Save them, smash them, relocate them or critique them?

I’m not going to write about the tragic events in Charlottesville in this post. I think the VICE News video says it all. It should be obvious that in this particular march, the violence that occurred came overwhelmingly from the alt-right, many of whom came to the march armed with pepper spray and hidden assault weapons (see the end of the video), although I note for the record that a few protesters on the Left did as well. I am frankly mystified by President Trump’s reluctance to condemn the white nationalist marchers en masse and by his bizarre assertion that there were some people “protesting very quietly” at the torchlight march on the night before the rally (which has been debunked by Paul Blake of the BBC), but I doubt whether racism is his underlying motivation: after all, the marchers shouted Nazi slogans against the Jews, and the President’s own daughter and son-in-law are Jewish. Perhaps the man is morally timid, and reluctant to condemn even bad people who might vote for him. Or perhaps the President views racism as self-evidently absurd, requiring no further comment in the 21st century. Or perhaps he fears that by demonizing the 500 or so marchers who took part in the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, he will only succeed in making them look more appealing to alienated juvenile delinquents, thereby consolidating their base of support. I don’t know. In any case, this is not a post about Trump, whose White House seems to be facing a meltdown of its own making.

Instead, what I’d like to write about in this post is the question of what Americans should do with the 718 monuments and statues (709, according to the BBC) situated on public property throughout the country, mostly in the South, although there are also a few in former Union States, including Iowa, Kansas and Pennyslvania, and there’s even one in Massachusetts. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a paper calling for their removal, and a summary of their responses to counter-arguments can be found on pages 38 to 39.

I’d like to begin by asking viewers how they feel about this video, showing a statue of a Confederate soldier being pulled down in Durham, North Carolina, on Monday (courtesy of World Viral Videos):

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Granville Sewell’s argument for Intelligent Design

Over at Evolution News, mathematician Granville Sewell has written an article titled, From Barren Planet to Civilization — Four Simple Steps (July 27, 2017). My intention in writing this post is not to critique Dr. Sewell’s latest argument, but to clarify its premises. Sewell’s own comments reveal that it is ultimately a philosophical argument, rather than a scientific one. Although I agree with Dr. Sewell’s key intuition, I contend that his argument hinges on two assumptions: that unguided processes have a snowball’s chance in hell of giving rise to factories, and that mental states do not supervene upon physical states.

The bulk of this post will be devoted to what Dr. Sewell has written in his latest Evolution News article. At the end of my post, I will briefly comment on the thermodynamic arguments in his accompanying video, which I see as peripheral to Sewell’s main point.

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How ENV muddies the waters on the evidence for human evolution

Recently, Evolution News and Views published an article titled, The Human-Ape Missing Link — Still Missing (July 18, 2017), which attempts to cast doubt on human evolution by quoting from a recent BBC article which highlighted the massive uncertainties that still remain over the identity, appearance and date of the last common ancestor (LCA) of human beings and chimpanzees, and which even questions whether the chimpanzee is our closest relative, after all. The Evolution News and Views (ENV) article also revives the myth of an unbridgeable gap between Australopithecus and Homo.

Here’s my two-sentence rebuttal: uncertainty as to who the last common ancestor of humans and chimps was, what it looked like, and when it lived, in no way diminishes scientists’ certainty that it existed. And while the fossil record of human ancestors is very meager and patchy until about 4.4 million years ago, from that time onward, we have a veritable hodgepodge of hominins – and no unbridgeable gaps.

Well, that was quick, wasn’t it? Now for a more detailed rebuttal.

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Suffer the children

During the past few days, there has been much discussion of philosophy professor Gary Comstock’s spirited defense of infanticide, in the case of a severely handicapped newborn baby who is likely to die (New York Times, July 12, 2017). Such an infant, argues Comstock, lacks “the things that make a life: thoughts, wants, desires, interests, memories, a future.” And if did have thoughts, its dominant thought about being kept alive on a respirator would surely be: “This hurts. Can’t someone help it stop?”

Bioethicist Wesley Smith has pointed out that the case described by Comstock (who is not a doctor), of an infant suffering excruciating pain as its life is needlessly prolonged, is totally fictitious: “When life support is removed, doctors do not just let patients twist choking in the wind. They palliate — as necessary to alleviate pain and agitation.” The testimony of palliative care physician Ira Byock (whom Smith mentions in his article) is well worth citing: “In more than 35 years of practice I have never once had to kill a patient to alleviate the person’s suffering. When other measures fail, palliative sedation for alleviation of physical suffering is reliably effective. Alleviating suffering is different than eliminating the sufferer.” (Maryland Medicine vol. 17, no. 4; January 2017.) And Dr. Michael Egnor, commenting on Comstock’s article for Evolution News and Views, writes: “The notion that handicapped children intractably suffer is a lie. I’ve treated thousands of these kids. Most of the conditions that cause severe neurological impairment aren’t painful and don’t inherently cause physical suffering. Spina bifida, holoprosencephaly, various trisomies and anencephaly don’t ‘hurt,’ and in fact the children afflicted are often quite content babies. They are loved by their families, and they can enjoy life in accordance with their physical limitations.”

Wesley Smith and Michael Egnor point out that infanticide is a crime against humanity, for which doctors were hanged at Nuremberg. Some of these doctors had euthanized handicapped children. Both authors make a telling point; nevertheless, the question needs to be addressed: exactly why is infanticide wrong?

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Credulous PLOS One publishes evidence for body trauma on the Turin Shroud image

Mystic Post is a Website which publishes articles on Catholic visions (especially Medjugorje). It would be an understatement to say that its coverage tends to be rather uncritical, but from time to time, I take a look at it anyway. One thing I like about visionaries is that they make prophecies which are falsifiable, and Mystic Post has been throwing out very broad hints that something big may happen this year. A few hours ago, I came across an article on Mystic Post, titled, Breaking News – New Prestigious Study on Shroud of Turin…”There is blood of a man tortured and killed” (July 11, 2017). The article quoted extensively from a story by Andrea Tornielli, published in the printed edition of the Italian daily newspaper, La Stampa (July 1, 2017). To my great surprise, the opening paragraph cited a study which recently appeared in PLOS One (emphases are in the original):

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Tamagotchi, J. K. Rowling and God: A Short Essay on the Problem of Evil

Catholic philosopher (and former atheist) Edward Feser might be many things, but he certainly isn’t dull. Nor is he afraid of grappling with the big questions. In the latest issue of First Things, he discusses the problem of evil in a wide-ranging interview with Connor Grubaugh, where he talks about his three favorite books in the field of contemporary analytic philosophy. Feser (who is Associate Professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College) is a Thomist, for whom the claim that the existence of evil and suffering constitutes evidence against God’s existence reflects a faulty conception of the relationship between creature and Creator. God is not just a Being who interacts with us on a personal level; rather, He is the very Author of our existence. And just as an author (such as J. K. Rowling) has no obligations to the characters in her stories, so too, God has no obligations towards us. Consequently there can be no question of Him ever doing us an injustice.

In today’s essay, I’d like to explain why I think Professor Feser’s solution is unsatisfactory, and why I think the problem of evil is much more serious than Feser supposes. I won’t be proposing my own solution, however. All I can do is briefly outline how I believe the problem can be defused, and why I don’t think it’s fatal for theism.

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Recycling bad arguments: ENV on the origin of life

During the past few days, Dr. Brian Miller (whose Ph.D. is in physics) has written a series of articles on the origin of life over at Evolution News and Views:

Thermodynamics of the Origin of Life (June 19, 2017)
The Origin of Life, Self-Organization, and Information (June 20, 2017)
Free Energy and the Origin of Life: Natural Engines to the Rescue (June 22, 2017)
Origin of Life and Information — Some Common Myths (June 26, 2017)

Dr. Miller’s aim is to convince his readers that intelligent agency was required to coordinate the steps leading to the origin of life. I think his conclusion may very well be correct, but that doesn’t make his arguments correct. In this post, I plan to subject Dr. Miller’s arguments to scientific scrutiny, in order to determine whether Dr. Miller has made a strong case for Intelligent Design.

While I commend Dr. Miller for his indefatigability, I find it disappointing that his articles recycle several Intelligent Design canards which have been refuted on previous occasions. Dr. Miller also seems to be unaware of recently published online articles which address some of his concerns.
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J. Warner Wallace’s eight attributes of design

Christian apologist (and former atheist) “Jim” Warner Wallace knows quite a lot about design, having earned a bachelor’s degree in design from California State University and a master’s degree in architecture from UCLA. Wallace also worked as a homicide detective for many years, in a job where he had to be able to distinguish deaths that were intentional from deaths that were not. Wallace writes well, and his Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (David C. Cook, 2013) is an apologetic masterpiece. So naturally, when I came across a post over at Evolution News and Views, featuring his views on Intelligent Design, I was very interested to hear what he had to say.

In his interview with Center for Science & Culture research coordinator Brian Miller, “Jim” Warner Wallace listed what he referred to as eight attributes of design. Wallace emphasized that a strong case could be made for saying that an object was designed, even on the basis of its possessing only a few of these attributes, but that when taken together, they constitute a case for design which is certain beyond all reasonable doubt. The cumulative nature of the case is what makes it so strong.

Without further ado, here are Wallace’s eight attributes of design: Continue reading

Dale Tuggy’s Trinitarian challenge – and a survey

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York. He is also a podcaster and an enthusiastic blogger. Tuggy’s intellectual odyssey is an interesting one. He grew up as an evangelical who never seriously questioned the doctrine of the Trinity (that there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in one God), until he went to graduate school. After examining various rival Christian interpretations of the Trinitarian doctrine, he came to believe that it was profoundly unbiblical, and now calls himself a Christian unitarian, who identifies the one God of the Bible (YHWH) with the Father (and not the Son or the Holy Spirit).

It is not my intention in this post to argue either for or against the doctrine of the Trinity, or to explain precisely what it means. Rather, what I intend to do is evaluate a specific argument put forward by Professor Tuggy, which is deliberately targeted at certain evangelical apologists who have recently maintained that Jesus is God tout simple – in other words, that Jesus simply is God Himself, and that Jesus and the one God are therefore numerically identical. It should be noted that most Trinitarians do not say this: for them, the term “God” designates a being (or as some would prefer to say, Being Itself), whereas the name “Jesus” refers to an incarnate Divine person (God the Son). These Trinitarians would therefore agree with the conclusion of Tuggy’s argument, which is that Jesus is not divine in the same way that the one God is.

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Can prairie dogs talk?

Ferris Jabr has recently written a highly illuminating article for The New York Times Magazine titled, Can Prairie Dogs Talk? (May 12, 2017), on the pioneering work of Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, an emeritus professor of biology at Norther Arizona University. Professor Slobodchikoff has been analyzing the sounds of prairie dogs for more than 30 years, and he thinks that they possess a form of genuine language. Specifically, he claims that when they give alarm calls for different kinds of predators, they identify not only the type of predator, but also its size, shape, color and speed. In other words, their messages do not consist merely of nouns; instead, they are more akin to descriptive phrases. In a follow-up interview with Professor Marc Bekoff (Psychology Today, May 14, 2017), Slobodchikoff argues that since the rate at which the alarm calls are produced tends to correlate with the speed of travel of the approaching predator (hawks, for example, elicit only a single bark because they are so swift), prairie dog talk also contains something analogous to a verb in human language. Most surprising of all, prairie dogs are capable of coming up with new alarm calls for abstract objects which they have never seen before, such as an oval, a triangle, a circle, and a square. And if that were not enough, it turns out that prairie dog calls, like human language, are composed of phonemes. Indeed, Slobodchikoff even declares that prairie dogs have the most complex language of any non-human animal.

Professor Slobodchikoff contends that it is only pure prejudice on the part of “human exceptionalists” (many of whom are linguists and philosophers) that prevents scientists from describing prairie dog calls as true language, rather than mere “communication.” In addition, many people’s thinking is still influenced by Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, which ranks humans at the top, followed by “higher” mammals such as apes and then “lower” mammals such as mice (and of course, prairie dogs), with birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish lower down in the pecking order, and with insects, worms and one-celled animals at the very bottom. Such a view, argues Slobodchikoff, is speciesist and profoundly primatocentric. It is time for scientists to cast aside their prejudices and recognize that humans are not the only animals that can talk.

Is Slobodchikoff right? In today’s post, I’d like to explain why I’m inclined to be skeptical of the claim that prairie dogs are capable of anything like language.

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