Archive for November, 2012

Sexualization that Presupposes Equality …

November 30, 2012

There really is nothing on TV at 4 am, which is usually when I get up. Actually, there’s very little on TV at 5 am either, which is when I used to get up. But since I like having some noise on while getting ready for work, I found myself watching a daytime TV show called “Steven and Chris”, which was re-run at that time. As is the case, it seems, with most daytime TV, it’s aimed primarily at women, which means that the majority of the experts they bring in are women. This is not only limited to their fashion and cooking experts, but also to their medical experts and financial experts.

I find that I pay a lot more attention to their medical and financial experts than I have on other shows that I’ve browsed. Mostly because they’re really, really attractive.

And, in general, this is true for me. In most situations, I would rather be served by an attractive woman than an attractive man. So, I prefer my wait staff to be female, for example. In another case, I had been going to an eye doctor who moved to a new location, and followed him there. He then moved on, and the administrative staff made sure that the doctor that saw me the next time was male. The next time, the whole office was female, and it didn’t bother me one bit. That’s because the reason I had asked for the first doctor was because I knew him, not because he was male. Getting in later appointments attractive female eye doctors was actually a benefit to me, not a detriment.

Now, at this point I can see everyone screaming “Sexualization!” and likely even “Sexist!”, based on the idea that I am judging the women by their looks, and not their abilities. But this is a false perception. When I go to these sorts of appointments or get these sorts of advice, my main goal is to get the right sort of advice or to have them do whatever it is I need them to do correctly and efficiently. So if I prefer an attractive female, it isn’t my choosing her looks over her competence. If I really thought that she was less competent than an equivalent man, I’d ask for the man hands-down. So this preference is predicated on my assuming that a woman, even an attractive woman, is at least as competent as a man would be. And making that assumption — that either way I’m going to get competent service — then the ability to look at and interact with an attractive woman is simply a benefit that I’d get. It’s like trying decide between two steak restaurants, and choosing the one that gives you a free dessert because you know that the steak is equally good at both places, but the free dessert is a bonus that settles the tie.

The same thing happens to me in sports. The one sport where I far prefer the women’s game to the men’s game is curling. Part of this is that I’d rather watch attractive women for three hours than attractive men. But if I didn’t like the women’s game, I wouldn’t prefer it; if I’m going to watch basketball, for example, I’m not likely to watch the women’s game but instead an NBA game. But I actually not only prefer the … uh … visuals in the women’s game, but I, in fact, actually prefer the game. Since women simply don’t have the weight than men do — insert your own joke here — they are forced away from a straight hitting game and more into a draw and tap game, which is much more interesting because the building of the end is undone far less by having someone simply toss a really strong shot at everything and start it all over. I prefer the game, and get to see attractive women. What’s not to like?

But, again, all of this is predicated on the ability of the women involved. If I believe they are as good or better than the alternative, then their looks are a bonus. But if I believed that they couldn’t deliver what I wanted — good advice, a good game, etc, etc — then their looks wouldn’t carry the day. Thus, even if they were model quality in terms of looks, I’d still ask for someone else or watch someone else or watch another game.

So, is this sexualization in any bad way? I can’t see any reason to say that preferring to look at what I find sexually attractive over what I don’t is a bad thing, and I’m someone who is on the “conservative” about that sort of thing. I already presume that they are competent, and so am not reducing them to their looks; their looks are part of the package but not the whole of it. So, is this sexualization? If it is, is it wrong?

A Very Persona Christmas …

November 26, 2012

So, Christmas is coming up, and so that means that my Christmas vacation is coming up soon as well. If you’ve been following my big list of games to finish, you’ll know that I had a lot of games listed as being planned for Christmas. You’ll also notice today that, well, most of them aren’t anymore. That’s because a friend of mine pointed me to a review of the Vita game “Persona 4 Golden”, which enticed me enough to want to get a Vita to play it … and then made me want to play the old games as well. But the hassle of Wi-Fi and downloading the old PSP Persona games was daunting, and I thought I could get them if I bought a PSP so … I bought a PSP, too. And I still haven’t played Persona 4: Arena yet. That pretty much sealed the deal for me: over my vacation, I’ll be playing Persona games. Let’s see how many of them I can finish.

Sophisticated Theology: Grayling on Polkinghorne and Beale

November 20, 2012

While going over Jerry Coyne’s examination of Polkinghorne’s and Beale’s book “Questions of Truth, I came across A.C. Grayling’s purported review of the book, which Jerry Coyne loves. Having just read the book, I think now would be a good time to examine Grayling’s review. And it seems that having read the book puts me one up on Grayling, at least.

Okay, okay, that was horribly snarky. But reading Grayling’s review was incredibly frustrating, and more frustrating than reading Coyne’s attempts and examination of the book, because I at least expect Coyne to stumble a bit when doing philosophy, not having the experience in doing it. Grayling, though, really should know better, and not make the mistakes he made. I expect more from someone with his background and experience and reputation. Now, I do apologize for implying that he hadn’t read the work, because he clearly did. But I do not apologize for calling it a “purported” review, because it wasn’t a review. Generally in a review you look at the purpose the work was written for and see if it achieves that purpose, which in this case would be to ask if it expresses Polkinghorne’s and Beale’s views clearly and reasonably. I think it achieves that. On the other hand, a critique would go after the arguments made in detail and show why they fail. Grayling does neither, and seems to have read the book with the main goal of reducing all of their arguments to specific standard arguments which he then trots out the old standard responses to, without ever bothering to see what their specific take on it is. As a review, it says nothing interesting, and as a critique it misses the arguments too often to count as doing a proper critique.

But I’m not just going to say that and expect everyone to agree with me, so let me go through the review and point out the issues with it.

It is needless to itemise the questions and their answers, because the former are, as noted, the all-too-familiar ones, and the answers given by the composite Beale-Polkinghorne author are very familiar too. In fact they come down to the tired old three: god-of-the-gaps, argument-to-the-best-explanation and “religion and science both seek the truth but in different domains”. And of course Beale-Polkinghorne milk the tendentious version of the Anthropic Principle which has it that the constants of nature are fine-tuned in order that we can exist.

Yes, their argument are fairly standard, true, but are there any interesting spins that they put on it? What does Grayling say about these specifically? Well, for the first two, it turns out that he doesn’t say much:

The gaps-god and best-explanation strategies (which both come down to “we don’t know the answer so let’s say Fred did it”) can be left to sink in the murk of their own fatuity; undergraduates cut their teeth on refuting them.

Now, let’s recall here that Polkinghorne and Beale are doing nothing more here than expressing their own opinion of the evidence, and what they think are the best explanations. The “gaps-god” strategy — also known as “God of the gaps” — is an invalid strategy when used to say that there must be a God because there’s a gap that you can fit God into, and it is trivial to show that just because God could fit into that gap doesn’t mean that He must. Thus, it doesn’t work as a way to refute naturalistic explanations; the naturalist can always reply with “We’ll find it out someday”. However, that reply works poorly against someone who simply says that in their view, God is in that gap. Unless the naturalist actually has the naturalistic answer to that question, you can’t really assail that choice unless you can prove a contradiction in their view, which vanishingly few “God of the gaps” arguments actually have. The best one can do, then, is trot out the old canard that natural explanations have pushed supernatural explanations out so many times before that we should just accept that they’ll do it here as well. At which point perhaps Grayling would like to consider something that is also taught at the undergraduate level and be introduced to David Hume, who, suffice it to say, wouldn’t agree that you can simply toss past experience in as an argument about what we will find in the future.

And it is misleading to say that “best-explanation” arguments are essentially arguments that we don’t know what it is, so God. Best-explanation arguments — and Polkinghorne and Beale’s are of this type — are arguments that say that taking the evidence they have and perhaps some other worldview assumptions, they think that one explanation — for them, God — makes more sense than the alternatives. Grayling and atheists will come up with other explanations that they think are the best ones, but until someone can actually demonstrate that one of their views really is, objectively, the best explanation it stays in the realm of personal opinion. Which, of course, Polkinghorne and Beale are just expressing here. They are explicit about this in the introduction, and thus unless Grayling can show objectively that they are wrong his blanket dismissal is just using a general argument and the way the argument is used against an argument without that goal and that isn’t presented in that way.

And it gets worse with the Anthropic Principle:

As for the Anthropic Principle: well, it passes belief that it can still be trotted out in this guise. The argument that the universe exists for the express purpose of making the existence of humans possible has long since been debunked, and it is discreditable of Beale-Polkinghorne to try to pass it off on the unsuspecting.

In case you need reminding, the point can be illustrated as follows: I would not be writing this on a laptop if computers had not been invented, but this does not prove that computers were invented so that I could write this.

The problem is that in the book, that isn’t the argument that they are making. They argue that with these fine-tuned constants, there are basically three views that one can take:

1) You can think that it was guided by some sort of creative intelligence, which is why it works out the way it does.
2) You can think that we just got incredibly lucky.
3) You can think that this is just one of many universes and so we were going to get it sometime.

It’s true that just because this universe is fine-tuned to support life in terms of those constants it doesn’t mean that it had to be designed to do so. The problem is that it is also true that you have to accept one of those three premises in order to make it work, and the last two — the ones that atheists are committed to, generally — have serious problems. For the second, that’s just as much a “We give up” answer as saying “God did it”; surely we should not stop looking to see if there is a reason why those constants are set as they are and concede “blind luck” without making sure of it. And the third posits a large number of extra entities that we cannot in any way observe and are just invented to solve the problem, which certainly doesn’t give it any empirical credibility over a God explanation. Add in claims of supernatural creator entities and it’s hard to see how either 2 or 3 could be rationally considered to be better evidenced that 1, which gets us at least to the point where 1 is also a credible theory, and we have no reason beyond worldview committments to prefer one over the other. Thus, how they trot it out adds much to the debate, and adds much that Grayling simply seems to miss.

Grayling moves on to science:

To get this to work you have to cherry-pick which bits of scripture and dogma are to be taken as symbolic and which as literally true – so: Genesis is symbolic, the resurrection of Jesus literally true – the chief criterion being convenience, with the resurrection as a bit of necessary dogma whose violations of biological laws you just have to shrug your shoulders over.

Problem: Polkinghorne and Beale don’t use convenience to decide between the two. They argue that the Resurrection is so fundamental to Christianity — and, indeed, that it is what makes Christianity unique, which was in one of those questions that Grayling decided to skip — that if it was not literally true then there would be no Christianity anymore. However, that isn’t true of the Genesis story. Grayling can debate that if he likes — one can argue that Original Sin is also fundamental to at least some forms of Christianity and so the Genesis story cannot be figurative — but he cannot simply dismiss their claim as if they never made it, and simply assert that all they are doing is cherry-picking. What they are doing is exactly what you do in all cases like this (so all who want to know how to do this, pay attention here): Find the stories where if they are not literally true the message or intent of the work is undermined, and take those as having to be literal. Everything else can be figurative or literal. Should you find that one story or claim is not literally true, check to see if it must be literally true for the message to work. If it must, then you’ve refuted the work/belief/whatever. If it need not, then that can be and should be taken figuratively. Surely Grayling can figure out the differences between thought experiments and the like in other works — for example, I find it unlikely that he would think that Searle’s Chinese Room was describing an actual psychological experiment — so it shouldn’t be too hard for him to apply the same sort of thought process here.

Moreover, as Beale-Polkinghorne exquisitely show, they can by this technique of evasion, rewriting, special pleading, Jesuitry and speciousness provide a religion-consistent answer to every question and every objection: which reminds one of Popper’s telling remark, “A theory that is consistent with everything explains nothing.”

Sadly, Grayling never shows how they show that, and after reading the book I am certain that on this point Grayling has no clue what he’s talking about. As for evidence, see the above comment about them holding out part of Christianity as having to be literal. This, then, is nothing more than a rant with no actual textual basis because he doesn’t give one.

Thus in short, on the religious side of things you make up truth as you go along, by interpreting and reinterpreting scripture to suit your needs and to avoid refutation by confrontation with plain fact; and thus it is that Beale-Polkinghorne can claim that both science and religion seek truth. I would call this dishonest if I did not think it is in fact delusion, which – since a kind of lunatic sincerity is involved – it rather palpably shows itself to be. And it happens that “lunatic” is appropriate here, for the painful experience of wading through this book gave me an epiphany: that religious faith is extremely similar to the kind of conspiracy theory that sufferers from paranoid delusions can hold: the faithful see a purposive hand in everything, plotting and controlling and guiding – and interpret all their experience accordingly.

All of which can be refuted with one old canard: It’s not a conspiracy theory if it’s true. Grayling doesn’t even engage their specific so-called making up of truths, let alone demonstrate that they really don’t have the better explanation here. As a review, he’s missed their goal of expressing their own views in favour of trying to criticize them, but he doesn’t engage enough with what they actually say to make this a worthwhile critique.

I found the Beale-Polkinghorne explanation of natural evil (tsunamis and earthquakes that drown or crush tens of thousands, childhood cancers, and other marks of benign providence) as disgusting, though it is novel, as any that other apologists trot out. They say that the deity allows natural evils to happen because “he” has given creation “freedom to be and to make itself” – thus imputing free will to “creation” to explain natural evil in the same way as moral evil is imputed to the free will of humans. Heroic stuff.

I fail to see how your feeling of disgust is something that anyone other than you should care about. I don’t particularly like this explanation myself (and I think this is on the list of questions I want to talk about), but they outline their view and why in the book. If you wanted to criticize it, you would address their motivations for the argument. Instead, you dismiss it without any real analysis or engagement. So far, this review seem far less than useful, which means it’s hard to me to see why anyone would call it good.

And of course Beale-Polkinghorne have to be mind-brain dualists (see their chapter on this, in which their dualism is described in their own version of Newspeak as “dual aspect monism” in which “mind and brain are not identical” – work that one out!) …

As a card-carrying mind-brain dualist, I can say with certainty that they actually aren’t mind/brain dualists, at least not in the sense of being substance dualists like you’d normally use to get room for a soul. They argue, I think, that minds are completely embodied in the brain, but use the “software” analogy to argue that essentially the mind is the software that runs on the hardware of the brain. This view is perfectly compatible with materialism, and the most they say about it is that things like software are not material in the same way that brains are. Functionalism relies heavily on this sort of move, and while the “software” analogy and functionalism are not identical that analogy is perfectly compatible with functionalism, and functionalism is perfectly compatible with materialism. So, for the part that Grayling simply cannot work out, this means pretty much exactly what I just said: mind and brain are not identical in the same sense that Windows 7 and the machine that is running it are not identical. They also do a good job of outlining issues with trying to consider them identical (eg if a thought is identical to a brain state, how can it ever be the case that you and I, with different brains and different brain states, are thinking the same thought?). Since this is basic philosophy of mind, I find it highly puzzling that Grayling seems unable to figure that out. Perhaps he needs to cut his teeth again at the undergraduate level …

…in order for them to keep a place for the concept of “soul”, itself explained in a cloud of fudge by analogy with piano and the music played on it: “…layers…indeterminism…er…Penrose…chaos theory…quantum mechanics…er…blah blah…see my book chapter 9, all rather complicated…”

No philosopher should ever criticize a work or view because it’s too complicated to be expressed in a simple book aimed at a general audience, because it is almost certain that they have views that would also be too complicated to express in that sort of work. Plus, it isn’t that opaque. The “piano and music” example I just explained, and is basic philosophy of mind. Where their view gets complicated is when you have to talk about life after death, because they think that a mind must be embodied, but it has to develop embodied and so it isn’t the case that at death the mind simply wanders off into the afterlife, so it needs a new “body”, but then what that is would be an issue, and so on. I would have to read the details on how all of this works, but I think I understand it well-enough to know that it likely has some problems and I’m not sure I buy it, and so I’d need to read it in more detail to say for certain. It’s clear that this is the point where Grayling couldn’t reduce their claims to simple arguments that he’s seen before, and so is stuck being completely unable to say anything meaningful, and so reduces his counters to basically “I don’t understand it, so it’s stupid” and leaves it there.

And this is really where I call Grayling out on this as opposed to Coyne. One might expect Coyne to miss the importance of their take on the Anthropic Principle and what their argument is there, but not Grayling. Coyne could be expected to now know about one of the most basic and fundamental analogies in Philosophy of Mind … but surely not Grayling. Coyne might be expected to dismiss the embodied soul argument and decide that he can criticize it without ensuring that he understands it, and in fact to criticize it for not being clear … but surely not Grayling. Grayling, in this review, violates pretty much every good practice of philosophy, to produce a “review” that is neither review, nor critique, but which seems like nothing more than an ill-informed rant … and an ill-informed rant is of limited use.

And that’s the sad thing. As an atheist, Grayling has the background knowledge and ability — one presumes — to take them on in the strongest possible way and actually demonstrate that their views are problematic. In theory, I’m sympathetic to their view and I think I have more substantive objections than Grayling gives here. Basically, Grayling wants to claim that the book is, what, bad? without ever bothering to show what’s wrong with it outside of his blatant assertions about what it says … assertions that end up being wrong a significant amount of the time. This could have been a good review or critique, if Grayling had only set out to do that instead of setting out to produce the pointless rant that we actually ended up with.

Examining Sophisticated Theology: Questions of Truth

November 14, 2012

So, I received the book “Questions of Truth” by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale yesterday … and finished it yesterday, skipping the Appendices. So, here I’m going to outline my basic thoughts on the book and address what Coyne thought was stupid in it (and I haven’t re-read that yet, so I don’t know if I’ll agree with it or disagree with it … ooo, suspense, drama … hit counts!). In another post, I’ll pick out a few of the questions and talk about them in more detail, as they had a more direct relation to my own views.

The first thing I’d like to say about the book is that it’s really bad book to read if you’re looking to examine their views in detail. They even admit that this is a collection of responses, not answers, and so they aren’t trying to present fully evidenced positions here, which is good because the book tries to address 51 questions — some of which are massive questions that have been studied in philosophy and theology for hundreds and thousands of years — in about 100 pages. You just aren’t going to be able to write it out in full detail, just like you likely won’t be able to do that in a blog post. So as a book that aims at basically aims at taking these questions and showing that there’s a more or less consistent or logical answer to them from the theist view — even if that isn’t totally convincing — it works fairly well. But for someone who either knows the history and background of the debate or who wants to, there isn’t much here except for the basic outline to possibly generate interest and then the recommended sources to start looking up the details.

Now, do they “make stuff up”? Well, in a sense they do, if you consider hypothesizing making stuff up. A lot of what they say is clearly hypothesizing, and in this work it isn’t always or even often clear how they plan to go about settling the question. For a lot of the questions I will address I will be disagreeing with their take, and so we’ll need a way to settle which of us is right, and I think it is fair to say that this work doesn’t really provide that. However, I also think it fair to say that they didn’t intend that, since they pretty much flat-out say that. Hopefully when I go through the Polkinghorne reader there’ll be a bit more meat there to get at why at least Polkinghorne thinks these views are right and thus a way to settle these sorts of questions.

That being said, they do seem to have an underlying premise to their Christianity that gives an answer to the old question of what it would take for them to abandon it: prove that the Resurrection didn’t happen. In a number of places, they cite the Resurrection as the critical part of what makes Christianity for them unique and believable. Prove it didn’t happen, and chances are they wouldn’t be Christians anymore. That being said, they are clear that the standard naturalist reply of “Natural laws say that it can’t happen because it hasn’t happened before” is not acceptable, as if you think that Jesus is the Son of God then the ability to be Resurrected is clearly part of the concept, and so makes Jesus different from us. But, ultimately, actually prove — and prove does not mean “absolute logical certainty”, but just preponderance of evidence — that the Resurrection didn’t happen, and you’d refute them.

Now, onto Coyne. I can find two posts dealing with this book specifically, and so I’ll address those. There are others referencing Polkinghorne, and I’ll think about addressing them after I read the reader. The first one I’ll address is the one I linked here, where he called out what he’s saying is a stupid theology quote of the day:

It is easy to ‘prove’ that nothing can be both a wave and a particle, or that Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead. Yet deep reflection on physics shows that all sufficiently small objects can manifest both wave and particle properties, and even superficial reflection shows that if Jesus is the Son of God in anything like the sense that Christians claim, then the resurrection is not only possible but in a certain sense necessary.

Interestingly, I just talked about that above. So, what does Coyne find wrong with it?

How many things can you find wrong with that quote?

I don’t know. How many things can you find wrong with that quote, Dr. Coyne? You’re the one saying it’s stupid, so shouldn’t you be the one pointing out what’s wrong with it?

Because I don’t see what’s wrong with it. The idea — and it is clearer in context — is that proving a logical or conceptual impossibility is easy in a lot of cases, or at least seems so, at least from the theoretical level. So, we thought that something could either act like a wave or a particle, but not both. And then we discovered that our theories wouldn’t work to explain the things that actually happened unless things could act both like waves and like particles (light specifically, I believe). And so that theoretical or conceptual impossibility goes out the window.

The same thing, then, applies to our theoretical committment to “You can’t be restored to life after death”. It holds right up until you find a case where it happens, and the claim is that it happened to Jesus. They take one step further and say that it’s obvious from the concept of the Son of God according to Christianity that, as I said above, if Jesus is indeed the Son of God then not only is it possible for Him to rise from the dead, it’s demanded because of the critical nature of the Resurrection to that concept. Now, this doesn’t prove that Jesus really was the Son of God, and so maybe that’s Coyne’s gripe, but I find it a sign of intellectual laziness to simply toss out a quote that you find stupid and expect everyone else to simply nod their heads and laugh along with you. So, please, Dr. Coyne, tell me all the things you find wrong with it. I’m breathless with anticipation. Or perhaps that was just the walk up the stairs this morning.

Note, humourously, that Coyne starts with this:

’ll deserve many encomiums if I make it through the latest theology book I’m reading (John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale. 2009. Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief), but it does contain lots of good stupid bits of theology. Here’s one I found within the first three pages. Of all the science-friendly theologians around, Polkie is the most odious in claiming that theology and science operate in similar ways.

It was about a hundred pages of relatively clear prose. I read it in about an hour to an hour and a half. If you expect encomiums for doing that, you definitely aren’t ready to tackle any sophisticated theology. And shortening Polkinghorne’s name to “Polkie” doesn’t add in any way to the intellectual credibility of what you’re saying, which in this post, so far, is non-existent.

So let’s move on to the next criticism in that post. Maybe he’ll say something there (remember that I’m reading this as I write):

The Creator has not filled creation with items stamped “made by God.” [JAC: They thought he did before 1859.] God’s existence is not self-evident in some totally unambiguous and undeniable way. The presence of God is veiled because, when you think about it, the naked presence of divinity would overwhelm finite creatures, depriving them of truly being themselves and freely accepting God.

(To answer the inset, the answer to that is … they were wrong, which, at least, it is perfectly acceptable to say in theology).

Coyne’s answer:

What is this—some kind of divine game?: “You can’t accept me freely unless you’ve done so without evidence.” And what about those finite Apostles? Were they overwhelmed and prevented from accepting God?

Well, first, he didn’t say “without evidence”, but without completely unambiguous and undeniable evidence. Which, of course, the Apostles didn’t get either; it is quite possible to get those sorts of interactions and claim that there still is not a God.

Looking back in the book — a pain because Coyne doesn’t actually quote where the quote is from, which is not adding to his intellectual respectability on this — the question in my version appears on page 11 and is question 3, “The Existence of God”. The question is:

Do you believe that God has made the evidence for his existence self-evident? If God is self-evident, what do you think are the most compelling self-evident arguments for his existence?

And so, re-reading that paragraph, I would translate the response to “God has not made the evidence for his existence self-evident, and can’t”. The rest of the paragraph says:

A recurring theme in this book is that, out of love, God has self-limited the exercise of divine power to give creatures the space to be themselves and, as we shall discuss when we come later to evolution, even to “make themselves”. This does not mean that there are no signs of the will of the Creator or motivations to believe in God’s existence but that we have to look a little below the surface of things to find them.

Thus: no self-evident and undeniable proof, but evidence, according to them. You can challenge their evolutionary story (I don’t think I really buy it myself, although it’s an interesting take). You can credibly ask how you know when you look below the surface that you’re actually seeing those signs as opposed to imposing them on the criteria. You can credibly ask why even if we can’t get self-evident proof why we can’t get even what the Apostles had. All good challenges. None of them given here. Instead, the counters seem entirely based on ignoring what question they were trying to answer and instead treating the answer as if it was an answer to some other question entirely. Um … yeah, sure, that’ll lead to an understanding of what they’re trying to say …

So, let’s move on to the next post. Coyne quotes this:

Any deep understanding of the fundamental nature of reality is bound to be something of a mystery. Theologians arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity after long and careful reflection on the facts that they observed, in a rather similar way to how physicists arrived at the Standard Model after sixty years of reflection on a whole series of remarkable discoveries and theoretical insights and a great many blind alleys. . . This is not the place to discuss in detail either the reasons behind the doctrine of the Trinity (John’s Science and the Trinity would be a good place to start) or the parallels explored in John’s Quantum Physics and Theology. In the end, in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, pretty well the simplest and most symmetrical model that fits the observations turns out to be the correct one—as far as the official theology of at least 90 percent of Christians is concerned: that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God but in such perfect loving unity that there are not three Gods but one God.

And Coyne’s explanation of what he doesn’t like about this is …

Nada, zip, zilch, void of content, zippo, zero.

Well, that which can be quoted as gibberish without any explanation can be dismissed … without explanation.

Now, on that post there’s a comment from Beale on it:


Telling your faithful that something is WRONG is great for your flock – ex cathedra statements from a minor prophet, how comforting. But can you actually find a valid argument against it, or is that asking too much?

What’s Coyne’s reply?

Here’s my response: observations that constitute “data” for Christian theologians are not just those in the Bible, but also a post facto decision that they needed to confect a Trinity for political and theological reasons. In other words, this trio came into being not because there were real data, but because people WANTED it to come into being. It’s pure fiction, made up stuff on par with Santa Claus. So no, I do not take those observations as data, but as wishful thinking. It’s another example of religious people fooling themselves. If you really think that there is such a Trinity, I would see you as deluded by wishful thinking and brainwashing by your antecedents.

And if that “data” were so convincing, why don’t even all Christians believe it, much less Muslims, Jews, and Hindus?

What we have is not data, but mythology, and it is shameful that you put it on a par with science, whose observations can in principle be verified by anyone, regardless of their faith.

Translation: It’s all made up, and I don’t have to give any evidence for that or, in fact, to even address your specific arguments and quotes, because all I need to do is say that the Trinity is all made up without evidence and so what you said, regardless of your actual reasons, arguments or even the quote I quoted, is just gibberish.

That’s not a valid argument against they said, which is what was asked for.

On to the next post. Coyne’s quote this time is this:

He [Jesus Christ] is therefore the unique link between human life and divine life, the living means by which our relationship with God can be restored. It has been the witness of the church through the centuries that Christ’s solidarity with us, even to the point of his painful and shameful death on the cross, is central to this process of restoration (atonement). Nevertheless, there has not been one single and universally accepted theory of exactly how this works. In science, we are familiar with the fact that there can be phenomena that cannot be denied but that are not wholly understood theoretically—quantum physics is a good example.

Coyne’s reply is:

My response to this is similar to that I made to Beale’s last plaint (in a comment he made on an earlier post): how do you know that Jesus’s resurrection and our acceptance of him as savior is the means to our salvation and to a one-ness with God? How do you know that you’re right and that the Jews, Muslim, and Hindus are wrong?

I’m not sure they do claim that. I think they kinda argued the opposite, actually. They did talk about Christianity having a unique aspect to it that made it, in their minds, different, but that’s certainly debatable and again I’m not sure I agree with it. But recall that the title of the post is “Still more sophisticated theological gibberish from Polkinghorne and Beale”. Does Coyne’s reply here prove “gibberish”? No. He has a valid criticism that they haven’t — in his mind, at least — provided enough evidence for Christianity being right and the others wrong … but note that their claims about why one should believe in Jesus were covered in question 7 (pg 19), which he doesn’t even reference in making his demand. Sloppy. And that’s even putting aside that he still doesn’t give the reference to the quote so we can see what specific question — yes, Coyne simply doesn’t make it clear that these are answers to specific questions before he contorts them to be answers to completely different questions — and so we have to see what question they were answering. And it was this:

How Does the Death of Jesus Save the World? (pg 88)

Um, yeah, if I was reading a book and saw that as the header I wouldn’t criticize that section for not proving that Jesus existed, since it seems clear that the context there will be “If Jesus existed, what was it about his death that saves the world?”. If I wanted to know the evidence for that, I’d look for the sections aimed at doing that. Like question 7. Coyne here is calling this “gibberish” because it doesn’t answer a question that, in context, it’s not aiming at answering. And he refuses to take the work as a whole, and so comes off as not having read the book at all and so all of his criticisms seem to miss the mark. And the sad thing is that there are a number of valid criticisms here, but Coyne retreats to his old favourites without ever engaging what’s actually being said … wait for it … in the quotes he’s providing!

Last post. Back to the diminutives. He starts with a survey of the “God in nature” arguments, and moves on to a specific one from Polkinghorne and Beale. Are we going to get a real argument here? I hope, I hope …

Consider human mathematical abilities. For survival, we need not much more than counting and a little elementary geometry. Whence then has come the human ability to study noncommutative algebras and to prove Fermat’s last theorem? I think conventional Darwinian theory is unable to explain this capacity, which requires for its understanding the belief that our environment is not limited to the physical and biological but must also include contact with a noetic realm of mathematical ideas, into which our ancestors were increasingly drawn.

(Coyne actually gave the page number (81-82) here, which is nice. I hope I won’t have to use it.)

Coyne talks a bit about Wallace having a similar view, which isn’t interesting for me here, so let’s see here his answer is:

Wallace’s mistake, which should be obvious, is that we have no assurance that the human brain really is larger than it needs to be, even in the so-called “savages” whom Wallace encountered on his travels. Humans aren’t just gorillas: we can speak, learn, and have sophisticated mental programs for sussing out the thoughts of others and figuring out how to relate to others in small groups. We’ve mastered fire, which according to Richard Wrangham freed up our brain to become more complex under real selection pressures.

And once we have a complex brain, capable of learning, speaking, and working out strategies to hunt and to live in small social groups, it becomes capable of doing things beyond what it evolved for. In other words, chess, math, and building spacecraft are what Steve Gould called exaptations: those features that can be used in a beneficial way but evolved for other reasons. Once the brain crossed a certain threshold of complexity, these things became possible, but those abilities are epiphenomena.

With Wallace, Polkie and Beale see the brain’s ability to do math as something inexplicable by natural selection. Ergo Jebus. But lots of animals have abilities that are similar exaptations. We can train parrots and mynah birds to talk. Is their talking evidence for God? In England, blue tits learned to open milk bottles and drink the milk. They didn’t evolve to do that! Their ability to scan the environment for possible food items, and their possession of a nice bill and ability to wield it dextrously, was an exaptation for drinking milk. So it is with tool-using in animals, from chimpanzees to crows to the cactus finches of the Galapagos: animals can put their already-evolved equipment to new uses. And so it is with the human brain. It hasn’t changed much in the last couple million years, but oh what we have done with it!

The reply isn’t bad, but it seems to miss the point. Polkinghorne is basically saying that to get these advanced abstract concepts, we need access to something beyond the environment and our biology because those concepts aren’t read out from there. Coyne’s reply is, if I understand it correctly, that we have abilities that do not evolve for a specific survival purpose all the time. But I fail to see how that answers how we could possibly get abstract concepts from a world where they aren’t. Teaching parrots to talk is activating an ability that may have developed for other reasons but which is still learned from external stimuli, from things in the world. So is tool-use. Is mathematics that way? Hard to say. I’d need to read Polkinghorne’s detailed discussion to see if Coyne hits or misses the mark here. But at least it’s an attempt to answer the charge, even if Coyne takes it as a stronger statement than I think Polkinghorne meant it; I think he sees it as a flaw in at least current Darwinian evolution, but that doesn’t mean that it is really evidence for God. Note that this is in response to a question asking if humans matter more than animals, and this ability is something that distinguishes us from them.

Anyway, this post was a lot longer than I intended it to be, because Coyne had more posts than I’d thought. But most of his strongest objections — ie where he calls things gibberish — are anything but. Where he makes his weakest claim — simply calling it wrong — he actually has a decent reply but one that still reads a lot into the answer. The biggest problem Coyne has in reading “sophisticated theology” is in what he reads into it that isn’t actually there, as this chain of posts proves in spades.

Examining Sophisticated Theology: The Books Are In

November 13, 2012

So, my books have arrived, and before I start reading them I want to make clear my position on this.

I didn’t take this up to demonstrate that these theological views are right, and that I agree with them. I strongly suspect I won’t. I also strongly suspect that I’ll have some fairly blunt criticisms of them, so that wasn’t the point. The point, though, was to demonstrate that this isn’t just complete garbage or just making things up, but that if you understand the points they’re trying to make there is likely some interesting things in there, even if it doesn’t answer all of the questions people want answered, or at least doesn’t do it successfully.

Or not. It’s possible that I won’t care at all for these books, and if that’s the case I will point that out as well. So we’ll see where this ends up.

The Better Thing …

November 12, 2012

There’s a quote from JT (Eberhard, I guess? I’m not as familiar with the names as others on the site) on Almost Diamonds taken from his speech at Skepticon (paraphrased by Zvan):

“If you admit you would feed that starving child where God does not, you admit that this world is not perfect. You admit that you are better than God.”

Now, the first part is commonly used as a big part of “The Problem of Evil”, and is another argument that commenter eric makes often and that we went a few rounds over:

1) If God existed and was loving, all-powerful and all-knowing, we would have a perfect world.
2) The world is not perfect.

Therefore, God either does not exist or is not one of those things.

Now, my challenge to eric’s formulation was that pointing out that the world is not perfect isn’t actually a refutation of the God exemplified in the OT. Because, from the very beginning, the Garden of Evil story insists that this world will not be perfect. Thus, that this world is not perfect does not refute the existence of that God. We should, in fact, expect that this world will not be perfect based on God’s own words. So, the first part — God, as described in the OT, does not exist — isn’t impacted … but that assessment of the properties might be in trouble.

And that seems to be what the last part is aimed at. God cannot be all-loving or all-moral because we are more loving and more moral than He is, according to the argument. Now, Zvan didn’t bother to give the reasoning behind that argument — her summary is nothing more than a bare assertion — but I can imagine that it’s roughly based on this reasoning:

1) If you can stop someone from suffering and don’t, then you are acting immorally.
2) God could stop the suffering of that child and doesn’t.
3) Therefore, God is acting immorally.
4) If someone steps in and does stop the suffering of this child, then they are acting morally.
5) It is better to act morally than to act immorally.

Therefore, that person is better than God.

And this seems intuitively reasonable, but even under the loose forms of Utilitarianism that most people advocate it’s a bit shaky. After all, you can let someone suffer even if you could stop it if it avoids less suffering under pretty much all of their views, and the same thing applies to death. Under other moral views, suffering isn’t a primary determining factor in what makes something moral or immoral. Thus, it may be better to allow the suffering in this case than to stop it.

But then — and this is an argument that eric, again, heavily relies on — doesn’t that mean that it is immoral for us to prevent that suffering? But this ignores the fact that the agents are in different positions. If God is morally obligated to prevent an act of suffering, He is thus obligated by this principle to prevent all of them, since He can do so. That means that if that’s the case we would have to have a perfect world. But if it is better for us to not have a perfect world than to have one — and a case can be made that moral development is not possible in a perfect world — then God by the Utilitarian principle is not, in fact, required to provide that “perfect world”, the world without any suffering at all. We, on the other hand, cannot provide that perfect world and are only obligated to do what we can, and so don’t have that risk, and so don’t have the obligation to not help.

So, we cycle back to the perfect world argument. If it is not immoral for God to not provide a perfect world, then His being obligated to relieve all the suffering He can would only force Him to provide that sort of world … which, the supposition here states, God is not morally obligated to do. Thus, the argument — even of better — relies entirely on “Is God obligated to provide a perfect world for us?”. And that’s a deep question that needs far more work to settle.

Sophisticated Theology: A Theological Argument Against God’s Existence

November 12, 2012

There’s a specific commenter that I’ve engaged with — mostly on “Evolution Blog” — about theology. He keeps insisting that he’s concerned with basic religion and what the people actually think, but keeps drifting — at least in my opinion — into arguments that go far beyond what I’d call “folk theology” and so can only be answered outside of it, but whenever I try to do that he insists that I can’t do that because it isn’t what most people think.

He replies to Shermer’s challenge for a test over at “Why Evolution is True” with this:

I know a way! Its quite simple: you ask your subject to explain and design the test.

A truly omniscient and omnipotent deity will be able to design a ‘test for omni-deification’ that is clear, confirmable, logically indisputable, and accessible to humans…and they will then pass that test. If your potential-deity cannot design a human-approved test that distinguishes the relatively omnipotent from the absolutely omnipotent, and then pass it, they are by definition not omnipotent and omniscient.

You might ask, “how would we know such a test is a good one? Maybe the test itself has a flaw we are too stupid to notice” But that’s part of the test. If your subject cannot design a test that is logically confirmable by humans, they aren’t omnipotent.

And immediately after that:

Incidentally, Vaal’s critique of Shermers “unknowable by science” (post # 22) is valid for the same reason. An omnipotent being would be capable of making their omnipotence knowable by science. If they can’t, they aren’t omnipotent.

Now, he doesn’t claim here that this is meant to be an “unsophisticated” argument, and we can all see that it clearly isn’t. There’s a lot of philosophical baggage here to unpack. But my contention here is that this is an attempt at “sophisticated theology”, as it is an attempt at an intellectual argument about either the existence or properties of a purported God. For me, that’s pretty much enough to count as theology. By that logic, I argue that “The Problem of Evil” is also a theological argument. It’s just one that argues against the existence of, at least, that sort of God. And yet the atheists who on the one hand insist that theology is useless on the other hand really do seem to be engaging in it, or something a lot like it. If God is so ill-defined that we can’t discuss its existence — as Myers claims — then it is equally problematic to discuss its non-existence. If discussing its existence is “making stuff up”, then it is equally so to try to discuss its non-existence.

Personally, I think neither is true, but I’d like the atheists who disparage theology to demonstrate that they’re doing something different here. Note that I feel the same way about people who wander into philosophical discussions with points but then when they don’t like/don’t understand the replies turn around and argue that philosophy is useless.

And speaking of philosophy and theology … my answer to eric’s point: Are you claiming that God can necessarily do so without changing the nature of either God, science or humans here? Being omnipotent, God can change natures (except, perhaps, his own). Thus, He could indeed always make it so that He could prove His existence to humans and possibly even using science by, in fact, changing the nature of humans or science so that they could then understand His nature and come to automatically accept His existence. But that would be changing the nature of those things, and so effectively changing the question. And so if some theologian posits that because of the nature of God, ourselves and science we cannot ever prove the existence of God using our capacities and science, this answer doesn’t in any way refute that. It merely changes the question. And if God has a reason for those things to have the nature they do, then God simply won’t do that, based on whatever reasons He has for giving us that nature in the first place.

I know that eric’s comment is ostensibly against an atheist arguing incomprehensibility, and not a theist. But I’m very sure that he wants to or will use it against theists as well, and probably against “folk theology” … so here’s the refutation of it, open for discussion.

Examining Sophisticated Theology: The Current Outline …

November 9, 2012

So, I had started with Lonergan, but now that I’ve decided to make this more formal I decided to get a few more books that in particular Jerry Coyne has criticized, and so I’ll be looking at them.

I’ll start with John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, since Coyne criticized them and that was one post that I commented on with more of a “he gets it wrong so often that you should really read it yourself”, but I had never read it myself. Now I will, once it comes in. I’ll also read “The Polkinghorne Reader: Science, Faith, and the Search for Meaning” to get a better grasp of Polkinghorne.

I also bought Plantinga, and the book that Coyne criticized: “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism”. For fairness, I also bought the debate between him and Daniel Dennett on the issue “Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?” although I’ve already taken on the “Superman” argument here.

Hopefully, I’ll pick up Lonergan again when I have a little more time.

Examining Sophisticated Theology: The Questions Atheists Have That It’s Supposed to Answer.

November 9, 2012

Long title.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about looking more formally and in-depth at theology after seeing a number of posts on it, and recently on deciding to actually read something by Lonergan on it that Eric MacDonald both recommended and trashed. Basically, my view from an admittedly shallow look at theology through the lens of philosophy of religion is that there are interesting things to say in theology, and in “Sophisticated Theology” specifically, even if they aren’t always right, and so the charges of most of the Gnu Atheists that theology in general and “Sophisticated Theology” specifically are simply examples of “making stuff up” and are therefore utterly void of any valid intellectual content are just plain wrong. Now, I’m starting with Lonergan, and according to Eric MacDonald I need to read 1000 pages or so to get the full scope, and so far I’ve read 70. I have a way to go, but I want to start with some preliminaries while I’m waiting, and maybe get some suggestions for other things to read.

Anyway, here I want to talk about something P.Z. Myers recently said, replying to a discussion of whether we could have evidence if a God exists or not. Before I quote it, let me remind you that Myers is famous — or, perhaps, infamous — for coining the “Courtier’s Reply”, a label for the people who read works by the Gnu Atheists — particularly Richard Dawkins — and pointed out that they were not criticizing “Sophisticated Theology”, and so needed an education in that before they could comment. The Courtier’s Reply likens this response to one that the courtiers could give in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes: well, to really see that the Emperor is really clothed, we have to see the nuances of the fabrics and details and so you really just need to be better educated to see that, when the claim is that it is just obvious that the Emperor has no clothes. Now, I already think that this horribly represents at least the theology that’s taken seriously by philosophy of religion, but let’s put that part aside but keep this in mind when we look at what he thinks of the debate:

My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined. I could claim that a spumboodle exists, for instance, and we could go around and around with you presenting hypothetical examples and listing potential entities or forces that are spumboodles, but we’ll get nowhere if I never tell you what the heck a spumboodle is or what it does or even how I recognize a spumboodle. Without that, the whole concept is untestable and unverifiable. It really doesn’t count if I insist that something undefined exists, and then keep jiggling between vague realities (it exists in our dimension! It has a color!) and contradictory guesswork (it’s transdimensional! And completely invisible!) designed to keep moving the spumboodle away from any possibility of honest evaluation.

The problem is that the whole point and purpose of “Sophisticated Theology” is to define and clarify that concept. That’s what it’s trying to do: determine what the concept and definition is so that we can then go around figuring out how to see if it exists. And like any concept, it’s always the case that at some point you will have different people arguing over what it is. Myers seems, here, to be using different theories against each other in claiming that it’s contradictory, as some views are more concrete and some are more abstract, and he assigns an intention to those arguing over it that probably isn’t there. So, as such, Myers here should be arguing for “Sophisticated Theologians” to step up to the plate and work this out, and thus should be encouraging them to work as hard as they can and talk as much as they can, because that’s the only way that we’ll ever get what he wants. But does he?

The only way to win this game is to not play. Don’t concede the possibility that X might exist unless you’ve got clear criteria for defining the bounds of X’s existence, and it’s up to the advocates for X to provide that basic foundation. If they can’t do that, reject the whole mess before you brain gets sucked into a twisty morass of convoluted theological BS.

Nope. Instead of essentially saying that he’ll get out of the way while they figure it out, and watching with interest, he advocates rejecting the whole mess and not conceding that there might be something that works or looks like that folk concept that we’re trying to suss out and not getting sucked into theological BS. But that theological BS is the process by which we will actually discover ourselves able or unable to determine if it’s just BS or if we can test it, and how. Ultimately, people like Coyne, Myers and the others should be encouraging “Sophisticated Theology”, even if it seems obtuse or confusing to them. They should be encouraging all the really smart and knowledgeable people to focus their time and energy on evaluating “Sophisticated Theology” and making those who practice it make sure their conceptions are clear and coherent. They should be overjoyed at the Templeton Foundation’s funding for these examinations, and advocate making these as public as possible because that’s the only way they’ll get that definition they want.

And yet, they don’t. Instead they dismiss it outright.

(To be fair, both Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald are at least trying to read and address it. I think, however, that Coyne is not knowledgeable enough about philosophy to do it properly, and I’m not sure if MacDonald is either. Hence my push to read them myself and comment.)

And Canada’s Dorothy is …

November 6, 2012

… Danielle Wade.

I actually managed to get the final order right, with Danielle winning it, Stephanie being the runner-up, and AJ finishing third.

While I still think that Danielle had the weakest voice, I think that when she sang on her own instead of with the other girls you didn’t notice, and also that she had a stronger vocal performance this week. I hadn’t seen her performance of “Hey, Big Spender!” that was voted her best performance (she did that one, I presume, before I started watching) but she did it well and again highlighted how she acts performances. And she also had some very good lines in the discussions around her performance and coron … er, ruby-slippering?

Daryn: So, if you become Dorothy, how would you react?
Danielle: [something like a nervous and giddy twitter]
Daryn: Well said.
Danielle: Thank you.

And also, when she had won:

Danielle: This is the first time I’ve ever auditioned for anything. I hope all of them go as well!

All that needs to be said about Stephanie, I think, is that the song chosen as her best performance was “Hello, Buenos Aires” … a performance that resulted in her being in the bottom two that week. It was absolutely a breakout performance, but somehow Canada didn’t warm to it … although they saved her the next week.

Now, while trying to find something to watch I’ve tuned in to “Next Top Model” for the past few weeks, and there’s one thing that I noticed about last night and the whole competition when compared to it: AJ and Stephanie, watching Danielle sing after winning, seemed genuinely happy for her. Sure, they could be acting … but these are the two that I thought weren’t that great as actresses, so it seems unlikely. And for the most part, it seemed like all of the competitors on “Over the Rainbow” were happy and sad for each other, without all of the sniping and backbiting that you see on “Next Top Model”. They never seemed to suggest that someone else should go home. Watching the performances, they generally seemed sad as opposed to happy when someone went home. There seemed to be less, at least, of a sorting out of who their competition was and arguing over that. Good performances were applauded, and they were appropriately respectful when people were at risk or going home. They seemed to, well, like each other, which is clearly not what happens on “Next Top Model”.

I could say that it’s cultural, and that’s likely part of it. But the real reason for this, I think, is that while almost all of the girls were convinced that they could be Dorothy — except for poor Colleen, due to the judges commenting that they weren’t sure that she could — none of them thought that they ought to be Dorothy. Even Danielle, the front-runner, was reminded that she couldn’t let up and due to her inexperience had to feel that the others might well have an inside track. That feeling of being capable but not necessarily deserving it, I think, led to them all thinking that if they didn’t make it, one of the others really did deserve it, which led to less direct competition and more of a “I have to do my best, and we’ll see if it’s good enough” attitude than a “I’m the best, and so I can only be cheated out of my victory” attitude. It was nice to see, and much more entertaining that what we see on “Next Top Model”, because I can actually like the girls and want one, or more, of them to win.

Of course, now that “Over the Rainbow” is over I’ll be able to avoid watching “Next Top Model”, which is a good thing.

Anyway, congratulations Danielle and you deserved it … about as much as the other two did [grin].