Sense and Goodness on Kindle for Three Bucks!

Image from Amazon of the cover of Sense and Goodness without God, kindle edition.Amazon is running a special on my critically acclaimed book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism for kindle. I don’t know how long this special price will last. But it’s something worth taking advantage of. Just three dollars (and three cents). That’s an 88% discount off the print edition list price. Check it out!

And now I’m off to Sacramento for Freethought Day…

Learn Philosophy from a Philosopher / Then Cure Cancer

Two big things going on this week:

(1) Learn philosophy from a philosopher. Our own emeritus adjunct professor of philosophy, Daniel Fincke (Ph.D.), is offering courses online in philosophy to anyone who is keen. Details here. You can even make requests to him of what course subjects you’d pay to be taught in. His rate is $16/hour for a 40 hour commitment, and you’ll be part of an interactive online class, taught by an expert professional.

You can still get in on his ongoing evening Ethics course (he is doing a catch-up session for new enrollees tomorrow), or get in on a new run of that course in October or December (mornings, all Eastern Time), or catch his Nietzsche course which starts this Thursday (a must do if you want to know the real deal about Nietzsche, from an actual expert on Nietzsche, instead of naively all the pop nonsense claimed about him), or this Friday start his course on Philosophy for Atheists (that’s right!). He also will offer a history of philosophy course (Enlightenment to Present) in October. For a testimonial to how useful and rewarding these courses are, and for more complete course descriptions and how to sign up, see the latter half of Fincke’s blog post here.

(2) Then go help us cure blood cancers. And make weird things happen. FreethoughtBlogs has a Light the Night Team affiliated with the Foundation Beyond Belief and we’re aiming to raise ten thousand dollars for blood cancer research. We’re in friendly competition with Skepchicks, who are doing the same. I blogged about this charity effort before (see here, here, and here), it’s becoming a major vehicle for getting attention to the fact that atheists actually support secular charities that make a difference. You can donate to the FtB team here.

Our own Greta Christina is an honored hero this year (surviving cancer and working to garner support for research) and she’s submitted to some forfeits and dares if you donate to the FtB team under her name (see My Light the Night Walk Forfeits and Dares for all the details). Our own PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, and Avicenna have done the same (check out those links), but Greta’s are the most amusing.

For more details see: Skepchick Forms “Light the Night Walk” Online Team — The Race Is On!

The Moral Truth Debate: Babinski & Shook

I’ve been sent two links of responses to my article last week, “What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?” Technically they are responses to Harris. But insofar as I am defending the same core thesis, and the links were sent to me, and both are by authors whose opinions I respect (even if I don’t always agree with them), they warrant a response here. These responses I think should be read by everyone, since they are common mistakes and misunderstandings, and my responses will clarify things you might need clarified…especially in the closing epilogue of this post.

First of the replies is Ed Babinski, who posted his own entry for the Harris contest on Facebook. Second is John Shook, who posted a reply on his blog at CFI.

In both cases, I must first reiterate the whole gist of my article:

One reason Harris is not the best one to use as your straw man in this debate is that doing that is lazy. It allows talking past each other far too easily. To avoid that I created a formal deductive proof of his core thesis (all the way back in 2011…and that was in development well before that, even before I read his book or even knew he was writing it–which means it is only a proof of “his thesis” in retrospect, since I had been developing the same thesis independently since 2004). What I asked people to do is find a logical invalidity or a non-demonstrable premise in my syllogism. Because that will prevent vagueries and misunderstandings and get right to the heart of who is correct. To do that, I told everyone to read my chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist” in The End of Christianity (indeed I said in last week’s article, quote, “the syllogisms you have to prove invalid or unsound are on pp. 359-64″). Hereafter I shall refer to that as TEC.

To keep avoiding this is to just lazily act like armchair problem solvers who can’t be bothered to actually look up the best version of the argument they are criticizing. Stop that. No more straw man fallacies. Address the best and most rigorous form of the argument. And do it correctly, i.e., actually identify an actual fallacy in those syllogisms or identify a premise in them that is false (or which you can prove we do not know is true).

Apart from simply not doing that (which is the biggest flaw in these replies, reducing them both to a classic straw man fallacy), here is also what’s wrong with the Babinski and Shook rebuttals… [Read more...]

What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?

Sam Harris has a contest on. “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.” The best essay (as judged by Harris opponent and atheist philosopher Russell Blackford) will win $2,000 (and be published on Harris’s personal website). “You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.” If any such essay actually changes Sam Harris’s mind, they will win not just $2,000 but $20,000 (and Harris will publicly recant his view).

Ophelia Benson has been critical of this contest (see A Losing Lottery Ticket, Sam Has to Presume a Great Big Ought, and a guest post from a commenter Why the Is/Ought Problem Matters). His own contest page (The Moral Landscape Challenge) has an important FAQ (a must read for any contenders). I actually am behind Harris’s program (I think his core thesis is correct, and I think Benson is wrong to say it is not), but I am not very impressed with Harris’s ability to defend or articulate it.

I had even greater problems with Michael Shermer’s attempt to defend the same core thesis Harris does, and I have commented before on how he was simply destroyed by his opponent, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, even though I think Pigliucci is ultimately wrong and Shermer ultimately right (see Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science). I expect Harris will get similarly pwned. And that’s sad. Because it hurts their cause. They just aren’t the best defenders of this idea. And they should admit that and stop trying to be lone wolfs and look for and work with expert collaborators. There are several real, even renowned, philosophers who have been defending the same core thesis for years. Harris did not come up with anything fundamentally new here, and they have far more skill and experience dealing with the rigorous philosophical requirements of this debate.

Below I will explain what is wrong with Harris’s contest so far (and why it is not what Benson is concerned about); why what Benson has been saying is incorrect (and misses the point of Harris’ actual core thesis); and how (again) science can actually take over moral philosophy the same way it has done the theory of life (in the science of biology) and the universe (in the sciences of physics, astrophysics, and cosmology) and man and society (in the sciences of anthropology and sociology) and of mind (in psychology, neurophysiology, and cognitive science). [Read more...]

Free Will in American Law: From Accidental Thievery to Battered Woman Syndrome

For my last class on naturalism and free will I composed some readings on Sam Harris’ mistreatment of the concept of free will in American law. I already deal with the legal aspects of “free will” in some detail in Sense and Goodness without God (III.4.5, pp. 109-14), and really any discussion of the subject here must begin there (where I cite and explain key Supreme Court rulings as well as standard concepts like the criteria of guilt and the insanity defense, things the public often gets wrong because they think TV legal dramas accurately portray them). I also cover the whole free will debate generally (in the whole of section III.4, pp. 97-118), and explain the reasons compatibilism provides a more fruitful understanding of free will than any alternative. (I have also blogged on free will several times before.)

But to supplement all that, I’m here reproducing one of those course readings I composed, where I address cases not mentioned in SaG (United States v. Grayson – 438 U.S. 41 (1978) and Morissette v. United States – 342 U.S. 246 (1952)) as well as a legal concept also not mentioned there, “Battered Woman Syndrome” (as a legal defense), which supplements my discussion of the insanity defense in SaG. All of this was compiled in response to Sam Harris’ (IMO awful) book Free Will. I have a lot of problems with that book. But here I’ll be addressing only one claim in it. (For those who are curious, much better books recently on free will, though still flawed, are Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? and Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will.) [Read more...]

Hey, Free eBook! Christian vs. Atheist Intellectual Cage Match

Cover of the book God or Godless.Today (and today only!) you can get a free eBook, containing a written (and thus carefully thought-out) debate between an Atheist and a Christian. John Loftus (an atheist with two masters degrees, in theology and philosophy, who studied under none other than William Lane Craig) and Randal Rauser (a Canadian evangelical with a doctorate in philosophy) engage in an organized back-and-forth debate on twenty topics in the book God or Godless: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions.

You can, of course, buy it in print [here]. But this very day (July 1st) a special is on for the kindle and nook editions [although, it appears, only in the U.S. and select other countries]: if you grab it today, the book is free [see kindle and nook]. If you prefer the more generic eBook format, you can get that for free, too, at a Christian vendor [here]. (Although if you missed today, it’s still available on all three platforms for cheap through the end of the month).

Loftus and I have worked together on projects in this field over the years and he made use of my work and advice for some of the positions he takes. But overall, what you get here is what my blurb for the book says:

This is a fascinating and sometimes humorous intro to twenty common debates between atheists and theists. You’ll find countless rambling and confused versions of such debates online. But here you will find a clear, concise, well-written exchange on each. Keeping it short, the authors can’t include every point to be made, but they make a good show of where each side stands on these questions and why. If you want to continue these debates further, start with this.

Indeed, this book is an excellent starting point for any of the twenty debates included. I’d recommend starting any debate online, for example, by having both sides read the corresponding mini-debate in this book, and then continuing from there. And if you just want some ideas for how to debate these topics in general, or even to help you think about them in building your own philosophy of life, this book is well suited as a primer for the task. Even if you don’t think either side is making the very best possible defense of their position, it’s even a useful task to think through how you’d do it better, since both are representative of some of the best approaches. So even then it’s a good place to start.

The twenty questions debated (alternating between the philosophical and the biblical) are (1) the meaning of life, (2) whether early Biblical Judaism was actually monotheistic, (3) the reason to be moral, (4) whether the Bible promoted child sacrifice, (5) the value of religion in respect to science, (6) whether the Bible justified genocide, (7) whether theism or atheism explains the universe better, (8) whether the Bible promoted slavery, (9) whether human reason and knowledge require God, (10) whether the Bible is sexist, (11) whether love can exist without God, (12) whether the Biblical God cares one whit about animals, (13) whether even atheists “just have faith,” (14) whether the Biblical God was scientifically illiterate, (15) whether the power of music can prove God exists, (16) whether the Biblical God was a lousy prognosticator, (17) whether any miracles are real, (18) whether God is an incompetent creator, (19) the resurrection of Jesus (of course), and (20) whether God is an incompetent redeemer.

All interesting questions to see hashed out this way. Each side makes their case, then gets a short rebuttal, and then a quick closing statement, before moving on to the next. And today, you can get an electronic edition for free (links above).

A Well-Deserved Nod to Aviezer Tucker

Front cover of Aviezer Tucker's book Our Knowledge of the PastAfter I published Proving History a reader said I should check out Aviezer Tucker’s book Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography, since it appeared to back up the entire core thesis of my book. I am amazed and ashamed that I did not discover this book sooner. It must not have been indexed well in databases, since my searches for Bayesian historiography did not discover it. I just finished reading it, and while I wait for more opportune times to blog on other issues coming up, I thought I’d post a little about this.

Tucker is a prominent and widely published philosopher (see his bio and cv). We have at least two things in common: we both did graduate work at Columbia University, and we both think historical reasoning is fundamentally Bayesian. As some might know, the subtitle of my book is Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, and though the study of Jesus is its principle example, the overall thesis is that all history is Bayesian and all historians should learn Bayes’ Theorem and how to apply it to their own thinking to improve their reasoning, research, and argumentation.

Tucker makes the same argument. His approach is deeper and more philosophical, more about making the point that historical reasoning is already Bayesian, and that this explains everything from consensus to disagreement in the historical community. My book makes that argument, too, but is more about the practical application of this conclusion, and providing tools and advice for how historians can make use of Bayesian reasoning to improve what they do. Tucker delves more deeply into philosophy and probability theory and as such his book is essentially an extension of my sixth chapter (which goes into more depth on points made earlier in my book).

That’s why I regret not having known of his book before now. It’s a great shame that Proving History does not cite it, and I am writing this review now to redress that gap. OKP provides solid support for the core thesis of PH, and is the first book I know that makes the case I do (and thought I was alone in making). Others had discussed Bayes’ Theorem in the context of historical reasoning, but always skeptically or inconclusively (e.g. see PH, p. 304, n. 28). Tucker appears to be the first to understand that in fact historical reasoning is Bayesian, and to argue the point explicitly. It thus provides another foundation (and independent corroboration) for my main conclusions. It was also a prestigious peer reviewed academic work, published by Cambridge University Press in 2004 (I had my book peer reviewed as well, but my publisher is less known for that).

Owners of Proving History might want to pen Tucker’s name and book title into the margins somewhere (it should certainly have gotten a nod in note 3 of chapter four, on page 306, and probably in my discussion on page 49 as well, perhaps where I mention the precedents of applying Bayesian reasoning in law and archaeology).

The leading merits of OKP are that Tucker grounds you in the history of historiography and philosophy of history, he treats in greater detail the issues of historical consensus and disagreement (with many erudite examples), he addresses several leading problems in the philosophy of history, and he cites and adapts debates and discussions of Bayesianism in the philosophy of science and applies them to history the same way I do (only he again in more detail): by demonstrating that science and history are fundamentally the same discipline, only applied to data-sets of widely differing reliability.

As Tucker says in his central chapter (ch. 3, “The Theory of Scientific Historiography”), “I argue that the interpretation of Bayesianism that I present here is the best explanation of the actual practices of historians” and that “Bayesian formulae can even predict in most cases the professional practices of historians” (p. 134), and he gives good brief explanations of prior probability and likelihood (what I call consequent probability) in the context of historical thinking, and uses real-world examples to illustrate his point. His chapters 1 and 2 cover the background of the philosophy and epistemology of history, and remaining chapters apply the results of chapter three to address three major debates in that field: explaining disagreement among historians (ch. 4), resolving questions of causal explanation in history (ch. 5), and exploring the limits of historical knowledge and method (ch.6). He then wraps it all up with a conclusion (ch. 7). There is also an extensive bibliography and index. Throughout his book, Tucker aims to refute postmodernist and hyper-skeptical approaches to historical knowledge, and in that regard makes a good supplement to McCullagh (whom I do cite in PH).

For me, the most notable facts are that we did not know of each other, yet we independently came to the same conclusion that all historical reasoning is fundamentally Bayesian, and Tucker is a well-established philosopher and his book is by a major peer reviewed academic press. Both facts add weight and authority to my overall conclusion in Proving History. And that’s always nice to have.

May Online Course on Free Will

I will be teaching an online course on the science and philosophy of free will for the Center for Inquiry Institute this May. Anyone can register. Fee varies (from $30 to $70 depending on your status). Details on the course and registration options are provided at the CFI Website. It is one month only, four modules, with readings and discussions. Learn at your own pace. My co-instructor will be the philosopher John Shook, but I will be fielding most of the work. This is one of many courses offered by the CFI Institute throughout the year. I have taught several myself (on the philosophy of naturalism and the origins of Christianity and the historicity of Jesus).

As CFI explains:

There is no specific time that you must be online. There is no “live” part to these courses, and you cannot miss anything even if you can only get online at 6am or 11pm — you can log in and participate anytime, day or night, 24/7. A certificate of course completion is available to students who do participate online (as opposed to only lurking and reading, which is also an unobjectionable option for some students). Completion of eight courses at the Expertise 200-level is rewarded with the Institute’s Certificate of Expertise.

As to the content of this new course specifically:

This four-module short course discusses 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.

To that end, course topics will include:

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 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, and moral systems.

So if you are interested, check out the details at CFII and consider taking the course (even if only to lurk, and just read what gets discussed and not participate, which is fine). The course begins on May 1 (which is next Wednesday).

 

Ten Years to the Robot Apocalypse

Counting down. Soon we shall all be doomed.

Okay, I wrote this on the plane to Alabama about a month ago. It’s been languishing in my queue until now. So step back in time. I’m presently five miles above the earth hurtling through space in a giant metal bullet at hundreds of miles an hour. Earlier I was reading Science News (an old issue from last year; I’m behind) while waiting on the tarmac for takeoff. Got to the article on Eureqa, the “robot scientist” that can discover the laws of nature all on its own, just from looking at and experimenting with data. I was reminded of an earlier article a few years ago on the Lipson-Zykov experiment (mentioned in a sidebar). Then I caught another just recently, about Spaun (yeah, I’ve been reading Science News out of order). Spaun is a neural-net computer program that makes decisions like a person: it thinks, memorizes, solves problems, gambles, etc. All these developments, in the span of just a couple of years. Had some thoughts… [Read more...]

That Christian Nation Nonsense (Gods Bless Our Pagan Nation)

This is a transcript of my speech at this year’s convention for the National Atheist Party (minus spontaneous asides and ad-libs). Though this was an oratorical adaptation and rearrangement of my previous work online (Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy), it is also much improved and contains new material, and I received multiple requests from the audience to make a transcript of it available. This is my cue text, so it is not in every respect word-for-word what I spoke at the convention, but it is very near to it. I began with a quotation… [Read more...]