Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Inconceivable Nature of Nature

The Symphony of Science series is a project by John Boswell to turn science knowledge into songs using the auto-tune technique.

This is called, "We are all connected" featuring Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye.

It's so, so beautiful. Amazing. It actually brought tears to my eyes.

Our majestic cosmos.

To see another song featuring Carl Sagan & Stephen Hawking, go here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Guess the theme!

Here are a series of interesting pictures that I found on the internet.

I'll let you guess the theme (and the moral of the story) by yourself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Making stuff up, Missler-style!

You may have all heard about the concept of 'Bible Codes', 'Torah Codes', or 'Koran Codes'.

Well, the fellows down at AE have stirred my statistically critical ire with their post analysing the problems with Bible Codes. I couldn't agree with them more.

I'm particularly annoyed at the way that I swallowed the concept of Bible Codes with total credulity when I was a child, particularly through the teachings of international business man, prophet, and former Branch Chief of the Dept. of Guided Missiles*, Chuck Missler.

Chuck Missler has an entire section of his website dedicated to elucidating the prophetic codes apparently hidden in scripture.

More specifically, the idea is that if one examines the hebrew Torah (the first five books of our 'Bible'), you can find words spelled out by picking a beginning letter and moving along equidistantly to spell out a word. The problem is, the equidistant letter system (ELS) is deeply flawed. For one thing, there are no rules as to how far along you have to move, nor where you must begin. In fact, ELS can pretty much be used to spell out all manner of nonsense.

Here to prove that particular point is Dr James D. Price and his website that uses ELS to produce negative bible codes.

Yes, you heard it correctly. Dr Price uses ELS to produce contradictory statements ("There is no Spirit. There is a Spirit"), anti-biblical messages ("God is not YHWH", "Jesus is not God"), and some just plain funny ones like, "Jehovah is dead" (go, Nietzsche!), and "Satan is Jehovah" (O rly? Srsly?).

Next time somebody tries to foist the totally uncritical and spiritually abusive practice of bible codes on you, or perform retroactive post-dictions of historical world events somehow 'hidden' in scripture, just look at their Bible and tell them: "There are signs. There are no signs."

[* if Missler really knows about this kind of stuff because of his professional career, then either he knows what statistical nonsense he is teaching and is therefore a dishonest liar, or he doesn't realise what he is doing because he has drunk too much of the koolade]

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Conservative Bible Project part 2

I just couldn't resist putting something else up about this Conservative Bible Project going on over at Conservapedia. It's so bad it's almost impossible to call it between Poe's Law and Poe's Corollary, but the weird part is that whether it began as a faked, mocking article or not (C-pedia IS a wiki, after all) it has picked up a life of its own.

Here are some more examples of why Conservo-bible will be better than plain ol' regular bible:

First Example - Liberal Falsehood

The earliest, most authentic manuscripts lack this verse set forth at Luke 23:34:

Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do
not know what they are doing."

Is this a liberal corruption of the original? This does not appear in any other Gospel, and the simple fact is that some of the persecutors of Jesus did know what they were doing. This quotation is a favorite of liberals but should not appear in a conservative Bible.

Second Example - Dishonestly Shrewd

At Luke 16:8, the NIV describes an enigmatic parable in which the "master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." But is "shrewdly", which has connotations of dishonesty, the best term here? Being dishonestly shrewd is not an admirable trait.

The better conservative term, which became available only in 1851, is "resourceful". The manager was praised for being "resourceful", which is very different from dishonesty. Yet not even the ESV, which was published in 2001, contains a single use of the term "resourceful" in its entire translation

of the Bible.

Third Example - Socialism

Socialistic terminology permeates English translations of the Bible, without justification. This improperly encourages the "social

justice" movement among Christians.

For example, the conservative word "volunteer" is mentioned only once in the ESV, yet the socialistic word "comrade" is used three times, "laborer(s)" is used 13 times, "labored" 15 times, and "fellow" (as in "fellow worker") is used 55 times.

You've gotta be kidding me, now the NIV is being Communist for mentioning a laborer in a field? Give me a break.

And none of this horrid mention of "shrewdness", either, we all know that the statistics show that Christians are qualitatively better than all other
social demographics. It just wouldn't do to have such worldly terms for God's people. Jesus didn't REALLY mean it when he commissioned his Disciples in Matthew chapter 10 and said, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." Everybody knows that snakes are 'resourceful', not shrewd... just check Genesis chapter 1.

Oh, and of course Conservative Jesus (with a short haircut and a business suit) has a new motto: Father, send them all to Hell for they know exactly what they are doing.

Yep, Conservative Jesus is a Jesus that will make up for all those years of Buddy Jesus.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Big Book of Multiple Choice

The lunatics behind the Conservapedia are doing their best work yet:

As if a wikipedia-style website dedicated to the ideology of anti-Obama, anti-gay, anti-liberal, Fox-News style, right-wing, hardline evangelical U.S. Christian conservatism wasn't enough.

The Conservative Bible Project is a way to reclaim the Bible from the claws of the namby-pamby, hippy, marxist, commie, darwinising, liberal, NIV reading heretics.

No more of this 'gender inclusive' stuff, the original hebrew be damned!

Apparently the bulk of the work is going to be done by translating the KJV into modern english. Yeah, there's no way you'd get any translation errors with that. Hebrew and Greek lexicon? What's a lexicon?

They say that as of 2009, none of the existing bibles meet the ten guidelines requires to be a fully conservative translation:

  1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
  2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, "gender inclusive" language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
  3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
  4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word "comrade" three times as often as "volunteer"; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as "word", "peace", and "miracle".
  5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as "gamble" rather than "cast lots"; using modern political terms, such as "register" rather than "enroll" for the census
  6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
  7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
  8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
  9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
  10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word "Lord" rather than "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Lord God."

Now the Big Book of Multiple Choice has even more choices - now includes Fundiejelical flavour!

If all goes to plan, the Conservative Bible Project will produce a bible that U.S. Conservatives will be PROUD to standardise for use in schools.

Good luck, Comrade.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Poem: Moonlight Sonata

'Moonlight Sonata'
by Iain McMahon


floating, bobbing, tumbling
down rivers of time

a chime,
a call,
a heartbeat

crystal raindrops dancing
fat tears of joy mingling

a lullaby
laying us to rest

a new dawn
welcoming a new day


*Written for Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata', Part I.
(Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14, Opus 27 No. 2 in C sharp minor, Part I, Adagio sostenuto - attaca

Monday, September 14, 2009

Haiku: On Bob Wright

Haiku: On Bob Wright

I opened your book

but stopped at the sentence that

you started with “And...”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bearing false witness

In most everyday life, people tend to imagine that a person showing high confidence in a testimony is predictive of high accuracy.

The average juror will believe that high confidence entails high accuracy in a witness' claim.

Research shows us, however that this is not correct. In their journal article, Cognitive Science and the Law, Geoff Loftus and Thomas Busey write that “contrary to common sense, a confident witness need not be an accurate witness.”
In fact, rather than being unsure about an older, correct memory, a person might be more confident of making the wrong claim by constructing a new and FALSE memory out of bits and pieces of other memories or new sense data. How far this can go depends on false memory aids (like photoshopped pictures), biases towards wanting the false memory to be true, and any incorrect 'suggestions' offered by others towards the veracity of the false memory.
I guess the take home message is that just because your friend sounds really passionate and convincing about something that they remember, it doesn't automatically make it true.

How might this affect witness claims in courts of law?

How might this affect memories of childhood (the good or the bad)?

If those don't tickle your fancy, how might this affect claims by witnesses of supernatural events?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Disease has never been more fun!

Disease has never been more fun!

An ingenious artist, Luke Jerram, has been making glass sculptures of microbiology for his Glass Microbiology project.

[Pictured: A glass sculpture of HIV.]

There is a whole range of diseases, such as smallpox, HIV, swine flu, and more. They're well worth checking out!

The glass sculptures raise one interesting issue: colour. As Jerram points out, pseudocolouring is very common in biomedicine. I watched a TED Talks episode this morning about the same topic. Medical illustrator/animator David Bolinsky takes his audience on a graphically rendered journey into a human cell.

[Picture: Bolinsky's amazing pictures show our cell to
be like a thriving metropolis of molecular machinery.]

Bolinsky's job is to not just make astounding pictures but also animations of the inner workings of our biology.

[Picture: A Kinesin - the FedEx delivery guys of our cells - literally
walking a sack full of fresh, new proteins along a microtubule cable.]

(Hat tip to Carl Zimmer at Loom for the glass microbiology)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Meme: Courage Wolf

Here's a wicked internet meme called "Courage Wolf."

It's basically an insanely peppy meme, totally positive (essentially), and is a spin-off from the Advice Dog.

While the Advice Dog provides sometimes bad advice, Courage Wolf exhorts the reader to grab life by the cahones and pretty much go hard. You can't read a page of Courage Wolf without feeling pretty freakin' awesome.

Here are some of my own attempts:

Feeling like a Courage Wolf yet?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Humour: Solving the Mind-Body Problem

New book: The Greatest Show on Earth

Sorry Franky, it looks like Richard is taking pride of place on my bedside book table for now.

I was perusing the University bookshop and, lo, what did I see? Just as I was leaving, I happened to look up and to my right while passing the nature section and my eyes beheld the glory of Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth - the evidence for evolution.


I have be eagerly awaiting this book since I first heard about it through the intert00bz. Also, I knew that it was out in the U.K. and had been lamenting the chances of getting my hands on it any time soon for any reasonable price. Yet there it was!

And now it is miiiine.

[Edit:] the following is a video with Richard explaining his new book:

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Graduating: the rare exception?

I found a government site that provided education statistics on those who have studied and graduated from a tertiary institution over a particular 5 year period.

The site provided a breakdown of the total number of graduates each year as well as the graph below which is a breakdown by % of those who completed their qualification in those 5 years.

I excluded statistics on Certifications of levels 1 through 6 because I was mostly concerned with Bachelors and higher.

I don't know about you, but I find the low rates of graduation slightly shocking. Only Honours and Masters students have a total chance of graduation greater than 50%. Scary. I guess I fail to truly consider the number of students who either burn out or don't manage their course. I spent some time as a computer science drop out so I entirely sympathise.

I should point out that apparently the ungraduated Doctoral students (70% - eep!) were the group most likely to still carry on beyond the 5 year period measured to complete their qualification.

If the site at the top doesn't tickle your fancy with its namby-pamby easy to understand graphs, you can always see the data in harder-to-read raw numbers here.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Expelled: Christ in the Classroom?

I've watched the beginning of Ben Stein's movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
I plan to finish the rest very soon and I'll give you my thoughts on it then.

Here's an interesting little quote from an interview with Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute.

Ben Stein: "When you go around and raise funds, your people are not saying to them, 'By the way we're gonna get all these scientists out of the classroom and put Christ back in the classroom.'"

Bruce Chapman: "Well, I don't know that Christ has ever been in the science classroom. This is not a religious argument, this is something that people- ... we have fellows who are Jewish or Agnostic or various other things. There are Moslem (sic) scientists, there are people of all kinds of backgrounds who agree that Darwin's theory has failed and so why would you bring religion into it? You don't need religion. This is a red herring, Ben. People who don't have an argument are reduced to throwing sand in your eyes."

I question his assertion that it isn't a religious issue. I would be very surprised if (1) the financial supporters of the Discovery Institute weren't religious themselves, and (2) if any freethinker scientists were active members of the Institute and their policies. In his attempt to demonstrate the diversity of their constituents, he reinforced that it was mostly people of religion who are involved (and yes, I notice he mentioned agnostics).

Secondly, I'm not sure what part of Darwin's theory is supposed to have failed. Surely he doesn't mean evolution, when Darwin's contribution was towards the mechanism of evolution, namely evolution by natural selection.
I would be quite surprised if they could provide much of a list of top scientists in relevant fields such as evolutionary molecular biology or zoology who felt that "Darwin's theory has failed". The debates that exist in scientific literature today are about fine details within the theory, not broad facts that the Discovery Institute would hope for.

Beat poem: 'Storm' by Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin is brilliant. I highly recommend you check out his songs. He's a rock n' roll nerd comic pianist. He's VERY talented on the piano, as well as being a darkly humourous songwriter, lyricist, and poet.

The above video isn't taken from Tim's official YouTube channel, but I did that because this version has subtitles.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New book: The Language of God by Francis Collins

Just so that I don't miss out on this whole "book" "reading" thing (I'm sure these so called "books" won't last), I have just purchased The Language of God by Francis Collins.

You will already know Frankie from his leadership on the Human Genome Project. He is also Obama's nomination to lead the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He's no slouch!

He was mentioned (and largely rubbished) in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, as well as having a minor interview with Bill Maher in the film Religulous.

I thought it was worth giving his book a read myself. Besides, maybe I get to hear all about this famous, trinitarian, frozen waterfall conversion experience. Collins, as a famous scientist AND a devout Christian, argues that faith and science are compatible. I guess that's the theme of this particular book.

Amusingly, he also apparently said that even if you removed all of the paleontological evidence (fossil record etc) for evolution found on earth, the DNA evidence alone would be sufficient to prove that it was a fact. Zing.

Anyways, I'll give it a good read and try to post a review on it in the next month or two. It looks fairly comprehensive in terms of its coverage of different issues and hot topics. Should be fun. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sacred cows and society

I was talking to a new friend, Marc, the other day about the issue of tact when discussing religion with others.

People vary wildly on this topic. Marc said that he preferred to be blunt, open, and go for the jugular wherever possible. He wants to say what he thinks and he doesn't care how much the other person may be offended by what he says.

This approach is one reason why biologist Richard Dawkins is so notorious. This approach gets noticed but it also treads on toes.

I think a large part of me sympathises with this approach. I take this approach with my own thoughts, largely, by attempting to expose my own thinking to as much rigour as I can withstand. At times my ability to do this wanes, but on the whole it is a fairly unyielding level of self-reflection that I hope bears fruit in terms of truth and accuracy of beliefs. I hope... ;)

This topic resurfaced in another email conversation with a friend who wanted to see some "inter-faith" dialogue (so to speak) in a group that we attend, Espresso, while trying not to attack or offend any speakers/participants that we invite along. We stand at relative opposites of the question: I want rigorous and hearty banter (leaning towards the intellectual) while he wants gentle exploring and sharing (leaning towards the emotive).

I'm sure we can get both in general, but I also feel that there is an element of mutual exclusivity to our goals. After all, if your goal is to safely explore an idea in such a way as to avoiding risking any offense whatsoever then surely it would be impossible to hold anyone accountable to the veracity of their claims or stated beliefs? I think of Carl Sagan's example of the Dragon In My Garage. At some point you either have to postpone a verdict until new information surfaces or you have to push the other person to prove their claims.

Any comments are sincerely welcome.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What do I believe?

“What do I believe?” by Iain McMahon.

When you ask me, “what do you believe?”, I have several things to say.

Do you want the short answer? A sentence to satisfy your curiousity? Some words out of which to fashion a box to put me in? Jargon that places me within one particular dogma or prescribed view? An answer to tell other people about me? Perhaps you want me to implicitly cast a vote for or against your own beliefs?

Your mind and thoughts are your own. I cannot tell you what to think, and simply comparing “positions” or labels for our belief-boxes won’t tell either of us whether the other is justified in thinking as they do. If you want to share a discussion with me, join in the journey of life with me as a friend, and give each other a part of ourselves in honesty then you will get to know what I believe. I won’t summarize, quantify, schematise, or stereotype you, no matter how much more easily I could get my mind around you if I did so. But I will never presume that you are so two-dimensional. In return, and out of respect to me, I would expect that you would return the courtesy.

Initially, I want to know why is it that you ask me this?
I have some Christian friends and they talk to me about life. When I mention that I am unsure about the veracity of certain religious claims they appear interested in discussing it with me. The only difference is, they don’t want me to decide based on reason and evidence, they want me to come to believe whatever happens to be considered “orthodox” enough.
I have some atheist friends and they also talk to me about life. When I mention that I think there could be something to support the veracity of certain religious claims they appear interested in discussing it with me. The only difference is, they don’t want me to come to any pro-christian conclusion, they want me to come to believe whatever happens to be considered “atheist” enough.
Then, after my own heart, there is an author who said this at the beginning of his book,
On this occasion, we are not going to settle for “There, there, it will all come out all right.” Our examination will take a certain amount of nerve. Feelings may get hurt. Writers ... usually steer clear of this apparent clash between science and religion. Fools rush in, Alexander Pope said, where angels fear to tread. Do you want to follow me? Don’t you really want to know what survives this confrontation? What if it turns out that the sweet vision - or a better one - survives intact, strengthened and deepened by the encounter? Wouldn’t it be a shame to forgo the opportunity for a strengthened, renewed creed, settling instead for a fragile, sickbed faith that you mistakenly supposed must not be disturbed?
There is no future in a sacred myth. Why not? Because of our curiosity. Because, as the song reminds us, we want to know why. We may have outgrown the song’s answer, but we will never outgrow the question. Whatever we hold precious, we cannot protect it from our curiosity, because being who we are, one of the things we deem precious is the truth. Our love of truth is surely a central element in the meaning we find in our lives. In any case, the idea that we might preserve meaning by kidding ourselves is a more pessimistic, more nihilistic idea than I for one can stomach. If that were the best that could be done, I would conclude that nothing mattered after all.
This book, then, is for those who agree that the only meaning of life worth caring about is the one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it. Others are advised to close the book now and tiptoe away.
My question is, which of these three are you? Where does your loyalty lie? What is your goal?

Next, you need to remember that I have a long history. I am a person. I have passions, interests, doubts, and curiosities. When you leave me at the end of the day I still exist, thinking, doing, worrying about, and enjoying the various things that I do. Before you knew me this was true and if we go our separate ways I will still go on the same. This being said, it means that my ideas also have a long history. I have studied computer science, psychology, theology, and philosophy. I have spent long hours doing my own personal research and study into biblical studies, biology, sociology, archeology, music, history, criminology, art, cosmology, and a myriad of other things. I have got excited about these ideas. I have loved these ideas. I have cried about these ideas. I have been tormented by these ideas. Whatever you see of me now is only the tiniest tip of a large iceberg that is sunken into the shadowy waters of time.
With this being said, I do the best to seek the truth as much as I am able. I try to learn, seek, understand, and synthesise the best grasp on life and reality as I am capable of. I can’t do this alone, and I can’t summarise this process in a single moment in time. It might be nice or convenient to simply put a label on my thoughts and say, “I am a SOMETHING-ist.” But following -isms is only the lazy way of sitting in pre-agreed and authorised conclusions without doing the dirty work of getting there yourself; people can always thoughtlessly borrow them off each other.

Next, I wonder, what do you think?
Some people ask me because they are truly interested in my perspective for its own sake, others want to be able to form judgments about me (for good or ill), and yet more want to use my long history of searching for truth to provide acknowledgment or condemnation of their own hypotheses about life.
If you use reason as your guide, then be at peace knowing that I am doing my best to find the truth of the matter. If you can lovingly help me along then your opinion is always welcome. If you simply want to know whether my own ideas are approved by the group that you place yourself within then move along; those who use reason (irrespective of their convictions) should recognise the validity of my process, and those who are religious should judge not lest they be judged (and concentrate on working out their own salvation). Lastly, if you want confirmation for your own views then be my guest to join me in the journey but know that at the end of the day we must all stand on our own two feet and take responsibility for our own minds.

And finally, if you ask me because you want something to tell other people about me, you can tell them this: “He is a man who believes that reality is consistent and shared by all people. He loves truth, values reason, and will seek to know as deeply and as widely about the world around him as much as he is able.” If they want to know more, tell them to speak to me personally.

And, as for you, if you want to know what I believe then join the journey with me and we’ll help each other find out about life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The vegetarian thing

Okay. So if I were a better man I would be a vegetarian.

I think it is ethical, globally speaking. While I try to eat the vegetarian option on my better days, I won't lie... I cheat. Sometimes, I cheat more than I don't cheat.

This is why I don't call myself a vegetarian. However, when I am choosing my own foor *at home* I often tend towards fish. Now, that's not vegetarianism, but I prefer that some naughty corporation uses the sea to harvest fish for food before we use land for highly inefficient cattle farming etc.

Anyway, before this turns into a rant I'll get to the point.

I *finally* get the vegetarian thing, the thing that vegetarians say about the smell of meat etc.

Instead of fish, these last two nights I've eaten spaghetti bolognaise. Now I am a big Italian fan, but the SMELL. Seriously, when I walk into my room after having eaten it, the room lingers with the stench of fatty meat. Bleuch.

So, I finally get that vegetarian thing.

Inaugural Phil Debate

Can I hear you say, "woop woop"?

Today is the inaugural Philosophy Department Debate; birthed, organised, and soon-to-be moderated by yours truly.

The debate is primarily under the auspices of the "Philosophy Grad Group" conversations, but I have sneakily put an advertising notice about it in the philosophy lounge. Hopefully grads plus interested undergrads will join in the fun.

I know none of you will be there, but thought you might be able to share my joy in the details of the event.

It'll be 2 vs. 2, and I have lined up lecturers to have the first rumble.
The proposition is, "that consequentialism is the correct moral theory."

Lecturers Doug C and Simon C will argue the affirmative, while Philip C and Carolyn M will argue the negative.
The affirmative will be arguing for utilitarian consequentialism, as I understand, whereas the negative will be arguing for more like Kantian deontology plus similar perspectives.

It's going to last an hour of debating, followed by audience Q&A afterwards.

I'm even going to video it if I can!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Homeopathic A&E

Hat tip to Damian for finding this.

[Video: That Mitchell and Webb Look - Homeopathic A&E]

I thought it would go well together with the previous post.

Healer, heal me

According to Stuff, a Christian Faith Healing Clinic has opened up in Linwood, Christchurch.

Known as 'the New Zealand Healing Rooms clinic', they even include a waiting room that leads onto the treatment rooms where two pastors and divine-healing technicians can attempt to heal patients using "aggressive prayer techniques."

No joke. It sounds like Father Ted meets House.

I find this all rather fascinating. Of course, they have their mix of responses: those who think that miracles have occurred and those that feel like they'd cry malpractice... if anyone was actually charging for their services.
I can't feel too angry at them because they ARE apparently telling people to continue regular medical treatment, as they should be! It does make me wonder, however, whether this isn't going to feed into the unhealthy religio-parental dynamics of those who want to find any excuse to use Jesus instead of a pill. That's a fine thing if it's a decision that adults are making for themselves, but when children get involved I feel quite strongly about it.

I also find the Placebo Effect super cool, so thought I would leave you all with a breakdown of the Placebo Effect from a meta-analysis I found in a journal study*:
Condition: Bipolar Mania
Studies: 20
Average rate cured by placebo: 31%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 59%

Condition: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Studies: 29
Average rate cured by placebo: 20%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 50%

Condition: Colitis
Studies: 110
Average rate cured by placebo: 32%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 76%

Condition: Crohn’s Disease
Studies: 21
Average rate cured by placebo: 18%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 50%

Condition: Depression
Studies: 75
Average rate cured by placebo: 30%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 51%

Condition: Erectile Dysfunction
Studies: 27
Average rate cured by placebo: 25%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 39%

Condition: Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Studies: 45
Average rate cured by placebo: 40%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 71%

Condition: Migraine
Studies: 98
Average rate cured by placebo: 29%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 60%

Condition: Osteoarthritis
Studies: 198
Average rate cured by placebo: 40%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 74%

Condition: Premenopausal Syndrome
Studies: 8
Average rate cured by placebo: 37%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 49%

Condition: Restless Leg Syndrome
Studies: 24
Average rate cured by placebo: 40%
Best placebo effect in any single study: 60%
Shockingly, the list of ailments go well beyond what I would expect to be able to be healed by placebo. Additionally, while the average placebo cure rate is around 30% across the board, several single studies had more than 70% of the placebo group get cured by it!

While looking at this, I found another article discussing the placebo effect and how medical practices and rituals, "serve to alter the meaning of an experience by naming and circumscribing unknown elements of that experience and by enabling patients' belief in a treatment and their expectancy of healing from that treatment." These medical rituals turn Doctors into modern day "physician-priests."
I can't help but wonder, "how can we know whether prayer works at Linwood's Healing Rooms clinic when usually 1/3 of most illnesses (and up to 3/4!!) are already cured by placebo?"

*[Mark, David (2009) The placebo effect quantified: how the placebo became a major player in mainstream and alternative medicine. Nutraceuticals World, 12.6, July-August 2009, p. 54. The meta-analysis from from a collection of British, American and European medical journals]

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thinking about knowing about God

Some philosophical terms:

a priori
Relating to first-principles theoretical deduction, or being based on foundational definitions. An a priori truth is knowable by reason and consideration alone, without any empirical confirmation.
e.g. "1 + 1 = 2"

a posteriori
Relating to reasoning or knowledge which results from observations or experiences. An a posteriori truth must be sought and found as an after the fact truth.
e.g. "There is a cabbage in that box."

Something which is necessary is true as a rule, and the world cannot have been in such a way that it was not true.
e.g. "The morning star is the evening star." (because both are actually Venus)

Something which is contingent is true only by happenstance. The world may have been such that this fact had turned out not to be the case.
e.g. "I am wearing a green shirt today."

Now... on to the issue.

Is the existence of God knowable a priori or a posteriori?

If God exists then, presumably, it is necessarily true. That is, if God exists then there can be no way of configuring the cosmos such that God never happened to exist. (It also means that if God doesn't exist then it is necessarily false i.e. it never could have been.)

But is God's existence an a priori fact or an a posteriori one?

I ask this because I think that there are two schools of orthodox thinking that pull differently over this issue in theology and apologetics.
For one, the teleological and cosmological arguments all gain their power from the basis that God is an a priori truth. That is, no matter how the cosmos happened to be, the Creator would always be the logically undeniable foundation of the created order.

The moral argument for God sort of implies both. First there is a moral law giver which in the thinking of those such as C.S. Lewis is some kind of analytic, a priori fact. Whereas William Lane Craig says that we place the final touches on the moral proof for God through appeal to our moral intuitions; supposedly this is sort of an empirical, a posteriori probing by seeing our moral intuitions interact with the world around us.

However the classic, biblical theme of "seek and you shall find" etc is still very much a journey, thus is it an a posteriori notion. This is contrasted with the Pauline "everybody is without excuse" line which says that God is evident in creation, making God seem like a blunt, a priori fact of the world.

If you think that you need the world in order to know God, then I suppose that makes God a posteriori.
However, if you think that you could know God if you were born as a deaf, blind, mute quadraplegic (okay, or maybe just spent your life in a small, windowless room), then that would make God a priori.

A posteriori seems to place God in the world while ruling out God as the logical ground of being, whereas a priori seems to make God the ground of truth and causation while ruling out the necessity of revelation or God's immanence.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bigger than Jesus?

A.K.A. YouTube is bigger than sex.

John Lennon once famously said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

Google Trends disagrees! The Beatles are so much smaller in their search rankings than Jesus that when you compare them (Beatles, without the THE, because it is higher without) Jesus gets 2.26 times the score.

You can examine single searches, rank by country, city, and language, or compare up to five search terms against each other.
With that, I set about scatter shooting groups of terms into Google Trends until I found some majorly popular terms. I then tried to rank them against each other, including new equally popular terms as they were thought of or found online. It's hardly exhaustive, but here are some top survivors. These terms are so popular that average searches, when compared against them, pale into nothingness and get excluded by the system (because they're too small).

The smallest relevant unit of measurement that I found was the term "Richard Dawkins." This name dwarfs many other names, including his literary peers, and was a good comparative term for the bottom half of the list. All numerical values written are popularity multipliers to indicate relative traffic and news-source popularity. For this reason, Michael Jackson is on the chart, whereas he was quite stable on a lower score for years earlier; equally, Twitter is now a massive current score although its ranking is low because it is only a couple of years old.

Why do I like this? Basically, because I think that the internet is a microcosm (now becoming a macrocosm, really) of the human psyche. It parallels the desires and needs of humans in a way that sociological analysis of small towns that grow to large towns would have previously been able to show us. With Google Trends we have a mechanism for measuring those concepts that are on the tips of everyone's cortices.

  • YouTube [1250]
  • sex [1188]
  • Google [1050]
  • TV [968]
  • Facebook [900]
  • porn [685]
  • love [457]
  • food [250]
  • war [232]
  • die [217]
  • science [144]
  • death [135]
  • wine [90]
  • god [88]
  • Bush [75]
  • Jesus [74]
  • Paris Hilton [70]
  • Britney Spears [65]
  • alcohol [62]
  • evolution [56]
  • kill [55]
  • beer [51]
  • Obama [45]
  • Michael Jackson [44]
  • drugs [41]
  • peace [39]
  • Beatles [32]
  • joy [28]
  • truth [26]
  • reason [22]
  • Twitter [18]
  • philosophy [16]
  • politics [15]
  • liquor [13]
  • vodka [12]
  • cocaine [12]
  • rum [9]
  • whiskey [9]
  • Christianity [7]
  • spirits [6]
  • bombs [5]
  • patience [4]
  • the pope [3]
  • kindness [1]
  • Richard Dawkins [1] <-- the standard unit used.

Interestingly, pretty much 90% of the searches for things like Rum, Vodka, and Spirits are around december. I imagine that is where most alcohol sales happen, by a large margin. Yet one more reason to boycott the commercialisation of Christmas.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Will the real apologist please stand up?

I've been wondering who might be the best Christian philosophers or apologists to read these days.

If you can think of anyone who might be worthwhile reading then drop me a comment.

Here are some names that I have decided might be worthwhile checking out:

1. Alvin Plantinga - I currently have Plantinga's "The Analytic Theist. An Alvin Plantinga reader" edited by James Sennett. I'm considering reading his books on Warranted Christianity and also about Naturalism. This current book I have is standard arguments for God plus some general epistemic and theological discussion.

2. William Lane Craig - I have listened to nearly all of his Reasonable Faith podcasts plus I plan to watch as many of his debates as I can. I'm very unimpressed by Craig and I think I can say why (that is, I have proper rebuttals for much of his work). Still, people make so much of a fuss about him that I'll keep my eye open on his work for any new arguments.

3. Gary Habermas - a biblical historian/scholar, his "minimal facts" model proof of Jesus' resurrection is widely lauded. So far I am not impressed. I'll give it a closer examination.

4. J.P. Moreland - apparently he does some good work on human consciousness & god.

5. Paul Copan - never heard of him but one blog I read said he did a good version of the Moral Argument. I'm not sure how he will pull it off if Craig couldn't, but I'll see.

6. Stephen T. David - apparently does good work on some theistic proofs.

7. Norman Geisler - he's so prolific a writer that something of his must be okay. We'll see.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Plantinga on Warrant

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has a concept called 'warrant', the method of validating a belief.

I am intending on reading his trilogy on the subject, because I want to make sure that it isn't as illogical as I think it sounds via second hand descriptions.

His warrant for Christian theism is essentially by taking the path of the 'sensus divinitatus', an internal sense of the divine. This is a way that means, if true, the sense itself provides warrant rather than reason etc. It's sort of like saying that one, "just knows," that God exists without any other reason. Supposedly it is as basically true as 1+1=2.

I'm am perfectly open to correction (indeed, I intend to correct myself after reading his books directly) but for now this is the best formulation that I can manage of his idea:

P1: God exists.
P2: God gives people an epistemic sensus divinitatus (sense of the divine).
P3: The sensus divinitatus provides a valid, justificatory alternative to evidence and reason.
P4: Sin can block the sensus divinitatus from working.
P5: Christians are protected from the epistemic effects of sin.

C: Belief in God by Christians is properly basic & warranted, without regard to reason or evidence.

Now, this sounds seriously scary. For one thing, P1 presumes the very thing that it is trying to justify. P2 and P3 are simply stipulations that people have magical non-evidential non-reasons for stating an idea with no other basis than the assertion itself. P4 and P5 is a convenient way of writing off all criticisms or arguments against the assertion in question, and it means that one can simply say that all those who disagree mustn't have properly working brains.

I can make it a lot shorter:

P1: God exists.
C: Therefore people who think God exists are right.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Kripke & personal identity

I am studying the work of a philosopher called Saul Kripke... his book Naming and Necessity.

Essentially, he disagrees with two philosophers Russell and Frege about their way to identify people. Russell and Frege are descriptivists, saying that a proper noun is essentially the abbreviated symbol for a person's description.

Kripke says that they are wrong. He says that he can imagine other possible worlds where things could have been different and, because we still know we are talking about the same person, this proves that the description could have been different for the person e.g. I could have moved to Japan, therefore living in NZ cannot be an essential piece of my identity. Kripke says that the proper name of a person becomes their 'rigid designator' to allow us to identity them throughout all possible worlds.

Unfortunately, I think that Kripke is totally insane.

To try to make a short version of it, I don't see what other possible worlds have to do with anything.
Imagine you tried to tell me about Bob. Because I don't know Bob, I say, "Who?"
You then describe Bob. This is a description for who Bob is in this world. That is, who Bob actually is.
From then on, whenever you say "Bob", I know who you are talking about.

So I ask Kripke, SO WHAT that other possible worlds have Bobs with other properties? So what that we can imagine if Bob had done something different with his life? No matter how many alternative histories you provide me for Bob, this in no way affects the identity of Bob in reality.
In fact, if I say, "Imagine if Bob had been a fighter pilot."
I can't understand your sentence unless I realise that you are saying, "Imagine if {actual person of description V,W,X,Y,Z} had been {not X}."
In this case, I implicitly understand that you are talking about a person called "Bob", who Bob is by description in this world, and then the appropriate imaginary changes that you are asking me to apply to Bob.
This has everything to do with identity via description and nothing to do with 'rigid designators' that apply across some set of imaginary worlds.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jesus in a sumo-suit?

Allow me to advertise for a local uni club for a moment before I give my thoughts:

If you could ask God one question...

You are invited to a relaxed evening of dinner and discussion. Guest Nick Brennan will speak briefly, and then the evening is yours to ask whatever questions you have about Christianity.

The aim of the evening is to get the issues out on the table, and discuss them honestly. Don't miss this opportunity!

Wednesday 22nd July
The White House - 26a Bowen St

JESUS in the Ring.

So that's the ad. It's on tonight if anyone is interested in attending.

I mentioned to a fellow student that I was considering going to it.
I had been thinking about it, I wasn't sure because I didn't know how "honestly" they intended people to ask "whatever questions" that they wanted. I mean, did the guest speaker expect people to ask Generic Christianity Lite(TM) controversies, where they can get pat Lee Strobelesque answers? Or maybe they'd reply to problematic questions using 'common sense' orthodox assertions with no supporting references to evidence. Perhaps. But they did call it "Jesus in the Ring"... it sure sounds like Jesus is gonna come in fighting! So, I thought, perhaps I should attend and bring along a couple of good questions that have been troubling me since digging under the Strobel-stratum.

I hadn't said any of these thoughts to the student I was talking to. I just said that I might go.

She apologised for not inviting me personally already, she explained, but it was because of a couple of reasons.
"One of the policies of C.U. this year," she continued, "is not to confuse people by giving them too many options."
"Huh?" I ask, "What do you mean?"
Perhaps she meant she didn't want to invite people to too many different types of events.
"Well, we really only want one main speaker doing the talking."
Hmm, I think to myself, so I can come along just as long as I don't talk?
"Ok," I tell her as I pretend to understand, unsure whether I didn't get her meaning or whether to be insulted.
I walk away to some work and she calls after me, "And I was worried that you might say something controversial."

Yes. There we have it. Prepare for Lite(TM).

I think I'll skip Jesus with a Nerf-bat.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Against William Lane Craig's Moral Argument for God

A Refutation of the Moral Argument for God
(as defended by William Lane Craig)

The Moral Argument, as outlined in Craig’s 18th of June, 2007 podcast, The Existence of God (Moral Argument), is as follows (found here):

1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Therefore, from 1 & 2, God exists.

There are several possible replies.

Premise 1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

This can be rephrased as, “Objective moral values come only from God.”
It depends what we mean as ‘objective’.
We could mean,
(i) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in representing facts.
(ii) not dependent on a mind for existence; actual.

The key here is that objectivity is the opposite to subjectivity. Objective morals are considered true independent of the relative values of a person. A common understanding pointing to the reality of objective morals is the belief that if all humans ceased to exist then objective moral values would still be true.

This argument presumes that moral values proceed from and are defined by God. God is not presumed to be slavishly subject to a greater, abstract moral law (or else God wouldn’t be the boss), but instead is the one from whom all moral values flow. However, because God is a personal (willful, mindful) agent, and not a platonic abstraction, this means that moral values are not objective even when they are defined by God. Craig tries to refute this notion of the subjectivity of God (especially as detailed in the Euthyphro dilemma) by saying that the divine commands stipulated according to the will of God (something that can be subjective) are in keeping with God's good nature (something that isn't subjective). However, one only needs to ask, "Why is God's nature good? Is it because God says so, or because it mindlessly conforms to a standard greater than God?"

The importance here may be that it is something beyond humans, rather than people themselves, that sets their own moral compass. But this is why lawful institutions and societies create laws; their products stretch beyond the relative moral compass of an individual and even across lifespans. This secular form of “objectivity” doesn’t claim to be metaphysically written into the universe, but it does exist outside the morality of individuals.

To concede the point slightly, there is some advantage to anchoring morality in God. For example, moral values determined by God may be unchanging, if God is unchanging (although the changing moral zeitgeist of the Bible doesn’t demonstrate this well).
What must be accepted by the Theist is that if God did choose to change his mind on what is morally allowed (e.g. to make genocide acceptable) then there is no way believers could complain: what was bad is now good, by definition, with no other justification needed.
If we were to say that “God wouldn’t change his mind and make murder okay, because God is good and murder is wrong,” then we are attempting to hold God to a moral standard beyond or independent to Himself.
If we were to require justifications for any seemingly immoral behaviour permitted by God, for example genocide and wartime sexual slavery in the Bible, then we are implicitly saying that it is the moral justification within us that makes the action good and not that it happens to stem from God.
It is true that God-based subjective morality is the “biggest” source of morals that we could find, but unless we agreed that might made right then this makes little difference. Either way, God-based subjective morality cannot be described as objective.

Premise 2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

If a person makes a statement, “P,” then, unless they are lying, this is logically the same as saying, “I believe P.”

Therefore Premise 2 can be rephrased, “I believe that objective moral values and duties do exist.”
Already we see the problem. This premise is making an ontological statement, “X does exist,” but cannot be any more certain about this claim than their own epistemic limits (how I know things are true).

William Lane Craig talks frequently about our shared moral intuitions as proving this premise.

This premise wants to be able to assert the following:
(1) I feel certain moral intuitions.
(2) Those moral intuitions come from a source external to myself and other people.
(3) This external moral source is actual, factual, and reliable.
Therefore, my moral intuitions describe something objectively real.

However, assertions 2 and 3 are beliefs that lends weight and credence to the individual’s moral intuitions, they just might be misattributed.
Firstly, moral intuitions may be partly due to the process of socialisation and the internalisation of moral commands present in the individual’s upbringing. If so, they are internal to the individual, although the mechanism on behaviour feels like a pressure external to desire. This does not mean that such morality is wrong, but it does mean that it is not properly objective.
Secondly, the driving force of moral intuitions as a whole may be partly due to the evolutionary history of humans. Some evolutionary psychologists and philosophers believe that language and quality of mind evolved as competition gave way to cooperation between people. It doesn’t take much to see that a group of individuals competing will flourish less overall than if those individuals cooperate for shared benefit. Game theory shows that individuals who have regular contact with others will gain more benefit in the long term by cooperating with rather than betraying their contacts.
The brain and mind, and not just the body, are evolutionary products. If bite, gait, or finger use have clear evolutionary purposes, we also shouldn’t be surprised to think that the cognitive architecture of our brains also contributes towards thoughts, feelings, and behaviours conducive to our survival.

If so, the above argument changes as follows:
(1) I feel certain moral intuitions.
(2) Those moral intuitions are a ‘good trick’ passed down to me through evolutionary history.
(3) These moral intuitions provide directive force for social rules and evolutionarily beneficial behaviour.
Therefore, my moral intuitions describe things culturally mediated and other things that are cognitively embedded.

Conclusion: Therefore, from 1 & 2, God exists.

To restate the moral argument with corrections:
1. If God exists then moral values are subjective and contingent (or abstract and arbitrary).
2. What we feel to be forceful, external objective moral values and duties may come from our own minds.
Therefore, from 1 & 2, it is not clear from the moral argument whether God exists.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Refuting the Fine-Tuning Cosmological Argument for God

I. Fine-Tuning Argument (as stipulated by Richard Swinburne)

1. The universe is finely tuned for intelligent life.
2. If God existed, he would want to create Intelligent life.
3. The existence of Intelligent life is extremely improbable without God's existence.
4. Intelligent life exists.
5. Intelligent life is good and needs explanation.

Therefore, it is extremely probable (using Bayesian Probability) that God exists.

Swinburne uses Bayesian Probability (Hypothesis h being theism, evidence for theism e being intelligent life, and background knowledge k being facts of our natural universe) to compare to against the hypotheses of a universe suited to intelligent life with no god, as well as against the multiverse hypothesis.
One problem with this is that he presumes intelligent life needs explanation at all, thereby putting it into evidence for theism. A non-teleological explanation would simply say that it isn’t a logical necessity that anything needs explanation, thus denying there is any background information about our world that belongs in any sets of evidence for anything additional to its own existence.

In more detail:

II. My Criticisms of Swinburne

Swinburne sneaks in other arguments:

Argument from Design (teleological argument)
This is the argument that things around us look rich, complex, and in need of a designer. Referring to the various complexities of life, the particular way that human evolution historically occurred, and stating that these coincidences are both necessary and good as a product of cosmic formation, is befuddling the cosmological argument with the intuitions of an argument from design.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN)
This is the argument that evolutionary naturalism should find it hard or impossible to produce creatures with true beliefs.
Much like the previous part, to go into detail about the rich mental lives of humans, their purposes, and their beliefs, only stacks Swinburne’s deck using the presupposition that an omni-competent personal deity of an incredible likeness with our own mental lives would need to exist in order to bring about mental lives such as our own. It only confuses the issue at hand, being the cosmological argument.

Kalam Cosmological Argument (argument from first cause)
This is the argument that everything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist, and therefore the universe has a cause (and that cause is probably God). Swinburne tries to sneak in discussion about a finite age to the universe to conflate statistical intuitions of the Bayesian probability for his cosmological fine-tuning argument with other thoughts about the first cause argument for God. The singularity nicely addresses the first-cause argument, particularly as our intuitions about time and the causal chain may be wrong; science tells us that the universe is around 15 Billion years old but NOT that there is a time t=0 that requires causal explanation (I won't go into further detail here, but it involves the counter-intuitive nature of time as you near the singularity). Also, through modern physics we are aware of examples of paired matter and anti-matter that come into existence without a cause around our universe, the reason why black holes radiate (one half of the pair gets sucked inside, the other half escapes). Therefore not everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe could be of this same category of things.
Regardless, Swinburne should not conflate these arguments.

Replying to the Fine-Tuning Argument:

1. The universe is finely tuned for intelligent life.
(1) The universe is highly hostile to all forms of life:
The hostile vacuum: Why don’t humans easily send a manned mission to mars and beyond? The cosmic radiation outside our atmosphere is incredibly fatal life as we know it after a relatively short duration of exposure.

The hostile past: The number of species that have ever existed but now have gone extinct is 99% of all life.

The barren whole: Proportion of the cosmos that is non-baryonic: 98%. That is, rather than being amazingly supportive and flourishing with “good” life, the universe is almost completely a barren void.

Our barren planet: the percentage of the earth that is actually biomass is only 0.00000000117%.

(2) In total reverse to Swinburne's above point, it is intelligent life that is finely adapted to the universe:
We fit the universe because we were formed by and within the universe. This is like Douglas Adam's sentient puddle who was amazed at how well he fit his hole. As far as the puddle is concerned, such a shapely fit must only be a miracle. If the laws of nature define our bounds and evolution formed our nature, we shouldn't be amazed at how necessary, desirable, or virtuous we find any of these things to be.
The cosmos bounded our only choice of feasible conditions for life, hence we formed within those guidelines.
Our biological environment literally shaped us to fit it, killing all non-adapted alternatives. It is no surprise that we find it to be so perfectly suited to us.
Lastly, our minds formed within the universe as it is, thereby ensuring that if we were to find anything intelligible then we (as intelligent observers) must find our universe intelligible. The alternative is creatures without working minds who find the universe unintelligible and die.

2. If God existed, he would want to create Intelligent life.
If humans really are the evidentiary product, e, of a personal God, h, then this might be fair. This is, however, an egocentric supposition rather than a necessary fact. As some say, it is no accident that people’s gods look like themselves. It is also no accident here that Swinburne defines himself as the evidence for a omni-Swinburnian god who would want to create things just like Swinburne.
After all, bats exist so why isn’t god a bat? You might argue that bats are more probable than humans. However, Apple iPods also require a cosmos that can support matter and life, human evolution to produce their inventors, and then a complex design tree of technological production plus the correct combination of sociobiological, cultural, economic, and marketing factors to produce them. They are at least as improbable and probably much more improbable than humans, therefore why isn’t god a Cosmic iPod?
Swinburne cannot presuppose that his hypothesis should assume the evidence for his own hypothesis without being circular.

3. The existence of Intelligent life is extremely improbable without God's existence.
This presumes:
(1) The combination of cosmological constants that we observe is the only one capable of sustaining life as we know it.
This isn’t the case: Victor Stenger’s “MonkeyGod” programme focuses on only four cosmological constants and shows that other life-sustaining universes are possible with other permutations of the constants.
Additionally, how many worlds even exist? Just our single cosmos? That would certainly provide the best sense of amazement at our fortuitous set of constants. If so, and if no other worlds can exist, then we have no other alternatives to our life-sustaining cosmos and the fact that we exist isn’t amazing at all. What is simply is what is.
However, it may be that other current cosmological theories are true, such as the oscillating universe, a higher-order multiverse, or “embedded” cosmoses. If so, then it is possible that the chance of a life-sustaining cosmos existing is very high. After all, if I have 99 boxes with dogs and one with a cat, then the chance of choosing a cat is only 1%. But if the number of boxes is infinite, then the number of boxes containing cats also tends towards infinity.
No matter how small the chances of getting a life-sustaining universe are, in a multiverse the chance of one existing is guaranteed.
Swinburne does not know how many possible worlds, if any, exist and therefore he cannot claim to know the relative probability of having a life sustaining universe without god.

(2) Similar to above, this argument assumes that other combinations of cosmological constants are possible.
We have no evidence for this. Cosmological constants may be non-contingent facts. The physical “laws” describing our universe simply mathematically describe what is and what happens, it doesn’t determine that which it describes. Equally, the constants are descriptions of what we observe and some of our values and constants are post-hoc fudged values that make our calculations work.
Simply because we can ascribe a number to a description that we have of our universe, that doesn't mean that it is feasible that this descriptive number value can change. It only means we can imagine it changing. However, just because something is imaginarily conceivable it doesn't mean that it is possible.
Who said the constants can change? Who said they could have been different to what they are now? How were they set in the first place?
To presume that they were ‘finely tuned’ as if by a purposive agent is a circular argument (from a theistic perspective) and an unwarranted presupposition that may actually be entirely imaginary and incoherent.

4. Intelligent life exists.
I wouldn’t argue with this. I would only qualify it with the fact that this need not necessarily be the case (except if we presuppose intelligent observers).

5. Intelligent life is good and needs explanation.
This teleologically presupposes that the big bang and evolution, if played through again, should re-produce humans. Otherwise, it is true that we are a unique fact of historical happenstance (Bayesian background knowledge k), but not evidence for anything (Bayesian evidence e for intelligence-creating theism, h).
If you don’t presuppose that we should exist, then you open yourself up to the fact that “history could have gone differently” and we simply wouldn’t have existed in an alternative situation. This robs the fact of our existence of anything that begs explanation, as we would simply be the one outcome of many possibilities that happened to occur.

A final self-refutation of Swinburne:
(credit for this self-refutation goes to Iron Chariots)
The initial premise of the argument is that in order for life to exist, the universe must have such properties that warrant a designer. However, in this line of reasoning, the designer of those properties would exist in a state where none of these properties were true. Therefore, any properties deemed to require a designer can't be necessary for existence in the first place, as the designer can exist without them. The argument is self-refuting.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Apologising for apologetics

I've recently churned through many most of William Lane Craig's podcasts from his "Reasonable Faith" series, found here.

While the topics are "hot button" and interesting, I find that Craig's answers range from frustrating to downright sneaky. As I have got specific personal and academic interest in many of Craig's apologetic areas I find that he puts his views across in a way that might mislead those uneducated in these particular topics. I probably plan to do a series on some of his main apologetic arguments. Based on the amount of forehead slapping induced by his material this will probably end up looking like a rebuttal series rather than a friendly review. This is a shame (for his ideological brethren) given that he is rated highly in Christian apologetic circles.

For those unfamiliar with Craig, he particularly likes the Kalam Cosmological Argument (a variant of first cause), followed by the Moral Argument and the Finely-Tuned Constants Argument.
I expect to cover at least those, if not more of his podcasted issues. His moral argument is just awful, his Kalam argument is logically vulnerable, and I'm currently examining the last.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Mental illness and religion

I work in mental health.

Many mental health workers and some NGO health providers are Christian.

One clinical study showed that the most intractable mental illness with the longest staying category of residents in our mental health service was males with schizophrenia. The most common general diagnosis by number was females with depression and sometimes PTSD or Borderline Personality, however stay was shorter and the recovery rate is higher for these.

So what should Christian mental health providers do with those schizophrenics who have religious delusions? What do we do if our residents are persecuted by their delusional religious beliefs? What do we do if they feel chased by demons? What do we do if they literally fear attack by Satan? What do we do if they think that they have made a detrimental pact with God and fear divine wrath if they break it? What do we do if they think that they are an incarnation of Jesus? What do we do...?

I know what some people do, even I am not innocent of these charges. They avoid the question. They don't challenge their ideas. They postpone confrontation until somebody "qualified" like a Pastor can talk to them (if that ever happens). They nibble around the edges with careful words. They pray with them / at them and hope that they take the hint. They give them Bible verses and inquire gently, which more often than not only implicitly strengthens their dangerous delusion by the unspoken agreement with their underlying religious paradigm.

What they don't say are things like, "that doesn't sound like realistic thinking to me", "I don't think that is right", "those things don't exist," or "I wouldn't worry about that."

They don't tell them that they're talking a load of nonsense.

Why? Because which parts can we criticise?
Oh, yes, Satan exists except he's just not really out to get you... well, perhaps, but only in a general sense.
Yes, the Creator of the Universe thinks that you are special and formed you in your mother's womb but your DNA isn't the divine template for humanity.
Sure, it's historically true that this guy Jesus incarnated as a man who was fully human and fully divine but you're just a regular bloke.
Ancient Israel made lots of promises to God and was punished for not keeping the commandments and the law but your secret pact with God just isn't realistic.

In April, after a tirade of mentally disturbed, religious, anti-atheist, and anti-evolution YouTube posts, Anthony Powell of Michigan randomly took a shotgun to 20-year-old College peer, Asia McGowan, and then killed himself.

What would I have done if Tony had been in my care? What COULD I have done?

"Yes, Tony, I know that it says vessels of wrath... but God actually loves atheists too."
"Yes, Tony, I know that it mentions 6 days and it sounds like Jesus refers to it literally, but it's really all just metaphors."
"No no, Tony, what you're saying doesn't sound like the God that I know. Trust me, your version isn't biblical."

But I know what I would have done. I would have spent the day hanging out with Tony, having some conversations and watching him get more and more annoyed and animated. I would have written an M by Tony's name in a folder, circled it, and then told the Staff on the next shift that "Tony is on Monitor for elevated mood and agitation."
Then I would have gone home and seen him on the evening news.