The Problem of Induction

Nice summary of Hume on induction.
(tags: philosophy hume induction knowledge epistemology science)

OK Go, The Muppets – Muppet Show Theme Song – YouTube

OK Go and the Muppets!
(tags: okgo muppets video music)

Mr. Deity and the Philosopher – YouTube

"Well, if I did order genocide, I'd have a pretty good reason, or at least, an apologist could make one up." Nice. The begging bit at the end is funny too.
(tags: euthypro-dilemma philosophy funny mr-deity religion)

A Sketch of an Anti-Realist Metaethics – Less Wrong

Nice explanation of the map/territory distinction, and seems to accord pretty closely with my own views on morality.
(tags: hume philosophy metaethics ethics morality less-wrong lesswrong)

There’s an atheist bad argument which runs something like this: “Faith is believing stuff without evidence, believing stuff without evidence is always bad, therefore faith is bad”.

This seems reasonable at first, but sooner or later you meet a William Lane Craig or similar apologist type, as Jerry Coyne did recently:

Craig argues that science itself is permeated with assumptions about the world that cannot be scientifically justified, but are based on faith. One of these is the validity of inductive reasoning: “Just because A has always been followed by B every time in the past is no proof at all that A will be followed by B tomorrow.” To suppose the latter requires faith.

According to Coyne, as well as the problem of induction, Craig mentions last-Thursday-ism and the idea that we’re all in the Matrix as beliefs that we reject on faith. Some of commenters on Coyne’s blog react as if Craig is advocating these ideas that we all reject, that is, as if he really thinks that the Sun might not rise tomorrow or that we’re in the clutches of a cartesiandaemon. But that’s not Craig’s point. Nor is Craig being inconsistent if he gets on an aeroplane assuming that the laws of physics will carry on working as they always have to keep it flying. After all, he’s not the one claiming that it’s always wrong to believe things without evidence.

The problem here, which makes the atheist’s argument a bad one, is that the atheist has cast their net too broadly. Craig is right to say that there are things that atheists (and everyone else) believe “on faith”. To say that these beliefs are always unwarranted leaves the atheist open to Craig’s counter-argument that, to be consistent, the atheist should then discard those beliefs or admit that it’s not always wrong to believe things without evidence.

Doing better

Nevertheless, something has gone wrong with Craig’s argument if it’s supposed to be a defence of religious faith (as all Craig’s arguments ultimately are). Religious faith is different from belief in induction or the existence of an external world. The atheist should abandon the claim that unevidenced beliefs are always bad, and concentrate on the distinction between religious beliefs and, say, the belief that the external world is real.

One way of doing that would be to turn Craig’s allegation of inconsistency back on him. As Chris Hallquist puts it

belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence – namely, the beliefs of other religions.

The atheist’s discomfort is now the apologist’s: either he must accept that, say, Muslims or Scientologists are right to take things on faith (in which case, why not join up with them instead?); or further distinguish his religion from theirs (probably by making arguments about the resurrection of Jesus). The atheist’s acceptance of the real world doesn’t come into it.

Hume’s own solution to radical scepticism was to note that he couldn’t entertain that sort of thing for long. Creatures like us soon fall unavoidably back on treating other people as if they were conscious, the world as if it were real, and so on. The great man tells us:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Among educated folk, thoughts of gods rely on meetings with other believers to keep them going: believers are chronic sinus sufferers. They rarely anticipate the world being any different from a godless one, and those who act as if God is real are called crazy even by their fellow believers. To be sure, that doesn’t mean their avowed beliefs are false. But again, they are not like the commonplace beliefs that everyone takes on faith. In my experience, they fly forgotten, as the dream dies with the dawning day. How about a nice game of backgammon?

Edit: gjm11 suggests another reasonable response in this comment: admit that believing stuff without evidence is bad, and try to minimise it, and say that the problem with religious faith (in so far as that means holding unevidenced beliefs) is that it means having way more unevidenced beliefs than necessary.

Edit again: I’ve also commented with a shorter version of this on Coyne’s original posting, so there’s some discussion there too.

See also

Visualizing Bayes’ theorem |

Join the Bayesian Conspiracy.
(tags: bayes statistics mathematics bayesian tutorial probability bayes-theorem)

YouTube – John Passmore on Hume: Section 1

A video discussing Hume's ideas on causality, the self and experience.
(tags: philosophy hume enlightenment empiricism video john-passmore david-hume)

python-on-a-chip – Project Hosting on Google Code

"This project's goals are to develop the PyMite virtual machine, device drivers, high-level libraries and other tools to run a significant subset of the Python language on microcontrollers without an OS." Nice.
(tags: python embedded programming hardware microcontrollers avr)

Attacked from Within

"This article attempts to fundamentally rethink what constitutes community and society on the web, and what possibilities exist for their maintenance and reconstruction in the face of scale and malicious users." I've mentioned this one before, but I've seen a couple of things about creating good comments recently, so I thought I'd wheel it out again. Warning: contains links to Encyclopedia Dramatica, which is very much not safe for work.
(tags: community identity social internet moderation reputation kuro5hin)

… since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. — St Paul, Epistle to the Romans

Suppose the existence and fine-tuning of the universe are best explained by a creator. Well, OK, but what sort of creator? Looking for the best explanation for things is clearly a reliable way to proceed: once we’ve settled the question of design by this method, we had better follow where it leads.

For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself, as we have already taught you, nor by the devil, a statement one cannot possibly make, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate. — Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora

What goes for the Law goes for the world too: it’s a mixed up sort of place, containing both good things and bad things. While other explanations are possible (just as, say, it is possible, though of course unlikely, that the universe somehow arose without a creator), Ptolemy‘s explanation seems the best one: the creator is not perfect. Not evil either, though, just… middle of the road. Doing the best they can, perhaps.

Is it impossible for someone to create universes if they aren’t perfectly good? Could even a very technically skilled person be a bit of a dick? It seems odd, then, to suppose that the creator has the traditional attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness, and so on.

… as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject. I am Sceptic enough to allow, that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such attributes as you suppose; but surely they can never prove these attributes. — Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

There’s an argument, which you may occasionally hear made by William Lane Craig, that we’re not a position to know that the creator doesn’t have sufficiently good reasons for allowing bad stuff to happen: he (according to Craig, the creator is a “he”) is said to move in mysterious ways, after all. Unfortunately, as John D relates, this makes it hard to see why we should intervene if we see someone suffering: who are we to say what good may come of it? Moreover, if our understanding of bad and good outcomes is so suspect, how are we then in a position to know that the creator is good?

He may be fully convinced of the narrow limits of his understanding; but this will not help him in forming an inference concerning the goodness of superior powers, since he must form that inference from what he knows, not from what he is ignorant of. The more you exaggerate his weakness and ignorance, the more diffident you render him, and give him the greater suspicion that such subjects are beyond the reach of his faculties. — Dialogues, again

Perhaps someone could appeal to a sacred book to show that the creator is good. Still, these things seem open to interpretation: we’d best leave Craig and Ptolemy to argue about the details of their shared scriptures. In any case, we’d need convincing that the book was a reliable source on the subject.

Perhaps, in the absence of external evidence, someone could come to a strong inner conviction that the creator is perfectly good. But it seems this sort of confidence can cut both ways. As Chris Hallquist writes, “If there is any actual case where we are confident that divine inaction is incompatible with perfection, then we must conclude that God does not exist.” (It seems that “God does not exist” might be a little hasty here, but we’d best leave Hallquist to argue with Ptolemy on that score).

Given all this, it seems odd to me that so many people confidently assert that the creator is good. We rightly prefer to believe that our instruments are broken than that we have disproved the Law of Gravitation, but it’s interesting to test our limits: if you are such a person, is there any such case you can imagine which would convince you to change your position? If not, why do you trouble yourself with evidence about the creator’s moral character either way? It would seem better to just accept that some people have one conviction about the creator, and some another. On the other hand, if we do look to the evidence, it seems that what we observe is best explained by a creator who is imperfect, and possibly indifferent.

The Tornado, the Lutherans, and Homosexuality :: Desiring God

Well known complementarian John Piper explains how God sent a tornado to break the spire of a Lutheran church as a "a gentle but firm" reminder that gay sex is bad. Via a more sensible Christian on Unreasonable Faith.
(tags: church homosexuality sin bible christianity reformed sex gay piper lutheran lolxians)

Boring men?

In response to a Metafilter posting linking to an article about how all men are boring, Mefi user Pastabagel shares their idea of what it would be like if men responded to women asking what was on their minds.
(tags: funny metafilter relationships sex women boring)

Apophatic atheology: an April apologetic

"A great deal of needless offence and rancour, it seems to me, is caused by the unfortunate tendency of certain believers to take the speeches and books of atheism literally."
(tags: religion atheism apophatic funny parody ken-macleod)

Biblical Evidence for Catholicism: Was Skeptical Philosopher David Hume an Atheist?

Some interesting quotes from Hume scholars. Comes from a blog evangelising for Catholicism, so may be strongly filtered evidence, but worth a read, in any case.
(tags: philosophy hume atheism david-hume agnosticism deism religion scepticism)

Nothing New Under The Sun – The biggest problem imo with organized religion

is that it validates the very human impulse to think that we can "make up" for things – rewrite the past, undo what we have done, magic away the reality with something else – that we can fix our misdeeds and harms done by harming ourselves in some way.
(tags: religion atonement psychology morality)

Ireland Archbishop stunned by Dr Rowan Williams’ criticism of Catholic Church -Times Online

"The Archbishop of Dublin today said he was "stunned" to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury declare that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has lost all credibility because of the child abuse scandal." Rowan's peeved at the poaching Pope (and sensibly looking to put some distance between the two churches, by the looks of it).
(tags: catholicism catholic rowan-williams anglican anglicanism religion christianity ireland children abuse)

Georges Rey‘s Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception ties together a lot of things I’ve been thinking about on this blog. Rey writes that:

I find myself taking seriously the following hypothesis, which (for lack of a better name) I call meta-atheism: Despite appearances, many Western adults who’ve been exposed to standard science and sincerely claim to believe in God are self-deceived; at some level they believe the claim is false.

How wude

This looks like an atheist version of a Christian argument (which originated with St Paul): the Christian claims it’s obvious that God exists, deep down everyone knows it, and if you claim not to, you’re deceiving yourself because you don’t want to admit to your own sinfulness and God’s moral authority. If you sign up to a scheme like this, and you view your opponent’s arguments as mere evidence of their self-deception, you’re engaging in logical rudeness.

That said, there are some differences between Rey’s version and the Christian one, which boil down the way Rey is less insufferable about it all (Rey says that meta-atheism doesn’t entail atheism, he does engage with Christian apologists in his paper, he admits he might be wrong, he doesn’t think believers are evil or stupid, and so on). So, assuming we’re mollified a bit by some counterbalancing logical politeness, what’s the argument for meta-atheism? Rey has 11 points which he thinks count as evidence. A couple seemed particularly relevant to my interests, so I’ll concentrate on those.

That’s just too silly

One was what Rey calls “detail resistance”: the way believers find it odd or even silly to investigate the mechanics of God’s supposed actions. As I’ve mentioned previously, one of the final straws for me, before I stopped going to church, was an argument I was involved in on uk.religion.christian, on the details of how God acts today (yet another rehearsal of the argument that caused me to write this essay, as it happened). During the argument, I realised that I somehow found the discussion itself silly. I started to wonder what was going on in my head, and things unravelled from there.

Likewise, Christians who think God caused the Big Bang would find it silly to look for details of God’s involvement in black holes. This feeling of silliness is a clue: Rey observes that “this resistance to detail is strikingly similar to the same resistance one encounters in dealing with fiction. It seems as silly to ask the kind of detailed questions about God as it does for someone to ask for details about fictional characters, e.g.: What did Hamlet have for breakfast?”

Invisible dragons

Rey also mentions “betrayal by reactions and behaviour”. Christians would respond that of course, they’re not perfect, but what Rey has in mind is not moral failings. Rather, it’s the sort of thing Hume refers to: though people make protestations of faith, “nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience”.

We’ve been here before: Rey is thinking about how someone who anticipated-as-if a religion was true would behave, and comparing that with how most believers actually behave. Previously, we’ve mentioned that it’s odd that believers already know the ways in which tests for God will fail: if you’re a Christian, you’ve got an idea of which prayers are realistic, a strange proposition, when you think about it. And if you’re an atheist and feel like stumping a Christian, ask them what sin is committed by parents who pray for healing rather than taking their dying kid to a doctor.

Bored with new atheism? Why not try the old school? David Hume‘s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a classic refutation of the Argument from Design. These days, evangelists are again turning to design arguments, notably the Fine-tuning Argument. Perhaps this argument is enjoying its day in the sun because it embraces and extends physics, in the way discussed previously, rather than suffering from the lack of respectability which attends arguments from design in biology. In any case, Hume’s book is as relevant as it ever was.

The book is quite short, and the text is freely available online, but still, I prefer the old-fashioned dead trees format. The Penguin classics edition only costs a few quid and has a handy forward and footnotes explaining what’s going on.

Talking about religion down the pub

The book is a dialogue between three friends: Philo, a sceptic, whose arguments many commentators identify with Hume’s own views (although exactly what Hume did think about religion isn’t clear, as in the 1700s you still had to be a bit careful about criticising religion); Cleanthes, a design proponentsist; and Demea, who believes God is beyond human understanding and is unimpressed with both Philo’s scepticism and Cleanthes’s anthropomorphisation of the deity. In modern terms, Philo sounds like an atheist (albeit a closeted one), Cleanthes an orthodox Christian who is persuaded by the design argument, and Demea a sophisticated theologian.

These three have a wide-ranging conversation, observed by Pamphilus, the narrator, a young man staying with Cleanthes. It’s fun to watch: John D over at Philosophical Disquisitions writes: “I always like to imagine myself a participant at the after dinner conversation imagined therein. Nothing can beat that: good food, congenial surroundings, intelligent companions and intelligent debate”. Once you’ve got the hang of the slightly antiquated language, the rhythm of it is itself enjoyable to read. Hume can write, a talent not common to all philosophers.

Designed by who?

As Alex Byrne’s article says, Hume’s arguments on cosmology are stronger than Dawkins’s in The God Delusion, though Hume was at the disadvantage of not knowing about biological evolution. Erik Wielenberg’s Dawkins’ Gambit, Hume’s Aroma and God’s Simplicty (which I first saw either at Common Sense Atheism or over at ex-apologist, so thanks to whoever it was) compares them in more detail, paying particular attention to Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument, and also favours Hume.

The arguments themselves are neatly summarised by John D. To be even briefer, Hume casts doubt on both the inference that the universe is designed, and on the inference to the identity of the designer (or designers: as Philo says, if we’re basing our argument on an analogy to human design, don’t many builders make a house?). In a diversion into the argument from evil, he also questions how someone could come to know that God is maximally good: certainly not by observing the world, it seems.

But to get the full effect of the book, you should read it (otherwise, you might find, like me, that your arguments from summaries are riposted by a counter-argument that Hume himself anticipated). Recommended.

A Few Billion Lines of Code Later: Using Static Analysis to Find Bugs in the Real World | February 2010 | Communications of the ACM

Bunch of academics write a static checker and take it commercial. They are surprised to find that: Compilers for embedded targets accept stuff which isn't quite C, embedded programmers use the stuff, because we're evil. A worryingly large proportion of programmers are clueless ("No, ANSI lets you write 1 past the end of the array"), concluding that "You cannot often argue with people who are sufficiently confused about technical matters; they think you are the one who doesn't get it. They also tend to get emotional. Arguing reliably kills sales." Also, managers like graphs of bad stuff to go down over time, so don't like the tool to improve. Fun article. Via Metafilter.
(tags: programming analysis security software coverity development tools C)

A review of ‘The language of God’ (Francis Collins)

Gert Korthof likes Collins's stuff on evolution, but thinks the Moral Law argument (which Collins acknowledges he got from C.S. Lewis) is terrible: "Collins fails to demonstrate

a. the failure of Darwinism to explain the Moral Law (true altruism)
b. the divine origin of the Moral Law
c. b follows from a "
(tags: creation evolution morality religion science francis-collins c.s.-lewis altruism)


What happens when your blog becomes one of the top Google results for "login to Facebook". Take it either as a serious lesson about user interface design, or an opportunity to mock the stupid.
(tags: facebook login funny internet computers ui user-interface browser google)

Meat stylus for the iPhone

I got yer meat stylus right here, baby.
(tags: iphone culture funny meat)

Simon Blackburn (2) – Religion and Respect – Investigating Atheism

Blackburn's interesting and slightly cheeky ("Even Christians are human") article on what it might mean to respect someone's religion. He thinks there might be something in respecting emotions but not attitudes, and bemoans religious appropriation of the sacred. Contains quote from Hume which is another example of the way Hume seems to have had everyone's ideas before they did (this time on belief in belief).
(tags: religion respect simon-blackburn philosophy hume)

Why reject miracles? (Irrational Rationalist)

An attempt at formulating the argument in a way which doesn't beg the question, and some talk about what Hume actually meant.
(tags: hume miracles philosophy religion rationality)

Is there anything wrong with “God of the gaps” reasoning? by Robert Larmer

Larmer argues that both theists and atheists shouldn't be so hard on "God of the Gaps" explanations (the phrase originated as a criticism of Christians by Christians). While it's certainly true that it's not a formal fallacy, I think what makes me uneasy about such explanations is the ease with which "the thing which explains X" is identified with "the Christian God" (say). But I'll have to think about it some more.
(tags: theology philosophy naturalism science religion god gaps larmer robert-larmer)

Did I mention I was on Christian talk radio once? No? Well, anyway, some other chap called PZ Myers was also on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking about science and religion, a topic much discussed in blog-land recently. His Christian opposite number was Denis Alexander, who runs something called the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge, which was started by a grant from those naughty (but terribly well funded) Templeton Foundation people. You can listen to the audio on Premier’s site, and read Myers’s commentary on his blog.

It was an interesting programme. Myers is a strident shrill fundamentalist neo-rationalist atheist on his blog, but is softly spoken in person. The talk was pretty well mannered. <lj-cut text=”Who said what”>Myers and Alexander agree that there’s no place for god-talk in the science lab, and that evolution happened without divine meddling (amusingly, the presenter was careful to add a disclaimer that not all Christians believe the latter, presumably in an attempt to anticipate the letters in green crayon from creationists and intelligent design supporters). Myers was careful to limit the terms of the debate: he specifically objected to the project of using religious means to find out stuff about how the world works, saying that religion gets it wrong and science does better. Alexander accused Myers of scientism and argued that there are fields of discourse other than science which humans find worthwhile (law, art, and so on), but Myers kept coming back to how we find out how the world works.

Alexander argued that big questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” are things we can reason about (specifically, using inference to the best explanation), but are not within the purview of science. He finds the human feeling that life has a purpose suggestive, because there’s a dissonance between atheism and the feeling of purpose. Myers argues that a sense of purpose is inculcated by successful cultures. Justin Brierley paraphrases Plantinga, but nobody bites. Summing up, Myers says that religion is superfluous not just in science, but in the rest of life also. Alexander says that science isn’t the only dimension to life, and that his personal relationship with Jesus makes his science work part of his worship.

I think I’d’ve been a bit less eager to attribute the human need for purpose to evolution, although Myers backed off that a bit when he talked about a cultural idea of purpose. Rather, I’d question the notional that an absolute, eternal purpose is the only real sort of purpose, just as I’d question the same assertion about morality.

I’d also question Alexander’s claim that Christians are applying inference to the best explanation in a similar way to scientists. According to philosophers of science, that inference should only be applied when an explanation is clearly better than the alternatives. The idea that a specific sort of god did it doesn’t seem clearly better, as Hume could have told you (unless by “better” we mean “in agreement with my religion”, I suppose).

Myers and Alexander spent a lot of time talking past each other when they were trying to work out what Myers’s objections were. Myers was wise to talk about methodology rather than disagreement about specific facts, on the grounds that science is a set of tools rather than a static body of knowledge. But Alexander is right that there are other legitimate ways to gain knowledge.

Perhaps we should talk about things that those legitimate ways have in common. As Eliezer says, if I’m told by my friend Inspector Morse that Wulky Wilkinsen runs the local crime syndicate, I’d be a fool to annoy Wulky. My belief is not established scientifically, but I’ve got some strong evidence, because Morse is much more likely to tell me that if Wilkinsen really is a shady character than if he isn’t. As Myers argues, reliance on holy books doesn’t work, but not because it’s not science. Rather, because a report of a miracle in a holy book may occur with or without the actual miracle having happened, with at least even odds (to see this, consider how one religion views another’s book, and note that if God wanted us to have a holy book, it would bear the 5 marks of a true holy book). As we saw last time, that your theory is compatible with the observation is not good enough. Rather, say, “Is this observation more likely if my idea is true than if it is not?”

Alex Byrne in the Boston Review addresses the existence of God, pointing out that modern debates echo those of Hume and Paley (he of the watchmaker). Byrne talks about the Ontological, Design and Fine Tuning arguments for God.

The article is interesting because it addresses some weak responses to these arguments, from Dawkins’s The God Delusion. As gareth_rees said, the popularisation of this debate will hopefully encourage everyone to consider whether the reasons they have for their positions are good ones.

In other news, Father Christmas (who really does exist, otherwise who’s bringing all those presents, eh?) brought me Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, Bitches; and Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem (about the Problem of Evil). I expect I’ll be posting about those once I’ve read them.