Monday 12 December 2016

Unbelievably vague mystery

The latest Unbelievable? radio show is a discussion between Mike McHargue (who describes himself as a non-theist Christian) and Ben Watts (an atheist).

What, exactly, is a non-theist Christian? Perhaps it's an atheist who follows the teachings of Christ. Except, presumably, those teachings about God. Definitions aside, you might reasonably ask how someone becomes a non-theist Christian. In the case of Mike McHargue, you'll wait in vain for an explanation — or at least one that make sense. This non-theist Christian has a book to promote, and it would be ill-advised for him to make his position so abundantly clear that reading his book becomes redundant. Both Ben Watts and host Justin Brierley acknowledge that the book is well written, which is good, but I suspect that's as far as it goes. Based on what he did say in response to Ben's and Justin's questions, the book seems likely to be full of woolly mysticism. Mike claims to have found God in the waves on a beach. He agrees that his personal experience isn't evidence that anyone else is likely to accept, but then appears to claim that reason and logic are mired in the “enlightenment view”, and that his personal relationship with God (how does that work for a non-theist?) is “pre-enlightenment” and therefore more … what? … more real?

Here's the relevant blurb from the Unbelievable? website:
Mike McHargue – known as ‘Science Mike’ - was a Christian who lost his faith then found it again through science. He tells his story of coming back to faith through an experience on a beach and how he now puts science and Christian faith together.

Ben Watts is an atheist who grew up with a Christian Faith but lost it after going to university to study science. He engages with Mike on this week’s show.
A civil but unsatisfactory discussion, with many examples of “playing the mystery card”.

Mike's official book-trailer playlist on YouTube is professionally produced but mostly sound-bites — don't expect much insight into his actual position or beliefs. There are, however, words — and some slo-mo striding:

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Dear Paul, Darwinism is cultural poison.

I spent some time today clearing my email inbox, and came across this heartening missive:

Dear Paul:

A new survey of more than 3,000 Americans powerfully confirms that Darwinism is cultural poison.

The wide-ranging survey found that evolutionary theory really does undermine many people's belief in God and absolute morality. 

Students-Classroom Behind the statistics are real people. We've all heard the stories. Every year teens head off to college full of hope and promise. Many have been raised in solid homes of faith and were educated in private religious schools. But so many lose their way after getting brainwashed into believing life is just a meaningless evolutionary accident. 

It doesn't have to be this way. Your gift today can help fight this poison

The survey was made possible by you, our financial supporters, and it's a game changer. 

No one with an open mind will be able to read the survey results without realizing how corrosive Darwinism is. The results can persuade more people to stand up against this powerful ideology. 

But for that to happen, your financial support is need to publicize the results to more than 100,000 pastors, faith community leaders, and laypeople

With your support, we'll do targeted social media campaigns, licensed email blasts, media interviews, infographics, short videos, and more. If we can raise the funds. 

Please send a donation today of $75, $150, $500, or more, for this important campaign. 

This is a unique opportunity for your donation to work as a force multiplier. How? 
As a way of saying thanks for giving, we will send you a digital copy of the report when it becomes available later this fall. I hope you will send a gift today and that you will share your copy with someone who needs to hear.

Together we can grow the ranks of the intelligent design movement and turn to flight those who would use Darwinism to drain meaning, purpose, and morality from the world.


Kelley Signature - Blue SM
Kelley Unger
Director, Development Operations
Center for Science and Culture
Discovery Institute

P.S. There's also good news in the survey. Many theists and even some agnostics reported that the evidence for intelligent design strengthens their belief in God.

Help us spread the word
and the evidence.

So yes, the Discovery Institute is once again asking me for money, but I shan't be sending them anything, not least because the trends they are lamenting, and to which they are opposed, are actually good trends that reason and logic should lead us to applaud:
The wide-ranging survey found that evolutionary theory really does undermine many people's belief in God and absolute morality. 
I see that as a positive trend. (I also note that there are three links to their donation page, but no link to the survey report, which will only be available after donation.)
Behind the statistics are real people. We've all heard the stories. Every year teens head off to college full of hope and promise. Many have been raised in solid homes of faith and were educated in private religious schools. But so many lose their way after getting brainwashed into believing life is just a meaningless evolutionary accident.  
Generally speaking it's a good thing to have your brain cleared of erroneous, unevidenced beliefs. Life is, in fact, empty and meaningless. And it's empty and meaningless that it's empty and meaningless. So don't sweat it, just get on with your life, a life that will have as much meaning as you care to put into it.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Where is God hiding? (warning: contains sarcasm)

“Atheists often object that God should just make himself clearly obvious if he exists. So why doesn't he?”
The above is how a link on Facebook introduces an article in Premier Christianity magazine entitled “Why is God hidden?” with the strapline “Joshua Parikh tackles the tricky question of why God's existence isn't more obvious to nonbelievers.”

The article begins by exposing the author's bias from the outset, so at least we know where he's coming from:
“The so-called hiddenness of God has been an existential problem for believers and non-believers alike for thousands of years.”
“So-called hiddenness” — so you know, not really hidden.

After a brief introduction to the problem of God's “perceived” absence (so you know, not really absent), Joshua Parikh outlines three arguments:

1. The context of hiddenness

The reason why you think God's hiddenness is a problem is that you've been cherry-picking. You've only looked at places where evidence for God is absent, and ignored places where there is evidence. What is this evidence? Miracles, of course! For example, miracles related by “highly regarded” scholar Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister. Not that he has any stake in this, naturally.

2. The problem on our end

Non-believers are resistant to the idea of God, so they can't see him, or his works. “...if the argument is that non-resistant non-believers exist, then this is not obvious.”

3. What God's hiddenness brings

Hiddenness is apparently a good thing, for several reasons:
  1. Hiddenness builds character.
  2. Hiddenness gives Christians opportunities to preach at non-believers.
  3. Hiddenness allows God to throw his revelations into sharp relief, which he couldn't do if he was obvious.
The author concludes this meagre bowl of unbelievably weak sauce with the following paragraph:
"For more answers, I recommend Blake Giunta’s excellent website, but I think these all point to a story by which Christianity can fully answer the difficult question of why God remains apparently hidden, however troubling it may seem."
Probably a good idea, as this article on its own is nowhere near good enough.

Monday 29 August 2016

Belief in God is not "properly basic"

Stephen Law's undercutting defeater for “properly basic” belief in God held no sway with his debating opponent Tyler McNabb on last week's Unbelievable? radio show.

Stephen Law presented sound philosophical arguments demonstrating that Tyler McNabb's belief was not justified. But Tyler McNabb announced that he was nevertheless going to continue believing it anyway. Towards the end of the discussion host Justin Brierley suggested that perhaps the popularity of “properly basic” belief was that it allowed believers to continue believing while avoiding any requirement to present compelling evidence.

In as much as they have a choice (given the unlikelihood of doxastic voluntarism), I think believers can choose between belief on the basis of evidence, or belief on the basis of faith. One or the other, you don't need both. In my view, however, neither will give you a rational basis for belief in God.

Direct link to mp3:

Tuesday 16 August 2016

What the hell is "Darwinian Eugenics"?

For reasons, I'm on the mailing list of Creation Ministries International. Their latest e-missive comes with this subject-line, "Darwin's death-camp doctors — and dwarfs", with the following body:

During the 1930s and 40s, the Lilliput Troupe family of singers dazzled audiences with their unique vaudeville performances. The only all-dwarf show then, their small stature earned them fame—and, ironically, ultimately saved their lives in Auschwitz.
As Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev wrote in their recent book Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz (reviewed by Jerry Bergman in the latest Journal of Creation), these entertainers who were formerly “showered with flowers and besieged for autographs, were now declared a genetic error that the state set out systematically to erase.”
After descending from the cattle train in the Auschwitz death camp, the Ovitz family—seven of whom were dwarfs—were separated from the other victims on the orders of Dr Joseph Mengele—a Nazi SS officer and physician with a Ph.D. in anthropology and an obsession with eugenics. Dr Mengele’s reason for being at Auschwitz was so he “would have continual access to an unlimited supply of human specimens” for his genetic research. His “enthusiasm, ambition, charisma and cruelty set him apart from the other death-camp doctors”, and he rose to the position of First Physician of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
When Mengele learned “that a large family with dwarf traits had just arrived he did not waste a moment. ‘I now have work for twenty years,’ he said joyfully.” He ordered a series of loathsome experiments on the Ovitz family. “Mengele was only one of dozens of doctors who felt no compunction about experiments conducted upon the Jews. He argued that since they were all doomed to die anyway, it would be a waste for science not to use them” for his brutal research to better understand evolution. In the end, “thousands of prisoners suffered in these experiments. Those who did not die in the name of German science often ended up gruesomely maimed.”
When the Russian army liberated Auschwitz, the entire Ovitz family was still alive, having been preserved for ongoing ‘study’. Mengele went on the run in Europe, before moving to South America in 1949. He successfully evaded capture for the rest of his life. The authors conclude that “the biggest crime in history was carried out under the direction of leading scientists and distinguished institutions” who, Jerry Bergman points out, were under the spell of Darwinian eugenics.

We know Josef Mengele did some terrible things, but implying he was inspired by Charles Darwin is disingenuous to say the least. Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection. What eugenicists advocate is artificial selection, which has been going on for centuries with selective breeding of, for example, dogs, goldfish, and pigeons. Extending selective breeding to humans may be undesirable, but it has nothing to do with Darwin.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Burnee Spring Links

Jesus and Mo

creatures avoiding planks

God's Most Famous Conversation Ever | God
Well, there you go...

Imitating a xylophone - YouTube
Some people collect stamps.

Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science to Merge with Center for Inquiry | Center for Inquiry
I'm not sure I know what to think about this....

Open Letter To Karen Armstrong on ‘The Myth of Religious Violence’ | Center for Inquiry
I don't remember this from the first time round (September 2014) but it would be a salutary read for some religious members of the Skepticule Facebook group who insist on a skewed idea of what secularism is actually about.

The rise of a new grief vampire – Respectful Insolence
For those following the latest vampire grief, here's the low-down.

» Government moves to ban organisations from exposing law-breaking schools unfairly restricting access to children and parents
Once again the Government demonstrates its commitment to seeking informed and expert opinion on a crucial issue, and ignoring it all.

Nicky Morgan is wrong to block complaints about faith schools | Voices | The Independent
This is ... vexing. It appears to demonstrate that the Government is prepared to do anything to further its own agenda, regardless of legality, fair-mindedness, common decency, and indeed common sense.

London Thinks – Why Do We Believe? - YouTube
Video of event now available.

London Thinks - Why Do We Believe? - Conway Hall | Flickr - Photo Sharing!
My pics from the London Thinks "Why Do We Believe?" event at Conway Hall on Monday 25 January 2016.
Childish frivolity, but strangely satisfying.

Fraud Psychic Gets Exposed On Camera! - YouTube
During his presentation at QEDcon in 2014, Mark Edward said "Let's take out the trash!" Some people objected to his phrasing, but it's precisely this kind of fraudulent behaviour he was referring to.

Atheist Debates - Abraham and Isaac - YouTube
Matt Dillahunty on Abraham and Isaac. Every which way you look at it, this story does not show the Abrahamic religions in good light.

What happened when my prosperity-preaching dad got a brain tumour
This is what it looks like from outside, even to people who were once inside. But for those who still remain inside, it's all part of God's Plan.

Customer Letter - Apple
Has the Crypto-war been averted, or merely postponed?

Sunday 24 April 2016

The Artist Series: Alexey Titarenko

For my photography friends —

Ted Forbes of The Art of Photography has today released the first of his crowd-funded video documentary series on living photographers:

For a closer look at some of Alexey Titarenko's ethereal long-exposure shots, check out his book The City Is A Novel:

Sunday 17 April 2016

Lies, bullshit, and statistics

Tim Harford in the Financial Times, with what could be the most important article of the year (and why I despair of today's media politics):
This is the real tragedy. It’s not that politicians spin things their way — of course they do. That is politics. It’s that politicians have grown so used to misusing numbers as weapons that they have forgotten that used properly, they are tools.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Noah's Anecdotal Ark

I'm on the mailing list of Creation Ministries International (because... see this post from a while back, about my previous local creationism encounter).

So today I learned that Australians Rod and Nancy Walsh will shortly be touring the UK giving presentations and answering questions about Noah's Ark and the Global Flood. The nearest venue to me is Southampton, on Thursday 28 April, but judging by the poor quality of 'arguments' in the article linked above I can't summon enough enthusiasm to motivate me to endure any more creationist twaddle.

As far as I can tell creationists live in a self-imposed logic-free bubble with its own force field that grows more impregnable the more it encounters actual science. My inclination, therefore, is to let them get on with it — provided it's kept out of school science classes.

Saturday 13 February 2016

The ultimate photographic adventure

For my photographer friends (and my skeptical friends, because I'm aware there is some overlap, and I think this has some relevance to skepticism) I'm linking to a video that I think you'll find interesting and inspirational.

First, some background. Some years ago when I decided it was about time I took my interest in photography more seriously, I began consuming a load of free internet photography content. (My thinking on this was simple: get the free stuff before deciding what you're prepared to pay for.) One particular producer of this free content was Adorama TV. Adorama is a photography store in New York, and they put out a massive amount of short photography content in video form, available mostly via their YouTube channel, entirely free, and in HD. It's professionally produced and surprisingly not entirely US-centric. Of the dozens of presenters on Adorama TV my favourites are Mark Wallace and Gavin Hoey. Mark Wallace is an American (and the subject of this blogpost), while Gavin Hoey is a Brit whose videos appear to be all based in the UK. Indeed his most recent video was, as far as I can tell, shot in Fishbourne on the Isle of Wight, next to the ferry terminal where I've spent many an hour over the years waiting for the car ferry to take me back to the mainland.

A few months after I started watching Adorama TV Mark Wallace announced that he and his friend (and model) Lex were going to sell everything they owned so they could travel the world. Now, two years later, Mark Wallace is back to tell the story of their travels (although throughout them he has still produced regular videos for Adorama). The video embedded below is a talk he gave recently at the Adorama store.

His story, however, is more than "this is where we went, and this is what we saw" — it's a story of a life-decision that affected his outlook on everything else.

Saturday 6 February 2016

Spooky (and slightly camp) stories from a bygone age

Hey, I'm famous again!

Not exactly, but my narration of Rick Kennett's short story "The Silent Garden" is now available for your listening shiver at Tales to Terrify. This horror fiction podcast magazine in the style of Pseudopod is part of the StarshipSofa stable, and is well worth your time if you're into short horror fiction.

I've narrated a couple of William Hope Hodgson's "Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder" stories for PodCastle, so when Tales to Terrify had a Carnacki story written by Rick Kennett they asked me if I'd like to narrate that too.

Find "The Silent Garden" here:

My other two Carnacki narrations can be found here:

Sunday 24 January 2016

Gay marriage is not "bad for children" — Unbelievable?

Currently listening to the Unbelievable? podcast from a week ago — the one about the detriment that children allegedly suffer when brought up by same-sex parents:

Direct audio download here:

Knowing in advance that James Croft was a participant, I expected him to shred the idea that same-sex parenting is detrimental, and so it proved. Bobby Lopez, in fact, turned out to be something of a conspiracy theorist. Jacob Clark, who was fostered for a short while by two gay clerics, also contributed, further supporting the case for gay parenting.

My own stance on this issue is that it should not be surprising that a family with same-sex parents will be different in some substantial respects from families with opposite-sex parents, but those differences will be small in comparison with the difference in families of any kind, due to the fact that people are in general fundamentally diverse.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Life beyond belief: 30 minutes on "Heaven"

BBC Radio 4's Beyond Belief recently covered "Heaven and the Afterlife":
The question of what happens after we die is central to the world's faith traditions. How has the belief in an afterlife developed across the religions? And what does Heaven mean to people of faith today?

Ernie Rea discusses the concept of the afterlife with Shaunaka Rishi Das, Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies; Dr Shuruq Naguib, lecturer in Islamic Studies at Lancaster University; and the writer and broadcaster Peter Stanford.
Producer: Amanda Hancox
Ernie Rae's studio guests asserted a great deal about stuff they couldn't possibly know, and as usual with this half-hour programme and several guests, nothing could be considered very deeply. Just enough time for someone to state that "studies have shown" that people who have a belief in an afterlife face death more peacefully than those who don't, plus the assumption that of course someone who believes in an afterlife will act more morally in their life before death.

There was also an inserted interview with resuscitation researcher Dr Sam Parnia who claimed that the scientific consensus was that the soul is something apart from the brain.

Saturday 2 January 2016

Complexity, inevitability, and life — Evolution 2.0 on Unbelievable?

Listening to the latest Unbelievable? show from Premier Radio I was struck by what appeared to be a failure of imagination on the part of Perry Marshall, who was debating evolutionary biologist PZ Myers about the former's recent book, Evolution 2.0. Not being a biologist of any kind I'm unable to comment authoritatively on the actual mechanisms of evolution, but having followed PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula in the past (less so these days) I'm fairly confident he knows what he's talking about when it comes to his own subject. Perry Marshall's background, however, is in engineering and marketing, which on the face of it should make me wary of pronouncements that are outside his field of expertise.

Myers rubbished pretty much everything Marshall proposed, and given the above I'm prepared to accept that Myers is right and Marshall is wrong. The debate was fairly technical, but seemed to me to boil down to Marshall's claim that the “random” part of random mutation is insufficient to explain how evolution works (notwithstanding other aspects of evolution such as horizontal gene transfer).

At one point Marshall stated that the code in DNA could fit on a Compact Disc, and that if you eliminated “junk DNA” the code would be merely ten percent of what could fit on a CD. The core of his argument appeared to be disbelief that such a relatively small amount of information could produce the complexity we see in living organisms today. By comparison he cited the amount of code required to install modern computer operating systems such as Windows 10 and Mac OS X.

Marshall's engineering background has hampered his thinking here. Engineers who design systems, be they engines, bridges, or computer operating systems, need to specify mechanisms in minute detail (or make use of minutely detailed specifications already available) in order to make their systems work. This notion of "engineering ex nihilo" is what in my opinion leads to the essential failure-of-imagination exhibited by intelligent design proponents and creationists (of whom a disproportionately large number are engineers) — “it's all so complicated it must have been minutely designed by an intelligence of some kind.

But imagine a software programmer who has never encountered fractals is shown a picture of the Mandelbrot set, and is given the task of writing code to generate the same picture from scratch. Without knowledge of the simple equation that produces fractals the picture could indeed be generated, but I suspect the code would be somewhat large. Or imagine a manufacturer of breakfast cereal wants its packaging department to come up with a special gadget to ensure that each carton of cornflakes contains a gradation of flakes, such that the larger flakes are mostly towards the top of the carton and the smaller ones mostly towards the bottom. I'm sure such a gadget could be made, but it's not actually necessary as the cornflakes tend to sort themselves out this way on their own.

Such self-organisation is, in my view, an aspect of the discussion about complexity that is often overlooked. If things inevitably organise themselves in a particular way, trying to make them happen in other ways, against the natural order, will indeed require complex intervention. “Going with the flow” on the other hand, will often require no intervention at all. It seems to me that much of the complexity we see in nature is there because in a given environment, things tend to work out that way rather than any other, just like in a packet of cornflakes.

A small part of the Mandelbrot set
This is applicable in other systems too, such as how you organise your life. For instance, it makes sense to keep things you need regularly in designated places, so that you don't have to embark on a time-consuming search every time you need them. If you need to take something with you when you go out, you could set an alarm on your smartphone to remind you to pick it up at the appropriate time — or you could simply place the item where you will see it when you do go out.

To put this another way: don't expend energy trying to achieve things in spite of your environment. Rather, create, encourage and adjust your environment such that it allows those things to be achieved automatically. (There you go — who'd have thought a debate on evolution would lead to productivity advice and life-coaching?)

UPDATE 2016-01-04: Perry Marshall has published online his transcript of the debate, along with some restrospective comments:
...And here's PZ Myers' response to the comments:

UPDATE 2016-01-10: Looks like this will run and run. Perry Marshall has responded to PZ Myers' response to his comments on his transcript:

UPDATE 2016-01-12: ...and PZ Myers further responds here: 

UPDATE 2016-01-22: Will this never end? Perry Marshalls's next shot:

...And possibly the last from PZ Myers?:

PZ Myers' blogpost about his encounter with Perry Marshall is here:

Friday 1 January 2016

God's gonna buy you a private jet

(From the Friendly Atheist via Marina on Facebook)

After listening to two pastors "explaining" why they all need private jets (it's so that they can talk to God without being interrupted), Hemant Mehta has a suggestion:
Here’s an idea: If you’re so famous that you can’t fly everywhere without people stopping you, wear a disguise. Or fly First Class if you must. Or don’t stand up to talk to God like a crazy person when I’m sure God can read your mind just fine even if you’re seated and silent.
Here's the clip he was listening to:

These guys are either (this is my opinion) lying through their teeth, or they are seriously delusional.

The whole business puts me in mind of this:

Felicitations for solar orbital repetition!

Happy New Year!