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Some arguments with my old pastor

True to my last post, I’ve got a bit of something here from my 750words writing. This weekend my old church, where my family still attends, had a sermon on “The Atheist Christian” or something like that, and had a little handout from the pastor with his conclusions (more liberal than many theologies, but…). I’m addressing a few of his point here because… well I guess because I can.

Conclusion #8 (the first one) – Evolutionism isn’t contrary to Creationism. They don’t answer the same questions. In order for evolution to occur, created matter had to already exist. Therefore the theory of evolution can’t argue against the existence of a God. (interestingly, the title of Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species, isn’t about their origin at all, at least in terms of the creation of matter. It’s about Darwin’s view of the origin of the contemporary species from other species.)

This is a horrible case of mis-definition of both things. Evolution describes how things evolve, change, grow, modify and is not the story of abiogenesis (beginning of life) OR that of the big bang (beginning of space, time, and matter/energy as we know it). Creationism is the concept that things were created, not just “stuff” was created at the big bang, but individual creatures, planets, stars, and galaxies. One can take a bit of a catholic dodge and say that “god created the universe with the big bang” and then “evolution is the means by which species grew and evolved” and then jump in with the theistic evolutionist (Francis Collins for example) idea that at some point in the evolutionary process humanity was “ensouled” and then became fully human. Furthermore, evolution isn’t an argument against the existence of God. Evolution can be, and has been, used as an argument against the necessity of supernatural intervention to explain the diversity of species.

Conclusion #8 (apparently the 2nd #8) Atheists have a self-contradicting logic. This is a paraphrase from Timothy Keller: “Atheistic evolutionists say that people believe in God not because he really exists, but because that belief has helped humans survive and thrive. Thus, they say, we are ‘hard wired’ for belief in God. But if we cannot trust our ‘belief-forming faculties’ to tell us the truth about God, then how can we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science?” For the evolutionist, the theory of evolution can only be trusted to give us the kind of mind that will help us survive, thrive, and reproduce, not discover truth.

This is the quintessential straw man. That paraphrase in no way characterizes an atheist view point that virtually anybody who is an atheist based on reason has *ever* espoused. Let me fix it a bit, which will reflect something closer to what many atheist believe and unsurprisingly is no longer a self-contradicting logic (nor is it as pithy and quotable, but reality isn’t often that pithy).

People believe in God, whether or not he actually exists, because the propensity to interpret things and events as evidence of some other entity is adaptively beneficial. When you assume a rustle in the grass is a predator and you react accordingly you only lose a little energy from running away if you’re wrong. When you assume a rustle in the grass is not a predator and you’re wrong you lose your life (and most often the chance to pass on your disbelieving genes). Likewise the propensity to believe in a *higher power* in a primitive society allows for development of religion and politics which allow for further organizational cohesiveness and the development of more advanced societies which can then create surplus and more chances for breeding and passing on of genes.

The assumption though that we can not trust our belief-forming faculties is true (as everybody in advertising knows), but the assumption that because of that we can’t ever trust anything is functionally false (though there are philosophical arguments to the contrary, there is a point at which the philosophical arguments cease to be useful in any real sense). We can’t trust our faculties and that is precisely why we do science. We test and retest, and account for bias and attempt to remove it, and account for the placebo effect, and any number of other statistical problems. We do this because when we don’t form our beliefs properly we use blood-letting for an infection and exorcism for psychosis instead of antibiotics and psychological drugs and treatment. Our belief-forming faculties are what tell us that the earth is flat, and everything revolves around it. It is the curiosity and will to test these beliefs that push us past those poor intuitions into experimentation that can be duplicated and replicated and repeated and ultimately achieve something that resembles certainty (though it isn’t actual certainty, just a close approximation of it) that we’ve reached something like truth.

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Posted By: Charles

750 Words… more or less.

Over the last couple of months (today marks 61 consecutive days/exactly two months actually) I’ve been doing a bit of personal writing using the website www.750words.com . For me it’s a little bitter-sweet as Buster is doing with 750words what I’d always hoped to do with Wordtrip; get people writing. I would love to say that the reason I rarely update my blogs is that I’m working on writing things that are “more important” using 750words, but it hasn’t been just the last two months that my plethora of blogs and websites have gone largely dark.
One of the reasons I’ve been drawn to blogging and forums like Wordtrip are that I’m generally more interested in conversation or discussion of a topic than just dumping out of my head. It is certainly, and obviously, easier to live only within my own opinion and spew them onto a page without feedback, but I’m not sure that’s the most useful means of intellectual growth.

Over the years, as my personal philosophy has developed and grown there have been a few periods where I spent substantial amount of time writing elaborate discussions driven e-mails with friends. Those were large motivating factors in my journey of study simply because I was uncomfortable making unsubstantiated assertions of opinion without some research to back them up. That is one of the reasons I’ve wanted to put my writing “out there” to get the sanity check on my philosophy and thoughts in general.

On the one hand the feedback in either a blog, a forum, or an e-mail chain causes me to further flesh out an idea or concept so that I understand my own thoughts better. On the other hand that same feedback may play into my own confirmation bias and cause me to hunt out ideas and opinions which support my own view rather than looking objectively at evidence. Though I understand that it raises the risk of me entrenching myself in an opinion, simply by having an awareness of that risk I think it is, at least partially, diminished and the potential benefits begin to outweigh the potential drawbacks.

All of that is to say that, depending on which of my plethora of sites you read, you may see more writing from me in the not too distant future as my daily “write 750 words” habit begins to include a little time for reflection and editing so I have something to post… somewhere.

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Posted By: CharlesP

Nomar & Dumbo’s Feather

On diets, baseball, project management, and getting things done.

There is a thing called a mind hack. If you are unaware, a mind hack is an ostensibly productive, or at least positive, use of the esoteric nature of our brain to trick ourselves into doing something we otherwise might not due to procrastination, priorities, or ‘oh pretty butterfly’ distractions. For the most part almost anything you find in the self-help isle of a book store is utilizing this concept in one way or another (even if the authors are blissfully unaware of this themselves). From diets to people management, from personal productivity to programming project management, they are all like Nomar Garciaparra’s pre-batting fidget routine, or Dumbo’s feather.

Timothy & Dumbo

Timothy & Dumbo

What I find amusing, or is it depressing, is that Timothy Mouse knew what we are doing in 1941. They’re not actually making us fly, lose weight, or get more work done. They’re all Dumbo’s feather, they distract us from thinking we can’t do something, and help us get out of our own way. In baseball you see hitters go through elaborate routines before each at bat (Nomar was the worst/best for this). We know, and hopefully they do as well, that these routines aren’t “doing” anything per se, but like Dumbo’s feather it helps them to not over-think the process and let their experience and instincts do the work.

Nomar!

Nomar!

When you pick the latest diet craze, or perchance you pick one from twenty years ago, the primary thing you’re doing is giving yourself a framework to be mindful of what you are putting into your body. Dieting is a relatively simple, if not easy, concept: eat enough food to keep your body from starving, but less food than you burn (measured in calories). For some the diet that works for them is to cut out carbs, or lower fat, or eat a grapefruit a day, or whatever. The main function of all of these though, is to give you method for being aware that you’re consuming a certain number of calories (though they’re not always measured as such) and possibly tracking that you’re doing a certain amount of exercise. There is the 7-word diet put forth by Michael Pollan: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. If you keep it in mind, you’ll be limiting the calories you eat, limiting yourself to food (not food-like consumables like Oreos and American cheese), and by eating mostly plants you’ll fill yourself up with nutrient dense calories that will keep you feeling more full and less likely to binge on a bag of Oreos.

In the realm of personal productivity there have been numerous methodologies for “Getting Things Done” like the Franklin Covey methods (and associated products) and David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). These generally give you a framework of things to do which aren’t empirically the best, but are designed to work around the problems our primitive brains have working in our modern world. Our brains are simply not wired to hold everything in them that we need to do in a given day/week/month/career, and most of these personal productivity methodologies are simply acknowledging that and getting you to use a paper brain to store the information and allowing your meat computer to do what it does best: think/compute/imagine/innovate.

When it comes to team projects and getting things accomplished, especially in IT, there are “project management methodologies” which are serving the same basic purpose as any given personal productivity methodology would. They’re attempting to give a framework for us to get out of our own way. Depending on the nature of your business and project it may be best to use a “classic waterfall” project management method, or a fancy new “Agile” method, but I think it is a serious mistake to think that one or the other is “the best” way of approaching something. Unless you’re an Agile development consultancy it is unlikely that Agile development will suit your needs in every project, just as it is unlikely any other methodology will work in all cases.

It is far too easy for us to find our favorite mind hack and become disciples and evangelists for it as “the one true way” of managing ourselves, our teams, or our projects. The feather served its purpose for Dumbo and let him overcome his fear of flying. Nomar’s pre-batting routine served its purpose of distracting and focusing him long enough every at-bat to let his instincts (developed through hours in the batting cage) win him Rookie of the Year honors and a batting title during his career. I think the main thing to remember about this isn’t learning how to be the best GTD practitioner or Agile developer, but that the goal is, or at least should be, to get something accomplished. And that, is less about how you’ve tricked yourself into being productive, and more about that we’ve found a way (and a reason) to be more productive… tricks or not.

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Posted By: CharlesP

Skeptic Blog response

(I’m posting here, because I can’t post on skepticblog from work thanks to our proxy… I’ll probably go post this there when I can)
Brian Dunning has posted a piece on the Skeptic Blog about the Mythbusters. He disclaimers that he enjoys and appreciates the show for what it is, but also wishes it was a bit “more.”

Somebody in the comments makes the statement that:

“That being said I kind of disagree with Brian here, because I think the Mythbusters have done more for skepticism by *not* focusing on deeply cherished beliefs. They have pulled thousands into the idea of testing beliefs. Had they challenged deeply held beliefs (like P&T’s Bullshit), I doubt they would have gotten the audience they have now, and so they wouldn’t have had the positive effect they have.

I think skepticism needs to be injected in the harmless areas in order to get people thinking skeptically. They need to bring that around to their sacred cows on their own.”

What I wanted to say in response is:

This brings up a point I think I’ve made on a couple of other comment threads, something that I learned from my days before giving up my Christian beliefs. There was some conference thing that I was dragged to (it was towards the end of my time with church, but I went) and in one of their sessions on ‘how to convert people’ (or “How to Bring People to the Lord!”) somebody made a point that I wish the skeptical community could get… the number line.

Picture a number-line from 0-10, with 0 being woo-woo land, and 10 being “pure skepticism” (their version of this has a cross at the “10″ end of it… my version has an image of Carl Sagan & Randi hanging out at “10″ the end). Your/My job isn’t necessarily to bring somebody all the way from 0-10… from woo-woo land to “pure” skepticism. Sometimes, and for some people, our job is simply to move them from 0-1, or 1-3, or whatever. I also suspect that the person/method/thing with the skill-set best suited to moving a person from 2-3 isn’t likely to be the same person/situation/information that would also move them from 8-9.

For me, the book that moved me from 2-3 was actually Francis Collins’s The Language of God, which was approachable as somebody raised YEC (and went to all church run schools) and flipped my brain into “you’re 30 and a bit of an autodidact… maybe it’s time to fill out some of that science knowledge you missed out on when you dropped out of college instead of just the literature/arts stuff” mode. Between that, and how anti-convincing Lee Strobel’s Case for anything was, I started a path that went through Sagan, Shubin, DS Wilson, Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Dennett… all the way to becoming an Agnostic Atheist Skeptic now. Though, for the first two years it still involved Christian counters to the works, it wasn’t until I realized how rarely I was agreeing with anything the x-tian authors came up with as defense that I fully owned the “I’m a Skeptic” and “I’m an atheist” badges. Dawkins wasn’t convincing to me when I was still at 3 or 4, but he was useful and interesting when I had gotten up to 6 or 7 on the skeptic scale.

The point, and I do have one, is that (though it was obviously not his goal) Collins moved me further along the skeptic line, and as Brian points out, that’s what Mythbusters is doing for a lot of people. Could they “do more”? yes… But I’d hate to risk losing what they’re doing now by pushing it too far into people’s discomfort realm and losing the viewers. What I think would be better, is for somebody else to pick up the torch at #3-4, where the Mythbusters have left a few people, and move them to #6 or 7 (where maybe Dawkins & PZ can pick them up).

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Posted By: CharlesP

A Guest Post I wrote

@Lisa_Ray is doing a “Year Without Disney” with her family, and when I started rambling in her comments about appreciating Art as it is created, instead of buying the product as it is marketed, she amazingly asked me to do a guest post… and as I obviously NEED some motivation to write, I took her up on the idea and, well, here it is.

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Posted By: Charles

thought inoculation

I was pondering the subject of intellectual inoculation this morning. Primarily, which is the inoculation: To be able to read factual scientific evidence with piles of data behind it and still ignore it because it goes against your religious/political point of view? Or to be able to reject any mode of thinking that goes against your ideology even if you’ve seen substantive and reproducible evidence to go against it? Or to be able to read rhetorically persuasive writing and see through the BS and reach reasoned and logical conclusions.

I’ve written before about how, in the last few years, I’ve gone from being a fairly religious (and certainly religiously active) young earth creationist to a skeptic and an atheist. I didn’t have anybody in my life “preaching” science and atheism to me, but as I had doubts about my religion and religious upbringing, I started to read work from both (many?) sides of the science/religion debate, and ultimately found the scientific world view to be compelling and true. During that time I also had religious friends who did some of the same reading, but stuck to their religious world view. I’ve also had some friends who are occupying a middle ground of doubt. It’s easy to dismiss the true believers as not giving the evidence a fair shake, but I think that at least some of them read with as open a mind as they could based on their history. So what is the inoculation?

To me, their “evidence” for God is weak and ridiculous when natural explanations are readily available and more in-line with the evidence. To me, they’re being close-minded. For them, that scientific evidence is ignoring a whole realm of emotional reality which, though untestable, is real to them to such a degree that by my not accepting it I’m the one being close-minded.

We all want our loved ones to share at least a fairly high percentage of our ideals, so while much of my family would like my children to be religious and are interested in promoting that world view in them and how they think, I want them to be Skeptics. I want them to have the tools to analyze evidence and information and make informed decisions. I don’t want them to be cold calculating robots, but in addition to having compassion and human understanding (rooted in philosophically sound thought as well as emotional intelligence) I do want them to be able to use proper logic and reason and know the tricks our minds can play on us when we desperately want to believe in something.

To that end… I’m looking for a Skeptic parent’s bookshelf. Not just the Demon Haunted World books for the adults, but books that can be read at bed time to your toddler, through YA, that promote critical, scientific, free thinking.

Thoughts? Suggestions?

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Posted By: Charles

Five Months without an update

It’s even worse here than on my personal blog. I’ve tried to funnel my writing energies into fiction lately, and I’ve not really felt compelled to write the stuff I want to write here… those things will really need another person to bounce stuff off of. The site isn’t completely dead yet… just hibernating.

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Posted By: Charles

Desire Utilitarianism

I’ve been reading about Desire Utilitarianism lately on the sites of Alonzo Fyfe (who has a blog as well as his main site) and Luke Muehlhauser. I’ve found the premise to be interesting. The idea behind it, as I understand it, is the development of an ethical theory which doesn’t depend on an intrinsic value. Since desires are something we know to be real (by intuition and neuroscience thanks to MRI), they can be a basis. Luke (aka lukeprog) summed it up as:

Desire Utilitarianism claims that a good desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. A right action is one that an agent with good desires would perform.

They’ve both said a lot on the subject, and it’s probably better to point you there for further info on it. Luke did an interview with Alonzo for his podcast and has some nice links on the subject, or you can just hit his FAQ on it.

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Posted By: Charles

Thoughts on Kindle

This is a cross-post from my personal blog

The following was my long-winded response to a member on Wordtrip regarding his dismissal of the Kindle because a retailer pushing their proprietary format “never works” in his opinion, and that he thought the device that will really be the tipping point for ebooks will be an “iPod” that plays anything.

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The iPod was A big gun in the portable music market, but it was when they introduced the iTunes music store selling their proprietary audio format that locked people into using the iPod to keep using their newly purchased collection, that it became THE big gun in the portable music market (even though it was way more expensive than the competition).

The iPod always played mp3s, just like the Kindle will display PDF and HTML and DOC formats, but it was the easy digital delivery and purchasing of proprietary AAC, which gave the producers happy feelings about their stuff not being stolen, that made the legal on-line music market (and they’ve sold a few billion songs that way before going DRM free). Now you’ve got a lot of DRM free versions of music (amazon’s mp3 store for example) because the producers didn’t like to be locked into Apple, and what I suspect will happen is something similar when the Kindle has shown enough publishers that people will pay for digital content the producers will then start unlocking it for other eBook readers.

The Phone idea isn’t unlikely per se, and the Kindle app for iPhone is a step in that direction (they’re apparently going to be making for other devices as well), though I think the BIG dig against a blackberry/phone concept is that having read a few things on the iPhone and Blackbery, it’s just not as comfortable to try and read any quantity of content on a small screen. For me I think the more likely scenario would be something in the Netbook realm which cost about the same (or less) than an iPhone/smartphone, are about the size of a large hardback, and have a large subset of the computer functions. Acer (or Asus) has demoed that dual-touch-screen netbook that could be used as normal netbook, or held open like a book and read. They’re already working built-in wi-fi and cell in the netbooks, so if they tweak that technology a bit to allow for longer battery life it could be a Kindle killer (even though with a browser and mp3 player built in already the Kindle is going to make other people work for it).

The thing to notice on Amazon though is that, unlike Apple who keeps a stranglehold on “their market”, Amazon has shown incredible willingness to market their competitors. If you go to Amazon and search for a product, they show the used and new people selling items cheaper than they do AND if it’s a non-book product they usually default a sale to the cheapest people selling it even if they sell it as well. I’m not sure how they’d monetize that in a digital content market, but I’m not sure they couldn’t come up with a way. Bezos tries to be very customer-centric in the company’s decisions.

Secondarily an eBook reader will almost by design be a one-off market catering to a higher-end customer UNLESS the book industry figures out a way to drop prices on digital books to be consistently at the paperback (sub $Cool price range. Most people I know who are book lovers don’t go buy every hardback they own at retail price. Most are used book store people who pick up a ton of their collection at sub $3 per book pricing. The main market for the eBook is going to be the business traveler who would otherwise be buying a book in the airport.

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Posted By: Charles

An Atheist’s possibilities?

This is a bit of something I put together in response to a friend’s question regarding what options regarding Jesus’s resurrection were open as explanations for theists, agnostics, and atheists. His position was essentially that atheists can’t allow themselves to consider even the possibility of an “actual resurrection” even if there was significant evidence because of their stance regarding “God”.

It’s rough. It’s certainly using parts of other’s arguments I’ve heard but don’t recall where. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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I don’t think that an atheist must disallow a possibility of the supernatural resurrection, but in the same way one doesn’t assume David Blaine or David Copperfield are actually performing “magic”, one would go from a basis of natural causes and disallow it as anything even vaguely probable. In the same way you would be incredulous if somebody claimed to have spontaneously regrown a limb (or been abducted by aliens), it would take more than even a few people claiming it as truth for you to believe it happened. You would want evidence. You would have to have great, extraordinary, evidence because it is an extra-ordinary claim.

An extraordinary claim (being raised from the dead counts) for which we have no other instance in history with any level of reasonable evidence (and I use “other” not to imply we have any level of reasonable evidence, but to take that instance out of the timeline so we have a baseline of the REST of history to use), would require extra-ordinary evidence for belief. I would wager that you’re unlikely to believe Joseph Smith received any golden plates with the story of Jesus and his visit to the Americas (or the Isrealites in America, I forget the details), and yet there are 13 million people who have found his story compelling enough to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There were even enough people in his day who believed that extra-ordinary claim to propogate the Mormon system of belief in much the way the desciples propogated the Jesus resurrection myth. We have seen time and time again that there is almost no spectacular story that won’t be believed and repeated by people as “truth”. The bottom line is that a story of Jesus resurrection is much more likely to be because there were believers who believed it (truth or not) and shared it with other people willing to believe without any real proof (this was a time of much belief in many things) than because somebody was actually raised from the dead.

In X million (or less than 10K if you swing that way) years of humanity we have no surviving evidence sufficient to convince everybody that anybody, ever, has been raised from the dead. We do have many groups who are willing to believe THEIR guy was raised from the dead, talked to God, did some other impossible thing. As spectacularly improbable as winning the lottery is, I can still point and say “that guy over there won” and know that however miniscule the chance, I conceivably could win (ignoring the mathematical improbability of it and the non-sound investment of even a dollar due the odds factor). What I can’t do is look over at somebody and say “well THAT guy was raised from the dead so I’ve nothing to fear and I can jump off buildings for fun” because we don’t have ANY evidence for somebody being raised from the dead in modern times, and in fact the only claim any really significant number of modern western civilization people give any credence to is for somebody 2000 years ago. If I find an eye-witness account that says “Jethro fed his sheep in the year 12BCE” I have no reason to believe it didn’t happen because that is entirely consistent with what we expect people from that era to have done. However if I find an eye-witness account that says “I saw a mermaid in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 12BCE and she had a nice rack” we would believe the author to have been mistaken because we have seen no evidence for us to believe that there is anything resembling a “mermaid” out there and it was most likely just a Dugong or some other similar animal. Even with multiple eye-witnesses of the mermaid it wouldn’t be compelling enough for us to think The Little Mermaid was a pseudo-documentary.

In any given scenario the supernatural is the least likely possible cause, or it wouldn’t be supernatural. Two thousand, or even two hundred, years ago the collective knowledge of the way things work was so spectacularly limited that while we knew sex had something to do with it, we didn’t even know how babies were made (I believe it was the 1600s when somebody discovered sperm and for quite some time the theory was then that the head of each sperm contained a tiny little person from which we grew). In such a world, where few of the (very obvious to us now) naturalistic explanations have been discovered or understood in any meaningful way, the supernatural seems to be a reasonable means of explanation. In that context the combination of lack of naturalistic knowledge combined with a fervent desire to believe make the likelihood of a physical resurrection so infinitesimal as to make belief in God as the guide to your life because of Jesus’s resurrection to be akin to (but not even as practical as) belief in the lottery as a retirement plan.

This is not to discount the practical wisdom in the Bible (or many other religious texts), and I think one of the primary reasons many of the major world religions have endured is because they do give practical advice and insight on how enterpersonal life works (or can). If they didn’t offer something practical that helped people get through day to day life, they wouldn’t have endured (they would’ve naturally been selected out as viable belief systems :D ). I think it’s that practical aspect of religions that are the reasons they “work” at all. They have been the cheat sheet to getting through life, because so many of the questions they answer for people (“How should I treat my family?”, “how should I feel about my country?”) it doesn’t matter where the answer comes from as to how practical the advice is. It’s the Santa Clause… if telling you that misbehaving gets you on the naughty list works to get you to behave, it doesn’t so much “matter” (in the context of results) if your motivation is based on a falsehood until that falsehood is revealed… and most religions that stick around have that reveal safely tucked away in the after-life.

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Posted By: Charles