Sunday, July 13, 2008

Gyapong Gets It Wrong

One of Deborah Gyapong's favorite topics is the various Human Rights Commission hate-speech proceedings against people she considers her heroes. I actually have some sympathy insofar as I support free speech, and view hate-speech laws with misgiving (or else I just hang out at Ed Brayton's place too much). But that's a can of worms to open some other time.

However, on one recent free speech rant, Gyapong drags in (with tenuous relevance) a bit of Christian apologetics. I left a brief comment over there, but decided to also bring it back here for a more thorough fisking:
When I took Philosophy 101, one of the debates that, according to our professor, had never been solved was whether God existed or not.
Well, whether that question has been resolved might depend who you ask, but never mind....
Even Christian mystics and philosophers like Blaise Pascal have granted that you really cannot prove definitively one way or the other. That's why Pascal's famous wager says you have far less to lose if you choose to believe God exists and live as if He does and discover after death that He is in fact real, than to believe He doesn't exist, live as if He doesn't and discover, whoops! you are going to hell.

Even if you believe in God and discover after death He does not exist, you have at least led a good life.
I guess Deborah's Phil 101 class didn't also cover the criticisms of Pascal's Wager. First of course, note that it does not even claim to be an argument for the existence of God. Rather, it is a strategy for maximizing your welfare over the span of your mortal life, and possible after-life, in the face of objective uncertainty about the existence of God. As such, the Wager is of legitimate interest to philosophers as an abstract exercise in probability and decision theory.

However, as a strategic reason for adopting religion it fails badly. It doesn't even begin to work unless the "believe in God" choice is singular and well-defined. If (and this is actually the case in the real world) there are multiple competing and mutually-anathematizing sects, each advancing its own god(s), each with his/her/their particular criteria for admission to posthumous bliss, then the decision process fails. The Wager gives no guidance on how to choose between Christianity and Islam -- or even between Catholic and Baptist belief. It simply swallows whole the assumption that we know what the postulated God wants us to do to be considered righteous.

One more thing: I can't let pass without comment, the casual bigotry implied by: "Even if you believe in God and discover after death He does not exist, you have at least led a good life." Apparently, whether or not God exists, you can only lead a good life if you believe in him/her/them/it.

However, it seems Gyapong's invocation of Pascal is mostly meant to set up the false dichotomy at the core of her argument:
We live in a universe of unsolved mysteries. I can look at the heavens and like the psalmist say they testify to God's glory, that they and all the beauty of nature are like a book that testifies to God's design and God's laws. But others look at the same universe and see primordial slime and nothingness and random chance natural selection.
[I have to break in here to note that Gyapong's confusion of the fields of astronomy and biology suggests that, while she may have taken Philosophy 101, she never took Science 101. Here's a quick remedial lesson, Deborah: no one thinks the stars came from "primordial slime" (of course, I also don't know anyone who thinks life did either, in quite those terms, but I'll let it go) or were subject to natural selection -- a process reserved to entities that reproduce themselves with at least moderate fidelity. Either she knows roughly nothing about science, or is just tossing rhetoric around in a fact-free attempt to impress. But I digress:]
In other words, we both base our beliefs on a priori assumptions about existence that cannot be proven, even though we could both say there is evidence to support our views. My a priori assumptions are religious, Christian, and rely on revealed truth in holy Scripture and holy Tradition. The a priori assumptions of secular humanists are based on Darwinism, and materialism that are just as much faith-based as my beliefs, though God is not in the picture for them.
That paragraph is a remarkable example of managing to get just about everything wrong.

First of course, there's the obligatory abuse of the term "Darwinism", an almost sure sign you're dealing with someone who knows nothing about the subject, except that whatever it is they don't like it.

Secondly, she seems to assume that, just because she's accepted the terms of Pascal's Wager (albeit without justifying her particular choice of god and "Tradition"), it follows that we Darwinist-materialist humanists also have, only we're betting on the other side. Wrong, wrong and wrong, Deborah: I (and most other "materialists" I know) reject the Wager, partly for the reasons I outlined above, but additionally because having examined the available evidence, we conclude that the question of God's existence is resolvable in the negative to a reasonable degree of certainty -- at least enough that we can pretty much ignore the question and get on with our lives. This is not the result of some "a priori assumptions" we hold -- I and many other atheists were practising Christians (or other religion) at some time in our lives; we did hold those religious priors, but came in time to see that they did not match reality. You see, in the real world, "assumptions" are not like mathematical axioms, where all that matters is internal consistency (though religious claims frequently fail even that criterion) -- at some point, incorrect assumptions tend to collide with that real world. You start to run into situations where you find yourself saying: "My assumptions imply that the world should look like This. In fact, it looks like That. Better re-think those assumptions...." That's the way science works, and the only a priori of science is something like: the universe works consistently, and if we study it in a disciplined way, we can figure it out.

There's a lovely irony in Gyapong's argument. If you read her blog for any length of time, you find that one of the other epithets (ie. in addition to "Darwinist" and "materialist") she likes to toss out is "postmodernist" -- a school of thought which among other things denies absolute universal truth in favour relative, individually constructed truths. But her assertion that our understanding of the Universe is completely determined by arbitrarily-chosen priors essentially sets up the same kind of relativist epistemology. The only difference between this and "classic" postmodernism is that in the latter it is social factors like one's race, gender and economic class that determine one's worldview. And on the whole, scientists (including most of those dreaded "Darwinists") have little use for post-modernism.

Of course, this whole digression into bad apologetics is just a lead-up to Gyapong's favorite hobby-horse, the supposed persecution of Christians by the Human Rights Commissions:
As Ezra Levant points out today, we have a new state religion. We can't really call it a theocracy because God is missing from the creed. But it is a faith nonetheless with its own strictures, its own moral code, its own high priests and priestesses and its own inquisitors. And these new inquisitors share a similar zeal for enforcing their dogma on heretics and schismatics.
This "state religion" at least as she sets it up, is a bogey man of her own devising. Gyapong is advancing a dichotomous view in which there are only two sides: the conservative Christians, and the Darwinist-materialists who are out to get them. In fact (as anyone who isn't determined to fit the facts into the straight-jacket of their martyr complex knows), there are are all sorts of "sides" in our society. At the very least, there are: conservative Christians who rail against the modern world; the leftist po-mos whose views I find just as silly and anti-intellectual; the scientific view in which evidence decides matters of truth (and is in itself largely independent of ideological commitments); and libertarians who believe in free speech as a principle, even for fools and bigots (for an example of the last view, Deborah should go check out Ed Brayton's Dispatches From The Culture Wars: a harsh critic of religious excess, who regularly jeers at creationism, and fiercely defends gay rights -- but who has also defended Ezra Levant on strict free-speech grounds).

There are aspects of the Stephen Boissoin case that I am unhappy about (or would be, if they were to be confirmed by a source that wasn't so obviously grinding an axe over it), but Deborah's bogeyman of materialism, Darwinism and a priori philosophical assumptions have nothing to do with it.

[As an aside, I should note that Stephen Boissoin is being persecuted for being an ignorant bigot repeating the standard lies of the Christian Right. One can defend him on the principled basis that even ignorant bigots should enjoy the right to free speech, and the proper response is public refutation and ridicule -- but to defend him as a persecuted Christian says something about the kind of Christianity you endorse.]

Saturday, July 12, 2008

In support of PZ's right to be impolite and insulting

With regards to this news story, and this response on Pharyngula:

It may be a fine distinction, but I do not see PZ's impoliteness and insults as directed at the Catholic faithful who believe that God is present in the communion wafers, however much PZ would disagree and consider them to be naive and/or deluded and/or misguided. Rather he is (verbally, of course) attacking those who think it is appropriate, or even understandable, to respond to blasphemy and sacrilege with physical force and death threats.

Here is a letter I sent to the President of UMM:

Dear Dr. Bruininks,

I firmly believe that, in addition to transmitting knowledge on various topics, one of the important roles of a university is to encourage students to think critically and question their own and their world's basic assumptions. I think that Professor P.Z.Myers does an excellent job in all of these areas, and is a credit to UMM.

Recently, I have seen blog posts by Dr Myers in which he has encouraged desecration of Catholic religious symbols. Bill Donohue has stated that "It is hard to think of anything more vile...". While the comments and proposed actions by P.Z. Myers may be insulting and impolite, surely there are many things in this world far viler than denigrating symbols and beliefs.

I hope you will disregard the demands from the Catholic League for the removal or other discipline of Professor Myers, and support his right to voice his opinions, however controversial they might be.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Two more reasons not to read the Citizen

We dumped the Ottawa Citizen years ago, as it gradually slid into banal fluff. The last few days reminded me why we continue to not take the rag.

First, on Saturday columnist David Warren celebrated changes to the Ontario Human Rights Commission by preemptively proclaiming his own martyrdom:
As a writer who does not subscribe to the "politically correct" ideology, it is reasonable to expect that, sooner or later, they will come for me.....I was born a free citizen of the Old Canada and before her God I declare, that I will go to jail rather than acknowledge the legitimacy of any "human rights" commission.
Wow. I predict that David Warren will be arrested the day they criminalize self-important windbaggery with pomposity aforethought. But not, I think, before then (unless of course, he deliberately provokes it).

Then on Monday, Reuven Bulka writes a column on the Sanctity of Life and how we need God -- apparently, to keep us from offing all the old people and cripples (something like that). Along the way he invokes Ben Stein's "well done documentary" Expelled, which tells "the story of scientists expelled from their universities for looking positively on the notion of intelligent design, rather than embracing holus bolus the Darwinian theory of the evolution of the species". Someone should tell him that the persecution stories in the movie are (to put it charitably) significantly exagerrated.

That was just the start. It goes downhill from there:
Although Darwin somewhat arrogantly called his work The Origin of Species, it is clear that he did not explain how life actually originated. He did not know, nor do scientists today know.
The choice of title would be because Darwin was writing, not about how life began, but specifically about how new species arose in nature -- a live scientific question throughout the nineteenth century (and in many ways, still today). While I've often heard creationists assert that our ignorance of life's beginning is some fatal blow against evolution, I must say I've never before encountered that objection based on such a grossly illiterate misconstrual of the title of Darwin's book. (But note the implicit invocation of the God of the Gaps argument).

Bulka blathers on:
You are left wondering why seemingly intelligent people have zero tolerance for intelligent design. It is not as if intelligent design is any less scientific than the gaping hole in how life began that Darwinists greet with an "I do not know" shrug.
As a matter of fact, it is as if ID is "less scientific". Lacking a coherent hypothesis beyond "Evolution can't do that", it's not scientific at all. And concerning how life began, scientists know a good deal more than pious ignorami like Bulka are aware of.
By the way, for the record, I have no problem with evolutionary ingredients in creation. This can co-exist quite comfortably with intelligent design, or God's design, which is stretched out on an evolutionary canvass.
Mr. Stein takes the viewer on a Columbo-like journey trying to get to the bottom of this visceral and categorical rejection by the Darwinists. He skillfully shows how Darwinism moves people to reject religion, and some of the major tenets of faith, such as the notion of afterlife and the meaning of existence, including having a code of values.
Of course, Stein "shows" this by "skillfully" interviewing only prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and P.Z.Myers, ignoring devout pro-evolution scientists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins. Bulka then goes on to swallow Stein's science-hatred hook, line and sinker:
In a Darwinist system, with everything happening on its own, we are bereft of values. And the scientists seemingly want it that way. If nothing is sacred, anything goes - there are no restrictions.
I have no idea what Bulka means by a "Darwinist" system, but the rudiments of morality -- compassion, cooperation, reciprocity, mutual aid, observance of social rules -- seem to be built in to our psychology, and that of our closest relatives. We don't need abstract notions of sacredness to avoid the "anything goes" apocalypse: simple enlightened self-interest gets us a long way down that road.

Of course, no anti-evolution rant would be complete without dragging in the ghost of Stalin, and the Hitler Zombie.

That brings us to ask whether we ever had such a world, a Godless world, and yes we did. Stalin killed in the tens of millions, Hitler's evil is well documented, and there are others who in the absence of any values wreaked immeasurable havoc.

That Hitler was "Godless" of course explains why he wrote copiously about his duty to God on behalf of the German people, and why the buckles on WW2 German uniforms bore the slogan "Gott Mit Uns". And Stalin (to those who have even passing familiarity with Darwin's ideas, and know what the term actually means) was anything but a "Darwinist": official Soviet dogma during his era rejected Darwin's proposed mechanism of organic change (variation and natural selection) as being incompatible with Marxist theories of history. In its place Stalin substituted the neo-Lamarckian ideas of Trofim Lysenko (with disastrous results for Soviet agriculture).

But really, the foregoing are just minor historical gaffes compared to the real fallacy of that paragraph, which is that the Stalinist and Nazi visions were far from "values-free". What they both were, were ideologies which invented and elevated certain "values" (the achievement of the Workers' Paradise through the inexorable outworking of Marxist dialectic; the perfection and triumph of the Aryan Race) over, well, pretty much every other value, including the liberty and lives of individual humans. It's not about values vs. no values: it's about which values.

Of course, Bulka is careful to throw in a token acknowledgement of the known evils of religion -- but you can tell he doesn't really mean it by his attempt to pull a No True Scotsman move (emphasis mine):

This is not to suggest that religion is free from taint. Too many have killed in the name of religion, and history past and present is discoloured by so-called religious figures who espouse, encourage, and reward killing.

And after that diversion, it's back to the real villain -- science:

As bad as religion may be, the argument can be made that absent religion, things would be worse. Mr. Stein drives this point home incessantly, as he juxtaposes scientific tyranny with Nazi imagery.

The good Rabbi doesn't explicitly mention the movie's use of Holocaust imagery -- perhaps he heard about the Anti-Defamation League's deprecation of the film as "misappropriat[ion]" of that sad episode in history, and thought it prudent not to call close attention to that aspect of it:
Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.
Bulka continues:
A valueless society enslaved by scientism desacrilizes life. And Mr. Stein is not oblivious to the scientism of eugenics as it impacted then, with the implicit warning that it could happen again.
I don't quite know what this "scientism" Bulka complains about is, but science is about discovering how the world works, with all its wonders; and the "Darwinism" (properly: evolutionary biology) Ben Stein derides is very much a part of that discovery. Bulka is welcome to argue all he wants for the sacredness of human life, either as a principle, or as a practical bulwark against atrocity -- but his argument is ill-served by credulously regurgitating nonsense from a film well-known to be propaganda, and which places blame on all the wrong people.

[Afterword: while surfing up references for this post, I happened across this thoughtful and nuanced essay on Expelled by an Evangelical Christian at the American Scientific Affiliation site. I don't agree with everything Schloss says, but he tries very hard to be fair to both sides, and correctly identifies the movie's many flaws. Recommended reading, especially for those who might default to Stein's camp.]

Hat tip: Dr. Dawg (though I must also credit Deborah Gyapong, who of course agrees with Bulka).

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I love it when I guess right

Back in May, conservative blogger Deborah Gyapong (who in RL lives fairly close to me) posted a bit of hysterical granny spam in opposition to Bill C-51 (for non-Canadians: tightens up regulations governing Natural Health Products, which currently occupy a middle position between foods and full-blown pharmaceuticals). I replied with a comment referring her to Barry Green's informative series of articles on the Ottawa Skeptics site. Along the way, I tossed in a speculation of my own:
....has it occurred to you that it might be astro-turf from the NHP industry?
I haven't been following the issue that closely, so it was only recently I discovered that, a few days after I posted that comment, it turns out that my guess was right. The anti-C51 campaign seems to originate from the website, which makes hysterical claims such as....well, the ones found in that granny spam. Claims which are outrageous enough that they should automatically set off any thoughtful person's bogosity alarm (giving garlic to your child as a home remedy can get you arrested?!).

StopC51 is owned by a certain Mr. Ian Stewart. And what does Mr. Stewart do in his day job? He runs a mail-order supplement company called Truehope Nutritional Support Ltd. (in fact the contact phone number for StopC51 goes to the Truehope offices). Truehope sells a rather expensive multi-vitamin supplement known as EMPower, which is claimed to treat all sorts of psychological or neurological problems from mood disorders to Tourette Syndrome -- unproven health claims which have gotten them in trouble with Health Canada in the past.

The gory details are in the eSkeptic article, so I won't repeat them here. Suffice it to say that Stewart is one who cannot even live within the NHP regulations as they currently exist -- so it's no wonder he's dead against any increased restriction in those regs. There may be legitimate criticisms to be made about C51 (there always are, for any complex piece of legislation). There may even be merit to having a larger philosophical argument about the extent to which the government should protect consumers from questionable product claims vs. taking a caveat emptor approach.

But you're not going to get any of that by listening to a manufactured panic emanating from an obvious snake-oil salesman.