Questionable Motives

April 20, 2010

Prepare for the Raptor?

Filed under: Argument,Atheism,belief,commentary,God,Morality,Secularism — tildeb @ 9:46 am

Food for thought over at boing boing with an article from Adam Savage. Many good comments, too.

April 8, 2010

What does an idiotic argument look like?

George Neumayr is an editor of the Catholic World Report. He writes this brilliant example of what an idiotic argument looks like in The Washington Times. He opens his article with the following:

Since when have secularists and dissenting Catholics been experts on the protection of children? These self-appointed reformers of the Catholic Church preside over a debased culture that abuses, aborts and corrupts children.

This is a classic ad hominum attack called a tu quoque argument: a logical fallacy in which one attempts to defend oneself or another from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser. In effect, this is exactly the purpose of Neumayr’s thesis and it’s an idiotic defense of the Catholic Church generally and the vicar of christ specifically regarding the handling of sex abuse scandals by priests and clergy.

Most of us learn during our early schooling why this childish argument holds no ethical sway with adult reasoning. Now, with defenders like George calling on idiotic and childish arguments to stop the thinning of its ranks of practicing catholics in western countries, the leadership of the catholic church is in deeper and more dire moral straits than ever. Somehow, and in spite of defenders like George, they must find a way to live up to the Ratzinger’s own advice so generously granted to the Irish bishops to stop the exodus: search their conscience, take responsibility for any sins they have committed, and conceal nothing. Blaming secularists, gays and lesbians, abortionists, liberal elites, and dissenting catholics for the church’s failure to address pedophilia as George attempts and fails to do with his article is just one more impediment to finding meaningful reform.

April 3, 2010

How can Anglicans tolerate such drivel and lies from their leadership?

Ah yes, anglicanism: catholicism without the fun.

Granted, sometimes certain atheists speak and write in derogatory terms about the thinking ability of religious believers that may seem at first blush to have gone too far. But now I am thinking that atheists as a whole may not have gone far enough in their criticisms. To whit…

From the Sydney Morning Herald comes this article from which I have taken excerpts and added bold face:

Several church leaders have used their Easter sermons and messages to condemn the increase in atheism, with Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen on Friday describing non-belief as an “assault on God.”

The problem here is how can one assault something that does not exist? Dismissal does not have the same meaning as assault. Atheists dismiss notions of god as empty assertions. By twisting this dismissal by atheists of a central tenet of religious belief to mean the same thing as assault of that central tenet, Jensen has intentionally not only misrepresented atheism but applied a hostility to non belief as a necessary condition. The thinking here by Jensen is dishonest and dangerous and serves only to vilify atheists. As an atheist, I am having difficulty feeling the love.

“Atheism is every bit of a religious commitment as Christianity itself.

No. It is not. Atheism is non belief. Period. End of description. Different term altogether. The absence of belief is not another form of belief… hence the different words. It’s a give-away that we’re talking about two different things. But if non belief was, in fact, belief, then guanocephalic Jensen would be a believer in thousands of beliefs he does not hold. And because he doesn’t hold them, by his own admission he would be hostile to all of them and guilty of assaulting every central tenet of beliefs he does not share.

Maybe even he could appreciate why his assertion here is such sheer nonsense. But failing that – and I suspect he would fail to follow his own line of thinking – I suspect Jensen’s lobotomy must have gone too far into his cerebral cortex, and thus turned his ability to follow his own reasoning into a mushy goop that produces this kind of intolerant drivel. Because that describes what his line of thinking here is: drivel.

But wait: there’s more.

It (atheism) represents the latest version of the human assault on God, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that God calls on us to submit our lives to him.”

And what might the ‘earlier’ version be? Giving women the vote? Freeing the slaves? Not stoning to death disobedient children? Oh, the humanity! Oh, the loss of virtuous morality sanctified by Jensen’s god!

Dr Jensen went on to say in his sermon that religion can be an “even more dangerous” form of idolatry than atheism if incorrectly interpreted.

And the correct interpretation is…?

Oh, that’s right: competing religious truth claims are simply a matter of establishing which interpretation is the correct one. But because truth does not matter to those who hold religious beliefs but only faith does, then figuring out whether the mystic elephant or Isis or Jesus is god incarnate really boils down to a matter of correct interpretation. We should have known!

What a load of lies Jensen is spewing. He has no more seriously interpreted Gilgamesh as a possible true god any more than he has seriously considered the theocratic truth available through the correct interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Jensen rejects all these beliefs as false and did so long before he decided to spout his  nonsense regarding correct interpretation. This makes Jensen a liar, but he has the temerity to accuse those who do not believe nor worship in any god at all as a terrible danger because non belief apparently  promotes worship of something other than any god. Better to worship Muk Muk of the Volcano who feeds on virgins to stay dormant than dare not to believe in Muk Muk at all, according to Jensen; non belief is too idolatrous in comparison!

This assertion of idolatry against atheists is incoherent, to say the least, and is an assault against rationality.

What do you think? Was the lobotomy performed by a blender, a large bore drill bit, or perhaps a fence post digger? I’m leaning towards the blender.

“Here, too, religion can simply be the power game under a different guise … Atheist or religious person – we all need to be reconciled to God and give him our lives,” he added.

Even if one is an atheist, Jensen thinks that one must avoid the abuse of power that accompanies idolatry by giving our lives to something we honestly think does not exist… like Muk Muk and his unfailing appetite for human sacrifice. There’s a solid bit of convincing.

Is it just me, or has Jensen lost the ability to reason altogether? Can religious belief really screw this much with your mind or must there be some biologically explainable deficit? I think it’s brain damage, myself.

And as for the people who grant this man’s pronouncements with any serious respect at all? Maybe it’s time these folk decided to be re-baptized… along with their favorite plugged in electrical appliance in hand.

April 1, 2010

What is cultural maladaptation?

From The American Scholar comes this article about historical change and the need to for historians to study and assess it not by perceived successes and failures but in evolutionary terms: how sustainable has the cultural adaptation become or is the practice maladaptive?

People have developed strategies to meet changes in climate, in energy sources, or in the diseases they confront. In some cases they have developed, through thoughtful observation, ways to avoid degrading or depleting their environment. They have learned how to become more resilient in the face of change.

But adaptation, even in nature, has never been perfect or sufficient. Before Darwin, naturalists like Bishop William Paley, author of the 1802 religious classic Natural Theology, liked to talk about the marvelous fitness of plants and animals to their environments; a world that was perfectly harmonized and perfectly adapted showed, they believed, the handiwork of a rational God. They insisted that everything in the world is perfectly organized and perfectly adapted, that every creature has its assigned place. But Darwin’s theory of evolution overturned the notion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Darwin, for all of his admiration of natural selection, forced us to begin paying attention to the reality and frequency of maladaptation.

After him, the science of adaptation could no longer claim to reveal a perfect world in which everything works for the best or where nature always achieves the ideal solution to a problem. Nature cobbles together solutions from whatever material is available. When those solutions fail, the costs of mal-adaptation can be severe. Contrary to modern critics like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, the so-called “adaptationist program” in modern biology does not teach that we live in the best of all conceivable worlds. Nature shows us many examples of failure, impoverishment, dysfunction, and death as much as fitness, functionality, and good health. And this maladaptation is certainly evident when we examine human cultures through history.

Historians need to acknowledge the importance of the environment and to embrace the theory and worldview of evolution for the dazzling light it sheds on the origins, development, and fate of humanity.

March 25, 2010

What is science and why is denying scientific consensus a sign of guanocephalopathy?

Filed under: commentary,Conspiracy,Criticism,Science — tildeb @ 9:17 am

Excerpts from Respectful Insolence:

In fact science is all about coming to a consensus, but it’s about coming to a consensus based on data, experimentation, and evidence, a consensus that has reproducible results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. After all, what is a scientific theory like the theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity but a statement of the current scientific consensus regarding a major scientific topic? What is peer review but quality control (making sure the scientific methodology is sound) coupled with testing new science against the current consensus to see where it fits in or where it exposes weaknesses? What is science but attempting to forge a consensus regarding theories and statements that most accurately describe the universe in a useful and predictable way?

Of course, questioning the consensus is often necessary in science. Indeed, it is critical to scientific advancement. However, there is a huge difference between questioning a current consensus and producing the data and experimental evidence to show that there is a real scientific question and JAQing off about science. The latter, raising spurious or already answered questions about a scientific finding or theory one doesn’t like, belongs to the province of cranks and denialists, and it is what they are very good at. The problem is that they aren’t very good at realizing why their questions are not worthy of the attention that they think they are. A lovely example of this showed up on the Discovery Institute’s propaganda arm, its version of Age of Autism, so to speak, namely Evolution News and Views. In it, the Kent Heckenlively of the creationist set, the ever excitable Casey Luskin, penned a typical bit of silliness in which he asks the question, When Is it Appropriate to Challenge the “Consensus”?

If Casey had two neurons to rub together, he could answer the question in two sentences and echo how scientists would answer the question: When you have an actual scientifically valid reason, based on science, evidence, experimentation, and observational evidence, to think that the current scientific consensus about something is in error, then it is appropriate to challenge the scientific consensus. When you don’t, then it isn’t.

It’s perfectly acceptable to challenge such a consensus, but if you don’t have the goods in the form of evidence, experimentation, and data to show that the consensus is in serious error, there is no reason for scientists to take your challenge seriously.

Oh, and for the meaning of guanocephalopathy, read some other suggestions here.

March 17, 2010

What is the key to accepting unjustified beliefs as true?

Several posts ago we looked at the issue of homeschooling biology textbooks out of Bob Jones University that endorsed creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution. Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent book Why Evolution Is True was asked to respond to a homeschooling parent who was concerned about this issue. He was then quoted in the New York times saying that these science textbooks lied to children by misrepresenting the science of biology and how irresponsible it was for parents to support this kind of lie for the maintenance of religious sensibilities over and above what is true.

I think to better understand how people can wholeheartedly believe unjustified notions (like creationism, for example) as if they were just as likely to be true as some notion informed by evidence and supported by a very high probability of the notion being true  (like evolution, for example) lies not in the facts as we find them but in the way we approach those facts.

Michael McHugh is head of a young-earth creationist organization, CLASS, that sells home-school materials on biology to parents. He states (on audio clip 100316 here) that the biology textbooks in question can select whatever ‘facts’ best supports the creationist worldview, that there are “no neutral facts.”  That is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview.  His suggestion for how to educate your kids involves choosing which worldview the parent believes suits them best, and then selecting the “facts” that fit this worldview.

That assertion is jaw-dropping stupid. It is so stupid, it burns. It is unconscionable in an educator, but it does explain an extraordinary phenomena we come across time and again of how people can remain fixated on some belief being true regardless of overwhelming contrary evidence. How can this be possible?

The mindset described by Michael McHugh explains exactly how so many otherwise rational people can become so selective in the ‘facts’ they already believe are representative of and meaningful to their worldview, while able to so callously disregard other ‘facts’ that are in direct conflict with the worldview. What this essentially means is that anyone who says “…there are ‘no neutral facts’…that is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview…” holds a worldview which cannot be changed by facts and will ignore or refute any evidence counter to their absolute premise. (Tip to #7 Oldfuzz commenting on WEIT about this subject.)

The facts don’t matter to someone who subscribes to this approach that no facts are neutral, that all facts militate for or against a worldview. But this approach means that all evidence does not count but only selected evidence, and this is exactly what we find with people who hold unjustified beliefs. They are only unjustified when all the evidence is considered, but appear highly justified when only carefully selected evidence is considered. In other words, to such people truth dos not matter. Inquiry is not needed. Intellectual integrity is disregarded. Knowledge is subordinate to and dependent on belief in that worldview.

And that’s exactly how ignorance becomes champion and can be promoted by so many well-intentioned homeschooling parents.

March 16, 2010

What’s to cover up about sex abuse in the Catholic Church?

The great catholic cover-up by The Hitch in Slate can be read in all its glory here.


Concerning the most recent revelations about the steady complicity of the Vatican in the ongoing—indeed endless—scandal of child rape, a few days later a spokesman for the Holy See made a concession in the guise of a denial. It was clear, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, that an attempt was being made “to find elements to involve the Holy Father personally in issues of abuse.” He stupidly went on to say that “those efforts have failed.”

He was wrong twice. In the first place, nobody has had to strive to find such evidence: It has surfaced, as it was bound to do. In the second place, this extension of the awful scandal to the topmost level of the Roman Catholic Church is a process that has only just begun. Yet it became in a sense inevitable when the College of Cardinals elected, as the vicar of Christ on Earth, the man chiefly responsible for the original cover-up.

March 15, 2010

Why is computer gaming – at $50 billion a year and growing – so popular?

Filed under: commentary,Computers,Culture,Entertainment — tildeb @ 2:17 pm

Today Tom Chatfield, Prospect arts and books editor and computer game fiend, says computer games aren’t just for teenage boys locked in their bedrooms – they are chewy fodder for the brain and vital tools for both social and intellectual development… and they’re fun.

Games are now starting to compete with the most sophisticated forms of other media, as well as the crudest. And they are taking up an increasingly large amount of our time. I think that this is a big deal. We need to be able to talk incisively about what the medium has to offer, and what its real dangers are, instead of falling back on a vision of games that’s ten year out of date and riddled with cliché.

Why do people fear the effects of video games?

You have this emerging medium which is a lightning rod, a convenient symbol, and something very easily misunderstood. Because of the history of games, there have always been insiders and outsiders. Now, we have a situation in which the experience of one generation is being very rapidly outdated by the experience of the next generation. This fracture is dangerous and it presents enormous challenges: in this sense, people are right to see large and real social concerns in games. But most critics haven’t yet managed to open up a productive or realistic debate, because they tend to start from a position that is not based in the reality being lived by most users of new media, but rather in fears based on a few exceptional cases.

Read the entire article here and find out Tom’s picks for his best FiveBooks and FiveGames here.

March 14, 2010

What are Mark Twain’s thoughts about god?

From Intelligent Design to the problem of suffering, Mark Twain cook up an answer to this question in this article with his usual humor and aplomb.

First the dash of humor:

How often we are moved to admit the intelligence exhibited in both the designing and the execution of some of His works. Take the fly, for instance. The planning of the fly was an application of pure intelligence, morals not being concerned. Not one of us could have planned the fly, not one of us could have constructed him; and no one would have considered it wise to try, except under an assumed name. It is believed by some that the fly was introduced to meet a long-felt want.

and then a bit of the aplomb:

We hear much about His patience and forbearance and long-suffering; we hear nothing about our own, which much exceeds it. We hear much about His mercy and kindness and goodness—in words—the words of His Book and of His pulpit—and the meek multitude is content with this evidence, such as it is, seeking no further; but whoso searcheth after a concreted sample of it will in time acquire fatigue. There being no instances of it.

Read the entire reproduced article here from Project Reason.

March 11, 2010

Why is understanding plausibility so important to how we inform our beliefs?

Plausibility is essentially an application of existing basic and clinical science to a new hypothesis, to give us an idea of how likely it is to be true. There are three broad categories of plausibility we need to appreciate:

If evidence for a direct connection between a cause and its effect can be established, then we have a highly plausible explanation upon which we can depend for consistent results.

If we have evidence for an consistent effect from some cause but do not understand the generating mechanism, then we have neutral plausibility for an explanatory hypothesis.

If we have evidence for an inconsistent effect from some perceived cause and suggest an explanatory hypothesis that violates the basic laws of science, then our explanatory hypothesis is implausible.

As Steve Novella writes over at Science-Based Medicine regarding homeopathic treatments that claim to provide efficacy to improve ‘life energy’,

Invoking an unknown fundamental energy of the universe is not a trivial assumption. Centuries of study have failed to discover such an energy, and our models of biology and physiology have made such notions unnecessary, resulting in the discarding of “life energy” as a scientific idea over a century ago.

Essentially any claim that is the functional equivalent to saying “it’s magic” and would, by necessity, require the rewriting not only of our medical texts, but physics, chemistry, and biology, can reasonably be considered, not just unknown, but implausible.

How we inform our beliefs using the plausibility standard is important and depends entirely on the quality of the explanations we rely on to do so,  whether they are about specific ideas in medicine or religion or politics or about more general policies and procedures. If our explanations are plausible, then our beliefs are plausible. If our explanations are implausible, then our beliefs are implausible. If we are considering to act on our beliefs, then we need to first undertake due diligence and establish how plausible they really are.

If the beliefs are implausible, then we know they are poorly informed and, as such, are unjustified. Acting on unjustified beliefs in our personal and private domain is our prerogative. We have the freedom to do so because the founding documents and charters and bills of our liberal secular democracies provide us with the necessary legal framework and state-sanctioned power to protect these equal freedoms. But providing what’s necessary isn’t nearly enough. We must also do our part as individuals to maintain our own equal freedoms.

In stark contrast to the freedom we have to exercise our beliefs in the private domain, acting on our implausible beliefs in the public domain is wrong and richly deserving of sustained legitimate criticism. Whenever we come across those who wish promote unjustified beliefs as if they were informed and plausible when they are neither in the public domain using public offices, we must hold them to account for their abuse of their office’s public power that allows them to cross that important boundary between the what is allowable in the private but forbidden in the public.

Our task is to maintain sustained criticism towards those who abuse public office in this way – whether they abuse the office’s power to support implausible medical therapies, implausible religious truth claims, implausible political solutions, and so on. We must insist that only informed beliefs that are plausible be made into public policies and procedures. Our collective failure to participate in our civic duty in this matter is a failure to be responsible to no only ourselves but to our fellow citizens, which has a cumulative effect of reducing our equal common rights and freedoms. We harm the very fabric of our equal rights and freedoms under a liberal secular democracy when we allow the abuse of public office to promote implausible beliefs. We allow it to continue when we choose to remain silent about this abuse. Even more damning to our equal individual freedoms  is our active support of candidates and office holders who are willing to promote our favoured implausible beliefs… again, whether those implausible beliefs are about complimentary and alternative medicines, favoured religious beliefs, political strategies, and so on. This kind of willing support to the implausible is both unpatriotic and seditious no matter how great may be the popularity of these candidates and their platforms.

The standard of plausibility is a very important concept to inform public policies – useful to each of us to determine our level of support for these public policies and procedures – although we have the freedom (and luxury) to pay it scant attention in our private lives… for now. What is essential, however, is to understand why plausibility matters so much.

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