Monday, November 19, 2007

Drinks are on the house!

According to Mark 16:18 the resurrected Jesus said that among other things those who believe in him will be able to drink deadly poison and will live to amaze the unbelievers and have the last laugh. Wow! Now that's a very testable claim if I ever came across one.

Well, for starters here's a list of poisons I'd like the Pope, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Ted Haggard, Eli Soriano, Manalo, Cardinal Rosales, ... to guzzle. Any of the three will do. (I'm a reasonable and compassionate sadist. I think it would be overkill to have these toadies of Jeebus bloat themselves with three glassfuls in just one sitting.)

* a glass of concentrated sulfuric acid
* a teaspoon of potassium cyanide in a glass of water
* a teaspoon of VX nerve agent in a glass of whatever liquid it dissolves in or is miscible with.

Yes, they can of course have their favorite biscuit, cookie, cupcake, sandwich, puto, or bibingka to go along with their chosen cooler.

Even assuming it's ethical, only the most deluded of Christians would even try their luck. No preacher, pastor, priest, or pope would dare (unless they're a closet pedophile or homosexual under threat of exposure). And you can bet that anyone who does will end up in the Guinness Book of Records as the most pathetic, idiotic, deluded Xian that ever lived.

Now wouldn't it peachy if all Xians would test their faith? They really really really believe in the bible? They really really really believe Jesus Christ is their lord and savior? Well then, prove it and drink the cocktail. Bottoms up, loonies!

And since all Xians who do take a shot of the above will expire (pretty quickly, and I imagine quite horribly) I guess that means either of the following:

1. No Xian in fact believes or believes enough in Jeebus. (Tsk, tsk, ye people of little faith)
2. Jeebus was a liar. (Lesson: don't ever listen to walking, talking corpses)
3. Mark screwed up the dictation. Jeebus said poissons--French for fish--and not poison. (Hey, the dude knows his fishes. He did clone and multiply them, remember? And surely the risen Christ was a master of speaking in tongues, right?)
4. Mark had been booted out of the proto-Christian sect he was so enamoured of and this was his way of getting back at the org, making sure every Xian schmuck down the line pays for the atrocity against him with their life.
5. The bible isn't inerrant and isn't the word of some invisible sky abba (Naaaah! Impossible! Scratch this option.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Making sure your god has little chance of being true

Here's Sam Harris' speech last September at the Atheist Alliance International convention in Washington DC.

I found myself wildly agreeing with a good number of things he touched upon, although I think his suggestion to stop calling ourselves atheists is a pipe dream, even as I agree with his reasons. Moreover, I was happy that he clarified and explained his continuing interest in spirituality and meditation. He has made some valid points. Be that as it may I still have my reservations. Meditation I can still buy (cautiously), but until someone can tell me what spiritual/spirituality really is, for me it'll remain in the bunk department.

I'm ecstatic that Harris pointed out a mathematical fact which I had also used in an online debate with a Christian (a Calvinist I believe) last year. It has to do with probabilities for claims. Simply put, the more you specify the particulars of an event, i.e., the more details you enumerate, the less probable that event is.

Let me illustrate. Let's say we're told that a coin has been flipped. The probability that it lands heads is, of course, 50%. But the probability that it lands heads and that the coin flipped is an American coin must of course be less than 50%. This is because in the set of all possible coins there are non Americans ones and so the probability that a coin is American is less than 100%. Multiplying that with 50% yields a value less than 50%.

If we specify more details we will drive the probability further down: The probability that a coin lands heads and is an American coin and is a quarter must be smaller still than the former probability. Hence, the more specifics we enumerate the smaller the probability. (This is one reason why those wishing to go into the psychic trade should provide their audience very general claims and mention as few details as possible.)

So Harris rightly tells us:
[T]he Mormons think Jesus is going to return to earth and administer his Thousand years of Peace, at least part of the time, from the state of Missouri. Why does this make Mormonism less likely to be true than Christianity? Because whatever probability you assign to Jesus’ coming back, you have to assign a lesser probability to his coming back and keeping a summer home in Jackson County, Missouri.

Now compare these two claims:

1. One or more deities exist.

2. There is only one god and he's omniscient and omnipotent and omnipresent and omnibenevolent and composed of three (duh!) persons and he murdered the first-borns of Egypt and flooded the entire earth and incarnated and was born of a virgin and performed miracles and resurrected and will come back to earth and judge humans and commanded A and B and C and D and ... and had done Q and R and S and T and ..., et cetera.

Are you grimacing and wondering why Christians seem to enjoy whittling the probability down to an infinitesimal value?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Harris v. Warren

Learned of the following "debate" featured in Newsweek via Skeptico. Sam Harris took on Rick Warren? Perhaps a tad unfair. Warren is too easy a mark (as you will find out below).

* Warren:
I see the fingerprints of God everywhere. I see them in culture. I see them in law. I see them in literature. I see them in nature. I see them in my own life. Trying to understand where God came from is like an ant trying to understand the Internet. Even the most brilliant scientist would agree that we only know a fraction of a percent of the knowledge of the universe.
He claims to see the fingerprints of a deity. Question is, How does he know he's seeing the "fingerprints"? Warren has implicit assumptions of why he considers these fingerprints. But the mere fact he has those presumptions doesn't mean they're true, or that they warrant a conclusion that the deity Warren has in mind in fact exists.

Shouldn't the fact that we know so little about the universe make Warren stop making claims whose truth/facticity he has no evidence for? Isn't it intellectually arrogant for him to declare God is this and that when he doesn't know any of them to be true?

* Harris makes a most important point. If you look at the "good book" what you see is hardly all good. In fact a non trivial portion of it is ethically abhorrent. Thus, Harris points out:
[T]here are sections of the Bible which are the sheerest barbarism, yet profess to prescribe a divinely mandated morality—where do I start? Books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and First and Second Kings and Second Samuel—half of the kings and prophets of Israel would be taken to The Hague and prosecuted for crimes against humanity if these events took place in our own time.
One of my favorite examples is the murderous rampage of the Xian deity in Egypt. Why for goodness sake would a just and all-loving deity murder even a single Egyptian child? Where is the justice and the love there? Being all-powerful, why didn't he just change the Pharaoh's heart? Why did he, instead, harden the king's heart? Do I hear "Mystery" being offered as the excuse yet again?

* Warren makes no bones about where he stands on evolution. He doesn't believe it. Period. Never mind that the evidence from molecular biology, paleontology, biochemistry, geology, ... all support the theory of evolution, and that there has been no disconfirming evidence to undermine it. Warren doesn't give a hoot about evidence. He doesn't listen to evidence-based arguments. He only believes what he wants to believe in. Between reality and delusion, he's already made up his mind.

More from Warren:
I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man's nose? If you believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it's fine with me.
Well, yes. If you believe that there exists an entity that can do real magic (not just tricks) and is above the laws of nature then it follows you can certainly believe that just about anything is possible. The problem is that reality isn't determined by what we believe in. There's belief and then there's what real. Unless you test your belief against reality, you can't know if what you believe in is true or not.

Warren believes in the claims of a book. As long as it's written in this particular book, he will believe it. And it trumps any other claim or argument or even evidence. But why this specific book? Why not the Quran or the Vedas or the Tao Te Ching or some other very ancient and traditionally accepted holy/sacred text? Or for that matter why not some relatively more contemporary book that isn't that particularly well known? What is Warren's basis for believing this particular anthology and reading it literally? Can he please tell us his criteria for choosing this over others.

* Warren claims to have a direct line to his deity: "I talk to God every day. He talks to me." Asked by Harris what he means, Warren clarifies:

One of the great evidences of God is answered prayer. I have a friend, a Canadian friend, who has an immigration issue. He's an intern at this church, and so I said, "God, I need you to help me with this," as I went out for my evening walk. As I was walking I met a woman. She said, "I'm an immigration attorney; I'd be happy to take this case." Now, if that happened once in my life I'd say, "That is a coincidence." If it happened tens of thousands of times, that is not a coincidence.

As Skeptico rightly notes, this is confirmation bias. Warren offers us anecdotal evidence that confirms his claim. But he doesn't provide us the outcomes for all the events/prayers in his life. Is Warren implying that such "coincidence" has happened thousands of times? If so why the "if." I don't see a declaration that it's happened that many times. Nor do I see any declaration of how many times prayer has bombed out in his life.

The interviewer asks Warren,
There must have been times in your ministry when you've prayed for someone to be delivered from disease who is not—say, a little girl with cancer.... So, parse that. God gave you an immigration attorney, but God killed a little girl.
Disconfirming evidence is hard to take the first time around. But Xianity has been through it for centuries and has already addressed the cognitive dissonance by a variety of means. In Warren's case he takes the low road and snatches an off the rack ad hoc explanation--one that's truly vacuous and inane yet is somehow mindlessly parroted by not a few Xians:
God sometimes says yes, God sometimes says no and God sometimes says wait.
How does Warren know that's in fact the case? He doesn't (and if he does it would be surprising if he didn't resort to circular reasoning). The above "explanation" is just a claim, one that rationalizes negative outcomes of prayers. If after making an entreaty a person gets what he wants, then we conclude that God said yes. If he doesn't then God must've said no. And if he gets it a year after then God had him wait. Can you predict the outcome of a prayer given this "hypothesis"? No, you can't.

To see how completely inane Warren's rationalization is let's see if it cannot be used to support a belief in any other deity/entity:
Person A: Ok, you say that you bumped into the right person at the time you badly needed the kind of services this individual was hawking and to top it off s/he offered it pro bono. But just a month ago your daughter died even after you, your family, and your congregation prayed day and night for over a month. So, how do you explain that?

Person B: Well, you see the Committee of Advanced and INvisible Extraterrestrials (CAINE) sometimes gives us what we ask for and sometimes it doesn't and sometimes it gives it some time in the future.
Well, that explains why we sometimes get what we need, why some entreaties don't get answered, and why we occasionally receive something later rather than sooner. Given that every possible outcome of our supplications to CAINE has been explained, we can now confidently believe that CAINE is real. Now replace CAINE with any other entity you care to imagine and proceed to perform the same muddled reasoning.

What this shows is that we can offer a hypothesis that explains a phenomenon, but the mere fact that we've explained something doesn't mean that the explanation is the correct one. In science being able to produce hypotheses and explanations is half the story. We need to test the hypotheses. And they must be falsifiable, i.e., there must be some result which if it occurs will show that the hypothesis is wrong. Warren's claim about God answering prayer is neither testable nor falsifiable.

But prayer per se is testable. Praying is a human activity, thus it is an empirical phenomenon. And the claimed outcome of entreaties is empirical as well. Thus we can set up experiments to test prayer. We can for instance do a test whereby a control group does not pray and where the experimental group prays for X . If there are significantly more occurrences of X with the experimental group than with the control, then we can say that prayer has efficacy. Of course such experiments have been performed and the results have sent theologians and religionists into their defensive let-the-ad-hocs-gush-out mode. Given that I wonder whether they will also come to rescue of other supernaturalists when controlled experiments show us that prayers to Zeus, Allah, Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Odin,... also have the same dismal results. If Xians believe that they are warranted in resorting to ad hoc explanations (which are neither testable nor falsifiable) then will they also allow nonXian supernaturalists to likewise make their claims undisprovable?

Moreover, when an explanation can explain everything, then it doesn't provide us anything useful. Thus, "Aphrodite did it" can be used to explain anything. Why did the centurion cross the street? Because Aphrodite caused him to. Why didn't he cross the next street? Because Aphrodite caused him not to. Why did the Roman civilization fall? Because Aphrodite made it so. Why are atheists books coming out in droves and hitting the top of the charts? Because Aphrodite made it so. Why does Warren keep committing logical fallacies? Go blame Aphrodite for that as well.

* Warren brings on what I find an irrelevant issue. So what if atheists are angry or sober? The question remains: Is the claimed deity real? Are the arguments for this entity robust enough? Are the arguments against it too weak? Warren can dredge the vices of atheists and launch a smear campaign, and none of that will be evidence for the existence of his claimed entity.

Do emotions have any bearing? Apparently it does in woowoo circles. "Spiritual highs" are sought after. The example that crosses my mind is director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. While hiking in the mountains he came across a frozen waterfall. The experience must've awed him. I probably would've been too. But for Collins that was enough for him to accept Jesus into his life and become a true-blue Xian. Well, the non sequitur is simply awe - ful. I see a terrific and moving (uh, frozen?) scene. Ergo, supernatural claims by _____ (fill it with your culture's dominant religion or your minority group's religion or whatever) are true. In electrical work and electronics short circuits not infrequently have disastrous results. Likewise in thinking, it seems.

* Harris raises a couple of very important points:
We know that human beings have a terrible sense of probability. There are many things we believe that confirm our prejudices about the world, and we believe this only by noticing the confirmations, and not keeping track of the disconfirmations. You could prove to the satisfaction of every scientist that intercessory prayer works if you set up a simple experiment. Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.

As we said earlier, confirmation bias is a mortal sin. Objectivity demands that we look at all the evidence, not just those that tickle our fancy and support our claim.

If a severed human limb could grow back "miraculously" Xians would have a slightly stronger case. Slightly, because a miracle can never be proved. And that's because you need positive evidence to do so. The (current) lack of a naturalistic explanation for human limb regeneration is not automatic evidence for a supposed supernatural event (a miracle), and that's of course because for now the things that we know for certain exist are all naturalistic phenomena. Admittedly supernaturalists are in a bind here. There is no evidence for the supernatural, and the lack of natural explanations can't be used to prove that an inexplicable event is supernatural. It's a no-win situation for supers until humans can gain omniscience of the natural world. Only then can an inexplicable event ever be heralded as supernatural--if we know everything natural, and know all the explanations for any and all events in the universe, then once something inexplicable comes up then it follows that that phenomenon must be outside the natural world that we are omniscient of.

* Harris pounds Warren with yet another empirical coup de grace.
[T]here are many testimonials about miracles, every bit as amazing as the miracles of Jesus, in other literature of the world's religions. Even contemporary miracles. There are millions of people who believe that Sathya Sai Baba, the south Indian guru, was born of a virgin, has raised the dead and materializes objects. I mean, you can watch some of his miracles on YouTube. Prepare to be underwhelmed. He's a stage magician. As a Christian, you can say Sathya Sai Baba's miracle stories are not interesting, let's not pay attention to them, but if you set them within the prescientific religious milieu of the first-century Roman Empire, suddenly miracle stories become especially compelling.
Warren believes in his sacred text absolutely. Here Harris tells us there is evidence that so called miracles may not be what they are claimed to be. Thus, the fact that we have evidence that some "miracle workers" are mere scammers means that Warren must first rule out the possibility that the miracle stories in the bible weren't just scams. And there are even more ordinary possibilities that must be ruled out: storyteller's license and the ancient biographical device of encomium. Biblical scholar Robert Funk explains the encomium:
The hellenistic biography or encomium, following the model of Aristoxenus, a student of Aristotle, consisted of five elements: a miraculous or unusual birth; revealing childhood episode (or episodes); a summary of wise teachings; wondrous deeds; a martyrdom or noble death. This form of biography was more suitable for philosophers and religious heroes like Socrates and Jesus. The New Testament gospels encompass precisely these five elements and are thus examples of hellenistic biography. (Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium, Harper San Francisco, 1996, p. 282)

* Warren manages to produce a short circuit and leaps from morality to deity, claiming that without God there can be no morality. What exactly does he mean? That God created morality or injected moral reasoning into our system? Is that a testable/falsifiable claim? Can he produce evidence for it? Or does Warren mean that if there is no God then we don't have any reason to be moral? Would Warren then start raping and pillaging should he stop believing in the existence of a deity or should there be conclusive proof that there is no deity? Here's a thought experiment:

1. Would you judge a student to be praiseworthy if she doesn't cheat on her exams?

2. Would you judge the same student to be less, more, or just as praiseworthy if he doesn't cheat when there is a teacher around but does cheat when no teacher is around? Why?

3. Between a student who doesn't cheat only when there is a teacher around and a student who does not cheat regardless of the presence of a teacher, which one would you consider to be more praiseworthy? Why?

This then is the problem of some supernaturalists. If they consider the student who does not cheat regardless of the presence of a teacher as being more praiseworthy, i.e., better student, then they must also consider the person who is ethical regardless of the existence of a god to be more praiseworthy than someone who does good and refrains from doing bad things because s/he believes that an all-seeing and all-knowing being is around.

Vis-a-vis a person who believes in a cop in the sky, we cannot be certain of the reason why s/he does good and avoids evil. But vis-a -vis an individual who does not have a belief in supernatural entities we can be certain that s/he does not do good and avoids evil because of fear of the supernatural and/or of desire for supernatural rewards.

* Warren claims that
If life is just random chance, then nothing really does matter and there is no morality—it's survival of the fittest.
You have to hand it to him for squeezing three untenable claims in one sentence. Evolution is not just random chance, there are selective pressures. Nothing may matter ultimately (the universe and everything in it "dies") but that doesn't mean nothing matters now or in one's lifetime or in the lifetime of our children or ... Ethics/morality is not predicated on ultimate meaning or "mattering." Even among other animals (yes Virginia, homo sapiens are animals too) we see altruistic behavior, maternal love and care (and of course aggression and violence as well). Morality, part of it at least is genetic, evolutionary.

Warren continues:
For years, atheists have said there is no God, but they want to live like God exists. They want to live like their lives have meaning
Does Warren say there is no Zeus or does he say he say he doesn't believe in Zeus? What about Kali, fairies, Charon and the River Styx, ...? Atheism is a lack of belief in deities, any and all supernatural entities, including all the gods and goddesses and supernatural creatures that Warren likewise has no belief in or claims not to exist.

Here's a question for Warren: Would morality and meaning still exist or be possible if there's a god or gods but no afterlife? I will hazard a guess that for Warren, afterlife and God are pretty much inextricable from one another. Remove the afterlife from the equation and even if there is a god he will despair.

Meaning in the here and now is very much possible. I for one find it meaningful to point out the nuttiness in supernaturalism and irrationality of faith.

* Warren addresses Harris.
We both stand in a relationship of faith. You have faith that there is no God. In 1974, I spent the better part of a year living in Japan, and I studied all the world religions. All of the religions basically point toward truth. Buddha made this famous statement at the end of his life: "I'm still searching for the truth." Muhammad said, "I am a prophet of the truth." The Veda says, "Truth is elusive, it's like a butterfly, you've got to search for it." Then Jesus Christ comes along and says, "I am the truth." All of a sudden, that forces a decision.

As they say if atheism requires faith, then lack of belief in fairies, in the Loch Ness monster, in Roswell aliens, in Bigfoot, and all other things we don't believe in also requires faith. It's ludicrous.

It's strange that having studied all the religions and the various truth claims, Warren went for the most arrogant and the most incredible: He went for the hybristic character who arrogated truth unto himself, and who also claimed that he's a deity. Rather than reservation and skepticism he did the irrational thing and believed it. Incredible. If some person approached Warren and claimed to be God, I doubt he'd believe the person. If that person said, "You have so little faith my child," Warren would still not believe.

Strange too, that as an atheist I'm drawn in the opposite direction, to the Vedic and Buddhist claims about truth. Could these Eastern religions' humility and open ended searching in fact arouse anxiety in fundamentalists?

Warren tells Harris that the difference between the other prophets and gurus and Jesus is,
Jesus says, "I am the only way to God. I am the way to the Father." He is either lying or he's not.
False dichotomy. There are any number of possibilities. One is that the biblical author(s) invented that line (storyteller's license, propaganda, etc). And of course as C.S. Lewis said in his false trichotomy--lord, liar, or lunatic--this Jesus (if he is a historical character) may have the same mental stability as the above hypothetical person who approaches Warren claiming to be the creator of the universe.

* Battle of who's the more intellectually dishonest:
Harris: It is intellectually dishonest, frankly, to say that you are sure that Jesus was born of a virgin.

Warren: I say I accept that by faith. And I think it's intellectually dishonest for you to say you have proof that it didn't happen.
I doubt Harris is saying he has disproof of virgin birth. If he had he would've bulldozed Warren with it. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Neither Warren nor anyone has evidence that a virgin birth--any virgin birth by any human--has transpired. Well, that's exactly the reason to disbelieve claims of virgin births. Another reason: this miraculous birth motif is among the features of hellenistic biography. Yet another reason: stories of virgin birth and deity-induced conceptions appear all over the world. The Aztec hero Quetzlcoatl is said to be born of the virgin Chimalman, to whom the god Onteotl had appeared in a dream. The Babylonian king Sargon (c. 2300 B.C.E.) is reputed to have been born of an ordinary woman and a mountain god. Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who lived in the 6th century B.C.E. is said to have been God-begotten and virgin born. Cuchulain, an Irish hero, is known as the son of the god Lugh and the human female Deichtne. Okuninushi of Japanese mythology is one of the numerous sons of the storm god Susanowo and by the mortal woman Kishinada. In Greek mythology we find the supreme god Zeus impregnating such women as Danaƫ resulting in the birth of Perseus; while the union of the god Apollo and Aria created Miletus.

If Warren believes in the biblical virgin birth story then what does he make of the other god-induced-conception and virgin-birth stories, particularly those that are older and contemporary to the New Testament version? To believe one but discount all others as mere mythology Warren will have to provide evidence that his isn't yet another mythic account. Faith--mere belief--just isn't going to cut it. Simply accepting a specific virgin birth story as true is not just intellectual indolence. It's stupidity.

* When Harris points out that certain claims (perhaps the virgin birth and supposed miracles by Jesus) are low probability events, Warren reacts,
A low probability? When there are 96 percent believers in the world?
Mr Warren, that's low probability, not low priority. This argumentum ad numerum is pretty silly. We don't find out what's true through a majority vote. The earth is not a sphere even if somehow 100% of all humans today were to believe that. (The earth is an oblate spheroid, having a larger diameter at the equator.)

* Warren then turns Pollyanna:
I look at the world and I say, "God likes variety." I say, "God likes beauty." I say, "God likes order," and the more we understand ecology, the more we understand how sensitive that order is.
Harris rudely yanks him back down to earth:
Then God also likes smallpox and tuberculosis.
Reminds me of those alternative meds fans who glibly claim that if it's natural it must be good. In that case they must really try ricin, snake venom, jellyfish stings, hemlock, and yes smallpox viruses and TB bacteria.

* Warren brings up slavery. When Harris tells him that in the bible Paul "supports slavery," Warren makes the following correction:
He allows it. He doesn't support it
Well thank you, Pastor. So you allow slavery, right? You don't? But it's biblical! And you believe the bible to be inerrant.

As Harris points out the bible doesn't condemn slavery at all. It doesn't say it's unethical, inhumane, ungodly, evil. It is in fact unbiblical for Xians to condemn slavery.

Father, forgive them for cherry picking.

* Above I conjectured that it may be that Warren conflates God and afterlife. Looks like he does:
If death is the end, shoot, I'm not going to waste another minute being altruistic.
It seems that even if his deity exists but then there is no afterlife Warren will become a rampaging, rabid, evil maniac.

* Asked how Warren can account for Harris' altruism, Warren replies,
You have common grace. Even in people who don't believe in God, there is a spark God has put in you that says, "There's got to be more to life than just make money and die."
Another ad hoc explanation. Warren, like New Agers and other woowoos are big on explanations but empty on evidence for those explanations. Give us evidence that in fact there is this "common grace," Warren! But since your claim is that there is a deity who planted it, then the more fundamental evidence we need is for the existence of this G - O - D entity. (I believe Pastor Sherlock has "fingerprint" evidence to show us)

* Warren:
Because we were made in God's image, we were made to last forever. That means I'm going to spend more time on that side of eternity than on this side. If I did not believe that there is a Judgment, if I believed Hitler would actually get away with everything he did, that would be a reason for great despair. The fact is, I do believe there will be a Judgment Day. God is not just a God of love. He is a God of justice. So death is a factor. On the other hand, even if there were no such thing as heaven, I would put my trust in Christ because I have found it a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live.
Ultimate punishment and reward seem to figure prominently in Warren's worldview. The problem is that he is like the kid who's a model student only when there a teacher's watching. I have qualms about the integrity of such persons.

If there is no heaven Warren would still live a meaningful life. Presuming "no heaven" here means no afterlife, it looks like meaning is still possible for Warren, but not morality (unless Warren fears that God, being omnipotent and mysterious, can suddenly--within eternity (oh the temporal knots!)--change his mind and resurrect Warren and beat the crap out of him).

* When the interviewer calls for a no-holds-barred, as-blunt-as-it-gets response, Warren tells us that,
The truth is, religion is mutually exclusive. The person who says, "Oh, I just believe them all," is an idiot because the religions flat-out contradict each other. You cannot believe in reincarnation and heaven at the same time.
I like Warren better when he throws out political correctness. We finally get some facts and not just claims.

So much for Warren's "all religions point to the truth."

* Harris spends some time explaining how there can be spirituality without spirit (soul). Frankly, this has been Harris' Achilles' heel. He tends to get namby pamby when the subject drifts into spirituality and meditation.

* Warren leaves us with these parting words:
I believe in both faith and reason. The more we learn about God, the more we understand how magnificent this universe is. There is no contradiction to it. When I look at history, I would disagree with Sam: Christianity has done far more good than bad. Altruism comes out of knowing there is more than this life, that there is a sovereign God, that I am not God. We're both betting. He's betting his life that he's right. I'm betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he's right, I've lost nothing. If I'm right, he's lost everything. I'm not willing to make that gamble.

Warren is surely into faith, but I say "delusion" is more accurate. But he's also into reason? Perhaps a proprietary brand. Not the generic reason I know of.

Altruism for Warren comes out of believing (not knowing!) there is more than just biological life, that a deity exists. But altruism for atheists of course doesn't/can't come from these things which they don't believe in. Should Warren again bring up "common grace" can he please move from mere belief/claim to some evidence so we can make some progress?

Unfortunately for Warren his wager has fails to take into account the theologies of other religions. He will lose something should he have believed in the wrong god and should the real deity had proscribed worshiping false gods.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Faith is superfluous

Imagine a Hindu and a Christian, both of whom have absolute faith (i.e., they firmly believe and harbor no doubts whatsoever) that their religion, their theology, their deity/deities are true and real. Now given the fact that the claims made by the two religions are in conflict with one another, they cannot be simultaneously true. If the Christian claims are true then those of Hinduism are false, and vice versa. So at the very least we know something for certain--that at most only one of them can be right. Therefore, the probability that at least one of them is wrong is 100%. This we are sure of. (Note that I have emphasized "at most" and "at least" since it is quite possible that both believers are wrong.)

Focus now on the fact that our above devotees both have what other supernaturalists would envy and do try to achieve--unremitting and absolute faith. Notice how the fact that they both have "maximum" faith has nothing to do with the undebatable fact that at least one of them is wrong. Hence, in this simple exercise we clearly see that belief, however fervent it may be, has no bearing on whether what is believed in is true or false.

Given this, it is quite puzzling why there are supers who urge their fellow believers to have faith or to strengthen their faith. As we have seen belief is independent of the veracity of what one believes in. As I see it the call to intensify or consolidate one's belief has nothing to do about the truth of the claims/beliefs. Rather it is about ingraining a particular worldview, about the psychological goal of making one take for granted this worldview and its beliefs, and about the social objective of becoming a model for other (potential) believers to emulate.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I much prefer to believe they wear miniskirts

Christopher Hitchens has an observation that I'd like to expand on:
One of America's most seminal books is William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he argues that the subjective experience of the divine can be understood only by the believer. I have just been finding out how true this is. You hear all the time that America is an intensely religious nation, but what you don't hear is that there are almost as many religions as there are believers. Moreover, many ostensible believers are quite unsure of what they actually believe. And, to put it mildly, the different faiths don't think that highly of one another. The emerging picture is not at all monolithic.

This is true not only in America but everywhere you go. Back in the 80s professor of mythology Joseph Campbell said that what you call God is not the same God that someone else is referring to. You just have to scratch the surface and ask people for a roster of God's qualities to find this out. People have all sorts of ideas who God is, what his traits are, and for that matter whether it's a he or a she or whatnot, what this entity's will is or if it has one in the first place, what s/he permits and proscribes or whether morality even figures in its nature, whether it is omnipotent to the point of transcending the principle of noncontradiction and is able to do illogical things or just peri-omnipotent or simply a lot more powerful than we are, whether God became human or not at all, whether God sent emissaries and harbingers or whether such stories belong in the realm of mythology, whether God is one or many, whether or not God is the product of a yet more transcendent being, etc. etc.

But the problem is not that there is such a great number of differing beliefs on who/what God is. That is the effect of the underlying problem. The Gordian knot here is that there is no way to test and falsify any belief about God. Now, if you cannot test any hypothesis how can you know whether it's true or false? We are talking about reality here, not just idle word or mind games. The basis for saying that a claim or hypothesis of ours is true or false is whether it conforms to reality. So we need to be able to test it against reality out there.

In a situation where no disconfirmation is possible, the number of hypotheses simply flourishes. You never get to trim and prune away any of them since it's a free for all wherein just about anything goes. Hence, after millennia theologians are still arguing among themselves about the nature of God, but they will never be able to converge on the truth precisely because they can't test any of their hypotheses and find out which ones are really false.

Imagine that there is no way to test and falsify hypotheses about the nature of a certain planet P. Some claim that P is 50,000,000 light years from earth. Some claim it is only 10 light years. One group says it's in the direction of the Orion Nebula. Others point diametrically opposite it. While still others point us in another direction. Some hypothesize it is as large as Jupiter. Some say it is 5 times as massive as our Jovian planet. While yet others say it's closer to the size of the Earth. There are those who claim that it is inhabited by a billion species, half of which are quadrupeds the size of cats. Others argue that because it is so massive its gravity does not permit anything but microbial life. But then those who say it's as small as the Earth disagree. One camp doubts it has an atmosphere at all, while those on the extreme end of the spectrum claim it has a crushing envelope of sulfuric gases 10 times our atmospheric pressure. And so on and so forth. Now you see that if there is no way to verify/falsify any of these claims, all these hypotheses remain standing. And you can surely add your own to the lot. Thus, in time the number of speculations can increase. But until that day when someone can perform observations and gather evidence as to the real nature of P, we cannot say which of the hypotheses is wrong and which ones are more or less on the right track. The lack of refutation and lack of means to refute any hypothesis for some phenomenon is a curse that dooms any epistemology for that phenomenon. In short, we cannot know anything about P. One is forever stuck at the level of speculation.

Going back to the nature of God, the problem is even worse. In our example above we at least know with absolute certitude that planets exist. But as in arguing how many magic flying reindeers Santa Claus really owns, no one has even conclusively established that a god--any type of god--in fact exists. And so all the hypothesizing and beliefs about God's nature is about as productive and edifying as believing that fairies prefer miniskirts over gowns.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Chalk it up to utter idiocy

Someone recently forwarded the following to me. After reading it I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Lame" is too kind. And "stupid" doesn't capture the depth of its stupidity. Presumably the narrative is meant to be an argument of some sort to subscribe to one of the world's religion (or one of its denominations), its deity, and theology. But as you will see it is devoid of any (rational) argument. The climax of this "true story" (yeah right!) is so inane I'm appending the real ending to this true-to-life account.

This is a true story of something that happened just a few years ago at USC.

There was a professor of philosophy there who was a deeply committed atheist.

His primary goal for one required class was to spend the entire semester to prove that God couldn't exist.

His students were always afraid to argue with him because of his impeccable logic.

Sure, some had argued in class at times, but no one had ever really gone against him because of his reputation.

At the end of every semester on the last day, he would say to his class of 300 students, "If there is anyone here who still believes in Jesus, stand up!"

In twenty years, no one had ever stood up. They knew what he was going to do next. He would say, "Because anyone who believes in God is a fool".

If God existed, he could stop this piece of chalk from hitting the ground and breaking Such a simple task to prove that He is God, and yet He can't do it."

And every year, he would drop the chalk onto the tile floor of the classroom and it would shatter into a hundred pieces.

All of the students would do nothing but stop and stare.

Most of the students thought that God couldn't exist. Certainly, a number of Christians had slipped through, but! For 20 years, they had been too afraid to stand up.

Well, a few years ago there was a freshman who happened to enroll.

He was a Christian, and had heard the stories about his professor.

He was required to take the class for his major, and he was afraid. But for three months that semester, he prayed every morning that he would have the courage to stand up no matter what the professor said, or what the class thought.

Nothing they said could ever shatter his faith...he hoped.

Finally, the day came. ! The professor said, "If there is anyone here who still believes in God, stand up!" The professor and the class of 300 people looked at him, shocked, as he stood up at the back of the classroom.

The professor shouted, "You FOOL!!!

If God existed, he would keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!"

He proceeded to drop the chalk, but as he did, it slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleat of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe. As it hit the ground, it simply rolled away unbroken. The professor's jaw dropped as he stared at the chalk. He looked up at the young man, and then ran out of the lecture hall.

The young man who had stood, proceeded to walk to the front of the room and shared his faith in Jesus for the next half hour. 300 students stayed and listened as he told of God's love for them and of His power through Jesus.

And here's what happened next:
... It'd been half an hour since the professor ran out of the lecture hall. Just as the Christian freshman finished his spiel, the professor came back wheeling in a trolley filled with boxes and boxes of chalk. After regaining his breath, he opened a box and took out a piece. He held it up for everyone to see. He gazed into the eyes of each and every person in the room. Then he spoke. "If God exists, he could and would stop this piece of chalk from hitting the ground and breaking." He stretched out his arm and let go of the chalk. Sure enough it shattered as it hit the tiled floor. He took out another and declared at the top of his voice, "If God exists, he could and would stop this piece from hitting the ground and breaking." He let the chalk drop, and again it broke into pieces. He drew another ... and another... and another until he had gone through all the boxes in the cart.

The professor waited for a response, but not a word was forthcoming from the students, not even from the Christian freshman, who by now had buried his face in his hands. And so the professor said, "My dear students, it is a common mistake to cherry pick one instance that apparently substantiates our claim whilst turning a blind eye to the thousands of pieces of chalk that have shattered. This psychologists tell us is the error of confirmation bias--wherein we search for evidence that affirms our belief but then ignore or even sweep under the rug any and all the evidence that disconfirm it. It is also a common mistake to make an attribution error and to claim that some X is the cause when no causal link has yet been established. This is what is known as the non causa pro causa fallacy. In logic, if our premise is that 'If P then Q' and Q occurs, it is fallacious to then claim that P had occured. This is the fallacy of affirming the consequent. The onus is upon those who claim that X caused the chalk not to shatter to prove beyond reasonable doubt that in fact X is the causal factor."

"So please, my dear students, do not fall into the trap of self-delusion. If you value truth then you must not shrink from thinking deeply and clearly. May you have learned valuable lessons in critical thinking today. Class dismissed."

Monday, February 26, 2007

What's cooking?

While washing baking sheets on Ash Wednesday a cafeteria worker found the following pattern on one of them. She asked her co-workers what it looked like. She also asked the cafeteria manager, and finally the principal. What did they all say it was?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

No privacy with one's privates

Dan Dennett asks a simple rhetorical question: Would you masturbate in front of your mother (or for that matter your father/grandparents/pastor/priest)?1 I bet my soul none of us has ever done so and would never ever do so. In fact we've made sure we're not seen in the act by these people (and by most others).

Now not a few Christians believe that their deity frowns upon masturbation. For instance the Catholic Church teaches that masturbation is an "intrinsically and gravely disordered action" and is an "offense against chastity."2 Christians also believe that their god, among other things, is all-seeing and is everywhere (omnipresent). So how is it that these believers are able to perform autoerotic acts in front of God? Think about it. Such believers are never alone; God is always there with them. They can lock themselves inside a hermetic bank vault and God would still be there (and everywhere else simultaneously), closer to them than all the duffel bags of cash in the room. And if they also believe in guardian angels, then surely their personal bodyguard is with them 24/7. Unless angels can become afflicted with diseases such as glaucoma, they see everything their charge does.

So I'm scratching my head here. If their deity forbids masturbation how can they ever have the gall to do it right in front of God (and angels)? Isn't that much worse, more shameful, more scandalous than wanking off in front of one's parents?

It seems to me that one possible explanation why such believers are able to commit such a proscribed act in the very presence of their deity, is that they don't fully believe--they aren't totally sold on the idea--that their deity is right there with them all the time (not least because they don't see him/it), they don't completely believe that this entity can actually see everything, or at that moment when biological urges become strong enough they go into a (transient) state of denial of their god's existence/presence. (If Ted Haggard really believed in his all-powerful, all-seeing deity, how could he have committed the acts that led to his downfall?)

But can you imagine how ludicrous and delusional such psychological trickery would be were you jacking off right in front of your parents? You could close your eyes and deny that they're there watching but that won't change the facts, would it? You would only do it if you believe that you're alone, that the walls are opaque, that there are no hidden cameras.

If you truly believe your parents are there in front you, you won't even go naked. But if you can't see, hear, feel, smell, detect by any means whatsoever your deity, and you've never seen, heard, felt, smelled this thing you worship, then maybe, just maybe, it isn't really around--and so you can touch yourself, "in private."

Given that this deity is right there in front of them all the time (and behind, above, below, to the left, right, and all around them at the same time, and see/know everything inside them including their thoughts and feelings) how is it that any believer can cheat, lie, steal, plagiarize, be hybristic, think evil thoughts, etc.? Again, one possible explanation is that they haven't bought into the belief as fully they profess. Indeed if a person believed in the reality of this all-seeing, omnipresent deity so fully that s/he has been able to make herself see and hear its presence all the time (even if only in their heads), that person cannot possibly commit any wrongdoing. How can you possibly cheat, tell a lie, steal, ... when you're always face-to-face with this omni-everything being that has the power to punish in the worst ways imaginable for eternity? So perhaps it may do believers well to become hallucinatory and see and hear their God 24/7 if they wish to become saintly. On the other hand, to be constantly aware that God is there with you every second of your life--that might just be a living hell for some. I think the denial or de facto atheism that believers practise from time to time keeps them sane and "normal."


1. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, 2006, p. 227.

2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2352.

Jesus telecoms

He's been sighted again. No pareidolia this time. It's Jesus in the flesh.

In Gulu town, excited residents, many of them primary school pupils, rushed to an MTN mobile phone mast following rumours that a manifestation of Christ had been sighted at its top.... Eric Odongo, one of the onlookers, claimed he first saw clouds on top of the mast and that Jesus appeared to be standing amidst clouds. "I saw Jesus standing on top of the mast. He was standing between two people and was putting on a white cloth. His hair was black," Mr Odongo claimed, in a description that was echoed by many more at the scene. Reporters, however, did not see anything, and Herbert Omoding, the MTN Assistant Engineer in Gulu, said he had seen nothing unusual.

They should check their cell phones for any text messages from Him.

Friday, February 16, 2007

What the bleep do they know?

In a response to Alister McGrath, Richard Dawkins makes a most important point:

[W]hereas I and other scientists are humble enough to say we don’t know, what of theologians like McGrath? He knows. He’s signed up to the Nicene Creed. The universe was created by a very particular supernatural intelligence who is actually three in one. Not four, not two, but three. Christian doctrine is remarkably specific: not only with cut-and-dried answers to the deep problems of the universe and life, but about the divinity of Jesus, about sin and redemption, heaven and hell, prayer and absolute morality.

When I design circuits, unless the circuit is something as simple as feeding the right amount of juice to an LED, I don't have the doubtless confidence of telling myself or the world that I know it's going to work perfectly, flawlessly. As is typical and standard practice, I go over the design a number of times, recheck my calculations, and then breadboard the whole thing, crossing my fingers that I don't blow a fuse or fry an IC (again). A crucial part of the design cycle is testing. However confident I may be that a design is ok, I can never be absolutely certain until I build the circuit, power it up, put it through its paces, and see whether it does all the things it's suppose to do. (and even then I can't be certain that I've not pushed any component to its operating limit, including thermal limit, thus leading to possible early failure).

A circuit design issues from the brain. It may or may not work. And when one's a novice the odds are in favor of unwittingly zapping something or turning out a lemon. The only real way to find out whether it actually works (and how robust it really is) is to build it and power it up. Testing is all important in order to validate our belief that the design works. (Yes, I'm aware of simulation software that can obviate some actual hardware testing. I actually use Microchip's simulation software whenever the design incorporates one of their PIC microcontrollers)

Theologians, religionists who insist that this and that theological claim is true, on the other hand, are perhaps some of the most hybristic people in the world. How can they possibly claim to know and insist a certain claim about the supernatural is true when they haven't checked whether what their brains have churned out is in fact in consonance with reality? When they haven't tested the validity these ideas? And how can they simply trust--have faith--in these claims despite or because of the fact that these claims can't ever be tested and checked for validity/veracity? There's something very wrong in this line of thinking and behavior.

It's actually much worse. Those who design circuits have various premises. For example, I take for granted that (nondefective) diodes conduct only when there's a positive potential difference between their anode and cathode, but not the other way around. I don't go about questioning this assumption. Why? Because there already exists much evidence that this is so. Furthermore, if someone, including myself, were to question this claim, it can always be tested. Another example. One of the most important equations in electronics is Ohm's Law. V = IR, where V = voltage (in volts), I = current (in amperes), R = resistance (in ohms). Again I take it for granted that this law holds. And again those who are skeptical of it can always build a circuit using precision components and test this equation's validity to their satisfaction. While it may seem that we take certain things on authority, the fact is that not only are the presumptions backed up with evidence, but also that they are testable and can be proved (or disproved) if one wishes to do so.

What about theological premises? None of them are known to be true. And they can't be known to be true--they are untestable. Now if the facticity and veracity of the premises are not known to be true, then no argument or conclusion founded upon them can be known to be true. When it comes to theology--whether Hindu, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, or what have you--there is no claim therein that is known to be true. Every one of them is at best a hypothesis.

So what in fact do theologians know when it comes to the supernatural? Isn't it that they're merely spouting fantastical, unverifiable claims and performing mental gymnastics?

If we claim to know then we must be able to elucidate a valid way of actually knowing it, and show that what is being declared is in fact true. To say that we know through revelation or through authority or tradition--these are illicit and vacuous ways. Just to tackle revelation: Because we know that humans are unreliable (would you really fall on your knees and lend your ears and brain every time someone claims s/he's received a communique from his/her deity?) all so-called revelations need to be tested and checked. But how do we test whether a claimed revelation is not just a misfiring of neurons, or a result of some illness, or a mere delusion, or some other thing? Is there a way of doing so? And of course there are more fundamental questions: How do religionists know that revelations really exist? Is there at least one indubitable instance that they can cite? If so, how do they know it really was a revelation? And is revelation not the same as intuition? How do we definitively and testably differentiate one from the other?

Thus, I cannot but agree with Dawkins when he asks whether theology is a subject at all. What could theologians be experts in? Well certainly not in phenomena that are or can be known to be real, in claims that you can go check and confirm/disconfirm. If you ask me, devoting half a century of one's life to theology is a pitiable waste. It's not much better than spending the same amount of years in becoming an authority on the Lord of the Rings. The thing about theists that sets them apart from Shakespeare, Rowling and Tolkien experts is that the latter know their expertise is in works of fiction. Theists have the delusion that their claims are in consonance with reality, that they know of an otherworldly reality.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Jesus' sparkling eyes

Some are claiming that they've seen sparks emanating from the eyes of a steel and bronze statue of Jesus on exhibit at the Liverpool Academy of Art.

Brian Burgess, the sculptor, said,

It began when one woman who saw the statue fell to her knees and began praying. She was transfixed for more than thirty minutes and when she came out of the trance she said she had witnessed sparks coming from the eyes of the Christ figure. Now the word has spread and we have hoards of people coming along to pray and venerate the statue and many of them have said they have witnessed these sparks too.... I worked on the piece for about a year but I never saw any sparks apart from those coming from the welding torch.

Sparks or reflections? Or something else?

I'd recommend turning off the lights and checking for anything "anomalous" but then we know how it's so easy for us humans to hallucinate, specially when we're expectant and know what's supposed to be detected/perceive. The mere suggestion that we should alert people if we see sparks is enough to elicit the hallucination in some people.

Mesmerized by dancing suns and sparkling eyes. Human psychology is fascinating indeed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Delusions continue despite Evolution Sunday

Not a few Christians already accept evolution. And some of them are making it known publicly.

Flocks of the Christian faithful in the US will this Sunday hold special services celebrating Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The idea is to stand up to creationism, which claims the biblical account of creation is literally true, and which is increasingly being promoted under the guise of "intelligent design". Proponents of ID say the universe is so complex it must have been created by some unnamed designer.

Support for "Evolution Sunday" has grown 13 per cent to 530 congregations this year, from the 467 that celebrated the inaugural event last year. Organisers see it as increasing proof that Christians are comfortable with evolution.

There's a deluge of evidence supporting the theory of evolution (as well as the evolution of galaxies, stars, planets, including the age of the universe and our home planet). The evidence simply cannot be ignored. To believe a Bronze Age claim and reject the wealth of scientific findings is totally irrational. Because there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the creation story in an ancient text (just one among many creation stories in the ancient world) and what science has discovered, one has to choose one or the other (or perhaps reject both). Creationists (including young earth creationists) take the irrational route and opt for literalizing mythology. Other Christians--apparently those who are not as attached to the bible and who permit parts of it to be read as fiction--have implicitly given science and the methods of science a thumbs up.

The reasoning of this latter group seems to me to be as follows. Since science has discovered such and such and it is universally accepted in the scientific community that this is so, and since biblical account G is totally at odds with that scientific truth, therefore G must be fictional and is just allegorical/metaphorical/poetic/etc. Well and good.

The problem is with those accounts in the bible (in the gospels for instance) that are claimed to be historical for which disconfirming evidence is very hard to come by or even impossible. I have in mind such events as virgin birth, miracles (water into wine, multiplication of loaves/fishes, etc.), resurrection. The strongest argument for not believing in these claims is that we have never observed these events, and that there is no known way of producing these phenomena. But that of course seldom puts a dent in the faith of believers. They merely argue (albeit ad hoc) that these are one-off events which only a deity(-incarnate) could perform and had performed. Strictly speaking they would be right in throwing at skeptics and atheists the principle, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Just because we don't know how these events can come about and just because we have not encountered such events does not imply they cannot and did not happen. But what Christians who resort to this fail (or realize) to say is that absence of evidence hardly warrants belief, and certainly does not merit unwavering faith! Since there is no evidence for Shiva, Muhammad riding a flying horse, gremlins manipulating our thoughts, aliens inhabiting the Moon ... why do they not believe in these extraordinary claims as well? The rational thing to do when there is no evidence for X is to withhold belief in it.

Given that it will probably be impossible to disprove the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection, I think most of those who are reared in Christianity or have adopted that religion will continue to believe that these events did occur, that they are not merely fictional/allegorical/metaphorical, or just an exercise of storyteller's license by the biblical writers, or just part of an encomium wherein a hero's biography is embellished (posthumously) to suit the public's perception of this person's stature.1

Unlike the evolution vs. creationism issue where the former more than satisfactorily disconfirms the latter, no such thorough disconfirmation is forthcoming vis-a-vis the gospel claims. Thus, while there is no good reason to believe the extraordinary claims, the lack of a definitive disproof (notwithstanding the various reasons to disbelieve), will ensure that not a few will continue taking these claims on faith.

Still from the same article:

Michael Zimmerman, founder of Evolution Sunday and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. "We're saying you can have your faith, and you can also have science."

When Zimmerman claims that science and theism can co-exist I read that as: scientific understanding of the world and supernatural beliefs can coexist in the same mind, that one can hold both very rational and truly irrational beliefs simultaneously without any sense of conflict. Well, I don't understand how he (and Human Genome Project director Francis Collins, among others) is able to do this. It must take some self-deception to get away with it.


1. Robert W. Funk, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium, New York: Harper Collins, 1996, p. 281ff. Funk explains the hellenistic encomium:

The retrospective interpretation of the hero's life from the perspective of his or her noble death was regarded as a legitimate perspective. The basis for that perspective was the view that one's destiny was predetermined or controlled by fate. What a particular individual turned out to be was determined at the outset, at birth. At the same time, one could not know what fate had in store until that life had run its course. Birth stories were considered an essential part of the biography because infancy anecdotes recounted omens that pointed to the future, a future known only from the perspective of the hero's noble death. If someone had died a noble death and lived an exemplary life, that person must have had a noteworthy birth.

The hellenistic biography or encomium, following the model of Aristoxenus, a student of Aristotle, consisted of five elements: a miraculous or unusual birth; revealing childhood episode (or episodes); a summary of wise teachings; wondrous deeds; a martyrdom or noble death. This form of the biography was more suitable for philosophers and religious heroes, such as Socrates and Jesus. The New Testament gospels encompass precisely these five elements and are thus examples of the hellenistic biography. (p.282)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Misplaced skepticism

I have this friend who's been up in arms since the 2007 IPCC report on global warming came out. He's a skeptic. He doubts that global warming is real, despite the IPCC findings. Is my friend a meteorologist or climatologist or even a volcanologist? No. Does he have a science degree? No. Has he provided empirical evidence that refutes the IPCC claims? No. He's only made claims. So should I give his skepticism weight?

Judging from his emails, what's really eating him is that atheists (I believe that for simplicity's sake he uses this term loosely to mean nonbelievers, rationalists, critical thinkers and the like) are skeptical of religious claims but are not being skeptical of the IPCC report. He's used "hypocrisy." I think he means prejudice and bias. In so many words he's saying that on the one hand we critique Christianity and dismiss it. We hardly listen to Church fathers and theologians (so called experts in religion). But when a bunch of scientists (so called experts in climate) pronounce that global warming is very likely already happening and very likely to be anthropogenic, we don't even switch our critical thinking faculties on but simply nod our heads wildly in toadyish assent.

Well, I have really been scratching my head over the past week. I don't understand what has gotten over this friend of mine who by the way still has one foot in Christianity. Sure, being skeptical of claims, even by scientists is good. We shouldn't believe anything just on the basis of authority. The problem though is that a good number of scientists, experts in climate change, have for many years been studying the evidence and in the latest international gathering have said that global warming is occurring and is caused by humans. I don't have a fraction of the expertise necessary to pore over the evidence--both for and against--to find out for myself whether there is indeed good reason to say that temperatures are or will be increasing. And neither does my friend. While it is fallacious to argue that since most scientists say X is true, therefore X is true, it is pretty strange to say that, being a layperson who has no expertise and has not examined the evidence, we should be highly skeptical of the claims of these scientists.

I have not studied medicine but I trust my doctor is going to help my body fight the disease I'm saddled with through the medication he's prescribed. I don't have the expertise to say whether his prescribed treatment is right or wrong. But when a second and third expert opinion are in agreement I tend to become quite confident of the treatment's predicted efficacy. Same thing with the recent IPCC report. When you have a good number of scientists (whom I presume have studied lots of data/evidence) come to conclusion that it is highly probable that there's warming and that we humans are to blame, and when they are even more confident today than when they isued their 2001 findings (90% versus 66% in 2001), then I tend to believe that anthropogenic warming is real. I have less (or little) reason to be skeptical.

In one of my earlier replies to my friend I shared the following heuristic by Bertrand Russell:

[T]he opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

It is not that when there's a majority consensus among scientists that what they're saying is therefore true. Rather, being nonexperts we can do no more than rely on those who know the subject matter far better than we do and who have the ability to analyze the data and evidence properly. It always is the case that our belief must be in proportion to the evidence. We nonexperts, however, can only depend on those who are qualified and who have examined the evidence. Think of these panel of scientists as consultants if you like.

So I find my friend's skepticism a bit puzzling. I find it disproportionate. I find it irrational even. He's mentioned Michael Crichton several times in the past during our phone conversations and I'm just wondering whether he's being skeptical on the basis of Crichton's skepticism. I should hope that he's got a more reliable source and foundation than a novelist.

Now moving on to what I think is really bugging him. My friend wrote:

My say is that if the skeptics of religion believe in global warming, they are applying a double standard because global warming deserves just as much skepticism.

To also say that global warming can and will be proven within the next decade or within the next century whereas religion such as Christianity cannot be proven because of supernatural claims is also deficient of reasoning.

It escapes my friend that there is a huge difference between empirical claims made by scientists studying the greenhouse effect and global warming and supernatural claims by theologians and Church fathers. For instance, most supernatural claims are nonfalsifiable, not least because religionists always posit an out--they provide ad hoc explanations to rationalize apparent disconfirmations. The greenhouse effect and global warming are observable events, can be measured, and are falsifiable claims.

Why should we be very skeptical of supernatural claims? Well, for starters up to now there is not a shred of good evidence for them. There has been no progress in the realm of theology. Not a single theological claim (and I'm talking of all religions) has been proved to be true. In contrast we know that the greenhouse effect is real. Just train your scopes on Venus to see what a runaway global warming can do. So, no, my friend. Theistic claims deserve more skepticism.

He then goes on to say that a majority of scientists now are of the opinion that global warming is for real. And because this is the majority opinion, atheists he says believe it as well. He continues:

If the atheist believes this line of thinking, then he is applying the double standard. For the atheist is a minority when it comes to religion. Majority of the world's populatiion believe in some kind of God or Gods. In the line of thinking that the majority should prevail in the interpretation of Truth, then the religious are right and the atheists are wrong.

The atheist as skeptic should question the climate change issue just as much as he questions the the religion issue.

He's asserting that if we are not be guilty of double standards and we believe scientific consensus then we should also believe the world consensus when it comes to the supernatural. Of course what he's advocating is that we commit the fallacy of argumentum ad numerum.

Scientists are experts in their respective fields, just as an oncologist is an expert on cancer. Is there any theologian who is an expert in the supernatural? Is there any nontheologian who is an expert in the same? No. For the very simple reason that no one, not even the best theologian has any evidence (or proof) that the supernatural is real, that any deity exists. No theologian, no theistic religion can even substantiate the most fundamental premise and truth claim they have. And needless to say there is no consensus among the menagerie of religions on what the supernatural is, how many deities there are, etc. On the contrary.

Those who believe in global warming and root their belief in expert opinion of scientists are being rational, not least because science has a reputable track record. Science works.

In his email today, among other things, he wrote:

Why should skeptics of global warming be saddled with the burden of proof for their doubts? Atheists argue that religious people should show evidence while the non-believers sit back in their armchairs and criticize?

I replied: Skeptics don't have the burden of proof. The thing is, if those claiming that global warming is real already have a litany of evidence in support of their hypothesis then the burden of proof shifts to those who are claiming that it is not occurring. Should there be a time in the future when warming skeptics gain the upper hand, then the onus shifts again. This is similar to what happened with evolution. The prevailing hypothesis before Darwin was religious creationism. But during and after Darwin evidence in support of evolution came pouring in such that by the 20th century the burden of proof had squarely shifted to the creationists to provide evidence for their hypothesis. Conspicuously, creationists have not been able to provide positive evidence. But what they've been trying to do is to produce/find confuting evidence against evolution. But this strategy is fallacious. If we find disconfirming evidence against hypothesis X, it does not imply that hypothesis Y then is true. This is a false dichotomy. If evolution is found false it does not mean creationism is true. Both could be wrong; some yet unproposed explanation being the correct one. Right now the burden of proof is most definitely on those who are skeptical of evolution, or for that matter, those doubtful of the theory of relativity, theory of electromagnetic radiation, ....

I don't exactly know what my friend has been reading that's made him so skeptical and critical of the IPCC and its findings. As I said above I find his skepticism disproportionate and even irrational. I--one who won't be able to pass a Metereology 101 exam--would be skeptical of my skepticism should there be a consensus among climate experts. So I find my friend's staunchly held position a bit arrogant. I find it really strange that he'd be so skeptical of global warming but not of the existence of the supernatural.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Grayling's challenge

Philosopher and author A.C. Grayling offers this challenge: What contribution has Christianity ever made to science?

Looks like no one has come up with any. Grayling notes,
I asked Madeleine Bunting to name a single contribution to science made by Christianity. She accepts with pleasure the magnificent response of the many special-pleaders who responded on her behalf by naming Christian (whether nominal or convinced) scientists, the evolution of science in Christian (nominally or convinced) countries, and the role of Christian institutions (and institutions under church control: monasteries, universities).

I was in equal parts staggered and amused by this response, staggered because it seemed astonishing to me that anyone would seriously think it was not obvious that there were scientists who were (nominal or convinced) Christians, that science developed in countries many of which were (nominally or convinced) Christian countries, and so on, and amused because in their triumphalist teaching of how to suck eggs on this matter, the responders had so vastly missed the point of my challenge, even when I clarified it for them. For obviously and manifestly I did not ask Ms Bunting if there had even been Christian scientists, or whether science had been pursued in Christian countries. I challenged Ms Bunting to explain what Christianity, a body of beliefs and doctrine about virgin birth, miracles, resurrection of the dead, angels and archangels, voices from heaven, stigmata, and all the rest of the superstitious paraphernalia, had contributed to science.

I even, in clarification to those who had astonishingly mistaken so straightforward a challenge (but perhaps wilfully?), asked if the virgin birth was a contribution to gynaecology, whether the miracle of the loaves and fishes was a contribution to food science and marine zoology, whether the assumption of the virgin was a contribution to aeronautics. I fail to see how this challenge is unclear; I fail to see how it constitutes a claim that no scientists were ever Christians and that science did not develop in Christian countries, as all the would-be rebutters endlessly chorused. But so it did: remarkable.

I still await a reply to my challenge, though I am not holding my breath.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Understanding consciousness

Psychology professor Steven Pinker has an enlightening piece on the brain and consciousness. Here's an excerpt:
Although neither [the easy nor the hard] problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis"--the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.


SCIENTISTS HAVE EXORCISED THE GHOST FROM THE MACHINE NOT because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people's thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.

And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.

Consciousness is, of course, the product of the brain. The mind is an epiphenomenon of our gray matter. The manifestations of what has been traditionally called "soul" is indistinguishable from sentience, self-awareness, capacity for ethical judgement. We know that "soul" is merely a natural phenomenon because psychotropic drugs, trauma to the brain, neurological disease, hypoxia (lack of oxygen), electrical stimulation of the cortex--all these affect this so called soul. And needless to say, to date, no one has provided testable evidence for a disembodied soul, much less interaction with such (notwithstanding the litany of anecdotes out there).

Furthermore, just as there are no souls, there is no such thing as contra-causal free will. Our thoughts, actions, behavior are all the result of natural causation; they are all determined by various physical factors. This is only to be expected. And it follows from the fact that consciousness is a product of neurological processes. Those processes are caused by various determinants including neurons, chemicals (including medication we take), electrical impulses, and environmental stimuli. What we see as our freedom to choose is not freedom without causal determinants. The "I" that knows, understands, chooses, and makes decisions is an epiphenomenon of the brain.

The "I" is not a free-floating entity transcendent of and untrammeled by the natural world. Rather, it is a fully caused and fully determined phenomenon. It is as natural as the brain of which it is a derivative, and fully subject to the laws of nature.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Another Lourdes disconfirmation

Wonder how decomposed the corpse was when police found it.

The body of a British woman was kept secretly for four months by her mother, who hoped that because their home was near to the Catholic sanctuary of Lourdes a miracle would lead to her resurrection. Marian Kearney, 46, died from cancer in September, while staying at her mother’s home near Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.... Kearney and her daughter left England five years ago to travel to the remote shrine in the hope that the reputed holy powers of the spring water would cure her cancer. She had refused all conventional medicine and the French Catholic sanctuary was thought to be a last resort in her battle with the disease.

Not only did she not receive any miracle cures from from the famed shrine, no miraculous resuscitation of her corpse occurred either. Perhaps the grandmother's religious convictions have been shaken a bit? Or has she rationalized these events away already?

But I'm more interested in how all this will affect the granddaughter. According to her teachers she was quite withdrawn during the holiday season. (I don't know whether it's more the loss of her mother or the fact that her granny kept the corpse in a room that distressed her.) It isn't known yet whether she knew of her mother's illness. I'm wondering how this 11-year old's religious beliefs (if any) will be affected when she does find out her mom had cancer and that Lourdes didn't help her at all and realizes that her grandmother had hoped she would resurrect. The loss and the undeniable lack of any miracles just might tip her over to nonbelief (or make her more confident of her stance if she's already doubtful of religious claims to begin with).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wishing for a genie

When I was a child, I used to pray to God for a bicycle. But then I realized that God didn't work in that way--so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness

--Emo Philips, comedian

Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: Great God, grant that twice two be not four.

--Ivan Turgenev, novelist

Supplication has got to be the mostly widely practiced superstition in the world. Millions of adults believe that murmuring some words or even silently saying them in their head has the power to make their wishes come true. I think one reason why prayer is so prevalent is that it's a vast "improvement" over the childhood belief that what I want to be true will become so simply because I wish it to be so. In this "new improved version" of that infantile belief the agent that makes one's wishes come true is no longer the "I," rather it is a transcendent "I", an anthropomorphic being who has been vested with far greater powers or even (peri) omnipotence. What started out as "what I say will be so" has been transformed into "a superagent who is outside of me hears my thoughts/words/desires and will make my wishes come true." In effect one has conjured up a personal (invisible) genie.

As with other superstitions one mechanism (but not the only one) that keeps the belief in prayer alive is the existence of actual positive correlations, even if such correlations are sporadic and infrequent. Given the millions of prayers uttered in the world each day there will be a number of entreaties that will apparently be answered. Because the correlation is interpreted as a causal relationship it is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. (Even very strong correlations do not necessarily imply causation. Suppose every time after clipping my nails I implore a certain god to make them grow back in a week. Does the perfect positive correlation between prayer and nail growth mean that prayer works and that there exists this particular deity that causes nails to grow a couple of millimeters every week?) The questions and experiments that don't get asked and done are: What if the prayers hadn't been transmitted? Would the results have been the same/different? What if we want K but prayed for the opposite? Would K still have transpired?

Given the law of large numbers it would be most miraculous if no coincidences (apparent successes) occur. Such coincidences are to be expected (not least because, among other things, what counts as success and the time frame within which it's suppose to happen are not clearly specified). This is similar to the occurrence of supposed precognitive dreams. With the billions of dreams per night, it is certain that a few of these dreams will "come true." Again, what would be most incredible is the situation wherein there are absolutely no matches between what are dreamt of and events thereafter in the real world

Throughout our life we have heard over and over implicitly or explicitly the claim that prayer works, that this or that deity hears and answers prayers. The biggest problem with this ubiquitous claim however is that there is no good evidence that it's true. On the contrary, there is a litany of anecdotal evidence and a host of scientific studies that show the opposite is the case--that prayers don't work. But because we don't receive news reports of the millions of prayers that weren't answered and given that what we do hear from media or from friends and family are the few stories of wishes that were supposedly granted, the availability error kicks in. There is the tendency to think that the effectiveness of prayer is real because we hear (and remember) the success stories, but hardly hear of the much much larger number of stories of failure.

Closely allied with the availability error is the biasing condition of vividness. When we hear success stories of prayer resulting in such wonderful miraculous events we tend to remember these highly inspiring/motivating/emotional stories. The more vivid the anecdotes the more they tend to get imprinted in our memory, and the more they serve as among the bases for judging the efficacy of prayer. Furthermore, an ardent believer will be biased toward selectively remembering his/her own personal anecdotes of successes while brushing away or even forgetting instances of failure. Confirmation bias then becomes a way of supporting their belief in prayer.

Like having a lucky rabbit's foot or lucky shoes, the intriguing thing about prayer is how rationalizations are immediately sought and manufactured when the desired result fails to materialize. If the horse I bet on loses the race then perhaps I didn't shine my lucky shoes well enough today, or maybe the chain wasn't slung around my neck just right for the amulet to be centered on my chest. As for petitionary prayers, when cognitive dissonance is experienced (i.e., when prayer undeniably fails to result in what is desired) rationalizations of sorts are offered to explain away the apparent failure. And to me the following (illicit) ad hoc explanation wins hands down: "God always answers prayers, but sometimes he says no." This is a "win-win" rationalization since whether praying results in success or failure, the core belief in the supernatural and in the power of prayer remains intact. With this ad hoc explanation the claim that God hears and answers prayers becomes nonfalsifiable, irrefutable. It conveniently explains away all failure and is thus a most effective way in keeping the belief forever immune to disconfirmation. Of course, when asked how they know that there is a deity (and is the kind they believe in and not the deity of another religion) and one who sometimes doesn't grant what is wished for, some believers may use the fact that some prayers fail to result in what is wished for as their evidence. When it's pointed out to them that that's circular reasoning, they might then start a frantic search in their sacred text. When pointed out to them that there is no evidence that any of the theological claims in their text are true, they sooner or later fall back on the ultimate back door: "You must have faith!" And when pointed out to them that belief however strong does not make something true they just might ...

I don't expect belief in prayer to disappear anytime soon. It frequently is a last resort for people. Desperation can drive us to the edge. We can become irrational and clutch onto anything, even a delusion. But as in the case of amputees, the whole world can pray everyday for the next thousand years but no lost limbs will ever be restored.

Here's what Heather MacDonald has to say about entreaties to the one on high.

...I had started noticing the puzzling logic of petitionary prayer. What was the theory of God behind prayer websites, for example: that God is a democratic pol with his finger to the wind of public opinion? Is the idea that if only five people are praying for the recovery of a beloved grandmother from stroke, say, God will brush them off, but that if you can summon five thousand people to plead her case, he will perk up and take notice: "Oh, now I understand, this person's life is important"? And what if an equally beloved grandmother comes from a family of atheist curs? Since she has no one to pray for her, will God simply look the other way? If someone could explain this to me, I would be very grateful.

I also wondered at the narcissism of believers who credit their good fortune to God. A cancer survivor who claims that God cured him implies that his worthiness is so obvious that God had to act. It never occurs to him to ask what this explanation for his deliverance says about the cancer victim in the hospital bed next to his, who, despite the fervent prayers of her family, died anyway.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Muslim fashion statements

This is an interesting and encouraging development. It seems that not all (male) Muslims approve of the veil.

The Egyptian minister of religious endowments [Hamdy Zaqzuq] has forbidden his ministry's religious counselors from wearing the face veil, or "niqab," the press reported on Monday.... [Zaqzuq said,] "The niqab is a matter of custom and not the faith -- it has nothing to do with the religion."

What I'd like to know is why there are women choosing (rather than being forced) to wear the niqab, the face veil. What could be their reasons for doing so? Could it be that for some there's an anxiety reducing factor in hiding one's face? I could relate to that (but then donning a paper bag over my head would attract even more stares!). Are some of these women embarrassed of their looks (find themselves homely)? Do some of them get a kick out of going out as masked women? Have some been brought up believing that women should not be seen (in public)? That they are second rate citizens? That it is shameful for them to expose their faces? What are the (various) reasons that drive them to remain hidden/anonymous in public?

And while on the subject of female attire, here's the latest on female Muslim swimwear--the Burqini.

Looks to me that with it women can go jogging and then dive right into the pool.

I'm not into swimming but I bet having such loose clothing is an inefficient way of moving through water.

Monday, January 15, 2007

This Superman can't make sacrifices

In a public forum an adherent of the Members of the Church of God International shared the following quote which he said comes from Batman:
Superman isn't brave. You can't be brave if you're indestructible. It's everyday people like me and you who are brave, knowing we can easily lose but still continue forward. That's true bravery.
I did a little googling and my search traces the quote, or at least the first part of it, to the movie Angus.

But who in fact came up with it isn't what concerns me. What immediately popped into my head when I read it was that it must've escaped this Christian that similarly the supposed sacrifice of God wasn't a sacrifice at all because God didn't die. He (that includes all three of him) is indestructible.

We can't talk of God's bravery or selflessness or about God giving himself. How can the father have given his only son when no such thing ever happened? [1] God didn't get terminated. He can't. Or are believers saying that the Trinity was, for 3 earth days circa 30CE, whittled down to a Duo? Are there theologians who say that while Jesus lay dead the Second Person of God was nonexistent?

Some may say that Jesus did die. But God isn't a human being, notwithstanding the doctrine of incarnation. And what does it mean to say that he became a terrestrial creature? Surely, theologians and believers aren't saying that while Jesus was alive there was no god out there anymore. Or are they saying that part of God became human? What could that mean? Or are there Christians out there who believe that a supernatural entity literally impregnated a human female, a la Greco-Roman mythology, resulting in the birth of a hybrid--a cross between a deity and Homo sapiens?

Being perfect and all-powerful God can recreate the human Jesus and have him crucified a trillion times, and God would still be God. He wouldn't be any less or more than before this exercise. Being omniscient God knew everything even before he created the universe. Being outside time saying he knew all this before the creation doesn't even do justice to the timeless nature of his knowing. Being omnipotent and having perfect knowledge, it really boggles the mind why God even created this universe--this vale of tears. It can't be by necessity--it can't be that God couldn't have but created this universe--since that would imply he isn't omnipotent.... The problems are legion. The point here simply is that given the presumptions about this particular deity, God couldn't possibly make sacrifices.

We humans are able to make sacrifices because we're mortal, because we can suffer, because we necessarily have to expend energy and resources and exert ourselves in order to attain our objectives, because we're finite in all respects. A being who is perfect, eternal and omnipotent can't be harmed, can't die, can't change, can't suffer, can't make sacrifices. Christians can't have it both ways. Either their deity is just finitely more intelligent, powerful, evolved/developed than we are and thus can still possibly suffer and die and make sacrifices--give something that will diminish it in some way--or it's omni-everything and simply too perfect such that it's impassible and immutable.

Now amongst humans who are those who (in some sense) make a greater sacrifice when they lay down their lives for some cause? If you think about it, it's those who don't have any belief in or deny outright an afterlife. When these people put themselves in harm's way they believe (or know) they're risking the only life they will ever have. On the other hand, those who believe they're going to wake up even after they've breathed their last are of the mindset that even though they put their lives on the line and end up dead they'll still rise up once more like some phoenix (and from then on live forever), with their egos, memory, personality intact. [2] The fear of annihilation is assuaged by the belief that death is merely the dissolution of the body, that the self, one's "essence" if we may call it that, does not die. So how one understands death makes a difference in how the sacrifice is felt.


1. And what does God being "father" and "son" mean? They're biological concepts and can hardly apply to something immaterial. Even "giving" and "sacrifice" are anthropomorphisms.

2. Here, of course, I'm excluding those who believe that individuality doesn't survive death. Christianity is pretty egoistic in its conception of the hereafter. If I were in the market for an afterlife I'd choose the Hindu version--when we die we will be like raindrops returning to the sea, losing our individual identities, merging with the ocean and becoming just one body of water.