Sunday 31 July 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

New Humanist (Rationalist Association) - L Ron Hubbard slammed in verse - by his own great-grandson

A powerful, disturbing monologue.

CFI Condemns Use of Religious Materials for Instruction in Nuclear War Ethics | Center for Inquiry
I'd say the use of religious doctrine is inappropriate, period. Of course this wouldn't happen in jolly old Blighty, would it? Would it?

Edzard Ernst: The professor at war with the prince | Life and style | The Guardian
Professor Ernst may have taken "early retirement", but it's good to know he's still engaged with the issues in which he has specialized. We'll still be hearing from him, I think.

Church criticised over adverts for ‘Doctor Who’ event - Wales News - News - WalesOnline
If this church feels the need to disguise its identity when promoting this event, it should ask itself why.

The Importance of Unbelief | Stephen Fry | Big Think
Some brief but worthwhile snippets from Stephen Fry in 2009

Three men complete their mile-by-mile mission

The boys are back. Their triumphant formation ride into Guildhall Square, Portsmouth on Friday signalled the culmination of two weeks' intense cycling up hill and down dale, all in a good cause, and amply documented on the way via the blog and Twitter. Photographs of the final event are also available, as is the final blogpost:
The last day of our event. Of course we had technically finished our challenge, Friday was kind of supplementary. We assembled as planned at Andy's house and we were joined by Rob who we invited to ride down with us. We left at around 10:30 for a leisurely saunter, as we thought for once we could arrive at our destination without being red faced and sweaty. We were well ahead of schedule and so we decided to go down to Spice Island and recreate a picture from our first training run all the way back in March. Rob duly obliged with  the camera.
(Click here to read more.)
Well done guys!

Launching tomorrow —

This looks like an interesting development. P. Z. Myers has been dropping various hints and/or threats recently about leaving Science Blogs, and this appears to be where he's going. From the FreethoughtBlogs Facebook event page:
A new blog network is hitting the web on August 1. Led by two of the most prominent and widely read secular-minded blogs in the country – PZ Myers’ Pharyngula and Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars – will be THE central gathering place for atheists, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers in the blogosphere.
Freethoughtblogs will be more than just a place for people to read the opinions of their favorite bloggers. It will be a community of like-minded people exchanging ideas and joining forces to advocate for a more secular and rational world.

The network will launch Aug. 1 with a handful of blogs with many more to be added after the first three months of operation. Here are the five blogs that will lead the way:

Pharyngula. PZ Myers has built one of the most popular atheist blogs in the world. Never one to shy away from controversy, Myers has built an astonishing following over the last few years and has traveled around the world speaking to skeptical audiences. As a PhD biologist he is the scourge of creationists everywhere but he takes on a wide range of subjects in his blogging, including religious criticism, women’s rights and progressive politics.

Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Ed Brayton was raised by a Pentecostal and an atheist, sealing his fate forever as someone who is endlessly fascinated by how religion intersects with other subject, particularly science, law, history and politics. He is a popular speaker for secular organizations around the country, has appeared on the Rachel Maddow show and is pretty certain he’s the only person who has ever made fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

The Digital Cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are shy and elusive creatures; when necessary, they hide in their own ink. This particular cuttlefish has chosen as its habitat the comment threads of science, religion, and news sites, where it feeds on the opinions of those who are emboldened by the cloak of internet anonymity. Cuttlefish is an atheist, a skeptic, and is madly, passionately in love with science. The Digital Cuttlefish has, since October of 2007, been a repository of commentary and satire, usually (but not exclusively) in verse and now moves to Freethoughtblogs.

This Week in Christian Nationalism. Chris Rodda is the author of "Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History." Since the release of her book in 2006, Chris has been blogging at and Huffington Post about the use of historical revisionism in everything from education to legislation. Chris is now launching her own blog on that will accompany her weekly podcast, This Week in Christian Nationalism.

Zingularity. Steven "DarkSyde" Andrew is a 40 something former stock and bond trader and one time moderate conservative. He grew up in the Southwest and has long been fascinated by science, particularly evolutionary biology, physics, and astronomy. He is a frequest contributor to the popular progressive website Daily Kos and now blogs at Zingularity, where legit science disappears forever down an event horizon of petty snark and cynicism.

If you would be so kind as to help us have a successful launch, please post the above information, or at least a link to the new network, on your Facebook pages, on your own blogs and in forums in which you participate that might be interested in it.

We want this to quickly become the most important gathering place for the skeptical community in the blogosphere.
The first three months' "settling in" period should give a good idea of how it will work, so watch this — that — space...

Saturday 30 July 2011

Moral authority

More first class analysis of the source of morality from QualiaSoup. I don't know how many of these there will be in total, but judging by the first two it seems likely that the complete set would be an excellent resource for schools (and politicians, for that matter).

The dissection of "the Bible as moral authority" is probably the best I've come across — comprehensive, clear and succinct. (It should be required viewing for anyone holding to biblical inerrancy, but given that mindset it's unfortunately unlikely to make much impression there.)

Friday 29 July 2011

Corrupting the minds of children has got to stop

Schoolboy made to write 'Sorry' on piece of paper - then eat it - Parentdish
A mum has pulled her seven-year-old son out of school after he was made to write out an apology to 'repent his sins' on a piece of paper – then eat it.

Horrified Celia Mullen, 46, claims her son Luis and other children were encouraged to take part in the bizarre ritual by members of an evangelical church during a visit to his class.

She says the incident has left her son so disturbed that he now refuses to sleep on his own and scrawls pictures of the Devil.
Don't tell me Christianity in Britain is all harmless dogoodery when this kind of stuff goes on. This isn't just indoctrination (as if that wasn't bad enough), it's opportunistic exploitation of vulnerable innocents. The culprits have placed an "apology" on their website (also as a downloadable PDF):
Tuesday 26th July, 2011

Statement Re: News Story

Big Prayer Experience/Inflatable Church
Ainderby Steeple C of E Primary School
Week Commencing 13th June 2011

During this session, as part of an explanation of what Christians understand by confession and forgiveness, pupils were given the option of writing the word 'sorry' with icing on a piece of rice paper, which could then be eaten. This was intended as an illustration of the way in which God takes our sins away completely when we confess them. This exercise was one of a range of several different activities in which the children were invited to participate. We are very sorry for any upset caused, as we have no intention of upsetting anyone: we do not intimidate or force anyone to do anything.
Sorry, not good enough. What we want is an undertaking that they've stopped doing it.

(Via Atheism UK.)

Thursday 28 July 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

The Rants of Cherry Black » Blog Archive » Oslo
Some people just have to be in the centre of things. Not content with an amazing month in Nepal, Trish now insists on reporting first-hand from the Oslo bomb site. Some people are never satisfied.

You are entering a Shariah controlled zone… | HumanistLife
Yikes, this is disturbing. What's the status of randomly posted notices? Is it an Advertising Standards Authority matter? Maybe some well-placed stickers "NO LEGAL JURISDICTION" wouldn't go amiss.

The Rants of Cherry Black » Blog Archive » Oslo: Part 2
More eye-witness reporting from Trish.

Thomas Monopoly (@thomasmonopoly) — "Dear Google"
A salutary warning to those who put all their eggs in one basket.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

A short rant on "explanatory power"

This was sparked off by this week's Atheist Experience TV show, in which Matt Dillahunty encapsulated in very few words why I find intelligent design wholly unsatisfactory:
"...we tend to explain things in terms of things that we understand."
This is science, this is maths, this is software development, this is education in general. This is how we find out how things work and why.

What Matt is describing in that almost throwaway line is the progressive method of explanation. When faced with something complex, which as a whole we might not understand, we tend to break it down into its component parts and seek to understand them. If these components parts are also complex, we will further break them down until we get to a level we do understand. This is a lot like maths. Higher mathematics can be complicated, but it's built up from lesser principles, all of which can be ultimately reduced to something basic and comprehensible.

Likewise engineering, technology, and indeed all of education can be seen as a series of hierarchical steps based on something lower down the tree of complexity. We explain things in terms of other things for which we already have explanations.

Intelligent design proponents don't use this method, so their claim of "explanatory power" is bogus. Trying to explain something in terms of something else that we don't understand is clearly a non-starter. It's not helpful, and it's not explanatory.

Theology isn't all hermeneutics and exegesis

Theology is such a useful subject. You can apply it to anything and nobody can contradict you. It uses strange words like "hermeneutics" and "exegesis", which allow you — if you're so inclined — to bamboozle the uninitiated. But the greatest thing about theology is that with it you can sound superficially intellectual even without the big words. All you need to do is link what you're saying back to scripture, and you will imbue your mundane rhetoric with the authority of holy writ.

But be careful not to overdo it, otherwise your fatuous ramblings could be seen for what they are, and you'll be in danger of exposure as an intellectual fraud.

Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral, doesn't use the big words when he's on Radio Four's Thought for the Day. Three minutes isn't really enough to get down and dirty with the exegetical ramifications of a Bible verse, especially not at breakfast time. As for hermeneutics, unless they can be eaten with milk, sugar and added bran his audience probably isn't interested.

On Tuesday morning Giles took his cue from Rowan Williams and talked about debt. He laid out his relevant qualifications, just so we can be in no doubt of his authority on the subject. "I'm not an economist," he said. Nevertheless he went on to explain that America's current problems are the the same as those of Adam and Eve, and the reason Greece needs to be bailed out by the Eurozone is because of "the fall of man".

I'm not a theologian, but it seems to me that the Rev. Canon Dr. Giles Fraser has once again amply demonstrated theology's utility1 and its relevance to the modern world.

Behold — for thirty days and thirty nights — the Fraser thought here (mp3):

1. I think there should be an "f" in that word somewhere.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Times Higher Education - Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole
I'm currently reading Stephen Law's new book and was directed to this unfavourable review via his blog. As Law says, it's a very weird review. The comments to the review, however, are overwhelmingly in support of the book.

Data and marriage | HumanistLife
Someone's done the work, rather than just repeating the trope, and it turns out that children of cohabiting parents are no worse off than those of legally married parents.

New Humanist (Rationalist Association) — 3 things we have learnt from the Public Administration Committee debate on faith and the Big Society
Caspar Melville links to the transcript of the debate; read it and see how we make a difference.

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: Why I'm So Sad to See the Space Shuttle Come Home
I'm not convinced that this really is the end of an era — I'm hoping it's just a temporary hiatus. As one who grew up with (and lately rediscovered) the inspiration of science fiction, I eagerly await humanity's next foray across the unknown frontier. Let's hope it's not too long coming.

God and the Universe
It's pondering one that reveals the non-existence of the other (but not vice versa).

I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right - Telegraph
Surprising to find the former editor who exhibited such buffoonery in his debate about "atheistic fundamentalism" (partnered with Richard Harries and against Richard Dawkins and A. C. Grayling) writing something I could mostly agree with.

Texas SBOE takes final vote, science groups laud choice to pass over Intelligent Design | The American Independent
"In what public interest and science organizations are declaring a “victory” for Texas education, the Board of Education voted Friday to accept new online supplemental materials for science classrooms, unanimously rejecting Intelligent Design/Creationist backed information from digital vendor International Databases, in a 8-0 vote."
8-0 — that's conclusive. Sanity prevails for a change.
(Via James Williams.)

On idiocy « Andy Ellington's Blog
In rational discourse it usually pays to keep a level head and a polite demeanour. One's argument, however correct, can be diminished by charges of ad hominem attack. But when you're trashing the Discovery Institute the gloves can be well and truly off, as this disingenuous coterie of obfuscators deserves all the disrespect it gets.

Why I don't believe in gods : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers states the obvious.

Saturday 23 July 2011

The Life of Muhammad — BBC2

As discussed on Skepticule Extra 009, The Life of Muhammad is a three-part BBC TV documentary presented by Rageh Omaar. I've watched the first two — the final episode is next Monday at 9 pm.

It's engaging stuff, with eminent talking heads punctuating colourful location reports, but I've been struck by the singular lack of provenance for most of the events related. The story is fascinating, but it sounds like pure fantasy. For example, in the second episode we are told of the Prophet's so-called Night Journey, when he was apparently teleported to Jerusalem and then on up to heaven for a brief conflab with God. We know this happened because Muhammad said it happened. At night. When he was praying. When the Prophet returned from this extraordinary sojourn — to which there were no independent witnesses — he announced that God had told him that Muslims must pray five times a day.

Throughout his life Muhammad experienced a series of revelations from God — at least that's what the source says happened. And just who is the source of this "historical" information? (I'll give you one guess.) Some of these revelations were awfully convenient, to say the least. One of them, related in the second episode, was that Muslims should no longer pray towards Jerusalem, but towards Mecca. In discussing the significance of this change (regardless of whether or not it was a true revelation), much was made of how it marked Islam as being different and separate from previous religions, but nothing whatever was said about why the direction of prayers should matter. (Visions of some kind of inaccurately focussed prayer-beam spring to mind, with prayers dissipating ineffectually into space.) Presumably the direction of prayers is determined by which way the people praying are facing — except they aren't facing anything except the ground when their foreheads are touching it. It's all very confusing.

Rageh Omaar makes much use of the phrase "according to Muslim tradition" when talking about events that if they actually happened would be described as historical. I can't help concluding that this choice of words is probably an editorial decision to deflect possible accusations of making unsubstantiated factual claims.

The programme's website is here:

Episode 1 & 2 are currently available on the iPlayer until 1 August 2011:

Religion 101: Final Exam

A link to this was posted by Peter Chervenski in the Atheism Facebook Group. It was too good merely to link to, so I've pasted it below:
Religion 101: Final Exam
by Terrence Kaye
The author gratefully acknowledges the inspiration provided by E.T. Babinski, Dan Barker, George Carlin, Richard Dawkins,, Sam Harris, Judith Hayes, James Haught, Robert Ingersoll, Adam Lee, John Stuart Mill, Pablo Neruda, Blaise Pascal, Seneca, Julia Sweeney, Jethro Tull, Mark Twain, and Mark Vuletic.
  1. Which of the following is the most compelling evidence for the existence of an intelligent and loving Designer?

    1. The little girl born in Egypt with two functioning heads
    2. The screams of a baby seal as it is torn apart by a shark
    3. The superiority of the octopus eyeball to the human
    4. A Caribbean sunset

  2. A Christian couple has just returned from their fiftieth anniversary celebration, when suddenly the husband falls to the ground, clutching his chest. Assuming the morally proper action is to try to save his life, what is the most morally proper action the wife could take?

    1. Call 911
    2. Put him in the car and race to the hospital herself
    3. Administer CPR
    4. Fall on her knees and pray to the Lord to spare his life

  3. You are a product tester and frequently bring your work home. Yesterday, while dressed in a flame-resistant suit (up to 3,000 degrees) and carrying the latest model fire extinguisher, you discovered your neighbor's house on fire. As the flames quickly spread, you stood by and watched the family perish. Which of the following best describes your behavior?

    1. All-powerful
    2. All-knowing
    3. All-loving
    4. Mysterious

  4. One day while jogging in the park, you see a maniac with a butcher knife about to attack a six-year old girl. What should you do?

    1. Grab the nearest rock and club the attacker
    2. Call the police on your cell phone
    3. Yell "POLICE!" and run toward the attacker in a threatening manner
    4. Calmly walk away, because God works in mysterious ways, and what appears "evil" to our finite human mind, may in fact be part of a vaster plan in God's infinite mind, so it's best not to interfere

  5. You are a loving family man who volunteers as a Big Brother and also at the local hospice when not working as the director of the community food bank. You awaken this morning to discover the global news media ablaze with the first-ever, easily understood, irrefutable scientific proof that there is no God. What will you probably do?

    1. Quit your job and become a full-time rapist
    2. Abandon your family and go on a murder rampage
    3. Become a professional burglar
    4. Continue your life pretty much as usual

  6. Since we can never "know" whether or not a God exists - it is fundamentally a matter of "faith" - it's best to be a believer since you have nothing to lose, but everything to lose if your disbelief is incorrect. Keeping in mind that the fate of your soul depends on the right choice, in which God should you place your belief? For extra credit, include a brief essay justifying your choice, along with the reasons why you reject the other three.

    1. Zeus
    2. Odin
    3. Vishnu
    4. The Holy Trinity

  7. You are the Creator of the universe. Your chosen people are a tribe of nomadic herdsmen, presently in bondage on one of the millions of your planets. Their ruler is being quite obstinate. Keeping in mind that you possess not only infinite power but also infinite love, your best course of action would be to:

    1. Cause the ruler to drop dead of a heart attack
    2. Cause the ruler to fall off a cliff
    3. Visit the ruler in a dream and persuade him to let your people go
    4. Slaughter a great number of innocent babies who had nothing to do with the ruler's policies

  8. You are a Starfleet Federation explorer in the process of cataloging two newly discovered planets. The majority of the inhabitants of each planet believe in a deity, but they are two different deities. Deity "X" is said to be not only all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing, but the designer of a marvelously complex and ordered world. Deity "Y" is said to be indifferent, absent, unconcerned with the affairs of his planet, and some even say evil. Which god rules over which planet?

    Planet A: Has apparently achieved a state of advanced benign equilibrium in which there are no viruses or diseases, and only a very small number of natural disasters, which, when they do strike, always eliminate only the sinful and evil. The inhabitants, both plant and animal, have learned to maintain their existence through photosynthesis, and thus do not have to kill and eat each other in order to survive. There are no "birth defects"; every inhabitant comes into existence perfectly formed and equipped for a long and productive life.

    Deity X_____
    Deity Y_____

    Planet B: Adorned with many examples of beauty and order, it is also constantly beset by hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes, lightning bolts, viruses, disfiguring diseases, parasites, leeches, flies, crop-destroying pests and many other phenomena which afflict both the innocent and the evil. Every life form on the planet can only sustain its existence through the destruction and consumption of other life forms. Some of the inhabitants are born with a crippling condition called a "birth defect" which condemns them to living extremely limited, short or painful lives.

    Deity X_____
    Deity Y_____

  9. What is the number of children born without arms or legs that have been miraculously restored by a visit to the shrine at Lourdes, France?

    1. Too many to count
    2. Over 1,000
    3. Several dozen
    4. Zero, but only because their faith was not strong enough

  10. As we all know, there is only one true religion. What is the one true religion in each of the following circumstances?

    1. You are born in Karnak in 3000 B.C.
    2. You are born in Bombay in 300 B.C.
    3. You are born in Baghdad in 900 A.D.
    4. You are born in Mexico City in 1956 A.D.

  11. Although you are new at golf, you have just hit a beautiful 200-yard drive and your ball has landed on a blade of grass near the cup at Hole 3. The green contains ten million blades of grass. The odds of your ball landing on that blade of grass are 9,999,999 to one against, too improbable to have happened by mere chance. What's the explanation?

    1. The wind guided it
    2. Your muscles guided it
    3. There is no need for an explanation
    4. You consciously designed your shot to land on that particular blade

  12. Which of the following is most likely to be true, and why?

    1. Romulus was the son of God, born to a mortal human virgin
    2. Dionysus turned water into wine
    3. Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from the dead
    4. Jesus Christ was the son of God, born to a mortal virgin, turned water into wine, and raised a man from the dead

  13. Conceding that torture is permissible under certain conditions, which of the following would be the best justification?

    1. Your prisoner is the only one who knows the date and time of an assassination attempt on the Pope
    2. Your prisoner is the only one who knows where a nuclear device has been planted in Washington, D.C.
    3. Your prisoner is the only one who knows where a vial of nerve gas has been placed in the London water supply system
    4. Your prisoner has announced that the earth revolves around the sun

  14. We know that Christianity is true because the Gospel writers, inspired by God who can make no error, recorded the founding events. For example, on the first Easter morning, the visitors to the tomb were greeted by which of the following:

    1. A young man (Mark 16:5)
    2. No, no, it was no man, it was an angel (Matthew 28:2-5)
    3. You're both wrong, it was two men (Luke 24:4)
    4. Damn it, there was nobody there (John 20:1-2)

  15. Only human beings have souls, and thus only human beings can go to heaven. What is the cutoff point for entry into paradise?

    1. Homo habilis
    2. Homo erectus
    3. Homo Neanderthalensis
    4. Homo sapiens

  16. According to at least one sainted church father, one of the pleasures of the saved in paradise will be to behold the agony of the damned in hell. What would be the best time of day in heaven for a mother to behold the agony of her only son who didn't make it?

    1. Early in the morning before it gets too crowded
    2. Mid-day when she can compare notes and share the celebration with other mothers
    3. Late at night when she can enjoy the flames in starker contrast

  17. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we always look to the Bible as a guide. In this example, your teenage son has returned home from the prom intoxicated. If you want to follow the Bible, you should:

    1. Sit him down for a heart to heart talk
    2. Enroll him in AA
    3. Take away his driving privilege for one month
    4. Smash his head in with rocks

  18. In this example, your son-in-law, returned from his honeymoon, has just told you he suspects your daughter was not a virgin on their wedding night. Wishing to abide by God's holy rules as laid out in the Bible, you should:

    1. Ask him if he was a virgin before you do anything
    2. Advise him to forgive her
    3. Talk to your daughter
    4. Go find those rocks

  19. You are eating lunch at a crowded fast food restaurant, occupied mostly by children, when suddenly a gunman bursts in, screams "Do not question or test me," and sprays the room with bullets. Ten people are killed instantly, many more grievously wounded, but somehow you escape unharmed. His ammunition expended, the gunman heads for the door. What should you do?

    1. Call the police and wait for them to arrive
    2. Call the police and leave
    3. Risk death by asking the gunman why he did it, even though he told you not to
    4. Fall on your knees and give thanks and praise to the gunman for sparing your life

  20. Why did God show his backside to Moses, as described in Holy Scripture, Ex.33:23?

    1. He invented everything, and this was simply the first mooning
    2. He was really ticked off when Moses dropped the tablets
    3. He was piqued, having just discovered His almighty powers were useless against chariots of iron (Judges 1:19)
    4. Moses was too serious and needed to lighten up a little

  21. Jesus was God, and God knows all things, including all the medical knowledge that will ever be known. Why did Jesus blame demons for the case of epilepsy he cured?

    1. He was suffering from a temporary case of "brain freeze"
    2. The Aramaic word for "demon" is the same as the word for "cranial malfunction"
    3. Neurology was not his specialty
    4. In first-century Palestine, demons really did cause epilepsy. This affliction only began to be caused by electrochemical brain activity after about 1850 A.D.

  22. Today's paper carries a story about a suburban father who became so enraged with his disobedient children that he carried all nine of them to the backyard pool where he drowned them, along with their puppies, their kittens, and their hamsters. How should this father be treated?

    1. He should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law
    2. He should be banished from the town
    3. He should be lynched to save the taxpayers' money
    4. The townspeople should gather together to sing hymns of praise to him

  23. This morning I started my day by insulting my mother in public, then punched out my father, my brother, and my sister. Then I gathered up all my clothes, sold them to a second-hand store, and with the proceeds bought a used assault rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. Next, I went down to the animal shelter and injected all the dogs with a drug that caused them to go insane and dive into the nearby canal where they all drowned. By this time I was hungry, so I went over to my neighbor's apple orchard and burned it down, because I wanted an orange and there weren't any. On the way home, I stopped at the local steel mill to discuss my philosophy of life with some of the guys. They laughed at me and said to stow it, so I tossed them all into the blast furnace. That night I discovered my son looking at a copy of Playboy. Concerned for his future welfare, I cut off his right hand. What historical character did my activities today most resemble?

    1. Genghis Khan
    2. Charles Manson
    3. Adolph Hitler
    4. Jesus Christ

  24. Down through the ages, who has been most responsible for the medical discoveries that have relieved untold amounts of suffering and pain, and extended the length of that most sacred of creations, the only species made in the divine image, human life?

    1. Medical doctors
    2. Research biologists
    3. Chemists
    4. The Catholic Church

  25. A great sadness has come into your life which you feel you cannot bear. A friend informs you of a free counseling service which has never failed to aid and comfort many others. You call the counselor; the phone rings and rings with no answer; you finally hang up. What is the most likely explanation?

    1. The counselor is sitting by the phone but not answering in order to test your faith in him
    2. The counselor is fully qualified and able to help you, but just doesn't feel like it right now
    3. The counselor will not answer because he wants you to profit by the spiritual strength that only comes through suffering
    4. The counselor is not home

    While it is true that there have been and still are many different gods and many different religions, they are really just different names by which various cultures approach the same God. Explain how and why each of the following is the same God:

    • Quetzalcoatl, who wants you to skin a young virgin alive, then put on the skin and dance;
    • Shiva, who wants you to pray over his penis;
    • Allah, who wants you to fly airliners into buildings;
    • Catholic God, who speaks directly through the Pope;
    • Hebrew God, who most definitely does not;
    • Jesus, who wants you to castrate yourself to ensure arrival in heaven
    • Jehovah, who any day now, is going to kill everyone on the earth except for his Witnesses
For more great atheistic resources, go to Ebon Musings: "The Atheism Pages".

The moral argument

One thing that never fails to make me sigh with frustration is the so-called moral argument for the existence of God. I can deal dispassionately with the argument itself, but what wears me down is the prevalent theistic assumption that whatever atheists may claim about the origin of their morals, morality is irrevocably woven into God's nature, and atheists are therefore merely borrowing morality from the deity. This is bunk, but it's such an ingrained assumption that the mechanism of it is adopted throughout theism, with a version of it even evident in presuppositional apologetics.

I've grown tired of explaining that human morality is an evolved attribute (and anyway it seems many theists just can't get it), so from now on I'm happy to leave the explication to QualiaSoup:

Subscribe to QualiaSoup's YouTube channel for subsequent instalments of what will no doubt be an excellent educational series.

Miraculous fiction

I've just started watching the new series of Torchwood. I must admit I'm finding it not a little unconvincing, especially after what seemed like the show's final bow-out — the superb Children of Earth, shown on five consecutive evenings in July 2009.

I'm only one episode into Miracle Day, so perhaps it's too early to judge. But with ten episodes in total, it had better improve or I'll be unwilling to invest more time in it.

Notwithstanding my initial reservations, the theme of the story made me think again about miracles. As I see it there are several ways to define a miracle, two of which are:

1. A miracle is something that can't happen.

2. A miracle is a happening that proves the existence of God.

So if religious apologists insist that a miracle might be an extraordinary event that appears to contradict natural law, they can't use it as proof of God's existence if the event is unlikely but not impossible. God's existence could only be proved by the occurrence of an impossible event. But then you have the problem of defining what's possible and what's not. Taking the Torchwood — Miracle Day example, the miracles are described as such, but there are plenty of people in the story who are looking for some kind of natural explanation, and surprisingly few who take them as examples of God's inscrutable ineffableness. Writer Russell T. Davies is an atheist, but he's not above grappling with religious issues, as he did with The Second Coming.

Personally, I go with the first definition of miracles. Which leaves the second definition high and dry.

Friday 22 July 2011

Retro-future: "How To Make a Spacious Fortune"

The return of the last Space Shuttle has reminded me of an article I wrote in 2000 for the online magazine Jackhammer E-zine. Eleven years ago — pre-9/11 — the future looked a little different.
How To Make a Spacious Fortune

"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is."
If space is as big as Douglas Adams says (in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy), surely there's ample opportunity for making money from it. Unfortunately, big though it is, space consists mostly of one thing: nothing at all.

But perhaps this very lack of something is what the daring entrepreneur can capitalize on. Wouldn't people pay for the privilege of being among the very first to contemplate such vastness?
What we're talking about is one of the biggest money-spinners on Earth. Whole countries depend on it for their survival in today's competitive, commercial world. It's tourism.

What works here on Earth could also work in space: luxury hotels in orbit around the globe, giving their lucky guests the chance to sample the novelties of astronautic life. Who would pass up the chance to try out a zero-gravity toilet? Who would throw over the opportunity of experiencing that curious multi-dimensional disorientation that leads to space-sickness?

It's possible, of course, to simulate gravity in space. But a slowly rotating wheel, large enough for its centrifugal force to equal even a sixth of Earth's gravity -- like the one in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey -- is too big to be a realistic proposition just yet, despite next year being when it was predicted to be feasible.

Then there's the view: the Earth, spinning in isolation, vulnerable in the void, has been described by some astronauts in quasi-religious terms. "My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity," wrote Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14.

After being on vacation for some time, it's natural to have the odd tinge of fondness for the place one has so eagerly left. How much more profound to see it hovering below, in the knowledge that it's farther away from you than ever?

Having established that there's a likely market for space tourism, provided the price is right, it's time to look at the practicalities. Let's assume that the goal is an orbiting hotel, and some kind of regular transit service to ferry the guests to and from such a desirable venue.

The first problem is building the place, and for this it seems sensible to take a cue from that other ongoing orbital project, the International Space Station. The ISS is likely to cost American tax-payers $25 billion, not counting the contributions from the ISS partners in Russia, Japan, Europe, Canada and Brazil. The occupants of the initial few modules, enjoying reasonable life-support and accommodation for a crew of three, remain in orbit for about 90 days, but our tourists will probably want to stay a much shorter time.

Although building an orbital hotel will be a massive technological and financial undertaking, the knowledge gained from the ISS will point the way. The main reason that a hotel is not being assembled far above our heads today, is that to be viable a hotel must be easily accessible. A reliable and frequent transport system is needed. NASA's Space Shuttle is at present the only (partly) reusable transport available, but it has proved itself a flexible and adaptable vehicle.

Each Shuttle flight costs in the order of $300 million, so with a payload of perhaps six guests and one or two service personnel, the cost could be in the region of $50 million per guest at today's prices, for the transport alone. This is astronomic, even for the most exclusive accommodation on -- or off -- the globe.
The Shuttle's very versatility makes it non-cost-effective for the comparatively simple task of getting people into orbit and fetching them down again. A more specialized vehicle is obviously what's required, perhaps one with greater capacity. There are many vehicle designs on the drawing board, several of which could serve our purpose. (For sub-orbital flights only, there is even a self-build kit version, the SpaceCub -- a snip at half a million dollars, plus fuel.)

On arrival, what entertainment would be available for these exclusive guests? Naturally a fully equipped fitness room would be a priority. Even during short periods of microgravity, the human skeleton loses a significant amount of calcium -- a process called demineralization -- due to lack of muscle-stress on the bones, so a daily workout would be an essential part of each guest's routine.

There would also be periods of training. Life in space involves many hazards, and though the residents would receive instruction before traveling to orbit, there would be no substitute for learning to cope in the environment itself. This hotel would be far away from the usual facilities found in most large cities on Earth; the residents would need to know what to do in any eventuality. It's unlikely that the rear of the bedroom door would be large enough to contain all the emergency instructions.
Apart from that, they can simply admire the view.

There is a downside. Prospective guests will be aware that this would be a high-risk vacation -- one for which they are unlikely to get adequate insurance cover. Holidaying in orbit, at least at the start of the enterprise, would be for those prepared to accept that they might never come home. And such a vacation would only be for those who could afford it.

David Ashford, director of Bristol Spaceplanes in the United Kingdom, in his paper, "Space Tourism -- How Soon Will it Happen?" has estimated that at a ticket-price of $10,000, "...probably more than one million fare-paying passengers would visit space each year as tourists, requiring a fleet of more than 50 spaceplanes."

There's money to be made here. Get in on the ground floor, and you'll go to the stars -- or at least take the first major step on the way.
Copyright © 2000 Paul S. Jenkins

Note: This article was originally published in Jackhammer E-zine in July 2000. Used with permission.

Creation — a bad move?

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. Many races believe that it was created by some sort of God, though the Jatravartid people of Viltvodle Six firmly believe that the entire Universe was in fact sneezed out of the nose of a being called the Great Green Arkleseizure. The Jatravartids, who live in perpetual fear of the time they called The Coming of the Great White Handkerchief, are small blue creatures with more than fifty arms each, who are therefore unique in being the only race in history to have invented the aerosol deodorant before the wheel.1
As creation myths go, that's pretty ridiculous, but compare it to this (more or less random) alternative:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.2
It then goes on a bit, tending to lose its way regarding the logical order of events, but we can cut it some slack as it's a myth. But the point of contrasting these two accounts of how things got started is to show that neither is more likely or more convincing than the other. It's possible to pick holes in both stories: the first one, for instance, simply states the creation of the Universe as bald fact — this is not exactly explanatory. The second example does exactly the same: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." It just happened. It was done, by this character called "God" who is simply assumed to be there without any sort of explanation of who he was or where he came from.

Both examples may yield some insight from the application of literary criticism — but as explanations of how things came to be, they are equally misleading and uninformative. If you're seeking an explanation that correlates with reality, I suggest you look elsewhere.

1. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (original radio scripts), Douglas Adams, London 1985, Pan Books, p 90, "Fit the Fifth"
2. The Bible, Authorised King James Version, "Genesis" chapter 1, verses 1-5

Some late night Burnee links

Grassroots Skeptics — Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual
Skeptical resources continue to grow.

Where Can I Find the Really Good Theology? Part One. : EvolutionBlog
"I came to see theology as a moat protecting the castle of religion. But it was not a moat filled with water. No. It was filled with sewage. And the reason religion's defenders wanted us to spend so much time splashing around in the moat had nothing to do with actually learning anything valuable or being edified by the experience. It was so that when we emerged on the other side we would be so rank and fetid and generally disgusted with ourselves that we would be in no condition to argue with anyone."
Jason Rosenhouse follows Jerry Coyne into that unappetizing moat.
Part Two here:
Where Can I Find the Really Good Theology? Part Two : EvolutionBlog
(Via Malcolm Stein.)

My position on communicating skepticism : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers' position is "no truck with accommodationism". It's not everyone's position, and might not work with some people. But it does work in certain circumstances, and is therefore a valid approach.

Is It Cold in Here? | Cocktail Party Physics, Scientific American Blog Network
So, yes, it's been blown up out of all proportion. But there's apparently a reason for this, and the "atheist and skeptic movement" ignores that reason at its peril.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Skepticule Extra 009 available for download

Stand by your podcatcher, the ninth episode of Skepticule Extra is about to drop into your mp3 player. Cruelly truncated in its prime, this episode cuts off just as it gets into its stride, but needs must when the evangelist calls.

Reith, Muhammed, Jesus (he was a Muslim, you know), Jews, Knowing everything, Telling homeopaths what you really think, Camping with Jesus (he was a Muslim, you know), Touring the End of the World, Prayers before bounty, Debating secularism (or not).

Like I said, short show.

Monday 18 July 2011

500 miles for a good cause

Today The Mile by Mile Cycling Team began their marathon charity cycle ride from Lancashire to Hampshire, aiming to double their fundraising (currently around £10,000) in aid of Help for Heroes. Three lecturers at South Downs College are cycling 500 miles over ten days in memory of one of their students, Richard Hollington, who died as a result of injuries received on active service in Afghanistan.

The team's website is here:

The blog is here:

Follow them on Twitter here:!/MxMBikeRide
(use the hashtag #mbmct)

Find out more here:




A hypothetical belief — and its effects

Imagine holding a belief such that everyone who doesn't share your belief is a liar.

Suppose you hold a belief that the universe is a particular way. That's not asking much; I suspect most people hold such a belief, to a more or less certain degree. Suppose, however, that your belief is very certain, to the degree that it's inconceivable (to you) that you could be mistaken. That's asking a little more, but it still doesn't place you at the extremity of the belief bell-curve.

But suppose the belief you hold — about the particular way the universe is — includes the idea that everyone else actually shares your belief, even if they deny it. If yours is a minority belief it places you in the invidious position of believing (to a degree that it's inconceivable to you that you could be mistaken) that almost everyone else is a pathological liar.

This is not a pleasant place to be, and will adversely affect your relationships with almost everyone. It's likely you will have serious issues with trust. If you firmly believe that most people are willfully lying about their own most fundamental beliefs, you will automatically (perhaps even unconsciously) label them as dishonest and untrustworthy. You will have difficulty taking their words at face value and will constantly question their motives. In short, you will mistrust everything about them.

Consequently, when events don't unfold as hoped or planned, your first instinct will be to assume the liars have cheated you, rather than to ascribe adverse events to simple error, happenstance or the vagaries of inanimate technology. You will be awash in a sea of knaves and scoundrels, against whom you must erect impregnable security.

Meanwhile those "knaves and scoundrels" who observe your actions will see only hubris and paranoia.

But as I indicated in the title of this post, this is a hypothetical scenario. No-one would actually believe something like that, would they?

Sunday 17 July 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

No Burnee links last Thursday (been busy, you know?) so here are a few. Other posts coming too.

The EHRC's stance on religious rights undermines its credibility | Andrew Copson | Comment is free |
It does appear as if the EHCR has forgotten what the "E" stands for. - Critical Thinking Model 1
A useful overview, with plenty of explanatory information.
(Via Vaughan Jones.)

Greta Christina's Blog: Why We Have to Talk About This: Atheism, Sexism, and Blowing Up The Internet
The last word on "Elevatorgate"?

A Skeptical Look at Aliens : Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers' talk at TAM — text and slides.

Giving teachers confidence to engage pupils on beliefs- Belfast Telegraph | The Tony Blair Faith Foundation
"An innovative scheme to encourage inter-faith dialogue in schools is being backed by former prime minister Tony Blair, writes James Nelson"
Wishy-washy waffle — par for course at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (which is not, I'm reliably informed, the name of a pop group). "Inter-faith dialogue" is doomed; it can never be more than lip-service to some kind of accommodation, because at bottom different faiths hold different and mutually exclusive beliefs. The different faiths may cosy up to each other when they want the same thing (such as "respect" for unsubstantiated, nonsensical beliefs) but at heart they are fundamentally opposed to each other.
(Via Ophelia Benson, who described this piece as a "warm pool of sick".)

‪Thunderf00t -Westboro Baptist Church (full interview)‬‏ - YouTube
The argument from loud voice, insult, not listening, talking over and interrupting. Why on earth did these two women agree to a video interview with Thunderf00t?

Saturday 16 July 2011

The (unexpected) Skepticule Record

The recording of last Monday's unexpected "Fourth Debate on Presuppositional Apologetics" is now available for your endurance:

Note that this recording is about 69 minutes long (including intro and outro) and entirely unedited apart from a Skype drop-out in the middle.

You will be completely forgiven if you decide to skip it.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Presuppositional apoplectics

If you read Paul Baird's blog, Patient and Persistent, you'll know that our recording of Skepticule Extra 009 last night didn't go as planned. About half way through Paul B took a Skype call from Eric Hovind (while letting him know we were recording), and a little further on in the conversation we were joined by Sye Ten Bruggencate. What followed was a demonstration of Presuppositional Apologetics in action, and the main thing I took away from it — regardless of the validity or invalidity of its arguments — is that it clearly doesn't work as an apologetic method. The more I hear of it the less convincing it sounds. In particular Sye's schtick (amply evident in the recorded conversation) doesn't change. Because PA is essentially circular it can't expand and offer anything else, and when you've heard the same unconvincing argument several times it inevitably becomes less convincing each subsequent time you encounter it.

As far as I'm aware, Christianity isn't overflowing with converts who became believers as a result of hearing this argument, and when the subject was discussed in the Premier Community the most vocal opponents of PA were not atheists but other Christians.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results."
(attr: Albert Einstein)

Eric and Sye have agreed to the unedited recording being aired on Skepticule Extra, so listen out for a special episode in the next few days.

Monday 11 July 2011

Serious comedy is no joke

The News of the World is no more. Not that its demise matters to me at all. I took a look at an issue of the NotW some forty-odd years ago, and the first thing that met my eyes was an article about a man accused of skateboarding in the nude at midnight. Oh happy accident! Serendipity be my friend! In that very moment I realised the NotW had spared me the necessity of looking at its raggedy despicableness ever again in my whole life. And I didn't.

But there's a wider issue, and it was elucidated with superb concision and wit by John Finnemore on Friday's Now Show on BBC Radio 4. If you've not heard it, do yourself and everybody else in Britain a favour by going to the BBC iPlayer before next Saturday and listening to his ten-minute stand-up (it starts about six and a half minutes into the programme). You'll be glad you did.

After you've written to your MP, you could do worse than listen to the new series of Cabin Pressure, a comedy written by John Finnemore, about a small private airline (or more accurately an airdot) — a series that boasts a pedigree cast few radio comedies can match: Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Finnemore himself.

UPDATE 2011-07-11:

John Finnemore's Now Show transcript here:

Sunday 10 July 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

A beginners guide to doubting everything « Hayley Stevens
"If there was one thing I have taken from my experience of becoming open-minded and openly skeptical it’s this; people who hold irrational beliefs like I used to, will resort to bullying because they have no stronger argument to throw your way. If they had any solid facts to base their beliefs and points on, they would provide you with them. Instead you get names, threats and disdain."
Some advice from an active, practical skeptic.

The Meming of Life » Ten years of Calling Bernadette’s Bluff » Parenting Beyond Belief » on secular parenting and other natural wonders
I find this very tempting. Dale McGowan's non-fiction writing (on his blog, at least) is something special. I do wonder what his fiction is like.

I thought Iceland was more rational than this : Pharyngula
You can never be sure people are being serious when they report such things. Maybe it's an elaborate play-along. (And do elves have feathers? And does that mean they can fly?)

Free Will: A First, Very Tentative, Step « Choice in Dying
Free will is a fascinating subject. Does it exist, or is it just an illusion? Is there any way of knowing, one way or the other? Chocolate or vanilla, you choose.

Faith leaders - Butterflies and Wheels
Ophelia Benson on the representation of the religious.

Saturday 9 July 2011

How to argue for intelligent design without doing any science

Well, this is a surprise. At last we have something of substance in Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God — shame it's the very last chapter in the section titled The Question of Science. In "The Vise Strategy — Squeezing the Truth out of Darwinists", William Dembski sets out a list of questions to ask those who are skeptical of intelligent design. It could be done as a flow chart, significantly not one with a single starting point, like Darwin's Tree of Life, but with a number of disparate roots.

Initially Dembski's questions are all about establishing why intelligent design should be considered science.
Is it fair to say that you regard intelligent design as not a part of science? Would you agree that proponents of intelligent design who characterize it as a "scientific discipline" or as a "scientific theory" are mistaken?
Would you characterize intelligent design as a "pseudoscience"?
Would it be fair to say that, in your view, what makes intelligent design a pseudoscience is that it is religion masquerading as science? If ID is something other than science, what exactly is it?
Are you a scientist?
Do you feel qualified to assess whether something is or is not properly a part of science? What are your qualifications in this regard? [Take your time here.]
Do you think that simply by being a scientist, you are qualified to assess whether something is or is not properly a part of science?
Have you read any books on the history and philosophy of science
[If yes:] Which ones? [e.g., Herbert Butterfield, Ronald Numbers, Thomas Kuhn]
Would you agree that in the history of science, ideas that started out as "pseudoscientific" may eventually become properly scientific, for example, the transformation of alchemy into chemistry?
Is it possible that ID could fall in this category, as the transformation into a rigorous science of something that in the past was not regarded as properly scientific? [If no, return to this point later.]
We can see where this is going, but it's predicated on false assumptions. For instance, take that last question, suggesting that ID could become science in the same way that alchemy became chemistry. The problem for Dembski is that alchemy did not become chemistry. Alchemy is still alchemy, even today, and chemistry is something else. Also note the disingenuous assertion in asking whether the "Darwinist" has read any history or philosophy of science. This is akin to criticisms of the likes of Richard Dawkins because they don't know any "sophisticated theology".
Let's consider one very commonly accepted criterion for what's in and what's outside of science, namely, testability. Would you say that testability is a criterion for demarcating science? In other words, if a claim isn't testable, then it's not scientific? Would you agree with this?
Would you give as one of the reasons that ID is not science that it is untestable? [Return to this.]
Let's stay with testability for a bit. You've agreed that if something is not testable, then it does not properly belong to science. Is that right?
Have you heard of the term "methodological materialism" (also sometimes called "methodological naturalism")?
Do you regard methodological materialism as a regulative principle for science? In other words, do you believe that science should be limited to offering only materialistic explanations of natural phenomena?
[If you experience resistance to this last question because the Darwinist being interrogated doesn't like the connotations associated with "materialism" try:]
This is not a trick question. By materialistic explanations I simply mean explanations that appeal only to matter, energy, and their interactions as governed by the laws of physics and chemistry. Do you regard methodological materialism in this sense as a regulative principle for science? [It's important here to get the Darwinist to admit to methodological materialism — this is usually not a problem; indeed, usually they are happy to embrace it:]
Could you explain the scientific status of methodological materialism? For instance, you stated that testability is a criterion for true science. Is there any scientific experiment that tests methodological materialism? Can you describe such an experiment?
Are there theoretical reasons from science for accepting methodological materialism? For instance, we know on the basis of the second law of thermodynamics that the search for perpetual motion machines cannot succeed. Are there any theoretical reasons for thinking that scientific inquiries that veer outside the strictures of methodological materialism cannot succeed? Can you think of any such reasons?
A compelling reason for holding to methodological materialism would be if it could be demonstrated conclusively that all natural phenomena invariably submit to materialistic explanations. Is there any such demonstration?
[Suppose here the success of evolutionary theory is invoked to justify methodological materialism — i.e., so many natural phenomena have submitted successfully to materialistic explanation that it constitutes a good rule of thumb/working hypothesis. In that case we ask:]
But wouldn't you agree that there are many natural phenomena for which we haven't a clue how they can be accounted for in terms of materialistic explanation? Take the origin of life? Isn't the origin of life a wide open problem for biology, one which gives no indication of submitting to materialistic explanation.
To my mind, methodological naturalism is the only effective method of doing science. Anything that attempts to stray outside methodological naturalism may be interesting, even fruitful in terms of philosophy, but it isn't science. Whether or not you hold to metaphysical naturalism (and I understand that many scientists don't, or at least consider it an open question), the process of science must assume methodological naturalism to provide meaningful results. If unexplained stages in any set of causal relationships can be replaced with "and then a miracle happened", this doesn't actually pull any explanatory weight. If there are indeed "natural phenomena for which we haven't a clue how they can be accounted for in terms of materialistic explanation" then what we have is something that's unexplained. Any supposed "explanation" outside of methodological naturalism isn't an explanation at all.
Would you agree, then, that methodological materialism is not scientifically testable, that there is no way to confirm it scientifically, and therefore that it is not a scientific claim? Oh, you think it can be confirmed scientifically? Please explain exactly how is it confirmed scientifically? I'm sorry, but pointing to the success of materialistic explanations in science won't work here because the issue with materialistic explanations is not their success in certain cases but their success across the board. Is there any way to show scientifically that materialistic explanations provide a true account for all natural phenomena? Is it possible that the best materialistic explanation of a natural phenomenon is not the true explanation? If this is not possible, please explain why not. [Keep hammering away at these questions until you get a full concession that methodological naturalism is not testable and cannot be confirmed scientifically.]
Since methodological materialism is not a scientific claim, what is its force as a rule for science? Why should scientists adopt it? [The usual answer here is "the success of science."]
But if methodological materialism's authority as a rule for science derives from its success in guiding scientific inquiry, wouldn't it be safe to say that it is merely a working hypothesis for science? And as a working hypothesis, aren't scientists free to discard it when they find that it "no longer works"?
Dembski is claiming that because methodological naturalism hasn't solved every single known scientific problem — that because there are still gaps in scientific knowledge — therefore he is justified in rejecting it. This is plainly nonsense.

Then comes some effort to show that ID is not creationism. It's futile stuff, because though the identity of the designer is often obfuscated by ID proponents, we know where they are going with it, and despite Dembski's insistence that there are atheists who consider ID a valid theory, we also know that the vast majority of ID proponents are theists (including, of course, Dembski himself).
Let's return to the issue of testability in science? Do you agree that for a proposition to be scientific it must be testable? Good.
Would you agree, further, that testability is not necessarily an all-or-none affair? In other words, would you agree that testability is concerned with confirmation and disconfirmation, and that these come in degrees, so that it makes sense to talk about the degree to which a proposition is tested? For instance, in testing whether a coin is fair, would finding that the coin landed heads twenty times in a row more strongly disconfirm the coin's fairness than finding that it landed only ten heads in a row? [Keep hammering on this until there's an admission that testing can come in degrees. Examples from the history of science can be introduced here as well.]
Okay, so we're agreed that science is about testable propositions and that testability of these propositions can come in degrees. Now, let me ask you this: Is testability symmetric? In other words, if a proposition is testable, is its negation also testable? For instance, consider the proposition "it's raining outside." The negation of that proposition is the proposition "it's not the case that it's raining outside" (typically abbreviated "it's not raining outside" — logicians form the negation of a proposition by putting "it's not the case that …" in front of a proposition). Given that the proposition "it's raining outside" is testable, is it also the case that the negation of that proposition is testable?
As a general rule, if a proposition is testable, isn't its negation also testable? [If you don't get a firm yes to this, continue as follows:] Can you help me to understand how a proposition can be testable, but its negation not be testable? To say that a proposition is testable is to say that it can be placed in empirical harm's way — that it might be wrong and that this wrongness may be confirmed through empirical data, wouldn't you agree? Testability means that the proposition can be put to a test and if it fails the test, then it loses credibility and its negation gains in credibility? Wouldn't you agree? [Keep hammering on this until you've gotten full submission.]
This question of negation is no more than wordplay. People often claim, "You can't prove a negative," but that's a self-refuting statement (because it is itself a negative statement), so if it's true it's also false. People often claim that you can't prove God doesn't exist, but if God is defined in such a way that his existence should necessitate certain obvious manifestations in the world, and those manifestations aren't in evidence, then this ought to count as evidence (although not proof, which is usually confined to mathematics) against his existence. Faced with this (lack of) evidence, theists usually redefine God to be something whose manifestation would not be so obvious.

Dembski's "hammering" is all towards the idea that you can't rule out "intelligence" as one of the forces that drives evolution. I'd like to offer an additional force that drives evolution: magic pixie dust. By Dembski's own criteria he can't rule it out, even if he's no idea how it actually works. There are certainly gaps in our knowledge of evolution, and especially abiogenesis, but these gaps can be filled by maintaining that the magic pixies use the awesome power of pixie dust to transmute inanimate matter into living, replicating cells. They also, incidentally, help out with those awkward transitions between organisms when random mutation and natural selection don't quite seem up to the job.

Next we have cellular engineering, the bacterial flagellum, complexity and the rest of the ID arsenal. But it won't wash. Dembski appears desperate to have ID accepted as science, but he won't do the one thing necessary for that to come about. He philosophizes, picks holes in evolutionary theory, plays word-games, and generally complains that the scientific community won't let him in — all the while refusing to take the entrance exam. All he needs to do is some actual research, and get it published in a respected peer-reviewed scientific journal. We've come to the end of the section entitled The Question of Science, but Dembski — who co-edited this entire book — hasn't given us any actual science.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

Daylight Atheism > To Win, We Just Have to Show Up
The religious reaction to legislated equality displays the religious agenda for all to see.

Cancelled lessons in tolerance in inclusiveness | HumanistLife
This is offensive?

Paranormality launches in the USA….and the Friday Puzzle! « Richard Wiseman's Blog
American publishers were reluctant to support a skeptical book, with some suggesting that I re-write it to suggest that ghosts were real and psychic powers actually existed!
We in the UK probably don't realise the entrenched depth of magical thinking in the US.

The briar patch of theology « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne is torturing himself.

YouTube - ‪いろいろな小さ過ぎる箱とねこ。-Many too small boxes and Maru.-‬‏

(Via Jerry Coyne.)