Tuesday, January 12, 2016

C.S. Lewis: Has People's Sense of Right and Wrong Changed Noticeably?

Lewis' argument mainly relies on the idea that our sense of morality is universal and that this proves that some kind of God must have existed. However, he responds to an objection regarding apparent changes in morality. He states the objection to his argument as such:
I conclude then, that though the difference between people’s ideas of Decent Behaviour often make you suspect that there is no real natural Law of Behaviour at all, yet the things we are bound to think about these differences really prove just the opposite. But one word before I end. I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, ‘Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? [1, p. 14]
Although it might seem I quoted way too much, we will find there are reasons for that - I find problems in most parts of this paragraph.

Although I thinkby presenting this objection in the context he did and phrasing it the way he did, Lewis made it seem more silly than it really is, I find myself still sympathizing with the sentiment in the argument even in its apparently naive form. Lewis counter-argument just goes to show how bad he was at thinking about things.

By attracting our attention to one of the most obvious examples - witch-burnings - he makes the case easy for himself (because if they really had existed, they would indeed have been terrible beings) but also makes us forget about all the less obvious examples (which would be greater evidence of moral differences). We have not stopped believing murderers exist, yet many people have stopped considering death penalty for murderers justifiable. Another example is sodomy, which in Britain was punished by death as recently as 1835.

We still believe 'sodomites' exist. Thus there's a problem for Lewis' argument here – to state his explanation analogously, we get
But surely the reason we do not execute gay people is that we do not believe there are such things.
clearly, this is nonsense of the highest order. Picking an obvious yet rather specific example makes it easy for Lewis to shrug this important problem off. No, clearly it should be more like
But surely the reason we do not execute gay people is that we believe it to be wrong to do so, and people in former times had a different sense of right and wrong.
Let us visit another issue, viz. that of differences of morality vs. differences of belief about facts. If the morality of an action relies on the beliefs about facts involved, would not very many quite appalling crimes turn out morally acceptable? Would not even an antisemitic act of murder, carried out in the belief that all Jews are conspiring against all of mankind, be morally sound - just factually mistaken?

Clearly there's a difference in the morality of someone who also is a skeptic, and therefore ensures that his judgments of people is based on reasonably well established facts or not from the morality of someone who just goes gung-ho with whatever pretend-knowledge has been thrown their way.

Lewis understanding of this issue is so weak that I wonder what justification there really is for calling him an 'intellectual giant'. If that is an apt description, he must have been quite the stumbling intellectual giant.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sad News

D.M. Murdock / Acharya S has passed away in cancer. Although I criticized her work in minute detail, I never held any grudge against her as a person - indeed, the world would be a more interesting place if she had a full-long life-span ahead of her.

Since illnesses such as cancer can leave the surviving family not only with grief but immense medical bills, you can support her family at giveforward.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Very Summary Review: C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity

Together with a friend, I decided to read through C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. To be sure, it is a respected and often referenced piece of apologetic literature. Thus I approached it with high hopes - not that I expected it to convert me to Christianity or even make me slightly more partial to considering Christian doctrines as 'potentially true'.

What I find is a pretty sophomoric level of sophistication. Lewis even stoops as low as virtual ad hominem responses to arguments. A lot of his arguments rely on lack of imagination, essentially 'false dilemmas' or even false trilemmas. Simply put, God can only be a certain way because that's the only way Lewis can imagine him. God must have been this way, because Lewis cannot imagine anything else. Thus Lewis sets his own mind up to be the meta-God by which any God must adhere.

A major conceit is present already in the title - and it's a conceit that later on is glossed over with a sprinkle of ad hominem. To spell out in detail what conceit I am referring to, it is the very notion of 'mere Christianity'. Lewis claims to express the most rudimental, fundamental parts of Christianity - these are the stances you at least need to hold to be a Christian. Yet, in the very first part of the book, he admits to the existence of Christians that do not hold them, and his argument for rejecting them is nothing but name-calling: Christianity and water. Their Christianity is dilute - that's given as an assertion or even an axiom, with no actual argument backing it up.

This bodes ill for the intellectual standards of apologetics from Lewis' day onwards.

Lewis was fond of a form of the argument from morality. However, his lack of logic is quite evident as he rejects the notion that morality could be a form of herd instinct. He argues that morality is somehow clearly external to instinct [1, p. 10]. This he does by illustrating that morality is what triggers instincts and even strengthens some of them, and thus cannot be itself an instinct. I find this a weird argument with flawed premises: he assumes some kind of clear-cut hierarchy of things in the mind that also happens perfectly to correspond to our terminology for these things in the mind. For this to work, the instincts have to be objects of the exact same type, and in the exact same place in some hierarchy in the mind. There's no reason to believe that instincts really are as clear-cut as that, but Lewis probably believed in a created universe that was designed in a very organized manner. Using the un-established fact that the universe is like that to prove that the universe is created is begging the question.

I shall post a series of posts dissecting the fallacies of Lewis' magnum opus in apologetics, a book still considered one of the greatest defenses of Christian faith.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Logical Conjunctions and Probability

I get the feeling when reading writings by theologians on the history of the early Church (and also on Judaism), that a great many of them do not quite understand what happens when you combine probability and logic. Let us consider the following situation:
A B C D E → F
That is, if A, B, C, D and E hold true, then F holds true as well. In maths we can come to near complete certainty that A, B, C ... hold, and thus also conclude that the conclusion holds (with ever so slightly less certainty).

Now, in fields like history and such, it's quite clear that we never have complete certainty – and here there's an interesting consequence of maths.

If P(A) = 0.9, we can be quite certain that A holds ,right? What if the same probability of 0.9 holds for each of the five antecedents there? The probability of A and B both holding true, if they are independent of one another is P(A B) = P(A) * P(B). We can now recursively do this as P((A B)  (C)) = P(A B) * P(C), and keep reiterating, and this obviously ends up giving us P(A ..E)  = P(A)*...*P(E).

The probability of F holding true given P(A)=...=P(E) is no longer as impressive: 0.9⁵ ≃ 0.59. Still greater than 0.5, though.

For a fair share of studies regarding, say, ancient Judaism or early Christianity, it seems a lot of the assumptions that do form part of the reasoning is way under 0.9, though - somewhere in the range of 0.6 to 0.8 would be a fair assessment. Even at the top range of that - 0.8 - we go below 0.5 at our fourth assumption.

Certainly, some of the probabilities might not be independent – some of the assumptions cannot hold without the previous one holding, for instance. But in that case, we still end up with probabilities of the form P(A)*P(B|A) – the likelihood of A and B, given that B's probability is conditioned by A happening, so we're still dealing with multiplication - which generally does produce quickly diminishing numbers when all our values are within the range [0,1].

What further bothers me in this situation is that oftentimes, a lot of assumptions remain unstated, and thus the list of antecedents is left incomplete, giving an impression of greater likelihood for the conclusion than is warranted. Certainly some of the assumptions might clock in at 0.99, but due to how multiplication works, ...

This is a thing that started bothering me while reading Margaret Barker's The Great High Priest – the various arguments in favour of her hypothesis all seem somewhat plausible taken in isolation. However, they are not arguments that support one another - the conclusion relies on at least a very great number of them all being independently correct. So, we end up in a situation where the only argument you can present at the level of the individual pieces of evidence is sure, these seem plausible, if not necessarily established facts. But when you look at the whole structure of it, it seems you end up with something that is fairly unlikely. It is a very clever rhetorical trick, that makes any criticism of it seem vague and unclear.

A good example of this is the following: Barker assumes that the esoteric teachings of the priesthood of the first temple were transmitted to the essenes. Further, Jesus was a member of this order. As a member, he acquired these teachings, and taught them to his disciples. The disciples propagated these teachings all the way to Origen more than 150 years later

It might seem somewhat possible that the Essenes had in fact inherited traditions from the original priesthood of the First Temple; let us arbitrarily overestimate this probability at 0.8 - in reality, you have circumstances where it would seem less likely - wars, widespread illiteracy, . I think everyone would agree that this is a fairly kind estimate. As for Jesus and the Essenes, maybe we'll even grant 0.9. We don't know much about the Essenes - did they teach all their doctrine to all their members - if not, was Jesus among those members that got access to the more restricted teachings? If he had access, did he understand it correctly? Let's be kind again, and put the probability at 0.8. Further, did he get around to teach his pupils these teachings? Did they understand them? I'd say 0.9 would be reasonable kind there.

Did these teachings get reliably passed down to Origen? Let's again go for 0.8. Maybe he had sources that did not learn from people who had learned from Jesus, or maybe his sources had misunderstood what they had learned from Jesus, etc.

At this point, we're way down: 0.46. Keep in mind that I find the probabilities that I have assigned to be rather exaggeratedly kind: I genuinely feel like values somewhere in the range [0.2, 0.7] would be closer to the actual probabilities here, although these are guesses. Of course, some less probable things do contribute to a slight likelihood of her being correct about the main conclusion: maybe Origen's sources didn't get it from Jesus, and Jesus didn't get it from the Essenes who didn't get it from the First Temple clergy, but Origen got it by some other route that did go back to the First Temple? Such alternative ways of salvaging her thesis exist, but seem highly unlikely, and putting a number like "0.01 at best" on these seems to be excessively kind as well.

If we were to look into greater detail with regards to the claims, we'd end up finding that the probability of the presented thesis falls far under 10%.

The same problem with regards to compound probabilities seems to beset a lot of work in the same field – I am compiling examples for a bigger post on this issue.

This kind of "fallacy of implication of the intersection of many independently probable propositions" is a thing I've seldom seen discussed as a fallacy, and I think it's an important one. The best way to avoid it is to either support your propositions with very much in ways of evidence, or to argue for things that can be supported by disjunctions of facts instead - or adds up probabilities, whereas and multiplies them together.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: The Indo-European Controversy (Pereltsvaig, Lewis)

A Review: The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis)

A few years ago, a team of researchers lead by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson presented a mathematical model for the spread of language families. Applying this model in reverse to the Indo-European languages supported the Anatolian hypothesis, a minority position on the location of the Indo-European urheimat.

For some reason, this was widely published in media, and the paper Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family appeared at the same time in the journal Science. Gray and Atkinson have made very vocal and powerful claims about their findings: 'decisive support [for the Anatolian hypothesis]' is among the various things they have said about their own work.

Pereltsvaig and Lewis go over the results in depth, and find them highly lacking: they find numerous problems in the geographical spread that it presents, including multiple instances where the sanity of the model is excruciatingly questionable. They present the evidence we have against the Anatolian hypothesis (and even more clearly, the evidence we have against the Gray-Atkinson version of the Anatolian hypothesis) and all the difficulties it brings with it, as well as the evidence we have for the Steppe hypothesis.

They also present the evidence that has lead most linguists to accept Steppe Hypothesis instead. 

The argumentation is persuasive and clear, well-nigh undeniable. This leads to an important question: how did Science let a paper that is so rife with unsound historical linguistics pass peer review? It turns out that linguists did peer review it, and Science ignored their judgment, because their negative comments did not pertain to the maths of the model - clearly, having a mathsy model is a guarantee that the mathsy model is correct in Science's view?

Publications such as Business Insider either repost bad science from the Gray-Atkinson team, or add their own even worse spin to it. Consider their version of the Gray-Atkinson animated map. This is, allegedly, how "Language" spread across Europe. In linguistics, "Language" signifies the general phenomenon, the fact that humans can communicate in a complicated system. So if we are to take Business Insider's video title seriously, this is how the ability to speak spread in Europe, and all the current language families were the first languages spoken in their areas. 

Pereltsvaig and Lewis point out a very real problem: other scientists apparently do not take linguistics seriously, and we are facing a rise of armchair philosophers who disdain empiricism in favour of cute models (at least when going outside of their own field - i.e. Gray and Atkinson probably understand how to be scientific in their own field, but when working with language, the computational model seemingly blinds them to empirical facts). 

This, in turn, is coupled with the modern phenomenon of clickbaiting, where the most attention-attracting claim is more likely than other claims to pull in ad money, and thus scientific claims are propagated online not by their likelihood of being accurate, but by how tittilating they are. This is a genuine problem, and needs to be curbed.

Pereltsvaig's and Lewis's book is less combative than this review, although at times it does take vigorous swings at the Gray-Atkinson teams publications. It is a good read, and gives a lot of information about historical linguistics and especially Indo-European historical linguistics. A certain glimpse into issues in the philosophy of science can also be gleaned. It is well written: both clear, enjoyable and relevant, and it does something wonderful: fight pseudoscience.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Post on my Comment Policy

I deleted a comment, and I will probably be accused of censorship next time I run into the person who posted it, so this post serves only to preclude such accusations. I am not censoring any actual content of it. What I don't want to do, however, is to have my blog host texts that google will index and start posting the first line whenever my name is googled. The line goes like this:
"__________ is just another cyber-stalking lunatic posting his trash all over the place like a troll."
That is not exactly an honest description of me, and I think anyone can understand why I don't want seven of those comments to sit here. I'll give you the full comment here, just so whoever made it doesn't feel censored. I know who it is, and it's a person who's been hating on me since the beginning of this blog. In fact, I every now and then do look for this person online, find they're out doing their proselytizing shtick, and post some comment about just how full of flaws Murdock's books are.

__________ is just another cyber-stalking lunatic posting his trash all over the place like a troll. She already announced a 2nd edition for Christ Conspiracy long ago, which makes your malicious smear campaign of a blog irrelevant, obsolete and a complete waste of time so, grow up and get over it. You need to get a life very, very badly!!! http://www.freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=26 If you had ANY integrity or character at all you would remove your blog maliciously smearing, defaming and libeling a single female author with stage 4 cancer whose work you obviously know nothing about. You have zero relevant qualifications or credentials as you've admitted elsewhere. Besides, they did a great job at her forum exposing you and your BS tactics so, nothing more needs to be said. _________________'s Smear Campaign http://www.freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=26761#p26761 ; )
This comment was posted on several of my posts, even ones that have nothing to do with D.M. Murdock's work. Just shows you what kind of idiots are attracted to her work. I have tried engaging this person with arguments for years now, and it's always been exactly the same litany of how I'm evil, dumb, unqualified and various kinds of insane. I am quite sure this person is the moderator of Murdock's forum, one of the most unhinged persons I've had the bad luck of running into on internet. And in fact, that moderator is one of the few persons I genuinely hate. I have no personal animus towards Murdock herself.

Anyways, comments are permitted, as long as they actually contain any reasonable content. The example given above is borderline forbidden by that rule, since it contains nothing but ad hominem bullshit. However, due to my long-standing conflict with the person who posted it, and the constant misrepresentation that person stoops to, I've decided not to censor this post in its entirety, but just remove my name from it. As comments cannot be edited, this was the only remaining option.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Christ Conspiracy: An Index of the Review, pt 2

Chapter 20:
Pt 1 Various shenanigans with regards to trying to show that Christianity is older than the mainstream assessment has it. Here we find Taylor describing the early church in terms that would need some backing up – but as usual, no evidence is given, just assertion. It is also worth noting that Murdock uses motifs from the NT as historical evidence in the most contorted fashion. Polycarp is quote-mined. Some quite vacuous statements about the Essenes are made, including unsourced speculation reported as fact, bad etymologies, as well as directly contradicting the previous chapter regarding the relationship of Essenism and Christianity.
Pt 2 Eusebius' Interpretatio Christiana: did Eusebius claim that the Therapeutan monks were Christian before Christianity? A most precious thing emerges: the quote-mined quote-mine! Does allegorical reading imply gnosticism?
Pt 3 Irrelevant twaddle based on the previous identification of Christianity with the Therapeutans (given that all evidence in favour of such an identification given thus far is mistaken). Murdock thinks 'therapeut' and 'doctor of the law' are etymologically connected. Murdock relies on Epiphanius' knowledge of Hebrew, which is more or less proven to be sub par. (Bad referencing practices, again.) Undue reliance on Higgins.
Pt 4 Murdock cites Geza Vermes, but gets Vermes's claim wrong. A somewhat misleading description of Jewish lending practices. Murdock focuses on the most anti-gentile intertestamental Jewish literature to paint an exaggeratedly hateful picture of Judaism.
Pt 5 Murdock's ignorance of the Talmud is coupled with her insistence on thinking that she knows something about it.

Chapter 23:
Pt 1 Some rather weak reasoning with regards to where western culture originated.
Pt 2 Murdock reports a quote-mine by Jochmans as a prima facie quote, in an attempt to make it seem like the Great Pyramid at some point has been covered by the sea. Some fairly bad arguments (Byblos being an Egyptian colony being presented as evidence for the Bible being an Egyptian book ...) Papyri allegedly five to ten thousand  years of age are alluded to. A claim with no support or evidence presented at all, regarding 'Logia Iesou'. Some quotes that essentially consist of nothing but a nested quote, along the line of Murdock quoting Jackson quoting Kuhn, making looking the original source up tedious and fucking well frustrating.
Pt 3 Misrepresentation of the Aryan Invasion Theory with regards to Indian archaeology and linguistics. Reliance on Hindu religious material for claims of really far back history (on the order of tens of thousand years ago). Not enough sources given to be able to assess the value of the presented claims. Murdock presents an argument that makes her claims regarding prehistory unfalsifiable. Value-judgments regarding rishi-culture and later brahmanic culture that rest on no ground whatsoever. Shitty historical linguistics: Murdock misrepresents the state of Indo-European linguistics as well as downright pulls the wool over our eyes with regards to the Nostratic theory. 
Pt 4 Mentions some Egyptian depiction of a fish trap as evidence of Sumerians being closely related to some North Europeans (but does not tell us anything about this depiction, so we cannot verify this claim). Conflates the Sumerians with Aryan invaders – something not even her source for this madcap claim actually does. Weird ideas about Semitic languages having gone into "permanent eclipse" are quoted. Iranians are mistaken for proto-Greeks and proto-Romans. Really weird arguments presented to show that the Hebrews were Indo-European (or at least a significant portion of them). Murdock mistakes 'levitical' and 'levirate' when reading her source (which got it right) and uses this conflation to present the idea that Levites were Indo-European (for the record, levirate and levitical are highly unrelated terms). Weird and unsourced claims about levirate marriages.
 Pt 5 Unsubstantiated ideas about Abraham's origin are restated. Some pretty bad etymologies presented, of which my favourite is Jessulmer as the origin of the name Jerusalem - which simply cannot hold, since Jessulmer is named for a medieval king. Also, false claims about words in Sanskrit. No references for claims about Jerusalem's origin in Egyptian religion, although pretty fat claims are made. A conspiracy theory regarding the Rosetta stone sneaks in. Some very out there claims about the origins of various British things, such as the word Britain and the druids. Finally, Murdock ascribes some credibility to notions that western culture has its origin on Ireland. A nationalistic creed that probably makes some irish people very happy, but c'mon, not an evidence-based claim in any sense whatsoever.
 Pt 6. Here, full-on delusionality is evident: Pygmies at the root of all culture! A lot of evidence alluded to, none actually given. Bad understanding of the theory of evolution. . 

Chapter 24:
Pt 1 Bad understanding of evolutionary theory. Bad logic.
Pt 2 Shoddy linguistics, shoddy referencing, shoddily unclear claims, chains of sources getting things more wrong during each step, reliance on religiously mislead 19th-century scholars who tried finding the lost tribes of Israel in the Americas, claims about the Chimalpopoca manuscript that are wrong. These fabrications are used to bolster the notion that the Biblical creation myth was present in the Americas. Lots of unsupported assertions.
Pt 3 Shoddy linguistics regarding languages of America and India.
Pt 4 Unreliable sources (James Churchward). Lots of assertions without any evidence. Bad linguistics. Appealing to previous bad linguistics as though it were evidence.
Pt 5 Pyramids. In this part, Murdock quotes UFOlogists and new age kooks. Murdock accepts the Ica stones as genuine. Murdock accepts exaggerated claims about the 'precision' of the Costa Rican stone spheres as accurate without thinking about the methodology of measuring such stones
Pt 6 Giants. Ancient Maps. Saturn having been a 'pole star'. Murdock relies on sources that think writing goes back 150 000 years. Murdock also seems to believe that the original religion of humanity must have been objectively good in some sense ­ - which is a weird idea.