Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Domestic Terrorist Suspect Sports Jesus Fish

It would seem that the murder suspect in the Dr. Tiller case (who may well be this guy) was sporting a cute little Jesus fish on the back of his baby blue Ford Taurus.  The lesson here, of course, is that "they will know you by your fruits."

p.s. Google 225 BAB if you've any doubt as to the owner of this vehicle.

Universal Mental Liberty

This liberal sentiment from the Old West brought to you by the Oregon History Project.  Here is a Google Books link which allows a survey of the slogan in 19th century freethought.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Absolute moral laws in a modern milieu

Ever since the passage of the Ten Commandments bill, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the idea that some laws which used to matter a great deal to the ancient Hebrews ought not carry much weight in the here and now.  The basic idea here is that a morally-perfect and changeless transcendental mimd created human beings and revealed His perfect law to some of them, but now some of these laws are no longer worthwhile.  Consider for a moment only those Mosaic and Levitical laws for which the penalty was death.  Is it philosophically consistent for believers to say that we should decriminalize any of them?  If these crimes were once so serious as to warrant death in a society set up by an all-wise and morally exemplary being, it seems terribly counterintuitive to reduce such transgressions to mere foibles, the suppression of which is best left to culture and personal conscience. 


Bible-believing Christians usually deal with this problem by pointing out that they are no longer bound by the ancient Hebrew laws.  There is ample New Testament support for this proposition, no doubt, but this does not really solve the problem.  Christians who vote must decide which divinely ordained laws are timeless and ought to always be recognized by every society (e.g. those proscribing murder, theft, perjury) and those which are only relevant within an ancient cultural context (e.g. head-coverings for women, circumcision for men, kosher food for everyone). 

I would think it quite obvious that any law which once carried the penalty of death and was not specifically addressed and overturned in the NT would qualify as one which Christians should support whenever given the chance, whether by electing representatives to the legislature, by direct plebiscite, or by other means.


How, then, do Bible-believing Christians justify their failure to support theocratic politicians like Brogdon and Ritze in a crusade to recriminalize apostasy, buggery, cursing, divination, and other such victimless crimes?  What is the reasoning which allows you to treat these seemingly absolute moral commands once set in stone by a perfectly moral being as mere matters of personal conscience?  Seriously, guys, I’m stumped here - please help me out. How can you tell which divine laws are timeless and which were intended only for one tribe living far away and long ago?




Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Apostasy, Blasphemy, Cursing, Diviniation, Extramarital Flings, & other capital crimes...

Given our state's recent offical seal of approval of Ritze's faith-based initiative to graft Mosaic law onto the Oklahoma Capitol grounds, and given the wide array of crimes warranting death in the Old Testamant, one must wonder to what extent patriotic Christians believe that Mosaic laws ought to be made applicable to modern criminal codes, by those who vote and believe as Ritze does that we ought to exemplify Judeo-Christian morality in the laws that we pass for our state and our nation.

Surely some Mosaic laws (such as those against perjury, theft, and murder) must remain on the books for so long as men are not angels.  Others, however, seem a bit more culturally-contexual and best left to the bygone theocracy that was ancient Israel.  The question here is how devout Christians who are patriotic enough to vote and serve on juries can systematically and rationally place crimes listed in the Bible into one of three categories:
  1. Should be criminalized with the Biblical punishment

  2. Should be criminalized with a lesser level of punishment

  3. No longer criminal, but merely a matter of personal conscience
Bear in mind that the laws of the OT were given by one who is (by definition) a perfectly moral and immutable lawgiver unto his chosen people.  That said, I would think that most Jews and Christians would tend to prefer the first of these three choices, but I find in practice that they almost always choose the latter two, except for the most severe of crimes. 

Why is this?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pietistic historical revisionism

Rep. Mike Ritze says “We get our laws from the Ten Commandments.  Many of our laws date back to English law, which dates back to Roman law, which comes from Mosaic law.”  One must suppose that the Romans were a wholly lawless people until they took the time and effort to conquer Palestine and assimilate its culture and legal traditions.  Alternatively, as in the history books I’ve read, the Romans were able to conquer Palestine precisely because they had developed a structured and highly organized society on their own, drawing upon divine inspiration from a mythical pantheon and countless local deities, but never from the monotheism of the ancient near east. 

Is it possible to trace even one law from the Mosiac or Levitical codes directly into Roman law?  I put this challenge to the theocrats.  Go forth and rewrite history.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Holy War

It was widely believed among the winking moonbats of the Paranoid-Far-Left  that GWB and his cronies were taking the nation to war primarily as a faith-based initiative, on a crusade for god, glory, and black gold. Although thoughtful and learned people such as Hitchens and Rice had clearly articulated (respectively, to the public at large and to our highest-ranking public servants) the best possible reasons for liberating an oppressed people from a strangulating autocracy it nevertheless seemed possible that the Iraq war itself was the culmination of a foreign policy rooted in Christian dominionism. I was told time and again that the dominant reason for this conflict was not the liberation of an oppressed people, nor the resolution of a military conflict which had dragged on in various forms since 1991, but rather a blind faith in our nation's divinely mandated manifest destiny. I dismissed such talk as yet another straw-man attack, blithely assuming the worst of one's opponents. It seemed to me somewhat
overly cynical to impute the most regressive of fundamentalist thinking to savvy political players who surely would not partake of the pabulum of pulpit-pounding pastors.

Evidently, I was wrong.  Mea culpa.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Apophatic Blending Characterizes Deistic Entity, Forwarding God Hypothesis

After watching my favorite YouTube video about the origins of theology for a fourth or fifth time through, I began to wonder whether most monotheistic theology was constructed upon a series of simple negations of our own unfortunate limitations as somewhat-evolved mildly-sapient earthbound primates.  One can readily imagine a conversation that went something like this:

Adam: “I quite dislike being always rooted to one spot, having tediously to walk or ride to the next place.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited as that, to be anywhere at any time, or everywhere all at once.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I so dislike of getting worn-out and footsore from work and travel.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited as that, to not have need of hands nor feet nor body.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also cannot stand that my strength is so feeble that I cannot even lift heavy stones.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to have the power to move anything at all.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also weary of my limited powers of workmanship.  I can only make arrows and bows.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to have the power to make anything at all.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also am saddened by my character flaws and lack of virtue.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to be perfect in all virtues.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also am often stymied by my limited knowledge of the world.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to know all that may be known.”

Adam: “Wow!  Just imagine it: Being everywhere at once, an all-knowing, all-powerful mind without need of a body, perfect in every conceivable way.”

Steve: “How wonderful that would be!  I would create whole peoples, set them one against another, compel bloody sacrifices, and revel in the smell of burning goat-flesh.”

Adam: “Um, okay -- whatever does it for you.”


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Texas Ten

I’ve been thinking a lot (and writing a bit) about the Ten Commandments as of late, ever since the legislature of the State of Oklahoma has seen fit to follow the example of Texas and install a monumental homage to Mosaic ethics and Hebraic religion on the Capitol grounds.  My first objection to this plan is straightforward and obvious, Oklahomans should know better than to follow the example of Texans.  Given that this is a controversy over Biblical passages, here is one which might be considered on point: “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”  Stiff-necked, indeed.  Texans are almost as arrogant as New Yorkers, even more hypocritical, and vastly more self-righteous.  It is little wonder that the Bush/Rove political machine first arose from the fragrant muck that is the Texas socio-political milieu.  

Seriously, though, it would be a huge mistake for Oklahoma to blindly follow where the Texas has trail-blazed in this matter.  I’ve no problem whatsoever with the state telling me that it is unethical and criminal to commit murder or theft or perjury.  Indeed, it seems perfectly self-evident that any peaceful and well-ordered society must have laws against such things.  That said, every other command set on this stone is either theocratic, outdated, or else better left to individual conscience.  The commandments against apostasy, idolatry, and blasphemy run directly against the values embodied in the First Amendment, and the proscription against graven images is (ironically enough) violated no less than three times on the Texas monument itself.  One wonders whether the engraver paused when inscribing the second commandment to ponder the eagle and flag that he had already set in stone.  One also wonders whether he was working on a Saturday, given our society’s approach to all things sabbatarian.  It should be clear to the thoughtful and well-informed observer that only three or four of these commandments carry weight in our own society, and thus this monument (no doubt unintentionally) conveys the message that divinely ordained laws dictated by God Himself may be blithely disregarded in our modern cultural and political context.  Without a theologian on hand to explicate the fine-grained distinctions between the various covenants and dispensations, this message is difficult to put in its proper Christian context.  Presumably it would be breaching the wall of separation to assign a chaplain to this task, but I’d not put it past the Oklahoma legislature at this point.

Even more disturbing than the obvious irrelevance of most of these commands outside of the context of an ancient tribal theocracy, though, is the unmistakable endorsement of Old Testament ethics which a reasonable observer cannot help but infer from a monument such as this one.  Guess what the punishment is for breaking most of these commandments — go ahead, guess.  Now guess again, but try to think of something harsher than your first guess.   (Hint: It may help if you watch a few videos of execution by stoning).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friday, May 8, 2009

Science, religion, and epistemology

Excerpted from a recent post by a friend of mine:

In other words, though there may be some difference in the kinds of knowledge claims that science and religion make, both science and religion use the same overall strategy. The claim that religion works by faith and that science by reason is too sloppy. Science must often depend on faith statements even though it uses reason extensively; likewise, theology relies on the exercise of reason. Science and theology share considerable commonality. Both faith and reason are methods for generating knowledge claims.

It seems to me that science and religion have strategies for achieving knowledge which are so different as to be quite nearly diametrically opposed, and this is fairly obvious whenever they both attempt to answer the same questions, such as:

I’ve drawn faith-based answers from my own faith tradition, no doubt other faith traditions have created their own answers.  Answers yielded up by the scientific method, by contrast, are cross-cultural and useful regardless of whether one speaks Arabic, Basque, Castilian, Dutch, English, or Finnish, and regardless of whether one prays to Allah, Bhagavan, Christ, Deus, Elohim, Freya, or whomever.  In every case, faith-based answers get about as far as “magical immaterial mind mediating by means most mysterious” and pretty much leaves it at that. 

Even the great Isaac Newton, when stymied in his investigation of the origins of the solar system, decided to chalk it up to an intelligent designer and ceased doing any more research on the question.  Meanwhile, methodological naturalists are busily arguing amongst themselves, refuting each other, testing out new theories, refining old ones, and generally getting on with the business of adding to humanity’s understanding of the world.  It is because scientific knowledge is considered provisional that they are allowed to keep moving forward and learning new things. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cultural confidence and the radical cringe

Earlier this week, I was rereading a book from one of my favorite living scholars, and came across this little gem:

 "[A]s the age of the Ottoman Empire's preeminence in military, cultural, and scientific achievements gave way to centuries in which European countries overtook them in all these respects, the confident and cosmopolitan toleration of minorities within the Ottoman Empire gave way to an era of Ottoman anxiety about dangers from without and within, and to xenophobia that greatly restricted and endangered Jews and other minorities."
– Thomas Sowell,
Economic Facts and Fallacies

Conservatives can boast of few advocates as brilliant as Thomas Sowell and there are few scholars of any ideological persuasion matching his depth and breadth.  I assume, therefore, that that those who seriously support free markets and free peoples must take Sowell's ideas seriously.  What Sowell implies in the excerpt above is that a loss of civilizational confidence may trigger a wave of xenophobia directed at ethnic minorities within one's borders.  He expands on this idea elsewhere in his books, as well as online essays such as this one in which Sowell points out that “When people are confronted with a choice between hating themselves for their stagnation or hating others for their progress, they seldom hate themselves” but rather “become hostile to the newcomers and . . . believe that they [the immigrants] have done something illegitimate to achieve success.”

What, if anything, do these generalizations from an eminent scholar of history and economics tell us about our most recent wave of anti-immigrant hysteria?  Our current mania has resulted in the formation of a citizen militia to keep watch on the southern border, as well as a bevy of state laws designed to make our land less hospitable to the those who cross borders without first consulting with the central bureaucracy in order to get their official papers signed and sealed, not to mention the creation of a woefully unregulated market in human trafficking. 

Perhaps Sowell’s insights are not applicable here.  Maybe anti-immigrant activists and their sympathizers are not generally motivated by the fear that our nation will cease to be incomparably great in military, cultural, economic, and scientific domains.  Maybe, though, Sowell really is on to something here.  Perhaps it is not merely the direct economic threat from the bilingual folks who did my landscaping and my roof, but also the more generalized anxiety that America (like Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs) has gone well past its prime and will never again be as powerful and preeminent as it once was.



The Graveyard of Dead Gods

Christopher Hitchens (and other lesser known debaters) are fond of pitching an argument for metaphysical naturalism which was first popularised in an essay by H.L. Mencken in which the author enumerates the various and sundry gods once beloved of man, and leaves the remainder of the problem as an excercise for the reader.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it isn't really an argument which leads validly to its preuspposed conclusion.  As it happens, this no easy trick to pull off, and one greatly risks tripping across the genetic fallacy in the process.  Nonetheless, I think that a valid argument may be lurking in here somewhere.  Here is one attempt:
  1. If humankind generally has a strong propensity for making up immaterial minds with magical powers, then probably all concepts fitting that description are merely made up.

  2. Humankind does in fact have just such a propensity, and in great abundance.  

  3. Therefore, all allegations of  immaterial minds with magical powers are made up.
Mencken and his latter-day exponents primarily work to buttress premise #2, by demonstrating the overabundance of gods which are today universally acknowledged to be naught but fictions.  
However, the problematic premise here is the first one.  Is it right to make the inductive leap from a general propensity to play pretend with immaterial invisible imaginary minds to the conclusion that all such things are made up?

Imagine that your five-year-old child has an imaginary friend, with whom she speaks and frolics, and who occasionally makes bizarre demands.  You would almost certainly dismiss the notion that her friend is really there, even if you get the sense that the friend is really quite compelling to your child.  Why would you do that, if you doubt the inference made in premise #1?  Is this not precisely the reason that we adults assume that the invisible playmates are not, in fact, direct apprehension of otherworldly spirits?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

ID-ing the H1N1

When William Dembski came to speak at OU awhile back, he claimed to have invented a set of esoteric mathematical tools with which he and other intelligent design proponents can detect complex specified information even in very complex entities such as living things. Given the current media-charged hysteria, it seems that the time is ripe for creation scientists to do some creative science, applying their novel theories to a novel threat. The new H1N1 is, after all, a relatively simple string of DNA which ought to readily succumb to ID's sophisticated algorithms, once the lab geeks take the time to sequence it. After crunching his numbers, Dembski and his crew should be able to determine whether the new H1N1 is indeed composed of complex specified information, and if so, what the detectable design of this virus tells us about the skills and intentions of its designer. Only once we understand what this hypothetical designer is really up to can we hope to make a viable vaccine, because anyone who designs and builds viruses may well work around our attempts at prophylaxis.

Discovery Institute - you now have a research program.  Go forth and do some science!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Theodicy Goes Viral

This week’s Everyday Ethics podcast endeavored to “explore the theology and ethics of flu” including the difficult question of whether to consider the “H1N1 virus a reason to abandon belief in an all-loving God who takes care of the world,” among other theological issues.  While this seems like a picayune problem relative to the larger evidential problem of evil taken as a whole, it is certainly worth considering more closely.

If metaphysical naturalism is true and life exists in any form, it must have arisen from the simplest self-replicating molecules gradually giving rise to more complex forms over time.  There is no other conceivable way for life to have begun on naturalism, and thus idea of naturalism necessarily implies the possibility of free-floating selfish genes which invade and attack other organisms, even the most intelligent of organisms, those who spend their work day combating infectious disease and their spare time contemplating deep metaphysical questions.  On the hypothesis of metaphysical naturalism, it is difficult to conceive of the existence of intelligent beings who are not prey to microscopic life-forms, even simple parasites which are barely more than strands of DNA with attitude.

On theism, though, there is no reason to suppose that the intelligent designer of all life would see fit to introduce microscopic strands of DNA or RNA into the world with the sole function of reproducing themselves at the expense of other organisms, including sentient beings.  Not only is there no particular reason to suppose that the intelligent designer would design such nasty buggers, but there is good reason to doubt that the creator would do such a thing, at least for those theists who posit the existence of a perfectly loving and all-powerful being who cares about at least one primate species on this planet.

In summary, we are once again faced with a situation which is more or less inevitable on naturalism, and pretty much inexplicable on classical theism.  The theist apologist will, no doubt, resort to some variation on “God moves in mysterious ways,” thereby absolving himself from giving an account of precisely how virulent disease came about and what role it is meant to play in the master scheme of the intelligent designer of the cosmos.  This excuse, while useful, only serves to underscore the vast difference in predictive power between these two metaphysical models.  Naturalism requires that the world be just the sort of nasty place that it is, supernaturalism merely allows for the possibility.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Gospels as Parables

Which of these three premises is false?

1) Jesus taught his disciples to emulate his own practices in their future ministry (e.g. Matt 10)
"It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher..."

2) Jesus made his public teachings known primarily (if not exclusively) via parables (e.g. Matt 13:34-35)

3) Matthew, as a faithful disciple, endeavored to emulate Jesus' own parabolic approach when authoring the first book of the Christian Scriptures.

It seems to me that modern Christians must reject at least one of these premises, in order to maintain that the Gospel According to Matthew may be firmly classed in the genre of biography rather than allegorical fiction or myth.  Most likely, the third one, although it is difficult to see good reasons to do so apart from the obvious fact that the literalist approach generally prevailed over the symbolic and gnostic approach some eighteen centuries ago.

Certainly it would seem difficult to maintain that Matthew never incorporated parabolic pericopes into his gospel, given such passages as the apocalyptic saintly zombie bonanza and his wholesale midrashic borrowings from the books of Moses.  Indeed, these passages never made any sense to me until I granted myself the leeway to read them as parables, at which point their meanings became quite plain.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Morality - Objective or Subjective?

Moral duties must inevitably be grounded in the subjective desires and preferences of at least one moral agent, since there can be no values without minds.  Theists generally prefer to ground moral values in a mind which has the virtue of being inhuman, immaterial, atemporal, eternal, etc. because such a mind presumably holds values and virtues which are immutable and incorruptible.  Does this imply that such values are necessarily (or even probably) preferable to our own? 

One may easily conceive of something like an hypothetical hyper-powerful evil demon, who creates whole worlds simply for the sake of giving its inhabitants desires and hopes and then inflicting suffering upon them.  Would we consider this sadistic demon’s moral values preferable to our own merely because they are independent of humanity, space, and time?  If not, why not? On theistic ethics, it is only the objectivity of moral values matters, without any regard to human desires and values. 

Divorcing ethics from human needs and values, however, inevitably muddles up the whole enterprise.  Some crimes cannot even be defined and evaluated without an evaluation of human desires and intentions.  What looks to an outside observer like torture and rape may actually be sadomasochistic role playing, understanding the intentions and desires of the participants is absolutely necessary to evaluate the morality of such actions.  Similarly, what looks like murder may turn out to be assisted suicide, once we discover the intentions and voluntary cooperation of the deceased.  In such cases, the criminality of the acts may turn entirely on the subjective values and intentions of the alleged victim.

By way of contrast, such crimes may be wholly justified on theism, without any regard for the human victims involved.  On the theistic view of ethics, if the gods command you to slaughter the natives and keep the virgins for yourselves, you must cast aside your own subjective distaste for murder and rape in order to put faith and fealty first and foremost.  This strikes me as an incredibly immoral approach to morality, but hey, at least it is objective rather than rooting itself in such pathetic human impulses such as love, mercy and empathy.

It seems clear enough to me that the whole point in having moral intuitions and creating moral norms is to make life better for the humans who must get along together.  On metaphysical naturalism, this is more or less the only plausible account of morality.  Many devout believers claim that it is impossible for them to conceive of any reason to work for a good life if there is no transcendent being offering moral norms carved in stone and the promise of eternal rewards.  This is, I believe, almost inevitably an illusion.  There may be some for whom apostasy implies an immediate descent into sociopathic amorality, but I am quite happy to say that I’ve not met any of them yet, despite having known many scores of freethinkers.