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Discourse: Focusing On A Singular Topic

One of the things that attract me to Google+ as a social network is that there are not limits to the length of comments. This means you can fully express yourself without worry, such as the worry you get when working on a platform like Twitter. On Google+ people use paragraphs, that is how much reading you do on the platform. It's great!

The question is though: is it good? The answer is: probably not. 

I used to write extremely long responses on Google+ because I felt like I wanted to cover all the facets of a particular topic or respond to everything someone else says, but after doing this for a long time I started realising that there is a better way, mostly by observing people doing it in a better way that made me feel silly for my long essays. 

The key is to remain focused on one topic. If the topic was "Gummi bears cause cancer" the best approach would be to focus on the one issue that you feel is strongest in support of your position or that you feel is most important in the matter. Let's suppose that you disagree with the proposition for various reasons. There is no need to list every single one. Just list one: for example:
"It has not been demonstrated that Gummi bears cause cancer because the patients in the trial were already more prone to cancer than the general population due to their family histories"
It's a single point, and it can be discussed in length and in detail. If I had listed 5 points, with that point being one of the points, everyone else in the discussion who disagrees would have to address each one in order to change my mind. Pick a single point and discuss it at length. Nobody has the time or patience to wade through endless paragraphs addressing multiple points. If one person can introduce multiple points so can others. You can end up with a discussion that goes nowhere fast. Let's suppose you post:
"5 reasons why x is true
x.1
x.2
x.3
x.4
x.5
"
Someone might respond with 
"5 reasons why x.1 is false
x.1.1
x.1.2
x.1.3
x.1.4
x.1.5
"
The topics of the discussion can increase and, probably worst of all, the person who disagrees will choose the weakest point to address, and not the one you would have rather discussed. 

When discussions start to possess multiple concurrent topics it is therefore a good idea to refocus it. If someone lists numerous reasons for something, it helps to ask them which reason they want to discuss. For example:
"You have quite a few reasons there, can you pick one that you would prefer to discuss most so that we can discuss that one specifically."
You can also offer multiple items for discussion, and let someone else choose if you have no particular preference as to which aspects of a topic you want to discuss:
"Here are my reasons for thinking X is true. You can pick which one you would like to discuss in detail."
What you will find in these kinds of discussions is that you will have more time to think and research the points and questions someone raises, you will have more pointed and relevant answers (as opposed to canned ones), and you will feel less weighed down by the cognitive load of keeping up with multiple concurrent topics. Consequently you will also waste less time reading and be able to produce shorter responses, which means you will be able to keep up with a discussion if you just have a few minutes free here and there, as opposed to sitting down and consuming large amounts of information.

Most importantly, when people list multiple subtopics a shift in opinion on one can offer the kind of perspective they need to reconsider other points. Therefore discussing all the subtopics in a topic is not only  tedious, it can also be completely wasteful.

An Open Letter To News24

About a week ago, we sent this letter to +News24.com to address their promotion of anti-science and bad journalism. Having not had any replies from them, I am publishing the letter openly.




To whom it may concern,

An article titled “DARWINISM: DID WE REALLY EVOLVE FROM APES?” appeared on your website News24 Voices1 on the date Friday, May 23, 2014. The article was authored by Matome Letsoalo.

We are a group of concerned citizens that understand and value the role of science and good journalism in our society. It is our understanding that this author was nominated as a columnist for News24, and thus enjoys a special privilege as a columnist for your news organisation. We are writing this letter to make you aware of the fact that Mr. Letsoalo reflects poorly on your organisation, despite it being stated clearly that the views of columnists do not represent your organisation.

The column is a reflection on the theory of evolution, and presents false information, misrepresentations, and lays bare a general ignorance of the theory itself. Please see the Addendum that provides evidence to support our position.

Mr. Letsoala’s ignorance of the theory of evolution seeks to open debate to a scientific question that has been answered time and time again.2 The ideological warfare that has been instituted against the science of evolution seeks to undermine science and praise ignorance. This has the effect of latching on to the public imagination where education is lacking or strong ideological feelings have a tendency to take a foothold.

It is our understanding that the purpose of journalism is to seek out and express the truth, and where opinions are involved, that such opinions rely on reliable facts as justification. If the purpose of journalism was only to stir controversy, then views such as the one expressed by Mr. Letsoala should be welcomed, however we believe that organisations such as yours would consider their standards to be much higher, and that persons such as Mr. Letsoala reflect very badly on the journalistic rigour that your organisation would like to uphold.

We therefore request that Mr. Letsoala be stripped of his special position as a columnist for your news organisation. This is not an attempt to silence Mr. Letsoala, only to downgrade the merit that has been granted to him by your organisation. He should in our opinion still blog in your reader’s opinion section if he wishes to do so, which is not a place that is filtered by journalistic standards, but still provides a soapbox for readers to interact and discuss important topics. It would also be acceptable if Mr. Letsoala issues a full retraction that is clearly visible on his original post, or a deletion of this post with a full retraction in a new post.

We appreciate the time you have taken to read our letter and any forthcoming response. We are aware that Voices24 is an invitation only platform, and we hope that you will take the ethical step of addressing our concern. I am sure you will agree that science is vital to the success of South Africa, and as such inaccurate and ignorant representations of it only muddy the waters and undermine the goal of honest and informed opinion espoused by esteemed news organisations such as yours.

Regards,
Tjaart Blignaut
Gregory Nietsky
Nicole Best
Marius Sullivan
Theuns Opperman
Gordon Vongani Ringani
Njabulo Langa
Robert Buchmann
Xolani Vilakazi
Thomas Maydon
Jani Greeff
Bertus Schoeman
Llewelyn Leonard
Bronwyn Tivers
John Constantine Coutsoulis
Schalk Pienaar
Pieter Steyn
Petteri Rekomaa
Denzil Newman
Dr Nicolaas A. van der Merwe
Mike de Fleuriot
Kim Sales
Heather McLachlan
Cornelia van der Walt

References:
[1] http://voices.news24.com/matome-letsoalo/2014/05/darwinism-really-evolve-apes/
[2] http://www.nas.edu/evolution/TheoryOrFact.html

Addendum A

Herewith quotes from Mr. Letsoalo’s article and responses.


Assertion 1:
“I never came across an assertion or legend that suggested human beings were once chimpanzees”
“But it’s quite another thing to say a chimpanzee evolved over time and became a human being as you see today. “
 Rebuttal:

The theory of evolution does not specify that human beings were once chimpanzees. Humans and chimpanzees in fact share common descent, meaning that humans and chimpanzees evolved from the same species, not that humans were chimpanzees.
“The strong similarities between humans and the African great apes led Charles Darwin in 1871 to predict that Africa was the likely place where the human lineage branched off from other animals – that is, the place where the common ancestor of chimpanzees, humans, and gorillas once lived. The DNA evidence shows an amazing confirmation of this daring prediction.”
http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics
Assertion 2: Animals lack compassion
“But to a group of dogs, no matter how sizeable the chunk of meat you throw them, the strongest of them will try by all means to keep the whole lot to himself, and this is brute.”
“Animals live in a world without conscience or guilt or human compassion.”
Rebuttal:

It is true that dogs feed based on a dominance hierarchy, although food sharing is not uncommon among other species, notably other primates.
“Sharing among same sex individuals has been reported in 10 species (Fig. 1), including some apes and New World monkeys, especially captive capuchins.”
http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/gurven/papers/jaeggigurven2013EA.pdf
Vampire bats also engage in cooperative feeding behaviour:
“Common vampire bats often regurgitate food to roost-mates that fail to feed.”
http://courses.washington.edu/ccab/Carter&Wilkinson-v-bat-food-sharing-ProcB-2013.pdf
Assertion 3: Animals do not engage in judgement or vengeful behaviour.
“There are no grudges and there is no judgment in the animal kingdom.”
Rebuttal:

Once again, this behaviour is displayed in vampire bats:
“South American vampire bats in difficulty because they did not feed for a whole night demand a regurgitation of blood from other individuals to survive. Wilkinson [45,46] discovered that this request is made only to those indi-viduals to which they themselves have previously regurgitated blood.”
http://www.academia.edu/2337137/When_to_Get_Mad_Adaptive_Significance_of_Rage_in_Animals
Assertion 4: The theory of evolution does not adequately explain human traits.

“The theory of evolution does not in this regard satisfactorily discuss the reason why and the point at which the humane or ‘Godly’ spirit is infused in the evolving ape toward its current human nature.”

Rebuttal:

Accoding to Prof. Robert Sapolsky, a leading primatologist:

“Numerous such differences have been suggested, but over recent decades, there has been a consistent shrinking of that list. Thus, humans are no longer thought of as being unique in the ability to construct and use tools (with these skills now demonstrated in both primate and non-primate species [McGrew 1992]). Other species have a sense of self (as shown with the famed "mirror tests" [Gallup 1970]), as well as a "Theory of Mind" that encompasses the recognition that other individuals have different information than oneself (Tomasello and Call 1997). Other species are now known to communicate symbolically (e.g., vervet monkeys have vocalizations where the relationship between signal and meaning is arbitrary, and where some vocalizations serve as synonyms). A strong argument can be made for the idea that other species can be so grieved as to fall into the affective state that we term depression. And we can no longer claim to be the only species that kills its own, or that does so in organized groups (Goodall 1986).
One vestige of human uniqueness still often cited by anthropologists is culture. However, this notion has been challenged in recent years with numerous demonstrations of "culture" in other species, particularly primates. In this review, I will first consider what the term means to animal behaviorists, and theories about how cultural transmission can occur in other species. I will then review some of the most striking examples of non-human culture.”
http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/social_forces/v085/85.1sapolsky.html
Assertion 5: The dating of the evolutionary process is “presumed”
“It goes on to eloquently and scientifically describe the various stages of this questionable evolution, which presumably took millions if not hundreds of thousands of years.”

Rebuttal:

From The University Of Berkeley Evolution resource

“At the heart of evolutionary theory is the basic idea that life has existed for billions of years and has changed over time.
Overwhelming evidence supports this fact. Scientists continue to argue about details of evolution, but the question of whether life has a long history or not was answered in the affirmative at least two centuries ago.”
http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/lines/
Assertion 6: Cradle of human kind findings are dubious or questionable.

“They have hence named this place in Maropeng or Sterkfontein outside Johannesburg ‘The Cradle of Mankind’, where apparently they found the most fossils or something like that. “

Rebuttal:

This statement is entirely false. Australopithecine fossils are routinely found in this area. The findings are carried out and curated by our very own WITS university.

Assertion 7: Africans are the earliest descendents of the Sterkfontein hominids.

“But my thought is, if we Africans are supposedly the earliest descendants of these creatures which were once chimpanzees, why is it that Europeans have significantly more bodily hair than us?”

Rebuttal:

This claim is completely unsourced and unfounded.

Assertion 7: Evolution is a theory, and therefore not established fact.

“They should then call it ‘The Fact Of Evolution’. Charles Darwin has to be the master ape as such, which/who was scientifically ‘chosen’ to discover the primate roots of all humanity.”

Rebuttal:

I will once again quote the National Academy Of Sciences in the US. For clarity, I will quote in full:

“It is both. But that answer requires looking more deeply at the meanings of the words "theory" and "fact."
In everyday usage, "theory" often refers to a hunch or a speculation. When people say, "I have a theory about why that happened," they are often drawing a conclusion based on fragmentary or inconclusive evidence.
The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.
Many scientific theories are so well-established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence. However, like all scientific theories, the theory of evolution is subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously.
One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed. For example, the theory of gravitation predicted the behavior of objects on the moon and other planets long before the activities of spacecraft and astronauts confirmed them. The evolutionary biologists who discovered Tiktaalik predicted that they would find fossils intermediate between fish and limbed terrestrial animals in sediments that were about 375 million years old. Their discovery confirmed the prediction made on the basis of evolutionary theory. In turn, confirmation of a prediction increases confidence in that theory.
In science, a "fact" typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term "fact" to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. In that respect, the past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions.


http://www.nas.edu/evolution/TheoryOrFact.html

Dishonest Apologetics Pt. 2: Upsetting Milkjugs

Religion offers simplistic answers for everything, which is why it is so easy for people to succumb to it, and let go of reason. It is a placeholder for actual knowledge, because it explains everything without the need for any real understanding. The champion of this simplistic view of reality is C.S. Lewis. I've seen this claim by Lewis posted as a meme by Christians, and when you are done removing your palm from your skull you need to find a way to describe it, because it is so radically dumb that it leaves you speechless at first.

Here is the C.S. Lewis quote that has been doing the rounds in theist circles, probably for the better part of the last century:
“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”
Let's follow a simple analysis in Lewis' thought experiment:
 Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. 
Lewis enters with a dishonest suggestions that a mind needs to be designed. At this point the theists are already giddy because they know this will be another trophy on their confirmation bias shelf.

 It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought.

Atoms? There is something basically wrong with referring to the brain as a bunch of atoms. We don't talk about computers as a bunch of atoms, yet brains are infinitely more complex. This is the worst kind of argument from absurdity. Knowing some basic high school neurobiology, I cringe every time I read this statement. Brains are made of neurons, which themselves have complex modes of operation. A neuron can communicate with many other neurons. Neurons interact in a massively parallel network of super sophisticated networks that take multiple external and internal inputs. The statement above is no less than a lie of omission. I am fairly sure that Lewis was too lazy to learn the neurobiology of his day, and completely ignorant of the massive strides we have made in neurobiology today. 

Here is a hypothetical C.S. Lewis like character describing some other things: "The Narnia books are just letters on paper. The Mona Lisa is just paint on a canvas. Curiosity is just a buggy in a sand pit. Star Wars is just a series of still photos shown in quick succession." All of these statements are technically true, but in a very essential way they fail to describe something properly. 

Lewis loves to appeal to simplicity. He has a very simple view of life and how things work that appeals to the everyman. The difference is that he was a simpleton who could write and speak well, which made him the foundational apologist of modern Christianity, despite his overly simplistic view even of the christian faith and his terrible analogies, like the one in this article. 

The Definition Of Atheism Revisited

Over the past two weeks, I have been in the unfortunate position of once again debating the definition of atheism twice. In this blog post, I will be beating a dead horse to death. I will beat it to a bloody indescribable pulp. It is important simply because I want people to understand what I mean when I talk about atheism, and there are many others who share my definition. You can define these terms in any way you like. You can define atheism as the act of jumping on a trampoline for all I care. I just want people to understand what I  mean when I use the terminology.

Definitions offer a special problem to us. We communicate using common definitions of terms so that when we discuss things we know what the other person is saying. Sometimes we incorrectly assume that another person shares the same definition of something, and we have useless lengthy arguments that go nowhere.

When you want to find out what something means, there are several sources you can appeal to in order to make your case for what a word truly means. Some people appeal to a particular scholar, some people appeal to Wikipedia, some people appeal to various dictionaries (they don't all agree), some people try etymology, and yet others try to analyze the word by its components. All these different and incommensurable definitions, and more particularly the people who make use of the terms end up being misrepresented by other people, simply because people often don't try to understand the concepts behind definitions, instead focusing on the definitions themselves. "An atheist is someone who jumps on trampolines. Therefore you must jump on trampolines." - I hope this fallacy is obvious enough to anyone who can see it illustrated here. Definitions are not helpful when they don't convey the intended meaning of the person who is using a term.

I like to use the clearest definition of the term that stays true to the following two definitions:
a - the prefix a means without.
theism - denotes belief in god or gods.

This definition describes only one aspect of someone's position. It only describes belief. It ignores the variation of positions that lead to said belief and also ignores the epistemic position of the belief itself. Therefore anyone who agrees with the following statement can be said to be an atheist by my definition:

"I do not believe that any gods exist."

This term applies to weak atheism, strong atheism, negative atheism, positive atheism, gnostic atheism, agnostic atheism, igtheism, apatheism and agnosticism (in all it's own various definitions). All these terms and their uses may have their own problems, but I am only interested in this one. It may be called doxastic atheism if you like to distinguish it from other uses of the word, because it only pertains to belief and nothing else. If we are discussing reasons for atheism, we may then start to hone in more specific positions. The only requirement to meet this definition is agreement with the statement above. This kind of atheism comprises the views of many modern atheists, regardless of their different confidence levels and reasoning used to arrive at the conclusion that they could agree with the statement above.

The statement above is also devoid of making absolute claims about reality. It does not define what is actually the case. It does not say whether gods exist or not.

But how do I define gods? I would say that gods are causal agents that are required for the existence and fate of reality. This definition is important, because it includes everything from harvest gods, to the Abrahamic god and right down to a deistic god. This definition applies to a collection of gods as well as singular gods. The important thing is that we are somehow dependent on such a god. If we were not dependent on a god or collective of gods for anything, they would have no causal influence on us and therefore could not be called gods. I'm sure this definition is incomplete, or even erroneous, but I hope that it conveys the meaning I intended it to.

The old definitions roughly classed a person as such:
a) asserts that there is no god: atheist
b) asserts that there is a god: theist
c) does not know whether a god exists or not: agnostic

a And b are the same class of statements, but c is different in a very important way. c  is a statement pertaining to epistemology. In order for c to be properly understood the epistemology of the person who holds c must be understood. Maybe this person is agnostic about absolutely everything except the existence of their own mind. Does that mean that they don't believe that their parents exist? Of course not. They just have a rigid definition of knowledge, so their agnosticism is disconnected from their beliefs. They accept that some beliefs fall outside of their epistemology. You can believe something without knowing it. Let me illustrate with a simple example:

Joanne believes that there is a ghost haunting her house.

If knowledge is taken to be justified, true belief maybe Joanne can justify why she thinks there is a ghost, and believe it. If it isn't actually the case however she would not know it by that definition. So a and b are assertions and c  is a statement about knowledge. Not one statement between a, b and c deals with beliefs. So not one describes a person's position only relative to their belief status.

Agnosticism suffers from another serious flaw. It is fairly accurate as a representation of my own definition of atheism but it doesn't acknowledge the fact that many atheists, though not strong atheists, possess knowledge that make the existence of god seem very improbable. This is an important distinction between an agnostic who just finds religious claims as being unbelievable versus a person who has done a fair amount of research into the matter. Therefore the term fails as a single descriptor of someone's position on religious belief.

So by my definition, someone might say that rocks and cats can be atheists, but that is a misunderstanding. Because it is a description of belief, and entities incapable of forming beliefs by considering a topic need not apply.

So why all the fuss about definitions? Why is it that the biggest attackers of the so called "new atheism" are people who object to the use of the term itself by their new imaginary enemy? Could this be a resistance to a different way of doing things? Philosophy of religion has gotten to define these terms, and the field has been dominated by religious thinkers since its inception. It is no wonder that the old definitions are problematic.


Dishonest Apologetics: Part 1. The Set Up



Having had discussions with +Sebastian Nozzi before, I can guarantee anyone taking part that atheists are not in fact welcome in this discussion. The entire post is a set up, intended to fool any atheist into accepting a burden of proof they cannot possibly shoulder. Why?

Most atheists I know are agnostic atheists. They make no claims about the absolute existence or non-existence of gods. Apologists have responded by calling atheists naturalists, defining the term naturalist to their satisfaction and then forcing the burden of proof onto atheists. If you were suckered into this, you now have to be omniscient. You must explain the exact nature of the cosmos, because you must have eliminated every single possibility of any realm beyond the natural. You must reject any agnosticism. 

I don't think Sebastian is being deliberately dishonest, he is just picking up on the intellectually bankrupt tactics of other apologists. 

The naturalist's position is that there is only a natural world, because as far as we can know this is the only world for which there is evidence. Naturalists value evidence. Let's see the description from the Naturalism.org website:
"If you don’t believe in anything supernatural – gods, ghosts, immaterial souls and spirits – then you subscribe to naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is. The reason you’re a naturalist is likely that, wanting not to be deceived, you put stock in empirical, evidence-based ways of justifying beliefs about what’s real, as for instance exemplified by science. You probably (and rightly) hold that such beliefs are usually more reliable and more objective than those based in uncorroborated intuition, revelation, religious authority or sacred texts. Kept honest by philosophy and critical thinking, science reveals a single manifold of existence, what we call nature, containing an untold myriad of interconnected phenomena, from quarks to quasars. Nature is simply what we have good reason to believe exists." (My emphasis) [1]
Naturalism is not an absolute metaphysical claim of anti-supernaturalism, even though the positions seem dichotomous. The conclusion has been drawn from an epistemic value for reason, logic and evidence. It is not an a priori assumption or belief.
"Are they free of contradictions? Do you assert them to be true philosophical positions? If so, I would love to hear your justifications..." [2] 
Unlike more subtle apologists, Sebastian tries to explicitly shift the burden of proof here. The first question is probably bait to bring up the EAAN, an argument that rubbishes metaphysical claims. Of course old school epistemic scepticism can also be deployed here. The goal of this kind of apologetic is not to convince anyone, only to distract from the glaring problems of theology, such as the fact that the resurrection remains without evidence. If a naturalist was given ample evidence of the supernatural, that would be a good time to abandon the position, not when someone tries to shift the burden of proof to the naturalist to force them to prove that something invisible does not exist, which is an absurd and impossible demand.
[1] http://centerfornaturalism.blogspot.com/2008/11/worldview-naturalism-in-nutshell.html
[2] https://plus.google.com/u/0/103744906976128830230/posts/GsmiBENeDMX

Miracles Require Extraordinary Evidence

In a recent post, the topic of the claim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" came up. Someone shared the following video where William Lane Craig tries to bash the concept.


Here is the original post, along with some other christian blogs that attack the idea.

https://plus.google.com/u/0/104931159163084601357/posts/dCmZF4SEDcX
http://www.skepticalchristian.com/necessityofextraordinaryevidence.htm
http://www.ucapologetics.com/extraord.htm

The following nine points address some of my own observations on the idea and some of others.

1) The bible is not evidence. The bible is a book of claims. +Daniel L correctly states that "There is hearsay evidence written in Greek years after the supposed resurrection based on stories being told and repeated by followers of Jesus."

Although I would go a step further and say that the existence of those witnesses has not even been established.

The lottery numbers are each improbable

In the video above, Craig mentions this. It is true, and if someone told me that my number had won, I would want evidence of that. I would need good confirmation before I quit my job and buy plane tickets to the Maldives. I've supposedly won the UK lottery three times already mind you. Where Craig goes wrong is that even though each number is improbable, the appearance of random numbers on television every week is not.

2) Craig is not addressing Sagan AT ALL in the video. He subtly switches out a term in the statement

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"

to make it

"Extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence"

Someone might forgive a lay person for the switch in terms, but Craig is smart and he has an agenda. He promotes a _*claim* that an event occurred_ to an _actual event_ , betraying his presupposition and trying to sneak it into the discussion. I don't think Hume ever uttered that statement. This is what Hume said:
"The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “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: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”
Hume's language is quite archaic, but it certainly cannot be accurately condensed into Craig's oversimplification. His whole mention of the principle is a huge straw man misrepresenting Hume and Sagan.

3) If the principle "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is to be rejected, we would be forced for the sake of consistency to believe every miracle claim from history with the same amount of evidence. Muhammad flew into heaven on a winged horse, the Oracle of Delphi was a divine prophet, Achilles was the son of a sea nymph. We would be stuck with a reality full of contradictory supernatural claims with no way to distinguish true ones from false ones.

4) The second person in the video claims that Hume's argument is circular, but fails to represent Hume's position accurately. If experience is a type of evidence, the lack of experience we have of miracles outweighs any experiential evidence of their occurrence being reported second hand. If miracles were commonplace we wouldn't have the problem of accepting that they did in fact happen in history.

5) This particular speaker's second argument is that the universe does not conform to such principles. That is true. I could see something immensely improbable happening, and try to tell everyone about it. They would not believe me, but it is still true. It is not about what is true and what is not true, it is about how we should rationally decide when to believe something. When you apply a rule for belief on one belief, you must apply it equally to all others. If you make exceptions, those exceptions must be consistent with another rational rule. Epistemic principles like the one Sagan expresses don't make absolute claims about reality, they just offer a guideline of when it is rational to believe something.

6) At the end of the video the author of the video cuts when his favoured speaker finishes what he has to say. The rebuttal to that last bit is never heard. We are left to wonder what the other person said, who was putting forward good arguments up to the point where he was cut off. This was either an editing trick, or maybe the original video ends there abruptly. The chances or misrepresentation by omission render that part of the video useless.

7) Carl Sagan manages to distill a powerful tenet of science into a single statement. This is good, but single statements are not meant to defend themselves against one sided videos that last  7 minutes. The statement was also meant as communication to lay persons, not to Craig and other eager apologists who hate reason with such a passion.  don't understand the application of reason without motivated reasoning to a predecided conclusion.

8) Another tactic to attempt to refute extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is the road runner tactic. Apparently the statement represents an extraordinary claim, so where is the extraordinary evidence for it? It is not a claim as such, it is an epistemic guideline. It can be tested by negations. I will present the original statement plus it's negations, consider the outcome of each and consider which one is more extraordinary in itself:
Original: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Negation 1: Extraordinary claims don't require extraordinary evidence.
Negation 2. Ordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

When considering each of these possibilities it is obvious after some reflection that both negations are absurd. If extraordinary claims could be accepted by ordinary evidence not only would science implode, so would the law courts. Bayesian probability would not be useful. The claim that the guideline is in itself an extraordinary claim is absurd and extraordinary, just as its negations are. 

9) The other problem raised by carm.org and the other apologetics website mentioned above is that the demarcation between ordinary and extraordinary is arbitrary and subjective. It is certainly subjective, in the sense that things are considered ordinary if they can be said to be commonplace in the experience of the observer, but the demarcation is not. If some experience cannot be said to be common to human experience, it counts as extraordinary. If we were to travel through time to the middle ages for example, people of that time period would demand extraordinary evidence of the flying machines we claim to know for instance. Building a working aeroplane would prove the claim. Once sufficient evidence has been presented, a claim can pass into ordinary experience, at which point the sceptical subject can accept the claim and move on. It is not common for people to wake from being deceased after three days, in fact there are only few claims in history that this ever happened.

10) Many interesting events in history are extraordinary.
This is true. What is also true is that we possess extraordinary evidence of such events. Direct archaeological evidence, along with multiple accounts from neutral sources can establish historic facts. Even so, the way we treat historic facts are somewhat different to the way we treat scientific facts. Historic facts are often less well established than scientific facts. Details are often revised as evidence emerges. Some claims, like the existence of King Arthur or Ragnar Lodbrok are treated as unfactual due to the fact that their existence have not been established. Accounts of actual historical events are taken with a pinch of salt, because ancient accounts of events suffer from embellishment by their writers. On an epistemic scale, historical claims generally don't enjoy a confidence level nearly as high as scientific claims do.

In conclusion...

This is just another example of how christian apologists are willing to reject scientific concepts in order to promote their dogma. As I mentioned in point (3), rejecting the concept of extraordinary evidence puts us in a epistemic despair, stuck with an incoherent and irreconcilable reality. Christian apologists think that everything will be okay, because they will just cite the bible as the truth, without realising that their truth claims hold no more water than those of other religious believers. We would be stuck with relativism or ideological wars that can only be won through political force. The solution the apologist presents is to make a special case for their beliefs. Their beliefs are to be believed without the burden of an epistemic system that would exclude all other similar beliefs. Apologists whose work I am familiar with always apply strong scepticism to any claims except their own. This raises a serious red flag. Motivated reasoning perfectly explains this kind of behaviour, in concert with compartmentalisation of critical thinking and blind faith.

Apologists want to raise doubts about whether scientific modes of teasing out reality is valid, because those modes of thought specifically undermine their belief systems. By undermining it they undermine our sensible way of knowing the world. They unknowingly undermine their own position by opening the door for claimants of other belief systems to assert themselves with the same objections and arguments.

** EDIT: I refined this post a little and added another point. There may be more to come in the future! **

** EDIT: Replaced last paragraph because I don't know what I was thinking. Added 10.

Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 6: Dude, I Am You!

The previous parts of this series:
Pt. 1: A Distinction
Pt. 2: Motivators
Pt. 3: Christian Existential Nihilism
Pt. 5: Biting The Bullet

The image on the left is an image of the Cat's Eye Nebula. It is a composite image, but it displays the awe striking beauty of the universe we live in. Whenever we look up, above us lies what seems to be an endless expanse of mystery and wonder. When we look down to the tiny world below us, we see the great mysteries of life unfolding, and below that, the often puzzling world of the subatomic. If our lives were only occupied by wandering through these vast mysteries, I think that would be a life well lived. 

But there is something else, a sort of experience that is difficult to describe, a feeling of being small, the feeling of the earth spinning around its axis, the earth around the sun, the sun around the center of our galaxy. The feeling of being an energy fluctuation in a sea of other fluctuations, where there are no objects, no lines to distinguish one thing from another, where time is arbitrary, where you can feel your body exchanging oxygen, or imagine your neurons firing in an exquisite symphony of thought. 

All of this sounds pretty abstract, and it is. I admit that when I first felt that I was hurtling on a huge ball of rock around a small fiery star I was struck with fear and panic. Any sense of control was lost. After being gripped by fear, almost at once I let go and I realised what a wild ride life is. In its miniscule scale and transience, there was beauty and wonder. I felt freedom in a way that was indescribable and overwhelming. This is life, and it is awesome.

These kinds of feelings are not unique to me, and there is a specific lyric, which would do better to be called poetry, expressing this feeling.

Black then white are all i see in my infancy.
red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me.
lets me see.
as below, so above and beyond, I imagine
drawn beyond the lines of reason.
Push the envelope. Watch it bend.

Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must
Feed my will to feel my moment drawing way outside the lines.

Black then white are all i see in my infancy.
red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me.
lets me see there is so much more and
beckons me to look thru to these infinite possibilities.
as below, so above and beyond, I imagine
drawn outside the lines of reason.
Push the envelope. Watch it bend.

over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
Withering my intuition leaving opportunities behind.
Feed my will to feel this moment urging me to cross the line.
Reaching out to embrace the random.
Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.
I embrace my desire to
I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected enough to step aside and weep like a widow
to feel inspired to fathom the power, to witness the beauty,
to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral
to swing on the spiral
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.

With my feet upon the ground I move myeslf between the sounds and open wide to suck it in.
I feel it move across my skin.
I'm reaching up and reaching out. I'm reaching for the random or what ever will bewilder me.
what ever will bewilder me.
And following our will and wind we may just go where no one's been.
We'll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one's been.
Spiral out. Keep going.
Spiral out. Keep going.
Spiral out. Keep going.
Spiral out. Keep going.
Spiral out. Keep going.[1]
I don't want to analyse the lyrics too much, but the feeling of embracing the random is something I can identify with. I thought, when I became an atheist, that I would never have a spiritual experience ever again. Instead I got something much better. These feelings are not hard to come by either. Just look up at the sky on a dark night, you will see it there. You will see the universe looking at itself.


There is another experience that I want to mention briefly. I was lucky enough to go to a Chimpanzee sanctuary for my birthday last year, and the chimpanzees were being fed macadamia nuts. A female was trying to open a nut with a stick, when I noticed an already open nut just behind the fence in front of me. I picked it up and tossed it to her. She picked it up and ate it, and then proceeded to stare into my eyes for what was about one minute. The experience was humbling. She is an animal, and so am I. We are family, and it felt as though during that minute, she and I understood this kinship.

The feeling of being free, and being one with nature and reality is humbling and it is this poetry of living that can sometimes drive tears of joy into my eyes. No religious experience could ever compare with that ever.

[1] Tool - Lateralus