New Hampshire is wimping out

New Hampshire is working on legalizing gay marriage, and has a bill pending…unfortunately, it is being compromised.

The new version, which is expected to come up for a vote Wednesday, adds a sentence specifying that all religious organizations, associations or societies have exclusive control over their religious doctrines, policies, teachings and beliefs on marriage. It also clarifies that church-related organizations that serve charitable or educational purposes are exempt from having to provide insurance and other benefits to same sex spouses of employees.

Lovely. The first part is fair — I don’t think churches should be compelled to endorse gay marriage — but the last part is odious. It’s basically a loophole that says religious groups can be as bigoted as they want to be. In another decade or so, when gay civil rights are accepted as matter-of-fact and we look back on these years with the same disbelief and disgust that we look back on the days of racial segregation in the 50s now, remember that religion actively lobbied for the right to cling to discrimination and the denial of civil rights to a segment of society.

Truth in labeling

So you want to be a better person. You’re in Chandler, Arizona, and you enter the Barnes & Noble bookstore there, and you head off to the Self Improvement section. What is prominently recommended?


What did you expect, some tripe Oprah liked?

(Thanks to Max & Felipe)

A novel creationist argument

Wow. Creationists can surprise you with a rare flash of imagination — like this argument that because you don’t drool, god exists.

Ok, I have an Evolution Challenge for you. Make your mouth produce a bunch of spit, let it dribble down your face and time how long it is before you simply have to wipe it off. Go ahead; try it! I promise you it won’t be very long. It’s extremely uncomfortable to have it sit there.

Think about the babies in your life. Have you ever thought about the fact that they stop drooling after the first couple years of life? Have you ever imagined what life would be like if we didn’t stop? Some, sadly, know what this is like. Children with cerebral palsy that don’t stop drooling or those that begin drooling due to loss of facial muscle control know the horrors of this. Have you had to endure watching people stare at your parent or child as they experience this humiliating social embarrassment? Have you tried to alleviate the irritating sores that develop from skin being constantly wet? Have you tried to keep them in presentable clothing when saliva keeps staining their clothes?

What evolutionary advantage is there to developing the oral neuromuscular control at age 18-24 months? What if drooling, the default condition at birth, was the way our lives always are? How would you like to date, make love, run a business meeting, ride horses, grocery shop and take care of kids while drooling? How cool would you feel driving your fancy car down the road with sunglasses and drool? How would your wedding go with everyone trying to be discrete with their designer drool cloths or bibs?

The human body is designed to give us dignity. These specific designs and abilities point to a Creator who cares about even whether we are embarrassed or not. There’s no evolutionary advantage to not drooling. It’s the gift of dignity.

Gosh. Here’s a phenomenon that the author himself notes is a consequence of loss of facial muscle control, that is uncomfortable, that is a social deficit, and that can lead to irritating sores (he also missed one, probably the most important one in an evolutionary context: it’s wasteful and makes one more prone to dehydration), and then he says, “There’s no evolutionary advantage to not drooling”? It’s always nice when the creationists noisily refute themselves for me.

By the way, this silly claim comes from a source that is notable for its history of weird arguments, Bibleland Studios. They have a museum that features a dead cat, and they publish the legendary Jim Pinkoski, who argues that having two eyes refutes evolution, and also wrote the popularly obscure catch-phrase, “If you doubt this is possible, how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??. It’s nice to see they still haven’t lost their touch.

Save the submersibles!

Go sign this petition to maintain the tools for sea exploration at Florida Atlantic University. They’re trying to get a thousand signatures…we can do that in no time at all.

The Johnson-Sea-Link I & II submersibles are owned and operated by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Fort Pierce, Florida. They are launched from the HBOI research vessel R/V Seward Johnson, a 204-ft ,purpose built ,state of the art platform redesigned in 1994 which displaces 1282 tons and has a 6,000 nautical mile range. An experienced captain and crew constantly maintain the R/V Seward Johnson as part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) Fleet of research vessels. A team of highly skilled sub pilots operate, maintain and upgrade the submersibles according to strict safety protocols. The Johnson-Sea-Link submersibles were built in 1971. Almost four decades, 9,000 dives and continuous upgrades and improvements later, the Johnson-Sea-Link I submersibles and II, along with their support ship the R/V Seward Johnson, remain invaluable platforms for exploring the oceans.


Unfortunately, the current administration of HBOI has announced its decision to sell the R/V Seward Johnson and retire the JSL submersibles in spite of a lack of technologies with similar or better capabilities at HBOI, FAU or any other institution on the East coast of the U.S. While some argue that this expensive technology is outdated and tied to its mother ship, this view is not shared by the scientific community. The Alvin submersible operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts is 10 years older, and still performs between 150 and 200 dives a year. No one considers the Alvin 40-year old technology, or criticizes its dependence on the research vessel Atlantis for its deployment. It is still considered a valuable workhorse. While NOAA has just awarded HBOI a 22.5 million dollars grant to be a Cooperative Institute, in part due to their ability to perform oceanographic study with such tools as the R/V Seward Johnson and JSL submersibles, it is unclear whether these assets will be supported by that grant money. Unless a new source of funding is found to support these technologies, the current administration will continue their plans to abandon these technologies. Maintaining and operating these technologies is expensive, and the HBOI administration lacks the funds to continue to support these assets. Thus, it is critical for the State of Florida to invest in these amazing technologies to further our ocean exploration and our scientific progress.

Since FAU is a state university, the submersibles and research vessel are property of the State of Florida and the taxpayers should have a say in choosing whether these amazing technologies which are helping us discover and protect our underwater assets should be maintained. These are expensive technologies to maintain, but their benefits far outweigh their costs. If you believe that the state of Florida should invest in science, education and technology, please sign this petition to indicate to our legislators that you believe the HBOI ship and submersibles should be saved from sale or retirement and supported by the state of Florida.

Alvin Plantinga gives philosophy a bad name

The more sophisticated creationists like to toss the name “Alvin Plantinga” into arguments — he’s a well-regarded philosopher/theologian who favors Intelligent Design creationism, or more accurately, Christian creationism. I’ve read some of his work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash, and go read something from Science or Nature to cleanse my palate. Unfortunately, that means that what I have read is typically an indigestible muddled mess that I don’t have much interest in discussing, and what I haven’t read is something I can’t discuss.

Well, we’re in luck. Plantinga has written a short, 5 page summary of his views on evolution and naturalism, and it’s lucid (for Plantinga) and goes straight to his main points. The workings of the man’s mind sit there naked and exposed, and all the stripped gears and misaligned cogs and broken engines of his misperception are there for easy examination. Read it, and you’ll wonder how a man so confused could have acquired such a high reputation; you might even think that philosophy has been Sokaled.

Begin at the beginning. He doesn’t think much of atheism, and as we’ll discover, doesn’t like naturalism or evolution at all.

As everyone knows, there has been a recent spate of books attacking Christian belief and religion in general. Some of these books are little more than screeds, long on vituperation but short on reasoning, long on name-calling but short on competence, long on righteous indignation but short on good sense; for the most part they are driven by hatred rather than logic.

Hmm. It’s not a good start when the author is so oblivious to irony that he opens his paper with a name-calling screed in which he lambastes others for writing name-calling screeds. Especially when, as we read further, we discover that Plantinga is the one lacking in competence, good sense, and logic.

Plantinga’s claim is straightforward. Naturalism, the idea he defines as the claim that “there is no such person as God or anything like God”, is in “philosophical hot water” and is untenable, and specifically, it is in complete contradiction to evolution — “you can’t rationally accept both evolution and naturalism”, contra Dawkins’ claim that evolution made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

Very straightforward, but it sounds like lunacy. Plantinga’s going to have to be very, very persuasive indeed to convince me of that claim.

The way he does this starts off well. He points out that we naturalist/evolutionist types are also materialists who believe human beings are just material objects with no souls, that we operate on principles described by chemistry and physiology, and that we evolved. That’s quite right. He gives the impression that he doesn’t believe any of this (and I know from his other writings that he doesn’t), but that is my position, and that of just about any other modern atheist you might name. Now let us consider the implications.

But while evolution, natural selection, rewards adaptive behavior (rewards it with survival and reproduction) and penalizes maladaptive behavior, it doesn’t, as such, care a fig about true belief. As Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the genetic code, writes in The Astonishing Hypothesis, “Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truth, but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendents.” Taking up this theme, naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland declares that the most important thing about the human brain is that it has evolved; hence, she says, its principal function is to enable the organism to move appropriately:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive … . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival [Churchland’s emphasis]. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.

What she means is that natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior. Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.

Yes, exactly! Just believing in something, whether it is Christianity or physics, doesn’t mean it is necessarily true. Our brains attempt to model the world for functional purposes and lack any inherent, absolute means to detect truth. I agree 100% with what he’s saying, but now watch as he takes this foundation and runs it off the rails.

He imagines a hypothetical population of creatures living on another planet who operate entirely on these rules. What will happen to their beliefs?

So consider any particular belief on the part of one of those creatures: what is the probability that it is true? Well, what we know is that the belief in question was produced by adaptive neurophysiology, neurophysiology that produces adaptive behavior. But as we’ve seen, that gives us no reason to think the belief true (and none to think it false). We must suppose, therefore, that the belief in question is about as likely to be false as to be true; the probability of any particular belief’s being true is in the neighborhood of 1/2. But then it is massively unlikely that the cognitive faculties of these creatures produce the preponderance of true beliefs over false required by reliability. If I have 1,000 independent beliefs, for example, and the probability of any particular belief’s being true is 1/2, then the probability that 3/4 or more of these beliefs are true (certainly a modest enough requirement for reliability) will be less than 10(to the power -58). And even if I am running a modest epistemic establishment of only 100 beliefs, the probability that 3/4 of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is 1/2, is very low, something like .000001.[7] So the chances that these creatures’ true beliefs substantially outnumber their false beliefs (even in a particular area) are small. The conclusion to be drawn is that it is exceedingly unlikely that their cognitive faculties are reliable.

(First, an amusing aside: footnote [7] is an acknowledgment of the assistance of someone else in doing those calculations. He needed help from an expert to multiply simple probabilities? Does being a philosopher mean you’re incapable of tapping buttons on a calculator?)

I think you can now see what I mean when I say Plantinga’s ideas are muddled lunacy. This is the same innumerate error creationists make when they babble about the odds of a single protein of 100 amino acids forming by chance; they assume that it’s all a matter of sudden, spontaneous good fortune that a protein (or in this case, a brain) has all of its traits fixed, with no input from history or the environment. In Plantinga’s imaginary materialist/naturalist world, beliefs are only the product of random chance.

In Plantinga’s world, if we queried the inhabitants with some simple question, such as, “Is fire hot?”, 50% would say no, and 50% would say yes. This world must be populated entirely with philosophers of Plantinga’s ilk, because I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you’d actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either.

What it does mean, though, is that if there are ideas that are not amenable to empirical testing, such as “I will go to heaven when I die”, those ideas have a very low probability of being true. We can think of those as being the product of random input, in some ways, and since they cannot be winnowed against reality, they are unreliable.

Plantinga has heard this objection before, sort of. He’s heard it, but it hasn’t quite penetrated; he recites the common objection with some garbling.

What sort of reception has this argument had? As you might expect, naturalists tend to be less than wholly enthusiastic about it, and many objections have been brought against it. In my opinion (which of course some people might claim is biased), none of these objections is successful. Perhaps the most natural and intuitive objection goes as follows. Return to that hypothetical population of a few paragraphs back. Granted, it could be that their behavior is adaptive even though their beliefs are false; but wouldn’t it be much more likely that their behavior is adaptive if their beliefs are true? And doesn’t that mean that, since their behavior is in fact adaptive, their beliefs are probably true and their cognitive faculties probably reliable?

Almost. So close, and yet he still doesn’t get it. A large part of our behavior will be functional (not contradicting reality) and some of it will even be adaptive (better fitting us to reality), and a lot of it will be neutral (contradicting reality, perhaps, but in ways that do not affect survival), but this does not imply that our cognitive faculties are necessarily and implicitly reliable. We could have highly unreliable cognition that maintains functionality by constant cross-checks against reality — we build cognitive models of how the world works that are progressively refined by experience.

Plantinga really thinks that one of the claims he is arguing against is that materialists/naturalists assume our minds are reliable.

But of course we can’t just assume that they are in the same cognitive situation we think we are in. For example, we assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. We can’t sensibly assume that about this population; after all, the whole point of the argument is to show that if evolutionary naturalism is true, then very likely we and our cognitive faculties are not reliable.

To which I say…exactly! Brains are not reliable; they’ve been shaped by forces which, as has been clearly said, do not value Truth with a capital T. Scientists are all skeptics who do not trust their perceptions at all; we design experiments to challenge our assumptions, we measure everything multiple times in multiple ways, we get input from many people, we put our ideas out in public for criticism, we repeat experiments and observations over and over. We demand repeated and repeatable confirmation before we accept a conclusion, because our minds are not reliable. We cannot just sit in our office at Notre Dame with a bible and conjure truth out of divine effluent. We need to supplement brains with evidence, which is the piece Plantinga is missing.

He’s reduced to a bogus either/or distinction. Either we are organic machines that evolved and our brains are therefore collections of random beliefs, or — and this is a leap I find unbelievable — Jesus gave us reliable minds. Seriously. That’s what his argument reduces to. He flat out says it.

The obvious conclusion, so it seems to me, is that evolutionary naturalism can’t sensibly be accepted. The high priests of evolutionary naturalism loudly proclaim that Christian and even theistic belief is bankrupt and foolish. The fact, however, is that the shoe is on the other foot. It is evolutionary naturalism, not Christian belief, that can’t rationally be accepted.

Apparently, because Plantinga cannot imagine a source of information to imperfect minds other than the Christian deities, we’re supposed to conclude that microwave ovens cannot be the product of ape brains shaped by evolution, with new and deeper understanding of the physical world derived by trial and error.

I really cannot take Alvin Plantinga seriously, ever.