Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What is evidence?

Some people define evidence like this:

E is evidence of T just in case the probability of T is higher given E than it would be without E.

Or in other words. . .

P(T/E) > P(T/~E)

I once used that definition of "evidence" in a debate to show that contrary to my opponent's view that "faith is not evidence" for the existence of God, faith actually was evidence for the existence of God since the existence of God is more probable given that some people have faith than it would be if nobody had faith.

I'm not sure that's really a good definition of evidence, though. Consider the existence of the Elder wand in Harry Potter. The Elder wand is a magic wand made from the Elder tree that is so powerful, it renders the wizard who wields it invincible. That's assuming the wand chose the wizards since in Harry Potter, the wand chooses the wizard.

Now obviously if there were no such thing as an Elder tree, then the probability of the existence of the Elder wand would be zero. But the Elder wand would at least be possible if the elder tree existed, which it does. That possibility might be extremely remote, but the probability would still be greater than zero. Something whose existence is possible has a better chance of existing than something whose existence is impossible, so the probability of the existence of the Elder wand is greater given the existence of the elder tree than it would be given the non-existence of the elder tree. From that, it should follow that the existence of the elder tree is evidence for the existence of the elder wand.

But doesn't that strike you as wrong?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Enough with the snarkiness!

For a long time, it seemed to me that in interactions between Christians and non-Christians, all the vitriol, verbal abuse, sarcasm, snarkiness, and general unpleasantness was coming from atheists and other non-believers, but that Christians were, for the most part, trying to be civil.  J.P. Holding seemed to be the only Christian out there taking the low road, and even though some of us liked what he was saying, most of us didn't like the way he was saying it.  To a lesser degree, a lot of us were also uncomfortable with James White's abrasive attitude.

Atheists weren't just being abrasive because they were immature or because they let their emotions control them.  Even some of the very well-educated and well-respected atheists, like Richard Dawkins, were actually encouraging people to use ridicule.  What many of us previously thought was just the waste-water of the YouTube comment section was now being baptized by the intellectual leaders of the new atheist movement.  It was kind of shocking!

Apparently, even many in the atheist community were uncomfortable with it.  A rift formed between people like Jeff Lowder who thought atheists ought to be civil, and people like Richard Carrier who were all for being nasty.

But lately (for the last year or so), I've noticed that a lot of Christians are starting to give up on civility, too.  I've seen it in a lot of comment sections on blogs, and on discussion boards that I visit.  (I wonder if it is just exhaustion from having to put up with it for so long while trying to take the high road with little effect or reciprocation.)  The snarkiness I've seen from other Christians makes me even more uncomfortable than the snarkiness I've seen from atheists and other non-believers.  After all, I am a Christian myself.

So I just want to remind my fellow arm chair apologists of what Peter said in our signature verse about apologetics:

But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being read to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15)

Please, let's not forget the "gentleness and reverence" part.  It seems that a lot of us have.  As Solomon once said, "When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest" (Proverbs 19:11).  Don't be the foolish man.  Take the high road. Any fool can vent his frustration, but it takes patience and humility to remain civil and amicable when reasoning with people over controversial issues.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Do we have a priori knowledge?

By the law excluded middle, an item of knowledge is either inferred from prior items of knowledge or it is not inferred from prior items of knowledge.  Items of knowledge that are inferred are called a posteriori, and items of knowledge that are not inferred are called a priori.  The only way to escape this dichotomy is to deny that there's any such thing as knowledge at all.

The denial of a priori knowledge leads to absurdity.  If you deny that it's possible to know something without inferring it from something else, then you would have to say that for everything you know, there is a prior item of knowledge from which you inferred it.

For example, let's say you know that Socrates is mortal.  Perhaps you inferred that item of knowledge from these two items of knowledge:

1.  All men are mortal.
2.  Socrates is a man.

But if each item of knowledge you possess must be inferred from something prior, then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer 1 and 2.  Otherwise, you couldn't know that Socrates is mortal.  And then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer those as well.

If you continue to think this through, you'll quickly see that it leads to an infinite regress.  If all of our items of knowledge must be inferred from prior items of knowledge, then the only way it's possible to know anything is if there is a beginningless line of reasoning from prior premises that leads up to your present state of knowledge.

But that is impossible for three reasons.  First, none of us know an infinite number of things.  Second, because nobody has been around long enough to make an infinite number of inferences.  Third, because if there were no beginning, there would be no way to even get started making inferences.  You couldn't very well start at the beginning because there's no beginning to get started from!

So it is impossible that all of our knowledge is a posteriori.  If we know anything at all, then at least some of our knowledge must be a priori.  That means that unless there are some things we know immediately without inferring them from anything else, then knowledge is impossible.

Some people may be willing to bite the bullet and say, "Well, okay, then nobody really knows anything at all, including me."  This view is called global skepticism.  It is a self-refuting point of view for a couple of reasons.

First, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then we wouldn't know it.  A person who claims not to know anything is stating something he doesn't know to be true.

Second, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then nobody knows that any of the premises that lead to the conclusion are true, nor that the conclusion follows from those premises.

Besides that, there are plenty of things we obviously know.  We each know that we exist.  We know that two contradictory statements can't both be true at the same time and in the same sense.  I know that I have a sister named Jennifer and a brother named James.  There are all kinds of things we know.  So there must be a priori knowledge.

Is it a sin to be gay?

A lot of Christians make a distinction between having same sex attractions and acting on them.  They will say that it is a sin to have a gay relationship, but it is not a sin to simply be gay.  Some of them say that a gay person who wants to be a Christian has two moral options--they can either stay celibate, or they can go through one of those sexual orientation change programs.  Either way, they can consistently be Christians.

I'm not so sure, though.  On the one hand, it does seem to me that God judges not only our actions, but the thoughts, intentions, and motives behind our actions as well.  In Genesis 6:5, it says that "every intent of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually."  In Jeremiah 4:14, it says, "Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved.  How long will your wicked thoughts lodge within you?"  So apparently, there is such a thing as a moral thought crime.  Intentions and thoughts can be wicked and evil, not just actions.  Proverbs 24:9 says that even "the devising of folly is sin," not just the doing of folly.  It is a sin to covet (Exodus 20:17) and to lust (Matthew 5:28), both of which are thought crimes.  And there are many passages that say God looks not only at our actions, but at our hearts (e.g. 1 Samuel 16:17, Jeremiah 11:20, 1 Chronicles 28:9,  Proverbs 17:3, 21:2, Luke 16:15, etc.).  Jesus said that our good or evil deeds come from good or evil treasure stored in our hearts (Luke 6:43-45).  So it would seem if homosexual acts are sinful, then the thoughts, motives, and desires behind them are sinful as well.

But on the other hand, Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus "has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."  If one can be tempted to sin without committing any sin, that would seem to suggest that it is not a sin to have a desire you don't give into even if the desire is for something that would be sinful if you gave into it.  In that case, one could desire to have sex with one's neighbor's wife and not be guilty of any sin, and one could desire to have a relationship with somebody of the same sex and not be guilty of any sin as long as one didn't act on the desire.

On the third hand, there are two senses in which one might be tempted.  Maybe what Hebrews 4:15 means is that attempts were made to persuade Jesus to sin, not that Jesus actually felt any compulsion or inclination to sin.  Maybe Jesus didn't feel at all tempted by the opportunities given to him.

Of course some people might object that since they can't change their desires, they can't be held accountable for them.  But isn't the whole point of the gospel that we are dead in sins, unable to repent, and that it is only by the grace of God that we can be saved?  The New Testament seems to presuppose that we are all doomed because of the sinful state we are in that we cannot change.  It's only by the drawing of the Father that we can come to Christ (John 6:44).  It is only by God taking our our hearts of stones and giving us hearts of flesh that we are able to obey his commands (Ezekiel 36:26-27).  Otherwise, we are guilty of sin even though we can't do otherwise.  We are completely helpless and at the mercy of God.  That's why God gets all the glory in our salvation (Ephesians 1:5-6, 12, 14).  That's why there is no room for boasting on our parts (Romans 3:21-28, 1 Corinthians 1:29-30).

They have these programs that are supposed to help you change your sexual orientation, and apparently there are a lot of people who claim they are no longer gay.  I am skeptical of the claim that people can change their orientation through any kind of therapy, though.  I suspect these claims of changed orientation are due either to some people actually being bi-sexual and sometimes having a preference for one gender while at other times having a preference for the other gender, kind of like how sometimes you'd rather have pizza, and sometimes you'd rather have a hamburger, or the claims of changed orientation may be due to people kidding themselves and living in denial.  That wouldn't surprise me because of the tremendous pressure these people are under to be straight.  In Pentecostal churches where people believe that if you don't speak in tongues, then you don't have the Holy Spirit in you, it seems that almost everybody speaks in tongues, when the rest of us know it's all fake.  They're just behaving according to what they think is expected of them.  I've actually read testimonies from people who claimed to have changed their orientation, and even gotten married to an opposite sex person, and they will sometimes admit that the gay feelings are still there sometimes.  Well, if that's the case, then their orientation hasn't actually change!  After all, what is being gay except a desire for the same sex?  I suspect these people are just bi-sexual or in serious denial.

Even if we grant all the claimed success stories, they still describe the minority of gay people.  Most people seem incapable of changing their sexual orientation even though a lot of them would like to.  Wouldn't it be better for gay people to just admit that they are dead in sin just like everybody else and throw themselves at the mercy of God?  Not one of us can get rid of all of our sinful desires, so why kid ourselves?  We can try, but we can't stop having sinful desires.  Our only hope is the grace of God through faith in Christ.  We're all in the same boat.  It's just that our vices differ from person to person.

If we are going to have programs that are supposed to change people's sexual orientation, then why not also have equally rigorous programs that change people's other sinful desires?  Do you ever hear of people going through programs and saying, "I've been cured of lust!" or "I've been cured of greed!"?  No, our sinful desires never go away.  We overcome them because God gives us a greater desire to do what is right so that we no longer give in to them, even though we still fail from time to time.  Even if we could refrain from behaving sinfully all the time, we'd still be at the mercy of God for the sinful motives, thoughts, and desires we have.  And thank goodness for a perfect savior who bore our sins on the cross and saved us completely!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gender and sex

This weekend, a person I know who will remain anonymous told me that there is a difference between gender and sex. Sex has to do with your physicality, specifically your reproductive organs and chromosomes. Gender has to do with your self identification. So, for example, if you have a Y chromosome and a penis, but you think of yourself as a woman, then your gender is female and your sex is male.

Now, I generally don't like to have arguments over the meaning of words. I'm totally utilitarian when it comes to words. I think their sole purpose is to facilitate communication. What matters is the substance behind your words, i.e. what you actually mean by them. As long as you are clear about what you mean, then you can communicate effectively, even if the other person doesn't prefer to use those same words the way you're using them.

Words would be meaningless sounds or scribblings if we did not invest them with meaning. What gives them their meaning is how we use them and what we mean by them. What makes them capable of facilitating communication is that we have a general consensus on how they are used. Communication would be very difficult if everybody poured a different meaning into their words.

I'm 40 years old, and for as long as I can remember, 'gender' and 'sex' have been used interchangeably. They refer to whether something is male or female, and whether something is male or female depends on its chromosomes and reproductive organs. Now, I understand that over time words can take on new meanings as they are used in new ways. That's why it's hard sometimes to read literature that's over a hundred years old. Some of the words don't mean the same thing then as they do today because people use those words differently today than the did back then. But I wasn't sure if said anonymous person's definition of 'gender' was what was meant by the word all along or if this was something entirely new. So I've been looking at dictionaries on the internet.

Now, I realize a dictionary doesn't determine what a word means. As I said already, words get their meaning from common use. But a good dictionary will try to capture the various ways that words are used. That's why there's usually more than one definition. Words have what's called a "semantic domain," i.e. a range of possible uses. A good dictionary will also order the various uses according to how common they are with the most common use being first and the least common use being last.

After looking at a lot of dictionaries on the internet, it seems like the word "gender" is commonly used in two different contexts--grammar and sex. In grammar, a gender refers to whether a noun, pronoun, or whatever is masculine, feminine, or neuter. For example, "she" is feminine, "he" is masculine, and "it" is neuter. But when gender refers to people, it's synonymous with sex. It just refers to whether a person is male or female. That's it.

So I suspect this idea of making a distinction between 'gender' and 'sex' is meant to accommodate transgendered people--people who identify themselves as being members of one sex but who physically are members of the opposite sex. That way if a man thinks of himself as a woman, he can honestly say his gender is female. Now think how many times you've filled out an application, and it asked you for your "gender." Do you see how this could be useful? I can't prove it, but I'm willing to bet that people who promote making a distinction between "gender" and "sex" do so because they think if we can get everybody to say that a man's gender is female, pretty soon we'll start treating him as if his sex were female as well. That way, he can use the girl's bathroom in public.

I just looked up "transgendered" on wikipedia while writing this, and according to that article, the first time somebody suggested that gender had to do with how one identifies themselves was in 1979. That's farther back than I expected. But I wonder if this new use of the term has really caught on. Considering the fact that I haven't heard it up until now, it can't be that common. And it certainly can't be the meaning of the word.

On the one hand, I can see how it might be useful to adopt this new meaning, though. It's certainly useful to transgendered people. Of course I think if we do adopt it, then we ought to stop using "gender" on applications and switch to "sex" instead just to avoid ambiguity. Most of those applications don't care what's going on in people's heads. They just want to know if the person is actually male or female.

I wonder, though, if more is going on than simply changing the meaning of a word. If transgendered people actually think of themselves as being the opposite sex of what they actually are, then surely there's something ontological at stake. In that case, we might be doing them a disservice to go along with their redefinition.

I have to confess here that I don't understand transgenderism very well. It's not something I've thought much about or read anything about. But it strikes me as incredibly odd because from what I understand, these people aren't so delusional that they actually think they are the opposite sex than what they are. A man with a penis knows he has a male body, so he's got to know he's male. It's not as if when he's taking a shower he looks down there and sees a vagina, and it's not as if he's ignorant about how reproduction works and what the difference is between males and females. But by their own description, they self-identify as the opposite sex. What on earth does that mean? I confess I don't have a clue. If you know you're male, then what does it mean to say you identify yourself or think of yourself as a female? I'm sure it's not as absurd as it sounds to me because these people aren't stupid, but just on the surface, it sounds like they're saying, "I know I'm a man, but I believe I'm a woman." It just sounds like a blatant contradiction to me. So I don't know what men mean when they say they identify as a woman or think of themselves as women.

Now if it really is as absurd in reality as it strikes me at first glance, then I don't think we should go along with this new meaning of 'gender.' If there are men who really think they are women, and vice versa, then these people are deluded, and by going along with their peculiar terminology will just enable them to continue living in their delusion. It would be like somebody who identifies himself as a duck, and we all went along with it and agreed to refer to him as a duck and to swim around in the pond pretending to be a duck. If there really were people who thought they were ducks, wouldn't we just think they were mentally ill? Why is transgenderism any different?

So my only reservation about going along with this new meaning of 'gender' is that I'm not entirely sure we're simply being asked to invest a word with a different definition. I think we're being asked for more than that. We're being asked to really think of these people as male or female wholly apart from their physicality, just as they identify themselves as male or female apart from their physicality. And I can't do that in all honesty. I would just be playing make believe. I'd feel just as silly as if I went along with a person who thought he was a duck. And I don't think we're doing anybody any favors by going along with their delusion. I don't even expect my atheist friends who think I'm delusional for believing in God to go on pretending as if they think God exists.

But I admit my objection may just have to do with the fact that I don't understand what transgenderism is or what's really going on in their heads. I don't understand what it means for a person who considers themselves male when they know good and well that they are female or vice versa. I do know, though, that something is awry when that happens. Whatever is going on, surely we can all agree that there is a mismatch between their mind and their body one way or another.

After googling around a little more just now, I've discovered that some transgendered people seek to have sex changes, and others don't want to have sex changes. I find that very interesting. Apparently, some people who think of themselves as women are perfectly okay with being physical men. I don't get that. I mean I would get it if they just don't want to have surgery because it's expensive and scary, but if you really think of yourself as being female, why would you not want to be, you know, female?

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Chiggers and fingernail polish

I took my nephew, Jake, to his first 3D archery shoot this past Sunday. Although he was fine, I got eaten alive by chiggers. By Monday, I was seriously hating life. I went to CVS and got some Cortizone, but it didn't do anything, and I had a miserable time trying to sleep that night. I got up early on Tuesday morning, went to Walgreens, and got some "bite & Sting Relief Spray" with 5% Benzocaine in it, but that didn't help either. So last night I went to Target to get some Benadryl in hopes of at least being able to get some sleep, and the check out lady told me to use fingernail polish. I was skeptical but desperate, so I bought some.

And it worked!!! It wasn't an instant heal or anything, but the itching subsided substantially within minutes. That, combined with the Benadryl, gave me a beautiful night's sleep, and when I got up in the morning, I was at peace with the world.

I got on the internet to read about it, and all the medical professionals poohed poohed it. I think what they had a problem with was the popular theory about it. You see, a lot of people think the fingernail polish suffocates the chiggers, killing them, but that's a myth because chiggers don't stay on you. It's just the proteins in their spit your body has an allergic reaction to, and that's what causes you to itch. However, regardless of HOW the fingernail polish works, it does, in fact, work. It does a great job of relieving the itching. I don't know why.

So I wanted to share this find with any of you out there who are attached by chiggers. IT is Wednesday now, and although the redness and swelling hasn't gone away, the itching is very minimal, and from what I've read on the internet, I should expect the redness to go away within the next few days.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

God's right to take life

A long time ago, I read this article by Greg Koukl called "Does God Have to Obey the Ten Commandments?" where he argued that God has the right to take life on the basis that he created life and he can do what he wants with what is his. At the time, that made a lot of sense to me.

But then somebody raised the question of whether God would be morally justified in raping somebody on the basis that he can do whatever he wants with what is his. That seems to rub my moral intuitions in the wrong way more so than God killing the innocent. I wonder how Greg Koukl would respond to that.

I was just thinking about another justification God might have for taking life that is also based on the fact that God gives life. This is an argument from analogy. I just thought of it, so don't be all nasty and condescending if you disagree with it. I haven't given it that much thought. I just want to see what you think.

Let's suppose that the only way a doctor could do surgery on the brain, heart, lungs, or whatever, is to temporarily cause you to be clinically dead. But once the operation was over, he could revive you without causing you to have any brain damage. If that were the case, I doubt many of us would object to the doctor taking our lives. If the doctor had the ability and intention to bring us back, then none of us would object to him taking our lives. But if the doctor had no such ability, we would call it murder, and we'd all object to it.

Well, God is the only one who has the ability to raise the dead to life. In fact, according to Christian theology, everybody is raised from the dead, whether they are Christians or not. So the argument is that since God is the one who gives life, and since he is the only one who can give life back to those from whom he takes it, God is justified in taking life. He has the right.

I guess I should clarify. I didn't just now come up with the idea that God is justified in taking life on the basis that he can raise a person from the dead. What I just now came up with was the doctor analogy.

Of course you might object that when a doctor takes life, he does so to help the person have better health, whereas when God takes life, it doesn't necessarily serve that purpose. He doesn't take life for the purpose of fixing what's broken in the person. He could do that without taking life.

But suppose there was a medical procedure that made it very easy to temporarily cause a person to be clinically dead, then to bring them back. Did you ever see that movie, Flatliners, with Kevin Bacon? That's the sort of thing I'm talking about. They wanted to see what it was like on the other side, so they would put each other to sleep, so to speak, then wake each other up, so to speak. Suppose this procedure was so simple that anybody could do it in their own home without any difficulty. And suppose that it was such a common practice that there were shops around the world where you could go take one of these "death trips" just as easily as you could go see a 3D movie. Would that be immoral? After all, the purpose for doing it isn't to fix your organs. It's just entertainment.

It seems to me that if it's moral for entertainment purposes, then it's moral for no good reason at all. And if it's moral for no good reason at all, then God doesn't need any further justification other than the fact that he can and will bring the person back to life.

I suppose one final objection a person might have is that we wouldn't consider it moral to flatline a person without their consent. But even so, it's doubtful that we'd convict a person of murder if they flatlined somebody without their consent. It would at least be a lesser crime than straight up killing. Also, it doesn't seem like God would need our permission the same way somebody else might need our permission. After all, he's our heavenly father. When we were kids, our own parents had rights over us that adults don't have over each other. If God is the uber Parent, then perhaps he's justified in flatlining us without our consent.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Speech Jammer

I remember when I was going to UT Austin back in the 90's, I was walking to school from my apartment one morning thinking about how whenever I walk, I monologue or have conversations in my head, and the sentences flow freely, and my train of thought is unbreakable. But when I try to talk out loud to people, my words are jumbled, I'm inarticulate, and I frequently lose my train of thought. On this particular morning, I came up with a theory for why that was happening.

You see, whenever you say something, it begins as an idea in your head. Then you have to convert that idea into words. Then you have to say the words. Having said the words, the sound reaches your ear, a signal is sent to your brain, and your brain converts the signal into a meaning. Between the time you first begin to speak and when the words get back to your brain, there's a slight delay, so while you're mind has moved ahead, you're kind of hearing an echo.

So basically, I figured what was happening was that I was literally being distracted by the sound of my own voice. I thought that was a funny explanation, and I used to tell people that just to be funny, but I didn't actually believe it.

But then recently, I started seeing videos on youtube where people are using a "speech jammer." The speech jammer is an iphone app. You put on ear phones, and when you talk, the speech jammer creates a slightly delayed echo. You can adjust how much delay there is, but even with a very slight delay, it makes it really difficult to talk clearly. So the videos are kind of funny because people are struggling to speak clearly while using the speech jammer.

This struck me as interesting because the difficulty people were having in talking is the same sort of difficulty I have when talking out loud. It's not as bad with me, probably because I've been dealing with this for a long time. But since it's the same sort of thing, I wondered if maybe that explanation I came up with a long time ago was actually true. Maybe I really am distracted by the sound of my own voice.

People who know me may not think I'm inarticulate or that I stumble on my words a lot and lose my train of thought, but that's only because they have no way to compare my speech with what's going through my head. They only hear the speech. But talking is a struggle for me, and that includes just having normal conversations with people.