Friday, March 25, 2011

Having Pizza Tonight?

I was cutting into a delicious pepperoni-and-canadian-bacon-thin-crust just a few days ago, and having a tough time trying to hack out a piece with my spatula. I've used pizza cutters before, but even those aren't usually great for getting through the crust. It suddenly occurred to me that I probably owned the perfect utensil to cut a piece of pizza with, though I had never used it nor seen it used. Guess what it is?

Pair of Scissors. I swear, a pair of scissors is the most excellent thing to cut a pizza ever. And you don't need to run out and buy any special or fancy kind of scissors (believe it or not, there's actually a fancy and overpriced pair of "pizza scissors"). Just get the cheap 1-2 dollar pair at your local Wal-Mart or Target and you are good to go.

I knew I couldn't be the first one to think of doing this, so I did some "google research" on it. I found one discussion thread about it, and look what people are saying about cutting pizza with scissors:

"Maybe in Asylums they do it"

"I prefer to use a big f#ck-off knife"

"My friend Katie does this she came over my house and tried to do it to my pizza, i rightfully slapped her to the ground and booted her firmly in the face.*

*may be a slight over exaggeration"

Monday, March 21, 2011

Intuition Skepticism

Luke over @ CommonSenseAtheism, recently posted something about his skepticism that intuition is a reliable source of information. Below is a modified version of a comment I left on that blog post:

I used to be a sort of “intuiton skeptic” as well. I’ve now changed my mind (somewhat).

Daniel Dennett describes intuition as “when you know the answer to something, but you don’t know how you know it.” This requires a bit of unpacking: There have been experiments done on people who literally see the world in black and white; they can’t see color. Nonetheless, some of these people are able to tell the difference between red and green without actually experiencing that color. The cognitive science behind this is that some parts of the brain recieve information about color from eyes, but that information never fully makes it into the “stream of consciousness”; The “stream of consciousness” recieves the knowledge that object X is green, but it does not have the actual experience of seeing green.

Intuition, in some cases at least, may be an example of a similar phenomenon. Some part of your brain has correctly understood and reasoned the correct conclusion, but only the conclusion (and not the actual process of reasoning) makes it into your conscious experience. Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking that is highly relevant to this. He describes an expert in Greek artifacts (I believe?) who “just knew” upon examing an artifact for a few seconds that it was a forgery. In fact, when I first read Ray Comfort’s “special introduction” to the Origin of Species, I “just knew” that Ray Comfort did not write it, though I could not put my finger on any explicit reason for thinking so. A bit of google research confirmed my intuition.

In my own life, I have observed that intuition is right more often than not. Intuitions are not “properly basic beliefs”. Rather, we should grant intuition some epistemic weight only because intuition is inductively supported as a source of knowledge that is correct more often than not.

Intuition, however, is not infallible, or even close to infallible. Intuition can lend only weak epistemic support to a claim. As we have observed, intuition can go horribly wrong sometimes. Don't believe me? Check out the Monty Hall Problem.

Further, we must be cautious about applying intuition to solve problems that lie far outside of our experience. Example: I've read that when people are trained as airplane pilots, they are cautioned NOT to trust there intuitive feelings about which direction is "up" and which direction is "down" when they are flying their planes. Flying a plane is so different from anything else we humans ordinarily do that our intuition is simply not able to provide reliable information in that situation. Hence, we ought to be extremely cautious about "going with our gut" to solve a problem if that problem is one that lies far outside what we humans are used to thinking about.

So long as we confine our speculations to trade, or
morals, or politics, or criticism, we make appeals,
every moment, to common sense and experience, which
strengthen our philosophical conclusions, and remove
(at least, in part) the suspicion, which we so justly en-
tertain with regard to every reasoning that is very
subtile and refined. But in theological reasonings, we
have not this advantage; while at the same time we are
employed upon objects, which, we must be sensible, are
too large for our grasp, and of all others, require most
to be familiarised to our apprehension.

-David Hume

Monday, March 14, 2011

Books I'm Looking Forward To

Divinity of Doubt: The God Question by Vincent Bugliosi

Bugliosi is the lawyer who prosecuted Charles Manson and the author of "The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder". I think he's a very sharp and original thinker, and that's why I'm looking forward to reading what he has to say about religion. Apparently he argues for agnosticism.

The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us by Victor Stenger

A revised, book-length critique of the fine tuning argument by physicist Victor Stenger.

The End of Christianity Ed. John Loftus

Why would I want that book? Just look at the table of contents!

Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman's ebook on Jesus Mythicism (Yes, You read right. Read the link).

What books are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: The Jesus Inquest, Part 1

Once again, we'll be heading off-track from the McGrews and focusing on a new book about Jesus' resurrection called The Jesus Inquest: The Case For and Against the Resurrection of the Christ

The book takes place as a dialogue about various issues having to do with Jesus' resurrection: Whether Jesus really died on the cross, whether he was buried, and so on. The dialogue is between two imaginary characters created by the author, Charles Foster. They are, unimaginatively, named 'X' and 'Y' (X is the skeptic, Y is the Christian). I thought it would have been a lot nicer to give the characters actual names that subtlely indicated their theological positions. For example, the skeptic should have been named Tommy after Thomas the doubting disiple and the Christian could have been named Mark after Mark the gospel writer. Naming your characters 'X' and 'Y' just seems so uncreative and dry. But it's a very small point and it doesn't detract from the book's content, and to that I now turn.

Naturally, X the skeptic spins many different, mutually exclusive theories about what happened that weekend 2000 years ago. At one point X argues that Jesus may have survived the cross, and trots out the so-called Jesus family tomb, and refers to fringe work such as Michael Baigent's Holy Blood, Holy Grail

Foster shows off his ability as a writer here, as he vividly describes the various fringe theories about conspiracies surrounding Jesus' crucifixion, and that makes for fun reading. However, as Foster is careful to have Y the Christian point out, such theories are nothing more than fantasy novels; they have little solid historical ground to stand upon.

Things become a little tricker for Y as the book progresses to more complex issues, and throughout much of the rest of the book I found Y's arguments to be weak or engaging in special pleading or circular reasoning. Example: X makes the point that archaeological evidence appears to indicate that poorer criminals were normally buried in the dirt, and not in tomb as the gospels say that Jesus was. Y responds by pointing out that customs are not like immutable, physical laws. Rather, customary practices revealed through archaeology and textual study simply record human behavior and practice, which is often highly variable. Well, of course, that's a correct and fine point to make. But for someone who is arguing that Jesus was buried in a tomb, this is merely an appeal to possibility rather than an appeal to probability. Customs describe what usually happened, and hence dictate the probability of what would happen in any specific case. So if most crucified victims were buried in the ground, then Jesus probably was too (unless we have good evidence to the contrary). To deny that line of reasoning is too engage in special pleading.

And do we have any good evidence to the contrary? Not really. Paul tells us that Jesus was buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-5) but he doesn't tell us whether Jesus was buried in a tomb or in the dirt. The gospel accounts tell us that Jesus was buried in a tomb, but are the gospel reports "good evidence"? Since it was common for historians of that time to speculate and create narratives around bare-bone sets of information that they recieved, it could very well be that Mark recieved word that Joseph of Arimathea had buried Jesus, and Mark "filled in the blanks" by creating a narrative in which Joseph placed Jesus in a tomb. It's quite possible that Joseph of Arimathea (if he existed), really did bury Jesus. However, it must be pointed out that we don't know if Joseph buried Jesus in his tomb or in the ground. Mark may not have known, and he may have simply speculated the burial location was Joseph's own tomb. In fact, such a speculation may not even be original to Mark. It could be that some of Jesus' followers thought he was buried in Joseph's tomb when in fact Joseph had buried him in a common criminal's graveyard. Supposing that the empty tomb story is true, that would explain why Jesus' followers never found him in Joseph's tomb when they went to anoint him!

That brings me to another issue: Y argues that the Christian story about Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus is true. After all, if the story were an invention, why would the Christians have gone to the trouble of naming the person and his place of origin? Wouldn't that have been nothing but a big damn liability for getting caught in a lie? Why not simply say that Jesus had been buried by some anonymous character? Now this is an interesting point of contention. And before I continue I just want to point out that even if Y is right and the burial by Joseph of Arimathea is correct, it is still completely plausible that Joseph did not bury Jesus in his tomb. Although Y has a point here, it is quite possible that Joseph of Arimathea was a literary creation and would have been understood as such by Christian and Jew alike who read Mark's gospel. As Richard Carrier pointed out in chapter 6 of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave "Arimathea" can be translated as "Town of the Best Disciple". Joseph, of course, was Jesus' father, and it is rather ironic that Jesus is buried not in the tomb of Joseph his father, as he should have been, but with another Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea.

I plan on continuing this review in the future, but for now, that's all folks. In conclusion: There's much to be said for this book. The writing style is engaging. The information, as far as I can tell, is correct in all but a few small places (which I will point out in further blog posts and which do not, to my mind, indicate dishonesty on the author's part but rather simply missing a few things on an extraordinarily vast subject.). And the author, though obviously writing from a Christian apologetic standpoint, has made a conscious effort to be fair and present both sides of the issue as best he can. For that, he has more going for him than The Case for Christ

So, if you're interested in the resurrection, it's worth picking up a copy of The Jesus Inquest: The Case For and Against the Resurrection of the Christ

And if you want to balance your intake about the resurrection, pick up Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?

The Inquest is an honest attempt to objectively look at the evidence written by a Christian, Doubting is an honest attempt to objectively look at the evidence written by an agnostic. They're Yin and Yang, and if it's a subject of interest for you then you should own them both.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cosmological Creationism

Found an article on Theism and Physical Cosmology which does a great job of summing up the issues: