Sunday, 9 September 2007

Problems with Evolutionary Psychology & Sociology

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and Sociology (ES), when they are operating "properly" should be the study of how human psychology and sociology could arise from the raw biological processes of evolution.

Unfortunately, psychology and sociology deal with human thought and its results (human actions or behaviour) and the accumulated results of that (ie. societies). Human thought and behaviour is so far above biology that psychologists and sociologists are completely bewildered by it. They handle this by pretending that it is, somehow, equivalent to biological organisms.

Thus they come up with ludicrous ideas like memes (though, credit where credit is due: it was the biologist Richard Dawkins who came up with that clanger of an idea, not a psychologist or sociologist). While memes may not be formally utilised by EP's and ES's, they nonetheless speak about human thought as if thoughts, plans, desires, and beliefs were somehow capable of independently mutating and then replicating themselves. They talk of ideas as if they "live" in people's minds like viruses live in their bodies. But, of course, ideas no more live in people's minds than words live on this page.

See this article in the Economist for a contemporary example, which draws the analogy of human behaviour evolving in the same way that a peacock's tail feather's have -- for sexual display.

Let's assume for the moment that a peacock's tail feathers did, indeed evolve for sexual display. What the analogy is claiming, then, is that human female altruism (for it is only the female in their theory that is altruistic) is not based on any reasoning, learnt behaviour, or the like, but is purely instinctual. It is on the level of a pain reflex. This is a big claim for such a complex behaviour. A huge claim.

What is there to support it?

Well, not much. A small study demonstrated that women conditioned by a society that approves of such things acted altruistically when in a romantic mood, but not so much when not in a romantic mood. The idea that this demonstrates that this behaviour is instinctual is clearly ludicrous.

Basically, all the scientists are showing is complete disdain for the complexity and richness of human behaviour. One must ask: do they so desperately desire some of the most complex human behaviour to be instinctual in nature so that they can tie it directly to biology, and thus provide some desperately needed support for evolution? Or do they want an excuse to be profligate (the men among them, anyway)? I'm questioning their motives here because this is such a bizarre project that it can never be considered rational science, so it must have some other purpose.

In any case, their wild imaginings contribute next to nothing to any understanding of humanity, whether it be grounded in evolution or not.

Sadly, this approach is prevalent in evolutionary psychology and sociology. The gulf is so great between even the simplest levels of human thought and biology, that EP's don't even attempt to make that link, instead reaching for these ridiculous leaps.

Attempting to Explain Morality and Rationality

Really, EP's have two ways to describe human morality, and only two ways:
  1. Morality is directly grounded in biology. In other words, morality is purely instinctual.
  2. Morality is grounded in reason (or some other intermediary, but I doubt that anyone would propose anything other than reason here, so we can take it as the most likely form of this argument), which itself is grounded in biology (ie. is instinctual).

The article referred to above seems to indicate (by its use of the analogy of a peacock's tail feathers) that morality is instinctual. This is pretty clearly ludicrous, as only a few moments reflection will show. Moral decisions are amongst the most complex and perplexing decisions we, as humans, can make, and we routinely apply substantial rational resources to them. In fact, often the moral decision seems to be made in the face of (and against) the instinctual one. Our instinct is to cheat or lie, but our moral decision is to not do so, for more complex (often teleological, ie. based on future goals) reasons.

Furthermore, if morality was purely instinctual, then it is merely descriptive and has absolutely no way to even attempt to be prescriptive. The accidents of evolution have no foresight: they cannot usefully guide us in taking the best path towards our (or our society's) survival unless we are confronted only with exactly the same situation that we have evolved for. Given that change is, not merely a constant reality, but the very engine of evolution, it is rather difficult for evolutionists to then contend that we should pay any attention to such instinctual morals. Rather, we should use the faculty that has (in our experience) at least some chance of predicting the future and mapping a pathway to a goal: our reason.

Which forces us to the second approach: that morality is grounded in reason. Of course, the problem with this approach is that reason itself must then be grounded in biology. No matter how tall a tower we build to get there, we must eventually end up grounding reason on biology because, for evolutionists, there is nothing else.

If reason is grounded on biology, then there is no reason to believe that it reflects actual reality. After all, it is, at core, merely a bundle of reflexes and reactions. Why should it allow us to think abstractly? Why should we be able to form logical arguments, and recognise their strength? The distance between abstract reasoning and any possible survival benefit is so great that the filter of evolution: survival of the fittest, has no real selective power over it. You can see this by observing how, even surrounded by a pre-existent society highly geared towards promoting abstract thought, the most powerful abstract thinkers are no more successfully in sowing their genes than the weakest!

No, abstract human thought, while clearly functional (ie. it does correspond to reality) cannot be explained by neo-Darwinism because it is such a complex property with so little immediate survival benefit. Cockroaches, with their dearth of abstract reasoning power, are clearly better survivors than the Stephen Hawkinses of the world. This presents the evolutionist with a problem: if abstract thought cannot be reliably selected for, then the only alternative explanation is that it arose purely by random chance. Considering the phenomenal complexity of abstract thought and the mechanisms required to support it, the alternative "God thesis" is a hands-down winner in the believability stakes.

And thus we find that, at heart, evolutionists are people of great faith. They cling mightily to the fantastic proposition that abstract thought arose spontaneously, while busily mocking the down-to-earth idea of a transcendent creator.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Dumb News, Smart Entertainment

Newsflash: news is getting dumber; entertainment is getting smarter (eg. Lost, Heroes, 24, Prison Break, Jericho, etc.)

Question is: why?

I've already suggested why news is getting dumber in a previous post about the crisis of context where I explained that context is being constantly stripped away from everything in our public (and private) lives, depriving them of meaning. News that consists merely of sound-bites and clips of things blowing up, bleeding, crashing, or wailing carries no meaning, and cannot carry meaning. So why try to make it balanced? How can it be? How can you be objective about a sound-bite?

So news is getting dumber because our society demands it. But why, then, is entertainment getting smarter? We're seeing an explosion in TV shows that have incredibly complex, multi-year plots. They involve numerous characters (both Lost and Heroes have more than ten major characters), numerous twists, and some of them address some very deep metaphysical issues (fate vs. freewill, individual responsibility vs. entitlement, the value of human life, etc.).

Perhaps the old adage, "nature abhors a vacuum" is evident here. Perhaps the lack of meaning and context in reality (the news) is being filled by the meaning in our entertainment? Instead of applying our reasoning to nutting out whose policies are best, and trying to predict how a particular political proposal will affect us and our country, we're spending time puzzling over the latest clue in Lost, or trying to guess which Hero or prison escapee will get killed.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Err. Shouldn't that be obvious? Using our mind's capacity on entertainment, while not a bad thing in itself, should merely be practice for using it on reality. Just as fairytales should present moral issues in a black and white way, training us in understanding core principles so we can apply them in a much more complex world, so should entertainment be preparing us to understand and engage with the real world.

But it clearly is not. People vote unthinkingly. People engage in and encourage behaviours which have clearly detrimental long (and often short) term effects. Our stories are no longer preparing us to better engage with the real world. They are merely feeding our hunger for meaning -- any meaning will do.

We are amusing ourselves to death.

The (False) Story of God of the Gaps

I recently watched the TV series The Story of God, from Robert Winston, a fairly famous medical scientist. The book of this series is subtitled A personal journey into the world of science and religion, a subtitle that is very apt, especially for the third episode of the TV Series, itself titled God of the Gaps. The first two episodes are a (rather naive) overview of the world's major religions, but it is the last episode, examining the struggle between science and religion, that I want to address here.

Winston's "personal journey" is one of uncertainty. He argues that we must allow for uncertainty in our belief in God, refusing to dismiss him (or it) and equally refusing to allow him to dictate reality. He casts Richard Dawkins on one side and Ken Ham on the other.

Dawkins is clearly irritated at Winston's treachery (he's a scientist, he should know better!) and almost mocks Winston's fondly held uncertainty. Winston, for his part, pokes fun at Dawkins's unjustified certainty (and I would certainly agree with Winston that Dawkins has no reason to be so smugly confident in the legitimacy of his beliefs, and here, as always, he gives no grounds for them apart from his brand of blind faith).

Ironically, Winston then talks to a mathematician, who calculates the probability that Winston's belief system would give him for the existence of God. This turns out to be 95%. Seems that Winston's uncertainty is pretty certain, then. Why persist with this sham? (Keep watching, there is a reason!)

Winston then visits Answers in Genesis's creation museum, and comes away from a personal tour with Ken Ham feeling sickened by the "mockery of science". Winston wasn't even listening to Ham, when Ham carefully explained that the underlying assumptions of naturalistic science are both incompatible with Christianity (and, indeed theism) and just plain wrong. Winston challenges Ham to a debate, so he can not listen to him some more. We only see the debate from Winston's side (since it's on his show), but even then it looks rather one-sided (in Ham's favour), with Winston's attempt to corner Ham in his "literal interpretation of Scripture" looking wildly ridiculous. (He asked Ham why, if he took the Bible literally, he wasn't circumcised. In Winston's show, Ham seemed bewildered for a moment, as any sensible person would be by such a non sequitur. We never saw his answer, but it could be as simple as, "because I'm not a Jew!" If Winston then wanted more of an explanation, a pointer to the Jerusalem council described in Acts should suffice.)

Clearly Winston wants us to feel revulsion for these two extremes of certainty. He also presents another approach he finds distressing, which he labels "weighing the soul". This is when science tries to measure the supernatural. He finds a modern version of this in Dean Hamer's so-called "God Gene". Hamer strenuously denies this having any impact on religion, a denial which Winston (correctly) dismisses. Hamer's genetic research clearly attempts to explain "spiritual" sensations (not to mention homosexual tendencies, in his earlier research) primarily as a result of "nature" (in the "nature vs. nurture" debate). Perhaps Hamer's gene should be called the "gullibility" gene, or the "weirdo" gene, since it correlates to how "spiritually connected" someone feels to the universe. Hardly a serious measure of religious belief -- at least not Christian or Jewish (Winston's religion) belief.

But Hamer's mistake is not in trying to "weigh the soul", but in assuming that something is merely natural. Winston, with his struggle to resolve the clash between his belief in materialist science and a supernatural deity, sees this sort of thing as an unjustified invasion of materialistic science into the realm of the supernatural. If he had a holistic view, he would realise that Hamer's mistake is twofold: trying to explain the why of something by showing the how of it, and limiting the discourse of psychology (the science of the mind) to materialistic causes only. The former mistake is a result of the latter, and both are sometimes described as "reductionism". Materialistic science "reduces" everything to a deterministic, material chain of cause and effect. If human beings really are spiritual beings (or at least have a spiritual component), as both Judaism and Christianity claim, then this reductionism is a dangerous mistake.

Winston finishes his rather bewildered journey in CERN. Here, he claims, he has allies in the physicists who are building these multi-billion dollar machines in order to discover the Higgs boson, or so-called "God particle". It is immensely ironic to see Winston appealing to these men, who are spending billions of dollars in search of certainty on one tiny, elusive particle, to side with him about the primary importance of uncertainty. But they are polite, and manage to concede that, behind the wall of certainty that their billions of tax dollars should push back a little further in a couple of years (ie. around about now), there remains a few micro-seconds of uncertainty. Maybe enough room for God.

And, having won that Pyrrhic victory, Winston exits stage left, happy that he still has a God. If only a God of the Gaps.

Me? That's most definitely not how I see the universe. Certainly I value science -- I'm an engineer, I apply science every working day. But I know that science applies because God sustains the laws of the universe. It doesn't surprise me that the universe is full of specified complexity -- information; or that it is, on a large scale, describable by very simple, elegant mathematics; or that it is, on a small scale, mind-numbingly complex and unexpected. It doesn't surprise me that we all innately "know" logic; or that we know that there is a right and a wrong, and even substantially agree on what it is. It doesn't surprise me that the day follows day with delightful regularity, or that the Son of God can rise from the dead.

You see, I believe in a God who loves order, and who made us to love order, but who loves us so much that he doesn't shy from intruding into this world, and doing something radical to fix it when necessary. I'm afraid I don't have enough faith to believe in a world of blind chaos resulting in what I see, in what I am. I know what chaos leads to -- I can simulate it day after day, year after year, and the result will be the same: chaos. Only if I cheat (as Dawkins does in his Weasel program) and place a purpose, an end, a telos, into it will anything other than chaos emerge.

So, unlike poor old Robert Winston, who clings desperately to his uncertainty, and tries to keep his God squeezed into the narrowing gaps, I don't worry. Every new discovery is a paean of praise. Every new uncertainty is a recognition of God's bigness. What else could you possibly expect?

Monday, 28 May 2007

Degrees of Confidence in Belief

We all hold beliefs. Even when we don't think about them, we still hold them. Getting up, having breakfast, and driving to work involves a massive sequence of beliefs, even if we do it semi-consciously. Putting on our clothes, for example, expresses a belief that there are external realities that we need to cater to -- environment and other people (who have standards of modesty that they expect us to meet). Having breakfast is an expression of the belief that our hunger will be sated by the funny-shaped pieces of sugar and starch we pour into a pool of white liquid. Driving the car requires, not only a significant skill-set, but a whole raft of beliefs, and substantial faith in our own skills, the reliability of our and others' vehicles, and others' skills and obedience to the road rules.

Anyone who claims that they hold firmly to no beliefs is lying to themselves. Without a firm belief in many things, from the laws of physics to the basic law-abiding attitude of others, they would never step foot outside their home.

However, we have varying degrees of confidence in our beliefs. This is appropriate. Don't let people fool you into trying to express all your beliefs as if you had either 100% or 0% confidence in a belief. This is most often used as a common argumentation trick to try to get you to express confidence in a peripheral belief, prove you wrong in that, and then call into doubt all of your beliefs. If you are not aware of the confidence you hold in your beliefs, you are vulnerable to this sort of attack. (And sometimes this sort of attack isn't malicious -- it may be that a cherished, or even foundational belief has been called into question by some circumstance, and because you don't understand the confidence with which you held that belief, you overreact by questioning all of your beliefs. This is actually quite a common occurrence, and is very unsettling.)

A definition

So what does it mean to talk about "degrees of confidence in beliefs"?

First, it does not mean how foundational a belief is. The foundationality of a belief speaks to how many other beliefs are based on a belief. A foundational belief is one that forms the base for other beliefs. For example, a belief in the validity of logic is one of the primary foundational beliefs in most people's worldviews (or frameworks of beliefs). A less foundational belief may be the belief in the inherent goodness of people, or the inherent badness of people. The degree of confidence you hold these beliefs in is independent of how foundational they are. (However, the more foundational a belief is, the more difficult it is to change it, since it has wider ramifications. Thus, if you are a responsible thinker, you will tend to have tried to build your confidence levels in your foundational beliefs so that your worldview is an accurate reflection of reality.)

Second, it does not mean how important a belief is. For example, your belief in the competence of a particular surgeon is more important than your belief in the best word to use in a particular email. But that has nothing to do with how confident you are in either of those beliefs. However, the more important a belief, the more likely you are to seek to ensure that you have a high level of confidence in it.

Third, it does not have anything to do with the type of belief. You can be more confident in metaphysical beliefs (such as the belief in the validity of logic) than in physical ones (such as the belief that your favourite socks are currently in your top dresser drawer). Equally, you can be more confident in an historical belief (WWII was initiated by the Germans under Hitler) than a personal memory (you met Fred in 1987).

Fourth, it has nothing to do with the history of your belief. Beliefs that you have held all your life are not necessarily those that you have more confidence in than beliefs you started to hold yesterday. The longevity of a belief may simply be related to its lack of importance to you, or the fact that you hold the belief for reasons of convenience rather than trust in its truthfulness.

So, what is confidence in a belief?

It is a measure of how close you think a belief is to reality. Remember the discussion about accuracy and precision? The degree of confidence you hold in a belief is the extent to which you believe it is accurate (ie. close to reality). This is independent of the precision of a belief (ie. how well-formed or descriptive it is). So, for example, you may have great confidence in your belief that spiritism is bunkum without having a precise understanding of the nature of spiritism. And the corollary is true, too: you may have very detailed beliefs on the character of movie stars without having great confidence in those beliefs.


This definition shows that some beliefs deserve more confidence than others. For example, the more foundational a belief is, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we have a lot of work to do if the belief turns out to be wrong.) The more important a belief, the more we would like to have confidence in it. (Otherwise we are likely to be seriously hurt by an incorrect belief.)

Also, the definition implies that it is possible to do something about the degree of confidence we have for a belief -- we can increase it through some activity. This is fortunate, because it allows us to address the more important and foundational beliefs.

What is that activity? Well, that depends on the type of belief.

If the belief is a simple physical one, we can increase our confidence in it by a physical investigation. For example, if we are unsure of the type of liquid in a bottle we can read the label, smell it, taste it, feel it, and so on. Important beliefs are often physical ones, but not always.

If it is an historical belief, we can seek independent sources to validate it, and we can seek sources that would invalidate the belief. We can measure such a belief by the number and quality of sources that attest to it, and the lack of sources that attest against it. For example, the Holocaust is very well attested by many, many quality sources (including numerous primary sources, ie. people that experienced it), and there are very few sources that attest against it (ie. good alternative explanations from reliable sources for all these reliable primary and secondary and tertiary sources claiming it is true).

If the belief is a metaphysical one (such as the belief in the validity of logic, or a belief in the relativity of truth), then it can only be measured by how strongly the framework it is capable of supporting is reflected by reality. This can also be expressed as its level of coherence in a framework that has a strong correspondence to reality. (For example, logic supports a framework that includes experimental science, which is tightly bound to reality, and it also supports cause and effect, something commonly seen in reality. On the other hand, the relativity of truth insists on a framework where cause and effect, along with physical laws, varies from person to person -- a good reason to have very little confidence in such a belief.)

Holding multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence

Finally, is it possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs with varying confidence? Look at your belief system, and you'll see that the answer is a qualified "yes".

Depending on the foundationality and importance of the belief, it is possible to hold multiple, competing beliefs. However, once a belief becomes even slightly foundational or important, we will tend to collapse our beliefs back down to the belief we have the most confidence in. For example, if there is a bottle of green liquid in the fridge, we can entertain several competing beliefs about it: it's ant poison, it's soft drink, it's lime cordial, it's medicine. Our confidence in all these beliefs will be very low. However, as soon as we need to do something about the bottle (throw it away, drink it, store it somewhere other than the fridge), we will automatically attempt to increase our confidence in our belief about the contents of that bottle, and collapse our belief into the smallest range possible. For example, we may open it and smell it. If we are considering drinking it, and it smells like poison, we will collapse our beliefs down to the belief that it is poison. We probably won't bother trying to increase the precision of the belief (what sort of poison it is), unless we want to label it, or use it.

For foundational beliefs it is even more important to hold only one. The more competing foundational beliefs we hold, the more separate sets of dependant beliefs we need to hold. (For example, if I can't decide whether Fred is honest or not, I need to entertain beliefs in his behaviors that include his honesty as well as his dishonesty. This is the sort of problem that investigators deal with, and it is such hard work that we simply can't maintain it for everyday life.)


So, you can see how important it is to be aware of the confidence of your beliefs. And you've also had a glimpse into other areas of discussion on beliefs (such as types, foundationality, importance, etc.). If you are serious about your life, you need to think about your beliefs. Most people don't -- they simply accumulate them like postcards on a pinboard. But accumulated, unevaluated beliefs will inevitably lead to failure and pain.

  • Identify your foundational beliefs (here are some of mine: logic is valid, my mind is capable of thinking logically and recognising reality with some degree of accuracy, reality exists independently of me, other humans are independent agents, God exists and is an agent who has revealed himself through the Bible)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in beliefs that you don't have much confidence in (note: this may involve discarding those beliefs and replacing them with alternatives that you can have more confidence in -- this is painful, but critical)
  • Identify beliefs that are important to your current life situation (for example, my job is the right one for me, I should spend such and such an amount of time at work, my hobbies are productive and compatible with my family, the way I treat my family is constructive, and so on)
  • Evaluate how confident you are in these beliefs, and why
  • Work on building your confidence in these beliefs (once again, this may involve discarding them and replacing them with more accurate beliefs -- indeed, it is more likely at this level to do so)
  • Start work on evaluating your whole framework of beliefs. Every time you make a statement, whether it be out loud or in your thoughts, think about why that is true -- how much confidence can you have in that, and why? A consistent worldview that reflects reality is the single best attribute that you can have. (And I can say that as a Christian because I believe that such a worldview includes obedience to God.)
  • Realise that you can never be 100% confident in any of your beliefs, so be humble, and be gentle with others.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Irreligion poisons everything - more from Hitchens

Well, The Weekend Australian of May 19-20, 2007, has another extract from Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and this one, while mostly consisting of ridiculous assertions, actually has an argument or two in it. Are they good arguments? Let's take a quick look.

He starts off with some silly assertions that aren't even worth addressing, they're so clearly invalid. He throws in a nice bit of double standards (criticising religious people for not leaving him alone in a book that viciously attacks religious people), and moves on to a vicious attack.

"As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of hard-won human attainments. Religion poisons everything."

That's a pretty strong assertion. The way he expresses it, "people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction," makes it sound like "people of faith" are simply inimical, by their very nature, towards people of non-faith. He casts his net very wide. Don't believe me? Well, read on, he presents evidence for his claim:

"Take a single example, from one of the most revered figures that modern religion has produced." He then goes on to explain how in a 1996 referendum in Ireland, to decide whether to remove a constitutional prohibition against divorce, the evil Roman Catholic church rolled out its big guns: Mother Teresa.

Good grief! Why didn't I see it? Mother Teresa is just plain evil, and campaigning against divorce is bringing about the destruction of people of non-faith. It all makes sense now!

I don't think so.

Hitchens seems completely ignorant of reality on almost every count here:
  • He gives "two excellent reasons" for the referendum: "It was no longer thought right that the Catholic Church should legislate its morality for all citizens, and it was obviously impossible even to hope for eventual Irish reunification if the large Protestant minority in the north was continually repelled by the possibility of clerical rule."

    Neither of these are sufficient reasons to change something in a constitution, since, if they were, they would apply to anything. Imagine that the Irish constitution had a prohibition against slavery, and the referendum were attempting to overturn that prohibition. Would those two reasons still be good reasons? Sure, the Catholic church is against slavery, but should it not attempt to legislate its morality? Even if the north were pro-slavery, would that be a sufficient reason for the south to accept it? The answers are clearly, "no", since we know that slavery is a bad thing, independent of what the Roman Catholic church or Northern Ireland think about it.
  • Hitchens has smuggled a (huge) assumption in here: prohibiting divorce is destructive, allowing divorce is good. His "two excellent reasons" only make sense if his assumption is correct (but it still won't make them excellent reasons, merely pragmatic ones). The question is, is Hitchens's assumption correct? The answer is, once again, no. See discussion and links here, this website, or just do a google search yourself. The evidence is well and truly in, and it speaks strongly: liberalised divorce laws hurt the divorcees, but more profoundly, the children.
  • Mother Teresa and the Catholic church weren't the only ones trying to impose their morality on others here. Those who believe it is immoral to limit divorce were trying to impose their morality on the whole country (and they succeeded). In fact, Hitchens gives a moral argument for why divorce should be allowed, and he clearly thinks that his morality has precedence over the Catholic morality. At the same time, he is (with breathtakingly ignorant hypocrisy) criticising the Catholic church for imposing its morality. Quite extraordinary. (And very sad, especially when the church turns out, unsurprisingly, to have been right.)
  • Hitchens seems to think that people can live in a country where morality is up to the individual, he says, "There was not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church's commandments while not imposing them on all other citizens." It's pretty obvious that there are some things that are simply so destructive that they need to be legislated against. As it turns out (and as almost every society in history has understood), divorce is one of those things. In Australia we have legislation against preparing food for strangers with your bare hands. Yet we allow the massive destructive impact of divorce to continue unabated. This is the twisted illogic of Hitchens and co.

So, in summary, Hitchens claims the church is "planning your destruction" by trying to limit divorce, which imposes a restriction on the freedom of adults to do what they want when they feel like it without thought of any consequences (help, I'm being destroyed!). The reality is that the church was attempting to prevent the wholesale destruction of many relationships, and the incredible harm it causes to children. So, rather than a monster, Mother Teresa turns out to have been someone who was very concerned for the most defenceless members of society: children. Who would have thought! Mother Teresa concerned for defenseless members of society -- that's just so out of character, isn't it? (BTW, Hitchens has written a whole book attempting to portray Mother Teresa in as bad a light as possible. There is an agenda here, which doesn't mean he's wrong, but is worth bearing in mind.)

Hitchens follows this lamentable attempt at an argument with more silly assertions about the origin of religion, thus committing the genetic fallacy -- the incorrect attempt to argue that an idea is wrong because of where it comes from. He then displays his bizarre reading of the Bible. He claims that the gospels are out of sync on the Sermon on the Mount (despite the fact that one of them is actually a different sermon: the Sermon on the Plain), as well as passion week (neglecting that a synthesis of the gospels has been around for, oh, almost 2000 years). He also shows how carefully he reads his assumptions into the Bible with his discussion of Jesus' fulfilment of prophecy.

Even his criticism of Islam, which centres around the idea that the Koran only makes sense in Arabic, misses the mark. If God had chosen to express himself in Arabic alone, that hardly implies that he's a monoglot, which is Hitchens's ludicrous claim.

He shows a complete lack of historical knowledge by talking about the Protestant reformation's struggle to "have the Bible rendered into 'the Vulgate'". The Vulgate was actually the Latin translation that had been around since the fifth century, as even a quick Google search will show. Perhaps he means "the vernacular", or the local language.

Hitchens then, bravely, attempts to address the counterpoint Christians give when atheists point to the terrible wars and persecutions performed in the name of religion, namely the criticism of the terrible destruction wrought by the atheist nations on their own people. (This point is more strongly made by pointing out that Christian wars are against the character of Christianity as represented in the Bible, while the atheist purges were a natural outcome of that worldview -- Hitchens doesn't even bother mentioning the stronger form of the argument.) He attempts to deflect this by arguing that these leaders claim the role of god, and therefore it's still actually religion that's the cause of the problem (although he never says it that succinctly -- succinctness is not one of Hitchens's strengths, it seems). However, this doesn't address the fact that the governments of the USSR and China were explicitly atheistic. The rulers did not set themselves up as gods (unlike the Roman Emperors) or as divinely appointed (unlike the medieval courts of Spain, France and Russia, which Hitchens' attempts to use as a diversion).

In fact, it seems clear that, unless Hitchens answers this counter-criticism in the book and the editor of this extract neglected to include that answer and instead included all the sleights and dodging and weaving, he has no answer to this criticism. Since I find it hard to believe that an editor would allow the counter-criticism to be raised, and then fail to include the refutation of it, it seems very likely that Hitchens can only raise bluff and bluster in his defence against atheism's inherent destructiveness.

The extract finishes with further assertions about science invalidating religion, and further straw men of religion. For example, "religion offers either annihilation in the name of God or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be saved." Christianity makes none of those claims, though Hitchens is clearly trying to misrepresent it with that last one (ingesting pieces of wafer to be saved).

So, with a further, independent extract from God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, it is even clearer that God is Not Great is not great, and furthermore, that anti-theism appears to have poisoned Hitchens's reasoning capabilities.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Feeding Frenzy or Death Spasms?

Just a quick post to comment on the frenzy of anti-theistic (Hitchens's own phrase for his beliefs) work coming out lately.

Here's a very quick overview, from an Australian perspective:

  • Numerous TV shows, from Dawkin's Root of all Evil (showing now), through Andrew Denton's God on My Side, including shows such as The Story of God, and so on.
  • A flood of fiercely anti-theistic books, like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Atheist Manifesto, and so on.
  • Numerous articles and stories, in print and on TV supporting this.

This trend is obvious to everyone, as illustrated on the ABC TV website's ad for Andrew Denton's God on my Side, which includes the line, "...a subtle but powerful piece of filmmaking that will resonate with audiences in these increasingly religious times."

"Increasingly religious times..." Hmm... That's an interesting way to express things, especially when these times are not, actually, much more religious than any other times. What seems to be happening, rather, are two things:

  • The media (which is largely secular, leftist, and quaintly anti-theistic) has suddenly woken up and realised that bagging religion (mostly Christianity) isn't making it go away, and has decided to take a different tack. (Maybe a variation of Microsoft's "embrace and extend" strategy?)
  • The hard-core atheists have run out of ways to pretend that their position is logically sound, and have realised that all they can do is give up (as Anthony Flew has wisely done) or try to bluff their way out with swagger and shouting (which seems to be all that Hitchens, Dawkins, and apparently Onfrey have to offer).

So we're in for interesting times as this battle between reason and irrationality shifts to new ground yet again.

Monday, 14 May 2007

"God is Not Great" is not great

I don't want to make a habit of tearing down the paper-thin arguments of anti-theists, but there seem to be so many, with such powerful platforms, who seem so willing to spout arrant nonsense. If someone as unskilled as myself can demonstrate how flimsy their arguments are, then hopefully a few people will be saved from committing intellectual suicide by allowing themselves to be swayed by such rhetoric.

The latest to come to my attention is someone I'd never heard of previously, a Christopher Hitchens, who has just written a book called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve/Warner Books). I first read about this in an article on the book by Michael Kinsley (who I had heard of) in the New York Times. In this article, Kinsley waxes lyrical about how Hitchens "has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of religion." (I've decided to honour Hitchens by writing this entry in a style similar to his.)

Kinsley gives some examples of Hitchens's "logical flourishes and conundrums" which should have informed me that there was smoke but no fire here, but I held out hope for an atheist version of G. K. Chesterton, full of wit and philosophy in equal measures. Sadly, I was disappointed.

Here are the "logical sallies" that Kinsley listed, along with simple answers to them (note: I am quoting from Kinsley's article, and I believe that Kinsley is paraphrasing these from Hitchens's book):

  • Q: "How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all?"
    A: Err.. Pardon? (This position is such a straw man -- Christianity has never claimed that Christ didn't actually die at all -- that it's even less substantial than straw; perhaps it's a "mist man" argument?)
  • Q: "Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift?"
    A: Of course they knew. And maybe we think it was a wonderful gift because there are ten commandments in the Ten Commandments? And the other eight provide vital context to those two that help us understand why they are wrong? (Which is something, by the way, that a materialistic moral system utterly fails at.)
  • Q: " can the 'argument from design' (that only some kind of 'intelligence' could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all?"
    A: Umm (this is such an astonishingly stupid question), maybe because the people making the argument from design are completely different from those condoning or practicing female genital mutilation? (This is sort of like asking, "how can the 'argument from suffering' -- a common argument against God -- be reconciled with the practice of slaying your fellow students in a gun-rampage? Did that question make sense to you? No, I didn't think so.)

Clearly Kinsley thinks these sorts of childish questions are worth asking. He even goes so far as to say, "Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer."

Well, I can answer it for you, Michael: no. Unless you mean to pause and reflect on how tragic the impact of denying reality is on the reasoning powers of the human mind.

Still, perhaps Kinsley is misrepresenting Hitchens, and I'm being unfair. So I was happy to see that the NY Times had also published an extract from Hitchens's book. At least I would be able to see some of this wit and brio.

Perhaps it's in the rest of the book. But, search as hard as I could, I could find none in the extract. Instead, I merely found more childishness, masquerading as profound arguments against God. Here are some examples.

Hitchens starts with a story of his childhood realisation that religion was bunkum. Unfortunately, his profound insights are about as profound as you would expect from a child, and it is quite extraordinary that he still seems to consider them worthy of an adult:

  • Q: "Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to 'praise' him so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally?"
    A: OK... So, if someone is "naturally talented" at something, they deserve less praise for their extraordinary accomplishments than someone who just had to work hard at it? Ever hear the term, "praiseworthy"?
  • Q: "If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness?"
    A: Well, this shows a level of misunderstanding of the Gospel message that is truly breathtaking, even for a child, let alone an "erudite" adult. If Jesus wanted to heal blindness, why would he bother coming as a man to die for our sins? Completely misunderstanding something is not a good foundation from which to attack it. Unless you want to look like a fool, of course.
  • Q: "Why was the subject of sex considered so toxic?"
    A: This is a cultural issue, not a religious one. It may, perhaps, be worth sullying that pure ignorance with a little knowledge of what the Bible says about sex, which is quite a lot (and most of it not negative, despite ignorant claims to the contrary).

Hitchens goes on to say, "These faltering and childish objections are, I have since discovered, extremely commonplace, partly because no religion can meet them with any satisfactory answer."

Well, the first part of that sentence is pretty much spot-on, but the second part is doubtful. Perhaps, if it means, "no religion can answer them to my satisfaction" it might be truthful. Otherwise, I don't think so, as I've demonstrated above. (Proving that my answers are not satisfactory in an objective, rational sense requires demonstrating some logical inconsistency within them, or some failure to correlate with reality in the answers themselves.)

Hitchens then boils his objections to religion down to a simple paragraph:

"There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."

Let's address these four "irreducible" objections in turn:

  • "Religious faith ... wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos"
    Yes, this is a contentious one. However, there are many (including me) who argue that Christianity and Judaism do not misrepresent the origins of man and the cosmos. And the evidence for our argument is mounting. Of course, this is a whole subject for discussion in its own right, and Hitchens doesn't even touch upon it further in his extract, so I'm unsure what evidence or arguments he presents (if any), so I will content myself with merely countering his assertion.
  • "Because of this original error [religious faith] manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism"
    This seems to be a simple assertion, untrammelled by mere facts. For example, Biblical Christianity encouraged a society of fiercely independent thinkers in the Protestant Reformation. And theistic religions, unlike materialism, start with the external reality of God, allowing the believer to at least have a chance of seeing the world from outside themselves, while for materialists, only the self is truly experienced. Indeed, it seems that fiercely atheistic regimes such as the USSR and China encourage servility and solipsism on an unimaginable scale. Hitchens is conveniently blind to these regimes.
  • Religious faith "is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression"
    It would be interesting to know what Hitchens thinks is dangerous sexual repression, and how he knows that it's dangerous, but he doesn't get into that in this extract, so once again I can only counter the assertion by pointing out that this common slur is completely inaccurate, and by pointing to the numerous studies that demonstrate that Biblical mores on sexuality are by far the most beneficial for all members of society.
  • Finally, religious faith "is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."
    Once again, this is merely a bare assertion in this extract. It would be interesting to see if Hitchens develops any arguments illustrating his case, but based on the extract, it seems to be beyond him. His approach is very much, "if I say it long and loudly enough, that will substitute handsomely for a reasoned argument."

In fact, when the next argument Hitchens uses is this: "[I] noticed the more vulgar and obvious fact that religion is used by those in temporal charge to invest themselves with authority" one can be forgiven for wondering if he is capable of understanding the simplest forms of logic at all! (The fact that religion, or any idea for that matter, is used by immoral people for immoral purposes has nothing whatsoever to do with the idea's truth or falsity. Does the fact that the Russians used science to develop horrible biological weapons imply that science is imaginary? Sounds silly, doesn't it? But that's what Hitchens is saying.)

Indeed, Hitchens seems more interested in rhythm than reason, as when he describes Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus as "epileptic and apocalyptic", for no apparent reason than that the two words have a very similar sound to them. (Unless, of course, he really thinks that Paul, one of the intellectual giants of the world, suffered from fits.)

He declaims, oxymoronically, "Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors", but never describes what further factors make for a sufficient argument. Instead, he goes on to ludicrously declare that what Richard "somebody who claims not to believe in evolution ... is ignorant, stupid or insane or wicked" Dawkins "respect[s] is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake." I guess we're finally seeing an example of Hitchens's wit here? Even the example he uses (Dawkins's open-mindedness in his disagreement with Gould over punctuated equilibrium) is factually incorrect: Dawkins is dogmatic about his belief in neo-Darwinism, and is even on record describing it as a "faith" in natural selection. A faith that Gould had lost due to his much greater understanding of the fossil record (since he was, after all, a paleontologist).

The rest of the extract from God is Not Great is a tiresome succession of irrational complaints, bald assertions, sour grapes, and ridiculous misrepresentations, of both theists and atheists, as here, "to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty." Yes, well, to the careless brutality of Stalin's atheistic gulag, or Mao Zedong's countless killings, we can counterpose the great centers of learning, medicine, and refuge established by the church. Without the benefit of Hitchens's selective blindness (and Dawkins's, in The God Delusion) it's pretty clear which belief-system comes off second best in this type of comparison. (I had to laugh at the debate on the USA's Nightline program where an atheist labeled Australia, amongst others, as a country based on atheism.)

So, in conclusion, does Hitchens appear to be saying anything that actually contributes to the debate between theists and atheists? Well, no. He certainly has plenty to say, but sadly none of it is anything more than childish confusion. What is most sad about this, is that many people will mistake his verbiage for argumentation, and will be led astray.

So, God is Not Great is, unfortunately, most definitely not great.

Monday, 30 April 2007

The Personal Impact of Postmodernism

Postmodernism sounds like such an academic sort of issue, doesn't it? Why should I care about such an abstract idea? Why should I even bother to understand what it is, when it's so -- well, Ivory Towerish.

Unfortunately, postmodernism has long since escaped from the ivory towers of academia. It is well and truly at large in the world. In fact, postmodernism has probably had an impact on you even today, so pervasive is its influence.

In my last post, I talked a little about one of the impacts of postmodernism: the destruction of context. With all context stripped away, we are deprived of any meaningful way to make sensible and wise decisions. This doesn't bother postmoderns, who don't believe in such things (everything is right for you, after all), but it has serious consequences on those of us who live in the real world.

But there is another personal impact of postmodernism. I know, because I have been whacked by this. It's taken me a long time to write about this, because it was, frankly, so painful. But the time has come, so let's get going.

Imagine you had a small group that, every week, got together to study and learn and share together. Over the years, sharing in each others trials and triumphs, and learning about the world and reality together, you grow closer and closer. Eventually your group is so comfortable with one another that you really are a group of friends. And, as with all friends, you become casual and relaxed with one another, welcoming each other into your homes without any great formality, and sharing together with absolute trust.

Now imagine that, into this group comes a new person (or two). Obviously the group has to make concessions for this new person. People are on their best behavior, trying not to be too casual or over-relaxed. Still, the nature of the group, it's interests and character, won't change just because someone new comes along. The new person has a few splutters, but then seems to fit in, and the group flexes appropriately to make them feel welcome and as much a part as possible.

Then something happens. The new member finds an excuse to feel excluded from the group, it doesn't matter why or how. A power struggle ensues, with the new member threatening to drag the group leaders before the leadership they are responsible to. The new member demands that the group change its behavior to his or her preferences, or face the consequences. The new member (well, now a thoroughly ex-member) even makes legal threats. Eventually, at the request of the group's leaders, the leaders responsible for all groups get the two parties together: group leaders and new ex-member. The ex-member makes bizarre claims, demands, and outrageous racial slurs. When the mediating leadership is unimpressed by this, and the group leadership unable to comply to anything so unreasonable, the ex-member leaves the larger community and moves on to who knows where. Maybe the cycle repeats.

What is going on here? Well, what has happened is that one of the results of postmodernism has reared its ugly head. Postmodernism denies absolutes. There is no objective truth for the postmodernist. The new member was heavily influenced by postmodernism, and as a result, was open to all sorts of strange influences (since there's no way to tell strange from sensible when context is stripped away). He or she was offended by the group's robust camaraderie, and doubly offended by the group's agreement on a range of issues that they had carefully studied together, and come to agreement on.

Now, to a postmodernist, there is only one way to achieve agreement. Argument, debate, and careful instruction are not possible when there are no absolutes. No, only propaganda and force can bring about agreement. The group's consensus was clearly not the result of force, so the new member concluded that it was the result of propaganda, or brain washing (or the cultic force of personality). When attempting to undermine this failed, he or she resorted to the only alternative open to a postmodernist: force. He or she attempted to use the threat of authority (initially ecclesiastical, then legal) to force agreement. Attempts by the group's leaders to reason about this failed utterly, almost as if the two parties spoke a different language. And, in a sense, they did. There was no common ground: in postmodernism there can never be any common ground. Eventually, the only resolution was to part ways.

This tragic little drama will be played out in increasing numbers in the coming decades, as postmodernism sinks deeper into the modern psyche. With no hope of common ground, more and more people will resort to force when they encounter what they can only interpret as coercion.

And more and more innocent people will feel the terrible, personal impact of postmodernism.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Crisis of Context

Without context there is no meaning. And yet context is something our society has almost rid itself of.

Why is context so important, and why have we fled from it so?


Context is a very broad term, and it simply means the surroundings of something that give it a setting in which to understand it.

More formally, you could define context as a set of coherent concepts, some of which have already been determined as having strong correspondence to reality.

Context is important in communication (see for some discussion on context in computer UI's), the arts (see this amazing story in the Washington Post, one of the most powerful examples of how important context is that I've seen -- it's a great read, too), science, society, etc.

Loss of Context

Yet our society has lost so much respect for context. How is that evidenced? Well, think about watching TV. As you watch it (unless it's something like ABC in Australia, or BBC in the UK), the program you're watching will be interrupted every few minutes by some 30 second segments talking about something (usually products or services) with no relationship whatsoever to what you are watching. These "advertisements" are completely without context, and yet we have grown so familiar with them that we can provide our own context for them.

Another example is in the "sound bites" that make up TV "reporting". We expect, even demand, that everything that someone has said be boiled down to a ten-second "sound bite". But such brief comments can never provide us with sufficient context to really understand anything.

Even Reality TV pretends to be able to reduce people's lives to an hour a week, stripping their actions of all context.

Finally, we expect to learn something of significance in the tiny half-hour or hour long segments we allow for learning or training. We try to create "quality" time with our kids by packing lots of context-free activity into the shortest time possible, etc. etc.

You may think it ironic that someone with a blog called "Eclectica" is writing about lack of context, but pay attention to both my first post and the second part of the subtitle of the blog. These are deliberate and careful attempts to give some context to what I'm saying here.

Why Context was Lost

So why did we move so aggressively away from contextuality in our society? Why did we value it so poorly that we thought we could discard it in our headlong rush into busyness? The answer's simple, and the more formal definition above gives it away.

Context is only necessary if you value the correspondence property of truth statements. Or, to put it more simply, if you don't care whether things are really real or not, but just care about whether they "work for you", then context becomes unimportant.

The whole point of context is to provide us with a sufficient surrounding network of truths in order to be able to fit the new, potential truth we are learning into our network of beliefs. If our network of beliefs is very loose (ie. we don't care much about whether the beliefs conflict with one another) or disconnected from reality (ie. we don't bother testing our beliefs against reality), then context really isn't much use to us.

And this is precisely the direction that society moved in over the last century. Nowdays this movement is called postmodernism. As is hinted at by the name, postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. Modernism values coherence and correspondence of beliefs, but refuses to accept the existence of anything beyond nature. (I've mentioned it before, but called it by a different name, naturalism or scientism, both of which are variants of modernism.) The problem with modernism is that it gives absolutely no foundation for reason, logic, meaning, or any sort of real thought. Post-modernism recognises this and, rather than invoking supernaturalism as a foundation for these things (as Christianity does), or throwing away reason and embracing supernaturalism (as New Age does), postmodernism continues to embrace naturalism (nothing exists apart from nature) and discards reason and logic.

Without reason and logic, context is worthless. In fact, postmodernism denies the significance of context, claiming that the interpretation of truths is not contextual, but rather purely up to the individual (known as deconstructionism). While full-blown postmodernism is not accepted by most people, it has had a huge influence on our society, and the devaluing of context is one of those influences.

Context is on the way back

The good news is that context is on the way back. An easy way to see this is the rise in popularity of the "serial" programme on TV. Back in the 90's Babylon 5 revolutionised TV SciFi with it's five-year story, with complex, pre-planned character arcs for all the major characters, and it's multi-layered mysteries and story. Now, more than ten years later, this trend has truly penetrated the mainstream, with shows like 24, Lost, Prison Break, and the like demanding the viewer pay attention over an extended period of time. Each episode has so much context that the "Previously on ..." teasers are simply not enough to understand the story.

The arts are well ahead of the rest of society at the moment, but there is hope that things like the news will rediscover the value of context.

Context and Christianity

What does this have to do with Christianity? Well, Christianity was not immune to the influence of post-modernism. Over the years, Christians became so ignorant of the importance of context that they fell into all sorts of error due to failing to take context into account.

Greg Koukl has an excellent resource called "Never Read a Bible Verse", which explains what should not need explaining: you need to understand the context of a verse in order to understand the verse.

Context is crucial to understanding the Bible, and it's also crucial to explaining it to others. We need to insist that people pay attention to the context, even when they wish to ignore it, and we need to be prepared to show why it's so important.

So, what examples of egregious context-ignorance can you think of? What ways have you found useful for explaining the importance of context? This is an important issue, and I'll be talking about it more in the future.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Accuracy vs Precision

One of the most useful things I learnt in first year Engineering (I think it was in my Physics class) was the dual concept of Accuracy and Precision. The way that scientists and engineers think of these terms is a principle that is incredibly useful, and yet one that is not immediately obvious.

Since relatively few people learn this, and even those who do often don't extend the lessons to other areas of their thought, these concepts tend to languish generally unused. Let's see if I can help put an end to that unjustified neglect, shall we?


Let's use the simple scientific context to explain the terms:

  • Accuracy is how close a measurement is to the true value
  • Precision is how small the unit of measurement was (or, how many decimal places)

An example will help. Let's say there are two scales to measure weight: Scale A is accurate but imprecise, Scale B is precise but inaccurate.

Let's say we are trying to measure a lump of metal which has a true weight of 10.05 kg.

Now let's say that Scale A has a precision of 0.1 kgs (ie. it reads in kgs to one decimal place) and an accuracy of +/- 0.005kg (ie. it's measurement is guaranteed to be no less that 0.005kg less than the true weight and no more than 0.005kg more).

Scale A will therefore measure the weight as between 10.045 and 10.055kg, and will round this to either 10.0 or 10.1. We can see that the we can only really speak of the scale as having an accuracy of +/- 0.05, due to the limited precision.

Now let's say Scale B has a precision of 0.001 kgs, and an accuracy of 0.5kg.

The lump of metal will be measured as between 9.55 and 10.55kg, and Scale B will display any value between these. Basically, any of the decimal points are completely meaningless in Scale B, so a measurement of 9.557kg, despite seeming more authoritative than 10.0kg, is actually less accurate.

Thus, Scale B, with more decimal places on its readout, and which the uninitiated would have taken as being more useful to a scientist trying to measure weight, turns out to be much less useful than Scale A.

Application Outside Simple Measurement

This principle is easily applied outside simple measurement. For example, statistics are often quoted to an extraordinary precision (40.5% of so-and-so do such-and-such), and people tend to incorrectly apply them as if they spoke accurately to each instance of so-and-so, even when the standard deviation may be huge, which indicates that not even close to 40.5% of so-and-so's are such-and-such.

Radioactive dating techniques are an obvious area where high precision and low accuracy is prevalent -- radioactive dates often conflict with one another on the order of millions of years, so clearly, no matter how precise they are (and they're very precise) they are wildly inaccurate.

Another example is confusing a wealth of documentation or discussion on a topic (say, the inferiority of certain races, documentation pre-WWII) with the accuracy of the general opinion (ie. it's closeness to the truth). There are numerous examples of this: the documentation on biological evolution (voluminous and laboriously detailed, ie. precise) vs. its accuracy (hopelessly inaccurate, with massive problems like homoplasy -- independent evolution resulting in similar physical forms -- completely ignored); documentation on Freudian psychology (huge and detailed) vs. accuracy (now almost universally condemned as hopelessly incorrect), etc., etc.

Science is rich in fields with large amounts of enormously precise, hopelessly inaccurate documentation. This is not a condemnation of science, but merely a reflection of its fallible nature.

Other areas we see this is in medicine, where a doctor makes a precise, but often inaccurate diagnosis (of course, we almost force them into this situation, since we are rarely happy with vague diagnoses and would generally prefer a more precise, if less accurate, diagnosis and prescription).

Other examples are advertising claims, often very precise (lose 18kg in two weeks!) but hopelessly inaccurate.

Even ideologies or ideas can be precise and detailed, but terribly inaccurate. In fact, it is often a temptation for people to extend arguments beyond their expertise, and they end up making precise, but inaccurate statements in support of a precise but inaccurate position.

Take away lesson

So, what can we take away from this?

  1. Don't confuse precision with accuracy. Precision is essentially worthless without accuracy, while accuracy is always worthwhile, but is increasingly valuable as combined with increasing precision.
  2. An accurate but imprecise position (on almost anything) is more valuable than a precise but inaccurate one.
  3. Don't ask for more precision than something or someone can accurately deliver -- you'll just be burdening yourself with misleading detail.
  4. Focus on accuracy first, precision second, and things will generally work out better.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

The Improbability of God (another fallacy)

I recently read Dawkins debating Francis Collins in Time (God vs Science, Nov 13, 2006). Now Dawkins should have made mincemeat out of Collins, who is a Theistic Evolutionist, and so very much open to attack due to his views having a serious lack of coherence. However Dawkins failed to capitalise on his opponent's weaknesses, and instead made huge gaffes like, "The problem is that this says, because something [the anthropic principal] is vastly improbable, we need a God to explain it. But that God himself would be even more improbable."

This may sound like a reasonable statement to you if you share Dawkins' assumptions. But actually thinking about this statement reveals that it is completely irrational.

Dawkins is assuming that God is like a material thing, brought about by chance, so that its complexity is improbable. But a creator God either is, or isn't. You can't say, "Well, for God to have such-and-such a characteristic would require such-and-such a probability" like you can for an amoeba or a shrew.

Why not? Because the amoeba and shrew are contingent. This is a philosophical term which means that they're not necessary. The universe would have continued existing whether or not the worm or shrew evolved (assuming Dawkins' worldview) or were created (from a Christian worldview). God, on the other hand, is not contingent. He is what is called in philosophy "necessary". While a creator God could exist by himself, the universe (in such a worldview) could not, since it is contingent upon God's creating it. But God is not contingent on anything -- he is the ground of all reality: he is necessary.

In Dawkins' naturalistic worldview, the material universe (the space-time continuum or whatever you want to call it; Sagan called it The Cosmos) is necessary, but any of the forms it takes (such as worms and shrews) are contingent.

It is possible to calculate the probability of contingencies, since they don't have to happen (and you can therefore compare the chances of them happening to the chances of them not happening). But it is impossible, by definition, to calculate the probability of necessary things (since they are necessary, they have to be, there is no way for them to not happen so you can't compare the chances of them not happening to the chances of them happening).

The only way, then, we can choose which thing we hold necessary (or the ground of all reality or being) is as our presuppositions or assumptions. Does this mean we can't test these assumptions or presuppositions? That we're just doomed to be randomly either right or wrong, depending on which side of the fence we land on? Not at all. If our presuppositions are valid, they will lead to a valid worldview, namely one that is coherent (internally consistent) and that corresponds to reality. This is why there are no straightforward deductive or inductive arguments for the existence or non-existence of God. However, I would argue that only the presupposition of a creator God supports a valid worldview (for a number of reasons, perhaps topics of future posts, but you can also find them addressed in various places on the web and in books).

So when Dawkins claims that the existence of God is improbable, he is doing one of two things: 1) revealing his utter lack of understanding of philosophy (dangerous for someone very publicly playing a philosopher, as he does in The God Delusion) or 2) confusing God with his creation (i.e. making God contingent, but contingent upon what?).

Either mistake is pretty fundamental, and since this is a core part of his argument, seriously weakens it.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Irrelevance of Memes

Memes are an idea that some people find very appealing. They are generally used in reference to some common, powerful belief system shared by a (usually fairly large) number of people. They are often, but not always, used in a hostile sense (e.g. to dismiss a belief as merely a meme).

Memes don't add anything that doesn't already exist in the concept of ideas or beliefs. We already know that ideas and beliefs can be passed between people, and that some are more compelling than others. Memes don't actually help us understand why this is so.

But memes aren't merely superfluous, they are fallacious.

The problem with memes is that they are supposedly like viruses, but viruses of the mind. The difficulty with this is that a virus is just a virus. It isn't a referent -- it doesn't point to anything beyond itself (it has consequences beyond itself, but it doesn't mean anything, it doesn't have semantic content).

But a meme, in its role as an idea or belief, is a referent, it does point beyond itself.

To claim that an idea or belief is popular because it's a meme, and a meme has some sort of "infectious" quality, is to ignore the fact that an idea or belief points beyond itself to some correspondence with reality (or not) -- some truth or falsity.

Elaborating on the way the meme is infectious, self-sustaining, or whatever, completely ignores the semantic content of the "meme" -- the truth or falseness of the idea or belief. So proclaiming a belief as suspect because it has been labeled a meme is merely making the assumption that being able to describe why an idea appeals somehow speaks to its truthfulness.

Equally, saying that the meme "infected" its host at a young age is discussing the origins of the belief -- its history in that person's thinking -- not its truth or falsity. This is condemning the truthfulness of the idea because of its transmission method.

So to claim that a belief is merely a meme, and therefore to be dismissed, is either begging the question (i.e. not addressing the truth or falsity of the idea itself, and merely assuming that it is false), or committing the genetic fallacy (i.e. claiming that the origins of the idea speak to its truthfulness). These are two quite common fallacies in reasoning, and descriptions of them can be found in any decent logic text.

Given this, it is then clear that the whole idea of memes is really, for all practical purposes, irrelevant.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

The NT as an historical document

I noticed that in Derren Brown's video, Instant Conversion, he starts by saying (and I paraphrase here), "I used to be a happy, clappy Christian until, in my twenties, I realised that my beliefs were just as circular as the New Age claptrap I argued against. Then I read the New Testament as an historical document, and it cured me permanently of any vestiges of religion."

I encourage you to check the video to make sure my paraphrase doesn't misrepresent Brown's position.

Now, this position is clearly opposed to my own (a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, including the NT, see Why I believe in Biblical inerrancy. The funny thing is, my own reading of the NT as an historical document merely strengthens my belief in the tenets of Christianity.

How can two people read the same document and come to such diametrically opposed views? Am I stupid? Is Brown stupid? Are we both stupid? (I'm discounting the possibility that one or both of us is crazy or lying.) Or, most likely of all, did we come to the same document with radically different underlying assumptions?

The NT is pretty solid history, really. It gets so many geographical, political, and cultural details dead-on that it's very hard to dismiss it as a fabrication. Except for one thing. It contains some extraordinary claims about some of the things Jesus the Christ and his followers did. I'm talking about miracles.

Now, I don't know this for sure, but given the whole tone of Instant Conversion, it seems likely that Brown thinks that miracles (i.e. the supernatural intervention into the normal course of nature) are practically an impossibility. I, on the other hand, think that miracles are a natural result of the existence of a god like the Christian God (in other words, if the Christian God existed, then the type of miracles described in the NT would not be impossible).

But how does the NT treat miracles? Does it differentiate between miracles and normal events, or does it treat miracles as part of the everyday experience. If it did the latter, it would clearly not be grounded in our reality, where miracles are (even for Pentecostal, "happy clappy" Christians), not an everyday reality. It could, in fact, be fairly described as fantasy.

But the NT doesn't treat miracles that way. It treats them as "signs" and "wonders" and evidence of the supernatural creator god's intervention into the normal, everyday world. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect, were the NT's notion of God actually true. Not only that, but the NT records the miracles in a very matter-of-fact way -- now days we would probably say it records them "scientifically". The NT even differentiates between natural diseases that were healed and symptoms caused by demonic possession that were removed by exorcism. The NT writers show a very clear grasp of reality (much clearer than many writers in the last five or more centuries). It's just that their reality includes both nature and supernature.

So, reading the NT as an historical document, we're left with a quandary. Does its sober, historical documentation of these unusual miracles and their supernatural causes render it unhistorical?

We can only say that it does if we have other reasons for believing that there is no such thing as the supernatural.

Do we have other reasons? Valid ones, I mean? Well, no, we don't. All we have are biases.

Do we have valid reasons for believing that there really was something supernatural going on, as recorded by the NT? Well yes, we do.

Put very briefly, there is no plausible alternative explanation for the behavior of the disciples, post-resurrection, and for the formation of the undeniably real Christian church, or for the writing of the undeniably early gospels and epistles. The historical evidence for something extraordinary happening at the beginning of the first millennium AD, is simply too strong, and I have yet to see any other valid explanations for it other than that the NT's record is, in fact, historical -- miracles, supernatural events, and all.

I guess Brown has some warm, fuzzy explanation that has enough detail to stop his mind worrying at the loose ends too much. I certainly know many people in that situation. But that's not good enough for those of us who really care about the truth. We are forced, by the weight of evidence, to believe, no matter how much we may not want to.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Why I believe in Biblical Inerrancy

As a Christian my belief in the concept of Biblical Inerrancy is foundational to my worldview, or belief system. Why? Because the crux of Christianity is the claim of the historical death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus. If the Bible's account of this is wrong, my beliefs are not merely foolish, but destructive (mostly self-destructive, though). If Christ wasn't God, then his death is merely the death of a human that can have no substantive impact on me. But Christ based his claims to Godhood on prophecies from the Old Testament. If either those prophecies, or the accounts of Christ's claims to them are in error, then there's no reason to believe the Jesus was the son of God. As a result the entire Old Testament and the gospels need to be taken as inspired by God. Since the remainder of the New Testament also makes claims to be "God-breathed", and it was written by associates of the Gospel writers (or the writers themselves), we need to take this as a unit as well.

Throw any part of the Bible out and, at this point in history, we may as well throw the rest out.

Fortunately, I have good reason to believe that the Bible is, indeed, inerrant.

First, what do I mean by Biblical Innerancy? It's pretty simple: the original manuscripts (the autographs) were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus contained no error; and (this addendum is less common, but pretty important) the scriptures have been copied and preserved so well that the current manuscript(s) are substantially correct, or, in other words, they are practicably inerrant (so that, so long as I compare scripture with scripture, interpret it according to the way it was written, and don't rely on any single, minor, debatable details, I can be sure that I'm dealing with absolute truth).

As intimated above, inerrancy doesn't mean that all scripture is simple history, or that it doesn't contain metaphor (intended to be read as metaphor), etc. Thus, the Bible needs to be read like any other book, namely with your brain engaged.

So, with that understanding, and very briefly, why do I believe the Bible is inerrant?

1. The evidence supports the Bible (on every level)

While this is not the first step on the road for most people, it is nevertheless an undergirding reality. The Bible lays claim to recording history and prophecies as well as giving moral and legal direction and poetic inspiration. If it gets its history wrong, how trustworthy can its moral precepts be?

And the Bible's history is incredibly reliable. Time after time people have dismissed it because it disagreed with conventional ideas of history, but after further investigation the Bible has invariably been confirmed. Perhaps the most famous case is that of the existence of the nation of Hittites. There are many other cases, though. Books like Evidence that Demands a Verdict have plenty of resources in this area.

Even the miraculous accounts in Scripture are perfectly trustworthy unless you have good reason to doubt them (and I have yet to hear a good reason, since the presupposition that God doesn't exist is a very poor reason). Books like The Case for Christ are quite useful resources in this area (and there are many, many more).

Furthermore, fulfilled prophecy is powerful evidence of the divine inspiration of scripture (see the explanation of the Tyre prophecies in books like Evidence.)

Finally, science supports, rather than destroys, the Bible's accounts (so long as "science" is not built of antitheistic assumptions, which is an arbitrary presupposition that is clearly incompatible with scripture).

2. The canon was carefully developed

Many modern people have the impression that the Bible was just thrown together out of whatever was available at the time. But, if further confirmation was even needed, the discoveries at Nag Hamadi (of lots of Gnostic scriptures) and the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that there were many, many materials that were rejected from the canon.

In fact, the canon was the result of careful, strictly applied criterion. Nowdays we would probably apply the term "scientific" to the way that the canon was developed. The Jewish canon was developed several hundred years before Christ (the Greek version has some extra material, which the Roman Catholic church kept, but Protestants have conservatively rejected). It was based on historical reliability, assured authorship, consistency of revelation, and evidence of divine inspiration (such as fulfilled prophecy). The New Testament canon was developed in a very similar fashion, with assured authorship being a particularly important criteria.

Since the New Testament canon was developed so close to the origins of Christianity (the bulk of the New Testament was defined by the middle of the first century, less than a hundred years after it was written) it can be considered very trustworthy for obvious reasons.

The Old Testament canon is trustworthy because of the process of transmission and the highly structured system of preserving it, which leads into the next reason.

3. The transmission of the scriptures is trustworthy

Obviously, for Christianity to be workable in the modern world, and for the Bible to have any meaning to Christians in the modern world, the transmission of scriptures from the autographs to the translations we now use has to have been as trustworthy as possible.

And, indeed, it has been. The classic illustration is the comparison of the almost-complete text of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the thousand-year-younger Masoretic text of the same book. This comparison reveals a 95% correspondence, with the 5% of difference being clear changes in spelling or style, or minor transcription mistakes, none of which had any difference on the doctrinal content (ie. the content that we can apply to our everyday life). This reliability of transmission for a complex text like Isaiah, across a thousand year span is quite extraordinary, and attests to the reliability of the Masoretic Text (which the Old Testament is translated from). (See as a good reference. Evidence that Demands a verdict has a good section comparing the reliability of the scriptures to other works of antiquity.) The Old Testament manages this extraordinary feat through the incredibly rigorous copying techniques of the Jewish scribes (including the Masoretes).

The New Testament gains its reliability from a different mechanism, that of having manuscripts (old copies) very close to the autographs (the original writings). The benefit of having manuscripts close (in time) to the autographs is very easy to understand: there hasn't been much time, or many copies, in which to introduce errors. In addition the NT benefits from a massive preponderance of manuscripts (ie. more copies). More copies means more independent strands of evidence. While these copies vary (and this is evident in modern Bibles, which have the footnote, "Some manuscripts say..." in various places), they are almost entirely identical. The result is the same as for the Old Testament.

For a wonderful resource on this and the formation of the canon, see The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible, a very readable and reliable resource. Evidence that Demands a Verdict also has a good summary of various statistics and facts about this area.

4. The Bible is internally coherent

The fact that the Bible is internally coherent would not be impressive if it had been written by a small group of people sharing the same culture and position in life, or if it had been extensively edited by such a group or person. However, neither of these things are true.

Quite the contrary, the Bible was written across a thousand years, in multiple cultures, continents, and social strata. It was not edited (Higher Criticism invested well over a century trying to demonstrate this, but failed miserably).

The only explanation for the coherence is a common understanding of the world. Given the sophistication of that understanding, and the different expressions of it from the various sources, it is hard to ascribe that understanding to the individual authors, which tends to point to a greater intelligence behind them.

There are many resources that elaborate on this theme.

5. The Bible makes claims to its own divine source

2 Timothy 3:16-17 makes the claim that "all scripture is God-breathed", while 2 Peter 1:20-21 explains the divine origin of prophecy in Scripture.

Both of these sources (2 Timothy and 2 Peter) were (and are) considered to have been written by the two major leaders of the early church (Paul and Peter), and so carry considerable weight, and represent the view of the early church.

Furthermore, the way that Jesus himself used the Old Testament scriptures indicates that he considered them absolutely reliable. Since Jesus claimed to be God, his perspective towards scripture can be considered the divine view.

6. The evidence doesn't support any other explanation that I'm aware of

Finally, the evidence I see around me fails to support any other view other than the one described briefly above.

The evidence for a young earth is visible everywhere I've been, the evidence for a designer is visible every time I open my eyes, the evidence for the fall is visible every time I talk to my child or friends (or think about myself), and so on.

Furthermore, all the explanations I've heard and read have failed hopelessly at very fundamental levels. (Many can be reduced to suicidal arguments -- ie. positions that destroy their own credibility. Such as the statement that "All statements are false.")


Now, that's just a brief summary of my reasons for believing this. I hope it's given a taste. I'm far from alone in this position, so it is not a radical position by any stretch of the imagination. However, it is a position that is often mischaracterised as unreasonable or ignorant by those who loathe its implications, so I just wanted to have this quick justification for these foundations before I go on to talk about anything else.


For a much more formal and capable defence of the Rationality of Belief in Inerrancy, see J. P. Moreland's excellent paper of that title.