Cover of "The Last Superstition"
The Last Superstition: Material Brains, Immaterial Software

Chapter 5: The Mind-Body Problem

After spending several pages, as is his wont, trashing Locke, Descartes, and other people he doesn’t agree with, Feser tells us why materialist explanations of the mind are doomed: the human mind is all about final causes: we plan, we imagine, we make mental images and so on. All of these involve “directedness toward” some object or aim, or intentionality. In other words, the mind is obvious proof that final causes exist.

And it should be obvious that it is simply a conceptual impossibility that it should ever be explained in terms of or reduced to anything material […]: material systems, the latter tell us, are utterly devoid of final causality; but the mind is the clearest paradigm of final causality; hence the mind cannot possibly be any kind of material system, including the brain. [p. 194]

There’s that word “obvious” again. Feser really ought to stop using it, since it causes so much trouble. Here, he’s committing the fallacy of composition. In fact, what Feser is saying is listed as an example of the fallacy at

Your brain is made of molecules. Molecules do not have consciousness. Therefore, your brain cannot be the source of consciousness.

By coincidence, I recently saw Daniel Dennett present his talk, Consciousness: Whose User Illusion is it? in which he used examples that apply here as well: you can pick up a camcorder at Best Buy, record a video, and burn it to a DVD, but there are no pictures on the DVD. You can look through a microscope, but you won’t see tiny pictures on the disk. You can listen as closely as you like without hearing people talking. The pictures and sounds are not there. And yet the DVD does quite well at recording pictures, sounds, and video for later playback.

So do camcorders have an immaterial component? What about my car radio, which, since it can tune in on a radio signal, has some infinitesimal amount of intentionality; does it have an infinitesimal immaterial mind?

This sort of thing is why I can’t take Feser seriously. It’s one thing to proceed logically from premises that I don’t accept, or to value different things differently and come to opposite conclusions. But Feser commits a lot of elementary logical fallacies (or at least allows them to end up in print), and so he comes across as either a sloppy thinker or a dishonest one; either he can’t see the fallacies that lead to his desired conclusion, or he’s trying to fool people into thinking that his (and, their, presumably) conclusions follow logically from uncontroversial premises.

Series: The Last Superstition

Ken Ham Mad at Miley Cyrus for Not Being As Stuck Up as He Is

Ken Ham, best known these days for losing a debate to Bill Nye the Science Guy, has always held some… colorful opinions. The best that I can say for him, really, is that at least his organization distanced itself from Kent Hovind (see Arguments to Avoid at Answers in Genesis, and Maintaining Creationist Integrity at talkorigins’s Hovind page).

But now he’s gone off in a rather unintentionally-entertaining manner against Miley Cyrus, who posed nude at Paper. In particular, Ham didn’t like this part of the article:

Although she was raised Christian, Cyrus maintains a particular contempt for fundamentalist lawmakers who rally against this sort of progressive, potentially life-saving change. “Those people [shouldn’t] get to make our laws,” she says. Those people — the ones who believe that, say, Noah’s Ark was a real seafaring vessel. “That’s fucking insane,” she says. “We’ve outgrown that fairy tale, like we’ve outgrown fucking Santa and the tooth fairy.”

except that the two instances of the word “fucking”, even when reduced to “f–king” by Fox News, were enough to give him the vapors, and he had to bowdlerize them still further.

He also has the sads because Cyrus doesn’t share his superstition (emphasis added):

The same expletive was used a number of times in the interview. As you read what she reportedly said, it becomes very obvious that it’s not just the biblical accounts of the Ark and Flood in Genesis she is dismissing, but she is rejecting our Ark of salvation—Jesus Christ.

Of course what she means is that she wants to make her own “laws”! And she uses her “laws” and beliefs to judge Christians as her aggressive judgmental attitude toward Christians is so apparent, though in reality it is really about her attitude toward God and His Word.

Um… of course. Don’t we all want our values to be represented in the law? And of course we use our beliefs to judge those around us. As for making her own laws, isn’t that what democracy is about?

The article goes on to state,

Sexually, Cyrus said she is “down with” anything. She views her sexuality and even her gender identity as fluid. “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age. Everything that’s legal, I’m down with. Yo, I’m down with any adult—anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me,” she said. “I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”

Question for her: Why not involve an animal? On what basis does she decide that?

I’ve highlighted the word “consenting”, because Ham seems to have missed it. Animals can’t give consent. Neither can children. In the latter case, it’s more complicated, but our society has come up with 18 years as a not-entirely-arbitrary dividing line between children who can’t give consent, and adults who can.

He goes on to quote a bunch of Bible passages because he’s a Christian fundie, and that’s what they do. But I think this post says a lot mor about Ham than it does about Cyrus. In particular, that he thinks of morality in terms of obedience and disobedience; that he can’t think of a reason why he wouldn’t, say, fuck a sheep if he thought he could get away with it.

It also sounds as though he’s been drinking his own Kool-Aid, and actually believes that

in her heart she knows God exists (Romans 1) […] she has a conscience (as seared as it is because of her sinful rebellion) because the law is written on our hearts (Romans 2).

Someone who’s been telling himself he’s right so hard and for so long that he’s now convinced himself that everyone knows he’s right, and anyone who disagrees with him is only doing it to be contrarian. And that’s sad.

Won’t stop me from laughing at him, though. Just, maybe, not quite as hard as I would otherwise.

It’s Still Shamanism

Vatican Radio reports, Reliquary of St. Barbara visits Athens. The silver casket of Saint Barbara, martyred in the 3rd century, has been brought to Athens, where (emphasis added):

People of all ages and social backgrounds waited for hours in the sun for a chance to touch the reliquary, hoping for an answered prayer.  The casket contains the remains of Saint Barbara, who according to legend was martyred in Asia Minor in the 3rd century AD.

Last week the reliquary was taken to the Saint Savvas cancer hospital in Athens, where it was literally mobbed by people seeking a healing.  It’s due to be flown back to Venice at the end of this week, where it’s been housed since the Byzantine Empire sent it there about 1,000 years ago. […]

Worshippers questioned by reporters said that Christianity, and the saints, were their only hope after the failure of politicians and economists to right the world’s ills.

I honestly fail to see the difference between this and going to a shaman to use his healing fetish, other than the officials’ clothes having more gold thread and fewer feathers.

This particular juju happens to be Orthodox, but the Catholic church is also very big on relics, intercessory prayer, and healing miracles. As far as I know, the higher-ups in the church endorse such things officially, or at least don’t do anything to dissuade people from accepting such superstition.

Can anyone familiar with Orthodox or Catholic theology explain to me how sophisticated theology™ can coexist with such primitive superstition?

Casual Superstition

This news item caught my eye because it’s a “news of the weird” type of story:

NEW YORK — A New York City man who plunged 40 stories from the rooftop of an apartment building has survived after crashing onto a parked car.

But then there was this bit:

The car’s owner, Guy McCormack, of Old Bridge, N.J., told the Daily News he’s convinced that rosary beads he kept inside the Dodge saved Magill’s life.

Can we please stop lending credibility to such obvious superstitious nonsense by repeating it uncritically?

If the car’s owner had attributed the man’s survival to a statuette of Ganesh on his dash, or a voodoo amulet, or a lucky Mickey Mantle rookie card, would it be taken as seriously? If not, then why are magic beads more plausible?

ObPunchline: You’re a mean drunk, Superman.

Superstition Kills

The AP has an appalling article about children in Nigeria being killed for being witches. Welcome to the thirteenth century, folks. I recommend that you think whether you want to follow that link, because if you have an ounce of compassion, you’ll be boiling mad at the monsters responsible.

And hey, guess what: it’s not just primitive tribal superstition that’s to blame: the rebranded, socially acceptable face of primitive superstition has its fingerprints all over this infanticidal fuckwaddism:

Some of the churches involved are renegade local branches of international franchises. Their parishioners take literally the Biblical exhortation, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

There’s also money involved. Not in the sense of people being paid to kill children. It’s worse: children are being killed as a side effect of someone else trying to make a buck:

“Where little shots become big shots in a short time,” promises the Winner’s Chapel down the road.

“Pray your way to riches,” advises Embassy of Christ a few blocks away.

It’s hard for churches to carve out a congregation with so much competition. So some pastors establish their credentials by accusing children of witchcraft.

“Even churches who didn’t use to ‘find’ child witches are being forced into it by the competition,” said Itauma. “They are seen as spiritually powerful because they can detect witchcraft and the parents may even pay them money for an exorcism.”

This next quote I can only hope is an example of liberal media bias, the AP trying to make religion look bad:

The Nigerian church is a branch of a Californian church by the same name. But the California church says it lost touch with its Nigerian offshoots several years ago.

“I had no idea,” said church elder Carrie King by phone from Tracy, Calif. “I knew people believed in witchcraft over there but we believe in the power of prayer, not physically harming people.”

Because if that’s an honest summary of King’s position, then that means either a) she’s a wimpy superstitious moron who believes in witchcraft, but doesn’t have the balls to do anything about it, or b) she’s a stupid superstitious moron who doesn’t have a problem with people continuing to believe in magic an witchcraft because presumably they won’t do anything about it.

Even the guy trying to do something about the problem comes across as irresponsible:

But Foxcroft, the head of Stepping Stones, said if the organization was able to collect membership fees, it could also police its members better. He had already written to the organization twice to alert it to the abuse, he said. He suggested the fellowship ask members to sign forms denouncing abuse or hold meetings to educate pastors about the new child rights law in the state of Akwa Ibom, which makes it illegal to denounce children as witches. Similar laws and education were needed in other states, he said.

It’s not enough to just tell people that it’s not okay to kill witches. You need to explain that there’s no such thing as witchcraft or magic, period. No witchcraft, no witches. No witches, no need to pour acid down children’s throats or set them on fire. Or would that cramp the missionaries’ job of telling Africans about their undead Jewish zombie?

Or maybe it’s just the fact that local religious leaders are just as irresponsibly superstitious as their flock:

“Witchcraft is real,” Ukpabio insisted, before denouncing the physical abuse of children. Ukpabio says she performs non-abusive exorcisms for free and was not aware of or responsible for any misinterpretation of her materials.

“I don’t know about that,” she declared.

However, she then acknowledged that she had seen a pastor from the Apostolic Church break a girl’s jaw during an exorcism.

I can’t express how upset I am about this. It’s bad enough that this is pure medieval tripe, but that it’s church leaders who are both instigating and perpetuating this abomination.

Instead of sending Bibles to Africa, maybe these churches should be sending Monty Python DVDs. At least then they’d learn how to see whether someone is a witch, and maybe not kill any more children who weigh more than a duck.

More Catholic Idiocy

While in Israel, pope Benny

“Those deeply moving encounters brought back memories of my visit three years ago to the death camp at Auschwitz, where so many Jews – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, friends – were brutally exterminated under a godless regime.”

Yeah, “godless”.

Nazi belt buckle with the inscription "Gott mit uns": "God with us"
Now, I’m no historian, and my knowledge of religion in Nazi Germany
comes from such places as
The Straight Dope,
and it looks as though the situation is about as clear as mud: yes,
there were people like Martin Niemöller, but there were also Catholic
priests and bishops who didn’t seem to have a problem with the Nazi
regime. And Hitler certainly paid lip service to religion a lot. And
as far as I know, no one was ever excommunicated for participating in
the Holocaust.

Oh, and, of course, there’s the matter of Benny’s own membership in
the Hitler Youth.

At any rate, the situation is certainly nowhere near as clear as “Nazi
Germany was a godless regime.” In fact, one could easily make the case
that Nazi Germany (and the Soviet Union) had a lot of the uglier
aspects of religion: cult of personality, adherence to dogma, sworn
fealty to the authorities, and so forth.

But maybe The Ratz is simply using the word “godless” as synonymous
with “evil”. In which case, I hope he won’t mind if I use “Catholic”
as a synonym for “pederast”.

Irony meter
On a lighter note, Jesus and Mo
informs us
that Catholics have
(aka magic massage):

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine in late March dismissed reiki as superstition incompatible with Christian belief or scientific teaching, and said it is inappropriate for use in Catholic institutions, including hospitals, retreat centers and schools.

From the Catholic Committee on Doctrine’s
Guidelines for Evaluating Reiki as an Alternative Therapy:

[F]rom the time of the Apostles the
Church has interceded on behalf of the sick through the invocation of
the name of the Lord Jesus, asking for healing through the power of
the Holy Spirit, whether in the form of the sacramental laying on of
hands and anointing with oil
or of simple prayers for healing, which
often include an appeal to the saints for their aid.

[A] Catholic who puts his or her trust in Reiki would be operating
in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith
nor science.

(emphasis added)

Clearly, “faith” here means “the good kind of superstition”.

A Smart Person With Daft Beliefs

PZ has a
today about how intelligence and atheism don’t always go hand in hand.

Intelligent people who are indoctrinated into a faith can build marvelously intricate palaces of rationalization atop the shoddy vapor of their beliefs about gods and the supernatural;

A perfect case in point is
this post
in the “On Faith” section of Thursday’s Post by John Mark
Reynolds. The bio says he’s a professor of philosophy at Biola
university. So we have an apparently intelligent, apparently educated
person in the 21st century who writes things like this:

Satan’s existence is suggested by human experience and the Bible and is confirmed by reading the Washington Post. The Post is almost surely not a particularly diabolical organ, but it does report the news, and the news often shows signs of the demonic.

Religious experiences can be confusing partly because we misunderstand them, but partly because some spiritual beings are deceptive and malevolent.

Nobody save a prophet can look at the Post and be sure what God or the Devil is doing at any given moment or in any given news story. God’s providence is inscrutable in its complexity, but rational, while the Devils work is manifestly irrational and thus difficult to discern.

The irrational, wicked, continuous, and destructive hatred of the Jewish people has a bloody and sordid history. Anti-Semitism has sponsored so much wickedness that it is reasonable to suspect diabolical force behind it.

Satan exists with his demons and he is intent on destroying as much that is beautiful as he can. We need not fear him, but cannot ignore him.

In other words, here’s an intelligent, educated, respected man who
believes in a magic man with a personality more one-dimensional than
any Saturday morning cartoon villain’s who causes trouble because…
well, because he’s a bad guy. A man who can look at an obvious fairy
tale and rationalize his way into thinking that it’s real.

When Alan Moore
retconned the adventures of Miracleman,
it was interesting and entertaining. At least both he and his readers
knew that both versions of Miracleman were just stories. Here, it’s
just sad.

I’ll give Reynolds props for sticking around and participating in the
comments. There, he

I should add that the argument (roughly) is that:

1. We have reasons from private experience to think the Devil exists.

2. We have reasons from religious literature to think that the Devil exists.

3. The existence of the Devil seems consistent with human history and in fact helps explains certain events.

Therefore: it is reasonable to think the Devil exist.

Except, of course, that 1) private experience is often suspect. 2)
Just because some people who wrote a book a long time ago believed in
devils does not make it so. 3) If you’re predisposed to see evidence
of the devil’s work in world affairs, of course you’re going to see
it; it’s called confirmation bias.

When we hear about Africans who believe in witchcraft, we shake our
heads in dismay that such superstition still exists. We laugh at
Icelanders who believe in elves and fairies.
Is there any reason not to put Reynolds’s magic man in the same
category as those beliefs?

(Tip o’ the fez to Fez.)

Are All Southerners Superstitious Fools?

Last year, the governor of Georgia asked his citizens to perform a rain dance to alleviate the drought in that state.

Now the mayor of Birmingham, AL, Larry Langford, has decided that the crime rate in his city is way too high, and that it’s time to try to look as though he’s doing something about it.

I suppose if it were me, I’d start by sitting down with the police to find out what they’re doing and what support they could use from the mayor’s office. And since the University of Alabama’s Department of Justice Sciences is conveniently located in town, I’d call them up and see what works in crime prevention. I bet the FBI or DOJ might be helpful, too: maybe they can recommend a few speakers, or send some brochures, or something.

But obviously Langford isn’t me, because his innovative solution is to dress up in a burlap bag and shout.

That’s quite clever, actually: when the criminals hear about this, they’ll be too busy laughing their socks off to resist arrest.

Either that, or Langford and a large number of people around him really are credulous superstitious fools who believe in magic. And yet somehow manage to function in 21st century society.

Rain Magic

Every so often, sophisticated theists will say that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. misrepresent religion, that God is not an invisible sky-daddy who grants wishes, but some ineffable essence working within the laws of nature, or some such (see here, here, here).

And then something like this comes along:

That would be Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has asked Georgians to pray for rain today, and at lunchtime will convene with various religious and political leaders on the steps of the state Capitol to seek divine intervention in the state’s months-long drought.

There’s probably a polite way to say this, but I won’t (maybe I’m just cranky because it’s raining in Maryland, rather than in Georgia where they could use it): these people believe in magic. Primitive, superstitious magic, where if you say the right words and make the right gestures, the great sky spirit will grant you your wish.

Right here, in the United States, at the dawn of the 21st century. In the sixties, people thought we’d have flying cars. Instead, we have rain dances.

And this isn’t some fringe group. Not only does Governor Perdue believe that rain dances work, enough of his constituents do that he hasn’t been laughed out of office.

So, all you sensible theists out there, why aren’t you policing your own? Why aren’t you pointing out to these superstitious fools that what they’re doing is no different from spreading mistletoe on the ground and chanting? Pastors, why aren’t you educating your congregations and telling them that no, God doesn’t work that way?

In a recent speech, Daniel Dennett suggested referring to non-brights as “supers”, because they believe in the supernatural. But perhaps “super” is short for “superstitious” as well.