Monday, June 21, 2010

Does God Make the Resurrection More Likely?

I agree that the resurrection of Jesus is naturally impossible. But that’s not the question. The question is, is it improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead?  William Lane Craig

If I am outside on a pitch black night and I feel water falling on my head from the sky, I will no doubt conclude that it is raining. I would not be inclined to believe that I had been attacked by a CIA predator drone armed with squirt guns even if someone told me that that was what had happened. I would reach this conclusion because I am thoroughly familiar with the phenomenon known as rain. It is well understood and well documented that the overwhelming majority of occurrences of water falling from the sky are rain storms.

One factor that would not effect my conclusion is whether or not I believed that the CIA actually possessed the technology to arm drones with squirt guns that could simulate falling rain. If they did, that would only move the probability of a drone attack from zero to infinitesimal. Whether you call the principle “parsimony” or “Occam’s razor,” logic dictates that a common ordinary explanation is preferable to an extraordinary unprecedented explanation. There is no need to even examine the feasibility of the CIA attack.

Myth and legend may not be quite as common and ordinary as rain; however, I would still deem them to be as common and ordinary when compared to reliable accounts of supernatural events as rain is compared to predator drones armed with squirt guns. I agree with Craig that the resurrection is more probable with God than without God. Nevertheless, the well documented phenomenon of myth and legend is still a more likely explanation than one set of anonymous ancient writings being the only known source of reliable objective accounts of supernatural events.

From Sunday School Teacher to Atheist

I dropped in yesterday on a gentleman who had been one of the pillars of the parish in which I grew up.  He was a lector at both Sunday and daily mass and he served on various committees.  His son and I have been friends since kindergarten, but I got to know him better in high school when I was in his religious education class.  In those days, I didn't know what I believed, but I enjoyed the discussions and I came to respect him very much.

After we chatted for awhile about his children and grandchildren, and his wife who had passed away last year after sixty-one years of marriage, I asked him whether he was still active in the church.  With just the slightest hesitation, he confessed that he could no longer bring himself to recite the creed at mass because he no longer believed that any of those things were so.  He did not say exactly how long he had felt that way but he said it was something he and his wife had come come to together.

He said it had started with the sexual abuse scandals in the church.  He did not see how those priests could truly believe the things that the church taught and do the things they did without taking their own lives.  He told me that he had listened to Bart Ehrman's course from the Teaching Company,
From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, and he had read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  After that, he could no longer believe the stories he had been told all his life.

I cannot help but admire the intellectual integrity it took to reexamine the beliefs he had held for the better part of eighty years and to abandon them when he found them wanting.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Money Losing Wall Street Journal Op-Ed Page

My favorite financial blog is Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture. In Art Laffer Make Up Your Own Facts Here, he eviscerates the Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed page and supply side economics shill Arthur Laffer:

In his OpEd, Mr. Laffer confuses causation with correlation, ignores market history, makes spurious argument, and simply make up crap as he goes along.

It is, to any thinking person, an embarrassment.

For example, Laffer pontificates that "It shouldn't surprise anyone that the nine states without an income tax are growing far faster and attracting more people than are the nine states with the highest income tax rates. People and businesses change the location of income based on incentives."

Ritholtz points out that "This is mostly true, but misleading."

First, 7 states have no income tax; the other two tax — New Hampshire and Tennessee — only tax dividends and interest income.

Many of the states without income taxes — think Texas, and Alaska — are blessed with natural resources. (Nevada’s blessing is Innumeracy). They don’t have income taxes because the lease licenses to the mining and oil industry throw off so much revenue, that these taxes are not needed. Confusing correlation for causation is a Freshman college error, and we should expect better from Laffer.

Note: 5 of the 9 have a corporate business tax: Alaska has a state corporate income tax, Florida has a corporate income tax (5%); New Hampshire has a Business Profits Tax (8.5%); South Dakota has a financial institutions income tax; Washington has a Business and Occupation Tax. Since these are the fastest growing states according to Laffer, is the lesson to other states to add a corporate tax?

Ritholtz also takes Laffer to task for giving tax cuts the entire credit for the economic expansion of the 1980's.
Reagan had the good fortune to take office at the tail end of a 16 year secular bear market, just as Paul Volcker fed the economy its distasteful medicine. Inflation was broken, and interest rates began their 25 year slide towards zero.

To ignore the reality of these factors, and credit tax cuts as the sole cause of the 1980s and 90s expansion is simply to discard reality because it does not fit your neat ideological universe. That is a surefire recipe for losing money as an investor . . .

Ritholtz finishes off by taking a swipe at the Wall Street Journal:

Indeed, I have railed in these pages against the ideological, fact-free OpEd in the WSJ — not because of the politics, but because they have been such consistent money losers. That would not matter so much if it were the NYT or the Podunk Press, but this is the Journal, for crying out loud, It is supposed to be the paper of record for investors.

That the money losing OpEd page of the WSJ produces its most well read articles goes a long way in explaining one thing: Why 80% of money managers underperfom every year. Filling your head with Ideology, becoming a “magical thinker,” ignoring data, making up your own facts — these are a recipe for under-performing asset managers.

If I were to create a list of questions to ask potential managers of my money, one of them would be: “Do you read the WSJ OpEds?”

If the answer were yes, I would not walk but run in the opposite direction.
For an example of Arthur Laffer's forecasting ability, watch his appearance on CNBC in August 2006 where he argues with Peter Schiff.  Schiff correctly predicted a severe recession within the next couple years because the U.S. economy didn't manufacture anything anymore, but relied instead on consumer spending that was ultimately fueled by foreign debt.  Laffer insisted that Schiff did not understand how the Chinese were actually paying us for maintaining the banking system rather than simply lending us money.  According to Laffer, Alan Greenspan's monetary policy was the product that the rest of the world was happy to pay for.

Of course you will never here CNBC's cheerleaders pointing out how badly Laffer missed the boat.  Here's Larry Kudlow kissing Laffer's ass yesterday.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Scopes Legacy

This clip is from a 1996 British documentary titled Science Friction: Creation. It shows the sad state of biology education in Dayton, Tennessee seventy years after the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The ignorance of the students is disturbing enough, but even more maddening is the fact that someone who purports to be a science teacher could validate their absolute want of critical thinking. I also can't help but think of the proud parents who are pleased with the education their children are getting.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Resurrection: What Would It Take to Convince Me?

What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that Jesus bodily rose from the dead? Vocab Malone.

This is a question that is frequently asked of skeptics by Christian apologists in the blogosphere. Its purpose (as I understand it) is to expose the skeptic’s bias. The skeptic is very likely to demand very convincing evidence for the resurrection in which case the apologist will accuse him of having a double standard since he accepts other events in history with much less proof.

Even better for the apologist, the skeptic might answer that no evidence could ever convince of the historicity of the resurrection. Then the apologist can argue that the skeptic is unable to honestly evaluate the evidence since he has determined the conclusion he will reach before he starts. My usual answer is that I am unable to imagine an array of evidence that would convince me of the resurrection without denying that such an array might exist. While I believe this to be perfectly true and a perfectly valid answer, I realize that I am sidestepping the question to some extent.

Recently, I came across a skeptic who said that personally witnessing a spectacular supernatural event might be sufficient to convince him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. “This could – as an example – be a miraculous event like the stars suddenly spelling out ‘ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOUR AND ESCAPE THE FIRES OF HELL!’ and the gates of Hell and Heaven being opened to touring visitors.” The apologist claimed that the skeptic wasn’t debating in good faith, but I don’t think it is an unreasonable answer.

The reason that I say that I can’t imagine a particular array of evidence is that five decades of observation and learning have persuaded me that resorting to supernatural explanations for the world around me is unnecessary. Christians will accuse me of having an anti-supernatural presupposition, but I don’t believe that it is a presupposition at all. I believe that methodological naturalism is an empirical conclusion. I take this approach because it has proved itself in practice.

In evaluating any supernatural claim, I have to take into account my own experiences and observations which include the following: (1) I have known people who claimed to see supernatural intervention in ordinary events; (2) I have known people who accept the supernatural claims of others and pass them along without thinking critically about them; and (3) I have known people who exaggerate the basis for supernatural claims when they pass them along. On the other hand, my own experience and knowledge do not include any verifiable supernatural miracles.

Since I am quite familiar with spurious miracle claims and I have no familiarity whatsoever with verifiable miracle claims, it is hard for me to imagine how I might be convinced that one of the latter had occurred. In evaluating any new miracle claim, I have no choice but to compare it with my previous experience with the subject. Just as I am always going to assess the likelihood that it is raining when a wet person shows up at my front door as much higher than the likelihood that there is a swimming pool in my front yard, I am always going to assess the probability of a spurious miracle claim higher than a true one.

On the other hand, if I were to witness a spectacular supernatural event myself, I might well decide to apply a different probability distribution to supernatural claims made by others. So if I were to personally witness a miracle of resurrection caliber (along with other witnesses so I can be confident I am not hallucinating), I might conclude that the bodily resurrection of Jesus in first century Palestine was likely.