Coronavirus, the US, and New York

So the United States has managed to earn itself the distinction of being number one is confirmed infections of this new coronavirus.  As of writing the US has about 97,000 people infected, surpassing China and Italy.

What is most surprising to me though is that almost half of those cases have occurred in New York state, and I don’t understand why. If anyone knows why, I’d love to have it explained to me. There are two reasons I can think of two reasons to explain the massive gap between New York and other states:

  1. New York may have adopted much more extensive testing than other states, and has simply managed to detect many more cases than everyone else.
  2. There is something about New York that has allowed the virus to spread much faster there compared to other states.

I don’t know which of these two possibilities is better. If other states simply haven’t detected the virus as well as New York, that means that we have a lot more infected people than we’re being lead to believe.  If the gap is explained by something about New York, we should find out what so that other areas don’t fall into the same pit.

Regardless, there isn’t much good news in this, at least for the United States. It’s not as bad as the flu pandemic of 1918, but that doesn’t make this situation any better. At this point I think the best we can hope for is that most people are actually asymptomatic, or have extremely mild symptoms of this disease. I don’t think those are very likely at this point. I fear that we could see a lot of elderly people die within the next year.

Regardless, stay safe people. I don’t want anybody to die from this, or from inept handling of this outbreak.

A Challenge For Christians Who Claim We Can Reconstruct the New Testament

There’s a claim I come across occasionally online, and that is the idea that we could reconstruct the New Testament (NT), minus 11 verses, just from quotations for early church fathers. Apparently this claim started in the 18th century with Sir David Dalrymple, a Scottish judge and historian who apparently had an extensive library of early Christian writings. Bob Seidensticker has already written a fantastic post over at his Cross Examined blog (I strongly recommend this blog, if you’ve never read it), but I want to issue a direct challenge to anyone who actually thinks we can reconstruct the NT.

I can think of two immediate problems if I was going to recreate the NT based solely on the writings of Church fathers. These are related to ordering, and selection.

Ordering Problem

The first problem I see has to do with ordering the results. The system we have today of chapter and verse numbers didn’t come about until the 13th century. So, even if somebody did quote some section of the NT, at best they’ve probably only be referencing the book that the quotation came from, assuming they even told you that (we’ll get to that next). So now you have some quote, but where exactly does this quote go? The problem of how to order the resulting quotes is a hard one. Imagine something like the Gospel of John, where all you have are little pieces of paper with a couple of verses on it. Could you actually order these quotations accurately? I have some serious doubts about that. I think it would be a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that only has four flat sides.  Even if you managed to get these quotations into the correct book, you’re looking at several hundred of these quotes for each book, as the entire NT has about 8000 verses.

Selection Problem

The second problem is one of determination that a particular quote is actually from the NT reference, and not some other source? If you’re working to recreate the NT, you cannot simply look at the existing NT to know what is a NT verse, as you may as well just cut out the middle man and use the existing NT.  If the NT was lost, and all we had left were the words of early Christian writers, how would you determine what is, and what isn’t, actually a quote from the NT?

Once you’ve got these two problems, I see that you’re effectively trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle where several of the flat edged puzzles have been dumped together, and now you have to pick out which ones belong to the puzzle you’re trying to solve. I don’t envy anyone who is trying to solve this daunting task.

These two problems make it seem to me that it would be virtually impossible to accurately recreate the NT. But let’s suppose that some Christian claims they can do it. Here’s my challenge to them: How do you overcome these two problems? How would you order the resulting quotations, to accurately recreate the NT, and how would you know which passages to select to form the basis? I’d be happy if they could demonstrate an effective technique with just one of the larger books of the NT. Show me that, with no knowledge of the NT as we know it, you could accurately recreate something like one of the gospels, so that anybody with the source material could do it. I’d love to be shown that my skepticism is misplaced.

If Evolution Is Completely Wrong…

If it was to be the case that biological evolution, along with common ancestry, is wrong, while special creationism is correct, then there are some dramatic implication we can immediately take away:

It means that pretty much every single secular university on this planet, along with pretty much every biologist, is guilty of being part of a massive conspiracy to cover up the truth. This would also necessary include the large number of Christians, and people of other religious beliefs, who work in biology (and related fields.)

It would also mean that a number of other branches of science are also in on the conspiracy, as evolution is not just supported by biology alone, but also geology, paleontology, genetics, along with various other fields. Basically, many other branches of science are implicated in the conspiracy. All of these other branches would have to be in on a massive conspiracy to prop up evolution, and cover up the fact that evolution could easily be falsified.

It would also mean that science isn’t actually a meritocracy, as there would be millions of scientists who are simply pawns to prop up a false idea, and they would be incapable of gaining fame and fortune for showing that a basic pillar of modern biology is wrong. With 97% of scientists supporting the Theory of Evolution (ToE) that means that for every 1 scientist that doesn’t agree with the ToE there are around 32 others that do. 32 out of every 33 scientists are effectively in on the conspiracy, or have been completely duped by their peers.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the kind of credulity to believe that there are that many scientists working for some sinister end. It basically means that all of science is a sham. I don’t know how anyone can believe such nonsense.

“Atheism Doesn’t Offer Hope” (Part 2)

I want to expand a little bit on the previous post about how atheism doesn’t offer hope. I think there are some important things that we, as non-believers, can say here.

I can agree that atheism doesn’t offer hope, but neither do a lot of other things. Should anyone be surprised when the Theory of Evolution doesn’t explain why the book on my desk has 328 pages? Atheism itself is generally disbelief that gods exist, and doesn’t really have much to say about anything else, including suffering. A lack of hope is exactly what one should expect, but this doesn’t mean that we’re forced to accept that everything is hopeless. Atheism is only a position of skepticism, but doesn’t tell us how we should act or behave.

I’m a humanist, and I have a great amount of hope for humanity based on the continual progress we’ve made. Of all of the suffering in the world it is only humanity which managed to find ways to deal with that suffering. Religions, at best, offer us ways to cope with suffering, but it actually takes a concerted effort of humans to deal with suffering. There is nothing that religions can do with respect to suffering that I, as a secular humanist, cannot also do.

While Christianity may give people some wishful hope for an afterlife without suffering, it is only humanity that we know can actually deliver on this desire of reducing the real suffering that people experience. I don’t see how the “hope” of Christianity can compete with that! If anyone is going to do anything about the suffering in the world, it’s up to us, and us alone. Let’s stop with wishful thinking, and actually do what we need to do in order to make all our lives better, rather than wishing our lives away.

“Atheism Doesn’t Offer Hope”

I found the following nonsense coming out of Capturing Christianity on his social media platforms:

Atheism doesn’t offer hope in the face of suffering. Christianity does.

This is the kind of crap I would expect out of a child, so let me be blunt here. So what? How is this anything more than an appeal to consequences fallacy? What does the hope that a belief offers you tell you about whether the belief is true? Does Cameron really believe it is a sound epistemology to believe what gives you hope?

If I was to ask a drunk if they’re happy, I’m sure many of them would tell me that they are (at least while they’re intoxicated.) Should I, as a result of this, keep myself in a drunken stupor, and ignore the reality of my liver? I don’t think my life would be made better by being drunk all the time, and in the same way I don’t see that my life is made better by accepting a proposition because it offers me some kind of hope.

To believe our lives are better by embracing happy thoughts, rather than the truth, is childish at best. It’s like believing that the problems of the world go away by pulling the wool over your own eyes. Reality doesn’t care about what makes you happy. Grow up, and learn to deal with reality.

Does History Rely on Methodological Naturalism?

I was digging through the Facebook page of Inspiring Philosophy (IP from now on), when I came across the following:

Paulogia: For better of worse, science must employ methodological naturalism. So does history.

Capturing Christianity (CC from now on):  Even if we grant this about history (which we shouldn’t), an honest search for truth about the world must go beyond methodological naturalism. An analogy: a comprehensive search for valuable objects on a beach must go beyond just using a metal detector.

IP: If we start by assuming the explanation must be natural it is no wonder you won’t ever find evidence for something beyond whatever you presuppose is natural.

If you’ve never listened to Paulogia, you can do so by going to his YouTube channel. He’s got some really great content, where he largely deals with fundamentalist Christians like Ken Ham, and Eric Hovind (they’re really low hanging fruit, but for some reason people believe these wingnuts.) But, I digress, so let’s go back to dealing with what’s been said.

The post starts with Paulogia making the claim that science employs methodological naturalism. This claim is pretty much tautologically true. Science is the methodological study of nature and the attempt to explain phenomena in terms of what we understand about natural. This should not be disputed by anyone. But what about history? Does this same restriction apply to historical methods?  Yes, and no. I’ll explain later.

CC then claims that an honest search for truth about the world must go beyond methodological naturalism. While I can partly agree with him about this sentiment, there’s a huge problem lurking in the shadows: When it comes to explaining how the world works, we currently have nothing better than methodological naturalism. We lack any reliable method to investigate anything beyond nature (assuming that anything even exists beyond nature) The whole point he brings up about only using methodological naturalism is like searching for valuable objects on a beach using only a metal detector is disingenuous, at least until CC cannot show that they have something else to offer that is demonstrably reliable. Sitting on a lounge chair, and thinking really hard about where something valuable may be buried doesn’t actually do anything to help you find something buried!

Even more frustrating is IP’s little quip about this exchange. Yes, methodological naturalism assumes that causes are natural in origin, but it does this for a very good reason, as I’ve pointed out above. Show me that you have a reliable method of investigating the supernatural, and I’m totally on board with you. The problem is that assuming the supernatural has never once been shown to get us to the correct answer.

Back to the question of whether history relies on methodological naturalism. The answer is, yes, it does, but not in the same way that science does. The important thing to remember about history is that because it’s in the past, it’s now gone. We cannot repeat the past, but we do have the ability to try and recreate it as best as we can. The thing about our attempts to understand the past is that we rely on what we can show today. History largely relies on probabilities to say what the most probable explanation is. In some cases we can explain history very easily. In some cases we have poor information, and the biases of those involved, that it becomes very difficult to actually discern what could have happened. In some cases we have to admit that there simply isn’t sufficient information to be able say what actually happened in the past.

Did Jesus rise from the dead, after about 36 hours? As far as our understanding of today goes, people cannot rise from the dead. This influences history, and leads honest historians to admit that we don’t really have good historical reason, regardless of what stories we have, that say that Jesus’ resurrection is anything but a religious belief. Until we have good reason to believe that those stories aren’t simply the mistakes, and legends, of superstitious humans, history cannot accept that Jesus rose from the dead. Until the day that we have good empirical evidence that people can rise from the dead, the improbability of rising from the dead vastly outweighs the possibility of it happening. Events that appear to be otherwise impossible do not become the most probable simply because we have some (now long dead) people who claimed an event happened.

Methodological naturalism has its limits, but we shouldn’t look at those limits as if they’re somehow keeping us away from the truth, rather it’s just the opposite. Methodological naturalism has constraints in order to help keep our credulity, and our biases, in check! Christians would do well to understand this.


STR: Why Should We Listen to God’s Instructions about Sex?

In the following video, Alan Shlemon talks about why Christians should obey the Bible with regard to sex.

In the video Shlemon makes an analogy to a GoPro manufacturer, and claims that they will know best about the limits of the device, and how to take care of it. His point seems to be that by analogy, because we are created by God, we should take heed of God’s instruction manual. There are some obvious problems with this.

The first problem is that I find no credible evidence to even suggest that we were created by the God of Christianity, or that the Bible represents the thoughts of this God, or that the Bible should even be considered to be something like an instruction manual. So right off the bat, one must accept a number of dubious premises in order to get to Alan’s conclusion.

But let’s suppose that I am a Christian. Does it follow that I ought to obey the Bible’s instructions on sex? I don’t think this follows, unless one is more fundamentalist in nature. Alan talks about Genesis, and how the story says that woman was created from man, and the man shall leave his parents and become one flesh with his wife. Alan seems to treats this passage as if it is some literal truth, but Christians need not believe that Genesis is a literal book. It is perfectly acceptable to many Christians to accept Genesis as an allegory, or metaphor, and that it does not represent the direct word of God. Frankly, I don’t accept that one ought to take anything from Genesis as if it represents an imperative.

Once we start throwing Evolution into the mix, it becomes rather obvious that Genesis cannot be altogether a literal story. Even if I grant that God did create us, and really does wants us to behave in certain ways, since one cannot derive an ought from an is, it doesn’t follow that we ought to obey God’s commands, especially when these commands appear to be arbitrary limits on human sexuality.

On the other hand, Christians seem to have no problem ignoring many of the commands that we find in the Old Testament, and will in fact agree with me that we should not stone adulterers, or unruly children, at the gates of the town. If you’re willing to agree that many of the rules in the Old Testament were meant for the people of Israel, why must the rules related to sex be for everyone? I see no clear rules to discern which commands are meant for everyone, and which are meant only for the people of Israel.

At the end of the day, unless you start with the idea that Bible is somehow an instruction manual (it’s not), or somehow represents the will of God (I don’t know how one gets there except to assume this), I don’t see a good reason to use the Bible as basis for who, when, or how, we should have sex. It’s an appeal to authority that is undeserved.