Thursday, December 30, 2010

Brian Skyrms on the interpretations of probability theory

BS: Most scientists (and some philosophers) are frequentists and don’t trust the Bayesians.

Many philosophers (and some scientists) are Bayesians or subjectivists “all the way down”, and many don’t believe in objective probabilities.

VR: That would explain a lot.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Care and Feeding of Prior Probabilities

Roffle wrote: I would agree that someone who comes to a conversation with a lot of unfounded assumptions (uninformed priors) will form different conclusions based on the evidence at hand, but that doesn't mean that that person's opinion should carry any weight.

If you want to convince others that your conclusion is rational, you need to justify your assumptions (priors). If you can't, and instead hide behind a smokescreen of subjectivity about priors while at the same time pretending to be rational, then don't be surprised when you receive as much condemnation as you do.

VR: When I say I am a pluralist about priors what I mean is that I don't think it's necessary to show that everyone ought to have the same priors I do. But that doesn't mean the priors are uninformed. They are affected, in my case at least, on the positive side by natural-theological argumentation, and on the negative side by the problem of evil. There are differences of opinion about these arguments. Whether I think the universe exists contingently and this needs something to cause its existence, or whether I think it can exist on its own, is going to affect my prior for miracles. Whether the universe was designed by someone for intelligent life, or whether intelligent life arise with no design would be another factor. Whether our power to reason requires a mentalistic universe, or whether it can be the by-product of a purely material and fully evolved brain is another issue. Whether the world as we know it with the evil it contains is compatible with a perfectly good creator would be another factor. Lewis's whole book, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, offers an explanation as to why he thinks the miracle claims of Christianity should not be considered overwhelming improbable prior to investigation.

If you think the whole case for God apart from arguments for miracles is nonsense, and the case against God overwhelming, then no case for the Resurrection will ever be good enough. But some of us don't concur with the antecedent of this conditional.

Rational Reflection and Prior Probability

John:  I have never denied that upbringing has any influence. I suppose my upbringing might have provided a set of initial priors. But when I consider the question of the Resurrection of Christ today, I have to consider all the waterboarding, as Bob would say, all the critical reflection that has taken place since that time. I became a philosophy major because if there were reasons to reject Christianity, I wanted to hear them sooner rather than later.  During my time as a philosophy major, where I encountered Hume's essay on miracles for the first time, and wrote two papers on it. During my time in seminary, I not only encounter more skepticism about the Bible than I had ever encountered before, but also got to know Keith Parsons when we lived in the same house.  My career graduate student was in highly secularized philosophy departments, where I was part of a Christian minority. There was one known believer in the 18-man University of Illinois philosophy faculty. I spent did my dissertation work under a teacher who grilled my arguments incessantly, and while he didn't officially state his own views on religion, certain did not come across as a believer.

Add to that the style of questioning that I consistently engaged in. Coming from the logic-dominated world of chess I was highly resistant to any appeal to blind faith. I've always had trouble with doctrines like biblical inerrancy and papal infallibility.

So I've got a lot feeding into my priors besides my upbringing. Do you deny that?

So, by the time I get to 2010, and I start reflecting on the question of the Resurrection, there is a lot of learning and questioning that has gone on since my upbringing occurred, so if someone says "Well, your priors just come from your upbringing," what that seems to me to be doing is to just ignore or denigrate all the questioning and learning I might have done since. When you imply that none of the thinking and learning I did over a 39-year period has anything to do with why I believe what I believe, that's what makes me irate. If that isn't what you're saying, then you need to be clearer.

Many people come to beliefs which differ sharply from the way they were raised. Bob Prokop and I had a friend, Joe Sheffer, who had no religious upbringing, converted to Protestant Christianity in college, and later joined the Catholic Church. So much for the overwhelming power of upbringing. If upbringing is so powerful, what happened to you?

It would be easy to pick on non-rational factors from your personal story and explain your nonbelief in terms of those things. Your Christian opponents have done it many times. And you don't like it, since it ignores your actual arguments.

There are many reasons that I could give for why I have priors that leave me open to the possibility of a miraculous explanation for the founding of Christianity. One that I have devoted considerable energy to is Lewis's argument from reason. If the physical is causally closed, then of course there can't be any miracles, but I maintain the if the physical is causally closed, then no scientist, mathematician, or philosopher has ever performed a rational inference. I have never seen you deal with that argument in any serious way, but it is very relevant. To give a full account of why I believe what I do would take at least a whole new book, and maybe I will write it.

If we critically reflect on our beliefs, if we consider the views of our opponents, if we take the raft of beliefs that we started with and add planks that are shown to be needed by the evidence and discard those that are shown to be faulty by the evidence, we have done all we can do to discover the truth. I'm not a Cartesian foundationalist. That doesn't mean that bias can't hide from us. Just saying "follow science" doesn't help us much. These questions are not purely scientific questions, nor can they be. Sure, science gives us information that is relevant to these matters, and that has to be considered. But does science really help to answer the question as to whether or not the universe exists contingently, and therefore must depend on something else for its existence? Well may be it does--it seems to be telling us these days that the universe began to exist. But I'm afraid metaphysics, and metaphysical questions (questions that go beyond physics) will be with us always.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pluralism about Antecedent Probabilities and Miracles

Reading Earman, I think I prefer to set the whole personalist-anti-personalist debate aside by introducing the idea of pluralism about prior probabilities. If you start talking like a personalist people start getting the idea that you are just starting from wherever your personal biases have taken you, while for most of us who have reflected about religion and the philosophy of religion, our prior for miracle claims is going to be fed into by such things as the credibility of theism, the moral credibility of Jesus and Christianity, our sense of whether Christians are right about what humans most profoundly need, etc. Indeed, another part of it would be whether the miracles attributed to Jesus are ones that appropriate fit with the concept of God. All of this stuff is tough to quantify, and as a result you have to just deal with the fact that people will be looking at evidence for and against Christian miracles informed by very different perspectives. Even though Hume didn't prove that we should look at the evidence essentially epistemically closed to the miraculous, his opponents have not proved that everyone has to come to this discussion with priors that will allow them to be genuinely open-minded about being persuaded to accept these miracle reports. So what I like to do is to "bracket" the left side of the equals sign in Bayes' theorem, on the assumption that of course people with lots of different priors are going to be looking at this, and just concentrate on the right side of the equals sign. Is there anything in the evidence that ought to surprise a skeptic who is paying attention? If there is, and it makes sense from a Christian standpoint, then I figure I've got something that will pull the skeptic in the direction of Christianity, even though his priors may be such that it won't come anywhere near to convincing him that Christianity is true. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Timothy McGrew on ECREE

Tim wrote: Here's what I wrote about it in the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Epistemology, for which I wrote the entry on "Evidence". 
Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence
Another common slogan, also popularized by Sagan, is that Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Much depends, of course, on what counts as extraordinary, both in a claim and in evidence. It cannot be simply that a claim is unprecedented. At a certain level of detail, almost any claim is unprecedented; but this does not necessarily mean that it requires evidence out of the ordinary to establish it. Consider this claim: “Aunt Matilda won a game of Scrabble Thursday night with a score of 438 while sipping a cup of mint tea.” Each successive modifying phrase renders the claim less likely to have occurred before; yet there is nothing particularly unbelievable about the claim, and the evidence of a single credible eyewitness might well persuade us that it is true.
The case is more difficult with respect to types of events that are deemed to be improbable or rare in principle, such as miracles. It is generally agreed in such discussions that such events cannot be common and that it requires more evidence to render them credible than is required in ordinary cases. (Sherlock 1769) David Hume famously advanced the maxim that No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish (Beauchamp 2000, p. 87), which may have been the original inspiration for the slogan about extraordinary evidence. Hume appears to have thought that his maxim would place certain antecedently very improbable events beyond the reach of evidence. But as John Earman has argued (Earman 2000), an event that is antecedently extremely improbable, and in this sense extraordinary, may be rendered probable under the right evidential circumstances. The maxim is therefore less useful as a dialectical weapon than is often supposed. It may help to focus disagreements over extraordinary events, but it cannot resolve them.

Why Dawkins Almost Deserved his Name

Interestingly, Angus Menuge's essay "Why Eustace Almost Deserved His Name: Lewis's Critique of Modern Secularism" in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy (Open Court, 2005), develops this theme, though without the wonderful graphics on this post by Patrick Chan of Triablogue.

Rupert Sheldrake on Shermer and real skepticism

HT: Steve Hays. 

Letter to Scientific American November 2005 
Reply to Michael Shermer 
Do Skeptics Play Fair? 
by Rupert Sheldrake

In his attack on my work (“Rupert’s Resonance,” Scientific American, November), Michael Shermer asserted that “Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.” But who is the believer and who is the skeptic?

I am skeptical of people who believe they know what is possible and what is not. This belief leads to dogmatism, and to the dismissal of ideas and evidence that do not fit in. Genuine skepticism involves an attitude of open-minded enquiry into what we do not understand, and this is the approach I try to follow.

Abusing Bayes: A Reply to Rebel1 from the Secular Outpost

Rebel1 wrote: @Victor Reppert: You completely missed the point, once again. YOU DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT TO USE THE WORD "BAYESIAN". It's a term that has a clear meaning in Mathematics, and it is clearly not the one you imagine. Is that clear enough, now that I've used ALL CAPS??? Bayes' Theorem REQUIRES quantifiable prior probabilities to have any meaning, especially when those probabilities are likely to be low. And miracles are not miracles if they are not highly improbable. 

The very point made by many of your critics remain. If miracles exist, then they will be resistant to any sort of probabilistic analysis. You cannot steal the language of Mathematics to give your personal, unvalidated beliefs the credibility attached to that field. You are not even a philosopher, because I expect from philosophers a little rigour in their use of language.

What you are, is a hack, no better than Deepak Chopra when he uses the word Quantum to give his pablum a "sciency" air.

So stop using the word "Bayesian", and we might be able to have a conversation. Use the word, and all you'll get from people who actually know what the word means is ridicule.

VR: You might want to read John Earman's (University of Pittsburgh philosopher of science and an atheist, and Keith's former teacher) book "Hume's Abject Failure" before you accuse me of not knowing what the word Bayesian means. (He references one of my papers in his book). Or you might try convincing my philosophy of science teacher at the University of Illinois, Patrick Maher (author of books like Betting On Theories), who worked with me on Bayesian theory while I was getting my doctorate, and explain to him that I don't know anything about Bayesianism. If Jordan Howard Sobel were still alive, you might want to ask him also, since he read two of my papers, and found them reasonable efforts, even though he differed with my conclusions and is the leading defender of the Bayesianized version of Hume's argument against miracles. Or, you can ask Keith. NONE of these people believe in miracles, but all of them thought I made some reasonable points in my two papers, one which appears on Internet Infidels, and the other of which came out in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion in 1989.

You might also want to read up on the Personalist school of Bayesian prior probabilities, a school that has many adherents. You might want to read Colin Howson and Peter Urbach's Scientific Inference: A Bayesian Approach, before you dismiss personalism as hogwash.

You might also try examining my arguments in my Infidels paper on miracles against frequentism before you make charges like this.

You also might want to think twice about the fact that you completely misrepresented my position before you blast me into the outer darkness for a complete misunderstanding of Bayesianism. In short, you might want to do your homework.

The fact that Bayesian inference is used with certain conventions within your scientific enterprise doesn't mean that you can dismiss the work of many other people who use that same methodology in different contexts, with different ground rules. To me, Bayesian personalism isn't a way of claiming a kind of mathematical precision for beliefs about, say, the resurrection which I know to be impossible. It is an attempt on my part to think from the standpoint of a model which allows a plurality of antecedent probabilities to start with, but nevetheless leaves people open to the consideration of evidence for and against religious beliefs. It's the best model I know of to do this job.

I could be thoroughly misguided, but I think I can appeal to the authority of some people who know a lot more about Bayesianism than I do to show that I do know what Bayesianism is.

More science and the OTF

I think I'm getting a little more engagement from John that usual. 

1) You are avoiding the question of what would constitute "me" in some other culture, and what would make that relevant. 

2) Do most people accept the religion of the culture they are raised in if they become philosophy majors and deliberately expose themselves to opposing viewpoints? Now different people have different sorts of intellectual needs, and I would not want to denigrate other types of people, but given the kinds of friends and professors I encountered throughout my education, as well as all the people I read, I think I gave the atheist side plenty of opportunity to convince me had the case been there. Given the kind of upbringing I had, the people I spent time with, the major I chose, and just the intensity with which I pursued questions, I don't think it was a done deal that I would end up a Christian. I have imagined a few scenarios where I might have ended up as an unbeliever. 

3) Attribution bias? Well, one of the things I learned in the course of my intellectual development was that there are limits on how rational a person can be, and I have discovered that it is difficult to be rational. I'm aware of the dangers of wishful thinking; that's one of the things that has made it harder, not easier, to believe. All I can say is that I think I have tried harder and longer to be rational about religion than virtually anyone I know. With all that, of course, I could have failed. I believe that imagining what we would believe if we started in a different place from where we started is a good heuristic. Granting special authority and "default" status to some viewpoint other than one's own is, in my view, epistemically unwarranted. 

4) I'm not committing the "infallibility or falsehood" dichotomy, since obviously I think neither that I am infallible nor that my beliefs are false. What you seem to imply is that since you went through what you describe as such a wrenching conversion experience, you had to be sure that you right, and therefore your opponents simply must be wrong. Or so you sound at times. Otherwise, why MUST you explain away all your opponents? Why not just say that people have come to different places trying the best they could to be rational, and in some sense agree to disagree. (Which doesn't mean I expect you to stop thinking that I am wrong). 

5) I am NOT railing against the sciences, I am railing against bad extrapolations from the sciences. Nothing proved in science necessarily entails that Christianity is false. 

5a) The NAS statistic is the one atheists love to quote, but you have to go from science to unbelief, not the scientific community to unbelief. The scientific community was once almost exclusively Christian, and yet skeptics argue that the overall thrust of science proved the undoing of religion even though the scientists were Christians. But you can't help yourself to that argument, and then argue that now, the religious persuasions of a particular group of scientists proves that science and religion are in conflict. Even if science itself provides an antidote to bias in the long run, scientists thinking about the field of religion are just as subject to bias as the rest of us mortals. 

5b) I've never been a YEC, and I don't believe I hold any belief about any scientific matter based on a perceived conflict with a literal reading of Scripture. I didn't learn fundamentalism from my mother. She wasn't a fundamentalist. 

6) You are ignoring my distinction between narrow science and broad science. Even within science, different methods are proper to different subject matter. Are there certain modes of reasoning proper to metaphysics that are might not be acceptable within any science in particular. 

7) I did mention that modern science arose on Christianity's watch, and I knew you would come back with Carrier's research claiming that Christianity can't claim any credit for science. Of course I've seen Carrier's case, (which is all over Infidels and was even part of his critique of my book), but I'm not fully persuaded. But, of course, you chose to ignore my main argument that unless theism or something like it is true, then science is not so much as possible, because rational inference would not be possible. All beliefs would be, in the final analysis, production of non-rational causes. This is the argument from reason, as you know. Carrier replied to that, too but I think my reply in C. S. Lewis as a Philosopher, along with Darek Barefoot's reply on Infidels, constitutes an effective answer to Carrier on the AFR. 

8) The "kick against the goads" rhetoric about the OTF is getting old and silly. The fact is I have acknowledge a legitimacy to using the heuristic of thinking from some standpoint other than one's own. What I have denied is that there is an authoritative "outside" perspective, or that these sociological considerations warrant making nonbelief the "default" position. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Contingency, Science, and the OTF

No John, you're missing the point. What we have is a failure to communicate. In my view the question of who "I" would be in another culture is difficult to raise meaningfully because not only does the religion of choice change, but also the freedom to question one's beliefs differs. So saying that I would be a Muslim in a Saudi society doesn't mean a whole lot because the freedom to so much as question Islam is not granted. What makes someone in a Muslim or a Mormon culture me? Possible world semantics has the problem of identifying either persons or counterparts across possible worlds. When people make statements like "If you had been born in Saudi Arabia you would have been a Muslim," we need an account of the counterpart relation. 

My next point is that I have been influenced by a lot of other things besides my upbringing. My home church exposed me both to liberal Methodist theology and conservative evangelicalism. So it was not monolithic; it was a mixed bag. Lots of people grow up Christians and leave the fold, sometimes because of unbelief, and sometimes just they drift away without really thinking very hard about it. I was NEVER an unquestioning believer and I always took anything that seemed to me like brainwashing very ill. So the meaningful question is whether someone coming out of the Saudi Islamic community who questioned their religion as much as I did would come out as a Muslim. And the answer seems to me to be that a questioner like me would not be welcome in the Saudi community. I would be forced either to stop questioning or leave the fold. So there is no Saudi counterpart to me in any sense that is meaningful to the justification of my religious beliefs. My religious beliefs were, right from age 18, consistently exposed to criticisms from, I won't say all sides, but by many sides. It's anybody's guess how I would have evaluated the evidence had my ideas been formed in some other intellectually open environment. 

So I never said that I would still be a Christian philosopher like myself if I had grown up in the Saudi culture. You are reading me in a delusional way, I hate to say it, when you say that. 

You also missed my point about bad experiences. The point is that there are contingencies in all of our backgrounds, and if contingencies are sufficient to call beliefs into question, then your beliefs would be just as questionable as mine. But contingencies, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to call beliefs into question. 

So you, thinking your way from inside Christianity, assuming that it was true, concluded that it was all false. Fine, I am sure this was a serious intellectual effort. However, nothing guarantees that our intellectual journey will reach the right destination. It isn't humanly possible to consider all the relevant parameters. We call it as we see it, but nothing guarantees our infallibility, even if we end up crossing the aisle. Otherwise, Antony Flew's journey to theism or C. S. Lewis's journey from atheism to theism to Christianity would be proof that theism and Christianity are true. The idea that you MUST have reasoned correctly because you left the fold, and were motivated not to leave just doesn't hold water. 

But then you say, well, what we have to do is to go by the sciences. But whose sciences? The science of Francis Collins, or the science of P. Z. Myers? The science of John Polkinghorne, or the science of Victor Stenger? The science of Michael Behe, or the science of Richard Dawkins? Questions of religion are not strictly speaking scientific questions (unless one operates with an expanded notion of science, an idea that I am not unfriendly to, actually, but other people scream bloody murder when I suggest it), so you have to extrapolate from the sciences in order to get any kind of results. And then you have to ask questions as to why matter exists, or, further, why science exists. I have argued that if "scientific" naturalism is true, then it is not possibly true that humans literally add, subtract, multiply, divide, and take square roots of numbers. Hence if scientific naturalism is true, then science itself cannot exist. As I see it, the Christian world-view is the scientific world-view. Modern science was founded on the Christian watch, and presupposes a rational universe and rational minds to understand that universe that we would have no reason to believe in unless there is a God. 

The fact that you think that my recitation of something that is pretty much standard philosophy of science is some kind of tirade against science shows that you don't understand the very science that you claim to believe in so strongly. Richard Swinburne's philosophical theology is the most comprehensive attempt to bring scientific thinking to religious questions, but I know you don't like his conclusions. You see, when you say "follow science," what I fear is that a "heads I win, tails you lose" game is being set up. If I point to something in science that supports religion, you say "That's not science." If you point to something in science that refutes religion, then it is science. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lucky Me

First of all, let's get something clear. There can be truth-favoring accidents of birth. I have a much better chance of knowing the truths of higher mathematics if I was born into a country that would permit me to get a college-level education that I would have if I were born to a poor family in Africa who has no access to education.

Second, had my parents not encouraged my inquisitive mind I would probably have never gone into philosophy, and would not have had the sort of mental life I have now. Could I say to an atheist "Look, you have to abandon your beliefs and take an outsider test. Your family could have made you more of a intellectual sheep than you are now, in which case you'd be blindly following some cult leader instead of rejecting religion altogether." Of course not. He would just say, "Well, thank evolution I have a passion for asking questions, and am not a sheeple."

I would think that if careful intellectual inquiry is supposed to play a role in coming to know whatever is true about God, then an open and pluralistic intellectual atmosphere makes it more likely that you will discover what is true than an atmosphere where people are brainwashed and inhibited from questioning whatever their parents or the state tells them. If that is so, then I have had some advantages over someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia, who would have had Islam shoved down my throat, or in Russia, where I would have had atheism shoved down my throat, than I have had in the atmosphere in which I have lived. So if someone says "If you had been born in Saudi Arabia you would have been a Muslim," one response is to say "Thank God I wasn't," but the other response is to say that I find it hard to believe that my Saudi counterpart would have had the opportunity to scrutinize his religious beliefs the way that I have had. So, I consider myself to have been the recipient of some good epistemic luck, for which I am grateful.

I'm not even sure a meaningful counterpart to me can exist in Saudi Arabia. But if any sense can be made of that statement, then it really doesn't give me much cause for epistemic anxiety. Whoever this epistemic counterpart might be, I am epistemically privileged compared to him, in much the way that we Americans are economically priviliged in comparison to the Third World.

A C. S. Lewis Christimas

HT: Bob Prokop

Xmas and Christmas -- A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

By C.S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to he the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north-western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders. surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush. But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which 1 know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, It is not lawful, 0 Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left. And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, It is, 0 Stranger, a racket; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and - participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

If I had been born in Saudi Arabia, would I have been a Muslim? Hell, no!

From a comment by Chris on the Secular Outpost:

A naturalist/atheist views all of the above in an entirely consistent manner: none of it is believable. Theists do not view it consistently. They view one set of beliefs as true; the others are not. Yet there's no difference in the nature of the evidence - none whatsoever. If Victor, with his same mindset, had been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, he would almost certainly be a Muslim, and he would dismiss all accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, while maintaining that he was still a prophet and a divine being who would return to judge the world. Assuming I also maintained my mindset when I was 'reborn' in Saudi Arabia, then I would still be a naturalist/atheist (albeit a very circumspect one), and I would still dismiss the miracle-evidentiary value of the Koran, Bible, Diamond Sutra, etc., just as I do today. So a theist would accept a similar 'type' of evidence, but a completely different 'set,' whereas a naturalist would maintain a consistent view of both type and set no matter what culture he/she was born into. That seems like a more defensible position.

This is an assertion, typical of the outsider test rhetoric, that I would, if I had the same intellectual dispositions, be  a Muslim if I were born in the Islamic world. The person saying this, of course, doesn't know me at all.  First, this simply denigrates all of the efforts that I made since I grew up to evaluate the reasons for and against being a Christian.  The evidence bases for the two religions are different, and I think someone of my education and scholarship would have noticed the difference. In fact, when I looked at comparison of the evidence bases for these religions a few weeks back I commented that if the evidence bases were reversed between the two religions I would have some serious doubts. (That particular site probably overstates the case for Christianity, but there does seem to me to be a real difference). 

Second, the Islamic community seems to have actively discouraged philosophy since the Middle Ages. You have figures like Avicenna, Averroes, and al-Ghazali, but after that I don't see much contribution to philosophy. So the likelihood of the Islamic community producing a philosopher like myself doesn't seem as likely as the Christian community producing a philosopher like myself. 

Third, in thinking about my intellectual development, I was always a pretty severe questioner. I can imagine Christian settings that would have severely tempted me to leave the fold, particularly those who suppressed questions. I experienced some of that (I remember attending a conference by Bill Gothard where he told people that if they wanted to take a philosophy course that would be OK, but don't major in it), but I was able to find Christians of considerable intellect, equal to anything I saw in the atheists I knew, who were not afraid of questions. C. S. Lewis helped a lot, my friends Bob Prokop (a commentator here) and the late Joe Sheffer were helpful when I was an undergraduate, my seminary professor Don Saliers, who helped me find my own voice in dealing with the issue of Catholicism (Don is most famous for being the father of Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls), Christian grad students at Illinois, and the philosophers at the Society of Christian Philosophers' conference all helped to provide an the intellectual community that allowed me to become a Christian philosopher. I think a more question-suppressive intellectual atmosphere might have induced me to leave the fold. I find it funny that Loftus uses the word "brainwashed" about me, because the ABSENCE of brainwashing tactics amongst these people made it much easier to sustain my faith. I think of it as God taking care of my intellectual needs throughout my life, but if you don't think there is a God, you probably are going to have to describe it differently. 

If I had grown up in a Christian community that preached a lot of hell-fire, if I had asked a lot of questions and been told to stop asking them, and if looking in a more liberal direction I had found nothing but a lot of Bultmannian existentializing, I think there is a good chance that I would have left the fold. 

But the main thing I want to note is that in order to have a real equivalent of me in some other religion, you have to have a question-friendly atmosphere. There are Christian groups don't even provide that. I don't think I would have found that in Saudi Arabia, since the predominant form of Islam there is reactionary. When Salman Rushdie wrote Satanic Verses, which as I understand it is a novelized account of the giving of the Qur'an to Muhammad which diverges from orthodox Islam, the mullahs in Iran put out a contract on him. I don't recall a hit being ordered by the Vatican on Dan Brown after the Da Vinci Code. I'm not saying that an Islamic equivalent of myself is impossible, but I think if I had been a Muslim I either would have become a Muslim fideist and probably never gone into philosophy, or I would have left the fold. 

The Third Chapter of Miracles in online

This is the locus classicus of the argument from reason. It is Lewis's revised paper, in response to Anscombe.

A layman examines the Lewis-Anscombe controversy

I am redating this post for the benefit of BDK, who asked about the texts on which the Lewis-Anscombe exchange is based.

This is a philosophical layperson, obviously well-disposed toward Lewis, who has attempted to analyze and reconstruct the Lewis-Anscombe controversy. Please see "notes" and "appendices."

He is not a fan of mine, as can be seen by these comments from "notes."

Reppert, 59-60. This book is certainly not the “gem” perceived by one reviewer who was perhaps describing what he and I hoped to see rather than what actually lay before him. The title is clever and the opening chapter is inviting; and I guess there is an important truth in the assertion that Lewis is not a provider of finished philosophical products but, rather, of ideas which deserve further devel­op­ment in view of his “outstanding philosophical instincts”. The book contains a couple of useful ideas and distinctions; and it is my abiding impression that the author has the kind of brains and training required for the job and which I lack. Yet I cannot doubt that this book will for most of its readers turn out to be an exercise in “finding out what the author says in spite of all the author does to prevent you” – as C. S. Lewis once described another book whose author had “no order, no power of exposition, no care for the reader”. At any rate, the chapter about the Anscombe affair is a botched job; it was in fact what made me decide to make an attempt myself.


The appendices are very valuable, since they include the original Anscombe critique, and the first edition chapter 3 argument, which are not the easiest things in the world to get a hold of.

On the Anscombe experience: a crisis of faith?

I had something like Lewis's experience when I presented a paper at Notre Dame on eliminative materialism. My commentator was Bill Ramsey, a UCSD graduate who actually did most of his work with Steven Stich rather than the Churchlands. In the exchange that ensued, I think the general consensus was that he had gotten the better of it. Did that tempt me to become an eliminativist? Certainly not. Did I ever cease to think that some kind of self-refutation argument could be made to work against eliminativism? No. But what it did show me was that I had failed to get fully "inside" the eliminativist perspective to be able to bring up objections that would draw iron. Ramsey subsequently published his reply in Inquiry, and I responded to that, I thought, reasonably well in that same journal. I also wrote another paper which came out in Metaphilosophy examining the eliminativism debate in light of an analysis of the fallacy of begging the question.

The overall reaction in the Oxford community might have been embarrassing and hard on Lewis. Lewis has said that one thing he didn't like about these Socratic sessions was that the credibility of Christianity seemed to hang on his performance in some particular debate. The fact that his adversary was young, female (Oxford in 1948 was less than fully converted to gender equality), and hitherto unknown didn't help. I take it when he later says "She obliterated me as an apologist" what he was saying was that he thought she had damaged his reputation amongst people who went to the Socratic meetings.

I know there was a subsequent discussion of the exchange between Lewis and Anscombe at the home of Lewis's physician Havard, who knew both of them. I'd give my eyeteeth for a record of what was said at that meeting. I also know that Lewis published a rebuttal in the Socratic Digest that same year. So if there was a time when he thought he actually thought the argument might have been refuted, it didn't last long.

Lewis came to reject naturalism in favor of absolute idealism as a result of an argument of this type in the course of his disputations with Owen Barfield prior to his conversion. However, if you read Surprised by Joy (and there is even more to the story than he recorded there), there were lots of factors in his conversion. It's unlikely that this would have triggered a crisis of faith.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Narrow Science, Broad Science, and Religious Questions

JonJ: You say there is knowledge beyond the reach of science. OK, what is it? Can you give us one tiny crumb of incontrovertible fact sourced from any method other than science?

Science gets it wrong at least half the time. But religion gets it wrong all the time, because it never checks.

VR: I don't think religion never checks. I'm not a fideist. I think that there are ways of checking my beliefs. There are possible arrangements of evidence that would make me doubt my religion. What happens from there is anybody's guess, but I don't follow Craig in saying that the Holy Spirit gives me such reassurance that, given any possible change in the evidence or my evaluation of the evidence. I go with C. S. Lewis's "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it." 

I think you have to distinguish between narrowly scientific reasoning and broadly scientific reasoning. Narrowly scientific reasoning is the kind of reasoning accepted in various scientific disciplines. It has some common overall themes, but differs somewhat from disciple to disciples. Should sociology try to be just like physics? Probably not, but of course there are going to be some similarities. 

If we are speaking of broadly scientific reasoning, then I can't see any reason why the reasoning one engages in in determining religious beliefs can't be broadly scientific. I believe in Bayesian conditionalization, and I do believe that what I believe religiously can be either confirmed or disconfirmed by evidence. There is something I call the "vacuity argument" which says that "supernatural" (and here the idea of the supernatural has to be clarified, because according to some ways of defining the term I don't think even God is supernatural, and I see no good reason in theory why God couldn't be a theoretical entity in a scientific explanation), explanations are excluded because they can just be stuck in anywhere, and are therefore vacuous. But I have never found this argument persuasive in the least.

The False Anscombe Legend Again

kbrowne: While I would agree that, as a result of his exchange with Anscombe, Lewis came to believe that his formulation of his argument was flawed, the claim that he believed the argument to be fully refuted is an urban legend, which I have dubbed the Anscombe legend. Anscombe herself attributed reports of Lewis's dejection over the exchange to the psychological phenomenon of "projection." Lewis in fact produced a short response to Anscombe's argument that appeared in the very issue of the Socratic Digest in which Anscombe's own essay had appeared. In 1960, the Fontana edition of Miracles appeared, in which Lewis produced a revised and expanded version of the third chapter of Miracles, which he wrote in response to Anscombe, and which expanded on the ideas in his short response that appeared in the Socratic Digest. Anscombe thought that this effort was considerably improved, but pointed out a couple of areas where the argument needed further development if it were to succeed.

My own efforts, starting with my 1989 doctoral dissertation, through my book C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea and the Blackwell Companion article, has been to defend Lewis's overall argument. I think as an attempt to refute Lewis's overall argument, (as opposed to showing that it had been inadequately formulated) relies on some assumptions, popular amongst Wittgensteinians (that explaining the reasons for someone's belief can be done in a way that is completely separate and independent from the question of how that belief is produced and sustained), that most people, naturalists or otherwise, would not endorse, and which have unacceptable consequences.

It is of some interest to note John Beversluis, who is the leading critic of Lewis's apologetics, concludes that Lewis did not consider his argument refuted and did not give up apologetics after the exchange, as biographers such as Humphrey Carpenter and A. N. Wilson have claimed. He differs from me with respect to the merits of Lewis's argument, and does think it can be refuted on broadly Anscombian lines, but he has completely abandoned the Anscombe Legend with respect to the psychological impact of the exchange.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Deconversion, Skepticism, and the intellectual Mount Olympus

As someone who abandoned Christian soteriological exclusivism in 1974, and as someone who has at least universalist sympathies, I can assure you that the fear of hell is not keeping me in the fold. Conversions and deconversions are difficult and life-changing experiences. It's funny, when I talk about Lewis's experience as the most reluctant convert in all England, (you know the passage in Surprised by Joy, surely), people point out quite correctly that however thought-out that experience might have been, it provides no guarantee that he reasoned correctly. And the same observation must be made of your leaving the fold. (Of course, some people go further and say that Lewis was really converted by wishful thinking despite the fact that he said he was accepting something he very much did NOT prefer to be true. And of course, I could use exactly the same tactic on your deconversion.)

I don't think I have a naive view of human cognitive powers. What the sciences tell us is that it is very difficult to be rational. What I deny is that there is some position of "skepticism" that is some intellectual Mount Olympus from which we can escape our tendency toward bias. Leaving the fold doesn't cure it.  Getting an Outsider Test diploma doesn't cure it. What we have to do is make a lifelong effort to think well, and that remains difficult whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or an atheist.

One way of expressing my doubts about the outsider test is just to deny that there really is an outside. There is none. Wherever you go, there you are. We can imagine ourselves having different intellectual predispositions from what we have and then looking at the evidence to see if we would be persuaded by that evidence if we were differently predisposed. That's an interesting and worthwhile procedure, but hardly an experimentum crucis for religious beliefs.

I don't think you even understand the function of the Bayesian models that I use. I would never say, in any non-relative sense, that the Resurrection is 94% probable. I think that rationality is a matter of adjusting our current beliefs based on evidence, and so the Bayesian model just tells you what to do in the light of evidence. It allows me to "map" how people with different fundamental beliefs can be influenced by evidence and can adjust our beliefs in the light of that evidence. It also explains how reasonable people can disagree about religion without either side being open to charges of irrationality. That doesn't look like a game to me. You have a better model? Tell me about it.

I've always been aware of human irrationality. It's just that when atheists tell me that it all lies on the side of the believer, I consider THAT to be psychologically naive.

Does science solve our cognitive ills?

Science is not a monolithic "method" that can be applied across the board to deal with questions all the way from whether there are four bonds on a carbon atom to the question of whether your wife is faithful, or when abortion is justified, or whether it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement. There's no magic pill that will make us stop the tendency to believe what we prefer to be true, except being aware that wishful thinking is possible and considering that when you think. C. S. Lewis's analysis of the "wishful thinking" argument in "On Obstinacy in Belief" still stands as a brilliant reply to this whole line of thinking, a response that has gone unanswered in infidel literature, so far as I can tell.

Some subjects are experimentable, and some are not. Even when they are experimentable, scientists who hold the theory that "loses" the experiment don't just give up on their theories. The adjust their theories to deal with the negative experimental results, using auxiliary hypotheses. In fact, they can go on doing this forever if they feel the need to. They usually quit when they die off. It's a myth that Michelson-Morley caused a complete and immediate abandonment of ether theory. So there is no such thing as a "crucial experiment" in science. That's just basic philosophy of science going back to Pierre Duhem.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why are irrationality charges and psychological explanations necessary?

This is a response I put up on Debunking Christianity: 

It could be, though, that two people who are pursuing the truth as best they can, being as reasonable as it is possible for a human being to be, come to different answers without there by any irrationality on anyone's part. It is only that different life-experiences, different intellectual contacts, etc. etc., lead to different results. One side has to be mistaken, but neither side has to be irrational. One of them is correct, the other is in error, but neither is irrational. That is the presumption that I like to use in discussion with opponents. Of course, there's all sorts of crap going on in our minds when we try to think, but all we can ask of one another is that we do our best. But then, the title of my site isn't Debunking Atheism.

Do people who believed in the oxygen theory have to explain away all the people who believed in phlogiston?

Explaining the other side psychologically doesn't do anything. Both sides can do it, all day long, to one another. If I think you didn't discover the truth, then I can explain why you didn't. If I didn't discover the truth, then you can explain me away, too.

What you try to do in response to believers is to get them to grant that you may have seen something that they have overlooked. Why can't you accept the possibility that some Christian has seen something that you have overlooked?

The Wild Card Argument

I'm redating this post, because I noticed that Vinny has a post on his blog which essentially uses the WCA against my position. 

Dr. Logic's argument is what I have called the Inadequacy Objection, or we might also call it the Wild Card Argument. The idea is that theistic explanations don't really explain because they don't give you a reason to supposed that event X was expected as opposed to event Y. God had the power equally well to bring about X or Y, therefore, to say that he caused X doesn't really tell us why X was caused and not Y. Playing the God card is what you can do anytime, anywhere, and so it really doesn't do any real work.

We might believe that X is more in character for God than Y, and therefore X was more to be expected than Y given the existence of God. But here, I think, a kind of empiricism about the sources of our probability judgments is employed. We actually haven't seen God perform this act or that, and therefore we have no basis for believing that God is more likely to do this as opposed to that.

I'm not a pure empiricist about the basis for our probability judgments, and in fact I think that frequentism in probability theory leads to contradictions. But the Wild Card Argument is far from silly. Defenders of theistic explanations had better learn how to counter it.

My Infidels paper on Hume on miracles covers this issue, and I like to it here.

Is the Resurrection the best-evidenced NT miracle? Maybe not!

Actually, I'm not sure that the Resurrection is the best-evidenced miracle in the New Testament. Of course, it's the most theologically significant. But Acts has a much shorter event-to-writing time gap than the Gospels on any account, and at least the latter part of it is heavily supported by archaeological evidence. I realize this is controversial, but I think that Luke was a companion of Paul, and witnessed many of the events in later Acts firsthand. Since miracle reports go all the way through the book of Acts, I think the case for some of those could be stronger than the case for the Resurrection.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

ECREE and Antecedent Probabilities

There is a sense in which I agree with the ECREE thesis, it is just that I don't believe that there is any objective way of proving that one set of antecedent probabilities is rational and another is not. So what is "extraordinary" is just what your antecendent probabilities tell you is improbable.

I think that as you pull at the story of the founding of Christianity, as you play out the various scenarios all the way through, you end up thinking that none of the scenarios for what might have really happened fit the facts very well. They run into factual brick walls of one kind or another. The Christian story, IF you can get over the initial antecedent improbability of the miraculous, makes more sense of it that any other story does. I think there is no logical proof that a miracle cannot happen, since it is possible that God exists, and God is omnipotent. Further, I think that this miracle is one that God would have a fairly understandable reason to perform. So, given my prior probabilities, the evidence lifts the case for the resurrection  at least over 90%. But I can't prove the someone else that they shouldn't have priors so low for the Resurrection that it never gets above 10 for them. Both can be rational, and that's just life in the big city. (I also don't think salvation is a matter of passing a theology test). If you don't believe in the Resurrection, then I think there are a bunch of inconvenient facts out there that are hard to make sense of. But I think every philosophy has to deal with inconvenient facts.

Keith Parsons would probably call this Bayesian Balkanization.

Was the Resurrection an Extraordinary Claim?

Keith: Let me try a deliberately "naive" response to ECREE and the Resurrection, to see what you think. How extraordinary was the resurrection, really. OK, people don't walk out of their tombs in the ordinary course of events. But this guy wasn't an ordinary guy. He healed lepers and paralytics. In fact he healed ten lepers at once, so much for the idea that miracles can't be repeatable. He multiplied loaves and fishes. He walked on water. He withered the fig tree. He raised Lazarus. He turned water into wine. Nature did funny stuff when he was around that it doesn't do when he's not around, except maybe when his first-century followers were around, who did a lot of the same stuff he did, as recorded in the Book of Acts. From that evidence base, the darned resurrection looks almost what you should expect. You could almost write out the laws of supernature and make a prediction. If the disciples hadn't been looking for some sort of political deliverance, they could have been confidently waiting for it to happen.

Of course, I am responding to Parsons, and he doesn't believe that any of those other events happened either. But is ECREE a principle that is supposed to be used by everyone, not just naturalists? Doesn't it beg the question in favor of what naturalists believe in order to insist that theists have the same negative priors for something like the resurrection that naturalists use?

Is there a non-belief-system relative standard for extraordinariness? I don't think so.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ben Witherington critiques Bart Ehrman

HT: John DePoe. Readers of this blog will find a couple of familiar people in the "comments" sections.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Question from a Student

Here's a thought: Who is the more virtuous person?

1. The person who follows a religious creed to avoid eternal damnation, but does not strive to live virtuously, instead taking advantage of the "forgiveness of sins" clauses that are in major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism).

2. The atheist or agnostic who works to live a virtuous life merely for the sake of being virtuous, with no thought to any reward or any sort of afterlife.

If there was a god, and these two people were standing before you, which one would you let into the proverbial pearly gates? 

One theory is that since God standard is perfection, and no one reaches that standard, only those who, through faith, appropriate God's substitutionary sacrifice in Christ are saved, and everyone else is lost.

But there are other theories of heaven and hell. One is that heaven is actually a big bore to anyone except those with a good character. A religious faith that is just a fire insurance policy which allows you to stop worrying about going to hell while remaining indifferent to the development of one's character is a pretty worthless kind of faith. If a loving God runs the universe, then the only way one is ever going to be happy forever in this kind of a universe is to become a completely loving person oneself. You can do some of that on your own power, but that only goes so far, so at some point you are going to have to reach out to that loving God and ask them to turn you into the loving person you are trying, but not quite succeeding, in being now.  

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Concealing the fallacy: A quote from "Mr. Anscombe"

When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning or language or choice naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle or proved the square root of 2 to be rational: only the mildest curiosity is in order-how well has the fallacy been concealed?[1] P. T. Geach

[1] Peter Geach, The Virtues (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1977) 52.

I wonder if his wife agreed with that statement. 

Who Said This?

That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healing, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology. (VI, p.234).

a) Bertrand Russell
b) John W. Loftus
c) Richard Dawkins
d) none of the above

Friday, December 10, 2010

Keith Parsons replies to McInerny

Here is Parsons' reply to McInerny, as promised.

Reply to David Parker on Bayesianism and Trajectory of Science Arguments

David Parker has noticed my commitment to a subjectivist Bayesian model of belief acceptance. I should add what Monty Python said about Camelot: "It's only a model!" However, I don't see a better one. I believe in openness to evidence, but I don't believe in neutral perspectives. I believe in rationality, but I don't believe in artificial standards of rationality. And I certainly don't believe that people should claim to have achieved objectivity when they really are far from that lofty goal.

Parker wonders if my commitment to a Bayesian model of evidence commits me to the idea that all evidence is physical evidence, and hence will have to support physicalism by definition. I don't see why. Why these constraints? With Richard Swinburne, I see no good reason to suppose that there can't be evidence for theistic hypotheses. If I physically observe someone alive on Thursday, dead on Friday, and alive again on Sunday, that is prima facie evidence for the claim that that person was resurrected supernaturally from the dead. It is what I should expect if there was a resurrection, and what is very puzzling on the assumption that there was no resurrection. Now, I might, on further investigation, decide that indeed there was no resurrection, but the idea that I must rule a supernatural resurrection out from the outset strikes me as absurd. Or, to use my favorite example from atheist philosopher Keith Parsons, if the galaxies in the Virgo Cluster were to spell out the words "Turn or Burn! This means you, Parsons," then I suspect we have evidence that strongly confirms the claim that a deity exists who is threatening my atheist philosopher friend with eternal perdition.

I am unpersuaded of "trajectory of science" arguments which suggest that as we investigate further we will find greater and greater support for reductionism. Two aspects of the materialistic vision of the world as it has been historically understood are the following:

1) The universe had no beginning, and has always existed.

2) The universe is deterministic, and as we do science we will come closer and closer to finding determining causes for everything.

Now, thanks to the development of the Big Bang theory in the first instance, and quantum mechanics in the second instance, confidence in both of these theses has eroded in comparison to what might have been thought in the early days of the 20th Century.

Now, of course, naturalists have revised their conception of what is naturalistically acceptable to accommodate a universe with a temporal beginning, and a universe with quantum level indeterminism. But the point is that science frustrated the expectations of what at the time were the expected results of the naturalistic thrust of science, as it was understood at that time. This gives me some serious doubts about the idea that we can predict that the future of science will confirm physicalism, as we now understand it.

With respect to the analysis of mind, I see a lot of bravado about reductive analyses but no real hard evidence that reductions are going to be successful. In fact, given the fact that "the material" or "the natural" has to be defined in terms of the absence of the mental, it looks to me as if reduction of the mental to the physical is logically impossible, and that the more we study things scientifically the more evident this will become.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Burden, Burden, who's got the burden

This is Raply McInerny's essay arguing that, contrary to popular opinion, the burden of proof is really on the atheist.

I know Keith Parsons responded to this, and I linked to him earlier. But I would like some responses to this essay, first. 

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Here's a shroud science link

For those of you interested in the shroud debate. HT: Ray Schneider.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Have you taken the Outsider Test for Patriotism?

Apparently one of the big issues that will be important in the next campaign is American Exceptionalism. Does Obama really believe that America is the greatest nation on God's green earth. Meanwhile, over at Debunking America, the question has been raised as to whether people like Romney, Palin, and Huckabee have taken the Outsider Test for Patriotism.

Friday, December 03, 2010

BDK and Tim on Historical Evidence

This exchange gets very very good about the time Tim and BDK get into an exchange on what evidence would be sufficient to support belief in a resurrection.

It goes, though, to an important part of my enterprise in discussing historical evidence surrounding the foundation of Christianity. Any particular piece of evidence in the question of theism versus atheism, or of Christianity vs. non-Christianity is just that, one piece of the evidence. This includes, by the way, the problem of evil. I would be surprised, maybe even shocked, if historical evidence alone overturned BDK's overall commitment to a naturalistic philosophy. People change basic philosophies only when lots of things fall apart and typically, it's lots of kinds of things. The interesting claim here for me is that patient study of the whole issue will reveal is that there is something profoundly odd and surprising from a naturalistic standpoint in the whole history surrounding the founding of Christianity. You can admit that and say, "OK, but naturalism seems to me so well grounded otherwise, that I'm got to continue to believe that naturalism is true and that the whole story happened naturalistically, even if it's tough to imagine just how that could have been."

Lewis wrote about an atheist colleague being surprised at the strength of the historical case for Christianity.

“Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole outline of Christian history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity.” Now, I veritably believe, I thought-I didn’t of course say; words that would have revealed the nonsense-that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.” But I hardly remember, for I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me. Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it really happened once. “… Was there no escape?”
by C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942), pp. 223-224

VR: That atheist remained an atheist. But he thought the strength of the case for Christianity was stronger than he thought it would be. If you establish that with the argument, who knows where it goes from there.

Reply to Mark Frank on abusing probability theory

Mark Frank: You are quite right about abusing Bayes' theorem. Bayes also says we have to take into account the a priori probability of a natural or supernatural explanation. You have only considered the likelihood side of the equation. This is the famous gremlins in the attic paradox. Given gremlins in the attic it is very likely that they caused a noise. But that doesn't mean that Gremlins in the attic are a likely explanation of a noise in the attic.

Quite correct. However, we don't have any good way of measuring what the "prior" side of Bayes' theorem ought to be, and I presume that it can differ amongst reasonable people. That was the whole point of the anti-frequentism argument that I gave a few posts ago. I don't think there's a good way to go back into one's belief system and discount everything that is the product of a non-truth-conducive belief-producing mechanism, a la the Outsider Test. This is partly because it is not transparent to any of us why we think as we do. 

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Reply to Parsons on the Spelling Bees, Theories, and Explanations

Keith Parsons responds to the Spelling Bee incident: 

Am I skeptical of Victor's report? No. Why should I be? People frequently think that they have had clairvoyant episodes, premonitory dreams, ESP, etc., so there is no reason whatsoever that I should doubt such a report. It is not at all outside of the "ordinary course of nature." On the contrary, people have such experiences all the time. How did he (the violin teacher) know what had happened? Well, of course, he did not know. People get hunches, feelings, and intuitions all the time. Some, by chance, are going to be close to something that actually happens. Confirmation bias then steps in to make sure that we remember those that seemed to correspond to what happened and forget all of those that did not. 

I have trouble seeing why people are so sure that he didn't know, even if they are naturalists. Does he really know that this is naturalistically impossible? It might be less likely given naturalism than given supernaturalism, and thus the evidence might probabilistically support supernaturalism via Bayes' theorem. (OK, OK, people accuse me of abusing Bayesian probability theory on a daily basis, so I'm already bracing myself). But the most we can say, I think, if my teacher knew that my rival had gone down and been upset, this might be difficult to explain naturalistically based on what we know about nature at this point. Why do we have to assume it was a guess that turned into an appearance of knowledge because of confirmation bias. 

A few more details about the incident are relevant here. First, he said he had this "perception" just at the time when the rival went down. Second, my violin teacher never reported anything like this in the three years when he was my teacher. It's not as if he brought up a bunch of them, and this one just happened to fit.  He did mention other clairvoyant incidents, but didn't claim to have a whole lot of them. Third, although spellers, like all competitors, experience the agony of defeat, nobody ever was quite as demonstrative as this guy. So I'm just not sure you can chalk it all up to guesswork and confirmation bias. In fact, in the absence of some good reasons to believe that he couldn't have known something that was going on a couple of miles away in that school auditorium, I think the reasonable thing to say would be that he did know. 

Of course, Victor raises these queries because of their seeming relevance to miracle reports. Didn't Hume say that we should be skeptical of reports of events outside of the "ordinary course of nature?" Well, it depends on what we mean by the "ordinary course of nature." The largest largemouth bass ever caught was a lunker of 23 pounds landed by a Georgia angler circa 1924. Now this is pretty astonishing since a largemouth bass of ten pounds is a whopper. My Dad was a lifelong bass fisherman and he never caught one over eight pounds. Suppose, though that in tomorrow's paper I read that a largemouth bass weighing 24 pounds had been caught. Would I be skeptical? Maybe slightly, but I would probably tentatively accept the story. What if the report said that a largemouth bass of 50 pounds had been caught? I would most definitely be skeptical and would strongly suspect a hoax. What if the report said that an enormous, glowing bass had levitated out of the water and pronounced maledictions on all fisherman? Obviously, no newspaper--with the exception of the (now sadly defunct) Weekly World News would every publish such a story. 

But, of course, we have to consider the not only the probability of the event given naturalism, but we must also consider the laws of supernature. How probable is the event given supernatural involvement. Is it the sort of thing God is likely to do, or not, if we suspect God? Of course, Keith and I disagree as to whether it is possible to consider the laws of supernature, but people who have beliefs about supernature have probabilistic expectations concerning what to expect from supernature. If you say that's not enough for a law, well guess what. In quantum mechanics all you get are probabilities also. Are we worried that God isn't observable? Well, science commits to unobservables all the time. 

In considering miracles claims like the Resurrection, we can formulate a theory about what kinds of miracles God is likely to perform, and why he would perform them. Given this theory, we can ask whether the historical evidence is more likely to be the sort thing we should expect if the theistic theory is true, or whether it is more like the sort of thing we should expect if the theistic theory is false. There is a very large trail of historical evidence to look at. 

Of course, you can end up deciding that yes, the historical evidence confirms the theistic story, but the atheistic account is more probable based on the total evidence, or relative to your priors. 

Have the laws of nature been established by a firm and unalterable experience, as Hume suggests? I don't think so. My experience is far from establishing the laws of nature on a firm and unalterable basis. What about yours? 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stupid Skeptic Tricks

Thanks to Russell for this one, which he brings up in the context of the discussion of the paranormal. I think I've seen these before in the context of, well, other things.

Of course, some people may want to argue about whether these are really stupid.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spelling Bees, Violin Teachers, and ESP

When I was in the seventh grade, I won the District Spelling Bee. The defending champion, somewhat to my surprise, went out when there were six people left, stomped off the stage, and went crying to his mother. After winning the Bee (and qualifying for the state finals), I was asked to provide a picture for the newspaper. As it happened, my violin teacher had a Polaroid camera, and my parents and I knew this, so we visited him. He told me that he had been thinking about my spelling bee, and at one point had an awareness that my rival had gone down, and that he was very upset about it. He had this awareness at about the time when my rival went down. He said that he had sometimes had episodes of clairvoyance.

It wasn't something that he said came from God. It's not something that supports my religious beliefs, especially. But I have often thought back to this incident. How did he know? Should you be skeptical of my report now, since this doesn't seem to be something that happens in the ordinary course of nature?