Tuesday 31 May 2011

Oh look, numbers! (Therefore God?)

I thought we had already reached the height of irrelevance in Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, but I was mistaken. Chapter 17 of this book — that purports (it's in the title) to provide evidence for God — is "Evolutionary Computation — A Perpetual Motion Machine for Design Information?" by Robert J. Marks II. It includes a discussion of the monkeys-and-typewriters idea:
The story, theoretically plausible, says that if enough monkeys pound out random letters long enough, all of the great texts in history will eventually result. If enough monkeys pound out random letters for a long enough time, all of the great texts, such as Moby Dick (1,170,200 characters), Grimms Tales (1,435,800 characters) and the King James Bible (3,556,480 letters not including spaces) will eventually result. The finiteness of the closed universe, however, prohibits this. (p 93.)
Notice the throwaway line in the last sentence — we have not established that the universe is either finite or closed. Be that as it may, we are actually talking about chance events, and there's nothing to prevent these "great texts" being the very first sequences these monkeys hammer out. Unlikely but not impossible. It is, however, irrelevant to the matter of God (evidence for).

This chapter contains a lot of numbers, which may be relevant to "evolutionary computation", but what they have to do with God I've no idea.

Also downloadable as a PDF from the Australian Intelligent Design Network:

Amusing faux pas in Robert Marks' "Biosketch": "He has over 300 publications. Some of them are very good." And some of them aren't?

Monday 30 May 2011

Skepticule Record: Dr. Paul Curzon at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub

Dr. Paul Curzon's talk on artificial intelligence on 12 May (the second talk of the evening) included several demonstrations requiring audience participation. He concluded with some conjuring to illustrate his own research into the "human-computer interface".

Audio is available in the Skepticule Record podcast feed here:

(A new Skepticule Extra episode will be available shortly.)

Sunday 29 May 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Rees and the Templeton - steve's posterous
Steve Zara's take on Templeton's influence:
"Templeton prostitutes science, insisting it can be tarted up and will give faith a good time. It's an Indecent Proposal, allowing science to get screwed for a round million."
New Statesman - Why Dawkins disappoints
Daft title, but interesting article focussing on the default belief position in the UK. (And I still think Dawkins is right not to debate William Lane Craig. "Oxygen of publicity" and all that — those of us who have seen through his theatricals will let Craig get on with his sideshow tour of the UK, and ignore it.)

The Jesus Gap - steve's posterous
Theology is not Steve Zara's favourite subject.

Kenan Malik's essay on why we should oppose torture
This is an insightful take on the difference between rigid moral laws, and moral guidance.

Why won’t Richard Dawkins debate William Lane Craig? « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald's very thorough analysis.

High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened | Belief | AlterNet
Greta Christina looks at what happens when the chips are down. (Hear from Damon Fowler, the high school student at the centre of the affair, on the latest Non-Prophets podcast.)

Saturday 28 May 2011

Evidence against evolution isn't Evidence for God

Micro-evolution, macro-evolution — it's just a matter of degree. At least, that's what I've always understood. The distinction between species is often described as a question of breeding. Males and females of different species can't interbreed (and produce fertile offspring). But I also understand that the difference between species isn't necessarily that clear cut. In fact it can be almost arbitrary, as a visit to the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre and Cocoon will confirm.

Chapter 16 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God is titled "Limits to Evolvability" and is written by Ray Bohlin. It's all about how evolution cannot account for different species, how mutation cannot introduce additional genetic information, and how natural selection cannot produce all the different forms of animal life. It's all pretty tedious stuff that I've seen before in creationist literature, and I hardly need to go into why it's all mostly nonsense.

The fact that Bohlin has written this chapter, and it's in a book that purports to provide "evidence for God", really shows the creationist's hand. We have several lines of argument that attempt to show why evolution by random mutation and natural selection is impossible, which spawns the inevitable question: why are creationists so dead set against evolution? The answer is that evolution, if correct, removes the need for a sustaining creator god. Evolution shows how the complexity of organic life on this planet came to be, and it didn't require a god to do it. The creationist's god, who was once thought to be actively engaged in constant tinkering and routine maintenance, has nothing left to do. He's superfluous. The Earth — indeed the Universe — can get along quite nicely without an interventionist god. But the creationist can't let that be the case — evolution can't be right!

So presumably that's why we have creationists. Evolutionary theory contradicts scripture, therefore in the mind of a creationist it must be incorrect. The creationist must therefore work backwards from this conclusion to disprove evolutionary theory — hence this chapter. The irony is that even if Bohlin could disprove evolution he wouldn't have proved God.

But what I want to know is this: if Intelligent Design proponents evolved from creationists, why are there still creationists?


Friday 27 May 2011

"Tippler's Bane" — Evelyn Wang's creepy mushroom story now available

I'm famous again (at least a little bit). A new horror short story by Evelyn Wang, entitled "Tippler's Bane", is now available at Pseudopod, the weekly horror podcast. It's narrated as a two-hander by Eve Upton and me.

If you'd like to hear a creepy horror story about twenty minutes long, go and take a listen. At the time of this writing the version available may have some issues with Eve's part of the narration, but I understand Pseudopod have anticipated this and will post a revised version if enough people go over to the Pseudopod discussion forum and encourage them to do so.

It's only the second time I've shared narration of a short story — the other was "Are You Ready For the End of the World?" by Danny Adams, which I narrated along with Tee Morris in March 2006, for Escape Pod.

Incidentally if you're at all interested in short genre audio fiction you really should subscribe to the three Escape Artists podcasts: Escape Pod (science fiction), Pseudopod (horror) and PodCastle (fantasy) — for all of which I've narrated at one time or another.

UPDATE 2011-06-01:
An alternative version of the story is now available from the Pseudopod website (the mushroom lady is now more audible):

Thursday 26 May 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

I was wrong: BioLogos promotes Jesus, not evolution « Why Evolution Is True
There are many who think Templeton is a corrupting influence on science. Jerry Coyne is one of the fewer who are prepared to say so in unequivocal terms.

Bollocks! « Carmen Gets Around (II)
Carmen d'Cruz articulates a growing dissatisfaction with the media's shallow treatment of the Harold Camping Apocalypse affair.

Wrong, root and branch; wrong at every cell and molecule; wrong to the core : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers points out that the (regrettably ongoing) Camping affair is but a symptom of the unjustified weight given to theological nonsense.

Temple of the Future : Unbelievable – When Morality Becomes Literary Criticism
In the light of a recent Premier Christian Radio Unbelievable? discussion James Croft examines the difference between religious and secular morality.

British Centre for Science Education: Creation Watch - Richard Fangrad in Oxford - Creation Ministries International
This talk was in a church, so was Richard Fangrad preaching to the converted? Not entirely, otherwise this report wouldn't exist. But I suspect that the majority of the audience believe the Bible is true to a degree, and some of them might welcome the idea that the Genesis story is confirmed by science. (It isn't.)

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: How the New Rapture Date Was Calculated
I've already stated how I think things went down, but Crispian Jago has a more likely explanation.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

More on the myth of objective morality

Earlier today I drafted a comment to post in a discussion at the Unbelievable? Group forum. But this evening when I went there to post it, the discussion had disappeared. I started a new thread and posted it anyway, but I'm including it here as well. The original discussion was started by Chris Baird, about whether "common sense" is a suitable basis for morality. The ensuing comments, including some especially insightful ones from James Croft, put me in mind of my recent post here about "objective morality". This is what I posted in the new thread:
What happened to Chris Baird's discussion about the "Is the Bible unbelievable?" show last Saturday? It seems to have disappeared. I was about to stick my oar in, and found the thread had vanished, which is a shame because the exchange between Chris and James Croft was getting interesting. Anyway, this is what I was going to post, prompted by Justin's brief but insistent quizzing of Leslie Scrace:

I agree with James. The theistic claim to transcendental moral knowledge is bogus. Its basis is in scripture, which is no more than "it's written in this book, therefore it must be true." The suggestion that this is some kind of superior "foundation" for morality doesn't hold up to inspection.

For instance, why this book and not some other? Is it a matter of personal preference that a Christian takes his or her morality from the Bible? If a Christian claims to have had a personal revelation that Christian moral law is true, is that anything more than a subjective feeling?

Christians are forever asking (as Justin did on last Saturday's show) for the atheistic "foundation" for morality, when their own "foundation" is nothing of the kind.

Sticking resolutely to an arbitrary list of rules regardless of the consequences is morally irresponsible. It's an abnegation of one's duty to do right by one's fellows. And before any theists ask me again why I have any reason to think that such an attitude — or indeed duty — is moral, I will simply say this: basing my actions on what appears to promote progress towards mutual wellbeing produces results that are on the whole beneficial to the human race. What more do I need?

There is an odd notion in theistic circles that morality must by definition be transcendent. The sooner we get rid of this erroneous idea the better for humankind. (More on my blog.)
We'll have to wait and see if the new thread gets as interesting as the one that vanished.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Camping: a good numerologist but a poor judge of divine character?

So, what happened? Nothing, actually. Wasn't that a surprise. Then, after the non-event, hours of silence from the Harold Camping camp. Until today, when he tells us that it did happen. It was a spiritual coming. Completely undetectable, with no visible or testable effects, but nonetheless it really did happen. The world is now "under judgement," he says.

Well, I'm skeptical. I think what happened is this: Harold Camping was right about the date of the Rapture. His numerological decypherings yielded the correct answer that God put in the Bible via his well-known method of divine inspiration, but Camping got carried away. He was so concerned to get his sums right he lost sight of why he was doing them.

It seems to me that shortly after the deadline there must have been an exchange something like this:
ALMIGHTY GOD: Camping! You old reprobate! What d'you think you're playing at?


AG: You know what I'm talking about! All these billboards!

HC: Lord, I spread the knowledge of your coming, so that —

AG: I never told you to do that!

HC: But the code, the seven thousand years...

AG: Precisely! The code. Did it ever cross your mind that I might have put it in code for a reason?

HC: I, er...

AG: A code, Camping. A code is supposed to be secret. And what have you done? Only spilled the beans to the whole world!

HC: But Lord, I thought —

AG: Never mind what you thought, Camping. It's clear to me that you didn't think. I've got limited accommodation up here. Do you think I want just anybody swanning about in Paradise? Heaven is supposed to be exclusive, you know.

HC: Well, I don't think there will be that many...

AG: Too late! Deal's off.

HC: Lord?

AG: You heard me. I've changed my mind. Nobody's going to be raptured. As for the world, I'll sort something out later this year, I haven't time to think about it now.

HC: But what am I going to say to —

AG: Tell them what you like. Not my problem. You got yourself into this mess, you can get out of it.

HC: Lord, if I could just —

AG: That'll be all, Camping. I don't expect to see you again anytime soon.

HC: That's a great comfort, Lord.

AG: Don't get me wrong, Camping. What you've done has displeased — nay, annoyed me intensely. Easily enough to revoke your ticket. So it's possible you might be seeing the other chap sooner than you think.

HC: Oh.

AG: Yes. So sort it out yourself. Now, if you'll excuse me — and you will — I've got to go and be ineffable for a while. [Almighty God effs off.]

HC: Of course, Lord. [a pause] Mmm, let me see. Ineffable...

Monday 23 May 2011

Skepticule Extra — new episode now available

The fifth episode of three-paul-podcast Skepticule Extra is now available for your godless listening pleasure:


This time we have a rapturous discussion about monkeys in Basingstoke during an intelligently designed full moon, among other things.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

YouTube - The Rapture

Glad to see someone considered the practicalities.

Why out-of-body and near-death experiences don’t prove God « Why Evolution Is True
No mention of Gary Habermas, I note.

BioDundee - News : Homeopathy is ‘dangerous and wasteful’ says Abertay Expert
Clearly stated, but will it be enough for the Government to act? (Judging by what happened south of the border, it seems doubtful.)

New Humanist - Islamic creationism on tour
Hasn't this bunch already done the rounds in the UK?

How can we corral data to reveal the big picture? | Ben Goldacre | Comment is free | The Guardian
Maybe it's impossible to be truly objective about data...

Saturday 21 May 2011

Absolutely wrong — more anti-naturalism in Dembski & Licona

As an exercise in misrepresentation Nancy Pearcey's contribution to Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God is hard to beat. In "How Darwinism Dumbs Us Down — Evolution and Postmodernism" she tries to make a case for naturalism being self-refuting. She doesn't refer to, or even mention Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, though she's writing about the same idea — but in a much dumbed-down manner lacking any focus. She claims that Darwinism undercuts rationality, without making a sufficient case for such a claim; her thesis in this respect suffers from the same flaw as Plantinga's: that although it's most likely true that evolution is responsible for our belief-forming mechanisms, our belief-forming mechanisms are not solely produced by evolution.

Critics of evolution (usually theists) often claim that "believers in evolution" maintain that Darwin's theory is responsible for absolutely everything. This straw man once again illustrates the theistic obsession with absolutes — Darwinism is responsible for everything, or it's responsible for nothing. (The theistic world is black and white: morality, for instance, is objective, absolute, unchanging and set in stone, or else it is an insubstantial figment of human imagination — nothing in between.) Pearcey's chapter provides examples early on, when she discusses the wider application of a naturalistic worldview:
At the foundation of these efforts, however, was a naturalistic approach to knowledge itself (epistemology). The logic went like this: If humans are products of Darwinian natural selection, that obviously includes the human brain–which in turn means all our beliefs and values are products of evolutionary forces: Ideas arise in the human brain by chance, just like Darwin's chance variations in nature; and the ones that stick around to become firm beliefs and convictions are those that give an advantage in the struggle for survival. This view of knowledge came to be called pragmatism (truth is what works) or instrumentalism (ideas are merely tools for survival). (p 82.)
This is wrong on several counts. Darwinism does not mean that "all our beliefs and values are products of evolutionary forces" — only some of them. Ideas do not "arise in the human brain by chance" — to suggest that they do in any significant quantity, is to suggest that the process of thinking is no more than a random synaptic cacophony — some of which might by chance be "useful". Clearly this is not so. As for pragmatism being "truth is what works", this is such a blatant oversimplification one hardly knows where to start with it. The entries on "pragmatism" in Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy might be worth a try. (Note that although Pearcey uses the phrase "natural selection" she seems confused as to how it operates. She appears to be suggesting that ideas can be inherited — in a kind of transcendental Lamarckism.)

Unfortunately the paragraph quoted above is only the fourth in Pearcey's chapter, and it effectively undermines and invalidates most of what follows it. It's an all or nothing argument, which, if you take it literally and find even one tiny flaw, the whole edifice crumbles. To use a favourite anti-naturalism ploy, it's self-refuting.


Friday 20 May 2011

"Objective" morality — not all it's cracked up to be

This week the podcast of Premier's Saturday discussion programme Unbelievable? was available for download the day before broadcast. The show's description reads:
This week on Unbelievable : Is the Bible Unbelievable? Leslie Scrace & Chris Sinkinson

Former Methodist minister turned atheist Leslie Scrace stopped reading the Bible after he lost his faith. 20 years later he read it again and wrote a book-by-book account of how he views it as an atheist called "An Unbelievers Guide to the Bible". Leslie criticises parts of the Old Testament that he sees as primitive and immoral while praising other parts of scripture that illustrate humanist values. Chris Sinkinson is a church pastor and teaches Old Testament and Apologetics at Moorlands Bible College. He responds saying that the Bible can't be dissected in the way Leslie attempts and that taking God out of the morality of the Bible robs it of its meaning. They discuss books such as Job, Joshua, Song of Solomon and the Gospels. Chris also challenges Leslie on whether his humanist morality has any objective foundation.
It's that last sentence that irks. Christians — and others of a religious persuasion — seem to be obsessed with the idea of "objective" morality. Justin Brierley exemplified this attitude in his uncharacteristic interrogation of Leslie Scrace towards the close of this week's discussion. He repeatedly questioned the basis on which Leslie judged certain parts of the Bible to be immoral. The vice-like grip of this mindset was evident in the way both Justin and his other guest Chris Sinkinson claimed that morality must be "objective" or else it isn't morality. When Leslie suggested that Epicurus was a better moral teacher than Jesus, and treated women better than Jesus did, Justin responded thus:
Where does the "better" come from? This is the whole problem, for me, of the humanist perspective — that they talk about better this and better that, all the while denying that there is this standard that the better is getting closer to.
And when Leslie said he thinks the human race hasn't arrived at a proper treatment of women, Justin replied:
But you haven't explained what this proper standard is and how it exists independently of evolution and everything else.
Let's nail this persistent accusation. Where do Christians get their "objective" morality? Obviously it comes from scripture. Often the Ten Commandments are cited as a repository of moral standards. Disregarding for the present the obvious moral flaws within the Decalogue, let's just examine the idea of having a list of written rules — however the list may have originated. A set of laws, literally set in stone, inflexible and unquestionable, will inevitably lead to their inappropriate application, as all such laws do. The Ten Commandments can be described as "petty bureaucracy gone mad" — insistence on their application in all cases without exception is akin to the pompous official who says, "Sorry, I sympathise, but rules is rules. It's more than my job's worth to make an exception in your case."

There's huge irony in the religious insistence on blindly following a rule book, while at the same time decrying those who attempt to make moral judgements based on circumstances and consequences. The humanist approach is to consider notions of fairness, and the effects our decisions will have on those around us and on the wider world. The religious idea of morality is to follow an ancient text regardless of the moral consequences, and to hell with anyone who disagrees. That's not morality, "objective" or otherwise.

Look at it this way: who is exhibiting greater moral responsibility — those who attempt to derive and construct moral guidance from the circumstances the human race finds itself in, for the furtherance of human well-being, or those who ignore such efforts and stick rigidly to a list of obviously outdated "laws"?

"Rules are made to be broken." It's a cliché, but it's true. Rules — including moral rules — are not the be-all and end-all of how we should act. A list of rules is merely a handy aide-mémoire — a short-cut to help in knowing what to do in a wide range of circumstances, but not all circumstances. There will be times when the rules won't fit the circumstances, and we'll have to decide for ourselves how to act. Those who have taken it upon themselves to consider moral questions from the humanist perspective will clearly be better equipped to deal with such situations than those who rely slavishly on a list of supposedly inerrant rules.

Religious morality is no more "objective" than humanist morality. Humanist morality is founded on continuous study of circumstances and consequences — a morality that evolves, and is progressively honed by scientific knowledge, moderated by individual and group desires and aspirations, and a consideration of the well-being of the global human race. Religious morality on the other hand is "founded" on ancient texts of dubious provenance — it is, to all intents and purposes, arbitrary.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Asking the wrong question: how crap research gets drugs to market – Bad Science
Ben Goldacre touched on this problem with big-pharma-funded research in his spot during Uncaged Monkeys last Friday (at the Basingstoke Anvil — a great night out and highly enjoyable, thanks for asking), and it is very worrying.

Refs for talk, new book on the evils of Big Pharma, and a tour of medical schools - bengoldacre - secondary blog
Doctor Ben again, incidentally confirming that he talked about this stuff in Uncaged Monkeys. His attempt to reach every medical student in the country is a truly awe-inspiring project.

DMD --------------------
Draw Mohammad, the day before the Rapture, in defence of free speech.

New Humanist: An encounter with the Centre for Intelligent Design – debating creationism, ID and Holocaust denial
Actually with Alasdair Noble, its director, at a science festival in Edinburgh.

Rapture Relief - Media
You can't fault the logic, and it's in a good cause!

Stephen Hawking: 'There is no heaven; it's a fairy story' | Science | The Guardian
Hawking tends to pare down his communication to the essentials, to give us his refreshing no-nonsense take on the great questions.

Twitter / @ben goldacre: If you ever feel down, you ...
... should know that this video of nerdy girls playing old synthesisers is here for you
And here it is:

Wednesday 18 May 2011

New Skepticule Record (Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub) available

Dr. Chaz Shapiro delivered a fascinating talk on dark matter and dark energy at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub on Thursday 12th May, at its new venue The Fat Fox.

Audio is available in the Skepticule Record podcast feed here:

There was another highly engaging talk later the same evening by Dr. Paul Curzon, on artificial intelligence. Audio should be available shortly.

Monday 16 May 2011

Uncaged Monkeys at the Anvil, Basingstoke

"So what's this Uncaged Monkeys thing you're going to see then? Is it a band?"

"No, it's not a band."

"A play?"

"No, it's ... science. And comedy."

"Oh. That sounds —"

"By the people in Radio Four's The Infinite Monkey Cage. You heard of that?"

"Er, no."

"Well, they just got a Sony Award."
It may have been different, geeky, at times hilarious and at other times intensely moving. It may not be the usual fare at the Basingstoke Anvil, but it filled pretty well all of the hall's 1400 seats.

Robin Ince started the show off, casting some aspersions on Professor Brian Cox — whom he claimed never listened to the introductions so he could say what he liked. Then it was time for TV's Professor Wonder Boy to wow us with potted particle physics. He hit us with the Higgs boson, and claimed that particle accelerators were always built near airports in order to give them a sense of perspective. In a generally reassuring manner he touched on the likelihood of the Large Hadron Collider destroying the Earth, using a technical term that I forget — though I remember it was four letters beginning and ending in "t". (There was also a "w" and an asterisk in it somewhere). He showed us a graphic of government funding, challenging us to locate the spend on scientific research. He pointed out the bill for the bank bail-out, and that it was greater than the amount spent on science ... since Jesus. And he did the Big Bang.

Ben Goldacre chased his wild hair and oscillating eyebrows around the stage, with tales of placebos, big pharma and fish oil pills, and he showed us a picture of his cat Henrietta, plus a certificate of her medical qualifications — the same qualifications claimed by nutritionist Gillian McKeith. Great mirth ensued, but the stuff about big pharma was actually quite worrying.

Steve Jones talked about evolution, illustrating natural selection with something from his own early career as an engineer. His example was a process of converting a liquid to a powder by forcing it at high pressure through metal nozzles. Apparently these nozzles used to corrode and become ineffective very quickly. Rather than try to work out the best shape for these nozzles, the designers used a form of random mutation, making ten copies, each slightly — but randomly — different from the original. These copies then were tested, and best one was then randomly mutated ten times and then those copies were tested. After several cycles of such random mutation and selection, they ended up with a nozzle that lasted 100 times longer than the original, but no-one knew why.

Simon Singh electrocuted a gherkin on stage, which was highly illuminating (literally, though what it would taste like after that, he didn't say). Of such insights is the scientific knowledge regarding the size and the age of the universe derived. And he too did the Big Bang. He ended with the story of his somewhat pedantic insistence on the accuracy of song lyrics, which is appropriate because we were also entertained by Helen Arney, who sang to us while playing the ukele.

There was a session during which Robin Ince passed on tweeted questions to Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox and Simon Singh. (There is also a podcast — Free Primates — in which the Uncaged Monkeys answer questions they didn't have time to deal with on stage.)

Naturally the show could not pass without several mentions of Carl Sagan, of whom both Robin Ince and Brian Cox are declared fans. Sagan's Pale Blue Dot brought the proceedings to a moving close.

Altogether it was a splendidly enjoyable evening, and I saw the whole thing close up as I was on the front row. What I should have realised is that the Anvil is the nearest venue for many of those people who attend Winchester Skeptics in the Pub, as well as the fledgling Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub. Several were indeed attending, and I was pleased to be able to join some of them for a curry after the show.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Church Times - Cameron urges Brits not to fight shy of ‘doing God’
“I’ve never really understood this argument about ‘Should the Church get involved in politics? Yes or no?’ To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church, is involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions. . ."
A horrible and divisive slur. Cameron is implying that only "Christianity, faith, religion, the Church" can provide answers to moral questions.
(Via HumanistLife.)

We aren't angry, we're effective, which is even scarier : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers ponders Chris Mooney's session in his own Point of Inquiry hot seat.

Richard Dawkins accused of cowardice for refusing to debate existence of God - Telegraph
I think Dawkins should stand his ground and ignore such accusations, which are not so much about "debating" as "baiting". William Lane Craig was revealed as a disingenuous trickster in his recent debates with Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris, so Dawkins is wise to steer clear. I fully accept that Craig is likely to "win" such a debate — he is after all a professional debater — but it would be a technical win and add nothing to the wider argument. His debating points (as we've seen from the recent debates with Krauss and Harris) are formulated to be essentially unfalsifiable and therefore not worth the engagement. When I heard that Craig was coming to the UK I felt a great surge of indifference. Once upon a time I would have been interested in whom he would be debating and where, but no longer.

My sister wanted a godless funeral. But still invited God | Jon Canter | Comment is free | The Guardian
Secular rituals should be unique. (Religious rituals are made up, so why shouldn't the godless do the same?)

Brow Beat : A.C. Grayling's Top 5 Non-Religious Books on Living a Good Life
Some literature recommendations from a supremely literate but down-to-earth philosopher.

Iran to blind criminal with acid in 'eye for an eye' justice | World news | The Guardian
Has Rowan Williams — in favour of sharia law in Britain — commented on this story?

New Oxford study: religion pervasive, ergo impossible to eradicate « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne detects a whiff of accommodationism's wealthy promoters in a recent study of religious belief.

Saturday 14 May 2011

More cargo-cult "science" from the Centre for Intelligent Design

This week I received another email from the Centre for Intelligent Design, promoting its July Summer School. I know it's early days yet, but is the CID having trouble filling the 50 places at the event? The price has halved since it was announced, and various reduced deals have been added. At this rate people will be signing up just for the break and skipping all the talks. (According to the CID website there are some interesting local landmarks to explore.)

The email contains the following:
It's become a mantra for Darwinists to claim that ID isn't science. That's used as a put-down from the start as a device to ignore the gathering weight of empirical evidence that challenges Darwinism.
This epitomises the wrong-headedness of the ID crowd. To suggest that by claiming ID is not science one is ignoring "...the gathering weight of empirical evidence that challenges Darwinism" is a bizarre non sequitur. Whether or not empirical evidence challenging Darwinism is being ignored is neither here nor there in relation to intelligent design. It has no bearing on the scientific validity of ID. The quoted sentences are equivalent to saying:
"It's become a mantra for lawyers to claim that this woman is guilty of a crime. That's used as a put-down from the start as a device to ignore the gathering weight of empirical evidence that her neighbours watch Sky Sports on a Saturday."
It's ironic that they're accusing "Darwinists" of what they themselves are doing in these very sentences, but I'd be surprised if the CID isn't aware of this obvious logical fallacy. Perhaps they're using it as a smokescreen in a deliberate attempt to conceal the fact that ID is indeed not science. If they continue with such obfuscation they cannot expect to be taken seriously by those who value actual science above the cargo-cult version they espouse.

Friday 13 May 2011

My 400th blogpost

It's Friday the Thirteenth, a highly significant date.

(Actually it isn't. Friday. Or significant. Sharp-eyed readers of Notes from an Evil Burnee who look for my posts every day — do I have any of those? — may have noticed that the posting date accompanying each blogpost isn't necessarily the date it's actually posted. When I'm busy with other things I can't always post on my intended daily schedule, so I catch up later and back-date posts where necessary. And this was the week of the massive Blogger outage, so even if I'd had time I wouldn't have been able to post anyway.)

Friday the Thirteenth is not significant, other than it's the date when superstitious people believe that they are more likely to experience bad luck. Which is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy, so maybe they're right after all. (I read a Hansard report the other day — David Tredinnick claiming that surgeons won't operate when there's a full moon, because blood won't clot properly. It seems like he really believes this nonsense — but he also believes homeopathy works, and wants more research to prove it. Horse, please follow the cart.)

With this (rather self-indulgent) post — my 400th — I'm up to date again. It's been five four and a half months* of daily blogging, and I continue to enjoy it, to find it a useful outlet and a means of clarifying my thoughts on a range of concerns. So, for now, I think I'll keep doing it.

*Self-indulgent and innumerate.

Thursday 12 May 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Christopher Hitchens: Unspoken Truths | Culture | Vanity Fair
It is an honour to read this towering intellect persisting in its failing frame. Hitch does his readers a unique service with unstinting insights into his ongoing condition. Lessons for us all.

Why the world might end next Saturday - Religion - Salon.com
An attempt to explain how nutcase Harold Camping has worked out that the "rapture" will occur on May 21st. What I want to know is this: if the date of the rapture is somehow encoded in the Bible, won't God be pretty pissed off with Camping for letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak?

Science explains the end of the world - On Faith - The Washington Post
Richard Dawkins was asked to comment on the lunacy of Harold Camping. He gives it the attention it deserves, dismissing it with utter contempt, and goes on to talk of other things. Would that the media in general took so sane a view of the matter.

Tessera: Good Girls Don't
It's hard to believe that stupid (and sexist) ideas like this one put forward by Nadine Dorries can get any traction in today's Britain, but she won the vote. Tessera gives a good analysis.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

A telling telic misapprehension in Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God

The title of chapter 14 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God makes me wonder about the currency of it: "Debunking the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' Stereotype". The Scopes "monkey trial" was way back in 1926. It was dramatised in the black and white film Inherit the Wind. (A more recent BBC Radio drama — based on court transcripts — is available for download from RapidShare.)

The thrust of Edward Sisson's essay is that it's wrong to insist that the scientific consensus about evolution be taught to children, because in 1926 scientific consensus included the existence of the ether and the usefulness of eugenics. But if there's little actual controversy about a theory such as the ether (as there wasn't until science showed that the theory was false — indeed numerous experiments around the time of the trial were already spreading doubts about the ether's existence), how else should we determine what's to be taught in schools? Certainly not by reference to scripture — especially in the US where the teaching of religion is unconstitutional. Where there is genuine controversy it's legitimate to expose children to competing theories, but school science lessons should teach accepted science. The overwhelming scientific consensus, in 1926 as now, is that Darwinian evolution explains the way life came to be the way it is on this planet. Darwinian evolution, therefore, is what should be taught in schools.

But be that as it may, this chapter appears to be an unsubstantiated bleat for creationism, while at the same time offering no evidence for God, which is what Dembski & Licona's book is supposed to be about.

Towards the end of his chapter, Sisson clearly illustrates the usual creationist misunderstanding of evolution:
Indeed, Darwinians, who claim that all of life is motivated by an irresistible drive for survival, which necessarily means a drive for power, are poorly positioned to claim a special exemption from the very force they say rules life. (pp. 79-80)
Note the use of motivated, irresistible drive, drive for power, and force. These words impute intention — a telic force — when in fact Darwinian natural selection is nothing of the kind. There is no force, no drive, no motivation. It just happens. It's simply the way things occur in a system comprised of organisms capable of reproducing themselves, while at the same time being susceptible to reproduction errors that make them more or less suited to their environment. Darwinian evolution occurs that way because it can do no other.


Tuesday 10 May 2011

Alan Moore at TAM London 2010

I'm not a fan of comic books. Not that I have anything against graphic novels as such — it's just that I never really got into them. I've read Watchmen, seen the film, and enjoyed both, despite a certain ambivalence towards the superhero genre. I also have a couple of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series which I've yet to get to.


I didn't know what to expect of Alan Moore, though I was aware he is revered by many. I have to admit that the twenty-minute poem he proceeded to read to us on Sunday afternoon at TAM London 2010 left me cold. Maybe if I'd been more attuned to his oeuvre, or even his voice, I would have got something out of it. (I should point out that for me poetry in general is a bit of a blind spot, so I'm not qualified to assess its worth, and my comments in this regard are probably worthless.)


After the poem we were back to the discussion format, with Alan Moore in conversation with Neil Denny and Josie Long. My overall impression was of an expectation that the audience would be at least partially familiar with the subjects discussed, which I was not.

But you win some, you lose some. I know that there were people attending TAM London for whom Alan Moore's appearance was the highlight of the weekend. Alas, I'm not one of them.

The 2010 TAM London was a different animal from its predecessor. I've already mentioned the preponderance of discussion panels — a format that's fine in moderation (excuse the pun), but I would have preferred fewer of them and more of the structured talk format. I also noticed a shift towards an atheistic emphasis. This isn't something I'm against, because it fits with my own skepticism, of which my atheism is merely a subset. I suspect, however, that there will be some who feel that skepticism should not necessarily imply or assume atheism.

On the whole TAM London 2010 was highly successful and I'm glad I went. I look forward to the DVDs and to the announcement of the speaker line-up for TAM London 2011. And I'll finish with a couple of shots of the man himself wrapping up the weekend:


Monday 9 May 2011

New episode of Skepticule Extra available

Episode 4 of Skepticule Extra, the podcast where my two co-hosts and I rant and ramble about generally skeptical and godless matters in the news and elsewhere, is now available for download. This time we go on about homeopathy, faith-healing, post-mortem conversion and books we have and haven't been reading.

Find it here:

Sunday 8 May 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

What your teachers are doing : Pharyngula
I'm reminded of the current obsession in the UK with CRB reports — if you merely enter a school building you're supposed to pay to have the Criminal Records Bureau look up your file so you can prove you're not a paedophile. Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty"?

The new atheist response to being told to quiet down - Butterflies and Wheels
Ophelia Benson clarifies her Gnu Atheist status.

Why I simply cannot get through Sam Harris’s new book « Choice in Dying
The Moral Landscape continues to confound serious thinkers.

Greta Christina's Blog: A Crisis of Faithlessness
What matters? Greta Christina does what in other circumstances would be called some soul-searching.

Saturday 7 May 2011

God among the blog-battles — an atheist rises to a challenge

As a result of something Paul Baird mentioned on the latest Skepticule Extra I listened to a discussion between Alex B and Matt Slick, which was precipitated by a challenge from another blogger (of whom more later). Alex B's conversation with Matt Slick was notable for the latter's insistence that Alex is a god-hater, to which Alex understandably responded that he couldn't hate someone whom he doesn't believe exists. There was also the tiresome insistence that Alex B had a belief — a belief that God doesn't exist. This latter point can be argued over at length, but surely its significance here is that Matt Slick clearly thinks that Alex really does believe that God doesn't exist. So how can he be a god-hater?

Alex seems to be getting a taste for the religious call-in show — he's had another go (which I've yet to hear), but so far his counter-challenge to Stormbringer, the blogger who challenged him to call Matt Slick, has brought forth no fruit. Whether Stormbringer does or does not eventually call the Atheist Experience is of little consequence. Such a call might prove entertaining, but judging by Stormbringer's blog — a few recent posts of which I've perused — the call would probably be short and inconclusive, and would likely highlight the true worth of his arguments and the level of his intellect.

Friday 6 May 2011

A secret summer of intelligent design

In July of this year the Centre for Intelligent Design is holding a week-long summer school, to "...clarify the various strands of the design argument, its basis in science, its distinct stance with respect to religious faith, and its wider implications." Fancy going along? You might find the £300 price-tag a bit much, though for four days of full board accommodation plus lectures and networking it appears good value. That price, by the way, is half what was originally advertised, so I wonder if perhaps the event has not proved as irresistible a prospect as the organisers first hoped. If you're a student you might even get in for a mere £100.

I say "might". There appear to be some other obstacles to admission to this exclusive (maximum 50 attendees) event:
"Applicants should be able to demonstrate an interest in and commitment to the design argument."
"You must be able to demonstrate an interest in and commitment to the design argument. Required application materials include (1) a résumé or C.V. (2) a short statement of your interest in intelligent design and its perceived relationship to your area of work and life and (3) a letter of recommendation from a person of standing who knows your work and is friendly towards ID."
Then there's the application process itself:
"Application to join the Summer School is a two-part process: 1: a preliminary application involving no cost; 2: final application with full agreed payment being made at the time of application."
As if to emphasise the organisers' apparent paranoia there's also a bit of cloak-and-dagger:
"Because of professional sensitivities, participation in the conference will be handled in strict confidence and with anonymity."
Naturally the C4ID are maintaining their charade that intelligent design isn't a religious idea, though the founders are religious believers (and, incidentally, the conference is being held in a centre operated by Pentecostalists).

How much of a threat to science education is this "summer school"? With only 50 (anonymous) people attending I wonder about the possible extent of its influence. It depends, of course, on precisely who those anonymous people are.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

An illustration for the wisdom of conservatism (theological and otherwise)
Randal Rauser rues his impetuosity (but shares it for our benefit).

The Betrayal of Reason « Choice in Dying
Catching up with Eric MacDonald's blog — read his serious reservations about Templeton in the light of his (and his wife's) experiences with regard to the Anglican stance on assisted dying.

Roman Catholicism: The Sick Soul of the World « Choice in Dying
The RC Church is "...a fringe fanatic movement of no more interest to humanity than the Jehovah’s Witnesses."

God, Genocide and William Lane Craig « Choice in Dying
As far as I'm concerned, William Lane Craig is history. His recent debates with Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris clearly demonstrated that his "apologetic" is worthless, and the current raking-over of his familiar but despicable version of divine command theory confirms the vacuity of his supposed "moral foundation". What he says from now on need no longer be considered of any consequence.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Some disorganised thoughts on René Descartes and his Method

Rummaging around some dusty corner of my hard disk recently I came across this note that at the time had the potential to become the basis of something more substantial. It's 18 months old now, so the references to my "new" Kindle are a bit irrelevant (the restrictions have been partially lifted, and the Kindle 2 itself has been superseded by its cheaper third incarnation). Nevertheless I'm posting the note here rather than consigning it to the bit-bucket.
Of an evening I have a choice: I can watch TV, or I can read. Currently I'm reading — I have a machine that watches TV for me (and I hope to get around to watching those programmes soon). My reading is mostly off a computer screen, as it consists of news and blogs. I wouldn't want to read a whole book on the computer.

But I now have a Kindle — Amazon's "wireless reading device" — and though the service Amazon provides for the Kindle's international (non-US) users seems unnecessarily and arbitrarily restricted, there are sufficient advantages to make it a worthwhile proposition (plus it's a gadget, and I like gadgets).

A big advantage for me is that the Kindle gives me convenient access to many public domain classics — such as those available at Project Gutenberg — in a format that doesn't require reading off a computer screen. And they're free, if you download them to your computer and transfer them to the Kindle using the supplied USB cable. So I'm revisiting one particular classic that I originally explored decades ago in my then quest for philosophical justification of the theistic mindset.

René Descartes' Discourse on the Method, containing the famous phrase "I think, therefore I am", held out the promise of a rational proof of the existence of God, based on his initial rejection of everything that could not be shown to be true, or was not self-evident. On my first reading of the Discourse I was impressed by the Method, but underwhelmed by some of the unjustifiable leaps of logic Descartes makes. I thought it would be instructive to revisit this seminal work in the light of my more recent exploration of the various "proofs" of God (see my series of blogposts, "Arguments for Fred").

The first problem I notice on re-reading the Discourse is the gradual edging towards what I now know as the ontological argument, and Descartes' problematic use of the word "perfect".
And that's where it stops. I recall that I did continue with my re-reading of Descartes, but I can't find any other thoughts, other than notes and highlights on the Kindle itself:
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 113-15 | Added on Sunday, November 01, 2009, 03:28 PM

And, in fine, of false sciences I thought I knew the worth sufficiently to escape being deceived by the professions of an alchemist, the predictions of an astrologer, the impostures of a magician, or by the artifices and boasting of any of those who profess to know things of which they are ignorant.
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 153-56 | Added on Sunday, November 01, 2009, 03:47 PM

the sciences contained in books (such of them at least as are made up of probable reasonings, without demonstrations), composed as they are of the opinions of many different individuals massed together, are farther removed from truth than the simple inferences which a man of good sense using his natural and unprejudiced judgment draws respecting the matters of his experience.
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 396-98 | Added on Tuesday, November 03, 2009, 12:23 AM

from reflecting on the circumstance that I doubted, and that consequently my being was not wholly perfect (for I clearly saw that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt), I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself;
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 442-44 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:17 PM

Finally, if there be still persons who are not sufficiently persuaded of the existence of God and of the soul, by the reasons I have adduced, I am desirous that they should know that all the other propositions, of the truth of which they deem themselves perhaps more assured, as that we have a body, and that there exist stars and an earth, and such like, are less certain;
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 471-74 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:24 PM

And because our reasonings are never so clear or so complete during sleep as when we are awake, although sometimes the acts of our imagination are then as lively and distinct, if not more so than in our waking moments, reason further dictates that, since all our thoughts cannot be true because of our partial imperfection, those possessing truth must infallibly be found in the experience of our waking moments rather than in that of our dreams.
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Note Loc. 503 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:30 PM

Enough with the double negatives already!
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 527-28 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:35 PM

things purely material might, in course of time, have become such as we observe them at present;
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 527-29 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:36 PM

things purely material might, in course of time, have become such as we observe them at present; and their nature is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming in this manner gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state.
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 648-49 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:56 PM

Such persons will look upon this body as a machine made by the hands of God, which is incomparably better arranged, and adequate to movements more admirable than is any machine of human invention.
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Note Loc. 657 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:58 PM

Turing test!
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Note Loc. 689 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 09:34 PM

So far, these are merely assertions.
Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 790-91 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 09:49 PM

I have never met with a single critic of my opinions who did not appear to me either less rigorous or less equitable than myself.
This ability to add notes and highlights on the fly is a useful feature of the Kindle — it's equivalent to writing in the margins of the book you're reading, except in the digital version you're unlikely to run out of space.

Incidentally, Melvyn Bragg's weekly BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time covered Descartes recently:
(It appears that IOT is archived in its entirety, with full audio available for every episode — a most valuable resource.)

Tuesday 3 May 2011

P. Z. Myers at TAM London 2010

For many attendees of TAM London 2010 the appearance of "godless liberal" P. Z. Myers would have been one of the anticipated highlights of the weekend. For those who had not previously heard him speak (on podcasts or via YouTube), his relatively mild manner would have been at odds with the surgical invective of his well-trafficked blog Pharyngula. He may have a reputation as the world's most aggressive atheist, but in person he is calm and reasonable. The media tend to focus on specific actions of his that they deem incendiary (the episode known as Crackergate is an example), but they usually — and wilfully — miss the point he's making. (Read his Pharyngula post on the culmination of Crackergate to see an example of such a point.)
We now know that P. Z. is writing a book, and those of us who consider ourselves his fans are eagerly awaiting its publication. His TAM talk was a rallying call to all atheists: he advocates ridicule appropriate to ridiculous beliefs, followed by constructive criticism — purposeful (rather than gratuitous) obnoxiousness.

Monday 2 May 2011

Radio drama: "The Iron Curtain" — based on the diaries of Paula Kirby

DSC_1826w_PaulaKirbyAll this week BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a serialised dramatisation of the diaries of Paula Kirby — she who reviewed with such perspicuity a batch of "flea books" published in response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Paula writes regularly for the Washington Post On Faith column (her latest being on secular ritual). I've listened to the first of the five 15-minute episodes and I'm looking forward to the rest.

Part of the Writing the Century strand and broadcast as the Woman's Hour Drama, the series is called The Iron Curtain:
The series which explores the 20th century through the diaries and correspondence of real people, returns with "The Iron Curtain" by Nell Leyshon. The drama is inspired by the diaries of Paula Kirby, who went to teach English in East Germany in the 1980s, and her correspondence with paediatric surgeon Knut Löffler.
Fresh out of university, 21 year old Paula Kirby settles into her new home and job, teaching English at the University in Dresden but finds herself attracted to one of her students, a Dr Knut Löffler.
Paula ...... Charlotte Emmerson
Knut ...... Jonathan Keeble
Sarah ...... Danielle Henry
Woman on train ...... Melissa Jane Sinden
Directed by Susan Roberts

Paula & Knut January 1988 when Paula was back in the GDR for a visit

(The Woman's Hour Drama will be available on the iPlayer for about a week after broadcast.)

Sunday 1 May 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

The Blog : Why I’d Rather Not Speak About Torture : Sam Harris
Is Sam Harris calling it quits? His point seems to be that there are some matters of ethics that it is impossible to discuss rationally.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is a pompous old gasbag who doesn’t understand evolution « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne appears to blow a gasket over one theologian's review of another. (This is what theologians do. Nobody else is listening, so let them get on with it.)

The Edinburgh Science Festival, Creationism and the Centre for Intelligent Design | Wonderful Life
The Centre for Intelligent Design plays fast and loose with definitions — corrected here.
(Via BCSE.)

Wait, I thought they believed in an absolute morality? : Pharyngula
Greta Christina rightly condemned William Lane Craig's twisted morality. P Z Myers follows suit. The fact that Craig thinks his position is moral (when anyone with a gram of moral sense clearly knows it isn't) illustrates perfectly the corrupting influence of scripture.

Secular rituals the honest choice - On Faith - The Washington Post
"Why devalue a promise of commitment by making it in the name of a deity in which we do not believe?"
Paula Kirby on the importance of staying true to your principles when it comes to rites of passage.

With friends like these: Atheists against the New Atheism - ABC Religion & Ethics - Opinion
Russell Blackford on the New Atheism backlash.

Why do Americans still dislike atheists? - The Washington Post
It's a good question. Less of a problem in the UK, but even here, as in America, there are some in the public eye who are openly contemptuous of atheists. That doesn't mean they're representative, it just means that the media seeks them out.

Creation Science Movement - News - BCSE and Ekklesia Seek to Restrict Basic Freedom in Schools
But the CSM wants creationism to be taught as "fact" — or at the very least as something that is equivalent to evolution, when it clearly isn't. We've seen what happens when creationism is merely restricted to RE lessons (for example in Muslim schools the children don't believe what they're told in science classes, for the simple reason that in RE they're told that the science contradicts scripture). The creationists have the remedy in their own hands. Go out and do some research to show that creationism is scientifically valid, and get it published in respected, peer-reviewed science journals. Creationism will then be given the chance it deserves (as, indeed, it is given now).

Catholicism a Blood Cult – Official! : Atheism
Yuk. (Follow the link at the post, to the BBC article.)

Enough of the whining about New Atheists! - steve's posterous
Steve Zara on the faux "reasonableness" of Karla McLaren's recent post attacking the Gnus.

1 in 20 don't give a monkey's about Darwin - News - TES Connect
"Many first-year biology students reject evolution, survey finds." This Times Educational Supplement article bizarrely concludes with an ID proponent:
"Alastair Noble, director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, said if the message of the research was that students should have more opportunity to assess the scientific evidence for the various positions around origins, no one would disagree with that."
But the message of the research is that 5 percent of undergraduate biology intake is woefully ignorant of the fundamental principles of biology. If the schools won't fix this, the universities must. Noble goes on to imply that evolution is a non-intuitive, dogmatic religious position, while intelligent design attempts to "account for the sophistication we find in natural and living systems in terms of mind, as well as matter and energy”. Leaving aside Noble's total inversion of the facts here, this isn't what intelligent design does; ID is merely an argument from ignorance: "it's all too complicated, therefore [insert myth here] must have done it". There's no account or explanation in ID. It ought to be crystal clear by now: intelligent design is not science.
(Via BCSE.)