Friday, November 27, 2009

C.S. Lewis, the Trilemma, and Cultural Norms

A common Christian apologetic argument is the Trilemma. First introduced by C.S. Lewis, this argument since Lewis has undergone modification. However, the basic argument has not changed. As the argument goes, Jesus, was either telling the truth when he said that he was God, Jesus was lying, or Jesus was insane. This is generally abbreviated as “Lord, Liar or Lunatic.”

Lewis used this argument primarily as a response to people who thought that Jesus was a good person. but not the Son of God. Lewis argued that this was not a possibility since, if Jesus was not telling the truth, then one of the other two possibilities must hold. In its more modern form, the argument is identical, but evidence is presented as well that the last two possibilities don’t hold.

The argument in either the original form of Lewis or in other variants, suffers from flaws. The most serious flaw is the reliability of the Gospels as record of what Jesus said. It is not at all implausible that Jesus didn’t claim to be the Son of God, but such claims were later asserted by followers. Or Jesus could have in fact said exactly what he is quoted as but have been genuinely mistaken. These are two are two good detailed discussions of these and other flaws. Rather than discuss the flaws, I’d like to examine why this argument is so effective apologetics.

The argument, especially in its post-Lewis form (such as that advanced by Joshua McDowell in his “Evidence that Demands A Verdict”) does not explicitly invoke the presupposition that the audience thinks that Jesus was a great man . However, in an unstated form, this approach is far more effective. We live in a society with few taboos stronger than saying negative statements about Jesus. Indeed, even if one asks most Jews who live in the United States what they think of Jesus, they will feel compelled to say something like “I think he was a great teacher” or something similar. Thus, to most people, the notion that Jesus was either a lunatic or a liar is so repulsive (or politically incorrect) that when faced with those alternatives, they have no choice but to rush to the third possibility. The Trilemma thus rests on implicit cultural norms that Lewis was willing to make explicit. His successors have been less forthcoming.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Quick Note about Bill Sparkman

Some readers may remember Bill Sparkman. Sparkman was a federal census worker who was found dead, hanging from a tree with the word "fed" scrawled across his body. At the time, the general consensus among progressive bloggers was that Sparkman's murder was evidence for the deep problems being created by right-wing rhetoric that stoked anger and paranoia. (See for example this note). The reply by the right-wing was interesting with all sorts of explanatory hypotheses proposed. Some of the responses on the right-wing were simply put, insane, such as incredibly baseless claim that Sparkman had been killed because he was pedophile. All of this looked like the standard behavior for the blogosphere and pundits but for one detail: It nows turns out that Sparkman wasn't murdered. According to police, he committed suicide and tried to make it look like murder to help get insurance money. I hope that all the bloggers who used this as evidence of the problems of the current right-wing rhetoric will post follow-ups but I'm not optimistic.

Note that this isn't intended to say that there aren't good reasons to be concerned with the increasing radicalization and paranoia of the American right. But Bill Sparkman's death should not be part of those concerns.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spam and Commenting II

Given the discussion in the comments for the thread below I am turning on CAPTCHA for commenting. I haven't been able to figure out how to ger reCAPTCHA working for blogger. If someone knows how to use that, I'll do that instead.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Spam and Commenting

Over the last two weeks there has been a problem with spam bots. The problem has become annoying enough that it needs fixing. I am either going to turn on comment moderation or turn on a CAPTCHA system. Which do readers prefer?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Barack Obama, the Turing-Lovecraft Theorem and Horcruxes

One nice thing about a blog is that you can see how people arrived at your blog. Many hits come from Google searches. Some of those Google searches are phrased explicitly as questions while in other cases what the individual is searching for is obvious. This blog entry will examine some of the more common search strings and questions which blog entries here do not already answer.

Search string: "Is Barack Obama a clone?" Number of searches: At least 15 counting all variations.

People searching for this question or some variation thereof normally find my entry on Barack Obama's position on cloning. So is Barack Obama a clone? No. Of course not. That's even stupider than thinking that Obama's parents deliberately faked a birth certificate so he could run for President 40 years later. That's even stupider than thinking that 9/11 was an inside job. That's even dumber than thinking that scientists invented evolution to undermine belief in God. Cloning is a really difficult technology. We've had trouble until recently even cloning mammals. The idea we could clone people 40 years ago is absurd. And there's no coherent aim to cloning Obama.

On second thought, maybe it isn't so unreasonable. It would explain a great deal such as why he's been so uncooperative about giving a long-form birth certificate for the birthers to examine. And it explains why he is so charismatic. Someone tell Orly Taitz! Obama wasn't born in Hawaii or Kenya or anywhere else! Maybe he was never born but cloned in a vat by the Illuminati! Sadly, this hypothesis contradicts the preexisting conspiracy theory that Obama is a reptilian infiltrator. Maybe he is a cloned reptilian hybrid?

Search strings: "Turing-Lovecraft Theorem" and "proof of Turing-Lovecraft theorem" and others. Number of searches: Around 10.

According to Charlie Stross's "The Atrocity Archives," (discussed in this blog entry) Alan Turing did not commit suicide but rather was killed by the British government because he discovered a very dangerous theorem. This theorem that disproves the Church-Turing thesis and if thought about the wrong way could summon Lovecraftian horrors. This theorem's exact statement and proof are not included in the book. The book is fiction. As in, not real. As in, no such theorem exists. Just as H.P. Lovecraft wrote fiction. As in, not real. As in, his monstrosities came from his imagination, not from horrific realms beyond the understanding of mortals.

Or maybe that's just what they want you to think. Don't you find it interesting that not only has Barack Obama never denied being a reptilian clone but he's also never denied that the Turing-Lovecraft theorem is real?

Search string: "How do I make a Horcrux in real life." Number of searches: Too many to count. I get this search or some variation almost every single day. The total number of searches is easily in the hundreds.

This search and very similar search turn people to the blog entry arguing that it is acceptable under halacha (Orthodox Jewish law) to make a Horcrux if one had the ability to do so. Fortunately, horcruxes are not real. They are fictional. They are from the Harry Potter books. The Harry Potter books are fictional. Again, fictional means not real. You cannot split your soul into pieces using a magic wand. Sorry. But no.

Again. This may just be what Barack Obama wants you to think. That way, if the public does ever find out about his reptilian clone heritage and tries to kill him, they won't realize that he'll be unstoppable unless his Horcrux is destroyed. What would his Horcrux be? Remember, that if he is a reptilian clone, he obviously enjoys laughing at us while he and his reptilian compatriots slowly take over the world. So he might leave clues about his intentions. Isn't it a bit suspicious that Harry Potter, who turns out to be an accidental Horcrux for Voldemort, sees the shape of an acorn in his tea leaves in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and yet Obama was elected with the help of an organization called... ACORN?! All the pieces are coming together!

Sadly, there were two common hits from Google that don't seem to fit this. Indeed, they seem to be questions from people who don't have a problem distinguishing fact from fiction. I'll try to put together serious blog entries about those topics when I have time.

And apologies to Glenn Beck.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, Memes and Intellectual Honesty

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” As with Gladwell’s previous books, I found the book to be full of interesting tidbits, but lacking a coherent thesis. The book was sufficiently mediocre that I decided against reviewing the book. This is not a review. This is a discussion of Malcolm Gladwell’s lack of intellectual rigor.

Gladwell’s primary thesis is that ideas or behavior can, under the right circumstances, spread like an epidemic. What precisely this means is not clear. However, there is another, serious problem with this book, a glaring omission. People sometimes talk about something being “blindingly obvious.” In this case, the omission is so obvious that it is more akin to staring at the sun at high noon. This omission can be summarized by a single word that appears nowhere in the text: Meme.

In his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins, coined the term “meme” to mean, in essence, a unit of cultural transmission that reproduces and is selected for, akin to how genes are selected for by natural selection. Since 1976, “meme” has been used more loosely to mean an idea or behavior that spreads in a viral fashion. The idea of a meme is similar, if not identical, to what Gladwell discusses. Despite that, the word “meme” never appears once in Gladwell’s book. Nor is Dawkins mentioned or referenced once in the text.

Gladwell’s book was first published in 2000, many years after Dawkins’s coinage. This is not a case of two minds independently and simultaneously arriving at the same idea, like Leibniz and Newton. This is one mind, presenting an idea and then another mind publishing a similar idea while failing to acknowledge prior work. By academic standards, this is completely unacceptable.

One might think that, possibly, Gladwell’s research was sloppy, and so he never learned about Dawkins’s term “meme.” However, I read Gladwell’s book on Kindle, which includes many updates since the original book was published. It is implausible that, in the last nine years, Gladwell has never heard the term “meme.” And yet, he felt no need to add even a footnote or a sentence about Dawkins’s important prior work.
Most damningly: Gladwell does mention the word “meme” in passing on his website in the FAQ about the book:
5. Are you talking about the idea of memes, that has become so popular in academic circles recently?
It's very similar. A meme is a idea that behaves like a virus--that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects. I must say, though, that I don't much like that term. The thing that bothers me about the discussion of memes is that no one ever tries to define exactly what they are, and what makes a meme so contagious. I mean, you can put a virus under a microscope and point to all the genes on its surface that are responsible for making it so dangerous. So what happens when you look at an infectious idea under a microscope? I have a chapter where I try to do that. I use the example of children's television shows like Sesame Street and the new Nickelodeon program called Blues Clues. Both those are examples of shows that started learning epidemics in preschoolers, that turned kids onto reading and "infected" them with literacy. We sometimes think of Sesame Street as purely the result of the creative genius of people like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. But the truth is that it is carefully and painstaking engineered, down to the smallest details.

So an idea “very similar” to his doesn’t deserve a single mention in the entire book. Furthermore, the claim that the idea of a meme isn’t well-defined is simply false, as one can see from actually reading “The Selfish Gene.” Gladwell’s claim that individual memes have not been examined in detail is also false. Indeed, there was a Journal of Memetics for almost a decade that examined memes in detail. And if one accepts Dawkins notion that religion is inherently memetic, then all of religious studies is essentially an examination of memes. Some modern scholars have specifically examined religion in that context. In fact, Gladwell himself examines the rise of Methodism in the United States as an example.

Gladwell comes across as a child trying to explain why his hand was in the cookie jar. He advances a series of unconvincing, somewhat contradictory explanations, hoping that we will ignore the larger problem. So far as I can tell from Google searching, this strategy has worked; people have noted that Gladwell is talking about memes but no one has called him out for his failure to acknowledge this prior work. This isn’t acceptable. Gladwell’s behavior is intellectually dishonest. His failure to credit Dawkins or others who have thought about these ideas before him does a disservice to those individuals and to honest intellectual discourse. I don’t think Gladwell’s behavior constitutes plagiarism, but it certainly would be punished if it occurred in an academic setting. Failure to cite prior work results in a paper being rejected from any legitimate journal. If a student hands in an assignment that fails to cite prior work, the student receives a bad grade, if not outright failure. Gladwell owes his readers and Richard Dawkins an apology for his failure to acknowledge that Gladwell’s idea recycles Dawkins’s earlier work.