Thursday, September 29, 2011

Self authenticating irrationality

It has been a while since I have written and I have read quite a few things that I would like to talk about including Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. What I would like to discuss today, though, is a peculiar form of irrationality advocated by William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith.

In Chapter One titled How do I know Christianity is true?, Craig puts forward a radical claim that Christians know that Christianity is true by the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. He makes the bold claim that belief in God is properly basic like Pythagorean's Theorem. Supposedly we perceive God like we perceive a tree. He does not even consider that this supposed perception of God could in fact be something else.

Worse, he insists that the self-authenticating witness could only lead to Christianity and that anyone else, say a Mormon or Muslim, has only a false witness or misinterprets the true witness. He does not seem even open to the possibility he could be wrong and that his supposed experience of God is no more valid then the Muslims or Mormons experience. He does suggest a test to see if the experience is the same by asking Mormon and Muslim apostates to Christianity if their experiences of God are the same. However, this would be a clearly biased experiment since when someone commits apostasy, they are more likely to become more devoted to their new belief. We would actually need to ask not only those who defected to Christianity but those who defected from. We could even include Atheists as a control.

To defend his claim since he is directing this at Christians he quotes from the Bible. He suffers a blow to his credibility by referring to the author of First and Second John as the apostle John when he should know that neither epistle was written by John. Tradition ascribed these epistles to John because of the similar writing style with the Gospel John, which Craig also quotes but does not name the author. None of the books of the Bible were written by any of the 12 apostles as they were all illiterate. In the unlikely event that any of them were taught to read, it would have been Hebrew, not Greek. None of them spoke Greek either, they spoke Aramaic, but the books of the New Testament were all written in Greek by people who were proficient in Greek. They do not bare the marks of being originally written in Aramaic then translated and transcription was always done as word for word transcribing.

So Craig defends his faith with an irrational appear to an experience he cannot confirm is actually God and denies the authenticity of any non-Christian experience of the same sort. I am still waiting for God's message to me. Perhaps he will wait to reveal himself on my death bed, but I would not count on it. Perhaps Craig is right, and I will humbly admit that I could be wrong, but I see no reason to think so.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


People are rational animals, right. Before we make a choice, we calculate the cost to benefit and decide if the decision is best. Or are there irrational forces that sway us from the rational course. That is the idea behind the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by brothers Ori and Rom Brafman.

One of the common forces that sway us is loss aversion. People hold onto a bad stock hoping to recoup the loss and end up losing everything. Captain Van Zanten, head of the airline KLM's safety program was so concerned with the money the airline would have lost if he did not take off prior to his mandatory rest period, attempted to take off in without waiting for clearance in conditions so foggy that he could not see the other 747 on the run. The passengers in the other plane were unharmed but Van Zanten's plane did not completely clear the other plane and blew up in the air killing everyone on board.

The next swaying force is commitment. If Van Zanten had not been swayed by his loyalty to his airline and to his personal record, lives might not  have been lost. Commitment can be so powerful that in an auction for a $20 bill where the second place bill still has to pay, the final price can be bid up to hundreds of dollars.

The other forces that sway us are value attribution, diagnosis bias, the chameleon effect, sense of fairness, the anticipation factor and the dissenting voice. For each of these sways the Brafman brothers give examples but each swaying factor played a part in the Van Zanten affair.

One interesting example of the diagnosis bias is a study by Dan Ariely. The study involves A SoBe drink that purports performance enhancing effects. In this study, students were given SoBe and the cost was deducted from their student accounts. 3 different groups were tested, one with regular price SoBe, one with discounted SoBe and a control group who had no SoBe. The groups were informed about the supposed performance enhancing effects. The group that drink the regular price drink performed better then then the control group. Before you go out and buy SoBe to increase your performance, guess how the cheap SoBe drinkers did. They actually performed worse then the control group.

There are more great studies listed in the book. No one study ever conclusively proves anything but they all illustrate how people are easily swayed by non-rational thinking.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Screwed Up

Of all the books that Doctor Wiker lists in his 10 Books That Screwed Up the World, the only book that I have read through is Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. I have read part of Descartes' Discourse and while I have not read Marx's Manifesto I have read part of Das Kapital.

Few of the books actually listed "Screwed up the world" in the way Wiker suggests. While Marx and Darwin may have influenced Lenin, both books are based on prior thinking. The Prince was a far worse influence since its intentions were clearly malevolent. Marx thought he was doing science and Darwin actually was. Both of their ideas helped humanity progress and we cannot ignore the good just because of the bad.

Utilitarianism was an attempt to create a secular morality. As a theoretical matter, I think it was a pretty good start. However, the attempt to make it practical completely dooms it. It is impossible to determine if an action should be done on the basis of whether or not it increases total utility of all impacted since the circle of impact can be quite large. Add this to the fact that one man's good can be another man's bad and how can one tell which is which, the information required could become enormous.

The books by Lenin and Hitler do not appear to have had much impact beyond the author's own life. I am not sure if their books encouraged support for their eventual rise to power, but neither one has significant influence today. There certainly are Neo-Nazis and Leninists but they have almost no influence. Bad ideas serve as a reminder about the frailty of humanity and how prone to error we truly are.

Other authors mentioned like Freud, Mead, Kinsey and Friedan had certain ideologies as they attempted what they thought was science. They may have been wrong, but this had lead to interest in these fields. We have a case of where wrong ideas have lead to research and true scientific understanding. Far from screwing up the world, these books can spark interest in subjects that otherwise might be left to just opinions. By trying to create a scientific justification for their beliefs or pursuing science in a biased manner, these authors have brought their areas of interest into the realm of scientific inquiry where claims can be tested and rejected.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What about the books?

My previous post dealt with the way the book 10 Books That Screwed Up the World dealt with Darwin. Now I would like to examine the other books Doctor Wiker reviews.

The first book he discusses in Machiavelli's The Prince. Since Machiavelli is not named on the front cover and The Prince is listed as one of four "Preliminary Screw-Ups" it seems reasonable to conclude this book did not make the top ten and is one of the five mentioned in the subtitle. Given the influence of this book on both Hitler and Lenin, this book has done more harm then any other in the list. Machiavelli states clearly that the ruler should not be concerned with common morality and should use any means to attain his goals. However, liars lose trust and despots lose the support of the people. Benevolent dictators not only have more staying power because the people do not distrust and despise him but also because the standard of living in the society tends to improve over time. Machiavelli's biggest error was not his atheism but believing the lie spread by believers that without gods there is no reason to be good.

The second book discussed in Descartes's Discourse on Method.Not much to say about Descartes. He attempted a radical skepticism and then proceeded to defend his prior world view. In the end, he really got no where. He ended up exactly where he started. His only real contribution was the creation of the dualism problem.

The next book in the list of four is Hobbes' Leviathan. Once again we see that Wiker's prejudice against Atheism creep in. The problem with Leviathan is Hobbes' confused thinking. He creates a fantasy world where primitives are amoral and everyone has the right to whatever they want. Hobbes' view was that society caused morality to form and bind us so that we could get a long. Now that we have better tools to look back at the way our tribal ancestors lived we can see that moral values were being developed all along the way. Religions often codified the moral rules we learned, they did not bequeath them to us from on high. Even after religions our moral values were not perfect, since religion in man made we should not expect perfect morality to come from them. Religions not only accepted slavery but set up rules for how it should be ran. Only recently have we realized that slavery does not benefit us and have prohibited it. Contrary to Hobbes, primitive man was working on discovering the behavior patterns that benefit him and passing those on to his heirs.

Rounding out the 4 preliminary screw-ups is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Rousseau, like Hobbes and Machiavelli rejects the myths of religion. He also fails to understand that morality has improved over time as we discover which of our conventions benefits us and which don't. Primitive man was not better off being amoral but was in fact improving his lot by discovering moral truths. Civil society may have been created for the benefit of the rich but the power of the majority has changed us from the feudal society to a capitalist republic where social mobility enables even the poor to become rich.

This rounds out the 4 preliminary screw-ups mentioned by Wiker. He puts too much emphasis on the atheism of the authors blaming their misunderstanding of morality on atheism instead of the assumption that morality depends on gods.

Monday, September 5, 2011

10 Books

Another book I have been reading that my brother loaned me is 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help.Not too surprisingly, the greatest charge leveled against many of these books is their atheistic view point as if atheism was the source of these books malevolence and any idea or opinion the books espouse is either not relevant or the result of the atheism.

Though I do not necessarily disagree that some of these books are wrong, Doctor Wiker misinterprets some of them, perhaps through no fault of his own. One common theme is to blame on Darwin the ideas of social Darwinism and the misguided eugenics programs. No one can dispute that Darwin developed the idea of natural selection, the process by which all life evolved on this planet. Following the idea of natural selection comes survival of the fittest.

This idea of survival of the fittest has been misinterpreted to mean survival of the strong over the weak. It is this misinterpretation that Wiker accepts and that many of the writers following Darwin accepted. This is the root of social Darwinism that had led to much suffering. Our moral sense evolved during a time when humans were divided into tribes so that we naturally have a sense of compassion and caring for our in group and despise the out group. Social Darwinism divides the strong and the weak into separate groups. How to people turn members of their in group into the out group? Through stories.

We are good at telling ourselves stories to justify the divisions we create. But if we look at history, when we expand the in group, everybody wins. Tribes who were once at war with each other, once they begin to trade and accept each other as equals obtain a more peaceful and stable lifestyle.

Slavery was once legal here in the US which was not ended until after a bloody war. After the war, slave owners certainly had a reduced quality of life for themselves, but the overall well being of society increased. Because slaves were free they could earn a living how they chose and their productivity increased. This lead to increases in well being for all at least until Jim Crow laws like segregation and minimum wage were instituted.

It wasn't just Darwin that was misread, however. Several books mentioned contained ideas that are dangerous whether implemented by an atheist or a Christian. I think I will save that for another time, though.