Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Meet Me At My New Blog

Well, it didn't take very long, but I now have my new blog up and running. I decided to go with The Iron Chariot for a title. To see why, you'll just have to go there and find out for yourself! The new blog's URL is:


Anyway, the PBS special on the Dover Trial is about on. I'll post my thoughts afterwards at my new blog. Hope to see you there!

New Blog in the Works

Greetings! For anyone who might still have their subscriptions active, I apologize for my extended disappearance. I've been through an long period of training for work, so I haven't had the time or desire to write much of anything. Fortunately, all that is coming to an end, and I am ready to get back into the swing of things. More than anything, I've missed being a part of the atheist blogosphere. It's nice to share ideas with like-minded people.

However, I will be moving to new blog. I've come to realize that this blog's title is a little too narrow and doesn't represent the breadth of the blog's topics. I'm still working on the new blog (I don't even have a name yet), but I'll post a link to it as soon as it's ready.

Anyway, I hope you'll join me as I continue to share my thoughts on living a life of reason.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Wherein I Respond to a Thoughtful Critique

Throughout the time I've been writing on this blog I've been fortunate not to have encountered any trolls lurking in my comments section. Instead, most comments from theists have been thoughtful and productive. Recently, I just received a extremely thoughtful comment from Jesse V. in response to my recent post concerning evidence. In that post, I was mostly concerned with evidence in the purely scientific sense. However, Jesse's argument is from the historical perspective, using the available sources concerning particular events. Luckily, I majored in history, so I feel more than up to the challenge of debating Jesse's points.

Before getting into the history, Jesse says:

For example, can you prove what word I said yesterday at 12:52pm? No, not by the scientific method. The best you can do is ask those who were around me, IF there was anyone around me. At that point you are relying on the testimony of witnesses, which is not perfect, since someone may have forgotten what I said, or misheard me, or perhaps no one heard what I said. This doesn't mean it didn't happen. Much of written history that we accept would be thrown out the window on the basis of not having enough scientific evidence.
I won't go too in depth on this, but you could consider the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. Basically, you have a cat in a box set in a situation where it has a 50% chance of either being killed or still living and you don't know which until you actually open the box. Schrödinger suggested that the cat would be both alive and dead until the act of observing it set it one way or the other. If you want to know more, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article here, but it basically suggests that anything that can happen will happen until the act of observing it establishes the reality. Jesse could have said anything at 12:52 or nothing at all. However, that's not the point of this post, I just wanted to bring it up to tickle your mind a bit.

Now, getting to the history. Jesse says:
You and I agree that "science is the best tool we have for understanding the workings of the universe." However, it is limited and not universal for proving truth as I have just demonstrated by way of example. When this happens, the wise among us would at least consider the testimony of witnesses and any other alternate methods for discerning truth from fiction. If one solely relied on the inadequate scientific method, then one would potentially be dismissing the vast majority of reality and truth.
This ignores the primary problem with history. Namely, historians can never determine the absolute truth of what happened. For the eyewitness accounts of what Jesse said at 12:52, we might have two witnesses relaying completely different accounts. The historian's job is to use his or her judgment and reasoning to determine the most accurate account. However, another historian could come and favor the opposite witness of the first historian. In reality, history never deals with absolutes. All historians can really do is provide what they feel is the most accurate description of the events with the evidence they have. I'll get into some examples later, but moving on:
In the case of the existence of a god, there may or may not be physical evidence. Perhaps there is but we don’t recognize it. In the mean time, one should consider the reliable corroborating (based on my research) testimonies of witnesses collected primarily in the Bible and elsewhere. In the end, it will not be scientific, but it remains that one must either reject, ignore, or believe the testimonies. In researching, one should be careful to read both sides of the argument. Just like anything else, it can be easy to misinterpret and abuse something that was written to a specific audience 2000 years ago in a different culture. Just because it can be misinterpreted, doesn’t make it false. It would be wise to read many different experts commentaries on the interpretations.
First off, I'd like to point out that you cannot corroborate the Bible with the Bible. Also, Jesse left out an important option: historians can accept parts of an account and reject those that seem unreasonable. One does not have to accept or reject the entire thing.

Now, the authors of the Gospels might not have been the Apostles. The apostles might not have ever existed. You can make the same argument concerning Plato. There is legitimate grounds for debate over whether or not Plato was a real person because no sources ouside his writings mention him. Plato may have been one person, several people, or even an Islamic scholar masquerading as a Greek author (unlikely, but you never know). That is the misfortune of ancient history. There’s simply little reliable evidence for what actually happened. We’ll probably never know the reality of those days long gone. This same problem exists for most of the ancient and classical authors including Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Livy, etc.

Where the doubt goes away is when various contemporary sources verify the existence of a specific person. For example, along with his own writings, Julius Caesar has multiple, contemporary sources from different authors verifying his existence along with the archaeological evidence. There’s really no doubt whether or not Caesar was a real person.

On the other hand, the Bible does not enjoy any contemporary evidence verifying the events related within. This goes for both Old and New Testaments. That doesn’t mean it’s all false, it just means we can’t be sure that the events described within actually happened. Therefore, any decent historian would treat the Bible with a degree of skepticism. Now, Jesse claims to have reliable outside evidence, and it would behoove him to provide it if he wants to strengthen his argument.

More importantly, the Gospels might not be eyewitness accounts. Historians aren’t sure if those actually are first-hand accounts. The most important rule historians learn is to not take anything at face value. Just because the Gospels say they’re first-person accounts doesn’t mean that they actually are or that they’re entirely accurate. For example, The Book of Mormon claims to be an eyewitness account too. Without the evidence to verify what people say in sources, they must be treated with a degree of skepticism. Even if they are eyewitness accounts, one must consider the author's bias.

Case and point, Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars and Civil Wars are filled with over-exaggerations and pure falsehoods, and we know by looking at the other sources available that describe the events. Nevertheless, Caesar claims they are accurate. As it turns out, much of what he said was inflated or altered for his political gain. Sure, Caesar's writings are an eyewitness account that have some usefulness, but they are not 100% accurate.

In the same way, the authors of the Gospels might well have taken liberties with the truth to help spread their faith. Until we find archaeological or historical sources to validate what the Gospels say, they’re not particularly useful as historical accounts, especially when the Gospels themselves contradict each other (the link lists all the Bible's contradictions, but you can find the ones for the Gospels towards the bottom).

Now for a little bit about how sources can be used to verify a particular source.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is the best, most detailed account we have for that conflict. We know the conflict happened because there are contemporary inscriptions commemorating the war and several contemporary mentions of it in other Greek writing. Many of these sources reference specific events in Thucydides’ writings. That’s how we know it’s reliable.

The other great Greek source, The Iliad, is the exact opposite. It’s not reliable at all as a pure history. First off, the epic was clearly written in 800 BC even though it describes events that supposedly took place in c.1250 BC. We know this because the style of warfare described in the epic matches ninth century BC style warfare and not that of the 13th century BC based on archaeological evidence. Furthermore, historians questioned whether or not the war even happened until Troy was discovered around the turn of the century and showed signs of having been destroyed. It provided the verifying evidence that the war at least happened. However, we don’t have any other sources for the events, so historians write off most of it as a myth. Instead of being an accurate account of the Trojan War, it teaches us the values and beliefs of Greeks living in the 9th century BC. Also, it has been well copied through the ages, but that doesn’t mean the Greek gods came down and fought with the combatants before the walls of Troy.

The Bible has the same problems as the Iliad. It references people and places we know to have existed. True, it has more references we can verify. It mentions Ramses and Augustus Caesar in the OT and NT, respectively. However, that wasn’t exactly a secret. They were the rulers of the most powerful Mediterranean nations at the time. This doesn't validate the Bible, though. It validates the existence of Augustus and Ramses. The problem is that none of the specific events in the Bible can be verified from other sources. The Egyptians never mention having Jewish slaves. The Romans make no mention of Jesus. Even contemporary Jewish writings make no mentions of Jesus. Therefore, the Bible simply shows that the authors were aware of the most powerful nations around them. Some of the events may very well be true. Unfortunately, we can’t verify that. Therefore, historians don’t use the Bible for an accurate historical account. But they do use it to understand the culture of the people who wrote it.

I guess my point in all of this is that history is not a discipline that deals in absolutes. Due to the paucity of available sources, historians are always seeking the truth, but will never actually find it. The best they can do is come to a bi of a consensus. This is the same in science. It cannot know anything for certainty. That's why it uses theories. They can change as new information comes to light. The same goes for history. It changes as new sources come to light, but nothing is ever absolute. The fact that Jesse suggests historians can discern absolute truth makes me slightly dubious about his historian credentials.

In the end, until some substantial sources arise verifying the Bible, it is pretty much useless as an "eyewitness account." Otherwise, we'd have to accept the Koran and The Book of Mormon as well, simply because they claim to be eyewitness accounts.

At any rate, Jesse, I hope you come back so we can continue this discussion.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Another Dover Seems to Be Brewing

This time it's in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has more.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Use of Evidence

On my post concerning the Creation Museum, an anonymous commenter said:

"Notice atheism really has no evidence at all."
This person said it as if I was trying to hide the fact that atheism has no evidence. That couldn't be farther than the truth. In reality, the absence of evidence is the strongest case atheists can make against the existence of a god. Allow me to explain.

I consider myself a scientific atheist. Therefore, I feel science is the best tool we have for understanding the workings of the universe. Now, science is driven by evidence. Evidence is necessary to support or falsify any hypothesis or theory. Without evidence, no conclusions can be drawn either way. It simply is not considered.

Additionally, something that does not exist will, by definition, be incapable of leaving any evidence. This fact should be self-evident, but many seem unable to grasp this concept.

Anyway, this lack of evidence for a god has two implications. First, science can only work with evidence, and, since there is no evidence of a god, science must remain grounded in naturalistic explanations of the world. It cannot consider supernatural events for which there is no evidence. However, if evidence of a god did arise, then it would no longer be supernatural and would fall into the realm of the the natural world. At that point, science could then consider it. Nevertheless, that evidence has yet to appear.

Second, as a scientific atheist, I base my worldview on evidence and the conventions of science. No, I cannot prove that God does not exist. However, a lack of evidence is as close as science can come to proving the nonexistence of something, as I explained above.

In conclusion, atheism does not have any evidence. But that is the strongest scientific case atheists can make against the existence of a god. The burden of proof remains with the theists because they need to produce the testable, verifiable evidence that would establish God's existence. Until then, I see no reason to spend my time worrying about something that is not powerful enough to leave even the tiniest shred of evidence.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Creation Museum Opens Today

If you were unaware, Ken Ham's Creation Museum opens today in Kentucky. Personally, I think it's a travesty and intellectual dishonesty in the highest degree to call something based on the Bible a museum of science. Don't get me wrong, Ham has every right to open the museum. This is America, and I won't stand for any censorship. However, that doesn't mean I don't have the right to complain. In my previous post, I already discussed my major problems with the museum, so I won't go into it again.

However, if you want to see what other rational thinkers are saying about this church, check out the Creation Museum Carnival put together by PZ Myers of Phryngula. He put a lot of work into it, so please, tell your friends and send some traffic his way and celebrate rational thought. Then when you're done, go visit a real museum and support legitimate science.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Opposing the Creation Museum is Good Science, Not Intolerance

Last week the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon) launched a petition campaign against the Creation Museum's efforts to teach Creationism as science. Inevitably, Answers in Genesis (AiG), the organization operating the Creation Museum, has accused DefCon of being intolerant and trying to limit the free speech rights of AiG. Mark Looy, the author of the AiG article, says:

So it begs the question: why is a group that purportedly exists to defend the Constitution's First Amendment’s right to free speech wanting to keep people from being exposed to another view?
First, notice the erroneous use of "begs the question". That's a logical fallacy, unlike the phrase "raises the question", which would be the proper way for Looy to say what he's trying to write (Sorry, had to take that jab).

However, DefCon specifically points out that this is not the case:
[Ken] Ham [founder of AiG] is of course free to believe what he wants, but we are also free to voice our concern over Ham’s nefarious campaign to confuse America’s children and undermine scientific understanding.
Contrary to what AiG would like people to believe, it is not intolerance to point out the error in AiG's view of science. DefCon has every right (thanks to the First Amendment) to point out when AiG takes liberties with the truth. As AiG plainly states on their website in an attempt to explain their version of science:
Biblical creationists start with the assumption that the Bible provides an accurate eyewitness history of the universe as a basis for scientific thought. Evolutionists begin with the presupposition that only natural laws can be used to explain the facts.
Nevertheless, AiG never presents any evidence verifying the Bible, which is necessary to make accepting as true it a valid assumption. The simple reason AiG doesn't do this is because there is no evidence to support the historical or scientific veracity of the Bible. Of course, AiG turns around and states that (real) science starts from the assumption that there is no God and that only naturalistic explanations are accepted. While not necessarily true (many real scientists have a theistic world-view), the purely naturalistic presupposition is the only scientifically acceptable one because non-existent things, by definition, leave no evidence. You can't assume something for which there is no evidence, and, therefore, they are not considered. Conveniently, AiG refrains from this inconvenient truth in all its publications.

However, that does not stop AiG from using politically loaded words to get around this problem. As you can see in the quote above, AiG likes to say they are "exposing people to a different point of view". That sounds nice, but science is not democratic. The universe doesn't care what people believe. It simply is, and science seeks to discover its true properties. For example, if a group of scientists sees a clear liquid in a jar, they do not vote on what it is. If they did, the majority might vote for water. However, that does not change reality. If the liquid was originally mineral spirits, it remains so. Instead, scientists actually have to test the substance and and examine the evidence generated. Even though I love democracy, it has no place in the situation I just described.

Unfortunately, AiG doesn't care. They simply want to avoid scientists in general by appealing to the public and gaining their support. They want people to vote on which version of reality to accept, because they know how fickle the masses can be. People tend to vote for what sounds right rather than what actually is right, and AiG is perfectly willing to lie to make sure it happens. That is why people like me oppose the Creation Museum. It's not because we want to censor or take away the First Amendment Rights of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. They're free to build whatever they want on their land and believe whatever suits their fancy. We simply want AiG to stop lying and call their building what it really is: a church.

I also recommend you check out this article from Chris Hedges, which further explains why this "museum" is bad for America.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Quote of the Week

I've neglected this for a while, but I'm bringing it back. This one made me smile in light of recent events:

"I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!"

- Jerry Falwell, 1979.

Hmm...I guess not.

Enough False Sincerity (Lies)...Just Say What You Mean

I admit it. I did not know much about Christopher Hitchens. I had seen a number of references to him on atheist blogs, but they usually lament his confrontational style. I just shrugged and never really thought about him again. I wish I had, because PZ Meyers of Pharyngula recently posted a couple of YouTube videos where Hitchens unabashedly shared his thoughts on Falwell. The first clip is what he said on CNN regarding Falwell's legacy:

I applaud Hitchens for being honest. I certainly agree with him that we should not revere evil men just because they've died. Does their mere death suddenly make their terrible acts in life worthwhile? I say nay.

The better clip is when Faux News invited Hitchens to defend his statement on Hannity and Colmes:

This clip actually made me burst out laughing. It's nice to see someone refusing to take the usual Faux News bullshit. I love how Hitchens runs roughshod over Hannity's (or Colmes'? I don't know. I don't watch that worthless network) attempts to distort his words.

I must say I agree with Hitchens wholeheartedly. Honesty is the best policy because fake sincerity won't make Falwell's attempts to subvert the Constitution any less terrifying. I hate making Hitler comparisons (they're usually an association fallacy), but I suppose it's a good extreme example to illustrate my point. Should people have ignored the terrible things Hitler did and focus on his positives merely because his brain activity ceased? I say no. Now, Falwell is certainly no Hitler. Of course, if given the same power, it's hard to say what Falwell might have done. But I digress.

It seems to me we should be true to ourselves and not pretend to feel sincerity when actually feeling the opposite. Sure, a person feeling a lack of sympathy would be wise and civil not to personally tell the deceased's family his feelings. However, we shouldn't close off all debate amongst everyone else. If a man was a bastard in life, the world shouldn't forget that. Otherwise, he can reappear in another form that much easier.

At any rate, after seeing this, I'm definitely going to read Hitchens' book. I'll let you know how it is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell Dies

Today Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, died at age 73. I'm not going to publically cheer his death, but I will be frank about my feelings on this. In the 1980's Falwell was the face of the Christian Conservative movement. That mantle has since passed to people like James Dobson, but, in his time, Falwell did more to hurt America's civil liberties than anyone else. With his insistence on mixing fundamental Christianity with politics and his demonization of entire segments of society, Falwell's crusade seriously undermined the Constitution, tried to return our society to the Middle Ages, and helped spread "acceptable" forms of hate through his homophobia and dislike for non-Christians. I don't wish death on anyone. I know this life we have is the only one we've got, so everyone's time on Earth is precious. However, I will certainly not miss Falwell and America is better off without him. Good riddance.

Black Sun Journal has more on what Falwell did to harm America. Check it out here.