The Science of Free Will as a Gateway to Philosophy & Social Justice: Join My Online Course Next Month!

Cover of Sam Harris's Book Free Will, which is the course text we will be using next month, red puppet theatre box showing the letters of the title hanging from puppet stringsNext month (April 2016) I will be teaching my online course on the science & philosophy of free will, my favorite class! Spread the word. Or take the class yourself. Or both!

There is also a special discount this year. If you are on the staff or an active member of any nonprofit organization, you can receive a coupon code for $10 off the registration. All I need is an email from an officer of the organization (also CC’ing you) confirming you are an active member and would like to receive the discount. I’ll then send you the discount code to use during registration.

So let everyone you know who is working for or participating in a nonprofit org about this discount! (You can also let them know there is also a course you can get the same discount for that is running concurrently with mine: Why Create Humanist Community, and How To Do It, with Jen Hancock and Ann Fuller.)

Even without the discount, each course is very affordable, only $59. Register at The Secular Academy.

Why take a class on the science and philosophy of free will?

Anyone who joins in will find in it a fascinating way to introduce yourself to the whole of philosophy, as it touches on everything from semantics to metaphysics to epistemology to political and moral reasoning, even aesthetics (such as through analyzing the lived experience of feeling free or trapped). It even leads you to a better understanding of consent, justice, and responsibility, and the social role and value of personal autonomy, and the substantial reality of what it means to increase your own self actualization, and what it actually takes to do that (and what it actually means to fall short of it), and how social systems can get in our way.

I think these are really good reasons to tell people they might be interested in taking my course, especially if exploring these things with an experienced expert interests them.

You’ll also need to have or get a copy (print or electronic) of Sam Harris’s Free Will. We will engage a close reading of that throughout the course, alongside a number of documents and research articles illustrating applications of free will concepts in the real world, and other philosophical and scientific perspectives. Those other reading materials will all be provided to students for free. Only the one book by Harris you need purchase.

The course officially starts this April 1st.

For a full course description (from the topics studied to how the course works) see here.

Atheistically Speaking: Does EvoPsych Suck?

Logo for the podcast Atheistically Speaking, showing an old time radio microphone on a white background next to a picture of Thomas Smith in thoughtful pose, and his name under the microphone, and above all of that the word Atheist in red inside a red box, with scrawled letters in black trailing after it completing the word Atheistically, and the typed word Speaking just below that.A good interview with me has gone up at Atheistically Speaking with Thomas Smith (“Taking a clear, rational look at atheism and surrounding issues!”). It’s episode 202, “Dr. Richard Carrier on EvoPsych.” The description:

Is 90% of all Evo Psych false? That’s the claim Dr. Richard Carrier makes in his mammoth article, which can be found here. While I’m hoping to have Richard on at a later date to discuss the topic he’s likely most known for – Jesus’s existence, this visit is all about Evolutionary Psychology and whether or not it is a pseudo science.

Smith was intrigued by the article I wrote, and asks me to discuss its claims, evidence, and basis, and why evolutionary scientists have deluded themselves into thinking they aren’t much more than astrologers carrying water for various social and political ideologies. Though on that last point we don’t get very far, for want of data. But the sneaking suspicion is addressed. As well as some of the dangers of their fallacious methodology.

Update: Part 1 is episode 202. Part 2 of our interview is episode 203.

Everything You Need to Know about Coincidences

A demotivational poster meme, showing a UN soldier standing next to a UN sign in Africa that says Involved in Africa, but the soldier in the camera frame is standing right next to the front of the word, and the color of the letters and helmet match the colors on the sign exactly, so the sign appears to read Uninvolved in Africa. The byline says: Coincidence. Because you couldn't have planned it any better. Signed by the author, VeryDemotivational.comHere is some handy linkage on coincidences. Thanks to a coincidence. I was reading the The #Skeptic’s Daily News and in it, by coincidence, were two separate papers on the subject of coincidence. Though only one was labeled such; the other, just happened by coincidence to be about the same thing.

I have written on coincidences before. How they mess with the heads of some epistemologists when they try to make sense of Gettier Problems (where coincidence can coincidentally cause you to believe a true statement for what is only technically a justifiable reason). And they have an epistemological and methodological role in Bayesian reasoning—for example, because effects “by coincidence” are less probable than “effects that are predictably caused,” and a lot of attempts to deny causation rely on pretending coincidences are more likely. So you have to be able to know when that’s not true.

Although, sometimes, coincidences are just as likely as causation, or near enough as to make no visible difference in our math, or even more likely the case. And thus we can’t rule them out. But sometimes we actually can. So you have to know when is which. Like when we look for evidence of meaningful literary emulation in ancient texts (Proving History, pp. 192-204). Or when some hucksters tried to claim we found the tomb of Jesus. Or when we look for evidence that the Jewish scholar Philo understood a character named Jesus in Zechariah 6 to be the same archangel Paul thinks his Jesus is, by noting that the alternative explanation requires so many coincidences to have occurred as to be extraordinarily improbable (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 200-05), including the fact that Paul and Philo assign all the same unusual attributes to the same figure, and the fact that Philo said he made the connection because the archangel in question was already known to him as the Son of God and the High Priest, and the only person in the Zechariah passage he quotes who is identified as the Son of God and the High Priest, is Jesus. Or how coincidence actually better explains the conversion of the Apostle Paul than the Christian thesis that he “really saw Jesus.”

Coincidences are also an important hypothesis to test and understand when criticizing pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, paranormalism, “miracle claims,” and all sorts of things of interest to atheists and skeptics.

So the two papers that have come up lately will interest you, if you are interested in any of those things! [Read more…]

Is 90% of All EvoPsych False?

Graphic from a pseudoscientific website using EvoPsych to argue nonsense about the thermodynamics of human marriage bonding, showing a pretty girl in a short skirt in flirtatious pose, with ratio lines showing the perfect ratios of her body parts, with the words Perfect Body, Perfect Genes. From http://www.eoht.info/page/Evolutionary+psychologyEvolutionary Psychology is the study of how attributes of human psychology evolved biologically by natural selection. I and others have averred many times that it is mostly a pseudoscience. EvoPsych proponents balk and take offense. We cite numerous papers by experts in evolution and psychology who agree with us. They claim they’ve been refuted. We ask where. They suddenly stop talking to us.

That’s a common sequence of events. I’m going to here collect all the information backing our claim. Any and all rebuttals to what I here argue, that you think are worth reading, I want to have collected in comments, so though my comments threads always close after six days, any links to rebuttals you email me after that time, I will post below myself.

Also be aware that this article is as long as it is because EvoPsych proponents employ whack-a-mole apologetics (“But you didn’t address x,” and it’s always a different x the moment you do address x). Consequently, I am covering all the bases. [Read more…]

Science Then: The Bible vs. The Greeks Edition

Did the Bible predict modern science better than ancient scientists did? Funny to ask. Because naive Muslims have been making the same embarrassing claim for the Koran. Over a decade ago I published an article showing how silly conservative Muslim apologists were for claiming the Koran miraculously predicted scientific facts, by demonstrating that the Epicureans (and I just used the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius at that, and thus left out many other items that could have been added), who were the least fully scientific of the philosophers of the era who produced scientific results, got right a hell of a lot more, and more precisely and clearly declared their results, than the Koran, and all explicitly through just armchair reasoning from basic observations. No miraculous communications from angels. No telecom with the gods.

That article was Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed. In that I show several logical flaws in these kinds of arguments: (1) they use a fake translation (they ignore the actual language of the text in its actual context) to “invent” a better fit with modern science post hoc (a common scam run by psychics called retrofitting); (2) they ignore the fact that mere armchair thinking often had already produced the same conclusion or comparable conclusions and often in fact more and better conclusions (thus negating any claim that such “hits” required miraculous powers or informants); (3) they get ancient science wrong (e.g. they claim that ancient scientists hadn’t discovered a thing, when in fact they had); (4) they cherry pick bizarre data so as to rely on luck giving them hits (in any vast enough tome of baloney, you will inevitably find random matches with the truth by mere chance), but miss the fact that if one actually had a miraculous line to prescient scientific knowledge, you’d be reporting way more useful shit than this (compare the relative utility of knowing that cosmic expansion or heliocentrism are true, and knowing the germ theory of disease or the basic principles of electricity—for a religion that supposedly prioritizes the welfare of humanity).

Now there is an image going around (evidently even favorably shared by actual scientists in some cases) making the same stupid claim for the Christian Bible. It’s so bad I was laughing out loud before I even finished the third line. It has been debunked before (e.g. here and here). But since ancient science is my field, I figured my own fisk would be of use to the world. So here goes… [Read more…]

No, Bacon Is Not as Bad for You as Smoking

Photo close-up of bacon sizzling in a pan.Some of you might have heard that bacon was rated as being as carcinogenic as smoking by the World Health Organization.

No. That did not happen.

And this is a good case for learning some modern critical thinking skills.

I’ll spoil the surprise by quoting them directly:

No, processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.

In other words, all they said is that we are certain that “processed meats” (i.e. chemically treated meats) do cause cancer (in fact, just one cancer: colorectal cancer). They did not say it was all that bad a cause of it—certainly nowhere near as bad as smoking is of an assortment of other cancers (not only of the lung), which is dozens of times deadlier compared to an average consumption of processed meat—and most people are average consumers.

So…

First Rule of Critical Thinking Club Is: Always go to the original source and read what it actually says. The media should never be trusted to get a story right. Even less so some rando on twitter.

Second Rule of Critical Thinking Club Is: Never buy any alarmism about risk until you know how to compare the newly claimed risk to risks you already accept.

What do I mean by that? [Read more…]

Moral Reasoning Course: Learn the Science & Philosophy of Being a Better Person

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.Written from Puerto Rico today, as a tropical storm bears down on us: Come join my online course on moral reasoning! It starts next week. It goes a month. Study and participate at your own pace and on your own time. We don’t just cover the basic philosophy of morality and moral reasoning and why be moral and so on. We also cover what the sciences have discovered about all this. Which is more than you might think! Register now.

And don’t forget to order the required course text (in print or digital), Personality, Identity, and Character (eds. Darcia Narvaez and Daniel Lapsley). I recommend saving money: you can just rent that book on kindle, or buy the kindle edition or a used print copy. All other materials will be provided at no extra cost.

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Why take this course?

As I wrote for this course last year, a course that is now tied for my second favorite (I offer it roughly once a year):

[Read more…]

Study the Science & Philosophy of Free Will with Me!

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.Join an affordable one-month online course in August, where I’ll teach and discuss the philosophy of free will, including the scientific facts relating to it, the legal evidence relating to it, the medical ethics relating to it, and more. Let others know, too! Anyone you know who might be interested. This is one of the ways I support my work in history and philosophy. And it’s useful. And fun!

This is your chance to ask a published philosopher and historian of philosophy all the questions you have about the subject, and also to become more informed about it and how to discuss it with others, as well as just hone and exercise your philosophical mind in general, on an important subject in law, morality, and life. A better understanding of this subject will benefit your personal life, your political thought, your attitudes toward prison reform, your understanding of consent and personal autonomy, and a great deal else.

The course begins next month (in roughly two weeks). It requires buying only one small, affordable textbook (Sam Harris’s Free Will, print or electronic). All other materials will be provided. The approach to Harris will be critical, but constructive, and backed with further materials showing the actual application of free will as a concept in the real world, not just in the ivory tower.

Among things covered will be:

[Read more…]

Fantastic Study of Gender Differences Finds White Privilege Instead

Graphic from the article discussed showing support for nuclear power by gender as described in the article.This is one of the most excellent must read articles ever sent to me (by a girlfriend who does this sort of thing for a living. You know who you are, Girl. Thank you!) I’m talking about David Roberts, “There’s a Gender Divide on Nuclear Power, but It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means,” at Vox.

First I’ll tell you why I think it’s awesome. Then I’ll quote some of the best bits for you, if you just want to skip to that…

[Read more…]

See Me Discuss Ancient Science & Technology at Chabot Space & Science Center!

Photo of the outdoor concrete sign for the Chabot Space & Science Center, which announces it operates in association with the Smithsonian institution.Wednesday this April 15 (2015) at 7pm at Chabot SSC in Oakland (CA) I’ll be delivering a lecture on my favorite topic: How far did the Roman Empire get in science and technology? What, if anything, was still holding them back? What’s the real reason they didn’t experience a scientific or industrial revolution?

[Read more…]