Archives November 2010

Morality Debate, Part 3

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Matt’s response:

Matt: It’s absurd to think that Moses was required for people to know that killing is wrong. We live in society, we interact with each other, and we can see the consequences of our actions. That’s all it takes.

He agrees that truth is truth, regardless of what anyone thinks.

Truth is an emergent property of the universe. Morality arises from the interaction of thinking, reasoning beings in society.

Jacobse clarifies that if we know killing is wrong, it’s not because Moses delivered that law. He rambles on for a while about “narrative”, and how atheists can discover moral truths, before coming back to his central point: that he wants there to be an ultimate authority for what’s right.

He adds that he could enjoy a beer with Matt.

And then he turns right around and blames eugenics on “the atheist experiment” in the 20th century. This is the beginning of the Godwin theme that will make up most of his argument for the rest of the debate.

Truth has a personal dimension

If I understand correctly, he’s saying that truth is a person. Which is patent nonsense.

Stay tuned for part 4, in which Matt FAQs up the priest.

(See what I did there? “FAQs him up”? No? Should I have gone with “Kung FAQ grip” instead?)

Morality Debate, Part 2

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Hans Jacobse’s opening statement:

The first problem comes less than two minutes in: “Atheism, properly understood…” In other words, “I’m about to tell you what you believe”, not a promising beginning for a fruitful debate.

He continues:

Atheism, properly understood, allows for no objective existence of anything non-material, not made from matter. Philosophical materialism is the philosophical ground of atheism.

One word: software.

Software is non-material. It is, if I understand the definition that Jacobse gives later on, transcendent. On one hand, you can change a book by altering the ink pattern on its pages; on the other hand, you can convert the ink patterns to air vibrations or a flow of electrons, and still have the same book.

This is not some abstruse academic question. It is a practical matter that comes up every time you agree to a software license that says you own the DVD, but not the program on the DVD. It keeps an army of intellectual property lawyers employed. So I hope Jacobse isn’t saying that atheists deny the existence of non-material things like music, mathematics, and personalities.

I would argue as a historian that atheism cannot exist except in a Christian society. I would argue that. It’s actually an outgrowth of our Christian heritage.

I’m sure this will come as a shock to atheists in Japan, India, and Israel, to pick but a few.

does atheism even acknowledge the independent existence of the transcendent, or any being, or even principle apart from matter, apart from that which can be quantified using the tools of science? The answer, at least if the atheist is true to his premises, must be no.

Again, thank you for telling me what I believe. What would I do without you?

You can’t see it in the video, but there’s a mounting pile of strawmen behind his podium.

He goes on to trot out the “no ultimate authority” boogeyman.

But the value he [the atheist] places on one moral act over another is necessarily derivative, which is to say dependent on a view of the universe, of nature and reality, that is not his own.

In other words, we’re incapable of figuring things out on our own.

But even other religions recognize what I consider an elementary fact of the universe: man cannot live by bread alone, which is to say that man is more than the molecules that shape his body.

This seems trivially true, given that the molecules that make up our bodies get recycled every so often, even while we continue to be the same person. And no one argues that a given person is equivalent to a few bucks’ worth of water and other chemicals. The arrangement of those chemicals is crucial.

I think what he’s tap-dancing around is that if the universe is “merely” arrangements of matter, then there’s no magic, and he wants there to be magic.

Truth is a category of existence. A transcendent category of existence, which is to say truth exists apart from any comprehension that I may have of it.

I think this is as close as he ever gets to defining the term “transcendent”.

The truth, and thus morality, can never escape a sort of continuous relativism in the atheist paradigm. Imprisoned, that is, to the shifting winds of the day.

I’ve addressed this elsewhere. Even if our discussions of morality don’t include an ultimate supreme authority, our morality won’t be arbitrary because it’s tethered to reality: we can look at specific actions and events, be it the Holocaust or a parking ticket, and decide whether we like those outcomes, and what sorts of rules we can come up with to codify them.

The most maddening part about this presentation was the way that Jacobse erected an army of straw men, punctuated with the occasional present-company-excluded, and ignored the points that Dillahunty made in his opening statement just prior.

But it gets worse.

I Get Email

I recently happen to come across your website through the section /text/evoquotes. Actually, I had bookmarked the quotes some time ago and happen to cleaning up some old favorites when I saw them again. I do not know if this website is still being maintained or if you are still interested in any dialogue about it. My first question is are these quotes for real? If so, doesn’t it give you even a small pause regarding your anti-creationist stance? I moved up to your main page and it is quite an interesting collection of works. I particularly like the “ooblick” recipe itself. I didn’t realize that I had been inadvertently making ooblick every time I created a rue to thicken my gravy.

In any case, I am a creationists and that is my main concern with your page, in particular the “message to creationists”. It appears the site is quite dated and I’m wondering if it has ever been updated. You may feel you’ve heard every argument before and if you are not interested in any feedback that is perfectly fine. You simply need not respond. Likewise, I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this message if you are not interested in any polite and respectful dialogue.

I will give you this feedback, however, if you are still listening. If you’d like to respond, I would be interested in discussing it in more detail, point by point. There didn’t appear to be a way to respond publicly on your site, so I’m sending you this email. You claim to have heard every anti-evolution argument there is. However, if that were true, you wouldn’t be posting the fallacious comments you have made. To be honest, there is very little if anything that is true on this page. What is surprising to me is that you are critical of creationists for not understanding evolution, yet you have not bothered to even look up creation theory. This is not surprising to me. If you think about it, we are all indoctrinated in evolutionary dogma in school, so there are few people that do not understand at least the basics of evolutionary theory. Since scientific creation theory is not allowed to be taught in school, I’ve never met an evolutionist that had an inkling about what creation theory is actually about.

Throughout the site you appear to want creationist to provide extremely specific detail about the ancient past, yet you do not insist on these same standards for evolutionists. For example, when exactly did the first life form appear? Where on earth did it appear? what did it look like?  How many years did it take before it evolved into something else? If it actually happened, why can’t we repeat the event in the lab? Please provide a complete list of transitional forms between this first life and the organisms found in the Cambrian explosion. Where is the Oort cloud (the supposed source of short term comments that demonstrate a young universe)? Really, this list could go on ad infinitum and I doubt you could answer any of them. On the other hand, I can actually answer many, if not most, of the questions on your site.

There certainly are well defined creationists theories regarding our origins and they are backed by substantial POSITIVE evidence in their favor. In no way is creationism simply anti-evolution. However, just as evolutionists point out faults with creation theories, it is natural for creation scientists to do the same. After all, there are only two viable scientific theories of our origins at the moment and any negative evidence against one is evidence in favor of the other. That is because we are talking about historical theories and it is the preponderance of the evidence which matters, since neither can be scientifically proven.

This is already long, but if you would be interested in having me actually respond to your comments point by point, I would be happy to  oblige.


Okay, tell you what. Why don’t you take your “viable scientific” theory of creation, remove all the bits that have been debunked ad nauseam and refuted in the Index of Creationist Claims (such as CA510.1, your assertion that evidence against evolution is evidence for creationism), and see what you have left.

If it’s still a viable scientific theory that can withstand scrutiny, and can be tested through experiment, come back and we’ll talk about it.

Humanism on Metro

Seen on Metro yesterday (clickify to embiggen):
Humanism ad

It’s one of the Consider Humanism ads. Specifically, the one about women.

Morality Debate, Part 1

Matt Dillahunty’s opening statement in the debate on “The Origin of Human Morality” at UMBC on Wednesday:


He addresses two common misconceptions about morality: first, that secular morality borrows from religious morality. And second, that secular morality does not include an external authoritative source for morality, and that this is somehow a problem.

He argues that since religions disagree with each other on moral questions, so it is not the case that a deity has shown up and given us a clear set of moral rules. And even if a god did show up and clearly tell us what its values are, how can we tell whether those values are correct? (See the Euthyphro dilemma).

We should, he says, seek correct answers, not necessarily easy ones.

Matt Dillahunty at UMBC videos

The folks at the Atheist Experience blog have posted video of last night’s debate at UMBC, with Matt Dillahunty and Hans Jacobse.

There seem to be only three videos, but the titles say there should be nine. Hopefully the other six will show up in due course.

I hope to have a post up soonish with my comments.

Remaining Relevant FAIL

The AP reports:

NEW YORK (AP) — Citing a shortage of priests who can perform the rite, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are holding a conference on how to conduct exorcisms.

Organizers of the [two-day training] are keenly aware of the ridicule that can accompany discussion of the subject. Exorcists in U.S. dioceses keep a very low profile. In 1999, the church updated the Rite of Exorcism, cautioning that “all must be done to avoid the perception that exorcism is magic or superstition.

Yes, that’s like Coca-Cola spending millions on advertising to avoid the perception that Coke is just fizzy brown sugar water.

Signs of demonic possession accepted by the church include violent reaction to holy water or anything holy, speaking in a language the possessed person doesn’t know and abnormal displays of strength.

Speaking an unknown language? Like speaking in tongues? Of course, that’s mostly a Protestant thing, so no wonder the Catholics think it’s a sign of demonic possession.

As for displays of strength, should I have a priest on hand at my next Festivus party?

I was going to suggest that they could win James Randi’s prize by demonstrating that demonic possession is a real phenomenon, but they’re the Catholic Church. What do they need yet another million bucks for?

The full exorcism is held in private and includes sprinkling holy water, reciting Psalms, reading aloud from the Gospel, laying on of hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Some adaptations are allowed for different circumstances. The exorcist can invoke the Holy Spirit then blow in the face of the possessed person, trace the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead and command the devil to leave.

Yes, I’m so glad this isn’t magic or superstition.

Music Nerd Joke

I’m going to tag all my Cocteau Twins MP3s and, in the TLAN frame, set the language code to zxx.

What the Hell Is Wrong With the Obama Administration?

Okay, let’s recap:

Obama campaigned in part on a promise to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Which is great, because a majority of Americans, including many (perhaps most) in the military want it repealed.

Then, once elected, he did nothing about it. Okay, I can chalk that up to priorities (the economy had to come first) and a disposition toward being cautious.

The Log Cabin Republicans sued to overturn the policy. In September, District Judge Virginia Phillips found DADT unconstitutional and ordered the Pentagon to stop enforcing it.

At which point he had the DOJ appeal the decision, and assured a country rightly concerned about this that “This policy will end, and it will end on my watch.

Just not as quickly as it would have if he’d done quite literally nothing.

So yesterday, Bloomberg reported that the Log Cabin Republicans have appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to uphold the ban, “arguing that a change in the law should come from Congress, not the courts.”

Ha. As if. Congress includes Republicans, the Party of Not Just No But Hell No, remember? And Congress has been oh so much more effective than the courts at overturning injustices in the past, right?

Which brings us to today’s Post:

A Pentagon study group has concluded that the military can lift the ban on gays serving openly in uniform with only minimal and isolated incidents of risk to the current war efforts, according to two people familiar with a draft of the report, which is due to President Obama on Dec. 1.

More than 70 percent of respondents to a survey sent to active-duty and reserve troops over the summer said the effect of repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would be positive, mixed or nonexistent, said two sources familiar with the document. The survey results led the report’s authors to conclude that objections to openly gay colleagues would drop once troops were able to live and serve alongside them.

So what’s the hold-up? Why is the Obama administration dragging its feet on this?


Bioscience Day

(In which I play at being Ed Yong.)

Today is Bioscience Day at UMD. While I’m not a scientist, I am a science groupie, so on my lunch break I wandered over to the poster session to see what was being presented, and maybe score a pass to go backstage where the brown M&Ms and orgies are, and scientists would snort blow out of the small of my back before using me up and dumping me in some back alley with nothing but a case of antibiotic-resistant herpes and a couple of coauthor credits talk to the researchers.

For the most part, I lacked the vocabulary and the background to understand what was so cool about the research. But occasionally I understood enough to ask what was going on.

The Taboo Wiktionary: One problem with the sciences is that it uses big words, and so students are tempted to just memorize definitions without actually understanding the underlying ideas. So these folks devised a game similar to Taboo, in which students have to define terms without using certain words.

Attack! We’re right behind you! (Biological Nanofactories Target and Activate Epithelial Cell Surfaces for Modulating Bacterial Quorum Sensing and Interspecies Signaling): This was a rather cool notion. The idea is that bacteria like E. coli don’t attack the host organism until there’s a lot of them. The way this is coordinated is through chemical signals: the bacteria emit chemicals that their neighbors sense, so that each bacterium can tell whether it’s alone or part of a crowd. And if it’s part of a crowd, a bacterium will attack, confident that everyone else is, too.

So what these people figured was, what if you try to mimic the “crowd” signal? If there are only a handful of E. coli in your gut, but you fool them into thinking that there’s a bazillion of them, then they’ll attack. Your immune system will make mincemeat of them, and in the process, learn what that strain of E. coli looks like, in case they come back. I guess this is like beating the bushes to force potential enemies to show themselves.

Drug Delivery by Cucurbituril-Type Molecular Containers: The word that caught my eye was “Cucurbituril”. I seemed to remember that “cucurbit” is Latin for “pumpkin” or “gourd”, and that didn’t seem to match with the chemistry-heavy abstract.

I asked the author, figuring that cucurbiturils were originally derived from some gourd protein or something, but she explained that no, it’s because the molecule is sorta-spherical and has a lot of empty space inside, so it looks a little like a pumpkin. Sense of humor FTW!

Ant diversity from space: The way the title read (unfortunately, at that link they’ve replaced the poster’s title with “Assistant Research Scientist”, for some reason), I thought it was about detecting and mapping ants from satellites, which seemed rather hard to believe. It turns out that while there are some ant structures that can be seen from space (giant anthills in the African savannah, for instance), that wasn’t what they were talking about. Rather, they were using satellite imagery to map conditions like humidity, temperature, soil composition, etc., and from that predict the likely characteristics of native ants. In other words, if you’re looking for ants with a certain set of characteristics, this research can help narrow down the best places to look.

All in all, I found that all of the researchers I talked to were friendly, and more than happy to explain their work to a layman like myself.