Thursday, 30 June 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

There Are 10 Times As Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force? | Belief | AlterNet
Adam Lee (of Daylight Atheism) now writes for AlterNet. This is his first piece.

Unequally Yoked: Guestblogging Challenge: Take the Ideological Turing Test!
This is a fascinating idea — the results will surely be instructive to both "sides".
(Via Daylight Atheism.)

Ungodly News: The Periodic Table of Atheists and Antitheists
Competition or reinforcement for Crispian Jago's Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense?

Times Higher Education - Research Intelligence - Alternative outcomes
Professor Edzard Ernst is retiring. This is a loss to the critical analysis of alternative and complementary medicine, but by this account it's not been easy for him.
(Via Stephen Law.)

Roman Catholic Cynicism and the Inhumanity of Religion II « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald on Roman Catholic willful misrepresentation of assisted dying. Read him, he knows whereof he writes.

It's always good to go straight to the source : Pharyngula
P. Z. pwns the creationists (again).

The Rants of Cherry Black » Blog Archive » The Last Resort
You are reading the Rants of Cherry Black, aren't you? Trish (of Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub) is currently in Nepal, and sending back awesome reports.

Do you think there may be a leprechaun?

Following on from my recent post concerning the existence of the supernatural, I've pondered some more about how I view classifications of certain types of entities — particularly entities of agency. First, here are some supposed entities that I would class as natural or material: extraterrestrials; artificial intelligences; computer consciousness. And second, some I would class as supernatural: fairies; ghosts; gods. (Neither of these lists is intended as exhaustive.)

Natural or material entities are entities for which we have, or can expect, evidence. Supernatural entities are those for which evidence is, by definition, not possible. Supernatural entities are not susceptible to science and reason (though their supposed effects might be), so if you need to affect supernatural entities directly, you might try magic spells or other invocations instead.

If these are the only two categories available for entities of agency, then some people will accept that both categories are "real", while others will accept only one. Personally I think that the material realm is real and the supernatural isn't.


During a debate I attended on 29 November 2009 at Wellington College, on the motion "Atheism is the new Fundamentalism", the tentative wording of the Atheist Bus Campaign was brought up, and Anthony Seldon, moderating, interjected to Richard Dawkins, "Does that mean there may be a God?"

Dawkins replied, "There may be a leprechaun."

Lord Richard Harries took extreme offence at this. "You can't let Richard get away with that. That's a ridiculous remark. You cannot confuse the God of classical theism, which has animated the whole of western philosophy, with a leprechaun."

"Why not?" asked Dawkins. "Why not?"

The video clip is here (there's a general discussion of agnosticism vs atheism, and the wording of the Bus Campaign, but the above exchange begins at about 6'50"):
http://youtu.be/ea1r2FIW6xQ


Harries' umbrage illustrates the fundamental conceit of theological thinking. By taking the existence of the deity as an unquestioned presupposition, theology has built up an intricate and largely impenetrable cat's cradle of obfuscation. However many billions of words have been written on the subject, at bottom there's no evidence that the object (God) of the subject (theology) actually exists. It's all so much hot air, with a degree of reality exactly on a par with a leprechaun.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Is the intelligent designer a prankster?

This is a quote from "Panning God — Darwinism's Defective Argument against Bad Design" by Jonathan Witt — Chapter 23 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God:
In an interview for The Philadelphia Inquirer, biologist and leading Darwinist Kenneth Miller said, "The God of the intelligent-design movement is way too small . . . . In their view, he designed everything in the world and yet he repeatedly intervenes and violates the laws of his own creation. Their god is like a kid who is not a very good mechanic and has to keep lifting the hood and tinkering with the engine" (1). Miller is a Roman Catholic, but notice how blithely he equates the designer's ongoing involvement in creation with incompetence. Why? What if the creator prefers to stay involved? What if he doesn't intend to wind up the watch of the cosmos and simply leave it to wind out everything from supernovas to sunflowers? What if he wishes to get his hands dirty making mud daubers? (p 116.)
Well, what if he does? Is there any way of knowing what the creator's wishes are? No, it's all pointless speculation. Or if it has a point, that point is to try by any means possible to refute Darwin's theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection. In that effort it fails. The entire chapter is a claim that the intelligent designer works in a mysterious way, and evolutionists' challenges regarding the inefficiency of certain evolved parts of living organisms are invalid because evolutionists don't know what was in the mind of the designer. Well neither does anyone else — the creator, you see, is ineffable.

The most that could be said — as attributed to J. B. S. Haldane — is that the creator has "an inordinate fondness for beetles". But using Witt's logic, one could just as easily speculate that the creator wasn't overly fussed about them, but wanted entomologists to be fully occupied because ... well, they might otherwise spend their time doing crossword puzzles instead of catalogueing all the different species of cockroach (and the creator thinks crossword puzzles are frivolous). Yes, it's a daft suggestion, but you can't prove it's not correct, in the same way you can't prove that the creator didn't give the panda opposable thumbs because he likes a bit of joke  — yes, Witt actually suggests this in his essay — p 117.

After complaining that metaphors are often stretched beyond breaking point, Witt then uses Shakespeare as a metaphor for God  — "the god of the English canon" (p 118.) and proceeds to show how criticisms of Shakespeare have since been shown not to be fully understanding of the Bard's oeuvre. Shakespeare, however, was not a god, he was a jobbing playwright and actor who was not above including things in his plays for popular or political effect. Witt's comparisons are spurious.

What Witt misses in this whole chapter is that without his and other ID proponents' insistence on "design", evolutionary biologists would have no need to speculate on the inefficiency of the designer. Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection provides a sufficient (and magnificently elegant) mechanism that explains the evolution of living things on Earth through undirected natural processes. It doesn't matter whether their criticisms of the "designer" are thorough or deep, because they aren't even necessary.


4truth.net
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbscience.aspx?pageid=8589952945

No supernature = no God

In recent months I've often had cause to consider what it would take for me to believe in God. And each time I consider it, I come closer to the notion that there probably isn't anything that would convince me that God exists.

To be clear on this question, I should explain what I understand by the two particular terms, "God" and "exists".

"God" — for this purpose — must necessarily be defined as the God of Abraham, or something very like it, by which I mean it must have the characteristics usually attributed to the supreme creator of the Universe: omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, omnipresence, and having an existence somewhere and somewhen at least partially outside of what we understand as time and space. I don't include such woolly definitions as "God is energy" or "God is love", as these are neither specific nor useful.

"Exists" — for this and indeed most purposes — I take to mean having some causal relationship with at least some aspects of physical reality. For something to exist it must be perceivable (preferably measurable) in the same realm of existence in which we, the beings doing the perceiving, perceive it. And it must be physical reality, not some notional concept that "exists" only as an idea in a brain — such existence would be better termed "imagination". (I can imagine lots of things that don't exist in physical reality. The fact that I can imagine them does not confer on them any physical existence other than patterns in my brain.)

That's really as far as I need go. The notion of God described above is clearly incoherent. It's a concept that cannot exist in, or affect, the physical realm in which we reside.

Take omnipotence: can God create a rock so heavy he can't lift it? Can he create a square circle? I've often heard theists maintain that God can do anything that's consistent with the "laws of logic" — which those two actions are not. Fair enough, but then those same theists claim that their God created the laws, so all I need to do is reframe the question: can God create laws which even he can't break? There's no satisfactory answer to this that's consistent with the idea of an omnipotent God, so he fails the coherence test at the very first hurdle.

But never mind that, let's see how he stacks up in omniscience. This is the idea that God knows everything there is to know. All knowable knowledge resides in the mind of God. But that knowledge, to be complete, must also include the knowledge of the knowledge in the mind of God, which if it is itself to be complete, must also include the knowledge of the knowledge of the knowledge in the mind of God, and so proceed ad infinitum. We have here an infinite regress, rather like a subroutine which calls itself, and once more we're well into the realm of incoherence.

Omnibenevolence and omnipresence need hardly get a look-in — they are obviously incoherent. Omnibenevolence is shown to be nonsense by the fact that theologians twist themselves into knots making excuses (theodicies) for a God that (if it exists) clearly isn't all-good. Omnipresence is another nonsensical property, probably invented to reinforce the idea that God watches everything you do. (It's also a superfluous property — what need of omnipresence has an omniscient God?)

It's clear to me, therefore, that God has been defined out of existence. The only way these properties could be true characteristics of a being, would be if that being was entirely imaginary. Such a being would be a supernatural fantasy — it would not, could not, exist. My definition of "existence" above is necessarily restricted to the natural world. Anything supernatural, therefore, cannot  exist.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Skewer Mouth by Dan Savage - Seattle Music - The Stranger, Seattle's Only Newspaper
Excellent (but too short) interview with Tim Minchin, during his current US tour.

A message from... - Simon Singh & Ben Goldacre - e-mail & badscience.net - RichardDawkins.net
Where now for the Libel Reform Campaign? (Also, listen to my brief interview with Simon Singh on the next Skepticule Extra.)

When evidence is powerless | Salman Hameed | Comment is free | The Guardian
If you've built your whole life around a set of beliefs, you're going to be particularly resistant to any evidence that calls them into question.

I think the creationists would rather just forget about Expelled : Pharyngula
P. Z. wants to claim the relics of Expelled as a trophy, and make the unused footage available. It would be a fine thing to salvage something good from the fetid remains of this execrable production.

Why atheism surely must be a kind of faith - steve's posterous
Steve Zara attempts to get inside someone of faith attempting to get inside someone of no faith (if you see what I mean).

You cannot prove me wrong! - steve's posterous
Here's Steve Zara again, on how the above claim is, in effect, self-refuting.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

It's soooo complicated, it must have been...

The Question of Science — the "science" section in Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God — has so far been mostly pushing intelligent design and little else. But we know that intelligent design is a philosophical idea, not a scientific one.

And so we come to Chapter 22, "Molecular Biology's New Paradigm — Nanoengineering Inside the Cell" by Bill Wilberforce (not his real name — see the bio on 4truth.net for why). It's more of the same: cells are highly complex and could not have evolved, so they must have been designed by an intelligence. Wilberforce quotes Michael Behe in support of this, but once again omits a crucial point (a point, incidentally, that all ID proponents omit).
Biologists most often identify the high-tech nano-engineer as Nature herself, and the implications of intelligent activity are quickly brushed aside. But, as Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe has said in regard to this situation, "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck". Behe's "inducktive" reasoning is quite sound. In any other field, things that look like they have been carefully engineered are presumed to be engineered.
But in any other field, the presumption of a designer is that the designer is human. The only designers we have ever encountered are human (at least as far as any appreciable level of complexity is concerned). Based on Behe's reasoning the only sound "inducktive" conclusion is that the cell was designed by a human. Reasoning that the designer is non-human is far from "sound". We have no idea what non-human design is like, because we have no examples of it. But no humans have come forth to claim authorship of the cell, and it seems reasonable to suppose they never will. Therefore the suggestion that the cell's complexity arose naturally by a series of gradual stepwise refinements is entirely legitimate.

Wilberforce asks whether continued research into cellular biology will reveal naturalistic explanations, or highlight further complexity, and answers himself thus:
From everything we have learned thus far, the answer seems to be the latter. Though it is possible that the tools of molecular biology will uncover some self-engineering mechanism (akin to self-organization, but which produces complex machines instead of repeating fractal patterns), this scenario seems unlikely. For starters, the trend has been toward the unveiling of more and more complicated systems, not mechanisms that show how they are produced. Furthermore, laws of information production, developed to address questions arising in our computer-driven information age, weigh heavily against such a mechanism.
That's surprisingly tentative, given the insistence ID proponents usually indulge in. It's a mere assertion; Wilberforce provides no figures to back up his "weight" — no science, in fact. It's just so much unsubstantiated speculation. If ID proponents really think their idea has legs, then they should run with it: go into the lab, do some actual science, write it up and get it published in a respected peer-reviewed scientific journal. Then, and only then, will ID be worth anyone's time.


4truth.net
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbscience.aspx?pageid=8589952935

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Four Dollars, Almost Five: Altruistic ape
One can't help wondering what the ape is thinking. (Though one can easily imagine the duck's thoughts...)


A Wee Pee | Professor Bruce M. Hood
Maybe what they should have done is to express publicly their regret at this occurrence, and issue a reassurance that the contamination would be neutralized with a magic potion.

The God Delusion Again « Choice in Dying
More excellent analysis from Eric MacDonald, with another post focussing on a review of Dawkins' The God Delusion.

Terry Pratchett and Dying on TV « Choice in Dying
And here's Eric MacDonald again, this time eviscerating Damian Thompson.

Death should not be as easy as going to the dentist « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald rightly castigates Allison Pearson for trivializing what for some people is the most important decision they will ever make.

Dear Emma B : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers writes a letter to a young, young earth creationist (but doesn't send it).

Kalām: a semantic game of tag

As arguments for the existence of God go, the Kalām Cosmological Argument is a favourite of Christian apologetics:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
  4. This cause is the God of Classical Theism, and is a personal being, because He chose to create the universe.
This, according to Wikipedia, is William Lane Craig's version. You have to admit that 4. is a remarkable show of confidence — brazenly stating that the cause is the God of Classical Theism. Why is the cause the God of Classical Theism? Because the God of Classical Theism chose to create the universe. So there!

But the main problem with the Kalām, as I see it, is premise 2. "The universe began to exist." What do we mean by "universe"? Do we mean everything, ever? If so, then "everything" must include all the supernatural entities that might possibly exist — in which case God began to exist, and therefore must, according to this argument, have a cause himself.

That's what the Kalām is designed to avoid, by claiming that everything — or "whatever" to use Craig's phrasing — that began to exist has a cause. It's only things that had a beginning that need to have a cause. It doesn't apply to God, because God has always been there, despite Craig's frequent claim that there's a problem with an infinite past. (Basically his argument goes like this: if there's an infinite past, then there must have been an infinite number of past events, so anything that existed in an infinite past must have undergone an infinite series of past events to get to the present day, which is impossible. Except for God, naturally, because he lives "outside time" in the land of special pleading.)

Clearly a definition of "universe" that encompasses everything, ever (including any gods), is incoherent when talking about causes, because the causes must be included in "everything" as well. If our definition is instead the whole of material reality that originated in the Big Bang, we're on firmer ground. But to say that the universe originated in the Big Bang does not necessarily imply that there was nothing "before" it. In as much as "before" can mean anything at all at the point of time and space coming into being, we have a problem: if there's no concept of time, the notion of causality is indeterminate, because causes necessarily precede effects. It's because of our concept of time that we're able to distinguish between effects and their causes. Without time, cause and effect are at best interchangeable, at worst nonsensical.

The Big Bang — the origin of the universe — can be better conceptualized as a point of transition. A transition from what, we have no way of knowing. Another universe in the Multiverse perhaps, or in one of those other dimensions postulated by string theory, or even from some similarly unknown realm of cyclic reversal. What we can say, however, is that the universe as we know it did not necessarily have a beginning before which there was nothing. Indeed the concept of "nothing" may itself be incoherent (which would, incidentally, make redundant the question of why there is something rather than nothing).

So the Kalām is no more than a disingenuous rephrasing of the premises in such a way as to counter the obvious response. What caused the universe? God did. So what caused God? Ah, God doesn't need a cause because (despite the aforementioned paradox of infinities) he never began. Well, the universe as we currently understand it doesn't need a cause either, because it too doesn't need to have had a beginning.

When I was a teenager the Steady State theory still held ground against the more controversial Big Bang theory. I remember Arthur C. Clarke being questioned about this on a radio phone-in show. His response was delightfully equivocal: "I favour the Steady Bang theory, which I give to you for free."

Why does the intelligent designer do such a bad job?

If God's so clever, why do his creations appear so naff? Maybe he couldn't be bothered to do a proper job. Sure, he's the perfect creator of the whole universe, but that doesn't mean he's much into the arts and crafts thing. He'd rather be smiting, or failing that, his favourite hobby — voyeurism.

Pardon the levity, but that's the only message I can take from Chapter 21 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, entitled "Intelligent, Optimal, and Divine Design" by Richard Spencer. It begins thusly:
If something has been intelligently designed, people often expect to see structures that are perfectly crafted to perform their individual tasks in the most elegant and efficient way possible (e.g., with no extra components). This expectation is incorrect not only for human design but also for divine design. (p 108.)
Isn't it amazing how divine design exactly mirrors human design? And Spencer knows this how? Then he goes on to look at microprocessor design:
If we tried to optimize every little part of the circuit design, we would never complete the design! This limitation does not, of course, affect divine design. (p 108.)
Of course it doesn't. Hold on, why doesn't it? Because God can do anything? And Spencer knows this how? Then comes this wonderfully equivocating paragraph:
In the same way, but for different reasons, God usually makes use of secondary agents to accomplish His work. Such secondary agents include physical laws since these laws do, at least sometimes, define, or help to define, structures in nature. For example, there are physical laws and properties of matter that determine the physical structure of certain objects, and once the laws and properties are in place, God does not need to individually create each atom, cell, or higher-level object. Having created physical laws, God is constrained by them unless He specifically chooses to suspend them. As a logical possibility, God is of course free to suspend the physical laws he has instituted. Yet, I don't know a single unequivocal example in which He has done so. This is not to deny miracles. I am simply saying that I don't know of any examples of miraculous structures in nature, and that includes biological structures. (p 109.)
Naturally Spencer is fully acquainted with what God usually does, and what God needs, or does not need, to do. God, you see, is constrained by physical laws, except when he isn't, and he's totally capable of making a biological miracle, except he hasn't actually done it.
A third reason why even divine designs may appear to be less than optimal is that we are rarely in a position to fully understand all of the design objectives and constraints. This point is subtle but significant. I have sometimes thought some part of a circuit or system design was done poorly only to find out later that it was actually quite clever. I simply didn't fully understand the intended purpose or constraints when I first looked at the system. (p 110.)
Well God's God, and mysterious. We can't be expected to know what's in his mind — except, it seems, when we can. Lest you think that we're not being scientific about all this, we'll quote a bit of Francis Collins, just to reinforce the idea that our puny minds can't hope to comprehend the intentions of the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe (although we know precisely, minutely, chapter-and-versely what God wants everybody not to do with their private parts).
I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Collins. While we do not fully comprehend why God allows sin to exist, the Bible gives us many examples of how God uses the painful trials that result from a sinful world to bring us to a greater sense of humility and dependence on Him. We must also remember that the world we are observing is not the original creation. It is a corrupted version of the creation. I personally think that many, if not all, of the arguments made by the opponents of intelligent design would remain unchanged even if they observed the world prior to the fall. But there is still an unknown factor to deal with since we are not able to observe the original creation at this time. (p 110.)
So God designed us suboptimally, to teach us a lesson. If only we hadn't fallen, God might not have given up on Mankind 2.0, which presumably he would have retrofitted into the perfect world if only it hadn't been messed up by those pesky humans, who were designed by ... oh wait, there's something not quite right about this. Well never mind, I'm sure God's got it all in hand. He always has, you know.


More of this ridiculous piffle is available at 4truth.net:
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbscience.aspx?pageid=8589952937

Monday, 20 June 2011

Burnee links for Monday

Burnee links schedule has slipped a day (but watch this space towards the end of this month for more about the Evil Burnee schedule in general).

The impartial Christian Institute - Butterflies and Wheels
Accusation of bias in Terry Pratchett's TV documentary on assisted dying all come from organisations with a vested or religious interest. The people commenting on my blog about it nearly all agree that assisted dying should be legal. Many of these people have very real concerns of their own and are baffled by the opposition.

Isn't this just the cutest thing you ever did see? : Pharyngula
No, it's despicable.

New Humanist (Rationalist Association) - Terry Pratchett makes the case for assisted dying
Sir Terry follows up his TV documentary, which ought to go down as a landmark in honest film-making.

New Humanist (Rationalist Association) - Your chance to own the rights to Intelligent Design propaganda movie Expelled
This is a bit of hoot.

How far should we trust health reporting? | Ben Goldacre | Comment is free | The Guardian
Woeful stuff. But the more articles like this there are, the more there's a chance things will improve.

Scepteen.: Why do we condemn assisted dying?
Good question, good summary (of Terry Pratchett's BBC2 documentary).

Skepticule Extra 007 now available for your listening pleasure

The latest episode of Skepticule Extra is now posted, available for direct download, streaming online, or via iTunes or other podcatcher:

http://www.skepticule.co.uk/2011/06/skepextra-007-20110612.html

This time we discuss secularism, antivaxxers, religious violence, how many angels can dance on a sleeping soul, and how the evolution v creationism debate is taking over prime-time evening TV in Britain.

Enjoy...

Sunday, 19 June 2011

A good reason not to mock religious beliefs?

A main thrust of the Gnu Atheism is that religious beliefs are not immune from criticism, and that religion doesn't deserve special respect. Religion has indeed enjoyed special privilege for a long time, but longevity shouldn't confer automatic reverence.

People have long debated about politics, literature, art and much other stuff, often in quite strident terms, but when the subject is religion, many feel inhibited in expressing strong anti-religious views. This reticence may be a hangover from the past, and that's understandable, but there may be another reason.

Regarding politics, many people have strong opposing views, and they are happy to discuss these in the most vigorous manner. The opposing views may be based on varying degrees of correctness, but whatever they're based on, the opposition can have at least some understanding of where they are "coming from". The basis of opposing views in politics (and art, literature, and the rest) can be explored and questioned in an effort to comprehend why someone holds a particular view. One can also investigate how someone's political or other views were formed.

Religious views, on the other hand, may be seen as different, because often their basis is incomprehensible to the non-religious. For many atheists, I suspect, the religious point of view is something quite alien and disturbing, and trying to inhabit that view in an effort to understand it is like stepping inside a fantasy novel. It's not surprising that such an experience leads non-believers to the idea that theists are deluded. If you discover that someone sincerely believes in what you consider to be completely imaginary fantasy, you may well reconsider that person's state of mind. You may feel that they are in need of some kind of help. You may also decide that the last thing they need — for the sake of their mental stability — is a robust challenge to their sincerely held but erroneous beliefs.

There's an old saying that comes to mind. I can't source it other than to say it was used a lot by Frankie Howerd:

"It's wicked to mock the afflicted."

Making stuff up is not an argument

Against my better judgement I followed a link posted by Unbelievable? on Facebook (and also apparently on Twitter):

Exploring Why Richard Dawkins Is Chickening Out « With All I Am

It's part of the general Christian hay-making over Richard Dawkins' refusal to debate William Lane Craig. I've already stated why I think Dawkins is right not to waste his time so I won't reiterate that here. The purpose of this post is to deal with repeated nonsense of Craig's that some theists think are valid arguments.

Craig claims to have refuted the arguments Dawkins uses in The God Delusion. The first time I saw these refutations I was unimpressed but didn't consider them further. So I'm a little surprised (perhaps I shouldn't be, now that I'm more familiar with Craig's modus operandi) to find them still quoted — as they are in the linked post:
First, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point concerning inference to the best explanation as practiced in the philosophy of science. If archaeologists digging in the earth were to discover things looking like arrowheads and hatchet heads and pottery shards, they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the chance result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but products of some unknown group of people, even though they had no explanation of who these people were or where they came from. Similarly, if astronauts were to come upon a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that it was the product of intelligent, extra-terrestrial agents, even if they had no idea whatsoever who these extra-terrestrial agents were or how they got there. In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t be able to explain the explanation. In fact, so requiring would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe, one needn’t be able to explain the designer.
Sorry, but if you don't have any kind of explanation for the designer, you can't claim the designer as an explanation for anything else. Craig's example of finding alien artefacts on the far side of the moon would lead us to further investigations. We wouldn't simply stop there and say Aliensdidit. That wouldn't be an explanation, it would be mere speculation.
Secondly, Dawkins thinks that in the case of a divine designer of the universe, the designer is just as complex as the thing to be explained, so that no explanatory advance is made. This objection raises all sorts of questions about the role played by simplicity in assessing competing explanations; for example, how simplicity is to be weighted in comparison with other criteria like explanatory power, explanatory scope, and so forth. But leave those questions aside. Dawkins’ fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that a divine designer is an entity comparable in complexity to the universe. As an unembodied mind, God is a remarkably simple entity. As a non-physical entity, a mind is not composed of parts, and its salient properties, like self-consciousness, rationality, and volition, are essential to it. In contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all its inexplicable quantities and constants, a divine mind is startlingly simple. Certainly such a mind may have complex ideas—it may be thinking, for example, of the infinitesimal calculus—, but the mind itself is a remarkably simple entity. Dawkins has evidently confused a mind’s ideas, which may, indeed, be complex, with a mind itself, which is an incredibly simple entity. Therefore, postulating a divine mind behind the universe most definitely does represent an advance in simplicity, for whatever that is worth.
This is a spectacular failure in argumentation. Craig's description of "an unembodied mind, as a remarkably simple entity" is sheer invention. There's nothing whatever to back up this assertion. "A divine mind is startlingly simple," says Craig. Based on what? He's making this stuff up and pretending it's real. It's not, and it's certainly not a refutation of Dawkins' argument or anyone else's.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Thought for the Day comes under new scrutiny
I'm in favour of secular viewpoints being included in Thought for the Day. The excuses given for not allowing this are indefensible. But it's not going to happen — the BBC is wedded to the idea that ethics and morality can only be based on religious principles. It's immovable on this issue, and wrong.

Breaking Out from the Prison of Religion | The Hibernia Times
Paula Kirby explores why Christians appear so unwilling to question their faith.

BCTF > Of science and cellphones
What science is, and why it works.

EARTH Magazine: Creationism creeps into mainstream geology
Reflections on a creationist-led geology field trip.

Faith-based groups are too often just state welfare by another name | John-Paul King | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
John-Paul King seems to be tacitly opening the door to faith-based discrimination in public services. See NaomiBHA in the comments.

this is not the six word novel: weird things customers say in bookshops
Apparently these things (that people say) are all true. Laugh? I nearly opened a bookshop.

Enjoying the cut-and-thrust of online debate

Maybe I'm looking at the wrong blogs, but I've been struck recently by what I consider serious impediments to rational discourse. Unfortunately I can't (or rather won't) link to examples because doing so would entirely defeat the point of this post. What I've seen are discussions carried out in the most acrimonious terms. Ad hominems à gogo is how I would characterize these arguments, and if we're talking about the theist-atheist divide (and in these cases that is what I'm talking about), both sides are guilty.

Personally, when I engage in online debate (in my case this is mostly written debate — in blog-comments or forums) I try to do so in a polite manner. I will occasionally draft a reply of biting invective, but I will delete it or moderate it before posting. I know there are people on both sides who relish the cut-and-thrust of the well-honed verbal barb, but such flourishes are unlikely to sway the opposition. In fact the opposition is hardly ever going to be swayed by even well-judged argumentation — so what's the point? The point is that the opposition is not the only consumer of the exchange. There may be onlookers in the background — lurkers — who could possibly be swayed by a polite but cogent argument.

These lurkers, however, are unlikely to give serious consideration to arguments couched in uncharitable terms. Appropriate gentle mockery is another matter, and implied ridicule can be effective, but insults and name-calling are counter-productive.

So here's my message to those engaging in rambunctious exchanges: have fun, enjoy yourselves — but don't kid yourselves. You're doing this for entertainment, and that's fine, but you're not going to make a difference to anybody else.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Dembski claims to identify design — we're still waiting

Are we on to the big guns yet? Maybe, maybe not. William Dembski's first contribution to his book Evidence for God (co-edited with Michael Licona) is "Intelligent Design — A Brief Introduction". SETI, Mount Rushmore, the bacterial flagellum — all the old favourites are lined up to illustrate the contention that intelligent design "...purports to find patterns in biological systems that signify intelligence. ID therefore directly challenges Darwinism and other materialistic approaches to the origin and evolution of life." (p 104.)

Hang on a minute. Dembski is clearly saying that ID is a challenge to "materialistic approaches". That means he's proposing an immaterial intelligence. He's going beyond what ID proponents normally admit, which is that ID doesn't say anything specific about the designer. ID proponents say that the designer isn't necessarily God — it could be aliens, but presumably these aliens would be material aliens. Dembski is saying, however, that the designer is — or could be — outside the material realm. Therefore, for ID to be science, and for the designer to be at the same time immaterial, science needs to be able to say something about the immaterial realm — such as, that it exists. Science of course says no such thing; speculations about the existence or non-existence of an immaterial realm are beyond its remit.

Dembski's problem is this, which he acknowledges in his third paragraph:
What has kept design outside the scientific mainstream since Darwin proposed his theory of evolution is that it lacked precise methods for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones. For design to be a fruitful scientific concept, scientists need to be sure they can reliably determine whether something is designed. (p 104-5.)
For ID to be scientific, it needs to be able to distinguish actual design from the illusion of design. Dembski claims that this can be done, but examination reveals only buzzwords and vague promises. He's constantly running up blind alleys:
As a theory of biological origins and development, ID's central claim is that only intelligent causes can adequately explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable. To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well-defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected material causes. (p 105.)
The problem, however, is that these well-defined methods are ... never defined. Dembski repeats that there are methods to detect design, but again and again these methods are revealed to be nothing more than, "If it looks designed, it must have had a designer."

That Dembski includes SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, as an example of design detection, is surprising, because SETI researchers are emphatically not looking for patterns in radio signals from space. What they're looking for is a narrow-band signal — any modulation of a potential carrier wave is expected to have been smeared out with time and distance, so there's likely to be no information present.

Dembski elaborates on his favourite buzz-phrase, specified complexity:
Within the theory of intelligent design, specified complexity is the characteristic trademark or signature of intelligence. It is a reliable empirical marker of intelligence in the same way that fingerprints are a reliable empirical marker of an individual's presence at the scene of a crime. Design theorists contend that undirected material causes, like natural selection acting on random genetic change, cannot generate specified complexity. (p 106.)
Unfortunately he never elaborates on how to identify specified complexity, other than variations of "if it looks designed, then it must have had a designer."

At the top of this post I wondered if we were on to the big guns. Apparently not, for this pea-shooter consistently fails to fire:
ID's chief claim is this: the world contains events, objects, and structures that exhaust the explanatory resources of undirected material causes and can be adequately explained by recourse to intelligent causes. Design theorists claim to demonstrate this rigorously. (p 107.)
That's what they claim, but they don't do it — not rigorously, or at all.


4truth.net:
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbscience.aspx?pageid=8589952955

Monday, 13 June 2011

An inference to the only valid admission: "We don't know"

After blogging about 4thought.tv's series last week, "Is it possible to believe in God and Darwin?" and discussing it during the recording of Skepticule Extra 007 yesterday, I checked out Alastair Noble's introduction video again, at the Centre for Intelligent Design's website. The video is embeddable, so I include it below:



Noble is saying much the same as he did in his 4thought.tv contribution, but expanded a little. He appears to be claiming that methodological naturalism is an unwarranted philosophical constraint on the progress of science, and that intelligent design is an inference to the best explanation. But I still don't see how "Someone did this, we don't know who (and even if we think we do know, we're not saying)" is any kind of explanation. If you can't tell how something happened, how is it scientific to conclude that someone must have done it? The correct conclusion is to admit that you don't know how it happened, and then to attempt to find out. If you convince yourself that someone must have done it, where do you go from there?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Why don't anti-evolutionists understand evolution?

I sometimes wonder if certain Christians' objections to "Evilution" would be less if they understood even the basic idea of evolutionary theory. If someone goes to the trouble of producing a YouTube video claiming that evolution is a fairy tale because the theory claims that an animal evolved in a particular way for a particular reason, it's a good idea to know what evolutionary theory actually states.

http://youtu.be/p_Kgv_iJ8hA


In this video much scorn is poured on the reason given for the evolution of the giraffe's long neck. But anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the process known as "Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection" will be aware that the giraffe's neck did not get longer by stretching. So this video misses its target completely.

The video's producer is in need of some fairly basic education regarding evolutionary theory, and usually there's no shortage of commentary in that vein. But in this case comments are disabled. Why is that, I wonder?

Burnee links for Sunday

How William Lane Craig misleads his followers | The Uncredible Hallq
Craig genuinely is better informed than most apologists. That does set him apart from the pack. He just doesn’t use his knowledge to make his followers better informed. Instead, he uses his knowledge to put out a series of misleading half-truths and unsupported claims, while side-stepping any discussions that he knows would go badly for him.
The more prominent Craig becomes, the more people see through his debating shenanigans.

Follow-up to the above:
Biblical scholars are not a bunch of baffled skeptics (also: Craig lies about Ehrman) | The Uncredible Hallq

Science is my God | Science | The Guardian
Oh look, there's some space on our website. Let's fill it with rubbish.

Science is not my God | Martin Robbins | Science | guardian.co.uk
Not rubbish.


DarkOptics : Chernobyl's Zone of Alienation - Photography By Darren Nisbett
Here's an unusual photography project. See the eerie ghost town of Pripyat in the website gallery, or visit the exhibition itself in Eton in July — it's in a good cause. The infra-red treatment makes everything look as if it's glowing with radiation (which I suppose, technically, it is). I was reminded of Christy Moore's "Farewell to Pripyat" (lyrics by Tim Dennehy) on his album Voyage — also available on iTunes in The Box Set (1964-2004).

Kevin Myers: Myth of Dawkins as an intolerant, atheist crusader is just that -- myth - Kevin Myers, Columnists - Independent.ie
Good article, shame about the pic.

OMG! It's Richard Dawkins - Tom Whipple - The Times - RichardDawkins.net
More from the Dublin convention. I challenge anyone who has met Richard Dawkins, or seen him in person deliver a talk, to substantiate the claim that he is shrill, strident or angry.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Dublin Declaration on Secularism and the Place of Religion in Public Life | Atheist Ireland

"On Sunday 5 June 2011, the World Atheist Convention in Dublin discussed and adopted the following declaration on secularism and the place of religion in public life. Please discuss and promote it with your friends and colleagues, and if you are a a member of an atheist, humanist or secular group, please discuss and promote it with your fellow members, and with the media and politicians."
The Declaration is here:

http://www.atheist.ie/2011/06/dublin-declaration-on-secularism-and-the-place-of-religion-in-public-life/

It's worth looking briefly at the four sections of this succinct document:

1. Personal Freedoms

(a) Freedom of conscience, religion and belief are private and unlimited. Freedom to practice religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights and freedoms of others.
(b) All people should be free to participate equally in the democratic process.
(c) Freedom of expression should be limited only by the need to respect the rights and freedoms of others. There should be no right ‘not to be offended’ in law. All blasphemy laws, whether explicit or implicit, should be repealed and should not be enacted.
Freedom of conscience, democracy and freedom of expression — universal rights encapsulated in a few short sentences.

2. Secular Democracy

(a) The sovereignty of the State is derived from the people and not from any god or gods.
(b) The only reference in the constitution to religion should be an assertion that the State is secular.
(c) The State should be based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Public policy should be formed by applying reason, and not religious faith, to evidence.
(d) Government should be secular. The state should be strictly neutral in matters of religion and its absence, favouring none and discriminating against none.
(e) Religions should have no special financial consideration in public life, such as tax-free status for religious activities, or grants to promote religion or run faith schools.
(f) Membership of a religion should not be a basis for appointing a person to any State position.
(g) The law should neither grant nor refuse any right, privilege, power or immunity, on the basis of faith or religion or the absence of either.
As concise a summary of secular principles as I've seen.

3. Secular Education

(a) State education should be secular. Religious education, if it happens, should be limited to education about religion and its absence.
(b) Children should be taught about the diversity of religious and nonreligious philosophical beliefs in an objective manner, with no faith formation in school hours.
(c) Children should be educated in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge. Science should be taught free from religious interference.
Glad to see education given specific focus — the future of human civilisation depends on it.

4. One Law For All

(a) There should be one secular law for all, democratically decided and evenly enforced, with no jurisdiction for religious courts to settle civil matters or family disputes.
(b) The law should not criminalise private conduct because the doctrine of any religion deems such conduct to be immoral, if that private conduct respects the rights and freedoms of others.
(c) Employers or social service providers with religious beliefs should not be allowed to discriminate on any grounds not essential to the job in question.
Obvious though this may be, it's threatened in the UK by law-making judges who may give special exemption to religious discrimination (though so far the judges have generally been sensible about this). It also addresses the idea of different laws for specific groups of people, as Sharia is supposed to for Muslims. Such agreements to be bound by a subset of national law should only be in the same sense as an agreement — by all parties in a dispute — to arbitration, which itself must be within the law.

If I have a (pedantic) quibble it's that 4(b) seems syntactically ambiguous — it could be read as saying that since religious doctrine deems some conduct immoral, that conduct shouldn't be criminalised, which is nonsensical. I know that's not what it's supposed to mean, but perhaps in this instance they've made it a little too concise.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Not enough 4thought? Channel 4 goes for "balance" on evolution

All this week Channel 4's daily "let's have some controversial views, but not too much — in fact let's keep it down to under two minutes" slot, called 4thought.tv, has been attempting to answer the question "Is it possible to believe in God and Darwin?" An odd question — if to "believe" in something means you think it exists. I think Darwin existed. There's documentary evidence to show that Charles Darwin actually walked this Earth, and — famously — sailed the seas, as well as perambulating the tangled bank, and so forth.

That's not what Channel 4 means, I suspect, which gives us an indication how seriously or rigorously it's taking the real question, which I assume is "Is belief in God compatible with an understanding of Darwin's theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection?" As a further demonstration of their lack of commitment to rationality, on Monday Channel 4's choice of first participant to discuss this important issue was a Young Earth Creationist:

http://www.4thought.tv/4thoughts/0339-Dr-Sandr%C3%A9-Fourie-Is-it-possible-to-believe-in-God-and-Darwin-

Dr Sandré Fourie comes out with some dreadful nonsense that makes her credentials as a veterinary surgeon distinctly dubious (note the stethoscope round her neck, to add verisimilitude to her utterly unconvincing contribution — though to be fair I wouldn't be surprised if this medical adornment was at the instigation of the show's art director).

Next, on Tuesday, we have a voice of sanity with Simon Watt, an evolutionary biologist, who makes several valid and relevant points — including that the Bible story is not meant to be taken literally and is in a completely different category from what science has shown us about evolution, and that he's not irrevocably wedded to the theory of evolution. If something better comes along, he's ready to take on new scientific ideas:

http://www.4thought.tv/4thoughts/0340-Simon-Watt-Is-it-possible-to-believe-in-God-and-Darwin-

Wednesday we heard Dr. Alastair Noble, director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, telling us that if something looks designed, it must have an intelligent cause. Not that Channel 4 mentions Noble's affiliations anywhere, only that he's been involved in science education (he's actually an ex-inspector of schools) and that he thinks science should take the "theory of intelligent design" seriously. A scientific theory, however, should make specific, testable predictions, which intelligent design has so far failed to do. Noble claims that evolution (he calls it "Darwinism") is inadequate to explain the complexity seen in living things. But then he says that intelligent design is a sufficient explanation, when it clearly isn't an explanation at all. ID is a philosophical idea — there's nothing scientific about it. He mentions that the cell is very complicated, and that anywhere else such complexity is observed (he means in engineering) we infer a designer. As usual he leaves out an important component in this inference: what we actually infer when we see such engineering is a human designer — every time. Even William Paley inferred a human watchmaker. We have no other examples of design intelligence, apart from human intelligence. ID proponents make an invalid extrapolation from an inadequate sample size:

http://www.4thought.tv/4thoughts/0341-Dr-Alastair-Noble-Is-it-possible-to-believe-in-God-and-Darwin-

Thursday and we're back to real science with Alanna Maltby, who announces that she's an evolutionary biologist and an atheist. Echoing Simon Watt she mentions the elegance of Darwin's theory, and the overwhelming evidence in support of it. She also hopes that there aren't too many people who believe in six-day creation and a 6000-year-old Earth. I hope so too, but so far in this series we've had two evolutionary biologists, a Young Earth Creationist and an intelligent design proponent:

http://www.4thought.tv/4thoughts/0342-Alanna-Maltby-Is-it-possible-to-believe-in-God-and-Darwin-

On Friday Dr. Ruth Bancewicz began by saying "My Christian faith tells me who made something out of nothing. Science can't answer that question." She ought to realise that though science does not at present have an answer to that question — if indeed it's a valid one — the idea that her Christian faith does have an answer is obviously absurd. Christianity, or any other religion, just makes up an answer. There's no compelling evidence or reason supporting it, only variable interpretations of ancient texts of dubious provenance. Dr. Banciewicz goes on to tell us she has a PhD in genetics, and she thinks the word creationist has been hijacked by the young-earthers. She prefers to think of all people who believe that God set things in motion — including evolution — as creationists. I think she could  be fairly described as a theistic evolutionist, but of a particularly vague and woolly kind:

http://www.4thought.tv/4thoughts/0343-Dr-Ruth-Bancewicz-Is-it-possible-to-believe-in-God-and-Darwin-

Is it significant that of the five contributors so far, all three of those claiming that evolution is untrue, that "Darwinism" is inadequate, or that Goddidit — have "Dr." in front of their names?

There are two more "4thoughts" on this subject to come — I'm guessing we'll have one believer and one non-believer — as if such a near even split is representative of scientific opinion as a whole.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

The Insidiousness of Catholicism « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald on the death and life of Jack Kevorkian, and the religious resistance to assisted dying.

I guess that saga is now done : Pharyngula
Premise Media, responsible for Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, has folded. Good riddance.

Maryam Namazie: The Islamic Inquisition
The text of Maryam Namazie's keynote speech at the recent World Atheist Convention in Dublin.

Gay Teen Girl Abducted and Tortured at For-Profit American “Re-Education” School(s) | violet blue ® :: open source sex
This sounds like a horror film. Are these establishments actually legal in the US?

Follow-up to the above:
EXCLUSIVE Interview: Abducted Queer Teen Xandir to Appear in San Francisco Today | violet blue ® :: open source sex

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Gonzalez & Richards back-to-front in Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God

"Designed for Discovery" by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards is the nineteenth chapter of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God. It appears to be a book-promotion disguised as a litany of fine-tunerisms. Gonzalez and Richards have written a book titled The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, and if this chapter is representative of it then they've got a problem. The whole thing is upside down and backwards. Let's face it, the idea that the universe is specifically designed so that the human race can "discover" things about it is ludicrous.

Here's what's wrong with the fine-tuning argument. Suppose you invent a teleportation machine, but there are a few snags with it, such that the first time you use it, it transports you to a completely random location in the entire universe. What do you think the chances are of finding yourself in a part of the universe where you can survive for more than a few seconds? A location, for instance, where you can breathe, where you're not immediately frozen solid, fossilised or incinerated, or subjected to lethal radiation. Pretty slim, I'd suggest. In fact your chances of survival would be infinitesimal. The universe is not fine-tuned for life.

As for being "designed for discovery", Gonzalez and Richards go through a list of recipes that their "cosmic chef" would need to compile in order to produce an environment suitable for inquiring human minds to explore, but they do it as if the human race is here first — as if everything has to be adjusted to meet the needs of pre-existing humanity (or at least a humanity whose characteristics have been predetermined). That, in case they haven't noticed, is not how it happened. This is such an obvious flaw in their argument I'll belabour it no more. I'll simply quote the late, great Douglas Adams and his famous sentient puddle:
"...imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise."
(From Biota)


4truth.net:
http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbscience.aspx?pageid=8589952941

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die — BBC2, Monday 13 June, 9 pm

Click to enlarge
The cover of next week's Radio Times is in no doubt as to the most significant broadcasting event during the seven days of the listing magazine's coverage. Sir Terry Pratchett peers out from the bottom of this inelegantly designed cover, his stern visage dwarfed by ominous red-on-black typography: "5 minutes of television that will change our lives..."

On Monday 13 June at 9 pm BBC2 will broadcast a specially commissioned documentary about assisted death, and it will feature the actual final moments of someone who has chosen to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland to be assisted in dying. Inside the magazine is an extensive interview with Sir Terry, whose investigations into assisted dying are documented in the programme. It's this interview (and the BBC press release) that forms the basis of several news reports:

Terry Pratchett's BBC documentary reopens debate on assisted dying | Books | The Guardian

Millionaire hotelier Peter Smedley named as man whose assisted suicide was filmed by BBC - Telegraph

'He drinks a liquid, falls into a deep sleep and dies'... the moment a man commits suicide in front of BBC cameras | Mail Online

The Mail article has comments. As of this writing there are a few saying that an actual death is not a fit subject for TV, but none claiming that assisted dying is wrong. Most say the documentary should be shown, and that assisted dying should be legal.

After his impassioned and closely argued plea for the legalisation of assisted dying, delivered as the Richard Dimbleby Lecture last year, Sir Terry was the obvious choice to front this documentary. I look forward to watching it.


UPDATE 2011-06-14:

Choosing to Die is now available on the iPlayer for a week:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0120dxp/Terry_Pratchett_Choosing_to_Die/
The Newsnight Debate following the documentary should soon be available here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b012119k/Newsnight_Choosing_to_Die_Newsnight_Debate/

Monday, 6 June 2011

New episode of Skepticule Extra available for download

The latest edition of Skepticule Extra, featuring a discussion with Professor Paul Braterman of the British Centre for Science Education, is now available for download and delectation:

http://www.skepticule.co.uk/2011/06/skepextra-006-20110529.html

As well as creationism, the discussion ranges across intelligent design, faith-healing, creationism, debating William Lane Craig (didn't I say I was done with Craig?), intelligent design, spam, creationism, morality, intelligent design and ... creationism.

And we now have a forum, where you can come and tell us at length how much you disagree with everything we say:
http://skepticule.yuku.com/

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Writing, the True Sunday Experience | Godless Girl
People write for a variety of reasons. Here's one.

The Meming of Life » Pushing the point…or not » Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders
The book sounds interesting, I look forward to its publication. But this post is actually about the incompatibility of science and religion:
Also problematic is the idea of the soul. If other animals are without this lovely thing, God must have chosen a moment in evolutionary history when we were “human enough” to merit souls. Since evolution is an achingly incremental process, there was no single moment when we crossed a line from “prehuman” into “human.” And even if there was, we’re left with the odd prospect of a generation of children who are ensouled but whose parents are not, or some similarly strange scenario. I’d be very happy to hear an argument for ensoulment (of the species, not the individual) that makes more sense, but have not yet.
I'd be happy to hear an argument for ensoulment at all, but I don't expect anything remotely convincing.

The Meming of Life » What, me worry? End Times Edition » Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders
Another from Dale McGowan — this time he's talking to his kids about end-of-the-world predictions, and his post includes this wonderfully graphic line:
"The malformed chicken that is the human brain is in a state of perpetual defecation...."
(Hyperbolic metaphors aside, McGowan is a brilliant writer. I'm tempted to buy his book even though I'm not a parent.)

Atheism Is the True Embrace of Reality | The Hibernia Times
Why atheism? Paula Kirby relates her journey of faith.

REFLECTIONS ON SCIENCE, MORALITY & THE MORAL MAZE « Pandaemonium
Kenan Malik gives his thoughts (and regrets) on last week's Moral Maze discussion — in which he participated.

Kids who spot bullshit, and the adults who get upset about it – Bad Science
It's hard to believe that "Brain Gym" is still in use in British schools.

Prescient words « Why Evolution Is True
Theology may be old, but so, apparently, is disrespect for it.

Muslim creationists, same as the old creationists : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers encountered some Muslims at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin. He relays their arguments, finding them unsurprisingly familiar.

Is there enough room in the Big Society for the non-religious?
That depends how big it is, I suppose. "Big Society" is an appallingly bad name. It connotes size, which is irrelevant to what David Cameron says he wants it to achieve. It's one of those phrases thought up by PR consultants who think it would sound good in speeches and look good on ads, but it means precisely nothing. (Or it can mean anything, which at the other end of the scale is equally useless.)

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Rev. Canon Dr. Giles Fraser, Sniper-in-Chief

Giles Fraser
Is Giles Fraser attending the World Atheist Convention in Dublin this weekend? I don't know what he was expecting, but he seems to have been surprised by one of the speakers, Richard Green of Atheism UK (whom I was pleased to meet at the most recent Winchester Skeptics in the Pub). Anyway, Fraser has written up his reaction in the Guardian.
What is distinctive about Atheism UK, Green insists, is that it's an atheist organisation for all atheists, including those not committed to humanism. "We cater for atheists who are not humanists," he says.
A laudable goal, I would have thought. I'm all for inclusion. But Fraser manages to look down his nose at it.
These days, atheists who are not humanists are an unfamiliar breed. Most atheists, and in particular the new atheists, regard themselves as committed humanists. Indeed, they are new in name only for they appeal back to the atheistic humanism of the Enlightenment, with its optimism about human nature and strong belief in the power of human reason and the inevitability of progress.
It's no good castigating the "new" atheists for not being new — this soubriquet was coined not by the likes of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett, but by their detractors (such as, dare I suggest, the Rev. Canon Dr. Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral).
The sunny optimism of the Enlightenment – not least its commitment to progress and a sense of the intrinsic goodness of human nature – was profoundly dented by the horrors of the first world war and the Nazi death camps.
Three paragraphs in, and we're on to the Nazis. Well done Giles!
The Enlightenment hadn't found another word for sin.
Why on earth would it need to?
And just as Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, a developing anti-humanism started to announce what, in less gender-conscious times, Foucault was to call "the death of man". Indeed, Nietzsche himself insisted the belief in humanity was itself just a hangover from a belief in God and, once God was eradicated, the belief in human beings would follow the same way.
It may come as a surprise to Fraser, but Nietzsche is not the atheist God — because, well, you know, it's in the description: "atheist". Nor do atheists, or even humanists, need a belief in human beings. Speaking about belief in this way is simply a misuse of the term, much like bemoaning atheistic denial of "sin".
Richard Green's "atheists who are not humanists" could meet in a phone box. Indeed, the new atheists simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism, believing their expensive scientific toys can outflank the alleged conceptual weakness of their humanism.
Aside from the pejorative sniping it doesn't surprise me that Fraser makes a specific quantitative claim without backing it up. And who says that "atheists who are not humanists" are in favour of anti-humanism (whatever that is)? As for expensive scientific toys outflanking the alleged conceptual weakness of their humanism — what does that even mean?
Thus they dismiss the significance of philosophy just as much as they have always done of theology – as if the two were fundamentally in cahoots.
I see little evidence of atheists or humanists dismissing the whole of philosophy (A. C. GraylingDaniel C. Dennett, Stephen Law — to mention just three atheist philosophers off the top of my head). As for theology, Giles you can keep it. I've no use for your kind of theology, especially as you seem to believe it doesn't even have to be true.


Eric MacDonald has read Fraser's peanut and dismembers it with a sledgehammer.

Friday, 3 June 2011

A Moral Maze — of science and morality (BBC Radio 4)

On Wednesday BBC Radio 4 concluded the present series of the Moral Maze, its weekly live panel discussion on topical issues of morality. Unlike most other radio discussion panels, the Moral Maze adopts a cross-examination format, calling witnesses one by one to be quizzed by the regulars. As it's a live show, things can sometimes get a bit heated. (This also depends on which of the regulars are on the show in any given week, and who is chairing the panel — David Aaronovitch has temporarily replaced Michael Buerk for the latter part of this series. Melanie Phillips' more incendiary views often spark fireworks, though she wasn't on this week.)

The topic on Wednesday was science and morality, and two of the witnesses were Giles Fraser and Jerry Coyne. Fraser doesn't seem to have learned from his encounter with Sam Harris (but Fraser's views appear remarkably ill-defined at the best of times, especially on Thought for the Day). He impaled himself categorically on one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma by stating that God's morality is not intrinsic to God but external to him (which surely makes him less of a god). But theology has never been Fraser's strong point.

Jerry Coyne dealt patiently with his interrogators' questions, but clearly could have used more time to develop his responses. In some ways he was an untypical choice for this topic (maybe they couldn't get Sam Harris), but nevertheless he did well.

The audio can be streamed from the Moral Maze website or direct from iPlayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b011jv8m
Check out Jerry Coyne's two posts on his blog Why Evolution is True:
http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/i-iz-on-moral-maze-today/
http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/moral-maze-podcast/
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