I’m not sure if there can be a better reason, other than “It works for me”.  It’s not enough for knowledge, but I don’t claim that and so this really does seem to count.

(I’d have left that last sentence off if I had been actually replying to the test).

“What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God? ”

This is a very, very big question.  Obviously, if I died and met someone else — or no one at all — then I’d clearly stop believing in God.  Maybe if the universe was proven to not have been created and not be intelligent itself that would do it also.  Settling morality and then proving that God acted immorally would at least get me to drop the traditional Christian God.  But that’s about it.

(I think this question is too big for this sort of test, personally).

“Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?”

For the first question, I don’t.  For the second question, it’s mostly based on my having my own belief already, and so other beliefs do get disadvantaged because of that.

(Better question, but a worse one for me [girn]).

“How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations?  How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible?  How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma? ”

I treat the Bible like a historical/philosophical text.  I therefore study the history of its translations when it is relevant, but for most purposes it isn’t (I’ve never needed, for example, to worry about translations of Kant and the Stoics to talk about what they said, generally).  I consider all translations and versions to aim at the truth, and will compare to get clarity on issues when required.  As for books, for religious purposes I accept the stipulated books of the relevant religion, which is usually mind.  I tend to follow philosophy more than theology for morality, and for theology the source texts and making them consistent is crucial to determining theological commitments; it is indeed the primary source in most theological cases.

And now for the atheist questions, which I’ll answer as if I was an atheist:

“What’s your best reason for being an atheist?”

Probably that I don’t see any reason to be a theist and that theism seems to contradict science in a number of ways.

“What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God? If you believed in some kind of god, what kind of evidence would be necessary to convince you to join a particular religion?”

This is a very, very big question.  Generally, it would have to have specific testable and repeatable empirically verifiable consequences.  Any religion that could do that would be the one that I’d accept.

“When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities/etc?”

Generally, empathy and secular humanistic principles.

“Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of several kinds, but religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?”

That a belief is long-held and popular doesn’t make it true.  Even having evolutionary benefit doesn’t make it true or still useful.  Religion is tied tightly into the social fabric of most societies and reinforces itself by teaching it to the children of believers.  It also seems to fulfill a psychological need in people.  But we can fulfill those needs with beliefs that are at least more rational than religion, even if it will take a long time for that to take full effect.

And that’s it.  My atheist answers were shorter because my theistic beliefs are more complicated than most people’s beliefs PERIOD (not just atheists).

Here’s how determinists hang themselves …

June 29, 2011

So, Jerry Coyne is pretty much a determinist about free will, which at the extreme can be summarized as “We don’t really have it”.  He talks about it here, summarizing someone else’s ideas of what it means:

Now, normally as you all know I tend to quote a lot from posts I comment on, but this time I’m not going to include any quotes at all.  But if you read it, you’ll see that it basically boils down to this:

  1. Due to evidence x, y and z, we don’t seem to have meaningul choices or free will.
  2. Therefore, we should act differently because of the fact that we don’t have free will.

The problem with this is obvious, and is a common one stretching all the way back to at least B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” — which, yes, I have read — and probably long before that.  In “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”, Skinner claims that we don’t have free will and all our actions are basically determined by environment and history, reports that we see that positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement … and then advocates that we condition others with positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement.   The problem?  How in the world can we be “free” enough to “choose” to change how we condition people so that they react appropriately without any of us having the ability to choose?

That’s the common issue that determinists always run into.  They’re trying to convince us to accept their view that there is no free will, and that we don’t have meaningful choices.  But to do that, we have to be able to have choices, or else we have to accept that it was determined long before they open their mouths whether or not we’d accept their recommendations, either on free will or how we have to act with respect to this lovely information about free will.  And if we don’t have free will, neither do they, and so they will keep making this mistake just because they do; they can’t, in fact, meaningfully choose otherwise.  If determinists are right, there are no meaningful choices all the way down … but then attempts to change behaviour are equally determined.

That’s the issue they face:  they want to promote the lack of free will when our entire mindset and way of speaking presumes that we have free will.  This should certainly put them behind the 8-ball, no matter what science says.

And this is why I hate the concept of rights …

June 29, 2011

… or, at least, how they’re often interpreted.

The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that a state cannot restrict the sale of video games to adults based on violence because it would violate the right to free speech.  Um, excuse me?  The right to free speech has never meant that you had to have an audience or that the audience couldn’t be restricted.  And there are multiple examples of such restrictions, like those on movies.  This isn’t an issue of free speech at all.

If California was going to ban violent video games completely, there’d be a point and a case here.  But they aren’t.  They’re simply saying that they want to keep minors from, at least, being able to buy them.  They aren’t saying that parents can’t buy or rent those games and then let their children play them (like they can do now for DVD movies).  They’re simply saying that minors can’t buy them themselves, just like they do for movies now.

It saddens me that people can get away with claiming “You’re violating my rights!” for things that really have no link to it.  Rights arguments have become their own industry, and one in which the inmates really are running the asylum.

Sink the Agnostic?

June 28, 2011

Jerry Coyne over at “Why Evolution is True” kinda likes a new way to clear up the confusion over the terms “agnostic” and “atheist” that’s been cooked up by Mano Singham, which proposes this:


Singham’s solution: deep-six the term “agnostic,” and redefine “atheist” to eliminate these ambiguities:

atheist:  One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.

He explains the advantages:

This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say “no”, they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say “yes”, they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.

Although this sounds like a rhetorical strategy to force people to admit they’re atheists, I actually like it.  It subsumes in a logical way both people like P.Z., who don’t think there can be evidence for a god because the very concept is incoherent, and people like me, who think that in principle there could be evidence for a god, but none has appeared.  Likewise, it subsumes those who are certain that there is no god (#7 on the Dawkins scale) with those, like Richard himself, who are highly doubtful but not absolutely certain.  And it’s not just conflation of wildly disparate views, for it separates people on a crucial axis: whether or not they think we need a god to explain and understand the world.”


There are a few problems with this, however:

1)  Agnostic was created by Huxley to delineate the ability to know about a proposition.  An agnostic claims that the truth value of a proposition is unknowable (either just at the current time or possibly permanently); someone who is not agnostic claims that we can know the truth value of that proposition.  Singham deep-sixes the term agnostic but his new definition doesn’t in any way fulfill that purpose; we still can classify people based on the meaning of that term.  So his redefinition of atheist doesn’t work if it has to replace agnostic as well; it simply cannot do that.  Thus, indeed, some agnostics may well reject is principle … but remain agnostics because of the link to knowledge.  They, then, would be agnostic theists, which is a classification that already exists today.  Simply put, the classification is useful and we can’t replace agnostic with this since it clearly doesn’t capture what the term “agnostic” was meant to capture.

2) The “unnecessary explanatory concept” isn’t actually all that clear, and again it is here that agnosticism raises an issue.  What does it mean to be a “necesssary explanatory concept”?   My first blush guess would be that that is a concept that is absolutely required to explain something, meaning that no other explanation could possibly be correct for that phenomena.  The problem here is that many theists will concede that there are other possible explanations for the things God did, but that the explanation “God did it” happens to be the right one.  This goes double for agnostic theists.  So a lot of theists that would believe in a God would suddenly be atheists by this definition.  That can’t be right.  But to weaken necessary will make some atheists theists because they’ll accept that if God exists He would be a necessary explanation … but they don’t think He exists and so isn’t.  So if you allow for God to be a possible explanation for phenomena, then you’ll have agnostic atheists and even some stronger atheists admitting that God is a possible explanation but not the right one.  So this doesnt work either.

So this doesn’t actually seem like a very good redefinition of atheist to eliminate the term “agnosticism”.

Should’ve Been Somebody Else …

June 28, 2011

So, recently I was poking around in a local Walmart, and picked up a few new TV series on DVD.  One of them was the complete series of “The Greatest American Hero” which I picked up because:

  1. I vaguely remembered the name of it.
  2. It was cheap.
  3. It had Connie Sellecca in it, which would pretty much justify the price.

I started watching it this weekend, and noticed a few things about it, the most important of which is:

Faye Grant was also in it, which between her and Connie Sellecca really does make it be worth the price, although I really wish they were focused on more often [grin].

But the most relevant thing is that this was a show that had a good premise that was badly executed.  The basic idea is about a man who is given a superhero suit in order to become a hero, but he loses the instructions to it, meaning that as he tries to go out and stop bad things — no, not crimes specifically; it really is “bad things” — from happening he has no idea what he’s doing, and so things go wrong.  Sometimes in ways that are funny.

Now, the first thing to notice about this concept is that it can’t carry a long-running TV show.  The show lasted three seasons and 43 episodes, and I’m on part of the second season (likely approaching the half-way point).  But we’d expect that as our hero goes along he’ll learn how to use the suit, and in fact many episodes involve, at least in part, his learning to use the suit and develop a new power.  So, over the course of the series, we’d expect him to get better and better at using the suit.   So that part of it would have to fall off as the series progressed.  And so it would have to be replaced with something.  What would that be?  So far, there’s not much set-up to replace that, and I suspect we aren’t going to get anything like that.

And the problems in handling start right from the pilot.  See, the main story here is that a group of aliens with really weird powers — like reanimating the dead, apparently — give our hero the suit and deliberately try to associate him with an FBI agent — the partner of the dead guy — so that they can, basically, save the world.  Okay, that’s pretty odd, but not too bad … except that they start their “conversation” with them by playing radio snippets of Roosevelt — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” — and Hitler.  All of which could have been the lead-in for a great hook and a hook that could have carried the plot further past the introductory “I have no idea what I’m doing” thing:  the aliens are giving them this suit to test humanity, to see how they handle power, and if they’ll use it for good or evil.  This, then, could be an underlying factor in the entire series, and could lead to arch-enemies who are others who’ve gotten the suits and turned to “evil” and allies who’ve helped out.   He could even go out to seek out some of these to help them.  It’s a nice evolution and a serious premise that could go on through the seasons and tie-in to the next plot point, which is his relationship with Pam (Connie Sellecca, by far the best thing about this series).  Instead, it isn’t really clear why the aliens are doing this, and what their purpose is.  They interfere a bit, but no one really knows why.  So it’s all a bit of a muddle.

Which describes the rest of the pilot as well.  Take the other main plot point, which is basically the hero’s girlfriend/lawyer/whatever Pam (and it’s perfectly understandable that I remember her name and not his [grin]).  In the pilot, at the beginning, she’s introduced as his attorney.  As the pilot moves along and he basically drives off with her to save the FBI agent, as part of a long litany of comments designed to talk down an insane person, she admits she loves him.  He says he does as well.  This carries on … except that in that context we’re just as likely to think that she was lying to him as that she really meant it.   But this is just presumed accurate, even after he proves that he really does have special powers (which includes a nice fainting scene, where when the hero lifts her car for an instant she looks like she’ll keep on going and then she just falls over, which seems to me a reasonable reaction in that case).  Where did this come from?  And this problem shows up later, when her parents come to town and have never met him, despite the fact that marriage has come up as a topic between them a few times before that episode.  So it actually seems like they weren’t even dating before the pilot, and yet want to get married?  Or were they dating and were a bit serious?  Then why had her parents never met the guy?

The show should have gone one way or the other.  Either have them be dating seriously — and drop the lawyer thing, since the kid happily disappears by season 2 — before the suit or have them be friends and associates — here, the lawyer thing works best — and have a relationship develop when she gets dragged into his exploits as one of the few people who knows who he is and that he has the suit.  But this is just inconsistent, which pretty much describes her role in the entire series so far.  Is she just the girlfriend?  A part of the team?  Something in between?  Is the suit an issue for her and their relationship, or not?  What role does she actually have in this whole thing?

And this is sad, because while I like Connie Sellecca I also really like the character.  Pam makes an interesting foil for both the hero and the FBI agent, since she won’t take crap from any of them.  That interplay — her being the intermediary between the two — is an interesting one and is far too underplayed.  She also doesn’t show up often enough, having “court” as an excuse.  I guess part of that is due to the fact that she’s more in demand in terms of acting than the others were — she was in “Hotel” at least part of the time while this was on — and so can’t always be around to film.  But it would be nice, then, to dedicate some episodes to just defining how things stand, even if they have to leave things open.

Ultimately, this is a show that really doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be.  Is it supposed to be a comedy?  A drama?  An action-show?  It tries to, in some sense, do them all and does none of them really well.  There are comedic elements, but they aren’t enough to carry the show on humour.  There are interesting dramatic and personal issues to address, but they aren’t made a big enough part of the show to carry it.  Action?  The action is, really, pretty pathetic, even for the time period;  A-Team — also by Stephen J. Cannell, if I’m not mistaken — did it better and had other things going on to make it all work out better.  So, what is it aiming at?  It seems no one knows.

And that’s consistent:  no one really seems to know what’s supposed to be in and what’s supposed to be out.  Even his powers get forgotten and remembered depending on the writer.  I know that, in general, I have a tendency to not pay that close attention to these things — I watch while playing games or reading, for example — but for light family fare this is just way too noticeable.

Which is too bad, because the concept is good.  The execution is poor.

However, it has Connie Sellecca and Faye Grant in it and cost me about $15.  I think I got my money’s worth out of it.

The Philosophical Method, the Scientific Method, and Theology

June 27, 2011

So, for the longest time I’ve thought that theology was basically philosophical, and didn’t really see the difference between them, despite a number of people saying that I was wrong and that theology wasn’t philosophy.  So, now, let me clarify:  I think that theology uses the philosophical method, and as such doesn’t use the scientific method.  The philosphical method is quite different than the scientific method, which explains why a lot of scientist don’t really get either.

My first blush work in progress shot at describing the philosophical method is here:

So, how does that differ from the scientific method?  Let’s go through the points in order:

1) Science works with things, with objects.  Philosophy works with concepts.  Now, a lot of the time these are mostly interchangeable, which is why people don’t really notice this difference.  But philosophy is conceptual analysis, while science is object analysis.  They aim at two compeltely different types of ends.

2) Science has to be grounded in the empirical and empirical observations to achieve its end.  Philosophy has to be grounded in reasoning to achieve its end.  Both can use either, but philosophy accepts propositions that are not ultimately grounded in empirical observation and science doesn’t.  Philosophy accepts that you can find out interesting things with pure reasoning and science doesn’t.

3) Philosophy deals with things that have to work in all cases, whether inside or outside of the real world; science doesn’t care about anything outside of the real world.

4) Philosophy uses thought experiments and modal logic that don’t have to be real world situations to do its work.  Science always has to look at the real world to do its work.  In fact, philosophy wants to take things out of the real world to effectively examine their concepts while science wants to situate things as much as possible in the relevant real-world situations to do its work.

Note that the philosophical method doesn’t have to ignore completely empirical data or the results of science.  You can even naturalize — ie make scientific — parts of philosophy if it helps or if that’s the best way to do it.  In fact, science was born from natural philosophy because people discovered that the scientific method really did work best there.  But ultimately, philosophy has a different — though still important — goal than science, and thus has different methods.  Thus, good philosophy will naturalize only as far as it needs to to be able to properly analyze the concepts.

This also doesn’t make philosophy necessarily impractical.  All category judgements are philosophical because they involve determining what a category ought to contain regardless of what we think it does.  This is determining, for example, the concept of a mammal as opposed to simply talking about mammals directly.  Why are whales mammals and not fish?  If we’re going to appeal to natural kinds, we have to know what properties make up the concept “mammal” and the concept “fish” to make that determination.  Otherwise, all we’re left with is a pragmatic decision that’s subjectively determined by everyone based on what they think is the best way to classify.  Thus, general classifications at least ought to be relying on conceptual analysis to work.

Another example is, in my opinion, morality.  To me, once we know what the concept of morality means then we can go out and decide how to determine what moral rules — if any — we should follow.  This is independent of what people think is moral; they may well be wrong.  Only by analyzing the concept can we really determine what morality is, even if we end up determining that it really is just what people think it is.

Ultimately, the only thing scientific that even comes close to being the same as the philosophical method is  theoretical physics, and we can note from that that:

1) They are the only area that really uses anything like thought experiments, although at a far more concrete and much more elementary level than philosophy (see Schroedinger’s Cat).

2) Theoretical physicists get a lot of the same complaints tossed at them as is tossed at philosophy/theology, specifically about what empirical data there exists to validate their theory and how they plan to test it.  They also complain about the experimental focus of experimental physicists as much as philosophers/theologicans do.

So, does theology use the philosophical method?  Well, it seems quite reasonable to say that it does.  Most of the time, it is aiming at examining and defining the concept of God and cares less about the specific details or specific existence claims.  It accepts that you don’t need empirical data to ground a belief or a theory.  It uses thought experiments, modal logic, and pure analytical arguments to make its case.  It does use some empirical data, but it doesn’t place the importance on it that science does.

Okay, so it’s using the philosophical method.  Should it?  Some might argue that since it’s trying to establish the existence of something, that’s the balliwick of science.  However, the reply to that is two-fold:

1) The concept “God” is so poorly defined as a concept that science can’t even hope to get started talking about it.

2) It’s quite possible that “God” is a concept that can be proved without appealing to the empirical, and possibly that as a concept it cannot be proved by appealing to the empirical.

Anything supernatural has this issue, since we haven’t conceptualized it well-enough to know how to test it scientifically.  This applies specifically to the oft-cited “prayer experiments”, which didn’t take into account at all any of the conditions where prayer might be said to work, and worked with an extremely shallow view of prayer. Ghosts, telepathy, and telekinesis also fit into these cateogories.

These would suggest that, at least for now, the philosophical method is the appropriate way to analyze God, and that’s what theology is doing.  Thus, if scientists want to criticize its method, they have to criticize the philosophical method.

Which, since that method produced science, is not a method they want to discredit.

Neglect …

June 27, 2011

So, I’ve been neglecting this blog for the past little while, putting little new content on it.  I’m hoping to change that.  My current plan is to try to put up at least one new post daily Monday – Thursday, while leaving Friday – Sunday at least unplanned.  I’m still thinking about whether or not I’ll aim for posting something specific for each day, like doing Philosophy on Monday, Theism on Tuesday, etc.  But for now I’m really going to try to stick to that “at least one post Monday – Thursday” thing and see if it works.

Secularism and Atheism: Defined Oppositionally

June 17, 2011

I’ve been reading a little bit on secularism and atheism lately, and something just struck me:  both secularism and atheism are defined solely by what they oppose.  Without what they oppose, there’s nothing left and they wouldn’t exist.

This shouldn’t be a surprise for atheism.  It’s really always only been defined as “lack of belief in gods”.  If no one believed in anything that could be called a god, atheism would be meaningless.  But what’s interesting about this is that all forms of atheism share the same problem.  This would include New Atheism or Gnu Atheism or basically any form of atheism you could name:  atheism, in and of itself, is defined entirely by what it is not and what it opposes.  That includes the weak “I don’t believe in God” and the strong “No one should believe in God”.  Thus, atheism in and of itself contains no positive philosophy.  So if any atheist “philosophy” claims to have any positive philosophical points, they don’t come from atheism, but from something else that that specific field has taken on.

The same thing is true of secularism.  It’s about neutrality, certainly, but a very specific kind of neutrality:  religious neutrality.   If there was no religion, there would be no secularism.  In fact, since secularism is generally specifically about religious neutrality in the state, there’d be no secularism if there were no states that were at least overtly religious.  So, again, it’s defined entirely by what it opposes: religiously run states.  There’s nothing more beyond that when it comes to secularism.

This does not apply to things that are considered real and meaningful philosophies and philosophical systems.  While the Stoics were opposed to Aristotle — being different interpretations of Socrates — take out Aristotle and you still have a meaningful philosophy that can be discussed and adopted.  Kantian and Humean morality would exist without each other, despite being diametric opposites.  You could argue that a rationalist morality or philosophy would not exist without the opposing view of non-rational or emotional philosophies, but that’s getting down to a class of positions, not a position, and it still might exist as it would define how to apply reason.  Secularism and atheism don’t even have that; how to apply them is not really part of them.

What this leads to is the question, then, of neutrality.  Secularism claims to be neutral about religion, but it’s hard to see how it can be when it exists only to oppose religious states.  It’s whole purpose is, in a real sense, to oppose theocratic states.  That’s not a good starting point to claim neutrality.  Secularism carves its niche out by saying that it’s different from a religious state, and rarely that it’s also different from anti-religious states (it would be easy, in fact, to argue that anti-religious states are still secular, but some definitions or sets of principles).  As it’s only defined by not being religious, how can it be neutral on the matter, judging properly when to bring religion in and when to put it aside?  Atheism is the same way; while more neutral forms exist, what makes someone an atheist is a position on a proposition, and taking a position that is opposed to those who believe in god, by definition.  How, then, can atheists be in any way actually neutral on theistic issues?

Ultimately, the main reason for someone to profess secularism or atheism is to separate themselves from those who are not, so to separate themselves from theocracies and believers.  Once separated, it’s hard to see how one can allow the thing they separated themselves from to be considered.  And allowing that sort of consideration is required for neutrality.

Ultimately, I will never be a secularist, as there’s simply nothing there to adopt.  I might one day become an atheist, but only of the unphilosophical  kind, lacking belief or believing in lack.  If we want philosophies for how we should live our lives, we have to appeal to things other than secularism and atheism, and it would be good for us to recognize that.

Is Art Necessarily Aesthetic?

June 5, 2011

A new page answering that question is here:

The course on Aesthetics was interesting, and I’m now thinking about heading out to the art gallery and giving visual art another chance.  Of course, going to give it a chance is the absolutely worst way to do that, but as in all things … it’s the thought that counts.

Passing on “The Dawkins Delusion”

June 4, 2011

I was browsing in a Chapters yesterday, found this book by Alastair McGrath, and passed on it … and the other books of his that were there.  Why?  “The Dawkins Delusion” is about a 100 pages of text before the acknowledgements, sources and notes.  The other one — I think it was “Dawkins’ Dangerous Idea” or something like that — was 150 pages.  I’m sorry, but that’s not a book.   That’s a long essay.  You aren’t likely to be saying anything interesting about a topic in that short a book, and I’m certainly not dishing out $20 for a book that I can read in an hour.

In exchange, I picked up Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God”, which I didn’t want to read.  But, hey, it was only slightly more expensive and has about 300 pages of text, meaning that even if she doesn’t say anything, at least there’ll be stuff said.