Monday, September 29, 2008


-- David Thompson's blog has some very interesting posts of late. Here's one on the attempt of many academics to inculcate their students with their political views, which always turn out to be leftist. It scares me, and I'm not even a conservative. Here's another which deals with the attempt of some feminists to abandon logic and science as "masculine" and erect (get it?) a more feminine mode of thinking in its place. And here's one more on Stanley Fish.

-- The Volokh Conspiracy has an excellent post (and discussion in the comments) on whether "they" and "their" can be used to refer to the third person singular of unknown gender.

-- "The presidential candidate than whom none greater can be conceived". Heh.

-- Finally, Cake Wrecks. Professionally made cakes that are atrocities. Here's my favorite; they only had to spell three very short words on the cake, and the only one they got right is "a".

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Reasons to Believe is a Christian ministry that deals primarily with science apologetics. A common objection to using science to defend Christianity, or any religious claim, is that appealing to supernatural causality is not falsifiable, since it does not make risky predictions, and hence is not really science. (Of course, many people who so object tend to see science as refuting -- that is, falsifying -- Christianity. This is a rather striking inconsistency.) To counter this objection RTB has come out with several books in the last few years which present models that make predictions that future scientific discoveries can verify or falsify.

The first book they published is entitled Origins of Life by biochemist Fazale Rana and astrophysicist Hugh Ross, RTB's vice-president and president, respectively. Origins of Life addresses ... wait for it ... the origin of life. The book's subtitle notwithstanding, they write

This is not a book about evolution per se. That is, it is not about the theory by which life accumulates changes over time, so that simple, early organisms change over eons into more complex, advanced ones. It is not about the entire history of life on Earth either. Rather, this book has a narrower, yet crucial, focus ... This book is about the origin of life -- the first appearances of living organisms on Earth. We address such questions as: What was first life like? When did it appear on Earth? How did it get here?
Rana and Ross contend that natural processes are incapable of bringing life into existence out of non-living material, and thus life's origin requires a supernatural agent. To this end, they take the baton from The Mystery of Life's Origin written by Thaxton, Bradley, and Olson in 1984. Rana and Ross attend the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) conferences held every three years, so their knowledge of the field is extensive and up to date.

Rana and Ross specifically make eight predictions based on their interpretation of Genesis 1 which they say can be falsified. Some might suggest that basing their model on the Bible immediately excludes it from consideration as scientific. But how one comes to hold a model or hypothesis or theory is irrelevant in science; what matters (at least according to contemporary philosophy of science) is whether it can be verified or falsified. Friedrich Kekulé came up with the ring structure of benzene after daydreaming of a snake biting its own tail, but no one would use this to suggest that benzene isn't characterized by a ring structure. Of course, I don't consider the Bible to be as fanciful as daydreams; my point is that even if you think it is as fanciful, or even that it is anti-scientific in the extreme, this is no argument against Rana's and Ross's model. If it can be verified or falsified by evidence, then its origin is simply irrelevant.

At any rate, these are the predictions that Rana and Ross offer:

1. Life appeared early in Earth's history, while the planet was still in its primordial state.
2. Life originated in and persisted through the hostile conditions of early Earth.
3. Life originated abruptly.
4. Earth's first life displays complexity.
5. Life is complex in its minimal form.
6. Life's chemistry displays hallmark characteristics of design (they discuss what these hallmarks are in their conclusion).
7. Early life was qualitatively different from life that came into existence on creation days three, five, and six.
8. A purpose can be postulated for life's early appearance on Earth. ("[Our] model bears the burden of explaining why God would create life so early in Earth's history and why (as well as when) He would create the specific types of life that appeared on primordial Earth.")
They contrast this with what they claim are the predictions from a naturalistic (i.e. non-miraculous) perspective. They acknowledge that there is great diversity here, and that often the predictions made from a particular model are based on that model's specifics. Nevertheless, they are able to derive nine general predictions made by naturalistic models:

1. Chemical pathways produced life's building blocks.
2. Chemical pathways yielded complex biomolecules.
3. The chemical pathways that yielded life's building blocks and complex molecular constituents operated in early Earth's conditions.
4. Sufficiently placid chemical and physical conditions existed on early Earth for long periods of time.
5. Geochemical evidence for a prebiotic soup exists in Earth's oldest rocks.
6. Life appeared gradually on Earth over a long period of time.
7. The origin of life occurred only once on Earth.
8. Earth's first life was simple.
9. Life in its most minimal form is demonstrably simple.
Rana and Ross then test the predictions of both models against the scientific facts as we now know them, and argue that their model receives strong support, while naturalistic models are undermined. Moreover, they point out that their model can continue to be tested as future scientific discoveries will either support or undermine their predictions (as well as those of naturalistic models).

They address whether life arose early in Earth's history or late; whether it arose quickly or slowly; whether there is any evidence for a prebiotic soup; whether chemical pathways can account for the origin of proteins, DNA, and RNA; the difficulty of accounting for homochirality (that proteins and sugars must be uniformly right or left "handed"); the information content encoded in DNA and RNA; the origin of cell membranes; the lower limit of complexity that a cell must have in order to survive and propagate; the role of organisms that thrive in extreme environments (extremophiles); the possibility of life on Mars, Europa, and other extraterrestrial locations; and "directed panspermia", the theory gaining in popularity (due to the problems outlined in the preceding chapters) that an advanced alien civilization intentionally seeded Earth with life. (Indeed, it seems to me that any supernatural explanation for the origin of life amounts to divinely directed panspermia).

Origins of Life is a fascinating discussion of the subject. Several chapters are worth the cost of the book all by themselves. Their chapter on cell membranes, for example, addresses a subject that is rarely raised. "To date, no studies have been conducted on the long-term stability of octanoic and nonanoic bilayers." ... "Despite its importance to naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios, researchers in this field focus only limited attention on membrane origins."

Other examples are their chapters on alternate life-sites in our solar system, including Mars, Europa (one of Jupiter's moons), and Titan (one of Saturn's). The latter is particularly interesting, since the Huygens Probe landed on Titan a few years ago, although (unfortunately) several months after Origins of Life was published. Again, this book is very comprehensive in its approach, so to discuss their arguments at length would take pages.

Other books they have published employing this model are Who Was Adam? by Rana and Ross which deals with human origins; Creation as Science by Ross which deals with their creation model in general; The Cell's Design by Rana which deals with the complexity of individual cells; and just released is Why the Universe Is the Way It Is by Ross. I have not yet read these books and don't know anything about them beyond their general descriptions. But I'm looking forward to them.

(cross-posted on Quodlibeta)

Chinese space mission

Three Chinese Astronauts, one of whom performed the first spacewalk of China's space program, have returned to Earth. Hopefully a little friendly competition will kickstart us Americans into getting our act together.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Theistic Solipsism

I tend to think that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was at its best as a radio show, that it was very good as a series of books, not bad as a movie, and godawful as a BBC television show. One of the great things about the radio show was that the story line was so different from everything else. Here's one example, although I don't remember the books well enough to know whether this was eventually reproduced therein. Arthur, Ford, and Zaphod confront the ruler of the universe, only to discover that he's a solipsist.

This idea was not original to Hitchhiker's. Fredric Brown wrote this very short story with the same basic theme. But it still makes me smile.

Quote of the Day

"Perhaps the Great Architect intended for him to cross over."

"Huh? Good heavens, Doctor, surely you don't believe in divine predestination!"

"Perhaps not in those terms. But, Howard, you mechanistic skeptics make me tired. Your naive ability to believe that things 'jest growed' approaches childishness. According to you a fortuitous accident of entropy produced Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."

"I think that's unfair, Doctor. You certainly don't expect a man to believe in things that run contrary to his good sense without offering him any reasonable explanation."

Frost snorted. "I certainly do -- if he has observed it with his own eyes and ears, or gets it from a source known to be credible. A fact doesn't have to be understood to be true. Sure, any reasonable mind wants explanations, but it's silly to reject facts that don't fit your philosophy."

Robert A. Heinlein
Assignment in Eternity

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Space news

The new Carnival of Space is up. Check it out. Incidentally, I get these via Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit. He also points to this article about Japan planning to build a space elevator. I'm down with that.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Case of Projection

Part of the whole "science vs. Christianity" metanarrative is that science has consistently shown that human beings aren't as significant as religion claims. Thus, Copernicus showed that the earth isn't at the center of the universe, astronomy has shown that we're a tiny speck in a vast cosmos, and Darwin showed that the human being is just an animal. Freud then appealed to this idea in order to validate his psychological theories, since they presumably showed that the human being is merely a sick animal.

For now I'll deal with the last link in this chain, and save the other links (as well as the chain taken as a whole) for other posts. Freud argued in The Future of an Illusion that people who believe in God were projecting a father figure onto the universe, motivated by a sense of helplessness. And, if religious beliefs are merely the result of psychological and sociological factors, then there's no point in asking whether or not they're true. This was considered by many to be proof from medical science that religion is bogus, in particular, Judaism and Christianity. The reason these two were singled out is because they most clearly define God as a father figure.

While Freud suggested that religion has a stabilizing effect on society as a whole, for the individual, belief in God should generally be treated as a psychological dysfunction. I say "generally" because psychological theories are never absolute; there are always exceptions which don't necessarily refute the theory. Nevertheless, Freudian psychologists have often held that treatment could only be considered successful once the patient has relinquished belief in God.

Of course, there were a few problems with this. Probably the most obvious is that it is a textbook example of a classic logical fallacy. The genetic fallacy is committed when you think that by explaining how a belief originates, you are thereby showing the belief to be false. But this is obviously not the case. If I was raised to believe that murder is bad, pointing this out does not show that murder is not bad.

The point here is that it's necessary to make a distinction between how we come to believe something and whether the object of that belief is true. Any belief has to be judged on its merits, not on the alleged psychological predispositions of its proponents. Freud's projection theory is guilty of reasoning in a way that has been recognized as sloppy thinking by virtually all the great intellects in human history.

Another problem with the projection theory is that Freud didn't have any actual evidence for it. As Os Guinness writes in The Long Journey Home, "the founder of psychoanalysis had astonishingly little experience either in probing the psychology of belief in God or in caring for patients who were religious." To his credit, Freud privately acknowledged that the projection theory was just his personal opinion.

But since Freud's time, plenty of evidence has been collected, and it shows the exact opposite of what Freud thought it would. Guinness writes "Religious life, in fact, has been demonstrated to go hand in hand with better physical health, greater psychological well-being, and a generally positive social influence." It doesn't show any evidence of being the psychological dysfunction Freud believed.

A final problem with the projection theory is that it's actually a better explanation of non-belief in God than belief. Paul Vitz, a psychologist at NYU demonstrates in his book The Faith of the Fatherless, that the most militant atheists had major father issues. He lists Nietzsche, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Ayn Rand, H. G. Wells, Stalin, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and Freud himself among many others, stating "We find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case." Often, this connection was openly acknowledged by the atheist. There are, of course, exceptions to this, perhaps the most prominent being John Stuart Mill. But it certainly seems to be a valid psychological theory which explains a majority of cases.

Now, it needs to be stated as clearly as possible that this does not constitute an argument against atheism. Vitz recognizes this. To think it does would be to simply commit the genetic fallacy in the opposite direction. Atheism has to be judged on its intellectual merits, not on the home life of its advocates. Rather, the point of this is that the projection theory seems to be itself a projection. Those who had a problem with their fathers and projected this into a problem with God, then projected this projection itself onto those who don't have a problem with God. They tried to explain belief in God with the same categories that influenced their disbelief in God.

In other words, Freud committed another logical fallacy. The tu quoque fallacy is committed when you accuse your opponent of something that you're guilty of. "Tu quoque" is Latin for "Oh yeah? So are you! Nyaah!" This may make for good rhetoric, but, once again, it's sloppy thinking.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


When I started this blog, I wrote that I would sometimes repost and rewrite some things I had already posted on OregonLive. Since then, they took the old site down, so my older posts can no longer be found online. Afterwards I reposted some items and just had an unlinked note at the end saying as much.

However, this just seems unnecessarily extreme. So since a) those posts now exist only on my laptop, b) I wrote the original posts, and thus have the right to do whatever I want with them, and c) very few people ever read them in their first incarnation, I'll just be reposting them without comment from here on out.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Christian Apology

The Anglican church has recently posted several articles on evolution and Christianity online. One of the essays -- "Good Religion Needs Good Science" by Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown -- states that the Christian Chuch needs to apologize to Darwin for reacting so negatively to evolution (via the Guardian). Of course, there is a lot of truth in this. Many Christians just give knee-jerk reactions to any argument that supports evolution, and are willing to believe just about anything that seems to go the other way.

On the other hand, it needs to be pointed out that the Church didn't react negatively to Darwin en masse right away. A book on this (that I haven't actually read yet) is Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought by David N. Livingstone. Another good resource is the second chapter of Philip J. Sampson's masterwork Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization.

Christian hostility to evolution built up because a group of atheists and agnostics in the late 19th century decided to initiate a cultural campaign representing evolution as the final nail in Christianity's coffin. After using evolution as a club to beat Christians over the head with, I think it's sad but understandable that some Christians eventually responded by getting mad at the club.

(cross-posted on Quodlibeta)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My Wasted Genius

When I was a kid I tried to write my own Choose Your Own Adventure story. It was (supposed to be) a spy thriller. My theme was that some people wanted to put huge solar panels in orbit which would then beam the energy back to Earth, thus providing humankind with all the energy they need; the point being that the plans had to be kept out of the wrong hands. I had to give it up because I had written about 35 pages and had about 12 distinct storylines going with no end in sight.

Well, the idea finally occurred to some science-type people, and they're actually thinking of trying it. And to think that if they had just had the foresight to ask an 11-year-old kid who didn't know the first thing about electricity, all of our energy problems would already be solved.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I've mentioned Bede's Library before, a blog primarily about science and religion written by James Hannam, who has recently earned his PhD in the history and philosophy of science. Last month he decided to make it a group blog, and asked if anyone was interested. I replied, and he asked me, along with several others, to join up. The blog is now called Quodlibeta, although it has the same address (; I've adjusted my blogroll accordingly. I'm very privileged to be able to post there as well as here, and I look forward to interacting with my fellow clerks.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Never Forget

In the aftermath of 9/11, one statement in particular encouraged me, and has continued to do so ever since. It was something to the effect of, "The age of al-Qaeda lasted one hour and fifty minutes. That's the time between when the hijackers took control of the first plane to when the passengers tried to take back the last one."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Modifying My Moniker

I explained a little while ago where I got my pseudonym "Tragic Clown Dog". I chose this intentionally goofy and random name because I wanted to make clear that by calling this blog "Agent Intellect" I wasn't arrogating to myself any claim that my opinions are by default more intellectual than those of others. Agent Intellect is a technical philosophical term from the De Anima tradition, something I tried to show by the Aristotle quote at the top of the sidebar. I'm not calling myself the James Bond of philosophy.

However, since posting the origins of my pseudonym, I've come to think that Tragic Clown Dog is entirely too goofy. I decided that I want to take the name of some relatively obscure philosopher -- someone that other philosophers would know but non-philosophers probably would not. I have preliminarily settled on Xenophanes, the pre-Socratic philosopher who is generally considered to be the first monotheist in the Western philosophical tradition (although this is disputed) and who criticized the popular gods of his day.

Update (12 Sep.): OK, I'm just going to keep it simple and blog as Jim S.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

William Lane Craig Debates

I enjoy listening to philosophical and/or religious debates, but ultimately it's more for entertainment purposes than anything else. The problem with debates is that just because someone can't come up with a good response to something off the top of their head while on stage doesn't mean that there aren't any good responses to it. I was able to think up some remarkably witty comebacks to the bullies in grade school, but they usually came several hours after school let out.

One of the most prolific debaters in the last couple of decades has been William Lane Craig. He generally debates other scholars on the existence of God or the historical Jesus. His website had several transcribed debates in which he has taken part, and I also just discovered that many of his debates are on YouTube. So I thought I would provide links to them, stating who he debated, and the title of the debate in question. The videos are mostly in 10 minute increments, and most of them automatically go to the next one in the series when each one finishes. You should be warned, though, that it eats up your bandwidth.

His opponents vary in how well they do; Peter Atkins, for example, is just a caricature of thoughtless scientism. Here's a brief excerpt from that video to give you a taste of it:

So below are the debates separated by whether they are videos or transcribed. [Update (26 Oct): A much better, and more complete, summary of Craig's debates, with links to the texts or audio/video recordings, is here. Via DI1.]

On video:
vs. Peter Atkins: What Is the Evidence For/Against the Existence of God?
vs. Frank Zindler: Atheism vs. Christianity: Where Does the Evidence Point?
vs. Torbjörn Tännsjö: God and Morality
vs. Peter Slezak: Atheism vs. Christianity
vs. Bill Cooke: Is God a Delusion?
vs. Bart Ehrman: Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?
vs. James Crossley: Was Jesus Bodily Raised from the Dead?
vs. Shabir Ally: Did Jesus of Nazareth Physically Rise from the Dead?
vs. Shabir Ally: What Must I Do to Be Saved?
vs. Jamal Badawi: The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity
vs. John Shook: Does God Exist?
vs. Antony Flew: Does God Exist?
vs. Austin Dacey: Does God Exist?
vs. Theodore Drange: Does God Exist?

Transcribed debates:
vs. Kai Nielson: God, Morality, and Evil
vs. Richard Taylor: Is the Basis of Morality Natural or Supernatural?
vs. Michael Tooley: A Classic Debate on the Existence of God
vs. Ray Bradley: Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
vs. Bart Ehrman (also above): Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?
vs. Corey Washington: Does God Exist?
vs. Quentin Smith: Does God Exist?
vs. Quentin Smith: Does God Exist?
vs. Douglas Jesseph: Does God Exist?
vs. Massimo Pigliucci: Does God Exist?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

This is random

Wikipedia in Esperanto. It has over 100,000 articles. That's more than most real languages. I'm still more impressed by the LOL Cat Bible Translation Project.