Sunday, May 27, 2007

One Point Twenty-One Gigawatts!

My apartment building got hit by lightning today. Lightning is really loud when it's that up close. But, apart from that, it was a lot less exciting than I would have hoped. I haven't developed any mutant electro-powers or anything, for example.

The only bit of real drama involved my computer fritzing out. Very thankfully, it has since recovered.

In other lightning related news (via), a giant Jesus statue got zapped into pieces a few days ago. Naturally, this is passed off as just random chance. Uh huh. Just like it didn't mean anything when the set of The Passion of the Christ got struck by lightning twice (hitting the Assistant Director twice, and the faux-Jesus once).

Friday, May 25, 2007

Harris explained

Sam Harris (among others) likes to portray religious "moderates" and non-"literalist" interpreters of scripture as somehow deviant or deficient qua religious persons. For example, in his opening salvo in his blog-debate against Andrew Sullivan earlier this year, he says:
Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception....
Harris thinks that all religion is bad, but in the case of "moderates" he not only faults them for being religious, he also faults them for failing to be really religious. He sees "moderates" as guilty of having committed themselves to a bad game, and then guilty again of playing that game really poorly.

In the eyes of many people (both believers and non) who have more sensible views of religion, this attitude can be a bit mystifying.

A common diagnosis is that these are prejudices which get adopted just out of convenience. It is convenient (so the story goes) to cast "literalists" as the paradigm religious believers because "moderates" and non-"literalists" are harder targets for anti-religious manifestos. Now, there might be some truth to this, but I doubt it's the whole story. Besides, it's not at all clear to me that, in general, "moderates" make for tougher game. For example, Sullivan is a "moderate" if anyone is, and is a generally articulate writer to boot, but that doesn't seem to slow down Harris' rhetoric much at all. (I didn't follow the whole debate, but from what I did read, I'm inclined to give Harris the win.)

Another diagnosis, made by Slacktivist, seems to suggest that Harris et al. are, like "literalist" believers (whom he dubs "illiteralists"), suffering from a lack of literacy skills--leading them to be incapable of figuring out how there might be truth in a text without it having to be read literally. But this seems pretty implausible to me. As best as I can tell, Harris functions at a high level of literacy, and is perfectly capable of understanding that, in principle, there is a difference between reading scripture non-literally, and falsifying it. (And actually, I'm not sure this is really the right way to describe what is motivating "literalist" theists, either, but I won't get into that now.)

Anyway, I thought I'd say something about what I think is going on behind Harris' anti-"moderate" and pro-"literalist" attitudes. I can't recall anywhere where he spells this rationale out explicitly, but I think it makes sense of some of the things he says.

It's all based on this starting point (from the same post as above):
Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence....
In the philosophy biz, we appreciate this sort of terminological clarification. That said, Harris' explanation of what he means by "faith" could be fleshed out quite a bit more.

First, I think that, at some level, Harris understands, as he ought to, that "faith" is the name of an aspiration. To declare oneself as a follower of a certain faith is to make a substantial commitment, one which makes demands on a person. The religious person can live up to this religious commitment to a greater or lesser extent--it is possible to be more or less faithful in one's religious commitment.

Now, if we assume that faith just is "belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence", we seem to have a pretty straightforward way of measuring a person's faithfulness: tally up the number of "religious propositions without sufficient evidence" which the believer believes, and that will tell you how faithful he or she is.

Now, for this to be at all a plausible picture, we're going to have to clarify it by specifying that, when dealing with a follower of religion X, we need to focus on those "religious propositions" which are associated specifically with religion X. (So, for example, the proposition that Joseph Smith read divine revelation off of golden tablets is a proposition specific to Mormonism, and it would be silly to see it as somehow relevant to measuring the faithfulness of a Muslim.)

But now consider two Christians, both of whom believe in the Bible in some sense--but one of them is a "literalist", and one of them is not. The non-"literalist" is probably going to read the Bible as expressing some "religious propositions without sufficient evidence", but it's pretty certain that the "literalist" is going to read the Bible as expressing a considerably greater number of "religious propositions without sufficient evidence". In both cases, there is some sort of Christian faith, as Harris understands it. But, compared to the non-"literalist", the "literalist" is going to end up believing a greater number of "religious propositions" associated with Christianity. And so, given Harris' method of measuring faithfulness, the "literalist" is clearly the more faithful of the two, with the non-"literalist" being a comparative failure as a person of faith.

So there you go. Doesn't that all make sense?

Monday, May 21, 2007

The essence of the humanities

This Onion article was sent to the maillist for the philosophy grads, under the subject heading "What we do":
Professor Sees Parallels Between Things, Other Things

AUSTIN, TX—University of Texas professor Thom Windham once again furthered the cause of human inquiry in a class lecture Monday, as he continued his longtime practice of finding connections between things and other things, pointing out these parallels, and then elaborating on them in detail, campus sources reported.

"By drawing parallels between things and other, entirely different things, I not only further my own studies, but also encourage young minds to develop this comparative methodology in their own work," said Windham, holding his left hand up to represent one thing, then holding his right hand up to represent a separate thing, then bringing his hands together in simulation of a hypothetical synthesis of the two things. "It's not just similarities that are important, though—the differences between things are also worth exploring at length."

Fifteen years ago, Windham was awarded tenure for doing this.

And pretty much the only thing I could think after reading this was "Mm, tenure, that sounds awesome."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fun with TBN

Dr. Myles Munroe, in taped commentary on John 1:1-2, remarks:
When you read those original words in the Hebrew, it doesn't make any sense.
Nope, no sense at all.

Respect Darwin's authoritay

The arguments for evolution ultimately succeed. The arguments for creationism ultimately fail.

I'm using this word 'ultimately' because it takes a rather thorough grasp of biology and geology (and I think maybe also the nature of scientific argument in general) before one can really see precisely why the evolutionary arguments (as a whole) end up defeating the creationist arguments (as a whole). Because there are creationist arguments that are powerful enough and sophisticated enough to completely overwhelm the ability of the average pro-evolution layperson to respond to them.

And when the pro-evolution layperson encounters such a creationist argument, and has no idea how to respond, and yet continues to believe the evolutionary thesis -- on what is that continued belief based? In general, it is based on the assumption that, somewhere, there is some scientist who has the knowledge necessary to validate the evolutionary thesis against the problematic creationist argument -- or, if not that, then there is some scientist somewhere who could do some further research and then come up with the knowledge necessary to validate the evolutionary thesis. Now, even if this complicated evolutionist response were provided to the layperson, it probably wouldn't be really understood -- high school biology was a long time ago, and wasn't all that informative in the first place. But that doesn't matter: someone is doing the relevant scientific research, and this other person understands what that research means, and how evolution works, and why exactly this creationist argument is wrong. And the justification of the layperson's belief in evolution is happily deferred to this expert authority.

So, in general, the layperson's belief in the evolutionary thesis is based on trust in an authority, trust which cannot be fully justified by the layperson.

Now notice that you can replace 'evolutionary' in that sentence with 'creationist', without making the sentence any less true.

This is because, with respect to the believer's ability to give articulate empirical arguments, the average pro-evolution layperson's belief in the evolutionary thesis is in the same 300-cubit-long boat as the average anti-evolution layperson's belief in the creationist thesis.

And this is true, notwithstanding the fact that the creationist thesis (when properly understood) is ultimately unjustified, based on dogma, and dependent upon authority, in ways that the evolutionary thesis (when properly understood) is not.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Just got back from a game of Texas hold 'em. After a few hours of play, in the wee hours of the night, we called last round with three players left in the game.

I was first to deal, Aidan to my right, Daniel to his right. First hand of this final round, I go up against Aidan, and it turns out that he had started with a pair of aces in the pocket, and ended up with triples.

Note for those unfamiliar with the game: in Texas hold 'em you start out by dealing two cards to each player, face down: this is the player's "hole" or "pocket". Further cards are then dealt face up as "community cards", and the players build hands out of the community cards combined with their respective pocket cards. On any given hand, you have about a 0.45% chance of starting out with two pocket aces, which is a rather substantial advantage.

So, Aidan was very lucky on that hand.

Second hand of this final round, Aidan goes up against Daniel. Daniel bets everything he has left, and Aidan calls with (I think) a pair of kings, leaving Daniel with very few ways of coming out on top. One of those ways was to have pocket aces--which he had.

Daniel was very lucky on that hand.

These pairs of aces were clearly migrating clockwise across the table, meaning that I was next up. As the last hand of cards was being dealt, I start cracking my knuckles and bragging about how I was going to play my aces so well as to be sublime.

For pocket aces to hit three people in a row, one after the other, is such a monumentally improbable coincidence that I feel I have a decent excuse for why (as I must admit) I did not play as well as I'd predicted, when I looked down at my pocket cards and indeed discovered that I was the third player, in a row, in that final round of the night, to get pocket aces.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

IDNTIMWYTIM: "evangelical"

BBC reports: Evangelicals split on global warming.

This is true: evangelical Christians are indeed split on global warming.

And it's a worthy topic for a news story. Evangelicals owe most of their newsworthiness to the role many of them have played in the rise of the Christian Right; as such, it's quite common for people who are unfamiliar with the evangelical movement / community /subculture to see it as a monolithic group that is totally unified on matters of theology and politics -- which it is not.

So, good idea for a news story. But the execution is questionable.

To illustrate this split among evangelicals, the story focuses on two groups which take opposing views. Choosing a group of evangelicals who thinks that global warming is not important (because it's not happening) is relatively easy: they went to (the now late) Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. As for a group of evangelicals who thinks that global warming is both happening and worthy worrying about, they went to Eastern Mennonite University.

Only problem being, Eastern Mennonite University is almost certainly not evangelical. Mennonites in general are not at all connected to the strains of Christianity that fall under the evangelical banner, and (apart from the BBC story) I can't find any webpage that refers to Eastern Mennonite University as evangelical.

Part of the problem here might be the vagueness of the term "evangelical". But semantic vagueness is no excuse for plain old sloppiness.

Another part of the problem might be that evangelicalism is a phenomenon that is probably largely foreign to the UK, especially the segment of British culture that populates the offices of the BBC. But this is the BBC, and we expect better from the BBC.

Especially when it's not all that hard to find an example of a group of evangelicals who are concerned about the environment. (Say, the Evangelical Environmental Network.)

(For more on the meaning of "evangelical", and an IDNTIMWYTIM going in another direction, see here.)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A fairy tale

Once upon a time, God spoke through a prophet, promising the destruction of the city of Jerusalem for such sins as these:
Her princes within her are like wolves tearing the prey, by shedding blood and destroying lives in order to get dishonest gain. Her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, 'Thus says the Lord GOD,' when the LORD has not spoken. The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice.
Then, true to his word, God saw to the downfall of Jerusalem. And God's people got the message loud and clear. And from then on, those who claimed to follow God never did any of those terrible things ever again. The end.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sympathy from the devil

The other day I made the observation that pretty much all creationists think that the Earth is round, and are convinced that you have to be a little crazy to think that the Earth is flat--and, somehow, this observation seemed to take some people by surprise.

OK, context: Dawn and I were in a small group of grad students (from different parts of the arts and humanities), and for some reason or another it came out that there has been a debate in the letters section of some paper in Chattanooga, about whether the Earth is round or not. I expressed incredulity, but it was insisted that this debate really was happening, and that there was no indication that the flat-earther letter-writers were being ironic. So then we turned to the question of how there could be this vocal contingent of flat-earthers in Chattanooga, and someone suggested that it might have something to do with creationism getting in the news following the recent debate between Republican presidential candidates (in which a few expressed varying degrees of endorsement for creationism).

Well, I thought that was a weird connection to make: how could a debate about the shape of the Earth be sparked by creationism getting into the news? And that's when I made that observation: most creationists aren't flat-earthers.

And this actually surprised some people. I guess some people thought that maybe all creationists were also flat-earthers. One guy even said he couldn't see how thinking the Earth is flat is any more of a stretch than creationism.

That would be a problem.

Based on the general tone of the conversation, I would guess that we were all well aware of the existence of creationists, and that we all had negative views of creationism, and that we were all at least somewhat concerned about the prevalence of creationism in the American populace. And if you're a person like that, then, it seems to me, you should be moved to spend a moment or two pondering what might be going on in the minds of creationists. And if you spend even a little bit of time on this, then it surely ought to be pretty obvious how it's quite a bit less crazy to be a creationist than to be a flat-earther--that, in fact, the flat-earther would have to think some genuinely crazy things (e.g. that rather a lot of people around the world are lying about their travel experiences for no apparent reason), while a creationist could be merely wrong, and not crazy at all.

And if you can't see how that's so, then there is no way you could ever have any sort of constructive conversation with a creationist--you have made it quite impossible for yourself to imagine what it would be like to convince a creationist that he's wrong, because you imagine that the creationist is utterly crazy, and you can't even begin to reason with someone who's utterly crazy.

At another point in the conversation, someone tried to explain the existence of flat-earthers by pointing out that the Bible says that the Sun goes around the Earth. (Actually, I've seen self-described literalists assert that you need to interpret such passages metaphorically--but that's a different topic.) The problem here is that geocentrism, like creationism, is also quite a bit different from flat-earthism. I get the impression that, for quite a few liberals, including quite a few grad students in the arts and humanities, all these ideas (and more) get summarily thrown together in an undifferentiated mental box labeled "crazy fundamentalist Christian shit".

This is a complete failure of empathy that thoroughly undermines the possibility of civil discourse. Now, in some segments of society, this isn't so surprising to see. (Say, from a certain sort of Christian fundamentalist, who suspects that liberals are possessed by the spirit of the antichrist, and who lumps all liberal ideas into an undifferentiated mental box labeled "demonic liberal / secular humanist / feminist / homosexual poop".) But grad students in the arts and humanities? Come on. What the hell is the point of the humanities supposed to be, anyways?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Adventures in networking, flooring, and whatnot

What with my getting to be an old man and all, I'm inclined to be none too welcoming of this new fad of social networking websites. But recently Facebook has kinda sorta redeemed itself by getting me back in touch with old friends and acquaintances I thought I might never hear from again.

Then it also helped Dawn and I end a fairly unsuccessful and disappointing bout of apartment-hunting when I was able to look up a student in the college with a soon-to-be-but-not-yet-expired-lease (after having stolen some names from the property management office), and arrange a viewing of her apartment, and subsequently get dibs on the place.

If all goes well, I'll soon be making the switch from linoleum to hardwood floors, which I'm told is a matter of infinite importance, for reasons which are largely inscrutable. Apparently, linoleum's ability to lie flat under furniture and feet is insufficient to redeem it as worthy of constituting the upper layer of one's floor. I fear this issue may utterly transcend my intellect: as a child, I was tutored in Bert's school of linoleum appreciation (seriously, I had that song on tape or a 45 record or something).

The place also has balconies. Appreciation of this may be within my grasp.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Only believers can fight the spiritual battle

Sectarian militias, your days are numbered. Behold the Baghdad Prayer Patrol.