Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A weird encounter with Jehovah's Witnesses

On a recent Saturday, some Jehovah's Witnesses came by my house and the discussion I had seemed rather odd. For starters, it looked like at least four people came, but two people just sat in the vehicle they came in the entire time. I didn't ask about that, so perhaps they were just rotating? I've gone door-to-door for political canvasing; it's not something I find enjoyable, so I could see taking a break if I were with a larger group.

As for the two people I did talk with, Cliff and Joanne (I believe were their names), Cliff did most of the talking. And I wouldn't call what he did much more than talk. He never really made a case for anything he was saying. Rather, his talking-points were the types of points that may cause people to cave into their ignorance. Basically, he was asking questions about how something may have came to be, with the idea being that, because I don't have an answer, I should then assume a god is responsible. I'm wiser than that, so his talking points did not move me at all.

For some examples, the very first "point" he tried to make related to this idea that the Bible is still a best-seller, despite all the attacks that have been made against it. He asked if I thought something might be behind this. The idea here is that there is supposedly no way the Bible could have survived through history if it was not, at the very least, divinely inspired. (Some may go further and claim that a god has been protecting the Bible.) Next he went to verses in Revelation about Armageddon. He was suggesting that the verse was talking about our present day and asked how the author could have known this was going to happen. For kicks, here are the two verses, Revelation 16:13-14: "Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty." Your guess is probably as good as mine as to how that is supposed to relate to the present day.

Other talking-points he raised related to biology and cosmology. I can't even remember the stupid questions he asked, but what he was going for was trying to get me to think that there is no way the world could have come about naturally and, therefore, I should believe a supernatural being is responsible. I, of course, understand how bogus such thinking is and did not cave in.

This may have made the conversation weird. I wonder if I threw him off by not accepting his sales pitches, which left him struggling to decide which pitch to go to next. That said, I doubt he actually had any sort of argument and that's what I'm really interested in. This is where I failed in the conversation. If he wasn't going to present an argument by himself, I should have found a way to request that he present one. Also, there was one point where he asked if I believe everything I was taught in school. He, to little surprise, was out to get me to doubt the teachings of evolution. This was an opportunity for me to ask him how he goes about determining what is true and what is not. What is his methodology? Why should anyone believe that his methodology is actually reliable? I wonder if he actually had any methodology. If there is a next time, I'll have to do a better job on this.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Open Letter to the Democratic Party

Dear Democratic Party,

What happened with Wasserman Schultz and the DNC is a bit concerning. Clinton nominating Kaine as her VP is concerning. Clinton hiring Wasserman Schultz as an honorary chair is especially concerning.

I am a Sanders supporter and was a Sanders delegate to the Linn County Convention. Over these past few months, when it was clear Sanders was not going to be the nominee, there had been calls for Sanders to drop out and endorse Clinton for the sake of party unity. I am willing to support Clinton, but I know of others that are not. Certainly you are aware of the "Bernie or bust" crowd. And I'll agree with Sarah Silverman that they are "being ridiculous" (warning: autoplay video).

My concern is when can we expect Clinton and her supporters to make consolidations for party unity? The issue I have is that it feels* like a one-way street. It feels like it is always progressives or those who are more grassroots making the sacrifices and never those who might be described as neoliberal (or even neoconservative) or part of the establishment.

I have encountered Clinton supporters who have shown a total disregard for progressives. When progressives threaten not to vote for Clinton, the attitude is "Good riddance." I can somewhat understand the attitude from a mathematical perspective. It's not like those people are going to go vote for whoever the Republican nominee was going to be (that we now know to be Trump). Losing progressives only costs one votes. It makes more sense, then, to go for those in the middle. If you lose their vote, they may go vote for Trump. That costs two votes - the one Clinton loses plus the one Trump gains. It would seem to make sense, then, to go for those middle voters.

But it is then disingenuous to ask for party unity and then forget about the progressives when it comes to the general election. And, unfortunately, I saw some condescending attitudes from Democrats at the convention, one of which was from Elijah Cummings. (Though, to be fair, I heard his speech was disrupted, so he could have been a bit bitter over that, and understandably so.) The attitude is that progressives should be happy as the party platform is, so I have heard (yeah, I should probably read the platform sometime), quite progressive and they (we) got Wasserman Shultz's head served on a platter. Metaphorically, of course.

On that last point, Wasserman Shultz needed to go a long time ago. This email leak wasn't the first time it has been suggested Wasserman Shultz and the DNC were playing favorites. It was believed months ago the debate schedule was set up to give Clinton an edge by reducing Sanders' exposure to the public. No, this email link was just more evidence of the DNC giving progressives the middle finger.

Again, I can agree that some people have gone a bit over-the-top on this, going as far as to suggest that the DNC engaged in illegal activity. The reality is it was probably largely people being driven by their internal biases that led to this problem, but I don't think the frustration that we are observing are over the emails. I cannot even say that the emails are some sort of "smoking gun" as the emails, from what I have read, seem rather tame. No, the problem is with business as usual and the problem doesn't magically disappear just because we get tossed a few bones. For people like Elijah Cummings to suggest that we should be happy with these bones is insulting.

The tone-deafness may be what is most disappointing. Here, WikiLeaks' Julian Assange states the problem more elegantly than I ever could:
It is important for there to be examples of accountability. The resignation was an example of that. Now, of course, Hillary Clinton has tried to immediately produce a counter-example by putting out a statement, within hours, saying that Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a great friend, and she’s incorporating her into her campaign, she’s going to be pushing for her re-election to the Congress. So that’s a very interesting signaling by Hillary Clinton that if you act in a corrupt way that benefits Hillary Clinton, you will be taken care of. Why does she need to put that out? Certainly, it’s not a signal that helps with the public at all. It’s not a signal that helps with unity at the DNC, at the convention. It’s a signal to Hillary Clinton partisans to keep on going on, you’ll be taken care of. But it’s a very destructive signal for a future presidency, because it’s—effectively, it’s expanding the Overton window of corruption. It doesn’t really matter what you do, how you behave; as long as that is going to benefit Hillary Clinton, you’ll be protected.

This, of course, won't bother loyal Clinton supporters a bit. But I think the Democratic party needs to do better. Blind loyalty is part of why the threat of a Trump presidency is still a concern, both on the side of Republicans who will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what and on the side of the Democrats, who scare off less partisan voters with their lack of criticism of Clinton.** I will agree that these couple of email "scandals" are not actually scandals. At the same time, there needs to be the recognition that there was incompetence at play here. Admit the mistakes and learn from them. But one can't learn from mistakes they won't admit they made. Also, please stop claiming that Clinton is the most qualified candidate ever. I will agree she is perhaps one of the most experienced candidate, but experience does not equate with being qualified. Let's not forget that FBI director James Comey described the email behavior as "extremely careless." I realize that emails is a small part of a President's duties,*** but if Clinton is one of the most qualified candidates ever, this tells me we seriously need to find better qualified candidates!

With all this said, I really just want Democrats to represent the values they claim to represent. When an organization like the DNC claims to be impartial and its not, that causes mistrust. When a political party demands that its progressive members sacrifice for party unity, but the neoliberals seldom have to sacrifice (And when their "great" sacrifice is a more progressive party platform? Shouldn't that be a good thing?), that creates mistrust.

Finally, going back to the search for voters in the "middle," I would like the party to make a decision. With the Republican party self-destructing, it may be that some day, the Democrats could become the dominant party. I know...I know. Republicans control much of our government; that seems a bit odd based on how disorganized they are. Still, there seems an opportunity for the Democrats to pick up people who are dissatisfied with the party. This means the Democratic party could move further to the right, distancing itself further from the progressives in the party. The decision I would like the party to make is on which way it wants to move. Is it going to move further right? I get the sense the party is hesitant to move left, so should we progressives just leave the party now?

* Yes, I realize that feelings were brought up at the RNC a lot and that what we feel isn't necessarily true. But, when we are talking about bringing a party together, feelings matter.

** Yes, I also realize there is a lot of sexism directed at Clinton and a lot of people who won't vote for Clinton largely because she is a woman. But I am concerned some brush off some of these issues as being non-issues because they think it is just the sexist crowd that wants them to be issues.

*** I sometimes think I myself should get involved with politics, but I know one of my major weaknesses is my communication skills. The point is I do recognize it is hard to have all the necessary qualifications, but can we please recognize Clinton has both strengths and weaknesses?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Leasons Learned from the IFC: Why Christians strawman atheists

Before I go over any deeper thoughts on the "Intelligent Faith Conference," I want to go over a lesson I learned about conservative Christians and apologists that I should have realized quite some time ago. I have been bothered by the way Christian apologists will make claims about what atheists believe. It was quite common throughout the book, "I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist," (IDHEF for short from now on) which I have blogged about. I had thought the reason was largely to make atheists seem silly in order to make their beliefs seem more reasonable in comparison. I now have slightly different thoughts.

First, let's go back to March 2010 when I attended a conference in Des Moines with my now-wife, Amy. I had attended a session with a doctor who was giving a presentation on the brain. I no longer remember the full details of the presentation (I do remember they had brought an actual brain in a vat) nor do I remember why they brought this up, but they said that everyone, including atheists, have faith. (Their example of atheists having faith, for reference, is that we have faith that our car brakes will work.) At the time, I wasn't all that familiar with Christian apologetics nor logical fallacies, so I was not able to recognize they were committing an equivocation error, but, later on, the question I had was why was it so important for them to believe that atheists have faith?

Sometime in between then and now, I would learn about cognitive dissonance theory. For the purpose of this blog post, I'll share a few paragraphs on the topic from Simply Psychology:

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

The one big takeaway from cognitive dissonance theory is that those with strongly held beliefs have a very difficult time letting go of those beliefs when they come in conflict with observed reality and that it tends to be easier to seek out information or reasons, regardless of their truth value, to reduce dissonance. Or, as the Simply Psychology article states, "One of the points that dissonance theorists are fond of making is that people will go to all sorts of lengths to reduce dissonance."

I have also read that Festinger had observed that the cult members also began "an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation." The idea here would seem to be that people feel more comfortable in their beliefs if they think others share in that belief. (This is also backed up by other psychological studies, like the Asch conformity studies.)

This brings us back to the doctor I met six years ago. I have since come to the realization that the doctor was out to convince themself that everybody believes things off of faith to gain social support for some belief that they have that they are uncomfortable with. I will also note that I recall them asking the audience if they (we) agreed. I see this as serving as further evidence that they were indeed out for social support. I have since seen claims about atheists having faith to serve essentially the same purpose.

Yeah? Well, you know, that's
just like, your OPINION, man.

Fast-forward to the present day, I was seeing my coworker make rather similar claims. When talking about the supposed resurrection of Jesus, they made some remark that everything that's written down is essentially just opinion. It was rather clear where this was going. I'll just go ahead and be blunt that there isn't any really good evidence that a resurrection happened. (As I said in my post on initial thoughts, the person, Gary Habermas, who was presented as a supposed expert on this subject, made an argument from ignorance at the end of the presentation. If they had good evidence, there should be no need for them to engage in fallacious reasoning.) My suspicion is that my coworker realizes this as well. But, as they are a believer, this would cause cognitive dissonance. So what would be a way to reduce that conflict? Proclaim that everybody believes for bad reasons, just like that doctor and others do when they proclaim that everyone believes things on faith!

It was not this interaction that led to my light-bulb moment, but this interaction did help bring to the front of my mind the thought of such experiences with believers where they try to present some sort of "everybody does this" argument to justify their behavior. It was a couple other interactions that led to my new realization.
  • On the Friday night of the event, my coworker introduced me to their friend, James, and we talked a bit about the second presentation by J. Warner Wallace, the crime-scene investigator. Their presentation roughly mirrored chapters 3 through 6 of IDHEF, so I was familiar with the arguments. I talked with James about the science behind the origins of the universe and how I find it irrational to jump to the conclusion of god because one does not find any naturalistic explanations satisfactory. Why can't one just say, "I don't know"? They did find that to be interesting, but then they went on to assist that one does need to come to a conclusion, to which I responded with a pointed "Why?!?" They seemed to think one would need to come to a conclusion in order to make decisions and, unfortunately, that is where that part of the conversation ended. (I will agree somewhat that there are indeed many moments in life where we do need to make decisions on a limited amount of information. As an engineer, I have to do so as a regular part of my job. But what decisions would I need to make based on the origins of the universe?1) James looked as if he'd never actually had this suggested before. It was a telling moment.
  • During Saturday discussions with my coworker, they made some claims along the lines that I "have a perspective" and that they "have a perspective" as well as I "have a worldview" just like everyone else does. I was also accused of borrowing from their worldview, a claim which could use further discussion in a separate post.

It was upon reflection of these events that I realized this is actually more of the "everyone does it" rationalizing, like it is with the "even atheists have faith" claims. I'm thinking that part of the reason I had missed this before is because I had not been the intended audience. It is one thing to read in a book, like IDHEF, passages that make bogus claims about what atheists believe and that we have "worldviews" just like Christians, etc. In such cases, I am not the intended audience. But in these interactions with James and my coworker, I was now the main audience. It is perhaps the reason why I remember what that doctor said those six years ago; they weren't necessarily speaking to an audience of believers. When they called out atheists, there very well could have been (and was at least one) atheists in the room with them. It is more obvious in such a context that social reinforcement is part of the goal. Another reason may be that, because the beliefs are different, I was missing the point of atheists supposedly believing things in the same way that Christians do.

One other thing my coworker said to help drive this home was that their Christian worldview comes first and foremost for them. I cannot say the same. From my personal notes on IDHEF, I have the following written down:
Another issue in this framework of presenting ideas as needing more "faith" than others is that they completely ignore conviction and importance of the belief. I’m an atheist, but I don’t have any particular attachment to the big bang theory. I largely go along with the idea of the big bang because that is what the scientific consensus is. But my world isn’t going to be shaken one bit if scientists come out tomorrow and say that this was a completely incorrect idea. [Adding: I likely wouldn't even be shaken if scientists came out and said, "Yep, there is an intelligent designer behind the universe." I'd be surprised, and a bit skeptical, but not necessarily shaken.] The theory of evolution, for example, isn’t dependent on the big bang theory (and, in fact, the theory of evolution was formed first). Nor do my views on morality depend on evolution. Can the same be said about theists who believe a god brought about the universe?

That final question was a bit rhetorical as I have already suspected the answer is often "No." But I am no longer sure those authors are actually ignoring this. Based on these interactions I had with James and my coworker, they may very well believe atheists hold the same level of conviction. I've taken issue with the way IDHEF portrays there needing to be a lot of faith to believe in, for example, the multiverse theory because I don't know any atheists who actually believe in the multiverse theory in the same way theists believe in a god that created the universe. Instead, the multiverse is little more than an interesting concept that would need more investigation, which, with current technology, is impossible and so it should remain as no more than an interesting concept until it is actually possible to investigate. Another way to phrase this is I found their comparisons of belief between atheists and Christians2 to be apples to oranges, but they were treating them as apples to apples. It now appears that they make the apples to apples comparisons out of that need to believe that "everyone does it" so that they can battle their cognitive dissonance. That is what I have learned is likely the primary purpose of straw-manning atheists. That said, the idea of trying to make atheists look silly still seems to be secondary. I saw this with J. Warner Wallace's presentation as well as in IDHEF. Part of their shtick is to proclaim that atheists have virtually no evidence for such beliefs (which is true) while they at least have some evidence.3

With that, my response to these theists and Christians could simply be, "No, I don't do what you think I do. I don't believe the way you think I believe. I don't think the way you think I think." I realize, though, it would take a lot of work to get them to accept this. Again, it appears they believe these things about atheist beliefs out of necessity for battling their own cognitive dissonance. It won't be easy for them to let go.

1 One possibility that I could see being argued is Pascal's Wager. For those unfamiliar with the wager, the gist of it is that it is supposedly better to believe in God than not because, if God exists, then you could be punished for not believing. If God doesn't exist, then it doesn't matter anyway. The problem with the wager is that it assumes that if a god exists, it will be the Christian god, which is why I capitalized the "g" earlier. The wager fails to consider the possibility of a god that might punish people for wrongly believing in the Christian god. The wager also fails to consider the possibility of a god that would punish people for believing on a wager, and so forth. In short, it is an argument that essentially assumes the conclusion, making it circular and fallacious.

2 I'm talking about only the Christians who, like my coworker, take their beliefs really seriously. There are many Christians who clearly do not take their beliefs anywhere near as seriously (and thus don't have near the cognitive dissonance to tackle).

3 On more of a side note, their so-called "evidence" tends to be little more than philosophical arguments for which they haven't or can't verify as being true. For example, "Design only comes from an intelligence." Part of the response here would be, "As far as you know," as well as "Can you prove that?" or "Where is your verification for that claim?" Likewise, it could be asked, "Where is your verification that this is actually design?" The reality is their "evidence" relies heavily on assumptions. But, here too, one can expect the theist or Christian to proclaim that atheists also have assumptions (a common one is that there is no such thing as the supernatural), so we go right back to the bogus "everyone does it" claims.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

First thoughts on the first day of the "Intelligent Faith Conference"

This weekend there is an "Intelligent Faith Conference" here in Cedar Rapids. A Christian coworker invited me to go, so I have thus far attended the Friday night session. Here, I am posting my first thoughts. I plan to go into further detail later on, which will likely involve repeating some of the thoughts here.

My first thought as far as Friday night goes is that I noticed a bit of a theme of each presentation containing some sort of "argument from ignorance." The latter two presentation really relied on the fallacious argument, while the first presentation really only implied such an argument as part of a side argument.

The argument from ignorance can be summed up as "I can't think of any other possible explanation, so this explanation I can think of must be true." This reasoning is fallacious as the truth could be with an explanation that just hasn't been thought of.

In the first presentation, the argument from ignorance appears in a story of a skeptic who refuses to watch a video of a woman being miraculously cured because the skeptic will just come up with a natural explanation. This was used as evidence that skeptics are really predisposed to not believing in god. Well, the problem here is that the skeptic doesn't even need to come up with a natural explanation. Even if the skeptic cannot come up with any explanation does not mean they have to accept the supernatural explanation. (If there is any reason to not bother watching the video, it would be because it would unlikely be any sort of "proof" for that supernatural explanation.) Yet, I got the impression from the presenter that the skeptic should accept the supernatural explanation. That would, however, be fallacious.

On that note, much of that first presentation was just a collection of stories where it was claimed that a supernatural event happened and these claims were accepted uncritically when it should be well known that humans have a tendency to exaggerate. It was not a good way to start a conference that is supposed to be about discussing why Christianity is a rational worldview.

The second presentation was essentially centered around the argument from ignorance. That presenter was offering a process-of-elimination approach to concluding that there is a god, using the fact that such an approach is useful in his line of work as a cold-case detective. The problem here is that such an approach works when the list of possibilities is contained, as it seems to be with detective work, but not so well when that list is not. By a contained list, I mean that we know, or can be reasonably sure we know, that we have the full list of possibilities. In such a case, if all but one possibility have been eliminated, we can be reasonably sure the remaining possibility is correct. When we don't have a contained list and don't know all the possibilities, then using such reasoning becomes the fallacious argument from ignorance. The presenter tries to make his position seem reasonable by making a point that he's using the same skill set with his religious beliefs as he does with his job. The failure here is in failing to ask the question as to whether or not it is reasonable to actually do this and I would say the answer to that question is "No, it is not reasonable."

The third presentation didn't really hit the argument from ignorance until we got near the end. This presentation was about the resurrection and it was largely about how scholars largely agree to a set of 12 facts. I'll have to go over the facts later (I only captured 8 of them at the event, but I suspect I can find the other 4 on the presenter's website), but it ended up boiling down to a "I'm going to believe that there was a resurrection until someone can present me with a reasonable alternate explanation." Skimming over the 8 facts that I had captured, none of them come close to conclusively demonstrating a resurrection happened. What had started out as a somewhat interesting presentation came crashing down at the end with rather obvious (well, at least to me) fallacious reasoning.

In summary, if these are their best examples of "intelligent faith," it's going to be the poor reasoning skills of humans that keeps Christianity alive.