On nutrition

I’ve written a number of times about fatness and obesity. I don’t think it’s wrong to be either one of those, but I do think there is a moral argument that underpins the necessity to attempt to avoid being those things. You get one life. I think people should give it quality.

Of course, this doesn’t mean a person can’t enjoy something other than a diet half-salad once in awhile. That’s why the political (and often dishonest) arguments against drives like Michelle Obama’s pro-fitness efforts bother me so much. It’s also why I really like this post from Mike:

See what I’m getting at? Guess how much guilt I felt eating that [“prime”] burger the other week… that’s right, none. That’s because I don’t eat that way very often. My diet consists of whole grains, seeds and nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meats. I watch my portions carefully. That means that now and again, I can splurge. And it just so happens that last week I was in Oklahoma City for a concert with some friends, and we grabbed some McDonald’s beforehand. I had a Big Mac, and it tasted awesome (not remotely as good as the prime burger, but still tasty). On the way back to Tulsa, I got hungry and had McDonald’s again… a grilled chicken sandwich. It also tasted good and I’ve lived through the experience.

This is what a lot of people don’t realize about nutrition. Eating right doesn’t mean avoiding every bad thing out there every second of every day. A person’s health doesn’t hinge on a single meal. A proper diet takes place over time; it’s an ongoing effort. Grabbing that doughnut once in awhile isn’t a sign of hypocrisy for someone who advocates eating well. (More importantly, we shouldn’t dismiss an argument simply due to hypocrisy. Think about it: If a serial killed said murder is wrong, would anyone reject the truth of his argument?) It’s perfectly possible to be healthy and enjoy life at the same time.

David Marshall, The A-Unicornist, and a review of reviews

Mike over at The A-Unicornist has spent quite a few weeks working through the Christian apologist book True Reason, chapter by chapter. (Links to all his reviews can be found here.) The book is more or less a response to the relatively recent uptick in atheist writings and whatnot; it contends that Christianity and reason go hand-in-hand while atheism lacks in justification. Most of the chapters are written by different people, the most well known of whom is William Lane Craig. (Craig, popular on YouTube and the debating circuit, is the sort of guy who fancies himself knowledgeable about physics. This is despite the fact that he does not understand anything about the First Cause argument.) Unfortunately, Mike has yet to get a response from Craig. However, he has had several authors respond in his comment sections. A few even made their own blog posts. One of those bloggers is David Marshall.

I have not read True Reason, so I can’t respond to anything specific from Marshall’s chapter unless it has been quoted. However, I can respond to a few of the bad arguments he makes in his response post. Let’s start with this gem:

[Alister] McGrath is Dawkins’ colleague, and his expertise lies in historical Christian theology, so he ought to (and does) know what it teaches.

Richard Dawkins has studied biology and evolution for over 50 years. He has a PhD from Oxford. He has taught at Berkley and Oxford. He wrote one of the most influential books on evolutionary theory in the 20th century. Alister McGrath is not his colleague.

This sort of thing represents the general quality of Marshall’s opening. For instance, he goes on to link to books he has written, bash more atheists, and call Dawkins ignorant while saying John Loftus is basically a liar. But the part that takes the cake is where he attempts to poison the well by, as he admits, biasing us against Mike:

Whether you call [the name of Mike’s website, The A-Unicornist) whimsy or logic, let me begin by asking the obvious question. Is it intellectually humble, or wise, to define oneself as denying the existence of unicorns? If you are a Christian, how can you know God didn’t create any unicorns, and put them in one of the worlds C. S. Lewis locates at the bottom of pools in the Wood Between the Worlds in his children’s book The Magician’s Nephew? (A Christian multiverse already, in 1955!) And if you are an atheist, the Anthropic Principle probably requires you to posit an infinite number of worlds, or so enormously large a number of worlds that the word “astronomical” is rendered quaint. Then on what grounds, having visiting almost none of those worlds (I am not talking to New Agers), that there are no unicorns on a single one of them?

This is an issue that has been covered so many times by so many people, including Mike during his process of reviewing this book. Atheism (and a-unicornism, for that matter) does not mean denying the existence of deities. It refers to a lack of belief in them. That is, atheists are not making the positive claim that there are no gods. We don’t know that. What we’re saying is that no compelling evidence has been presented to convince us of the Christian’s positive claim that there is a god, so we reject his proposition. (The same goes for positive claims made by Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and virtually all other religions.) Hell, Richard Dawkins even has a 7 point scale of belief in The God Delusion where he contends that he is an agnostic because, though no good evidence exists to make a reasonable case for any god, he does not have definitive proof that we live in a godless Universe. Just the same, there is no proof that we live in a unicornless Universe, but there is absolutely no reason to assume that they exist.

At this point Marshall is starting to get into Mike’s actual arguments, but continues with the bad form:

The question is how fairly or incisively Mike has thought through what he claims are the book’s better arguments, or if he knows enough for his opinion to be worth anything.

So Jesus-like.

Let his attempt to “think through” my argument be a test of that. If he fails to accurately grasp the argument I make in this chapter, let’s assume that he flubbed the other chapters, as well, until he proves otherwise.

This is interesting because the post to which Marshall is responding is about chapter 10. One would imagine he might look to the 9 previous reviews (one of which was about a chapter which Marshall also wrote). Or even more significant, since his post went up on October 21 and Mike finished chapter 16 on October 16, one would not be unreasonable in imagining he could have read those other chapters rather than assume they were flubbed. But, no, by all means. Let’s go down that totally logical road and assume that if someone gets one argument wrong, he must have them all wrong. SPOILER ALERT: This ‘logic’ does not work out in Marshall’s favor.

David Marshall, whose previous chapter left me unimpressed . . .

Since I know quite a bit about the subjects of that previous chapter, world religions and the history of Christianity, and Mike evidently does not (read my response in the comments section), let’s just say, that his “thumbs down” critique does not quite break my heart.

(The italicized portion is a quote from Mike whereas the rest is Marshall’s response.)

Oh, well. If you’re an authority in your field, then I guess we’re done here. Unless…wait a minute. That’s right. It turns out logical fallacies are not valid responses. So…I guess we can just assume that Marshall has flubbed the rest of arguments, right?

If Gnus were really open to learning something gnu, shouldn’t the fact that Christians keep denying the definition of faith New Atheism projects on us Christians, tell them something right there?

First, this is an argument from popularity. That makes three logical fallacies (though credence has been lent to Marshall’s argument that we might rightly assume a person who flubs one argument has flubbed them all). Second, atheists have been arguing for who-knows-how-long that atheism is not a positive claim, yet that hasn’t stopped Marshall from ignoring us. Third, the definition Gnu Atheists have had for the sort of faith displayed by those who believe in God (‘belief without evidence’) is correct. If it wasn’t, then we would expect to have all sorts of Christians who came to their beliefs independently of the Bible. That is, the Bible is not a source of evidence anymore than the Lord of the Rings is a source of evidence that Mt. Doom exists. So since that is true and since Christianity requires the Bible, we do not have independent Christians as we would expect if faith was not belief without evidence. On the other hand, scientists come to the same conclusions independently all the time.

Indeed it doesn’t! Here’s Blatant Flub II: Mike quaffs his first quote! (And what he calls an “old canard,” at that!)

He glosses me as saying “faith is just another way of knowing.” But then what he quotes me as actually saying, is rather that faith (as Christians understand it) is the ONLY way of knowing anything!

Here is what Marshall said, emphasis mine: In fact, faith is simply one of two faculties (along with its close cousin, reason) by which we know all that we know.

At least that one wasn’t a logical fallacy.

Also, the sub-text, Mike is admitting that he has often heard Christians say faith is reasonable. This he calls an “old canard,” because he has heard it so often. Why, then (third and most important error so far) doesn’t he allow Christians to explain what we believe for ourselves?

He read your book, didn’t he?

If Christian after Christian says, “Faith is, by our understanding of the word, a function of reason,” shouldn’t our understanding of the word be normative for how we use it? The question is, after all, what Christians think about faith, not what gnus or unicorns or hippogriffs think.

The problem is that Marshall says religious faith is like the ‘faith’ we have in our senses. That premise is what allows Mike to pick apart the argument: There already exists a description of what our belief in the reliability (or lack thereof) of our senses is. It’s called assumption. The things we assume are distinctly different from what Marshall says we must do in order to believe in God; Marshall describes two things as faith, but he is plainly wrong about one of those things. Take this from his post, for example:

When I cross a bridge, I assume it will not fall down. If it does fall down, my assumption will have proven to be in error. But the act of crossing the bridge is an act of faith, in the sense I am using the word, as is the act of praying to God.

See the problem? It lies in the phrase “in the sense I am using the word”. That would be fine if his argument was narrowly construed, but it isn’t. He is attempting to apply his sense of the word to situations in which a different definition already exists. Again, this is what allows Mike and everyone else to tear his argument apart.

How can Christians be “abusing” language for using the word “faith” consistently as we have used that word for thousands of years, and its ancestors, before the modern English language even evolved into being?

This isn’t a logical fallacy, but it is a bit of hipster theology, and that’s just as bad, if not worse.

Again, Mike is completely missing the point of this chapter. It is not to prove that the Bible is accurate — I wrote two books arguing that the gospels are essentially historical, but their arguments are completely irrelevent to what I am saying here.

What elicited this response was a claim by Mike that one will not be convinced of a particular portion of Marshall’s arguments unless one assumes the Bible to be true. Marshall understood that to mean Mike was saying a full defense of the Bible needed to be given in the chapter. Again, perhaps that first logical fallacy wasn’t so far off the mark, what with how many times Marshall has flubbed his responses.

I’ve actually skipped quite a bit of what Marshall had to say because it was largely just a series of insults directed at Mike. He calls him thick, ignorant, numbskull, and says he is acting dumb. Taken with his earlier poisoning of the well, it isn’t a big leap to conclude that this guy isn’t entirely secure with his arguments. He commits a number of logical fallacies (maybe 5, counting the ad homs? I think I forgot to include the poisoned well, but who knows at this point) and all he has to rely on is pulling rank and insisting that everyone needs to buy into his definition of faith. Then, just to compound it all, he says this in his comment section:

Mike: “His whole post was like that. Bragging about how he’s an expert and I’m not, saying that I’m “arrogant” and a “numbskull”, that Sean Carroll “worships science”, that I have a “thick skull”…. the dude’s certifiable. And a pretty major (novel obscenity — DM). If his arguments had a leg to stand on, he wouldn’t be steeped in that kind of vitriol.”

This seems a bit peculiar, because just a few posts earlier, Mike had been calling William Lane Craig a “hypocrit,” “dishonest,” and an “f-ing theologian.” And in this post he uses stronger language than “numbskull” about me. So is this a concession that his own arguments have no leg to stand on?

This is a common mistake people make about ad homs. It is not a logical fallacy to insult the hell out of one’s opponent when the point of the insult isn’t meant to undermine the arguments being made. It is only when an ad hom is used in place of actual rebuttal that it becomes a logical fallacy. I think it is clear that, while Marshall does respond to Mike’s arguments with actual arguments of his own, he is also attempting to undermine Mike’s credibility throughout the entire post. As for the language Mike used about Marshall, he called the guy a major dickhole well outside the purview of any attempt to present further argumentation; he was just stating his opinion of the guy, not trying to undermine anything.

At any rate, this post has gone on for far too long, so let me sum things up: There are a lot of good reasons to reject the arguments David Marshall presents. Also, he is a bit of a dickhole.

Science does not require faith

It requires assumptions:

Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.

~Sean Carroll, via The A-Unicornist.

Atheism on the rise

Since the last Gallup poll was taken, just before the emergence of so-called New Atheism, the rate at which people call themselves atheists has risen significantly:

The poll, called “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was conducted) to 60 percent.

At the same time, the number of Americans who say they are atheists rose, from 1 percent to 5 percent.

I don’t think this is a reflection of changing beliefs. Rather, it is a reflection of changing attitudes:

“The obvious implication is that this is a manifestation of the New Atheism movement,” said Ryan Cragun, a University of Tampa sociologist of religion who studies American and global atheism.

Still, Cragun does not believe the poll shows more people are becoming atheists, but rather that more people are willing to identify as atheists.

For a very long time, religiosity has been a central characteristic of the American identity,” he said. “But what this suggests is that is changing and people are feeling less inclined to identify as religious to comply with what it means to be a good person in the U.S.”

I’ve attributed this change in attitude to a number of facts in the past, including the Catholic Church’s rape problems, but I think a good deal of credit goes to Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, and others who have made the phrase “I am an atheist” something that is okay to say.

via The A-Unicornist

Chromosome 2

It has been proposed and well evidenced that human chromosome 2 is the result of a fusion event between two chromosomes in our evolutionary past. Briefly, here is the evidence:

All great apes except humans have 24 pairs of chromosomes. We only have 23. That means we need an explanation for such a difference that dates back only a relatively short period of time (5-7 million years). As it happens, human chromosome 2 shows strong evidence of being two fused chromosomes. The way we know this is that all chromosomes have telomeres and centromeres. Telomeres are repeating units of DNA that serve to protect the ends (and therefore middles) of chromosomes, sort of like a good pair of shoes and a strong helmet. Centromeres are DNA units located somewhere between the telomeres of chromosomes, generally relatively close to the center. Their function is to help assemble the two parts of a chromosome during cellular replication and reproduction. In human chromosome 2, we see that there are actually two telomeres fused together in the center. There are also telomeres on the end, but between each end and the center are centromeres. That means we have three telomeres (one of which is fused) and two centromeres.

I bring this up because I was recently reading yet another excellent post by The A-Unicornist and he was dealing with this stuff:

ID is really nothing but an argument from ignorance – it claims that certain things simply cannot be explained by science, so it must be ‘best explained’ by a designer instead. Take for example this post from The New Creationist. I often point creationists to the Ken Miller video where he explains the Chromosome-2 fusion in humans, because it’s a perfect example of the theory of evolution making a falsifiable prediction that ended up being powerful evidence that evolution is true – something that ID has never done and in principle cannot do, which is why it will never be a science. Now, this “new creationist”, who incidentally sounds just as credulous as the old ones, argues that such a fusion is impossible – that the chromosome should never have been able to fuse at all.

Being that I’m not a biologist, I have no idea how to directly refute what he’s arguing. But it’s conspicuously odd that rather than, I dunno, ask a biologist or two (like, golly I dunno, write a letter to Ken Miller?), he simply frames his argument as though the unanswered question itself creates a major problem for the theory of evolution.

Since I’ve used chromosome 2 as an argument for evolution, I am familiar with the creationist responses. As such, I want to address what the blogger known as The New Creationist is arguing:

If the fused chromosomes in an end-to-end fusion are ripped apart by the centromeres during cell division and cells must divide to produce an embryo then how does an embryo develop with two previously fused but now ripped apart chromosomes? We know that the loss of just one chromosome would be lethal and here we have the loss of both of the two
fused chromosomes. If fused chromosomes do not make it through cell division then how could a fused chromosomal configuration be a result of common descent since there would be no descendants by a biological pathway. Such would be miraculous. Indeed, I believe it is a miracle not only because it can not be explained by any natural pathway but also because it is contradicted by experimental data.

What he is trying to say (and what he later says a little more clearly) is that two centromeres would cause division and assembly to occur in two separate places. This would be an all around mess that would prevent not only mitosis, but meiosis as well. So what could the solution be? Well, he answers it himself:

Now, it has been proposed that the deactivation of one of the centromeres in the fused chromosome would prevent the rupture and subsequent loss of the newly formed fusion…

And that is the case. One of the centromeres has been deactivated. One possible reason for this could relate to the fact that the area near the deteriorated centromere (the pericentromeric sequences) has gone through a large number of duplication events, but this isn’t known and requires certain confirming evidence around other deactivated centromeres. I don’t know if any significant research has been done in this area since the 2006 paper about chromosome 2.

The New Creationist continues:

…but this poses another equally lethal problem during the pairing off of homologous chromosomes.

Let’s say that if C2A fused with C2B forming C2 (which has 2 centromeres) in the paternal germ line, the male’s sperm. Now, that sperm would have to fertilize an egg where both C2A and C2B not having been fused would have to pair off with the paternal C2 BUT if C2 has been prevented from being ripped apart because one of its centromeres has been deactivation then the corresponding maternal C2B (or C2A) will not combine with C2 in the mother’s egg because that centromere would have been deactivated.

In other words, he is saying that if two ancestral primates had offspring with the fused chromosome, then that offspring would have 23 chromosomes whereas the rest of the population still had 24. Mating between the two could not occur as a result, thus the fused chromosome could never make it beyond a single generation.

The most obvious solution to this problem is that several members of a population experienced a fusion event. It could have been a completely chance event, or it could have been due to a particular mutation that had spread down the line. That is, my money is on a mutation existing in a population that caused the fusion between two specific chromosomes. Perhaps all the pericentromeric duplications (which pre-date the fusion event, incidentally) gave rise to a gene that was free to mutate neutrally in the population. After some time, it managed to survive the generations, and made a marked difference. (That’s what has happened, minus the specific duplication events, with Richard Lenski’s E. coli.) Or maybe a mutation popped up just out of completely random chance, as opposed to being connected to any particular type of event. It’s hard to say just how any of this happened, but there are good hypotheses to be had on the question.

To conclude, the first argument presented here was defeated before it was even made. One of the two centromeres was deactivated long ago, as stated in the original paper. Indeed, that very paper even suggested a correlating factor in centromere deactivation that could be useful for future research. As for the second argument, I’m going to give Mike the last word:

[T]he fact that an explanation is either unknown or not immediately apparent would not refute the fact that the theory of evolution made this falsifiable prediction, nor would it suggest that there cannot be a rational explanation at all. Our new creationist seems to think that because he does not know how to explain it that a rational explanation is not merely unknown, but in principle impossible. Ergo, Goddidit. That ain’t how science works, kids.

Incoherent views

I’ve been following a comment thread over at The A-Unicornist that has mostly revolved around the First Cause argument. In it was this gem from family-harasser Jack Hudson:

…causation isn’t logically dependent on time.

This made me literally laugh out loud. It demonstrates what is one of the most incoherent view of reality I think most Christians hold. I’ve explained how it all works on FTSOS as well as in the comment thread, but I think it bears repeating one more time what, exactly, causality is.

Newton’s third law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Another way of saying this is, for every cause there is an equal effect. Or, to use exactly equal language again, for every force there is an equal opposing force. With that under our belts, let’s look at what force is.

Simply put, force is mass multiplied by acceleration, or f=ma. Let’s break it down further. What is acceleration? It is the change in velocity of an object over time. In other words, find the change in velocity in an object and divide that change by the amount of time it took for said change to occur and you’ve got acceleration.

I think if I left things at this point many people would be able to figure out the implications of what I’m saying. However, since I know Jack (who is obsessed with FTSOS) and other Christians will be reading this, I will spell it out. In order for something to have a force, it must have mass and acceleration. And in order for something to have acceleration, it must have velocity. And in order for something to have velocity, it must go through time. Tie it all together and we see that time is of the essence. At least to introductory physics. Without time, there is no causality. And what did we have ‘prior’ to the Big Bang? Certainly not time as we understand it. Therefore, it is logically incoherent to use the idea of causality in order to argue about how the Universe began.

If more Christians understood science, we wouldn’t have these sort of problems.

Haha, Oklahoma

Oklahoma passed some stupid anti-Sharia law not too long ago. Because we all know what a threat that is. Especially in Oklahoma. But it looks like THE FREEDOM HATING EVIL OF ISLAMIST DEVILS is still alive:

A federal appeals court upheld an injunction against a voter-approved ban on Islamic law in Oklahoma on Tuesday, saying it likely violated the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against religion.

A three-member panel of the Denver-based U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the rights of plaintiff Muneer Awad, a Muslim man living in Oklahoma City, likely would be violated if the ban on Sharia law takes effect.

The decision upholds the ruling of a lower federal court.

“While the public has an interest in the will of the voters being carried out … the public has a more profound and long-term interest in upholding an individual’s constitutional rights,” the appeals court said in a 37-page written decision.

I find a lot of satisfaction in this. The law was an obvious waste of time, only meant to fear-monger and scare up a few Christian votes. I hope the few people who take it seriously are scared shitless right now. I really do.

Also, sorry for laughing at your state, Mike.


via Mike

Ignoring the facts about morality

One of the things that has always bothered me about morality debates with Christians is their common inability to distinguish between normative and descriptive claims. (Really, the issue extends beyond Christians, but it seems especially prevalent within that group.) It’s always possible to quickly identify someone who does not understand the distinction when a question is raised about the morality of a group or individual that has committed great atrocities. For example, “What makes the morality of the Nazis wrong if there is no god?” Oh, no! My worldview has been shattered and the Christians win! Please.

There are two obvious problems with this. First, it’s an annoying argument from consequence. It is being implied that an argument for subjective morality must be wrong because it leads to bad things. Second, and this is the real kicker, the whole point of this post, it confuses value claims and factual claims. Mike at The A-Unicornist has it covered:

Although it is in our nature to desire fairness and to feel compassion, we must reconcile those feelings with objective information about the natural world. So in forming rational moral judgments, it becomes absolutely vital that the information to which we have access is accurate.

And that, quite simply, forms a solid foundation upon which to reject “Nazi morality”: the beliefs underpinning the Nazi’s attempt at global domination and extermination of Jewish people are false. The German people were not a genetically superior “race” of people, but were every bit as human as the Jews they so villainized. The notion that the Jews were partly, if not entirely, responsible for Germany’s economic woes was similarly pure nonsense. That’s how you get Nazi morality: you have people who passionately believe information that is patently false. It’s quite plausible that many Nazis, if not most, took no delight in the suffering of other people; but, by adopting the false belief that Jews were not actually people, they were able to overcome their natural human empathy, to the point that great atrocities were committed.

So the Christian really has asked a non-question. It is trivially resolvable – X group was factually incorrect – and nothing has even been said to advance the discussion. There are far more interesting ways to dig into the question of morality (presuming the theist can avoid begging the question with the assumption that morality is objective), but it takes the right sort of person to ask the right sorts of questions. Someone who may have a background in theology and religious ‘philosophy’ is going to ask shallow, remedial questions, and is far from the right sort of person. That’s why, even though this stuff is not that hard, Christians tend to be more of a detriment than a help in these kind of talks.


I was reading The A-Unicornist’s blog by that swell chap otherwise known as Mike when I just had to stop. Mike had earlier pointed out to me some silly comment from the king of silly comments, Jack. But as hilarious as that comment was, Jack topped himself:

Actually, [William] Craig speaks primarily from a position of reason and logic; he doesn’t simply assert God, he considers certain premises that are logically valid – that causes are necessary for things to begin to exist

This is a common error that Christians make. The idea that we can apply the idea of cause and effect to the time prior to the Big Bang makes no sense. Cause is another way of describing force. Forces are products of the Universe that we know, of the Universe that we can understand. The whole reason why we say every force has an equal and opposite force is because we can deduce as much within our framework of laws. Once we go beyond that framework (that is, beyond the Universe), all the laws we know go out the window. We absolutely cannot say the Big Bang was caused by something on the basis of our knowledge of cause and effect – we are throwing out that very basis the moment we begin to talk about anything ‘prior’ to time.

Some people just aren’t smart enough for this stuff. Mike, fortunately, is. To put what I just said in his words:

Even if the universe had a beginning, Craig has no basis for assuming that a physical process such as causality exists outside of the universe – just because things within the observable universe require a cause does not mean the universe itself does.

Even if I’m wrong and all our laws remain intact ‘prior’ to the Big Bang, there still is no valid scientific basis for asserting so. Try again, theists.