Friday, April 18, 2014
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
I'm recycling this post from 2007. This guy put his finger on something:
A group of philosophers sympathetic with the Christian take on things have constructed a complicated and technical account of God beliefs and their source in human cognition known as reformed epistemology. On the view, espoused by Plantinga and Wolterstorff and widely cited and supported in recent years, humans are endowed by God with an innate faculty for sensing God under the right circumstances. This sensus divinitatus is one aspect of a properly functioning cognitive and belief forming system in humans. When it is not corrupted by the invasive noetic effects of sin, this faculty produces a belief in God that is immediate, direct, and non-inferentially justified. That is, a belief in God is properly basic according to the reformed epistemologists. It is not supported by any other independent or more fundamental facts. It cannot be justified on the basis of other beliefs. Rather, it’s axiomatic like the law of non-contradiction or the identity of indiscernibles. The sensus divinitatus will manifest itself in a variety of ways—when you see a sweeping vista of majestic mountaintops, or when your first child is born, or upon pondering the vastness and magnificence of the universe in the night sky.
Misinterpreting these feelings of the divine as indicators of a non-Christian God as a Hindu might, or suppressing them and denying that God is manifest in experience are all the by-products of a sinful nature. Doubters, skeptics, and deniers—anyone who doesn’t buy into the Reformed Epistemology picture—have all had their God given God detectors corrupted, co-opted, and distorted by sin. What they need, of course, is the salvation of Jesus to cleanse them of their immorality and to restore the proper function of their belief faculties. Then they will see that they were not right with God before. And then they will have properly basis religious experience of God. So the view has a the tidy way to deal with criticisms and legitimate objections. No objection to the whole scheme can have any merit because it arises from doubt, which is really just wickedness. If you had some experiences that seemed to have profound religious significance, like any normal person you would wonder about alternative explanations. Could this just be a weird artifact of my neurology? I wonder what natural explanation there could be for this strange disassociation? Maybe I ate something bad? The full-blown theistic supernatural explanation is one possibility. But according to Reformed Epistemology any suspicion that you have that it might have been something natural is really the result of your innately evil nature and the taint that sin has placed on your ability to think straight. They position undercuts any objections with an ad hominem attack on the moral character of the questioner.
The whole scheme is also clever (and insidious) for inventing a notion of private evidence that shouldn’t be held up for any public scrutiny by someone who has doubts. Once you’re in the special club, you’re provided with “self-authenticating witness of the holy spirit” that gives you perfect, unassailable assurance about your God doctrine no matter what empirical questions or doubts may arise. Ordinarily, evidence is something that is sharable and public. The prosecuting attorney displays the gun that was the murder weapon for everyone in the court, the dentist looks at X-rays, and your mechanic points to the leaking oil around a gasket as evidence that there is a problem. But this special God feeling isn’t like that; it’s just a feeling you have that something’s got to be true, so it can’t be shared with anyone else. Plantinga and some of the people in this camp suggest that the earnest Christian in this situation ought to consider alternative explanations for their experience. Many properly basic beliefs, including the God one presumably, are defeasible. If you have the experiences, and if your conviction that that’s really God your feeling persists after you have scrutinized the belief and reflected on what might be causing it, then you will have a warranted, and true belief that there is a God.
Needless to say, the notion of private evidence here is deeply problematic. Imagine an IRS agent telling you that she’s got self-authenticating, private evidence that you can’t see that you owe the government an extra $20,000 tax dollars. Imagine a doctor telling you that she’s got self-authenticating evidence that you’ve got cancer, but the evidence can’t be grasped by anyone who doesn’t already believe it. Or imagine your husband telling you that he’s got special, private, self-authenticating evidence that you’ve been cheating on him. Then suppose furthermore that they assure you that their conclusion is right because they have thought long and hard about it and considered other possibilities. Evidence that's private isn't really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant.
Here’s a model of human rationality and religious belief that is much more accurate. Humans are endowed by evolution with a remarkably effective set of problem solving skills that can be group loosely under the general heading “reason.” In the right circumstances, our reason allows us to devise complicated and elegant solutions to challenges, make accurate inferences and predictions, and arrive at many well-justified and true beliefs. We manage to cure diseases like polio and land people on the moon. But our cognitive systems are kludgey and imperfect. They’re strapped together with disparate functions and tools that were available at various stages in a long, convoluted evolutionary history. Sometimes they don’t track the truth at all, like when you have an attack of claustrophobia, or you can’t bear to even look at a dish that once made you sick when you were a child. Sometimes our cognitive faculties overreact, mislead, underestimate, or misjudge.
Our fancier faculties of reason are also often overwhelmed by a variety of emotional, psychological, and biological forces that erode our ability to reason well and see the truth. One legacy of our evolutionary history appears to be a powerful disposition towards religious belief, experiences, and feelings. Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker have recently argued that natural selection may have endowed us with a sort of mind-attribution module. Construing other organisms behavior as the product of the planning and goals within their minds, whether they really have them or not, would be an effective mechanism for anticipating and projecting the behaviors of potential predators and prey. But we’re just built to take it too far and endow everything with a mind—the wind, the ocean, the starry sky, and the world itself.
In an earlier post, I called it the Urge—a powerful and seductive need we have to be religious. Completely aside from the factual question of God, it is obvious to anyone who observes humans and their religious activities that we desperately want there to be a God and we will adopt the most contorted gymnastics of reasoning to rationalize the belief. Even if there are some theists with good reasons, there are far more with sloppy, fallacy ridden, biased grounds that they offer for their beliefs. And in lots of these cases, it’s not really the poor reasoning that is offered in defense of someone’s God belief that led them to believe at all. More often it is the case that people have the belief first as a result of the Urge’s infiltration of their consciousness, and then they back fill that conclusion with some superficial reasons. So the Urge is really the dark side of your nature that threatens to corrupt your more noble aspects. It’s the alluring, siren call of religion itself, not sin, that will co-opt reason’s ability to see the world in an accurate light.
Staying on the straight and narrow will require resisting the temptation of religion’s easy, emotionally satisfying answers to the biggest metaphysical questions. Living up to your potential to reason clearly and evaluate the evidence objectively demands that you be constantly vigilant against seduction of religion’s false comforts.
Monday, March 17, 2014
I got interviewed by Alan Litchfield recently for his podcast:
Take a listen to hear me get pretty heated up about the narcissism of many contemporary Christians' views about God, and for details about my recent Manteca lecture that was met with a crowd of angry, tongues-speaking evangelicals trying to exorcise me out of town.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Monday, January 27, 2014
(Inexplicably, YouTube won't let me embed this one.)
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Very interesting study forthcoming from Jennifer Wright, Psychology, College of Charleston, and Ryan Nichols, Philosophy, CSU Fullerton:
How Perceived Religiosity Influences Moral Appraisal: The Social Cost of Atheism
Abstract: Social psychologists have found that stereotypes correlate with moral judgments about agents and actions. The most commonly studied stereotypes studied are race/ethnicity and gender. But atheists compose another stereotype, one with its own ignominious history in the Western world, and yet, about which very little is known. This project endeavored to further our understanding of atheism as a social stereotype. Specifically, we tested whether people with non-religious commitments were stereotypically viewed as less moral than people with religious commitments. We found that participants‘ (both Christian and atheist) moral appraisals of atheists were more negative than those of Christians who performed the same moral and immoral actions. They also reported immoral behavior as more (internally and externally) consistent for atheists, and moral behavior more consistent for Christians. The results contribute to research at the intersection of moral theory, moral psychology, and psychology of religion.
Coming out in Journal of Cognition and Culture. Available on Google Scholar now here.
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Due to his tenacity, and enormous popularity with Christian apologists, William Lane Craig gets a lot of attention for his arguments for God. Here's an explanation of his Kalam argument, and secondly, a discussion of several serious problems that cripple it.
Objections to the Kalam argument and Cosmological arguments in general:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Monday, December 9, 2013
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Here's my lecture about Antony Flew's Parable of the Invisible Gardener and some speculations about understand religious utterances as non-cognitive.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Craig, Plantinga, and others have said that the Witness of the Holy Spirit is such a powerful, immediate, and veridical feeling, it provides them with an intrinsic defeater defeater to any counter evidence that might come up that suggests that their God view is not correct.
I thought and prayed about it all day today, and I am now having my own special witness in my heart that is informing me about a transcendental reality. In fact, my experience of the Witness of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in my heart is so powerful, it gives me an intrinsic defeater defeater defeater to their Jesus beliefs.
My point is this. When confronted with the possibility that there could be evidence that would undermine his conclusion that the Christian God exists, or that Jesus Christ is the savior of humanity, William Lane Craig has said that the witness of the Holy Spirit is so powerful and so assuring, and he's so utterly convinced of its veracity, that he has a built in, intrinsic defeater. Prior to even confronting that evidence, Craig has announced that nothing could convince him that he's made a mistake. Furthermore, his access to this special witness of the Holy Spirit is something private that he feels inside his head. How does he know that this special feeling can be trusted? Because it is a very powerful feeling that inspires complete trust in him. How does he know that this feeling is more than just a feeling, it is a reliable indicator of the truth outside of his head? The feeling is a very powerful, assuring feeling that it is accurate about the truth outside of his head. Craig's feeling is the measure of its own reliability, hence "intrinsically justifying" is just a distracting way to say his reasoning is utterly circular.
The point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster Witness example is to show just how ludicrous this story is. What's to keep every other believer in other incompatible divine beings from announcing the same? And what standard would those of us who don't have the feeling use to judge between these reports? If I'm having this feeling, and feels like it's authentic, is that sufficient to establish that it is? Of course not. What if the ardent Spaghetti follower announces that his feeling not only informs him about the authenticity of the FSM, but it also informs him, intrinsically, and incorrigibly, that anyone else who claims to have a intrinsically justifying Witness belief in any other God is wrong? The FSM voice in his head tells him, "If anyone says he's got an intrinsic defeater defeater for his belief, don't worry. I'm giving you an intrinsic defeater defeater defeater, so you can rest assured that you're believing in the one true divine being and all of the rest of them are deluded."
Craig's witness of the Holy Spirit justification for theism, and his intrinsic defeater defeater response to objections is complete silliness obscured by pseudo-epistemological jargon.
Friday, November 29, 2013
I just discovered the work of sociologist Gregory Paul.
THEODICY’S PROBLEM: A STATISTICAL LOOK AT THE HOLOCAUST OF THE CHILDREN, AND THE IMPLICATIONS OF NATURAL EVIL FOR THE FREE WILL AND BEST OF ALL WORLDS HYPOTHESES. After devising some estimates of how many people have suffering and died in human history, hHe argues, among other things, that given the rate of deaths and suffering for prenatal children, infants, and children in history, the world could hardly be worse and sustain life at all. It is, apparently, the worst, or nearly the worst, of all possible worlds. Therefore, theism fails. Very interesting paper.
More of his work here: http://gspaulscienceofreligion.com/gsptecharticles.html
Monday, October 28, 2013
I recently did an interview with the guys at NonTheology. The podcast with some more information is here:
Take a look at the rest of their blog too. Lots of interesting stuff there.
I just came across this older piece by Richard Dawkins about memes. I don't recall reading it before, although he's presented the idea in several places. This is an especially rhetorically effective piece:
Viruses of the Mind
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Some interesting new research about what happens in tramatized and near death situation to brain states and conscious experience:
Sunday, June 23, 2013
I've been at the Secular Students Alliance conference in Las Vegas for the last three days. Lots of great stuff going on here. My talk was yesterday. Here's a link to my slide show:
Being an Out of the Closet Atheist
And the SSA will have a video of the talk up shortly. I'll post a link when that becomes available.
Richard Carrier gave a good talk, and he's doing lots of good work. He has a new book that looks good:
And he's got a video of an excellent primer on Bayes Probability Reasoning that is very clear, and has minimal math.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
This is the season, after grades have been submitted, when student emails complaining about grades come in. A particular pattern emerges. I couldn't resist writing it up to use in my Critical Thinking classes. The other obvious application of the Confirmation Bias point is to the way people often think about prayer.
Confirmation Bias is the mistake of selecting evidence that corroborates a pet hypothesis while ignoring or neglecting evidence that would disprove it. Humans are guilty of committing it in a wide range of circumstances. At the end of each semester, many students, including students in Critical Thinking and Theory of Knowledge where we study confirmation bias extensively, blunder into it. They get a grade for the course that is surprisingly low and send an email to their professor asking to know what happened. As far as they knew, they were doing great in the course. They recall getting an A on an assignment, and going ok on the midterm, and feeling pretty optimistic, so they can’t understand the low grade. Notice the parts highlighted in red here (a real email):
Student 1: I just checked my grades for the Spring semester and was surprised to have earned an F grade. I completed the major assignments for the course and did well on the midterm (90%) and well on the final (85%). I know I didn't participate in the online forum as much as was required but I'm still confused about the grade. I took the class material seriously and did my best on every assignment assigned.
Professor McCormick (notice the grades highlighted in red here): Here are the grades I have for you. This syllabus gives the details about the grade structure. Check the math and check your returned assignments to make sure it's all right. If there's a clerical error, I'll fix it right away:
Question Sets: 0, 82, 0, 75, 0, 95 (6% each)
First paper: 78
Second paper: 85
Outside projects: 7/8
Google Group: 0/8
Attendance and participation: 0/8
So between the skipped question sets, the Group discussion and attendance, you gave up 34% of the grade. Even if you were making an A on everything else, that would put it down to a D.
Student 2: I'm emailing you in regards to my final grades. I was hoping you could provide a detailed summary of my grades for the semester so that I can understand how I received a D. I felt as though I did fairly well, particularly improving on the more major assignments, so I would just like to know how I still failed to pass. If you could email me a detailed summary of my grades, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you.
Professor McCormick: Yeah, I was disappointed in your grades too. It seemed to me that you are capable of doing much better work, and being more responsible about turning stuff in. Here are the grades I have. Check the math with the grade structure on the syllabus and let me know if there is a clerical error asap:
Question sets: 76, 0, 82, 0, 85, 56, 80 (6% each)
Evil paper 65
Second paper: 75
Final exam: 85
Outside Projects: 6/8
Google Groups: 4/8
Attendance and participation: 6/8
So the skipped question sets took 12% off of your grade. You got a D on the first paper and didn't take the opportunity to rewrite it that I gave the class. You could have brought that up substantially. The Google Group points would have helped too since your overall score came out at 68%.
When we commit confirmation bias, we cherry pick the evidence that suits us. The student actively remembers the good grades, but missed assignments and low scores are forgotten. But clearly, having an accurate and objective grasp of the relevant evidence would serve us well. We don’t want to ignore evidence indicating something negative, disastrous, or dangerous because it doesn’t suit what we want to be true. Imagine if a doctor acquired a skewed view of the evidence concerning a potentially fatal disease this way. Suppose the Secretary of State ignored significant negative indicators in the behavior of an aggressive and hostile foreign country. Suppose a potential employer asked you how you did in your Critical Thinking course in college, and then she checked your transcripts against your distorted report. Suppose you spend thousands of dollars over the years on losing lottery tickets because the occasional wins stick out in your mind so prominently, while the loses are forgotten. Suppose you spend time praying to God frequently, hundreds or thousands of times in your life, and on the rare occasion when something vaguely resembling what you prayed for came true, you count that as an answered prayer, while ignoring the thousands of misses. Suppose you sustain your belief in God for years on the basis of this mistake.