Monday 31 May 2010

Is atheism irrational? Heresy — BBC Radio 4

From the Radio Times: "Challenging the received wisdom that atheism is a more rational position than faith.... Helping Victoria Coren commit heresy are comedians Marcus Brigstocke and Natalie Haynes, and Church of England priest the Rev Richard Coles."

Audio of the half hour comedy panel discussion "Heresy" is available from the BBC iPlayer for another couple of days:

( after which, get it from here: )

An mp3 of the relevant ten-minute clip is available here:

I'm going to TAM London

TAM London 2010 is to be held at the Hilton London Metropole on 16th & 17th October. Online booking opened at 12:00 on Saturday, and unlike last year it appears that tickets are still available some 48 hours later (last year it sold out in an hour).

Sure, it's expensive (though not quite as expensive as we had been led to believe), but to date it's the only large-scale sceptical gathering held in the UK. For some people the cost of travel and accommodation will be more of an issue than the ticket price, but this year I've secured a room for three nights at a total cost only marginally more than the Metropole's rate for a single night. For this reason I didn't wait for the TAM London Metropole discount to be announced.

Last year's TAM London was an incredible event, but this year's looks likely to surpass it, judging by the great line-up of speakers:

I aim to be in London for four days, from Friday 15th to Monday 18th October, though that may change depending on what fringe events are available. Listen out for some TAM London themed Skepticule episodes soon...

Sunday 30 May 2010

Burnee links for Sunday

A few links for the bank holiday weekend...

First round of ill-informed objections to the first synthetic bacterium : Pharyngula
PZ attempts to pre-empt the naysayers.

Skeptobot: A skeptical look at TAM:London
Is TAM London 2010 too expensive?

The Meming of Life » No cats were harmed (Greatest Hits) Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders
Here's a curious post.

Theology – truly a naked emperor | Terry Sanderson | Comment is free |
I do wonder if theologians ever communicate their theology to anyone who isn't also a theologian....

ABC The Drum Unleashed - Why morality doesn't need God
This needs to be said again and again, then it might get through. Maybe.

Recursivity: No Ghost in the Machine
Jeffrey Shallit on lack of intentional agency, and why some people find the concept so hard to grasp.

Monday 24 May 2010

Subjective thoughts on the matter* of consciousness

Much of philosophy and theological or religious discussion seems to revolve around the idea of dualism — the mind/body problem. It's a debate that may shed some light on the true nature of consciousness.

I have an experience of my own self that it is something apart from my body, something separate, distinct from my flesh, bones and blood. It's more than likely, I feel, that my "self" is a psychological construct that my brain has created in order to process information in a way that it can perceive as a whole.

Where am I, in my body? Although I sense that I'm in my head, somewhere behind my eyes, I am also in my fingertips as they type on this keyboard. It seems that my brain has created an entire conceptual model of my essence — of "me" — that is at once the sum of all my parts, yet more. I have a concept of who and what I am, which is this entity — this identity — that I call "me", yet this is probably no more than the aggregation of a complex series of perceptual messages that are constantly being processed in my brain.

Back to the example of the keyboard: when I type, I move my fingers in a certain way to achieve the words that appear on screen. But do I, really, move my fingers? What I am in fact doing is flexing the muscles clustered around my wrists, and those muscles, being attached to the bones of my fingers (some distance away, anatomically speaking) cause my fingers to move. But am I doing even that? What causes the muscles around my wrists to flex? What I'm actually doing is sending nerve impulses from my brain to the nerves connected to those muscles.

So how far back must I go to find out where I actually reside in my body?

The answer, I suspect, is that the further back one goes, the more conceptual and abstract the process becomes. The "mental model" of the body that the brain creates — in order to operate the body — is probably just a complex synaptic relationship in some unspecific, diffuse area of the brain. This model is what gives us our sense of identity, of conscious self, when in fact there's nothing there.

No "me", no self, no soul.

I, myself, am an illusion.

*Irony, ha!

Saturday 22 May 2010

Peter Hitchens and Adam Rutherford on Premier's "Unbelievable?"

Last week's Unbelievable? was a discussion hosted by Justin Brierley between Peter Hitchens and Adam Rutherford. It provoked me to respond, but I didn't want to do so hastily, and therefore resolved to listen to the broadcast again. Meanwhile MSP started a thread in the Premier Community Forum, so I posted my comment there, as follows:
I didn't know what to expect of this discussion, but I was keen to hear Adam Rutherford's views as his TV series last year on The Cell was very impressive, featuring J. Craig Venter, who was in the news today. (What Peter Hitchens will make of the news that scientists have created artificial organic life — if indeed they have — is anybody's guess.)

So, the discussion.

Peter Hitchens stated that Christians do not claim that there's no morality without Christianity. This may be true, but I've lost count of the number of times I've heard a Christian tell me that as an atheist I have no means of distinguishing good from evil. Lo and behold, Peter Hitchens then immediately repeated this baseless canard. In response Adam Rutherford instantly nailed the crude fallacy, but unfortunately without effect, for Peter Hitchens' infatuation with his faith appeared impervious to logic.

On the question of secularism, which Peter Hitchens vehemently decried, Adam Rutherford was careful to distinguish this from atheism, pointing out that secularism doesn't deny faith, it only claims that faith should play no part in government. Justin interjected that Peter Hitchens' view is probably that UK society has been founded on a very intimate relationship with the Christian faith. But that's not to say such an intimate relationship is necessarily a good thing. This is perilously close to the argument from tradition.

Peter Hitchens contended that Britain is a country founded on Christianity, and that its laws are based on Christian morality. He claimed that the source of authority for our government is, therefore, Christianity. Too bad his search for the source of morality stops with his faith. I would ask the question: "If morality in Britain is based on Christianity, what is Christian morality based on?" The answer, of course, is that Christianity bases its morality on the shared values built into humanity as a result of evolution. The morality of Christianity was not handed down from on high, whatever may be written in scripture to the contrary. It was based on what people already knew about moral behaviour. Unfortunately those notorious stone tablets introduced some weird pronouncements that continue to skew the moral sense of a significant proportion of the world's population today.

In response to Adam Rutherford's request for the exact identity of Christian moral authority, Peter Hitchens seemed unable to define "Christianity" in any manner that could be used as such an authority. It appeared that he aspires to an authoritarian state but is unable to tell us who or what — in practical, political terms — that authority might be. At this point the discussion veered off into other areas, probably as a result of Peter Hitchens' astonishing assertion that homosexuality is a marginal non-issue. "It's not if you're gay," was Adam Rutherford's understandable response.

Peter Hitchens next condemned divorce, on the basis (amongst others) that it left children without the backing of a stable family — presumably contending that a couple whose marriage has irretrievably broken down (with all the relationship problems such a breakdown would likely entail) can provide a better, more stable "family" than that provided by a single parent who has escaped from a bad marriage. This, of course, is just an example, but it illustrates the danger of generalised condemnation such as Peter Hitchens employed here.

Then came abortion, with Peter Hitchens claiming that killing babies was indefensible in all cases. Adam Rutherford attempted to ascertain if there were any circumstances in which abortion would be an acceptable alternative to adoption, such as a case where the mother's life was endangered by the pregnancy. Peter Hitchens asked for an example of such an instance (implying that he knew of none), and there's been one in the news this very week.

Adam Rutherford next tried to pin him down on what criteria he would use to determine whether or not a collection of cells could be described as a human being, and in response to a question from Justin he explained that science has no hard and fast rule stating at what point a fertilised egg becomes a "person". Peter Hitchens objected to the term "foetus" — claiming (in a spectacular invocation of Godwin's Law) that this was a classic dehumanising tactic. Didn't he realise he was doing the exact obverse in describing a fertilised egg as a "human person"? (In the light of UKIP's response to science questions put to political parties in the run-up to the recent election, it has been suggested that we should now refer to our breakfast eggs as "very small chickens".)

Until this point in the discussion Peter Hitchens appeared to be a fairly rational person who could reasonably support his strong views, but the few seconds of this particular exchange revealed him in his true colours as a Christian fundamentalist in favour of abstinence-only sex education (that is, no sex education at all): "I don't think it's the business of schools to teach people how to put condoms on hockey sticks and bananas." His subsequent rant clearly showed how his views on contraception are exactly aligned with those of Pope Benedict XVI. Thankfully Justin called a break.
The podcast of Unbelievable? is available in iTunes, or you can download the mp3 file directly:
To read responses to my comment above, as well as the rest of the thread, go to the Premier Community Forum.

Monday 10 May 2010

PEN World Voices Festival: Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie

Here we have an assessment of the state of free speech in the world today. Christopher Hitchens delivers the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival, and talks with Salman Rushdie. The latter, speaking of the fatwa calling for his assassination, has this to say:
"I would just like to point out, with regard to me and the Ayatollah Khomeini, one of us is dead.
"Do not mess with novelists."

Hitchens is his usual forthright self, holding resolutely to the primacy of free speech. More power to him.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Shelly Kagan debates "Morality without God?" — and William Lane Craig meets his match

This is a year old, so I'm surprised not to have come across it before. Shelly Kagan debates William Lane Craig on the question: "Is God necessary for morality?" The answer, apparently, is "No."

Is God Necessary for Morality? from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

An object lesson in debating the question of morality with a theist.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Burnee links for Saturday

I've neglected the links, so here's an update of sorts:

Jack of Kent: The Catholic Church And The Criminal Law
If and when Pope Benny visits Britain (or, for that matter, anywhere outside the Vatican), he'll have some explaining to do.

The pope is not above the law. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine
I don't know who is advising the Vatican in the matter of paedophilia, or whether the advice, if any, is being acted upon. What I do know is that the papacy appears about to self-destruct. (Appearances, however, can be deceptive.)

Malaysian Custody Dispute Lost Between Courts -
There's an assumption in this article that is barely mentioned, let alone questioned. The religious "conversion" of a child is in no way equivalent to the religious conversion of an adult. Especially, as seems here, if the child doesn't know it's happened.

Richard Carrier Blogs: Defining the Supernatural
Lengthy examination of the differences between materialism, naturalism, supernaturalism and scientific testability. Carrier appears to agree with Dawkins that the existence of God is indeed a scientific question.
(Via Martin's comment on manicstreetpreacher.)

Michael Ruse: The Catholic Church: Why Richard Dawkins Was Right and I Was Wrong
The Catholic Church is doomed! Doomed I say! Pope Benny is losing respect everywhere — a fact of which he seems oblivious.

We can't let the Roman Catholic Church judge its own cases. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine
If Pope Benny thinks he can brazen out this whole sordid (and long-standing) affair, and still visit Britain in September, he might have another think coming.

The pope should stand trial | Richard Dawkins | Comment is free |
If proof were ever needed that morality doesn't come from God....

Heaven: A fool's paradise - Faith, Opinion - The Independent
Heaven's just a sin away (of course, you have to believe in sin). Johann Hari questions the basis for this enduring modern delusion.

Catholic priorities : Pharyngula
PZ Myers despairs of his local Archbishop, who has written a piece decrying gay marriage, claiming (as Catholics do) that marriage can only be between one man and one woman. PZ is not having it:
Two men, two women, a man and a woman, a cooperative commune of many men and women…they can all serve that public purpose. Oh, and in all those cases, who is having sex with whom is pretty much irrelevant to the children, since these typically are not Catholic Sunday schools, so the children won't be participating in the sex.
Judge rejects ‘irrational’ idea that Christianity deserves special protection from law - Times Online
Lord Justice Laws' ruling is a breath of fresh air.