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.