Saturday 28 July 2012

Atheist prayer — isn't this just silly?

Posted by Justin Brierley in his Unbelievable? Facebook group:
Are you an atheist? If there is a God do you want to find out? On the latest show I announced The Atheist Prayer Experiment. I'll post up more details in due course, but if you want to take part then email
What on earth could this be? Getting atheists to pray to a god they don't believe in? Is there any way this "experiment" could be in the least valid?

Who knows? This strikes me as another theistic attempt to inject scientific rationality into something intrinsically irrational. I was highly skeptical of the recent experiment aiming to determine the efficacy of intercessory prayer. As it turned out, the study showed a marginally negative effect — that is, heart patients aware that they were being prayed for did slightly worse in their overall recovery. But that doesn't change my view that such experiments are pretty much worthless; after all, who's to say that any patients weren't being randomly prayed for by people not involved in the study, with consequently unpredictable skewing of the results? And isn't God supposed to take a dim view of being tested (despite being perfectly OK with testing his subjects — Abraham and Isaac, for instance)?

To me the whole idea seems like a pointless waste of time — nevertheless I await Justin's explication (though I'm not holding my breath).

UPDATE 20120819:

The paper by Tim Mawson to which Justin Brierley referred in his announcement is available here:

The Atheist Prayer Experiment webpage is here:

UPDATE 20120822: 

More here:
Notes from an Evil Burnee: An experiment designed to be useless

Thursday 19 July 2012

Burnee links for Thursday

To Paula | The Heresy Club
I tend to agree. It saddens me that such a letter needs to be written.

Your freedom to impose your religion ends where your child begins | coelsblog
Circumscribing the circumcision debate.

History, My Bum Knee, and Some People I Want to Thank | Greta Christina's Blog
Western society makes progress.

Temple of the Future — We Have Failed Leah Libresco
James Croft says humanists must be able to explain their morality.

Tessera: The Emotional Eating Kit
Sounds like good stuff. Not actually harmful, anyway. Not anything, to tell the truth, but don't let that stop you throwing your money away if it makes you feel better (if not in actual fact better).

Voice of Reason: Lawrence Krauss - Reality is liberating - YouTube
"The great thing about science is not knowing."

Higgs Boson announcement from CERN: why the god particle is so important. - Slate Magazine
More Krauss, this time on the CERN announcement and nothing interesting.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Moral argument for the existence of tedium

The moral argument for the existence of God is in my opinion so completely wrong, so groundless and so obviously flawed, that I find it astonishing anyone takes it seriously. And when I come across a screed that proposes the moral argument without a shred of embarrassment, I can only shake my head and move on. One such screed is this, by Jonathan McLatchie. I've looked at it, shaken my head and moved on from it more than once, but there remains a nagging concern that though its falsehood is plain to me, some people still — amazingly — take the argument seriously.

It's all very well for me to assert that the arguments put forth in this piece are spent and vacuous, but it seems there are some people to whom this is not apparent. Therefore, despite the tedium involved (and despite having done it before), I must perforce demonstrate why the argument so spectacularly fails.
Moral Argument – Overview
The moral argument for the existence of God refers to the claim that God is needed to provide a coherent ontological foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties. The argument can be summarised in the following syllogism:

Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

Since this is a logically valid syllogism, the atheist, in order to maintain his non-belief in God, must reject at least one of the two Premises. By “objective” morality we mean a system of ethics which universally pertains irrespective of the opinions or tastes of human persons: for example, the holocaust was morally wrong irrespective of what Hitler and the Nazis believed about it, and it would have remained morally wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and compelled everyone into compliance with their values. This view, known in philosophy as “moral realism,” contrasts with “moral relativism” which maintains that no-one is objectively correct or incorrect with respect to their moral values and judgements.
This doesn't work at all. For a start it isn't a logically valid syllogism, because there's more than one definition of objective. McLatchie (like William Lane Craig) seems to be using a definition that requires objective moral values to mean God-given moral values — which of course is begging the question. His definition above is too vague: "a system of ethics which universally pertains irrespective of the opinions or tastes of human persons" and it craftily slips in the idea of universality being a necessary part of what it is to be objective.  But objective is simply the opposite of subjective, that is, independent of any single individual. This does not rule out objective moral values that are formulated jointly, after consideration of the consequences of moral actions. Nor does it rule out objective moral values that can change according to circumstances. Right at the start, therefore, Premise 1 fails.
Moreover, in the absence of theism, nobody has been able to conceive of a defensible grounding for moral values.
This always makes me laugh, because it implies that theism can provide "a defensible grounding for moral values." No theist can justify this, only merely assert it. Where do theists get their moral grounding? It's in a book — a book that no present-day theists had a hand in writing, that has no demonstrably sound provenance, and that contains "moral guidance" even theists admit — by their textual wrangling to make things fit — is of dubious moral value. When it comes to making moral decisions, I submit that ignoring circumstances and consequences in favour of "playing by the book" is an abdication of moral responsibility.
Moral Argument – An Important Distinction
It is important to bear in mind that the moral argument pertains to the ultimate source of objective moral values and duties (moral ontology) and not how we know what is moral or immoral (moral epistemology) and not 'what we mean' by good/bad or right/wrong (moral semantics). The theistic ethicist maintains that moral values are grounded in the character and nature of God. 
This doesn't work either. McLatchie has not established that there is, or needs to be, an "ultimate source of objective moral values and duties". In referring to moral ontology McLatchie is claiming that objective moral values and duties have some kind of existence in reality, independent of anything else. He hasn't established this, he's just assuming it.

There follows a fairly straight exposition of the Euthyphro dilemma, with this addendum:
The question is posed this way: Is x the right thing to do because God commands it, or does God command it because it is already the right thing to do? I take the former option. Normally, the problem with accepting the horn is that there is a presumption that the commands in question from God are arbitrary (i.e. God could have commanded that we ought to lie). But that's just false. The theist wants to say that God is essentially loving, honest etc., and therefore, in all worlds at which God exists, his commands are going to be consistent with his nature. And therefore, in all worlds, he will disapprove of lying.
Theists may indeed want to say that God is essentially loving, honest etc., but unfortunately they have no justification for saying it, other than to define God in this way. "It's God's nature," they say. But is God's nature essentially loving, honest etc., because it is God's? Or is God essentially loving, honest etc., because he is beholden to his nature? In answer, theists will eventually say that God and his nature are one and the same thing, which kind of makes the whole thing circular: God is good because good is God, and vice versa — unhelpful at best.
Moral Argument – The Shortcomings of Utilitarianism
There are various nontheistic systems of ethics, none of which succeed in providing a robust ontological foundation or objective moral values and duties. One of these systems, popularised recently by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, is called utilitarianism, and (in its most common formulation) refers to the view that ethics are determined by what constitutes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. One difficulty lies in the fact that it attempts to balance two different scales employed to assess the moral virtue of an action (i.e. the amount of utility produced and the number of people affected). This can often lead to conflicting answers—in some cases an activity might be considered better for a greater number of individuals whereas a different activity might create a greater overall utility. Utilitarians try to maximize with their actions the utility of the long-term consequences of those actions. However, short of possession of omniscience, it is impossible to evaluate the respective long-term results of different activities. Utilitarianism also does not take into account the individual’s intent—Activity X could be done sincerely by an individual who believes that what he is doing will create the maximum utility. But if activity X turns out in the long-term not to produce the desired utility, then his action, under the philosophy of utilitarianism, would be considered less moral than an activity that created more utility.
Yeah, this stuff is hard, in case you hadn't noticed. So much easier to look it up in a book, and disregard any subsequent ramifications. Personally I'd rather entrust moral decisions to people who have carefully considered the circumstances and consequences of those decisions, than entrust them to a bunch of Christians with a crib-sheet.
Moral Argument – Conclusion
In conclusion, the moral argument is a robust argument for the existence of God.
Actually it's not.
Humans, being shaped in the image of God, have an intuitive sense of right and wrong.
Christians like to say that humans are "shaped in the image of God," but this is one of those meaningless phrases they can never explain. And the reason why we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong is because we have an evolved conscience.
It is not at all clear how the atheist, except at the expense of moral realism, can maintain an objective standard of ethics without such a being as God as his ontological foundation.
 It's not at all clear to Jonathan McLatchie — that much is clear.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Burnee links for Tuesday (or ... July)

Here's a catch-up of recent and not-so-recent links. I've been busy not blogging.

Doing science: with Holiday Inn, Weber Shandwick PR, and any academic who'll sell a reputation. - bengoldacre - secondary blog
This is disgraceful.

The Dawkins Challenge…doesn’t even get out of the starting gate | Pharyngula
 PZ sums up what's wrong with theology as a whole:
You can’t say something is “real”, and then claim it exhibits none of the properties of any other real objects, and can’t ever be examined or analyzed empirically. That’s pretty much a good definition of “not real”.
A church fit only for bigots and hypocrites | Nick Cohen | Comment is free | The Observer
At this rate there won't be a church to disestablish.

Sex and Sharia: Muslim women punished for failed marriages | | Independent Editor's choice Blogs
Clearly unjust — how can this be permitted in Britain?
(Via Ophelia Benson.) 

Is Dawkins really hoisted by his own petard? « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald says no.

What kind of atheist are you? | Pharyngula
PZ's taxonomy of atheism.

Human Rights Petition: We call on the Catholic Archdiocese of Bombay to encourage the withdrawal of complaints against Indian Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku |
Sign this petition. A man's freedom is at risk because he pointed out that a so-called "miracle" is the result of a leaking pipe.

Stephen Law: Religious Experience and Karen Armstrong's God
Religion explained. Next question please.

The Fundamental Problem with Religious Belief « Choice in Dying
"Religions are closed systems. If they weren’t, all the religions of the world would be busy trying to discover the truth that underlies them all. But, because they are closed systems, all the efforts that are made by people like Francis Collins or John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacock, Denis Alexander, Alister McGrath, and so many others, to show that science can be accommodated within the religious world view, are really efforts to fit an open process of exploration and discovery into a fixed system of ideas worked out long ago, and there is simply no way of doing that."