Why David Madison’s Slam Dunk Isn’t One

David Madison is a minister-turned-atheist, who has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. Madison was raised a liberal Protestant, but he gradually lost his faith while serving as the pastor of two Methodist parishes in Massachusetts. He went on to pursue a business career, but he’s recently written a book titled, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (see here for one critic’s review and here for a more favorable review).

However, what put me off Madison’s book is what he’s written on his own Web page. His recommended reading list of 200 books, put together for people who want to “find out how Jesus, Christianity and theism have all been so convincingly slam dunked,” includes dozens of books by authors defending the kooky view that Jesus never even existed (a view not shared by any reputable historian – and no, Dr. Richard Carrier doesn’t count as one; nor does Dr. Robert Price, who got trounced when he debated Dr. Bart Ehrman last year on the historicity of Jesus, as Carrier himself admits), and only a handful of books addressing the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God, of which Raymond Bradley’s God’s Gravediggers: Why No Deity Exists (Ockham Publishing, 2016) and Michael Martin’s The Cambridge Companion to Atheism appear to be the most substantive. (There are other books attacking Intelligent Design on Madison’s list, but these are beside the point, as ID proponents don’t maintain that their arguments, taken by themselves, prove the existence of any Deity.) And believe it or not, H. L. Mencken, whose credibility on religious and moral issues I have demolished here, here, here and here, makes the list, too. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is on the list (has Madison ever read John Lennox’s response, I wonder?), as well as Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, which has been refuted ably by David Snoke.

For the benefit of his readers, Madison has also kindly provided chapter summaries for his book, which (I am sorry to say) do not inspire confidence. A few excerpts:

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Worse than Watergate? Bias in the mainstream media

With the mainstream media mocking what they describe as President Trump’s delusional claim that former President Obama ordered Trump Tower’s phones to be tapped, I thought it would only be fair to invite readers to look at the other side. In a 12-minute video, Mark Levin, a lawyer who was a chief of staff for Attorney General Edwin Meese during the Reagan administration, has laid out what appears to be overwhelming evidence that backs up Trump’s wiretapping claims. Newt Gingrich offers his take here. Matthew Vadum’s article, Obama’s Wiretaps?, in FrontPage magazine, makes for very disturbing reading. Vadum doesn’t pull any punches:

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The Christian God and the Problem of Evil

Both Mung and KeithS have asked me to weigh in on the question of whether the existence of evil counts as a good argument against Christianity, as KeithS has maintained in a recent post, so I shall oblige.

It is important to understand that the problem of evil is not an argument against the existence of God or gods, but against what KeithS calls the Christian God (actually, the God of classical theism), Who is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. KeithS succinctly formulates the problem as follows:

Let’s say I claim that an omniGod named Frank exists — omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Suppose I also claim that Frank regards seahorses as the absolute height of evil. The world contains a lot of seahorses, and Frank, being omnipotent, has the power to wipe them off the face of the earth. Why doesn’t he? Why does he countenance a world full of seahorses?

KeithS emphasizes that it is not enough for the Christian to show that God is on balance benevolent. Rather, the Christian needs to defend the claim that God is omnibenevolent:

The Christian claim is that God is omnibenevolent — as benevolent as it is logically possible to be. Finding that the items on the “good” side of the ledger outweigh those on the “bad” side — if that were the case — would not establish God’s omnibenevolence at all.

Finally, KeithS provides his own take on the problem of evil:

The problem of evil remains as much of a problem as ever for Christians. Yet there are obvious solutions to the problem that fit the evidence and are perfectly reasonable: a) accept that God doesn’t exist, or b) accept that God isn’t omnipotent, or c) accept that God isn’t perfectly benevolent. Despite the availability of these obvious solutions, most Christians will choose to cling to a view of God that has long since been falsified.

He even suggests how he would resolve the problem if he were a theist (emphasis mine – VJT):

Suppose God hates evil and suffering but is too weak to defeat them, at least at the moment. Then any such instances can be explained by God’s weakness.

It addresses the problem of evil without sacrificing theism. I’m amazed that more theists don’t seize on this sort of resolution. They’re too greedy in their theology, too reluctant to give up the omnis.

I think KeithS is onto something here. In fact, I’d like to ditch the conventional Christian views of God’s omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. It’s time for an overhaul.

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Gay atheist media star interviews bishop: what do you think?

I found this interview on the Website of Brandon Vogt, a Catholic blogger and speaker who’s the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Allow me to quote from Vogt’s introduction:

A few months ago, a man named Dave Rubin reached out to us at Word on Fire to ask if Bishop Barron would be open to an interview. (Apparently lots of Dave’s Twitter followers suggested the idea.)

To be honest, we didn’t know much about Dave at the time. But after some Googling, we discovered he’s a well-known comedian and host of the super popular “Rubin Report”, a show that airs directly through YouTube. “The Rubin Report” has over 350,000 subscribers and 100 million views. It’s one of the most popular YouTube channels in the world…
Dave is an interesting guy. One website describes him as a “rising media star” and “the voice of liberals who were mugged by progressives.” It says he’s “a 39-year-old pro-choice, pro-pot, recently gay-married atheist with a strong allergy to organized religion.”
In other words, the anti-Bishop Barron…

I encourage you to watch both parts of the interview. Bishop Barron did such a marvelous job. He was smart and eloquent, even when Dave pushed the discussion toward hot-button issues…


So, what do viewers think of this interview? Does anyone feel that the bishop made an interesting case for belief in God?

Two kinds of complexity: why a sea anemone is not a Precambrian fossil rabbit

The British biologist J.B.S. Haldane is said to have remarked that the discovery of fossil rabbits in the Precambrian would falsify the theory of evolution. Over at Evolution News and Views, Dr. Cornelius Hunter has argued in a recent post that the sea anemone (whose genome turns out to be surprisingly similar to that of vertebrates) is “the genomic equivalent of Haldane’s Precambrian rabbit – a Precambrian genome had, err, all the complexity of species to come hundreds of millions of years later.” Apparently Dr. Hunter is under the impression that many of these ancestral genes would have been lying around unused for much of that time, for he goes on to triumphantly point out that “the idea of foresight is contradictory to evolutionary theory.” RIP, evolution? Not by a long shot.

An unfortunate misunderstanding

Dr. Hunter seems to have missed the whole point of the report that he linked to. A sentence toward the end of the report would have set him right, had he read it more carefully (emphases and square brackets are mine – VJT):

It’s surprising to find such a “high level of genomic complexity in a supposedly primitive animal such as the sea anemone,” [Dr. Eugene V.] Koonin [of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in Bethesda, Md.] told The Scientist. It implies that the ancestral animal “was already extremely highly complex, at least in terms of its genomic organization and regulatory and signal transduction circuits, if not necessarily morphologically.

That’s right. Genomic complexity and morphological complexity are two completely different things. That was the take-home message of the report. It was also the message of the other report cited by Dr. Hunter:

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Trilobites: the dangers of too little reading

Over at Evolution News and Views, an article by Dr. Cornelius Hunter titled, Irony Alert: Michael Shermer on “When Facts Fail”, accuses evolutionists (and especially Shermer) of intransigence in the face of awkward facts which spoil their case. Shermer recently authored an article in Scientific American, in which he noted that “people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them” because revising these beliefs threatens their worldview. Dr. Shermer proposed that the best way to persuade people to revise their erroneous beliefs is to convince them that dropping these beliefs will not require them to change their worldview. When people are reassured that their fundamental worldview is not at stake, they can them examine the evidence dispassionately. Dr. Hunter was not impressed: he maintains that evolutionists are leading offenders, when it comes to refusing to revise their beliefs.

Dr. Hunter points to trilobites as his star example of “facts that fail” to square with the alleged “evidence for evolution.” However, a recurring failing of Dr. Hunter’s criticisms is that they reveal a lack of familiarity with the scientific literature – especially the most recent writings on the issues he raises.

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Cool it

In popular parlance, “child abuser” is just about the worst thing you can call anyone. So you can imagine my shock when I read the latest comments on one of my own recent threads and found one commenter accusing another of child abuse – a charge he repeated in the Moderation thread. My astonishment grew when I read of a proposal in Moderation to ban child abusers from The Skeptical Zone, on the grounds that people who post porn are already banned, and child abuse is much, much worse.

And what was the alleged offense? Here it is: “admitting to using strawman arguments, fallacious reasoning, and false claims to destroy childrens’ ability to think rationally about certain scientific topics. That’s child abuse.” Except that the person accused made no such admission. Regardless of whether the arguments were fallacious or not, no deceit was involved. It was the accuser who attacked the arguments as fallacious and illogical, not the person he accused.

And what were the arguments about? In a nutshell, abiogenesis. The arguments were presented to a group of six-year-old children and their parents, in an attempt to make them see that the origin of life from non-living matter is astronomically improbable, that macroevolution (e.g. fish to bird) is also vanishingly improbable, and that Intelligent Design is the only rational inference. A detailed description of the presentation can be found here.

I’d like to make a couple of very brief points. First, the term “child abuse” can be defined in three ways. First, could be defined very broadly to mean behavior which actually causes severe and/or life-long physical or psychological damage to children. Second, it could be defined more narrowly to mean behavior which is intended to cause severe and/or life-long physical or psychological damage to children. Third, it could be defined as behavior which the vast majority of responsible people, at the present time, would agree causes severe and/or life-long physical or psychological damage to children.

The first definition is clearly ridiculous, as it would make all of our parents or grandparents child abusers. Think of passive smoking. Or think of spanking: fifty years ago, it was quite common for naughty children to get their little bottoms hit with a belt and sent to bed without supper. The second definition is also unsatisfactory, as it would exonerate parents who refused to take their dying child to a doctor, but took her to a quack faith healer instead: here, the parents didn’t mean to harm their child, but any sensible person would say that they should have known better. That leaves us with the third definition.

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Early embryonic mutations: a problem for evolution?

Dr. Stephen Meyer and Dr. Douglas Axe were recently interviewed by author and radio host Frank Turek on the significance of November’s Royal Society Meeting on evolution, in London. The two Intelligent Design advocates discussed what they see as the top five problems for evolutionary theory:

(i) gaps in the fossil record (in particular, the Cambrian explosion);
(ii) the lack of a naturalistic explanation for the origin of biological information;
(iii) the necessity of early mutations during embryonic development (which are invariably either defective or lethal) in order to generate new animal body types;
(iv) the existence of non-DNA epigenetic information controlling development (which means that you can’t evolve new animal body plans simply by mutating DNA); and
(v) the universal design intuition that we all share: functional coherence makes accidental invention fantastically improbable and hence physically impossible.

In today’s post, I’d like to focus on the third argument, which I consider to be the best of the bunch. The others are far less compelling.

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Two hundred years of global warming and the failure of the Precautionary Principle

I’d invite readers to have a look at this two-minute video, titled, “Humans have caused climate change for 180 years”:

Here’s an excerpt from an article in the ANU Reporter, dated 25 August 2016 (emphases mine):

An international research project has found human activity has been causing global warming for almost two centuries, proving human-induced climate change is not just a 20th century phenomenon.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Nerilie Abram from The Australian National University (ANU) said the study found warming began during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and is first detectable in the Arctic and tropical oceans around the 1830s, much earlier than scientists had expected.

“It was an extraordinary finding,” said Associate Professor Abram, from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

“It was one of those moments where science really surprised us. But the results were clear. The climate warming we are witnessing today started about 180 years ago.

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Hoist on its own petard: ENV’s two “fake science” stories turn out to be genuine

Two articles exposing “fake science” claims have recently been published over at Evolution News and Views. One article attacks the fossil evidence for whale evolution, while the other seeks to discredit the claim that human and chimp DNA are 99% identical. Both articles suffer from serious scientific flaws.

“Fake science” Story No. 1: Whale evolution – too little time for it to happen?

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Coyne’s latest defense of determinism: why it fails

Edge‘s big question for 2017 is: “What scientific term or concept should be more widely known?” The compilation of answers (205 in all) makes for fascinating reading. For his part, Professor Jerry Coyne has nominated physical determinism as “a concept that everyone should understand and appreciate.” Unfortunately, Coyne’s defense of this concept leaves a lot to be desired. As I’ll argue below, even if you reject interactionist dualism (as most scientists do), you can still believe in libertarian free will.

Professor Coyne begins by mis-defining determinism as the notion that “all matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics.” I know of no philosopher who defines determinism in this way. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for instance, roughly defines causal determinism as “the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” Coyne says nothing about antecedent conditions, and fails to even mention the notion of necessitation.

To illustrate what’s wrong with Coyne’s definition, I’ll use an analogy which is often cited by philosophers: the game of chess. All the pieces obey the rules (or laws) of the game, but those laws don’t tell the player where to move the pieces. Even if the pieces were capable of moving themselves without the help of an outside agent, nothing in the rules of the game would determine the moves that followed. That’s because the rules of chess merely constrain the set of moves which are allowed, without determining the movement of any of the pieces. What Coyne needs to show is that the laws of physics are more than mere constraints, and that for any given collection of molecules, they narrow down the set of possible outcomes to just one, and no more.

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The credibility of the Christmas story

As the Christmas season is drawing to a close, I thought I might put up a post with some useful links for people wishing to argue for and against the credibility of the Christmas narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and let readers draw their own conclusions.

On the skeptics’ side:

The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View by Aaron Adair. Onus Books, 2013.

The Nativity: A Critical Examination by Jonathan M.S. Pearce. Onus Books, 2012.

For Jonathan M.S. Pearce’s recent posts on the Nativity, see here:

Debunking the Nativity: The Gospel Sources
Debunking the Nativity: The Virgin Birth
Debunking the Nativity: The Mistranslation of “Virgin”
Debunking the Nativity: The Male Genome
Debunking the Nativity: Contradictory Genealogies
Debunking the Nativity: To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem
Debunking the Nativity: Boney M
Debunking the Nativity – Quirinius vs Herod and the Ten Year Gap

On the believers’ side:

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Is evolution the same everywhere in the cosmos?

Milan Ćirković has written an interesting piece in Nautilus (and featured on RealClearScience) titled, Why Darwin Needs ET. Ćirković is not a biologist; he’s a senior research associate at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade and an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia and Montenegro. Nevertheless, the questions he poses in his article are interesting ones, and I’d like to hear what readers – especially those with a strong background in the life sciences – think of his questions, and his proposal regarding how scientists could go about answering them.

In order to avoid confusion, I should declare at the outset that Ćirković isn’t asking whether evolution generates the same outcomes elsewhere in the cosmos as the ones it generated on Earth. His question is a deeper one: he wants to know if it’s the same kind of process on other life-bearing planets as it is on Earth. In his own words (emphasis mine):

But does evolution operate the same on life everywhere? The success of Darwinian theory to explain life on Earth has lulled many of us into thinking that it must be. In fact evolution might have functioned by different mechanisms in Earth’s distant past as well as elsewhere in the galaxy. We could envision a planet dominated by Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits, or a world where large mutations — and not the gradual variation of natural selection — are the main agents of change.

The first thing that strikes me about this paragraph is that it misrepresents how evolution occurs on Earth, in referring to “the gradual variation of natural selection” as the main agent of evolutionary change. It isn’t. Don’t take my word for it; listen to what biologists working in the field have to say.

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Fatima: miracle, meteorological effect, UFO, optical illusion or mass hallucination?

Let me begin with a confession: I honestly don’t know what to make of the “miracle of the sun” that occurred in Fatima, Portugal, on October 13, 1917, and that was witnessed by a crowd of 70,000 people (although a few people in the crowd saw nothing) and also by people who were more than 10 kilometers away from Fatima at the time, as well as by sailors on a British ship off the coast of Portugal. On the other hand, no astronomical observatory recorded anything unusual at the time.

Rather than endorsing a particular point of view, I have decided to lay the facts before my readers, and let them draw their own conclusions.

Here are some good links, to get you started.

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“Astroturf and manipulation of media messages” by Sharyl Attkisson: your thoughts?

I have just been watching a TED talk given in February 2015 by the acclaimed author and TV host Sharyl Attkisson, titled, “Astroturf and manipulation of media messages.” It’s only 10 minutes long, and I would invite readers to watch it and draw their own conclusions.

The following excerpts are some of the highlights from Sharyl Attkisson’s scintillating speech.

What is Astroturf? It’s a perversion of grass roots – as in fake grass roots. Astroturf is when political, corporate or other special interests disguise themselves, and publish blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and publish ads, letters to the editor, or simply publish comments online, to try to fool you into thinking that an independent or grassroots movement is speaking. The whole point of Astroturf is to try to give the impression that there’s widespread support for or against an agenda, when there’s not. Astroturf seeks to manipulate you into changing your opinion, by making you feel as if you are an outlier, when you’re not.

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The question I’d really like to ask Ray Comfort

Let me begin by saying that I’m a big fan of Ray Comfort’s 2011 pro-life movie, 180, which packed a powerful punch, but also made you think. The hypothetical question which Comfort posed to the college students he interviewed was simple but stunningly effective, in exposing the intellectual inconsistency of the pro-choice position.

Last night, I viewed Ray Comfort’s latest movie, The Atheist Delusion, which is now available on Youtube. Professor Jerry Coyne has already critiqued some of Ray Comfort’s anti-evolutionary arguments – especially the ones about the chicken and the egg, the origin of the eye, and the origin of the heart and circulatory system (see here: his segment starts at 46:45 and runs till 56:30). I will be saying more below about Comfort’s two main arguments for God (relating to the origin of the universe and the origin of DNA), which Coyne did not address.

But the aim of Comfort’s movie is not merely to convince people that God exists. Ray Comfort is, and always will be, a missionary, and in the latter half of the movie, he tries to convert the people he interviews to Christianity. Not all Christians agree with his theology, however, and in this post, I’d like to ask him one question which I think will blow his apologetic to smithereens. But before I do that, I’d like to describe Comfort’s interviewing technique.

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Coyne vs. Shermer vs. Wood on the silliness of skepticism

I recently viewed Dr. David Wood’s video, Scooby-doo and the Case of the Silly Skeptic. The target of Wood’s criticism was Dr. Michael Shermer (pictured above), who defended a principle which he referred to as “Shermer’s Last Law,” in the course of a debate with Wood on October 10, 2016. According to this law, any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God. The reason is that technologically advanced aliens could easily produce effects that would look like miracles to us. As Wood puts it (paraphrasing Shermer’s argument): “They might be able to cure diseases instantly, or regenerate limbs, or change the weather. These kinds of things would seem miraculous to human beings, and so from our perspective, aliens who could do these kinds of things would be indistinguishable from God.” So if we saw something miraculous, how would be know that it’s God and not aliens?

In the debate, Wood fired back at Shermer, asking: “If you did want to know that God exists, wouldn’t you want some method to figure out if He exists, something that would lead you to the truth about that? According to Dr. Shermer, there can be no such method, because [for] anything God could possibly do, you could say, ‘Aliens did it.’ … So it’s built into the methodology that you could never know whether God exists or not. If it’s built into your methodology [that you can] never know the truth about something, then I have to question the methodology.” In his video, Dr. Wood added: “If somebody says to me, ‘Prove to me that statement X is true,’ but an examination of his methodology shows that he won’t allow anything to count as evidence that statement X is true, how can we take that demand for proof seriously?” Finally, Wood administered his coup de grace against those who demand proof of God’s existence: “When I use an atheist’s methodology against him, he can’t even prove his own existence,” since advanced aliens could make me believe that I am arguing with an atheist when in fact I’m not, simply by messing with my brain.

Wood also attacked Shermer’s hypocrisy for asking why God doesn’t detect amputees: even if He did, Shermer still wouldn’t be convinced of God’s existence. And how reasonable is it, asks Wood, for Shermer to believe the evolutionary naturalist myth that life originated from non-living matter, while at the same time insisting that the regeneration of a limb from living matter would somehow constitute proof of God’s existence?

Is Shermer simply being willfully perverse, as Wood seems to believe? Much as I profoundly disagree with Shermer, I would argue that his position is at least intellectually consistent, even if I also consider it to be unreasonable. Here’s why.

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Lightning rods and the Church: John Loftus resurrects a hoary old myth

The lightning rod invented by the Czechoslovakian priest Prokop Divis in 1754. Image courtesy of Bohemianroots (author) and Wikipedia.
The lightning rod invented by the Czechoslovakian priest Prokop Divis in 1754. Image courtesy of Bohemianroots (author) and Wikipedia.

Well, it looks like atheist John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist and Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End, is at it again. In a recent blog post, titled, DC Regular Mattapult On Church Lightning Rods (October 30, 2016), he resurrects the “Warfare” thesis propagated by Andrew Dickson White, and accuses Christian clergymen of obstructing the installation of lightning rods on churches in the eighteenth century. Loftus writes:

How bad was the problem of lightning striking churches?

“For centuries, the devastating scourge of lightning had generally been considered a supernatural phenomenon or expression of God’s will. At the approach of a storm, church bells were rung to ward off the bolts. “The tones of the consecrated metal repel the demon and avert storm and lightning,” declared St. Thomas Aquinas. But even the most religiously faithful were likely to have noticed this was not very effective. During one thirty-five-year period in Germany alone during the mid-1700s, 386 churches were struck and more than one hundred bell ringers killed. In Venice, some three thousand people were killed when tons of gunpowder stored in a church was hit.”

Franklin’s results are well known: he discovered that the electricity could be directed to a lightning rod which would save the building from being burned down. Most were delighted to find protection from this disaster, but not everybody:

“In some circles, especially religious ones, Franklin’s findings stirred controversy. The Abbé Nollet, jealous, continued to denigrate his ideas and claimed that the lightning rod was an offense to God. “He speaks as if he thought it presumption in man to propose guarding himself against the thunders of Heaven!” Franklin wrote a friend. “Surely the thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple.”

…..

Excerpts From: Isaacson, Walter. “Benjamin Franklin.” Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

Is Loftus telling the truth?
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Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt: Still Unresolved?

I would like to begin by congratulating Kantian Naturalist on his recent post, Solving Wallace’s Problem and Resolving Darwin’s Doubt, which squarely faces the epistemological issues raised by Darwin and Wallace, regarding the reliability of human knowledge. In this post, I’d like to explain why I don’t think Kantian Naturalist’s statement of the problem quite gets it right, and why I believe the solution he puts forward is a flawed one.

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Is evolution smarter than you are?

Evolutionists are fond of citing Orgel’s Second Rule: “Evolution is smarter than you are.” I have previously expressed skepticism about this rule (see here and here), but I’ve had no success in persuading people with a naturalistic metaphysical outlook. Yesterday, however, I came across a LiveScience article by Tia Glose titled, The Spooky Secret Behind Artificial Intelligence’s Incredible Power (October 9, 2016), which might prove to be a game-changer. We’ll see.

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