Archive for February, 2012

And so I face the final curtain …

February 28, 2012

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

I’ve suddenly gotten really busy and had to run around with a lot of things, so my posting schedule has been blown. But I hope to get back up to speed soon.

Universal Reason …

February 23, 2012

So, Jerry Coyne is asking for responses to a position of Polkinhorne’s. The position is this:

His two arguments are these:

* The universe can be comprehended by the rational faculties of humans, and its workings appear to adhere to laws of physics.

* Much of our understanding of the universe is expressed through mathematics, which is “unreasonably effective” in encapsulating what we discover about nature.

Ergo Jesus.

(Coyne, BTW, would do well to lose the dismissive “Ergo Jesus” at the end. It’s annoying enough when it might actually be the case that they’re using the argument to get to the Christian God, but since he uses it even when they aren’t it’s really annoying.)

Coyne quotes Polkinghorne in some detail:

“. . . why is science possible at all in the deep way that has proved to be the case?” p. 71

“A distinguished nuclear physicist, Eugene Wigner, once asked, ‘Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective?’ Those seeking an understanding as complete as possible must ask what it could be that that links together the reason within (mathematical thinking) and the reason without (the structure of the physical world) in this remarkable way? The universe has not only proved to be astonishingly rationally beautiful, affording scientists the reward of wonder for all the labours of their research. Why are we so lucky?

It would surely be intolerably intellectually lazy not to seek to pursue this question. Yet science itself will not provide its answer, for it is simply content to exploit the opportunities that these wonderful gifts afford us, without being in a position to explain their origin. Theology, however, can step into the breach. Science has disclosed to us a world which, in its rational transparency and beauty, is shot through with signs of mind, and religious belief suggests that it is indeed the Mind of the Creator that lies behind the wonderful order of the universe. (p. 73)

Now, I’m not going to answer this or respond to it, favourably or unfavourably. All I’m going to do is examine and clarify the question, and the issues around it. At the end of this, my only hope is that you’ll understand what is at stake here and what are the implications and the issues that each side of the argument have to address. Then, I’d ask you to read Coyne’s initial responses and the ones in the comments to see if they really go after the question that is being asked here.

Polkinghorne’s argument is basically that the universe we have seems to be, for the most part, rationally infused. By taking a rational and even intentional approach, we have had great successes. It really seems that the laws of physics are exceedingly and excessively rational and mathematical, in such a way that science and understanding can proceed under what you’d call almost ideal conditions. Thus, we can form incredibly detailed and generalized models that just work, with little ad hoc corrections and manuevering. The universe, then, seems ideally rationaly understandable by the best tools of logic and reason, including mathematics. But there’s no reason to think that this is just the natural state of affairs; we could certainly be in a world where fewer things are generalizable and where a grand Theory of Everything would be automatically dismissed as a pipedream as opposed to a Holy Grail. The universe seems intentional and rational, and Polkinghorne’s argument is that this then reflects a rational, intentional and intellectual mind. That mind, then, is God’s mind.

Now, there are numerous potential pitfalls along the way. The first challenge is whether or not this universe really is that ideally rational. While our scientific models look pretty, in practice you always have to slip a lot more ad hoc reasoning into them, and sometimes even contort the mathematics slightly to get them to work out in the world. For the argument to work, it must be the case that reality is ideally rational, not our best academicized models of it. This leads to the second objection, which is that maybe our laws are not as reflective of it all as we’d like. Maybe, like Newton’s equations, they only work locally, and break down elsewhere in the universe. Yes, we have some cosmological results that suggest otherwise, but those have enough issues — dark matter, for example — that we can’t be certain that our generalizations really do hold … or that we can really generalize that far. Now, most scientists will probably defend the rationality of the laws and their generalizability, but that doesn’t leave them out in the cold when it comes to criticism. They can ask if it really is the case that a rationally ideal universe must be generated by a rational mind, or if this could just happen on its own. Maybe, in fact, this is the normal way of things; universes tend towards greater regularity unless they can’t. And the last desperate gasp is to deny that if it needs a mind that doesn’t make it God, but if you have a rational mind that created the universe you’re well, pretty much there, so it would be a desperate grasp at some counter, but not a very strong rebuttal.

Note that none of these counters, though, are damning. The argument is essentially this:

1) An ideally rational universe requires a rational mind to have structured it that way.
2) This is an ideally rational universe.

C) This universe requires a rational mind to structure it that way.

In order to oppose it, then, you have to attack either 1) or 2). Anything else is sophistry that brings in other arguments or disputes to dodge the key argument being made here. As I said, both premises can be challenged, but it isn’t clear that they’re false. Which means, then, that the argument — in my not-so-humble (and Not-So-Casual) opinion — is interesting and worth considering, but it needs more work to actually prove what it is trying to prove. There are, as far as I can see, no quick rebuttals, but this argument isn’t a killer one either.

Which, really, is where the fun begins for philosophers and theologians.

Here Comes the Easter Coyne!

February 21, 2012

So, Jerry Coyne has started reading John Polkinghorne, in another attempt to claim that he is versed in “sophisticated theology”, which would be more impressive if it didn’t seem obvious that he’s more interested in checking the name off a list than sitting down and reading and understanding it. Anyway, he decided to take on Polkinghorne’s discussion of the Resurrection, and uses that to claim what science has that theology doesn’t..

The main thrust of Coyne’s attack is that there are inconsistencies in the NT accounts of the Resurrection, and ergo it didn’t happen. So what are those inconsistencies?

But there are contradictions even about who found the empty tomb, and what happened thereafter. In Luke, the empty tomb is found by unnamed women who came from Galilee with Jesus, in Matthew and Mark the empty tomb is found by Mary and Mary Magdalene, while in John the tomb is found by Mary Magdalene alone. And in Luke it is the “women from Galilee” who prepare Jesus’s body with “spices and ointments,” while in the Gospel of John the body is prepared by men: Joseph and Nicodemus. Polkinghorne doesn’t mention these disparities.

And I’m really not sure why he should. I’ve already addressed why those inconsistencies aren’t important and are easily resolvable to a satisfactory way. These don’t seem to be critical to the story, and certainly could be things that were misheard or misrecorded through the various years between the event and when they were purportedly recorded. So why in the world should anyone care about these discrepancies? Coyne uses this to leap to this conclusion:

It is the willingness to overlook contradictory evidence that distinguishes theology from science, and here we have a prime example. In his fervor to prove the central tenet of Christianity, which he must do if his faith is to have any credibility, Polkinghorne ignores all the confabulations of the gospel authors to seize on two elements of the story that are consistent, pretending that this consistency is evidence for the truth of a tale. But the stories aren’t independent, and aren’t even consistent in the ways Polkinghorne maintains.

But those inconsistencies aren’t, actually, contradictory evidence. We would expect there to be discrepancies in the accounts if we’re going to treat them like historical accounts, which is precisely how atheists should want them to be treated. Are these discrepancies really meaningful? Would they impact the fact of the Resurrection if it was a fact? I fail to see how. So it is only if you treat the NT like a directly divinely written work that you can claim that these discrepancies as a problem. I don’t think of them that way, and neither do an awful lot of Christians.

Now, this could still be a problem if it was a problem for Polkinghorne. But what was his argument?

. . . the most persuasive argument in favour of the authenticity of the empty tomb story is that it is women who make the discovery. In the ancient world, women were not considered to be capable of being reliable witnesses in a court of law and anyone making up a tale would surely have assigned the central role to men. (p. 123).

Let me translate this. What this says is: 1) It is consistent with all the stories that it was the women who made the discovery and 2) that if people were making up this story, they would not have done that since women were not considered credible witnesses. They would have instead had it be a man who discovered it for maximum believability. We cannot deny that if the story was invented the inventors would have known this fact, and so we don’t have a good explanation for why the story starts out in a manner that would hurt its credibility. Not a slam-dunk, but I do think it an interesting question. But note that the key to this argument is not, in fact, 1), but 2). 1) establishes that all of the stories have this quality, but 2) is what makes the quality something that reflects on the truth of the story. Thus, Coyne’s reply that there are other inconsistencies and so all the stories are not totally consistent misses the point entirely. Polkinghorne’s point is that they are all consistent on this specific point and this specific point is one that you wouldn’t think would be present if it was made up.

This, then, is why I criticize Coyne for wanting to be able to claim to have read the works without caring to understand them, in just the same way that theists — myself possibly included — want to get credit for having read the New Atheists without taking the time to really read them and get the arguments. If Coyne understood the argument, then he’d have a completely different objection, if he had one at all. But he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the tea example either. He doesn’t get a lot of the arguments. If he did, he’d have better objections, because there are objections to all of them, as I pointed out in reviewing the debate between Haught and Coyne.

The reason that the “You don’t know sophisticated theology” comes up is because it really looks like they don’t understand the arguments they are criticizing, and so give counter-arguments that don’t actually hit the argument being made and pass over really strong counter-arguments. This reply of Coyne’s, again, does not, in fact, hit the argument being raised. It focuses on the wrong part of the argument. So, again, Coyne doesn’t really know sophisticated theology. Simply reading it is not enough. And the same can be said, maybe, of me when I do biology. All it means is that more reading and more thought is required. That’s not a bad thing.

I know I should have a new substantive post today …

February 20, 2012

But it’s a holiday and I don’t really feel like it. So I won’t do one today. But instead, you will get this post telling you that I’m not going to post today, which is pretty close to a logic puzzle (This post says I’m not posting today, but this is a post, which means that I did post today, except that it says I’m not posting today, etc, etc).

It Happened Again …

February 19, 2012

So, yesterday, I went on one of my semi-regular trips downtown. I hate parking and driving downtown, so I park at a university about an hour’s walk away and walk down. It’s come to the point where I actually go downtown more for the walk than for anything else.

Anyway, I was wearing my Islanders cap, and I was walking behind a pair of families out for family day. They stopped to cross the street, I guess, and parted to let me by. Now, the two gentlemen in the group had been talking about hockey, it seems, and were I guess talking about how a team was playing, and then one of them said “They’re not doing as good as other teams. They’re certainly not doing as good as the Islanders!”

I was a bit down the street at this point — I walk quickly — and turned around. The guy said “Yeah, that was a shot at you” in a humourous way, and I said right back “No one does as good as the Islanders!” with a grin and a point, nodded, and moved on. Basically, your standard “Good one, no hard feelings” response. Mostly because it would be really hard to in any way bother me criticizing the Islanders.

When it comes to being a hockey fan, I have a number of tiers:

Tier 1 – The team that I cheer for over every other team in the league. For me, this is Ottawa. It used to be Toronto. Yes, there usually is a geographic link to this team, although when I was a kid it really was the Islanders.

Tier 2 – The teams that I’ll cheer for over almost every other team in the league other than the Tier 1 team. For me, this has the Islanders, the Oilers, the Jets, and the Bruins — based on a playoff run when I wasn’t cheering for the Oilers. Maybe the Flames.

Tier 3 – The teams that I have no special attachment to, and that I’ll cheer for or not depending on a number of impossible to quantify factors, likely including what the phase of the moon is and if the TV is facing north. Most of the other teams in the league are here, except for …

Tier 4 – The teams that I will cheer against no matter who they are playing. Montreal used to be here, but then Toronto got into its rivalry with Ottawa and Montreal got some players I liked so they’re Tier 3 pushing Tier 4. It didn’t help Toronto that when they were regularly beating Ottawa in the playoffs Toronto had some of the most annoying players in the league, and an annoying coach. Which is why Vancouver is now flirting with this Tier.

When I was younger, Tier 4 contained two teams: Montreal and whoever Gretzky was playing for. This was during the time that Gretzky’s Kings met the Canadians in the Stanley Cup final. I was very moderately pleased that Montreal won it — I had to show some loyalty to Canada, after all — but I heard about it on the radio in the morning before starting my shift at my summer job at the time; that was the first time ever that I willingly refused to watch the Stanley Cup Finals, because I didn’t care if either team won.

So, if it’s a Toronto/Vancouver final, I may skip it this year, too.

An evil god is still a god …

February 16, 2012

There’s an interesting line that a lot of atheists take wrt the Problem of Evil. Many of them accept — loosely — that the Problem of Evil doesn’t quite get to eliminating a God per se, but insist that we couldn’t have an omnibenevolent God that would allow this much suffering. So, they then turn around and say that those who believe in an omnibenevolent God don’t know that it isn’t an evil God, and may even argue that it’s more likely that if a God exists that God is evil. And so, they’d conclude, it wouldn’t be worthy of worship (although if you had an evil God or even not omnibenevolent one that would indeed punish you with an eternity of suffering for not doing, it might still be prudent despite their defiant attitude). But there’s one really important thing they miss in pushing that argument:

An evil God is still a God.

So, if the theist accepts that God, if God existed, was at least not all good, what has that gained the atheist? The atheist in some sense doesn’t think that any God — good, evil or indifferent — exists. It does their line no good to argue for another type of God and rest there. Sure, the evil God concept addresses the theist argument that’s being made, but not in a way that really helps the atheist with their argument.

I’ve seen the same sort of replies to the cosmological and ontological arguments, of the sort the even if it got to a god it wouldn’t get to, say, the specific Judeo-Christian God the theist wants. Yeah, but it still gets us to a God, which means that the atheist is, in fact, just plain wrong at that point. How in the world can they think it helps them, then?

It’s a prime example of not seeing the forest for the trees. This is not limited to atheists, of course, but does seem to spring up here.

What’s the percentage on that?

February 14, 2012

I’ve commented before on the new WordPress goal system, but something else has struck me:

When you’ve posted 375 posts, as I have, how impressive is it to get five more?

But for me … it was Tuesday.

February 14, 2012

So, today is Valentine’s Day. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago. Being unattached, I don’t have any big plans for today, and was idly wondering what day it was. I noted it was Tuesday, and then that immortal line from Street Fighter struck me: for others, this will be a big day, with flowers and gifts and dinners and all sorts of romantic things. But for me … it will be Tuesday. I’m likely to watch a little DS9, set up an Arkham Horror game a little more for a solo game — there’s a lot to set up there if you are including all the expansions — and update some games on boardgamegeek (my players are lucky that I have no life [grin]). So, nothing special at all.

Personally, I think this is how people should handle holidays that don’t apply to them, especially if things about the holidays might make them feel bad. Some people who are unattached will feel like they’re missing out, and get lonely and depressed because they don’t have someone to share it with. I’m not in that camp, but the incessant pounding of that message into all of the Valentine’s Day advertising can make even me briefly think about it. And my answer to that is simple: don’t. Treat the day just like another day. Don’t try to do something to celebrate singleness as a reaction to it, don’t do something special for yourself to compensate, don’t sit around lamenting how you can’t participate. Treat it like Tuesday, ignoring it completely. Because anything else in some way will just remind you of the things you are trying to forget.

I also think that this can apply to any holdiay. Can’t see your family at Christmas, or are alone on it? Treat it like another day, and just do what you’d normally do. No New Year’s Eve date? Treat it like another evening, stay home, and don’t even bother to ring in the New Year.

This is, of course, easier for me, because it’s generally what I’d do by default, and so this advice might not be that great. But I think this can work, and work better than a lot of the other things.

Now, am I breaking my rule by posting this today? No. Because I didn’t really post this because today is Valentine’s Day. I posted it because it’s Tuesday.

The Future (of DRM) Is Now …

February 13, 2012

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up. This one is about Ubisoft’s DRM and them demonstrating what it means for your games.

And I really did buy two brand new copies of Persona 3 and 4 that are sitting in shrink wrap just in case the disks I have stop working. It’s still worth it for the amount of hours I’ve put into them.

The Moral Test …

February 13, 2012

A few days ago, Adam Lee put up a post disapproving of what he calls “The Abraham Test” and asking theists to answer a question for him:

Going further with this, I have a question for every religious believer, based on the Abraham episode: Do you believe that violence in God’s name is wrong, or do you merely believe he hasn’t personally told you to do violence? If God appeared to you and spoke to you, commanding you to commit a violent act – to murder a child, say – how would you respond?

I commented with this there:

Before I answer your question, I need you to answer this one for me:

If you truly believed with the certainty you expressed in an earlier post about your principles that it would be moral to kill an innocent being EDIT ( in a particular case; it’s not likely to be a general rule) /EDIT, would you do it?

As in your post, I’ll outline what the answers mean:

If you say “No”, in this case you would be saying that you would put your own personal preferences over what in the case of this thought experiment you thought of as being moral.

If you say that your morality would not, in fact, ever demand that, then you are indeed saying that you would have no qualms with violence but don’t think that your moral code happens to advocate it. Which, BTW, considering that you’re Utilitarian-leaning is a bit of a stretch.

If you say that you would do so, then in this case you would indeed commit violence in the name of morality.

When you understand what all of these answers amount to philosophically, then you’ll be ready to understand my answer.

Now, there was no reply to my comment — or, at least, not one that said anything — until this morning, and those answers have lamentably mostly missed the point. Adam Lee has also not responded, and since he was the one who wanted an answer to his question (which he does do on occasion) I’d really like to have him address that so that he won’t quibble over my answer. I also think that this is a topic too big for a comment, and since today is Monday I think I’ll turn it into a post. I also think I’ll E-mail this to Adam Lee if he doesn’t reply to my comment and let him respond how he likes.

Note that in the comment section in general what I said came across as pretty arrogant, which I regret.

Let me first outline what Lee thinks the answers to the questions are and mean:

If your answer is that you’d never commit an act of unprovoked violence against another human being, no matter who told you to do it, then congratulations! You’re a better person than the character of Abraham and possess a more developed moral sense than the author of that story, and you ought to be applauded for that. It’s that kind of rational, humanistic morality that’s led humanity out of the dark ages of bloodshed and tribal warfare fossilized in the pages of the Bible.

If your answer is that you’d reject that command because you’re certain that the god you believe in would never order such a thing, and any such order would have to be a hallucination or a misunderstanding, then you also deserve accolades – though a bit more cautious and tentative in this case. From an atheist’s perspective, it’s worrying to find someone who abstains from violence not because they recognize the intrinsic badness of violence, but merely because they believe it’s not the method God finds most convenient to achieve his goals. Honestly, this answer is a dodge. It ducks the hypothetical posed in the question: If God appeared before you in all his glory, and if he gave you a clear, explicit and unmistakable command to go stone an adulterous woman or strap on a suicide vest – how would you respond? That dilemma is the core of the Abraham test. (You could, of course, say that God recognizes the intrinsic badness of violence, but that would require discarding huge swaths of the Bible.)

If, on the other hand, you would gleefully go out, murder and pillage if God gave you the green light – well, that’s an abhorrent and frightening answer, though it’s one that’s evidently shared by millions of theists in the world today and throughout history. A vast number of atrocities, from genocidal war to honor killing to slavery to child abuse, were and are justified by claiming that it was God’s will to commit all of them.

Now, note the slight of hand on the last one. By the process of elimination, we can assume that the third answer is the answer of “Yes, I would do it.”. But look what it adds in. It claims that “you would gleefully go out, murder and pillage if God gave you the green light”. But in the actual story of Abraham, there’s no indication that he was gleeful. It wasn’t the case that Abraham was going out and doing something that he really wanted to do and, well, now that God says it’s okay it’s time to party! No, he really, really didn’t want to do that. He was going to anyway. The same thing applies to the case of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:30-40 (thanks to Peter White for the reference, even if he didn’t provide it for me). No one involved really wanted to do it, but they did it anyway. And so both of these stories reference obeying God’s commands even when you really don’t want to, which is a far cry from the context that Lee uses to spin this as being abhorrent and frightening.

Which leads in nicely to my answer to the question. For me, the question of whether I’d commit, say, a murder if God told me to reduces to one of two questions, one interesting and in line with what Lee, I think, wants to talk about with that question and one uninteresting.

First, let’s take the common steps:

Taking the definition of God as including all-knowing and all-good, there are two types of theists to consider. There are the ones who think that if God says that something is moral, then it is, and then there are the ones like me that say that what is moral or not is an epistemic consideration and since God knows what it means to be moral then if He tells is it’s moral, then it is.

So we can see from here that both sides have some considerations to get out of the way, first. For the question to be meaningful we have to decide if we know, truly know, that this is God, as in a God all-knowing, all-good, who will not lie to us. If we know it is God, then we have the case where we know that what God is asking us to do is moral, and if we don’t then, well, we don’t.

If we claim that we do not know this, then the question devolves to the uninteresting “If I thought that it might be moral for me to kill this innocent person but didn’t know if it was, would I do it?”

If we claim that we know this, then we know that God is advising the moral action and therefore that in that case morality demands that I kill that person. Thus it reduces to the interesting question I asked Lee: If you knew that killing an innocent person was the moral thing to do, would you do it?

And my morality says, unequivocably, that I ought to. And so either I would or, if I chose not to, I would have to consider myself to have put my own personal comfort over acting morally, and I would have to feel ashamed, guilty and — being Stoic — irrational. No matter how uncomfortable it would make me, no matter how disturbed I might be, no matter how much I really don’t want to do it, reason demands that I act morally, and the failure to do so is a failure of morality and reason. I ought to be a moral person, no matter how much I dislike what it means to be moral.

Contrast this with Lee’s position. He wants people to refuse to kill that innocent person, and pat themselves on the back for being good. But if you’ve paid attention to my reduction, you’ll see that that does reduce to choosing the option that you know is not the moral option; you are not acting morally. And so Lee needs to justify why he thinks that acting immorally is the superior option, without resorting to the cop-out of saying that he doesn’t think that killing an innocent person could ever be moral. At best, he’s taking the same side I am and opening up a new debate about what it means to be moral, and at worst he’s simply dodging the question and refusing to answer whether or not he thinks that the right thing to do is to act morally even if it means killing an innocent person.

And for those who need examples of at least controversial cases, I offer the trolley cases. As I commented at Adam Lee’s site to GCT:

Take trolley cases. Imagine that there is a train heading for five people. You can save them, but only by switching it to another track … where one person — innocent — is standing. Would it be moral to switch that train to the other track and kill that person? Most people, in fact, say that doing so would be moral. So unless you are going to sophistically quibble over “murder”, I think I’ve answered your challenge.

Don’t understand trolley cases? Then you don’t understand modern moral philosophy, and thus need to look up and think about them before talking about morality.

So, that’s my answer to Adam Lee.