"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Monday, October 29, 2012

Contradictions Imply... Truthyness?

At one of the recent meeting of Free@VT, I mentioned that contradictions between Biblical accounts can actually be evidence that some of the events in the relevant Biblical account occurred. I was met with a great deal of credulity and confusion. "If there are contradictions, then, at most, one account has to be true and the other false," I remember one person stating. Another told me that he felt this criteria was deeply troubling.

The use of contradictions in making inferences of this kind might seem to raise all kinds of epistemic worries; but, properly contextualised, this actually seems reasonable.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Science & Religion Talk Slides & Notes

Last week, I spoke twice on the relationship between science and religion (one time was to the undergraduate philosophy club at Virginia Tech and the other was to a sociology class.) This is the topic that I am currently planning on writing my graduate thesis in.

Both talks were meant to be broad overviews of several different perspectives on the relationship that one finds in the literature, without actually endorsing any particular perspective (with a pro/con provided for each view.) I've been asked by multiple people to make the lecture materials (slides & notes) available. I'm uploading them here so that everyone can enjoy them.

Talk for the Undergraduate Philosophy Students
Lecture Slides

Talk for the Sociology Class
Lecture Slides

Is Atheism Growing Up?

Many active participants in the atheist movement have noted how divisive the movement has become in recent history. I don't think it needs to be as divisive as it appears to be, and I rather openly dislike that some people have pejoratively called sexual harassment policies "too divisive". Often, this language of "divisiveness" is simply used to re-assert various kinds of privilege.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that there have been a large number of internal conflicts. For the most part, this has saddened me.

However, as Adam Lee has recently pointed out, it might not be altogether bad that these sorts of internal struggles have started. In his article "Atheism’s growing pains", which appeared in Saturday's edition of Salon, he argues that this divisive turn is necessary for the atheist movement to define itself as a cohesive political player:
In the last decade, atheism in America has risen from a tiny, demonized fringe to a serious presence in the public and political arenas...  As the atheist movement gains numbers and prominence, it’s inevitably been forced to confront questions about what it ultimately seeks to accomplish. Some in the movement favor a narrowly defined set of goals: defending the separation of church and state, keeping creationism out of science classes, protecting atheists from job discrimination and prejudice. But other atheists, while not opposing these goals, see things more broadly.  They note that the religious-right lawmakers who promote creationism and state-church entanglements are also rabidly opposed to equality or legal protection for LGBT people; try to ban abortion and contraception, or throw obstacles in the path of women seeking them; sermonize that global warming must be a hoax because God wouldn’t let the planet change that much; advocate a social-Darwinian worldview where the rich have unlimited power and the poor get nothing but societal neglect and harsh repression... there’s a growing recognition that we have problems within our own community — a realization that atheists, like every other group of people, include sexual predators, bigots and defenders of privilege, and that giving up religion doesn’t necessarily erase these harmful attitudes.

Columbus Day... I mean, Native American Mourning Day

"In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain, he sailed prepared to exact some pain. He brought lots of men who were looking for gold, the real history is different from what you've been told. These greedy men brought diseases and violence in their waves, then turned the proud natives into their slaves. The natives were murdered and tortured, far from being his fans, since he was only focused on finding riches and conquering their lands."
David Shelby

"Fighting over God's Image" at New York Times

Columnists Edward Blum and Paul Harvey have posted a fascinating (but short) look at the history of American artistic blasphemy in the New York Times. The article covers large territory in a short space, but should serve as an excellent place to start discussion on this topic. In the wake of the Islamic world's uproar over defamatory depictions of Muhammed, it serves us well to note that our own culture is not exempt from similar uproars:
More recently, there have been uproars over the Nigerian-British painter Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” and the New York artist and photographer Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Mr. Serrano’s image of Jesus on the crucifix, submerged in the artist’s own urine, roused a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s. Mr. Ofili’s painting of a dark-skinned Madonna with photographs of vaginas surrounding her enraged Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The mayor, who mistakenly claimed that elephant dung was smeared on the image when it in fact was used at the base to hold the painting up, tried to ban it from being displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in 1999. (One upset Christian smeared white paint over it.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Lesson of the Rapa Nui

In the South Pacific, there is a small island about twice the size of Manhattan. Looking over this landscape, are a number of stern, solemn faces. The story of these faces is whispered by the ghosts of history, if only we would listen.

Death came to the Rapa Nui as a slow and eventual decline. The food was running scarce and the forests were disappearing without coming back. We can imagine a long gone population crying out over the island's rolling hills. "Why have the gods forsaken us?" they would have cried, "Have they forgotten us? Have they abandoned us? We cut down the trees; we make the stone statues; why has their presence left our people?"

Even as the stone faces, imbued with sacred significance, were placed along the coast, looking out over the distant oceans, the gods still did not return to the Rapa Nui.

For the gods did not exist and never did. Instead, the Rapa Nui brought about their own demise by pleading with their imaginations and depleting the only resources available on the island. Having ravished the forests, there was nothing left with which to construct boats. No way to leave. Instead, they were trapped with their own poor decisions, based on fantastical illusions that should have left them long before.

Easter Island should be a reminder to all of us that ill-founded beliefs can cause harm. Let us learn from the lesson of the Rapa Nui.