Friday, April 17, 2015

A Typically Bad Presuppositional Screed

A fellow by the name of Mike Robinson has written what could be titled “A How-To on how not to refute a claim that you disagree with”, in a screed that’s actually titled “Bill Nye's Naturalistic Evolution is Absurd: Contesting 'Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation' - Bill Nye's Atheistic Evolution Is Preposterous”.

That’s really the title.

He wants to make sure you know he’s talking about Bill Nye.

I skimmed the post first, and determined that Mike more or less employs a presuppositional apologetics script in this lively polemic, so be forewarned. This stuff is tedious, predictable and smug. It’s impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery.

My first impression is that Mike’s no dummy - he carries out the presuppositional procedure well enough. It’s the premises and reasoning that are defective, and presuppositionalism is not known for equipping people to detect their own bad reasoning. So this could be painful.

First off, a polemic on Bill Nye seems unwarranted and obsessive. Why is “Bill Nye’s Atheistic Evolution” the focus here? Why not someone's else's atheistic evolution? Why not evolution itself? Why the inclusion of Nye? Did he hurt someone’s feelings? Is he scary? Did he date your fiance in high school, and you’re still afraid she wants him? Did he write a book that might inspire your children to ignore your authoritarian babble and think for themselves, and possibly - gasp - learn? What on Earth is the motivation here?

As it turns out, it’s the book. Drat. I was hoping it was the fiance.

An attack on evolution carries with it a clear presumption that the polemicist has a differing viewpoint on how Earth’s life forms came to be the way they are. I will presume that Mike is either creationist or an Intelligent Design proponent - or both. Allow me to delve deeper.

The first paragraph below Mike’s byline is “The idea behind Undeniable Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye is absurd”. Yep, a third mention of Bill Nye. Okay, we get it.Bill Nye - The Science Guy Mike’s complaint is about Nye’s book “Undeniable - Evolution and the Science of Creation”. We’re on a roll.

It turns out that Jeffrey Jay Lowder at Secular Outpost (@secularoutpost on Twitter) already handled this last year, so it would be redundant of me to critique it in the same way. But there’s something else to examine here - several things, in fact. Something Else #1 is the general idea that “evolution is false”. Something Else #2 features the foundations of presuppositionalism. Something Else #3 is regarding the misuse of argumentation and logic.

Something Else #1: Evolution is False


There are some big unanswered questions out there, all of which provide an occasion for the thoughtful apologist to develop an argument that God is the best explanation for that specific question. Obviously, the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe that allows life, the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, the origin of logic and mathematics, the fact that the universe is intelligible, the existence of objective moral values, these are all “Big Questions” that open the door for arguments that God is the best explanation for (whichever one), thus providing strong evidence that she exists. And these are just the ones that I can list while using a stylus in my left hand on an iPad, while petting my fat hairy cat with my normal writing hand! Evolution, as an explanation for speciation and diversity of lifeforms, doesn’t seem to fit the mold of “Big Question” any more, since it has been widely accepted for about 150 years. So you have to wonder why apologists pick this topic out for a lusty rogering, especially since it is the least mysterious. It turns out that unguided processes bug the shit out of them. That unguidedness indicates that God is not in control here, and that implies that he could conceivably not even be there at all. And that would be unthinkable. So we see Mike take on evolution as if he’s engaged in a holy war against hordes of infidels. It’s quite a spectacle.

Needless to say, many of Mike’s claims about evolution being false, or having been falsified, are utterly vacuous. Take for instance the premise that there are no transitional fossils. Here’s the rub: Biologists have more than enough to establish evolutionary descent from previous life forms. Is there enough? There’s enough to establish evolution as the leading explanation. If there were a competing explanation, we would have seen scads of research papers hit the universities, but we haven’t, not in the last century. Could there be more transitional forms? Of course! Biologists would love to have them all, but at what price? You can play the “there are no transitional forms” game indefinitely, however, because it represents an opportunity for almost infinite regress. A fantastic stalling and diversionary tactic. Taken to a preposterous extreme, you could claim that I am the product of divine intervention just because you can’t find the transitional fossils between my grandfather and I. (Sorry for calling you fossils, Mom and Dad!) It still remains true that evolution has no serious competitors. Mike just repeated stock sound bites.

Another common sound bite that Creationists like to trot out is that Stephen J. Gould “debunked” the idea of gradual evolution (he leaned towards a “punctuated equilibrium” model of evolution), but he wasn’t debunking evolution at all. He was proposing that evolution was not gradual, not that it doesn’t occur at all. So I don’t get it. If you have a better explanation for speciation than evolution, then write it up and submit it for academic review. If it’s better than evolution, the reviewers should be compelled to admit “we got it wrong”. If not, there still might be something about evolution that your research can correct. Otherwise, why keep beating a dead horse? Remember, if you want to claim God exists, this is the single weakest place to start. If unguided processes bug you, get over it. Pick another Big Question.

Something Else #2A: We all have Presuppositions


Mike exposes something that is behind presuppositional apologetics in general. He says:

We’re all limited in our viewpoints by our ultimate commitments—what we’re capable of affirming is limited by our presuppositions. Our ideological passions are skewed by our most basic philosophical assumptions we take for granted—we can’t help think the other side’s evidence is faulty or irreverent if it opposes our basic presuppositions.

Notice that he says “We’re all...”. He’s admitting that he is constrained by his presuppositions, and he’s ascribing the same limitation to everyone. To begin with, that’s plain wrong. It is most decidedly NOT the case that, if you have a defect, that everyone else has that same defect. So he invalidates any subsequent argument just by virtue of admitting the defect, and then accusing everyone else of the same. The plain truth of the matter is that some people will follow the evidence where it leads them, some will not, and there is a spectrum of variation between the two extremes. I think this single presumption of universal and uncompromising commitment to biases is the most damning argument against presuppositional apologetics that exists. It affirms that the person holding an uncompromising commitment to biases is not interested in seeking truth, hence not interested in bringing their mental view of reality into line with observed reality, thus disqualifying them as someone whose opinion would be of value when trying to understand the true nature of our existence. Reasonable people are capable of assent to effective, compelling arguments that oppose their personal viewpoints. Unreasonable people find this difficult. It’s as if he’s declaring “I'm an unreasonable person”.

Something Else #2b: Unwarranted Feelings of Certainty


Russell Glasser once participated in an on-line debate with a presupp that gives an apt example. His opponent’s first two entire posts were vague polysyllabic bombast, without making a single point. It was weird and irritating. Mike displays that same weird certainty that what he says is not only right, but devastating to the opposing viewpoint. Yet he never comes anywhere close to demonstrating that “Bill Nye's Naturalistic Evolution is Absurd”. Or that anyone else’s is, either. There is rehashing of unoriginal material, but little indication that enough original thought went in to this to have considered whether it's even coherent, let alone plausible.

Something Else #3: The misuse of argumentation and logic


Recall the presumption that “we all have presuppositions” - and that we’re not able to see another’s viewpoint because of it. It comes to mind that when Mike says “we can’t help think the other side’s evidence is faulty...”, it sounds like he’s preparing to address how biases color our perceptions, and how he could then conceivably deliver an argument to overcome his opponent’s biases with the strength of its wisdom and perspicacity. But no. He says:

It’s not a matter of dozing intellectually in a truce, but finding which worldview provides the ontological resources to account for research, analysis, deliberation, and knowledge. Strict naturalistic atheism is completely devoid of the necessary ontic endowment to account for such necessities. However, theism doesn’t win merely by default, but by having a foundation with the ontic capacity to account for the necessities of science and knowledge.

Very high-minded sounding, but it’s right out of the presuppositionalist playbook. What he’s really getting at is “Christian Theism provides you with the foundation for knowing stuff, and atheism doesn’t”. So he wins, you lose. Of course, he gives absolutely no evidence or argument that would even hint at why or how what he says is true, but he claims victory anyway. It’s not that your argument that evolution is true is faulty, it’s that you can’t even make a sane argument because you’re an atheist. Make sure you don't rely on an atheist auto mechanic or brain surgeon, you could be in trouble!

Look closely at this. You have to believe in “X” in order to make sense of the world. How does one explain how that works? Here is not the time to go into a discussion of the Supernatural versus the Natural, but the general problem there always remains that 1) we have no good reason to think that there is a Supernatural realm, and 2) if a Supernatural realm could exist, theres no explanation for how actions and causes from the Supernatural operate in the Natural world.

in Closing...


We can now imagine the presuppositionalist roadmap. The foundational principle is that “We all have presuppositions, and ’what we’re capable of affirming is limited’ by them”. Its corollary is “theistic presuppositions are correct, and atheistic presuppositions are not”. I’d love to see an actual argument that asserts that either of these claims are true.

From there, the rest follows:
  1. God exists
  2. God provides the foundation for intelligibility
  3. Atheists don’t believe in God, therefore they aren’t intelligible.
  4. Ignore the bare assertions and special pleading in 1 & 2.
  5. Ignore the non-sequitur in 3.
  6. Theists win.
Seriously.

It’s just that bad.




Thursday, April 16, 2015

Gagarin, Weinberg and the Supernatural

Last Sunday, April 12th, was the 54th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight. The first time a human had orbited the Earth. He was famously - and incorrectly - reported to have said something along the lines of “I don't see any God up here". Yuri Gagarin - CosmonautThose words were apparently interpolated from a claim made by Nikita Khrushchev some time later, to the effect that “Yuri Gagarin has orbited the Earth and didn’t see God up there”, but there’s no flight transcript that Gagarin actually said this. It does bring up an interesting thought, however.

It has been said elsewhere that gods (little “g”) were originally thought by primitive man to live on the mountain tops. When man climbed to the mountain tops, it was reported that there were no gods there, so it was then thought that the gods must reside above the clouds. When man gained the ability to see above the clouds, it was reported that there were no gods there, so it was then thought that the gods must reside in outer space. When man gained the ability to see and travel in outer space, where can the gods retreat to then?

When man stops looking for gods to physically “be” somewhere that we can observe, then men have to make inferences about features of the universe that are difficult to explain, and posit that gods, or “God” must be the cause of the feature(s), and thus we can “see” evidence that gods or God exists. Such it is with the existence of the universe.

I just finished reading Stephen Weinberg’s excellent book “The First Three Minutes”, a discussion of what elementary particle physicists and cosmologists agree can be known about the universe as early as one hundredth of a second after a hypothetical “big bang” singularity that might be the earliest point in the history of the observable universe that anything could be known. Even though this book was written in 1977, it is still fundamentally sound - and useful - today, 37 years after it was first published. And, although it’s not the point of the book, we don’t see any gods or God there, either. When you look into the night sky, there’s no omniscient, omnipotent being looking back at you. When astronomers look at the night sky, the furthest back they can look is to the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation - the oldest remnants of the events that scientists now call the “Big Bang Model”. When the astronomer Edwin Hubble determined that the universe was expanding, it was eventually inferred that the universe must have been smaller in the past. And when you “run the clock backward” far enough, you get a smaller, denser, hotter universe, until, hypothetically, the whole universe crowds into a single point, the hypothetical “Big Bang Singularity”. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation depicted in a light cone There is no observational evidence that tells us that an actual Big Bang Singularity existed, but you can understand why that is the direction that scientists must look. Everything we see tells us that the universe was once smaller, and thus denser, and thus hotter. And as experiments are performed like those in the Large Hadron Collider, we gain a finer and more complete picture of what the universe would have been like far beyond what natural observations can ever tell us. And we still don’t see God.

That’s not to say he/she/it/they are not there. That’s to say we should follow where the evidence leads us. And it leads us in the direction that doesn't appear inhabited by gods. If a remote, indifferent, deistic God exists at the end of the search, so be it. But the provincial, primitive conceptions of God that continue to pop up throughout history are past ready for relegation to the trash heap. Supernatural conceptions of existence don’t appear to be coherent, let alone operative in reality. So where can the gods retreat to?

There will always be, I presume, more to learn. Your neighbor may point to the hypothetical “Big Bang Singularity” and ask “how do you explain that?” You will not explain it of course, because right now there is no explanation for it, and you and I would be foolish to attempt one. What’s more, we don’t know that the idea of a “Big Bang Singularity” is correct. It may be that, when all the data are in, that something happens between then and now that explains where all the space-time, matter and energy come from. One idea is simply that the fundamental components of this universe have always existed in some form, and this universe’s emergence from what looks like a Big Bang - whatever is obscured behind the CMBR - is just a natural occurrence. It will be nice to know what that natural occurrence is, but I don’t expect it to be determined in my lifetime. It may be that the question “where did it all come from?” is nonsense. We need to be careful when insisting on answers - it may be that some things are fundamental, and cannot be further deconstructed.

Now, I’m neither a scientist nor a philosopher, so if you hear me say that “it may be that some things are fundamental, and cannot be further deconstructed” - it’s explicitly with the caveat “it may be that...”. It may be something else. It may be a bunch of things - I just don’t know. So I don’t want to make the mistake of appearing to arbitrarily set a limit to the depth of inquiry by declaring that some things are fundamental and have no further explanations. I can’t ever declare some things to be off-limits. More importantly and more generally, I don’t want to have sacred cows. I don’t want to limit my intellectual growth by setting boundaries. I don’t want to presuppose, from moment to moment, that anything that I think I know about existence is beyond questioning and revision. If I ever do, slap me.

Follow the evidence where it leads.

Monday, April 6, 2015

NT: Romans 6 - 10

Paul ends the prior chapter with a setup:

Rom 5:19 For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
20 Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:
21 That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.

...for questions to open Chapter 6:

1 What shall we say then? Shall
continue in sin, that grace may abound?
2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?

He goes on to say that sin is bad, Jesus is good, and

23 For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Chapter 7 brings us some pointed words on marriage, remarriage and adultery, the theme being that the body is inherently sinful, and likes to fuck and fuck and fuck. Paul is apparently hung up by a small weenie. Or he could have been cheated on by a previous lover.

Paul transitions from his “flesh is evil” spiel to a “nothing can change our love for Jesus” thesis in Chapter 8.

From there, we go to (what appears to be) a rant against believers in the Old Testament, who are getting it wrong, because Jesus.

In Chapter 10, Paul gets to the point:

1 Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.
2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.
3 For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.
4 For Christ [is] the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.

It goes on like this for the rest of this chapter, and on to several more, but I’ll give it a rest here.

Since Romans appears to be both admonishment and pep talk to the new congregation, as well as a polemic against the Jewish non-believers, I could pick out individual “do’s” and “don’t’s” from Pauls letter, but that’s not really my interest. It’s clear that gettin’ jiggy with your naughty bits upsets him, but this letter appears (still) to be directed against Jewish and Christian readers. I’d expect a rant against Roman, Egyptian and other Middle Eastern pagan religions, since my perception has always been that they were looser in the pants than the Jews, and that they would WAY out-number all other religions outside Israel. I wonder if that will ever come up.

Internet Fundraising - a How Not To

I’ve never tried fundraising of any sort, so I’m speculating here, but I suspect that people raising funds for a cause on the Interwebz are successful to the extent that they 1) have a worthy or interesting cause; 2) are effective at creating positive feelings towards the cause, so that potential contributors will be motivated to contribute; 3) have access to people that can potentially contribute (have discretionary income).

Duh!

This looks like marketing 101 so far.

I recently followed a person on Twitter that had a project to be funded. Interesting enough project - not essential, doesn’t feed the poor, doesn’t cure cancer, doesn’t insure peace on earth. Probably useful to a small percentage of a small group of people, and only a small percentage of the time. In fact, I can’t imagine when I’ve ever had a real-life need for this person’s idea. Not that their idea was bad, but there are ways to get what this person was proposing, and get it right now, for free. So this person has a challenge in creating that feeling of “need” in prospective contributors.

Imagine that I have $100 in discretionary funds, and I already have a habit of contributing to charitable causes to the extent that all of my discretionary funds get distributed to what I think are worthy causes. How are you going to convince me to re-allocate money from the Food Bank or Save The Children or Serving Seniors to your pet project? It might be possible, but it would take some doing. I think the trick is to “create that positive feeling”. Create the buzz. No whining!

Did I just say “no whining”? Why, yes Bob, yes I did!

The Interwebz Fund-Raiser Person that I’m thinking of, besides having a project that is probably useful to a small percentage of a small group of people, only a small percentage of the time - and essential to none of them, appears to be a whiner.

If you have a project that you need funded, you can use facts, salesmanship, humor, hyperbole, even sympathy. If you’re saving the gay whales, feeding the poor, curing cancer, insuring world peace, or bringing about the transformation of humankind into Transcendant Beings, then by all means, spread the word! But don’t make yourself look like a whiny putz by wondering out loud why someone’s pet dog got twelve billion dollars for a prosthetic leg, but you can’t even get your probably-useful-to-a-small-percentage-of-a-small-group-of-people-a-small-percentage-of-the-time project funded. It makes you look like an unsympathetic, self-centered ass. It makes your project look relatively unattractive by association. And that is definitely not going to sell your idea.



P.S. For a day or two, I thought of suggesting to this person that they change their fund-raising tactics from "why aren't you guys funding me?" to "Fund this super-exciting-innovative-project-that-will-save-the-world", but the torrent of "why aren't you guys funding me?" tweets was so irritating that I whizzed right by the make-a-positive-suggestion phase and went directly to the extreme disgust phase, once the person misplayed the crippled dog comparison.

P.P.S. Yeah, I unfollowed this person

End of rant.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Miracles

Merriam-Webster defines “miracle” as “an unusual or wonderful event that is believed to be caused by the power of God”.

Recently, Secular Outpost featured two posts addressing miracles - What if you Saw a Miracle?, and Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8, which triggered my reflection today.

The subject comes up (in my life, at least) every few years. Frequently enough to be of interest. For example, I have a relative that interpreted the sun breaking through on a cloudy day after leaving a funeral service as a miracle. She saw it as a sign from God that all was right with the dearly departed. Never mind that the sun appearing from behind clouds probably happened hundreds of times that day at the spot from which she witnessed it, and that it happens possibly millions of times a day throughout the world each day. This person has a low threshold for what qualifies as a miracle.

As for me, the question came up a few years ago in a (now moribund) Bible reading blog, in the form “what would it take you to believe that God exists?” My answer today would be that if I saw the moon drop into a low-earth polar orbit for a day, then reposition itself in its previous orbit, I would take that as a sign that God exists.

Technically, neither of these two examples (sunshine, low-orbit moon) is physically impossible, although the former is easily explainable by natural means, and the latter is wildly, preposterously improbable. Still, if billions of humans observed the low-orbit moon, then we’d have few alternatives to explain it. Maybe a super-advanced civilization flexing its muscles for that red-haired girl down the street. Maybe an optical illusion. Maybe Loki. Maybe God.

But that would do it for me.

Monday, March 30, 2015

NT: Romans 1 - 5

The dates given for when various Pauline Epistles were written differ somewhat, depending on who’s doing the dating. It appears, however, that I can assume that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is not his earliest. It might have been written between 52 and 57 CE, which would put it after both Galatians and 1 Thessalonians, and possibly others. Again, it depends. Seeing as how dates for all of the New Testament books are disputed, it won’t make that much difference to read and blog about Romans in its NT order, and keep any chronology-related comments for later. It’s a long one:

It is the longest of the Pauline epistles and is considered his "most important theological legacy".

Chapter 1 starts out like your everyday letter, with a salutation. A long, drawn-out salutation. Paul expresses his desire to visit the congregation in Rome, then says a few good words about Jesus and God, then lays in to the evil and fornicators. He clearly indicates that unbelievers are scum.

Chapter 2 focuses on hypocrites, he really hates hypocrites. And he appears obsessed with circumcision. Hypocrites and dick flesh - that’s the theme here.

It’s taking a while, but by Chapter 3, we hear Paul say that faith is more important than works.

28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

...and another word or two about dick flesh.

I’m surprised that Jesus has only been mentioned in passing so far.

Chapter 4 reinforces the idea of faith over works. And dick flesh. Jesus gets mentioned again, once.

Finally, we hear more about Jesus in Chapter 5, as Paul illustrates the power of faith as the path to God, and the power of belief in Jesus to obtain redemption for your sins.

The whole obsession about dick flesh is really disturbing, though.

So, I wonder why Paul feels he’s so important to the Romans that his words should be taken seriously? We can imagine that, in 55 CE, there are a few thousand believers spread around the Mediterranean Sea, and that, if Antioch (Turkey) is where the first church is established, then major civic centers might be expected locations for congregations to arise. But Paul’s early importance (or feeling of importance) is an eyebrow-raiser. If nothing else, we can sense that the question of salvation through works as opposed to salvation through faith is what Paul feels needs addressing.

Regardless, it’s worth reading about the Church at Antioch, just to get a mental image of where and how Paul gets started. When we get to earlier Epistles, it will be interesting to see whether Paul's theology has changed.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Guesstimating when the New Testament Books Were Written

It occurred to me that over the last several years, I have accepted the idea that the Gospel of Mark was not written until after 70 CE, the premise being that Mark knew about the destruction of the Jewish temple in that year.

Wonder of wonders, people also argue that the Whoa baby Gospels can’t have been written after 70 CE because none of them mention the actual destruction of the Jewish temple.

Whoa!

Here’s what I think is happening: those folks who would be more comfortable with an earlier date for the Gospels will point to Mark 13:1-2 and say “Jesus prophesied the temple destruction but Mark never reports its actual occurrence, therefore Mark was written no later than 70 CE”. Those folks that reject the idea of prophecy altogether probably say “Mark knew about the temple destruction and put the fact into Jesus’ mouth as a prophecy to improve his bona fides as a messiah, thus Mark was written no earlier than 70 CE”.

Isn’t that fun?