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…]

Essential Viewing on Godless Cosmology

Image capture from Before the Big Bang – Loop Quantum Cosmology Explained, showing host (a woman) and physicist Ivan Aguillo laughing together before a chalk board full of equations, some of which Aguillo explains in the video.There is a video every atheist must see, who ever wants to think about or debate the origin of the known universe (with a theist or even a fellow atheist). It is a superb video. It is the kind of video we need more of. What is so great about it? Some atheists went to some actual scientists (actual cosmologists and theoretical physicists) and asked them about the claims made by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig. And asked follow-up questions. And recorded what they said. And edited it together with useful commentary. Imagine this being done for origin of life studies or any other question where theists love to abuse the science (but doesn’t get the same coverage as evolution). Or claims theists make about cosmological science that didn’t get covered in this video.

The video I’m talking about is by the SkyDivePhil video team (an awesome couple who do a lot of great stuff on science awareness through their YouTube channel). The specific video in question is Before the Big Bang – Loop Quantum Cosmology Explained. It’s great for a number of reasons. For one, it gives a nice explanation of what quantum loop gravity theory is and has to contribute to superstring theory and how they came to differ, and then ties this all into current debates in cosmology, in particular the origin of the known universe, in even more particular what caused the Big Bang.

You can see why theists would be nervous at this point. And why atheists might be especially keen to check this out. I know there are lots of videos about the Big Bang and cosmological arguments. But this one is a league above them all. Because it distills the right points, from real experts, in a well-organized way that will leave most smart layfolk with a much better idea of why theists are wrong about Big Bang cosmology and how the likes of William Lane Craig are conning people with their selective distortions of it. Some of the discussion might be easier to understand for at least college graduates and autodidacts, but I think anyone with smarts can grasp the main points, and brush up on anything they don’t quite get with some judicious googling.

Either way, this should be anyone’s first-stop in that quest to understand current Big Bang theory. And everyone who wants to be able to speak informedly on this issue (such as to debate it) definitely must know at the very least what’s said here. So you should all give it a view. It’s 44 minutes, so find a nice pleasant time to just sit down and watch it. You’ll come away with a better grasp of how to articulate the points made in it, and make use of that to thwart Christian apologetics, as well as just understand how we (as intelligent life) got here, better than you did before. The triumph of atheism is reflected in the incredible strides of success science has made in answering that question…without having to posit a god to explain anything.

Below I’ll say more about it, why the video is worth watching, and what other resources you can tap to make the most use of it–and show to Christians why they are just wrong about godless cosmology… [Read more…]

Give a Little to Skepticon (Make Weird Things Happen)

Skepticon is a free conference, and a recognized nonprofit (so donations are tax deductible). If you have means, you can help people who don’t have means attend a major and fun atheist conference in the buckle of the Bible Belt where it’s most desperately wanted and needed.

They are half way to their budget target, and now need help getting the rest. There are a variety of games you can participate in, where donations can make something happen that you might find interesting or amusing, and a hundred bucks or more gets you a “super secret awesome gift” (although I have no idea what, so I can’t vouch for how awesome it actually is). Or you can just give a little. Anything. Details here.

In fact, if you will be attending Skepticon, and don’t really need it to be free, then just pay what you think it’s worth and you can afford. Even if it’s just ten bucks. Or twenty. Or fifty. Or totally TAMinize it and give five hundred.

I will of course be speaking and drinking at Skepticon. Among many other awesome folk. Those details here. It will be an awesome convention, as it has been every other year before. Help make it happen!

Critical Thinking in the 21st Century: What’s New and Why It Matters

Picture of me at the podium with the opening slide showing by video insert (just has the title of the talk on it).Video of my brief talk at this year’s SSA Leadership Conference is now available [here]. I also have a handy page with explanations and links to all the books and resources I mentioned, and a bit more, as well as a link to my sideshow (with downsampled images and without animations) [here]. A major limitation was that it was a 40 minute talk that I had to squeeze into 20 minutes, which makes some points a bit awkward as I zip past slides that I could have said much more about (and you might detect my frustration at points trying to cut everything down to time).

My overall point was that we need to master traditional critical thinking skills (logic, fallacies, principles of questioning and inquiry) as well as the relevant aspects of cognitive science (everything science has learned about brain bugs that interfere with our ability to critically reason or reason well, so we can control, compensate, or correct for them) and the basic principles of Bayesian reasoning (since all empirical reasoning is modeled with it, and it helps us better understand when evidence is needed or enough, and what concepts like “more evidence” actually mean, and how to identify just where the faulty assumptions are in anyone’s reasoning from observation to conclusion, whether your own or someone else’s).

The talk, slideshow, and web page will help you get up to speed on all three aspects of critical thinking in the 21st century.

Thank You for So Many Books

Some people who like my work occasionally buy things for me from my Amazon wishlist. The package I get often doesn’t say who sent them or how to reach them. So I’d like to extend an open thanks to everyone who has done that over the years. What especially prompted me to say something today is that I received one such package last week, amidst controversial blogging and an exhausting home renovation project (Jen and I finally did something with our bedroom, which had looked like a moldy, stained, style-less, colorless disaster area since we moved in…you know, as for example, the previous owners had strange ideas about what was an acceptable “repair” to holes in the ceiling or wall…anyway, all sorted; its a beautiful and functional room again).

This time the package I received was filled with some of the more expensive items on my list, and a lot of them. Someone was extraordinarily generous, and I am very grateful. Thank you! Some of the items will help me with my next books (my books on ancient science have been at an academic publisher in search of peer reviewers for ages), some will give me an excuse to learn a little more about Islam (maybe next year), and one in particular is the two volume set by Keener that desperately tries to insist miracles are real, which I may find time later this year to read and review on my blog (since that’s kind of one of my long standing specialties).

Now back to work.

JT Eberhard: A Parody

I wasn’t going to write about the one hiccup from JT Eberhard about an incident at the Great Lakes Atheist Convention (as Greta Christina already did), but someone on twitter has convinced me that I need to. First, I’ll say that I heard the convention was freaking awesome and that the organizers were phenomenal. It was seriously one of the best-run first-time conferences JT had ever attended.

The problems all started when, after the Q&A of Mandisa Thomas’s talk, JT complained about a response to a woman who asked Mandisa what black people were doing to fight black on black crime. Was the woman’s question naive? Yes. Very. Especially since Mandisa’s talk was about what the atheism movement can learn from the hospitality industry (irony meter pegging out here) and had nothing to do with crime in black communities or even race. Oh, and there actually is no glut of black-on-black crime, that’s actually a racist belief all too often innocently bought into (the rate of white-on-white crime is actually comparable, and when controlled for economic rather than racial variables, is pretty much the same), since the whole notion is a false belief based on racial inferiority (‘black people are worse’), which is, by definition, a racist belief.

Anyway, he is sure her naivety resulted in her asking a question that certainly had racist undertones, even if the woman was not intentionally being racist. Although that of course is kind of the problem with racist beliefs. One does not have to be maliciously or consciously a racist to hold them or act on them. Yet those beliefs and behaviors are still racist. And still do harm and offend.

Nevertheless, I’m told Mandisa handled it well.

But then, during the Q&A of Darrel C. Smith’s talk, Bria Crutchfield stood up and proceeded to give the woman an angry tongue lashing. This went on for about five minutes (or maybe it just seemed like that long). While Bria did answer the woman’s question, it was very embarrassing to the woman and trailed off into a number of red herrings such as “I’m here, get over it” as if anybody was suggesting that Bria or black atheists were unwelcome at the conference or silently sneered at by…anybody. [Read more…]

Michael Shermer: Rapist or Sleaze? (Unless Box Checked for Other)

Presumably you’re aware by now that accusations have been made that Michael Shermer did something bad (if not, you can catch up on current events here). There are some things atheists need to consider about this, philosophically and personally.  [Read more…]

Our Mythical Campaign against Sex

It boggles my mind how haters of A+ (which simply means atheism+humanism+skepticism, nothing more…despite lies and disinformation to the contrary) think we are the ones campaigning against sex. Like this guy. Who falsely claims:

(1) “[T]he in-groupers at FtB have been attempting to redefine flirting as sexual harassment and sexual intercourse as rape.” No, we never did any such thing. To the contrary, we have actually been making the point (repeatedly) that “actual acts of sexual predation” must not be confused with “criminalizing very healthy sex-positive human interaction” (the exact opposite of what this guy says). Indeed, I specifically made this point myself in my discussions of sexual harassment policies (see here and here; I have also talked about the difference, and promoted positive and liberated sexuality, here and here).

And:

(2) “The A+ folks have demanded that convention organizers add to their harassment policies, that no speaker be allowed to engage in sexual contact with any convention attendees.” No, “we” did not. To the contrary, several of us opposed any such suggestion. Including me, one of the patron saints of Atheism Plus (according to a popular anti-A+ meme). No, seriously. I wrote at length against what he claims we have been demanding. Only a few people suggested or discussed it long ago, but the rest of us argued them out of it. Us. The advocates of A+.

This from Emery of the Ardent Atheist podcast.

As to the first of these lies: [Read more…]

Two More New Bloggers

We have two more new awesome bloggers at Freethought Blogs. Kate Donovan (of the US) joined us in July, and now Alex Gabriel (of the UK) joins us this August.

Kate is blogging here at Gruntled & Hinged (“A Blog about Madness and Mental Health by Your Incorrigibly Optimistic Narrator, Who Is Neither Disgruntled Nor Unhinged”). As she describes herself…

Kate Donovan's Gravatar pic. Illustrates her best snark face.Kate is a psychology student at Northwestern University who runs on coffee and snark. At some point she’d like to make people sit on couches and tell her about their feelings, but right now she writes on the internet and makes silly faces when she doesn’t know what to say. An incorrigible optimist, she likes to knit, juggle, and will devour any book in reach.

In Which Our Narrator Strikes Out on Her Own is her inaugural post. If you missed it, check it out to get even better introduced. She’s been blogging cool things about psychology and mental health from an atheist and skeptical perspective.

Alex is now blogging here at Godlessness in Theory (“Queer Left Politics, Pop Culture and Skepticism”). As he describes himself…

Alex Gabriel's Gravatar pic. In which he looks curious, whimsical, and ready to warrior his keyboard.Alex Gabriel is a twentysomething British graduate. He writes from a theoretical perspective on religion and how to leave it, popular rhetoric and political dissent, secular, nerd and LGBT cultures, sexuality and gender or whatever else crosses his mind. His main pursuit is blending frameworks of secularity and social justice – more than just intersecting actions, he yearns for synthetic secular thought. When not putting sacred cows to slaughter or training with the PC brigade, he can usually be found somewhere online.

Secular Synthesis and Why We Need It – or, Hello Freethought Blogs is his inaugural post. Definitely check it out to get even better introduced. He blogs insightful, thoughtful, and detailed things about politics and culture from an atheist and skeptical perspective. And as he says, “I’m 22, secular, British, poly, queer, tall, ex-Christian, left wing and long-winded, a nerd, a graduate and a keyboard warrior.” Indeed. He’ll fit right in.

Enjoy the juggernaut!

The Testimonium Flavianum

Now that Fox News has shot itself in the foot again and inadvertently made a Muslim scholar’s book about Jesus a bestseller and the talk of every town (which one can only assume from their interview of Reza Aslan is exactly the opposite of what they were hoping for), common concepts and terminology in the Jesus historicity debate are going mainstream and becoming familiar to ordinary people everywhere (even more so than after the best-selling release of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?, which I demonstrated to be terrible; although that, too, has primed the pump of popular discourse in this matter).

The experts have weighed in and found Aslan’s book Zealot to be, well, basically bad. From a historical perspective. As a writer everyone agrees he’s top notch. And even as history he’s not wholly wrong. But there’s a lot wrong. From mistakenly not knowing the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake and not, ahem, an actual saltwater sea, to misinforming the public on the status of certain debates in the field, to engaging in scholarship of convenience (ignoring evidence against his case or conveniently declaring it forged or fabricated…without any reason other than that it contradicts his hypothesis–although to be fair, even the experts who criticize him do this…a lot), to oversimplifying facts, and other common foibles, he makes his case look stronger than it really is. (See the reviews of Dale Martin [service intermittent], Stephen Prothero, Joseph Loconte, and Anthony Le Donne.)

This is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black (see chapter 1 of my book Proving History), but even then the kettle is still black.

But I’m here to talk about one particular issue his book has popularized: the Testimonium Flavianum. [Read more…]