Thursday, November 30, 2006

Yockey on Biogenesis

Was the origin of life so amazingly improbable only God could have done it? No.

Wasn't that a deliciously brief answer? Well, okay, first a quick recap, for those who don't like deliciously brief answers: I've argued this at dizzying length at the Secular Web in "Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept?" which led to a much briefer and considerably more rigorous paper, still my best known contribution to philosophy: "The Argument from Biogenesis: Probabilities against a Natural Origin of Life," published under peer review in Biology & Philosophy (19.5, November 2004, pp. 739-64). In that article I catalogued and analyzed seven frequently-repeated errors or fallacies deployed by creationists who try to argue that the origin of life ("biogenesis") could not have happened naturally. I even took the trouble of explaining exactly what they could do to avoid all seven errors and make their argument work. Unfortunately for them, actually doing this requires knowledge we don't yet have, which is their most fundamental mistake: they are arguing from ignorance, and arguments from ignorance are, well, ignorant. We simply don't know enough to say whether natural biogenesis is improbable.

Oh, you want to know what those seven typical errors are? Okay. Just a quick list:

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Epistemological End Game

In September, Chris Hallquist raised an objection to my epistemology on his blog The Uncredible Hallq. For those not up on the jargon, an epistemology is your "theory of knowledge," it's what you believe about what it means to know something, how we know anything, and when it's right to believe or disbelieve one thing or another. I described my epistemology in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005), especially on pages 49-62 (building on the necessary preliminaries on pages 27-48), although I add a great deal more in later sections of the book, especially where I discuss mind, reason, and science and the supernatural (pages 135-49, 177-92, and 213-52 respectively).

One of the big issues in epistemology is the problem of infinite regress. "I believe the sun will rise." "How do you know that?" "Because it always has." "How do you know that?" "Because my memory and human records confirm it has." "How do you know that?" "Because I've examined those memories and records." "How do you know that?" And so on. It looks like this could go on forever. It seems like any answer you give can be doubted. We can always keep asking "How do you know that?" And this isn't the only line of regress. "I believe the sun will rise." "How do you know that?" "Because it always has." "How do you know something that's always happened will continue to happen?" And so on.

The difference between these two lines of questioning is that the first is about the facts, while the second is about which rules are valid when interpreting those facts. Every rule is doubtable, because exceptions are always possible, and every fact is doubtable, because we could always be mistaken, someone could always have made an error, or lied, or our memories could be inaccurate or false, and so on. Thus, the problem of regress is just this: Where is it reasonable to stop doubting, to stop asking questions? When should we just shut up and believe?

Chris says "I do not think that Carrier has escaped the problem of regress" because "no line of reasoning can ever get us out of skepticism regarding memory, because in order to reason we must be able to remember the previous steps of the line of reasoning" and therefore, Chris concludes, "I think [Christian apologist Alvin] Plantinga has hit upon the only real solution to the problem of regress." Chris acknowledges but doesn't say enough about my refutation of Plantinga's proposed solution in Sense and Goodness without God (especially on pages 43-47 and 184-85).

What is Plantinga's "solution"? Si
mply to assume Christian Theism is true, and that we are fully justified in assuming this without needing any evidence Christian Theism is true. "I don't need a reason to believe it." Silly, you might say, but a number of Christians agree with him and are marching along to the same tune. In his own attempt at a solution (on a subsequent blog entry), Chris says "though one belief may be occasionally traced to another, there must always be givens, or else we fall back into the problem of regress," which I likewise argue. Yet I could not find any actual solution to this problem on his blog.

Chris seems to say that all we need do is just arbitrarily assume some things, but he never explains what things we are allowed to assume, or why it is okay to assume those things, and not others, or a smaller set of things to begin with. He recognizes this as a problem for Plantinga--as Chris says, if we get to assume Christian Theism is true, then we could just as easily assume Great Pumpkinism is true, so where does that get us? But if we can't just start with assumptions like those, because they are dangerously and irresponsibly arbitrary (and they are), then what assumptions
can we start with? Chris doesn't say. That's not a solution.

In contrast, I did offer a solution. And it works. Chris thinks it doesn't, but he seems to have missed several elements of my epistemology, although not everything he missed is adequately explicit in my book. So here's a clearer exposition on the subject.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Appearing in Ohio

Event Announcement:

I will be the keynote speaker for the Humanist Community of Central Ohio's annual Winter Solstice Banquet in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, December 30 (2006). Dinner and event run from 4 to 9pm. Tickets are required and must be purchased before December 26.
For more information see the front page of the HCCO website (there has also been an article in The Columbus Dispatch). I will be selling and signing my book Sense and Goodness without God after the show.

The subject of my talk will be Return of the Gapmaster God: Defending Naturalism Today:
That old God of the Gaps is back. They are posturing on the frontiers of science and claiming naturalism can never explain what remains. They are even claiming it hasn't adequately explained what it actually has: the evolution of complex life. There are new and dazzling arguments out there, against even the possibility of a naturalist worldview, and Richard Carrier will tell you what they are and how to dispatch them.
It won't be as dry as it sounds. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll oooh and aaah. Well, okay, maybe not all that. But it will be amusing and interesting. And it will go beyond my book.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Winning America

...or How the Democrats Could Win America but Probably Won't

So the Democrats have both houses of Congress now. I have mixed feelings about that. The Democratic Party has a lot of potential, and is sadly the lesser of two evils, but just like the Republicans they often so easily screw things up that this could turn into another disaster, only with the car crashing into a different wall. I dread the possibility that the only positive thing we will be able to say in two years is, "Well, at least it was a different wall."

So I'd like to offer the Democrats a suggestion. Party leaders won't ever read this, and even if they did, they would never do what I suggest, so this is 'technically' a waste of my time. But it bugs me so much that they never do this that I simply have to get it off my chest. At least then I said it, instead of keeping it to myself. And maybe someone will read this who will actually change the course of history some day. I doubt that, but a shot in the dark is better than none at all. And this lone bullet really doesn't cost much.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

That Habermas-Licona Interview

Recently I was asked to help Reginald Finley (The Infidel Guy) interview Gary Habermas and Mike Licona on why they believe Jesus was raised from the dead by God. This event went off disastrously, and a few days later I wrote here about why I thought it had, in an entry for Monday, November 6, 2006. Many people responded, and several of them made valid observations that convinced me I was wrong about a lot of things. In my original post I was inappropriately harsh, one-sided, and unfair to all sides, and mistaken on a few points. I felt it was unfair to the producer and the guests of Reggie's show to leave my blog entry as it was, so I am now rewriting it to reflect my change of perspective.

Everything I now believe is relevant and correct is included below. But anyone with gobs of time on their hands who wants to read my original entry and the discussion that followed can download the text of the whole thread by clicking here. That is only a temporary location, but when it goes down, anyone who is still interested can email me a request to send it by attachment.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Science and Medieval Christianity

On another blog last month I was asked by some friends to comment on a thread about Christianity's role in the progress of science. Other things were being discussed there, such as whether Martin Luther was a despicable ass or an admirable genius, which I didn't comment on because I know too little about the matter to add anything worthwhile. But the history of science is my Ph.D. field, so I could comment on that with some authority. And I did. What follows is expanded and adapted from what I said, and completely supercedes my comments there as far as I'm concerned. Don't worry, though. My blog isn't always going to be about the history of science.

It is becoming popular now to claim Christianity "responsible" for the scientific revolution (Stark, Jaki, etc.). My dissertation will refute much of that thesis, in about two chapters altogether. But we need to keep distinct the claim that Christianity did not actively oppose science (which is sometimes true, depending on how you define "oppose") and the claim that Christianity was necessary for the scientific revolution (which is certainly not true), as well as various claims in the middle--like "Christianity wasn't necessary, but helped," which again depends on how you define "helped"; or "all theologies can find a compatible incentive towards science, and Christianity is a theology like any other," which is true, depending on how you define "Christianity" and "theology"; and so on. Likewise "our concept of science is an outgrowth of Christian theology" is no more true than "our concept of science is an outgrowth of pagan theology." Modern science grew up in a Christian context, but only by re-embracing ancient scientific values against the grain of the original Christian mindset. In turn, those ancient scientific values grew up in a pagan context. As with Christianity, that's not causality, it's just circumstance.

However, in all this the one claim that cannot be sustained is that Christianity "encouraged" science. Had that been the case, then there would not have been almost a thousand years (from roughly 300 to 1250 AD) of absolutely zero significant advances in science (excepting a very few and relatively minor contributions by Hindus and Muslims), in contrast with the previous thousand years (from roughly 400 BC to 300 AD), which witnessed incredible advances in the sciences in continuous succession every century, culminating in theorists whose ideas and findings came tantalizingly close to the scientific revolution in the 2nd century AD (namely, but not only, Galen and Ptolemy). You can't propose a cause that failed to have an effect despite being constantly in place for a thousand years, especially when in its absence science had made far more progress. Science picked up again in the 1200's precisely where the ancients had left off, by rediscovering their findings, methods, and epistemic values and continuing the process they had begun.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why the Bizarre Avatar?

My picture is always a bit goofy. I look too young for my age, especially when I'm all smiles. See what I mean? Sure, I'm a young and happy guy, but I still get carded in bars even though I'm 36. Sometimes my photo gives people the wrong idea of who I am and what I'm about. So I originally chose a different avatar. I have since chosen another, based on a composite photo I developed for my new website. The following is my original post explaining the thought behind my previous avatar (which I used from 2006 on and retired in 2009):

No one will get it at first, just as no one will get me at first. But once you know what it is, you'll know a lot more about me than my own picture could tell you. The image is an x-ray scan of the Antikythera Machine, the first computer ever built by the 1st century B.C. Yes, you read that right. The mechanism was recovered from a Roman shipwreck near Greece, shattered, rusted, and crusted over, but has since been reconstructed using CT scans and clever reverse engineering.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Nexus of Rick

Alas, it is time to blog. I resisted the idea of starting one for years. But I get so much email from critics and fans I can no longer keep up with it all. So I'll have to use a blog. Here you will find three things, updated every month:

  • Announcements of where I'll be appearing to speak

  • Announcements of all new publications by or about me

  • Choice excerpts from my email and forum postings to fans and detractors

And keep your eye on this inaugural post. Below are all the sites on the web that tell you about me or that link to my work. Since some of these URLs will change over time, I will update everything below so you can always come back here to find where my stuff has gone.

  • Naturalism as a Worldview : Expands and answers questions about my book Sense and Goodness without God and my whole philosophy of life.

  • Richard Carrier's FAQs : Links to all my Frequently Asked Questions lists, especially on the three chapters I wrote for The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Richard Carrier's Official Website : My home page, wherever it is now.

  • The Secular Web Library : Links to all the articles I have written for the Secular Web on religion and philosophy, including a bio page.

  • Amazon Connect : As a published author, gives me an official author's page, with lots of biographical data.

  • IMDB Profile : Since I appeared in the film The God Who Wasn't There, I have an official Internet Movie Database profile.

  • Wikipedia : Yes, I'm famous enough to be listed in Wikipedia. No, I did not create or write my own entry there. But it's usually reasonably accurate.

  • MySpace : Personally I hate MySpace, but my wife kindly maintains a small bio page for me there, since that's where my fans often look for me. I far more frequently attend my page on FaceBook.

If there are any other pages about me that I missed (hostile or friendly), please let me know, so I can add them to the master list above.

What am I up to now? For those who are curious, when I launched this blog I was still writing my dissertation for Columbia University, but making good progress on it. I intend to publish it after I graduate, most likely with the title The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, about the attitudes of various social groups toward natural philosophers and their aims and goals under Roman rule, including early Christian views as well as those of the pagan elite, philosophers, and commoners. I have an endless stream of potential books planned after that, on philosophy and ancient history, but right now I am focused only on completing my dissertation.