News Bits

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 12, 2011 in News

Paper of the week: DePoe, “Vindicating a Bayesian Approach to Confirming Miracles.” DePoe explains the Bayesian way of confirming miracles, and responds to Sobel’s criticism.

A post I wrote for Less Wrong: How to Beat Procrastination.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher February 12, 2011 at 8:35 am

Luke, you forgot to say “Happy Darwin Day” :)

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Martin February 12, 2011 at 9:02 am

A simple paradox concerning God’s goodness.

Isn’t this just the problem of evil? And can’t a theist just respond with either skeptical theism or a “G. E. Moore shift?”

Graham Oppy seems to think the problem of evil fails just as hard as the theistic arguments do…

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Jacopo February 12, 2011 at 9:51 am

Graham Oppy thinks that the problem of evil does not give sufficient grounds for somebody who already holds theism for independent reasons to give up their belief in the god of classical theism.

An atheist can still hold to it as an argument supporting their view just as a theist can hold to the Kalam, or whatever.

All I mean to say here, is that that’s not quite ‘failing’ because a rational person can still hold to it as a good argument.

Luke: You often recommend things. I thought it could be an idea to give a global post which gives a dozen or two books/articles which form the most fundamental pillars of the worldview you espouse.

I say this because I often end up recommending books like you, and I think that I could come up with a pretty good list of books and articles which, when taken together, would give a good overall take on my views on things. I’d be fascinated to know what yours are. There is a high amount of redundancy in books on the same subject, and you may not find this, but I find it quite heartening that a book more-or-less similar (though rarely identical) to the one I would have liked to write exists on most subjects.

Also, out of curiosity, do you ever have an interest in fiction? In the broadest sense? There are a number of people who see it almost as a waste of time. Stephen Law and David Attenborough spring to mind.

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Luke Muehlhauser February 12, 2011 at 10:27 am

Jacopo,

Fiction may not be a waste of time, but I don’t have time for it. If I had any spare time in my life I would probably spend it getting laid more often, not reading fiction.

I’m not that happy with the literature available that espouses my views. I may have to write it.

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Bill Maher February 12, 2011 at 10:29 am

Martin,

Skeptical theism and Moore’s epistemology seem to open up more serious problems than they solve. Have you read John D’s excellent post series on ST?

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juhou February 12, 2011 at 11:35 am

A Swedish documentary about wikileaks called wikirebels: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhTfOL9_HBE

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Reginald Selkirk February 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm

DePoe explains the Bayesian way of confirming miracles…

Do I want to inflict that on myself or not? Isn’t there enough evil in the world already without attempts to justify miracles on Bayesian grounds? Maybe it’s just a Poe…

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Martin February 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Bill Maher,

Yes, I’ve skimmed through John D’s series on ST. Quite good. He titles his series “The End of Skeptical Theism?”, and then you can turn right around at the Prosblogion and read about how “Rowe’s argument is, I think, over.” http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2010/10/rowes-evidentia.html

Frustratingly, I find both convincing as I read them. I think I am going to become a strong agnostic: nobody knows, and nobody can know.

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Steven R. February 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Well, since we’re on the topic of the Problem of Evil and such, allow me to present my own version of it:

1. It is morally wrong to let limited resources go to waste
2. If God exists, he would be a source of unlimited resources
3. Therefore, God, in failing to provide unlimited resources, is letting limited resources go to waste
4. Therefore, if God exists, he is unjust, immoral, etc.

There you go, now we have a Green Argument from Evil. *Waits for a Theist to explain how letting natural resources go to waste are actually for the greater good*

But really, I find attempts to explain away evil rather silly. Why does God allow paraplegics and people to enter vegetable states? “To show the greater good of caring for people when they’re unconscious!” But there’d be no need for that if there weren’t any paraplegics and unconscious people in the first place!

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Martin February 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Why does God allow paraplegics and people to enter vegetable states? “To show the greater good of caring for people when they’re unconscious!”

But if you unpack this, you’ll find the following inference:

1. I can’t think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. Therefore, there is no reason God would allow evil X
3. Therefore, theism is false

And as the Prosblogion article I linked to makes clear, this is the same (bad) reasoning that creationists use:

1. I can’t think of a way evolution could produce feature X
2. Therefore, evolution did not produce feature X
3. Therefore, evolution is false

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Steven R. February 12, 2011 at 6:32 pm

But if you unpack this, you’ll find the following inference:1. I can’t think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. Therefore, there is no reason God would allow evil X
3. Therefore, theism is falseAnd as the Prosblogion article I linked to makes clear, this is the same (bad) reasoning that creationists use:1. I can’t think of a way evolution could produce feature X
2. Therefore, evolution did not produce feature X
3. Therefore, evolution is false  

Yeah, I was going to explain why my argument does work but I had to leave.

The reason why you can’t compare this to the evolution argument is because now we have the factor of a personal agent. Not only that but we also know it’s supposed nature and motivation, as we are “testing” the benevolent God hypothesis. Here is where prior arguments for God come back to bite. Remember the tidy explanations for the Fine-Tuning Argument? The reason it didn’t work for that is because the argument tries to establish the existence of a personal agent, but now that we do assume a personal, benevolent agent, all of these things come into play.

Consider the man at the bazaar from the example WLC gave. The man is selling a fine silk, but places his finger in such a way as to cover the hole in it. Coincidence? Probably not. But now what if you confront the man at the bazaar about it? Being the clever seller he is, he says that he was doing it for “the greater good.” When you ask him what that is that could possibly justify such a rip-off and waste of time, he provides no reason. Being the good-natured person that you are, you investigate and find no good reason. You then take the man to court for intentionally scamming you. He then says that your argument boils down to

“1. I can’t think of a reason why a legitimate salesman would sell me a worthless silk piece
2. Therefore, there is no reason a legitimate salesman would sell me a worthless silk piece
3. Therefore, his claim of being a legitimate salesman is false”

Clearly, your position has much to commend itself even with his accusation of you using the fallacy known as the Argument from Ignorance. But that’s not what it is. We know he had a his hand in a very questionable position and that we found no reason to think that this was an innocent mistake or really for the greater good. As such, the claim that he wasn’t trying to rip you off becomes less and less credible. Now suppose that we other people who also testify that this same thing has happened to them from the same man at the bazaar and, even though we haven’t disporved the idea that there is a good reason for his questionable act, there’s no reason to think that there is one, and the legal system would be fully justified in condemning the man. That’s what the Argument from Evil/Pain is.

In this case, we have lots of evidence of what appears to be pointless evil and not once coming upon a real reason as to its existence or reason. With this in mind, not only does the claim “God has a good reason for this” lose credence, it becomes right down improbable. It appears (though I do not have the expertise for this) that the absence of evidence of a good coming out of it boosts the Bayesian probability that God does not exist. At any rate, even if it isn’t, in the face of so much evil and/or suffering, why assume God is good or has good reasons to let it happen? Because that is what this is. We have evidence for one position and very little to none for the other. Thus, the one who now has the burden of proof is the Theist and merely appealing to some mysterious plan nobody knows about no longer works because it isn’t justified given the evidence. It really is like having one of those rogue malware programs that continue to say they found an infection and not removing it because, just because you can’t find the infection it keeps talking about doesn’t mean it doesn’t really have one, right? It’s bad logic.

What makes the argument fallacious for evolution is that we do have a lot of evidence for evolution, it does not have a personal agent involved, for which we need to see whether or not the claimed nature is compatible with his/her/its actions, and the evidence doesn’t point another way for us to warrant dismissing evolution just because we temporarily came to a mental block of a possible evolutionary pathway. Of course, if nobody could find a way of how evolution could explain any biological feature or how it is supported by any of the evidence we have, then it would be right to dismiss it. And, similarly, if the Theist can’t find any real reason for the suffering, etc. then it is foolish not to reject the benevolent God hypothesis.

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Rondawg February 12, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Martin:
“But if you unpack this, you’ll find the following inference:

1. I can’t think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. Therefore, there is no reason God would allow evil X
3. Therefore, theism is false

And as the Prosblogion article I linked to makes clear, this is the same (bad) reasoning that creationists use:

1. I can’t think of a way evolution could produce feature X
2. Therefore, evolution did not produce feature X
3. Therefore, evolution is false”
God, according to most theists, is: omnipotent, (can do what ever is logically possible), omniscient, (knowing everything that it is possible to know), omni-benevolent (good to every being and all things), and all-loving (loving every being and all things except sin).
Given these characteristics, evil can occur under God’s nose if and only if:
(1) Evil X is absolutely necessary to bring about a greater good.
(2) There is no logical way for God to prevent evil X.
(3) God did not know that evil X would take place.
(4) God did not care if evil X occurred regardless of justification.
The first option takes us back to skeptical theism and looks quite unlikely. After all, theists believe in a world where no evil can happen even for a greater cause. They call this world heaven. The second and third option cannot ever have any truth in it. The last option makes God look like a grade A jerk. I can’t think of any other reason why God would allow suffering right now. Maybe someone could help me.
With evolution, genes can undergo any of several kinds of mutation. Alleles can be selected or not due to at least two different selective elements: natural selection or sexual selection. Given this information, anyone could at the very least come up with an imaginative hypothesis to test. If the hypothesis turns out correct, it could explain how evolution produced feature X.

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Bill Maher February 12, 2011 at 7:47 pm

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Steven R. February 12, 2011 at 8:18 pm

The first option takes us back to skeptical theism and looks quite unlikely. After all, theists believe in a world where no evil can happen even for a greater cause. They call this world heaven. The second and third option cannot ever have any truth in it. The last option makes God look like a grade A jerk. I can’t think of any other reason why God would allow suffering right now. Maybe someone could help me.
With evolution, genes can undergo any of several kinds of mutation. Alleles can be selected or not due to at least two different selective elements: natural selection or sexual selection. Given this information, anyone could at the very least come up with an imaginative hypothesis to test. If the hypothesis turns out correct, it could explain how evolution produced feature X.  

For future reference, you need to be much more careful with your terms. Not all Theists believe that there is an afterlife, which makes stuff like Plantinga’s Free Will Defense viable responses, even if this isn’t the case for (ironically enough) Christians because of their belief in an evil-free heaven.

Not only that, but “God being a grade A jerk” doesn’t mean anything. Okay, God can be a jerk, that has no bearing whatsoever upon his/her/its existence. As such, I recommend saying “this last option makes it impossible to posit a fully benevolent, just and perfect being” and it would also be okay to point out that even if God did exist, it is much more likely he takes pleasure out of our suffering or just doesn’t care about our individual lives, and then point out that the lack of people justifying these options, even though they are far more likely, is indicative of the mentality that leads most Theism–that of projecting one’s own desires (say, of a caring being who can help at any given moment) unto some incomprehensible being–and then conclude that this is not a sound mentality for determining the truth of things.

Sorry if it came out condescendingly, but I want fellow Atheists to not fall into the same logical trapfalls that many Theists fall into, and which makes more perceptive Theists win faux-victories. Yes, just because the Problem of Evil doesn’t disprove the idea of “God” the transcendental, omnipotent, omniscient being doesn’t mean that all of a sudden, your specific sets of beliefs. It also makes your argument all the more sophisticated and harder to refute, which, I take it, is something you want ;).

———-

I should add what I feel is what Theists are doing with regards to evil. It is the same thing as knowing your friend was about to gun-down an Elementary School and, when the police ask you why you did nothing to stop it, you respond that the situation was good because it created a chance to save children, which is good. When they question why he didn’t do it, which would also create good, he then responds “oh, well, it’s that I wanted to leave it for the greater good. Obviously one person saving all the children isn’t NEARLY as good as numerous people doing the same action, as we have more individuals doing the good. Therefore, I figured that one man couldn’t do the same good as the whole police force!”

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wonderer February 13, 2011 at 7:39 am

Hi Luke,

Thanks for posting the link to Julia Galef’s article on intuition at Massimo Pigliuci’s blog.

As an atheist who posts frequently at William Lane Craig’s forum, the issue of appeal to intuition is one that comes up all the time. So I was happy to be able to post the link to Galef’s article at WLC’s forum.

I have discussed intuition at length there in the past, (http://rfforum.websitetoolbox.com/post?id=5043206) but it’s good to be able to present other people’s take on intuition in hopes of getting readers to consider the naivete of their intuitions. (Or “spurious obviousness” as Dennett has put it.)

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Rondawg February 13, 2011 at 8:57 am

Steven R said:
“For future reference, you need to be much more careful with your terms. Not all Theists believe that there is an afterlife, which makes stuff like Plantinga’s
Free Will Defense viable responses, even if this isn’t the case for (ironically enough) Christians because of their belief in an evil-free heaven.

Not only that, but “God being a grade A jerk” doesn’t mean anything. Okay, God can be a jerk, that has no bearing whatsoever upon his/her/its existence.
As such, I recommend saying “this last option makes it impossible to posit a fully benevolent, just and perfect being” and it would also be okay to point
out that even if God did exist, it is much more likely he takes pleasure out of our suffering or just doesn’t care about our individual lives, and then
point out that the lack of people justifying these options, even though they are far more likely, is indicative of the mentality that leads most Theism–that
of projecting one’s own desires (say, of a caring being who can help at any given moment) unto some incomprehensible being–and then conclude that this
is not a sound mentality for determining the truth of things.

Sorry if it came out condescendingly, but I want fellow Atheists to not fall into the same logical trapfalls that many Theists fall into, and which makes
more perceptive Theists win faux-victories. Yes, just because the Problem of Evil doesn’t disprove the idea of “God” the transcendental, omnipotent, omniscient
being doesn’t mean that all of a sudden, your specific sets of beliefs. It also makes your argument all the more sophisticated and harder to refute, which,
I take it, is something you want ;).”
I apreeciate your helpful feedback, Steven.

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Rocky February 13, 2011 at 10:35 am

I’m neither a philosopher nor a logician, but why does it have to be…

1. I can’t think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. Therefore, there is no reason God would allow evil X
3. Therefore, theism is false

What’s wrong with…

1. I’m not aware that anyone has ever been able to think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. Therefore, there is no reason God would allow evil X
3. Therefore, theism is false

This is the flaw when the similar line is applied to evolution. Maybe you can’t think of a way evolution could produce feature X, but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t.

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Patrick who is not Patrick February 13, 2011 at 10:48 am

I’m neither a philosopher nor a logician, but why does it have to be…
What’s wrong with…1. I’m not aware that anyone has ever been able to think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. Therefore, there is no reason God would allow evil X
3. Therefore, theism is falseThis is the flaw when the similar line is applied to evolution. Maybe you can’t think of a way evolution could produce feature X, but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t.  

Its still a fallacy to go from 1 to 2.

But you could argue,

1. I’m not aware that anyone has ever been able to think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. The evidence for theism isn’t strong enough to overcome this enormous evidential problem
2. Therefore theism is, as best we can tell, false.

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Rocky February 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

OK then Patrick, I’m convinced!

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Steven R. February 13, 2011 at 11:49 am

Its still a fallacy to go from 1 to 2.But you could argue,1. I’m not aware that anyone has ever been able to think of a reason God would allow evil X
2. The evidence for theism isn’t strong enough to overcome this enormous evidential problem
*3. Therefore theism is, as best we can tell, false.  

I think we can smuggle in the term “it is also fairly likely that an omnipotent and omniscient being would have a better way of accomplishing goal X than allowing suffering/evil/pain Y from existing”.

To illustrate this, suppose we ask why God doesn’t heal my amputated finger. We then get the response “to remind others to appreciate our fingers!” But wait. Why can’t God just send a message to everyone that having fingers is a good thing? Or mysteriously create a work of art that everyone understands conveys the feeling of not having an extra finger? Or why not just leave an illustration of a man having a finger amputated off, from which humans can have empathy towards and be grateful about? There’s so many ways that I would say, Theists have to argue that this evil MUST occur. Each and every one of them. And then, of course, is the complication that there’d be no need to “appreciate having every finger” if God didn’t allow anyone to have their fingers cut off! Or at least have them regenerate after the event.

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Garren February 13, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Speaking of fiction, I’m half-confident that Blasphemy by Douglas Preston was written in response to the historical argument for the resurrection. It’s a modern scientific adventure story with strange happenings at a particle accelerator lab.

Love all of his and Lincoln Child’s novels. This one has the extra flavor of philosophy of religion.

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Zeb February 14, 2011 at 7:23 am

If I had any spare time in my life I would probably spend it getting laid more often, not reading fiction.

But Luke, reading fiction is the ultimate way to feel what it’s like to be ‘inside’ another person!

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Luke Muehlhauser February 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Zeb,

That is a really dumb joke but it made me laugh anyway. Damn you! :)

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Zeb February 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Zeb,That is a really dumb joke but it made me laugh anyway. Damn you! :)  

Good. Dumb joke, but meant to be slightly less than half serious at the same time.

I feel like analytic philosophy as I see it displayed on this site (posts and comments) gives short shrift to subjective experience, whether one’s own or other people’s. I think literature can be a great way to explore the human experience in a way that science and philosophy don’t, and I think there are important truths to be gained there.

Also, saying you’d rather spend free time getting laid than reading fiction makes you sound like a dumb frat boy, which obviously you aren’t. Maybe append it with “…unless it’s Dostoevsky.”

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Reginald Selkirk February 17, 2011 at 7:28 am
Luke Muehlhauser February 17, 2011 at 8:38 am

Reginald,

Thanks!

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