Tuesday 16 October 2012

Burnee links for Tuesday

Google Europe Blog: A worthy winner for the inaugural Tony Sale award
And a worthy first commemoration of the man who rebuilt Colossus.
(Via National Museum of Computing.)

Philip Kitcher: The Trouble With Scientism | The New Republic
Lengthy and thought-provoking, but I was initially confused by his usage of "humanistic". A more careful explication of what he means by "scientism" would also have helped.

The Way of the Mister: Mormonism is Racism - YouTube
This, and magic underpants.

Claims of Peer Review for Intelligent Design examined … and debunked « Skeptical Science
"Intelligent Design" is not science.

Documents cast light on Causeway creationist wrangle - Local - Belfast Newsletter
Apparently there was a possibility that private public grant funding for the information centre could have been made conditional on the creationist interpretation being included in the information. Whether or not that condition was ever made, or accepted, it remains true that the creationist interpretation was included. This illustrates the insidious nature of creationism, and the necessity for eternal vigilance.
(Via BCSE.)

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Creationist road trip conspires against reality

Yesterday I noticed BBC Three was to broadcast the second in a three-episode series ostensibly on conspiracy theories, this one taking a small group of creationists on a coach trip in America and showing them the evidence for evolution. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and so it turned out, more or less. Jerry Coyne was in it:

Soon after watching the whole thing, I posted my reaction on Facebook:
OK I watched it, and some parts were indeed disastrous — kind of like Big Brother Goes On The Road. They started in Las Vegas, for no other reason (that I could discern) than it allowed for some clichéd photo-opportunities.
Jerry Coyne doesn't suffer fools, and his debunking of Noah's Ark did not go down well with the creationists. The creationist who appeared to have appointed himself "star-of-the-show" also seemed to be entertaining the idea that the show itself was a conspiracy, and he was impervious to reason, maintaining that the purpose of science was to deny God.
The presenter, Andrew Maxwell, nailed it with his bemused announcement that he couldn't understand how, in the face of so much evidence for evolution, the creationists simply dismissed anything that was contrary to scripture. He asked one of them why they even bother to look at the science if they're not going to accept anything that doesn't agree with what they already believe.
A frustrating programme that generated — on my part — more than its fair share of sighing and head-shaking.
Conspiracy Road Trip: Creationism is on iPlayer at the moment, and as it's BBC Three it's likely to be available again fairly soon.

UPDATE 2012-10-13:

Here's the whole thing on YouTube:

...and here's Jerry Coyne's post about it:

The ontobollocksical argument is not one of my favourites

A link to BBC Radio 4's In Our Time was posted in the Unbelievable? Facebook group, as it dealt with the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. In a fit of snarky dismissal I posted the following comment:
This was followed by some disingenuous (I felt) puzzlement, which led me to expand on my remark:

  • Paul Jenkins My objection to the ontobollocksical argument is that it's entirely about concepts. A concept is something that exists only in minds, and no matter how much you conceive of an entity — or its maximal greatness — there's nothing to make that magical transition from concept to reality.

    Of course it's possible for something to exist as a concept as well as existing in reality, but these are two different things than can be causally related in only one direction: from the real thing to the concept of that thing — not the other way around. For a concept of an entity to have a causal relationship towards an actual entity something else has to be involved. The concept alone is not enough.

    The ontobollocksical argument is no more than a fancy and roundabout way of saying, "I can imagine something, therefore it must exist."
Yet further responses asserted I was wrong about this, and suggested I should deal with the premises of the argument — something I felt disinclined to do at the time, given that attempts were being made to shift the burden of proof on to me by mere assertion.

Nevertheless I stand by what I posted, and in case anyone's still interested here's how I deal with said premises. The ontological argument goes like this (from Wikipedia):
  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.
Premise 1 is fine as far as it goes — you can conceive of God any way you want. But is it really possible to conceive of ultimate greatness? I think not, other than as a label for what is frankly an inconceivable nebulosity. Can you, for example, conceive of infinity? You can have the idea in your mind of a very big number, a number so big that there isn't any number above it — but can you hold that concept in your mind as a number, rather than as a label for something that is, in actuality, inconceivable? Saying — in the St. Anselm formulation — that God is a being than which no greater can be conceived is of no use because you can't actually conceive of even that. You can give it a label, but it's a label that cannot be attached to anything.

So the ontological argument falls at its first premise, proving only that it is — as it has always been — bollocks.

Monday 8 October 2012

Burnee links for Monday

Stephen Law: William Lane Craig: "Animals aren't aware that they're in pain"
I was present when WLC made this claim, and I didn't believe it then. But I'll bet he continues to use it in debates despite being comprehensively refuted by several scientists who know whereof they speak.

Evolution, embryology and the Big Bang Theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell” – US politics and the misrepresentation (misunderstanding) of science | A Tippling Philosopher
Science is an evil conspiracy intent on turning people away from God!

Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life? | Science | The Observer
A civil discussion between two sides of essential agreement.

Atheism’s growing pains - Salon.com
Is this the definitive article on the +plus?

Gay Marriage Could Turn Britain Into Nazi Germany, Lord Carey Tells Rally At Conservative Party Conference
Carey has been beyond parody for some time now — does anyone pay attention to his crazy rants?

Sunday 7 October 2012

Lawrence Krauss has nothing to talk about

Last Thursday I was very pleased to attend a lecture at Portsmouth Grammar School given by Professor Lawrence Krauss. His book A Universe from Nothing has caused a stir in both religious and scientific circles. Richard Dawkins has (somewhat hyperbolically) characterised its significance on a par with Darwin's Origin, while apologists such as the mathematician John Lennox have complained that the "nothing" that Krauss writes about is not a "real" nothing (non-tautologically speaking, if that's possible).

Krauss is an excellent speaker, and though his talk did get into some very abstruse concepts — which gave him a legitimate opportunity to suggest that a more expansive explanation is available in his book — he was engaging throughout.

I have the Kindle version of A Universe from Nothing, so could not get it signed by the author. But I also have a copy of Quantum Man, so my dad (who has his own copy) and I queued up after the lecture for the signing. Here's Dad with the Prof:

Jonathan Pearce posted a response to the lecture on his A Tippling Philosopher blog. I commented as follows:
It was great lecture and my dad and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

As for the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” — I tend to the view that there was always something, and that the philosophical nothing is a concept only.

The way I see it there are four options:
1. There never was anything, and there never will be.

2. There was something, and then there wasn’t.

3. There always was something.

4. There was nothing (the philosophical nothing) and then there was something.
Clearly (1) is not the case, and (to us) is indistinguishable from (2) as both these positions are refuted by the existence of anything at all. (4) is contentious if one believes that a true philosophical nothing is incapable of spawning a something. Which leaves (3) — the eternal something (at least, eternal in the past — it may be possible for the sum total of all the somethings to self-annihilate and become a philosophical nothing).

If theists want to complain that Krauss’s nothing is not a philosophical nothing, that’s fine by me, but then I would ask them if their God is eternal. If God is eternal then the philosophical nothing is an impossibility, and they should stop asking how something can come from nothing.