Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ex Nihilo

Ray Comfort has a website out called "Pull the Plug on Atheism", which appears to be made for the purpose of promoting his books and publishing company. You may remember Comfort as the guy who, along with Kirk Cameron, appeared on ABC's Nightline in 2007, claiming to have proof for the existence of God. I myself didn't see that, but I've just found the video on YouTube; so, I'll have to check it out.

Anyway, on the Pull the Plug site's front page, Comfort defines an atheist as "someone who believes that nothing made everything". He is referring, of course, to the scientific theory called the Big Bang. I don't know that all atheists believe in the Big Bang, but I know I believe in it. I base that belief on the evidence and observations published in the works of reputable astronomers and cosmologists, such as Edwin Hubble or Stephen Hawking.

I certainly can't say that I know for a certainty that the Big Bang happened, because I wasn't there to observe the beginning of all things. But, then, neither was Comfort. One quote that Comfort uses to support his claim that atheists believe that "nothing made everything" was from Cornell University's astrophysics web page, in which Karen Masters, PhD writes “ . . . space and time both started at the Big Bang and therefore there was nothing before it.”

However, Comfort did exclude part of what Dr. Masters wrote:

"We can speculate in meta-physics or in religion about what was before the Big Bang, but again, we cannot use science to tell anything about it, as physics as we understand it breaks down at that point. "
Not only does Dr. Masters seem to be accommodating towards religious beliefs in this quote, but she also admits that she doesn't know what happened before the Big Bang. If Dr. Masters is an atheist (and there's no indication either way given at the Cornell site) then it seems she's an intellectually honest one. (n.b., she does appear to be wearing a cross pendant in the photo at her own website.)

But not having a better explanation for what happened before the Big Bang is no proof that Genesis 1 is correct. If we even need an explanation of what happened before the Big Bang, there's a whole host of creation myths to choose from (cf., the Wikipedia article on creation myths). Pick any one you like, each one is as unverifiable and unfalsifiable as the next.

Or pick none of them. Do we really need a Designer to explain the origin of things? The argument from design, as I understand it, is that complexity requires a designer. For instance, Comfort argues on his site that "if I say that I don’t believe that a builder built my house, then I am left with the insanity of believing that nothing built it. It just happened." Except we know for a certainty how houses are built. We've seen carpenters and bricklayers at work with our own two eyes; perhaps even some of you reading this have actually participated in the act of creating a house.

And doesn't the Designer himself qualify as complexity? The God of the Bible certainly seems complex: he talks, he smites stuff, he creates everything (presumably from nothing!). Since complexity requires a Designer, then shouldn't we also posit the existence of a Designer of the Designer? And following the same logic, such a Designer would have to be even more complex than the original Designer, therefore, there must be a Designer of the Designer's Designer. And that logic could be carried on ad infinitum.

As far as I can tell, the only way Comfort can avoid this infinite regress is by qualifying the Designer as self-sufficient and in no need of a Designer apart from himself. I propose, then, that a better definition for an atheist would be someone who believes that the universe is a self-sufficient designer that has no need of a Designer apart from itself. But the difference between an atheist and Comfort, is that the atheist can actually admit she doesn't know for certain.

(posted ex nihilo by) Philosobot

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hair for Testicles, Bible Physiology Error (I Corinthains 11:13-15)

In I Corinthians 11:1-16, Paul presents his argument in favor of women’s head coverings. He makes his argument with appeals to Christology (vs. 3), angelology (vs. 10), gender roles (vs. 7), and finally with an appeal to nature (vss. 13-16). In this post it will become apparent that Paul invokes the ancient physiological understanding of his contemporaries and so errors from what is now commonly known about human reproductive systems and functions. I warn the reader that the background material in this post, though ancient, will incorporate direct references to human reproductive physiology in appropriate-level medical language.

I Corinthians 11:13-16 reads:

3Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering (περιβολαίου).

After Paul’s extended discourse on the appropriateness of women’s head coverings in verses 3-12, Paul suddenly closes his argument with verse 15 by clearly stating “hair for a covering”. In so saying, Paul appears to be utterly reversing his earlier argumentation for head coverings by apparently asserting that a woman’s hear suffices for a covering. Notice that Paul asks for his readers to make a judgment regarding this matter. He states, “Doth not even nature teach you…” He invokes the nature of the matter as a determinant. To understand this argument, we will need to comprehend the ancient, pre-scientific, erroneous understanding of human reproductive physiology.

The term “περιβολαίου” is generally translated as “covering” in most English versions. Because περιβολαίου is contrasted with hair, the semantic domain of this term is particularly relevant. Euripdes (Herc fur 1269) uses περιβόλαιον in reference to a body part. Hercules is cast as making the complaint, “έπει δε σαρκός περιβόλαι' έκτη-σάμην ήβώντα, μόχθους ους ετλην τί δει λέγειν.” Literally translated, this reads, “After I received [my] flesh bags, which are the outward signs of puberty, [I received] labors about which I [shall] undertake to say what is necessary” (my translation with Martin base text). Martin creates the following dynamic translation of the first phrase, “After I received my testicles (περιβόλαια), which are the outward signs of puberty.” Clearly Euripides uses the term περιβόλαια to refer to testicles. A similar use is found in Leuc. Clit 1.15.2 in which Achilles Tatitus builds on the meaning of περιβόλαιον in an erotic description of a passionate garden encounter. Of great interest, Achilles Tatius’s description associates female hair with male testicles.

Why is there an association made between hair and testicles in this ancient understanding of human reproductive physiology? Martin states, “Hippocratic authors hold that hair is hollow.” He further documents from Hippocratic sources that, “…hollow body parts create a vacuum and attract fluid, hair attracts semen,” and “Hair grows most prolifically from the head because the brain is the place where the semen is produced or at least stored” (pp. 77-78). Furthermore, “A man with long hair retains much or all of his semen, and his long hollow hair draws the semen toward his head area but away from his genital area, where it should be ejected. Therefore, I Cor 11: 14 correctly states that it is a shame for a man to have long hair since the male nature is to eject rather than retain semen” (p. 78). On the inverse, a woman with long hair has a better semen storage and suction ability which hence enables her potential for conception (pp. 78-79). Aristotle likewise asserts that “long hollow hair increases the suction power of her hollow uterus” (Aristotle, Gen an. 739a.37-739b.20).

Hair, then was seen in the female as an extension of the genitalia. With this understanding, Tertullian counsels women, “Let her whose lower parts are not bare have her upper likewise covered” (Virg. 12, ANF 4:35). Regarding this passage, Martin notes, “Tertullian’s analogy and exhortation presume that hair becomes a functioning part of a young woman’s genitalia at puberty similar to the way testicles become functioning at puberty as part of male genitalia” (p. 82). Informed by Jewish tradition as Paul is, he considers the exposure of ggenitalia indecent for men and women (Exodus 20:26; Isaiah 6:2).

The ancient physiological concept of hair cements well in the context of Paul’s argument. He contrasts long hair in women with testicles in men. Paul states, that appropriate with her nature, a female is not given an external testicle but rather hair that must be uncovered. Likewise, due to the nature of hair as a siphon for semen, Paul argues that it is naturally inappropriate for a man to have long hair.

Obviously, Paul uses here an inaccurate and mundane understanding of male and female reproductive physiology. The mundane argumentation of Paul demonstrates the inability of the Bible to transcend out of the cultural context in which it is written. This hence confirms that it is not an inerrant work of an insightful and transcendent God but the work of men.

Martin, T. W. 2004. Paul’s argument from nature from the veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A testicle instead of a head covering. Pages 75-84. In Journal of Biblical Literature, 123/1

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Metacognition: Intellectual Attribution Bias

Drs. Shermer and Sulloway presented the question, "Why do other people believe in God?" to ten thousand Americans in 1998. The results lead them to formulate what they have entitled the intellectual attribution bias. In this series on metacognitive awareness and regulation, we now turn to the role of intellectual attribution bias.

The results of the Shermer and Sulloway query lead to the observation that the two most common reasons given for other peoples' belief in God were personal comfort ("comforting, relieving, consoling") and social comfort ("raised to believe"). Of great significance is the observation that the opposite was true for the reasons given to the question, "Why do you believe in God?" Most people answered that their personal belief in God was based on "good design, complexity, or beauty in nature" or "personal experience of God." It is alarmingly interesting that the reasons for personal belief are quantified in the opposite order of the reasons given for others' belief in God. In contrast to the personal comfort and social comfort attributions given for others' beliefs, personal belief was generally justified on the basis of intellectual reasons such as the appearance of design and personal experience.

The poll posted on this blog earlier today asked the same question and came up with similar results. Of all voters, 54% voted in favor of attributing others' belief in God to "comfort, consolation, meaning, and purpose." Another 44% of those who voted included a vote in favor of upbringing. Of the nine voters, only 11% cast a vote for the "good design, complexity, or beauty of nature." Those these categories are intentionally limited and overlapping, the majority vote falls in favor of personal comfort and social comfort ascriptions for how people view others' belief in God. A similar ascription would be predicted for describing why someone is a Republican, a Democratic, or a fan of the Green Party, and often, these ascriptions seem to be used for others of one's same persuasion.

Shermer states the following regarding his findings: "...these results are evidence of an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, whereas they see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven" (Shermer, 2006, p. 38). Shermer (2006) also notes that the same bias is reflected in other fields of disagreement such as politics (p. 38).

Metacognitive awareness of the intellectual attribution bias could be displayed in an acknowledgment that one's beliefs and opinions are not always the result of objective thinking, intellect, and experience that we vaunt them to be. How often is such a bias illustrated in discussions between parties on different ends of any given area of disagreement? For example, atheists often attribute the beliefs of theists to personal comfort and social upbringing, not acknowledging that theists disagree with this attribution. However, theists likewise attribute the non-belief of atheists to subjective holdouts like bitterness, bad experiences with "those in the church," or lack of faith. In reality, each feels that she has more than reasonable justification for belief or lack of belief.

Metacognitive recognition of the intellectual attribution bias can manifest in multiple venues. For one, consider it worth noting that if the beliefs or ideas of someone else seem absolutely ridiculous or unfounded, there is a significant chance that you do not understand the beliefs or ideas. This is not to say that the other ideas or beliefs are correct, or that people are unqualified to assess other peoples' ideas or beliefs. This is to say that is is worth considering how well you understand the other before you reject it out of hand.

רוּחַ קִנְאָה -- The Misogynistic Spirit of Jealousy

Trial by ordeal is a judicial practice that predicates guilt or innocence on the ability of the accused to survive a potentially-injurious task unscathed. If the accused survives the task or if she survives the task uninjured, she is declared innocent. On the other hand, if she either dies or suffers irreversible injury, she is considered guilty. Trial by ordeal often took the form of trial by water or trial by fire. The accused had a milestone tied around her neck and she was cast into a river. If she sank and died, the trial by water would determine her guilt. If she floated, she was considered innocent. In trial by fire, the accused walked a distance over burning coals. Three days later her wounds were examined. If there was substantial healing, it was thought that God had intervened to establish her innocence.

Trial by ordeal is one of the more primitive justice determination systems in human jurisprudence. It assumes supernatural intervention in order to circumvent the obviously injurious nature of the ordeal. In the case of the Sotah, the Bible incorporates a misogynistic intervention to determine the guilt or the innocence of a woman presumed to have committed adultery.

Numbers 5:11-31 prescribes a primitive trial by ordeal. The ordeal begins as follows:

5:12 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, 5:13 And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; 5:14 And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled.

Death by stoning was the prescribed punishment for adultery in ancient Israel; however, two to three witnesses were required to establish the guilt of an adulterer (Deuteronomy 19:15). This passage qualifies the ensuing ordeal with the following qualifications:

- A woman has presumably committed adultery against her husband.

- No witnesses are available.

- The “spirit of jealousy” comes upon the husband though there are no corroborating witnesses.

The trial continues with preliminary priestly preparations which climax into the following imperatives:

21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; 5:22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. 5:23 And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: 5:24 And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.

The woman suspected of adultery is hence made to imbibe this potentially injurious water under oath before the priest and before the Temple numen. Prior to the above, the priest removes the woman’s head covering and/or dishevels her hair—adding to the humiliation of the event.

The outcome of the ordeal is prescribed as follows:

5:27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 5:28 And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.

The outcome of this ordeal is the litmus for the secret culpability of the adulteress. Her sin is made clear through how her body responds to the soured water. Apparently, the secret adulteress undergoes a process of internal organ failure which will result in her infertility. Nearly contemporary with the Numbers 5 trial by ordeal is a Hittite military oath text that prescribes a similar curse. The text, CTH 427 is preserved on two cuneiform shards. It prescribes a series of three curses that will befall the traitor that abandons allegiance to the military. The last of these curses is narrated with a figurine of a person suffering from an abdominal condition called ascites on display. The oath takers are “told that should they break their word, their bellies should swell with water, and the deities of the oath should eat their offspring (seed) within their bellies” (Wiki, “Hittite Military Oath”).

Nothing prevents the Pentateuchal husband from submitting his wife to such a trial by ordeal. The text presumes the innocence of the husband and the guilt of the wife (5:31), but there are no limits to its application other than the occurrence of a "spirit (rush) of jealousy." Note that nothing is prescribed for the woman that suspects her husband to be guilty of adultery. Furthermore, the male partner who slept with the suspected wife is not made to undergo any sort of trial. He gets away without further consideration. It is noteworthy that adultery for a woman in the Pentateuch is much more generalized than it is for a man. In order for adultery to occur, a married woman must sleep with any man. However, adultery is not committed with a married man sleeps with unmarried women. The marital status of the woman is the determinant of adultery in the Pentateuch.

This passage is regressive. It mandates a trial by ordeal—an outdated and inadequate means to justice. Furthermore, it subjects the suspected wife to harm. It is an example of backward, regressive morality in the Bible, and it would be prudent for the believer to contemplate the nature of a God who would prescribe the same.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Metacognitive Awareness

The taxonomic designation for humans is Homo sapiens sapiens. The second sapiens distinguishes humans today from our recent Cro-Magnon ancestors who have been given the taxonomic designation of Homo sapiens. Placing aside the species-centrism of the Latin nomenclature, the term sapiens was chosen because humans are one of the relatively few organisms that are sapient. Sapience is self-awareness or awareness of one’s ability to think.

Because we humans are sapient and aware of our own thought processes, we often use knowledge of our thinking—its trajectories, limitations, and strengths—as a basis for behavior. My wife told me to pick up toothpaste at the grocery store. Aware as I am that I respond poorly to aural or audio instructions I yet failed to take action to help me remember this instruction. I spent an hour at the grocery store, and, before leaving, I spent nearly five minutes reflecting over all that I had planned to procure. I left convinced that I had obtained all that would be necessary to fill our bellies and ensure the happiness of my wife. However, I forgot to bring home toothpaste.

How might I have used my sapience to prevent this from occurring? I know my limitations regarding aural instructions. I could have taken measures to prevent this oversight from happening. For example, I could have tied a string to my finger, or I might have made a list before leaving. Doing so would have been a good example of metacognitive regulation

Metacognition is awareness of one’s own thinking. Metacognitive awareness is the knowledge that one has about her thinking and cognitive processes. As illustrated in my personal anecdote, metacognitive awareness and recognition are behaviors that people engage in quite naturally. However, there are areas of metacognition that all too often evade the sapient today. In the next few days, I will illustrate examples of higher-order metacognitive awareness and how they relate to the trappings of non-critical epistemologies.


What? Another Atheist Blog?

Why, yes. But, if for some reason this bothers you, you'll be happy to know that this particular blog replaces two others which the authors were writing separately. So, you have a net loss of one atheist blog. However, we have also added a third voice to our own, because -- as the bible teaches us -- a "cord of three strands cannot be easily broken" (Ecclesiastes 4:12), and so we feel that our joint efforts will reap a greater "reward for their labor" (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Far be it for us to challenge the infallibility of holy scriptures!

Did I say "far be it for us"? What I meant was "it's a moral imperative" to challenge the infallibility of holy scriptures. And not just scriptures, but theistic apologetics, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. We feel that such topics are generally dismissed out of hand by most atheistic bloggers who, understandably, have no interest in scripture or theology. This is not a bad thing, but it does leave something of a void in the atheist blogosphere which we aspire to fill. So, our primary aim will be to draw critical attention to these aspects of religion which are often sheltered from criticism.

And who are we to presume such authority? The authors have an inside perspective on the matters addressed because each of us was once personally invested and educated in Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestant Evangelicalism. We've attended bible schools and seminaries, we've studied our scriptures, our apologetics and our catechism. And we have come to realize, each for his/her own reason, that god is a fiction and religion is a lie.

We are not evangelists for atheism. Atheism is not a belief system like religion, so it cannot be proselytized. Atheism is the absence of belief, and atheists have nothing to prove because we make no propositions. Rather, we examine the propositions put forth by faith and discard all that is untenable. In this way, we are "disevangelists"; that is, we do not preach atheism, we decry faith. How the reader responds to our "disevangelization" is a matter of his/her own conscience.