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.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Acura Declares War on Xmas! (not really)

Okay, so check these out:

The catchy phrase "Season of Reason" is in both cases is being used to promote and raise money for the corporate cause, while telling the customer/donor that she is a bright person who makes rational choices. That's all well and good, but doesn't Acura have anyone in the PR dept who can translate from English to Midwestern? Such blatant pandering to the rationalist crowd will surely draw a harsh backlash from the culture warriors on the far right.

Cue FauxNews hissy fit in 3... 2... 1...

Liveblogging Dinesh D'Souza

Q&A time starts around 21:07 or so. Woo hoo!

21:05 - Back to Romans 1:18-25. Given the preponderance of Sunday School teachers and students here, this argument seems a bit unoriginal and superfluous. Evidently I'm not taking advantage of the real joy of religious unbelief, which is unfettered debauchery. Damn!

21:01 - He does a better Bertrand Russell than Sam Harris impression.

21:00 - Now we've moved on (slightly) to atheism = communism. My brain is bleeding.

20:55 - Back to the argument that (1) Western culture rules :. (2) Xn doctrine is true.

20:50 - Now we're on to fine-tuning of the universe. Nothing new or surprising here.

20:45 - Arguing that the Big Bang in particular supports Augustinian cosmogony. He makes an incredible (some might last inordinate) amount of hay over this, then makes a poop joke at Hawking's expense.

20:42 - Evidently modern science overwhelmingly supports theism. Don't tell the NAS!

20:40 - Now he is getting into the argument that methodological naturalism has slowly displaced faith-based thinking.

20:35 - Turns out Christianity hated slavery all along. Who knew?

20:33 - Dinesh does his Sam Harris impression. Evidently Sam has a significantly deeper and manlier voice than Dinesh. :)

20:30 - Starting in on the argument from his bestselling apologetic book that Xn culture is compassionate and good, thererfore Xn doctrine is true. Is is true that Eastern cultures don't believe in compassion and the dignity of life? Don't tell the Jain!

20:25 - He has covered the "accident of birth" argument for one's faith, and the problem of childhood indoctrination. So far so good.

20:20 - Claims he is going to answer the "best arguments " of the Gnu Atheists, appealing solely to evidence and reason.

20:15 - Now he is telling us about the New Atheists and Hitch's hairdo. He claims that atheists want to convince people that atheism is correct. How very un-Xn of them! It is not as if Christians are evangelical about their worldview.

20:10 - He looks even goofier in person. Starts off with a joke and an anecdote about Churchill.

I've never had the chance to see Zaltzman in person, so it may be said that D'Souza is the most consummate bullshit artist that I may ever get the chance to see live. Probably I should not be this excited about it, but here we go!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pasquale's Wager

Suppose Pasquale Galante came to you and said that not only had he personally seen a flying saucer but that he would like you to believe that they are real – based on his testimony and that of other alleged eyewitnesses claiming similar experiences.  If you’re anything like me, you’d require stronger evidence than a few firsthand accounts.  Why?  Because people are mistaken all the time, about what they think they are perceiving, what they recall having seen, and how they recount their stories.  Some people can even be dishonest with themselves and others at times, especially when that inures to their personal benefit, as when incredible stories attract undue attention to their bearers.


Now suppose that in order to bolster his credibility and compel you to take his testimony seriously, Pasquale asks you to consider the following possibility:


·         If you choose to believe in the extraterrestrial UFO’s, you will not lose anything thereby.

·         If you do not choose to believe in the UFO’s, the aliens might well abduct and torture you just to prove the point.


So just go ahead and believe what Pasquale does, because the aliens are thought (by some) to be vengeful and cruel to unbelievers.


Now, how might you react to this little gambit?


You might say that one does in fact lose something whenever one claims that camera-shy extraterrestrials are visiting our planet and teasing credulous eyewitnesses with gratuitous acts of crop flattening.  You lose face, you lose credibility, you lose the ability to have critical thinkers take you seriously.  So it is not as if there is nothing on the line here.  At the very least, one’s own self-respect ought to depend somewhat on one’s sense of having lead an examined life, rather than blithely believing whomever walks up and claims to have had a personal encounter with super-intelligent beings from the heavens.


More importantly, though, one should notice that Pasquale would be threatening you with force by proxy, by saying that unless you believe what he says someone (in whom you do not now believe) may make you suffer for not believing.  Even leaving aside the fact that beliefs are not subject to direct acts of the will, this is an exceedingly bizarre way to attempt to compel belief.  It is a bit like pointing a toy gun at someone and telling them that if they don’t believe the gun is really real, well, you’re just going to pull the trigger and show them. 


Now that I’ve gone and created an analogy for my original analogy, probably I should go ahead and get to the point: Threatening unbelievers with hell is pointless.  Many people of faith have trouble seeing this, because they’ve been raised with the idea that hell is a real place to which their all-loving heavenly father will someday consign everyone who fails to adhere to their own faith.  But viewed from the outside it is no more credible as a threat than alien rectal probes or toy guns.  You have to already believe in the threat in order to take the threat seriously, but the whole point of the wager is to help unbelievers come to believe.



Wednesday, August 4, 2010

NOMA - ¿No va?

Some of my friends have recently gotten into a bit of an discussion over S. J. Gould’s proposal that science and religion ought to be considered non-overlapping magisteria (oddly dubbed ‘NOMA’ for the sake of brevity). Essentially, this model states that science should stick to empirical questions of fact, while religion may be left to deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. I contend that the model consists of four distinct propositions, some of which are more controversial than others.

1) Scientists should address themselves to empirical questions of fact, so long as they claim to be doing science.

2) Scientists should not address questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, so long as they claim to be doing science.

3) Religious leaders should not address empirical questions of fact, when acting in their capacity as people of faith.

4) Religious leaders should address themselves to questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, so long as they are acting as people of faith.

The reason these propositions are somewhat carefully circumscribed is that many people are both scientists and people of faith. Some biologists go home from the lab on Saturday and lead Sunday School classes the following morning, while the Vatican famously employs astronomer-priests to study how the heavens go rather than how to go to heaven.

A few caveats before moving forward. Firstly, it is important to notice that this model more prescriptive than descriptive. Gould was well aware of the fundamentalist resurgence against science, aimed primarily at his own field, and he spilled vats of ink working tirelessly against this phenomenon. So, it must be assumed that the advocate of NOMA is not saying that science and religion do not in fact overlap, but rather that we would be better off if they did not. Sort of an epistemological “good fences, good neighbors” policy between these two fields. Secondly, it is vital to note that NOMA only addresses the ideal relationship between the human endeavors of empirical science and religion. It says nothing about other fields of study such as historical exegesis, politics, economics, aesthetics, philosophy, etcetera. It may be that some of these fields necessary overlap with either science or religion, or both, but NOMA does not address this problem. Finally, it is important to note that NOMA is not necessarily an idealized end game. It may well be that I’d much rather my cranky preachy neighbor sold his home and moved away, but for now the best I can do is to extend and augment our mutual fence.

With all these caveats in mind, then, what of the four propositions themselves? I consider the first and fourth claims relatively uncontroversial, because they are basically saying that scientific and religious people should pursue their chosen specialties. So long as both fields of endeavor continue to coexist, their practitioners will address themselves to their respective fields of study, which are aptly described and empirical research on the one hand and questions of ultimate meaning on the other. Some will no doubt object that ethics are far too important to be left to people of faith, and should be carefully studied and skillfully debated by ethicists and philosophers. I have no problem with this, and would merely point out that the NOMA paradigm does not address itself to ethicists and philosophers. Such fellows can knock up my religious neighbor all they like and attempt to engage in lengthy discussions with him, without violating the NOMA principle, although I doubt they will be cordially invited in for tea.

The third proposition essentially states that we should not take something on faith which can be readily tested, for example, claims about the age of the Earth or the origin of species. Those who object to this principle are unwilling to consider evidence when they have presupposed the truth of faith-based propositions, and thus are not worth engaging in dialogue. No amount of logic and reason will avail against one who rejects both.

This leaves only the second and arguably most controversial principle, that scientists should refrain from claiming that science provides answers to questions of ultimate meaning and moral values. There are actually two distinct questions here: “Can science provide ultimate meaning?” and “Can science provide moral values?” Personally, I take the view that all meaning and purposes are proximate rather than ultimate (as Gould himself intimates towards the end of his original essay with his ‘cold bath’ theory of nature) and thus the NOMA model graciously grants religious figures his blessing to muck about with naught but an imaginary category. I’m unsure what the implications of this practice might be, except to say that is it probably harmless unless combined with harmful moral principles, e.g. “Your ultimate purpose is to please Elohim/Allah/God, and He has commanded you to take over a given patch of land by any means necessary.” The NOMA advocate does not say that such nonsense cannot be vigorously refuted, but merely that it cannot be addressed using the hypothetico-deductive method.

As to the formulation of moral values themselves, that may be the ultimate sticky wicket. To those who adhere to the idea of an ‘is-ought gap’ and assert that we should mind the gap, it seems clear enough that science can only address questions of what is rather than how things ought to be. It can tell us how to prevent HIV infections, but it cannot tell us why we should do so. To do that, we have to draw on inherent values such as love of health and empathy for others. There are some who claim that our values should be deduced from facts about the world, but I’ve not yet seen one of them make a persuasive case. I’ll try to keep my eyes and mind open for a good argument to that effect, however.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Fish

It's been quite awhile since I've posted up a new piece of "Friday Fishbait" but someone just *has* to explain this one to me, because it is entirely unclear to me what it might possibly mean. I brake for vicious fishes? I follow an angry messiah? What, what?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Good time for a protest

It’s that time of year again.  The tea-and-crumpets-and-bigotry crowd is coming out of the proverbial prayer closet tomorrow in an annual effort to create the false impression that America is an officially Evangelical Christian Nation.  Everyone else can just pack up and move back to Europe, or Canada, or Rhode Island, or wherever they came from with their wacky ideas of religious plurality and tolerance.


Let me be totally clear about this: If you want to pray, that’s just fine.  If you want to cast aside Jesus’ explicit commandments in Matthew 6 and choose to go out in public and make a big spectacle of yourself praying to Jesus, well that’s fine too – I’m not saying you have to make sense.  What I am saying is that I find it beyond bizarre that the National Day of Prayer Task Force insists on having a pray-in at the State Capitol and inviting high-ranking state officials to explicitly endorse their evangelical faith.


Think about it: Tomorrow we will have public officials preaching piety on public property in the shadow of the seat of state government.   Yes, it is constitutionally protected free speech, but what possible purpose can such hypocrisy serve other than to create the impression that anyone who does not sign up to the Lausanne Covenant should be considered second-class citizens with less than full access to the participatory political process and privileges of citizenship?  If you can think of even one legitimate reason for ignoring explicit Christian doctrine along with the longstanding American ideal of keeping the state out of the church, please do let me know.


The question of whether we should have national days of religious observance was definitively settled quite some time ago, when it was directly and forcefully addressed by the author of the Declaration of Independence:


“I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. … I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. … Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.” – Thomas Jefferson, to Reverend Samuel Miller, 23 January 1808.







Friday, April 16, 2010

Itchy Okie trigger finger


Please read the original interview transcript, linked above, before reading this post.  Without the full context, we run the risk of misinterpreting the words of a man who hopes to be elected to the highest office in Oklahoma.  There have been more than a few bits of disinformation circulating about this particular interview, and so I’d like to try to clear up a few things for the record. 


“Keep and bear arms” originally meant, at a minimum, the idea of owning personal firearms and using them in warfare or training.   Assuming, then, that our elected officials are generally familiar with the political terms of art they employ, this means that when Brogdon says “I have the right to keep and bear arms and to provide and protect our families from an overreaching federal government” he means to convey the idea that he perceives a need to arm and train in preparation to slay federal employees.


Now, I’m no longer directly on the federal payroll, but I spend the bulk of my working hours directly supporting federal civil servants, as well as Air Force officers and airmen, and I’ve got to say that they are all fairly decent folks.  I’ve also met Mr. Brogdon on occasion, and he seemed like a pretty nice guy.  As a result of these experiences, I’ve a good deal of difficulty imagining him shooting to kill my co-workers on account of their overreaching efforts.  Who, then, are the “out of control” feds against whom Brogdon hopes to prepare a well-trained militia?  Here, one is left to speculate because Mr. Brogdon was not so incautious as to precisely whom his proposed Oklahoma militiamen ought to be targeting.  Nevertheless, it is ominous that the anti-government rhetoric advocating training in preparation for insurrection (once the exclusive domain of marginal radicals) has become so mainstream that even gubernatorial candidates of major parties have no problem going on the record with such talk.


There are those who will say that it is premature to link Brogdon’s assertion of the need for an explicitly anti-federal militia to the far-right wing militia movement, but to them I must point out that the rhetoric used is too strikingly similar to be merely coincidental.  Consider, for example, the following quotation from Thom Robb:


“You should be in the movement out of a sense of duty toward our children.  Our duty in life is to assure a peaceful life for our children.  There is a war in America today.  In one camp is the federal government…[t]heir goal is to destroy us.  Our goal is to destroy them.  There is no middle ground.  There is only right and wrong.”


Notice several elements in common between Robb’s and Brogdon’s worldviews here: Both men divide the world into patriots and their beloved families on the one side and evil faceless agents of federal government on the other; both of them anticipate an armed conflict between these two groups; and both assert the duty of patriots to arm themselves and train for to fight in this conflict.   The notable dissimilarities between these men are that Brogdon has not (yet) claimed that armed conflict is inevitable, and that Brogdon tends to frame the opposing groups in terms of spiritual and ideological purity, whereas Robb focuses on spiritual and racial purity.  These distinctions do not make enough of a difference to comfort me.  How about you?




Monday, April 12, 2010

Steven Pinker at USAO

Last week, the campus of USAO in Chickasha was graced by one of the greatest minds of our time, and for once I can say that (by the grace of one of the greatest wives of our time) I was in attendance and paying attention.  The lecture was rooted in the concepts of Dr. Pinker’s most recent book but he managed to make it significantly more accessible and even more entertaining than the book itself. 


One of the highlights was a breakdown of English dysphemisms, their appropriate uses, and the strong emotional reactions that each category conjures up (e.g. revulsion, shock and awe).   Also, a reading of the Congressional attempt to ban naughty words by enumerating all of them. 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Haskell County Monument now officially unconstitutional

The story broke today (via Tulsa World) that the Haskell County monument to theocracy has been denied review by the Supreme Court, effectively making this decision the law of the land. Congrats to the Greens and the ACLU for triumphing over this attempt by theocrats to resurrect archaic religious dicta.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Force-feeding faith to tiny tots

Despite the steaming hot editorial imprecations flowing forth from the BM, it is emphatically not the case that we unbelievers are indoctrinating our children.  This is not a case of pot and kettle, this is a case of the purest tu quoque.  We freethinkers want our children to learn to think for themselves.  We don't just tell them what to believe but rather we try to teach them how to think, how to separate the wheat of rationality and evidence from the chaff of fallacy and myth.  We do this, in part, by exposing them to all sorts of various worldviews and letting them discern for themselves which ones to believe. 


A confident worldview, firmly rooted in reality, need not isolate and indoctrinate its children, forcing them to repeatedly intone the creeds that they must needs believe, cocooning them in an echo-chamber of Sunday Schools and  private Christian Academies or home-schools.  We freethinkers allow our children to interact with people of any faith or none, having confidence in their ability to learn to reason for themselves.  We feel free to take them to Christian services, Baha'I services, Jewish synagogues, Wiccan rituals, Humanist/Unitarian services, and anything else we can find to broaden their horizons.  Having seen all these for myself, I can say that few congregations are so pathetic as those which feel the need to constantly reassure themselves (and their children) that the object of their devotion is really real.  Here are some lyrics on point:


I believe I believe that God is here
I believe I believe that God is here
I believe I believe that God is here

(Moen, Overstreet; © 1997 Integrity's Hosanna! Music


Offhand, I cannot think of anything more indicative of a deep-seated need to compensate for a total dearth of evidence ("We have ancient books!") than standing and swaying and repeating lines such as these over and over (and over).  I also cannot think of anything more personally stultifying, but I sit through it, gritting my teeth and humming vaguely along, because it is important to me that my children learn to understand the cultural milieu into which they were born, without which they cannot hope to understand why their neighbors behave as they do.  Now, have you Baptists ever showed your children a Dawkins film, in an attempt to expose them to other worldviews than your own?  Ever take them to an Orthodox or Catholic church to witness a liturgical service?  Ever take them to meet the friendly Unitarians or the Soka Gakkai Buddhists at the Gay Pride Festival?  Given them a book by Philip Pullman?  I didn't think so.  You are too threatened by the mere possibility of heresy and apostasy to even contemplate allowing your kids to sort such things out for themselves. 


Why is that, exactly?  I suspect it is because you fear you might face the unimaginable "wrath stored up for a man who would obstruct children from coming to Jesus" with which Mr. Prentice so unsubtly threatens his readers.  This should give us all pause.  What sort of Heavenly Father gives his children such an ultimatum?  Love Me or Burn!  This is an abusive father figure if ever there was one.  Somebody call the metaphysical DHS! 


Seriously, though, if you Baptists want to teach your children to tremble in fear of a cosmic ruler who fully intends to torture most of his subjects forever for the victimless crime of improper belief, so be it, that is your right as an American.  All we ask is that you respect our right to raise our children to think for themselves, instead of teaching them rely upon ancient documents of questionable provenance to provide all the important answers about life, the universe, and everything.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Contra Plantinga #6 - Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN)

A bit of background reading may be necessary here, because Alvin Plantinga’s
Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) is fairly technical and most people do not intuitively understand probability theory, especially Bayesian maths. Suffice to say that in order for Plantinga’s argument to go through he must show that humans most always form true beliefs about the world [ P(R)≈1 ] and that probability of this happening on the joint hypotheses of metaphysical naturalism and evolutionism is low [P(R|E&N)≈0]. Alas, Plantinga fails to substantiate either of these claims in anything like a rigorous logical fashion. He more or less assumes the truth of the former premise and merely hand-waves his way to the latter. Whenever you see a brilliant logician such as Plantinga eliding the steps to his conclusion instead of outlining a tightly reasoned deductive argument, well, caveat emptor.

A couple points must be made here. Metaphysical materialists cannot assume P(R)≈1 since we believe that all of the (oddly pervasive) talk of gods, spirits, ghosts, magic, chakras, witches, faeries, etc. is all so much bunk. People all around the world make up all sorts of wacky beliefs about disembodied minds and the imaginary forces emanating therefrom, and thus P(R) is evidently nowhere near unity. Moreover, since most religions (with a few interesting exceptions) assert that all other religions make up all sorts of untruths about the world, which are integrated into their devotees worldviews, it seems odd for any religious person to argue that humans almost always form true beliefs about the world. Finally, it should be evident from the overabundance of material at websites such as and that we humans are indeed quite prone to all manner of irrational thinking, not least of which an inborn tendency to attribute agency where none exists. Daniel Dennett and Pascal Boyer (among others) have written extensively and convincingly on this latter point, and I commend them to anyone interested in mapping out the bounds of human rationality.

Secondly, while the probability P(R|E&N) is nowhere near unity, it is neither nearly so low as to allow Plantinga's argument to go through. The crucial question here is whether we would expect naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms to select for true beliefs over false ones. This question is not nearly so simple as it sounds (or as Plantinga's treatment suggests) but it should be fairly obvious that it is generally far easier to program a neural network to solve problems of circumstantial adaptation by providing them with adaptive goals and good data than by providing them with maladaptive goals and bad data, as Plantinga suggests. Indeed, if E&N are both true we must expect that adaptive goals (e.g. craving food, avoiding pain) came first and the neurological wiring which allows for holding propositional truths (and hence the possibility of R) came along some time later.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Solidarity with Kurt Westergaard

May the forces of religious fanaticism and censorship drown in the blood they spill. Amen.