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.