Thursday, August 16, 2012

Chat show stand up philosophy

Here's the latest episode of London Real, with Tim Freke. It's thought-provoking, which is not to say I am endorsing all or part of it. Much had me tearing my hair out (see Believing Bullshit). Tim Freke describes himself as a "stand up philosopher" website here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

William Lane Craig's Resurrection Argument

Below is a transcript of what I said about William Lane Craig's resurrection argument for the existence of the Christian God (taken from our debate). In case anyone is interested. My point is that we should expect quite a few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies to crop up through the centuries, whether or not there's any truth to them. But then the fact that there are such testimonies provides no support to such miracle and other extraordinary claims.

Several people have misunderstood my point (largely because they have tried to use one of the standard, scripted answers provided by Craig and other Christian apologists in response to doubts about the resurrection - but they don't work here). I do think Craig understood my point. In fact, I'm exploiting a point Craig himself often makes in connection with the maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", namely: that evidence for an extraordinary claim can give strong support to that extraordinary claim IF the probability of the evidence obtaining if the claim were false is very low. Craig says:

"1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred." Source.

My point is that the probability that such evidence would exist if the corresponding extraordinary claims were false is NOT very low. In fact, this is exactly the sort of evidence we should expect to crop up on occasion whether or not miracles etc. happen.

This is so blindingly obvious it is weird the point is not being made against Craig et al on a regular basis. The usual apologetic argument-to-the-best-explanation blather about "Well it's hardly plausible the eyewitnesses would lie, were hallucinating, etc." is all smokescreen.

To see why, consider the 1967 UFO case described below. It  could similarly so very easily have been a case that went down in annals of UFOlogy as deeply baffling and unexplained (rather more so, in fact, as in that case we have real first-hand eyewitness testimony from trained eyewitnesses - police officers - with no ideological to grind, backed up by a radar blip, rather than [in the resurrection case] second- or third-hand testimony recorded a decade or more later by passionate True Believers). "What's the BEST EXPLANATION?" the UFO-enthiasiasts would have said. "That several independent eyewitnesses, police officers no less, would have mistaken e.g. Venus for such an amazing object? Or that they would have collectively made it up? Thereby potentially deeply embarrassing themselves? And that the radar blip was just a coincidence? Or that they really did see an extraordinary object hanging over the plant?" Clearly the latter!!"

The fact that we couldn't come up with a plausible-sounding naturalistic explanation for the police officers's and magistrate's testimony and that simultaneous radar blip gives us little, if any, reason to suppose that there really was something extraordinary hovering over the power plant. Similarly, even if it were true (which it isn't) that we couldn't come up with a plausible-sounding naturalistic explanation for the Gospel testimony regarding the empty tomb, post mortem appearances, etc. that would give us little, if any, reason to suppose Jesus really rose from the dead.


Let’s now turn to the resurrection argument.

It turns on claims made in the New Testament: that there was an empty tomb, that there were independent eyewitness reports of Jesus alive after the crucifixion, and so on.

The claim is that the best explanation of these alleged facts is that Jesus was resurrected by god. You should always be suspicious of arguments to the best explanation in such contexts.

Let me tell you a UFO story from 1967. There were reports of a strange object appearing nightly over a nuclear power site in Wake County. The police investigated. An police officer confirmed “It was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant.” The next night the same thing happened. The Deputy Sheriff described a “large lighted object.” The County magistrate saw, and I quote, “a rectangular object, looked like it was on fire… We figured it about the size of a football field. It was huge and very bright.” There was, in addition, hard data: a curious radar blip reported by local air traffic control.

Now, what’s the best explanation for these reports? We have multiple attestation. We have trained eye-witnesses – police officers – putting their reputations on the line by reporting a UFO. We have hard, independent confirmation – that blip on the radar scope. Surely, then, it’s highly unlikely these witnesses were, say, all hallucinating, or lying, or merely looking at a planet. Clearly, by far the best explanation is that they really did see a large, lighted object hovering close to the plant, right?

Wrong. Here’s the thing. We know, pretty much for sure, that what was seen by those police officers was the planet Venus. Journalists arrived on the scene, were shown the object, and chased it in their car. They found they couldn’t approach it. Finally, they looked at it through a long lens and saw it was Venus. That radar blip was just a coincidence.

What does this show? Every year there are countless amazing reports of religious miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and so on. In most cases, it’s easy to come up with plausible mundane explanations for them. But not all. Some remain deeply baffling.

So should we believe in such things, then?

No. For, as my UFO story illustrates, we know that some very hard-to-explain reports of miracles, flying saucers, and so on are likely to crop up anyway, whether or not there’s any truth to such claims. That 1967 case could easily have been such a baffling case. Had those reporters not shown up and investigated, this case might well have gone down as "unsolved".

So, let’s suppose that Biblical documents written a decade or more after the events they report, written exclusively by devotees of a new religious movement, not even by first hand witnesses, detailing events for which there’s pretty much no independent confirmation, constitutes really, really good evidence that there was an empty tomb and that the disciples did report seeing the risen Christ.

Is that, in turn, good evidence Jesus was resurrected?

Evidence supports a hypothesis to the extent that the evidence is expected given the hypothesis is true, and unexpected otherwise.

The absolutely crucial point to note is this: we have good reason to expect some baffling, very hard-to-explain-in-mundane-terms reports to crop up occasionally anyway, whether or not there are any miracles, gods or flying saucers. So the fact that an otherwise baffling, hard-to-explain case has shown up provides us with little, if any, evidence that a miracle happened.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Recorded with Heavy Dexters on Saturday

At Littlemore recording studios which are very impressive, I thought. This is the small kit I took for the one track we did. Heavy Dexters.

Justin Vacula and John Murray

Very interesting conversation. Provides some nice insights into Murray's thinking and how his world view makes sense to him. Go here.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

William Lane Craig debate - the dimwits strike back

This heavily edited video clip, drawn from this original, is interesting. In it I respond to the question "Why does the universe exist" by saying "I don't know" (I then left a pregnant pause which produced a round of applause - that's been edited out).

The gist of the commentary is: "You, Stephen Law, don't know why the universe exists? Then you can't deny my God exists! I win! You're insane!"

Unfortunately, this way of thinking is very deeply entrenched in the minds of some of Craig's more dimwitted followers (not all of his followers, of course - plenty of them will wince at this).

The truth is an atheist might succeed in showing that Craig's God does not exist, whether or not that atheist knows the answer to the question "Why does the universe exist?", and whether or not they bother to refute Craig's Kalam cosmological argument. That's what I aimed to do in this debate, as I explained several times.

In this clip, Craig insists I need to address his Kalam cosmological argument. It's obvious I don't need to do that in order to show Craig's God does not exist.

There's a moral here so far as reaching this kind of person is concerned. The moral is:

You can never point out clearly enough, loudly enough, and enough times that, just because we don't know why the universe exists, or why it's fine-tuned, and haven't bothered to refute the Kalam cosmological argument, doesn't mean we haven't decisively ruled out their God.

See the Sherlock Holmes fallacy.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My debate with William Lane Craig finally released on video

Yes, it's finally been posted up. Recorded last October in front of audience of 2,000 (largely, though not entirely Christian) at Westminster Central Hall.

I usually watch any recording of myself with my head in my heads, cringing at what an idiot I am, but actually this went alright, I feel. I did wobble in my first rebuttal, partly because I forgot what I was going to say. But the rest of it goes OK. Especially the Q&A at the end.

The point I make about evidence for the resurrection comes across fairly clearly on the video, to my surprise (I had suspected it was too quick to follow) - and I do think it a very strong point (and also original so far as I am aware). People have also previously complained that the audio recording was poor and I couldn't be heard, but I seem pretty audible on this.

Still, I could certainly have done better. My debating skills are pretty poor compared to Craig's. There are also points I could have added that would have caused him significantly more difficulty, particularly regarding his playing the skeptical card on the problem of evil. Maybe next time, if there is one....

What is Humanism?

(From my OUP book - A Very Short Introduction to Humanism). One aim here is to nail various myths about what Humanism involves, which in turn lead to a whole series of strawman attacks from its critics.

What is humanism?

The word “humanism” has had, and continues to have, a variety of meanings. At its broadest, “humanism” means little more than a system of thought in which human values, interests and dignity are considered particularly important. Understood in this way, perhaps almost everyone qualifies as a humanist (including those of us who are religious).

However, those who organize under the banner of “humanism” today, particularly in the UK, usually mean something rather more focussed. They embrace a particular kind of worldview that by no means everyone accepts. That worldview is the focus of this book.

So what distinguishes the humanist outlook? It is difficult to be very precise. The boundaries of the concept are elastic. But I think most humanists would probably agree on something like the following minimal, seven-point characterization (in no particular order):