Friday, November 19, 2010

Some Links, Some Notes

* Apparently about a thousand people are living in the sewers of Las Vegas.

* Ed Feser has been arguing for the standard natural law position on lying (that it is always wrong in some way, although, of course, that doesn't mean it's always gravely wrong):
Is it wrong to lie to HAL?
There is no Santa clause
The murderer at the door
What counts as a lie?

* Arsen had a good post recently about Baha'i.

* An argument that instead of using pi things would be simpler if we named a constant equal to 2 times pi.

* His recent post on Galileo and Kuhnian theory of science illustrates very clearly why lots of us cheered when Thony C finally started a blog.

* At "The Smith," Lee Faber looks at Scotus's arguments for divine simplicity.

* Montag discusses the Sharp Centre in Toronto. It is indeed a sight; I don't generally like architecture that tries to be 'modern' (usually a code word for 'chance for an idiot architect to pretend to be deep', and surpassed in awfulness only by 'postmodern', which is usually a code word for 'chance for an idiot architect to affirm brazenly that he is an idiot, and that this is somehow a good thing') rather than beautifully functional, but if you are going to do it, the Sharp Centre shows how you can make it a pleasant surprise rather than something horrifically ugly.

* If you want to know how to do it wrong, you can start with the 'deconstructionist' Graduate House at the University of Toronto, the only genius of which is that it manages to be at once ugly, odiously pretentious, and completely unimaginative. It is a building with no soul; walking past it, which I had the misfortune of doing all too many times, is like walking past an industrialized corpse. One of the signs that it is a horribly bad building is that all the pictures that one can find that try to make it look clever and impressive are at bizarre angles that simply are not true to life. Whoever designed the thing should be drug out into the street and shot. It makes for a significant contrast with something like the Sharp Centre, which is truly 'modern' in the sense that it draws its strength from its attention to what is just about the only thing we 'moderns' do well: playful whimsy.

* Kathleen Stock, Thoughts on the 'Paradox' of Fiction (PDF).
Sherri Irvin, The Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in Ordinary Experience (PDF).

* Perhaps you've seen this graphic put out by Sam Harris's "Reason Project", supposedly detailing contradictions of the Bible. I actually love it; you could not ask for a better smoking-gun proof of the fact that there are significant numbers of atheists who lack basic reading skills (and, given how it has been received in certain parts of the atheist blogosphere, feel free to make convenient claims without looking at the supposed evidence). Here, for example, is "contradiction" 439: We have some verses (Ps. 9:11, Ps. 76:2, Joel 3:17, 21) that say that the Lord dwells in Zion. We also have some verses (Ps. 123:1 , Eccl. 5:2) that say that the Lord dwells in heaven. Contradiction! I have lots of atheist colleagues who could tell you immediately how stupid this supposed reductio is, so there is nothing about atheism that requires the deficiency of critical thinking skills involved in making it. But a lot of the 'contradictions' are like that. We have literally dozens of examples where the obvious problem is that the compiler of the chart shows that he doesn't have a grasp of what 'poetic expressions' and 'figures of speech' are. We have literally dozens of examples where something is claimed to be a contradiction that obviously is not ("contradiction" 201: Jn 14:26 says the Father will send the Paraclete in Jesus' name; Jn 15:26 says that Jesus will send the Paraclete from the Father). There are at least three cases where a supposed contradiction is blatantly listed twice (e.g., #7 and #9) and there are also cases where supposed contradictions are more subtly doubled (e.g., #11 and #207), either because they don't really care about putting together a decent case or else to puff up the list and make it look bigger than it is. There are many cases where basic language skills, particularly with regard to context, are clearly seen to be missing ("contradiction" 133: Acts 1 says that the author told Theophilus all that Jesus did, John 21 says that there aren't books enough in the world to describe all that Jesus did). There are cases where there is excellent reason to think we are dealing with an idiomatic expression (e.g. #3). When you winnow out all this chaff you are left with a handful of discrepancies, some of which may be due to copyist error (especially with regard to numbers), some of which may be due to the fact that we lack historical knowledge to see how the pieces actually fit together (especially with cases where there's a possibility that two references that seem to be to one event might actually be to two that only seem similar because of the way they are described), some of which may be due to ambiguities in translation or to semantic shifts. The result isn't going to intimidate anyone who has Bible study skills superior to the most extreme forms of KJV fundamentalism; rather, any Christian outside that group who does any sort of Bible study and who actually reads the list of contradictions is going to come out impressed at how, given their best shot to find contradictions, they came up with such an extraordinarily weak case. "Is that really the best they could do?" he or she will ask themselves in wonder. "Until now I never really grasped just how coherent this book compiled over a thousand years from radically divergent sources actually is." And then they will go and look at Chris Harrison's even cooler graphic and rejoice in their faith.

Roger Pears also has some comments.

As I've always said, Christians deserve more rational opponents than these fake rationalists.


* Rebecca recently had perhaps the best spam comment ever. (You can scroll down to see the comment itself.)


  1. Brian5:19 PM

    Hi Brandon, how have you been lately? I never did get back to our discussion of souls/minds, though I would like to continue it some day if possible.

     I read the link to Roger Pears and what struck is the self-sealing nature of his argument. He didn't come to believe in Christianity because of the inerrency of the Bible, but come to believe in the inerrency because he became a Christian. He admits that there's lots of floors, but because he holds it to be inerrant, those floors can be explained away. The argument he derides, but never states that I think atheists (obviously of a low brow nature such as I) might make - though I don't see the point in arguing against a book that I think is no more informative of reality than the Quran or book of Mormon, or other competing holy book - is that if God, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, so desired (scratch unchanging) then the book would always have the perfect message. It would be a sinch for the 3O God to do this. After all, he created the universe, was happy to make the sun stand still, send himself down in flesh (trinity) to raise dead people, resurrect himself and have many dead people rise from their graves and walk around Jerusalem (Mathew said that I think), the last of which wasn't recorded by the Romans or locals for reasons unknown. But instead, if I've read Roger Pears correct, he's said he doesn't believe there are any faults or contradictions in the Bible, and it's our fault that it don't read well or doesn't mesh with our modern understanding. I can't see how that could be called anything other than irrational to hold such a view. It might be our fault, but it is nothing for God to make it so it was always his pure message, understood at all times, copy errors notwithstanding. You say you deserve more rational opponents, and I'm not among the number of great intellects or rational types, but when you link to what appears to be an irrational argument I have to ask why?

  2. branemrys6:04 PM

    Hi, Brian,

    Because it's obviously not an irrational argument. Pearse's argument, in the passage you are discussing, has the following structure:

    (1) No-one comes to be a Christian because they discover the bible is inerrant.
    (2) They come to believe the Bible is inerrant because they became Christians.
    (3) The argument represented by the graph therefore does not address the validity of Christianity.

    (1) is certainly true, so identifying alleged contradictions in the Bible isn't going to be a reason for not being Christian -- being Christian doesn't depend on having come to the conclusion that the Bible is inerrant (which is why it is not impossible for there to be Christians who don't think it is). (2) is true of those people who do believe that the Bible is inerrant, and, in any case, is here simply in order to clarify. And (3) follows from (1) with fairly minimal assumptions (namely, that the argument represented by the graph at most shows that the Bible is not inerrant and that addressing the validity of Christianity requires addressing the reasons why people are Christians). This argument does occur within a larger context, which might have caused the confusion. Roughly, the flow of the post is:

    (I) Summary & quotation
    (II) Puzzle about what the point of the exercise could possibly be
    (III) Parity argument about historical sources generally
    (IV) The missing-the-point argument (noted above)

    It's very certainthat (III) is a distinct argument from (IV); they have completely different conclusions, and are set off in the post by verbal markers that show that they are distinct. Most of your criticism, however, consists either of not distinguishing arguments III and IV (I think this may be the primary problem) or reading into it things that are obviously not there -- e.g., unless you were either (a) one of the compilers of the graphic, or (b) simply accepted it uncritically without examining it, the argument has nothing to do with you. And both (III) and (IV) are perfectly reasonable arguments: (IV) for the reasons noted above, and (III) is something Pearse would know about: he does work with historical texts, and it is quite true that these problems regularly arise whenever we do work any sort of historical text -- and actually happens quite often that an apparent contradiction turns out to be because we were missing something -- e.g., some key historical fact, or some convention of writing -- that only later gets discovered. It's not enough to identify apparent contradictions: we have to examine their types, including their logical structure in context, and their relations to actual evidence. If we don't, we don't have the faintest clue whether the contradiction is real or merely apparent. If in studying David Hume (which I do as part of my academic research) I simply took every apparent contradiction in Hume at face value without digging deeper into the actual logical structure and textual evidence, I would never understand Hume at all.

    This contrasts with the graphic which is not only poorly organized (having a number of repeats) but also clearly fails to make elementary rational distinctions like the distinction between literal and figurative speech, repeatedly identifies as contradictories things that are easily shown to be logically compatible, requires a very naive view of how to assess historical texts, and even at best assessment doesn't actually have any bite against anyone except KJV-only fundamentalists and maybe a few other groups.  It exhibits incompetence in reading comprehension, logic, historical research, and making relevant arguments, all simultaneously; I would wish such irrational opponents on no one.

    As I note in the post, there are lots of atheists to whom these [...]

  3. Brian7:36 PM

    Thanks Brandon. I think the whole bit about inerrancy may be an issue. I find it strange that there are Christians who believe the bible is inerrant, it's has obvious falsehoods about nature, which God could easily have avoided. But I've always seen the Bible, new testament specifically as a recruiting book. But it is not unreasonable to point out that God could've made the Bible open to all with no need for interpretation or exegesis if s/he wanted. What we have is many different versions, apochrypha, not to mention competing books. I think that was the point of the graph. Not that I'm involved in the graph, or think it makes a difference. If you believe the Bible is God's word, you are not going to be swayed, and if you don't well, it's obviously of mundane origin. Well, it seems reasonable to me, and thus to call it irrational just seems to be a way of avoiding the argument and thus not very rational. But I'm prepared to accept that I misunderstood the post and that it is rational. Perhaps I let my affinity with the gnu atheists cloud my judgement.

     So you work on Hume? Cool! He's the first philosopher whose work I read with interest. I've read a bit of Hume's treatise, though only the first part, as Epistemology is what first grabbed me about philosophy and enjoyed his Dialogues concerning Natural religion which I feel, along with Kant, did a lot of damage to arguments for design and cosmological arguments. I have a lot of admiration for Hume.

     I've tried a bit of Aristotle, who you seem to post a lot about, but apart from getting the feeling that it's majorly teological (seems to have based his metaphysics on nature, which appears to have an end or purpose, but evolution tells us this isn't the case) can't much get into it. I remember reading the categories, and there's a bit in there that says something like 'whatever can be predicated of the individual can be predicated of the species and thus the genus and this rule holds good in all cases' and the example was something like Socrates is intelligent. It struck me as wrong to say that the genus, animal, could be predicated of intelligence. Not even all living humans (the species), say babies or brain dead/damaged folk can be called intelligent. I can't work out if I got it wrong what Aristotle was trying to say (probably), or it just doesn't make sense. Do you know the part?

     A final question. Do you think much of the Standord Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)? It's from their I got the idea that most philosophers reject dualism because of the intractability of how the immaterial interacts with the material. It seems that from Descartes onwards it's been a problem that gave rise to occassionalism and epiphenomenalism. If I recall correctly, your resonse was along the lines of we know it happens, even if we can't explain it.

     Well, I'm taking up your precious time. Thanks for your response.

  4. branemrys11:26 PM

    Hi, Brian,

    I don't know what you mean by "<span>God could've made the Bible open to all with no need for interpretation or exegesis if s/he wanted". Reading is by definition an act of interpretation and exegesis both; it's a contradiction to claim that a book needs no interpretation or exegesis. And as the saying goes, against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain; I don't think it's even in the scope of omnipotence to make a book that can't be misinterpreted by people who aren't even willing to make a distinction between literal and figurative speech, or who claim that things are contradictions that are not.</span>

    I'm actually working on a series of posts on the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; since it's the end of term I don't know quite when they'll start coming out, but it will likely be in December.

    Aristotle doesn't really have a conception of purpose in our sense; although that gets into tricky issues, because they are related, it's just hard to pin down. But he does allow a great deal to chance (which by definition has no end), even if not quite enough to cover an evolutionary explanation; so I think one does have to ask how far one could go with it if one loosened some of the restrictions. The Aristotelian necessities point (on predication) gets into complicated logical issues; but since 'intelligence' or 'rationality' is a disposition it doesn't have to be exercised in order for one to have it, just as sugar can be soluble even if it's stored in lucite so that it can never dissolve in anything.

  5. branemrys11:26 PM

    The SEP is generally quite good, although occasionally one finds articles that are flawed (they usually get fixed eventually, though). One has to be careful in one sense, though, because it often is more geared to laying out arguments than telling how people generally evaluate them. For instance, the article on moral realism is mostly devoted to arguments against moral realism; but philosophers are pretty overwhelmingly in favor of moral realism (which is pretty impressive given that philosophers are basically paid to find ways to disagree with each other) -- they find the clever arguments against it fascinating, but the reasons for being a moral realist are really quite good. Philosophers are interested in arguments, so that's what the articles cover: the most notable arguments. But some of these arguments are almost universally rejected, with only a few people really defending them; they're studied, and occupy a prominent place in philosophical discussion, because they are interesting, clever arguments, and not because people think they are sound. (It's like the ontological argument: philosophers love the ontological argument precisely because almost no one thinks it's sound but there is no consensus whatsoever about exactly why it fails. That's an interesting argument.)

    On dualism I think it tends to be pretty evenly split: Lots of philosophers do reject dualism; lots of philosophers don't. You may be thinking of substance dualism, which is one particular form of dualism, and not popular much anymore. It's usually said to have the interaction problem, so you were in good company arguing it; but it's actually difficult to show that the problem is a fatal problem for dualism rather than something it inherits from the difficulty of formulating a satisfactory theory of causation for anything whatsoever. That's why people became occasionalists, etc.: it's difficult to say what it means for one thing to cause another. The mind-body problem is only connected to this by the fact that substance dualism (and some other dualisms, although not all) is committed to the view that mind and body causally interact. And if dualist arguments against materialism work, then, yes, it would follow that we experience immaterial and material objects happening all the time, every time we sense an object or feel a feeling, and our reason for thinking they do would be exactly the same as our reason for thinking bodies interact: we experience it. You don't need to know how gravity works in order to know that there is gravity, and you don't need to know how billiard balls repulse each other in order to know that they do: you just experience it. So my argument last time was an a fortiori argument that even with the crudest form of substance dualism, the real question is whether -- and why -- the dualist arguments against materialism fail. If they don't, the interaction problem has no bite; if they do, the interaction problem is otiose. And if the interaction problem itself fails to be much of an issue for crude forms of substance dualism, it fails for much more sophisticated dualisms -- property dualism and the like. It's a controversial argument, I should say (pretty much everything in this area of philosophy is controversial). But it's also an argument that has stood as long as the interaction objection has.


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