Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Exactly Do You Want From Me?

Following Feldman, let’s define epistemic peers as two people are epistemic peers “when they are roughly equal with respect to intelligence, reasoning powers, background information, etc.” 

And let say that “When people have had a full discussion of a topic and have not
withheld relevant information, we will say that they have shared their evidence about that topic.”

Many theists appear to believe that atheists and agnostics shouldn’t be atheists and agnostics.  They are, the theist says, mistaken, unreasonable, misguided, or unjustified.  This theist will have some negative attitude of culpability towards epistemic peers who share evidence.  (And the same is true for many atheists, including myself, about their attitude towards theists and agnostics.) 

What the atheist will have to say next to the theist in these circumstances will depend upon her answer to these questions: 

Do you think 1)  that once all the relevant arguments, evidence, and background issues are adequately considered, a reasonable person is obligated to conclude that God is real, or that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, or some other central tenets of modern orthodox monotheism are true? 

Or do you think 2) that once all the relevant arguments, evidence, and background issues are adequately considered, it is epistemically permissible for a reasonable person to believe that God is real, or that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, or some other central tenets of modern orthodox monotheism?

Endorsing 1), as I see it, will also commit a person to saying that to be an atheist or agnostic, once he has considered all the relevant arguments, evidence and background issues is unreasonable.  Evidence sharing epistemic peers who are atheists and agnostics ought not believe what they believe. 

Endorsing 2), as I see it, places no similar demand or charge of epistemic culpability on the non-believer.  If you think merely that it is not unreasonable to believe, given all of the relevant evidence, then you are allowing that a reasonable, evidence sharing peer might well draw a different conclusion and be within her epistemic rights, as it were. 

So theists, which is it?  Do you think that I have made some serious error with regard to the total available evidence concerning God and that I ought to change my mind?  Or do you merely think that your believing on the basis of the available evidence is epistemically permissible, but someone could opt not to believe and he would be similarly inculpable?    

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Atheist countries more peaceful

Epiphenom is a great blog.  This post is is fascinating:  Atheist countries more peaceful.

It's well established that education and religiousness are inversely correlated.  The trick, of course, is figuring out what the cause is.  Does education cause religiousness to fall off?

And this is my 300th post!

Friday, December 21, 2012

1/6 of World Population Nonreligious

New study of world religions out from Pew Forum.  16% of world population nonreligious.

Monday, December 17, 2012

End of the World

As I read it, this cookie says to expect a catastrophic flood of milk that will wipe the Earth clean of sinners.  

Be Counted

Atheist Census.  Get yourself counted.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sound like anyone we know?

Some random, but connected info about mental illness and religion.  Given what we know about mental illness and about the best arguments that advocates have been able to muster for God, our first thought when we encounter someone with intense religious convictions should not be to take his/her arguments or reasonings too seriously but to ask, "What are the symptoms of mental illness that she is exhibiting?"  The behaviors of the most religious among us:  hyper-religiousity, hyper-moralism, evangelism, hypergraphia, visions, voices, circumstantiality, disassociated states, states of religious ecstasy, euphoria, and moral elevation.  And when otherwise serious academics get involved in protracted and complicated defenses of religious belief, how is that not comparable to infamous Harvard psychiatrist John Mack getting swept up by the UFO abduction testimonies of his patients?

Geschwind syndrome

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Geschwind syndrome
Classification and external resources
Geschwind syndrome, also known as "Gastaut-Geschwind" is a characteristic personality syndrome consisting of symptoms such as circumstantialityhypergraphia, altered sexuality (usually hyposexuality, meaning a decreased interest), and intensified mental life (deepened cognitive and emotional responses), hyper-religiosity and/or hyper-morality or moral ideas that is present in some epilepsy patients. This syndrome is particularly associated with temporal lobe epilepsy occurring in the left hemisphere of the brain. For identification, the term "Geschwind syndrome" has been suggested as a name for this group of behavioral phenomena. There has currently been both support[1] and criticism[2][3] in suggestion of this syndrome. Currently the strongest support arises from many clinicians who describe and attempt to classify patients with seizures with these personality features. The term Geschwind's Syndrome comes from one of the two people who first characterized the syndrome: Norman Geschwind. His associate was Stephen Waxman, who also did a great deal of work in the field. Note that Geschwind's Syndrome can be seen both in the inter-ictal (between seizures) and the ictal (during seizures) states.

[edit]See also


  1. ^ Blumer D (1999). "Evidence supporting the temporal lobe epilepsy personality syndrome". Neurology 53 (5 Suppl 2): S9–12. PMID 10496229.
  2. ^ Devinsky O, Najjar S (1999). "Evidence against the existence of a temporal lobe epilepsy personality syndrome". Neurology 53 (5 Suppl 2): S13–25. PMID 10496230.
  3. ^ eMedicine - Psychiatric Disorders Associated With Epilepsy : Article by William J Nowack

[edit]External links

And some more serious research from Advances in Neurology:

"The Geschwind syndrome," Benson DF.  

Department of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine 90024.
A characteristic personality syndrome consisting of circumstantiality (excessive verbal output, stickiness, hypergraphia), altered sexuality (usually hyposexuality), and intensified mental life (deepened cognitive and emotional responses) is present in some epilepsy patients. For identification, the term "Geschwind syndrome" has been suggested as a name for this group of behavioral phenomena. Support for, and criticism against, the existence of this syndrome as a specific personality disorder has produced more fire than substance, but the presence of an unsettled, ongoing controversy has been acknowledged. At present, the strongest support stems from the many clinicians who have described and attempted to manage seizure patients with these personality features. Carefully directed studies are needed to confirm or deny that the Geschwind syndrome represents a specific epilepsy/psychiatric disorder.  

Hypergraphia is an overwhelming urge to write, where patients often produce tens or hundreds of thousands of words in manuscripts, letters, fiction, or grand philosophical theories of everything.  

Philosophy departments, not surprisingly, are often a locus for people with many of these symptoms/disorders.  We frequently receive large tomes, meticulously typed, in the mail referred to our faculty for consideration.  An author, who feels the urgent need to share his profound metaphysical and theological insights, wants to be recognized for the special knowledge he has uncovered.  A hyper-evangelism, or need to share these special insights with the world and acquire converts, is also often part of the author's maladies.  In the age of emails, I'll receive 5-100 emails a week from people suffering from these disorders.

Moral elevation, or intense feelings of compassion, fellow feeling, joy, adulation, and uplift, is the subject of some recent research.  Here is Jonathan Haidt's bibliography on the topic:

And some more useful references:  

And some more Oprah fans:  

What's really interesting here are the evolutionary explanations for why these sorts of moral feelings may have been selected for in human and proto-human populations.  


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

You don't REALLY believe THAT, do you?

  Stephen Pinker:  

"It might be in that America one of the two political parties seems to defiantly oppose the world science view. But I suspect that isn't the best way of understanding it, because they still look for oil using the assumptions about the age of the Earth that we all believe in; when they get sick they go to a doctor and they worry about the evolution of drug resistance just as we do. They're not Amish, they don't return to the land. So in a sense they have already bought into the scientific world, but there are just a few highly symbolic issues that define your moral and political identity that they stake out a position on, and I think that is very different from scientific ignorance. In fact, one study done by a former graduate student at my department at Harvard showed that people who endorse the theory of evolution don't understand it any better than those that deny it. We shouldn't confuse the moralisation of a small number of hot-button issues with hostility with the scientific world view in general."

There are those things that we say we believe, there are those things that we think we believe, and there are those things that we believe in believing in.  And then there is what we really believe.  When it comes down to one's real life, you don't really believe in Young Earth Creationism, most likely, no matter what you say you believe.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What harm can believing do?

When we indulge the religious urge, contrary to arguments and evidence, we foster irresponsible, unreliable, and problematic believing overall.  We foster silly beliefs and set ourselves and others up for harm.  Religious beliefs are not a private or harmless matter:

Scamming Elderly Asians on the Rise

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Round Up of Some Research on Religion from Science Daily

Study Explores Distrust of Atheists by Believers
Distrust is the central motivating factor behind why religious people dislike atheists, according to a new study led by University of British Columbia psychologists.
New University of Otago research suggests that when non-religious people think about their own death they become more consciously skeptical about religion, but unconsciously grow more receptive to religious belief.

American megachurches use stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience, according to research from the University of Washington.
Despite differences in rituals and beliefs among the world's major religions, spirituality often enhances health regardless of a person's faith, according to University of Missouri researchers. The MU researchers believe that health care providers could take advantage of this correlation between health -- particularly mental health -- and spirituality by tailoring treatments and rehabilitation programs to accommodate an individual's spiritual inclinations.

"Love thy neighbor" is preached from many a pulpit. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.

Parental hopes of a "miraculous intervention," prompted by deeply held religious beliefs, are leading to very sick children being subjected to futile care and needless suffering, suggests a small study in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Psychological research has found that religious people feel great about themselves, with a tendency toward higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than non-believers. But a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that this is only true in countries that put a high value on religion.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

1, 2, 3, . . . Ready or Not, Here I Come!

I’ve been thinking about the arguments for atheism from divine hiddenness.  Here’s a way to argue for atheism in that vein with some similarities to Drange and Schellenberg and with several improvements on the argument of my own. 

Imagine two scenarios, both where it would appear that God is hiding. 

Scenario A:  God isn’t real and we fail to find good evidence for supernatural beings.

Suppose that beings humans find themselves in this situation: 

There is no supernatural being of any sort.

 a.  there are no empirical indications of a supernatural beings
b.    none of the conceptual arguments for supernatural beings are compelling
c.    we have made substantial efforts to uncover supernatural beings. 
d.    none of our attempts to discover supernatural beings have succeeded
e.    the available evidence concerning supernatural beings are inadequate.
f.     there is a presumption that supernatural beings are the sort of entity that, if one were to exist, then it would manifest in some fashion that is detectable by beings with our cognitive faculties. 
g.    the presumption that supernatural beings would manifest in some way has not been defeated.
h.    naturalized models of supernatural belief formation are well justified by the evidence and they provide a better alternative account of the origins of supernatural beliefs.   

Question:  What is the reasonable conclusion to draw about supernatural beings in this situation? 

Would non-belief be epistemically inculpable in this situation?  That is, if humans  conclude that there are no supernatural beings, would that conclusion be unwarranted? 
What about believing in a supernatural being?  And would being an agnostic be epistemically culpable or inculpable in this situation? 

It seems to me for a number of reasons that disbelief in supernatural beings would be justified.  Disbelief would not be epistemically culpable.  Furthermore, believing in a supernatural being in this situation would be epistemically culpable and irrational.  I even think that being agnostic in this situation, particularly given the point in h., would be unreasonable/culpable. 

That is:
Belief in situation A:  irrational. 
Agnosticism in situation A:  irrational. 
Disbelief in situation A:  reasonable/rational. 

Scenario B:  God is Real, but Hiding

Suppose that humans find themselves in this situation: 

God exists and possesses the power and the knowledge to make himself known to humans. 

Yet for reasons unknown to humans, God insures that: 

a.    there are no empirical indications of God
b.    none of the conceptual arguments for God is compelling
c.    we have made substantial efforts to uncover God, 
d.    none of our attempts to discover God have succeeded
e.    the available evidence concerning God is inadequate.
f.     there is a presumption that God is the sort of entity that, if God were to exist, then God would manifest in some fashion that is detectable by beings with our cognitive faculties. 
g.    the presumption that supernatural beings/God would manifest in some way has not been defeated.
h.    naturalized models of supernatural belief formation are well justified by the evidence and they provide a better alternative account of the origins of supernatural beliefs.   

Question:  What is the reasonable conclusion to draw about supernatural beings in this situation? 

Would disbelief be epistemically inculpable in this situation?  That is, if humans  conclude that there are no supernatural beings, would that conclusion be unwarranted?  Notice that the evidential situation for humans is exactly the same in both scenarios.  So the answers to our questions about what is the reasonable conclusion to draw must be the same, with some interesting side notes.  Ironically, despite the fact that God is real in this situation, it seems to me that disbelief, given the evidential situation would be justified.  That is, the atheist in the world where God is real but hiding, would have a well-justified but false belief.  We couldn’t find epistemic fault with the conclusion that this atheist has drawn.  The apocryphal story about Bertrand Russell is relevant.  After a lecture about atheism, a member of the audience asked him, “Prof. Russell, what are you going to do after you die and then in the afterlife you show up at the Pearly Gates and God and Saint Peter are all there and it’s obvious how wrong you are?”  Allegedly without missing a step, Russell said he’d say to God, “Not enough evidence, God!  Not enough evidence!” 

Furthermore, if someone were to believe in God in this situation, it would be irrational and unjustified.  Ironically, she would happen to get it right.  That is, she’d have  a true belief.  But her evidence did not justify her conclusion.  Her belief would have all the virtue of thievery over honest toil, to quote Russell again.  She’d be like a psychic who accidentally predicted the winning lottery numbers.  Her getting the numbers right by accident doesn’t vindicate her method or improve the reliability of her method of derivation. 

Furthermore, if agnosticism was unreasonable and unjustified in scenario A, it would be here too.  That is, the agnostic who suspends judgment in scenario B, where a-h are also true, would be unjustified. 

The interesting question here concerns the reasonable limits to agnosticism.  Under what circumstances should one be an agnostic.  It seems to me that a-h, if they are true, are enough to warrant moving from agnostic to atheism.  Some other examples are suggestive:  Suppose we insert Bigfoot or Leprechauns into scenario A. 

Suppose there are no Leprechauns.  And suppose further that we have searched diligently, no compelling evidence in their favor has been found, Leprechauns are the sorts of things that would be revealed in some way to our cognitive faculties if we were to search and encounter them, and furthermore, we have other natural explanations of why people have believed in Leprechauns.  In that situation, you should not be agnostic.  Being agnostic would be irrational. 

Many agnostics have the view that God is not like Leprechauns, so there is a disanalogy here.  God is unlike Leprechauns in ways that require us to be agnostic about him, but atheist about the Leprechauns.  I think there could be a plausible argument here, but I’m not sure.  The central issue for these agnostics, I think, would be to deny that condition g. has been met in the case of God.  There are good reasons to think that the presumption about God’s manifesting to our cognitive faculties in h. is defeated in the case of God but not in the case of Leprechauns. 

The really interesting question to me right now is, what are those reasons that defeat the presumption?  Why should we think that God is not the sort of thing that would be manifest to our cognitive faculties in any of the relevant ways?  Pretty clearly, on lots of theistic hypotheses, God is the sort of thing whose existence or non-existence makes some manifest difference in the world.  The world or the arguments, would look different if there were no God in some way that we could discern.  The existence of gods of that sort is undermined by this argument.  But if there were a supernatural being whose presence or absence would not be manifest to our cognitive faculties, then our not finding any manifestations would not be adequate grounds to conclude that no such being exists. 

This agnostic might argue for this thesis:  There may yet be some sort of supernatural being that we can have no cognitive access to and that we can form no positive thesis about.  We should be agnostic about that being because the absence of evidence for it isn’t indicative either way about its existence. 

My question here is this:  What exactly are we being agnostic about in this case?  Which hypothesis am I suspending judgment about?  Is it this:  there may yet be some truths about which I can form no idea, I can have no comprehension, and that elude my cognitive faculties altogether. 

It doesn’t seem to me that suspending judgment is the right way to describe the attitude we should take about those proposals.  We should suspend judgment, it seems to me, about whether there are extra terrestrial forms of life in our universe.  That is a clear proposal about which our evidence is split or about which we do not have enough evidence yet to draw a conclusion.  The mercurial transcendental entity that the agnostic proposes is utterly unlike alien life.  We have no access, and we can have no access, perhaps in principle, to such an entity.  It would seem that we cannot hope to form any sort of propositional attitude at all about it, not even enough to suspend judgment about it. Furthermore, it is relevant to point out that this agnostic is taking a conservative attitude about the possibility of something that is utterly unlike any of the divine beings that are typically proposed or believed in.  This agnostic seems to have tacitly agreed that in situation A or B, the only reasonable conclusion is to be atheist, not agnostic, about the overwhelming majority of the gods that humans have believed in.  This agnostic is a very wide atheist, but not quite as wide as the widest atheist.  It just not clear to me that suspending judgment in this case even makes sense or is the epistemically responsible position.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do We Need Religious Belief for Happiness and Emotional Security?

I'm pressed for time, so this is just going to be a brief note with some ideas that I need to develop later.  It's widely believed by theists, skeptics, and atheists alike that religious belief serves an indispensable emotional function by giving people a sense of hope, emotional security, and happiness.  So despite all of the powerful arguments in favor of atheism, or at least undermining objections to theism, that doubters present, this response recurs:  "Ok sure, the reasons for believing in the resurrection, God, or other gods are lousy, but what's wrong with someone who still believes, keeps it to themselves, and who derives some personal contentment and emotional security from it?  Why do you have to pick on them?"

Here's the thing:  First, it's not at all clear that the widely accepted link between believing and emotional benefits is true.  Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, has been arguing on the basis of secularism in northern Europe that nonbelievers are actually happier.

Here are a few sources:
Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns

Here's a video of Zuckerman:
Zuckerman: Atheists, Agnostics, and the Irreligious

Here's Zuckerman on bias and discrimination against atheists in the U.S.:  Washington Post: Why Do Americans Still Dislike Atheists?

Do we need God to have a happy society?

Second, humans are notoriously bad at predicting or knowing what will make them happy.  See Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness  Ask people what the effects of a horrible accident or losing a loved one will be on them and they will estimate the effects as much more devastating than they actually are when those traumas occur.  Our basic levels of happiness, contentment, and personal satisfaction reassert themselves in time, even after events in our lives that we estimate will have a long, irreversible negative effect on us.  

So it seems to me that these two issues need to be connected and that we need to re-evaluate the alleged emotional and pragmatic justification for religious believing.  If Zuckerman is right, then it appears that there isn't even a emotional justification for believing.  Getting rid of religious belief might, contrary to what people think, make us happier, healthier, and more emotionally content.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stanford Event: The F Word

A link to details about my Nov. 8 speaking event:

McCormick Lecture: Stanford University

Friday, October 19, 2012

Science! It works, bitches.

People are suspicious of science.  Presidential candidates take great care to not be too enthusiastic about it, or to flatly deny what we know is true from science.  Science doesn’t address our human side.  It is dangerous; Frankenstein mythology pervades our fiction.  Science produces the things that give us cancer, nuclear weapons, power plant disasters, genetically modified organisms, clones, designer babies, and other heartless abominations.  It creates the substances that kill us with cancer, deform our babies, and clog our arteries.  

But if we were to form a clear, objective view about the institution in the course of human history that has done more for human happiness, longevity, health, wealth, comfort, prosperity, and flourishing, there is only one answer:  science.  Nothing else we have ever engaged in has made such a positive contribution to everything that matters most to us.  Complaining about the awful things that science does to us is like complaining about the brand of caviar you’ve been given while taking an opulent, luxury cruise on the Queen Mary.  

Here’s just one bit of the evidence:  

Human mortality improvement in evolutionary context  Oskar Burger, Annette Baudisch, and James W. Vaupel

Life expectancy is increasing in most countries and has exceeded 80 in several, as low-mortality nations continue to make progress in averting deaths. The health and economic implications of mortality reduction have been given substantial attention, but the observed malleability of human mortality has not been placed in a broad evolutionary context. We quantify the rate and amount of mortality reduction by comparing a variety of human populations to the evolved human mortality profile, here estimated as the average mortality pattern for ethnographically observed hunter-gatherers. We show that human mortality has decreased so substantially that the difference between hunter-gatherers and today’s lowest mortality populations is greater than the difference between hunter-gatherers and wild chimpanzees. The bulk of this mortality reduction has occurred since 1900 and has been experienced by only about 4 of the roughly 8,000 human generations that have ever lived. Moreover, mortality improvement in humans is on par with or greater than the reductions in mortality in other species achieved by laboratory selection experiments and endocrine pathway mutations. This observed plasticity in age-specific risk of death is at odds with conventional theories of aging.

That is, human life expectancy and mortality rates have improved more in the last four generations than they have in any period in human history.  To quote the Io9 article, “In fact, the changes are so dramatic, that a 30-year-old hunter-gatherer had the same mortality rate as a modern 72-year-old.”  We have seen greater improvements in the last 4 generations than in the previous 8,000 generations of humans.  

This evidence just concerns the length of life and some of the causes of death, but consider the multiplication effect.  Science makes concrete improvement in the quality and comfort of our lives with advances in technology, medicine, chemistry, agriculture, and a dozen other fields so that a day in your life is orders of magnitude better by every measure of quality than a day in the life of a hominid hunter-gatherer.  Then science quadruples the number of days you will have to experience those benefits too by radically extending life expectancy.  Given infant mortality rates for primitive people, disease, ignorance, scarcity, superstitions, natural disasters, and other risk factors, you most likely wouldn’t have survived infancy if you had been born 10,000 years ago.  Now you will live into your 80s or 90s (the average lifespan continues to rise).  Many of us will then die of cancer or heart disease after a life of unprecedented comfort and pleasure in human history.  But ironically, the complaint will be that science is the culprit in our deaths for producing cancer causing agents in our environments, or substances that are bad for our hearts in our food.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012


I got interviewed by the local CBS affiliate today about some of my fans:  Professor Gets Threats Over His Book and Blog

Admittedly she's being a bit sensationalist for the sake of the news, but the opportunity presents itself to say a few things.

First, Americans, and probably lots of other cultures that measure high on the religiousness scale, do not like having religious doubters in their midst.  For believers, being around an atheist or someone who doesn't buy into religious doctrines, it is a lot like having a vegetarian at the table with a bunch of meat eaters.  His very existence is enough to make them feel judged, pressured, or disrespected.  Most Americans are enthusiastic about freedom of religion, but in practice the real exercise of that freedom that they are comfortable with is adopting some flavor of Christianity.  Adhere to some more exotic religion, and some people's tolerance for dissent gets stretched.  And if someone rejects religious belief altogether, that's more than many can bear.  The multitude of hostile, personal, nasty, and disrespectful comments I've gotten on this blog over the years is a testimony to this hyper sensitivity.

Americans also have a heightened sensitivity about religious matters that resembles what we see in some of the more volatile Middle Eastern cultures.  The very act of asking questions, doubting, pressing objections, or being reluctant to accept flimsy theological justifications themselves are seen as inherently disrespectful, hostile, strident, and angry.  For years, reviews of atheist books in the mainstream press have focused, almost to the exclusion of all other considerations about their content, on the angry, intolerant tone of the authors.  Reviews of atheist books very often condemn and dismiss because of the tone rather than because of substantial objections to the content of the arguments.

The other problem is that there are a wide range of common psychiatric disorders where hyper religiosity, hyper moralism, evangelism, and religious urgency are symptoms.  There are no psychiatric disorders, at least that I can find, that list skepticism, doubt, or a refusal to accept religious doctrines as primary symptoms.  So, simply put, there is a significant population of mentally ill people out there who focus their anti social tendencies, their anger, and even their propensities to violence on vocal non-believers.  Authors like PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Martin, Daniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer are the targets of shockingly threatening, hostile, and violent communications.

There is also good evidence from evolutionary psychology now that the religious urge has a neurobiological foundation deep in the history of natural selection for humans.  The growing consensus is that we are wired by evolution to be religious.  So it is not at all surprising, although it is lamentable, that so many people believe, and they believe with an enthusiasm and level of sensitivity that leads them to be hostile to non believers and skeptics.  Atheists are perhaps the most reviled minority in the country, according to recent polling data.

So if we are committed to the basic principles of democracy, including a sensitivity to free speech, many of us should do some serious soul searching about our feelings of intolerance towards non believers.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Spiderman Problem

Of course the problem here is blindingly obvious to anyone who thinks about it a bit, but at the risk of ruining a good joke with too much philosophical analysis, let me over work it.  The number of people who are willing to uncritically and unreflectively quote the Bible as if doing so answers real questions continues to be disappointingly high.  

The Spiderman Problem:  If someone justifies a belief in part or in whole upon a religious document,  then we must have some independent grounds for thinking that what the document says is true.

The fact that Issue 122 says that the Green Goblin dies while fighting Spiderman, is not sufficient to prove that there is such a being as Green Goblin or that he is, in fact, dead.  

That the document says X is true, by itself, is not enough to justify it.  

The Spiderman Problem is why Christian believers must provide some other grounds for the resurrection than merely pointing out that the Gospels report that Jesus was resurrected. We need some independent grounds for thinking that what the Gospels say are true.  So, many Christians will turn to a historical argument.  The central problem here, as I have argued at length in my book is that people, particularly illiterate Bronze age peasants, sheepherders, and fisherman, are notoriously unreliable sources of accurate information about supernatural, paranormal, or spiritual matters.  Their error rate regarding things like resurrections, ghosts, magic, mental action at a distance, miracles, and so on is very, very high.  Couple that psychological fact about people with the tenuous, fragmented, and tiny body of third hand, hearsay reports we have about Jesus from religious zealots, and the foundations of Christianity--the resurrection--are undermined by the Spiderman Problem.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Speaking Ill of Jesus

Article in the California State University newspaper about my fans:

Controversial book generates threats

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Resurrection and the Salem Witch Trials

I'll be discussing an argument from my book (Atheism and the Case Against Christ) at UC Berkeley tomorrow night.  See details a few posts back.  Specifically, I'll be talking about my Salem Witch Trials argument.  Roughly, the idea is this.  It is widely alleged that Jesus was executed and then returned from the dead.  Our primary source of information about the alleged resurrection is the Bible.  The main way that the Bible reports of the resurrection have been defended is by defending its historical reliability.  I argue that by the epistemic, historic, and common sense standards that we (including Christians) already accept, there is not enough evidence to support the resurrection.  If it is reasonable to conclude that the resurrection happened on the basis of the Bible evidence, then it is even more reasonable to believe that the accused in the Salem Witch Trials were actually witches.  We have far better quality evidence regarding Salem, and a much greater quantity of it.  And the Salem evidence possesses all the same virtues that the resurrection evidence is alleged to have.  But it is not reasonable to conclude that the accused were actually witches in Salem.  Therefore, it is not reasonable to conclude that Jesus was resurrected.

If we accept magic in one case, then we have to accept magic in the other.  Or, the more reasonable conclusion is to reject magic in both.  I go on to consider some objections that are typically offered to this argument.

My Powerpoint slides for the talk are here:  The Resurrection and the Salem Witch Trials.

Hope to see you there.  It should be an interesting discussion.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Gap

There's a crippling problem with cosmological and teleological arguments.  Even if they succeed at showing there was some sort of force or forces that caused the universe, or that played a supernatural causal role in evolution, or the fine tuning of physics to be biophillic, they don't show that it was God.  That is, you can't get the God that people believe in--the all powerful, all knowing, all good creator of the universe, the God of Christianity, Allah, Jehovah, Jesus, and so on--from the argument.  The arguments underdetermine theistic belief.  I've been calling this The Gap.  And the widespread consensus in philosophy now is that this is one of the central reasons that natural theology as it has been pursued for centuries, fails.  Here's a slide I worked up recently to illustrate the problem more graphically.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Debate: Does God Exist?

Last week, Russell DiSilvestro and I debated the existence of God for an audience of a couple hundred at California State University, Sacramento.  Here's a link to a video of the discussion.

Does God Exist? McCormick and DiSilvestro

Russell presented a form of the moral argument: roughly, he argued that the objective value of honesty as a virtue implies that there must be a God.  Such moral facts cannot be explained as well by any other natural or supernatural hypothesis.

I presented an argument from divine hiddenness for atheism.  That is, if there were an almighty, all knowing creator of the universe who sought our belief on the basis of evidence, then the evidence would be much better than we find it.  The evidence we find is poor, and there are countless people with epistemically inculpable non-belief.  God, if there were one, could have made non-belief epistemically culpable.  Therefore, there is no God.

We also offered objections to each other's arguments and considered a number of good questions from the audience.  Hope you find the video interesting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Impossible, or Void of Content

We're working on Patrick Grim's "Impossibility Arguments" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism in my Atheism course.  Here's a particularly striking argument:

Because the [impossibility] arguments at issue operate in terms of a set of more or less clear specifications, of course, it is always possible for a defender of theism to deflect the argument by claiming that the God shown impossible is not his God. If he ends up defending a God that is perhaps knowledgeable but not omniscient he may escape some arguments, but at the cost of a peculiarly ignorant God. The same would hold for a God that is perhaps powerful but is conceded to be less than omnipotent, or historically impotent but not literally a creator. If the term "God" is treated as infinitely re-definable, of course, no set of impossibility arguments will force the theist to give up a claim that "God" in some sense exists. The impossibility arguments may nonetheless succeed in their main thrust in that the "God" so saved may look increasingly less worthy of the honorific title.

A more frequent reaction, perhaps, is not redefinjtion but refuge in vagueness: continued use of a term "God" that is allowed to wander without clear specification. Here as elsewhere - in cases of pseudoscience, for example - resort to vagueness succeeds in deflecting criticism only at the cost of diluting content. If a believer's notion of God entails anything like traditional attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection, the force of impossibility arguments is that there can be no such being. If a believer's notion of God remains so vague as to escape all impossibility arguments, it can be argued, it cannot be clear to even him what he believes - or whether what he takes for pious belief has any content at all.

The whole article, with several arguments for why omniscience and omnipotence are impossible, is here:

Patrick Grim, Impossibility Arguments

Grim surveys several of the most recent, most logically sophisticated accounts of omnipotence and omniscience from Flint and Freddoso, Rosenkrantz and Hoffman, and Wierenga.  None of the explanations work, he argues, because they either fail to be of sufficient scope to be worthy of God, or by being overly ambitious, they collapse under logical counter examples.  That is, God's properties, whatever they are, must be sufficiently maximal.  God, in order to be God, must have as much knowledge and power as can be had.  But on the best accounts we have, omnipotence and omniscience are anemic and mundane beings could qualify.  The most knowledge and power that any being can have are not enough to be God worthy.  The result, suggests Grim, is that after thousands of years of grappling with the problem, we still don't have a clear account of what it would be to be omnipotent or omniscient.  The implication is that we should conclude that the properties are impossible, unless the theist can produce some account that makes sense and that clarifies his claim that he believes in such a being.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Monkey Morality

I'm doing some research for my debate about God this week.  Prof. DiSilvestro is going to give a version of the moral argument for God.  I'll post my notes/essay shortly.  Here's a great video from primate researcher Frans de Waal about moral behaviors in chimps.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Tour Events This Fall

I’ll be giving invited lectures, doing debates, and talking about the book at a number of locations this fall.  Here’s a draft of the schedule.  Details subject to change. 

Sunday, Sept. 16
Interview about Atheism and the Case Against Christ
10:00 am
AM 950 Radio KTNF  The Progressive Voice of Minnesota
Atheism Talk with Carl Hancock and Brianne Bilyeu

Thursday, Sept. 27
Debate:  The Existence of God
with Russell Disilvestro
Redwood Room
Student Union
California State University, Sacramento
9:00-10:30 am

Tuesday, Oct. 9, 6:00-8:00 pm
UC Berkeley:
The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection is Unreasonable
Berkeley Students for a Nonreligious Ethos (SANE)
Genetics Plants Biology (GPB) Building, Room 100
Berkeley, CA

Friday, October 12
The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection is Unreasonable. 
UC Davis
Haring Hall 2205
6:00-9:00 pm
Davis, CA

Nov. 7 or 8
Stanford University
Magic, Resurrections, Miracles, and Reasonable Belief
Details-  TBD
Palo Alto, CA 

Wednesday, Nov. 14
CSUS The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection of Jesus is Unreasonable
CSUS Philosophy Club
Orchard Suite
Student Union
California State University, Sacramento

Thursday, Dec. 6
Disproof Atheism Society
Rm. 203, Photonics Center
Boston University
7:15 pm
Boston University Photonics Center
8 St. Mary’s St., Boston, MA

The Salem Witch Trials:  Why the Resurrection is Unreasonable
Sacramento, CA

East Bay Atheists
Berkeley, CA

Sunday, Feb. 10th
SF Atheists
Women’s Building
Mission, SF

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Basics

Disagreeing about God is easy.  If we are going to make headway in our conversations about God, however, we’d do well to focus first on our common ground.  At the risk of getting abstract and boring:  Suppose Smith and Jones disagree about matter p.  And suppose that S and J are both reasonable, thoughtful people with the intention of getting their beliefs to align as well as they can with the facts and the canons of inductive and deductive reasoning.  Smith will have one body of information that Smith takes to be relevant to deciding the issue and Jones will most likely have another.  There will no doubt be some overlap between, but the disagree is often related to different pieces of information in those two bodies of evidence.  Smith and Jones need to share evidence, and come to some agreement about what the complete list of facts are regarding p, or at least the most complete list that they can acquire. 

The disciplines of physics, astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, biology, psychology have converged on this short summary of the history of everything.  A staggering and  unsurpassed amount of work, critical reasoning, skeptical scrutiny, vetting, and aggressive efforts at disconfirmation that have gone into justifying this account of the history of everything.  That is, the story is the result of the greatest minds in human history using our best methods for investigating the world. 

The arguments that one might make for some other version of events, or the evidence that one might cite to justify a contrary picture of reality, are all inferior.  To prefer one of those alternative accounts of reality is, plainly stated, flagrantly irrational. 

So discussions about God need to start with this bit of evidence sharing as their starting point. 

Here’s a summary of what we know about the universe, the Earth, life, humanity, and evolution. 

Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, the universe went from a singularity state of infinite curvature and energy to a rapidly expanding chaotic state, the Big Bang.  During the first pico and nano seconds of this period of rapid expansion, the types and behavior of particles that existed rapidly change as the energy levels dropped.  Within a few nanoseconds, the kinds of matter and the ways they behave settled into, more or less, the sorts of material constituents we find today.  At this point, only hydrogen, helium, and lithium exist.  The matter continues to expand outward and eventually, several billion years later, gravitational pull congregates clumps of matter together to form stars.  These heat and energy at the cores of these stars cook the early forms of matter, transforming it and creating many of the other, heavier elements on the periodic table.  Some of these stars are of sufficient mass to ultimately collapse on themselves, exploding outward and spraying the new elements formed in their cores out into space.  That matter eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own.

The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  Simple, self-replicating molecules appear on Earth around 4 billion years ago (abiogenesis).  Once there is replication, natural selection and random mutations over billions of years lead to the evolution of more and more life forms, many of them of increasing levels of complexity.  The dinosaurs emerge from this  process.  The Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods range from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago.  There are boom and bust cycles of rapid proliferations of life (e.g. Cambrian explosion) and mass extinctions, such as the asteroid event that we think was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The ecological gap left by the dinosaurs provides the opportunity for placental mammals to expand and diversify. 

The earliest known stone tools originate with hominids 2.5 to 2.6 million years ago.  Estimates about the emergence of language range from 5 million years ago to 100,000 years ago.  Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, 60 million years after the dinosaurs have gone extinct.  A variety of early hominid groups vie for survival until all related lines except homo sapiens are extinct.  We are still piecing together many of the connections and relationships between these species.

There is evidence of human religious behavior such as burial rituals dating back approximately 300,000 years. 
Only very recently have one of the hominid species--homo sapiens--on the planet developed cognitive faculties that were sophisticated enough to be able to discover these various facts about the universe.  Some of those discoveries are landmarks of vast significance in our develop, although not in a cosmic scale:  Darwin’s The Origin of Species is published in 1859. In 1929, Edwin Hubble published his paper, “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae,” in which he showed that the universe is expanding.  Extrapolating backward from its rate of expansion made it possible to date the explosive beginning of the universe at approximately 13.7 billion years ago.  In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick published their discovery of DNA in Nature:  “A Structure of Deoxyrobose Nucleic Acid.” 

Sharing Evidence

Now it seems to me that any religious doctrine that portends to give an accurate account of the nature of the universe, the origins of the universe, the existence and development of life, the origins of humanity, or the relationship between humanity and the rest of the cosmos must, at the very least, accord with this history of everything.  If a religious account of the world presents us with different details about the order, span, or nature of these events, then we must conclude that is it mistaken.  4 in 10 Americans are young Earth creationists  where young Earth creationism is the view the universe, the Earth, and all life on Earth were created in their more or less present forms within the last 10,000 years.  So that 40% of the population believe a number of things that are flatly disproven by our best evidence and scientific work.  (The oft repeated claim that religious views and science are perfectly consistent or compatible is also plainly false in this light.) 

Responsible and mature discussions about God should start with this mutually agreed upon list of basics about the universe we inhabit.  Denying these basics, given the quantity and quality of evidence we have in their favor, is irrational and irresponsible.  Someone who would deny the basics is either grossly misinformed, or perhaps he is more committed to the religious ideology than to believing that which is reasonable and best supported by the evidence. 

  • The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.
  • Only hydrogen, helium, and lithium exist for millions of years until large stars form and create many of the other, heavier elements on the periodic table. 
  •  Some of these stars go supernova and distribute these new elements into space. 
  • That matter eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own. 
  • The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. 
  • Life in the form of the simplest, self-replicating molecules occurs on Earth around 4 billion years ago.
  • Once there is replication, natural selection and random mutations over billions of years lead to the evolution of more and more life forms, many of them of increasing levels of complexity. 
  • Dinosaurs live from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago. 
  • Life on the planet goes through several mass extinctions.
  • The Cambrian explosion—a rapid proliferation of the kinds and numbers of living organisms on the planet,  occurs about 540 million years ago.
  • Mammals begin to expand and diversify significantly about 54 million years ago.
  • Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. 
  • Human religious behavior starts approximately 300,000 years ago.