Friday, 30 December 2011

Resurrection of the gaps

In "The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus" — Chapter 35 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for GodGary R. Habermas announces he "will list ten considerations that favor Jesus's resurrection appearances." Most of this appears to be "eyewitness testimony", but four of these ten considerations are accounts given by Paul in the New Testament. This is eyewitness testimony recorded by one man — a convert whose conversion was so cataclysmic that its location gave its name to such conversions: Damascene. It's well known that converts are often the most devout, the most zealous — consequently their pronouncements are to be regarded with a degree of caution.

"That Jesus' resurrection was the very center of early Christian faith..." doesn't necessarily count towards its status as fact. If a religious sect is being started it needs something to make it special, and a resurrection will fit the bill. The emphasis on the resurrection could have been something early Christian leaders promulgated in order to gain followers, regardless of its truth value. (I'm not saying here that those leaders were deliberately fraudulent, but they would have been aware of which aspects of their faith would be most persuasive to potential converts.)

Habermas uses (and excuses) multiple appeals to authority:
Throughout this essay, I will not assume the inspiration or even the reliability of the New Testament writings, though I think these doctrines rest on strong grounds.  I will refer almost exclusively to those data that are so well attested that they impress even the vast majority of non-evangelical scholars.  Each point is confirmed by impressive data, even though I can do no more than offer an outline of these reasons.
If he's not assuming the reliability of the New Testament writings, how can he use them to support his case?
We must be clear from the outset that not only do contemporary scholars not mind when points are taken from the New Testament writings, but they do so often.  The reason is that confirmed data can be used anywhere it is found.
But of course he's not going to use any data that supports a contrary case, only implicitly asserting that it inhabits tiny spaces left over when he says "...the vast majority of non-evangelical scholars", or "...comparatively few skeptical scholars...", or "Few conclusions in current study are more widely held by scholars...", or "Most scholars who address the subject think that...", or "...scholars usually agree that...", or "Virtually no one, friend or foe, believer or critic, denies that...", or "It is almost always acknowledged that...", or "...the vast majority of contemporary scholars conclude that..."

Habermas's case appears to be a "resurrection of the gaps" argument. He claims there's no natural explanation for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and that therefore Jesus rose from the dead. First, this is an argument from ignorance, and second, the burden of proof is on those making the extraordinary claim. The evidence from scripture is shaky at best: note that there are no eyewitness accounts of Jesus actually rising from the dead — it's all post hoc supposition, with Habermas and other apologists filling in the gaps themselves with events they want to believe happened.

It's not up to anyone else to disprove the resurrection, because it hasn't been sufficiently established to begin with. I can't account for what goes on in the mind of a religious zealot, but I am highly suspicious of any extraordinary event reported by eyewitnesses. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, and if those accounts are mostly reported second-hand by one individual with his own agenda we have good reason to be skeptical. I may not personally have a definitive explanation for the scriptural accounts, but I don't need one. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing to disprove.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

A Facebook exchange on hellish religious language

Here's a Facebook conversation from a few days before Christmas. The thread (of which this is a part) is now buried deep down in the Unbelievable group and therefore probably not worth reviving, but I wanted to record my final comments for the sake of completeness, and to clarify my own thoughts:
Daniel Smith Sam, some Christians argue that language of hell and eternal torment is figurative for cessation of existence; it does not refer to literal conscious torment for eternity. This view is called annihilationism.

Other Christians, like myself, take the imagery of hell (fire and brimstone, etc....) to be symbolic. After all, it is difficult to see how there could be "outer darkness" in a literal furnace, so one of these texts at least must be understood non-literally. if humans were made for relationship with God, then to be separated from God for eternity would be a type of torment, albeit self-inflicted.

And as you guessed others, perhaps most, think that a literal furnace exists where the damned suffer eternally.

Point being, there is a range of views, and the issue is not at all settled, especially between the second and third conceptions of hell.
19 December at 05:07 · Like

Paul Jenkins ‎@Daniel, this is why I find religious language unhelpful. If someone threatens to beat me to a pulp, and I interpret that "figuratively" as nothing more than a threat to scowl disapprovingly at me, at the very least this indicates a failure of communication.
19 December at 09:42 · Like

Daniel Smith Paul,

I think your language is just as unhelpful. Figurative language is not "religious language." It's jut the way humans communicate. I don't say that I find scientific language unhelpful because "the sun rose at 6:53 A.M." is not literally true. Or at the end of a long day of work, "I am dead tired" is not literally true. Or "sometimes my wife has to whip me into shape," is (usually) not literally true. The fact that religious texts use language which all of us use every day is neither a defect in religion nor in religious language.

If someone threatens to beat you to a pulp, you take them literally in that you think they literally will beat you, but not literally "to a pulp." So even this implies a bit of figurative speech which needs to be interpreted. Easy to point the finger at religion, though. Maybe you should acknowledge that things just aren't always as clear as you want them to be.
19 December at 19:24 · Like

Paul Jenkins Daniel,

I acknowledge that things aren't always as clear as I'd like, and that there is a difference between being "beaten to a pulp" in the figurative sense and being beaten to a pulp in an electric blender. Both the figurative sense and the literal sense, however, would involve blood and mangled flesh rather than, say, superficial bruising. Therefore I maintain that my figurative use of "beaten to a pulp" is a legitimate use of language that conveys my intended meaning with a degree of accuracy.

This cannot be said of the difference between "literal conscious torment" in the "fire and brimstone" of a literal furnace on the one hand, and "cessation of existence" on the other. The two are not remotely comparable. The claim that one is a symbolic expression of the other contributes more to obfuscation than clarity.
20 December at 00:31 · Like

Daniel Smith Therefore you maintain that your use of language, while not literally correct, is correct enough in the context you're using it and for the audience you're communicating with.

I agree with you that annihilationism does not seem to be what passages about fire and brimstone teach. That view is based on other passages. Nevertheless you've conceded the most important thing: that figurative language is constantly is use. This makes it difficult to criticize the Bible on the basis that there are debates about what some passages contained therein really mean to say. I mean, we have the same debates in America about the constitution. This must prove that political language is totally worthless and imprecise, right?
20 December at 22:21 · Like
I do concede that figurative language is in constant use — it's part of what makes conversation interesting and expressive, and it certainly doesn't make political language worthless (although it can adversely affect its precision). But if "fire and brimstone" is figurative or symbolic language, and annihilationism is "based on other passages", at least one of these must be wrong, and in either case the language used to justify them is, indeed, unhelpful.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Absence of corpse isn't evidence of resurrection

I'm unsure why the "empty tomb" is supposed to be a big deal. If an inanimate object is placed at a particular location, and is subsequently not found where it was placed, one does not normally jump to the conclusion that the object moved of its own accord. Being inanimate, incapable of independent locomotion, the object — or rather its lack — is most likely to be explained by having been moved by a person or persons unknown. If the location in question is a tomb, and the object a corpse, the most plausible explanation for the corpse's absence is that it's been stolen.

Be that as it may, Gary R. Habermas expends some additional words in "The Empty Tomb of Jesus", Chapter 34 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, on the "criterion of embarrassment" — that reports of the empty tomb came from women, whose testimony was at the time held to be generally less reliable than that of men. The problem with the criterion of embarrassment is that it cuts both ways, and is therefore worth very little: we can just as easily say, "it must be true because it's so incredible" as we can say, "it must be true because it's so credible." (Would the gospel accounts of the empty tomb be any more believable if they contained the reports of known liars, or children, or perhaps even talking donkeys? I think not.)

Unfortunately Habermas goes one worse, and like Michael Licona in the previous chapter engages in circular reasoning:
Fourth, most recent scholars seem to agree that, while Paul does not explicitly mention the empty tomb, the early tradition that this apostle reported to others in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 implies an empty tomb. The listing of the Gospel content moves from Jesus' death, to his burial, to his resurrection from the dead, to his appearances. This sequence strongly suggests that, however it may have been transformed, Jesus' body that died and was buried is the same one that was raised afterwards. Thus, what was placed in the ground is precisely what emerged. In short, what went down is what came up. Such a process would have resulted in the burial tomb being emptied.

That Paul does not specifically mention the empty tomb keeps this from being as strong a point as it could have been. Still, to say so clearly that Jesus' dead body was buried, raised, and appeared would be a rather strange process unless the tomb had been vacated in the process.
Habermas is implicitly using the empty tomb as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (that's presumably why this chapter is included), but the paragraphs quoted above appear to use accounts of Jesus's post-mortem appearances as evidence for the tomb being empty. Do I need to point out again that this is a circular argument?

Then Habermas uses the well-worn trope of "would they die for a lie?" without examining the possibility that disciples might very well die for a delusion if they were sufficiently indoctrinated. The fact that the disciples were prepared to die for their beliefs has no bearing on whether those beliefs were true.

It does seem likely that the tomb was empty, but this only shows that the tomb did not contain a body. I find this unremarkable, and I'm at a loss to understand why Habermas is even concerned to establish it. Too bad I didn't get that chance to ask him myself.

Brainy stuff

Pinkish grey and vaguely reminiscent of an oversized walnut, the human brain is composed of brainy stuff, which allows it, by means that are far from fully understood, to do brainy stuff. Currently screening on BBC Four TV this week (and available on iPlayer) this year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are delivered by Professor Bruce Hood, who is inviting us to "Meet Your Brain".

Here's a trailer, from the RI Channel website:

The Christmas Lectures 2011 - Trailer from The Royal Institution on Vimeo.

There are lots more videos relating to the Christmas Lectures on the RI Channel, including some snippets recorded well before the lectures themselves. Worth a browse.

As an unexpected bonus, Professor Hood's new book The Self Illusion — not due to be published until April 2012 — is partly available as a free Kindle download from Amazon (remember you don't need a Kindle to be able to read Kindle ebooks — there are free software readers for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android).

The last time brainy stuff was the subject of the Christmas Lectures they were delivered, if I remember correctly, by Susan Greenfield. Presumably she went on to carry out rigorous, detailed research — fully documented in respected peer-reviewed scientific journals — into the effects on the brain of activities such as video-gaming and internet social networking. Or something like that.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Burnee links for the Tuesday after Christmas, containing much stuff I should have posted quite a long time ago...

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: Skeptic Trumps: Rhys Morgan
The Welsh boyo has arrived.

New Humanist (Rationalist Association) - Half of Britons now non-religious, finds respected British Social Attitudes survey
Progress in Great Britain at least.

Dr. Coyne gets religious pushback « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne gets first hand experience of anti-evolutionism at the chalkface.

Horrifyingly delusional anti-vaxxers in Australia | Pharyngula
Meryl Dorey is dangerously deluded.

A common atheist delusion | Pharyngula
Social glue, or a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas?

Hitch is not in heaven | Pharyngula
We are all "living dyingly".

Spilled Ink
As comprehensive takedowns go, this is as comprehensive as it gets.

The Blog : Hitch : Sam Harris
A favourite writer on a favourite writer.

A Modest Proposal « The New Adventures of Stephen Fry
Maybe the time is right for repatriation of some items whose expatriation was made possible by the civilisation from which they were expatriated in the first place.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day 2011 | Sarah Angliss
I'm linking to this (belatedly because I've only just found it) not because it's Ada Lovelace but because it's Daphne Oram, whose "Oramics" electronic music machine I saw when I visted the Science Museum on the day I attended the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall this year.

The dangers of video games | Pharyngula
Let that be a lesson to you...

The scandalous video that could not be shown on TV! Here! Now! Uncensored! | Pharyngula
Another from YouTube linked by PZ Myers.

Next year, we must wage the War on Christmas harder | Pharyngula
PZ Myers disagrees with John Lennox and Alister McGrath. This is not a surprise — these two epitomise some extremes of theology: confident but utterly unsubstantiated pronouncements from the former and waffly vacuity from the latter. (Once upon a time I thought it might be helpful to read a primer on theology, but changed my mind when I discovered most of them were written my Alister McGrath.)

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949 — 2011

"The metaphysical claims of religion are untrue."

It's been a sad and sobering day. We shall not see his like again.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Circular logic is circular in Evidence for God

Michael R. Licona, one of the editors of Evidence for God (the other being William A. Dembski) contributes Chapter 33, "Can We Be Certain That Jesus Died on a Cross? — A Look at the Ancient Practice of Crucifixion". Certainty in this matter is apparently important because if Jesus didn't die on a cross he couldn't have been resurrected, and "without a resurrection, Christianity is falsified." So Licona presents "four reasons that support the credibility of the claim that Jesus died as a result of being crucified."

First, he mentions reports about Jesus's execution, some by non-Christians, and he goes on to say:
The fact that these non-Christians mentioned Jesus in their writings shows that Jesus' death was known outside of Christian circles and was not something the Christians invented.
That's stretching it a bit. Licona himself states that the reports were late first century, early second century, early to mid-second century, and second to third century. Even the earliest would presumably have been decades after the event reported, so it's unlikely they were reliable eye-witness accounts. They could even have been second-hand reports based on the same source — but how reliable was that source itself? Maybe the story of Jesus's death was known outside of Christian circles, but the existence of those reports is hardly proof that they are all true.

Second, Licona goes into gory detail about crucifixion and concludes that people who were crucified were highly unlikely to survive it. I'm not sure why this needs to be stated — execution isn't something one is expected to survive.

Then we get this:
Third, professional medical opinions are unanimous in concluding that Jesus certainly died as a result of being crucified.7
Licona gives the following reference for the above statement:
7A number of these are mentioned in Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Volume 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 1088ff.
Now, I'm not disputing that Jesus probably died as a result of his crucifixion, but I have to point out Licona's appallingly shoddy logic in the above claim. What, precisely, does he mean by "unanimous"? Has he consulted every professional medical opinion? Apparently not — he says "a number" are mentioned in his cited reference. It seems therefore that he's using "unanimous" in the sense that all of the professional medical opinions that conclude Jesus died from crucifixion are unanimous in that opinion — which is at best tautologous.

Licona may have been perilously close to the edge of logic with that last "reason", but with his fourth he steps right off the cliff. He attempts to use Jesus's post-mortem appearances as evidence for him dying on the cross. This is begging the question. What Licona is trying to establish in this chapter is that Jesus died on the cross, because if Jesus didn't die on the cross he couldn't have been resurrected. Licona can't use the resurrection as proof of the crucifixion and then use the crucifixion to prove the resurrection, because — this is elementary stuff — that's a circular argument.

Argumentation of such low calibre is fatal to Licona's credibility here. Dembski should have spiked it.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Sophisticated theologians circumvent Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality « Why Evolution Is True:
Jerry Coyne: "I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology." He's referring to a post by Jason Rosenhouse, who concludes with this on Leviticus:
"If you want to use the Bible as a moral guide then you are stuck with it. The text is not infinitely malleable, and you cannot reasonably interpret X to mean not X. Rather than try to twist the text to fit modern moral sensibilities, which despite their denials is precisely what Friedman and Dolansky are doing, why don't we simply discard this particular ancient book and move on to more promising approaches to morality?"

Islam, Charles Darwin and the denial of science - Telegraph
Steve Jones on the point of despair as students reject evolution.
(Via David Jenkins*.)

Rationally Speaking: A handy dandy guide for the skeptic of determinism
A decidedly triumphal post from Massimo Pigliucci on the pervasive idea that determinism has been determined. (I need more understanding of philosophy...)

More on free will: Dr.^3 Pigliucci weighs in, I respond « Why Evolution Is True
Maybe I really should learn more philosophy if I want to get to grips with jousts like those Jerry Coyne and Massimo Pigliucci engage in.

Best photos of the year 2011 | Analysis & Opinion | Reuters
100 pictures — the best of photojournalism (some very graphic).
(Via Luke Muehlhauser.)

* Yeah, he's my dad.

It's that man again — the Craig "itch"

Regular readers of this blog (and listeners to Skepticule Extra) will know that I have an oscillating attitude to William Lane Craig. No sooner have I concluded that he has nothing new to tell me and therefore I can forthwith ignore him, than I find myself irresistibly scratching at something he's said, knowing that it's wrong without being able to put my finger on precisely why. But I think Thunderf00t has nailed it:

Being a confident speaker will go a long, long way towards convincing people that what you say is true. If you behave in a way that says loudly and clearly that of course what you say is true, many people will believe you by default. But with Craig there is always that niggling doubt that his approach to his various arguments for the existence of God rests on something not just unsound but profoundly silly. This video exposes that doubt and parades it for all to see. "Should creationism be taught in schools?"

Back in June Channel 4's daily two-minute opinion film-clip slot,, covered intelligent design. I blogged about it at the time, and we covered it on the Skepticule Extra podcast. A couple of weeks ago the subject was "Should creationism be taught in schools?"

Monday's clip was 18-year-old student Sam Scott Perry:
Young Earth Creationist Sam Scott Perry believes the world is only between 6,000 to 10,000 years old and that dinosaurs roamed the land with humans. Sam thinks creationism should be included in schools in order to allow children to make up their own mind.
He believes that humans were formed from dust by God because that's what the Bible says, and wants creationism to be taught in schools in the interests of "fair and objective science." From these and other comments it's clear he has no notion of what science is — he admits that he gained his A* in GCSE Biology by writing the answers required even though he doesn't believe they are true. He believes humans walked with dinosaurs because dinosaurs are land animals and the Bible says that land animals and humans were created on the sixth day. This, according to Sam Scott Perry, is "logical". He also floats a weird conspiracy theory that creationism is not currently taught in schools because of fears it might convince people the Bible is true. Are his views typical of 18-year-old creationists? Perhaps not, but Channel 4 naturally go for the extreme case with which to start off this series.

Conspiracy theories are picked up by Tuesday's contributor, Stephen Law:
Stephen Law is a Lecturer in Philosophy who believes creationism is scientific nonsense. Stephen says it is wrong to teach children something he thinks is quite clearly false.
"Creationism is pernicious scientific nonsense." Stephen Law states simply that teaching creationism as fact is teaching things known not to be true, and goes on to suggest that clinging to the Biblical story of creation in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary could be interpreted as symptomatic of mental illness. (He has pointed out elsewhere that he didn't intend to imply that all creationists were mentally ill.)

Randall Hardy of "Creation Research" is another creationist who thinks that children should be allowed to make up their own minds:
Creationist Randall Hardy wants children to be taught that God made the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Randall thinks evolutionists and atheists fear Creationism being taught in schools because children will find it convincing.
Creationists often play the "academic freedom" card, but in schools it's not appropriate to teach something that isn't accepted science. Otherwise the science curriculum would be full of phlogiston theory, the luminiferous aether, the four humours and all sorts of other unscientific stuff like alchemy and astrology. Students are free to investigate pseudo-science after school — they can even go on to study it at university. Randall Hardy displays appalling ignorance of evolution when he talks of cats bringing forth cats, dogs bringing forth dogs. He's also wrong when he claims people when they are born believe naturally in a creator. Leaving aside the fact that the existence of a belief has no bearing on whether that belief is true, what children are born with is an innate tendency to ascribe agency (to inanimate objects as well as people and animals). This is an evolved instinct — it supports evolution rather than creation.

Next we have Rev Canon Rosie Harper, who says that creationism is based on a literal reading of the Bible, and is an unnecessarily narrow viewpoint:
Reverend Canon Rosie Harper believes teaching creationism to children is selling them short. Rosie thinks literal interpretations of the Bible are dangerously wrong-headed and risk bringing mainstream Christianity into disrepute.
She doesn't want creationism taught in schools, but she's one of those wishy-washy Anglicans about whom one might say, "there but for the grace of God goes an atheist." In this debate however, she's on the right side.

Laura Horner is the founder of CrISIS — Creationism In Schools Isn't Science:
Laura Horner is an Anglican and the founder of CrISIS; Creationism in Schools Isn’t Science. Laura started the group after a creationist movement visited her son’s school. Laura believes creationism discredits religion as much as it discredits science.
She's a Christian who believes creationism is bad religion as well as bad science, and makes the important point about valid science being falsifiable, while creationism isn't.

Saturday's clip was by Abdul Aziz, a maths teacher:
Muslim Abdul Aziz is a Maths Teacher who believes evolution is not convincing as a scientific theory. Abdul wants creationism presented alongside evolution in the classroom, so that children get the opportunity to make up their own minds.
He claims that belief in evolution is based on a "leap of faith" and comes out with the usual creationist micro/macro-evolution objection. His whole argument is one from ignorance — it appears he's never read a book about evolution (I'd suggest The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins). He also says (like Randall Hardy) that children should be allowed to make up their own minds, which from a teacher is a shocking misunderstanding of what education is about.

Finally we have Michael Reiss, who does not want to see creationism taught in schools, but he's not averse to it being discussed (though thankfully not as a science in science lessons): 
A Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, Michael Reiss welcomes open discussion of creationism in the classroom provided it is made clear that it has no scientific basis whatsoever.
He complains that some materialist scientists can't understand what it's like to have a religious faith. What he's implying, I think, is that a hard-line atheistic attitude is alienating children with creationist beliefs, to the extent that they will not be open to the scientific evidence. Michael Reiss made similar comments when he was the Royal Society's Director of Education, which caused a bit of an uproar, and shortly afterwards he stepped down from his post. Although the website makes no mention of it (except, someone has noted it in the comments), Michael Reiss is a minister of religion.

Creationism does seem to bring the wackos out of the woodwork, as the comments on these clips show. I posted a brief comment on the first clip, and found myself in a protracted exchange with a user named Phillip, who — though extremely polite — seemed to have no conception of how to distinguish what's true from what's false.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Skepticule Extra 017 now available

Somewhat delayed, the 17th edition of Skepticule Extra is now available for listening. Go here for this delectable download:

The three Pauls deal actively with some feedback, then discuss some planned disruptive action to Remembrance Sunday, some libel action, some political action, and some concentrated apologetics action. It's an all-action episode...

An explanation that's nothing of the kind

Last week's Unbelievable? featured Edgar Andrews and Robert Stovold on "What made the Universe?" — a loaded question if ever there was one (though to be fair, host Justin Brierley admitted this). There was much about fine tuning and the Big Bang, and God being an uncaused cause. In other words, the usual stuff.

What I found disturbing is that Andrews seems to think that positing "Goddidit" is an adequate explanation. He says that unbelievers come up with all sorts of ad hoc arguments to explain such things as the Big Bang, the apparent design of the universe, how something can exist rather than nothing, and such-like, but these explanations are all separate and unrelated. (I'm not sure that's true, but we'll let it pass.) Andrews claims that positing an all-powerful, all-knowing, timeless, spaceless, uncaused intelligence (or to put it another way, Goddidit) explains all these separate things with a single entity — and presumably is therefore more likely to be correct*.

Andrews must have a very odd idea of what constitutes explanation. In general when we attempt to explain something we don't understand, we do so in terms of things we do understand. Saying "Goddidit" isn't only the worst kind of intellectual cop-out — in theological terms it exhibits stupendous hubris.

As Karl Popper pointed out, if you have a theory that fits all circumstances without exception, in that there's nothing it can't explain, it isn't an explanation at all.

* My competing theory — that magic pixies did it — is similarly unified, but I wouldn't call it an explanation. Edgar Andrews is on Unbelievable? again today. I'm not looking forward to it much.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Republicans insane; want to establish theocracy « Why Evolution Is True
More on the "Thanksgiving Family forum", this time from Jerry Coyne.

Your Say: Faith schools should not be funded by the taxpayer | Bristol24-7
Faith schooling seems like a bad idea in itself, but expecting taxpayer funding is adding insult to injury.

Fair weather atheists and sunshine skeptics | Pharyngula
PZ explains his no-compromise stand, and though some might feel it's unpalatable, it's the only honest position.

Yes! The religion and science conflict, only cuter! | Pharyngula
This brilliant illustration of opposing mindsets could almost be a fable.

Atheist Elitism | Godless Girl
Thus spake articulate youth (I wish I'd been so clear-headed at her age).

Why are we following the US into a schools policy disaster? | Education | The Guardian
Future education to be based on the wrong model.

The Burzynski Clinic is using libel laws to silence critics of its cancer treatment | Rhys Morgan | Comment is free |
Unbowed after threats including "we know where you live", Rhys gives his side of the story.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Four little words to sort the wheat from the chaff

One question, central to the skeptical endeavour, is most likely to identify the real from the imaginary, the genuine from the fraudulent, and the merely deluded from the scam artist. Where claims are made, whether for the existence or power of deities, the efficacy of unusual medical treatments, or the reliability of money-making schemes, the one question that will provoke the most enlightening response is the question of evidence.

Suspicions will be initially aroused if claims lack substantiation. A request for substantiation is reasonable, but often the response is not. Unreasonable responses run the gamut from appeal to revelation (for deities) through conspiracy theory (for secret knowledge), pseudo-science (for nutritional supplements, young-earth creationism, infallible diets, the list goes on...), to legal action (for, amongst other things, alternative medicine).

"How do you know?" If we ask this question when presented with claims for, say, effective treatment for cancer, here are two possible responses (there may be others, but these are the important ones — the ones that tell us most about the motives of the responder).
Response 1: "We did tests. Here are the results. Judge for yourself."

Response 2: "Shut up, or we'll set the lawyers on you."
Time and again this four-word question — "How do you know?" — has separated genuine claims from those that are not. The latest example appears to be that of the Burzynski Clinic, offering a hugely expensive treatment for cancer with apparently no adequate scientific proof that it works — and this has been going on for over 30 years. A number of bloggers have raised doubts about Burzynski's treatment, questioning the evidence for its efficacy.

The Clinic's response: "Shut up, or we'll set the lawyers on you." It speaks volumes.

"Theology is piffle" — a debate worth having?

As part of a recent "Burnee links" I posted this comment:
God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness - You Will Want This Book!
No. You won't. This book-promotion on Choosing Hats comes with a 73-minute video of three blokes (including the author) discussing the book. I watched the first 15 minutes, and I recommend it only as a perfect illustration of why theology isn't about anything that has the slightest relation to what's going on in the real world. These guys appear to be articulate and intelligent, so it's a shame they're devoting so much energy to such piffle.
Here's the video:

...and here's a comment from Chris Bolt of Choosing Hats on the Burnee links post:
Thanks for the link Paul...I think.


Any time you are willing to debate, "Theology is Piffle" let me know!
Is it worth debating? Probably not, because in order to "debate" sensibly about something, both sides must be clear that they are discussing the same thing. Theology is "the study of the nature of God" — and as far as that goes it's less useful than the study of Star Trek.

Theology as a subject is no more than literary criticism — as is Trek fandom. Trek fans can get carried away worrying about continuity lapses and such-like, forgetting that Trek is man-made and that the reason some things in Star Trek don't make sense is that it was created by a fallible human being who made mistakes.

Using literary criticism to analyse Star Trek may produce insights into the nature of Roddenberry, because we start with the knowledge that he really existed and he really did create Star Trek. And we also know that Roddenberry did not present Star Trek as factual representation.

Applying literary criticism to scripture, however, will not produce insights into the nature of God, because we don't know that scripture was written by God, or that God even existed in the first place (regardless of whether scripture is factual, mythical or metaphorical). The best that theology might be able to offer is some insight into the cultural milieu of scripture's authors — who were human. Unfortunately theology persists in its claim that it is studying God, so its efforts are doomed from the start.

Until theologians admit that they are engaged in nothing more than literary criticism they can be left to their own insular devices, just like the more extreme end* of Trek fandom, while the rest of us attend to the real world.

* I have nothing against the more moderate spectrum of Trek fandom. At least they know that Star Trek is fiction.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Secret Life of Chaos

I watched this one-off documentary yesterday (it was rebroadcast earlier this year, and it's taken me a while to get round to watching it again). Jim Al-Khalili explains how we get complexity from simplicity, and as far as abiogenesis is concerned the implication is clear. It makes "intelligent design" a superfluous theory.

The hour-long documentary is no longer available on iPlayer, but there's a dedicated webpage with several clips, and with luck it will be rebroadcast yet again. (It was apparently available on YouTube for a while, but all instances appear to have been removed.)

Here's the blurb from the BBC website:
Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand. 

It turns out that chaos theory answers a question that mankind has asked for millennia - how did we get here? In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science - how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?

It's a mindbending, counterintuitive and for many people a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.

And the best thing is that one doesn't need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans - after watching this film you'll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.
Inspiring stuff.

Burnee links for Sunday

Matt Dillahunty vs. Mark Allison: Good Without God? - Atlanta atheism |
This was an interesting debate, which I screen-capped from the live stream and watched the next day at a more hospitable hour. Matt easily rebutted the same old arguments, but he did so in an engaging and often original way. (I'm aware that I share the reviewer's bias, so my feeling that his review is nevertheless accurate takes that into account.) You can watch a recording here:

Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism | coelsblog
This is an excellent, thoroughly researched blogpost from Coel Hellier. It ought to be the last word on the common misapprehension that Hitler was motivated by atheism and Darwinism.
(Via Malcolm Stein)

A fine-tuned universe argues for atheism | coelsblog
More from Coel Hellier. This is a blog to follow.
(Via Malcolm Stein)

Faster than the speed of light?
Professor Jim Al-Khalili is not yet looking for edible underwear.

Richard Dawkins is wrong to call William Lane Craig morally repulsive | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |
Dreadful article, full of non sequiturs and nonsense.

Robert Lanza, M.D.: Did an Outside Entity Create the Universe?
If you use words in an unfamiliar way you can pretend to be highly significant - even if you're talking rubbish.

God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness - You Will Want This Book!
No. You won't. This book-promotion on Choosing Hats comes with a 73-minute video of three blokes (including the author) discussing the book. I watched the first 15 minutes, and I recommend it only as a perfect illustration of why theology isn't about anything that has the slightest relation to what's going on in the real world. These guys appear to be articulate and intelligent, so it's a shame they're devoting so much energy to such piffle.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

New episode of Skepticule Extra

In the latest episode of Skepticule Extra (at least, the latest to be made live), the three Pauls discuss William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith tour, an ineffective investigation into child abuse in Ealing, a project to alert audiences to fraudulent mediumship, and murderous obsession in the Bible. (In short, the usual stuff.)

Listen, enjoy, comment (

Unbelievable?: The Conference — Big Questions Stream

The Big Questions Stream is the last of three DVDs in this boxed set of Premier Christian Radio's one-day apologetics conference held in May this year. (I have already reviewed Disc 1 and Disc 2.)

Disc 3 begins with Mark Roques and his talk entitled: "Is Jesus the only way?"

It's a dynamic lecture, if a little unfocussed and with iffy sound. Roques claims that all people live by faith, giving as an example some rat-worshippers in India. He says there are four types of response to rat-worship, each conforming to a specific type. The first is that of, for example, James Bond, who would describe rat-worship as irrational. Roques claims this is a "modernist", secular worldview and what he describes is essentially a materialist worldview that denies the existence of anything supernatural. But as a first example it shows how ill-advised it is to use fictional examples to explain what you are claiming as fact. Religionists seem to do this a lot, as if they can't see how it's likely to be interpreted. By picking a fictional example you are essentially basing your factual claims on something that has been made up. If Bible-believers want to convince people that scripture is more than "made up" they should stop doing this.

The second example is the response of Paul Merton, who visited some rat-worshippers during a TV documentary. Merton apparently described rat-worship as "true for them" — which Roques says is a post-modernist worldview, in which everyone is entirely autonomous.

The rat-worshippers' response, however, is that rat-worship is "true" — which is Roques' example of the third type of response.

Roques' fourth type of response is exemplified by Christianity: "Don't worship rats, worship Christ."

He then goes on to list four views of salvation. The first is the "exclusivist" or "restrictivist" view, in which only those who have been called by God will go to eternity in heaven, while everyone else goes to eternal punishment. The second is an "inclusionist" but not "universalist" view, which allows even some people with no knowledge of Christ to be saved. The third is "theological pluralism", which holds that all religions can lead to God, and the fourth is the "universalist" view where everyone will be saved. Unsurprisingly there's disagreement on the matter, but as it's theology there's no way of conclusively resolving the issue — because theology is mostly fabrication. Incidentally Roques says he holds to the "inclusionist" view of salvation.

During a Christian apologetics conference there's bound to be a good deal of dissing of other religions, but some of those other religions have their own conferences, and what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Mark Roques is also guilty of conflation when he claims that for James Bond the god is science, and when later on in his talk he claims people have made "money" their god. Many religionists seem to do this, giving the impression that they are locked into a mindset in which it is impossible for anyone not to believe in a god of some kind. For such religionists, there's no such thing as a true atheist.

Roques is very big on story-telling (likening this to the parables of Jesus), but he needs to be clearer on the distinction between factual and fictional stories, otherwise people will be inevitably drawn to the idea that the whole of scripture and theology is just a series of stories. For myself I'm glad that in this lecture he used his faux "common" accent only once.

Next on Disc 3 is a two-hander with John Lennox and David Robertson on the question "Is there evidence for God?", and it has the assertions, the atheist-bashing, and what I can only describe as self-congratulatory smugness — coupled with attempts at mitigating false modesty — coming thick and fast. I found it difficult to keep up, abandoning my use of the pause button for note-taking purposes and just let the whole thing roll over me.

The usual canards are in abundance: atheists have no grounding for moral judgements, they are closed-minded to evidence by a priori assumptions, and they don't understand the meaning of faith. But throughout their discussion neither Lennox nor Robertson explain what precisely their subjective experience of God is. It's all a tacit admission of mysterious ineffability. They say much but convey little, and I found it frustrating waiting for either of them to deliver even one thing that might be a serious challenge to atheists — either "new atheists" or the plain vanilla variety.

Lennox makes a good point, however, about "nothing buttery" when decrying materialism, but I don't think he realises that he is actually validating the materialist view when he makes it.

So in response to the question "Is there evidence for God?" the answer must begin with "It depends what you mean by evidence." And if you're after compelling evidence, rather than just a subjective feeling, forget it.

Finally we have (again) Mark Roques, with "What about suffering?" beginning with the tale of Cornish Christian boy Thomas Pellow, captured by Turkish pirates and forced to be the slave of the Sultan. He converted to Islam (to save his own skin), and returned to his parents 30 years later. He was, we are told, sustained by his Christian faith.

Roques quotes David Hume's distillation of Epicurus's paradox — according to which an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God is an incoherent concept. Roques goes on to say, "I want to try and respond to this with some perhaps fresh material." This sounds promising but ultimately leaves us high and dry, as in delivering his talk he often seems to get diverted down side alleys, never returning to the place whence he came.

Asking the question, "Is it possible to be an atheist and also affirm the existence of evil?" Roques then examines materialism, quoting Richard Dawkins in River Out of Eden on the "blind, pitiless indifference" of the universe, as well as Dawkins' response to the 2006 Edge Annual Question — "What is your dangerous idea?"

Dawkins' contribution was "Let's all stop beating Basil's car" in which he floats the (not original) idea that just as Basil Fawlty's defective car is not to blame for its deficiencies, neither are we as material humans "at fault" for our own shortcomings. Given that these essays for the Edge were supposed to be radical and iconoclastic, it's disingenuous of Roques to point to Dawkins and claim that materialists deny that humans have any moral responsibility. The problem — as usual with debates of this kind — is that key terms haven't been properly defined. What does Roques mean by "evil" or "moral"? He's speaking to a largely Christian audience, so he may consider these terms don't need defining. But this is an apologetics conference and the audience will be going out to defend their faith. Without rigorous definition of terms, their efforts could well come across as unconvincing or even sloppy.

Here's an example of what I consider egregious sloppy thinking:
"Materialism declares that only physical things exist and so it is not possible to speak about purpose, goodness and wickedness. Evil is an illusion."
First off, we need to know what Roques means by purpose, goodness, wickedness and evil. By this measure we could claim that thoughts, being "non-physical", don't exist — when they clearly do.
"Evil does not exist. It is an illusion. A delusion. A toothfairy. This is what many atheists believe. It's their religion."
This is the worst kind of straw man fallacy, and teaching it at an apologetics conference is doing nobody any favours. Roques belabours his "no responsibility in materialism" point, but without saying what he means by responsibility. When we consider ideas of materialism and determinism in human action we must be careful what we dismiss. It is possible to hold to a materialist, determinist worldview in which free will does not depend on substance dualism, and still maintain that we are responsible for our actions. The question then becomes not what do we mean by "responsible"? but what do we mean by "we"? The entity — the human — held to be "responsible" comprises the sum total of who "we" are — our current thoughts and disposition, our memories, our experiences, our genetic make-up, our education, even our present environment. Such questions are way deeper and more subtle than Roques portrays in his talk.

Roques may even be going out on a limb relative to his religionist cohorts. He claims that Anselm and Aquinas were wrong about goodness, and that Plotinus — and Plato before him — were bad influences on early Christianity. He makes this challenge:
"If naturalism/materialism is true, then surely both goodness and evil are illusions. So where do you get your notions of evil and goodness from as you rail against God?"
See how disingenuous his approach is? "Rail against God?" This may be a reaction to Dawkins' deliberate caricature of the Old Testament God in The God Delusion, but such emotive language is inappropriate to an honest examination of the problem of evil.

Roques may be a dynamic speaker (despite seeming to lose his way several times in this talk), but the thrust of his argument is superficial. When pressed he is revealed — as far as I could see — to have nothing original or indeed useful to add to the morality debate. In the Q&A the first questioner asks why God allowed evil in the first place:
"There's a sense in which I don't know the answer to that deep question."
And as he offers nothing more of substance in response, there's a pronounced lack of any other sense in which he did know the answer.

So what did I get out of these three DVDs? I could have attended the conference itself, but I would still have needed the DVDs in order to see the parallel streams. The cost of the DVD set is comparable to the cost of the conference, but if I'd attended I would have needed to add the same again in travelling expenses. In any case I think I might have felt uncomfortable in an audience of mostly believers.

On the whole I found the talks as presented on the DVDs disappointing, but also — on another level — heartening. Much was made of equipping Christians for defending their faith in the wider world, but the armoury provided here appeared clumsy, outdated and ineffective. Not once did I find myself thinking, "Gosh, there's an argument I really must look into further." Maybe these evangelicals will be effective in converting teetering agnostics who are confused by recent new atheist literature — or maybe not. It's seems clear, however, that anyone who is happy to self-identify as an atheist on the basis of honest enquiry into the God-question will not find anything challenging on these DVDs.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Burnee links for Monday

John Haught - Where's The Tea? - Skeptico
More on Haught vs Coyne, and discussing Haught's fallacious analogy.

A very silly calculation | Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers on the lottery fallacy.

The 50 Most Brilliant Atheists of All Time
Lists of this type always raise questions of arbitrariness — who's on it and who's not — but this one is nonetheless fascinating.

Massimo calls out Templeton « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne applauds Massimo Pigliucci's rejection of Templeton money.

The Rants of Cherry Black » Blog Archive » Middle of the night, joyful rantings!
Now that Giles is elsewhere (in London I believe), Pompey Skeptics in the Pub is pretty much Trish's sole responsibility. I don't think she's likely to give it up any time soon.

Top 10 Worst Anti-Science Websites
Another list? What the hell, why not?

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Expecting the obvious is not "prediction"

Craig A. Evans, in the title of chapter 32 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, asks "Did Jesus Predict His Violent Death and Resurrection?"

According to the Bible (extensively cited) he probably did. But what does it matter whether or not Jesus did so? Considering what he was up to, he might well have expected to fall foul of the indigenous authorities, the consequences of which were not difficult to foresee.

As for predicting his resurrection, this is what Evans has to say:
Did Jesus anticipate his resurrection? It is probable that he did. Once he began speaking of his death, Jesus very likely began speaking of his vindication through resurrection. Had he not anticipated it would have been very strange, for pious Jews very much believed in the resurrection of the dead.
It would have been strange, apparently, if Jesus had not "anticipated" his resurrection, so it remains unclear what point Evans is trying to make. To echo my response to a previous chapter in this section of the book, "So what?"

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Stephen Law: Craig's website response re our debate
Stephen Law analyses William Lane Craig's analysis of their recent debate. (This also usefully provides a 'deep link' to Craig's analysis without registering at Reasonable Faith.)

Incentivizing online activism – a proposal « Skeptical Software Tools
Tim Farley has an interesting idea (yes, another one). But I'm not a gamer, so I'd probably not be any good at this.

Testing psychics « Derren Brown Blog
Why Sally Morgan should submit to a test — if she's a real psychic.

William Lane Craig and the problem of pain | Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers calls out Craig on his mangled "science". I heard Craig's argument about the pain of animals for the first time at his recent debate with Stephen Law. I thought at the time a lot of pet-owners would vehemently disagree with him.

Skepticule Record — Pompey Skeptics in the Pub

Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub was tonight, and very good it was too. Audio will be posted as a Skepticule Record episode in due course. Meanwhile you can listen to last month's talk by Alec Muffett:

"Sex, Lies and Instant Messenger"

Enjoy (but not too much...)

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

PRESS RELEASE: Big news for the online atheist community.
The latest herding exercise — maybe this one could work...

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: Coyne vs. Haught - advantage, Coyne
Russell Blackford on John Haught's whining.

What eight years of writing the Bad Science column have taught me | Ben Goldacre | Comment is free | The Guardian
The state of play in Bad Science, and why it's not all bad news (plus lots of links to interesting stuff).

Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne on Keith Ward's hubristic Guardian piece.

Skeptics in the Planetarium

(Now that I've booked my own tickets for this event, I'm happy to spread the news...)

It's going to be amazing — just look at that line-up! Crispian Jago has all the lovely details, so go to his site for further links and info about the performers.

 There's also a Facebook event page to confirm your attendance (if you want to) and see who else is going. Oh the anticipation...

Moral imperatives explained

It's been a while since I embedded Morality 2, but here's the third instalment of QualiaSoup's excellent YouTube series on morality:

Seventeen minutes of astounding moral clarity — definitely worth the wait. So far this series has turned out to be the most lucid, concise and comprehensive analysis of morality I've seen.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Biblical authority in doubt?

Ben Witherington III follows his previous chapter in Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God with "Jesus as God", in which he quotes so extensively from the Bible that I wonder if the editors put the sections of their book in the wrong order. This, the third section, is titled The Question of Jesus, but I can't help wondering if it should have come after the fourth (which I've yet to read), titled The Question of the Bible.

I query this because the book is supposed to be directed at skeptics as well as believers. To quote from the back cover:
Challenges to belief in God as he is revealed in the Bible have always existed, and today is no exception. In Evidence for God, leading Christian scholars and apologists provide compelling arguments that address the latest and most pressing questions about God, science, Jesus, the Bible, and more, including:
  • Did Jesus really exist?
  • Is Jesus the only way to God?
  • What about those who have never heard the gospel?
  • Is today's Bible what was originally written?
  • What about recently publicised gospels that aren't in the Bible?
  • Is intelligent design really a credible explanation of the origins of our world?
  • and much more
All but one of those bulleted points rely on the Bible, so shouldn't the Bible's provenance be addressed first? Perhaps the editors felt that the arguments in support of the Bible would not be as convincing as those from science and philosophy. We shall see.

Meanwhile I can summarise chapter 31 as, "Jesus is God because he said so, though he was sensibly cagey about it in certain circumstances."

Not very convincing.

Does it matter how Jesus prayed?

Chapter 30 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God is "Son of God" by Ben Witherington III. It seems mostly to be an argument for the idea that Jesus was God's son — because he was reported, in the Bible, to have said as much. The whole thing is so confused, however, that it's hard to draw any conclusions from it.

Witherington points out that Jesus prayed to God using the term "Abba", which is a term of endearment. This, he says, shows that Jesus thought of himself as the "son" of God as distinct from the prevalent usage where kings were also considered "sons" of God. But Witherington immediately undermines this proposition by stating that Jesus also taught his disciples to pray to God using the term "Abba". So this term does not, after all, denote a special exclusive relationship of the kind usually claimed for Jesus.

Added to which, the chapter doesn't address the issue of reliability that's inevitably triggered by a passage such as this:
There can be no doubt however, that Jesus did not view His relationship to God as simply identical to the relationship King David had with God. For one thing, it tells us a lot about Jesus that He prayed to God as Abba which is the Aramaic term of endearment which means dearest Father (see Mark 14:36, Abba is not slang, it does not mean "Daddy.")
We have no records of anything Jesus wrote. We cannot know how he prayed, only how he was reported to have prayed. Witherington's entire chapter is scuppered by his very first sentence:
One of the big mistakes in Christian apologetics is just focusing on what Jesus publicly claimed to be.
There's been much discussion over two millennia about Jesus' public statements — how accurately they were reported, whether his chroniclers' agenda influenced the slant of their reports, or even whether their memories were reliable given that they wrote nothing about Jesus for decades. What Witherington is talking about, however, are Jesus' private prayers. What chance have we of reliably knowing anything about those? And even if we did know, what difference would it make?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Miraculous irrationality

Last Saturday's Unbelievable? was a discussion between Gary Habermas, Christian, and Geoff Campos, atheist, recorded during the Bethinking apologetics conference at Westminster Chapel, as part of William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith Tour. I listened with mixed feelings, as there had been a brief possibility that the three Pauls of Skepticule Extra could have been the ones in conversation with Gary Habermas, rather than Geoff Campos. In the event I think Geoff gave a good account of himself and his position with regard to the question at issue — which was, "Is it rational to believe in miracles?"

Nevertheless I found myself at times disagreeing with everyone in the conversation. A good deal was said about Geoff's stance on the status of the "supernatural", and Justin Brierley — moderating the discussion — made the inevitable point about denial of supernature closing off options, suggesting that perhaps Geoff was being closed-minded if he did not accept that supernatural events were even possible.

This is an invidious position to hold in the face of theistic miracle claims, but I think it's a result of not defining one's terms. Though the definition of "supernatural" was explored, I don't recall anyone clarifying what was meant by "rational". For an event to be rationally believed in, that event must conform to reason and logic. Its causes and effects must be capable of description in rational terms, and those causes and effects must lie entirely in the physical realm — because the physical realm of causes and effects is the only realm in which rationally observed phenomena have been verified to occur.

So the question posed by Justin for this show contained the seeds of its own irrationality. It's not rational to believe in miracles, because by definition miracles are effects without rational causes.

Streaming audio here:{B9C493B0-276B-492F-82B7-C2C5D5F06EFA}

Download mp3 here:

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Burnee belated links for Thursday

William Lane Craig on Radio 4 - steve's posterous
It was Andrew Copson who made the comments Steve Zara refers to. That such comments are finding a wider audience (in the light of Craig's UK tour) will surely lead to more exposure of his disingenuous debating techniques.

Whom does God really endorse, anyway? | The Atheist Experience
This is a really obvious question. Will it ever be asked?

Mason Crumpacker and the Hitchens reading list « Why Evolution Is True
This is an awesome blogpost.

C4ID still doesn’t understand science. | Wonderful Life
"It looks designed." Therefore, what — scientifically speaking?

Mississippi’s shame | Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers gets to grips with a skewed understanding of "personhood".

Why I am an atheist – Cathy Oliver | Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers is currently using his blog to publish people's affirmative atheism stories. This is an excellent example.

will someone rid me of this turbulent language | Robinince's Blog
The right to freedom of speech also incurs some duties.

Theology crushed

This is a debate between John Haught and Jerry Coyne, on the question of the compatibility of science and religion. The video contains one speech from each, and then cuts off as the Q&A begins. But never mind that — Jerry Coyne's comprehensive take-down of the follies of theology is a joy to behold:

2011 Bale Boone Symposium - Science & Religion: Are They Compatible? from UK Gaines Center on Vimeo.

Jerry Coyne pulled no punches here, and apparently his uncompromising stance has upset his opponent.

UPDATE 2011-11-05:  The Q&A session is now available:

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? October 12, 2011 Q+A with Jerry Coyne and John Haught from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Evil God debate: William Lane Craig vs Stephen Law

Listeners to the Pod Delusion of about a month ago will have heard Premier Christian Radio host Justin Brierley promoting the Reasonable Faith Tour — a week and a half of debates and lectures throughout the UK by American philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. Much was made, then and since, of Richard Dawkins' refusal to engage William Lane Craig in a formal debate, though the fuss seems to have had more to do with promoting the tour than real regret at not having the the world's most famous living atheist on the speaking list. Clearly Dawkins could not "win", either in debate or out of it. If he accepted he would be lending his name to a religious event — which would be trumpeted far and wide — and if he declined, his refusal would be (and was) … trumpeted far and wide. Whatever he did would be (and was) used as promotional material for the Reasonable Faith Tour. (Perhaps the three Pauls should invite Richard Dawkins on to the Skepticule Extra podcast. I'm sure I've an empty chair I could put by for him.)

Until recently the promotional hoo-hah was of only peripheral interest to me, as I was heartily sick of listening to Craig's debates, especially after those with Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris, both of whom have original things to contribute about their respective fields, but whose points Craig roundly ignored. When Polly Toynbee withdrew her name from the tour's speaking list after having initially accepted, I sympathised with what I considered a wise decision. For myself I felt I'd had enough of Craig, and I wasn't interested in attending any of the tour.

When Stephen Law "stepped up to the plate", however, I felt differently. Here was a professional philosopher, known as an atheist and clearly a deep thinker — as his previous appearances on Justin Brierley's radio programme Unbelievable? had demonstrated. Suddenly the prospect of yet another William Lane Craig debate became intriguing, as perhaps this time the Craig steamroller might have something concrete and unyielding in its path.

WestminsterHall_Entr_IMG_1056wAnd that's why I found myself in Westminster Central Hall on Monday 17th October, for the initial event of William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith Tour — a debate between a Christian and an atheist on the question, "Does God exist?"

I had arrived early to secure a good seat in the magnificent and capacious building, and was in the third row. I made my own estimate of its seating capacity — about 2000 on two levels. I thought it likely that the lower level would be mostly filled, probably to about 900 (a good crowd by any standard, for an event such as this). But as 7:30 approached — and I'd witnessed the separate arrivals of William Lane Craig and Stephen Law — the upper level began to fill up too. Five minutes before the start I estimated about 1800 people were seated in the hall (Justin Brierley has since mentioned an attendance of 1700, so I wasn't far out).

WestminsterHall_stage_IMG_1064wStephen Law isn't best at the podium — his approach is probably better suited to the discussion or small seminar format. William Lane Craig on the other hand has the big speeches to big audiences down pat — but this is nothing new. Anyone who has seen a few debates by Craig knows what to expect, so I should not have been surprised to hear him launch into three of his tried and tested arguments: the Kalām cosmological argument, the argument from objective moral values, and the argument from the resurrection of Jesus. In terms of presentation Stephen Law is not as slick or as superficially convincing as William Lane Craig, but in terms of philosophical engagement Law can clearly hold his own.

WestminsterHall_JB_intros_IMG_1067wI shall not detail each speech here — this has been extensively done elsewhere*, and the unedited audio of the entire two hours is available for streaming and download at the Unbelievable? website. What follows are mostly my immediate impressions of the evening, jotted down during my return train journey that night, interspersed with retrospective comments.

WestminsterHall_WLC_IMG_1069wI expected Law to use his Evil God Challenge — and he did, in my view to solid effect, and Craig's efforts to brush it aside were, in my view, ineffective. As usual Craig spoke first, and as usual he attempted to define the scope of the debate by stating what his opponent must do in order to refute him. The reason he does this is so that when he sums up he can point out anything in his list that his opponent didn't address, and claim victory by default. In this case however, Stephen Law — speaking second — made it clear that he would present one argument only. Then he presented his Evil God Challenge, which I've heard him deliver before but never with such clarity and depth.

WestminsterHall_SL_IMG_1072wThe Evil God Challenge goes something like this: the evidential problem of evil is well known — with so much gratuitous suffering in the world, both now and in the past, how could an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God allow it? Theists have developed theories — theodicies — to explain how such a good God could allow so much suffering, so much "evil". Whether you think these theodicies are effective reconciliations of the problem of evil will probably depend on your own perspective.

The effectiveness or otherwise of these theodicies, however, isn't relevant to Stephen Law's Evil God Challenge. Even if theists try to explain suffering by claiming it's an inevitable result of God allowing us free will, or that we cannot know the mind of God and he might have good reasons unknown to us to allow so much suffering, or that suffering is necessary in order to throw goodness into sharp relief — all of these arguments (or theodicies) can be applied in reverse to the idea that the universe was created by an omnipotent, omniscient but omnimalevolent God who is seeking to maximise the amount of suffering in the world. But how can the Evil God exist when there's so much good in the world? The evidential problem of good is just as effective in disproving the existence of an evil God as the evidential problem of evil is in disproving the existence of a good God. The two scenarios aren't necessarily entirely symmetrical, but they're symmetrical enough to maintain that if observation is sufficient to dismiss the Evil God Hypothesis — and most people seem to agree that it is — it's also sufficient to dismiss the Good God Hypothesis.

WestminsterHall_discussion2_IMG_1073wCraig tried to refute the Evil God Hypothesis — or rather, to shrug it off — by simply defining his God as good. But this is an arbitrary definition that can be just as simply reversed, as Law demonstrated. Law quite rightly called out Craig for resorting to the mystery card — Craig predictably claimed that we cannot know what's in the mind of God — that God might have morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering, reasons of which we're unaware. That's not good enough, as Law pointed out.

During the post-debate discussion Law objected to Craig's claiming he had conceded that the cosmological argument was proof of God's existence because he didn't address it. Craig defended his tactic as legitimate in the debate format, which goes to show that he's not debating in order to get closer to the truth, and it reinforces the widely held impression amongst atheists that Craig is only interested in point-scoring. Law then took the opportunity to answer Craig's cosmological argument with a simple statement that he doesn't know why the universe exists, but that doesn't give theists a free pass to say their God did it.

WestminsterHall_discussion1_IMG_1074wAs Law further explained, just because he doesn't know what, if anything, caused the universe, he is nevertheless justified in ruling out certain hypothetical causes. One such is the Evil God, and by reflection — the essence of the Evil God Challenge — another is the Good God. Law also rebutted Craig's evidence for the resurrection of Jesus by citing corroborated UFO reports, showing just how flawed human cognition can be, even en masse.

I think Law put up a good case against Craig, who is acknowledged as a formidable debating opponent. Craig's success at debating, however, relies less on his arguments, which have multiple flaws — some of which Law highlighted — than on his debating style: speaking first, defining the limits of the topic, and listing what his opponent must do to refute him (regardless of what his opponent might think). Added to which Craig is clearly an accomplished public speaker, even if he's usually saying much the same thing every time.

In the face of such debating prowess Stephen Law stuck to his guns — he had a good argument and refused to be deflected. But he also showed that he's no one-trick pony. He's known for the Evil God Challenge, but he was also able to identify the flaws in Craig's use of the cosmological argument (despite not initially addressing it) and the argument from the resurrection of Jesus.

I had originally decided not to attend this debate because I was fed up with William Lane Craig's monotonous repetition of the same arguments, even though I think the question, "Does God Exist?" is the only question in all of theology worth asking (and of course it's the one question theology itself never properly addresses).

The reluctance of certain atheists to go up against Craig is understandable. Craig takes debating seriously and is in it to win. He doesn't seem to be interested in an exchange of ideas — rather, it's all about scoring points. Stephen Law, however, appeared wise to Craig's technique, requiring him to address the challenge in depth rather than letting him shrug it off. This was especially noticeable in the discussion at the end, when Craig couldn't exploit the restrictions of the debate format.

On the whole I'm glad I changed my mind.

*Deeper analysis of the debate abounds online. Here are a few samples, beginning with Stephen Law's own notes:

A comprehensive graphical analysis:

Randal Rauser's typically idiosyncratic (and continuing) view:

Paul Wright's analysis:

A Christian who judged Stephen Law a rare winner in this debate:
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