Take My October Class: Moral Reasoning from Theory to Practice (Applying Science and Philosophy in Everyday Life)

This will be a survey of contemporary moral theory and the scientific study of morality, with an aim to improving your own moral decision-making, and encouraging the same in others. Register now. It’s a one-month, online, do-at-your-own-pace course in which you can participate as much or as little as you want. Lots of people just lurk, do the readings, and read the ensuing discussions, and that’s totally fine. But there will also be challenging assignment questions each week that will help you grasp and benefit from the readings and discussions, for anyone who wants to take that additional step.

Subjects covered in this course will include:

  1. [Read more...]

Join My June Course! On the Science and Philosophy of Free Will

This June begins my online course on the science and philosophy of free will, from a naturalist (atheist) and secular perspective. Please spread the word and let people know, anyone you think might be interested. It will be useful to anyone wanting to understand the concept and science better, and even more so anyone who has use for more understanding of free will as a real-world applied concept in legal practice, medical ethics, the penal system, political policy, personal relations, and beyond. And especially if you want to know what’s wrong with common treatments of the subject (as for example by Sam Harris, whose book on it will be the course text, mostly to analyze its mistakes, as a useful way of understanding the subject better).

You can learn all about the course and register here. But this is the gist:

Description: We will study the intersection between science and philosophy in defining and understanding free will, with the aim of learning the latest science on the nature and existence of free will and how to critically approach philosophical uses of it. Students will not only learn about the relevant elements of brain science, but also how to identify common philosophical fallacies in reasoning about free will, and the real-world application of the analysis of free will in diverse fields, from law to medical ethics.

Course topics: The varieties of free will and the differences among them; identifying causes and the role of personal identity in making decisions (and what the latest brain science has to say about both); the nature and purpose of assigning responsibility to personal agents (in law, ethics, and daily life); the difference between determinism and fatalism, and the importance of addressing both personal and genetic-environmental causes of decisions when thinking about social, political, legal, and moral systems.

Schedule: June 1 to June 30 (2014). Specific reading and discussion goals are set for every week, completing four units in four weeks, but within that framework you can participate in every element on your own time. There are no live events to be missed. One book by Sam Harris is required reading (see below). Everything else about the course is provided inside the classroom website. Course lectures, academic papers, links to websites, and forums for discussions with the instructor and students are included in the Moodle website classroom. Visit the class anytime to contribute your posts and receive [my] replies in discussion forums. There is nothing “live” you can miss – log in and participate anytime day or night, 24/7, throughout the month.

Required Course Text: Sam Harris, Free Will (2012). Students must purchase their own copy (print or electronic) before course begins. Additional readings will be provided electronically at no cost to students.

There are also a bunch of other courses offered by other experts you may have interest in June. Check out the current list here. And this will continue, month by month. So I recommend everyone who might ever be interested, should any future course cover a topic you are keen to learn more about, to follow PSA (Partners for Secular Activism) on twitter and facebook.

On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus

I have often been asked how we should evaluate arguments from consensus. That’s where someone says “the consensus of experts is that P, therefore we should agree P is true.” On the one hand, this looks like an Argument from Authority, a recognized fallacy. On the other hand, we commonly think it should add weight to a conclusion that the relevant experts endorse it. Science itself is based on this assumption. As is religion, lest a religionist think they can defeat science by rejecting all appeals to authority–because such a tack would defeat all religion as well, even your own judgment, since if all appeals to authority are invalid, so is every appeal to yourself as an authority (on your religion, or even on your own life and experience).

And yet, it is often enough the case that a consensus of experts is wrong (as proved even by the fact that the scientific consensus has frequently changed, as has the consensus in any other domain of expertise, from history to motorboat repair). And our brains are cognitively biased to over-trust those we accept as authorities (the Asch effect), putting us at significant risk of false belief if we are not sufficiently critical of our relying on an expert. It’s only more complicated when we have warring experts and have to choose between them, even though we are not experts ourselves.

So what do we do?

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Online Course on Naturalism in May

Back by popular demand, I am teaching my online course on naturalism as a philosophy and worldview this May (just a few weeks away). Learn about all aspects of naturalism as a philosophy of life, and how to use it in practical ways and improve on it. In the process you will learn many of the basics of college-level philosophy.

The course begins May 1 and ends May 31. You study and participate at your own pace, as much or as little as you like, and you get to ask me any questions you want about the course topics all month long, and read and participate in online discussions with me and other students. I will direct and comment on readings each week and give weekly course assignments which consist of answering questions about what you’ve learned and what you think about it. The course text you have to buy is Sense and Goodness without God. All other readings and media will be provided to students free of charge (all you have to provide is access to the internet).

Course Description: This one-month course builds the foundations for practical philosophy. Learn how to develop and defend your own naturalistic worldview from studying a model example, and how to employ it in your daily lives and your understanding of the world. Learn the basics of how to develop and test a philosophy of epistemology (theory of knowledge), metaphysics (theory of existence), ethics (theory of morality), aesthetics (theory of beauty), and politics (theory of government), using logical, evidence-based reasoning. Based on assigned readings, lectures, and weekly class discussion online with Dr. Carrier (Ph.D. in the history of philosophy).

Tuition: $59

Must register by April 30
. And the course could fill quickly so register sooner rather than later. It may be a year before I offer it again.

More details here.

This time I’ve signed up with a new educational project, SecularActivism.org. As a growing consortium of teachers and experts, we will be offering an increasing array of college-quality mini-courses in many diverse subjects for the benefit of the secularist, skeptic, humanist, and atheist communities. We aren’t offering this for college credit (so it’s not for pursuing a career). We are offering this for the mere benefit of making this kind of knowledge and learning accessible to more people, in an age when college is becoming prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to a hard working public, and yet precisely when sophisticated knowledge needs to be more widely available.

SecularActivism.org lists several other courses of interest taught by other experts this May (and soon for June and so on), and those offerings will increase in coming months. The site link also contains an option to join a dedicated mailing list that will notify you of new course offerings as they are announced. My own courses I will announce on my blog here.

Participating is not only a good way to add to your learning and exploration of philosophy (and naturalism in particular), it is also a way to help support my continued work in all fields. If we can keep this educational project successful, it may finally bring me some income security. And do our community some valuable good in the process, by making courses of all kinds available to more and more people who most want to keep learning, for their own good and the good of the world.

FtBCon 2: Philosophy for Everyone

At 10am PST today (noon Central) I’ll be hosting the panel Philosophy for Everyone. Please tune in and watch. (The link to the video feed is the “Official Session Page,” down the right margin of the Lanyrd event page.) Questions can be directed to us by using the Pharyngula chatroom during the show. If you have questions that don’t make it into the program, post them here if you want to hear my reply–or if you want to ask a question of one of the other panelists that didn’t get answered on the show, follow the links in their bios to find their websites or twitter addresses. Please be polite and productive in your queries!

Of relevance to the subject of this panel is the talk I gave for Skepticon just last year, “Is Philosophy Stupid?” To delve even deeper into philosophy, see my recommended readings (especially, for beginners, the first page). Check that out for more on what philosophy is and why it’s important (and how academic philosophers are often doing it wrong). After the show, if the panelists have suggestions for further reading or additional resources, I will also add them here.

FtBCon2: Free Online Conference Next Weekend!

Remember when we had this amazing free online conference one weekend last year, with dozens of talks, panels, and speakers, that people all over the world could watch live? And ask questions in real time. And watch the recorded events ever after on YouTube. Well, get ready. Because we’re doing it again–in precisely one week.

Our complete calendar for the weekend of January 31 to February 2 (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) will be finalized and go live over this weekend. As will our complete list of speakers and panelists (and its huge! and spans the globe!). For both speakers and schedule, bookmark our page on Lanyrd and check it tomorrow night (as a backstage planner, I can tell you that we’ve scheduled over 30 talks and panels throughout the conference, featuring over 80 speakers and panelists altogether). For everything else, bookmark FtBCon.org and also check that Saturday night.

(We will also have a YouTube collection of everything that you can view if you miss the live events, facilitated by our own Miri Mogilevsky; right now over there you can view all of last year’s talks and panels–you can also read up on last year’s event here and peruse its Lanyrd page here. This year will be organized similarly, and have a similar diversity of topics.)

Last year I attended many of the talks and panels as a viewer and it was awesome. I gave one talk myself, on “What the Military Taught Me about Feminism.” This year I’m doing one talk and one panel, and helping facilitate and introduce a few more (including panels featuring members of the Secular Student Alliance, The Black Freethinkers Network, and the Filipino Freethinkers…who will actually be streaming in live from the Philippines!). [Read more...]

Merry Christmas, God Is Still a Delusion

William Lane Craig once again advertised he’s past it last week when he published on the Fox News website A Christmas Gift for Atheists — Five Reasons Why God Exists, demonstrating that he hasn’t upped his game since, well, ever. He is still repeating the same illogical, refuted, lousy arguments. And somehow still thinking atheists are going to fall for it. Other bloggers here have taken it apart in their own way (e.g. PZ and Avicenna). But I’m struck with real sadness that there are still people as smart as Craig who are still convincing themselves with this delusional nonsense. It’s so astonishingly dishonest and irrational. Let me inoculate you.

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Ergo God Maximally Enjoys Getting Gangbanged

This started as a half-serious joke I told in a bar earlier this year. It has become a running gag among some of my drinking compatriots, who, like me, agree it’s, well, let’s be honest, kidding on the square. Apart from it being funny (if rather rude…so, yeah, people offended by kinky sex-positive porny stuff should stop reading and go look at pictures of modestly clothed kittens instead), I wouldn’t normally blog about this except, reality imitating art, a serious discussion of the principle the joke plays on has been engaged recently in academic philosophy, after the release of Rob Lovering’s new book God and Evidence: Problems for Theistic Philosophers (2013), recently reviewed by Clayton Littlejohn of King’s College (London) in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review.

The Boring but Essential Backstory

Lovering’s arguments are not exactly new, but they represent an evolution of those arguments in response to the latest attempts by theists to get around them. Of the five modes he employs to show theism is untenable, the fifth pertains to kinky fun gangbangs. Oh, of course, Lovering says nothing of the kind. But his argument is only just a polite way of saying the same thing I did over a snifter of fine whisky. (And I had not then even heard of his book.)

Lovering’s other four arguments are, basically, (1) “if the evidence were good enough to warrant belief, there wouldn’t be so many nice, smart people who remain unconvinced”; (2) “a god can have no good reason to hide in the way he indisputably does”; (3) “just having faith” despite all that is immoral (by the theist’s own standards); and (4) “making excuses for why the evidence doesn’t fit what we expect from a benevolent superpower renders theism self-refuting,” because (and now I’m quoting Littlejohn) all arguments for God’s existence “assume that we can know what God would do in some situations (e.g., share evidence with us),” whereas the excuses apologists resort to all require asserting we cannot know that.

And then, Lovering’s fifth argument is “omniscience is impossible.” But he gets there in a smart way: he proves a maximally great being cannot exist (and thus all ontological arguments necessarily fail), because no being can be maximally great who fails to know something someone else really does know. This is, again, not new, but it is a good focus of the argument on a genuine problem with the kind of omniscience theism requires. One can easily dismiss arguments from incoherence by just changing your definitions (hence I’m a bit harsh on them in Sense and Goodness without God IV.2.4, pp. 275-77, although I still present some there that do work). For example, showing that there are things it is logically impossible for anyone to know (even a god) can be bypassed by simply defining omniscience as “knowing everything it is logically possible to know.” But there is a way to nix that tactic: identify something that is not logically impossible to know (because, for example, you can point to someone who actually knows it), which God should or must be able to know.

Especially if God must know it in order to be considered maximally great.

Because if there is someone who in some respect is greater than God, God cannot be the greatest being. But even apart from that. If there is something someone knows, which God cannot or does not know, then God cannot be considered omniscient in any appreciable sense. Of course, one can always bite the bullet and admit God isn’t omniscient (just as one can always bite the bullet and admit God is evil…all hail Cthulhu!), but that opens Pandora’s beautiful box of Her Majesty’s Most Unsettling Cognitive Dissonance. Wait, if God is not the greatest being, how do I know how great he is? Or that he is great at all? And how can a bodiless mind have knowledge of stuff anyway? And how did that mind come to know anything? And if God can be ignorant, doesn’t that mean he can also be evil or incompetent or pathetic, too? And if he doesn’t know some important things, doesn’t that mean he can make mistakes? And be wrong about stuff? My world is c-r-u-m-b-l-ing!!!

In short, belief in God can survive the realization that God cannot be meaningfully omniscient, that in fact he must be ignorant of things even ordinary puny humans have knowledge of. But such belief is not likely to survive long. Because once you’ve taken that step, belief in God starts to look ridiculous. Yes, yes, it looked ridiculous already. But now the believer can’t avoid admitting it.

Okay, Now to the Gangbangs

(you know that’s why you’re actually reading this)

So what does all this have to do with exhilaratingly naughty group sex? I’m getting to that. But I have to bore you a little more, first. (Technically this teasing counts as S&M; my apologies–although to those who love being ruthlessly teased, you’re welcome). [Read more...]

The Gettier Problem

Among my many forms of cobbled-together self-employment I provide specialized tutoring to graduate students in ancient history and philosophy around the world. Which is rewarding in lots of ways. One of which is when my student ends up correcting an error of mine. That’s when you know you are a successful teacher, and they are starting to surpass you in knowledge and acumen. I’ve actually been excited to report on this, and correct the record. Gratitude goes to Nick Clarke.

The short of it is that long ago in a comments thread on my blog many years ago I was incorrect in my analysis of Gettier Problems. I was on to the right solution, but I made the mistake of assuming an unsound conclusion could not be considered justified (and without realizing that’s what I was doing). Conclusions in Gettier Problems rely on false premises to reach true conclusions. I was right about that. But I wasn’t right about that being grounds to dismiss them.

Backstory is required. [Read more...]

Is Philosophy Stupid?

Photo of me behind the podium, hands raised in gesture, speaking. Red-silver tie on white shirt under a dark grey suit jacket. Hair shaggy. Glasses hipster.My Skepticon 6 Talk is now available for viewing. Check it out on YouTube: Is Philosophy Stupid? (Thankyou Hambone Productions!). Ad revenue goes to charity. Also for convenience here is the link to my ancillary materials for that talk, a page that includes a link to a non-animated PDF of the slideshow, a rough text for the talk (not exactly the same as what I spoke, but close enough in most salient points, and the text has a few gems I didn’t have time for in the speech), and two bibliographies for further reading, one on how to become a good lay philosopher, and another on popular recent critiques of philosophy.