Monday 31 January 2011

Is there life after death? Yes/No/Maybe

From BBC TV programme The Big Questions, broadcast yesterday:

Can you answer this question in 16 minutes? Indeed you can: the answer's "no."

Maybe you think that's too glib, and some effort ought to be expended assessing the evidence. But in this discussion the evidence is not in evidence — that is, no-one actually presents any. The person who gets first go (Mohammed Hatehit, from Didsbury Mosque) simply assumes the existence of the soul, and uses its separateness from the body as definite proof of life after death: you bury the body, but where does the soul go? It must go somewhere. However, if the soul doesn't exist then obviously it doesn't go anywhere as it wasn't there to begin with. (He doesn't suggest why the soul, if it exists, couldn't be buried with the body....)

Spiritualists such as Steven Upton like to cite anecdotal evidence of communication with "the other side" — but as Michael Marshall of Merseyside Skeptics ably points out, such parlour tricks can be convincingly replicated by stage magicians.

Anglican bishop Stephen Lowe demonstrated a shade of tentativeness — so typical of the Church of England — that threatens to subsume Anglicanism beneath a welter of uncertainty. At least Penny Mawdsley from Sea of Faith was prepared to concede that there are Christians who don't believe in God.

Jewish Chronicle columnist Angela Epstein's comment that she sees this world as "almost a waiting room for the world to come" is symptomatic of faith that casts reality as something inferior to unreality. This is the kind of thinking that leads to notions of the Rapture. Why bother doing anything at all, if we're simply enduring this life while waiting for eternal bliss?

Naturally this 16-minute discussion couldn't conclude without someone (it was Ajmal Masroor) proposing Pascal's Wager — an argument so bad that anyone using it should be automatically disqualified from participating.

Sunday 30 January 2011

Burnee links for Sunday (via Dawkins and Myers)

Substance over sweetness — another New Atheist critique gone askew : Pharyngula
PZ wants to ask the only question that really matters.

Stephen Asma responds : Pharyngula
But Asma doesn't think PZ's question is relevant.

The best is lost : Pharyngula
And in response to PZ's insistence on truth, a Pharyngula reader sends a godless poem.

Should employers be blind to private beliefs? - Boing Boing
Richard Dawkins says beliefs do matter.

Science Under Attack - Horizon - BBC -
Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and new head of the Royal Society, urges scientists to engage in the public space.

Further reflections on discrimination - Richard Dawkins - Boing Boing and -
Richard Dawkins follows up his recent Boing Boing post.

Saturday 29 January 2011

An alternative argument from complexity

When considering whether natural organisms have been designed, or alternatively have come to be the way they are through natural processes, it's a good idea to consider some examples.

Take the mousetrap. This is a purposeful arrangement of parts, obviously designed to do a particular job. One can examine all the individual parts and see how each uniquely contributes to the purpose for which the mousetrap was designed.

Dean Franklin - 06.04.03 Mount Rushmore Monument (by-sa)-3 newLook at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. One can recognise faces carved into the mountainside, three-dimensional images of not just generic people, but specific men who actually lived — and these are their likenesses. We know, however, that these examples are not naturally occurring phenomena; they came into existence by the action of designing minds.

When we look at the forms taken by living organisms we see similar arrangements of parts, but to a much greater degree. Life is extremely complex — so complex, in fact, that to imagine that a designing mind could accurately specify such complexity is stretching credulity beyond reasonable limits. We simply cannot imagine any mind being sufficiently intelligent to be capable of such vast complexity. Even if such a complex designing mind was responsible for the complexity of life, one would be remiss in omitting to enquire where the complexity of the designer originated.

In the absence of any other explanation, therefore, we must by default assume that such complexity has arisen by gradual stepwise refinement of regressively simpler organisms. Such small steps seem intuitively more likely than the sudden fait accompli of a grand design.

Extrapolating these small steps backwards in time it seems obvious, therefore, that life originally began very simply, probably by random emergence of self-replicating molecules. It seems likely that in the not too distant future this mechanism will be demonstrated in the laboratory.

Friday 28 January 2011

Lying about time — relaunch of the Sci Phi Show

Recently I was pleased to discover that Jason Rennie has relaunched the Sci Phi Show — a podcast looking at philosophy and science fiction. The first of Jason's new episodes dealt with lying — what it is and whether it is always morally wrong to lie. He cited a couple of definitions from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
  1. To make a false statement with the intention to deceive.
  2. To make an assertion that is believed to be false to some audience with the intention to deceive the audience about the content of that assertion.
Jason explained the four conditions that need to apply to the second definition in order to make it clear: the Statement condition, the Untruthfulness condition, the Addressee condition and the Intention to deceive addressee condition. This second definition is the more precise and therefore more useful one, but Jason demonstrated in his subsequent discussion that use of the term "lie" often implies a degree of wrongness. (The Stanford definition explores some of these issues.)

Whether you consider a lie to be more or less morally wrong depends on your basis for morality. If you base it on an inviolable precept such as, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," you might find little leeway to consider the philosophical niceties. As I see it, the general prohibition on lying is to do with notions of trust and the reliability of communications. It may be perfectly moral to lie in certain specific circumstances (Jason suggested several), but if lying became the norm the fabric of society would quickly unravel.

Jason's second show was about time travel, and began with a discussion of definitions of time. Defining time appears to be fraught with impossibilities; for instance, what's the answer to the question, "How long can a condition of no change persist?" It depends whether you think time is something that passes, irrespective of events that occur. Note that of all our many ways of measuring time — to astonishing accuracy — none of them is objectively measuring the passage of time, but merely counting the occurrence of extremely regular events (although that raises the question of how we know these events are "regular").

However, this is pretty simple stuff in comparison with Jason's overview of alternative theories of time and his explanation of time-travel paradoxes — highly recommended, if you don't mind your brain turning to spaghetti.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Pompey Skeptics in the Pub — 2nd Thursday of every month

When the inaugural Winchester Skeptics in the Pub had to be relocated because the original venue wasn't likely to accommodate the enthusiastic hordes who came to see Simon Singh, Rebecca Watson and Sid Rodrigues, it seemed to me like SitP had arrived. That was over a year ago. SitP in Britain received a further boost from the networking at last year's TAM London, and shortly after that event I was pleased to hear that moves were afoot to start a SitP in Portsmouth (where I live).

And start it did, though perhaps not on quite the scale of Winchester SitP — but give it time. On Tuesday evening the first Pompey Skeptics in the Pub (at the Mermaid, 222 New Road, Portsmouth PO2 7RW) featured a reading by Pam Lee on the importance of critical thought even about those things we take for granted, a skeptical quiz by Trish Hänn, and a cosmology presentation (with mind-boggling slides and video) on dark matter and dark energy by Chaz Shapiro.

It was small gathering of local and not so local people who identify more or less as skeptics (including a more or less skeptical but definitely well-trained dog), who generally agreed that the evening had gone well and that it should be a regular event. So join us on the second Thursday each month, from 10th March onwards. (And check out the photographic evidence, courtesy of Malcolm Stein.)

Tuesday 25 January 2011

The Atheist Experience — listen or watch, but don't miss it

Given the name* of this blog and the tenor of most of its posts, readers would not be surprised to learn that I listen to several atheistically themed podcasts. The atheist podcast that I look forward to most, however, and have done since I first encountered it a couple of years ago, is The Atheist Experience, a live call-in TV show from the Atheist Community of Austin. It's available via an audio podcast feed (on iTunes, for instance), and that's how I normally listen.

If a show is especially good one week, I'll make a point of watching the video version. This week's was one such, hosted by Jen Peeples and Tracie Harris. Even before substituted host Matt Dillahunty called in at the end, I had already decided it was worth a blogpost. The hosts of The Atheist Experience are the sharpest explicators and defenders of the atheist viewpoint I've come across. Their consistently high standards of debate, argument, explanation and critical thought make the show archive a treasured resource.

For your enjoyment and education I embed this week's show here — #693: Misconceptions About Atheists — and I particularly recommend the exchange with caller Mike starting around 21'40":

The ACA also sponsor audio-only podcast The Non Prophets (which will occasionally be referenced on the TV show), along with many local activities.

*"Notes from an Evil Burnee" is a dead giveaway, considering the last two words are an anagram.

Monday 24 January 2011

Equality is against Melanie Phillips' religion (and vice versa)

After a disorientating but mercifully brief instant of agreement with Melanie Phillips when she interrogated Anthony Seldon on last week's Moral Maze, I now find things are back to normal, as evidenced in her latest column at Mail Online today, in which she attempts to perpetuate the myth that religious views are being marginalised in Britain.
...schoolchildren are to be bombarded with homosexual references in maths, geography and ­science lessons as part of a Government-backed drive to promote the gay agenda.
Bombarded? In maths?
In maths, they will be taught ­statistics through census ­findings about the number of ­homosexuals in the population.
And about other things, I suspect. Even if this is true, it's hardly bombardment. Certainly not to the extent that in history lessons they may be bombarded with — horror of horrors — historical dates.
The bed and breakfast hoteliers Peter and Hazelmary Bull — who were recently sued for turning away two homosexuals who wished to share a bedroom — were but the latest religious believers to fall foul of the gay inquisition merely for upholding ­Christian values.
They were guilty of illegal discrimination against a couple who were in a legal civil partnership, on the basis that the couple weren't married. The judge ruled that for this purpose marriage and civil partnership are equivalent.
Catholic adoption agencies were forced to shut down after they refused to place ­children with same-sex couples.
Quite right too. If agencies refuse to treat people equally, they have no business providing a public service.
Marriage registrars were forced to step down for refusing to officiate at civil unions.
If they refuse to do the job they're paid for, they should do the decent thing and seek other employment.
It seems that just about everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda.
Yeah, just about everything. Gay trains, gay supermarkets, gay refuse collection. Does Melanie Phillips find herself using gay hyperbole, by any chance?
Of course, for people such as the Bulls, George Orwell’s famous observation that some are more equal than others is all too painfully true. Indeed, the obsession with equality has now reached ludicrous, as well as oppressive, proportions.
Well, we wouldn't want things to be too equal, now, would we?

Sunday 23 January 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Book review: Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape
Russell Blackford reviews Sam Harris's new book.

Blackford reviews The Moral Landscape « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne's take on Russel Blackford's review, with a follow-up here:
Harris responds to Blackford « Why Evolution Is True

Tell me now how do I feel – Bad Science
Ben Goldacre is blue about Blue Monday. Again.

Richard Dawkins gives his answer to the question: "WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?" (Read the others too.)

The Q.E.D conference «
The Ghost Investigations Today panel is one I hope to attend at QED. (The "Breakout Room" will be showing The God Who Wasn't There, but I could watch that another time on DVD.)

Ms Information - Communicating the Message in the Skeptiverse « She Thought
Some fascinating insight from Geologic HQ.
(Via George Hrab.)

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: Unpalatable truths
Russell Blackford (him again!) is a glutton for punishment.

The British Humanist Association
Relative to recent discussions about secular morality, it's useful to remind ourselves of one particular organisation's objectives.

Open warfare round the dinner table: the mediasphere responds to Baroness Warsi | HumanistLife
Roundup of press reactions to Warsi's recent speech.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Happiness — if you can't define it, you can't legislate for it

The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 this week was about happiness. At least, that's what it purported to be about, but most of the discussion was concerned with attempts to agree on a definition of happiness. From the BBC website:
They call it Blue Monday - January 24th - the unhappiest day of the year. Christmas seems a long time ago, but the bills for it are dropping on the mat, we've failed at all our New Year's resolutions, the weather is awful and all we've got to look forward to is February. But do not despair, our government is coming to the rescue. Politicians are so worried about our state of mind it was their New Year's resolution to do something about it.

On January 5th was the first meeting of the "Measuring National Well-being Advisory Forum" and the Office of National Statistics has just started a consultation on making general well-being (GWB) a key national statistic, alongside the more traditional things like Gross Domestic Product. Setting aside the question can you measure happiness - the moral question is should you?

Money isn't the key to happiness and perhaps we should see ourselves as more than just units of economic production and consumption. But is it the job of the state to concern itself with our emotional life and build that in to policy making? A lot of what makes us happy as individuals may not be very good for us, our fellow man, or society as a whole. Will we start being fed a very particular one-size fits all view of happiness and "the good life"? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is all very well, but should happiness be an end in itself? Shouldn't we be asking what we as individuals can to do make other people's lives better, rather than asking what the state can do to make us happier?

Chaired by Michael Buerk with Melanie Phillips, Matthew Taylor, Claire Fox and Clifford Longley.

  • Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director, the Centre for Economic Performance, LSE
  • Simon Blackburn, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge
  • Anthony Seldon, Master, Wellington College
  • Phillip Hodson, Psychotherapist and author who popularised 'phone-in' therapy in his role as Britain's first 'agony uncle'.
Streaming audio of this 45-minute radio programme is available on the iPlayer:

Unsurprisingly no consensus on the definition of happiness was reached. Simon Blackburn suggested that happiness equated with living a meaningful life, but that just takes the question one step back: can we agree on what is "meaningful"?

At the beginning of the programme Richard Layard's utilitarian analysis met with a degree of disdain, though I imagine he's used to such recoil from the merest hint of reductionism. But if you want to get to the crux of the matter then an honestly reductionist approach has a lot to commend it. At least it might yield tangible results, as apposed to an insistence that happiness can never be satisfactorily defined and that it's a waste of time trying.

Further on in the discussion I found myself in the unfamiliar position of agreeing with Melanie Phillips, albeit fleetingly, when she questioned Anthony Seldon's specific singling out of happiness-promoting characteristics as fit subjects for the secondary school curriculum. She lost my agreement an instant later when she suggested that instead he should just teach religion. A moment before, she had casually claimed that the things Seldon associated with happiness were all common to religion; careful examination of the facts, however, belies this claim. Seldon's justification for "teaching happiness" was presented on the basis of correlation with higher A-level results: pupils feel better about themselves — therefore they do better in exams. I don't think I need to set this out as a formal syllogism to show that its reasoning is flawed.

My own view of "happiness" is that it isn't something one should strive to achieve, because like the gold at the end of the rainbow it will be forever out of reach. Happiness is more a state of intentionality than it is a state of being. Like consciousness and free will, happiness is something we are aware of, which might at the same time be an illusory construct of our cognitive faculties. Even if we use Simon Blackburn's definition and link happiness to meaning, that can only lead to confusion about what things are meaningful. So I come back to intention: happiness isn't something we gain, it's something we do.

Friday 21 January 2011

"Grill a bishop" and you'll get undercooked answers

A revealing segment on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme yesterday seemed to confirm (anecdotally at least) that young people are by no means apathetic about the god question. Bishop Graham Kings has taken it upon himself to answer secondary school pupils' questions about God. From the BBC website:
A Church of England bishop has called on Anglican clergy to take the Church's message to young people by trying to address the fundamental questions of life and death

Dr Graham Kings, the Bishop of Sherborne, in Dorset, says a lack of religious knowledge is one of the causes of religious doubt. Robert Pigott reports
The four-minute audio stream is here:

The questions and answers that the Today editors included in the segment are transcribed below:

Q: "Do you think God planned the creation of nuclear weapons? Because seeing as he's supposed to be loving, that doesn't seem like a very loving thing to do."

A: "Not everything that happens in the world is God's design, so I don't think rape and racism and apartheid and smashing people up is God's design. But he has given us free will, either to respond to him and to other people lovingly, or not."

Q: "You say that God doesn't command everything, yet in the Bible it does, so surely somehow he did command that person to create nuclear weapons. Because in the Bible it says that God commands everything."

A: "It doesn't say that in the Bible."

Bishop Kings apparently blames young people's estrangement from the church partly on declining knowledge of the Bible. You may detect a recurring theme here. When asked how he knows there's life after death, the bishop replies, "I give the illustration of someone who's come back from the dead. Someone's come back and said, yes there is life after death, and that's Jesus of Nazareth himself. So I just have to be honest and say, well I believe in the afterlife because someone's come back and reported back."

Q: "You said a moment ago that homosexual relationships fall short of the glory of God." 

A: "I think we are designed for the glory of God. Paul says that in Romans 3, but he also says that just everybody falls short of the glory of God." 

Q: "If people are accepted exactly how they are, then surely God will accept them if they are homosexual. Why is it wrong, in that respect?" 

A: "God accepts them exactly as they are. What sometimes happens, and it doesn't always happen, is that sometimes they think, is this right, do I continue in a sexual relationship, or do I become celibate?"

Bishop Kings clearly bases everything on the Bible, but we didn't hear his answer to the obvious question, "How do you know the Bible is true?" (The answer is likely to have involved some circularity.) Note that Bishop Kings' answer to the question about homosexuality did not reference the Bible's unequivocal condemnation. This is probably because such a response would expose the Bible as a repository of repugnant immorality.

As if to emphasize the desperate disconnectedness of religion, Robert Pigott's report was immediately followed by Thought for the Day, in which Rhidian Brook gave us his take on Blue Monday (also available as a transcript). I would hope Mr Brook knows that Blue Monday is entirely made up by a PR company to sell holiday bookings, but I suppose if you subscribe to a belief for which the only "evidence" is fictitious scripture, it's difficult to tell these things apart.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

LessWrong - RationalWiki
Do you read Less Wrong? If so (apart from other things one might conclude from this fact), you should probably also read this. (Via Paul Wright.)

Angry UBC condo owners to protest hospice
I thought Canadians were sensible. Wait... these are Asian Canadians — does that make a difference?
(Via Pharyngula.)

Questions about Noah's Ark that may bug creationists | John Hollier | Comment is free |
It's disturbing that we are even considering this stuff. Noah and the Flood is a story. It never happened. Should we perhaps be concerned about the illogicality of a talking wolf who impersonated a grandmother? Does the story of Little Red Riding Hood contain any vestige of actual history? No.
(Via BCSE)

A Special Case of Double Effect « Choice in Dying
In the above post Eric MacDonald provides a perfect example of what he wrote about in a previous one:
"We can do much better than religious morality, almost every time, and that for a simple reason. Without God, we really do have to think about what would be best."
Journalism Warning Labels « Tom Scott
If you read actual printed (that is, on paper) journalism, rather than online (which is, as you know, not real...), you might find these labels useful.

Vatican letter told Ireland's Catholic bishops not to report child abuse | World news | The Guardian
Well that about wraps it up for the Vatican. Pope Benny will resign and the Catholic Church will be disbanded. (There is a minuscule possibility, however, that the Holy See will ignore this revelation and carry on pretty much as before.) The incriminating letter is available as a PDF.

What is Faith? « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald's critique of Alister McGrath.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Evidence for God: 50 Arguments and a challenge

Previously on this blog (and elsewhere) I've stated that I've refuted to my own satisfaction all the arguments for the existence of God that I've encountered, and that I'm happy to examine others. Some others have (possibly) turned up. In an uncanny echo of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk, along comes Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona.

Recommended by Todd Pitner on the Premier Community Forum, it was thrown down placed before us as a challenge an invitation to examine up-to-date arguments for the existence of God. Some of us accepted that challenge invitation (some of us have also taken an age to get around to it).

The 272-page paperback comprises an Introduction and four sections:
Section One: The Question of Philosophy
Section Two: The Question of Science
Section Three: The Question of Jesus
Section Four: The Question of the Bible
followed by Notes and Contributors

The 50 arguments average less than five pages each, so most likely I'll be sampling them at odd intervals. But I intend to blog about them in order, so watch this space.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Gay couple's B&B victory and the value of civil partnerships

A gay couple who were refused a double room at a Bed & Breakfast establishment (because they were not married) won their legal action today against the B&B owners. The judge (according to the BBC report) found that the B&B owners' refusal was illegal discrimination.

The defendants, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, maintain that they have a "double bed" policy which excludes unmarried couples. Both they and the judge appear to have approached the case on this basis — that the refusal was not based on sexual orientation, but on marital status.

The couple, Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy who are in a civil partnership, appear along with their backers, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to be spinning the judgement as a victory for gay rights. The BBC report quotes EHRC director John Wadham:
"The right of an individual to practise their religion and live out their beliefs is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have, but so is the right not to be turned away by a hotel just because you are gay."
Peter Tatchell is quoted saying:
"People of faith should not be permitted to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against other people."
Stonewall's chief executive Ben Summerskill is quoted saying:
"You can't turn away people from a hotel because they're black or Jewish and in 2011 you shouldn't be able to demean them by turning them away because they're gay either."
It seems from the report that the discrimination against which Judge Rutherford ruled was discrimination against unmarrieds rather than discrimination against gays. That said, the case does highlight something very wrong about the law regarding civil partnerships. Contrary to Steven Preddy's reported statement that the judgement showed civil partnerships were legally the same as marriages, it appears to have exposed civil partnerships as a sop to gays.

According to current UK law, only same-sex couples can enter into a civil partnership, and only opposite-sex couples can get married. The law needs to be changed, so that marriage and civil partnership truly are equal — and therefore non-discriminatory. This case shows why. Clearly Peter and Hazelmary Bull don't consider civil partnership and marriage to be equal. I can't help wondering if in the future they would happily allow a legally married gay couple to share a double room. I suspect not.

Monday 17 January 2011

Paula Kirby at TAM London 2010

DSC_1828w_PaulaKirbyPaula Kirby's articles at the Washington Post "On Faith" Panel have all been worth reading; she's clear and concise and doesn't pussyfoot around. Paula is a regular contributor and commenter at, but for many she came to prominence through her comprehensive review (posted at of four of what had become known as Dawkins' Fleas — the several books published in direct response to The God Delusion.

DSC_1826w_PaulaKirbyFor her appearance at TAM London Paula gave a talk I'd heard previously online. It was the talk she delivered at the Atheist Alliance International Convention held last summer in Copenhagen:

DSC_1829w_PaulaKirbyDSC_1830w_PaulaKirbyPart 1/5:

Part 2/5:
Part 3/5:
Part 4/5:
Part 5/5:

DSC_1825w_PaulaKirbyPaula quoted at length from the political manifesto of the UK's Christian Party, exposing its assumptions and agenda. Now while it's not likely that such a party will gain significant power in the foreseeable future, it's only by our constant vigilance that its insidious influence (and that of similar religious lobby groups) will be kept at bay. Great Britain is not — yet — officially a secular society, but Paula Kirby's talk shows why it clearly ought to be.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: The Turin Bicycle
Science? Pfft! I still believe it's the original artefact.

Faith and Science « Choice in Dying
Oh my, what a sorry mess of bedraggled shreds is the Biologos "statement of faith" once Eric MacDonald has ripped through it.

God was behind Big Bang, pope says - Technology & science - Science -
God's mind was behind complex scientific theories such as the Big Bang, and Christians should reject the idea that the universe came into being by accident, Pope Benedict said Thursday
Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?
"The universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe," Benedict said on the day Christians mark the Epiphany, the day the Bible says the three kings reached the site where Jesus was born by following a star.

"Contemplating it (the universe) we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God," he said in a sermon to some 10,000 people in St. Peter's Basilica on the feast day.
Just saying something doesn't make it true. Is unsubstantiated assertion all the religionists have left?

Much-loved millionaire in long-term stable relationship has child: cause for concern says Bishop Nazir-Ali | HumanistLife
The bish claims to be concerned for the child. Whatever you think of this particular family, you have to wonder if he isn't actually more concerned that the child's legal parents are a same-sex couple.

For the love of God – or good – support World Interfaith Harmony Week | Tony Blair and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad | Comment is free | The Guardian
So some 2,000 years or so after a man was nailed to a tree for suggesting people should be nice to each other, Tony Blair says it's time to do just that. But it can't work. People of moderate faith may rally round his initiative, but it's not the moderates who are the problem. Those who take their faith seriously are the ones who stick to rigid dogma — precisely the ones who refuse to budge when their doctrine is found to be incompatible with other faiths.

Is “biblical Christianity” the only rational worldview? (And is atheism wicked?)
In the past I've railed in exasperation at some of the postings of Randal Rauser (The Tentative Apologist), but I must give him credit for his stand against a set of intransigent Christians at a site called Triablogue. (The link goes to the first of a series of posts about his encounter.)

The dangerous fight for the 'child witches' of Nigeria | Science |
Leo Igwe of the International Humanist and Ethical Union was arrested, beaten and imprisoned after rescuing one of these 'child witches', and his report is here:
My Arrest in Uyo - Butterflies and Wheels

Up Close and Personal « Choice in Dying
Here is the truth.

Confessions of a Catholic Atheist: The Antitheist
A demonstration of how one can clarify one's thoughts simply by explaining them.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Should atheists talk about evil?

That depends. "Evil" could be said to be an exclusively religious term. To talk about good and evil is to talk in the same realm as that occupied by "sin" — which seems a much more religious term.

Some might make the case that talk of "morality" is also exclusively religious. Indeed many religionists scoff at atheistic moral pronouncements, claiming that atheists have no business talking about morality because they have no grounding for it. But such a view is itself not so much grounded as perilously perched atop one horn of the Euthypro dilemma: that what is morally good is whatever God decrees — and however arbitrary such a decree may be, nothing else really counts as "moral".

It should also be recognised that some religionists make no distinction between morality and absolute morality. They seem unable to grasp that there can be any morality that isn't absolute. As an atheist who occasionally engages in online debate and discussion, I've come across this religious blind-spot more than once. After explaining at length how I see morality — what it is, where it comes from and so on — I'm still asked to justify it on metaphysical, transcendental grounds.

I'm currently reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. I'm about halfway through, but so far Harris has fairly comprehensively laid the groundwork for a thesis that the distinction between facts and values is not as clear cut as the philosopher David Hume would have us believe. Hume's contention that you can't derive an ought from an is sounds on the face of it to be reasonable, leading to the kind of demand for moral grounding mentioned above.

Harris makes a good case for knowledge of moral facts about the world without resort to metaphysics. We know what the difference is between a state of everything being as lovely as it possibly could be, and the state of everything being as horrible as it possibly could be. And crucially we know that one of these is good and the other is bad. We do not need a transcendental moral law-giver to tell us which is which. Spread out between these two extremes are a myriad states of relative well-being, and while it may be difficult and in some cases impossible in practice to tell exactly where on a hypothetical scale of well-being these states lie, there can be no doubt that such a determination is possible in principle.

From what I've read so far it's too early to draw definitive conclusions from Harris's moral exposition, but I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.

Friday 14 January 2011

Karen James at TAM London 2010

The Beagle Project is one of those enterprises that's quite hard to categorise. Is it really an educational project, or should it be classified as a glorified publicity stunt? Sailing a replica of Captain Fitzroy's square-rigged Beagle along the same route the original took when Charles Darwin was five years aboard could be considered a relatively pointless exercise, especially when the cost (apparently some £3.3 million at 2007 prices) is taken into account.

This is not the only prospective replica sea-vessel currently touting for funds. There are people in Kentucky who want to build a "replica" of Noah's Ark. I don't know if they intend to fill it two by two with animals, but they'll have difficulty finding dinos and dodos.

So what's the difference between these two enterprises? Well, HMS Beagle actually existed. Darwin wrote a book, The Voyage of the Beagle, in which he documented the five years he spent as a sea-fairing "natural philosopher". In contrast to the Old Testament story of the Ark, Darwin's record is not only an eye-witness account, it is autobiography. The notes he made on his travels are available for free on the web. This is something that actually happened.

The proposed Ark, of course, is based on carefully excavated and meticulously documented archeological artefacts, from which a reasonably accurate replica of the actual vessel is to be reconstructed. No it isn't — it's based entirely on a story in a book that also tells of a talking snake.

So the difference between the Beagle and the Ark is that we know for certain that HMS Beagle actually existed, and all we know about the Ark is what is written in an unreliable and contradictory scripture that's so full of metaphor and scientific nonsense that it has to be treated as literature rather than historical record.

DSC_1817w_KarenJamesNow that we've got that out of the way, let's consider the merits of the Beagle Project. The idea is to marry the historical facts of Darwin's voyage and the discoveries he made, with a global educational enterprise illustrating evolution.

Dr Karen James is the Director of Science for the Beagle Project, and at TAM London she outlined the project's aims and benefits. These are also available on the project's website:
The 21st century voyage of the Beagle will inspire global audiences through unique public engagement and learning programmes, and original scientific research in evolutionary biology, biodiversity and climate change.

DSC_1820w_KarenJamesShe will cross the North and South Atlantic, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, round both Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. She will sail in her ancestor's wake, with international crews of young scientists and sailors aboard applying the tools of modern science to the work started by Darwin and Captain Fitzroy 170 years before. International friendships and scientific alliances will form, and people the world over will follow the voyage, adventure and science aboard through the Beagle's interactive website.
The replica ship won't be quite the same as the original:
She will be built of larch and oak planking on oak frames. Unlike the 1831 Beagle, her 2009[*] descendent will have diesel auxiliary engines, radar, GPS navigation, satellite communications and modern safety equipment. Her design will be approved by Germanischer Lloyds and she will be certified for Category A - unrestricted ocean sailing. The build will be carried out in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire under the supervision of master shipwright Detlev Loell.
(*It appears the website could do with some updating.)

Modern biology — including modern medicine — is so thoroughly underpinned by evolutionary theory that without the theory we would be back to the days of cupping and blood-letting, or even the four humours and demonic possession. And yet, in America at least, about 40 percent of the general population do not accept evolution as a true scientific account of living organisms. This is a shocking state of affairs, and while the Beagle Project risks being accused of Disneyfying science, a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. If the Beagle Project stands a good chance of educating people about evolution in spite of a pervading culture of denialism, it needs to go ahead. For the sake of the scientific literacy of future generations, the Beagle Project should receive wholehearted support.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

The Blair Hitch Project | Politics | Vanity Fair
Christopher Hitchens gives his account of the clash.

Sarah Palin's Camp Says Depraved Liberals Blame Sarah Palin for Mass Murders
Is Palin is digging her own political grave? Let's hope so.

Dave, Andy, and Georgia and their unbelievable, ridiculous fable : Pharyngula
Ugh! Creationists.

The Importance of Critical Engagement | MandM
Some Christian teachers are prepared to engage with teenagers on a basis other than indoctrination.
(Via Patient and Persistant)

Tessera: Should you join a gym in January? No.
Sound and comforting (and realistic) advice.

Sadly ironic « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.

BBC News - Cases dropped against malaria homeopaths
This is a less than desirable result. People may have died because homeopaths recommended ineffective "medications" in lieu of vaccination.

How incorrect reports of Giffords’ death spread on Twitter - Lost Remote
Maybe we need different rules for different times. The internet changes everything.

Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet -
Stanley Fish reviews The Offensive Internet by Nussbaum et al.

Salmaan Taseer, Aasia Bibi and Pakistan's struggle with extremism | World news | The Observer
Reading about what's happening in Pakistan it's hard to disagree with Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything. Here's a place where religion has infected the minds of ordinary people with what can only be described as evil.

Doctors criticise chief rabbi's edict against donor cards | World news | The Guardian
Who does he think he is — the Pope? Yet another case of a high priest thinking he knows things he clearly doesn't.

Bloggers' word choice bares their personality traits, study finds
Interesting. But to me though, it seems awfully lazy — and worse, depressing...

Into the Hands of Strangers « Choice in Dying
Read it.

Mary Warnock on Morality and Religion « Choice in Dying
Forthright and lucid post from Eric MacDonald on morality and government. The final paragraphs should be pasted onto the walls wherever laws are made.

Jesus and Mo
Disgusting! Write to the network!

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Kicking the creationist ladder

Earlier today James Thomas posted an article on his posterous about a recent visit he made to the Natural History Museum, accompanied by a friend who happened to be an ardent creationist. James's article raises some important points about how we deal with creationists and why they appear to us to be so closed-minded to the evidence for evolution. You should go and read it. (Don't worry, I'll wait...)

James and I had a brief Twitter exchange about the issue he raises, which is that it doesn't help to characterise creationists as ignorant fools, because a sincerely held belief in a six-day creation only 6,000 years ago is fundamental to their faith. To accept that even one part of the biblical creation story is not a literal record of historical fact would undermine their whole belief system. This is why, as James points out, they will not accept the evidence for evolution even if presented with overwhelming masses of it, such as that found at the Natural History Museum.

But if an assault on creation "science" isn't going to work, that leaves only the fundamental beliefs themselves. My own understanding of creationism is that where there's conflict between what the Bible says and what science teaches us, creationists insist that the science must by definition be wrong. It matters not a jot that the science is backed up by rigorous research and incontrovertible evidence — creationists have to find some way of making it wrong because the alternative, that the Bible is wrong, is too shocking to contemplate.

So rather than reiterating the evidence for evolution and an old earth, should we instead be attempting to undermine belief in the inerrancy of the Bible? Such a course, I fear, is unlikely to win many friends in either camp. I can imagine the responses — "You've no right to interfere with people's faith. Let them believe what they want." Or, "How dare you attack us for simply stating our beliefs! This is typical New Atheist militancy!"

During our brief exchange today James suggested that "Maybe our job is to cushion the fall as well as kicking the ladder?" That's a nice metaphor but it's also a difficult strategy to get right. The problem — as anyone who's had a ladder kicked from under them would probably testify — is that the fall is really frightening. It's only after they've landed on the cushion do they discover they were going to be perfectly safe all along.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

What conversion stories have in common

I've heard or read quite a few stories of religious people who have lost their faith. I'm also aware of (fewer) stories of atheists becoming religious. And though these could not be regarded as anything like a representative sample, they do appear to have certain common characteristics.

Religious people who give up their faith seem to do so because of nagging doubts that increase to the point when they can no longer, in all honesty, continue to lie to themselves.

The non-believers who become religious appear to do so as a result of some emotional experience. Not because of reason, or persuasion, but because of some susceptibility to an emotional appeal.

My reaction to the first set — the believers who lose their belief — is, "What took you so long?"

My reaction to the second — people who convert from non-belief to belief — is plain bewilderment. How can they be suddenly convinced of the existence of God when there is, as far as I can see, no justification for such a belief? (I appreciate that this could be my failing rather than theirs.)

I've examined and refuted to my own satisfaction all the "arguments for the existence of God" I've encountered (and I'm willing to consider others), but it's clear that while these arguments aren't convincing to me, neither are they the cause of belief in converts. Believers of all stripes may attempt to bolster their faith "after the fact" with these arguments, but I don't think the arguments play any part in conversion from non-belief in a deity to belief in a deity.

Religious converts have rarely become believers as a result of rational argument, so it's no surprise that only rarely can they be subsequently reasoned out of their faith.

Monday 10 January 2011

An Atheist's Journey

Like many atheists, I used to be a Christian. At least, I called myself a Christian — it was how I was brought up. Not that I understood what being a Christian actually was. As a child I was told that there were things I wasn't meant to understand, and there were other things that would become clear to me as I grew older.

Prayer, for instance, was one of many things I had to take on faith. Prayer seemed to me like attempted telepathy — attempted, because it was always one way only, despite contrary depictions in the Bible, with its profusion of "And the Lord said unto..."

Although as a child I had no concrete evidence of the existence of God, I assumed this was because I was a child, and in the fullness of time God would make his presence known to me. As a teenager I expected God's presence to become apparent, either gradually or as a Damascene revelation.

It never happened. My puzzlement at the absence of revelation eventually gave way to relief as I realised that most of the hard problems of faith would disappear if I took on the proposition suggested by the lack of evidence: that the God of the Bible didn't exist. This was a revelation of sorts. Without a belief in God, the absurdities of religion no longer had to be resolved, and just faded into nothing. Suddenly the Universe made a whole lot more sense — and so I found I was an atheist.
At the time, the fact that the majority of the world's population was more or less religious didn't bother me. Clearly belief in supernatural agents is a hangover from ancient animism, and has helped the human race survive. (Tribes are much better at conquering other tribes, inventing things and creating cultural heritage if they're not preoccupied with the eternal verities — let the priests and theologians deal with all that stuff.)

There remained, however, one intractable problem, which meant that though by age 15 or so I self-identified as an atheist, I was not a vocal atheist. People could believe in a god if they wanted. I didn't, but I was nonetheless troubled by the notion that without God there is no moral authority.

Like many, for me it was the attack on the World Trade Center that transformed me from a godless but passive observer to an atheist prepared to defend my position. I had witnessed the destruction caused by the folly of delusion, and felt the need to stand up and be counted. I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and discovered whose side I was on — when previously I'd hardly been aware there was a side.

As for moral authority, I came to understand that morality does not originate in scripture as I had once thought — which had caused me to subdue any atheistic declarations I might have been inclined to make — but from our innate human intuition. Our moral conscience has evolved with us as a human race, but only been distorted by scripture (indeed scripture contains much that is morally repugnant).

These days I'm happy to be counted as an "out" atheist, though I'm not evangelical. In my day-job I mix with religious people and see no reason to challenge them about their faith. It's only when wrong-headed beliefs have an adverse impact on the well-being of innocents that I'm likely to become vocal. In my own time, however, I'm willing to engage in discussions about faith, especially online. I may have little chance of persuading a hardcore fundamentalist out of his or her irrational beliefs, but you never know who's listening.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: Hello, I'm an Atheist: Awe
...and I'm an RC. (Actually I'm not, but you knew that.)

Why Are Believers So Hostile Toward Atheists? | Belief | AlterNet
Greta Christina ponders hostility.

A successful campaign against a new ‘faith’ school | HumanistLife
Whether or not the South West London Humanists' campaign was instrumental in the decision (and it may not have been), this is a fine example of consciousness-raising and engagement.

The time machine | The Rather Friendly Skeptic
There are stories of true believers becoming skeptics through exposure to "the skeptical movement" but this is clearly a case of someone finding their own way out of the woo. (Shame Hayley won't be bringing the time machine to QED though...)

Nox’s Wall of Text, Part 1. | Unreasonable Faith
Custador quotes at length from the Unreasonable Faith forum on the subject of the truth of the Bible (with more to come).

Taxonomy of the Logical Fallacies
(Via Philosophy Bites Daily)

Saturday 8 January 2011

Purpose in Puebla — more on the Mexico debate

After listening to William Lane Craig's discussion with Justin Brierley on the latest Unbelievable? programme* on Premier Christian Radio (about the recent debate in Puebla, Mexico) I'm becoming more convinced that he's mired in a philosophical dead-end. It's all about purpose — the universe's purpose and your own personal purpose. Craig appears to think that if the universe doesn't have a purpose, then no-one can have a purpose, and therefore any purpose atheists might claim is merely illusory or "pretend". (Incidentally, I have been similarly accused.)

Craig makes a clearly false distinction between "pretend purposes" and "real purposes", as if only those purposes validated by a deity are "real". This is nonsense. A purpose is a purpose is a purpose. If someone has an intention (whoever they may be) then their purpose is no less "real" than any other purpose. The only pretend purposes are those "intended" by fictional characters — and a great many deities fall into that category.

The more I hear of this argument about purpose, the clearer it becomes that the theists cannot conceive of a universe without an overarching purpose — it's the foundation of their argument from design. They seem to assume that a universe without some purpose or other is a physical impossibility, and therefore simply take it as read: of course the universe has a purpose — how could it not?

Well, as Richard Dawkins pointed out in the debate, we accept that a mountain doesn't have a purpose. So why should we assume that the universe does have a purpose?

*The relevant Unbelievable? programme can be downloaded here:

Friday 7 January 2011

Simulated research: an experimental life

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a group of research scientists set up a simulation experiment using multiple artificial intelligences running on a vast array of extremely fast supercomputers. The simulation was of the emergence of life on an insignificant little blue-green planet orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy.*

The scientists entered certain values into an instance of this simulation, such that sooner or later simulated life would not only emerge on this simulated planet, but would develop simulated intelligence, income tax and rice pudding. And this is what in fact happened.

The intelligent simulated life-forms began to wonder what it was all for, and some speculated about the group of scientists (though of course they did not call them such) who had instigated the whole thing. They came up with a number of theories, including the suggestion that the research scientists themselves (though of course they did not call them such) didn't actually exist. "There's no compelling evidence," they said, "that the universe we live in was created by a group of research scientists" — though they did not use those exact words. "The burden of proof rests with those who claim that the universe was created by a group of research scientists." (Though the words they used might not have been exactly those.)

Some others felt that the doubters were obviously wrong. "Look at the simulated trees," they said (or words to that effect). "The evidence for the existence of the group of research scientists is all around us. How else could simulated life arise, if not by the intentional actions of a group of research scientists?"

The doubters, however, were not impressed. Some of them had done scientific research themselves, and had discovered that much of the simulated life around them, including themselves, exhibited signs of common structure, as if all the various examples of complex simulated life were derived from a much simpler simulated life, and had developed, over a long period of time, from such simple simulated life. They found that they could tinker with that structure and cause certain types of simulated life to develop in particular ways. By examining the structure of all simulated life, they were able to document how it had developed from, ultimately, something very simple indeed.

Those who held to the theory that the simulated universe was instigated by a group of research scientists had to agree that it was not necessary for said research scientists to tinker in any ongoing way, except occasionally in response to special appeals. Sometimes it was felt necessary that events should proceed in a way that did not conform to the established, well-known pattern. Such non-conforming events (if indeed they were non-conforming — some of the doubters disputed even this) were naturally taken as evidence for the existence of the group of research scientists. But though the doubters had shown that the research scientists were not strictly necessary in the normal run of things, they had not shown how everything could have started off at the beginning of time. Surely, therefore, the group of research scientists were responsible for that?

"Not necessarily," said the doubters. "We know how all complex simulated life has developed from simpler simulated life, right back to the least complex simulated life. It seems likely that we will discover how that simplest simulated life came into being."

"But you don't know, do you? It's reasonable, therefore, to suppose that the research scientists were responsible."

"No, we don't know," said the doubters, "but that's no excuse for falling back on an entirely unsupported theory that has no evidence and cannot be falsified."

"You just don't want there to be a group of research scientists, do you? Clearly you're in denial. Or maybe you can't bear the thought of a group of research scientists watching your every move and taking notes."

The doubters were unmoved by what they considered to be appeals to emotion. They had looked at the evidence for the group of research scientists and found it wanting. They were aware that their own research was incomplete, that they still lacked information, but felt justified in reserving judgement regarding the existence of the group of research scientists.

Others did not agree. "How come," they said to the doubters, "that the universe we live in is just the way it is — a way that appears exactly right for us? It must have been made that way so we could be here. And we know who made it. It was obviously the group of research scientists."

"No," said the doubters. "You've got it backwards. We are exactly like we are because we live here. Our universe is what makes us what we are, not the other way around."

"But what made our universe? It must have been the group of research scientists!"

"What made the group of research scientists?" asked the doubters.

"Now you're just being silly."

Of course the group of research scientists observed all of these exchanges and did indeed take notes. Eventually they decided — for no particular reason — that the experiment was complete, and they switched off the simulation.

*With apologies to George Lucas and Douglas Adams

Thursday 6 January 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Top Conversation Killers for Atheists: How Religious Theists Can Hurt Their Cause
Good, basic advice — but are the right people going to read it?

An Insulting Message of Peace
Happy New Year from Pope Benny, who lives in a place not unlike Disneyland — a fantasy constructed around a totally unrealistic view of the rest of the world.

“Integrating” Science and Religion « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald on the error of Adam and Eve.

The day the devil went to seminary and other bizarre things
Need confirmation of the essential vacuity of theology? Check this out (and the comments).

Accommodationism at Berkeley/NCSE website « Why Evolution Is True
Are science and religion compatible? There are some scientists who are religious, and there are religious believers who do good science. But that doesn't alter the fact that religion makes claims that science has repeatedly shown can't possibly be true. Or the fact that science has shown that the universe works in ways that are in direct contradiction to religious dogma.

Daylight Atheism > Abortion Care at Catholic Hospitals
More unbending Catholic dogma coming to light. Why any woman of child-bearing age would want to remain in this religion is a complete mystery.

House Republicans Appoint Climate Change Deniers to Committee Chairs | Center for Inquiry
Welcome, America, to your new unscientific overlords.

Religion and the Madness of Crowds | Center for Inquiry
"Religion is essentially a form of deception," says John Shook.

Can one do philosophy of religion? | Evolving Thoughts
John Wilkins wonders if all the old religious arguments should be indexed to save time, then they could be refuted by number.

Young Freethought: Hitchens vs Blair Analysed
A useful commentary on the recent Blair-Hitch Project in Toronto, along with a mostly complete video of the event:

Wednesday 5 January 2011

"Even idiots?" (Out of the mouths of babes...)

A welcome reminder from Ron Britton at Bay of Fundie alerted me to this gem of a clip from Outnumbered:

Outnumbered is written by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton. (Andy Hamilton is responsible for that exemplar of the BBC's religious radio programming, Old Harry's Game — set in Hell.)