Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bad to Worse

Incredibly, the quality of criticism from new atheists seems to have deteriorated.

First there is Richard Carrier who, if his let-me-talk-about-myself-in-the-third-person blog purports to demonstrate “quite conclusively” mathematically sound results pertaining, negatively, to god’s existence. He does not tell you (at least on his blog) what his assumptions are, their validity, or that he is doing nothing more than using those assumptions in a simple theorem accompanied by seventh-grade Algebra-1 manipulations.

And then, also under the freethoughtblogs domain, there is the much heralded and apparently famous (although I had never heard of him, but I lead a sheltered life) John Loftus, whose cv trumpets the exceptional qualification that he studied under the rather regrettable apologist William Lane Craig. Loftus’s blog is titled Debunking Christianity. At least that sounds interesting. And a much better name than “Richard Carrier Blogs” for the blog on which, well, Richard Carrier blogs. (Which reminds me of those NASCAR segues: we are happy to bring you the Coca Cola 600, proudly sponsored by Coca Cola.)

Debunking Christianity. Famous debunker. Studied under William Lane Craig. What could go wrong?

Let’s begin with a recent post. Top Seven Ways Christianity is Debunked by the sciences.
  1. Philology (scientific textual criticism.) As Loftus points out, philology "proved" (more accurately: in conjunction with other supporting evidence demonstrated with high confidence--but Loftus, as we'll see, habitually oversells) that the Donation of Constantine was forged. Loftus fails to mention what the hell that has to do with Christianity (as opposed to ecclesiastical history and shenanigans.) Answer: nothing. Nothing debunked here. He also alludes that the same (imprecise) science might have something to say about books in the canon. He’s right, it might—and as Christians we embrace these studies given that the original autographs are lost. We, more than anyone, have a stake in learning about possible additions and redactions. But Loftus gives the absolutely false impression that these studies are conclusive—when they are merely suggestive. Also he does not address how Christianity would be “debunked” if, say, in his dream of dreams, 2 Peter was shown to be a forgery. How would that effect Christian theology? Answer: In no significant way. Christian theology is the gospel. The gospel is presented in a redundant and fault-tolerant manner. You would have to more or less destroy the entire bible. But Loftus preens at the end: That’s science, baby, kick against the goads all you want to. As a quibble, it is not actually science, it is a science based approach. And Loftus again oversold what it has taught us as “debunking” Christianity. The only thing apparent here is his commitment to false braggadocio.
  2. The Copernican astronomical revolution as defended later by Galileo showed us that we do not live in a geocentric universe. Never did. The Biblical viewpoint, supposedly coming from a divine mind, did not understand this basic fact. Sigh. Now we know we are dealing with a lightweight, because only a lightweight would repeat such a tiresome canard. The bible does not teach geocentricism—there is not one verse in the bible that does—not one verse that is not similar to current figures of speech (The sun rose and moved across the sky) that also do not teach geocentricism. The fact that, prior to the advent of modern science, many believed in geocentricism is irrelevant—they were wrong.
  3. Evolution/biology. Perhaps his strongest point, and the only one of the seven that is at least causing a great deal of concern among Christians. As he points out, however, some Christians are adopting a theistic evolution viewpoint and others are at least accepting that viewpoint as withing the pale of orthodoxy. Of course even here he can't resist, and once again screws up badly, writing: But with evolution we no longer need a creator, for there is nothing left to explain by means of the supernatural hypothesis. It is perhaps true that ultimately there will be nothing left to explain, only time will tell. But in the real world there is a little matter of abiogenesis.
  4. Archaeology. Loftus: "Archeologists have discovered several ancient Mesopotamian texts that predate the ones in the Bible and tell similar superstitious stories of the origins of the universe." Yeah, so what? Is there a verse in the bible that states: this is the first time this was written down! There is not. If there was a catastrophic Mesopotamian flood, then there is nothing in the bible that states: by divine fiat this was never passed by word of mouth, distorted, and written down prior to the inspired biblical writer. Another Loftus misspeak: "It has also shown us there was no Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt." Gosh Loftus if you had any integrity you would write it in a accurate manner that is troublesome for Christians: There is little (and no undisputed) documentation indicating the presence Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and little or no archeological evidence of a massive exodus. Instead you, once again, take the low-brow approach of exaggeration—that "Archaeology has shown there was no Exodus." Proving a negative John, proving a negative.
  5. What has that great science Psychology taught us? Loftus reports! "Psychology shows us there can be no wrathful God who will punish us forever because of what we believe." I missed that issue of Science where the data were published.
  6. Anthropology has shown us from the fact that there are many different cultures around the globe and with it a great deal of religious diversity. I’m stunned. I don’t know how to reply. Clearly Christianity, which teaches that there are but a few cultures and little religious diversity has be refuted.Totally.
  7. Loftus: A) Neurology shows us there is an extremely close relationship between our beliefs and neuron firings, which can be drug induced, or even surgically removed. B) There is therefore no need for the supernatural explanation of the soul. Yes John it is crystal clear that A→B.
I hate this feeling of being debunked. I feel all violated. Loftus, however, helps us forget feeling dirty by topping this travesty with another post that is mind-numbingly stupid. I mean, it is way beyond the pale.
Scientists to Theologians: Put Up Or Shut Up!
Christian theists love to point out the limits of science, and it does have some. But to focus on them to the exclusion of the massive amount of information we have acquired from science is being extremely ungrateful for what it has achieved. To me that is one aspect of the denigration of science. The limits of science are based in 1) the limits of human imagination, and 2) the limits of that which we can detect. That which is undetectable does not fall within the realm of science, although, with further advances in our scientific instruments we can detect things that were previously thought undetectable. If science does reach its limits in the future, there won’t be any cause for theistic celebration because scientists may not know they have reached its limits, and because there are probably some things they might never know. Why should that conclusion, if they reach it, be preferred to an evolving God concept in a sea of god-concepts without any means to settle which one is to be preferred as the best explanation of the same data? What is the theistic alternative method for squeezing the truth out of the universe? What is it? Until theists can propose a better method than science to learn about the universe, they should just shut up!
First I’ll point out that the title is a lie. It promises examples of scientists telling theologians to put up or shut up. It gives no such examples. The phrase “Scientists to Theologians” in the title should, if truth means anything to the writer, be replaced with “Me, John Loftus, non-scientist, to Theologians:”

That aside, the post is incoherent. It lacks the charm of a mushroom-induced hallucination and/or the redeeming naiveté of a all-night freshmen bull session. It’s just bad. Awful. Sentences strung together. Misunderstandings about science. Non sequiturs about theology. No theme. No connections. Garbage. One of the worst essays I have ever read about science and religion. Ever. Including posts written by fanatical YECs.

John, you don’t know what science is. Science is an agnostic methodology. Nothing more, nothing less. It is a very successful agreement on the rules for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data, rules that serve as checks and balances against bias. It actually has no limits—because it is a process. Its success may come in fits and starts but it can be done indefinitely. Theology is not in competition with science. Christian theology does not argue that it can teach you all about quarks. Christian theology readily defers such questions to science.

I see why such thoughts as Loftus's are "free." Carrier and Loftus are among your best and brightest? Sucks to be you.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Richard Carrier: Worthy winner of the Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye Award

Richard Carrier wins the coveted Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye Award which, as you may know, was created to celebrate and recognize exceptional stupidity in writing about the intersection of religion and science.

Richard, you see, has, um, --well it is best to use his own words:

"In fact, I show how the fine tuning of the physical constants actually proves God doesn’t exist. Quite conclusively in fact."

Quite conclusively? Really?

This is of course complete nonsense, which I pointed out on his blog. He has threatened to treat my comments as spam because I haven't actually read his chapter in some book that contains this "proof." I have read other such proofs, such as from Ikeda and Jefferys. I know exactly how they work.

I wonder if Carrier agrees with many of his FTB colleagues who argue that it is OK for Dawkins to criticize absurd theological arguments without actually studying them? Because I am using the same argument against him--I don't have to read his chapter to recognize it as utter nonsense. Can you say "Courtier's Reply?"

Now one can argue that under the assumptions of fine-tuning (the habitability of the universe is sensitive to the constants) and a low probability of the constants (something which nobody actually knows--but you can assume it for the sake of an argument) that multiverse explanations are more plausible, from an Occam's Razor sense, than supernatural design. But even then neither Carrier nor anyone else can prove "quite conclusively" that God doesn't exist. Total Kool-Aid. And he doesn't need Bayes' theorem--which if you don't know is a simple theorem in probability that freshmen learn--but like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is disgustingly abused in the hands of the intellectually challenged/dishonest and the mathematically illiterate.

In this kind of argument, Bayes' Theorem--which is incredibly powerful when used properly--is merely obfuscatory, in a Sokal-like sense.

So... let's image an incredibly fine-tuned universe:

1. This universe has only one physical constant, C.

2. The universe is only habitable if C is within its measured value by one part in 1023.

3. The laws of this universe predict the value of C.

Now here is an extremely fine-tuned universe! I challenge Carrier to prove that such a universe precludes the existence of a god.

If you believe he can, there may be a lidless eye award in your future!