Thursday, 31 March 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Ray Comfort is gonna die : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers reports on a near-death experience.

Gingrich fears 'atheist country … dominated by radical Islamists' – CNN Belief Blog - CNN.com Blogs
Hours after declaring Sunday that he expects to be running for president within a month, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he's worried the United States could be “a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” in the foreseeable future, according to Politico.
Radical Islamists — who are secular atheists? Obviously this is nonsense, but it shows how muddled some people can become when they equate "secular" and "atheist" with "sin" and "evil".

I’m a new atheist
Nullifidian takes possession of a term.

The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » Rock Stars: Woo Magnets?
I'd like to know whether the proportion of woo peddlers in Rock is any different from that in the general population.

BigAl's Books and Pals: The Greek Seaman / Jacqueline Howett
Lesson for the author: when you're in a hole, stop digging! (Actually I think she did, but not before she'd alienated everyone else in the comments.)

Bad Comments Round #2: Jacqueline Howett, Responding to Criticisms, and the (Usual) Dangers of Positive Thinking « The Indelible Stamp
More insight on the crash-and-burn author who threw her career into a black hole over an entirely reasonable but moderately unfavourable book-review.

Flying robots play ping-pong: war with the machines is one step closer – Telegraph Blogs

Very impressive, but can they juggle?

NeuroLogica Blog » Video Evidence
Steve Novella debunks.

New Humanist (Rationalist Association) - Blackburn schools to teach humanism in RE
Paul Sims' article describes welcome developments but it seems there's still much confusion as well as blatant ignorance and bigotry when it comes to the religious perception of humanism.

Latin-Spani-Croco-Duck
Surly Amy expounds on comfortable creationism.

The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » Be Skeptical – Lessons From Linguistics
Some interesting insights about the structure of language and the scientific method.

The Biggest Lie in British Politics « sturdyblog
Support for Johann Hari's recent article on why cuts will kill the economy.
(This one: The biggest lie in British politics : Johann Hari)

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Marcus chown at TAM London 2010

Into the second day of TAM London with Marcus Chown and his Ten Bonkers Things About The Universe:

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Among these bonkers things were the fact that the entire human race would fit in the volume of a sugar cube; if the sun were made of bananas it would be equally hot; 98% of the universe is invisible; and you age more slowly on the ground floor of a building than on the top floor.

Marcus went through his ten items at some speed, perhaps mindful of the necessity of engaging his audience on a Sunday morning after a possibly late night, and he therefore didn't go into much detail. Probably he could have done a complete presentation on each item. He paced the stage rather than standing at the lectern, and his slides were varied — though naturally had a cosmological emphasis. He book-ended his talk with audio-visuals that included music from Elton John and David Bowie. This was a good start to the second day.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Comfort zone of a fundagelical Christian

Well, it happened. Ray Comfort was on the Atheist Experience last Sunday. I listened to the podcast, and it was one of the fastest hours I can remember.



I didn't know what to expect, although I thought it likely, given the professionalism of the Atheist Experience hosts, that it would be a civilized affair. Ray is a decent chap, that's clear, though plainly misguided and lacking intellectual rigour when it comes to matters of science — especially biology. At one point he started in with his argument about male and female evolving separately; that he still proposes this as a refutation of evolution demonstrates that he has minimal grasp of what the theory of evolution actually states, and that he's willfully ignoring patient explanations offered to him in the past (P. Z. Myers', for example).

One problem the Axp has with a discussion like this, is that an hour is nowhere near long enough to address all the various nonsense that Ray continues to come out with over the years. Matt Dillahunty and Russell Glasser did a good job, but the show could easily have been three times as long and just as packed.

If I have reservations, these would be about the wider effect of a match like this. Though it was hugely entertaining, the show let Ray appear as pleasant but deluded — not as a raving fundagelical who actively promotes a hellfire and brimstone version of Christianity that he wants everyone else to adopt. Which of these portrayals is more likely to motivate active opposition? When two members of the Rational Response Squad debated Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron the latter were shown up as creationist loons. When Ray Comfort and Thunderf00t took part in a video-recorded discussion, Ray came over as sincere but disastrously wrong. And here on the Axp he seemed to be a regular guy with some wonky ideas about evolution and nature.

Whether this show motivates opposition to Ray's wrong-headed views or not, it's necessary to challenge such views wherever and whenever they threaten to impinge on people's rights, and on that score the Axp hosts continue to be supremely competent.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Episode 2 of Skepticule Extra is now available

After the phenomenal success of the first episode of our absolutely brilliant new podcast I know everyone's eagerly awaiting the next episode of Skepticule Extra.

So here it is:

http://www.skepticule.co.uk/2011/03/skepextra-002-20110327.html

This episode is mostly about the wife of a fascist god who visits hospitals to teach creationism to the patients. (Or something — I may have garbled that slightly.)

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

The Atheist Experience™: Ray Comfort - on the show this Sunday
I can't quite believe this is actually going to happen.

The Meming of Life » There is no normal » Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders
More catching up with Dale McGowan — on familiar awesomeness.

Skeptics with a K – Special #008 « The Merseyside Skeptics Society
A ten-minute spot on Radio Merseyside — well worth a listen. And well worth a read is Marsh's relevant blogpost of 10th March:
NHS Wirral and The North West Friends Of Homeopathy: A Typical Wednesday Evening Out

New Statesman - Against the evidence
Richard Wilson explains the difference between doubt and dogmatism.

Atheist attempts to educate Rabbi Adam Jacobs on morality - Philadelphia atheism | Examiner.com
This article could have dealt more with the concept of absolutism. Which is the main theistic argument (even though it's false).

Science: How To Fake It
This how all those ridiculous "science" stories get into the popular press.

Bad Reason: Talking Bollocks about Cox
Don't diss Brian.
(Via @kashfarooq)

Godless in Tumourville: Christopher Hitchens interview - Telegraph
Excellent in-depth update on the Hitch.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

My part ownership

Watching Brian Cox's inspiring Wonders of the Universe episode "Stardust" I was once again struck by the thought that though this arrangement of parts that I call me is, in the grand scheme of things, ephemeral, the parts themselves — the atoms that make up the molecules that make up the chemicals of which I am temporarily composed — are as near immortal as anything is likely to get. Forged in the nuclear furnaces of dying stars, my fundamental particles have been around a lot longer than I have, and before I was here they were probably doing sterling service elsewhere. And after I'm gone, these particles will be recycled for other purposes — I will, in a sense, live again as reincarnated diaspora.

There is a hierarchy in this compositional framework that I call me: though at bottom I am the quarks, I am also the complex functioning organs that comprise my body — which are themselves composed of simpler parts right down to those atoms and the quarks that comprise them. Such a view gives me pause, to consider my ownership of the parts of which I currently comprise.



This clip from Lawrence Krauss's superb lecture at the 2009 AAI Convention makes a related point:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFMmzKDonRY

(Ironically this clip was linked by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis!)

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Bible is not a science textbook

With Robert Kaita's "Creator and Sustainer — God's Essential Role in the Universe" we are into Section Two, The Question of Science, of Dembski and Licona's Evidence for God. And immediately we run into problems:
Einstein posed a question that scientists, as scientists, still cannot answer. He asked why the universe is comprehensible. We do not know, for example, why there are only a few laws of physics. The same law of gravity can be used to describe how we are held to the earth, but also how immense galaxies are attracted to each other to form clusters.
This misunderstands what scientific laws are, even though the above quote actually contains a germ of the truth. Scientific laws are not some underlying or intrinsic quality of how the universe works, they are merely a set of descriptions that approximate to our observations ("The same law of gravity can be used to describe...").

Kaita uses a line of dominoes as an analogy for deism, then says, "Somehow, we have a sense that such a picture is not very satisfying." But the way things actually are — the truth — is not contingent on whether it produces a satisfying picture. Nevertheless Kaita uses the further analogies of car maintenance and practical nuclear fusion (his own scientific field) to support his idea that God must take an active role in the universe to keep it running. That doesn't sound very god-like to me — whatever happened to omnipotence?

That's not Kaita's only evidence for his sustaining creator-god; he also quotes from the Bible:
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.


(Genesis 8:22 New International Version, ©2011)
The Bible, however, is not a science textbook. Anyone who tries to support theism from a scientific viewpoint — especially in a section entitled The Question of Science — by quoting the Bible, has already lost the argument.


4truth.net:
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbscience.aspx?pageid=8589952965

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Creation Science Movement - News
Stephen Hayes reviews Alister McGrath's Why God won't go away: engaging with the New Atheism — and gets in plenty of incidental invective against Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, accusing them of rabble-rousing, and their output as "too vile to be quoted". McGrath apparently "exposes the the real nastiness in the underbelly of this movement". (And for good measure The God Delusion is a "revolting book of crude and bigoted propaganda".) I think I can tell where he's coming from, but even without this helpful review I shan't be reading McGrath's book. I've read some of his stuff online and I've heard him speak — or rather circumlocute, and I choose not to subject my brain to being savaged by a blancmange.

Jourdemayne: Mrs. God
The shocking revelation turns out to be a bit old hat.

Free schools will not teach creationism, says Department for Education | Science | The Guardian
Credit to the BCSE for getting a response, but I wonder how much Gove's assurances are worth.

John Ronson On...
Useful links to Jon Ronson's BBC Radio 4 documentaries.

Advertising that will catch your attention: 20 awesome billboards
Some of these are fun, some clever. All eye-catching.

Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice - NYTimes.com
Fascinating article. I tend towards the compatibilists.

Atheist throws in towel: 6-year lawsuit challenging Pledge of Allegiance in California | Spero News
This is curious. Not sure what's going on here.

Harvard University professor Michael Sandel said Tuesday that reasoned argument is missing in political discourse, but the solution is more debate, not less | Gainesville.com
Michael Sandel tells us what's missing in public debate. And I really must find time to watch his series Justice (which I have on my iPod).

Hell and linoleum | Andrew Brown | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Andrew Brown attempts to ponder the justice of Hell — and finds he can't.

I've no faith in this idea that religion is dying out | Wendy M Grossman | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Wendy Grossman isn't buying it.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The universe is so vast, let's all just kill ourselves

Over at Telegraph Blogs Brendan O'Neill has got himself into a tizzy about how important he may or may not be in the grand scheme of things. Not that he says such in so many words, but his misapprehension of one of TV's current popular science hits betrays his discomfiture with reality:
I think I have solved one of the great mysteries of the universe: the question of why mop-topped stargazer Professor Brian Cox is so popular. It isn’t because of his looks, or his soft Mancunian voice, or his pop past in Blair-boosting band D:Ream. No, it’s because his wide-eyed cosmology is based on a view of mankind as insignificant, as a mere speck of dust in the post-Big Bang scheme of things, and that chimes brilliantly with today’s rather downbeat view of humanity. The floppy-fringed professor massages the fashionable prejudice that humanity isn’t all that special; no, we’re just a cosmological accident, which will exist only fleetingly before being wiped out by the explosion of our Sun or some other cataclysmic event.
Sorry Brendan but that's just how it is. Get used to it.

The point is, Brendan, that we are special — just not in the way you think we are. The universe was not designed with us in mind (actually it wasn't designed at all, as far as we can tell — but that's probably another blogpost or two ... or a thousand). Nevertheless we are here, and that is one awesome fact.

And what have you got against Carl Sagan?
Like Sagan, Cox and his rationalistic acolytes in the media are attracted to the cosmos primarily because they believe its vastness reveals our smallness, that its 14 billion-year history puts our pathetic 250,000 years of inventing fire and skyscrapers and iPads into perspective. They see in the never-ending chasm of space, not worlds we should aspire to know and possibly conquer and colonise, but a big black challenge to the idea of human historic purpose.
There you go again: purpose. Imputing teleology is for those who can't cope with the way things actually are. As for conquering, that's a bit presumptuous isn't it? Maybe that's the human historic purpose you're talking about — humanity's cosmic crusade: to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no crusader has gone before, and subjugate the alien masses.
Copernicus’s challenge to the idea that the Earth was the centre of the universe was frequently cited by Sagan and his fans as a challenge to the idea that human beings are the centre of the universe – but it was no such thing. Rather, Copernicus wanted to increase human authority over the unknowns of the universe, not teach mankind a lesson about our “insignificance in the great loneliness of space”. In contrast, today’s cod-Copernicans in the Cox lobby are drawn to the cosmos because its weirdness and bigness feeds their drab, down-to-earth belief that there isn’t much point to life.
You've got it upside-down and backwards. As for "their drab, down-to-earth belief that there isn’t much point to life" — I'll let you into a little secret: life is what you make it. The point of life is life itself.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

James Randi at TAM London 2010

TAM London's first day's talks concluded with the man himself, James the Amaz!ng Randi, who was interviewed on stage by Robin Ince. He talked about his skeptical origins and some of his encounters with so-called psychics, mediums and faith healers. It was clear that Randi's preoccupation with such people is not merely idle interest but an abiding passion. They may be deluded about their "powers" or they may be out-and-out charlatans; Randi has encountered both extremes and everything in between, and in all cases he is dedicated to exposing them for what they are, not least because they mislead innocent people who pay good money for something that isn't real.

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It was inspiring to hear Randi speak live about his life in skepticism, but if I have one niggle it would be that he and Robin Ince should have swapped places — Randi was positioned on stage such that he gazed mostly off to the side, away from the camera producing the view that filled the big screen.

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After his discussion with Robin Ince, Randi presented two awards. The TAM London 2010 award went to Ben Goldacre, who accepted it by pre-recorded video. Ben was unable to accept the award in person, but the video was an unexpected bonus — it initially freeze-framed, giving us a static second or two of typical zany Ben Goldacre expression. (And check out what must be the geekiest bookcase ever....)

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The second award was for Grassroots Skepticism, and went to Rhys Morgan for his single-handed stance against quack-remedy "Miracle Mineral Solution", which despite being basically bleach, has been promoted as effective against ... pretty much anything except amputation. Rhys has Crohn's disease, one of the huge list of afflictions that MMS is claimed to cure, and it was this that led him to investigate it, and subsequently to campaign against it. Such activism is to be commended in anyone, and so the award is richly deserved — more so in this case as at the time Rhys was only 15 years old.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

A case of explanatory impotence

In chapter 6 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, David Wood gave us "three approaches theists can take when responding to the argument from evil." I found them unconvincing, and the fact that Wood added some other unrelated arguments for the existence of God made me wonder if despite the confident bravura of his assertions, he nevertheless harbours doubts as to their cogency.

The very next chapter tends to reinforce this suspicion, as it too is by David Wood and is once again about the argument from evil. The chapter's title, "God, Suffering and Santa Claus — An Examination of the Explanatory Power of Theism and Atheism" should ring alarm bells, as any time a theist talks about the "explanatory power" of theism you know you're unlikely to get any such thing.

Wood contends that it's illogical to dismiss theism solely on the basis of its difficulty with explaining the existence of suffering in the world, when theism is so good at explaining everything else. Yes, that's right: not only is he half admitting that suffering is a problem, he's claiming that it's pretty much the only one, and that theism explains the following:
  • Why we have a world at all
  • Why our world is finely tuned for life
  • Accounts for the origin of life as well as the diversity and complexity of life we see around us
  • The rise of consciousness
  • Objective moral values
  • Miracles
And the explanation of all these things is ... Goddidit. Unfortunately Goddidit is about as far from an explanation as it's possible to be. I'll offer an alternative explanation, that "explains" the six things listed above, and the explanation is ... magic pixies did it. I'll go further, paraphrasing David Wood:
"Thus, when atheists say that magic pixieism fails to account for suffering, we shouldn't forget that, even if they're right, magic pixieism accounts for just about everything else."
Honestly, I'd expected something more substantial than this — something with a measure of philosophically persuasive force, given that this is the final chapter in the book's first section, headed "The Question of Philosophy". The next (much larger) section is called "The Question of Science" and includes chapters by Phillip E. Johnson and William A. Dembski. Let's hope they make a better fist of things than the sorry collection so far.


Surprise, surprise! — there's a version of this chapter at 4truth.net:
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbgod.aspx?pageid=8589952714

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Unanswered questions on Japan's suffering | Giles Fraser | Comment is free | The Guardian
Yet again Giles Fraser gets his theological knickers in a twist over natural disaster.

A case of never letting the source spoil a good story | Ben Goldacre | Comment is free | The Guardian
Ben Goldacre won't trust you if you don't link to primary sources.

Opinion: Twitter is more than just a fad, so don’t miss the boat | Opinion | The Lawyer
David Allen Green with a lawyers' guide to Twitter.

BBC News - Cory Doctorow: DRM is no friend of business
"Computers are not going to get worse at copying." Cory Doctorow delivers three soundbites for the benefit of new business start-ups.

Pi Day: Help yourself to a slice of infinite, transcendental pi | Matt Parker | Science | guardian.co.uk
The universe is stranger than we can imagine — not just on the grander scale of things but right in front of us when we look at something as ostensibly simple as a circle.

Ideas for modern living: you | Life and style | The Observer
Julian Baggini briefly introduces his new book. What I want to know is, does he deal with consciousness and free will?

Beck: "I'm Not Not Saying" God Is Causing Earthquakes | Media Matters for America
Does anyone (I mean anyone) take Glenn Beck seriously? Seriously?

Are Christians so thin-skinned? | Caspar Melville | Comment is free | The Guardian
While I think that the "banning" of the BHA Census Campaign ads has been a — dare I say it — godsend to the campaign's publicity, I was unaware of something revealed in one of the comments:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/discussion/comment-permalink/9924114

The evidence for god: an exchange with Anthony Grayling « Why Evolution Is True
This is the Grayling/Coyne email exchange previously linked from Butterflies and Wheels. Me? I'm with Grayling (I think).

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Presuppositional Apologetics: an argument that's not an argument

At the beginning of this year I posted about presuppositional apologetics (PA). I first encountered this particular argument for the existence of God after a search for information about the transcendental proof.

Justin Brierley's Unbelievable? radio programme dealt with presuppositional apologetics in July 2010 with a debate/discussion between presuppositionalist Sye Ten Bruggencate and atheist Paul Baird — a programme that provoked a forum discussion exceeding 1000 posts and confirmed that as an apologetic method PA is a dismal failure.

Today's Unbelievable? — billed as round two — again featured Sye and Paul, but on this occasion was more about PA rather than just Sye actually doing it (although inevitably it included some of that as well).

Streaming audio of the show is available here:
http://www.premierradio.org.uk/listen/ondemand.aspx?mediaid={C2CD1A87-7A50-498E-B5F5-773F4EE37E46}

Or you can download the mp3 here:
http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/6edf007c-73a9-47c9-bbbd-c9e9a97a4113.mp3

Listening to the show, and to Sye doing his schtick, I felt some sympathy for Justin as he sided with Paul in trying to persuade Sye to explain how he gets from the generic God (resulting from Sye's transcendental argument) to the God of Christianity.

Of course Sye didn't explain any such thing, claiming that the Christian God is not a culmination but a necessary presupposition to his argument. The discussion clearly demonstrated why presuppositional apologetics doesn't work. PA is never going to persuade anyone that it's correct, because it simply presupposes that it's correct. Anyone who accepts Sye's argument as valid isn't being persuaded of the truth of Christianity, they are simply accepting it a priori as true. If the argument requires at its very beginning the existence of the specifically Christian God, it's hardly surprising that it expends no effort in trying to prove something it takes as a given.

Since his first encounter with Sye, Paul has spent considerable time and effort researching PA, and you can hear his own account of the "rematch" on the first episode of Skepticule Extra, available here:

http://www.skepticule.co.uk/2011/03/skepextra-001-20110313.html

The only people who find PA convincing are those who already think it's a good argument. That's why PA is doomed.

Friday, 18 March 2011

"On Being" a scornful atheist on the Today Programme

Peter Atkins has a new book out. On Being is apparently a rallying cry for the virtues and reliability of science in a solely materialist, naturalistic universe. Professor Atkins was on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme yesterday morning, along with philosopher Mary Midgley. The 6'34" streaming audio clip is available here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9427000/9427512.stm
Does science have all the answers we need to the big questions of life, like why are we here and where did we come from?

Oxford scientist Prof Peter Atkins and philosopher Mary Midgley discuss whether there is anything more than facts, facts and more facts.
There's an accompanying article by Tom Colls on the BBC website:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9410000/9410486.stm

I dislike the term "militant atheist" because as applied to people like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens it degrades the meaning of "militant", but I think "scornful atheist" or "disdainful atheist" could accurately describe Peter Atkins. He's very clear about his naturalistic approach to the whole of existence and doesn't moderate his language when speaking to those who have a more transcendental take on things. Some may see his approach as lacking in nuance, though I suspect he would maintain nuance on these matters is superfluous.

Stephen Law also heard the Today clip, and posted about it on his blog:
Funnily enough I had exactly this debate with Atkins a couple of weeks ago in Oxford over about 2hrs (part of THINK week). Dawkins sat right in front of me and chipped in too. I believe there will be some sort of recording available shortly...
I look forward to hearing that recording.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Stephen Law: Steven Pool exchange with myself
Stephen Law responds to a frivolous and lazy review.

WTF Bible Stories: Rape, Marriage, and Circumcision | Godless Girl
A heartwarming story from Genesis.

Charges initiated against Pope for crimes against humanity - The Irish Times - Wed, Feb 23, 2011
Yeah, go for it. At the very least the Vatican must be made to realise that these things cannot be swept under the carpet.

God and Disaster - A C Grayling - RichardDawkins.net - RichardDawkins.net
In the light of the Japan earthquake, A. C. Grayling channels Epicurus.

It does no work because it purportedly does all work - Butterflies and Wheels
This is so true. I've been aware of this friendly debate going on between people I admire, and made a note to catch up on it. Ophelia Benson's summary in this post makes me want to read the whole thing forthwith.

Why Plantinga didn’t solve the problem of evil: the short version | The Uncredible Hallq
I've not read Plantinga on evil — my encounter with his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism was enough to put me off. But I'm glad someone is calling him to account. That someone is Chris Hallquist, and his previous post on William Lane Craig is worth reading too:
William Lane Craig is a charlatan | The Uncredible Hallq

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Mysterious arguments for a tortured God

Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God has been woefully disappointing so far, but with Chapter 6 David Wood shows he's made of more substantial stuff. Although "Responding to the Argument from Evil — Three Approaches for the Theist" appears from the title to be an exercise in theodicy, Wood gets in several shots from various perspectives.

The argument from evil is that the existence of suffering in the world is inconsistent with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Wood's three approaches are firstly that there are problems with the argument itself; attempts can be made to explain suffering; and arguments can be made for theism that outweigh arguments against it.

One of the problems with the argument from evil, Wood claims, is that it is itself inconsistent. He plays the mysterious ways card, but says this is OK because atheists do the same when they say it's OK that we don't know how abiogenesis happened. (He also, by the bye, lumps this in with an obviously false claim that atheists have no explanation for the complexity of life.)

Another problem Wood identifies is that of ambiguity. Though straying from his main thesis, a point he makes is that "faith" is not belief without evidence — it's more akin to trust. Methinks he is squirming here. He goes on to defining "good", claiming that the atheist definition of good is "maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain". Here's another apologist who ought to read Sam Harris.

Next Wood points out that the argument from evil contains unproven assumptions, amongst which is the assumption that if God has reasons for allowing evil in the world, we assume we would be aware of those reasons. But by saying we might not be aware of those reasons, he's just playing the mysterious ways card again. And in the next paragraph he delivers his double whammy of claiming that these are only some of the problems with the argument from evil, while refraining from listing the others (I wonder why), and that "theists are under no obligation to explain suffering".

Then comes a paragraph about the Christian doctrine that "humanity is in a state of rebellion against God." Unfortunately for his refutation this is a circular argument — and typical of theodicy. Faced with certain facts about the world, theologians are obliged to torture their God into some very strange shapes in order to reconcile him with a multitude of inconsistencies. And if it doesn't ultimately work, there's always the mysterious ways card secreted up a sleeve. Wood proposes free will as one such reconciliation, but there's a good deal of doubt that free will actually exists in the terms used by theologians, and therefore as theodicy it won't hold up. It's interesting to note that all of Wood's arguments here could equally be used in support of Stephen Law's "Evil God".

And just in case we aren't convinced by Wood's refutations thus far, he offers some additional, separate arguments for theism to load the scales of conviction. These, however, look as if he was concerned to make up his word-count, being the argument from design, the cosmological argument and the argument from morality. Given the content of previous chapters, this seems a mite redundant.

So despite a strong beginning, Wood's three approaches ultimately fizzle.


It turns out (yet again) that 4truth.net has a version of this essay. (Did Dembski and Licona do any editing for this book, or did they just pick a whole lot of apologetics articles off a single website?)

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Skeptical Activism panel at TAM London 2010

Before I get around to posting about the individual talks and events at February's QEDcon in Manchester, I should complete my posts about TAM London 2010. My previous post on this subject took us to the afternoon of the first day, and next up is the panel discussion on Skeptical Activism. This was chaired by Tracey Brown of Sense About Science; the other panelists were former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, legal blogger David Allen Green (aka Jack of Kent) and science writer Simon Singh.

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Each delivered a five-minute talk that couldn't be much more than an introduction, and then the panel discussion began, with Tracey Brown fielding questions from the floor. The emphasis of the discussion was that activism is all very well, but skeptical activism must be backed up by evidence. Blogs, for instance, are well suited to such an approach, with the ability to link directly to the evidence supporting what the the blogger is saying.

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It was an interesting panel without much structure; Tracey Brown did a good job moderating, and the whole thing clearly gave attendees much to think on.

Monday, 14 March 2011

New godless podcast: Skepticule Extra

I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new godless podcast featuring Paul Baird, Paul Thompson (aka Sinbad) and myself, which is going by the informal title of The Three Pauls Show for obvious reasons. Our current intention is to release a half-hour show every two weeks, and for the time being episodes will appear in the Skepticule RSS feed under the title Skepticule Extra — so it's already available in iTunes.

Find it here:

or in iTunes here:

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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

A One Man Ode to Joy « Choice in Dying
Yet in what sense is theology an “intellectual discipline”? The phrasing is significant, for Polkinghorne is past master at the art of misdirection. Astrology, for instance, or alchemy, could justly be called intellectual disciplines. Anything with an esoteric vocabulary, and transformation rules for using that vocabulary in well-formed expressions, is an intellectual discipline; and until someone asks whether the words actually refer to anything that can confirm the truth, or establish the falsity, of those expressions, it can seem as though participants in the language game are actually talking about important matters, when, in fact, the whole activity might be entirely self-contained, a very complex, intellectual jeu d’esprit in which many enjoyable hours may be spent. Religion is, in my view, such a language, and the question whether it can have any relationship to an intellectual discipline which actually confirms or disconfirms propositions on the basis of things external to the manipulation of expressions within the discipline is the point at issue.
Eric MacDonald deconstructs the accommodationist theology of Templeton-prize-winner Sir John Polkinghorne.

Why are atheists so angry? - Butterflies and Wheels
Ophelia Benson is tired of sanctimonious nagging.

Daylight Atheism > Stepping Across the Is-Ought Gap
Catching up with Ebonmuse I'm pleased to see he agrees with Sam Harris.

Daylight Atheism > Curiosity as a Purpose of Life
More from Ebonmuse; I particularly enjoyed "the universe is like a wiki...."

Another Christian voice against the Christian Legal Centre | HumanistLife
More confirmation that Eunice and Owen Johns are simply wrong.

Ban the Blame | HumanistLife
Bob Churchill on the BHA's Census Campaign and those shockingly offensive ads.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Being religious does not confer special rights

From last Thursday's Today Programme on BBC Radio Four:
A Christian couple who were refused permission to be foster parents on the grounds that they are homophobic, have been advised that appealing against the decision would be "futile". Barrister Paul Diamond and former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer debate if anti-discrimination laws should take precedence over the rights of the couple to express their religious views.
Ten-minute streaming audio clip available here:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9420000/9420781.stm

Once again we have someone (Paul Diamond in this case) bleating that religious people should be allowed to discriminate unfairly against certain sections of society, and that being religious gives them special rights that the non-religious don't have. Lord Falconer is having none of it, pointing out that the judgement in the Eunice and Owen Johns case was very fair and applied not to the fact that the Johns' were religious, but that their views regarding homosexuality might prevent them from treating their foster children in a non-discriminatory manner.

Sure, the Johns' are decent people, but if their views prevent them from caring for foster children in a manner required by law, then they should not be allowed, by law, to be foster parents. The remedy, as in all these cases, is in their hands. In a previous Today Programme interview Eunice Johns claimed that all they are asking for is "a level playing-field in society". Thanks to recent laws against discrimination, that's exactly what they've got.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Japan earthquake — and responsible journalism

I've been at work all day and busy in the evening, so I've only caught glimpses of the news reports coming from Japan, but the TV pictures I've seen so far look horrendous. A natural disaster is obviously a hot topic, and a lot is written about it — not just dealing with the disaster itself, but also concerning related speculation, perhaps about the frequency of such events, their causes, and what can be done — if anything — to anticipate them, and to mitigate their effects afterwards.

I appreciate that it may be hard for a newspaper editor to come up with a unique perspective on an event like today's earthquake in Japan and its resulting tsunami. I appreciate that a paper needs to have something special to offer its readers — a reason why they should read this paper rather than another. But I am at a loss to understand the mentality of an editor who approved the publication of this:


It's clear from the article that the Mail knows that this "astrological prediction" is entirely bogus. And yet it publishes this despicable, tasteless and inconsiderate nonsense in the face of massive destruction and potentially enormous human suffering.

I ... words fail me.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Forty people have got a new group which encourages rational thinking off to a good start in Bath
They're popping up all over the place. And Portsmouth gets a mention — I wonder if this is because Hayley Stevens (who presented at Bath Skeptics' inaugural event) is booked to appear here.

Great reply from Defra's Somerset Animal Health team on the use of Homeopathy. - Simon's posterous
Simon Perry gets a good result.

YouTube - Experience the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery from the KSC press site
Karen James (of the Beagle Project) was present at the final launch of Discovery. This is her personal record.


Dermestid Skeletal Preparation Kit | WARD'S Natural Science
Kids would learn a lot from this — if it didn't give them nightmares.

Director of the Society of Homeopaths Threatens Libel Action Against Paul Offit | The Quackometer
Wakefield may be discredited, but it's not over yet.

Birmingham Skeptics: The Framing Effect and Bad Decision Making
Kash Farooq elucidates a talk by Dr Benedetto De Martino.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A tribute to Douglas Adams — the Pod Delusion

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy remains for me the cleverest and funniest thing I've ever heard on radio, and I heard the original series when it was originally broadcast. I've read most of the books, I've enjoyed the sequels, and I've appreciated Douglas Adams' other work. I thought Harry Enfield was an inspired choice for the radio version of Dirk Gently (so I'm a little less enthusiastic about Stephen Mangan in the TV pilot, but that might be because I encountered Harry Enfield in the part first).

I found Douglas Adams' unexpected early death a sobering jolt from reality, as I was (along with countless fans) expecting great things to come. He and I were approximately the same age, and his untimely death prompted me to write something on my website (what these days would be called a "blog").

Hearing the Pod Delusion's special Douglas Adams tribute podcast was a joy, especially as it seemed to be all new stuff. The show is available as a podcast, an mp3 download, direct from iTunes, or you can listen to it right here:



Enjoy.


Apparently there are some hidden references in the tribute's theme music....

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

A detached view of scripture? BBC2's "Bible's Buried Secrets"

Next week's Radio Times has an article about a new BBC Two three-part TV series beginning on Tuesday 15th March at 9 pm entitled Bible's Buried Secrets, presented by Dr Francesca Stavrakopolou. The article is titled "The woman who says God was married", and quotes her as follows:
I'm an atheist with a huge respect for religion, not just ancient religions, but modern religions too. As a biblical scholar, I see what I do as an academic discipline, a branch of history, like any other. And as an academic, I think you leave faith at the door. I'm aware that there are some who find it hard to understand why an atheist could possibly be interested in the Bible, and I think that does a massive disservice to a fantastic collection of ancient texts. The Bible is a work of religious and social literature that has a huge impact on Western culture, and for that reason it's important that programmes like these are made.
My own reaction to the prospect of this series is that it might be a refreshingly detached view of the available facts, in contrast to — for instance — Anne Widdecombe's Channel 4 documentary on Mosaic Law (to which I added my own comment — follow that link and scroll down). The Mail Online takes a different view, judging by their first paragraph:
Looking for a presenter for a TV show about the Bible? The ideal candidate is an atheist who believes traditional interpretations of the book are sexist – according to BBC bosses, at least.
Or as Michael Marshall put it in the tweet that alerted me to the Mail article:
"It seems to me that another foreigner working for the BBC is spouting their anti christian dogma again."
— which is a valid characterisation of the slant used by Hannah Roberts and Paul Revoir in the Mail.

It's a bold move by the BBC, but I note it's not being broadcast on Sunday. (At least it's not suffering merely tentative exposure on BBC4.) 

Monday, 7 March 2011

Sam Harris — three UK appearances

Last night I eagerly followed a link on Twitter to discover that Sam Harris is coming to the UK next month, and will appear in London, Bristol and Cambridge. This is something for which I'd been on the look-out, as I'm a big fan of Sam Harris's writing. I have to admit that The Moral Landscape doesn't have quite the literary sparkle of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, but I nevertheless consider it a highly important work.

Naturally I'd like an opportunity to hear Harris speak in person. My anticipation has been dampened, however, on discovering that his appearance nearest to me — 11th April in London — will be a discussion with the Rev Giles Fraser. Who on earth thought that would be a good idea? To me it seems like a complete mismatch. Giles Fraser is a woolly-thinking theologian whose utterances on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day range from the somnolently bland to the jaw-droppingly vacuous.

Sam Harris's appearance at the Cambridge Wordfest on 16th April will be a discussion with Ian McEwan. That's something I'd be keen to hear, though Cambridge is a bit far from Portsmouth for an evening event. The other date, 13th April at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, appears to be Harris on his own, and is even farther from me. Regrettably, therefore, I may just content myself with the Intelligence Squared live video stream from the 11th April London event.

(I note from the Lecture Schedule on Sam Harris's website that he is this very day debating William Lane Craig — I wonder if a recording will be made available....)

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Ruling against Christian foster parents is evidence of “inquisition” | HumanistLife
What the pro-religious press isn't saying about the Johns case.

Htargcm Retsila : Pharyngula
PZ grants the circumlocutions of Alister McGrath one tiny point, then smacks down his utter wrongness on the scientific method.

Stephen Law: The case of the Christian would-be foster parents
A calm and collected view of the Johns fostering case.

Evolution Abroad: Creationism Evolves in Science Classrooms around the Globe: Scientific American
An assessment of ID/creationist teaching throughout the world, including some input from our own James Williams about the situation in the UK. No specific mention of the C4ID though, which might suggest that they are keeping a lower profile than was expected.
(Via BCSE.)

Patient and Persistent: A Problem for Creation Science and Geocentrists
Paul Baird wonders if a new discovery will be problematic for creationists. My money's on "No".

GCU Dancer on the Midway - "Bigots never foster, part deux" or "What the Court really said"
Paul Wright's take on the Johns fostering case principle.

Worship is immoral - Butterflies and Wheels
An interesting idea, further explored in the comments.
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