Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Eliezer Yudkowsky, The Twelve Virtues of Rationality

The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth… Be wary of those who speak of being open-minded and modestly confess their ignorance. There is a time to confess your ignorance and a time to relinquish your ignorance.

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs…

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own… Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can.

The fourth virtue is evenness. One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” …Therefore do not seek to argue for one side or another, for if you knew your destination, you would already be there.

The fifth virtue is argument. Those who wish to fail must first prevent their friends from helping them. Those who smile wisely and say: “I will not argue” remove themselves from help, and withdraw from the communal effort… Seek a test that lets reality judge between you.

The sixth virtue is empiricism. The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction… Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate. Always know which difference of experience you argue about. Do not let the argument wander and become about something else, such as someone’s virtue as a rationalist. Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.” Do not be blinded by words. When words are subtracted, anticipation remains.

The seventh virtue is simplicity… When you profess a huge belief with many details, each additional detail is another chance for the belief to be wrong. Each specification adds to your burden; if you can lighten your burden you must do so…

The eighth virtue is humility. To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty. Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans…

The ninth virtue is perfectionism. The more errors you correct in yourself, the more you notice… If you tolerate the error rather than correcting it, you will not advance to the next level and you will not gain the skill to notice new errors… Hold yourself to the highest standard you can imagine, and look for one still higher…

The tenth virtue is precision. One comes and says: The quantity is between 1 and 100. Another says: the quantity is between 40 and 50. If the quantity is 42 they are both correct, but the second prediction was more useful and exposed itself to a stricter test… Each piece of evidence shifts your beliefs by exactly the right amount, neither more nor less. What is exactly the right amount? To calculate this you must study probability theory…

The eleventh virtue is scholarship. Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger. If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole…

Before these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless.

…Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement. More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.

…Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Round two

Hi Peter,

Regarding Dawkins' working definition of the word 'faith' as used by most believers, I would suggest he is confusing the term with blind faith. This notion of blind faith (as far as I can tell) asserts certain things without evidence and "in the teeth of evidence", to quote the man. Dawkins goes too far in presuming this is how all religious believers think. But I don’t think he does this across the board, he reserves his accusations of blind faith to those believers who fit the criteria, he knows that others believe for actual reasons and because of positive evidence. Like him, I do think these believers deserve less respect if they choose the word faith to describe their position. I’m not sure what it should be called, but claiming to have evidence or reasoning for what you believe means you don’t need faith. It becomes provable.

But I want to press you a little further on your equation of faith as being "the sum of all evidence, experience, and logical thinking regarding the Christian god" (correct me if I’m wrong here, but that does appear to be what you are saying). If this is what you mean by faith (you call it "trust") then you will always be on shifting sands. I fail to see how you can call the collection, collation, and weighing of evidence the obviously incorrect term "faith". If the process you use (evidence and reason) has lead you to believe there is a god, then don't call it faith. Call it something else because otherwise you muddy the waters too much. Dawkins only addresses the common definition of faith (as the apostle Paul described it "...in things unseen") rather than Swinburne's version that would have him constantly readdressing a slightly altered idea as new opponents arrive. To explain it another way, I do not need faith when proposing that atoms make up matter. All I need to do is test the evidence surrounding the atomic theory and accept it if it explains what I'm seeing in the best way. No amount of faith is necessary nor would it change the facts on the ground. If you call the testing of evidence surrounding god your faith, it is more appropriate to accept the “theory of god” surely than to use the term faith. But I’m repeating myself.
You say, "but Dawkins et al claim that faith means setting aside any notion of rational warrant for one’s beliefs – and this is a demonstrably false claim"

But how is this so? As far as I can see, the notion of having faith is getting to the point in the journey where rational inquiry and evidence is not forthcoming. If these appeared we would call it science or empiricism, not faith. Having faith does not mean, as you are right to point out, that one 'sets aside' reasoning. In that scenario, there simply isn't anywhere left to go with one's reasoning, and so you need faith. Hence the reason the old phrase, ‘leap of faith’ is neither negative nor positive, but a verb regarding a necessary action. Please advise if this is incorrect.

You say, "I don’t see why the mere fact that people’s apparent experience of the natural world precedes people’s apparent experience of God should make the latter experience suspect."

To someone like yourself I can see how it would be difficult to view the world without any supernatural aspect. It's not so much that the material world works beautifully by itself but the miracle, as Einstein pointed out, is that there are no miracles and the world ticks on using natural processes. You see, you can inject your god in there if you like but the deity appears completely unnecessary for the universe to function. Disregarding a few 'unknowns" such as the beginning of time and space or the origin of life (amongst others) the universe just doesn't require any intervening hand nor any guidance from a celestial being. The idea of a god is simply unnecessary and completely subjective. I will stand by my statement that the natural world is prima facie and the idea of god is suggested to an infant or adult proceeding first experiences, it is not intrinsic. The idea of god is told, passed down, inherited if you will, through conversation and verbal cues. It is far from obvious in the natural order, this assertion is reinforced by a glance at many animist or polytheists living in sodden jungles or sweeping plains. They do not ‘see’ this god by themselves as a child does not ‘see’ it. Besides, if the natural world is not the objective base foundation for perception then which religion objectively replaces that role?

I'm only reticent about calling metaphysical naturalism 'true' because I view the term ‘reality’ as a synonym to the natural order, whatever that means. This in part answers your very last question regarding my personal nomenclature. I am only an atheist in the sense that there has been no evidence provided me to unambiguously show the existence of a deity. I hold that the possibility indeed remains but I have no reason to believe in any god (hence my soft-spot for deism). This is why I view the supernatural as a human addition to clear reality rather than the cause of it. 

I will definitely refute the idea of the world looking designed by saying that it is absurd to pronounce such a conclusion using an n size of 1. We simply have no other world or universe to compare to make that assertion (yet). The appearance of the universe and the world as 'designed' is entirely subjective and far from a reality in any sense of the term apart from personal. It's not that naturalism is a simple explanation it's that the supernatural is an exorbitantly unnecessary and redundant explanation. I thoroughly concede that naturalism may not have a "significant explanatory value of adequacy" but simply not feeling good about the conclusions, meanings or implications of a view does not make it incorrect. The world has currently about 560 billion tonnes of life. This is compared to the total mass of the earth 1,877.29 Billion tonnes. Giving it figure of approximately 9% of the earth’s mass as life. If you think that this proves life is fine-tuned or designed for this earth, you’ll also agree that finding an a group of iron atom in a rock the size of Russia is proof that the rock is designed to be a Ferrari. The numbers are even smaller if you take into account our solar system’s planetary mass. And as for the assertion that this planet is 'designed for human', don’t even get me started on the amount of humans compared to cynobacteria...

I would also challenge you, as mentioned somewhere above, to point out the convincing proof that your particular god or supernatural view is responsible for this so-called "going with what we see as being real". If there is such obvious evidence for the truth of the supernatural then why are there so many differing opinions about god, each opinion holder grasping as tightly as the next to their particular views on religion? 

But this also partly answers your musings on the validity of personal experiences. If you think, as you must, that your own experiences and those of others with a similar mindset provide validation for your god or religion then you must also take every personal supernatural experience as positive proof for their respective experiences. Otherwise, give me a cogent reason why your experiences outweigh those of others' (and specifically a criterion to objectively perform an unbiased test to establish the validity of your claims). I am forced to say that claims made without supporting evidence can be dismissed without supporting evidence.

Naturalism does carry the burden of proof, no doubt about it. This doesn't surprise me in the slightest. The difference between the supernatural and the natural lies in the eminent testability of the latter and the total lack of detection of the former. This is where you and I depart. I have no issues with the testing of the natural world because so far as we can assume, it exists; it's the supernatural world that needs to be definitively uncovered and that fails the burden of proof. Naturalism succeeds because everything that we experience through our senses in this universe stems from natural causes. Any recourse to blame supernatural causes only stagnates progress and kicks the can further down the road. Indeed, as history shows whenever we've thought an event was the responsibility of this or that godhead it always turns out to be of natural causes. There's an old saying that goes, "Before you assert that an event was out of this world, make sure it is not of this world". 

No, my assertion of a claim-less atheism does not make it equivalent to agnosticism (a slippery term at best and one that supports atheism rather than theism, also sometimes called 'weak-atheism'). I am an atheist because I say no convincing argument given nor any evidence presented has ever established the existence of god/s. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am open and willing to change my mind if sufficient evidence is provided. This is a difficult target to hit for a supernatural entity though, because as the classification belies, any interdiction or presentation from this being would require it to follow natural processes in order for me to experience it. This action immediately shoots the supernatural deity in the metaphorical foot by transforming the supernatural into the natural, making any evidence for the supernatural definitively impossible. I'm sure this god could think of something to get around this dilemma but I would be simply imagining things, making stuff up in other words. 

A convincing argument for god is not entirely a different story however. Plenty of people have made rather good, cogent syllogisms establishing their god’s existence. I would suggest however that no mammalian primate could ever claim to know or prove the existence of a supernatural being on principle. Further, any Christian's claim to prove the existence of their god by argument ultimately achieves nothing and is worse than futile. All their work lies ahead of them still to prove their personal, interdicting, miracle-working, son-sending god. All anyone can ever do with argument is to make the existence of a deist god appear at least plausible. 

I will peruse your archives and read more of your opinions about theological matters though, for sure.


Peter S. Williams reply to me

Here's the first reply from Peter. If you feel you have anything to say about this, feel free to leave a comment below.

Dear Nathan,

Nice to hear from you.

I agree with you that Dawkins strays too far from his expertise in biology when addressing metaphysical questions and that he too readily asserts ‘that science can disprove the idea of god or that the god concept is provably illusory’ :-)

I obvisouly have a lower opinion of Dawkin’s excursus into theology and philosophy than you do, but I doubt it would be worth our time to get sidetracked into the detail of such a non-substantive disagreement. I would simply observe, on the one hand, that many atheist philosophers (such as Julian Baggini, Michael Ruse and Thomas Nagel) have been critical of Dawkins’ approach; and, on the other hand, that that there are atheist critics of theism outside the neo-atheist camp whose arguments I think are far more subtle and informed.

If Dawkins is only aiming to critique the ‘most common and most foundational ideas about religion held by most lay-people’ I could critique him for asserting things about the beliefs of lay people that don’t apply to many ‘lay people’ that I know; or I could simply set aside his whole project as irrelevant to the questions of whether theism and/or Christianity is true, or a rational belief system, at a more advanced level of discourse.

For example, along with other new-atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling and Victor J. Stenger, Dawkins would clearly endorse your statement that ‘as every believer asserts, they do not rest their belief on evidence, argument, or logic but on a completely subjective "experience" of their god (whatever that means!).’ Even setting to one side the question of religious experience and whether or not it is accurate to dismiss it as a completely subjective experience, rather than as evidence that must be taken into account, this statement is false - even when applied to lay people. I know, and have known, a great many 'lay people' in many churches over many years (I am one myself), and I know that this assertion isn’t true. I rest my faith (i.e. trust) on experience, evidence, argument and logic. Of course, my experience may be a delusion, my evidence may likewise be a delusion, or be incorrectly interpreted, or be insufficient, my arguments may be unsound and my logic invalid – but Dawkins et al claim that faith means setting aside any notion of rational warrant for one’s beliefs – and this is a demonstrably false claim. Whether or not faith is warranted, many believers (I’m not disputing the existence of some fideists) take it that their faith is warranted by evidence, argument, etc.

As for experience and the burden of proof, I totally agree with you that ‘we simply have to go with what we see as being real’ – or as philosopher Richard Swinburne puts this 'principle of credulity': we should take things to be the way they seem to us to be in the absence of sufficient counter-evidence. I don’t see why the mere fact that people’s apparent experience of the natural world precedes people’s apparent experience of God should make the latter experience suspect.

I agree with you that the natural world exists, of course, but I don’t think that it is the only kind of reality that exists; that is, I do not think that metaphysical naturalism is a true worldview.

It seems that you are reticent about claiming that naturalism is a true description of reality: ‘is metaphysical naturalism true? I'm not sure the word “true” is accurate here.’ But you do want to make naturalism your default position: ‘This is none other than the default position, a base assertion if you will.’ I wonder if the principle of credulity, when applied to the evident reality of your own consciousness, doesn’t imply a distinction between that consciousness and the apparently non-conscious realities of the natural, material world around you. In other words, I think that metaphysical naturalism is not warranted prima facie as a worldview even if we set aside the question of God, because the principle of credulity is against it when it comes to our experience of ourselves as feeling, reasoning, choosing beings. Perhaps naturalism will meet this burden of proof (I personally doubt it), but it seems to me that the prima facie, default position here is not the naturalistic one.

Indeed, as many philosophers have pointed out, it is our experience of our own conscious awareness, thought etc. that is the primordial experience, and the reality of non-conscious realities in the material universe is something only known through the experience of consciousness.

Naturalism is in effect an error theory, which says that ‘Although it looks like mind isn’t the same as matter, although it looks like the world is the product of design, etc., actually that appearance is misleading and everything can be accounted for by a simple naturalistic worldview.’

Now, I grant that naturalism has the explanatory value of simplicity – but I doubt it has the more significant explanatory value of adequacy; and simply in terms of going with what we see as being real, it seems to me that naturalism starts off on the back foot, whether or not it can push back against this opening disadvantage.

Whether or not atheism carries the burden of proof for someone who lacks a relevant religious experience (a matter that would depend upon how strong you thought the extension of the ‘principle of credulity’ to taking seriously other people’s reported experiences via the ‘principle of testimony’ was), it seems to me that naturalism does carry the burden of proof.

Your definition of atheism as making no claim about the existence or non-existence of God - ‘The atheist does not make any claim, full stop… the atheist makes no claim.’ – surely makes atheism indistinguishable from agnosticism. So I’d be interested to know if you consider yourself an atheist or an agnostic?

As for objective evidence for theism, I refer you to the sources listed in my original e-mail.

Yours truly,

Peter S. Williams

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Science Saved My Soul

Credited to Zepfanman.com

Science Saved My Soul transcript

I ran across a new video on YouTube this week entitled Science Saved My Soul. It is such a compelling multimedia experience that I decided to take the time to transcribe it. In short, it is one part galactic, scientific, poetic “mindgasm”; one part exposition on religion; and one part Arcade Fire music video. (Note that, while educational, there are two uses of profanity.) I will save any other analysis of the video for a different blog post. I don’t know the proper formatting for transcription, and I’ve made at least one guess during a part that I couldn’t understand (it’s underlined).

This is the first time I’ve come across a video from YouTube user philhellenes and he does not include any information about himself (that I could find). His channel page reads, “ANYONE can download, copy or mirror ANY of my stuff without asking for permission,” so I’ve included my own copy of the Flash file here, as well; sorry, I didn’t feel like finding conversion software to make it into an AVI.

Science Saved My Soul, YouTube image

The video description on YouTube (posted November 1, 2010; 14:59 long):
Yes, many of those thinkers to whom I owe my mental freedom were religious, like Newton, a Christian, who believed God made the Earth but who then showed me why the Earth would have formed without a god’s help. Or Plank and Schrodinger, two more Christians, who believed God ruled the Universe but showed me how God could not control a single electron. The discoveries these and many other people made, the laws they are famous for, are the very things that make gods getting humans pregnant, or angels whispering to prophets in caves, look infantile. I could never and would never question their intelligence. Their honesty and intellectual consistency are a different matter.
I can stand on the shoulders of giants and see what even they seemingly could not.
I’m not against the Creator(s), if they exist, if they ever existed. I’m not against the search for the Creator(s). What blows MY mind is that people think religion has anything to do with it at all.
My transcription. Please let me know of any mistakes and I will do my best to correct them. Also, if anyone cares to identify the celebrities (starting at the 11:59 mark), I can add their names to the transcript in the appropriate places.

Three summers ago, I was staying in a caravan a long way from the nearest city. It was usually pitch black at night. I had given my word that I would not smoke inside, so at 1 a.m. I stepped outside for a cigarette.

After a few minutes of standing in the darkness, I realized that I could see my hand quite clearly—something I’d noticed that I could not do on previous nights—so I looked up, expecting to see the glow of the full moon, but the moon was nowhere in sight.

Instead, there was a long glowing cloud directly overhead. The Romans called it the Via Galactica (the Road of Milk); today we call it the Milky Way. For those who missed the lesson at school that day, the basic facts are these:
  • Remembering that 1 light year is equivalent to 6 trillion miles, our galaxy has a total diameter of somewhere around 100 thousand light years.
  • Our Sun is located towards the edge of one of the galaxy’s spiral arms—about 26 thousand light years out from the central bulge of the galaxy. It takes 200 to 250 million years for the Sun to complete one orbit of the central bulge.
  • Surrounding the galaxy, above and below the disc in a spherical halo, there are approximately 200 globular clusters which may contain up to a million stars each. The Milky Way itself contains 200 billion stars, give or take.
These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them, some part of the human mind protests that it cannot be so. Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is. And if you take that conclusion out on a clear dark night and look up, you might see something that will change your life.
Science Saved My Soul screenshot
Science Saved My Soul screenshot (@ 2:26)
This is what a galaxy looks like. From the inside. From the suburbs of our Sun.

Through binoculars, for every star you can see with your naked eye you can see 100 around it, all suspended in a gray blue mist. But through a modest telescope, if you wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark and get the focus just right… you will see that mist for what it really is: More stars. Like dust, fading into what tastes like infinity.
But you’ve got to have the knowledge. Seeing is only half of it.
That night three years ago, I knew a small part of what’s out there—the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things, the violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance—but I feel safe, because I know my world is protected by the very distance that others fear. It’s like the universe screams in your face, “Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?” And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, “Dude, I am you.”

When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye along a narrow beam of light to the surface of another sun. The photons my eyes detect (the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact) came from that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it crosses the void and touches me. I might never have known. My eyes saw only a tiny point of light, but my mind saw so much more.

I see the invisible bursts of gamma radiation from giant stars converting into pure energy by their own mass. The flashes that flashed from the far side of the universe long before Earth had even formed. I can see the invisible microwave glow of the background radiation leftover from the Big Bang. I see stars drifting aimlessly at hundreds of kilometers per second, and the space-time curving around them. I can even see millions of years into the future.
That blue twinkle will blow up one day, sterilizing any nearby solar systems in an apocalypse that makes the wrath of human gods seem pitiful by comparison—yet it wasfrom such destruction that I was formed. Stars must die so that I can live.

I stepped out of a supernova… And so did you.

In light of this inarguable fact (this hard-earned knowledge, this partial but informative truth), what place then in the 21st century and beyond for the magical claims of organized religion?

The first religions were primitive by any definition. For reasons of limited population, communication, and plain old geography, they never grew to be anything other than a local concern. But religions mutate in time and grow in sophistication as each generation of holy men learn what works and what doesn’t. What makes people obedient and what causes rebellion. What ideas people can easily escape and which will haunt them until they have to pray just to stop the nagging fear.

When populations grew due to the slow but steady growth of knowledge, as if confronted by a bumper harvest, the religions went into an arms race with each other. From gods of wind and thunder and sea, the threats, incentives, and claims of power escalate until every dominant organized religion has a god that is all-powerful, all-loving, all-seeing, and words like “infinity” and “eternity” are deployed cheaply while all other words are open to abuse until they mean exactly what the religions want them to mean.

That night under the Milky Way, I who experienced it cannot call the experience a religious experience, for I know it was not religious in any way. I was thinking about facts and physics, trying to visualize what is, not what I would like there to be. There’s no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation. The reason for that is that every time someone has such a “mindgasm”, religion steals it simply by saying, “Ahh, you had a religious experience.” And spiritualists will pull the same shit. And both camps get angry when an atheist like me tells you that I only ever had these experiences after rejecting everything supernatural. But I do admit that after such experiences (the moments when reality hits me like a winning lottery ticket) I often think about religion… and how lucky I am that I am not religious. You want to learn something about God? Okay, this is one galaxy.

If God exists, God made this. Look at it. Face it. Accept it. Adjust to it, because this is the truth and it’s probably not going to change very much. This is how God works. God would probably want you to look at it. To learn about it. To try to understand it. But if you can’t look—if you won’t even try to understand—what does that say about your religion? As Bishop Lancelot Andrewes once said, “The nearer the church, the further from God.”

Maybe you need to run. Away from the mosque. Away from the church. Away from the priests and the Imams. Away from the Books to have any chance of finding God. Squeeze a fraction of a galaxy into your mind and then you’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for. To even partially comprehend the scale of a single galaxy is to almost disappear. And when you remember all the other galaxies, you shrink 100 billion times smaller still—but then you remember what you are.  The same facts that made you feel so insignificant also tell you how you got here. It’s like you become more real—or maybe the universe becomes more real. You suddenly fit. You suddenly belong. You do not have to bow down. You do not have to look away. In such moments, all you have to do is remember to keep breathing.

The body of a newborn baby is as old as the cosmos. The form is new and unique, but the materials are 13.7 billion years old, processed by nuclear fusion in stars, fashioned by electromagnetism. Cold words for amazing processes. And that baby was you. Is you.You’re amazing. Not only alive, but with a mind. What fool would exchange this for everywinning lottery ticket ever drawn? When I compare what scientific knowledge has done for me and what religion tried to do to me, I sometimes literally shiver.

Religions tell children they might go to hell and they must believe, while science tells children they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe. I’ve told plenty of young kids about stars and atoms and galaxies and the Big Bang and I have never seen fear in their eyes—only amazement and curiosity. They want more. Why do kids swim in it and adults drown in it? What happens to reality between our youngest years and adulthood? Could it be that someone promised us something so beautiful that our universe seems dull, empty, even frightening by comparison? It might still be made by a Creator of some kind but religion has made it look ugly. Religion paints everything not of itself as unholy and sinful while it beautifies and dignifies its areas, lies, and bigotry (like a pig wearing the finest robes). In its efforts to stop us facing reality, religion has become the reality we cannot face. Look at what religion has made us do, to ourselves and to each other. Religion stole our love and our loyalty and gave it to a book—to a telepathic father that tells his children that love means kneeling before him. Now I’m not a parent, but I say that those kids are gonna turn out messed up—it cannot be healthy for a child or a species.

We were told long ago and for a long time that there was only the Earth—that we were the center of everything. That turned out to be wrong. We still haven’t fully adjusted. We’re still in shock. The universe is not what we expected it to be. It’s not what they told us it would be. This cosmic understanding is all new to us. But there’s nothing to fear. We’re stillspecial. We’re still blessed. And there might yet be a heaven, but it isn’t going to be perfect. And we’re going to have to build it ourselves.

If I have something that could be called a soul that needed saving, then science saved it… from religion.

There are too many people, to many moments to thank.

Some people find it, really, very depressing that the universe can only support life for another 30 billion years—

30. Billion. Years. Are you fucking kidding me?

Something filled up
My heart with nothing
Someone told me not to cry
But now that I’m older
My heart’s colder
And I can see that it’s a lie
Children, wake up
Hold your mistake up
Before they turn the summer into dust
I guess we’ll just have to adjust

3.9 Mpc/h
7.8 Mpc/h
15.6 Mpc/h
31.25 Mpc/h
62.5 Mpc/h
125 Mpc/h
250 Mpc/h

Science saved my soul…
…from religion
500 Mpc/h
1 Gpc/h

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Creationist Bill Dembksi forced to recant science, or lose job

It is with a mix of intrigue and humour that I stumbled across this story. It’s quite revealing, pointing unambiguously to the ideology of utter science rejection in the Creationist camp. Most people have known about this for a while but this very public chapter has highlighted the ongoing suspicion that Creationism is actually pseudoscience. Not content to attack the scientific establishment any more (although I’m it will continue) the Discovery Institute has rabidly turned on a senior member, William Dembski. As the article states Dembski is a princely figure amongst Creationists,

And make no mistake about it; William Dembski is a first order star in the intelligent design firmament. He is a prolific author who has earned both a Ph.D. in mathematics as well as a Masters of Divinity degree. He is a fellow of the Discovery Institute and a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Indeed, you can't read anything about intelligent design without encountering Dembski's arguments in support of this version of creationism. 

Dembski's own views were simply over-ridden by the so-called "truth" of biblical inerrancy, and by the very human directors of the Discovery Institute intent on reinforcing their large pay packet from generous American Christians who obviously were unimpressed by Dembski’s metaphorical reading of the Bible. Of course Creationism has nothing to do with science, this is obvious (and neither does it's step daughter ID), but the way Dembski has portrayed it in the past ten years or so as being entirely scientific is a lesson in dishonesty. For a man with legitimate training in the sciences his behaviour in trying to 'wedge' his beliefs into the school and academic systems are scorn-worthy.

Which of Dembski's ideas were up for revision? Not the one's you'd expect, e.g. irreducible complexity or the vast conflagration of numbers and boggling statistics that somehow 'disprove' evolution and empirical scientific study, instead: 

At issue were two of Dembski's beliefs, as expressed in his latest book The End of Christianity and elsewhere: that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe 14 billion years, and that Noah's flood was regional rather than worldwide...

Patterson went on to say, "Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school."

In my humble opinion this sets the Discovery Institute further apart from reality than they perhaps already were. It also serves as a poignant reminder to recall how science really works. We do not rely on some holy text written by nomadic sheep farmers in Bronze-age Palestine, or any text for that matter. The writings we rely on are tested constantly by eminently transparent instruments and methods, always subject to new and unexpected evidence. Our 'truth', if such a word is indeed appropriate here, is provisional and it changes, no, refines over the centuries. Rather than becoming mired in the belligerently unshifting clays of dogma, the tool of science progresses towards what can only be described as a better view of reality. Creationists start with their answer cutting the puzzle-pieces up to make the picture fit, leaving a distorted and fudged scene.  

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said, "Theologically, the historical Adam as the common ancestor of the human race is the most important issue. But the question is, how in the world do you end up with an historical Adam if you have an old earth? It's becoming increasingly clear that an old earth implies something other than an historical Adam."

As an aside, this paragraph does cut to the core of the issue for Dembski. It is simply untenable to hold what he considers are compatible views, old earth = genesis account, then when the implications of our planet’s age (let alone the galaxy and universe) make the story one of impossibility. There was neither any 'first man' nor any 'first woman' (made chauvinistically from the male's rib of course) that began our species. Such a small number would mean certain inescapable implications for genetics and medicine we should have discovered by now, but so far we have not. One must only consider the Cheetah, a species that historically has undergone such a sharp population bottle-neck (down to perhaps a few hundred cats at most) that today skin grafts from any individual feline around the world can be successfully transferred to any other Cheetah due to their tight genetic similarity that resulted. This simply cannot be done with most other species, let alone through our diverse human population. Two humans begetting what would eventually become c7 billion individuals today would be obvious to genetic sequencers.   

But a world without Adam has further caustic implications for the Christian faith, implications Dembski may find it beneficial to consider. According to the myth Adam was the first man with sin, a fallen man once promised paradise. Without this original transgression one presumes the concept of sin (variously defined by different Christians of course) would never have entered our world. Be that as it may, Jesus specifically came to earth, died, and rose again to save us from these sins. I propose that if the story of Adam is legend, the story of the fall and subsequent introduction of sin is incoherent at best and utter nonsense at worst. It simply didn’t happen. From whence then doth sin arise, if not from the actions of our ghostly hero Adam and his betrothed Eve, then where? Therefore if the story of original sin is a fable Jesus' mission to remove the disease 'sin' was worse than futile. Christianity fails at the first chapter of the first book of its most holy tome. 

I do feel slightly sorry for Bill, after all, as the article correctly suggests, he is subject to day-to-day issues of providing for his family. Retention of his job would have been of primary importance for him coming into that boardroom, and so it should have been. Bill actually displayed some semblance of understanding reality as he recanted his blasphemous views on the history of our universe. If there's anything good to take away from this story it is here. 

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The most beautiful book ending

In this, the final short story from James Joyce's The Dubliners, Gabriel and Gretta, a married couple in Dublin, go to Gabriel's aunts' dance and dinner party. Gabriel thinks himself a pretty sweet guy, but he's really sort of pathetic: pompous and self-absorbed. (This type of self-awareness a running theme in The Dubliners).  A song is sung at the party, which puts Gretta in mind of a boy who once sang that same song to her many years ago. The boy was named Michael Furey, and he loved Gretta when they were both young.  But tragically their love was forbidden. In the story's most visceral scene Michael dies of tuberculosis after walking to Gretta's house in the rain to confess his feelings.

When getting ready for bed in their hotel, Gretta breaks the story to Gabriel, and, upon hearing it, he has a famous Joycean epiphany, realizing that he hasn't ever known true love and, pathetic creature that he is, will soon pass from this world.  The rest of the story dwells on the shifting views of himself, Gretta, life, and death. Here's the ending, starting with Gretta remembering Michael Furey:
"Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard, where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!"
She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.
She was fast asleep.
Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.
Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt's supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

  Isn't that just the most beautiful prose? It's the kind of work that grips your mind and builds the scene around you until you feel you're standing right there witnessing it all. The way Joyce accentuates the snow and chooses what to focus on is perfection, one can almost touch the snow. I am truly and incredibly happy I can read the English language to enjoy this marvelous ending.

Monday, 8 November 2010

What it would take to convince

And the so-called "sophisticated modern theologies" define God so vaguely you can't reach any conclusions about what he's like, or what he would and wouldn't do, or how a world with him in it would be any different than a world without him. They define God so abstractly that he might as well not exist. (Either that, or they actually do define God as having specific effects on the world, such as interventions in the process of evolution -- effects that we have no reason whatsoever to think are real, and every reason to think are bunk.)

So to persuade us -- me, anyway, and I suspect many other atheists -- that a religion was correct, it would have to do more than show evidence of a few miracles in our time. It would have to explain why those miracles were happening now... and yet had somehow never happened before. It would have to explain why the world had always been best explained by physical cause and effect, but now, overnight, that had changed. Even if a 900-foot Jesus appeared in the sky tomorrow, healing amputees and unambiguously stating his message in all languages and whatnot, a religion would have to explain why God was making all this happen now...and not at any other time in human history.

The fact that religion has utterly failed to do this in thousands of years doesn't mean that it never, ever could. I could imagine, for instance, a malevolent trickster god, who's deliberately hidden all traces of his existence from us for hundreds of thousands of years...but who today, just to screw with us, has decided to show his existence by healing amputees, moving Earth into Pluto's orbit without anyone getting chilly, writing his name in the sky in letters 100 feet tall in every language known to humanity, and making all members of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, alone among all other religions, healthy, wealthy and successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

I don't want to get into that particular argument (the idea of advanced space aliens that have "godlike" powers) right here. What I do want to point out is that my conclusion -- my acceptance of the trickster god hypothesis in the face of healed amputees and changed orbits and Loki's name in the sky and so on -- would be provisional. It wouldn't be a fundamental axiom or a tenet of unshakable faith. It would be a provisional conclusion, based on my best understanding of the best currently available evidence. If I concluded that the trickster god hypothesis was the best explanation of these weird phenomena, and then someone showed me convincing evidence that it was really super-advanced alien technology...I'd change my mind. I would renounce Loki. It'd be a provisional conclusion; a falsifiable hypothesis.

*Greta Christina

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The problem with special creation

If God created the eye, then how do creationists explain the blind salamander? “The most they can do is to intone that ‘the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,’” Hitchens mused. “Whereas the likelihood that the postocular blindness of underground salamanders is another aspect of evolution by natural selection seems, when you think about it at all, so overwhelmingly probable as to constitute a near certainty.” To confirm his instincts, Hitchens queried evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who agreed: “Why on earth would God create a salamander with vestiges of eyes? If he wanted to create blind salamanders, why not just create blind salamanders? Why give them dummy eyes that don’t work and that look as though they were inherited from sighted ancestors?”

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Matthew Flannagan and Ray Bradley debate

What follows is a discussion of said debate, written by Bill Cooke. The debate topic was: Is God the Source of Morality?

As a preamble, I have been reading Flannagan's column in Investigate for some time now and have found him indelibly Christian. What do I mean by this? I don't echo Dawkins' moniker of Mathew as a 'dyed in the wool' Christian because, while apt in certain other contexts, Matthew's faith is different. Flannagan unfortunately harbors a total inability to step outside his world-view to grasp how it is not to believe in his particular bough of Christianity. To him, there is no argument worthy of serious reflection in the secular camp. It's simply how he comes across in his writings. I'm astounded by the unbelievably void choices of argument he reverts to just to uphold his positions. They seem to occur to him as great ideas, as if even the weakest argument is sufficient to reinforce his unshakable belief structure. In this discussion you will read a few of these goodies, make sure you watch the debate as well. Needless to say, it is disappointing to hear tired arguments dragged out once more. Cooke describes them as theological "slight-of-hand", a marvelous phrase.

I didn't think (and still don't think) that debating whether god is the source of morality is even a good idea. I'll give my reasoning: why bother discussing the glitches or fine-tuning of a computer program if the program itself is yet to exist past concept? In the same way that this would be presumptive, discussing what god's actions is meaningless, vacuous, and bellicose if the being is yet to be positively shown to exist. Further, Flannagan's 'god' will be starkly different to the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Wiccan who kneels not ten feet from him. In light of this, doesn't it seem futile to discuss god's morality if no one agrees on what or who this 'god' actually is?

This is one on the big reasons I strive to clarify any interlocutor's belief structure before we talk. Otherwise, as I have found so often, the person always finds leverage in the slippery comment, 'but that's not what I believe'. Usually proceeding a structured rebuttal from myself. They don't offer a counter-argument, they refuse to re-engage, and they side-step with a classic goal-post shift. Flannagan shows he has no argument positively proving the debate topic, rendering the talk heavily weighted to Bradley's side immediately. The debate was effectively over before it started.

On to the main event then...

Is God the Source of Morality?

Bill Cooke

To non-religious people, the answer to this question is obvious. But for thousands of religiously-minded people, it is still valid to wonder how one can be moral without a God to direct and punish. And some fundamentalists go even further when they insist that one cannot actually be moral at all unless one is religious, by which they almost always mean their own religion. Either way, it was the topic for the latest high-profile debate between religious and non-religious people on important issues. This debate went under the banner of the Evangelical Union and a newish grouping on Auckland University called the Reason and Science Society. The Christian protagonist was Matthew Flannagan, sometime Christian Heritage Party activist, now lecturer at what used to be called the Bible College out in Henderson. Dr Flannagan writes a column for Ian Wishart’s Investigate magazine and runs a blog on evangelical themes. And up against him was our very own Ray Bradley, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University in Canada and Honorary Associate of the NZARH. The debate was chaired very ably, once again, by Professor John Bishop, head of the Philosophy Department at Auckland University.

Ray Bradley spoke first and went energetically about his task. Supported by a generous sprinkling of Old Testament passages, Bradley accused God as understood by in the Judaeo- Christian tradition of four serious charges:

A. Crimes against humanity

B. War crimes.

C. Licensing mayhem and murder.

D. Torture, including the torment of hell.

As most rationalists know, there is no shortage of blood-curdling passages where God does all these things. To be found guilty of any one of these crimes, Bradley argued, would prove that God could not possibly be the source of morality, let alone all four. Bradley then outlined five propositions which theists believe about God.

1. God proposes things for us to believe and do.

2. God says he has caused, committed and condoned all the actions listed in A, B, C and D.

3. It is morally wrong to commit A, B, C or D.

4. God is omnipotent, omniscient, all loving (and all the rest of it).

5. A morally perfect being would not do anything that is morally wrong.

Theists, at various stages, believe all five of these, despite their blatantly contradicting each other. From this, Bradley concluded, God cannot possibly be a source of morality.

It was then Matthew Flannagan’s turn to give his main address. Now I know that, as an atheist and friend of Ray Bradley, I’m bound to say that Flannagan’s argument failed, or was unconvincing. But it really was, honestly. The main problem with his address was not that the argument was unsound, but that he didn’t actually have an argument. All he did was attempt to refute Bradley’s argument. We were told before the debate began that Bradley and Flannagan had shown each other their main argument. This, apparently, was an attempt to ensure that they addressed the moot of the debate. This was probably in response to my refusal to engage William Lane Craig on the terms he so imperiously dictated. But where I then set out an argument explaining my action and offering a rival account, all Flannagan did was refute Bradley. At no time did he actually put an argument forward to demonstrate that God was the source of morality. When one questioner pointed this out, there was a spontaneous round of applause, suggesting it was a widely-held view. The closest Flannagan got to outlining his views on the subject was when he declared himself a supporter of divine command theory, one of the arguments used by the new generation of hard-line Christian apologists. Divine command theory is a form of moral foundationalism that argues all moral rules or requirements emanate from God’s commands. Flannagan didn’t give any rundown of the theory, he just nodded in its direction. Just as well really, since the divine command theory has been on the back foot ever since Plato wrote the Euthyphro about 2400 years ago.

So was Flannagan’s refutation of Bradley in any way convincing? He claimed that Bradley’s criticisms didn’t address the issue of God’s greatness. I would have thought that convicting God of crimes A, B, C and D would be a pretty clear indication of lacking an element of greatness. Even odder was Flannagan’s attempt to explain all the barbaric passages of the Bible away with the sleight-of-hand known as context. None of the Bible passages Bradley quoted, Flannagan assured us, are commands to us. They need to be read in context. And they shouldn’t be taken literally; they were metaphors, allegories, and all the rest of it. And some were disfigured by hyperbole. And in this way Bradley’s argument was said to have missed the point because it was an argument against biblical inerrancy, not against the goodness of God.

Perhaps the most shocking admission from Flannagan was his claim that there must have been some overriding reason to justify God’s actions in the Old Testament, some higher good being pursued we were/are unaware of. How God could be the sole legitimate source of morality when he can justify his many crimes in the Old Testament in the name of some greater good escapes me. And it probably escaped Flannagan as well, as we were not given any examples of such big-picture benevolence. And as Bradley was quick to note, even if some examples could be offered, the God being apologised for in that context would be too repugnant to contemplate. What greater good could possibly justify the crimes of A, B, C or D, no matter how watered down?

A lot of the audience was unimpressed by Flannagan’s evasions. I was unconvinced that Flannagan was not doing what apologists so often do; explaining away the nasty bits of the Bible in the hope of preserving the credibility of the bits they like. I asked him if we should look to context and be aware of genre, metaphor and a tendency to hyperbole in, for instance, the ten commandments? He didn’t answer that. I also asked would Jesus not be rather cross with him in the light of Matthew 5:17, which says ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’ Flannagan’s answer was extraordinary. Oh no, he assured the audience, Jesus’s words don’t apply to us because he was speaking at that time to a Jewish audience.

What? Has he really thought that through? When was Jesus, or Rabbi Yeshua as we should properly address him, not talking to a Jewish audience? If nothing he addressed to a Jewish audience applies to us, then we can safely close the New Testament in the knowledge that none of it applies to us. So, from now on, every time a fundamentalist tells you that Jesus has a message for you, you can assure the emissary that the message was only intended for a Jewish audience. When they harrumph that that sounds like secular humanism, you can assure them that, oh no, this comes from Matthew Flannagan, evangelical Christian and apologist for divine command theory.

It seems, then, that Flannagan is behaving as apologists the world over have done: explain away biblical passages when they are inconvenient to his own needs. And in such blatant disobedience not only Jesus but also to the Law Jesus himself said he was coming to fulfil. Look, for instance, at Deuteronomy 12:32 which says: ‘Observe everything I command, taking nothing away and adding nothing.’

Another problem with Flannagan’s approach was that it makes it next to impossible to reliably gauge what God’s commands actually are. If the Bible is a hodge-podge of context, metaphor and allegory written by people of their times for their Jewish contemporaries, how are we then, in the twenty-first century, supposed to discern the content of God’s divine commands? Is it not reasonable to suppose that if God is so uniformly excellent, he should have arranged for us a clear manual to guide us lesser beings? Apparently not. Presumably it leaves that vital role to the very few chosen ones who can correctly tell which bits of the Bible are to be read in context and which are God’s divine commands. People like Matthew Flannagan.

It’s fair to conclude that Ray Bradley got the better of this debate. He actually addressed the question and presented a serious argument why God could not be any positive source of morality. Flannagan, by contrast, was content merely to try and discredit that argument, but offered no account why we should consider God is in fact the sole source of morality. And Flannagan’s attempts to discredit Bradley’s argument either missed the point or raised even more serious objections.

Having said all this, there remains the question of what is gained by this twelve-rounds-of boxing style debate. I was determined not to present to William Lane Craig the identikit Richard Dawkins account for him to knock around. I wanted to call into question Craig’s claim to be giving the one and only viable account of what it means to be Christian. There’s never only two equally-opposed viewpoints to any one question, and yet the debate format entrenches precisely this model. I would still prefer a less adversarial style of discussion of our various beliefs. At the end of this account many readers will go away thinking, “Gosh, what a fool Matthew Flannagan must be.” Just as, I have no doubt, people will think of Ray Bradley after reading accounts of the debate from Flannagan’s supporters.

But are we better off if this is the outcome of the debate? I don’t think so. At the end of the debate Bradley pleaded with the audience to go away and think the issues through themselves. Quite right too. But maybe what’s needed now is not another debate designed in this zero-sum way. Continuing with debates structured in this way gives fuel to moderate minded people of all persuasions who suspect that all that’s happening is two equally entrenched positions slugging it out with no-one actually listening to each other. What is needed now is a dialogue. Perhaps a theist and an atheist should come together and give an account of why they believe as they do and what they consider the implications of that belief to be. A dialogue of this sort would try to keep point-scoring and criticism of the opposing viewpoint to a minimum, focusing instead on outlining positively their own beliefs. Who’s up for that?

Bill Cooke was editor of the Open Society from 1992 until 2008. His next book is A Wealth of Insights: Humanist Thought Since the Enlightenment.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The “Evidence” for Jesus’ Resurrection, Debunked in One Page

Hat tip to Chris Hallquist for this marvelous example of scepticism.

The “Evidence” for Jesus’ Resurrection, Debunked in One Page

Chris Hallquist

Among Evangelical Christians, it’s become popular to claim that Jesus’ resurrection can be proved with historical evidence. This is nonsense. Here’s why:

1. There is no evidence for the resurrection outside the Bible. Non-Christian historical references to Jesus don’t occur until about six decades after the time when Biblical scholars think he probably died. When these non-Christian sources refer to Jesus’ miracles, there’s no reason to see them as anything more than a report of what Christians of the time believed.

2. There is little evidence that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or based directly on eyewitness accounts. Most of what the Bible says about Jesus’ life and supposed resurrection is in the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, (a.k.a. the Gospels). But Biblical scholars now agree these books were originally anonymous, their names added later. The traditional Christian claims about who wrote them are now widely doubted by scholars.

3. This means that the Gospels can’t be trusted as evidence for miracles. Imagine someone trying to convert you to another religion based on the “proof” of the miracles worked by the religion’s founder... in the form of a handful of anonymous tracts recounting his life. Would you accept that “proof”? Of course not. Among other things, the stories could just be legends.

4. One of Paul’s letters provides evidence that a number of people claimed Jesus had appeared to them after his death. But this isn’t proof of a miracle. The passage is 1st Corinthians 15:3-9, and most Biblical scholars agree it was really written by Paul. But again, would you accept similar evidence in favor of another religion’s miracles? The Mormon church has statements signed by several people attesting to miracles that are supposed to confirm the truth of the Book of the Mormon, but you probably won’t convert to Mormonism based on that. Also, Paul doesn’t tell us how he knows about all these appearances, so we can’t be confident his report is accurate.

5. Reports that Jesus’ disciples were martyred prove nothing. Reports of the martyrdom of Jesus’ disciples do not occur in this historical record until long after their deaths would have occurred, and accounts sometimes conflict with one another. It could be that most, even all, of these stories are legends. In any case, not only do people sometimes give up their lives for delusions, even outright charlatans have been killed for their claims. Joseph Smith was probably a charlatan, but he died at the hands of a lynch mob. So we can’t rule out deception among Jesus’ followers.

6. Claims that this or that individual couldn’t possibly have hallucinated are nonsense. Even apparently sane people hallucinate for a wide variety of reasons and under a wide variety of circumstances. We can’t rule this out for people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus.

7. Even if there were several people in Paul’s day who would have claimed to have all seen the risen Jesus at the same time, their testimony might not have stood up to scrutiny. There have been cases where a group of children have claimed to see the Virgin Mary, and been taken seriously by adults who should have known better. In many of these cases, the children were questioned individually and their descriptions of what they saw didn’t match, suggesting deception or delusion.

8. That’s it. Part of me thinks that what I’ve said in this one page is all that needs to be said on the subject. But if you want to know how I back up these claims, you can get my book UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus. The book also includes a crash course in New Testament scholarship, discussions of faith healing and Biblical prophecy, and plenty of tidbits about the strange beliefs people have had throughout history. It’s available on Amazon, and there’s more information, including links to reviews, on my website, UncredibleHallq.net.