Monday, October 8, 2012

Skeptic Ink

My new blog address is:

Below there are some links to my old blog. If you change the web address from "skepticblogs" to "skepticink" that should take you to the right place.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Hi there,

If you're looking at this blog, odds are you want to know about the counter-arguments to the creationist organization Answers in Genesis. My article Ten Falsehoods will fill you in on the basics, and I have a list of more useful blog posts that you can find here. If you are the more philosophical type of reader, I have authored a conclusive refutation of Answers in Genesis' presuppositional apologetics.

What else? I've also documented the dishonesty of William Lane Craig and the plagiarism (you read correctly) of Ray Comfort (also known as "The Banana Man").

I have authored three books:
Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence and the Resurrection of Jesus.
Selected Essays.
Atheism and Naturalism.

I have stopped posting at this blog because I created a new one called Hume's Apprentice.

Well, that's about it, have fun in the archives.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Moved to SkepticBlogs!

In case you didn't see my last post, this blog is dead and I will now be blogging on as "Hume's Apprentice."

Update your bookmarks. You will like it there. One of my posts, Of Miracles, got a shout-out from Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True). Other fun posts include:

Stephen Hawking is Wrong! (And so is Jason Rosenhouse)

Philosophical Zombies R Coming to Eat Ur Brainz!!

See you there!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Phoenix Rises

I have now launched Hume's Apprentice, my new blog, on Skeptic Ink. The theme of the blog is a skeptical take on philosophy, as well as related issues like politics and society in general. It takes its name from the great skeptic philosopher David Hume.
I already have two posts up, I am very proud of them:

Of Miracles - My take on what kind of evidence it takes to believe a miracle has happened. While my arguments may not be identical to Hume's, they are very much inspired by his philosophy.
Verificationism!! - In which I defend a violently controversial and shocking proposal of the 1920's and 30's that statements which do not represent experiences mean nothing; they are literally gibberish.
After you've had a look at the site, I need you to do something for me. Post a link to on your facebook page and in your favorite online forum. This will advance the cause of the freethought movement and you'll be given mad props by your other atheist friends for turning them on to such a cool site.

See you on SkepticBlogs!

Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Ashes of the Phoenix

This blog is dead. I will only make one more farewell post, and then it is over and done with.

However, there is an exciting new project that I will be delivering very soon.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why You Shouldn't Trust William Lane Craig

Recently there has been a discussion between Chris Hallquist and Jeffrey Jay Lowder over whether the Christian apologist William Lane Craig is dishonest (Hallquist's most recent blog post provides the relevant links and backround info to this discussion). Although I agree with Lowder's sentiment that we ought to be very cautious about indicting another person's character, I think that there does come a point in which it is unreasonable to continue to give another person the benefit of the doubt, and on that note, I'd like to share a few things that are relevant to William Lane Craig's honesty.

Example #1 Inconsistency About How One Discredits an Argument

On Craig's reasonable faith website, he makes the following claim:

"In order to show that an argument is no good, it is not enough for the sceptic to show that it’s possible that a premiss is false. Possibilities come cheap. I’m puzzled that so many laymen seem to think that merely stating another possibility is sufficient to defeat a premiss."

In Craig's 1991 article “Theism and Big Bang Cosmology” Australasian Journal of Philosophy69: 498, Craig gives the following response to one of Quentin Smith's arguments for the nonexistence of God:

“If such a metaphysical interpretation of the initial singularity is even possible, then [Premise 5] is unsubstantiated, and Smith’s anti-theistic argument is undercut.” [empahasis added. Note: I believe I've heard Craig making statements like this elsewhere, but I don't recall where. Please comment if you know.]

Conclusion: Craig believes that showing a premise is possibly false destroys an argument against god, but that showing a premise is possibaly false does not destroy an argument for god. This is biased, self-contradictory special pleading.

Example #2 Self-Contradiction Concerning Richard Dawkins' Argument

Richard Dawkins has previously objected to using God to explain the fine-tuning problem on the grounds that God would be even more improbable, even more in need of an explanation, than the fine-tuning itself. Craig responds to this: "in order to recognize an explanation is the best, you don't have to have an explanation for the explanation" (see this video, about 1:00-1:30).

However, when debating atheist philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, look at how Craig responds to Sinnott-Armstrong after he brings up the objection to the fine-tuning argument that some of the anthropic coincidences might be explained by "tracker fields":

"[Robin] Collins points out that 'even if such fields were discovered, it would have to have just the right ("fine-tuned" or "well-designed") mathematical form to overcome the severe problems facing such proposals. This would reintroduce the problem of fine-tuning and design at a different level, though in a mitigated way.' This has been the pattern with attempts to explain fine-tuning by physical law: Like a stubborn bump in the carpet, fine-tuning is suppressed at one point only to pop up at another." (pp.63-64, William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God?: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist)

Conclusion: Why doesn't Craig see that positing a God to explain the fine-tuning is just as much like supressing a stubborn bump in the carpet as positing a tracker field? This is special pleading of the worst kind.

Example #3 Misleading Use of Statistics

In his debate with Paul Draper, Draper cited evolution as evidence against the existence of God (see Jeff Lowder's summary of the argument here). Craig objected to this by saying that evolution is so ulikely that had happened it would be a miracle, hence demonstrating the existence of God. To prove his point, Craig cited a statistic from John Barrow and Frank Tipler. I think Richard Carrier's summary of this quotation and its use is sufficient to show how far off base Craig's criticism is:

"In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford, 1986), John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler exhaust over 600 pages trying to prove their point, yet a single sentence is sufficient to destroy their whole project: 'The odds against assembling the human genome spontaneously,' argue the authors, 'is even more enormous: the probability of assembling it is between (4^180)^110,000...and (4^360)^110,000....These numbers give some feel for the unlikelihood of the species Homo sapiens' (p. 565). They fail to realize that this is a non sequitur, as already noted by Sagan, for it only establishes such an unlikelihood if we assume, borrowing from their own words "spontaneous assembly." But no one has ever claimed this of the human genome, and the facts establishing evolution demonstrate that this absolutely did not happen. Thus, like Foster and Hoyle, Barrow and Tipler completely ignore the fact of evolution and the role of natural selection in their calculation, and consequently their statistic (which has already been cited by Craig in a debate with Draper) has absolutely no relevance to the real question of whether man evolving is improbable."

How can Craig, trained as a philosopher, not have realized how bogus and misleading his use of this statistic was?

Verdict: Though I have found countless errors, fallacies, and dishonest tactics in Craig's writings and debate performances, I believe these three ought to be sufficient to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Craig is dishonest. Though I firmly believe in giving the benefit of the doubt to others and to be cautious about indicting the character of another person, it seems to me that we would be going too far towards leniency if we allowed Craig to get off the hook after seeing this. At some point it becomes unreasonable to continue giving the benefit of the doubt or entertain alternative hypotheses to dishonesty, especially when this sort of thing happens on more than one occasion. Is Craig dishonest? My answer is an unabashed and firm 'Yes.' You can't fool me anymore, Mr. Craig, and with the power of the internet you will slowly lose the ability to fool any one else, either.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Busting Answers in Genesis

Once upon a time this blog primarily focused on debunking the nonsense of Ken Ham and company. It's true! To prove it, I've collected some links to some of my best posts which debunk AiG:

Flipping AiG the Bird

Lucy, You Got Some 'Splaining to Do

Evolution of the Whale Ear

Hopeful Monsters, Stephen Jay Gould, and AiG

The Ultimate Answer to the 'Information Argument'

An Amphibian Was Moving Around During the Flood! (Ok, this one isn't specifically about AiG, but it is a nice short read that debunks the flood myth).

The 'Common Design' Argument

Debunking Creationist Myths About Woolly Mammoths

And my tour-de-force: Ten Lies Peddled by AiG.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Refutations of the Resurrection Argument: A Bibliography

So far as I know, Michael Goulder was the first modern writer to offer a refutation of the "five facts" case for the resurrection of Jesus, summed up in his essay "The Baseless Fabric of a Vision" (published in the volume Resurrection Reconsidered) which brought up guilt and grief hallucinations, and compared group sightings of the risen Jesus to sightings of Big Foot.

Two years later, Richard Carrier wrote a long online article called "Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story" making a basic (and at times strained) case against the resurrection, and he subsequently expanded and strengthened his case in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave and in a chapter of The Christian Delusion.

Several years later, Gerd Ludemann authored a book called The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, making similar comparisons and dismissing the empty tomb as a legend. The works of Goulder and Ludemann are pioneer works and are praiseworthy for that reason alone, but I never felt that they were overly convincing or that they had marshalled a mountain of supporting evidence for their case.

In 2005, The groundbreaking book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, became available, and while some of the material is redundant and a little bit of it seems worth skipping, overall it was a very good volume because it was a strongly argued (if mostly defensive) case against the resurrection of Jesus.

Most recently, Chris Hallquist's UFOs, Ghosts and a Rising God and Kris Komarnitsky's Doubting Jesus' Resurrection came out. Though the former is by far more fun and interesting (being written in a conversational tone with a ton of fun facts about paranormal and alien debunking) the latter, in my judgement, was the one and only book you'd ever really need to hear the skeptic's point of view about resurrection arguments. It was concise, well-researched, and firmly made the point that the origin of Christianity could plausibly be explained in natural terms (my only gripe against this is that I wish Komarnitsky would have gone further and said that its origin was more plausibly explained by natural means than supernatural ones).

Last but not least, there are two chapters in The End of Christianity which make a case against the resurrection. In chapter 9, Robert M. Price does the job of explaining how the claim of Jesus being raised from the dead could have plausibly come about without a genuine resurrection. In chapter 8, Matt McCormick lays out a nutshell version of his forthcoming work Atheism and the Case Against Christ in which he argues that the amount of evidence we have for the resurrection is not nearly the amount we should have in order to believe it, and argues that we have better evidence, in both quantity and quality, for actual witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts than we do for the resurrection of Jesus.

I have now added yet another volume to the list. Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus by Nicholas Covington is now available. I've collected not only the responses to the positive arguments for the resurrection, but I have also created some arguments against the resurrection, some of which, as far as I know, have never been pointed out by anyone else. The book is intended to be a strong, robust, unique take on the whole issue. The opening chapter also makes the case that miracle claims must meet a high burden of proof (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence) and shreds the standard objections to it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence...

New mini-book!!

It is Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. It's available in paperback for $9.99 or for the kindle for $2.99

In the 1800's, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, David Hume, argued that miracles could not be believed on the basis of someone's word (at least under normal circumstances). Since then, there has been a general consensus amongst skeptics that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" as Carl Sagan put it. Surprisingly, this pretty common sense demand and the arguments about why this must be have been attacked. Sagan's dictum has been called vague, people have said that Hume's reasoning leads to absurd conclusions, and so on. This book contains an essay that abolishes all of those criticisms once and for all. It also discusses and demolishes the arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus (which atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew thought was the most compelling case for an historical miracle even though he did not think the case for it was good enought to warrant belief).

If you've ever heard the pretentious carrying-on that comes from the likes of William Lane Craig and his fanboys about how they can prove the resurrection of Jesus, this book is great material to recommend to them or to read so that you can hammer them on the spot whenever they bring it up. It also contains a number of very interesting legends from ancient and modern times which are worth reading about in and of themselves (the story of Emperor Constantine's Vision of the Cross is one that I talk about in particular, and the post-mortem sightings of David Koresh).

I've collected not only the responses to the positive arguments for the resurrection, but I have also created some arguments against the resurrection, some of which, as far as I know, have never been pointed out by anyone else. The book is intended to be a very strong, robust, and unique take on the whole issue.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Few Things...

I recently stumbled upon a blog called Looking for Answers in Genesis. Check it out, he's picking up where I left off and providing further evidence that intelligent, fair-minded people won't buy the lies of that organization.

I added Jeff Lowder's 20+ Questions for Theists to my post Arguments for Atheism: A List.

Still continuing progress on my upcoming book An Index to Theistic Claims. Also, I am wondering if anyone would like to see me publish a few short kindle ebooks, similar in nature to Sam Harris' Lying. I'd like to make them inexpensive and super-interesting (a summary of the arguments for evolution might be one idea). Please leave a comment telling me what you think and pitch me an idea on what I could write.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Best Free Video about Evolution

If you need a handy video to help that pesky creationist friend of yours to understand evolution, you cannot possibly find any better than this video by Dr. Jerry Coyne:

The important stuff starts about 21 minutes into the talk, so feel free to skip ahead (that way, you can learn all about evolution in under 1 hour!). The book that the talk is based on (Why Evolution is True) is also highly recommended.

The talk goes into a lot of things that are often overlooked in the creation/evolution debate, like how frogs are mysteriously absent from oceanic islands and how evolution explains it.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

FactCheck.Org as an Asset to Patriotism and Free Thought

The most universal and surefire answer to the question "How do I make a good choice" is "Inform yourself." Since who and what you vote for is a choice, making a good decision in that direction means you have to find the relevant and true facts about the people/issues in question. But there's a big problem: Political discussions and even news reports are all-too-often factually incorrect or say things that leave people with a false understanding of what a candidate said/did/is proposing, such as the one I covered in my previous post "Bill O'Reilly is Full of Bullshit."

That's why I recommend FactCheck.Org. Fact Check seems to me to be a very thorough, honest, fact-focused resource that exposes the falsehoods told about the candidates from both political parties. This is a resource that all of us need to turn to when we are trying to investigate whether our TV commercials or radio show hosts are telling us the truth.

Finding out what the real facts are, though, is only half the battle. The other half of the battle is finding out what the facts mean. This is harder than most people think. Case in point: A paramedic once told me about how he was called to testify in court and an attorney attempted to cast doubt on his credibility by pointing out that he had misspelled a couple of words on a piece of documentation. It's totally possible to be a good paramedic and a mediocre speller at the same time. Hence, the attorney's observations were irrelevant. Why would a smart, college-educated person say something like this? It's part of what goes on in court systems. Lawyers are skilled at rhetoric, and know all-too-well that perception is reality. Real facts, if reported in the right tone of voice, if suggestively presented together, if brought to light in a certain context, plant seeds in the mind of the listener that quickly grow into tall trees of falsehood in the manure of cognitive errors and biases that human brains are prone to make. Politicians, who are often themselves trained in law (and in any case are experts at controlling public perception), use the same cheap tricks that lawyers do. The only thing to do is to learn how to fight this type of nonsense. FlackCheck, a sister site of FactCheck, provides a great headstart. The site hosts:

Patterns of Deception - A lucid series of short videos pointing out the factual errors and logical fallacies going around in current campaign ads.

Could Lincoln Be Elected Today? A Set of Mock Political Ads against the election of Abraham Lincoln that use the same political tactics used today.

I've always had the feeling that CNN was the most moderate and fair news network, and that's why I tend to watch it more than other news networks. Well, confirmation bias time: Flack Check found that CNN devotes equal time to exposing extreme and false statements of both democrats and repubs. I was right. Watch CNN.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bill O'Reilly is Full of Bullshit

Did anyone catch Tonight's installment of The O'Reilly Factor? Bill O'Reilly said that Obama had voted in favor of late-term and partial-birth abortions, which sounded to me like alarmist baloney, so I researched it. It didn't take me long to find an article by Michael Dobbs explaining Obama's true voting record on these issues, which links to some excellent first-hand sources: actual government voting records. As it turns out, Obama isn't the radical he's made out to be, becaue he didn't vote "yes" on any of those things. Who would have thought?

Up until now I have watched O'Reilly from time to time, and my first impressions were that he was a moderate (not extremist) Republican, worth listening to broaden my perspective, even if he was wrong on a number of issues and tended to be cranky and unfair to his guests from time to time. Now my perspective has shifted full circle: O'Reilly is an unreliable, lie-spewing propagandist who shouldn't be listened to at all.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Here's something I posted on facebook:

I've recently heard people accuse President Barack Obama of leading the nation to become a new Sodom and Gomorrah because of his stance on gay marriage. This tends to come from the same types of people who are virulently opposed to rich people paying more taxes and to the poor having access to state-sponsored medical care. Shows how much they know about the bible. Do you know what the sin of Sodom was? It wasn't that they had gay sex. It was that they did not care for the poor. Ezekiel 16:49: “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." If anyone is leading our nation towards Sodom, it isn't people who are pro-gay marriage. It's the extremist republicans who want to deny socialist benefits to the poor and keep helping the rich grow even more obscenely wealthy than they are now.

A gentleman from my local freethought group commented and said that he respectfully disagreed with socialism, although he also said that he was in favor of "safety net" capitalism. If you don't know already, "safety net" capitalism basically means that we have free enterprise but that we also fund government programs to provide those without with food stamps, basic living quarters, and so on. This got me thinking that I ought to write a post clarifying socialism and capitalism and what my position on that issue is.

First, definitions. I've posted Wikipedia's definition of Capitalism and Socialism, and also my own summary of what communism is, which, contra popular confusion, is not the same as socialism:

"Capitalism is generally considered to be an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit or income by individuals or corporations."

"Socialism is an economic system characterised by social ownership and/or control of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy, and a political philosophy advocating such a system."

Under communist regimes, no one is supposed to really own anything, or if they do they are supposed to have the same amount that everyone else has. Karl Marx summarized his idea of communism as "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In other words, you do what you're able to to contribute to society and you take whatever you need or want. Your giving more or doing more doesn't get you more stuff and likewise doing less doesn't mean you lose anything.

In short, capitalism is a system in which goods are distributed based on what you sell (note that when I say "sell" this includes working a job, because when you work you are naught but selling your time to your employer and also that when I say "distribution of goods" this includes monetary payment because money is just the means to buy goods) whereas communism is a system in which goods are distributed based on your needs. Put this way, it's clear that the two aren't mutually exclusive: you can have an economy in which goods are mainly distributed based on the value of what you sell (which includes higher values for the college-educated when they sell their time to a company and work in their speciality) but which also has some built-in sensitivity that distributes goods based on needs (i.e. foodstamp programs).

Today "Socialism" has become something of a curse word amongst most people, witness Barack Obama being renounced as a "socialist" by his political opponents. I think this likely just a hangover from anti-Soviet campaigns that went a little too far back in the day. It's time to wash all of that away and startover with a more rational conversation in which we can discuss ideas without being afraid or overly dismissive of them. I've got news for you: if you're an American citizen then you have lived in a country with socialist programs and policies since you were born, and have used them yourself many times. Even if you've never been on welfare, foodstamps, or anything like that. Have you driven on a public highways? That's a socialist system. Socialism means the state or society owns the means of production. The state owns the means (the roads) not private companies or corporations. Would anyone really want to get rid of those?

On the other side of the coin, however, the profit motive (i.e. people's desire to make more money) and the direction that regulated capitalism tends to channel this motive (the only way they can get it is by providing and goods and services that other people want, hence making them an asset to the community, and by competing with others driving all entrepreneurs to create better and better stuff for us to purchase) has clearly improved all of our lives dramatically. Over the course of his career, TV reported John Stossel's primary thesis has been that free market and competition are great things, and that those have resulted in dramatic success, efficiency, and progress compared to government-run organizations trying to do the same thing. He's shown a spotlight on many examples to support that thesis, and I agree with it, at least in general.

The free market works on principles similar to that of Darwinian evolution: lots of variations in the product are tested and tried out by companies, they compete against one another, and the only ones that stick around are the ones that can make a buck because those are the only ones that people want. Free Market eneterprise naturally selects for products that we like. And just like evolution, it drives progress up a hill such that companies are forced into constantly producing goods better adapted to the desires of the people, because they have to compete with one another and are always looking for a way to make just a little bit more money. There is a catch: just as evolution produced a ton of great things (dogs, fruit, humans, dairy cows) it also produced a lot of predators and parasites too (Tigers, Sharks, HIV). Likewise, a free market can produce predators and parasites if we don't have laws to stamp them out, or at least minimize their negative effects.

Here is the reason I wrote all of the above: since socialism and capitalism are not truly mutually exclusive, and since I think the vast majority of us would agree that it wouldn't really be a good idea to get rid of all of our socialist (or capitalist) policies and programs, where the discussion and debate needs to take place is: when is it a good idea to have socialist programs? When you should we privatize an existent government-run entity? Do we want to keep our capitalist health care system? At the moment I doubt it, I think we would probably be better off with a socialist health care system like Canada's or at least a government-regulated one like the Korean health care system that Chris Hallquist wrote about.

That's my story.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Arguments for Atheism: A List

Here is a list of webpages and resources that you can access for FREE about the arguments against the existence of God! Here you go:

20+ Questions for Theists. Jeffrey Jay Lowder's list of questions for believers which reveal a number of arguments for atheism and expose a number of flaws in theistic arguments. It's a brief but highly recommended blog.
Ebon Musings: The Necessity of Atheism. This is a very good page with excellent summaries of the evidential arguments for atheism. That is, the author shows how various things about the universe make more sense if God does not exist than if he does.

Closer to Truth: "God." A series of interviews with philosophers and scientists who explain, in common-sense terms, what they think about the arguments for and against the existence of God.

Internet Infidels: Evidential Arguments for Atheism. Internet Infidels has essays written by a broad variety of critical thinkers arguing that atheism is better justified by various pieces of evidence, including Darwin's theory of evolution.

Internet Infidels: Logical Arguments for Atheism.

Theodore Drange: "Ten Atheistic Arguments" and "A Survey of Incompatible Properties Arguments." A veteran philosopher goes over some of the arguments for God's nonexistence, the first simply being all kinds of arguments for God's existence and the second being a review of arguments for incompatible properties (incompatible properties arguments try to show that the very definition of God is like a square circle; God is defined as having two different properties which could not possibly exist in the same entity).

Evil Bible: God is Impossible. It's a tad simplistic and mainly focuses on the God of the Bible, and I would recommend checking the scripture references in context, but other than that it is good food for thought.

Richard Carrier Blogs: The God Impossible. Richard Carrier goes over his thoughts on why God is impossible. Very interesting and often unheard arguments are brought out.

My Arguments for Atheism.

1. Bodiless Minds Probably Cannot Exist. What if someone told you about a chair that wasn't made out of anything. That is, not simply a chair that was made of a different sort of matter and energy than you are familiar with, but a chair that wasn't made out of anything at all. Do you think that such a hypothetical chair is even possible or at all sensible? I don't, and I suspect most people agree. However, most people seem to think that it is sensible to talk about spirits, souls, and gods, all of which are minds that are not made out of anything at all. However, philosophers and neuroscientists have long been thinking of our human minds as being completely physical in nature. Human minds are like snowflakes: just as snowflakes are made of many water-molecules arranged in a certain pattern to create the snowflake, so too are human minds/brains just a collection of brain cells arranged in a certain way to function as the people we are. When we describe who someone is, we describe them in terms of what they do and how they react in certain situations, and these are all fundamentally just "higher-level" descriptions of how a collection of matter and energy behaves. At the microscopic scale you see the water molecules (that is a "low level" description) but if you zoom out to the macroscopic scale you see the snowflake (a "higher-level" description). This is how people are: at the microscopic level you have cells and how they behave, and at the higher-level scale you have people and how they behave. Seen this way, it makes no sense at all to speak of a person who isn't made out of anything or about any mind without a body. Perhaps this is only a hunch and does not, in and of itself, prove with very much certainty that bodiless minds cannot exist. But it does lend support to the idea and provides a good ground for formulating the hypothesis that minds cannot exist without bodies. So let's see how that hypothesis fits the evidence.

The fact is that we have no rock-solid evidence of any sort of mental activity or signs of conscious awareness that occur without the activity of a physical brain. We could have had such evidence. We could have had evidence of a poltergeist, a genuine demonic possession, psychics who can truly communicate with the dead rather than relying on cheap parlor tricks, Near-Death Experiences could have proven to be genuine experiences of the mind outside of the body (see Keith Augustine's article as well as Victor Stenger's excellent chapter on the subject in The End of Christianity), we could all have memories of experiences from before our physical body came into existence (past lives, or God briefing us on our mission before he sent our souls into earth-bound bodies). We have extensive evidence that the human mind is the brain, as I've discussed on page 97 of my book Atheism and Naturalism and as Steven Conifer has discussed here. Of course, the absence of evidence for bodiless minds combined with the abundant evidence that minds require bodies provides astonishing and rock-solid support for the philosophical hunch that I discussed above. I'd go so far as to say that it is very likely that bodiless minds cannot exist. If it is very likely that bodiless minds cannot exist, and God is defined as a bodiless mind, then it follows that it is very likely that God does not exist. This argument wipes the floor clean of all possible gods, even a deist god who doesn't care about us and never does anything. Though such do-nothing gods cannot be disproven by evil or by a lack of evidence, because they are part of a category (bodiless minds) which probably do not and can not exist, so too do they not exist.

2. Evil and Evolution. As I once put it: Atheism makes the distinct predictions that the only way complicated living things will exist is if evolution occured (because on atheism there's no person to create them, they can only be products of nature) and that the world will contain injustice and evil, simply because atheism means that there's no perfect being running the universe, and without such a person, it is overwhelmingly likely that bad things will happen from time to time. And that's exactly the universe we live in.

For those who doubt evolution, see The 29 Evidences for it, or Why Evolution is True or The Greatest Show on Earth or chapter 10 of my book, Atheism and Naturalism.

For those who doubt the argument from evil, let's take on the most popular objection: free will. I read an article by local pastor on the problem of evil and here are some excerpts from it that I think are revealing:

"One night, a 16-year-old teen awakened to find a stranger in her bedroom. He held a knife to her throat. He told her to be quiet or he would kill her and her parents down the hall. Then he took her outside and raped her. All the while she was praying, telling him he did not have to do this and that God would forgive him. He didn’t stop. When he was done, he let her go back to her home. But she could never get back to her unspoiled life."

"Why does God allow things like this to happen? ...Theology talks about God's perfect will, which is that all live in happiness and fulfillment. Theology also talks about God's permissive will, which allows human beings the freedom to fail. To have a real victory, there has to be the possibility of failure. In order for us to follow God voluntarily, the possibility also has to exist to reject God's will."

If you had been there the night that this 16-year-old girl was raped, wouldn't you have tried to stop it? Or would you debate with yourself over whether allowing the girl to be raped was better than allowing the rapist his free will? I would have fought for the girl without a second thought, and I'd even go as far as to say that anyone of any moral fortitude would do the same. So if you believe that the protection of the girl is more valuable than allowing the rapist a freedom of choice, then you cannot believe in God. Because God is supposed to be a being with enough power to stop these things from happening, and also completely good, which means that if he existed he would have done the right thing and prevented the rape, even at the cost of destroying the rapist's free will. Events such as this leave us with no choice at all but to reject the sorry, soft, illogical pat answers of the preachers and theologians and look at reality for what it is: without a god.

3. Absence of Evidence. There's no good evidence for God, and if there was a God that isn't what we would expect. A good God would make sure people knew the truth because it is good to know the truth.

4. Postulating a god violates Ockham's Razor. Postulating that only the universe exists is simpler than postulating a universe plus a god. Since simpler theories are to be preferred (everything else being equal), then we should not believe in a god.

5. The Argument From Design for the Nonexistence of God. Believers often point out that if the orbit of the Earth were ever so slightly closer to or further from the sun, life couldn't exist. They pile up a number of very specific conditions which must coexist in order for life to exist, and ask why our planet is this way rather than any one of the millions of other ways that it could be which would not allow for life to exist. They're wrong that this points to God, as there are so many trillions of planets that it is no miracle that at least one (if not millions of others) should have life. Back to the point I was making: Believers ought to ask why God is exactly the way he is rather than some other. If there is an uncaused immaterial mind that exists (and only one of them, not many, which would commit us to polytheism) what are the odds that that mind would be absolutely perfect instead of one gazillions of ways it could be imperfect? Think about it: If my mind were altered just a bit by slicing out a piece of it or altering its structure with drugs, injuries, etc. I would probably be insane and/or mentally retarded. It does no good to object that my brain is physical while God's mind isn't, after all, we could imagine (if such things are possible, and I'm not sure they are, see argument 1) an immaterial version of every insane/idiotic/demented mind that could possibly be. Why a perfect mind rather than one of those? There is no good reason to see one as more likely than the other, and so using the believer's logic which they were only too happy to use about our life-friendly planet, it must be no more likely. Stop and think about how many possible minds there are: there are at least 7 billion human minds, billions more animal minds, plus the minds of imaginary characters, and so on and so forth. By a conservative estimate, the prior probability that an uncaused mind would be a perfect one is one out of a hundred billion, probably much more.

6. The Big Bang Argument for the Nonexistence of God. My last argument is closely related to the previous one. If we were to postulate something that was not caused, what would it be like? Out of all the possible arrangements of matter and energy that there are, most of them would have to be very “random-looking.” If no one created the universe then no one chose what the first arrangement of matter and energy would be, it would be very random and chaotic. And this is exactly what modern cosmology tells us the early universe was like, just read about the Big Bang theory.

Monday, April 30, 2012

News Bits

Here's an Interesting article on Why Pygmies are Short.

Victor Stenger has a new book out, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

Bart Ehrman has just created a blog, but in order to get full access you have to make a payment ($7.95 every three months) all of which goes to charity. I signed up, as I figure it's a great excuse to give money to charity plus I'll get something in return that I will value.

I'm thinking about writing a review of Ehrman's book on the existence of Jesus and possibly offering some more commentary on the controversey that has ensued. I'd like some reader feedback on this: Do you want to see me write that? If this is something that bores other people, I'll skip it.

That is all.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Ehrman-Carrier Kerfuffle

So, a while back Bart Ehrman published a book called Did Jesus Exist? arguing against Jesus mythicist theories and for a historical Jesus. The well-known mythicist Richard Carrier has written a pretty harsh and rhetorically-overblown review of the book, accusing Ehrman of incompetence and even obnoxiously declaring that his own books are far superior to Bart's latest book. Even worse than that, many of the mistakes Carrier points could not even concievably be classified as whoppers indicitive of incompetence. For instance, Bart wrote that mythicist Acharya S. was wrong and that there was no statue of the Apostle Peter in which he is depicted as a giant penis-nosed rooster. It turns out that the Vatican actually does house a statue of a giant, penis-nosed rooster but there's no evidence it had any connection with the Apostle Peter. Careful attention to what Bart wrote reveals that he did not write that there were no statues like this, only that there were none depicting St. Peter like this: “there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up” (Emphasis mine, see Page 24 of "Did Jesus Exist?"). Why Carrier would shoot himself in the foot by making a lot of hay over trivial things like this is beyond me (Chris Hallquist has made similar comments on this issue, also see his latest post here). Word to Carrier: when you engage in so much inflammatory rhetoric it makes you look exactly like Acharya S. every time she lashes out at a critic. Further, you shouldn't waste hundreds of words on trivial issues like this, rather, it would have made much more sense in this context to stick to bigger issues and to list them in order of importance, that way when Bart responded he would have had no choice but to begin by addressing the substantial issues that mean the most to you (because substantial issues would have and should have been the only thing in your critique). Are you really interested in dickering with Bart about the penis-nosed Priapus rather than engage the criticisms he's made of your work specifically?

Here's one issue worth addressing: In Carrier's review of Did Jesus Exist he said the following:

Ehrman declares “there were no Jews prior to Christianity who thought Isaiah 53 (or any other ‘suffering’ passages) referred to the future messiah” (p. 166), yet he does not even mention much less address the Dead Sea pesher (11Q13) or the 1st century targum that both explicitly evince this belief. And he knows about all this, so I cannot explain why he doesn’t even attempt a rebuttal, or even in fact mention this evidence, which can only misinform the reader, who will think there is none, and mistakenly conclude his assertion has not been disputed. That is simply irresponsible. See my discussion of this in The Dying Messiah.

It's odd that Ehrman, while addressing the issue of a pre-Christian dying messiah concept (p.166-170), never mentions or discusses the evidence here. Are there problems with the evidence Carrier is bringing up? If so Ehrman should have discussed what the problems were, and I hope that if there is a problem with this he will tell us what it is. I know Ehrman doesn't want to get bogged down in responding to every last mythicist claim ever made, but at the same time if you want to show the general public what is wrong with mythicism I think you have to get your hands dirty and at least respond to the first round of counterarguments that are made. I wish Ehrman had taken a page from Jerry Coyne: when Coyne wrote Why Evolution is True (intended to give the case for evolution to the general public) he made an effort in nearly every case to respond to the typical counterarguments that creationists have against evolution. That, I think, is the way things ought to be done.

Here's Carrier's review and Ehrman's response. Don't take my word for it, think for yourself.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Proving History: A Review

I have now finished Richard Carrier's Proving History.

The book was written in order to advance the thesis that Bayes' Theorem ought to be used to decide correct historical explanations and, more specifically, that Bayes' Theorem ought to be used in studies of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Carrier also tries to show that all the criteria used to judge the historicity of gospel events and sayings of Jesus are bankrupt, illogical, and do not do the job they are supposed to do: find historical truth.

Bayes' Theorem itself has been proven true, so this isn't at all controversial. What is controversial is whether it can be validly applied to history. How can we possibly come up with a decimal number to describe the prior probability of certain historical events? Isn't math just the wrong sort of thing to bring to a field like history? Carrier satisfactorily addresses all of the concerns one might have about this, and in the process I think he shows that Bayes' Theorem can be extended to all kinds of fields besides the "hard" sciences. Indeed, he demonstrates that all of us are already using Bayes' Theorem in our everyday lives but that we never realized it before. The theorem is just the mathematical description of our off-the-cuff reasoning about everything else (like how a jury can justify finding someone guilty or innocent, how we know that the sun rose today, how we know the Civil War took place, and so on and so forth). Carrier's discussion of this is worth the price of the book alone, and it will be of great interest to those looking to deepen their understanding of epistemology (the philosophy of how humans can know things are true).

The second thesis of the book is a bit trickier and far more controversial: is it true that Jesus scholars have been using bankrupt methods in their historical studies? Several leading biblical scholars (Stanley Porter, for example) have already reached similar conclusions. I'm not sure if they agree that *all* such "criteria" and methodology employed in Jesus studies are bankrupt, but it is beyond doubt that they believe all/most of the criteria have one or more shortcomings. After reading Carrier's analysis of the criteria, I am very much inclined to agree with him, with only one caveat. While Carrier seems to think that all of the criteria are bankrupt no matter what, I believe that if we *assume* that there was a historical Jesus then we can validly reach some conclusions about the life of Jesus. For example: Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet? That is, did he teach that the end of the world was near? Paul thought the end of the world was near, the gospel authors say that Jesus said this, the book of Hebrews and Revelation says it. What could account for all of these early Christian authors believing the end of the world was near and the gospels portraying this as a central teaching of Jesus? If Jesus was a real historical figure, we have two hypotheses to test: that he was an apocalyptic prophet or he was not. If he was, it is easy to see why early Christian texts say what they do. If he was not, then we have to postulate a rather radical, ad-hoc discontinuity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of so many early Christians. The latter seems fairly improbable while the former is not. Therefore, it is somewhat probable that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. To take another example: Was Jesus crucified? Most scholars would say that this is almost certainly true because it is a part of the earliest Christian teaching and because it seems implausible that a humiliating death would be invented. However, Carrier disagrees with both of these and I am in partial agreement with his reasons for doubt. That said, in his discussion of the criteria of embarrassment (the criteria of "they would have never made it up because it went against their interests") he says that if someone reports something that is true even though it is embarassing, this predicts that they may try and spin it, rationalize it, etc. Well, look at what Paul says about the crucifixion of Jesus in Galatians 3:10-13. Look at how the crucifixion is tied in to Old Testament references in the gospels (as if the Old Testament had predicted it when it had not). Why did the gospel writers do this? Probably, or at least plausibly, they were looking to put a spin on their savior's death, to cloak the embarassment of a crucifixion with a blanket of Old Testament approval. So, if there was a historical Jesus, then it follows that we can know at least a couple of things about him. That said, Carrier is right that the gospels are not generally reliable and that any sound analysis of the evidence we have will not render much of the traditional story historically true. In fact, it seems to me that the amount of confirmable history in the gospels is really pathetic.

I'd like to return to what I said earlier about assuming Jesus existed. Is this a valid assumption to make? Carrier's next book will address the topic and it seems he will be arguing that it is not. I happen to think that is, because I think that a historical Jesus is the best explanation of the beginning of Christianity and because I think certain things in early Christian letters (Paul's reference in Galatians 1:19 to "James, the brother of the Lord") are somewhat more probable if Jesus did exist than if he did not. That said, there is a fairly startling conclusion that I have reached after reading this book. Bart Ehrman, in denouncing mythicism, mentioned that he had written a book on what Jesus said and did and added that "Jesus could not have said or did anything if he didn't exist." Ehrman has put the cart before the horse: the so-called historical events and sayings in the life of Jesus probably cannot be judged as historical unless one first makes the assumption that a historical Jesus existed, and therefore this set of judgments cannot be used as evidence of an historical Jesus without begging the question. So after reading "Proving History" I am convinced that (1) We know very little about the historical Jesus assuming there was one and (2) What we do believe is true about the historical Jesus cannot be known unless we are first sure that he existed and (3) Therfore the "historical" bits of the gospels cannot be used as evidence for a historical Jesus, which wipes one of the biggest lines of evidence for a historical Jesus completely off the map. This is significant.

Here's my recommendation about this book: Buy it. Buy it to further your understanding of how you know things. Buy it so you can learn about early Christian studies. Buy it because that will help it become a number one seller on amazon and will hopefully open the eyes of others about both of these issues.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guess What Came in the Mail Yesterday!

Richard Carrier's new book, Proving History. I have been reading it, and it is truly eye-opening. Whether you are interested in Bayes Theorem, human knowledge, or Jesus studies this is a must-read. A full review will be coming after I have finished it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Free Evolution DVD!!

You can order a free DVD from Howard Hughes Medical Institute here:

Please get it and when you're done watching it, give it to a creationist friend.

P.S. Howard Hughes has also posted a number of lectures online for free. One of my favorites is Selection in Action.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Life as a Christian

Today I'm going to write about something I have written very little about in the past: my experience as a former Christian.

As I was growing up I attended several congregations of the Church of Christ in Alabama. The churches I attended never had a paid preacher (preaching was done in rotation by several male members of the congregation for free) nor any sort of hierarchal authority but nonetheless the congregations across Alabama (and to some extent, across the country and even the world) maintained connections with one another such that members of the church of Christ in Birmingham often knew members of the church in small towns a couple hours away.

The absolute, number one focus of these churches was to keep themselves and their church service in complete accordance with what the Bible taught. We had no Sunday school, no musical instruments during the church service (singing was a capella) and the members of the church cited verses from the bible (or, sometimes, a total absence of verses that condoned such things) to support these prohibitions. Over at Less Wrong you can find a community of people who are dedicated to, at all costs, eliminating their own bias and following logic and evidence. The church of Christ is very similar with the exception that they are dedicated to following the bible (which they consider to be well-evidenced, and proofs of prophecies and such were regularly presented).

Let me offer a few recollections to show you what it was like:

I knew an elder who was subjected to punishment during World War II. He was asked how he would contribute to aiding his country during the war and he responded that he would go to the battlefield and collect the wounded for further treatment. But there was a catch: he said he would pick up the bodies of the Germans as well. He reasoned that the German soldiers were people too and as a result he could not, in good conscience, allow them to die (thou shalt not kill). As a result he was ordered to do hard labor for several months (apparently the US had some sort of work camp set up for people like him).

After learning about the pagan roots of Christmas, my parents quit celebrating it and my Dad even preached a sermon on why it was wrong, which did not go over well with a few of the members.

As a child I was frequently taken to the library, allowed to read whatever I wanted (my mother had read the Qu'ran and felt it was good for me to read a broad variety, too). My mother also told me not to simply trust everything I was taught, but to keep an eye out for things that might be wrong with our own religious practices, just in case we weren't doing things exactly the right way.

So, the peculiar version of Christianity that I was raised in laid the groundwork for me to become a freethinking atheist. It took only a baby step to go from my former belief that all other churches in the world were a distortion of the truth to my present belief that all religions are fundamentally wrong.

I only made a baby step when I, as someone who believed in basing my beliefs directly on evidence (of which I had assumed the scriptures were a subset) started to turn a skeptical eye on the Bible.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Common Nontheist Misconceptions

That's an Argument From Ignorance

Sometimes when atheists are presented with an argument for God's existence, they will say "Just because you don't know what could have caused X besides God doesn't mean that God did it!" This response, on its own, is weak. We all live our lives accepting beliefs on the basis that they are the best known explanations (i.e. because we don't know of a better alternative). Think about it: if you're called to jury duty and you have to examine a murder case, and all of the evidence seems to be utterly inexplicable unless the defendant is guilty, would you sit in the jury box and say, "Just because I can't think of a way to explain this mountain of evidence without invoking the defendant's guilt does not mean that he really is guilty!"

If a theist presents evidence of God, I think it could possibly be accepted as a basis for conversion, as long as it passes the following steps:

1. The evidence has to be something that is genuinely predicted by the god hypothesis or better explained if a God exists. Roy Abraham Varghese once pointed out that scientists don't know how bumblebees fly. Which is true, but how in the hell could God explain this phenomenon?

2. There should not be any competing explanations which are more plausible than the theistic explanation.

3. Given that theistic explanations have failed hundreds of times in the past, is this evidence currently being presented really so overpowering that I can ignore the lessons of history?

Jesus Mythicism as a Debate Tactic

There are accredited scholars, namely Richard Carrier and Robert Price, who defend the viewpoint that Jesus mythicism is somewhat more likely than the view that Jesus was an historical figure. There is a chance that they are right, and even that in the future more scholars will recognize their position. I think it's fine to look at their arguments and come to your own conclusion. The misconception that I have in mind here is not that they are necessarily wrong, but simply that their position ought not be used as a sort of tool for deconverting nonbelievers. After all, the vast majority of historians, including atheist historians like Gerd Ludemann and agnostics like Bart Ehrman, believe the best explanation of the facts is that there was an actual historical Jesus (Ehrman has written a book on the subject that is now available). The reason they believe this is because it is the most credible explanation they know for the evidence. Example: in Galatians 1:19 Paul says he met James, the brother of the Lord (Galatians is not forged, it's widely accepted as authentic). Since a mythical person cannot have a brother, and since this is from an authentic and very early source (written in the 50's AD) it's good evidence for a real historical Jesus.

I find myself constantly having to make a similar point to creationists who think they know geology, physics, and biology better than men and women (many of whom are Christians) who have spent their entire lives studying the issues. Needless to say, that is just silly. It may be OK to harbor private doubts and to raise questions about the issue, but no one ought to debate someone else under the pretense that they think they know the issue better than professionals. What's sauce for the creationists is sauce for the Jesus mythicists; Have your doubts and questions, but be humble and don't assume you know it all, and especially don't present a fringe viewpoint as a reason for someone else to accept your conclusion.

Since you can't prove a negative, the burden of proof is on the theist to show that God exists.

The statement "You can't prove a negative" is simply false. We can the President is not chinese, we can prove that one plus one does not equal three, I can prove that Julius Caesar is not my father, and so on. That being said, do atheists have the burden of proof? Yes and No. It is our responsibility to show that they have the burden of proof, but it is a fact that they have it. The principle of Ockam's razor says that all else equal the simplest explanation is most probably correct. If the world around us can be explained just fine without theorizing that a God exists, then we must judge it likely that God does not exist, because a simpler explanation (that nature is all that exists) is more likely than the more complicated explanation. A point often missed is that the argument from Ockham's razor does not merely argue for a lack of belief; it actively argues for the belief that God probably does not exist. That's why theists have the burden of proof: Because we've got an argument that shows God probably does not exist, and in order to get the probability above 50% again, they have to show that there is evidence that a God exists.

You can do even better than that. As I once put it: Atheism makes the distinct predictions that the only way complicated living things will exist is if evolution occured (because on atheism there's no person to create them, they can only be products of nature) and that the world will contain injustice and evil, simply because atheism means that there's no perfect being running the universe, and without such a person, it is overwhelmingly likely that bad things will happen from time to time. And that's exactly the universe we live in.

Atheistic philosophers have come up with a number of good arguments demonstrating the nonexistence of god, here are some handy resources on those:

Webpage: Evil Bible: The Impossibility of God (This is a brief and simple set of arguments)
Journal Article: Ted Drange, A Survey of Incompatible Properties Arguments
Webpage: Ten Atheistic Arguments
WebPage: Logical Arguments for Atheism
Webpage: Evidential Arguments for Atheism
Book: The Impossibility of God
Book: The Improbability of God
Richard Carrier Blogs: The God Impossible

A Common Argument Against Miracles

Thomas Paine made the following argument against miracles:
"Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one that the reporter tells a lie."

Though this argument may sound airtight, it isn't. Let's look at a counter-example to see why: Suppose that some particular sequence of lottery numbers are only drawn one time in a million. Suppose you read that this number is the week's winning ticket in your local newspaper, which is known to give mistaken reports one time in ten thousand. Let us parody Paine: "Which is more likely, the mistake or the lottery drawing?" The manifest absurdity invites us to re-examine Hume's argument and correct the logic inherent within it. As it turns out, there is an error in this argument: it confuses how often an event happens with how often a report of that event is correct. In theory, it might be the case that miracles are exceedingly rare and that when miracles are reported the reports are usually true, in which case we would be justified in accepting a miracle based on mere testimony, since most of those testimonies would be correct.

Though this argument against miracles is flawed, I must point out that there is a correct argument against belief in miracles that has a similar result. I think a very heavy (though not impossible) burden of proof lies on any claimed miracle before it can be considered true. After all, investigations of alleged miracles have been undertaken in modern times, and they have turned empty, time after time. Little known fact is that the US Patent Office has officially refused to grant a patent to any claimed perpetual motion machine. No wonder. Every single claimed perpetual motion machine has turned out in the past to be invalid. Just a little bit of common sense tells us that, even if we can't absolutely rule out the possibility that such a machine might one day be built, it would take a fool to believe the next claim that turns up unless it was accomponied by extensive, exhaustive, extraordinary evidence. The same thing applies to miracle claims, for exactly the same reasons. And this doesn't forever and always end the debate over miracles. It could be the case that strong and overwhelming evidence turns up one day. But that has not, to my knowledge, ever happened or even come close to happening.

What's Sauce for the Goose is Sauce for the God

Theists will often present some fact that they think needs explaining: That a universe exists instead of nothing, that the universe is fine-tuned, etc. etc. A common atheist rebuttal to this is that if they get to arbitrarily suppose that God exists otu of necessity or for no reason at all, then why can't an atheist say the same about the universe? Likewise for the argument that the laws of nature come from God: if we can arbitrarily suppose that a lawfully thinking god exists for no reason, then why can't we arbitrarily suppose that a lawful universe exists for no reason? I used to go for this argument myself. It has gradually dawned on me that if this response is the only fallback response offered, the atheist position would end up being burdened with an awfully large number of arbitrary suppositions (that the universe exists as a brute fact, that it is suitable to life just by chance, and so on) whereas theism would only contain one supposition. Theism would be therefore simpler and, given that the simplest hypothesis is most probably correct, it would likely be true. Atheists shouldn't reach for such an intelluctually lazy response all of the time. Though this response might be valid if it was used in one and only one example, using it beyond that is problematic. And you don't have to. Little known fact is that there are valid and compelling nontheistic answers to every question like this that a theist might raise. Just look at Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am Not a Christian for an explanation about why there are laws of physics. Turn to Bede Rundall's book Why There is Something Rather than Nothing or Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations for discussions of why there is something rather than nothing. A quick and fun answer to this question is: there are infinite number of ways for there to be something (a universe composed of one atom, two atoms, three atoms... All the way up to infinity) and only one way for there to be nothing. The reason something exists rather than nothing is because something is more likely: It is infinity to one that something should exist.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Letter to Dr. Kern

Abbie Smith recently debated Dr. Steve Kern, a pastor in Oklahoma City, on the issue of whether intelligent design should be taught in schools. Abbie's presentation is fun, but Dr. Kern just didn't get it, and everything he said is standard creationist fare. Stephen Jay Gould proposed punctuated equilibrium because there were no transitional fossils (false). The earth may not be billions of years old. It's tiresome to see so many people who just believe creationist clap trap without bothering to read anything from another point of view or even to, you know, do some basic fact-checking. So I sent a letter to Kern's church:


I recently watched the discussion that Dr. Kern had with Abbie Smith.

Age of the Earth: There's a very good article on radiometric dating written by Dr. Roger C. Wiens on the age of the Earth and radiometric dating called Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective. I do not generally advocate information posted on the internet, but this article was written by a practicing physicist who minored in geology, it contains extensive references to peer-reviewed scientific literature, and a portion of it appeared in a book published through University of California Press (The book is Evolution Vs. Creationism).

Evolution and Transitional Fossils: There are many transitional fossils that have been discovered within the past 50 years: (Note that the information presented on this blog is based on peer-reviewed research you can read for yourself, and I'd be happy to send you a paper that contains a similar graph based on human fossils that have been discovered).

The Journal Nature has published some papers that document the evolutionary transition from fish to primitive amphibians: and there's more information on this here:

Paleontologist Donald R. Prothero published a beautiful book documenting the nature of the fossil record called Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters.

Also, I'm not sure if it was made completely clear during the debate, but the endogenous retroviruses that Abbie was talking about, which are shared between humans and other primates, are striking evidence for an ancient common ancestor:


Friday, March 16, 2012

On the Origins of the Creationist Movement By Means of Natural Selection

Jason Rosenhouse recently blogged Why Creationists Believe as They Do. Here's an excerpt:

"As fundamentalists see it, their confidence in the Bible is the most rational thing in the world. They talk more about facts, logic and evidence than just about anyone else you'll ever meet. It certainly is not the result of blind faith or anything like that."

I think there are two distinct species of creationists (and Christian in general) that need to be examined and explained.

The first type of creationist is the common garden variety which Rosenhouse describes. These are your average churchgoers, your creation science buffs (From personal experience and the experience of others I know it seems that every church is blessed, so to speak, with some guy who has read a ton of creationist material and is known as the local "expert" to be consulted on the matter). These poor dupes are not without all common sense. They know full well that it is inappropriate to believe something that you don't have a good reason to. In sermons, conversations with friends, books they've read, etc. the people that they trust have told them that tons of evidence exists. Miraculous prophecies in the bible were confirmed. Noah's Ark was found. Seashells were found a mountaintop proving the flood of Noah. They assume these people would not lie to them or be grossly mistaken about the matter at hand, after all, it is only natural for us to believe what other people tell us is true. The solution for these people is simply more education, and this is a problem that I think is increasingly shrinking with the advent of the internet and with a great increase in college education. The evidence that I have to support my view here is that most people, I think, start out with a heavy bias toward creationism. But amongst scientists (again, many of whom must have started out as creationists) you won't find very many creationists at all. In fact, far less than 1% of scientists believe in creationism. The same goes for philosophers and theistic belief; over 70% of philosophers "accept or lean towards" atheism. In other words, people who familiarize themselves with the evidence stop believing creationism. Most people are just not perverse enough to act otherwise. That's my story. That's the story of a guy I wrote about the other day. And there is a book review on amazon that confirms more of the same.

The second type of creationist is the evidence-resistant strain. These are the leaders of the movement, like Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, and Ken Ham. These men are looked to as leaders in the evangelical/creationist movement in part (I think) because they all have some credentials. Ham has a Bachelor's in applied science, Geisler holds a PhD in philosophy, and Craig has more degrees than a thermometer. I expect that anyone who has had a chance to actually look at the evidence concerning the age of the earth and evolution would have to be rigidly dogmatic and not remotely reasonable in order to hold on to the alternative conclusion. It's natural selection; just as the only bacteria who survive an antibiotic are those who have some type of resistance, the only creationists who remain creationists after looking at the evidence are ones who could never be dissuaded by any evidence whatsoever. And just look at what we see: Ham is an extreme relativist and presuppositionalist who claims that the evidence can't be looked at on its own but that one has to choose sides before looking at the evidence and then shoehorn that evidence into the pre-chosen framework (I wouldn't want that guy to serve jury duty-- ever!). William Lane Craig emphasizes that the real reason you should be a Christian is because of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Geisler, though he claims to be an evidentialist, is really very superficial in his reasoning (read something he's written and see what I mean) and more or less creates arbitrary and impossible criteria for identifying error in the Bible, as Chris Hallquist beautifully demonstrated in UFOs Ghosts and a Rising God.

The trouble is that your average creationist gets all of his thinking from the dogmatic heroes of creationism, and never hears much of anything else. The leaders of these movements understand very well that a goodly number (if not a majority) of their garden-variety followers likely won't be impressed with simple dogmatism, and this is why they go to the lengths they do to come up with arguments and evidence that will sound really appealing. It doesn't have to stand up to scrutiny; After all, most members of the poor garden variety will never rigorously check the facts being presented (a fact creationist leaders no doubt are aware of). Just as long as whatever you're saying sounds really compelling, you've got 'em. For William Lane Craig, Ken Ham, and Norman Geisler, every argument is just bait to catch more souls for Jesus. They could care less if no evidence supported their view or even whether massive evidence contradicted their view; Ham and Craig have even said as much.

With the advent of greater education and the internet, it is becoming easier and easier to catch these folks in outright lies. They may realize that, which is why we are now witnessing the transitional forms that we are: creationists who want to rely on some sort of non-evidential justification for their beliefs as well as a form of evidence. Craig attempts to make good arguments for God but at the same time emphasizes the inner witness of the holy spirit. Ham goes for presuppositionalism but also does his part to explain away the evidence as representing something else and his site, from time to time, does indeed introduce evidential argumentation. My guess is that eventually this will all result in the evolution of purely philosophical or fideistic defenses of faith with very little, if any, mention of evidence or anything else. And that's the trap the creationists are caught in: I have doubts as to whether anyone, even the less sophisticated and less learned, will find that compelling. This may well lead to the extinction (or near extinction) of the entire creationist movement, and maybe even the extinction (or near extinction) of faith.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Excavating the Empty Tomb

Youtuber TruthSurge has done a wonderful series on the gospels called Excavating the Empty Tomb: Beyond Reasonable Doubt. Because of the name I was skeptical at first (Excavating the empty tomb? Is this another guy promoting the idea that we have actually found the tomb of Jesus?!) but I was pleasantly surprised at the high quality content and presentation of the videos.

TruthSurge mentions in passing the Jesus myth theory, a theory which is rejected by the consensus of New Testament scholarship, but that isn't the centerpiece of his presentation and so it doesn't detract from what he says. The content of the videos is mostly a very well-done popularization of the material found in The Homeric Epics and Mark and Misquoting Jesus. TruthSurge is careful not to overdo-it with the issue of pagan parallels, and I think everything he says concerning this can be supported in the references I have given here.

That being said, here's what I think the most demolishing points against the resurrection myth are:
(a) The god of the Old Testament is a cultural creation of the ancient Hebrews, as demonstrated extensively in The End of Christianity. Therefore, there's no god who would raise Jesus.
(b) The dubious nature of historical evidence, especially hearsay historical evidence written by highly biased and provably errant writers.
(c) There are credible natural explanations for everything that took place at the beginning of Christianity, see the book cited above along with The Christian Delusion and this article you can read for free from Skeptic Magazine.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Causation Argument for an Eternal Universe

Here's my argument:

1. In our experience, every moment of spacetime is caused by a previous moment of spacetime.

2. There are two concievable options: either (a) it is possible that moments of spacetime can be uncaused/caused by something nonspatiotemporal or (b) it is impossible for moments of spacetime to be caused by anything except previous spacetime.

3. On the hypothesis that (b) is true, it is 100% likely that we would observe (1). On the hypothesis that (a) is true, there must be less than a 100% chance that we would observe (1) because on the (a) hypothesis, spacetime can be caused by nonspatiotemporal things or uncaused altogether.

4. We should prefer the hypothesis that does the best job of predicting the data, all else held equal.

Conclusion: From 3 and 4, spatiotemporal moments are probably always caused by previous spatiotemporal moments. The only way this can happen is if the universe is eternal, or if something like Quentin Smith's scenario for a self-caused universe is correct.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Selective Power of Creation "Science"

Here's an interesting post someone made in the FRDB forum:

It is a near-certainty that any intelligent Christian who seriously studies both secular science and so-called "creation science" will be incapable of remaining a fundamentalist. In fact, they may well end up agnostic or even atheist.

I know. It happened to me.

It is the absurd ignorance coupled with the arrogant self-assurance of Creationists and ID proponents which caused me to begin doubting everything that my fellow Christians said. Since they were so obviously both ignorant and closed-minded about the Theory of Evolution, I began to wonder about the claims they made about the historicity and provenance of the Bible as well. And the more I studied, the more I discovered that I was being lied to.

Granted, most of the time those doing the lying were not aware that the bullshit they were parroting was bullshit. They were simply repeating, with utmost sincerity, the bullshit that had been told them by people they knew and trusted. And many of those people were, in turn, doing the same.

I'm pretty sure that at least some of the people in the "creation science" movement are fully aware that they are peddling a big, stinking Crock 'O' Shit with some sciencey words sprinkled on top for effect, but most seem to be merely gullible dupes who actually believe this crap. And it's no coincidence that this nonsense is most eagerly swallowed in the USA, where science education is the poorest in the developed world. An ignorant populace is the best place to sell snake oil.

So what's this selective power that Creation Science" has? It has the unique ability to cull the intellectually curious from the ranks of Fundamentalist Christians, leaving behind a population which, in the absence of anyone to ask embarrassing questions, tends to reinforce ignorance and reward gullibility.

I've had the same experience that this man has had. Growing I had a textbook that was filled with creationist propaganda (I attended a private Christian school).

I think that, fortunately, the ignorance is gradually coming to an end. As more people go to college and get a good science education, we'll see a small slice removed from the creationist population. More slices will be removed when people come across free educational material on the web. For example, the Talk Origins archive, or the things such as Kenneth Miller's debate with creationist Henry Morris in which Miller systematically exposes the devastating flaws in creationist reasoning and offers a strong case for evolution and an old earth. Even worse damage to creationism will occur when people come across books like Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters in which Paleontologist Don Prothero shows exactly why creationist "explanations" of the Grand Canyon ("It was Noah's Flood!") are baloney and torpedoes the old canard that there are no transitional fossils with a Noachian flood of examples. The books The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution and The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and Why Evolution Is True in addition to the online documents 29 Evidences for Macroevolution and Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective completely annhilate the doubts that any reasonable person might have. And that's what did it for me. And it will be continued as education and information grow, and at some point we will reach a "critical mass" at which creationism will be an extinct or fringe idea.