Thursday, October 22, 2009

The 122nd Skeptics' Circle

As the lone self-aware monobrow on the skeptical comittee dominated by humans, I was in general peased with the overall quality of their presentations, and offer my congratualtions to the hosts, the Young Australian Skeptics, and in particular Mr. Hughes.
Read more!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review of TLS -- Promises are made

This is the second in a series of posts that will be reviewing and responding to the arguments of Dr. Feser's The Last Superstition. This was part 1. I haven't read many books of philosophy, and none aimed at popular audiences, so when I note that Dr. Feser starts out with a list of claims that he promises to demonstrate later, I have no idea if that is standard procedure or not. It does make the first chapter, Bad Religion, devoid of meaningful content with regard to establishing Dr. Feser's claims. However, one of the things I want to do is to in this post is list all these promises Dr. Feser makes in Chapter 1. After I review the last chapter, I will return to this list and we will see what has actually been proven.

Claims Dr. Feser says he will demonstrate
Secularism is inherently immoral and irrational, only a specific sort of religious view can be moral, rational, and sane
On intellectual grounds, atheism can not be true
Secularism can never spring from reason; its true grounding is from a willfulness and desire for it to be true
The basic metaphysical assumptions that make atheism possible are mistaken
Secular propaganda is the source of fideism
It is as impossible to say nature has no meaning or purpose as it is to square a circle (more on that below)
Secularism is parasitic on religion for all its important ideas, it is strictly a negation
What is characterized as a war between science and religion is really a war between competing metaphysical systems
The classical metaphysical picture is rationally unavoidable, and thus so is the traditional Western religious view derived from it
Given atheism and naturalism, there is no persuasive argument that allows you to trust in either reason or morality
Edit on 2009-NOV-17 to add: The abandonment of Aristotle's metaphysics has led to the abandonment of any rational or moral standards that can be used to justify moral positions, and is responsible for the curent civilizational crisis of the West.

Dr. Feser allows himself a full 241 pages in the next five chapters to accomplish all this. Of course, with so modest an undertaking, he leaves himself plenty of space to continue to denigrate atheism, secularism, the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens), Hume, and many more in those chapters as well.

I do have a few other comments on some of Dr. Feser's remarks in chapter 1. While I still intend to avoid responding to the mere demagoguery that he indulges himself in, there are a few points that reveal interesting and noteworthy aspects of both him and his opinion of his audience.

There is nothing particularly noteworthy or striking about his claim that the less people know, they less they realize their ignorance. In fact, I read similar thoughts from a variety of science books and scientists growing up, typically along the lines of 'The more you know, the more you realize how little you know'.

I do not agree that attempts to account for phenomena such as the mind without referencing God is a religious discussion. You might as well say that attempts to account for lightning without referencing God is a religious discussion. Then again, perhaps Dr. Feser would say that. I would not be surprised at all to see him claim that any discussion of any natural phenomenon is inherently religious.

One of the common hallmarks of purveyors of woo is a sense of persecution that results from being treated equally. This comes out twice in Chapter 1, where first Dr. Feser complains that some philosophical positions distasteful to him are considered still worth discussion even when they can't be demonstrated, while the subject of religion is considered not to have made its case. Of course, the second standard is a far higher hurdle than the first, and certainly not to be awarded lightly. To imply that religion must be granted the second when other positions are granted the first, or else the supporters of the second are receiving unfair treatment, sounds very much like a persecution complex. Shortly after that, he complains that the distasteful propositions are referred to as making people think, whereas in this context religion is apparently not worthy of a moment's notice. He acknowledges that most people are raised religiously, but somehow misses the point that immersing people in thoughts they already find comfortable will be doing the opposite of making them think, it is much more likely to lull them to stupor. However, the concern seems to be for some sort of time equality, not purpose, because otherwise religious ideas are just not being treated fairly.

Dr. Feser pulls out the old saw about the desire to disbelieve in hellfire being a motivation for atheism. Oddly, I have met very few Christians who believed they, personally, were going to hell. I certainly never did, back in the day. He doesn't seem to understand the human tendency for exceptionalism, or to be deliberately ignoring it.

Dr. Feser declares that the notions of a selfish gene, or design via natural selection, can only be true and interesting if by these terms we attribute some superhuman, literal intelligence to the gene and the process. I'm not sure what to make of this. Obviously he knows the terms are metaphors that describe the complex interactions of various feedbacks mechanisms. He doesn't think that the study of feedback mechanisms is interesting, that the feedback mechanisms are not true, or that the use of metaphor makes the concept untrue or uninteresting?

Dr. Feser complains about 'Easter Bunny comparisons to God', which he disdains. This is all fine for him, but the authors upon whom he heaps this disdain are do not have the audience of his peers in mind; their books are for the general public, and often specifically the religious members thereof. The Easter Bunny example actually strikes right at the heart of what many of these people believe. If the religious group doesn't have their followers trained in the ideas of Aristotle, why should it be the job of Dennett, et. al., to train them? Later on, Dr. Feser says that this is an example of these authors not being willing to take on the real issues against the formidable opposition. With all the diminutions hurled against these authors, you would think he believe this is the appropriate level of opposition for them, but I suppose he thinks even more poorly of his fellow believers in this regard. At any rate, while I might not have the training of a Dennett, I am happy to accommodate Dr. Feser by engaging his ideas directly. Having read through Chapter 4 so far, I have not found any reason to see his presentation of reason, faith, and religion as having a superior metaphysical basis to your typical Sunday preacher.

Finally, Dr. Feser likes to make great use out of the metaphysical absurdity of square circles. He is unaware that all circles are indeed squares, under the taxicab metric (I'll devote a separate post to that). This is a problem with his metaphysical analysis that we’ll cover in more detail later. For now, let’s just say that like any other formal system, Aristotle’s metaphysics will turn out to be founded on arbitrarily chosen premises that are inherently improvable and not obviously better than a variety of alternatives as a description of reality.

Read more!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pure Denialism at vere loqui

Martin Cothran joins in the denialfest on the news that the level of snow melt is at a 30-year low.

Both from the terminology and from a small bit of research at a couple of sites, including NASA, the snow melt in any given year seems to be how much the difference in the snow cover over the previous years. Any snow melt is a sign of warmer temperatures. So, saying that this was a year of smaller gains in temperatures than we have seen for a while doesn't really change the message that the warming is going on.
Read more!

Never thought it would happen

Watching the lastest Real Time with Bill Maher Sunday, Dr. Bill Frist completely dressed down and embarrassed Bill Maher over Maher's anti-vaccine rhetoric. I cheered out loud. I never thought I would cheer Dr. Frist like that, but he richly deserved my support on that topic (and, for that matter, on most of the health care positions he seems to be taking).
Read more!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The 121st Skeptics' Circle

The 121st Skeptics' Circle is up and running at The Mad Skpetic, where Myron does an amusing bit as an announcer for W.E.B.S.
Read more!

A discussion of asymptotes

One of the objectives in the Intermediate Algebra class is identifying some basic properties of a relation from looking at a graph (domain, range, is it a function). So, on a test I put in a graph that could roughtly correspond to -log (-x). This graph has the y-axis as an asymptote.

While I have done this a few times before, this is the first time I've had members of the class question whether it was possible for a graph to be an asymptote. As one student said, "Doesn't it need to either go straight up or curl back?" No, not exactly.

So, to make it easier to understand, I talk about how y=1/x behaves as x increases. I won't bore with the details. I get to end the discussion with one of my favorites things to tell a student: It makes perfect sense, it's just counter-intuitive.

If you know anything at all about mathematics, you should know that.
Read more!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review of TLS -- a preface

I'm starting a multi-part project today, my first in almost a year (the last one would be a critique of Nagel's paper, if I recall correctly). I will be reviewing/critiquing/responding to Dr. Feser's The Last Superstition for probably the next couple of weeks, at least. I'm going to start this post with a preface of my own, and then look at the preface in the book.

My main purpose will be to look at one thing only: does Dr. Feser present any sort of proof that atheism is untenable, and in particular for his version of God? I have read a variety of comments on Dr. Feser, his variations on the teaching of historical figures, his own associations, etc., from comments on this blog and elsewhere. I understand that many of them are probably legitimate, but I'm not going to address them. Other topics, such as the nature of morality or the practical and political applications thereof will creep into the discussion only because Dr. Feser insists that his proof is evidence that his own particular brand of theism offers these positions obvious rational support. I'm also not going to address the judgemental rhetoric, except to examine any underpinnings they seem to be stemming from, as I don't particularly care what Dr. Feser's opinions are nor how he states them. Further, my goal is to address Dr. Feser's argument on his own ground, in his own terms. Any argument crafted with so much effort deserves at least that much.

Dr. Feser starts with a quote of Plato and then follows with this quote from Aquinas, "A small error in the beginning of something is a great one at the end." I find it ironic that even at the beginning (the preface) of his book, we find errors of category and an error of fact. Now, I don't think these particular errors will be overly relevant to Dr. Feser's argument (certainly not the error of fact), but that just makes them small errors. Whether they have blossomed into great ones at the end, I don't know yet (I'm still in Chapter 2). Both of these errors appear in the same passage:
It is no more up the courts or "the people" to "define" marriage or to decide whether religion is a good thing than it is up to them to "define" whether the Pythagorean Theorem is true of right triangles, or whether water has the chemical structure H2O. In each case, what is at issue is a matter of objective fact that it is the business of reason to discover than democratic procedure to stipulate.

Just in case you were wondering whether Dr. Feser means that the Pythagorean Theorem is actually true, he leaves no doubt of that in chapter 2 when discussing Platonic Forms: he does indeed mean the Pythagorean Theorem is true as a real-world proposition. This is of course an error. In a formal system where all of Euclid's postulates hold, the Pythagorean Theorem is deducible. However, not all of Euclid's postulates hold in reality (in particular, the postulate regarding lines crossed by a transversal meeting on the side of line where the sum of the interior angles is smaller than 180 degrees, the equivalent to the parallel postulate, does not hold). So, for the followers of realism (as is Dr. Feser), the Pythagorean Theorem is actually false.

The second error is more subtle, and I doubt Dr. Feser would even agree. The types of knowledge used, and the ways that we decide, what marriage is and whether religion is good is completely different from how we derive the Pythagorean Theorem, and the knowledge that H2O is water is a third way of knowing what is true. The three are not comparable. In fact, we aren't completely certain H2O is the formula for water, the Pythagorean Theorem is not real (nor any other purely mathematical concept), and my strong suspicion is that there can be no demonstration of a proper definition for marriage or the goodness of religion.

To their minds (or what is left of them) sexual libertinism and contempt for religion, as public, mass phenomena (rather than the private eccentricities of a decadent elite, which of course have always been with us) constitute the final victory of reason ...

Isn't nostalgia great? How all those ordinary people were so sexually moral that prostitution was practically unknown, were so religious that they never cursed God and went to church every day. Not to mention, and maybe he missed this, but a modern lower-middle class family of today would be part of the elite back in the days of Aquinas. So, even if his position is true, the modern libertinism and contempt represent no change at all from previous times except for the higher percentage of the population in the elite status.

Read more!