Monthly Archives: February 2012

"If You Don’t Start With God, You’ll Never Get To God"

This quote is from John Loftus’ recent post about his counter-apologetical tactics. Here, he writes a short version of an argument he presented in his longer book Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity:

As a former student of James D. Strauss at Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois, I credit much of my approach to Christianity to three things that Strauss drilled into us as students, but in reverse. When doing apologetics, he said, “if you don’t start with God, you’ll never get to God.” Strauss is not a Van Tillian presuppositionalist because he doesn’t start with the Bible as God’s revelation, but he does start “from above” by presupposing that God exists and then argues that God’s existence makes better sense of the Bible and the world than the alternatives. Again, “if you don’t start with God, you’ll never get to God.” Since this is such an important, central issue, I’ll focus on why we should not start “from above” with a belief in God, but rather “from below” beginning with the world in which we find ourselves. If successful, my argument should lead us to reject the existence of the sort of God thought to confirm the biblical revelation.

(BTW, you should get the book. I enjoyed it)

Since I’m trying to think more like a Bayesian, I thought I would attempt to formulate this in probability theory.

At first glance, it seems like a fallacious argument; it reminds me of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. Of course, whenever I see a statement similar to “makes better sense of the [evidence] than the alternatives” it sets off little alarms in my head. What does this person mean by makes better sense than the alternatives? Are they only going by P(E | H), the success rate? Or are they utilizing the entirety of Bayes, plugging in not only the success rate, but the base rate and false positive rate? To see where my reasoning is going, I’ll copy a bit of the above quote but substitute “winning the lottery” with the Bible and the world and “cheating” with “God”:

“if you don’t start with [cheating], you’ll never get to [cheating].” Strauss … start[s] “from above” by presupposing that [you’re a cheater] and then argues that [you being a cheater] makes better sense of [winning the lottery] than the alternatives. Again, “if you don’t start with [cheating], you’ll never get to [cheating].”

This is actually “valid” in a way. It’s not a Prosecutor’s Fallacy because it is explicitly saying that you have to start with the assumption of a high prior probability of cheating to end up with cheating as being the better explanation than the alternatives. Of course, taking reality into account, you can’t start with a high probability of cheating because you need more than the current evidence to support such a high prior. How many times have you seen someone cheat to win the lottery? Exactly. Similarly, what is the prior probability of god’s existence? What is the probability of god’s existence before looking at “the Bible and the world”? Exactly; you can’t use the Bible and the world to argue for the prior, the prior has to be established before that. Duh, that’s why it’s prior probability! 

So John Loftus’ prior seems to be more grounded in reality; a more reasonably justified prior. You can’t start “from above” because we have no warrant to. We always have to start “from below” with all of our priors. If we were allowed to start with any old priors we grab from our nether regions, we can skew any argument in our favor. So we should always start at the bottom, from below  because that’s where we’re all at.   

Where our priors come from is simple induction. How many gods have people believed in that are actually real? How many perpetual motion machines do you know about? (every description of supernatural beings I’ve heard are nothing less than perpetual motion and/or cold fusion machines). These are our priors. The probability we assign before looking at the particular evidence.

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Posted by on February 29, 2012 in Bayes


Epiphenom: Can a pill take away the desire for religion?

Here is an interesting post from the blog Epiphenom. It turns out that if you prime people to think that some pill will increase anxiety, when people encounter situations that make them anxious, it will reduce their normal increase in religiosity that usually happens when one feels not in control or otherwise anxious.

[I]f they weren’t told that the pill caused anxiety, then priming with thoughts of randomness significantly increased belief in a controlling god.

However, if they were told that the pill would make them feel anxious, then the effect disappeared.

What Kay thinks is happening is that the randomness prime makes his subjects feel anxious, and they restore their sense of well being by affirming a belief in a controlling god, thereby dealing with the stress of randomness.

But the subjects who were told the pill caused anxiety had a rationale explanation for the stress they were feeling (or so they thought). Because they could explain it, they didn’t need to turn to belief in a controlling god.

I should also link to the posts he had that evidences the idea that encountering randomness or otherwise making someone feel they are not in control of events increases their belief in god; specifically a controlling god:

1. How to win elections by changing beliefs in god

2. Deliver us from temptation (and take care of everything else, too)

3. Out of control: how anxiety over loss of control can increase belief in God… and government!

4. What’s the evidence that anxiety and insecurity turns people to religion?

So can a pill take away the need for religion? Only if the person believes the pill increases anxiety…

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Posted by on February 28, 2012 in cognitive science


William Lane Craig and the Base Rate / Prosecutor’s Fallacy

John Loftus posted a video of Dr. Freed’s critique of Craig’s use of Bayes’ Theorem in a debate with Bart Ehrman. Since this is related to my previous post on Bayes’ and the virgin birth of Jesus, I thought I would attempt a much simpler explanation for Craig’s error.

Craig is arguing that, given the historical reliability of the gospels (i.e. the “four facts” that he relies on for Jesus’ resurrection), we have a high probability of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Unfortunately, this does not follow simply due to the low base rate for resurrections from the dead. That is the basis of the base rate fallacy. What Craig really seems to be arguing is that the evidence we have, the four facts, make sense given that Jesus was raised from the dead. That may be true, but only relying on that is the Prosecutor’s Fallacy.

Here’s why, using Bayes’:

H = Jesus is raised!

E = four facts

P(H) = probability of Jesus being raised from the dead before looking at E.

P(E | H) = probability of the four facts given that Jesus is raised

P(E | ~H) = probability of the four facts given some other hypothesis

The numerator of Bayes’ is this: P(E | H) * P(H). What happens if P(H) is low? What happens to the numerator as P(H) “approaches” zero? That’s right: the numerator in total tends towards zero. Again, P(H) is the probability of being raised from the dead before looking at E.

Of course, a compounding problem is that ~H isn’t just “Jesus was not raised”. It’s any other hypothesis that makes sense of the evidence. What if instead of comparing H with ~H, we compared HDEAD BODY RAISED BY YAHWEH with HDEAD BODY REPLACED BY ALIENS? Again, the prior probability of alien body snatching seems to be equivalent with the prior probability of being raised from the dead. Both are extremely low. Alien body snatching would also make sense of the NT historians’ four facts; aliens could have projected images of Jesus to the disciples. This means that alien abduction theory is just as plausible as the resurrected by Yahweh theory. That is, if we ignore the base rate for both.

Like I said, Craig seems to be relying on the conditional probability P(E | HDEAD BODY RAISED BY YAHWEH) for the strength of his argument. Unfortunately, this also works for P(E | HDEAD BODY REPLACED BY ALIENS) or any other H that makes P(E | H) a high probability. Relying only on the conditional probability is a base rate fallacy. Furthermore, since these two conditional probabilities are equivalent, and HDEAD BODY REPLACED BY ALIENS is included in ~H and P(E | ~H), this means that the denominator of Bayes’, in this argument, will always be higher than the numerator, contrary to Craig’s assertion. Look at it this way:

Numerator for Craig’s argument:


Denominator for Craig’s argument:


So let’s say the numerator is X%. The denominator would be X% + Y% + (100% – X% + Y%), which will always be larger than X% by itself. Craig’s logic would only work if H were a binary hypothesis.

Again, we would need more corroborating evidence besides Craig’s four facts to push the incredibly low prior probability of Jesus being raised from the dead to a level where it is rational to believe. So not only is this a base rate fallacy, it’s also an improper use of ~H. Remember, ~H is exhaustive and not just a dichotomy between itself and H. ~H could include raised by Horus, raised by Krishna, raised by aliens, raised by Zeus, raised himself (a la Marcion and the Marcionite God), swoon theory, NT historians are mistaken about the four facts, it’s all just a story invented by Mark, or any other hypothesis that makes sense of E.


Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Bayes


Bayes’ Theorem and the Virgin Birth of Jesus

(The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico; courtesy Wikipedia)


To continue learning Bayes’ Theorem, I’m attempting to apply it to common arguments I come across. This time, I’m going to attempt to apply it to the virgin birth of Jesus, which is one of the first hurdles that one has to jump over when debating Christians and/or getting into more scholarly discussions of Jesus. While most Biblical scholars believe in the resurrection of Jesus in some fashion, a much smaller percentage of them believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. So dispensing with the idea that Jesus was born from a virgin is probably one of the first signs that one is becoming an educated Christian, to be slightly inflammatory 🙂
To start, here is Bayes’ Theorem again:

P(H | E) = P(E | H) * P(H) / [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | H) * P(H)]

There are other ways of writing it, but I like this one so far since this is the one I learned.

In order to solve this, we need to know only three terms: The prior probability P(H) and the two conditional probabilities P(E | H) and P(E | ~H). P(H) in normal wording would be the prior probability of someone being born from a virgin. P(E | H) would be the probability of our current evidence given that someone is born from a virgin. And P(E | ~H) would be the probability of our current evidence given some other explanation.

I like to think of P(E | H) being the success rate, and P(E | ~H) being the false positive rate. This language, however, I think only applies to binary tests. If P(E | H) and P(E | ~H) encompass more than two possible outcomes, then success rate / false positive rate language doesn’t apply. Anyway, the success rate divided by the false positive rate gives you how strongly the evidence favors your hypothesis. Or, if that ratio is less than 1, how much it disfavors your hypothesis.

It’s also good to keep in mind the compliments of the success rate and false positive rate. So for example, if some mammogram has a success rate of 80% (meaning that it successfully detects breast cancer in 80 out of 100 women who actually have breast cancer), by necessity this means that the mammogram does not detect breast cancer 20% of the time that a person actually has breast cancer; a false negative rate of 20 out of 100.

Similarly, if the false positive rate of some mammogram is 1% (meaning that it says someone has breast cancer 1 out of 100 times someone does not have breast cancer) this implies that the “true negative” rate is 99% (meaning that it says someone does not have cancer 99 out of 100 times a person actually does not have cancer). This means that we have two ways of determining each conditional probability and not just one (there are other ways using other variables, but I don’t want to get into that just yet!).

Lastly, we have to determine what we mean by “evidence” to get a good grasp on what the conditional probabilities (i. e. P(E | H) and P(E | ~H) ) and the posterior probability P(H | E) mean in normal English. What evidence do we have that Jesus was born from a virgin? Matthew 1.23 (and implied in Luke 1.34; 3.23), which itself is an interpretation of Isaiah 7.14. We can safely take Isaiah 7.14 out of evidence since in context this entire chapter has no inclination that it is attempting to describe events that would take place 700 years after it was written. For the Christians who still think so, I can only assume that they have never actually sat down and read (and understood) the early chapters of Isaiah and only read Isaiah 7.14 without the context of the surrounding paragraphs and chapters.

So the only evidence that we have that Jesus was born from a virgin is Matthew 1.23 (and Luke 1.34; 3.23, but it is my working hypothesis that Luke is following Matt, and Q didn’t exist). Which falls into the larger group of “stories about people born from the union of a woman and a god”.

The prior probability would the number of people in human history that have ever lived who were sired by a god and a mortal woman. Remember, this is prior probability. This is the probability we start with before determining how the evidence affects the hypothesis; the probability of Jesus being born from a virgin before we look at the specific evidence, namely Matt 1.23. Imagine if the entirety of humanity were represented by 1,000,000,000 people standing in a room. How many of those 1,000,000,000 people were born from women and a god? It’s zero, but zero isn’t a probability, so for the sake of this example I’ll just say that ten people in that room of 1,000,000,000 people were born from a virgin (i.e. woman egg + god “sperm”).

The task, then, is to show the probability that Jesus is part of that population of people who are born from virgins, given our evidence. Our evidence is stories of people born from virgins. To find that out, we need the success rate and false positive rates for stories of people being born from virgins. And to find that out, we need the number of people out of 1,000,000,000 who have stories of them being born from the union of a god and a woman. There are actually quite a few of these (Achilles, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Helen of Troy, Romulus, etc.). I’ll take a rough estimate and say that 100 people out of 1,000,000,000 have stories of them being born from a god and a woman. Who knows how accurate that is, but I think it’s good enough for pedagogical reasons. The only thing that needs to be accurate, I think, is that stories of virgin births are more frequent than actual virgin births.

Now we look at the success rate and false positive rate.

Out of the 100 people estimated to have stories of them being born from a virgin all throughout both recorded and non-recorded history, how many of those people actually were born from virgins? Remember, this is prior to looking at the evidence for Jesus, so this also seems to be zero. But if that were zero, then the numerator for Bayes’ itself would be zero and that defeats the purpose of this exercise. So for the sake of argument, let’s say that P(E | H) gets it right once out of the 100 times it asserts that someone is born from a virgin. This, by the way, also affects the compliment of P(E | H) which is P(~E | H). That one is the number of people born from a virgin who don’t have stories about them being born from a virgin. Meaning that 90% of 10 people (out of the 1 billion in the room) born from a virgin don’t have stories about it.

On the other hand, out of this group of 100 people, how many people were not born from a virgin? This in reality seems to be 100 out of 100. Again, this is prior to analyzing Jesus so he’s not included. But we also have to take into account the compliment of P(E | ~H) which is P(~E | ~H). That is, the probability of not having a story about you being born from a virgin given that you in fact were not born from a virgin. P(~E | ~H) is the “true negatives” rate which is 1 billion minus the 100 false positives divided by 1 billion. That is 99.99999%. This, in turn, means that P(E | ~H) is 100% – 99.99999% and that’s 0.00001%

We now have our three variables. The prior probability is 10 out of 1,000,000,000. The success rate is 1 out of 100. The false positive rate is 100 out of 999,999,900. In normal English these would be:

1. P(H): What is the prior probability of being born from a virgin? 0.000001%

2. P(~H): What is the prior probability of not being born from a virgin? 99.999999%

3. P(E | H): What is the probability of having a story about being born from a virgin given that you actually were born from a virgin? 10%

4. P(~E | H): What is the probability of not having a story about being born from a virgin given that you actually were born from a virgin? 90%

5. P(E | ~H): What is the probability of having a story about being born from a virgin given that you in fact were not born from a virgin? 0.00001%

6. P(~E | ~H): What is the probability of not having a story about being born from a virgin given that you in fact were not born from a virgin? 99.99999%

The vast majority of humanity falls into the 6th category. There’s also a 7th variable, which is the Total Probability Theorem, or P(E). This is the probability of having a story about a virgin birth period. This number is actually the denominator of Bayes’: [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)].

7. P(E): What is the probability of having a story about being born from a virgin? 0.0000101%

This makes sense, because stories of virgin births in and of themselves are pretty rare. If we multiply P(E) by the total number of people in this hypothetical room – 1 billion – we get 101. Which is the 100 false virgin birth stories and the one success.

So, we start off with our prior probability of 0.000001% (10 out of 1 billion). How much does our evidence — Matt 1.23 — increase or decrease our prior probability of 0.000001%? Bayes:

= P(H) * P(E | H) / [P(H) * P(E | H)] + [P(~H) * P(E | ~H)]

= 10 out of 1 billion * 1 out of 10 / [10 out of 1 billion * 1 out of 10] + [999,999,990 out of 1 billion * 100 out of 999,999,990]

= 0.000001% * 10.0% / [0.000001% * 10.0%] + [99.999999% * 0.00001%]

= 0.0000001% / [0.0000001%] + [0.00001%]

= 0.0000001% / 0.000010100%

= 0.990099019703951%

So, due to the evidence at hand, we went from 0.000001% probability of being born from a virgin (i.e. 10 out of 1 billion) to 0.990099019703951% probability of being born from a virgin. This is still not very good evidence for Jesus’ virgin birth; it’s less than 1%. Especially since this still means that P(~H) is 100% – 0.990099019703951%, which is 99.009900990001%. Meaning that there is a 99.009900990001% chance that Jesus was not born from a virgin. We would need more evidence to continually corroborate and update that probability.

But this was all done assuming that virgin births have actually occurd in real life and that stories of virgin births actually have at least one positive hit with a real virgin birth. Also, a prior probability of 10 out of 1 billion is absurd. This would mean that there are around 70 people alive today who were born without male sperm. I only made such an assumption to privilege the virgin birth hypothesis a bit.

With Jesus’ virgin birth, we actually have zero known instances of people being born from virgins yet multiple false positives of people being born from virgins. So the false positive rate (which would stay the same as above) is actually much higher than the success rate which would make the likelihood ratio less than 1. We would need some other evidence that better attests to virgin births, other than just stories. This much is obvious, since extraordinary claims (like a virgin birth) require extraordinary evidence (stories about virgin births are not extraordinary).

A exacerbating factor is the low prior probability. Even if stories of virgin births had a much higher success rate, it would move the prior probability negligibly. Let’s see what happens when we have a 100% success rate:

P(E | H), the success rate, is 10 out of 10. P(E | ~H), the false positive rate, is 100 out of 999,999,990.

= P(H) * P(E | H) / [P(H) * P(E | H)] + [P(~H) * P(E | ~H)]

= 0.000001% * 100.0% / [0.000001% * 100.0%] + [0.00001% * 100.0%]

= 0.000001% / [0.000001%] + [0.00001%]

= 0.000001% / 0.000011%

= 9.09090917355372%

The prior probability moved up to a little over 9%. Again, this is with unrealistic numbers, such as all stories of virgin births besides Jesus’ story being true.

In closing, even if our success rate for stories about people being born without male seed were 100% true, due to the low prior probability and the high false positive rate this is not enough to make it a good argument. Ignoring the prior probability and the false positive rate while only concentrating on the success rate (in this case, the Bible) is nothing less than the base rate fallacy (see also Prosecutor’s Fallacy and also the False Positive Paradox).

This low prior probability also applies to the resurrection of Jesus. As I like to say, the virgin birth of Jesus is no less believable than the resurrection of Jesus, so people really have no warrant for choosing one over the other. The above run-through of Bayes’ with the virgin birth equally applies to the resurrection of Jesus, simply substitute “virgin birth” with “resurrection”. Both suffer from low prior probabilities, low success rates, and high false positive rates. And for both, even if the success rate were insanely high, this high success rate isn’t high enough to make the prior probability of virgin birth/resurrection from the dead a rational belief since the false positive rate will always be higher than the prior probability (this situation creates the False Positive Paradox). For both, we would need multiple lines of corroborating high success rate evidence to move the prior probability to a reasonable level.


Posted by on February 17, 2012 in Bayes


The Love Hormone

Just some quotes from the NeuroLogica blog. I have nothing to add other than to say that the existence of oxytocin is yet another strike against both psi and religion. The latter of the two thinking that explaining and expounding on love is only within their purview.

As you cuddle with your mate your brain receives a comforting surge of oxytocin, reinforcing your feelings of attachment. More intimacy gives your pleasure centers a shot of dopamine, strongly reinforcing the behavior. Your brain becomes increasingly bathed in dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones and neurotransmitters, resulting in a suite of physiological and behavioral responses evolved to maximize the probability of inserting your genes into the next generation.


The scientific view of love and romance can seem anything but romantic, and we can’t even let you have the scientific explanation without pointing out our current uncertainty and the need for more research. The fact is – love and romance are biological/neurological phenomena. They are being studied and we are slowly building a reductionist picture of exactly how and why we feel and act the way we do.

This view, however, is not incompatible with romance. It is a rationalist romantic view. Understanding biology is not inconsistent with embracing and even reveling in the human condition. Feelings of love and attraction are not diminished at all by an understanding of the possible evolutionary advantages of those feelings, or the underlying brain chemistry, any more then they are enhanced by ascribing those feeling to fate or magic.

Understanding the biology of love, rather, can be empowering. Sometimes we make decisions that are not in our best interest because we are in the grip of neurotransmitters and evolutionary signals of which we are not consciously aware. Thinking that those feelings are due to some magical design of the universe or something akin to fate, or to forces outside of your control, are convenient justifications for giving in to feelings that may be leading you to bad decisions. It’s helpful to understand that evolution does not need you to be happy, just prolific.


Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”. The inability to secrete oxytocin and feel empathy is linked to sociopathy, psychopathy, narcissism and general manipulativeness.

If human beings or love were fundamentally supernatural, then the dearth of oxytocin should not be linked with sociopathy. While correlation does not necessitate causation, we should also be weary of multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily; especially hypotheses that have a piss poor record of explanation.

In closing:

“What? Rainbows are caused by refracted sunlight and not magical pixie dust? This means rainbows no longer have any value”

(H/t Tim).

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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in cognitive science, psi


Divine Command Theory

God’s ways are not our ways” Elizabeth said. “Who are we to demand things from our Creator?”.

Zach clutched Elizabeth’s hand a bit tighter than normal. “But what if Jesus came down from heaven right now and told you to kill me? Would you do it?” Elizabeth sighed and rolled her eyes a bit. “But Jesus would never do such a thing. Don’t you know that God is love? How could it be a loving thing for me to kill you?” Elizabeth laughed. “That doesn’t make sense!”

The laptop on Elizabeth’s lap went into sleep mode. It looked like their late-night marathon of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” would take a break midway through “Manos: The Hands Of Fate” for a theological intermission. Zach looked at the black screen intently while Elizabeth studied Zach’s facial expression. She could see that he was off in another world, as if contemplating the next move in a chess game.

Zach looked up and back at Elizabeth, staring into her eyes. “You know I love you, Lizzy. Right?” he said. The inflection in his voice tone gave the words an unromantic matter-of-fact feel, yet at the same time underscored a deep-seeded conviction. “I would never let anything happen to you. But… your answer didn’t give me that same assurance towards me.”

“What do you want me to say?” Elizabeth exclaimed. “There’s no way a situation like what you just asked me would happen. It’s impossible!” Elizabeth let go of Zach’s hand. She looked at him and stated with a sprinkle of disappointment “I love you too, you know, but sometimes I think my friend Jeff was right about this sort of relationship”.

“Yeah, well… he thinks that we shouldn’t be together because you’re a Christian and I’m an agnostic. That might work for him, but I’m dating you an not him. Besides, he’s not my type!” Zach replied. “But seriously, I think he likes you anyway, and wants to steal you from me.”.

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t worry, he’s not as hot as you. Besides, we’ve been friends forever. That would be like dating my brother!

“Yeah, well, I still don’t trust him. So wait, what if he got it in his head that you two were destined to be together because he prayed and God told him so?”

“I think that he would be making it up.”

“How do you know? Or you know… what if… what if some burglar barged in here and tried to rape you. What if it was God’s plan that you get raped? Do you think I should try to stop the rapist?”

“How… ! I don’t think God would plan for me to get raped! That’s such a horrible thought, I… I…” Elizabeth began shifting in her seat on the futon, looking down at her lap and furrowing her brow while fidgeting a bit. “I don’t think I like this…”

Zach responded abruptly “There is no way I would let ANYONE hurt you. They would have to kill me before that. They’d better kill me, because oh, man, would I kill them. Broken arms, legs, stab wounds, whatever… I would stop at nothing to kill them for doing that to you. No question. But, thousands of women are raped every day, all across the world. You’re special to me, but are you special to God? I mean, more special than all of those women in your God’s eyes? Are you saying that God cares about them less? Commanded their rapes? Why didn’t he stop those from happening? What if God commanded you to be raped because it would start a like chain of events that like makes everyone on the planet Christians? And because I would stop at nothing to prevent you from being hurt, from being attacked, wouldn’t that mean I was going against God’s divine commands? Wouldn’t that make me immoral for attempting to stop your rape, if God commanded it?”

“That would… that would never…”

“But it has happened. Not to you, but to other women. Why would I stop at nothing to keep some guy from attacking you, but God wouldn’t? Hasn’t, at least in the case of other women?”

“I believe that… well, I don’t know… I… I think that free will–“

“Do you really think that the hundreds of women being raped is better than preventing free will? Or that God cares about them less than you? What makes you more special — in your God’s eyes — than the many other women who are attacked?!”

Elizabeth fell silent. Her mouth slightly agape, as though she were going to speak, yet no words were spoken. She stared at the black screen on her laptop, and placed her arms across her upper body as though she were shielding herself from a cold wind that only she could feel. Zach looked at her arms folded across herself and looked back up at her somewhat startled facial expression. He reached over to her chin with his index finger and with a soft, suggestive nudge turned her head towards his, where their eyes met. He looked fixedly into her somewhat sullen gaze as though he were looking into a deeper part of her; a part beyond all social conventions and pretexts; a part beyond all polite or impolite society; to the part of her that defined the very essence her soul. He looked with an intensity that almost betrayed a brooding anger.

“As long as there is breath in my body…” Zach paused, “…you will be safe with me. Always.” His eyes squinted. “But if your God exists, and it was just him looking out for you… I don’t think… well, I don’t think he would feel the same way.”

Elizabeth’s face warmed up, and a soft smile graced her lips “He does feel the same way. That’s why he gave me you.”

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in euthyphro dilemma, god, morality


Morality In The Brain

In a nod to evidence against psi, different sections of the brain need oxygen when deciding between rules-based moral decisions and cost-benefit moral decisions.

Those values that people refused to sell out were considered to be sacred. The participants then went back to the brain scans. It turned out that the values later shown to be sacred were the ones that activated two particular brain regions: the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. The TPJ is the point where the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain meet on the side of the head, while the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is on the underside of the frontal lobe. Both of these areas are associated with rule retrieval and beliefs about right and wrong.

“When people engage sacred values in their thought processes, they are by and large using rule-based systems in their heads,” Berns said. “They’re not using cost-benefit calculations.”

This makes sense, given how inefficient it would be to weigh the pros and cons of every moral decision, he said.

Think of blood flow to certain parts of the brain as being the electrical system in your house. In order to use the microwave in the kitchen, power gets diverted to the area down there in order to use the microwave. Then, if you turn on the space heater in your bedroom upstairs, that’s where electricity gets sent to to allow the space heater to run.

Almost no one considered a preference for coffee over tea to be sacred; likewise, pretty much everyone held that sexually assaulting a child is horribly wrong. But there are plenty of values that fall into gray areas. Some people held their belief in God or the belief that abortion is wrong as sacred values. Others held the opposite viewpoints as just as sacred, or just didn’t feel that strongly either way.


Interestingly, the people who tended to hold their sacred values most strongly, those with the biggest brain response differences between sacred- and non-sacred processing, also tended to be those who participated in the most group activities, Berns said. The groups could be anything from religious organizations to sports teams to professional societies, he said. The researchers are now continuing studies to find out how group conformity might play a role in sacred values.

Cool stuff.

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Posted by on February 13, 2012 in cognitive science, psi


Adam Lee and the Apologist’s Turnstile

Adam Lee has defined what I think is an important aspect of apologetics that needs to be pointed out and denounced at every turn:

[T]he idea that no particular level of knowledge is needed to assent to a religion, but an impossibly, unattainably high level of knowledge and expertise is needed to deny it. In the minds of many believers, the entrance to their religion is like a subway turnstile: a barrier that only allows people to pass through in one direction.

This is similar to the tactic called the Courtier’s Reply, the silencing argument often used against atheists which holds that no one is qualified to criticize a religion in any particular unless they’ve completed a total study of its most esoteric doctrines. The difference is that the Apologist’s Turnstile adds the assumption, implicitly or explicitly, that none of this knowledge is necessary to join or to be a member of that same religion.

This is a very good point, and it’s slightly related to my previous post. Most people join religions for unsophisticated reasons, yet one is only lauded if you leave the religion for sophisticated reasons. It should be the other way around, at least for the “joining” part. No one that I know of was a disinterested bystander of Christianity and then read a ton of apologetics and weighed them against a ton of skeptical books before converting.


Posted by on February 10, 2012 in apologetics


Mass Hysteria

Apparently there is a case of mass hysteria, or “psychogenic illness”, in upstate NY. Of course, there’s a stigma against mass hysteria because it makes it seem as though the hysteria isn’t real. It is very much real, it’s just that people, more importantly, that mass of flesh in our heads that controls 99% of the events in our body, has a less than ideal method for determining what’s real and what’s not.

The condition may sound unlikely, but it is real, and it has in the past caused significant problems for emergency services. For example, after terrorists released toxic gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, commuters fell ill with mass dizziness and nausea. But doctors found that more than 70% of the 5,500 people who sought help at hospitals for gas-related symptoms turned out not to have been significantly exposed [PDF].

Similarly, strange smells in schools, businesses and factories have set off numerous outbreaks of fainting, nausea and cramps in the absence of actual chemical dangers, typically affecting only those who have seen other affected people or who believe the smell is dangerous. Recent decades have seen cases in Jordan, France and Colorado.

A 2011 study led by Joan Broderick of Stony Brook University in New York found that psychogenic symptoms can even be deliberately induced in normal, healthy adults. In the research, participants were given a pill and told that it was an experimental drug that had mild side effects and was being tested to increase effectiveness of flu treatment during a pandemic. Sixty-seven people participated in the study, which took place in a hospital.

Researchers divided the participants into three groups: one group received the pill (actually a placebo) in the presence of actors who also took it and displayed symptoms like nausea, headache and dizziness. A second group took the pill in the presence of actors faking symptoms and also watched a documentary about pandemic flu. A third group simply sat in the waiting room after taking the pill.

The participants who took the pill with the actors were 11 times more likely to show signs of illness than the control group — regardless of whether they watched the documentary. Some people developed symptoms that the actors had not even displayed. (They were all debriefed about the research afterward, and none objected to the earlier deception.)

Of course, labeling a condition as “psychogenic” or, worse, “hysteria” seems belittling and demeaning. Many people mistakenly believe that this means affected people are faking their symptoms and can control them. Despite the strides made by modern neuroscience, the stigma associated with conditions that are not physical in origin or “all in your head” still runs deep.

Not surprisingly, some parents and affected students in Le Roy, N.Y. — some who have had to drop out of school because of their condition — have objected to their diagnosis. One father told the Today show earlier this month, “Obviously we are all not just accepting that this is a stress thing … It’s heart wrenching. You fear your daughter’s not going to have a normal life.”

But stress is not just a mental phenomenon. Broderick explains that stress can actually change the body’s physiology. “Stress responses are not just psychological,” she says. “They also involve physiological responses [like] increased heart rate.”

In mass psychogenic illness, she says, “we believe it is the physiological response that individuals misinterpret as evidence of infection [or] contamination. This leads to fear and even more anxiety, creating a powerful experience of illness.”

This all reminds me of an episode of Derren Brown where he had given a group of atheists a “religious experience”. This also has implications for church, and how religious frenzies and even born again experiences are contagious. This is probably why church camps have those “born again” events en masse, so that the unsuspecting pre-Christian is sort of “forced” to have a born again experience because other people were having them.

It’s amazing how the brain can affect the body and vice versa. One thing is certain, though. There’s no strict dichotomy between “only in your head” symptoms and “actual” symptoms. If symptoms are real or psychogenic, both are controlled by the brain. It just depends on the part of the brain that is responsible for it.

‘Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. ‘Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?’

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’

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Posted by on February 9, 2012 in cognitive science


The True Value of the Actual Arguments For/Against Religion

On my Facebook page a small argument brewed over an image I posted from Reddit of a former Christian describing his deconvertion process. One person said that the Redditor’s deconversion basically amounted to a superficial, unsophisticated view of theology (really theodicy, but I’m being pedantic). I agreed that his views were simplistic, but I commented that most Christians become Christians for similarly superficial, unsophisticated reasons.

Of course, this much is true. But someone countered that many Christians looked at the more sophisticated arguments for/against religion and stayed Christians. However, that’s not the point. The true value of arguments will never be how well they retain current members, but how well they sway the undecideds and the opposition. And if you start to study cognitive science you’ll know why this is correct. From that post on the cognitive analogy for the “thief” and “wizard”, I wrote:

Unfortunately, the wizard does everything that the thief asks him to do, especially attack positions that she doesn’t like and defend positions that she does like. This applies to everyone. The wizard would not know who to cast a spell on without the thief’s instruction or deference… Christianity is large and complicated; it is a final boss at the end of a dungeon. It would be unwise to use only the thief on a final boss, or only use the wizard after attempting to drain the majority of the final boss’ HP with only the thief …That would be a horrible strategy in any RPG. The final boss would soundly pummel the thief and she would run out of HP and the game would be over very quickly.

But it’s simple confirmation bias and motivated skepticism that keeps believers being believers (and unbelievers being unbelievers). An argument that overcomes those two deeply, deeply entrenched cognitive biases would be the truly strong argument. An argument that doesn’t have to deal with those biases, which actually have those biases in its favor, is a relatively bad argument. An argument that keeps a person in a belief that they already believe, comparatively, isn’t a very good argument.

This is why most arguments for religion are pretty worthless. Very few atheists are convinced of the sophisticated arguments for why the Christian god allows evil, to give one example. The fact that those arguments keeps Christians believing doesn’t really say anything about how good the argument is. Its worth as an argument can only be gauged on the undecideds and non-believers. On the other hand, the logical/evidential problem of evil itself is probably the best argument against Christianity, since that is what draws the most Christians away from Christianity, compared to its sophisticated equivalent on atheists (the problem of good?).

More specific to Christianity, there are very few people who were undecided or skeptical of Christianity and then read the sophisticated arguments of Christians (or the NT itself) and then became believers. What usually happens is that the person has an experience they can’t explain and then they use their surrounding society’s cultural language to explain it; for most modern Christians their cultural language is Christianity. You can’t call this situation “brainwashing” as John Loftus does, however, since if it were then most people reading this blog have been “brainwashed” into having English as their first language.

But anyway, this sort of conversion is wholly unsophisticated. Yet it’s only after this unsophisticated conversion that the born-again Christian looks into the sophisticated arguments for Christianity and are “convinced” by them. In short, the sophisticated arguments for Christianity are normally only a means of validating a belief arrived at through unsophisticated means. Thus the sophisticated arguments have no true value outside of that context.

Really though. An experience you can’t explain is an experience you can’t explain. This is a statement about you, and has nothing to do with the truth value of Christianity. Which is why religious experiences are wholly unsophisticated. Yet once Christianity has subdued the thief, the thief then asks the wizard, now employing sophisticated arguments, to defend Christianity at all costs.

Most Christians and atheists are unaware of the sophisticated arguments for their positions. If an unsophisticated Christian is convinced by an unsophisticated argument for atheism, this to me seems fair enough. If an unsophisticated atheist is convinced by an unsophisticated argument for Christianity, this also seems fair enough.

The worst test for an argument is how many unsophisticated Christians are convinced by sophisticated arguments for Christianity, or unsophisticated atheists being convinced by sophisticated arguments for atheism.

The real test would be to see how many unsophisticated atheists are convinced by sophisticated arguments for Christianity, and how many unsophisticated Christians are convinced by sophisticated arguments for atheism. The best test would be sophisticated Christians being convinced by sophisticated atheism, and vice versa. From my point of view, it seems that the one I see the most is unsophisticated Christians being convinced by sophisticated arguments for atheism, with the opposite of that almost never happening.

Since atheism itself is a rising trend, this speaks volumes about how good arguments for Christianity (or generic theism) are. In other words, not very good.

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Posted by on February 9, 2012 in apologetics

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