Thursday, November 25, 2010

Skepticon and More

So... A few days ago I returned home from attending Skepticon. It... was.... AWESOME!!

On our very first day, the second speaker (David Fitzgerald) blew my mind, and apparently everyone else's too. His talk was on early Christianity (he is a proponent of Jesus mythicism) and the talk was vivid and enlightening. I think he implicitly addressed a few of my concerns about Jesus mythicism in his talk (I'll blog more on mythicism at a later date). Anyway, it's no surprise that shortly after the talk his book sold out (for those interested, it is Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All).

I got my very own copy of Flim-Flam! signed by James Randi. I got a chance to speak with both Richard Carrier and PZ Myers too, which was pretty awesome. And that's the thing about Skepticon that is so cool: All of the celebrity speakers are very approachable. If you're polite and have a question or just something normal to say, you can bet you'll have a chance to speak with whomever you want (even the elusive PZ Myers, lol).

Anyway, my summary of the talks won't do justice to them. You'll have to wait until they get uploaded to youtube (in a couple of months). Which reminds me, the past two Skepticon events are up on the channel. Watch 'em if you haven't.

Rather hilariously, our event was protested. I saw one protester holding up a sign saying "Don't think too hard!" and I felt the need to walk up and talk some sense to the guy. On talking to him I learned that he was actually just pretending to be a protester. Ha!

Seriously though, we did have some protesters. One was a guy who stood outside for several hours every day for three days straight offering people free prayers. There was also a group offering copies of Ray Comfort's "special" edition of Origin of Species. I politely referred them to my blog and told them about Comfort's shameless plagiarism, though I doubt I made any headway.

And finally, somewhat of topic: Eugenie Scott co-authored an article about how to answer the why-are-monkeys-still-around-question, which I think is quite good. And there's a very good article about irreducible complexity that I just recently stumbled across.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Principle of Dwindling Probabilities and the Kalam

The blog Debunking William Lane Craig mentioned a very interesting problem with Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument:

"If it’s impossible for something to arise from nothing – and impossible for nothing to exist in the first place – then how can Craig justify the belief that God created the universe from nothing"

The blogger later added something to the effect of: Craig must argue that a God creating something from nothing is more plausible than nothing creating something from nothing, but of course if that is true then God creating from nothing seems to be (at best) only marginally more plausible than nothing creating something from nothing. I posted a comment:

"I think that this is part of what is perhaps the most fatal objection to Craig’s argument: Craig is continually forced to argue that this or that premise of his argument is more plausible than its contradictory. But often we find that his premises are, at best, only marginally more plausible than their contradictories. And so Craig’s argument falls on the horns of the Principle of Dwindling Probabilities.

"Because he must rely on several propositions which are open to MUCH doubt (infinities cannot exist, A-Theory of time is correct, your example, etc.) his conclusion necessarily contains as much doubts as all of the premises do. And the total amount of doubt is quite high. Indeed, it is high enough to completely sink the whole argument."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Closer to Truth: An Absolutely Wonderful Site

I think I've posted something about this before, but I must post it again: It is the website Closer to Truth. The website is like a vast and beautiful forest for the mind to wonder. It has dozens of short interviews with philosophers and scientists about the nature of our world and about philosophy. Truly beautiful, and just as touching as Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Ironic

On the very day I posted a list of tips to theists, Todd Wood, a young earth creationist, posted a list of tips to geocentrists which ends with the same sentiment my post ended in.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

How To Take Down an Atheist in a Debate

I'm going to reveal something to you Theists that might allow you to bring down Atheism forever. Why would I want to do such a thing? I'll explain at the end of the post.

OK, so you're a Christian (or some other variety of theist) and you want atheists to see the world the right way (your way). How to go about it?

First, take any and all arguments that you have for your position, and give them an honest evaluation. Break your argument down into a syllogism and evaluate each premise for its truth and then make sure the conclusion follows. Doubt your argument in every way imaginable. Be imaginative in your doubts. Make a list of doubts. And then make a point to figure out how you could respond to those doubts. If you come across a serious hole in your argument, then you should probably not use that argument. More than likely an atheist will be able to find that hole, and he won't be convinced, and then you've wasted your time. On the other hand, if you have seriously examined your argument, looked for possible objections, and come up with some ways to respond to those objections, you will appear very considerate and intelligent to your opponent in a real life debate.

Second, take some time to understand where atheists are coming from. Read a few atheist blogs. Read a few atheist books. Here are some good ones that share reasons for de-conversion:

Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary

Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity

Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

And of course atheists and other secular folk have written books responding to pretty much every argument made for the existence of God. A good general survey can be found in John Mackie's The Miracle of Theism as well as Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up. And of course there are plenty of books that are specialized to take up arguments that aren't addressed in such general surveys; For example, arguments for the resurrection of Jesus have been addressed in such works as UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus and The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave and Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?

Third, be honest and fair-minded. If your opponent makes a good point which you can't answer, simply say so and tell them you will think about their point (and of course follow up on that promise). When you do that it reflects much better than grasping at straws to save your position.

Fourth, I would suggest listening to debates found online and of course reading apologetic material. But a word of caution: Do NOT assume that anything and everything you hear from a Christian apologist is true. You need to research what they say for yourself so that you will know whether it is true. Some christian apologists make atrocious mistakes in their reasoning and in their fact-checking (that is, if they even bother with it, another reason you need to check behind them) and reading enough atheist material ought to prove this to you. And some Christian apologists (though not all) are blatantly dishonest, as evidenced by my catching Ray Comfort plagiarizing:

Anyway, back on track. What apologetic material would I recommend? I'd say you should start off with Lee Strobel's books, such as The Case for a Creator and The Case for the Real Jesus. Also, make a point to listen to debates online, or to download the debates as mp3 audio and listen to them wherever. If you listen to one or two debates a week, you can vastly increase your knowledge over the course of the next year. And later you can move up to somewhat more sophisticated apologetics, such as Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God, and later to the most scholarly, such as The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Again, as a word of caution, I do have major issues with all of these works. Nonetheless, these are the best that the other side has to offer, and so I would recommend them.

That's all the tips I think of for now, though I may write a sequel to this in the future.

As promised, I will reveal the reason I wrote this post. I wrote this post because most Christians that run into (online or off) simply don't know what they ought to know to intelligently defend what they believe. And not knowing enough just wastes everyone's time. When I argue with Christians I often find that they have never bothered to seriously question the stuff they're trying to make me believe. And so they don't make any headway with me. In fact, every time this happens I just become more dismissive of them. Maybe if one of them actually tried he could address the reasons I have for dismissing the Christian religion. And who wouldn't be grateful for such a revelation of the truth? On the other hand, maybe if he looked hard enough at his own faith he would realize that a solid grounding for the Christian faith simply doesn't exist. And then that Christian wouldn't be bothering me anymore, because he would no longer be one.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Eight Questions... (Part 3)

This is a continuation of my answers to Michael Egnor's Eight Questions for the New Atheists.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

I suspect that Egnor is referring to the "Hard Problem of Consciousness." I think the Hard Problem can be solved fairly easily. Our brains are information-processing units. "Qualia" (a name for types of internal experiences that we have) are identical to perception, and perception is merely the process of our brains correctly reacting to incoming information. Here's a quote from an essay by Evan Louis Sheehan that illuminates the issue:

"Suppose an alien were to declare that “the hard problem” is determining what it is about those printed slips of paper that gives them their intrinsic value. Indeed, the value of pleasure may be no more difficult to understand than the value of a dollar. Just as a dollar has value only because we believe it has value, I’ll argue that a feeling of pleasure also has value only because we believe it has value. This simple realization allows us to model consciousness as merely a system of beliefs, and beliefs are easy to implement computationally.

"While we cannot imagine how to program a computer to feel pleasure, we can easily program a computer to have a belief system, and we can easily install a belief in pleasure that becomes true when certain circuits are active. We cannot understand how a thermostat could possibly feel cold, but we can easily understand how a computerized thermostat could hold a belief that it feels cold.

"We may easily validate this simple idea by realizing that one cannot feel pain without believing that one feels pain. And neither can one believe one feels pain without actually feeling it. It seems that a feeling of pain and a belief in the feeling of pain are intimately associated, if not identical. Consider also that a hypnotist can sometimes eliminate one’s feeling of pain by simply installing a countervailing belief. And consider that a psychosomatic pain can result from a simple belief in illness. It is even true that a psychosomatic pain can be reduced by a simple belief in the effectiveness of a pill that is in fact just a placebo."

I'd also like to point out that it is not as intuitive as you think to suggest that a physically functioning human being might be able to lack inner experience (somehow).

One author suggests a thought experiment in which we imagine someone who can see/hear/smell (in the sense that their sensory organs can take respond to sound/light/odor and their brain can register information from those organs) but has no inner experience of what it is like to see/hear/smell:

"You wake up one morning, open your eyes, and what do you notice first? That the sun is streaming in the window, that your alarm clock says 7:30, and that your partner is already getting dressed on the other side of the room — or that, despite registering all this in a moment, you can’t actually see anything? Or try a more radical variant, one that takes us a step back towards full zombiehood. You wake up one morning to find that all of your sensory modalities have blanked out subjectively (though you’re still getting all the information alright). Again, what do you notice first: the sunlight, the sounds of birdsong and of traffic in the distance, the smell of coffee brewing — or the total absence of sensory qualia?"

It's just not feasible to think that humans could lack internal experience, not even from a materialist point of view.

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

I'm not sure exactly how to interpret this question, but the best way I know how is to interpret it this way: How can you have mental states (like thoughts) about others things (your dog, your car, the weather, etc)? A thought is basically just a reminder, inquiry, observation, etc. that comes to your conscious stream. Thoughts are ultimately information exhanges inside the brain that are normally there to affect decision making. And sometimes those information exchanges are exchanging information that is intended to represent facts about one particular thing (and that is what it means for a thought to be 'about' something).

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)?

The 'Moral Law' is an artifact of nature. If there were no sentient beings in the universe, there would be no moral facts in the universe, because morality is a set of abstractions concerning how we should behave if we value other sentient beings.

8) Why is there evil?

The universe is indifferent to human pain and suffering, and so as luck has it some events will lead to the suffering and death of sentient beings like humans.