Defining superstition

One of the problems we frequently encounter when discussing religion (especially in the context of science) is that a lot of people have a hazy understanding of what superstition is. They think superstition means “silly things other people believe,” and if we describe any of their beliefs as superstition, they think we’re merely insulting their beliefs without making any substantive criticism. This in turn allows them to get away with a lot of superstitious thinking, at least in their own estimation.

For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for a nice concise, comprehensive definition of what superstition actually is, so that we can share it with people and say, “This is why I describe your belief as a superstition.” So far, the definition I like best is this one:

Superstition is when you arbitrarily associate some particular effect with some particular cause in the absence of any plausible or verifiable, non-magical connection between them.

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The cockroach babies

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited the crew over at William Dembski’s abandoned blog Uncommon Descent, but this post by scordova caught my eye. He’s wrestling with the problem of malicious “designs” in nature, and gets right to the heart of the matter.

Can the Intelligent Designer of life create malicious designs? If the flagellum and other parts of bacteria are intelligently designed, it would raise the question whether microbially-based diseases and plagues are intelligently designed. It seems the best inference from the evidence is that even malicious designs are also intelligently designed.

Always the ID dilemma. Once you start confusing function with purpose, there’s no reasonable way to stop inferring design for everything, even the nasty stuff. And since ID, apart from superficial lip service to polytheism and panspermatism, is just window dressing for good old-fashioned fundamentalist creationism, the presumed design of the more “malicious” aspects of nature poses a theological problem of no small proportions.

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How do we know?

Picking up where we left off yesterday, we’ve seen that Pastor Stephen Feinstein would be ill-advised to propose that there are any material preconditions for the universe, “reasonable standards,” and epistemology. That which exists in the same form at all points in time is necessarily uncaused and uncausable, since there’s no point in time where it was not already what it is now, and therefore no opportunity for it to be changed from “non-existent” to “existing.” The laws of physics, the laws of logic and reason, the fundamental material aspects of the space-time continuum, and so on, are all uncreatable and have no material preconditions.

That leaves logical preconditions, i.e. the relationship between A and B that allows us to say B cannot be true if A is false, and thus if B is true then we know A must be true also. Given that there is no possibility that the universe, “reasonable standards” and epistemology could have supernatural causes, can we nevertheless reason our way from B (the universe, reasonable standards, and epistemology) back to some A that must also be true? Can we, in other words, find Pastor Stephen’s logical preconditions for the existence of the universe, reason, and epistemology?

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3rd degree gullibility

There are three degrees of gullibility. First degree gullibility is when you believe something because you don’t know any better, like a very young child believing in Santa. Second degree gullibility is when you become aware of conflicts and inconsistencies in what you believe, but you do not admit that they are genuine conflicts and inconsistencies, like when a creationist suggests that the speed of light was higher in the past and therefore the existence of visible stars more than 6K to 10K light years away does not contradict Genesis. And third degree gullibility is when you admit that there are conflicts and inconsistencies in what you believe, and yet you sincerely argue that people ought to believe it anyway. I haven’t got a one-line example of that last one, but “bobby” at has a longer one. And he even got an Editor’s Choice award for it.

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Science and the supernatural

In a comment over at my other blog, tokyotodd writes:

In order for a worldview to be capable of addressing questions about God or miracles, it must first posit some sort of methodology by which these objects (if they existed) could be detected and empirically verified. This requires knowledge of the objects being investigated, without which it would be impossible, or at least highly presumptuous, to make predictions about how we might expect to encounter or observe them. This would seem to rule out naturalism as a useful worldview, since it simply presupposes the nonexistence of the supernatural and therefore cannot really address questions about it (except to regard them as meaningless).

There are indeed difficulties involved in the investigation of the supernatural, but the scientific worldview isn’t one of them. Science (sometimes called “naturalism” in the same way evolution gets labelled  “Darwinism”) is entirely neutral on the question of natural vs. supernatural, and has routinely investigated phenomena that were popularly regarded as supernatural at the time. The problem with the supernatural is the vague and volatile definition of what “supernatural” is supposed to mean.

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Korean creationists get science out of textbooks.

It sounds odd to hear a story like this from Asia, but according to, South Korea has a creationist problem as well, to the point that it’s negatively impacting science education over there.

A petition to remove references to evolution from high-school textbooks claimed victory last month after the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) revealed that many of the publishers would produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopteryx.

I suppose one way to protect America from the negative consequences of sabotaging our own science education is to sabotage everyone else’s as well, but still.

An honest creationist?

It’s nice to know there’s at least one honest creationist left. Or at least, partly honest. And he lives in Georgia.

Educators across the country are now developing what’s called the “next generation of science standards.”

A member of the Villa Rica Church of Christ told Channel 2’s Diana Davis evolution should not be a part of those standards…

[Church member Bob] Staples and his church are fighting for schools to include another view… Staples told Davis he believes in the literal meaning of the Bible: That god created heaven and Earth.  Although, he says, he does not expect public schools to teach the bible’s view of creationism.

None of this namby-pamby “teach the controversy” stuff. He wants evolution out and creationism in. He doesn’t expect to get what he wants, but he’s telling the plain and simple truth about his goals. Rather refreshing in a way.
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Does God show up through miracles?

Today I’d like to look at Mighty Timbo’s claim that he has evidence of God, in the form of a miracle that allegedly happened to his wife. It follows the traditional outline for miracle stories, so we can reasonably call this a typical case. And that’s a good thing because it also gives us at least the beginnings of an approach to understanding “miracles” in general. I’m going to go over a few of the general alternatives, and then (unlike Timbo) I’m going to suggest a way that we can objectively evaluate the evidence to find out which alternative is most consistent with real-world truth.

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Resistance is… persecution?

This is really not going to end well for the ID creationist community…

“David Coppedge alienated his co-workers by the way he acted with them, and blamed anyone who complained about those interactions,” according to JPL in their response. “He accuses his former project supervisor and line manager of making discriminatory and retaliatory employment decision, when they had in fact protected him for years.”

via Blogs.

One of the problems with being reality-averse is that you also corrupt your ability to assess your own circumstances. I’m sure Coppedge went into this suit convinced that he was going to show the world how prejudiced and unfair everyone else was for resisting his attempts to convert them to his own beliefs. He should have learned his lesson from Bill Buckingham.

Consistency with the truth

Our recent (and ongoing?) discussion with Kevin got me thinking about truth and the supernatural. By definition, the difference between a true story and a false one is that the true story is consistent with reality and the false one isn’t. This consistency has two aspects: negatively, consistency means the true story does not contradict reality, and positively, it means that there’s a connection between the events in the story and the events in the real world, above and beyond what’s reported in the story itself.

The the first aspect is fairly clear, and I think most of us think of consistency as non-contradiction. The positive aspect of consistency is just as important, however. Let’s look at an example. In the summer of 2009, a mob of vigilantes demanded that police arrest a goat, on the grounds that he was really a car thief who had transformed himself into a goat upon being apprehended. Was their story true? If it was, then we ought to find connections between the story and the reality above and beyond what was reported. For example, car thieves don’t typically walk around naked, looking for cars to steal, because that’s a sure way to attract unwanted attention! So was the goat dressed in human clothes? If not, where are the clothes?

Goats are easy to lock up, and legal to kill. If this story were true, then it’s describing a suspect who used black magic to make himself more vulnerable to the retributions of the mob. And why would he be stealing cars when he could be using his magical powers to become an overnight celebrity, changing from human to goat and back for astonished audiences around the world? And so on.

In other words, the implications of the story go far beyond the immediate report in the story itself. If the story were true, then there would be a number of other things that would be true as well. Thus, we can check the validity of the report by following up on all the implications of the story. If people report a supernatural occurrence, and their story implies the existence of other facts that ought to be present in the real world, then it’s reasonable and reliable to assess the veracity of the story by checking for the existence of the implied consequences. And that’s what I referred to as “the 7th criterion,” in my review of the six criteria William Lane Craig claims to use in assessing the historicity of the resurrection.

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