Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Life Update

So folks may be streaming over from LiveJournal and MySpace in the two by two's now, so here's the big update on things not related to invisible men.

School
Classes and related studies have been soaking up lots of my time. I've been reviewing the theoretical, mathematical, and historical foundations of modern linguistics. Right down to topics like set theory and predicate logic. Classes are going very well. I was complemented for introducing a change of topic after leading the class Monday: we ended up discussing some of our views on theoretical syntax, and I got to say my little bit about admitting data driving theory, which is the major thing the professor and I agree on. It was a refreashing change of pace from the morphophonetics we normally discuss.

Speaking of such, my paper for advanced phonology did better than I imagined in my best estimates. Much better. Nearly all of the comments I received were the thoughts I had inbetween turning it in and getting it back. Semantisc, the one class I had been looking forward to for over a year, has been a let down. But I will be given the incentive to study MRS in more detail. Now to finish my statement of purpose...

And write that grammar of Moroccan Arabic to back up my possible dissertation project...

Music
3 Mustaphas 3 are bubbling through my headphones as I write this. I should really write more reviews here. I may have to do that. Maybe it was working with John and Adam over break, but I've been turning to metal more than I ever did. It's really the last popular genre I haven't already gotten bored with. At the same time, Bauhaus, The Smiths, and Echo & The Bunnymen have been getting steady plays.

I picked up the guitar for the first time in a while today. I've been considering a number of projects, but I really don't have the time to devote to anything. Today I mostly played some Phil Ochs and Woody G, the original (union) gansta. And a Miller Sisters tune or two. I swear I will make them work for my voice if I die trying.

Literature
I'm still picking my way through Baudolino. I've begun Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and it's been fascinating. Just not as important to me right now as Mathematical Methods in Linguistics. For some reason, I was almost tempted to read the first of the Gormenghast books, but I should really finish something else first.

Writingwise, I've been picking at an untitled fantasy world and a couple of scripts. Nothing firm or immediately forthcoming. The fantasy world has been a long, slow process. It incorporates stuff I sketched out as far back as 10 years ago, but I've been careful to build up a world that I'll be 100% satisfied with. I'll probably write a bit more on the fantasy traps I see elsewhere and how I mean to avoid them.

Fun
My free time has either been spent trolling religious and anti-religious sites and message boards. Or watching movies. Babel, Casino Royal, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Resevoir Dogs made the last couple of weeks. Babel was exceptional among the new movies I've allowed myself to see. Casino Royale made me wonder what Tarentino would do with the spy genre. The idea of Bond as a semi-sociopath as he was in the movie just screams for someone to come along and take it further, like Leone did with the cowboy genre.

Question Faith, Part II will come someday. I swear. Just waiting for the energy to strike.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Gospel Story Quiz

I found this quiz hilarious. If only it explained itself at the end.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Replies to Beast Rabban

These are my replies to a discussion here that has grown too dissassiated with the original post.

Beast Rabban, you seem to have misunderstood a few of my comments, so most of my responses will be clarifications.

Firstly, yes, I understand that there is a separation of church and state in the Constitution. However, the interpretation given to this is that the Founding Fathers wanted 'freedom of religion', rather than 'freedom from religion'

I've never seen a document from any of the founding fathers that suggested that. If you know of one, please let me know. There's quite a lot of evidence that some of them were specifically not the god-fearing Christians today's moral-reformers make them out to be. For example, from the Treaty of Tripoli that John Adams signed into law: “[T]he Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...” And certainly Jefferson would have accepted "freedom from religion" as a legitimate interpretation: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.”

It might, therefore, be beneficial to non-Christian children to learn the basic tenets of Christianity in order for them to understand, and not be excluded from, the common culture of their nation.

I'd agree with that more strongly than you might imagine. However, prayer in school is not an effective pedagogical means of doing that. Neither is direct religious instruction. Historical, literary, psychological, and anthropological methods would suit better in an educational setting.

Then there is the question of what constitutes 'meaningful instruction'. As a Christian, I'd strongly argue that religious education does constitute exactly this.

I assumed that - like in every school I attended or taught in - when a portion of the students are excused to participate in some religious study or activity, those left behind are give worksheets or other busywork that are not only contraindicated by many studies on effective practices but aren't even graded, since most of the class is out of the room at the time. Effectively, while some students are singing about Jesus, the other portion are learning nothing.

You mention in connection with history lessons on comparative religion teaching facts, rather than opinions or guesses. Presumably you mean that in their approach to religion, an atheist, philosophical physicalist approach be made to religion, rather than a religious interpretation. This is, however, merely another opinion or guess.

I'm not entirely sure what your accusing me of here, but by facts I mean things like "this is was X believe, this is what X do" with a focus on the real and meaningful divisions and issues within each religion (e.g., not teaching Islam as "normal Moslems versus terrorists" but from the more important division between Sunni and Shi'ite). I've seen people of a Christian background pay lipservice to religious diversity without ever making an effort to understand how religion functions in other cultures. To avoid that, I think a thematic rather than geographic approach to units would do much better (e.g., a unit on religious revelation, another on religious responses to modern biology or physics, another on how religions adapt to changing social contexts). The comparative aspect would come across much better that way.

Also, historians will tell you that history isn't about facts, but argument and interpretation, and the histories of different events and periods can vary widely, all based on the same basic facts.

Yes, and a good history class presents the different viewpoints held by historians and lets students come to their own conclusions - conclusions that should be drawn from evidence, not simply religious insight.

History is only one aspect of what I'd want the class to cover anyway. Social psychology and cognitive science should have nearly equal roles.

Regarding the teaching of religious history, this might actually strengthen religion, particularly in the field of science.

Yes, perhaps. Remember though, that its only recently that anyone in US society has even been able to say that they are atheists freely and publicly without suspicion, and even then we had the brief setback in the 1940s-50s when all atheists were presumed to be communists. There was even a tradition among deists in claiming that atheism was a logical impossiblity. That Christians have been and are involved in European science is expected in such a climate.

I wonder whether the relationship between religion and science would do better in a history class or science class. I have a feeling that a history class would neglect to show things like how even great mind's like Newton have historically used religion - the existence of god in particular - as a filler for the gaps that the contemporary theories failed to explain. These explanations - though common - are routinely dismissed as not being scientific, since they make no empirical claims. Just like ID is being dismissed today by mainstream biology.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Proofthatgodexists.org

I’ve seen this site listed by quite a few Christians recently, so I took a look at it yesterday. What follows is a brief sketch of my first reactions.

Existence
The author never defines existence. This is no simple problem. Consider the following sentence.

Prince’s album Camille will never be released.

There are two definitions of album that are relevant here: 1) a physical object of recorded media and 2) a collection of songs released together. Neither of these definitions can apply in the sentence because the album, as such, does not exist. Yet Prince scholars accept the sentence as, sadly, true. Some, but not all, of the songs for the album were recorded, but the project was abandoned before it was finished. Yet if we talk about the album, Prince fans will understand the referent, though none exists in the material world. I wonder, does the author of proofthatgodexists.org agree that the album exists in some sense?

The definition of existence is troubled not only by things that were nearly material, but by things that never were or will be.

Mary and I both believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn.

Simon and Peter denied the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Assume both of these sentences are true, the referents in the predicates are understood and agreed upon by the subjects, but those referents do not exist in a material sense. If the author accepted that Camille exists, does he accept that the Invisible Pink Unicorn and Flying Spaghetti Monster must exist in the same fashion? Notice I am not trying to get the author to admit that IPU or FSM are real, only clarify the definition of existence being used.

Truth
Similarly, we are never told what truths the author is including under “absolute truth.” This section does not lead to an essay, so it’s impossible to even guess. The majority of truths that are required to do science are of a material nature or have material implications. The truth value of statements like the following, though studied by logicians, is almost wholly irrelevant to science and everyday language.

If there are elephants on Mars, then it will rain in Seattle.

I think that the majority of scientists will hold that absolute truth exists for material things without recourse to a divine being.

The average person will believe or state many things that are either not true or too poorly defined to know the truth value. The relation between truth and psychological statements or other uses of everyday language are other matters entirely, and still not fully understood nor acceptably modeled by semanticists.

Logic and Mathematics
I don’t know why the proof separates these, as they are largely intertwined.

In the essay to challenge a disbelief in mathematics’ existence, the author asks naturalists to find the number three in nature. Not three things, he insists. That insistence seems largely ignorant of Set Theory as the possible foundation of mathematics. Notice, we also return to the question of what existence means.

The author also seems not to recognize that what we call logic and mathematics are models. If we formulated a consistent model of mathematics with no real world application, would that also necessarily prove god existed in the author’s estimation? What about an inconsistent and irrational model?

Morality
If you insist you believe in relative morality, you are taken to a short, patronizing essay asking if you really believe all morality is relative. This is intended to put the reader on the defensive and uses extreme examples of situations that our culture finds particularly immoral without pointing out that the average person of European descent does many things on a regular basis that other moral worldviews find equally immoral: eating meat, for example.

I think it’s fair that the author should be put on the defensive as well. Like many atheists, I left the church for moral reasons. So I ask the author how the source of objective morality could possibly be responsible for the atrocities of the Old Testament (for example, in Joshua when the Hebrews take the land promised to them). If god is the source of objective morality, this cannot be a case of “different time, different culture,” otherwise god’s objective standard has been changing.

Which God?
The author produces quotes from the Bible to attempt to demonstrate that only the Christian god could be the source of absolute truth, logic, mathematics, and objective morality. The author seems ignorant that many of the quotes produced would be accepted by both Jews and Moslems. Furthermore, if we assumed everything else written is true, then all these quotes can do is assert that the Christian understanding of god is one possibility. The author also needs to systematically demonstrate that all other gods cannot be the source.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Question Faith, Part I

As promised, this post will describe my current position in regards to the debates, and most importantly, what I believe atheists should be doing.

The Problem of Beliefs

The most valuable insight to come from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and his recent interviews and appearances is not a statement but a question. Why shouldn’t beliefs be subject to discussion and inquiry? I find this a very fair demand. Theologists will quite fairly say that they have been doing this for centuries, but what Dawkins is asking for most specifically – and where I agree with him – is that such discourse should be a part of daily religious practice.

One of the largest objections to atheism and Dawkins’s book is the presumed lack of foundation for objective morality. Dawkins and I both assume a relative morality tempered by the evolution of primates and primate society, but rather than describe that position yet again, I want to look at the argument that objective morality indicates the existence of a god.

Here is the modern formation of the argument
1
Objective moral values exist
2
Objective moral values require the existence of a god
3 Therefore, a God exists
(Taken from Luke Pollard’s essay, “Does Morality Point to God?” but also referenced in Peter Williams’s “Calling Dawkins’ Bluff” )

If an atheist assumes the statements are true for the sake of common reference, there are three simple questions one can ask. The first is one of Dawkins’s favorite tactics: can we substitute the name of a specific god for the word “god” in the argument? If not, why not? Does objective morality require a god who matches a specific description?

Second, if objective morality exists, then beings with a moral capacity should all make reference to the same objective morality and understand arguments that an act is more or less moral. If this is so, then it should be born out empirically among all homo sapiens not otherwise impaired by mental illness (though the latter shouldn’t matter with objective morality, in my opinion, but I will allow objectivists that escape).

Third, the assumption of the argument suggests that the necessary god is the most moral. This follows from Aquinas’s fourth “way.”

“Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But 'more' and 'less' are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being [i.e. maximally ontologically secure]; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in [Aristotle's] Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.” (quoted in Williams)

There are obvious problems with this argument that Dawkins is quick to point out (the upper limit of heat, for example, is dependent on the amount of matter and energy in a system, not on some universal quantity), but again, I ask that we forget them and accept the statements as valid. If this god is the reference point that no other moral being can surpass, for any being with claims to godhood we should find no human being who finds that being morally objectionable. If a human being can appeal to objective morality to

The religious are often content to demonstrate with words that their subjective experience contains universal implications, but universality suggests empirical evidence can be found to support their claims. That is, the statements being put forward are verifiable, and interlocutors – including potential converts, adherents to other religions, and atheists alike - have every right to expect theists to investigate their claims. We may need to better define the implications of the above arguments to test them, but the principle remains.

I gain confidence in this assertion from the not-entirely independent movements of creation science and Intelligent Design. With varying degrees of success, both have demonstrated that beliefs can be formulated in such a way that the divine’s interaction with the material and the physical consequence of religious claims can be investigated from an objective standpoint.

Other religious beliefs can be investigated from a similar standpoint, and some have been, prayer most famously. If we assume that 1) the Christian god uses prayers to further his agenda, which is the conversion of the maximal number of people to Christianity, 2) a percentage of prayers answered affirmatively greater than chance indicates his response, and 3) he responds to prayers directed to him from believers asking for help, then 4) we should expect that the prayers from ill believers answered affirmatively should predict the number of non-Christians who accept their invitation to attend church when chance is controlled for. This experiment eliminates the “insincere prayer” problem of hospital prayer studies by linking prayers with empirical evidence most Christians would state falls within their god’s plan, however mysterious his full agenda may be.

The underlying thread of this discussion is that religious revelation – however wonderful the subjective experience may be - cannot expect to be on par with scientific knowledge so long as it cannot be verified in any form. Science has already demonstrated that subjective experiences like color-blindness and emotion can be studied with a degree of objectivity, and our means of doing so are ever increasing. I see no reason the same cannot be demanded of religious claims.

It’s often pointed out that scientists hold beliefs as well, and we respond by saying that yes, we do, but our beliefs are generalized from verifiable facts. We may hold some opinions not driven by fact, but those opinions are subject to change and the lack of facts supporting them is exactly our reason for asking further questions. Faith, I will argue, should be expected to operate the same way, and I will say more of this in the concluding section.

A Problem in Evangelical Methods

Despite the great question Dawkins has asked, too often the argument falls to demonstrating religions presumed harmful effect (e.g., in The Root of All Evil?). He is not the only one guilty of this distraction: Sam Harris, most notably, shares the same fault. I hesitate to say “fault”, but I have a feeling that statistics would show that the method fails to change the minds of the religious. These are a people accustomed to thinking that “the lord works in mysterious ways” and that all death – however innocent the dead may be – falls within those mysterious ways. Cases of religious leaders or practices misleading people are common, but also easily explained away by the faithful with an us-them mentality. For example, I doubt Ted Haggard’s fall from grace produced any documented deconverts, even if his congregation may have diminished.

The statement that religion has increased the amount of evil in the world typically meets the objection that secularists have both done the same and present no systematic worldview that aims to prevent the same. Claims that theists are ignorant, unreasoning, etc also invite criticism of atheists with the same qualities (I can personally point toward a number of atheists from the Nietzsche school who don’t even feel rationality is a quality to be admired). There are atheists who are attempting to better the world, and there is great value in pointing them out, but that is entirely different from making wholesale claims about faith that are not backed by history and statistics. Scott Atran is correct in pointing out that some commentators, like Harris and Dawkins, are failing to use scientific reasoning on this point and in their method of presentation.

If atheists wish to make claims about religion, they would do much better to work from the evidence in cognitive science and anthropology and draw their conclusions from empirical evidence, and that evidence is steadily accumulating in favor of religion as a human-creation rather than religion of divine origin. Madeleine Bunting (in her Guardian review) is correct in saying that The Root of All Evil? is not worthy of a great scientist: Dawkins would have better fulfilled his role as a public promoter of science by producing a documentary resembling Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

Education is the key to my stance. My undergraduate work was in secondary education, and I strongly favored an inquiry method of teaching. The essence of the inquiry method is that because children are naturally little scientists to some degree (see Piaget and Dewey for arguments in favor of this), the best classrooms should make use of their cognitive ability to form hypotheses and test them. Subject matter is presented not as an assembly of facts, but as continuing investigations in which the students may take part. The inquiry method does not work well with all subjects (certain aspects of chemistry, for example, are simply beyond the temporal and material resources of the average class), but as the origin of religion and the existence of god are certainly both in dispute among experts at this time, I see no reason we cannot invite more “students” to participate.

Question Faith

If, as Dawkins and I are both arguing, faith should be questioned, the goal of atheists seeking to deconvert the religious should be to raise questions and challenge answers. We should model our presentations and our arguments on the form “If X is true, then Y should be true. Where is the evidence for Y?” Too many atheists spend their time arguing against X when the data for Y is unavailable. This is not good science. However self-evident the falsehood of X may be to us, if it is not verifiable in itself, we can never hope to dissuade anyone from believing it and should be ashamed when we vilify anyone for maintaining their position.

Rather than only promoting the sources of facts in favor of the atheistic perspective (which will always contains gaps big enough for a god to hide inside), we should be constructing web portals and writing calls for action from theists. In fact, we need more atheist-created web pages that are directed at theists, rather than pages that are collections of disputable assertions about the origin of Christianity and current theories of evolution. These are both valuable resources in their own right, but they are not resources we should be directing theists toward.

A great amount of thought and work has already been undertaken. All that remains is to pull these resources into one place, and yes, by writing this, I am volunteering to take part. I am currently working on models which I will share here and elsewhere as they come together.

In a day or two, I will critique one popular anti-religious organization, The Rational Response Squad, from the viewpoint I’ve sketched above.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In the Beginning

Hiya, friends and strangers! Welcome to my new little corner of the interweb.

Recently my attention has been drawn to the debates surrounding Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the other "fundamental atheists" that have been stirring up trouble in the media, on Youtube, and in blogs like this. I find that oft-quoted insult troubling due to the difference between the methods and outlook of the atheists versus religious fundamentalists, but I also have reservations about the means being used by some of the "bad cop" atheists, as The Rational Response Squad have dubbed themselves. I'll write more on the matter in the days to come, but I wanted to begin with some...

Personal Background
I came to regard myself as an atheist only recently. At the age of fifteen or sixteen, I began to have doubts about Christianity. Until that point (and for some years after) I had been highly active in my church: singing in choirs, acting in pangents, witnessing to my friends. My doubts began when I started questioning the basic ethical and logical basis of Christianity. Did pre-Columbian people get to go to heaven? Why did God have to sacrifice anyone to save the rest of us? Why plant the tree of knowledge in the first place? My doubts were amplified when writing from the Jesus Seminar landed in my hands (from the book collection of my fairly conservative father, no less). The discovery was shattering. Not simply in the Seminar's findings, but the facts that had long been known to theologists but undiscussed in Sunday School about the origin and circumstances surrounding the New Testament. As I fell deeper into the world of Mithras and the mystery cults, it became clear to me that whether or not Jesus existed, I couldn't accept the Gospel story as fact. When I took a world religion course, it became clear to me that the origin of Christianity was on as shakey ground as all the religions I had dismissed out of hand.

Throughout the period, I prayed. I never made my doubts as open as I describe them here, but I asked questions and continued to stay involved. The summer before I turned 18, I left Sunday school feeling angry one day, and knew I could never go back. I can count the number of times I've stepped into a church since then on one hand.

The nail in the coffin came afterwards and turned me into an angry agnostic for a few years. After the shock of telling my parents that first Sunday, I felt nothing. I felt no doubt about my decision. Something in me must have expected a showdown, that the holy spirit would intervene and bring me back, but nothing happened. Not even my parents cared enough to save me. Not my Christian friends, not my church. I didn't suddenly become immoral, and I didn't even lose some of my doubts about evolution, abortion, etc until college. I felt as if I had been taken in with a scam and left with a dozen boxes of worthless knives and no way of getting my money returned.

Years Later
Last year I attended a lecture by Eugenie Scott on the slight of hand involved in the "Teach the Controversy" tactic. A long time fan of culture jamming, I had been following the Flying Spaghetti Monster with glee. Scott's lecture spoke to the educator in me (still present despite a failed student teaching endevour), and I started to follow the serious issues that prompted the FSM response.

Last fall, I stumbled onto The Root of All Evil on YouTube and several lectures by Dawkins. I had called myself an agnostic until then, but the teapot scenario won me over. I am open to evidence on any deity's existance, but from the evidence that I've seen, I don't feel the theistic question warrants even ambivalence. This is incredibly dismissive, I admit, but like many vocal atheists, I am used to speaking within the realm of science. I have noticed that theists and agnostics are reacting strongly to the recent invasion of loud atheists, and this will inform my position on what atheists shouldbe doing.

In my next post I'll explain that position on the trouble with atheism, which the savvy will liken to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Scott Atran's recent remarks.