Saturday 30 April 2011

Phillip E. Johnson — father of ID — lax, unpersuasive and simply wrong

I'm now up to chapter 13 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, which is approximately one-eighth of the way through its "50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science". As I feared, it's proving a tedious affair. Given that this is a recent book I'd hoped it might contain some really good up-to-date arguments, or at least a challenge of some sort. So far, however, it's been disappointing. The first section, The Question of Philosophy, should have been challenging, but seems to comprise what I (a non-philosopher) can only describe as philosophically bankrupt arguments. The current section, The Question of Science, appears to be all over the place; some of its chapters don't offer an argument at all, so I fail to see how they count towards the "50 Arguments".

Nor do I understand why every one of the first 13 chapters is either identical or very similar to an article on That website doesn't reference the book, and the book only briefly references the website (in the introduction) as a place to find "still more articles". Shouldn't there be at least an acknowledgement that the book contains reprints? Or that the website does? (At this stage I'll not be surprised to discover that the whole book is available on the website, which could explain why there's nothing new.)

Curious though that is, what of chapter 13? It's titled "Darwin's Battleship — Status Report on the Leaks This Ship Has Sprung" and is by Discovery Institute co-founder and major intelligent design proponent Phillip E. Johnson. He begins by citing his 1993 book Darwin on Trial, quoting the epilogue in which he predicts that ID will win out over evolution. He then goes on to list how he perceives progress in this regard. It's actually a bit comical:
Science organizations regularly mischaracterize ID, calling it "creationism in a cheap tuxedo." They dream up conspiracies and make false accusations. They try to make sure that no one who is friendly to ID is allowed to publish articles in the peer-reviewed literature and then use the lack of such articles to prove that ID is not science. They try to prevent ID-friendly scientists from attaining research or teaching positions. They enter into local school district decision-making processes to make sure that Darwinism is not allowed to be questioned in any way, bringing in the ACLU if there is any attempt to offer an even-handed approach to the teaching of evolution. (p. 74)
Who's "dreaming up conspiracies and making false accusations" here? I seem to remember a somewhat disreputable film (that's putting it mildly) called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that was chock-full of conspiracy theories, every one of which was promptly debunked by people who actually investigated the facts.

Johnson goes on to state that the "Darwinian mechanism of evolution" has no explanation of how the complex living world came about. This is just plain false. Anyone who reads Richard Dawkins' latest, beautifully illustrated book, The Greatest Show on Earth, cannot fail to understand the stunning simplicity and elegance of Darwin's idea. As for explaining "how life came into being from chemicals" — Johnson must surely know that evolutionary theory has practically nothing to say on the subject because that's not what it's about. He complains that Edward O. Wilson gives no concrete examples of evolution in an article in Harvard magazine, while providing no examples himself — nor does he provide a reference to Wilson's article. In fact the only reference Johnson gives is to his own book. His final paragraph is telling:
Recently, Harvard opened a new major research project, especially to study the origin of life. This may be in response to the criticisms of the Intelligent Design movement. Other recent articles suggest that scientists in the biological establishment are doing research specifically to answer the challenges raised by ID. If this is the case, it should be seen as a good thing by everyone. We in the ID movement are proponents of good science. If our criticisms and questions lead to better research, we are unafraid of the results. In the meantime, our current concern is to keep evolutionary scientists honest about the current state of the evidence and to allow young people to understand why there is a controversy about the subject of evolution. (p. 75)
It sounds entirely reasonable, until the last sentence. In evolutionary science — the kind supported by peer-reviewed research — there isn't a controversy about the subject of evolution. The controversy is entirely in the minds of ID proponents who want biological science to be based on a religious idea.

Friday 29 April 2011

"What Genetics Can Really Tell Us" — Adam Rutherford — Winchester SitP

The ubiquitous Adam Rutherford gave a fascinating talk at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub on Thursday evening. Ubiquitous? Well, he's been on telly this week, and last, with his new BBC Four series The Gene Code (which reminds me — I wonder if there are any of those fridge magnets left...), and his previous series The Cell began a re-run that very evening. Also he's had several recent Radio 4 appearances: Science Betrayed, for instance, and last week's Start the Week with Andrew Marr.

DSC_1806w_AdamRutherfordAdam's appearance at TAM London 2010 detailed his experiences on the Alpha Course, but on Thursday he was on his own territory with a talk entitled "What Genetics Can Really Tell Us". We learned, for instance, that compared to indigenous Africans the majority of western humanity is extraordinarily inbred. We learned that except in a very few cases there isn't a "single gene" responsible for specific human attributes — or diseases. This is something the tabloid press (or at least the Daily Mail) hasn't yet caught on to, and we saw slides of several articles that claimed that "the gene for" various specific things had been found. Bizarrely, several of these disparate characteristics were attributed, in different articles, to the same gene. Adam also managed to outline the history of genetics (including the scientific principles) in about 20 minutes, which is no mean feat.

I should also mention that despite this being the first time Adam had delivered this talk he was engaging and funny throughout. While he may or may not keep the bingo cards (don't ask) in subsequent talks, if you get the chance to hear him on this subject don't pass it up. It's unlikely, however, that he'll be able to arrange a flypast of the International Space Station every time he delivers his talk. (During the break we all paraded into the pub car park to watch the ISS go by.)

Winchester SitP's regular venue, The Roebuck — now under new management — has been done up, which contributed to the general success of the evening.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Amis on Hitchens: 'He's one of the most terrifying rhetoricians the world has seen' | Books | The Observer
This is almost a eulogy, by the one person probably most qualified to deliver it.

Jack of Kent: An Atheist on Easter Sunday
David Allen Green ponders his atheism.

Mocking and satirising are marks of respect | HumanistLife
An unusual slant on the idea of respect for religious (or any) views.

Cristina Odone “loathes” Terry Pratchett | HumanistLife
A quick way to tell if someone is ideologically against assisted dying: they refer to it as "assisted suicide". HumanistLife analyses Cristina Odone's Telegraph article and finds it has no substance. Odone says she loathes Terry Pratchett because he wants people to have a choice at the ends of their lives. I highly recommend Pratchett's Dimbleby Lecture on the subject, as it was a paragon of calm assessment of reality. All the arguments against assisted dying are seriously flawed — most are based on faulty logic or religious dogma.

Sir Terry Pratchett, poster-boy of assisted suicide, has the BBC doing his bidding – Telegraph Blogs
The Odone article referred to above.

Terry Pratchett, Patrick Stewart and Ian McEwan back assisted dying | HumanistLife
More about the BBC's forthcoming documentary on assisted dying.

NonProphet Status » Blog Archive » Why Do We Need New Atheists? Can’t We Just Spruce Up The Old Ones?
Pretending to be the voice of reason, Karla McLaren uses military metaphors and straw men to perpetuate the notion that New Atheists are strident, shrill and "not helping". Serious irony failure here.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Graham Linehan at TAM London 2010 (plus Fry and Minchin on video)

DSC_1949w_RichardWisemanRichard Wiseman introduced the last thing before lunch on Sunday: a video conversation between Tim Minchin and Stephen Fry. This was interesting, if fairly relaxed and rambling, and was a substitute for Stephen Fry appearing in person as billed (though his appearance had always been "commitments permitting"). The discussion was philosophical, and — because it was Stephen Fry — also philological.

After lunch Graham Linehan joined Jon Ronson (who was making yet another unscheduled appearance) on stage for a discussion ranging from Linehan's TV writing work (among them Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd), to his use of Twitter and other internet social media.

There were quite a few of these on-stage discussions and panels at TAM London 2010. Frankly I could have done with fewer of them. Too often the discussion format seems to allow the person scheduled not to prepare anything, and unless the "interviewer" is extremely skilled in the chat-show format the whole thing can become a bit unfocussed.


Tuesday 26 April 2011

"Miracles for Sale" — Derren Brown — Channel 4

Derren Brown is first and foremost a showman. He may be a skeptic, and he may be seriously concerned about widespread fraud apparently perpetrated by so-called faith-healers predominantly in America, but his own claim to fame is as a stage mentalist. His TV shows are often highly controversial but they are primarily entertainment. So whether we think that what he demonstrated on TV on Monday night was a good thing, an ethical thing, or perhaps a cynical thing — or not — we should not lose sight of the fact that it was a TV production with the aim of maximizing ratings.

We know from Brown's book Tricks of the Mind that he's serious about fraudulent psychics, mediums and faith-healers, so we can take it at face value when he says his aim in Monday's show is to demonstrate that anyone — without paranormal ability — can perform what appear to be miracles of healing. To this end Brown spent time to train someone to pretend to be a preacher, and together they went to the US to hold a faith-healing service — and to heal the sick.

The premise of the show was similar to that of Brown’s recent “Hero at 30,000 Feet” and to a lesser extent his series “Trick or Treat” — taking an ordinary member of the public and training him or her up to do something extraordinary. In some respects those shows were more straightforward entertainment, because the audience knew that it should expect the unexpected. “Miracles for Sale” was different. It set out with a specific agenda, and expectations were such that anything less than spectacular success was bound to be a disappointment. And so it proved.

Perhaps it was over-hyped. If it had been presented like Brown’s previous “Messiah” the audience could enjoy the suspense of whether the scam could be pulled off at all, without being too concerned with the ethical considerations. Trying to mix up a reality TV show with a fly-on-the-wall documentary and an attempt at hard-nosed investigative journalism just didn’t work, because it was impossible to tell what it was actually about. Brown has done the exposé before, and done it well. The series "Derren Brown Investigates" about the Bronnikov method, Joe Power and Lou Gentile were examples of concerned ethical journalism that worked. But perhaps he doesn’t want to be treading too much on the toes of Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux.

Will "Miracles for Sale" have any effect in curbing the activities of fraudulent faith-healers? Are the people who are taken in by the fraudsters the kind of people who watch a Derren Brown TV programme? There may be some marginal raising of awareness, but I doubt that faith-healing scams will much diminish as a result of the show. As Derren Brown explained in his programme, James Randi exposed preacher Peter Popoff's faith-healing fraud live on the Johnny Carson show in 1986, but Brown also mentioned that Popoff is back today doing the same faith-healing routine much as before. This is disheartening to a skeptic. It shows that there's still much work to be done — educating and informing people about critical thinking. It isn't enough to expose the frauds. Their victims' unwarranted credulity needs to be exposed too, which may yet prove to be the most difficult task of all.

Watch Derren Brown's "Miracles for Sale" at Channel 4's 4od:

Monday 25 April 2011

Melinda Gebbie at TAM London 2010

After her skilful moderation of the Technology and New Media panel, Rebecca Watson was on stage again in discussion with writer and artist Melinda Gebbie, who talked about her collaboration with Alan Moore in the production of erotic comic-book Lost Girls. One might reasonably ask what a discussion about an erotic comic-book has to do with skepticism, but there were issues of free speech and censorship involved, so it was as relevant as one wanted it to be. (For a discussion of TAM London's skeptical relevance in general, including an approximate way to quantify it, see my blogpost of 19 October 2010, plus the ensuing comments.)


Sunday 24 April 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Science has vanquished religion, but not its evils | Nick Cohen | Comment is free | The Observer
A forthright take on Templetonian "respect".

Truth isn't reached by a dissembling path : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers elaborates on his distaste for the corrupting influence of Templeton.

Religious studies: The good god guide | The Economist
This article has a misleading title. It's about research into why religions exist — some of the results may be useful, but much might be thought to be pretty obvious.

My bright idea: Mary Collins | Technology | The Observer
Remarkable stuff (using HIV as a kind of benign carrier) but the article is sloppily written, halfway between reportage and verbatim interview — highly confusing.

A bright spot at The Chronicle and an open letter « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne laments the NCSE's and BCSE's alienation of the gnu-atheist scientists.

Saturday 23 April 2011

ID will be accepted as valid science when it comes up with peer-reviewed scientific research

Chapter 12 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God is an accommodationist's dream. In "What Every High School Student Should Know about Science" Michael Newton Keas puts the case for "teaching the controversy" about evolution and the science of origins. It's a polemic aimed at presenting evolution and intelligent design creationism as equivalent scientific principles. But we know from the preceding chapter that intelligent design is a religious idea, and therefore has no place in school science lessons. Case closed, I think.

I'll readily grant that intelligent design is a valid philosophical idea, but as philosophy it doesn't belong in a science class. Science teaching for schoolchildren should comprise only accepted science, and until ID is accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community it will remain philosophy, not science. If ID proponents want their philosophy taught as science they need to carry out and publish peer-reviewed research to show that it actually is science. They don't get to change the rules by dint of special pleading.

Finally, I note that this chapter provides no evidence whatever for God.

Friday 22 April 2011

A universe so fine-tuned, natural abiogenesis is impossible?

The indecision of chapter 10 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God appears to have carried over to chapter 11. Walter Bradley spends most of "The Origin of Life" explaining just how impossible it is for life to get started on Earth by wholly natural means, and thereby nullifies one of theism's favourite arguments, the argument from fine-tuning. My review of chapter 10 applies equally here, even down to the supposed inherent complexity of early cellular life — that is, the first cells would necessarily have been much simpler than the cellular life we can see today.

Bradley appeals to the intelligent designer in his final paragraph (as well as to Michael Behe's irreducible complexity) but at least this is ID in its true colours:
The necessary information, which expresses itself as molecular complexity, simply cannot be developed by chance and necessity but requires an intelligent cause, an intelligent designer, a Creator God. (p 67)
So much for ID not being a religious idea....

Thursday 21 April 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

British Centre for Science Education: Creationism in the Deep South (of England)
Don't say it couldn't possibly happen in the UK, because it patently is happening, as this report testifies.

Philosophers and the tone argument : Pharyngula
For Heaven's sake, we mustn't risk offending the creationists....

Adventures in nonsense: FishBarrel: The easy way to report misleading health claims online.
Chromium plated complaints in seconds.

The Human Genome Project was just the starting point | Adam Rutherford | Comment is free |
Adam Rutherford on part 2 of his current TV series.

C of E opens school gates to non-believers - News - TES Connect
Odd. Church pushing faith schools towards secularisation?

Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection | National Secular Society
The NSS respond to the TES article (see above) about increasing non-faith admissions in faith schools.

Is AV better than FPTP? « Gowers's Weblog
Clearest, most comprehensive explanation I've seen so far.

Did aliens establish a primitive postcode system in ancient Britain? | Matt Parker | Science |
Some woo just won't lie down.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Technology and New Media panel — TAM London 2010

The first panel of the second day of TAM London 2010 was a discussion between TV reporter Kate Russell, writer Gia Milinovich, blogger and journalist Martin Robbins (aka the Lay Scientist), and Little Atoms host Neil Denny. The panel was expertly moderated by Skepchick Rebecca Watson.

Technology and new media don't have special relevance exclusive to skepticism — they're relevant to everyone who interacts with others in the modern world, and for that reason they're worth discussing at an event such as TAM London. Subjects covered (in a fairly roundabout manner) included social media, podcasting and interaction with media consumers. If there was a single thread, it was that the new media are much more responsive than old media — instantaneous in some cases. As if to demonstrate this an impromptu competition on Twitter, instigated from the audience, decided the most significant feature of one of the panellists. It may have been frivolous, but its spontaneity perfectly illustrated the main thrust of the discussion.


Tuesday 19 April 2011

Denying the evidence of declining UK Christianity

Ann Widdecombe is on a mission to persuade us that reports of the demise of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Her case, however, is severely hampered by the examples she chooses to highlight in this BBC1 documentary, which — contrary to her statements — suggests that congregations are indeed dwindling. She gives two examples of churches that have increased attendance, but these are clearly the result of massive amounts of local immigration. This isn't growing or even maintaining Christianity, it's simply moving it around; it also creates a disturbing tendency towards ghettoisation.

Maybe the Church really does want a congregation to be all but swallowed up by East European immigrants, or even to be completely replaced with immigrant African Pentecostals. Of course, the effect of such immigration could indeed be seen as an increase in Christianity in the UK, but to me it seems more equivalent to claiming that the best answer to the UK's dwindling manufacturing base is to have more stuff imported into the country.

In the interests of balance (one assumes), Johann Hari and Evan Harris are interviewed during the programme, but as dissenting views (dissenting from the Widdecombe views, that is) they are given short shrift. This is frankly not surprising — she's done this before in TV documentaries: if she gets an answer she doesn't agree with she simply ignores it, with little or no comment.

One of the reasons Ann Widdecombe converted to Catholicism was Anglican support for female clergy, so it's ironic to watch her interviewing a female cleric on whether or not Christianity is declining (and agreeing with her). She also interviews Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and agrees with him despite her "devil's advocate" questions, while presumably at the same time believing he's practising the wrong faith. But cognitive dissonance is no stranger to the blinkered Widdecombe thought-processes; she's quite happy to believe the Exodus really happened (because it's in the Bible), despite the total lack of archeological evidence that would have to be there if such a thing actually occurred.

Monday 18 April 2011

A brace of podcasts — Skepticule Extra & Skepticule Record

Here's the latest instalment of Skepticule Extra, wherein Paul Baird, Paul ("Sinbad") Thompson and I discuss recently mutating DNA, whether a family of hateful fundamentalists really expects to convert anyone, if book-burning should make a difference, and whether a well known Christian apologist and debater is all he's cracked up to be:

Also available is the first episode of Skepticule Record, which though it's currently on the same RSS feed as Skepticule Extra, will be used to archive the audio of live events. The first is a recording of Dr. Tom Williamson's talk, "The Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses", given at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub last Thursday:

(Despite being recorded in a noisy bar with a football commentary in the background, the talk is listenable. I'm hoping, however, that next time a feed from the PA will be available.)

Sunday 17 April 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Why bother with theologians? - steve's posterous
No more William Lane Craig for me. His debates with Krauss and Harris clearly showed his arguments to be moribund. Time to move on.

Harris is right, I was wrong | The Uncredible Hallq
More from Chris Hallquist on Craig vs Harris.

Debating God: Atheist and Evangelical Face Off at Notre Dame | (A)theologies | Religion Dispatches
An inside view of Craig vs Harris.

Sam the Man
Bruce Hood meets the man of the week.

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: How I see the "New Atheism" - Part 1 of 2
Russell Blackford is always insightful — even though I don't always agree with him.

Religion lies about women - On Faith - The Washington Post
Paula Kirby on yet more lies of religion.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Could I believe in a supernatural God?

Something that came up in the latest Skepticule Extra discussion (podcast due out imminently — watch this space) prompts me to clarify a change of position. Back in January of 2010 I blogged about what I thought it would take for me to become a believer in God. That post appears somewhat inconclusive now, as I seem to have moved to a more hard-line stance.

Listening to a recent exchange between Richard Dawkins and A. C. Grayling, and reading Grayling's subsequent email to-and-fro with Jerry Coyne, I've realised that there's probably nothing that would convince me of the existence of God.

This of course stems from my naturalistic worldview, in which supernatural entities or events are precluded by definition. However:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

The Bard may have been suggesting that there are things we know nothing of, but the more we find out, the more we realise that the universe is strange. And though strange, it has never, not even once, been found to be supernatural. Every time a "mystery" has been explained by science, that explanation has been a natural one. Not once has science come up with an explanation involving supernatural forces. Some might object that the remit of science prevents this, but what else are we to go on? Divine revelation?

Before I'm accused of being closed-minded on this issue, I should first point out that I consider the problem to be essentially one of definition. If you ask me what it would take for me to be convinced of the existence of God, I will necessarily want a clear definition of that God. You tell me precisely and coherently what you mean by God — with no obfuscation or appeals to mystery or ineffability — and I will tell you precisely and coherently what it would take for me to believe in that God.

Friday 15 April 2011

Half an hour with the man of the week: Sam Harris on the Pod Delusion

A bit of a coup for the Pod Delusion, snagging what appears to be an exclusive interview with Sam Harris. Full marks to James O'Malley and Liz Lutgendorff for their insightful questions to the man of the week:

Direct link to mp3:

Edited highlights of this interview are included in this week's regular Pod Delusion episode:
Direct link to mp3:

The audio from Sam Harris's conversation with Richard Dawkins is also available:
Direct link to mp3:


Thursday 14 April 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig debate review (part 1)
Luke Muehlhauser's review.

The Sam Harris-William Lane Craig debate: a review | The Uncredible Hallq
Chris Hallquist's review.

American Atheists | Interview: Douglas Adams
An interview about atheism.
(Via The Atheist Experience.) / Books / Non-Fiction - The Ego Trick
A. C. Grayling reviews Julian Baggini's new book.

Giles Fraser on "The Moral Landscape" - steve's posterous
Steve Zara reviews the review.

The mythical Sam Harris | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |
Andrew Brown was apparently at the Harris/Fraser event, but I wonder if he's read The Moral Landscape? If he has, maybe he didn't get it.

Harris v Craig : Pharyngula
Looks like P. Z. Myers has undergone a conversion. Of sorts.

Shades of gray : Pharyngula
A bit of catching up and I came across this. Hey PZ, when's your book due out?!

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Debate: Is there evidence for God? William Lane Craig vs Lawrence Krauss

Another day, another debate. This one is William Lane Craig vs Lawrence Krauss, arguing the toss over "Is there evidence for God?" The topic, alas, is poorly framed. What kind of evidence? If we're talking about pretty poor evidence, then Craig has it sewn up. Indeed this was exactly the tack he took, though needlessly (and somewhat comically) dressing it up with a ridiculous equation. In effect he said, "I have some evidence. Not very good evidence, but evidence. Therefore I win."

As in his debate a few days later with Sam Harris, he succeeded in frustrating those who might have wanted him to get to grips with the important issues. Lawrence Krauss is one of the foremost scientists in the world today, and he has much interesting insight into the nature of the cosmos, and — because he's thought about these things — whether the cosmos has a god in it. But Craig simply repeated his painfully circular syllogisms ad nauseam, and the whole thing seemed like a waste of time.

Krauss, it appears, thought so too. In a substantial guest-post on P. Z. Myers' blog Pharyngula he explains why:

But perhaps before reading Krauss's post mortem report you should watch the debate itself (but be warned — the audio on these videos is dreadful):

Part 1 of 6

Part 2 of 6
Part 3 of 6
Part 4 of 6
Part 5 of 6
Part 6 of 6

P. Z. Myers also has some things to say about the debate, this amongst them:
Also, Craig claims to be using Bayesian logic. No, he is not. Scribbling a few trivial equations on his slides does not substitute for Craig's painful ignorance of physics.
Watching William Lane Craig used to be interesting, but I've seen him do the same stuff over and over, and now he's just boring.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Templeton's not-so-hidden agenda

What does the Templeton Foundation think it's doing? This year's Templeton prize, worth one million pounds sterling, has been awarded to the UK's Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees. Usually this is an award for saying nice things about religion. This year, it seems, it's for not saying anything particularly unpleasant about religion.

Martin Rees at Jodrell Bank in 2007
Sir Martin Rees
Martin Rees is not a believer in God, though he does apparently go to church. He says this is because he likes the music and the architecture, but it could also have something to do with his job; in addition to being the Queen's stargazer he's also Master of Trinity College, Cambridge — a post I imagine requires some measure of ceremonial officiation.

I first learned of this year's award from Ian Sample's article at the Guardian, which has a link to the transcript of an interview he conducted with his subject. The transcript is revealing — inasmuch as Rees is careful to reveal as little as possible (though after Sample's opening gambit I'm not surprised his interviewee appears reticent).

So, if someone offers you a prize, no strings attached, for something more or less unspecified that you may or may not have done, should you accept? If it's a bottle of Scotch you might feel a tinge of guilt if you're not quite sure what it is you're supposed to have done to deserve it. But what if the prize is a million quid? That, I think, would require some serious soul-searching. What would concern me most is the acknowledged mission of the organisation awarding the prize, which is for "affirming life's spiritual dimension". Knowing that mission I would feel constrained in my subsequent actions and words. This is likely Templeton's intention. By spreading their money around they are casting a financial net over a number of economically vulnerable voices, ensuring their own agenda is publicised. You only have to look at how much publicity this year's award has already garnered, to see how effective a strategy that is. (And yes, I know I'm contributing to it, if only to a minuscule degree, but the alternative is to ignore the issue and let Templeton have the arena to themselves.)

Lewis Wolpert and Peter Atkins discussed the prize on the Today Programme last Thursday morning. They both consider it to be an insidious distortion of scientific motivation, but I was surprised to hear Atkins say that if offered the prize he would accept it. (This eventuality is, however, even less likely than the prize being awarded to Richard Dawkins, who has in the past referred to Rees as a "compliant Quisling" for allowing the Royal Society to host a Templeton event.) Atkins went on to say he would use the money to set up an organisation to oppose Templeton and promote the separation of religion and science.

Jerry Coyne responded to the award in no uncertain terms — again at the Guardian — only to be followed by Mark Vernon once more cheer-leading for Templeton a day or so later. (This is hardly surprising — Vernon admits to being in receipt of Templeton benefaction.)

This whole affair reminds me of the Writers of the Future Contest, intended to encourage serious young genre authors to enter a fiction-writing competition for generous prizes. These prizes used to include print publication and participation in a residential writing workshop. Year on year this award has nurtured some of genre writing's brightest young talent, and is held to be a Good Thing. Only one problem: the Writers of the Future Contest is funded by Scientology. There's no coercion, no indoctrination, no personality or E-meter tests, and as far as I'm aware Scientology is never even mentioned unless it comes up in connection with the contest's deceased founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

But, tainted money is tainted money. And scruples are scruples — some people have them and some people don't.

Monday 11 April 2011

Giles Fraser lays aside his woolly mantle to review Sam Harris

Tonight Sam Harris is discussing morality with Giles Fraser. As I previously blogged, this is the event nearest to me, out of Sam Harris's three announced appearances on his UK book tour. Nevertheless I decided not to get a ticket because so far I've been severely underwhelmed by Giles Fraser (his recent spot on the Today Programme with A. C. Grayling is an example).

Earlier today, however, I discovered that last Saturday Guardian Online published Giles Fraser's review of The Moral Landscape, and reading it I found myself wishing I had swallowed my misgivings and arranged to attend the discussion. (The fact that IQ2 decided not to live-stream the event after all, is but one more regret.)

So what is it about Fraser's review that has brought on my change of heart? Mostly it's because he seems to have cast off the woolly mantle that has to date muffled anything of his I've come across. He reviews The Moral Landscape in a forthright manner, with hardly any wishy-washy equivocation. I still think he's wrong in most of what he says about the book, but his review convinces me that his discussion with its author would be more interesting than I had thought.

Fraser takes some potshots at Harris, but I think they misfire. For instance, on David Hume's point that you can't derive values from facts:
But Harris will have none of it. Science has sold itself cheap. The peace treaty must be torn up. Science can indeed tell us about morality. Indeed, science can determine morality.
Fraser also commits — on a grand scale — what might be called the "not my religion" fallacy:
With regard to the god Harris describes, I am a much more convinced atheist than he – even though I am a priest. For Harris asks constantly for evidence, with the implication that if he discovered some, he would change his mind. My own line would be that even if the god he described was proved to exist, I would see it as my moral duty to be an atheist.
He goes on to imply that he's heard it all before:
What is presented as Harris's big new idea is really just reheated utilitarianism with wellbeing in place of pleasure.
I also think Fraser has missed one of Harris's key points:
There are so many problems with utilitarianism, it's a pity Harris does so little to address them. How can one quantify the sum total of wellbeing produced by a single action when the potential consequences of any particular action are infinite? So keen is he to turn morality into science that Harris presses on regardless. His demand is that all morality be calibrated on a single scale. Yet if one observes what it is that people call good (and isn't observation a scientific golden rule?), instead of assuming what good ought to look like, one surely recognises very different sorts of moral value.
It seems to me that Harris does indeed address this — it's what I understand by there being different peaks in the moral landscape. Fraser legitimately raises the necessity of some kind of metric for determining how high up the peaks or deep in the valleys moral actions are, as have other critics, but Harris isn't saying he's got all the answers. He's asking for science to be brought to bear on moral questions. Fraser, however, won't have it:
Harris sees the great moral battle of our day as one between belief and unbelief. I see it as between those who insist that the world be captured by a single philosophy and those who don't.
Here we see Fraser's woolly equivocation breaking through once more. It sounds to me like a plea not just for pluralistic society but for pluralistic belief. Such is, after all, the Anglican way.

UPDATE 2011-04-13:
The mp3 audio of the Fraser/Harris discussion can be downloaded here:

Sunday 10 April 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Bay of Fundie » Blog Archive » At War with Itself
An unusual graphical representation of contradiction.

The Atheist Experience™: Some thought experiment on "potential life"
Fascinating set of hypotheticals. The Axp blog should be required reading for anyone of a godless turn of mind who wants to engage with relevant issues.

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: Blogger Farm: A Fairytale
Allegory upon allegory.

Martin Rees's Templeton prize may mark a turning point in the 'God wars' | Mark Vernon | Comment is free |
A favourable assessment of this year's Templeton prize. By a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow who seems to have a skewed notion of how science works.

Nutwood Junction: Harris kicked his butt!
A summary and assessment of the Craig vs Harris debate, by someone who was there.

Brian Cox Interview / Entertainment / ShortList Magazine
Refreshingly snarkless.

Agnostic Popular Front - Debates: Dillahunty vs. Comfort on the Atheist Experience (radio)
Useful brief take on the phone-in.

Agnostic Popular Front - Debates: Krauss vs Craig at NCSU
Someone not happy with either.

Sir Martin Rees Wins the Templeton Prize | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine
Sean Carroll admires the Templeton PR machine (while deploring its aims).

Saturday 9 April 2011

Westoboro Baptist Church — lessons in lucrative offence

Four years after his first foray into the weirdly twisted unreality of the Westboro Baptist Church, Louis Theroux has been back, catching up with the Phelps' (what's left of them — they've had a number of defections) to see if they are still as committed to their extreme, fundamentalist ideology as before. It turns out they are, but now appear more organised, more media-savvy, more litigious and apparently just as crazy. The BBC documentary is currently available on YouTube (but may be pulled soon):

Part 1 of 4:

Part 2 of 4:
Part 3 of 4:
Part 4 of 4:

These people truly seem to be living in fantasyland, and though some of the cult members have left, the remainder appear just as committed as ever. Louis Theroux allowed them to self-condemn from their own mouths — as is his particular journalistic style — but nothing in this documentary gave cause for hope that the cult is on the wane. Particularly concerning is the continuing indoctrination of children, skewing their development in ways that will severely affect them for the rest of their lives.

The extremity of the Phelps' views has led some to speculate as to their genuineness. One such, El_Camino_SS, reports that "Fred Phelps is a Con Man". An article entitled "" lists a number of apparent facts about Fred Phelps:
  • He says God Hates Fags, God hates the US Govt., that God hates the US Military, God Hates you, and God justifies the killing of others.
    Phelps knows that saying 'God' and 'Hate' in the same sentence gets people worked up. He knows that. He knows that people have a knee jerk reaction to that.
  • He says that the US Govt. and the United States are evil.
    This is another hot button with people who love their country. It is intentional. It is designed to make you take a swing at him. He wants $50,000 from you. He wants a Powerball winner to swing at him so he gets 100 million dollars. It's that simple.
  • He goes after homosexuals, he goes after people who are making sacrifices. Phelps intentionally targets people that are being victimized, or good people doing their jobs to create more outrage. He kicks people when they're down. He does that so someone will come up and defend them. Then he will sue you.
  • His boards are laminated on hardwood, because he pulls them out of trucks at least five times a week. He also puts them in bright colors for attention, and makes absolutely sure that you can read them at all time. He's phishing you. Everyone must know that.
The thesis of the article is that the Wesboro Baptist Church is not interested in God, it's just interested in being as offensive as possible — within the law — in order to incite other people to break that law. Phelps will then sue for as much as he can get. Whether this is true or not isn't something that can be readily determined, but it's a hypothesis that seems to fit the known facts. What we need now, perhaps, is a proper test of that hypothesis.

Friday 8 April 2011

Debate: Is Good from God? — William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris

Though I've not yet seen the video, I've heard the audio recording of this debate that took place on April 7 between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris, hosted by Notre Dame University. The motion was "Is Good from God?" The following are my thoughts, noted while listening.
Craig starts, using his "argument from morality", which he frames in his usual way:
  • If God exists, objective moral values exist.
  • If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  • Objective moral values do exist, therefore God exists.
The problem with this argument is the definition of objective. Craig characterizes Harris's formulation of morality in The Moral Landscape — where Harris says that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures — as just a redefining of morality, which is no more than saying that the well-being of conscious creatures is about the well-being of conscious creatures. This, says Craig, is circular tautology. But Craig's own definition of morality — in particular objective morality — is itself circular. You only have to listen to his "argument from morality" to realize (despite his denials) that his definition of objective morality is morality originating from a transcendent source, so it's no surprise that in his view morality can't come from a source other than God.

What many of Sam Harris's critics fail to grasp is that he's not attempting to resolve the "value problem". He's not trying to derive values from facts (ought from is). His book The Moral Landscape begins not with an is but with an ought, as he explains in this debate. He starts off with the worst possible misery for everyone, then says that everything else — states or conditions that are not "the worst possible misery for everyone" — is obviously better. It's higher up the moral landscape; no-one can doubt this. It's a value judgement, but it's a judgement we all share, and it's as near to objective as we're likely to get.

Naturally Craig doesn't accept this. He claims that objective morality must come from an authority, and in the absence of God, that authority is moot. Like many theists, Craig cannot get around his authority fixation. He claims there's nothing, in the absence of God, to say that the well-being of conscious creatures is "good". He insists that Harris isn't using the words "good" and "bad" in a moral sense. Again this is hardly surprising from someone who believes that goodness and badness in the moral sense can only be derived from a transcendent source. Craig's definition of morality is inextricably entwined with his personal concept of transcendent authority.

Perhaps Harris misjudges his audience in his first rebuttal, launching into an excoriation of religious morality without tying it sufficiently to his argument. What he says is true, but possibly not on point.

Predictably Craig follows up with the claim (he always does this in debates, whatever his opponent says) that his points have not been responded to, then goes on to claim that theism provides a foundation for morality — even though Harris has just illustrated the moral vacuity of divine command theory. But Craig insists that the existence of evil proves the existence of God; that moral authority comes from God, therefore God exists. God exists, therefore we have objective morality. Of course you can't refute this because objective moral authority, by Craig's definition (despite his denial) comes only from God.

Harris, in his second rebuttal, points out that Craig has misquoted him, but concentrates on the theme of his book — that we can use science to investigate ways to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. He does, however, point out that Craig is merely defining God as good.

In his concluding statement Craig takes up this last point, denies it, then proceeds to do precisely what Harris accuses him of: he defines God as good. Remarkably, Craig objects to Harris's statement that we rely on certain axioms. Craig says that's taking something on faith, which it isn't. Axioms are self-evidently true — no faith is required in order to believe them.

In his concluding statement Harris gives an impassioned plea for rationality in our investigations into how we should live. It's heartfelt, but probably too subtle a response to Craig's rather simplistic, point-scoring style of debate. Craig is a good debater; he uses rhetorical tricks to get his audience on side, but the philosophical content of his speeches is relatively low. He sticks to basic points (most, incidentally, long since refuted), and repeats them, usually along with the mantra that they've received inadequate response from his opponent.

Harris, on the other hand, is less interested in point-scoring, just wanting people to see where he's coming from, and to give his ideas serious consideration.

Half an hour of mostly insightful questions follows the debate proper, and the answers are necessarily short and consequently not very enlightening, except to show that Harris and Craig are never going to agree on the foundation for morality. It seems likely, therefore, that the two sides of this question will continue to talk past each other.

Audio here:

Video here:
Part 1 of 9

Part 2 of 9
Part 3 of 9
Part 4 of 9
Part 5 of 9
Part 6 of 9
Part 7 of 9
Part 8 of 9
Part 9 of 9

UPDATE 2011-04-22:
YouTube now has the whole debate in single video:

Thursday 7 April 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

The Blog : Being Mr. Nobody : Sam Harris
There are an uncountable number of erroneous and unfounded doctrines that we all reject. Why must we name their absence from our lives?
I know Sam Harris doesn't like to identify as an atheist, but the reason we name the absence of erroneous and unfounded doctrines that we reject is that the majority doesn't reject them. The majority thinks these erroneous and unfounded doctrines are true.

Why Are There Atheists? | Godless Girl
Could it be that theists are actually getting the message? By conceding that theists are generally not theists because of reason and evidence, but because of revelation, maybe that means they'll give up debating the evidence with atheists. When theists offer an evidential basis for theism, however, atheists should nevertheless respond in similar terms until the aforementioned concession is acknowledged — at which point the debate is over.

The Daily Mash - 'Atheist bible' an impossible fairy story, say Christians
There, what did I tell you?

The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian
"...we owe it to ourselves not to squander our lives on fairytales."
George Monbiot looks at the facts.

Guardian Readers 'Fix' the Fukushima Power Plant | Science |
Huh, experts. What do they know?

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Eating the abiogenesis cake

It seems Joe W. Francis can't make up his mind. In "Oxygen, Water, and Light, Oh My! — The Toxicity of Life's Basic Necessities", which forms chapter 10 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, he appears to be claiming that the world is fine-tuned for life. And that it's a wonder life got started at all, given the world is so hostile to it. Well, which is it Joe?

This chapter appears to be an example of what might be called the argument from abiogenesis — the complexity of present-day biology is expounded in some detail (detail that I'm not competent to assess, not being a biologist), but it appears to miss one significant factor that's typically (or deliberately) missed in all such arguments. Sure, modern multicellular life is extremely complex, but abiogenesis isn't the wholesale springing-into-existence of complex multicellular life. It's not even the emergence of complex unicellular life. Abiogenesis is the first event — the appearance of the first self-replicating molecule. This molecule and its descendants might not even merit the description organic, even though they would lead to organic life. Whatever they were — and we can only speculate here as we don't really know — they would likely be relatively simple. Certainly relative to the intricate biological machinery evident within cells we examine today, they would probably appear absurdly simple. We have no archeological evidence — such early organisms, being soft-bodied, would not have fossilized.

To give Joe Francis his due, he doesn't explicitly present anything in this chapter as evidence for God (though I wonder, therefore, why the editors included it). But the implication is clear: cellular organisms contain highly complex mechanisms to protect them from the hostile toxicity of their environment — an environment that is fine-tuned for the existence of such cellular organisms. (No, I don't get it either.)

Tuesday 5 April 2011

D. J. Grothe at TAM London 2010

JREF president D. J. Grothe's talk at TAM London 2010 was a bit like a State of the Union address, focussing on the moral imperatives of skepticism (briefly referencing Sam Harris's new book just published) and on how he sees the skeptical movement in general, both globally and locally. As for locally, he announced that the fund-raising of TAM London would be channelled to JREF projects in the UK, and mentioned the grass-roots, loosely affiliated Skeptics in the Pub gatherings that seem to be burgeoning nationwide. Some of these appear to be a direct result of unofficial arrangements made at TAM London itself.


I was looking forward to hearing the new JREF president, and DJ's rallying cry to "the troops" didn't disappoint.

Monday 4 April 2011

A Secular Bible — and barely disguised disdain

The Today Programme this morning featured a discussion between "famous atheist" A. C. Grayling and Thought for the Day regular the Rev Canon Dr Giles Fraser. Grayling was on to plug his latest book, The Good Book: A Secular Bible — characterized as an atheist version of the Christian Bible. He's an accomplished philosopher with a knack for plain speaking without rancour, and so this is one I'll be checking out.

Giles Fraser — he of woolly theology — was apparently on as "balance". Despite his remarkable claim that very few Christians hold to the idea that belief in God is a necessary precondition for morality1, he could not restrain the typical disdain theists reserve for anyone of a godless persuasion who dares to imagine that a fully engaged life can be lived in the absence of a god. It was all jolly banter in the studio, but with a noticeably condescending subtext.

I doubt, however, that any of this will have put off Grayling from his book-promotion — nor should it. Compared to him, Fraser comes across as an intellectual midget whose jovial ripostes may make for a mildly entertaining end to the BBC's flagship morning news radio programme, but beyond that they are of little consequence.

Incidentally the Guardian has an extensive interview with A. C. Grayling that may serve as an antidote to the foregoing Fraser-frustration:
AC Grayling: 'How can you be a militant atheist? It's like sleeping furiously' | Books | The Guardian

1. So few Christians hold to this belief, and yet atheists debating theists encounter it all the time.