Tuesday, January 30, 2007

New Articles Online

Fans might want to know about two new articles of mine that have appeared online recently. Although for different reasons they aren't exactly "new," I think it fitting to announce them here, in case anyone has interest.

1. Antony Flew is in the News Again

In late 2004 I wrote about Antony Flew's conversion to Deism (Antony Flew Considers God...Sort Of). This article actually made national news. I continued adding updates to it as events transpired over the subsequent years, now five updates in all. All this includes discussions of my personal correspondence and phone conversations with Flew as well as religious and press coverage and other developments. Most recently Christian apologist Lee Strobel released edited portions of a taped interview of Flew, warranting my latest update to the original article, which you can jump to here: January 2007.

2. "Errancy Wiki" Honors My Work on the Nativity

I generally have no taste for discussing biblical contradictions, since I find the matter so boring. Even more boring than bickering over contradictions in Homer. And that's being generous...as literature, in plain aesthetic terms, Homer is quite superior to the Bible, although that's just my opinion. I also find this task largely pointless, since the only people who actually think the bible is inerrant are also insanely dedicated to denying any evidence to the contrary with any baloney hoohah they can pull out of their ass. So what's the point?

Nevertheless, as a history teacher, people who dick around with history piss me off. Consequently, I have devoted my energies to one biblical error, the only one I have the stomach to bother with (and that only barely...apparently I can endure some dry heaves). Which error is that? The date of the nativity. In my
well-known and excruciatingly detailed Secular Web article The Date of the Nativity in Luke (which was originally published in 1999 and reached its 5th edition in 2006), I argue it is beyond reasonable dispute that Luke dates the birth of Jesus to 6 A.D. while Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to 4 B.C. or earlier (perhaps around 6 B.C.). This is an irreconcilable contradiction. I wouldn't give a shit, except that Christian apologists have contrived and spread so many distortions of historical fact in order to "remove" this contradiction that it got my gall up.

Anyway, my work on this has been so extensive--and, apparently, appreciated--that it is now regarded as "legendary" by the editors of the new Errancy Wiki (which is still in development). They hired me to write a summary article, which compresses my original work down to just the
conclusions reached in each section, in plainer and easier English. It's still lengthy (because efforts to deny the contradiction have been numerous and convoluted), but it is considerably shorter and easier to read than the original, to which you can still refer for more evidence and detail.

The new article is called Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ's Birth (2006). It is not directly listed at the Secular Web and isn't easily evident even on the Errancy Wiki page for historical errors in Luke or Matthew (and isn't listed at all under contradictions, although the editors might be reserving the latter for purely internal contradictions). But it is prominently listed as a "legends" piece, and fans might like to know it exists, since it is a nice summary of my work on this issue and, I think, a good read. If, that is, you can stomach hearing so much bullshit ennumerated and gainsaid.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Defining the Supernatural

Update: A summary of this article's thesis has been formally published as "On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview" in Free Inquiry 30.3 (April/May 2010), pp. 50–51; and has been formally employed by Yonatan Fishman in "Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?" in Science & Education 18 (2009), pp. 813–37.


There is a trend in science and law to define the word "supernatural" as "the untestable," which is perhaps understandable for its practicality, but deeply flawed as both philosophy and social policy. Flawed as philosophy, because testability is not even a metaphysical distinction, but an epistemological one, and yet in the real world everyone uses the word “supernatural” to make metaphysical distinctions. And flawed as social policy, because the more that judges and scientists separate themselves from the people with deviant language, the less support they will find from that quarter, and the legal and scientific communities as we know them will crumble if they lose the support of the people. Science and the courts must serve man. And to do that, they must at least try to speak his language. And yet already a rising tide of hostility against both science and the courts is evident. Making it worse is not the solution.

As I argue in Sense and Goodness without God (pp. 29-35), philosophy is wasting its time if its definitions of words do not track what people really mean when they use them. And when we look at the real world, we find the supernatural is universally meant and understood to mean something metaphysically different from the natural. I could adduce many examples of the bad fit between real language and this ill-advised attempt at an "official" definition, but here are just two:

  • The underlying mechanics of quantum phenomena might be physically beyond all observation and therefore untestable, but no one would then conclude that quantum mechanics is supernatural. Just because I can't look inside a box does not make its contents supernatural.
  • Conversely, if I suddenly acquired the Force of the Jedi and could predict the future, control minds, move objects and defy the laws of physics, all merely by an act of will, ordinary people everywhere would call this a supernatural power, yet it would be entirely testable. Scientists could record and measure the nature and extent of my powers and confirm them well within the requirements of peer review.
Consequently, we need a proper definition of "supernatural" (and, therefore, of the word "natural" as well), one that tracks what people really mean when they use the word, one that marks a metaphysical distinction, and allows us to say when the word is being used sloppily or improperly, as must be the case for any word we intend to be useful. This is all the more crucial for metaphysical naturalists, who must define their worldview in some manner that actually makes it meaningfully different from supernaturalist worldviews. Critics of naturalism are entirely correct about this.

I define "nature" in Sense and Goodness without God (on pp. 211-12, with a little help from pp. 67-69). But I explain this in elaborate detail, with considerable supporting evidence, in my Secular Web article Defending Naturalism as a Worldview (2003), to which I referred readers in my book. After this, and the publication of Sense and Goodness, I defined the natural-supernatural distinction even more rigorously in the joint statement of the Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006). Anyone who wishes to interact with my definitions of natural and supernatural must read these two articles.

In short, I argue "naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, "supernaturalism" means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. As I summarized in the Carrier-Wanchick debate (and please pardon the dry, technical wording):

If [naturalism] is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely caused by natural [i.e. fundamentally nonmental] phenomena. But if naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature. In other words, such things would then be partly or wholly caused by themselves, or exist or operate directly or fundamentally on their own.
Despite all I have written on this, several people have had difficulties understanding how to apply my construction of these terms, so I thought I'd have some extended fun. Analogies and concrete examples always do a better job getting across to people what we're talking about, so that's what I'm going to do today. With a bit of fantasy, I'll show how my natural-supernatural distinction can be used to tell the difference between a natural and a supernatural explanation (a metaphysical question), and how we can know when one or the other actually is true (an epistemological question). I take a look at supernatural beings, substances, powers, properties, and effects, and we'll get to see what natural explanations of similar observations would look like, and how they would be different.

Before we can get to that, we need to get past one other important distinction: the meaning of paranormal.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Appearing in Arizona

Event Announcement:

I will be speaking at an upcoming meeting of the CFI Community of Southern Arizona in Tucson, Arizona on the afternoon of Sunday, February 18 (2007). This is open to the general public. People are expected to be seated by 1:30pm. My talk begins at 2pm and ends before 3:00, with Q&A until around 3:30 and socialization until 4:30, when I have to leave for the airport.

The venue should be the Joel D. Valdez Tucson Main Library on 101 North Stone Avenue. If for any reason the venue changes I will correct this entry to reflect that. In the meantime, contact information and more about the venue is available at the CFI-SAZ Events page. Although right now this only lists and discusses their January meeting, eventually it will be updated with information for their February meeting.

The subject of the talk will be the ever-controversial:

Christian Hostility to Scientific Values in Antiquity: From the beginning of the Christian religion through to the early middle ages, Christians either discarded, hampered, opposed, or even vilified the advance of science and scientific values. Carrier will present a hardy and alarming selection of the evidence for this, with some discussion of why this was the case then, and why Christian attitudes gradually changed over the course of the later middle ages to eventually accept the ideals of scientific progress.

Unlike what I wrote on this blog a few months ago, this speech will delve in detail into the actual evidence before 330 A.D. and will briefly discuss some of the most important changes that took place after 1250 A.D.

It turns out that library rules will prohibit me from selling
my book Sense and Goodness without God. Although alternative arrangements for selling it are being considered, in the worst case scenario I will have order forms and flyers. Of course, if you bring a book you already have, I can sign that after the talk.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Silly Questionnaires

Okay. So it's now 2007. I've decided to welcome in the New Year with something fun. My family often sends around "questionnaires" with odd personal questions that are often silly. So I usually make fun of them by sending back half-bogus answers, although I mix them in with real answers. Just see if you can guess which is which! Oh, it's not like that's hard.

Warning: expect colorful language and sexual situations!

Here are sixty of my favorites: