Saturday 31 July 2010

Presuppositional gymnastics

The following is a reaction to an email exchange between Paul Baird and Sye Ten Bruggencate, posted on the Unbelievable? discussion group prior to today's Unbelievable? programme in which they took part. I've now listened to the show and have only this to add: I came across Sye's website 18 months ago — I thought the argument presented was bogus then, and I think it's bogus now.
The presuppositional argument seems to be predicated at its root on one basic premise — that absolute laws of logic exist. This does indeed sound as if it's true. Without logic we can't know anything is true. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" would not stand up without logic. But to say that the laws of logic are "absolute" may be misunderstanding the nature of reasoning. To get an inkling of why this might be, consider how the universe would look if there were no such thing as logic. If we couldn't rely on logic to enable us to understand the world, what would the world look like to us? Would it look like anything at all? Isn't even our very existence as conscious entities completely impossible without the existence of logic? In this sense, the existence of logic may in fact be "properly basic" — and consequently we have no need to search for its origin (because, being properly basic, it doesn't have one).

Unfortunately for those unbelievers who engage in discussion with apologists of the presuppositional variety (as well as with those who simply borrow from presuppositional apologetics), any reasoned argument — it can be about anything at all — tends to be met with the rejoinder that the unbeliever surely has no way of knowing how anything is true, because he or she has no absolute logical standard on which to base their "reasoned" arguments. This is extremely tiresome, as it's a debate-stopper. You can't argue with someone who denies that you have any basis for using reasoned argument. Of course, while the unbeliever has no basis for logic, this doesn't however apply to the the apologist, who claims that absolute laws of logic come from God. This claim, like many put forward by apologists, isn't backed up by evidence — it is simply asserted.

Christian apologists in particular may claim that their absolute moral or logical authority is revealed in the Bible, but to do this they have to use the circular argument that the Bible is true because it says it is true (in the Bible). Challenge an apologist on this and they will reply that it's perfectly acceptable to use the Bible as its own authority, because the unbeliever is using logic to verify that logic and reason work, which, the apologists claim, is also circular.

Using logic and reason to verify the truth of logic and reason is not circular, however, if logic and reason are properly basic.

Some apologists of the presuppositional persuasion do seem prone to moralizing from on-high. Maybe this has something to do with their preoccupation with absolutes. In many discussions you are quite likely to see such apologists passing high-handed remarks about the unbeliever's eternal soul, about how the apologist will nonetheless offer up crocodile prayers in the apparently earnest wish that the unbeliever finds God and relents of his or her wicked ways. And if that fails to impress (as it surely does), there will likely be more crocodile regrets that the unbeliever is destined for Hell. All this extraneous nonsense is irrelevant to the debate, and acts as an annoying and alienating smokescreen.

Tiresome is what I called it above, and if I see it in an online discussion or debate it will discourage me from contributing, because I know that the presuppositional mindset is pretty much impregnable — as it is meant to be. Presuppositional apologetics is a field that appears explicitly designed to defend faith from rationality by attempting to undermine the basis for rationality itself.

Here's a (fictitious but typical) example of an effort to undermine rational argument:
Apologist: "Do absolute morals exist?"

Unbeliever: "No."

Apologist: "Are you absolutely sure of that, or is it merely your opinion?"
Disregarding the obvious false dichotomy of that last question, you can see where this is going. If the unbeliever replies that he or she is not absolutely sure that absolute morality doesn't exist, the apologist can continue to claim that it does. If however the unbeliever claims to be absolutely sure that absolute morality does not exist, the apologist will go on to enquire where the unbeliever's absolute knowledge comes from. Swap out morality for logic (or science, or truth), rinse and repeat, and the argument will stall before ever advancing to the field of human instinct, shared values, social cohesion, evolution, kin selection or any other discipline that seeks to explore the modern basis of ethical behaviour.

But the laws of logic are not absolute — in the sense of being separate from the universe. It seems likely to me that "logic" is an emergent property of matter and energy. If the universe didn't exist, neither would the "laws" of logic. That the universe is susceptible to rational analysis doesn't have to be proved; logic isn't contingent, it isn't based on anything.

Logic is properly basic. It just is.

Sunday 18 July 2010

WuduMate: a symbol of what's to come?

An innocuous little brochure came to my attention at work a few weeks ago. It details a range of fittings that can be installed in toilet accommodation accessible by members of the public. Ritual washing can apparently present problems to the devout who need to perform their rite at particular times of the day, and often the facilities available are less than amenable. The front of the trifold brochure shows a man with his foot in a washbasin, and the tag-line "There has to be an easier way...."

Indeed there is an easier way*, but it's not the one that the manufacturers of the WuduMate would prefer you use. Specialist Washing Co would rather you purchase the WuduMate and install it in your publicly accessible toilets, so that people who want to wash their feet don't have to stick them in a washbasin.

The company, according to its website, will supply a solution for many ritual washing requirements — at home, at work, travelling, in the multi-faith room, or in the mosque.

That last sentence above contains the essence of my unease about this company and its promotion of its products — a company that calls itself "Specialist Washing Co." Specialist washing in this case is extremely special, by which I mean Islamic. The company is not called Islamic Washing Co, or even Ritual Washing Co. "Specialist Washing" is used here as a euphemism, and though it may not have been the company's intention, the impression it gives is that they are trying to hide their true purpose — to persuade providers of public toilets to include facilities for the exclusive use of devout Muslims. Nowhere in the brochure or on the website did I find any suggestion that these facilities could be used by non-Muslims who might want to wash their feet in a non-religious fashion.

On the website much is made of the provision of facilities in multi-faith rooms. To me the idea of a multi-faith room is a particularly preposterous one. Religious faith is of course important — even a confirmed atheist like myself must acknowledge that faith plays an important and often central role in many people's lives. But the faiths professed by believers in different religions can be so at odds with each other that the idea of lumping them all together in one room seems like a recipe for conflict, or at least contradiction. Specialist Washing Co are suggesting that such rooms should be equipped with expensive and space-consuming sanitary-ware (plus the plumbing of water supplies and drainage that goes with it) for a specific religious ritual in a public place.

By all means put these things in your home, your mosque, or even your palace. But don't expect the rest of us to pay for you to carry out an elaborate ritual at our expense.

*The easier way? Don't do it.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Penn and Teller: Magic on the radio - BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

A short interview with Penn Jillette on the Today Programme this morning...
"US magicians Penn and Teller are performing in the UK after a 16-year absence. The two spoke to presenter Evan Davis ahead of a performance in the Westfield shopping centre, although Penn does all the talking. They discussed how they write new material, the relationship between their ardent atheism and magic, and the power of live performance."
(3'56" streaming audio)

A snippet from Penn : "We're big fans of Dawkins and Hitchens...." 

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Burnee links for Tuesday

I've been neglecting the links of late, so here's a bumper crop:

Prince Charles' sinister speech attacks science and good sense. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine
The heir to the throne has been saying stuff. Normally such stuff wouldn't matter, but he's the heir to the throne.

Save a life, slash the UK government’s subsidy of the libel industry « Don't Get Fooled Again
The hidden costs of libel tourism.

Everything you need to know about the internet | Technology | The Observer
Today's state of the net, and what it might or might not be in the future (written mostly for the non-net-savvy).

Joe Power, non-Psychic non-Detective: A Clarification « The Merseyside Skeptics Society
Michael Marshall expresses some lingering, nagging doubts that a successful media medium is as insightful and "psychic" as he claims.

Jesus Christ, but I hate these slimebags : Pharyngula
They cannot be serious! Oh, it's Deepak Chopra and his lot, so I suppose they are. Deluded nitwits, surely, but dangerous deluded nitwits. OK, what they're proposing isn't going to hurt anyone (it's not going to do anything at all), but these people think they are taking action. They're not. (And yet they could, if only they would relinquish the magical thinking.)

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life : Pharyngula
PZ Myers suggests the declaration can be used as a focus — to find out if politicians, organisations and others agree or disagree with its contents.

My worst parent - Atheist dude aghast at prayer - Features - TES Connect
Judging by the comments so far (2010jun30) this former headteacher has hopelessly misjudged the audience for his or her bigoted little diatribe.
(Via HumanistLife)

New Statesman - War of the words
John Gray laments the omission of politics from modern science fiction. Methinks his reading list must therefore be restricted. SF by its nature covers all of life. It may be superficially about the future, or fantastic science, or . . . whatever, but at its heart SF is about the human condition in the present.

Sunday Sacrilege: The active hand : Pharyngula
PZ Myers looks at an episode of Bronowski's Ascent of Man.

Simon Jenkins Versus The ‘Bishops’ of Science (Mad Journalist Syndrome – Part 2) « The Merseyside Skeptics Society
Colin Harris wonders why Simon Jenkins objects so much to Martin Rees and the BBC.

Nobel laureate gives homeopathy a boost | The Australian
Simon Singh's hair must be standing on end. Oh, wait....

What evidence would convince you that a god exists? « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne ponders "ways of knowing":
Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong.
Tikkun Daily Blog » Blog Archive » What Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheists Can Learn From Malcolm X
Kick a man when he's down, that's what I say. Have people been saving up their anti-Hitch pieces for a time when he's less likely to respond? That says a lot about the confidence they have in their arguments.

xkcd: Dilution

Um, no. The symptom produced by the full-strength fluid is pregnancy. Therefore the diluted version can most certainly be used as a contraceptive.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Humanist Symposium #56

A belated reminder that the 56th edition of the Humanist Symposium has been posted at Somewhat Abnormal, and for the second time it includes a link to something of mine.

But don't let that put you off, there's lots of good stuff there too.