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…]

Not the Impossible Faith Now an Audio Book!

Cover of AudioBook Not the Impossible FaithMy 2009 book Not the Impossible Faith is now available as an audio book. As I did for Sense and Goodness without God and Why I Am Not a Christian, I voiced the text for Pitchstone Publishing. You can buy NIF now through or and also iTunes.

As usual, this is a somewhat “abridged” version, in the sense that it contains none of the chapter endnotes (and thus the sources are not there, nor any of the note anchors in the text itself). So for the visually impaired I have assembled those as a single PDF which you can run through a text-to-speech reader if needed (although you’ll have to guess where the notes refer to in the main text; the PDF only segregates them by chapter): see NIFaudiobookNotes.pdf.

There is also a PDF edition of the whole book for under three dollars [here] or an eBook edition for under six dollars [here] or kindle edition for about the same [here]. A voice-to-text on any of those will presumably include the note anchors as well as the notes, but alas it won’t be a human-voiced main text.

How to Do Men’s Rights Rightly

Ever wonder why MRAs promote hatred or hostility toward women when they actually could be doing at least something worthwhile instead? I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this in the last few days (perhaps because of speculations that MRA affiliation had something to do with Justin Vacula being asked to resign from SkepticInc, but that’s not my network so I can’t speak to that).

I’ve said before that MRA groups could have chosen to work as allies with feminists, respectful of women and women’s issues side by side with their own, even sharing contacts, resources, and models for action, just as many other special interest groups do. But that’s not the road they took.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, MRAs are Men’s Rights Activists. MRA can also mean Men’s Rights Activism collectively, but that is more commonly known as the MRM or Men’s Rights Movement. I shall be distinguishing that category (of those who specifically identify as or with men’s “rights” activists) from another, that of men’s issues advocates. There are many of the latter who are exactly what MRAs should be but aren’t: respectful and sensible campaigners for interests unique to men or affecting men in gender-distinct ways. They just don’t pompously describe what they do as advocating for men’s “rights.”

So what went wrong with the MRAs? Instead of acting like other special interest groups of merit, by and large (there may be exceptions; I rarely see them) the MRM has historically developed as a de facto hate movement, specifically in opposition to feminism (MRAs are often explicitly anti-feminist, and almost always at least implicitly so). In every organized instance I know, self-described MRAs endorse or promote sexism or misogyny in some form, and (of interest to skeptics) promote pseudoscience and conspiracy-theory-style claims about the world that are demonstrably false or dubious, but believed because they support a desired narrative or worldview.

And yet, there are those men’s issues organizations that do not identify with the MRM and are not hate groups, but actually do it right. So today I’m going to talk a little about both sides of this divide, to illustrate what “doing men’s rights rightly” would actually have looked like, if the MRM took its cue from those meritorious men’s issues organizations (and other special interest movements altogether), rather than from a baseline hate-filled worldview of delusional anti-feminism. [Read more…]

Transcript of Sobrado Podcast on Atheism+

A few months ago the Tony Sobrado podcast aired an episode in which Sobrado interviewed me skeptically on Atheism+ and I said the following at the time (when I posted about my American Atheists Convention video on the same subject):

I also did a podcast last month on Atheism+ that went up just recently, in which I have a reasonable conversation with someone who disapproves of it, UK political scientist and Huffington Post blogger Tony Sobrado (listen to his Interview with Richard Carrier on Atheism Plus). No hating or flaming, and no straw men or other fallacies. He had concerns based on misunderstandings and missing or incorrect information, asked about them calmly, and gave me the opportunity to answer them. All without any atmosphere of hostility. A model for how to do this. In fact, we covered so much great ground that this is a really good conversation on A+ that could use a written transcript. If anyone has the time and gumption to create one, I will publish it on my blog, with credit.

That podcast was inspired by Sobrado’s Huffington Post article against Atheism+ “What Is Atheism Plus and Do We Need It?” and you can see how we addressed everything in his article on that show. So anyone who may have read that and wondered how we might respond (or was angered by it and wished someone would answer it), this is the podcast for you. But the AACon video is a good introductory piece to start with. The two together tell you pretty much all you need in order to understand what we’re really advocating in the Atheism+ movement and why.

Subsequently, Rachel Hawkes [@RachelHawkes] produced a good transcript of that podcast, with permission, so anyone who prefers reading to listening (and anyone who is hard of hearing) can now follow that podcast from start to finish. See The Tony Sobrado Interview with Richard Carrier on Atheism Plus (6 March 2013). I’d be delighted if anyone maintaining the A+Scribe account [] entered that in the collection there.

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 Childish Book Review: Stephanie Louise Fisher and the Travesty of Not Getting It

Another baffle clearing for today, I’m finally getting to an embarrassingly childish review of Proving History by Stephanie Louise Fisher (a doctoral student in biblical studies). Her review (published through that nutter R. Joseph Hoffmann’s website…and I’m not throwing “nutter” around lightly, I genuinely think he might be insane) is ironically titled An Exhibition of Incompetence: Trickery Dickery Bayes. Ironically, because she betrays her incompetence in logic and mathematics and reading comprehension throughout, and yet is claiming I’m the one who is incompetent. Her review is also close to libelous and on at least two occasions overtly dishonest.

The immaturity of the review, with its gratuitous insults and intemperance and slanders and complete failure to actually engage with the book, gave it a low priority for me, since it really just discredits itself to any mature reader. But now I have time to cover it. Even right off the bat, a review written like this demonstrates no sense of irony in its author who opens with the claim that they are the one “drawing attention to [my] unprofessional attitudes and prejudices.” Her absurdly repetitious claims of my alleged incompetence characterize the whole thing, despite my having a Ph.D. in the history of ancient religion and philosophy from a top ranked university, and a published background in mathematical arguments (in peer reviewed journals no less), as well as official training in statistics, calculus and electronics engineering…and despite my book having been formally peer reviewed by a professor of mathematics and a professor of biblical studies. (Note that Fisher, at present, and so far as I can discern, can claim none of these qualifications.)

Certainly, claims of incompetence have to be backed up with considerable evidence in the face of such conditions and qualifications. Fisher provides none. Let’s look at what she does argue. [Read more…]

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.

FtBCon in July!

On the weekend of this July 19-21 Freethought Blogs is running an online conference with a rather impressive lineup. Not only is it free, but it will be all by video streaming on Google+ so you don’t have to travel or pay for a hotel or anything like that. So it’s really about as free as any such thing can get. If you can get online, from anywhere in the world, you can attend! Even from the comfort of your own home.

To learn more, check out PZ Myers’ post Announcing…FtBConscience. Speaker slots are still open, too, so as PZ says, “If you’re part of a group that you’d like to see represented, if you have something valuable to say that fits into our overall theme, contact me soon and we’ll see if we can fit you into our programming grid.” Details there.

As participants are literally all over the planet, this conference could run as much as all 24 hours of all three days. There will be talks and panels. A schedule will be posted before the event, but a list of confirmed speakers so far is available here. There will be a moderated chat room and opportunities for Q&A.

I’ve decided to speak about something deeply personal this time: What the Military Taught Me about Feminism. I’ll be telling some embarrassing and personal stories about my time in the service twenty years ago as a young naive man, and reflecting on how they changed me and contributed to what I know and how I think today. And I want to make Q&A a big part of that. I might make other appearances at the conference (on a panel perhaps). But that will be my main contribution.

I’m looking forward to seeing how well this goes. It’s a great idea and could benefit people all over the world who can’t normally travel or attend conferences in atheism and humanism. So mark your calendars and keep your eye on the developing conference schedule as it appears.

Give Just a Little to the SSA, MAAF and MRFF

I was just filling out some checks and realized I should mention what I’m doing, because I think a lot of you might want to do the same. Last month I renewed my annual support for the Secular Student Alliance. I’ve long been promoting them, as an organization making a huge difference in supporting the growth of atheism and secularism and changing the future of this country (see The SSA Is Our Future and You Should Join the SSA). The SSA only asks from supporters a minimum of $35 a year (or just $10 from students). If you haven’t become an annual supporter already, I highly recommend you do.

But today I’m sending checks to two other organizations that are literally on the front lines doing battle for atheist freedom and against real vestiges of Christian tyranny in America: the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). They each only ask for a minimum of $25 in support each year. I’m giving $35 to both. But even if you can only afford the minimum, it helps, a lot more than you might think. Not only do they do great and important things with the money (and these small donations add up to a lot, when a lot of us send them), but they also have a more influential voice the more people they can report as supporting them with actual money. So giving even the minimum is giving them a lot more power than just the dollars alone. You make a difference on very little expense.

I’ve written about the importance of such organizations before (in support of the MAAF: see Atheists in Foxholes). I’m a veteran myself, as are others here at Freethought Blogs (e.g. Justin Griffith of Rock Beyond Belief has worked for the MAAF and Chris Rodda of This Week in Christian Nationalism has worked for the MRFF). So, too, are several prominent figures in atheism and skepticism, from Harriet Hall of Science Based Medicine to Kathleen Johnson of American Atheists. The abuse of power by Christians in the U.S. military, against the rights of atheists and other religious minorities, is intense and appalling, and not many people are willing to stand up against it. The MAAF and MRFF do, legally and in every other way they can. They also provide a community, a resource for commiseration and advice, and a haven of sanity for oppressed religious minorities in the armed forces, a service much needed. Those who haven’t served or haven’t been culling the news for reports on all the abuses power by the Christian Right in our military might not realize how bad it is, and how much the MAAF and MRFF are needed (you can explore their websites to get up to speed on that, or read the many related posts here in Griffith’s and Rodda’s blogs, or get Mikey Weinstein’s book: see below).

If you don’t want the Christian Right to take over the military and influencing its procedures and decisions, if you don’t want atheists in our armed forces to feel oppressed and alone and forced to hide and put up with Christian rules and proselytizing, then you definitely should support the MAAF and MRFF. Just $25 a year for each is really affordable. The MRFF has a campaign on now that will give you a digital brick on their wall of separation between church and state for just that minimum of $25. Membership dues at the MAAF are the same, but you don’t have to join to donate every year.

The MAAF specifically serves atheists and nonbelievers and does a good job at that. Supporting the MAAF will directly benefit atheists in the military, most especially in providing them with a functioning and reliable community that can help atheists in the service in every way possible. The MRRF serves all religious minorities. They’ve fought cases against discriminatory practices affecting Jews, Buddhists, Wiccans…and they just as fiercely fight for atheists as well, not only directly, but in their general effort to promote religious neutrality and freedom in the services altogether. I’ve met Mikey Weinstein, the MRRF’s lead bullfighter, and he’s a delightfully terrifying badass with incredible principles. It’s partly due to his tenacity and unyielding fight for what’s right that the MRFF has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize–several times. His latest book No Snowflake in an Avalanche is the book to read if you want to learn all the ways the Christian Right is aiming to take over the military, and all the abuses of power they are all too often getting away with there (as well as to see how important the MRRF has been in fighting back, and thus why it definitely deserves your support).

So please join me, if you can, in sending all three organizations a little money their way each year, and give them one more person to add to their reported count of supporters. The SSA, MAAF, and MRFF all have convenient donation links on their websites.

Brown Out: A Christian Reviews Proving History

My latest book Proving History has been negatively reviewed by Kevin Brown (a Christian book reviewer [he has since deleted that post] who confesses he is “not a mathematician or historian by anyone’s standard,” although I must note that one only needs strong primary school math to understand and evaluate the concepts in the book). Although he doesn’t actually have anything bad to say about the overall thesis of the book (the application of Bayes’ Theorem to history generally and Jesus studies specifically, it’s many discussions of method, and so on, beyond vague expressions of uncertainty). His objections are more of a Christian apologetical bent: he doesn’t like certain conclusions about a few random minor points made throughout the book, which he cherry picks because he thinks they are egregiously false, and he uses this to build a comforting narrative for himself that I must not know what I’m talking about, if I don’t agree with him on those few scattered items.

You can get an idea of his bias when he tells you my other book Why I am Not a Christian is “appalling tripe” and “by far the worst book I’ve read on the subject matter of atheism” and other colorful things, all because he despises the most commonsensical of atheist arguments (that a God who wanted x would do what was needed to achieve x). Brown is not a great thinker. And his intemperance and lack of objectivity show here. So when he gets to reviewing Proving History, you can expect a less than objective approach, and a similar sense of hyperbolic contempt. Indeed, for not liking the book (for no actually good reason, as we’ll see), he appears to be more obsessed with attacking it than than with any other book he has ever reviewed (he has so far written six articles on Proving History, where his previous record for any other book is only four, and that only once in twenty or thirty titles). [Read more…]