Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stupid Skeptic Tricks

Thanks to Russell for this one, which he brings up in the context of the discussion of the paranormal. I think I've seen these before in the context of, well, other things.

Of course, some people may want to argue about whether these are really stupid.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spelling Bees, Violin Teachers, and ESP

When I was in the seventh grade, I won the District Spelling Bee. The defending champion, somewhat to my surprise, went out when there were six people left, stomped off the stage, and went crying to his mother. After winning the Bee (and qualifying for the state finals), I was asked to provide a picture for the newspaper. As it happened, my violin teacher had a Polaroid camera, and my parents and I knew this, so we visited him. He told me that he had been thinking about my spelling bee, and at one point had an awareness that my rival had gone down, and that he was very upset about it. He had this awareness at about the time when my rival went down. He said that he had sometimes had episodes of clairvoyance.

It wasn't something that he said came from God. It's not something that supports my religious beliefs, especially. But I have often thought back to this incident. How did he know? Should you be skeptical of my report now, since this doesn't seem to be something that happens in the ordinary course of nature?

The Case Against Frequentism

From my Infidels paper on miracles. 


IV. Probability and its Empirical Foundations

According to Hume, probabilistic beliefs concerning the intentions of a supernatural being are inadmissible in reasonings concerning matters of fact because these beliefs fail to be grounded in experience. This insistence has been enunciated by Bayesian theorists, and it is the frequency theory. But the frequency theory has fallen on hard times, and most Bayesian theorists do not accept it, largely because of difficulties related to the problem of the single case.
The problem is this. Frequencies give us information as to how often event-types have occurred in the past. But we often want to know the probability of particular events: this coin-toss, this horse-race, this piece of testimony to the miraculous, etc. If we are to accept Hume's conclusion that testimony to the miraculous ought never to be accepted, we need to show more than just that rejecting testimony to miracles in general is a good idea because false miracle claims outnumber true ones. Many Christians are skeptical of miracle claims put forward by televangelists, but nonetheless believe that the evidence in support of the resurrection of Jesus, and perhaps in support of some modern miracles, is sufficient to overthrow our ordinary presumption against accepting miracle reports.
Frequentists have attempted to assess the prior probability of individual purported events by assimiliating them some class of events. Thus, we assess the probability of a particular coin-toss as 1/2 in virtue of its membership in the class of coin-tosses. But the question is which class the relevant reference class is. The claimed resurrection of Jesus falls into many classes: into the class of miracles, into the class of events reported in Scripture, the class of events reported by Peter, the class of events believed by millions to have occurred, into the class of events basic to the belief-system of a religion, etc. Of course it is what is at issue between orthodox Christians and their opponents whether the class of miracles in the life of Jesus is empty or relatively large.
Wesley Salmon attempts to solve this problem by defining the conception of an epistemically homogeneous reference class. A class is homogenous just in case so far as we know it cannot be subdivided in a statistically relevant way. Thus, according to Salmon, if Jackson hits .322 overall but hits .294 on Wednesdays, the Wednesday statistic is not to be treated as relevant unless we know something about Wednesday that makes a difference as to how well Jackson will bat. Thus, according to Salmon, the relevant reference class is the largest homogeneous reference class; we should try to get a sample as large as we can without overlooking a statistically relevant factor.[13]
There are two difficulties with this method as an attempt to satisfy Hume's strong empiricist requirements for properly grounded probability judgments. First, questions of statisical relevance cannot be fully adjucated by appeal to frequencies. Second, the very heuristic of selecting the largest homogeneous reference class cannot be read off experience.
On the first point, consider the situation of a baseball manager who must choose between allowing Wallace to bat or letting Avery pinch-hit for him. Wallace has an overall batting average of .272, while Avery's is .262. But the pitcher is left-handed, and while Wallace bats .242 against left-handed pitching, Avery bats .302. Nevertheless, the pitcher is Williams, and while Avery is 2-for-10 against Williams, Wallace is 4-for-11. Have these batters faced Williams too few times for this last statistic to count? And can this be straightforwardly determined from experience? What is needed is a judgment call about the relevance of this statistical information, and this judgment cannot simply be read straightforwardly from frequencies. The frequentist's epistemology for probabilistic beliefs, insofar as it is an attempt to conform to empiricist/foundationalist constraints, seems impossible to complete.
On the second point, is the heuristic of selecting the smallest homogeneous reference class justified simply by an appeal to experience? Admittedly it makes a certain amount of common sense. But this attempt to go from a statistical "is" to an epistemological "ought" seems to suffer from with the same (or worse) difficulties that getting "ought" from "is" suffers from in ethics, and here again Hume's empiricist/foundationalist assumptions impose an impossible burden on probability theory.
The frequency theory seems clearly to be the theory of priors that Hume would have adopted had he been involved in the contemporary Bayesian debate on prior probabilities. But even this theory fails to adjudicate the issue concerning miracles in Hume's favor or in favor of the defenders of miracles, because it lacks the resources within itself to select the appropriate reference class. This inability to provide determinate answers to questions of probability is what makes this theory inadequate for resolving the question of miracles. Therefore Hume cannot justify his claim that it is never rational to believe testimony to any miracle on the grounds that miracles are less frequent in experience than false miracle reports.[14]

13] Salmon, The Foundations of Scientific Inference (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967), pp. 90-93.
[14] These objections were suggested to me by in conversation by Patrick Maher.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Basic Fairness, Unbelief by Default, and the OTF

John: I never said this was simply a debate between Christianity and atheism. These are probably the leading options in our culture, and so sometimes you have to debate one issue at a time.

The website that I have been discussing with respect to the Outsider Test was a site in which Christianity and Islam were compared. To give the short answer to Arizona Atheist, the site may not itself be completely even-handed between those two religions, but the evidence it provides in the area of documentary evidence and of archaeological evidence, shows that the evidential situation with respect to each religion is different, and that Christianity has some advantages that Islam lacks. So an "outsider" would clearly, I think, rate the evidential situation for Christianity better than Islam. Someone coming in with the same level of skepticism for each religion could pick Christianity. And since I don't think any other books can match the Bible or the Qu'ran on those criteria, the case could be made for Christianity as opposed to all other faiths. With some religions I'm not sure they even have apologetics.

As I said, the OTF is an onion. On one layer there is what we might call the Basic Fairness Doctrine, that says we shouldn't try to give other religions as fair a treatment as we give our own. We should attempt to compare, as fairly as we can, the believability of religions. To use McGrew's terms, this is the heuristic use of the OTF, and I don't object. However, such fairness isn't easy, but we all have to work on it. It means making sure that we are looking at the inconvenient truths for whatever view we adopt, and it applies generally to Christians, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, etc.

However, as the OTF is typically presented, it attempts to give a kind of special default status to the denial of religion, and in doing so it starts to engage in anti-religious special pleading. Then we start getting the diagnostic use of the OTF, where we look at what we think is true in the area of, say, Biblical studies, and then we conclude that anyone who comes out a believer somehow isn't performing the duties prescribed in the "heuristic" side of the OTF.

When I give my more detailed response to Arizona Atheist, I am going to look at an argument by Robert Price, and ask whether anybody could possibly take that argument seriously who was not infected with what I would call a hostility bias toward the New Testament.

You like to bring up psychological and sociological evidence suggesting that, epistemologically, we're all sinners. Fine. But then you presume that you can become a saint just by rejecting religion, as if confirmation bias comes to an end once you get out the church door and leave the fold. Not fine.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

J. P. Moreland and A. C. Ewing on the Argument from Reason

If reasoning is to be possible, there has to be a metaphysically identical being that entertains the premise-thoughts and the conclusion-thought, and perceives the relation between the premises and the conclusion.

JPM: If human beings are to function are rational thinkers who can engage in rational deliberation, then not only must there be a unified self at each time in a deliberative sequence, but also an identical self that endures through the rational act. Consider A. C. Ewing’s argument:
To realize the truth of any proposition or even entertain it as something meaningful the same being must be aware of its different constituents. To be aware of the validity of an argument the same being must entertain premises and conclusion; to compare two things the same being must, at least in memory, be aware of them simultaneously; and since all these processes take some time the continuous existence of literally the same entity is required. In these cases an event which consisted in the contemplating of A followed by another event which consisted in the contemplating of B is not sufficient. They must be events of contemplating that occur in the same being. If one being thought of wolves, another of eating, and another of lambs, it certainly would not mean that anybody contemplated the proposition `wolves eat lambs’…There must surely be a single being persisting through the process to grasp a proposition or inference as a whole.”
If the conclusion of a syllogism is to be grasped as a conclusion, it must be drawn from the experiences of each premise singularly and, then, together. As Ewing notes, a successive series of I-stages cannot engage in such acts; only an enduring I can. Moreover, if the rational agent who embraces the conclusion is to be regarded as intellectually responsible for his reasoning, it must be the same self at the end of the process as the self who lived through the stages of reasoning that led to drawing the conclusion. One is not responsible for the acts of others or of other person-stages. So intellectual responsibility seems to presuppose an enduring I. But on the naturalist view, I am a collection of parts such that if I gain and lose parts, I am literally a different aggregate from one moment to the next. Thus, there is no such enduring I that could serve as the unifier of rational thought on a naturalist view.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Science without methodological naturalism

Robert Delfino thinks that methodological naturalism is a dogma that science can do without. That doesn't mean that ID works, only that it can't be thrown out at the outset. Looks pretty good on first read-through.

The Outsider Test, Onions, and Inconvenient Truths

The outsider test is kind of like an onion. On the outer layer, there is a legitimate appeal to be fair to opposing views, to counteract bias, etc. At that level it operates as a kind of golden rule for beliefs. So it is sometimes helpful to imagine yourself as an outsider to your religion, treating it with the same kind of skepticism with which you treat other religion.

But if it is restricted to religions, then people who are not within a religion get an automatic pass, since it isn't hard for an atheist to say he is just as skeptical of Christianity as of Islam, since he believes both to be false and delusional. Should atheism get a free pass here? I know a lot of Christians who work very hard at coming to terms with the "inconvenient truths" for the Christian belief system. If you go to a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting, the best-attended session is always the session on the problem of evil. And then I see atheists treating their own view like a slam-dunk, as if there are no inconvenient truths for their world-view. You get the argument that their position is different because it is a non-belief, rather like not collecting stamps. You get the argument that allegiance to science somehow gives them a free pass. It is like pulling teeth to get some people to realize that confirmation bias doesn't stop once you go out the church door and shake the dust off your feet.

And, you get the argument that we can judge who has "really" taken the outsider test, based on whether the one claiming to take the test has reached the same conclusions about religion that the atheist has reached. They say, "This is the conclusion I have reached, I consider it to be true, so if someone comes to an opposing position, it MUST be because of insider bias, of a failure to REALLY take the outsider test." This in the area of biblical scholarship, where there is little consensus, and a lot of presuppositional issues to deal with as well as evidential issues. Here Tim McGrew's distinction between the heuristic and diagnostic uses of the outsider test is important. It isn't the test I object to as the way it ends up being construed, and the idea that atheists can look at their own answer key to test whether someone has really taken the test or not.

I have never seen an overall superiority of atheists to theists in the area of maintaining that constant struggle to come to terms with the inconvenient truths for their own philosophies. If anything, it has always looked to be to be the other way around.

I realize this is not really an answer to the specifics of Arizona Atheists's response to me. I will get to that, I hope, in the next day or two.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Reply from Arizona Atheist

After some confusion about what website I was talking about, Arizona Atheist has finally responded to my arguments concerning the outsider test for faith. I am to busy and the moment to provide a response, but if someone wants a crack at it, they can certainly be my guest. I should say something back in a few days. He should certainly be credited with providing some serious dialogue on the matter.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Keller on the natural consequences view of heaven and hell

“The idea of hell is implausible to people because they see it as unfair that infinite punishment would be meted out for comparably minor, finite false steps (like not embracing Christianity.) Also, almost no one knows anyone (including themselves) that seem to be bad enough to merit hell. But the Biblical teaching on hell answers both of these objections. First, it tells us that people only get in the afterlife what they have most wanted-either to have God as Savior and Master or to be their own Saviors and Masters. Secondly, it tells us that hell is a natural consequence. Even in this world it is clear that self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness makes you miserable and blind. The more self-centered, self-absorbed, self-pitying, and self-justifying people are, the more breakdowns occur, relationally, psychologically, and even physically. They also go deeper into denial about the source of their problems.”

-Tim Keller

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

What is Juche? The "Religion" of North Korea

I had never heard of this before. But it has more adherents than Judaism.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Editor of Socialist Magazine explains why Obama isn't one of them

I few weeks back I saw a bumper sticker that said "The Free Market is a Fraud. Socialism Now!" And on that same car was another sticker that had a picture of a red cross (a symbol for medicine) with the words "Socialize It!"

I was about to marvel at how gutsy they were driving around Arizona with pro-socialism stickers on their car, and then I noticed they had California plates. I didn't see any egg on it put there by angry tea partiers.

But, of course, the portrayal of Obama as a socialist hurt him in the mid-term elections. But, in the eyes of the editor of Socialist magazine, Obama just doesn't qualify.

My interview with Quality Christian Internet

I think if you want the basics of the argument from reason, at least as I have advanced it, this interview that I did with Steve Thomas before my book came out is a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

I Refute Berkeley Thus

I think no one has noticed my reference to a piece of what I thought was a piece of standard philosophical lore when I mentioned kicking a stone. I provide a link to a site that provides an account of this.

One prominent physician of his day claimed Berkeley was
insane. The great Dr. Samuel Johnson dismissed Berkeley's ideas with
his famous "I refute Berkeley thus" and then he kicked a rock. Of course,
this did not refute Berkeley at all. It only proved Johnson had not
understood Berkeley's point. Berkeley did not claim the non-existence of
stones or that kicking a stone will not produce sensation. He claimed the
rock did not exist apart from the perception of its solidity or the
perception of pain when struck, and so on. An oft-repeated epitaph
summarizes the general reaction to Berkeley: "His arguments produce no
conviction, though they cannot be refuted."

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

God, the external world, and the burden of proof

Atheist: I'm not making a claim that something exists. You are. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim.

VR: I claim that the physical world exists. You deny it, and say that it is an illusion. Gosh, it looks like I've got the burden of proof. What am I going to do? Kick a stone?