Monday 31 August 2009

AfF #5: Transcendental Argument

(Click here for Arguments for Fred #4)

If absolute physical, logical and moral laws exist, they must by definition be independent of human minds, and of the universe itself. They must, therefore transcend human minds and the physical universe. The only transcendent entity these laws can therefore originate from is God. So if absolute laws exist, God exists.

This argument comes under the heading of "false dichotomy" or "excluded middle". The implication is that these laws are either absolute (transcendent) or contingent on the universe (and by extension on human minds). But there's a third option. These laws could be neither contingent on human minds, nor absolute, but instead be conceptual. That is, they originate in human minds, either as invention or observation, but are not of human minds.

But what about physical laws – aren't those absolute? No, they are merely the best approximation, the most accurate description, of the physical universe we have to date. Newton's laws accurately describe the motion of physical objects – up to a point. Beyond that point (for example at great distances, or velocities approaching that of light) Einstein's laws take over. Similarly at very small distances (sub-atomic, for example) the laws of quantum mechanics kick in.

Turning the transcendental argument back on itself: if absolute physical, logical and moral laws don't exist, neither need God.

(I have discussed the transcendental argument before.)

UPDATE 2009-09-05: Click here for AfF #6

Burnee links for (bank holiday) Monday

Ouch! Hot!Skepticblog » Homo religious

San Francisco News - The Demystifying Adventures of the Amazing Randi

Why Engage in Religious Debates? | Conversational Atheist

the quackometer: The Society of Homeopaths are a Shambles and a Bad Joke

Perry Bulwer’s Story | AnAtheist.Net

Review of Why There Almost Certainly is a God, Part One : EvolutionBlog

How Religion May Affect Your Medical Care | Center for Inquiry

NeuroLogica Blog » A Few Questions on Evolution

Jaycee Dugard's Abduction Case Highlights Failure of Psychics | LiveScience

Bishop of Rochester: Church of England must do more to counter twin threats of secularism and radical Islam - Telegraph

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: The Grand Opening up of the Solar System

Skepticblog » Everybody’s an Expert

The Meming of Life » Fear and Loathing in Chicago

Inside the twisted minds of politicians : The Uncredible Hallq

Damaris Culture Watch : Talking about . . . Darwin
Tony Watkins' overview of Darwin's legacy seems entirely reasonable, except for his final paragraph:
Atheist followers of Darwin believe that his ideas destroy the uniqueness of human beings, and that the meaning of life becomes merely passing on our DNA. Yet we instinctively feel that life is more than this. But where do meaning and purpose come from? Why, like Darwin, do we seek truth, rejoice in beauty and love deeply? The answer to these questions is the one that Darwin gave up on because of his grief. Only the existence of God allows for objective morality. Only God gives human life real meaning. Only God can make sense of suffering; without him it is utterly meaningless. And only God can account for the very existence of life.
"Destroy the uniqueness of human beings" is a loaded phrase - I'd put it more simply that Darwin's ideas showed that an interventionist deity is not necessary to explain the development of life. "The meaning of life becomes merely passing on our DNA" - this is a fundamental misunderstanding; it implies that there is a purpose to life, external to living beings, for which there is not a shred of compelling evidence. The passing-on of our DNA is simply the result of the evolutionary mechanism. It explains how we came to be here, but it says nothing at all about "meaning". The remainder of the paragraph is unfortunately mired in unjustified assumption.

Saturday 29 August 2009

AfF #4 Ontological Argument

(Click here for Arguments for Fred #3)

The most perfect being imaginable is an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, all-present super-being who for the sake of argument we shall call God. Obviously (the argument goes) such a being who actually existed would be more perfect than one we simply imagine, but if he doesn't exist, then in fact we can imagine a being more perfect than the one we previously imagined. That is, if we can imagine a god that exists, it must be more perfect than the "most perfect" one we imagined at the outset, which is a contradiction. So therefore God exists (in order not to have this contradiction). Unfortunately for this argument, it fails to recognise that each of the gods, of varying degrees of perfection, are all being imagined, so even if we imagine a god that exists in reality, it is still only existing in our minds.

See Skeptico's recent blog post and the subsequent comments for further discussion of this aspect of the ontological argument. It pretty much comes down to semantic logic-chopping. James Tracy also has a good summary at AnAtheist.Net. For a more formal description of the ontological argument, try Wikipedia.

Personally I've always found the ontological argument for the existence of God to be the least convincing. I thought the reason for this might be that I didn't understand it, but I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't make sense anyway. Try this variation (thanks to Dan Barker): the most perfect void imaginable is one where nothing, absolutely nothing at all, exists. Obviously, if the existence of the perfect void were actually true, and nothing at all existed, then the actual perfect void would be more perfect than the one that is simply imagined. But this is a contradiction, only resolvable by the actual existence of the perfect void, where nothing at all exists. (Where did everybody go? Why can't I see anything?)

UPDATE 2009-08-31: Click here for AfF #5

The Atheist and the Bishop - BBC Radio 4

The atheist is A. C. Grayling; the bishop is Richard Harries. This is the second of three 45-minute radio programmes "in which an atheist and a bishop come together to apply their own philosophies to the experiences of people they meet, with Jane Little chairing the discussion."

The highlight is a visit to a London Academy faith school to talk with three of the students - a Muslim, an atheist and a Roman Catholic - and A. C. Grayling asks the Muslim what will happen to the atheist when she dies. They also speak to Samantha Stein, director of Camp Quest UK.

For UK listeners the audio can be streamed for a few days from the BBC iPlayer:

For those beyond the reach of iPlayer (or after the stream expires) a 40 Mb mp3 of the programme is available from RapidShare:

The Camp Quest segment is also featured at their website:

UPDATE: As is my wont with such stuff, a couple of days before posting I emailed this to, and it's now in their newsfeed:,4237,n,n

Tuesday 25 August 2009

AfF #3: Teleological Argument

(Click here for Arguments for Fred #2)

"Teleology" is the study of purpose. In its basic form the teleological argument (the "argument from design") goes thus: with its complex physical laws and underlying structure the universe looks as if it was designed. If it was designed, there must be a purpose behind the design, and therefore there must have been a designer who had an intention - a purpose - when he, she or it designed the universe.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Just because the universe looks designed doesn't necessarily mean it was designed by a designer. Charles Darwin showed how the so-called design of life is explained by natural processes. But what about DNA, the digital genetic code that we now know lies at the heart of living cells, orchestrating these natural processes? That code must have come from somewhere. Computer code (whether down-and-dirty machine code, or its more abstract source-code variant) is produced by software developers. But just because computer code is written by computer programmers, we cannot legitimately infer that this is the only process that can produce complex information, digital or otherwise. Look at the Mandelbrot set, for example, which appears to be infinitely complex, yet is generated by a very simple equation.

In logical terms the problem with the design argument is that all conclusive evidence of design we have so far come across is evidence of design by humans. We have no conclusive evidence of design by any other entities, so we cannot extrapolate from what is essentially a sample of one. If the only example of design - where we know beyond doubt who the designer was - is design that we must classify as "human design", we are unable to say which characteristics of human design must necessarily apply to all examples of design.

Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents don't make this distinction; they simply say that if something looks designed, it must have been designed. This is a blinkered, parochial view that owes more to fear of the unknown than to logical consistency.

We don't know where DNA originally came from. We don't know a lot of things, but scientists are working on them, and will continue to do so while there remain things that we don't know. That's what science is about. If science knew everything, there would be no point to scientific inquiry. To quote the late, great Carl Sagan: "Really, it's okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in."

UPDATE 2009-08-29: Click here for AfF #4

Friday 21 August 2009

AfF #2: Cosmological Argument

(Click here for Arguments for Fred #1)

The Cosmological Argument
  1. Everything that begins to exists has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore the universe had a cause.
Naturally that cause is God; equally naturally the argument doesn't apply to God, because being eternal he didn't "begin" to exist, so he doesn't need to have been caused.

Unfortunately for this argument it fails at the first premise. The set (universe) containing all things (everything in the universe) cannot also contain itself - that's to say, the universe can't contain itself, in some infinite regression of ever larger Russian dolls. Everything, in the context of the premise, means everything in the universe, because everything in the universe has a cause. But everything includes the universe itself. It's just as easy to say the universe doesn't need to have been caused, as it is to say that God doesn't need to have been caused; which of the two statements is simpler? If ever there was a perfect application for Occam's razor, this is it.

There's another problem in the cosmological argument relating to the concept of causation. With the Big Bang, the universe came into existence simultaneously with time and space. At the instant of the Big Bang, time and space did not exist. If time did not exist, causality has no meaning. Causality depends on the existence of time, because cause and effect cannot be simultaneous. Where there's no time, there's no cause.

UPDATE 2009-08-25: Click here for AfF #3

Thursday 20 August 2009

Posthumous pardon for Alan Turing?

As Richard Dawkins indicates towards the end of this Channel 4 News clip, a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing would declare that we now live in more enlightened times.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Arguments for Fred* #1: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Kicking off a new series of posts today, inspired by recent discussions at Skeptico, I bring you the first of several ramblings on the arguments I've come across for the existence of God. This one is more of an oblique question than a direct argument: why is there something rather than nothing? The implication is that for there to be something (that is, for the universe to exist, rather than not to exist) there needs to be a prime mover - a cause. And that cause has to be God.

Just Googling the question will reap a rich harvest of links to extensive discussions on the subject, but the main thrust of most of the refutations of this argument appears to be that the state of "there being something" is more stable than the state of "there being nothing". In other words, there has to be something. But I'd like to offer a simpler, more direct refutation. Instead of asking the question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" perform this little experiment:

Flip a coin. It comes up heads (or tails). Why did it come up heads (or tails) rather than tails (or heads)?

The answer to the question posed by the above experiment is also the answer to why there is something rather than nothing.

*Fred is A. C. Grayling's term for "any suppositious supernatural agency defined ad hoc for some purpose religionists have in mind."

UPDATE 2009-08-21: Click here for AfF #2

Saturday 15 August 2009

Burnee links for Saturday

Burnee!Catholic Control in Irish Primary Schools (part 1) « _Paddy K_

Why dowsing makes perfect sense - opinion - 29 July 2009 - New Scientist

Skepticblog » Podcast People

The Day 285 Atheists/Agnostics Visited the Creation Museum | Around the World with AiG’s Ken Ham

The wantonly amoral, theologically correct worldview of George Sodini | Factonista

Organic food is just a tax on the gullible | Dominic Lawson - Times Online

BBC NEWS | Programmes | Newsnight | What have the noughties done for God?

Mooney and Kirshenbaum self-destruct at last « Why Evolution Is True:
The “new atheists” are against religion because it is inimical to rational thought.
Accommodationism be damned. This is the problem, and we should not shy away from saying so.

Reports of the SSA's visit to Kentucky's Creation Museum are rolling in. Jen ("Blag Hag") gives us a particularly detailed account:
Blag Hag: Creation Museum Part 1
...finishing off her final (9th) instalment with this great quote: "The Creation Museum was literally mind numbingly stupid: it took nearly two hours of philosophical and scientific discussion in the car ride to Columbus until I could form grammatically correct sentences again."

BHA reasserts support for Simon Singh's appeal against libel case

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients - DC's Improbable Science
Alternative medicine advocates "seem to believe that medicine and science are part of an enormous conspiracy to kill everyone."

Saturday 8 August 2009

Objective substantiation

I'm happy, time permitting, to listen to any point of view. I accept that many people have deeply held beliefs, upon which they base their way of life and their moral choices. I may even agree with some of those moral choices.

But if anyone wants to persuade me that a particular moral choice is most appropriate in a given situation, I expect a reasoned argument, based on premises capable of objective substantiation. I'm unlikely to be swayed by appeals to doctrine, scripture, authority or dogma.

Emotional appeals sometimes work with me - I'm a creature of habit and moods, susceptible to "going with the flow" or "doing what feels right", though I hope in those cases I'm aware that I'm letting emotion take precedence over reason. I would not, however, expect a choice based on emotions alone to be sufficiently persuasive for anyone else to agree with me, other than on whim.

Likewise, if anyone else tries to use an emotional appeal to persuade me of the rightness of their position, they need to be aware that my acceptance - or otherwise - of it will also be on whim, and unless the appeal is backed up with verifiable evidence, my whim wins every time.

If you want to make serious headway with a critical thinker, start with something capable of objective substantiation.

Monday 3 August 2009

There's probably no God, so learn to dance like a zombie

As part of Antony Gormley's living art "One & Other" on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, lots of people are getting their chance to become a piece of artwork for 60 minutes. One such is Andrew West, a "plinther" who used his hour on Sunday afternoon to teach onlookers the dance moves to Michael Jackson's "Thriller", while displaying the BHA's atheist bus advertisement. If you watch the video (click on the image above) you'll see that Ariane Sherine, creator of the Atheist Bus Campaign, is amongst those on the ground learning the dance.

Seems like a good time was had by all. You can see what's going on right now by watching the live feed.

Indoctrination, moi? - secular alternatives need more publicity

In much of the mainstream media coverage of Camp Quest UK one can detect barely concealed false puzzlement, if not actual contempt, expressed with the merest hint of a sneer: "Why on earth would you want to send your kids to an atheist summer camp?" - as if the very idea of a summer camp with some kind of agenda is totally new and distinctly weird.

This knee-jerk reaction is symptomatic of the blind-spot in media treatment of religious issues - like the water in which fish swim, religion is everywhere, so people don't perceive it as anything special (when in fact much of religion is profoundly disturbing). As for summer camps, Christians wouldn't dream of setting up anything remotely similar, expressly to inculcate children with religious beliefs, would they?

We know, of course, that this is exactly what they do. Case in point, click the link below to hear a four-minute audio clip from this morning's Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, about Christian Skaters:

Such blatant indoctrination is endemic in the US. As a further example I commend to you the documentary film Jesus Camp, though it's advisable not to have any heavy objects within reach - unless you were already planning to buy a new TV.

Camp Quest UK has received plenty of media coverage, thanks to Samantha Stein (camp director) and Crispian Jago (whose children attended the camp this year), and despite media hostility the public support - as indicated by the majority of comments on one particularly egregious online article - seems to be favourable. All such efforts to provide secular and freethought alternatives - devoid of the taint of religious faith - need to be publicised to the maximum extent, simply to let people know that alternatives exist, and that their choices, contrary to what they might have believed, are not limited only to faith-based options.

If the BBC's flash player misbehaves, a 4'11" 1 Mb mp3 can be downloaded from RapidShare:

Sunday 2 August 2009

Review: Godless, by Dan Barker

Dan Barker's Godless is part autobiography and part atheist polemic. It charts his gradual transition from fundamentalist evangelical Christian minister to co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Barker's style is relaxed and honest, presenting what appears to be a realistic picture of what it was like to be a bible-literalist who sincerely believed that anyone unsaved is destined for eternal damnation in a lake of fire.

Some of us without faith wonder how such belief is possible. In Godless Dan Barker explains how one such believer – himself – came to doubt, and eventually to lose his faith. He tells us how he was initially ostracised by his family, and how the members of his religious community refused to believe his unbelief, convinced that he would soon return to the fold. He tells how those of faith who eventually accepted that he could not in all honesty continue to believe, maintained that he surely could not have been a "true Christian" because no true Christians would ever renounce their faith the way he did.

Being an evangelical Christian – who made it his business to preach the gospel to anyone who would listen – has inevitably led Barker to be something of an evangelical atheist, and he has found his natural niche in the FFRF. And so we have the other half of Godless, devoted to countering the arguments of Christian apologists. Barker has most of those arguments and counter-arguments at his fingertips (and where he didn't, he took advice from experts, be they physicists or philosophers). He's good on the cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments, but less so on the matter of God's omniscience, where his refutations struck me as lightweight (but the omni-whatever arguments are pretty lightweight in themselves, if not actually nonsensical, so I'll happily cut him some slack there).

Where he excels is in Bible study. Here is a man who knows the Bible back to front, upside down and sideways, in its various translations and in its original Greek and Hebrew. I've often heard criticisms of the Bible's more dubious and unsavoury passages dismissed by apologists as errors in translation and interpretation. Barker slaughters these arguments with thorough textual analysis and scholarship, quoting chapter and verse at length.

Godless is an easy read, despite the depth that Barker necessarily has to plummet plumb* in exploration of his subject. He maintains a light literary style by keeping it personal, with plenty of amusing and enlightening anecdotes together with understated wry comedy. Anyone who has heard him on Freethought Radio (the weekly radio show and podcast he presents with his wife and FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor) will gain extra insight into the mind of someone who has thought long and hard about his subject – and then radically reversed his outlook.

Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists BARKER, Dan; 2008 Ulysses Press, Berkeley, CA; Paperback 392pp ISBN13: 978-1-56975-677-5

(*Minor edit 2009-08-09 for inadvertent malapropism.)