What If?


A while ago I wrote a post called Truth vs. Morality where I pointed out a question I sometimes asked Christians: If god didn’t exist, and this was known, should people still believe in god? Receptions to that question (the few times I’ve asked) had been somewhat predictable; some say yes, most say no.

I’m thinking that the “yes” answers are maybe not answering the question I’m asking, but subconsciously substituting it with an easier question and then answering that. Who knows.

I thought of a way to take it further. Instead of asking a truth vs. morality question, I might start asking a morality vs. morality question; that is, a consequentialist vs. deontological question. This would be something like What if being a Christian leads to a net unhappiness in the world? Should one still be a Christian? Not sure what the answers to that question might be, but I predict that they would say “yes” in the majority of cases. Probably because in this instance, they might substitute the implicit consequential point of the question with, not only the deontological question (i.e., what one’s duty is), but with the “is Christianity true” question. I.e., Christianity could only be a net negative in the world if Christianity is false; Christianity is true, therefore it is not a net negative in the world.

Of course, maybe if Christianity is true we should believe it. Even if belief in Christianity ultimately makes humanity unhappy.

But then again, this question could be equally applied to beliefs I hold dear. Just like I applied the same truth vs. morality question to beliefs I hold dear in the original post. What if secularism or atheism ultimately makes the world unhappy? What if sexism is a net benefit for the world, and feminism makes people unhappy? What if slavery is good for the world over at the expense of black people?

In these cases, I’m pretty sure I would answer exactly how a Christian might answer, and my thought process might mirror theirs (hopefully that isn’t too much of a typical mind fallacy). My first response is selfishness; I like my personal freedom/secularism/feminism/etc. thank you very much, and the rest of the world can fuck off. Why should I be a slave if that benefits the world? It seems pretty jacked up to think about it. Or, just like the hypothetical theist, I wouldn’t even countenance the question asked. Meaning that I would rebuke the question with “well that can’t be because racism/sexism/theocracy are obviously false and demonstrably make people unhappy so the question is a non-starter”.

This is one of the huge drawbacks for any sort of upcoming technological singularity. Whose morals do we program into the AI before it goes FOOM? People are all too eager to defer to a supernatural god whose whims are just, if not more so, as arbitrary as a future AI. What if this AI has the same conclusion about sex/gender roles or slavery that patriarchal religions have had? That divisions of labor among sexes and/or slavery makes people happier because they have less choices? There are probably an uncountable number of personal creeds, beliefs, and morals that make you as an individual happy, but if studied by anyone/thing with enough processing power can be demonstrated to be harmful if practiced on a wide scale. And any budding rationalist should always be aware of alternatives to their pet hypothesis.

So it seems like I wouldn’t be able to answer the very question that I would pose to a hypothetical Christian. I would think their answer “wrong” while hypocritically accepting my own answer to my sacred values as “right”.

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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in apologetics, morality, rationality


What can evolutionary biology learn from creationists?

J. Quinton:

Human exceptionalism.

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

Irreducible-complexity-E-coli_472_308_80by Joanna Masel

You might expect a professional evolutionary biologist like myself to claim that my discipline has nothing to learn from creationists. And I certainly do find all flavors of evolution-denialism sadly misguided. But I also find it reasonable to assume that any serious and dedicated critic should uncover something interesting about the object of their obsession. I’m not talking about passing trolls here. I’m talking about earnest and sometimes talented people whose sincerely held anti-evolution convictions do not preclude engagement, and who invest a lot of time thinking about evolution from an unconventional perspective.

I draw three main lessons from such critics. First, there is plenty to learn about human psychology from the rejection of evolution. Why do so many people not accept scientific conclusions that seem to an expert like me to be irrefutably supported by the evidence? Dismissing the cause of their rejection as religious ideology…

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Posted by on September 16, 2014 in religion


Which Is More Absurd?

The right side of this window is unbounded

The right side of this window is unbounded

Over at Vridar, Tim Widowfield made an observation about the Overton Window as applied to NT scholarship, which all came about as a result of James McGrath comparing Jesus Mythicism to Creationism. Here, I’ll let Tim speak for himself:

The band of acceptable thought in the areas of social studies, politics, history, etc. can be quite narrow. If you stray too far from the norm, you may find yourself labeled as a nutjob. The Overton Window in politics, for example, may drift to the left or right, but its width remains essentially the same, which explains why certain policies in the U.S. that used to be considered within the bounds of normal, polite discussion are now considered “too radical,” and vice versa.

However, the boundaries in biblical studies are unique. In fact, we would be mistaken if we used the word “boundaries,” since the boundary on the right does not exist. Within the guild a scholar can still be considered competent and highly respected even though he or she believes all the books in the NT are authentic and the inspired Word of God. You can watch a debate between a mainline scholar and an evangelical scholar about whether half of Paul’s epistles or all of Paul’s epistles are authentic. But you’ll never hear from a scholar who thinks they’re all late and spurious.

McGrath and his crew would explain that an electrified fence that seals off all “unsafe” ideas on the left simply doesn’t exist. They would argue, simply, that no scholars in academia believe in those extreme, radical, silly ideas. In a way, they’re correct. Self-censorship and self-selection are much more effective (and cheaper) than relying on thought police. The advantage of unwritten rules is that scholars, aspiring scholars, and students internalize them. Of course, nobody argues for those “crazy” things, because anybody who would have done so has already opted out, and anyone remaining who privately thinks that way is smart enough to keep her dangerous thoughts to herself.

So we arrive at the question proposed as the title of this post. Which is more absurd: That a personal god exists, incarnated (one third of) himself in the form of Jesus the Nazarene, and that the NT is at least 90% accurate in recounting the origins of Christianity; is literally the (inspired) word of god? Or that a pretty pedestrian nobody who more secular scholars claim to be the founder of Christianity didn’t actually exist?

A better way of framing it: Which is more mundane? More boring? More “every day” ho-hum? A nobody was such a nobody that he didn’t actually exist, or the NT is basically a CNN-like report of the beginnings of Christianity?

Which should require more evidence to convince you of: A normal, boring, everyday event? Or something extraordinary like god himself walking among us mortals in the flesh for a few years?

As one should know by now from reading this blog, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; that’s not just some pithy saying or thought-terminating aphorism. It is an inexorable mathematical conclusion. I personally waver around 45% – 55% likelihood that Jesus existed (I have yet to read Richard Carrier’s and Rafael Lataster’s books on the subject; I’ll probably get to them once I finish this semester of grad school). But the entire orthodox Christian interpretation of Christianity’s genesis? That is exceedingly extraordinary, and would require much more evidence to convince me of than the evidence necessary to show that Jesus didn’t exist.

The fact of the matter is that conservative/literalist biblical NT scholars (who are also much more likely to be actual Creationists!) are welcome in the guild while scholars who go about questioning the existence of Jesus are beyond the pale. This is evidence, to me, that something too far removed from just scholarship is going on to explain the disparity. Indeed, it seems more like basic tribalism. To the more liberal NT scholars, biblical literalist NT scholars are fellow Christians. While Jesus Mythicism is overflowing with atheists and agnostics.

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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in historical jesus, jesus myth


Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

The parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field.

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Posted by on September 3, 2014 in early Christianity, historical jesus


Why do the dots disappear?

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

This is one of the most baffling illusions I’ve ever seen. Take a look at the gif below.  First, look at any yellow dot as the figure moves. The yellow dot remains present and stationary. If you concentrate on all three yellow dots, they remain there as well.
But now concentrate on the central green dot. You will see one or more of the yellow dots disappearing and then reappearing sporadically. They are not—this is an optical illusion. The dots remain and your brain simply doesn’t register their presence from time to time. Weird, eh?


An article by John Whitfield in Nature News, “A brain in doubt leaves it out,” explains the phenomenon:

Yoram Bonneh, of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, and colleagues have been showing people a swirling pattern of blue dots superimposed on some stationary yellow dots1. [JAC: for some reason the…

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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Science: it works bitches!


“There’s No Evidence For The Existence of God”


I used to think that the title-quote of this blog post was a good rejoinder when people asked me why I didn’t believe in any sort of god. Nowadays, I sort of grimace a little when I hear atheists use that phrase. Because now I consider myself a Bayesian. And for Bayesians, “no evidence” means something a lot different than how other people use “no evidence”.

As a Bayesian, if I say there is evidence for some hypothesis, then this means that P(H | E) > P(H). If I say there is evidence against some hypothesis, then this means that P(H | E) < P(H). Most importantly, as a Bayesian, I don't just update once; I update on multiple pieces of evidence to arrive at a provisional posterior probability about some claim. And it’s provisional because there’s always new evidence to discover. In this sense, and in my opinion, agnosticism is probably the closest mainstream or Traditional Rationality analog to being a Bayesian.

But what could it mean if I say there is no evidence for some claim? And does this apply to the concept of god?

Let’s compare two conditional probabilities: The probability of having some datum given that god exists and the probability of having some datum given the nonexistence of god. P(D | G) and P(D | ~G). So, assuming god exists, what would the most basic evidence be, and would this be more or less likely given the nonexistence of god?

Some axioms of probability to remind you of: P(E | H) + P(~E | H) = 100%. That is, the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis is true plus the nonexistence of (or existence of some other) evidence given the hypothesis is true must exhaust all possibilities. Meaning they add up to 100%. This is how you know that you have a 1/6 chance of rolling a 4 given a fair die. P(Roll 4 | Fair Die) + P(Roll Other Number | Fair Die) = 100%.

Given that, most simplistically, stories about the existence of god are more likely than no stories about god given that god exists. Meaning that P(D | G) > P(~D | G). And the opposite for the alternative: stories about the existence of god are less likely given that no god exists than no stories about god given that god doesn’t exist. Meaning, also, that P(D | ~G) < P(~D | ~G). If I can say this another way, if god did exist we would have more stories about him than if god didn’t exist: P(D | G) > P(D | ~G). Think about it. There are more non stories of things that don’t exist than there are stories of things that don’t exist. Sure there are stories of unicorns and unicorns don’t exist. But what about the trillions of things that don’t exist that we concurrently don’t have stories of? They are legion.

Basically, anecdotes about the existence of god are evidence that god exists. I go over this in the post Logical Fallacies as Weak Bayesian Evidence: Argument from Anecdote. This all might seem a bit counterintuitive, but relying on intuition to make decisions is just another way of saying that the decision conforms to your biases. Which is usually not a good thing.

So what does no evidence look like? To me, this would be some conditional probability that is equal to all alternatives. One where Bayes Factor is 1. In other words, the evidence exists independently of the hypothesis.

This all being said, I think there is evidence for the existence of god. I actually concede a little bit of relatively strong evidence for the existence of god. But, there is so much more evidence against the existence of god because god, as defined by laypeople and sophisticated theologians alike, is unfalsifiable. For most other data besides morality, god is the equivalent of a trillion^trillion sided die and expecting to roll a 3, and comparing that to the probability of rolling a 3 given normal die. This is what happens when one conceives of an all-powerful god; there’s nothing an all powerful god can’t explain.

So yes, there is evidence for the existence of god. But it is underwhelming in comparison to the orders upon orders of magnitude of the evidence — Bayesian evidence — against the existence of god.


The Motte and Bailey Doctrine


(More than meets the eye)

As most people who read this blog are aware, I’ve read and have been subject to lot of religious apologetics. Either online or in meatspace. One of the things that I started to become aware of was a particularly nebulous debating tactic. There really wasn’t a name for it; but it would be pretty obvious when pointed out.

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Frustrating. I recently discovered that there is a name for this tactic: The Motte and Bailey Doctrine. The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along. It’s fitting that this is pointed out in an article attacking post-modernism.

It would be kinda like having a flower in your house. No one objects to flowers, right? But then whenever you get in an argument with someone, you transform the flower into an assault rifle. The person being attacked says “Hey! Hey! What are you doing with an M4???” and the then you say “I don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s just a flower!” because you’ve transformed the M4 back into a flower. But make no mistake: That flower is more than meets the eye.

Reading more about why people believe what they do, on the other hand, has made me realize that apologists probably don’t even realize that they’re doing this. Hypocrisy is a very fruitful strategy if you can get away with it. Your subconscious brain knows this. As Robin Hanson says:

Overcoming bias is also a Red Queen game. Your mind was built to be hypocritical, with more conscious parts of your mind sincerely believing that they are unbiased, and other less conscious parts systematically distorting those beliefs, in order to achieve the many functional benefits of hypocrisy. This capacity for hypocrisy evolved in the context of conscious minds being aware of bias in others, suspecting it in themselves, and often sincerely trying to overcome such bias. Unconscious minds evolved many effective strategies to thwart such attempts, and they usually handily win such conflicts.

Our big brains were not designed by the blind idiot god evolution to get impartial, objectively true answers. It was designed to be more like a defense lawyer defending a client that’s probably guilty.

Now, I didn’t discover the name for this debate technique. This is thanks to Slate Star Codex pointing out something that I’ve compared to religion before:

I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning – and then is actually used a completely different way.

The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” – and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”

The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”

I wouldn’t read this as a condemnation of feminism. I would read this as a condemnation of the architecture of the human brain. After all, any cause that deals with morality is bound to sacrifice what is truth to what is morality because of our inherently hypocritical, biased brains. We may want to do good, but we really have no control over our decisions. Free will doesn’t exist. We just rely on vague feelings of certainty that we’re doing good. But, crucially, we are kept in the dark about our subconscious algorithm for generating that feeling of certainty… the how of what we decide in the first place.

Case in point:

We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…

Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before.

Realizing that the same affliction that causes religions to be vectors for irrationality also inhabit more (to me) socially acceptable causes made me start being more tolerant of religion.

I’m certain there are a lot of people who don’t consider themselves bigots. But unless you are actively using some sort of mitigation strategy against your biases, using some actual humility, you’ll probably act in a bigoted way without even realizing it. And this cuts across everything; even people who are actively fighting for equality might not even realize that they’re subconsciously favoring their in-group to the detriment of the out-group. Yet their fuzzy feeling of certainty makes it feel like equality. Racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. aren’t foreign diseases that attack your cognition that you have to build up antibodies to… they are your cognition.

So when it comes to hypocritical behavior, we can’t think that we are being objective. Especially when it comes to moral behavior or any sort of normative, social justice goal. Overcoming our biases should be required education before we start making arguments and pronouncements when it comes to morality, or we’ll just be Motte and Bailey-ing at every chance to escape criticism. Just like a run of the mill Christian apologist.

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