October 21, 2009
I guess I’m still a little steamed about that idiot Bill Donohue, but I think there’s a larger issue here on the romanticization of the 1950s Norman Rockwell-style faux Americana that so many on the Religious Right want to label as “authentic American culture.” (Here’s a particularly horrifying spectacle, replete with the breathy sigh that Rockwell “captured in intimate detail what America used to be.” No, no he didn’t. Rockwell painted an America that never was.)
Is there an authentic “American Culture?” I think there is — but not what the Religious Right wishes it were. Here, let’s try a thought expermient: you have to describe “American Culture” to an outsider, but you get just one word. What’s your word? Mine’s after the break….
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September 29, 2009
There’s an increasingly popular apologetic making the rounds these days: that Christianity provides the intellectual framework for our modern conception of individual rights. This is a popular David Barton conceit, for example, and Dinesh D’Souza relied on it extensively in his debate with Christopher Hitchens.
Unsurprisingly, the argument has always struck me as completely batty. Our modern conception of rights stems exclusively (and some would say axiomatically) from the concept of the social contract, made explicit in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and extended in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke and Hobbes articulate a theory of individual rights that is entirely secular; in fact, Hobbes puts it this way:
A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.
I do concede that both Hobbes and Locke were (to varying degrees) theists, and both drew upon the Christian tradition in framing their arguments. That is, of course, to be expected. But — at least for me — the underyling contribution of social contractarianism to liberty is that it can be justified on exclusively secular grounds. Thus, I have long concluded that Christianity offers no sort of justification for the American scheme of individual rights we now enjoy.
This is readily confirmed by history; beginning in 380 AD and extending for more than a thousand years, Christians and Christian thought dominated Western Civilization, and nobody — not even indisputably brilliant theologians and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas — ever articulated a theory of individual rights (or anything that is even arguably a precursor). Rather, it was only once Christianity’s influence over Western Civilization began to subside in favor of the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment that we developed the theory of rights described above.
However, I stumbled across this interesting article by well-known atheist George H. Smith, author of Atheism: The Case Against God (which is a must-have for any skeptic’s bookshelf. Interestingly, Smith’s article was written for the Acton Institute, a Christian organization dedicated to, among other things, “promoting a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
So the resulting article is, I think, about as “fair and balanced” as one can be on this topic. Smith forcefully articulates the positive role that Christian thought and institutions played throughout history in the development of the concept of liberty as we understand it today.
Of course, the apologist’s argument that Christianity provides an ontological justification for liberty remains patently false; there’s nothing in the Bible that suggests that individuals enjoy basic rights, and plenty to the contrary. But as a social institution and a force of history, Smith has persuaded me that the relationship between Christianity and individual rights is a bit more complicated than I initially thought.
September 28, 2009
This nifty link will take you to a series of questions about “Strong AI” that touch on consciousness, intelligence, mind(s), and the like — and evaluate whether your responses are internally consistent.
If you enjoy philosophy, quizzes, and being told that you’re internally inconsistent when you answer a question with “somewhat agree,” then you’ll probably enjoy this.
June 2, 2009
* an ostensible guide to secular philosophy that features the following bit of ‘logic’: “Two of the big names in postmodernism are Friedrich Nietzsche and Michael Foucault. Nietzsche was known for dying in an insane asylum with his awesome mustache still intact. Foucault was a homosexual who liked to kill people in his spare time. You’ll hear more about them in part two of this awesome guide.”
* a page on evangelizing to college students called “Sorry, I don’t Speak Idiot.”
* there’s an FAQ question that begins “I think College Weekend Workshop is the best thing since sliced manna,” which seems inauthentically jokey. (I’ve never heard real evangelicals talk that way.)
* and the personal capper: a “worksheet” accompanying a lecture that has the following fill-in-the-blank question:
4(e). The classic tramp __________. This girl is not interested in fixing her _______ (which is why she has so many); she is only interested in ________ you for what she can _________ out of you because she is a _______!
On the other hand, the FAQ claims that the “College Weekend Workshop” is affiliated with this church, which is certainly real. And that opening video certainly looks authentic (if hilarious), and the site is peppered with Josh McDowell references, which indicate either sincerity or a very skilled parodist. Oh, and the books for sale are all the genuine article.
So who knows? In a world where people write books like this in all apparent sincerity, I’ve lost the ability to tell the difference between reality and parody.
May 20, 2009
When delving into presuppositional arguments (or the Argument from Reason, or other claims by Christians in support of mind-brain dualism), I’ll often point out that the brain we have is not cognitively reliable in precisely the sort of ways you would expect given evolution — e.g., things like Alien Hand Syndrome, optical illusions, and so on.
Thanks to Stephanie, I’ve now found the single best illustration I’ve ever seen of the way in which our brain can be fooled: the break of the curveball in baseball.
Those of us who threw curveballs know the fundamental dilemma: a classic, Blylevenesque “12-to-6” curveball appears to break much more sharply than it actually does. Part of the work of the “break” is accomplished by downward spin, and part of it is accomplished by optical illusion.
If you follow this link, you’ll see the optical illusion portion of the curveball’s break illustrated vividly. Watch the path of the spinning ball, and you can see that it travels in a straight line. Shift your focus to the blue spot, and the ball seems to be curving away from you at a drastic angle. It’s eerie!
The authors conclude:
In baseball, a curveball creates a physical effect and a perceptual puzzle. The physical effect (the curve) arises because the ball’s rotation leads to a deflection in the ball’s path. The perceptual puzzle arises because the deflection is actually gradual but is often perceived as an abrupt change in direction (the break). Our illusions suggest that the perceived “break” may be caused by the transition from the central visual system to the peripheral visual system. Like a curveball, the spinning disks in the illusions appear to abruptly change direction when an observer switches from foveal to peripheral viewing.
Just another datapoint in support of the view that our cognitive faculties are the unreliable, cobbled-together product of millions of years of evolution of the physical brain, and not some disembodied mind crafted by an almighty God.
Continuing the discussion of presuppositionalist arguments for Christianity, one common thread seems to be that Christianity as a worldview better “explains” certain features of the world than does a naturalist/physicalist worldview. While I have previously challenged the dichotomy inherent in the argument — one need not be a naturalist/physicalist in the strong sense to be an atheist, of course — I also challenge the premise itself.
So let’s start with first principles: what does it mean to give an “explanation” for something? One need not accept Kant’s epistemology to nevertheless recognize the distinction Kant drew between (1) the analytic and (2) the synthetic. An analytic explanation is one where the explanation is derived entirely from the predicate of the proposition; put more simply, when I say, “That object is a triangle, because it has three sides,” I have given an analytic explanation. I haven’t told you anything about the triangle that you didn’t already know, because the definition of a triangle is that it has three sides.
On the other hand, if I say that object is green because it was painted with watercolors, I have given you a synthetic explanation; that is, one in which the proposition contains more information than is simply found in the predicate.
Now, to the point: it seems to me that only a synthetic proposition truly counts as an ‘explanation.’ If I say that the grass is green because it has a “green-producing nature,” that isn’t really an explanation. Ultimately I’ve told you that the grass is green because the grass is green. An explanation doesn’t just tell us that something exists; it tells us how.
And this is the problem I have with presuppositional apologetics and comparative worldview arguments. It’s just not an explanation in the synthetic sense to say “God did it.” It doesn’t tell us ‘how,’ it just gives us another name for the problem.
So my question to those of you who favor those sorts of comparative “worldview” arguments: what’s your criterion/-ia for what counts as an “explanation?”
May 13, 2009
Probably NSFW without headphones, unless you work for Gordon Ramsay. (Penn, as you may know, swears a lot.) If you like Penn Jillette’s stuff, you’ll like this. It also has some great stuff on the difference between critiquing ideas and attacking individuals which seems a propos of the recent creationism discussions here.
May 8, 2009
If you’ve already read my take on the ultimate implications of Terry Eagleton’s work, and you’ve migrated on to PZ’s take, then you’re probably ready to check out Matt Taibbi’s.
Like almost all great defenders of religion, Eagleton specializes in putting bunches of words together in ways that sound like linear arguments, but actually make no sense whatsoever. In one speech he takes issue with what he calls the “Yeti” view of faith as espoused by atheists, i.e. the idea that religion is based upon the belief in an object whose existence, like that of the Yeti or the Tooth Fairy, cannot be verified by observation “in the reasonably straightforward way that we can demonstrate the existence of necrophilia or Michael Jackson” (one of a disturbingly high number of Eagleton jokes that nonsensically reference pop culture figures of at best semi-recent vintage).
May 5, 2009
One response by religious people to the rise of the so-called “New Atheist” movement has been to wade into the trenches and ratchet up apologetic arguments in an effort to convince the wavering that religion is at least as well-supported as atheism. Evaluating those arguments is the bread and butter of this site.
But, as Stanley Fish reminds us in his review of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, the religious can take a different approach as well:
When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” [Terry] Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.
Oddly, this reminds me of PZ Myers’ off-the-cuff remark — played to ominous music in the schlock propaganda film, Expelled, of course — that he would like to see religion reduced to the role of knitting in American society:
If only PZ had said “ballet” instead of “knitting” — perhaps we would have been spared that awful movie. :)
Seriously, though: both PZ and Eagleton are essentially advocating for the same thing, even if neither of them realize it. When religion is thought of as a personal preference, those who hold it and those who don’t occupy roughly the same social and political space; nobody thinks that you need to appreciate knitting or enjoy the ballet to hold elective office in this country, for example. Thus, the more we see theists move to Eagleton’s position, the more we atheists are accepted in the social, political and cultural mainstream. And that’s primarily what even the most vocal “New Atheists” (like PZ Myers) want.
April 27, 2009
Okay, this one is a real head-scratcher. A self-help guru (“Steve Pavlina,” not that I’ve ever heard of him) has posted his personal guide, “How to Graduate From Christianity.”
Ugh. Hey, Steve: you’re not helping! After the jump, I tackle Steve’s misguided notions of “graduating” from Christianity and defend my own vision of “evangelical” atheism.
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