Thursday, January 8, 2015

Insulting Muhammad

In light of the terrorist attacks in Paris against a newspaper and cartoonists who wrote and published cartoons that mocked Muhammad, I will simply repeat something I wrote in one of my first posts regarding the controversy over a Danish newspaper that commissioned and published some cartoons depicting Muhammad. Part of the issue there was that many Muslims oppose representations of Muhammad. That's less of an issue with the Paris newspaper, since they regularly published cartoons that were intended to be offensive far beyond the mere representation of Muhammad. This only affects points 3 and 4, however, and does not actually affect their main points.

1. It's incredibly ungracious to treat something profanely when many people consider it sacred. It's morally reprehensible to do something for the sole purpose of offending others, especially when it comes to something as close to people's personal sense of identity as their religious beliefs.

2. Nevertheless, they had the right to do it. Free speech, freedom of the press, etc. entails the right to offend. If you only have free speech until someone is offended by what you say, you don't really have free speech.

3. To respond to some cartoons by committing such horrific acts of violence is absurdly disproportionate. It doesn't matter how offensive the cartoons are: the terrorists are not animals only responding to external stimuli. They are human beings, and so answerable to God for their chosen actions, and for choosing to align themselves with evil.

4. The prohibition of making images of Muhammad is not a universally-held doctrine in Islam. Many museums throughout the world, including the Muslim world, have paintings of Muhammad, which have been made by both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout Islamic history. Drawings and paintings and even cartoons of Muhammad -- including, most relevantly, offensive cartoons of Muhammad -- have been made many times before without similar responses. As such, these terrorist acts show all the signs of being a contrived outrage. The terrorists, in other words, used these cartoons as a pretext to express the evil that was already in their hearts. This doesn't necessarily absolve Islam (see here and here), it just puts the responsibility for these wicked acts on those who committed them.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Oh man

Here are some photos taken by the Philae lander from the surface of a comet. It took a little while to load, but it's worth the wait. I just showed them to my son and told him that, before now, only God had seen this sight. I actually have tears in my eyes. I prayed for this the night before Philae landed. God is amazing.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Restored posts

For those of you listening at home, I took three posts offline a year and a few months ago because an article I wrote was being published in an academic journal, and I wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety. I figure it's been long enough now, so I've just restored them. The posts were:

The Central Issue; or, Location Isn't Everything
Size Doesn't Matter, part 2 (if you want to start with part 1, which wasn't taken offline, click here)
"The alien who lives among you", part 1

All three are on science and religion. The third one was meant to be the first in a series (obviously) but I never wrote any more posts on it. Even though I'm on a blog-break, I'm planning to restart the franchise and write a series of posts on what the discovery of extraterrestrial life might mean for religion. Stay tuned. In the meantime, you can check out some of my more interesting posts.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014

OK... I guess I'm taking a break from blogging. For whatever reasons, I'm finding it very difficult to find the motivation to blog. I'm certainly busy, but I was busier during my Doctoral studies and I managed to blog fairly consistently then. I expect I'll start blogging again when fall term starts.

So there's a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, but rather than go into all of that, I'll just provide you with a list of things I have been / am / will soon be reading:

Elizabeth Asmis, "Free Action and the Swerve," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 8 (1990): 275-91.

Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Walter G. Englert, Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action. American Classical Studies, 16. Atlanta, Scholar’s Press, 1987.

Brain Leahy, "Can Teleosemantics Deflect the EAAN?" Philosophia 41 (2013): 221-38.

Tim O'Keefe, Epicurus on Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

David Sedley, "Epicurus' Refutation of Determinism," in Συζήτησις: Studi sull’epicureismo greco e romano offerti a Marcello Gigante, G. Macchioroli, ed. Napoli: Bibliopolis, 1983: 11-51.

Feng Ye, "Naturalized Truth and Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 70 (2011): 27-46.

Update: Perhaps, if time allows (which it probably won't), I'll soon be reading these books too:

Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Theory of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Karl Ameriks, Kant’s Theory of Mind. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


I apologize for not posting anything for so long. I think this is the longest I've gone without blogging since I started in 2003. As you can guess, I have not had much spare time of late. I'm starting to get some now. Starting to. To tide you over, here are a few more links:

1. Hilary Putnam is blogging! And you can leave comments! I'm adding his blog, "Sardonic Comment", to the sidebar. Via Maverick Philosopher.

2. An objection and response between Patricia Churchland and Colin McGinn. Also via Maverick, who concludes (correctly in my view) that McGinn has the better of it.

3. An inferior exchange (actually an interview) between Tim Maudlin and Gary Gutting on science and religion. Maudlin is a philosopher of science, but it's hard to believe that, given how misinformed he is. It's just embarrassing. Via Keith Burgess-Jackson who calls it "about as stupid an exchange as I have encountered".

4.  Burgess-Jackson quotes David Brink on moral realism. Brink writes, "Moral realism is roughly the view that there are moral facts and true moral claims whose existence and nature are independent of our beliefs about what is right and wrong". Burgess-Jackson says he does not share Brink's intuition on this, but I certainly do. If moral facts did not hold independent of whether anyone believed them, then I don't see how you can make room for moral progress, since that would involve advocating moral claims that no one had hitherto recognized. You can easily construct thought experiments where everyone holds false moral beliefs -- say that all 10-year old children should be forced to kill each other in gladiatorial contests until only a few are left, this is done every year in order to keep the population down, and has been done for the entire history of the human race. This is morally atrocious, yet in that scenario, no one thinks it is immoral, including ex hypothesi, the 10-year-olds. I maintain that in those circumstances it would still be immoral. I don't see how you can maintain that without accepting moral realism. However, this is not really my field, and I am very open to correction. Burgess-Jackson has been thinking about it for longer than I have.

5. Ed Feser criticizes an introduction to philosophy that misstates the cosmological argument in the usual way (as I've commented on here). I have some criticisms of my own of another intro to philosophy that I plan to blog about it in the near future.

6. The Venus Express is getting ready to descend into Venus's atmosphere. Very exciting.

7. In light of the push for space tourism -- that is, constructing spacecraft to take paying passengers up into space -- one company is jumping the gun by doing it cheaper with balloons. They should be up (ha!) and running in 2016.

8. Saturn's moon Titan may be older than Saturn itself.

9. Ten things Kvothe absolutely needs to do in day 3 of Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles. The first two volumes are entitled The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear. I'm not really a fan of fantasy, but I make an exception for Tolkien and Rothfuss. They think it's too obvious that there be a connection between Cinder and Denna's patron, but I suspect there will be. I'd also add an eleventh point: we are told a few times that Kvothe's father seduced his mother away from court life, and then we learn that the Maer's new wife hates the Edema Ruh (Kvothe's family's performing troupe) because one of her relatives was seduced away by one. So yeah, Kvothe is almost certainly going to be revealed as having royal blood. Plus, Rothfuss has to bring in those freaky-deaky giant spider-things that he started the series off with.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Apologies again for not posting much of late. In the meantime, here are links to some interesting things I would have posted sooner if not for my frenetic schedule.

1. Malcolm Young of AC/DC is ill and unable to perform. However, AC/DC denies that they are retiring.
2. The Hackers Who Recovered NASA's Lost Lunar Photos.
3. Super Planet Crash!
4. Muslims becoming Christians.
5. Atheists becoming Christians.
6. Mapping Great Debates: Can Computers Think? This is a series of posters on issues on philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence (like the Chinese Room and Gödelian arguments), which organizes everything into charts. It's immensely helpful and I highly recommend it.
7. Mickey Rooney died. He was one of the last surviving actors from the silent film era, and the only one who was active the whole time. I was always kind of amazed by him: here was a guy who was making movies in the 1920s -- the freaking 20s -- and he was still making movies in the 2010s. One of his last roles was in the Night at the Museum series, the third of which began filming in January. I can't find anything indicating whether he had filmed his scenes before he died. But that would be amazing: his first movie came out in 1926 and his last movie will come out in 2014 or 2015. That's an insanely long career. I find this makes me sad, similar to how I felt when the last veteran of World War I died. These people are a connection to the past, and when they die, that connection is broken. I tried to express my appreciation for such connections with this short story. I'll feel the same way when the last person born in the 19th century dies. Currently there are 14: one born in 1898, four born in 1899, and nine born in 1900. (It must be weird to be the oldest person in the world: everyone else in the world who was alive at the time of your birth has died.) Wikipedia has lists for the last surviving veterans of wars, last surviving US war veterans, and last survivors of historical events. Reflecting on them makes the march of time seem like such a tragedy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More Favorite Movie Scenes

The Dark Knight


Boondock Saints 2: All Saint's Day

The Book of Eli

Die Hard (1)

The Matrix Reloaded


The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars Episode V)

Burn after Reading

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Fun and Fancy Free / Mickey and the Beanstalk

Wreck-It Ralph

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Sorry for not posting much of late, I have a lot going on right now. I'll get back to what's important as soon as I can.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Interesting fact o' the day

The Old Testament was translated into Aramaic in ancient times, as well as several other languages. When they translated Genesis 1:1 ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth") they made an interesting error. The third person singular perfect mode of the verb "to create" in Hebrew is bara. But after they translated this into the Aramaic word for create, they kept the Hebrew word bara in the text. I say this is an interesting error because bara is an Aramaic word with a completely different meaning than the Hebrew "to create". In Aramaic bar means "son" (Simon Barjonah, blind Bartimaeus, etc.), and  an aleph (or "a") at the end of a noun is the definite article. So the Hebrew verb "to create" and the Aramaic noun "the son" are identical. Since they kept this term in the text when they translated it into Aramaic, the first verse of the Aramaic Bible reads "In the beginning the Son of God created the heavens and the earth."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Because I care

Award winning sandwiches, with recipes. You're welcome. Seriously, nearly all of these look absolutely amazing.

Monday, March 24, 2014

On Suns and Soldiers

Here's an interesting article on the science-fiction author Gene Wolfe, via Glenn Reynolds. I wrote about Wolfe before here, and I fear he's too much of a real literary writer for me. I read a collection of his short stories, Strange Travelers, and the meaning of most of them went over my head.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Quote of the Day

Bayes's theorem allows us to calculate the conditional probability of an event in a context (K) from various other conditional probabilities in that context. In our setting -- assessing the credibility of testimony concerning miracles -- the conditional probability we are interested in is credibility, the probability that a miracle occurred given the testimony that it occurred (P[M/T&K)]). Bayes's formula equates that with a ratio involving the prior probability of such a miracle (P[M/K]) and the reliability of the witness: the likelihood of the witness saying that the miracle occurred, when it did occur (P[T/(M&K)]), together with the likelihood of the witness saying that the miracle occurred, when it did not occur (P[T/(-M&K)]):

P[M/(T&K)] = P[T/(M&K)] P[M/K] / P[T/(M&K)P[M/K] + P[T/(-M&K)P[-M/K]

The more reliable the witness, the greater the credibility of the testimony. But also, the more unlikely the event to which the witness is testifying, the smaller the credibility of the testimony.

Before considering numerical values, let's simplify a bit. Let c, credibility in context K, represent P[M/T&K)], and let p, the prior probability of a miracle occurring in K, represent P[M/K]. Let's assign it the value 10-m. Let l, the probability that the witness giving a miracle report is lying in K, represent P[T/(-M&K)], and assume it has the value 10-r. Then, assuming that the probability that someone witnessing a miracle will report it is relatively high, and that lK is significantly greater than p, Bayes's formula allows us to approximate the credibility of a witness in context K as follows:

cK ≈ pK  / lK = 10r - m.

Now, to get actual probabilities out of Bayes's theorem, we need to have values for the prior probability of the miraculous event occurring and values for the reliability of the witness or witnesses. Assessing these is of course immensely difficult. But let's make a rough estimate for a report claiming someone to have been raised from the dead.

First, we need to estimate the prior probability of such an event. The Bible contains several such reports, but their veracity is in question. Since the beginning of time there have been, within an order of magnitude or so, about ten billion human beings on the planet. And there have been only a few scattered reports of resurrections, whose credibility is in question. So, let's estimate the probability of resurrection, given the available evidence, at 1 in 10 billion: 10-10.

The reliability of witnesses is perhaps easier to estimate. People are generally reliable, especially on matters such as whether someone is walking on or through the water, whether someone is alive or dead, etcetera. Indeed, as Donald Davidson has argued, the possibility of linguistic communication depends on such reliability. In the case of a miracle report, we must estimate the probability that someone, a disciple of Jesus, say, will report a miracle if it occurs. Presumably the probability is very high, though it is not 1, as Peter's denial of Jesus illustrates. So, let's estimate the probability, cautiously, at .99. What about the probability that someone will report a miracle even if one does not occur? David Owen and others have assumed, given the values we've estimated so far, that this will be unlikely, having probability .01. Hume clearly thinks it is higher; disciples having a tendency to inflate the reputation of their leader. Still, very few spiritual leaders have been alleged to have the ability raise people from the dead. (No such reports are associated with Confucius, Laozi, the Buddha, Zoroaster, or Mohammed, for example.) So, let's estimate this, cautiously, at .1.

Now, given these estimates, Bayes's theorem tells us that the probability of someone's being raised from the dead, given testimony to such an event, is approximate 10-9: one in a billion. Hume appears to be vindicated. The probability we should rationally assign to someone's being raised from the dead, even given testimony that it has occurred, is very low. Even if we abandon our cautious estimates above, raising the witness's reliability to .999 and lowering the likelihood of a false report .01, the odds of the report's being correct are approximately 10-8, one in a hundred million. Hume is right that "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish" (90) -- so long as the miracle in question is isolated, violates a law of nature (or at least has an extremely low prior probability), and is attested by a single witness.

But now, suppose that we have not one witness but several. As John Earman and Rodney Holder have observed, having multiple witnesses changes the outcome of our assessment of miracle reports dramatically. Oddly, few other philosophers have thought the number of witnesses makes any difference. Dawid, Gillies, and Sobel, for instance, speak simply of "a witness or group of witnesses." Yet an analogy to law should suggest that this is absurd. It matters how many independent witnesses testify similarly. One witness who identifies the perpetrator has some effect on the probability of guilt or innocence; a dozen who independently do so have a much more powerful effect.

If we were to take Hume's argument as showing that testimony can never establish the likelihood of a miracle, as he wants us to, it would prove too much. Hume's argument depends solely on the thought that miracles are extremely unlikely. So, his argument should apply to anything that has a very low priori probability. It thus, if successful, will imply that we can never be rationally justified in believing that an extremely unlikely event has actually occurred. But that is outrageous.

Consider a situation that might be represented by similar calculations: a case of medical diagnosis. Suppose that a highly reliable test diagnoses you as having an exceptionally rare disease. Say that the reliability of the test is .999; it is wrong in only one case in a thousand. And suppose the disease is very rare, afflicting only one person in a million. What is the probability that you actually have the disease? According to Bayes's theorem, only about 103 - 6 = 10-3, that is, about one in a thousand! Although the test is right 999 times out of a thousand, its positive result in your case will be a false positive 999 times out of a thousand.

This result is surprising. But think of how the test might function applied to all the roughly 300 million residents of the United states. About 300 would have the disease, and the test would accurate give a positive result for (nearly) all of them. But 299,999,700 people would not have the disease, and the test, wrong only one time in a thousand, would nevertheless produce about 300,000 false positives. So, the test, applied to the population of the U.S., would come up positive 300,300 times, and be right in only 300 of them. We tend to ignore base rates (that is, low prior probabilities) in our thinking, something some psychologists have dubbed a "cognitive illusion." So, one test, even if it is highly reliable, is not very good evidence that any particular person has a rare disease.

But it would be absurd to conclude from this that we can never have good reason to believe that any particular person has a rare disease. True, any single test, taken by itself, is poor evidence. But, faced with a positive result, what might we do? We might repeat the same test. We might administer additional tests. We might look for symptoms. In short, we might gather additional evidence.

Analogously, faced with a miracle report, we ought rationally to gather additional evidence. Just as we might seek additional tests, we might, for example, seek testimony of additional and independent witnesses. Suppose we have n independent witnesses, all of equal reliability. Then Bayes's theorem tells us that the credibility of their reports, taken together, is:

P[M/(T&K)] = P[T/(M&K)]n P[M/K] / P[T/(M&K)]n P[M/K] + P[T/(-M&K)]n P[-M/K]

Approximating as before, we get something that breaks down as nr approaches m:

cK ≈ p / lKn = 10nr - m

Let's apply this to the medical diagnosis case. We have 300,000 false positives and only 300 true positives. Suppose we apply a second medical test the reliability of which equals that of our first test, getting it right 999 times out of a thousand, but the errors of which are probabilistically independent of those of the first test. The second test will give a positive result in (almost) all the 300 true positive cases. It will also give a false positive result in 300 of the 300,000 false positives from the original test. So, we end up with 600 positives, of which half are real. The probability of having the disease, given positive results on both tests, is about .5. The second test, or "witness," if you like, raises the probability from one in a thousand to an even bet.

The same principle applies to the case of Biblical miracles. Given our cautious estimates, it would take ten witnesses to make the miracle have close to .5 probability (actually .4749), and twelve (!) to make it highly likely (.9888). Give our incautious estimates -- appropriate for the most trusted disciples, such as Peter, James, and John, say -- these levels are reached much more quickly. Five independent witnesses give the miracle an even chance of occurring; six make it highly probable.

One might object that the disciples are not independent witnesses, but very much under one another's influence; that the four Gospels are not entirely independent, but depend on many of the same sources; that many miracle reports were recorded long after the miracles are supposed to have taken place; and so on. There is something to these objections, though less, perhaps, than many think. Minor differences in the Gospel accounts offer evidence of independence. All the Apostles who faced imprisonment, beatings, and martyrdom for their testimony had strong incentive to recant anything for which they did not have overwhelming independent evidence. The Gospels appear to have been written within the lifespans of those who knew Jesus and witnessed the events recorded in them. But return to Paul's argument concerning the Resurrection. Writing perhaps just twenty to twenty-five years after the event, he points to hundreds of witnesses. Not all are independent, but many are. The credibility he attaches to the Resurrection is thus, reasonably, very high, even setting aside his own experience on the road to Damascus.

Paul was in a far better epistemic state with respect to Christ's Resurrection than we are, say, with respect to the attack on a canoeing President Carter by a crazed, swimming rabbit in 1980. That was surely an improbable event, a little further removed in time, witnessed by only a few government employees whose reliability may not compare very well with that of the disciples. Yet most of us -- rationally -- believe that it occurred. If we are to throw out belief in Biblical miracles on Humean grounds, we should throw out many of our historical beliefs on those very same grounds, for they would fail Hume's test too, and for the very same reasons.

Daniel Bonevac
"The Argument from Miracles"
In Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, volume 3.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

First person

Here's an interesting article critical of the attempt to reduce mind, particularly the first person experience, to the physical workings of the brain, a third person experience. I agree with his overall point, but am very underwhelmed by his positive case for the irreducibility of the mind to the brain. Via Ed Feser. I also collected the links to Feser's debate with Keith Parsons here.