Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Oh The Humanity (Or Lack Thereof)

Here's an alarming statistic. Nearly as many people have been killed by American law enforcement officers since January 1st, 2014 than people who have been killed by UK law enforcement officers since 1990. 

I almost couldn't believe it, but it's true. (See here and here) There have been at least 1484 people killed by US law enforcement officers since January 1st, 2014, while the number of people killed by UK law enforcement officers since 1990 is 1510. Something is wrong here.

While I do not condone the rioting in Baltimore over the police killing of Freddie Gray, the larger conversation that the incident is bringing to light, is our failed government and economic policies of the past 40 years that have created a permanent underclass through the disappearance of middle class jobs, a failed education system, and tax cuts and bailouts for the rich through the lies of trickle down economics.

After work I attended the peaceful protest in Union Square against police brutality. Here are some pics.

Check out Killed by Police

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Night Of Philosophy

Last Friday night I went to an event called "Night of Philosophy". It took place at the French Embassy here in New York and the Ukrainian Institute of America. The idea is interesting: 12 straight hours of half hour presentations giving by many world-renowned philosophers on a variety of topics from logic, to existence, to religion, to god and science. Entry was for free. Oh yeah, and there was a bar. Given how all this stuff is right up my alley, I went straight after work.

Although it was 80 degrees last weekend, this weekend it was 40 degrees. Other than having to wait about 35 minutes in the cold with ferocious winds, the event was very unexpected treat. I missed David Albert's presentation on the arrow of time, but I did get to see presentations from many philosophers I've taken an interest in, including Massimo Pigliucci, Alex Rosenberg, and Tim Maudlin.

Alex Rosenberg gave a speech in defense of scientism and included a PowerPoint slide with his "answers" to the biggest perplexing philosophical questions:

Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? Nothing beyond the emotions mother nature selected us for having.
Does human history ave any lessons for the future? Few and fewer, if it ever had any.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thoughts On The Randal Rauser/Justin Schieber Debate

So the debate between Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber from last month is online and having just watched it I thought I'd weigh in. Randal Rauser is a trained theologian and Christian apologist. What I like about him is that he isn't just another William Lane Craig clone, of which there are far too many. He makes his own arguments for god his own way and I always want to see the real reasons why theists believe what they do. Here, Randal offers a few of the arguments that help convince him god is real. I'll offer some thoughts on why I don't find them convincing.

First, Randal defines god as a "necessarily existent, non-physical agent, who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good." This is the basic god of classical theism which I think was a good idea for Randal to define upfront so there's no confusion. The only problem I have of course is the "necessarily existent" part. I know that many classical theists view god as necessarily existent, but there is often an attempt to define god into existence this way that I think is little more than wordplay. Thankfully, Randal does not try to make that argument for god in this debate.

Randal outlines his three main arguments:

  1. Rational belief in god doesn't require evidence
  2. God is a legitimate philosophical explanation
  3. God best accounts for the cognitive faculty of moral intuition

Let's go over them one by one.

1. Rational belief in god doesn't require evidence

Randal first defends the idea that rational belief in god doesn't require evidence. He tries to argue that it is properly basic, much like the belief in an external world. "One need not have evidence for god to believe rationally that god exists," Randal declares. He later says, "Belief in god can be produced in conditions which qualify it as properly basic." He tells the story about a non-religious Canadian rock musician who walked into a church in New York one day and was "struck by overwhelming spiritual presence." But so what? As Randal himself observes, "Millions of people have formed belief about god with the same naturalness and immediacy, the same phenomenology of self-presentation that [the Canadian rock musician] experienced." In other words, millions of people have formed belief in other gods as well as non-gods as a result of spiritual experience. There is no special power Christianity has in the spiritual domain. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fareed Zakaria: Criticizing Islam Will Not Change It

It seems that almost every week on Real Time with Bill Maher the topic of Islam comes up and its relationship with violent terrorism. Last week Fareed Zakaria was on and criticized Maher's attitude towards Islam when they were talking about the recent conviction of the Boston Bomber.

“My problem with the way you approach it,” Zakaria said, “is I don’t think you’re going to reform a religion by telling 1.6 billion people — most of whom are just devout people who get some inspiration from that religion and go about their daily lives — I don’t think you’re going to change religion by saying your religion is the motherlode of bad ideas, it’s a terrible thing, you know. Shape it up and change it. I think frankly, you’re going to make a lot of news for yourself and you’re going to get a lot of applause lines and joke lines out of it. But if you really want to change those people, if you want to change that religion, then what you have to do is push for reform but also with some sense of respect for what the spiritual values that people think.”  

Salon is running a headline that Maher is a bigot and that anyone who's a fan of Maher is a bigot too. He's not. Maher is simply acknowledging the facts. He's not selling "blanket intolerance." But he's not going to issue blanket tolerance either. The problem is that the "spiritual values" that a large number of Muslims think are not quite so pretty, and it is not bigoted to point this out anymore than it is to point out the nasty beliefs that many other ideologies have. Sure, hundreds of millions of Muslims are hard working people who get spiritual strength from their religion, and who are peaceful people. We all know that. But why should I have to pretend that Islam is peaceful religion, with a peaceful philosophy, in order to reform it? Maher, Zakaria, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I, along with millions of moderate Muslims, all want Islam to reform. Some of us, like Maher, Ayaan, and I, don't want to have to lie to achieve a strategic goal. We don't want to have to act like politicians. We want to be honest.

I'm not even sure that pretending Islam is a religion of peace in order to reform it is the best strategy to reform Islam. Maybe it is. Maybe harsh criticism of Islam is. I don't know. At least some people leave Islam when they see harsh criticism of it. The problem with a large part of the Islamic world is that there is little tolerance for free speech that criticizes Islam, and religious indoctrination is rampant. Perhaps a little criticism will do some help. I honestly think both strategies should be employed. You can have your firebrands and your accommodationists each doing their part, each making the case in their own way, that religions need to live exclusively in the twenty-first century.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Alan Watts On Ontology

Alan Watts, a favorite philosopher of mine, had a very interesting spiritual way of looking at the universe, that as far as I can tell, can be perfectly compatible with naturalism.

Watts rejected what he called the "two models." One is what he called the ceramic model, and the other is what he called the fully automatic model. The ceramic model of the world is the traditional theistic view that the world was something created by god, just as a potter creates a pot, and a carpenter creates a table. It is the idea that the world is made as an artifact through some sort of an act of supernatural will. And this creator god is the ruler of this universe and resides as a king. The fully automatic model, is the traditional atheistic or naturalistic view of the world where the universe exists almost as some kind of blind, unintelligent machine, and that humans are just a chance fluke in its history.

Watts didn't think either two models made sense. So instead, he held to a view that the universe was something musical. The universe was a symphony, it was a piece of music. And just like how when making music, the goal isn't to get to the end of the piece as quick as possible — that would make it so that the shortest songs are the best. No. Rather the point of the music is the music itself. It isn't necessarily going anywhere. The unfolding of the universe is the purpose, beauty, and audacity of this symphony.

This is a very interesting view of the world, and one that at first I found hard to imagine. I've recently been thinking about it again and am willing to consider it plausible. There is nothing I see completely absurd about the idea of the universe as a piece of music, so long as one doesn't imagine a musician playing it, like it was the musical piece of some deity. I'm not sure if Watts saw this idea of a musical universe as a metaphor or something literal. If only seen as a metaphor it can be construed with naturalism. And although I'm still a metaphysical naturalist in the traditional sense of the term, this idea that the universe is naturally musical, I don't suddenly object to. Watts called this the organic model.

What To Make Of The Evidence For An Afterlife?

What are we to make of the evidence for an afterlife? Here are your options.

There is either:

  • Some ill-defined metaphysical substance, not subject to the known laws of physics, that interacts with the atoms of our brains in ways that have thus far eluded every controlled experiment ever performed in the history of science


  • People hallucinate when they are nearly dead

Which option do you think makes the most sense?

The United States Was Not Founded On Judeo-Christian Principles And Here's Why

From the Freedom From Religion Foundation:

"The principles behind Judeo-Christianity are fundamentally in conflict with the principles that the Declaration of Independence lays out."

Romans 13:1-7 says:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.

Does this sound compatible with the Declaration of Independence? And also, how dare some on the Christian Right be for no taxation. It is a Christian duty to obey the government and pay taxes.


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