Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Catholic snivelling may have positive effect

My first reaction to the news that the Vatican has issued a statement on priestly sex abuse that basically amounts to, "So what? All the churches are doing it!", was one of disgust. When it is revealed that one's organization is responsible for years of covering up sexual abuse, the appropriate response is not to point out that "only" 1 in 20 priests were involved in sexual abuse, or that clergy from other religions are just as guilty.

But maybe it will do some good in the long run. Clergy of all stripes are in a position of false authority, and worse than that, there is a default assumption that they are exemplars of morality, an assumption not granted to your average authority figure. So it seems quite plausible that clerical sex abuse could be a serious problem in most religions, if for no other reason than that clergy would typically have an easier time getting away with it. If the Vatican's desperate finger-pointing inspires investigation into the wrongdoings of other religions' clergy, that can only be a good thing.

I do want to highlight one particularly despicable thing from the Holy See's statement, though:

The statement said that rather than paedophilia, it would "be more correct" to speak of ephebophilia, a homosexual attraction to adolescent males.

"Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17."

I actually think it's fair to distinguish between paedophilia and ephebophilia (though both are obviously terrible crimes), but what really bothers me is the phrase "sexual orientation minority." It seems like the Vatican is trying to co-opt the language of political correctness to somehow portray the priestly perps as an oppressed minority. Maybe next they can throw in with NAMBLA...

Happy Blasphemy Day!

(For more lolgodz fun, check this old post)

Update: Since apparently I worship Darwin (why didn't anybody tell me I had to worship Darwin when I enlisted to be a Militant Atheist?), I decided to rise to Dembski's challenge and do some "blasphemy" about old Chuckie as well:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BBQ and Baptism

I just drove by a local barbecue place called Sticky Lips, and was chagrined to see that their marquee reads "BBQ and Baptism -- Congrats (so-and-so)!". I would have tried to take a picture, but I didn't want to crash my car. heh...

So that was groan-worthy, but on the way back to work I was pondering exactly why it bothers me. I mean, we should all coexist, right? They aren't directing anything at me, they are just very publicly congratulating a friend on getting baptized, which is just some thing that they do. Why should that effect me? How would I like it if people took offense to my hobbies?

And then I figured it out: It's because the implication is that baptism is necessary for salvation. So while it sounds innocent enough -- "Congratulations!" -- the subtext is "All of you unbaptized heathens are going to burn!"

I suppose it's possible they don't actually think that, but then that raises the question, why baptize in the first place? If you show me someone who really just thinks baptism is a fun thing to do in their spare time, and doesn't believe I will suffer any ill effects from avoiding it, then I guess that's just fine. But until then, I'm gonna keep being offended by signs about "BBQ and baptism".

The obligatory Maher post

Welp, the atheist/skeptic blog-o-sphere is all on fire again about Bill Maher as the recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, so I suppose I might as well cast my two cents into the conflagration.

In brief: I'm ambivalent towards Maher getting the award; I applaud those who hope to put the screws to Maher at the AAI Conference, though I doubt they'll really get much of an opportunity; and while I would have respected it if Dawkins had remained silent on the matter (he hasn't), I now think he is obliged to make some kind of clarifying statement distancing himself from Maher's quackademic views.

First, regarding Maher getting the award... I know the reaction to the movie Religulous in atheist circles was mixed, but I loved it. In fact, it was the closing monologue that inspired me to become more vocal about my (lack of) belief and what I feel about the effects of religion on the modern world. For those who haven't seen it, the closing monologue is a denouncement of religion's crimes, together with a call to arms to speak out in the name of rationality, super-imposed over a montage of video of some of religion's more disturbing consequences. My friend Nicole transcribed the monologue when she first rented the movie, and I have included it at the bottom of this post. My favorite line was "Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking." I had never heard that sentiment put so succinctly or clearly before. I know others who were similarly inspired.

So I have no trouble seeing why AAI would want to honor Maher for his contribution. He made an anti-religion movie that is both powerful and mainstream. In a sense, this was as important a contribution as The God Delusion or god is Not Great. I know many of our more pedantic atheist friends hated the movie because, admittedly, it was not particularly deep in its style of argumentation, and was often unfair to the theists interviewed. But really, it was a movie, and an op-ed one at that. And as such, I thought it was highly effective.

I also think that if I were on the AAI committee tasked with choosing the recipient of the award, I would probably have argued against Maher. His alt-med views are not only an embarrassment, but potentially quite dangerous. While I am sympathetic to those who point out that AAI is an atheist group rather than a skeptic group, I think that if the word "atheist" is to meaning anything we must have some shared values. One of those values is a disdain for magical thinking.

Now, the evidence seems to indicate that all of us engage in a certain amount of magical thinking, so it is not a problem if some atheist activists privately hold crazy viewpoints. It would not bother me if the RDA recipient was privately anti-vaccine, but did not agitate for it. However, when someone becomes a mouthpiece for magical thinking, that crosses a line. This doesn't mean everything Maher has done is worthless, of course, nor does it necessarily mean that we can't honor those positive contributions he has made... but if the atheist community is to stand for anything of value, it is imperative that we make known our collective disdain for his alt-med propaganda.

Which leads directly to the next two points: That the atheist community should attempt to put the screws to Maher in a very public way, and that Richard Dawkins should make his disapproval of Maher's health-related views explicit.

As PZ pointed out, Maher's appearance at the AAI Conference is restricted to the award ceremony itself, and I've never heard of a Q&A at an awards ceremony. The grand plan hatched by Orac is not likely to play out effectively -- although I still think we can hope that some will be able to catch Maher privately and challenge him to explain/justify his anti-vaccine and other quack opinions (PZ has indicated a potential willingness to do so, for example) and publicize the results.

Of course, in some way, the blog-o-sphere fury over the award has already made the message fairly clear, and though some will see this as a tempest in a teapot, I am actually somewhat glad to see the amount of healthy debate surrounding this. At this point, I don't think anyone can fairly say (as at least one person did at Orac's blog) that the atheist community is about nothing other than self-congratulatory smugness in our shared disbelief. The sizable fraction of the online atheist community which has spoken out against Maher is itself a testament to the extent to which we value rationality and question authority. To quote another commenter at Orac's blog, "Nothing is sacred," and I think this debate has proven that.

The last point I want to make is that I think now Richard Dawkins needs to say something, even if it's something as simple as, "I think my documentary Enemies of Reason has made clear my position on anti-vaccine paranoia, alternative medicine, and general health-related quackery. Though we may not approve of all of Bill Maher's expressed opinions, nevertheless I join AAI in recognizing his grand achievement in bringing atheism to the mainstream via his movie Religulous." He doesn't need to slam Maher or say he is a bad or irrational person, he just needs to explicitly say "Maher is wrong on vaccines."

I'm going to quote one more comment from Orac's blog, and that will be it, I promise. stinger says:

[M]aybe he doesn't see the point of making a public fuss about an unworthy nominee. Courtesy would indicate that any public opinion he expresses be quietly supportive of the choice, and Dr. Dawkins is an extremely courteous person.

This initially gave me some pause, and I do see some merit in this position. However, I must respectfully disagree, and I'm sorry it comes down to something so minor, but the reason is because of one brief comment that Dawkins made on PZ's blog. I quote it in full here:

The Richard Dawkins Award (RDA) has no connection with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The RDA was instituted by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) several years before RDFRS was founded, or even thought of. This year, the committee of AAI took the decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher. They asked me, as an individual, if I approved, and I was delighted to do so because I find him, and especially Religulous, very funny. I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions.

This year, RDFRS agreed to jointly sponsor the annual conference of AAI. The decision to do so had nothing to do with the AAI's decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher.

(emphasis mine)

Here, Dawkins has not only stated his approval of Maher as the recipient, but has proclaimed ignorance of Maher's quack views on medicine. This is unfortunate, because I think at this point it is not fair for Dawkins to plead ignorance. It unfortunately comes across as a bit of a "Lalalalalala, I can't hear you!" ploy. It is highly disappointing for Dawkins to endorse the decision to give Maher the award while completely ignoring the substantive component of the controversy.

I am afraid that this whole thing may give succor to those who falsely insist that "New Atheism" is more about fundamentalism and dogma than it is about rationality. And that's why I feel Dawkins needs to say something.

And now, as promised, the closing monologue of Religulous:

[Standing atop Megiddo, Israel]: It seems peaceful but this is the very spot where a lot of Christians believe life on earth will end. The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert man to destructive courses, the world actually could come to an end. The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people, by irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken.

George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq but he didn’t learn a lot about it. Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about, and those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are intellectual slave-holders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.

Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas, and anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don’t. How can I be so sure? Because I don’t know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble and that’s what man needs to be considering, that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.

This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price. If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers.

If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let’s remember what the real problem was: that we learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That’s it. Grow up, or die.

Thanks, Nicole!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Religion will eat itself

The BBC reports that "[a] leading Egyptian scholar has demanded that people caught importing a female virginity-faking device into the country should face the death penalty." (The device works by releasing some blood when the vagina is penetrated.)

So let me get this straight: Egyptian women are trying to obtain this absurd device so they can appear to conform to a ludicrous, oppressive, misogynist religious prohibition, and this fucktard "scholar" wants to issue yet another ludicrous, oppressive, misogynist religious prohibition to stop them from doing so?

What a world!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Are pro-gay marriage groups too nice?

I saw a comment on the YouTube video of No on 1's rebuttal ad, which I have transcribed here since YouTube doesn't give any way to perma-link to comments:

Guys, seriously: *say it*. "SAME-SEX MARRIAGE CANNOT AND WILL NOT BE TAUGHT IN MAINE SCHOOLS. HERE IS WHY. ERGO, YESONONE IS LYING." This is a nice ad, but "nice" doesn't win elections. You can't expect your audience to make the leap in logic that you're asking them to make. You said Yesonone was lying, but you didn't tell us how or why. Do that, and you have a chance. (from azelmaroark)

I think azelmaroark may not have it quite right (repeating the opposition's claims, even if the next thing you do is to debunk them, still means one extra time those claims get repeated on TV, i.e. one more chance for the meme to replicate) but I went back and watched the video again after that, and I think he/she is right that No on 1 is playing softball.

The only "negative" stuff in the ad is the brief moment of static and the "outsiders will HARM OUR KIDS" rhetoric. That's a good start, but notice that the music stays happy even during these dire pronouncements, and about 2/3 of the ad by time is people smiling and talking about happy things. This will probably motivate the base to get out and vote, but it ain't gonna change any minds. There's no fear, and that, unfortunately, is what drives the average American voter these days.

I'm not sure what the right thing is. I'm tempted to go one step further than azelmoark even and propose that No on 1 should outright lie, by implying that Prop 1 would take children away from their parents or something. But then again, that's a whole lot of "stooping to their level", and I'm not a fan of that either.

I don't know. As of a week ago, the poll numbers were not encouraging (as the blogger I linked to points out, the poll was essentially tied before the bigots' ad campaign got into full swing). I guess I should take the longview and remember that this can't go on for very many more years -- especially since young people overwhelmingly support gay marriage. It's just so depressing that things are moving so slowly..

Friday, September 25, 2009

Can you be a gentile and convert directly from atheism to Jewish atheism?

My wife comes from a Jewish family. We were both atheists by the time we got married, and yet, I am finding myself following more and more in the "Jewish atheism" tradition as time goes on. For instance, I now celebrate Channukah and Passover (and I would have celebrated Rosh Hashanah1, if only I'd planned ahead enough to get a kick-ass shofar); I absolutely love lox, with the capers and everything; and now I am finding that my new favorite non-alcoholic beverage is seltzer. Not seltzer mixed with anything, just plain seltzer.

Can I do this? Can I convert directly from gentile-turned-atheist to secular Jew, without actually practicing Judaism first? Does this make me a poser?

Meh, even if this is totally lame, I don't care. You'll have to pry my seltzer from my cold, dead, atheist, gentile hands.

1I refuse to celebrate Yom Kippur because I find the idea of religious atonement to be highly distasteful. Even with the Channukah and Passover ceremonies, I am pretty sure the only reason I am able to stomach it is because most of the "Oh God you are so awesome, I totally kiss your ass" stuff is in Hebrew, which I don't understand.

Hitchens' flawed challenge

Christopher Hitchens has a challenge that he likes to give, which you can see here, and which I have transcribed below:

You have to tell me of a moral statement that can be made by a believer, or a moral action undertaken by a believer, that I couldn't undertake because I am an atheist.

He claims to have never heard an acceptable answer to this question.

I'm afraid I think his challenge is somewhat fallacious, and in fact, the very first time I heard him issue this challenge, one of the theists whom he was debating gave a pithy and perfect response: Tithing.

Now, I believe, and Hitchens certainly believes, and probably most readers of this blog believe, that paying a compulsory or coerced tithe to a religious organization, particular one with "morals" like those that tend to ask for big tithes, is an immoral action. I have asked my wife not to mention anymore the observation that my Mormon parents have spent something like twenty times as much money this year donating to a hate group than they have on gifts for their grandson, because it's too enraging to contemplate.

But that's because we are evaluating the morality of this from a secular perspective. From a theistic perspective, tithing is perfectly moral. And so, duh, that's why a believer would undertake this action and a nontheist wouldn't.

Now, as I have blogged about before, I do not accept relativist justifications for religious buffonery, and in fact I believe in a non-arbitrary basis for morality that may even transcend our species. I think that paying tithing to LD$ Inc., for example, is objectively immoral, so in that sense, it may not technically satisfy Hitchens' challenge.

However, it does undermine the rhetorical power of it, because the entire purpose of his challenge is to "prove" that religion casts no light on morality. But in this sense, his challenge is a tautology. If we already accept that morality must be evaluated in secular terms, then yes his challenge cannot be met, but so what? Yet if we are coming from a perspective where religion does illuminate morality, then it is trivial to meet his challenge.

Really, all Hitchens has done is restate the Evidential Problem of Evil in a weaker form. In my opinion he ought to retire this argument, because it really doesn't do anything for the nontheist/anti-theist case.

First attempt at homemade baby food = FAIL

So I intend to make most of the baby food we feed our son from fresh local produce. It's not that hard anyway, and baby food made that way actually tastes like something you might actually want to eat.

My first attempt: Major FAIL.

I cut up and steamed some carrots, then blended them with some of the water from steaming them. The blend was probably a little coarse for a six-month-old, but I think that part was actually okay.

I was at work when my wife first tried feeding it to him. His eyes bugged out and he started coughing and spitting it out. She had to scoop it out of his mouth. When I got home, my wife related this story to me and asked me, "Why is it spicy?"

Spicy? Steamed carrots?!

I tasted it myself, and sure enough, it's got a real kick to it. WTF? Well, it turns out I had made a tex-mex rice bowl earlier that evening, and I had used the same knife to cut up some hot peppers... I thought I had washed it off, but apparently not thoroughly enough.

D'oh! Sorry, baby!

A Comforting thought about Islam

In his intro to Origin of the Species, Ray Comfort outlines his beef with Islam:

Interestingly, Islam acknowledges the reality of sin and Hell, and the justice of God, but the hope it offers is that sinners can escape God’s justice if they do religious works. God will see these, and because of them, hopefully He will show mercy—but they won’t know for sure. Each person’s works will be weighed on the Day of Judgment and it will then be decided who is saved and who is not—based on whether they followed Islam, were sincere in repentance, and performed enough righteous deeds to outweigh their bad ones.

In other words, Ray's main complaint about Islam is that it incentivizes people to be good -- unlike his twisted version of Christianity, in which "accepting Christ" (whatever the hell that means) is the only thing that matters.

Wow, good going Ray. You are actually convincing me that the religion of Osama might be somewhat less objectionable than yours.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I call a truce on faith

But only on real actual faith.

I was reading Jerry Coyne's musings on the Ray Comfort-mangled Origin of Species that is about to hit college campuses, and for about the umpteen-billionth time, I got really annoyed at the whole idea of religious apologetics.

I would be far from the first to point out that this whole NOMA/alternate epistemology business is undermined as soon as you start trying to make "scientific" claims in favor of your idiosyncratic religious beliefs, e.g. Creationism. More than that, the absurdity that comes from trying to make science conform to faith is just so goddamn annoying.

So, I'm calling a truce on faith. On actual NOMA. I'll let it slide from now on, even if it involves truth claims that are clearly false/falsifiable. If you want to say, "I believe in Creationism just cuz," I'm down with that from now on. Sure, all the scientific evidence is against it, but if your position is that you don't care about scientific evidence, well, alright then. Let's "coexist" as the bumper sticker says.

Just spare me these tiresome apologetics. I've taken all I can standz, and I can't standz no more.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Anti-gay marriage ads continue to convince me of the opposite

I believe I've mentioned before that there was a NOM ad which lamented that if gay marriage were legalized, "our children would be taught a new way of thinking" -- my response being, Awesome, that's exactly what I want for my son!

The Yes on Prop 1 assholes have now done a similar thing:

Fantastic! Yes, second-graders should be taught that romantic love can exist between people of the same gender as well as between people of the opposite gender. How can anyone think this is a bad thing?

I am thinking maybe it is because the bigots are unable to extricate same-sex attraction from the sexual aspect of it. When I see a husband and wife in public, I don't typically envision them having sex. That would be a little strange. I think this is true of most people. But maybe for the bigots, when they see two men in public, they immediately envision teh buttsex?

That's kinda creepy, but if true, it would explain the rationale behind this ad: I think I would agree that 2nd grade is too early to be learning about the mechanics of sex, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual, if for no other reason than because I think children of that age are unlikely to be able to make heads or tails of it. Perhaps that is the problem -- because these bigots have an immediate mental image of the mechanics whenever same-sex romantic attraction is mentioned, they assume that somehow their children will be exposed to the same mental image under those conditions?

Edit: BTW, No on 1 is soliciting donations to put together a rebuttal ad.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I am unclear on the difference between atheism and "Possibilianism"

There's a new book out called Sum by a guy called David Eagleman, that prevents 40 short stories about "possible afterlives", each being mutually exclusive. It's an interesting idea and I might even look into getting the book from the library at some point.

Eagleman refers to himself as a "Possibilian", a term he seems to have coined. Wikipedia defines Possibilianism as "a philosophy which rejects both the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground."

At first blush, this sounds like the kind of wishy-washy misguided agnosticism that asserts that since we can't have 100% certainty either way about the existence of "god", the only tenable position is to throw up our arms in a grand existential shrug. I'm sure it is unnecessary to reiterate the fallacious reasoning in this position to readers of this blog.

But looking at some more quotes from Eagleman, it becomes clear this is not what Possibilianism is at all, and to be honest I'm having trouble understanding exactly what about atheism Eagleman is trying to distance himself from.

The Wikipedia article presents two quotes from interviews with Eagleman:

I call myself a Possibilian: I'm open to a lot of ideas that we don't have any way of testing right now.

Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I'm hoping to define a new position -- one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.


The initial quote referring to "ideas that we don't have any way of testing right now" sounds suspiciously like the old theist claim that religion is an epistomology that deals with questions outside the realm of science -- which is all fine and good until one moves beyond pure deism, after which the truth claims become testable and religion is exposed for the load of bullshit that it is.

But looking at the second quote, I'm not so sure that's what Eagleman means after all. I am particular intrigued by his statement "we know too much to commit to a particular religion." This seems to imply that he accepts the proposition that science is not compatible with any currently existing religion, i.e. any "particular" religion in existence can already be rejected with knowledge we already have.

I think one might also say that "[science] is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story," although I suppose it depends what one means by "commit". Certainly, when multiple mutually exclusive hypotheses fit all of the available evidence equally well, this is not a problem for science, and both/all of the hypotheses can continue to be evaluated without prejudice against any new evidence. By the same token, no theory is ever proclaimed to be 100% certain in science, since new evidence might emerge that does not fit the existing hypotheses.

All of this seems perfectly in line with Eagleman's idea of "Possibilianism." (Perhaps science ought to rebrand itself thusly, since science is indeed concerned with all plausible possibilities, and "Possibilianism" sounds more exciting!)

At this point, it seems that perhaps Eagleman's disdain for atheism seems to be a mental error which I have blogged about before, namely the idea that "atheism" is defined as "an automatic disbelief in anything to which the word 'god' is ever attached." Eagleman joins atheists in observing that the overwhelming evidence forces us to dismiss any of the current ideas in existence to which the word "god" has been attached, but still resists the label -- perhaps because he fears that someday an entity will emerge which demonstrably exists and that people choose to label with the word "god"? Please...

Reading between the lines, though, I think I might have a guess at what Eagleman really means. Given the topic of his book, perhaps the distinction he draws with atheism is that, while Eagleman dismisses the truth claims of all currently existing religions, he is agnostic as to the existence of an afterlife. By contrast, I think it is probably fair to say that most, if not all, atheists believe the overwhelming evidence contradicts the idea of some sort of supernatural afterlife. (Cryogenics, which is a bit tinfoil-hat-ish in its present form anyway, would not count.)

On a completely unrelated note, I think maybe the similarity between Eagleman and Eagleton is making me more irritated about this than is warranted.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pascal's Wager presented and then discredited in rhyming form. For real.

This song is awesome:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Could someone who understands modal logic explain this to me?

I don't really know anything about modal logic, and I happened to stumble today across Plantinga's modal form of Anselm's argument (the absurd ontological argument that "because I can imagine a perfect being, that perfect being must exist or else it woudn't be perfect"). I cut-and-paste from Wikipedia:

1. It is proposed that a being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
2. It is proposed that a being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
3. Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified. That is, it is possible that there be a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
4. Therefore, possibly it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
5. Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists. (By S5)
6. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

From what I read in the Wikipedia article, the two objections to this argument seem to be whether to buy into Axiom S5 (which I don't understand quite well enough to comment on, but since it is apparently broadly accepted I will grant it for now), and whether to accept the possibility premise (3).

As it turns out, I am pretty sure I don't accept the possibility premise, but that's not even what I want to talk about. I think that (2) is not even a valid statement, i.e. we could not even differ over whether it is possible because it is ill-formed.

The problem is that (2) refers to a single being inhabiting every possible world. This is nonsensical. An entity that exists in world W cannot be the same entity that exists in world X, at least by the definition of "world" that we mean when using logic. If we attempt to paraphrase Plantinga's assertion with more specificity, it breaks down:

2. It is proposed that a being which exists in world W has maximal greatness if, in any possible world X it exists and is maximally excellent.

In other words, in order to be maximally great, a being -- one single hypothetical being, not two identical hypothetical beings -- has to exist in more than one possible world. This is nonsensical. You can't even invoke some sort of transcendence-of-God argument here, because by "possible worlds" we aren't talking about parallel universes, we are talking about thought experiments. The "possible worlds" are entirely separate.

If we paraphrase (2) to be less objectionable, then Plantinga's argument falls apart:

2. It is proposed that a being which exists in world W has maximal greatness if, for any possible world X in which an identical being exists, that other being would be maximally excellent.
3. Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified. That is, it is possible that there be a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
4. Therefore, possibly it is necessarily true in any world X in which a maximally excellent being exists that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
5. Therefore, it is necessarily true in any world X in which an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists. (By S5)
6. Therefore, tautologies are fun.

Perhaps a more succinct way of doing it is that Axiom S5, if I understand it, cannot be distributed across multiple possible worlds. Otherwise, I could make this absurd argument:

1. It is proposed that Plantinga's argument is incorrect in world W if and only if there is an error in Plantinga's argument in world W.
2. It is proposed that Plantinga's argument would be logically invalid if it is incorrect in all possible worlds W.
3. Plantinga's argument might be logically contradictory. (Premise. Since people are still arguing over it, I think this is a fair premise.)
4. Therefore, it is possible that it is necessary that there is an error in Plantinga's argument.
5. Therefore, it is necessary that there is an error in Plantinga's argument.
6. Therefore, there is an error in Plantinga's argument

In order for the "possibly-necessary implies possibly" aspect of Axiom S5 to hold water, the proposition it modifies must only say something about one possible world, not a generalization about all possible worlds. Otherwise, it could be used to prove anything you want.

Scientific evidence on why atheists should be "out"

Tom Rees blogs about a master's thesis he found discussing the phenomenon of distrust of atheists. What really blew my mind was this graph:

The researchers gave subjects one of three passages to read before giving them a questionairre designed to gauge their level of distrust of atheists. The first passage was a control, something about food or something. The second was a passage from The God Delusion saying that religion was nonsensical. And the third -- the one denoted in the middle on the above graph -- was a little blurb talking about the increasing prevalence of atheism, including that 20% of the 18-25 year old demographic considered themselves nontheistic.

The result is dramatic. Simply being reminded that godless heathens are common was enough to virtually shatter -- at least temporarily -- people's prejudices against atheists.

This makes it the Out Campaign all the more important. We need to let people know that atheists are everywhere, and that we're perfectly normal.

Via Konrad Talmont-Kaminski.

My trailer gets to be a float

Some friends of mine borrowed my car and my trailer to make a float for Pride at Work for the Labor Day parade. I'm not quite exactly sure why the "Support Employee Free Choice" sign looks like a tombstone, but hey, what do I know...

Alas, I didn't make it to the parade, so I only got to see photos. Still, I was proud to support Pride at Work!

1GOD1JESUS puts it better than me

It was funny, I was just saying this weekend to my wife and a friend of ours from out of town that if people want to use the "ineffability" reply to the Argument from Evil, that's fine, but then all the alleged good things God does have to be ineffable too, i.e. if you aren't allowed to blame God for bad shit, then you aren't allowed to thank him for good shit either. For instance, when God helped you win that football game, how do you know it isn't part of His grand plan to eventually make the riches go to your head so you wind up ODing on drugs as punishment for masturbating too much as a teenager? So don't thank Him. His motives are ineffable.

However, 1GOD1JESUS makes a similar point in a much more "articulate" manner:

If Obama's health care plan passes, American's will have no choice in healthcare options!

Oh wait, we already don't.

This is such a small nitpick, and its almost vulgar to complain about this when millions of Americans have no coverage at all (or are being denied necessary treatments by their existing insurance) but I have ten minutes to kill so I am going to rant about it anyway.

I'm picking up my prescription from a new pharmacy right now, and there was some confusion about my doc calling in the prescription, etc., so even though it should already have been filled, I'm waiting around doing nothing. No big deal - but why did I switch pharmacies?

I used to pick up my prescription at the pharmacy in the grocery store where I shop. Easy, convenient, and if you phoned it in they gave you a coupon. But my employer's insurance company has a deal with CVS, so they jack the co-pay if I don't get it filled from them.

That's total bullshit. I really liked getting my prescription filled at Wegmans. I could just swing by while I was grocery shopping. If I forgot to call it in, I could just shop while I waited. It was awesome. But since Caremark is a private insurance company that needs to make a profit, they have this deal set up with CVS -- a deal that wouldn't even make sense for a public insurance option.

Consumer choice, my fat American ass...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A new take on Pascal's Wager?

Hmmm... Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reminds us that even if Yahweh is real, all of my anti-theistic ranting could still pay off in the end.

A brilliant website

This website appears to be a product of Farkers. And it's awesome.

I don't actually believe that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990. I just don't understand why Beck doesn't provide conclusive proof that it didn't happen, so we can finally move past this as a nation.

You can't escape it

PZ writes this morning about some asshats who are offended that the awesome band They Might Be Giants sings a children's song that (gasp!) promotes the idea of evolution and refers to angels as unscientific.

Later, I was checking out some stunning photos of volcano lightning (seriously, you gotta see that shit) and when I
I have a dream... that someday my children's children will be able to look at a stunning and starkly beautiful picture like this without some fuckhead ruining the whole thing by insisting that GODDIDIT.
get to the bottom, lo and behold, there is an argument in the comments over whether this is some kind of penis-wielding display by an angry god.

Meanwhile, I've been conversing with HuffPo's resident "yoga chickie" over in the comments section at Joel's blog, trying to explain to her why us "atheist fundamentalists" feel the need to be so vocal. It's because the other side1 will not shut the fuck up, and uses every possible context to prattle on not just about their absurd delusions, but also why we should all cower in terror of their warmongering sky daddy.

I did not go looking for some theological discussion today. Well, okay, I got pointed to the TMBG thing via a hardcore atheist blog, but PZ originally posted about it just because TMBG is awesome, and I would have clicked the link and listened to the song anyway. In the case of the volcano lightning, I was just looking at some cool pics that I found out about from Snopes. And yet, everywhere I turn, there are theistic blowhards trying to tarnish everything that is beautiful and wondrous in this world with their dumbass sectarian viewpoint.

You can't escape it. Not in today's world. And given that, we have two choices: Run away, or take a stand.

1I want to clarify that by "the other side" in this case I do not mean moderate theists, and especially not "imaginary friend"-style pseudo-theists like Lauren... I waffle on whether moderate theism is potentially harmful or not -- and you can read a lot of my thoughts about that in my conversation with Lauren at Joel's blog -- but that's a subtlety that's not very important right now. I'm not inclined to spend much time arguing the finer points of whether a mature form of theism is a net positive or a net negative, when our politics and our daily lives are under constant assault by an infantile and intolerant form of theism.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

X-Men take over the world

"We are all mutants!" blares the headline, and I suppose it's true: According to a paper published in Current Biology, we each have about 100 to 200 mutations in our gene sequences. I guess that's not too surprising, considering we are talking about using biological (i.e. messy) transcription methods to copy billions of individual data points. Getting a several dozen of them wrong is to be expected.

I post this for two reasons: First of all, I'm sure PZ will be posting something about this, and I wanted to beat him to it. heh... also, this has some relevance to a blog post I am currently composing that explores a new metaphor that helps a simple computer engineer like me understand how such complexity could arise out of a relatively small genome.

The modern GOP interferes with rapid diagnosis of possible brain injury

This was a postscript a friend of mine tacked on to an unrelated e-mail thread, but I loved the joke so much I had to steal it (I hope he doesn't mind).

My hobby: fucking with people who have possible concussions.

"Who is the current President of the United States?"
"Barack Obama."

Doctors have it rough

After having spent ten hours undergoing very intensive heart surgery performed by brilliant and highly skilled doctors, Pat Robertson gives credit where credit is (not) due:

Only the prayers of thousands of believing people kept me on this earth.

What a dis! I'm imagining now if one of the customers of the product I work on was like, "It can only be through the grace of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that this PostScript document was spooled and converted into halftoned CMYK so that it could be printed with such holy image quality." I'd be so pissed...

Via Ed Brayton.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I get comments

Woo hoo, I just got my second comment from a theist! I was originally replying in the comments section, but it's an old post so nobody is likely to see it, and it turns out this guy's blog has a rather juicy "proof" of "the existence of an Intelligent and Perfect Creator". It's just damn fun to pick apart, so here goes:

The fundamental laws of physics then require a cause of the universe ex nihilo; i.e., a Prime Cause Singularity that is non-dimensional and independent of timespace. In contrast to endless opinionating of innumerable pseudo-scientific religionists, science recognizes the necessity of a Prime Cause ex nihilo

I think this is not quite correct, but it's actually an interesting topic. He is definitely correct in pointing out the need for some sort of singularity at or around t=0. However, to say that the singularity must be a "prime cause ex nihilo" is making assumptions about the laws of physics and causality beyond what is well understood at this time. In the first few picoseconds after the Big Bang, it may be that causality didn't really exist in a way that is well-captured by our logic.

Of course, when I try to think about that, my head spins. If I wanted to ridicule this answer, I might paraphrase it as "causality didn't exist until it was caused by the Big Bang." heh... I dunno, whether a first cause is necessary is a whole other debate that involves advanced philosophy, cutting edge cosmology, and quantum physics -- three topics of which I am fairly ignorant.

So for the sake of argument, let's move on and accept his premise: Let's say that science supports the idea of some kind of "cause ex nihilo".

Up until this point, the guy's argument has been reasonable, though probably not quite correct. The following sentence is where he descends into batshit-crazy territory:

Being logically consistent (orderly), the universe must mirror its Prime Cause / Singularity-Creator—Who must be Perfectly Orderly; i.e. Perfect.

Bullshit! Oh man, where do I start?

First, he suddenly and without warning injects the word "Creator", thus imbuing agency to this hypothetical "First Cause". If the universe does have a cause ex nihilo, why would we assume -- without any evidence whatsoever -- that that cause would be a thinking intelligent being?! This is classic apologist trickery. He has gotten us to agree to the idea of a thing which caused the universe to come into existence -- and then starts calling that thing a "Creator", with all of the baggage that goes along.

Two, just because thing X caused thing Y, that does not in any way mean that thing X has all of the traits of thing Y, or even that all of the traits of thing Y can be comprehended by thing X. If I chop the head off a chicken, that does not make me taste like chicken, nor does it mean that I fully understand all of the processes going on the chicken's death. Right? Similarly, there is no reason why the cause ex nihilo of a "perfectly orderly" universe would itself have to be "perfectly orderly."

Third, whence this logical leap from "perfectly orderly" to "perfect"? Osama bin Laden is "perfectly three-named", in that he has exactly three names -- not one, not two, but three. Does that mean Osama is perfect?! That's stupid. "Perfectly X" does not imply perfect. And anyway:

Fourth, "perfect" is undefined, and he is gaming us with the definition of "perfectly orderly". At the beginning of this whopper of a sentence, he defines the criteria for being "perfectly orderly" as merely being "logically consistent". But by the end of the sentence, he is implying much more.

Wow. I count an average of one grievous error per five words. That's quite a sentence. To give an idea of just how absurd this is, I have employed the same logic in the following paragraph:

I assert that if Anders commented on my blog, I must have at least one comment on my blog. The previous statement is logically consistent (i.e. perfectly orderly) and I created it. Therefore, I am perfectly orderly, hence I am Perfect. Kneel before me, bitches!

An orderly Creator necessarily had an Intelligent Purpose in creating this universe and us within it and, being Just and Orderly, necessarily placed an explanation, a "Life's Instruction Manual," within the reach of His subjects—humankind.

What? I have to provide an "instruction manual" within the reach of everything I create now?!? Dude, that's going to SUCK... I'm making pasta for dinner tonight, and I don't even know how to write in Pastanese!

Therefore, the Creator's "Life's Instruction Manual" has been available to man at least since the beginning of recorded history. The only enduring document of this kind is the Tor•âh′

Bzzzz, wrong again!

Fuck dude, according to this guy's "proof", we've all gotta start worshiping Osiris. That is going to SUCK.