Thursday, 20 December 2007

Crush on Christ

Read Possum's Essay for the first time today. Very inspiring, and a fine example. Weren't those Baptists weird though - so manu un-Christan Christians around.

On the same blog, a later post got me thinking about crushes. I'm 54 and remember a crush from when I was 5-6 very vividly, except for the girl's face - remember the place, the occasion, even her dress. I don't think of it often, but, as with many deep rooted feelings it is a clear memory - though perhaps it's the feeling that's the lasting memory and not the girl herself.

I can only imagine that religious types have similar deeply embedded feelings for Christ, or whoever, created by all the positive hype and threats of damnation that some churches instill in kids; and that that makes it so difficult to give up the faith and the 'love', against all reason. Especially if it's re-enforced every Sunday. I was Church of England, so it wasn't too strong an indoctrination, but I had a Catholic female cousin of a similar age to me and I remember when we were about 12 she used to admonish me for my evolving doubt and wonder how a couldn't 'love' Christ.

I swear she had a crush on Christ.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

A Journalist Apologises

It's not often it happens. I suspect many in the UK feel the same way, about Bush and Blair. Link

Monday, 3 December 2007

Is Religion Dangerous?

This is a response to Stephen Law's
"Is Religous Dangerous":

I would agree with William Hawthorne that it is not 'religion' in and of itself that is dangerous, but the following combination (including and paraphrasing some of Stephen's points). The first two conditions might apply to many situations, but it's the third condition that's the clincher for religion:

1) People with an uncritical mind are extremely gullible and open to persuasion by charismatic unscrupulous, or merely misguided, people, or by weight of numbers, about some 'truth' X.

2) People of a critical mind are not completely immune from this persuasion, or may not be able to refute X, for many reasons: they are not as charismatic as some of the proponents; the arguments for X are so tortuous, or rely on fallacies that are difficult to put across to those without the training; the arguments are not even real arguments, but statements that can neither be proved or disproved; there is insufficient data, or the problem is too difficult to refute currently; etc.

Conditions (1) and (2) allows for the propagation of X through whole communities, and it may continue and grow over a period of time. However, given enough effort and time it can be established that X is not a worthwhile 'truth' and can be discarded. Even then some people will continue to belive in X. Crazy 'truths' can sweep the blogosphere in this way.

Condition (2) can result in 'experts' believing X for some time, but later finding flaws in the original reasoning that supported X. This is the case with the early adoption of nuclear energy, where the arguments for it failed to account for the true cost of decommissioning. The war in Iraq might also have been permitted as a consequence of condition (2).

The solution to this problem is more critical reasoning and the promotion and teaching of critical reasoning, as Stephen has suggested.

But, religion comes into its own with condition (3):

3) Faith, and by inference the rejection of critical reasoning. Note that critical reasoning might be used, up to a point, but then only to the extent that it supports X. The main principle here is that if reasoning fails, then faith applies, but if reasoning can be used, no matter how invalid, if you can get away with it use it to bring some apparent credibility to X.

One of the benefits of having faith in your arsenal is that it makes it very easy for those of a non-critical mind, or those struggling with a difficult argument, to simply accept X on faith, and particularly on the word of the leaders of the faith.

4) Hysteria. This isn't absolutely necessary, but it helps. If you can whip up your followers into a frenzy, then it becomes more difficult for followers to reject X. If you've been discarding all reason, chanting and throwing yourself about in the name of X, calling for the death of apostates and non-believers, can you suddenly see yourself turning round and saying "Oops! Sorry folks, I think I may have been mistaken there." Such a sudden change of heart not going to happen is it? It rarely happens in policing, politics and business, so why should we expect it to be likely in religion.

So, religion is dangerous because of the combination of all these conditions; and there may be more.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Stephen Law's "Sleight of Hand With Faith" blog

See Sleight of Hand With Faith

Another good blog from Stephen Law. One of the pleasures of his blog is the level of interaction he permits. Some good stuff and good responses. I don't entirely agree with his points of view on some aspects - particularly the use of the 'problem of evil'. It's quite a long post, so my comments here are a bit lengthy too. I've stuck pretty much to Stephen's headings.

Reasonable belief
The tree, Japan, 1066 examples are particularly useful, in that they show there are varying degrees of reasonableness to believe something. The whole of Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious faith is based on ancient scriptures, but these old documents should be considered less reliable than more recent beliefs, such as the existence of a visible tree, the existence of Japan, and the historic records of 1066. And even if we accept that some original ancient document is genuine, there's no reason to give the same weight to its content as to the authenticity of the document itself.

Getting back to the 'faith' position, it's possible that some atheists believe god doesn't exist from a 'faith' position - they have the same degree and quality of faith that the 'stong faith' theist has, the atheist just believes the opposite.

But this isn't the 'science based atheism', or 'empirical atheism', or 'rational atheism' that most proponents of atheism argue for. It may be a position that is strongly believed, but it is borne out of reason and evidence, not pure blind faith. See Problem With Faith for more detail on my point of view on this.

And while we're on the subject of blind faith, I haven't yet been convinced by those theists who say their faith isn't blind faith. The argument goes like this:
A: You have no evidence and reason to suppose God exists.
T: No, we don't need it, we have faith.
A: Ah! Blind faith!
T: No, it's not blind faith. We believe based on scripture, etc.
A: So, you do need evidence. Let's examine that evidence...(atheist examines this evidence and concludes it's very flimsy and lacks any reason)...and so the scriptures aren't very good evidence and so don't provide good reason to believe in god.
T: No, we don't need it, we have faith....

A similar point is made by Stephen, where theists switch meanings of 'faith'.

Arguments for the existence of God
I think Stephen is here far too generous on the reasons for believing God might exist. The arguments are fatally flawed, but then he says...

"By saying that the arguments are fatally flawed, I mean not that, while the arguments do provide good grounds for believing in God, these grounds fall short of being conclusive. Rather, I mean that these arguments actually provide us with very little, if any, reason to suppose that God exists"

The first five points provide no good reason at all, they are so poor: (i) childishly poor; (ii)delusion - no there aren't any miracles - show me some; (iv)Jesus - he is qualified and reliable why?; (v)it only appears to be designed, but that doesn't mean it is.

Only the sixth is reasonable, to the extent that we have no knowledge of why the universe exists at all, and the proposition that there might be a god that created it is one possibility. But then it's a far cry from that basic proposition to conclude that this god has all the religious baggage attached to him, particularly that he has any interest in us, that he occasionally allows or causes miracles, that he allows or has any interest in what we call evil.

This 'source of the universe' proposition could suggest nothing more than some entity, which we might call god, created the universe. One might as well suppose that this god consist of some phenomenon of super-physics, outside our understanding of physics as it applies in our universe. But, again, there is no reason to suppose any of the religious trappings.

The reasonableness of the belief in god is often compared to the reasonableness of the belief in fairies. Pretty convincing to atheists, but apparently not to thesists.

Perhaps another comparison might be more realistic. An entity 'god' as a source of the universe is a reasonable proposition. But then so are many other cosmological theories, such as the cyclical universe, the multiverse, and so on. But how do these other theories impact on our daily lives? I don't worship a multiverse, or expect it to judge me on my death. And all these theories still suffer from the same 'first cause' problem. And, we have no reason to suppose any one of them is a more likely candidate than another. This is the level of reasonableness upon which the existence of god should be assessed. It doesn't provide much ground for religion does it?

The problem of evil
If the theist can conjure up god based on the flimsy reasons already given, then it's not too difficult to rationalise away evil.

If god is so all knowing and we understand him so little, who are we to dispute his reasons for including evil in his plans. This is where faith comes to the rescue again. If as a theist I believe evil exists, then my faith would tell me to accept that and deal with it. As an atheist, if I can't successfully refute or give good reason against the existence of god in his religious form, then I won't be able to refute the existence of evil. Stephen's final paragraph on evil beginning "It seems that, if the universe does have a creator ..." isn't then so powerful an argument.

Direct religious experience of God
Consider Stephen's comment, " orange on the table in front of me..." and then "I don’t infer that there orange is there on the basis of evidence".

Of course that's evidence. What does evidence consist of if not human responses via the senses - isn't that empiricism in a nutshell? And so one does infer it exists from that evidence. If I told you there was an orange there but you couldn't see it, you'd certainly ask for evidence that it is there, because the evidence you are receiving through your eyes says it isn't.

"We also have powerful evidence – in the form of the problem of evil ..." No we don't. This is a circular argument: that god does not exist because of the problem of evil, so revelatory evidence doesn't exist, therefore god does not exist.

In fact my preferred argument is as follows.
a) - God doesn't exist because there is no good reason to suppose he does (with the possible exception of some indeterminate god as a consequence of the source of the universe problem).
b) - Without god this leaves evil as a purely human interpretation of events: natural disasters, illnesses, human actions.
c) - Even if you allow for a 'source of the universe' god, that's not sufficient to then propose evil exists.

When a rotting tree in a forest falls and lands on some plants and animals, is that evil? When a rotting tree in a street falls in a storm and kills a driver in a car, is that evil, is the devil at work there, or is god at work? If that driver had recently knocked down and killed a child while drunk driving, is that evil, and is his later death divine retribution? Or is it all coincidence? How may drunk driving killers don't suffer subsequently? Shit happens, and sometimes we cause it ourselves. Dressing it up, as some theists do, in a separation of [disasters = acts of god], and [human inflicted suffering = evil], doesn't work for me. There is no good reason to conclude evil, as portrayed by thesists, exists as a phenomenon.

Direct religious experience of God
My response here is the same as to the problem of evil. If the argument for a religious god is strong enough, then revelation can follow. The significant points are that, first, there is no good reason to suppose god exists and that in our universe natural laws of physics apply; and, second, that any other phenomenon such as 'revelationary experiences', can also be explained by natural physical laws.

A better approach is to simply say there is no evidence that these revelatory experiences are real. In all human experience, and certainly in scientific matters, there have to be multiple repeatable and falsifiable evidence for an phenomenon to be taken seriously. We cannot prove these experiences didn't happen. We can only tar them with the same brush as we do the whole religious god hypothesis.

When an atheist asks for evidence and a theist responds that god doesn't work that way, the correct response is that without evidence it simply isn't worth pursuing; and with the contrary and substantial evidence that we know that some people suffer psychotic delusions and some people lie, there are far more good reasons not to accept the revelatory experiences as being real.

"How, then, can it be reasonable for someone in possession of both..." A theist would argue god and evil do exist, and if he occasionally reveals himself, who are we to argue with that. They are perfectly consistent once you accept a 'religous' god exists.

The theist/atheist belief/disbelief in evil and revelation are consequences of the belief/disbelief in god. An atheist using any one point to support any other is performing the same circular argument as a theist, but for the opposite position.

Attempts to solve the problem of evil
Stephen's points here don't improve the argument either way. Basically, as explained above, if you can accept that god exists with very little evidence, then you can use that alone to propose evil, revelation, or any other flimsy reason to support your original supported god hypothesis.

Some of these attributes of a religious god have strong historical and cultural backing. Suppose historically other poorly evidenced phenomena had been supported. Atheists often use the 'fairies' comparison to illustrate how ridiculous is a belief in god. But things could have been very different.

Suppose that all the historical and cultural religious junk had backed fairies instead of angels: fairies do exist; they are small tokens of godliness put on earth to help children believe in god. It's not too difficult to imagine a whole history of fairy belief as part of a god belief system - all supported by scripture. Then atheists would be arguing the 'problem of fairies'.

To some extent this type of thing has happened. The big three religions differ significantly. A Muslim could argue with a Christian about the 'problem of Jesus' - that he wasn't god but a mere prophet.

As another example, suppose it was discovered in some obscure scripture that the requirement to worship was a test put down by god, and only those who follow his guidance out of free will and without fear and worship were the truly blessed. We would still be left with the real question - does god exist in the first place?

So, it's one thing to point out how ridiculous are phenomena like evil and revelation, but you can't use them as arguments for the non-existence of god. If the weird religious god of scripture exists, then so could these phenomena.

Used as independent points of view they can all provide supportive reasons as to why it's not reasonable to belive any or all of them. But you can't use them in a deductive chain to conclude god does not exist.

Where the onus lies
I agree that "..the onus is on you to provide some decent arguments ..." and that "It’s down there near belief in fairies."

And that's all that is required - to show this through reason.

An extreme form of 'faith' and A more common sort of 'faith'

If faith is absolute and doesn't require reason, that's fine, but then an atheist doesn't require reason to not accept belief in god (though it is generally preferred). But that leads simply to a stand-off: "Is!", "Isn't!", "Is!", "Isn't!",...

Now you might say this is nonsense, and of course that's right. It is a 'none'-'sense' position. It isn't an argument, because an argument requires reason.

It's funny that theists of this kind can glorify god's creation - man, his consciousness, his free-will, his superior intellect above all other beasts, his power of reason; and yet on this one point we have to throw all that capability away. The position is childish, and worthy of derision - as are the church signs posted elsewhere on Stephen's blog which also promote the abandonment of reason:

Sliding between these two senses of 'faith'

I agree with this section. Theists use reason, until their arguments are destroyed, when they then revert to 'faith'. And they don't always wait until you leave the room. The Dawkins-McGrath debate follows this line:

The arguments behind 'faith'

"Arguments (v) and (vi) in particular are extremely seductive." I disagree, as stated earlier, but more specifically:

(iv) - "Jesus tells us that God exists, and we know Jesus to be a reliable source of information. Therefore it’s likely that God exists."

No. If Jesus existed (I'm not disputing that), and if he said the things he is reported to have said, there is still absolutely no reason to suppose he is a reliable source. In fact, based on current knowledge there's every reason to suppose he was one or more of the following: deluded, a megalomaniac, a very savvy political motivator.

(v) - "The universe shows signs of having been designed. So God must exist as its designer."

No. It only appears to be designed. That doesn't mean it is, and so it is useless as a reason for belief in god. Degrees of reasonableness again.

Having faith in other people

The type of faith discussed here is a mere intuitive assessment of probabilities based on experience. The human mind can perform some amazing feats - that's why artificial intelligence is such a difficult problem. One thing it can do is assess, apparently instantly, from experience, the likelihood of a particular outcome, which is expressed in this type of 'faith'.

This type of faith can work quite well. If you have been able to rely on a friend in the past, you could infer it would be reasonable to have 'faith' in him/her the next time you need their help. Comrades in arms rely on this type of faith, and it is this faith that makes this type of bond so strong.

However, it can go wrong. As a counter to Stephen's Beckham example, Beckham has missed a significant penalty when everyone thought he would score. Admittedly there were extenuating circumstances - the turf beneath his standing foot gave way. More incredulously, for those of us who are lucky or careful enough to avoid them, there are plenty of more serious examples: a repeatedly cheated-on spouse thinks that 'this time' the offender will change, or an gambler thinks 'this time' the long-shot will come in.

In this way I think theists are the inveterate gamblers in belief systems. Despite the complete lack of evidence for the case, and in spite of the very strong evidence against, they still have faith in this long shot - that when they die they will be shown to have backed the winner.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Educational Fairness: Equality of Access, or Equality of Capabilites

See Stephen Law's blog - Ban private schools? - the freedom issue. Is the topic addressing the underlying question?

It may be desirable that the possession of native wit should not be disadvantaged by school, or even by family. Does this mean that native wit should be positively advantaged - positive discrimination? Should the "better" (assuming greater native wit is better than lesser native wit) always be promoted above the "lesser" in order to achieve "equality"? Equality of what?

What's the balance between promoting the better at the risk of leaving behind or discarding the lesser? Fairness appears to be an ever receding goal - a concept, like infinity. Try following these rules to achieve equality:

1) Make a consistent high quality education suddenly available to all (no resource or access problems). Those with higher native wit would be advantaged, since they'd make better use of it. So we need to address this imbalance, in rule 2.

2) Introduce corrective brain surgery to bring the lesser up to scratch with the better. Surely the "better" should have access to the same corrective surgery to improve their capabilities, so maintaining an imbalance. Well, we don't have corrective surgery, so instead let's just boost the education provided to the "lesser" - oops! Denial of service to the "better" and the breaking of rule 1.

Which is required, equal access to a service that improves your capabilities or equality of capabilities? This appears to be the basic question here.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Physicalism and Conciousness

See section 2 on Conciousness, and in particular the Mary problem.

As Colin McGinn has stated, "Consciousness defies explanation in [compositional, spatial] terms. Consciousness does not seem to be made up out of smaller spatial processes.... Our faculties bias us towards understanding matter in motion, but it is precisely this kind of understanding that is inapplicable to the mind-body problem."

Nonsense. What is computer software? Can you explain it? How can you copy it without creating new matter or energy? It's information, that's why. Our thoughts are information, the product of physicalism and caused by it. Nothing inherently mysterious, though it might appear so to the human mind that is actually experiencing it. The mind-body duality dilema that people struggle with is analogous to an optical illusion - e.g. the hollow mask that appears solid, or the wire cube that flips orientation - as with these it's difficult to think in our mind of both states simultaneously. We can flip states, but we can't 'see' or imagine both simultaneously. In a similar way we can (almost) imagine computer software as information, but have greater difficulty imagining this condition when applying it to our own thoughts. It becomes even more confusing, and more like the attempt to simultaneously 'see' both states of an optical illusion, when we try an imagine what's happening when we think about what we are thinking now in the first person; and some explanations of conciousness and dualism confuse the issue by trying to do this.

Did Mary (see site) learn something new about pain? Yes. She physically experienced (both in terms of physical neurological responses and informational interpretation) the real pain for which she had only previously had a physical neurological model. Her model has simply been updated with real first hand experiential data, when previously the only experiential data she had was neurological mapping of things she had already experienced. In practice of course this 'schrodingers's cat' type of thought experiment is limited. The definition of the experiment is incorrect. Pain is simply a more intense stimulus of corresponding stimuli - presumably Mary hadn't been denide the sense of touch, otherwise she would have had difficulty relating to much of the theoretical information she had read in the first place. What sort of human would have emerged from the room if that had been the case. It's a hypethetical case where the accuracy of the perceived consequences are dubious, to the extent that the conclusion does not necessarily follow. Mary can't even pick up the bowling ball if she's been deprived of the appropriate senses!

"Given that it is exceedingly difficult and seemingly impossible to provide a compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event such as an experience of pain, can a metaphysical naturalist reasonably promise us some other kind of explanation of its nature?"

This is metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. "compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event" - does this actually mean anything? These arguments are often dressed up in these phrases that some researcher has latched onto or invented to describe some concept that is difficult to understand - fair enough. But then the problem is that these phrases are used in ways that make it difficult to grasp what is being said.

"...can he (physicalist) at least provide a plausible explanation of how it came about that the universe contains occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure? We doubt it."

Why, when it has expressly been given? The dualist is confusing a simple causal relationship between an excessive physical stimulus and the informational model that the receiving organism experiences as a result, as a separate entity.

How does a human feel pain? A cat? A worm? A bacterium? A cell? A complex molecule? A grain of sand? Physicaly, they don't, they simply react - either extremely passivily according to relatively simple laws of physics for a grain of sand, or in more complex physical/chemical ways for a molecule, or in increasingly more complex chemical/exlectrical/biological/neurological ways for higher organisms.

Being organsims with a complex nervous system that includes the brain we have adapted ourselves to the interpretation of our environment. One of our interpretations is to feel/think/experience our environment in terms of our own experiences. The more animate and the more similar to us other entities are, the more easly we make this mapping - we anthropomorphise or personify. We do this with ourselves and our 'thoughts' to the greatest degree. Some of us even have to create, or imagine, or to model non-existant entities using the same principle - demons, faires, ghosts, gods, etc. Sometimes our brains get it wrong - they extrapolate (a very valuable tool used in the prediction process) - they extrapolate too much, they become gullible, seeing optical illusions, even delusions.

"What, then, is the theistic alternative? Theism begins by acknowledging that experiences of pleasure and pain and choices are events that occur in subjects which refer to themselves by the first-person pronoun 'I.'"

Do some of the lower organsims not feel pain? If they do, do they refer to themselves in the first person? Again, when is this magical dualism switched on - just humans, apes, ...? Be careful, else you'll be dragging up biblical nonsense again.

"As the theist René Descartes wrote...(quotes Descartes)..."

The dualist is here acknowledging the simplicity of the mind in one respect, but denying it from the physicalist respect, which itself is very simple.

Decartes: "I cannot distinguish in myself any parts" - could that be because there is nothing to distinguish? Is Decartes referring to the distinction between mind and body, or the distinction between parts of his thoughts? Is he struggling to identify his thoughts as distinct physical entities? Maybe he's struggling because they don't exist as such. When my computer is running some software I can see the results on screen, I can imaging the electrons moving at amazing speeds around the silicon based microscopic circuitry, and I can imaging the source code I have written if it's my program that's running - but can I imaging the actual 'software' itself as a physical entity? No more than I can be self aware and imagine my own thoughts as something distict from my physicality.

I can certainly imagine what the dualists are describing. I can imaging some ghostly substance that might be my soul, spirit, thoughts - but that's all it is, an imagined concept. I have no reason to think it exists. When movies portray a dead soul rising out of a body - is that what we really think is happeng in some invisible dimension? Of course not (or maybe you do). But there is no evidence to support that imagining, that concept. I can imagine flying pigs, with little wings - do they exist? Because I can imagine something doesn't mean it exists.

I can imagine God, angels - all with typically anthropomorphised representations. If God really exists with some of the real properties he's supposed to have, such as omniscience, can I imagine that? Only in a limited way, as I imagine the mathematical concept of infinity - something bigger than anything, but to which if I add more it is the same thing? Does that sound a little like the ontological argument for God? Figments of our limited imaginations!

In postulating the concept of dualism we are using a limited capacity tool (the mind) to grasp something of itself that is merely apparent. We accept illusions, hoaxes, some delusions, for what they are - the mind not presenting a sufficiently good approximation of the external physical reality - but then for no apparent reason than the mystery of not underestaning something, we invent dualism, supernatural external agents, theism. Figments of our limited imaginations.

Why is it so difficult to see that the alternative - the physical causal relationship between neurological activity and the resulting mental models?

Don't be fooled by the apparent complexity. How can this proposed simple process take part in this argument, including those parts of the process that produce the written (typed) work above (whether you think its good or not it's still apparently complex). But, just as the many many simple little steps of evolution have produced us, so the many many simple little processes in this organism have produced this. If I had omnisciently and omnipotently flashed out all this text instantly, in zero time, then we might be closer to the realisation of what God is. But I didn't. Every impulse to my fingers to type, every nuerologocal action that contributes, is very very simple - they are simply working very fast and in great numbers. The sophisticaion comes from the co-ordination. But co-ordinated lesser orgaisms that are independent to some extent also produce similarly amazing results. Bees building honey combs, ants foreging for food - they are all sophisticated co-ordinated processes where the individual elements are all amazingly simple whan compared with the result.

We are at the top of the chain, as far as we know, in this evolutionary scale, so we find it difficult to imagine anything that might be more complex than ourselves that is not some ultimate God.

Dualism, as with God, is a failed attempt to come to terms with the complex. We can imagine the simple. We can imagine somethings more complex. But eventually, as complexity increases we lose touch and make a giant leap to something bigger, but conceptually easier to identify - even if not easier to understand.

In maths, imagine a simple sum: 1 + 1 = 2. Now imagine some complex formula - say some series using powers and factorials - still with me? Now try some complex differential equations - still here? Now Schrödinger equation... - have you seen them and do you understand them? By now some, if not most of us (including me) has lost track of these equations - they are more complex than I am familar with. I can imagine some vague representation on a physicists blackboard, employing symbols I'm not familar with - it's all Greek to me. Now, let's imagine infinity - got that?

I bet more people with upper high school and graduate level maths find it easier to grasp the notion of infinity than they do some complex expression representing something in physics. It's quite straight forward to imagine clearly some simpler things, and relatively easy to grasp something of the notion of a concept that is very extensive, in size, number, power, infomational capacity, than it is to imagine some things that are just more complex than we are used to. It's easier to imagine God as represented by some very vague notions of extreme extension to simpler human properties, than it is to imagine in detail more complex processes or organisms than those with which we are currently familar.

Dualism is similar to some extent. We find it difficult to imagine where the boundary lies - or how the continuum flows - from the physical bodies that we have come to be familiar with and the thoughts that we are also familiar with. Because we can't imagine this we invent a separation - dualism. It's a failure of our current capacity to understand.

So, are physicalists so advanced that they can conceive of it, while the poor dumb dualists can't? No, of course not. What is most likely at work here is an ingrained view that's difficult to shake off. I would guess, though I have nothing to support this, that all physicalists have had dualist interpretations at one time - simply because it is easier to imagine.

This is an imagination gap. If the gap is narrow we can build a bridge easily. If the gap is wide we prefer to fly across, skipping whatever is missing. Go from what we are familiar with to some extreme concept based on the familar properties. It's difficult to imagine what we don't know. This imagination gap should be familar to most students, particularly the more advanced your studies*. You can read the fear of the apparent consequences in the writings of theists. We are dealing with a 'duality of the gaps' that is similar to the 'God of the gaps'.

"we are not arguing that there is some gap in an otherwise seamless naturalist view of reality"

Oh yes you are.

"This is an argument from the fundamental character of reality and what kinds of things exist (purposes, feelings..."

Yes, purpose and feelings exist, but not as some distinct dualist entity. They are properties of the organism that is experiencing. Particularly feelings and emotions - simple hormonal biological chemical electrical reactions. 'Purpose' is apparent, not real in the sense that is independent free-will.

The only dualism I see in all this is that in the mind of the dualist. On the one had an imagination failure in not seeing the continuum and inclusiveness of physicalism that encompases conciousness, and on the other, the runaway imagination that goes in leaps and bounds from missing data regarding conciousness, to mind-body dualism, on to basic theism, and then on to all the wild imaginings of heaven, hell, saints, miracles, etc.

*I remember very clearly the earliest experience of this, on a very limited scale. In primary school I could do 'short-division' but I couldn't fathom out 'long-division' - it was very frustrating, and even frightening - I feared I was really dumb!. Then a neigbour's son, a year older than me, spent some time going through examples. I remember very clearly when the penny dropped. A spiritual revalation? Later, at university I struggled with some concepts of advanced chemistry - it was an electronics course and I naively hadn't expected to be learning chemistry and I'd skipped chemistry at highschool, so I was ill equiped for some of this stuff. I remember the anguish in class, seeing all the other students nodding knowingly while I was thinking "what the hell is he talking about". Recognising the response I went off to the library and made sure I caught up. Never be afraid of what you don't know! If you need to know it, put in sufficient effort so that your brain and its neurological patterns become famialar with it - eventually you'll see the light - alleluiah!

Saturday, 28 July 2007


This is a review of some of the points made by Anthony J. Carroll in his paper:
Carroll says, "Is it reasonable [of secular liberals?] to presume that religions cannot judge between unfair proselytism and the reasonable acknowledgement of one's faith in the public domain? I think not." - On the contrary I think it is. The reason being that most faiths, and certainly the big three, are absolutist in their views about the truth of their religions.

The very fact that this discussion is taking place so openly in secular democratic states is indicative of the fact that there is not (or should not be) any absolutist view from liberal-democratic (or philosophically-atheistic) world views - they should always be open to debate and persuasion.

Carroll says, "The alternative to the liberal position is the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon' model. This model acknowledges the positive insights of communitarianism about how learning and socialisation are accomplished within particular communities with distinctive commitments. Communitarianism privileges the good of a particular tradition over the claims to universal rightness of a neutral reason supposedly independent of tradition and cultural context. It readily accepts a pluralism of cultures within the one society. Continental European societies, however, are concerned that such a model will lead to ever greater fragmentation, a fear that is not, in present late-modern or postmodern societies, without foundation. When, therefore, the French state sees headscarves in the classroom, it fears societal atomization and the weakening of the social bond-le lien social. If you let one group do their own thing, the danger is that everyone will simply go their own way. Society will disintegrate, and the result will be nothing other than anarchic tribalism."

This seems a reasonable view. The liberal approach appears to offer the opportunity for more cohesion. Granted, there may be a problem where religious communities object to this approach, and so potentially detract from that possibility of cohesion. But that is generally the nature of such groups, a nature that the secularist liberal objecting to.

In liberal secularism there is also the objection to the promotion to children of singular absolutist views within religious (or political or any other) communities, since with closed communities this amounts to indoctrination. Note that this is not an objection to the promotion of religious beliefs. Following liberal democratic principles it should be open for any religious, political or other group to express their views to adults, and to attempt to persuade adults within the bounds of law*. Further more, there is no objection to the teaching about religions, atheism and other world views within a well controlled non-indoctrinating classroom.

The problems only arise because some religions, or at least some sub-groups, not only believe that the truth of their religious world view is absolute, but, because they believe so, they assume they have the right to impose that view on everyone else, at the expense of democratic principles. I think Carroll's solutions require that these groups relinquish such aims.

Imagine, if you will, if you can, an absolutist dogmatic religious world view that includes in it the view that democracy is invalid, evil and must be replaced by the one true theocracy. Further, that world view sees nothing wrong in using all the tools, all the 'weaknesses', of that evil democracy to democratically win control of the state, with the intention of making it a theocracy. What road back remains for those of other faiths, or atheists, for democracy. This is the terrible fear that drives the liberal democratic secular movement. And it isn't based solely on distant historical experiences of religious wars, as Carroll suggests.

"However, as I have argued, its [secular liberalism's] seemingly neutral, rational principles are in reality neither neutral nor independent of material claims. Liberalism is itself an ideology; it is grounded in a particular vision of the world, one that is all the more powerful because it is not explicitly acknowledged." - I think it is explicitly acknowledged, by secular liberals, and I understand that it might not be by those that don't share the view. It is the more powerful because it is the most cohesive and is not exclusive. It is also the most beneficial to the most people - both as a society and as individuals. It is not perfect, but then perfection is a flawed notion when applied to human social organisation (see my blog on perfection:

"For its part, communitarianism respects the particularities and the substantive claims of distinct groups. It supports the freedom to live according to one's own moral, religious and cultural convictions." - Only coincidentally. This "freedom to live..." is not a requirement in any group, except within liberal democracy where it exists as part of the definition of that world view and is not superseded by any 'higher power'.

"Liberalism stresses freedom at the cost of ideological blindness and naïveté; communitarianism fosters cohesionat the risk of societal atomization. How can one draw on the strengths of these conflicting positions and avoid the limitations of each of them?" I don't see ideological blindness as a fault - your ideology shouldn't prevent your access to, for example education. In suggesting that "communitarianism fosters cohesion" surely there is no suggestion that liberalism does not? Liberalism fosters super-cohesion beyond any particular group, while at the same time imposing no restriction on cohesion within groups, given safeguards.

As for Carrol's proposals: "Acknowledging Commitments", "Citizenship", "Appropriate Assertiveness" - I agree with all his sentiments here.

The examples of the headscarf or the crucifix should pose no problem for state schools, if Carroll's guidelines are followed. There remains the problem of other forms of dress, such as the complete covering of the face except for the eyes. It has been argued that this form of dress is inappropriate since it prevents full communication between teacher and pupil. So where does this lie in Carroll's mind?

*If it is felt that a law does restrict religious expression among adults the liberal democratic system allows for that law to be challenged.


This notion of perfection is often used to prove god exists. Aquinas employs it in his proofs. It would be stretching credibility even to say it 'suggests' there might be a god - but to say it proves it is ridiculous.

The whole notion of perfection in anything is simply that - a notion. It's a vague notion of direction or improvement: "this is good", "this is better", "keep improving until you get to perfection", which of course we recognise we can't achieve - therefore jump to the conclusion that the only entity that can we call God, and so god exists. Nonsense.

If perfection doesn't exists, and there's no reason to suspect it does, then it cannot be used to conclude God exists. And even if perfection was a reality, and if we chose to call it God, there is no reason to attribute all the usual properties to god that make him the personal god that religions promote.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

McGrath, Dennet, Dawkins - Memes

I read this debate between Dennet and McGrath:

I think McGrath is right to point out that the meme hypothesis is purely that - with no evidence. The hypothesis can be made to fit history, but is it falsifiable, and what supportive evidence is there?

McGrath points out Blackmore's acceptence that atheism is a meme, just as theism is. Is atheism a meme? In some respects - when there is unquestioned belief in atheism. And I suppose the same hypothesis can be applied to any human idea - such as the appreciation of art, what art is, how it evolved, etc.

But scientific atheism accepts its own vulnerability, and does not claim infalability, and does not require faith. It is not a belief system in itself, but a consequence of what all humans do - attempt to understand and reason about the world around us. Atheism is a probabilistic conclusion, not a dogma, not a self sustaining belief. It may be that atheism as a world view is falsified in the future, by scientifically supported evidence of God. But how would theism be falsified? No matter what was discovered about the universe god could always be postulated to be beyond that.

McGrath points out some of the flaws in the meme hypothesis: "But my real question is this: how would Dr Blackmore and Professor Dennett be able to settle that point scientifically? If they are not able to do so, then we have a non-scientific debate about imaginary entities, hypothesised by analogy with the gene. And we all know how unreliable arguments based on analogy can be – witness the fruitless search for the luminiferous ether in the late nineteenth century, based on the supposed analogy between light and sound. It was analogically plausible – but non-existent. The analogy was invalid. Richard Dawkins tells us that memes are merely awaiting their Crick and Watson; I think they are merely waiting for their Michelson and Morley."

I would agree with this, particularly about the inappropriateness of analogies sometimes. Dawkins Burka analogy in "The God Delusion" is suspect, for example.

McGrath makes another good point about the association of 'evil' with religion: "Now Professor Dennett might respond by saying that these are not typical of atheism. I believe he would be right to do so. But neither are the excesses of violence and intolerance that he does mention, typical of religion. I appreciate the need for a bit of rhetoric and exaggeration to spice up an argument, but one cannot represent the pathological elements of any movement, religious or antireligious, as if they were normal or typical. Few of us in this audience tonight are in favour of fanaticism; but it is clearly perfectly possible to be a fanatical atheist, as much as a fanatical religionist. It’s fanaticism that’s the problem, not religion or anti-religion."

Agreed. I think the early use of the 'evil', as in 'evil in the name of...' and the other old chestnut 'the problem of evil' are fine as simplistic rebuttals of simplistic claims of theist about the inherent goodness of religion. Both theists and atheists would be better to leave these out of the main debate. Basically 'evil' can be performed by anyone, religious or not. And the problem of evil can be argued either way, as problematic for theism, or inconsequential as evidence against.

McGrath is right here: "In Oxford, we are facing a threat from one of the most fanatical groups in British society today: animal rights protestors. They are not religious. They are driven by an ideology – by a world view. Surely our common enemy is the fanatic, first and foremost. We need to reflect on how to control this phenomenon. But it is a clear factual error to assume that this is limited to, or necessarily characteristic of, religion."

However, Dawkins point is that the dogmatic teaching of religion to children makes them amenable to irrational unquestioned ideas later. That would also be true if we taught dogmatic atheism to children too. I think Dawkins, (and Stephen Law in "The War for Childrens' Minds") are really promoting the teaching of reasoning to children, and the removal of teaching of dogmatic religion - and are not proposing the teaching of atheism. Read Stephen Law's books on philosophy - they don't promote atheism as such, but ask questions and invite the reader to think of their own answers.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Man U Prices

Poor Man U fans. John Mayall (surely he should be a blue) is suing the reds over cup ticket prices being included in the season ticket scheme - it used to be optional, as at Man City.

In response to some season ticket holders protesting by holding up their renewals, the United spokesman added: "We've a waiting list of 14,000 for season tickets and we regularly turned 5,000 people away for Premiership games last season."

So Man U are effectively saying "stuff you, there are more mugs where you came from who will pay."

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

God and Analogies

On Stephen Law's Blog he posted a response to his The Jesus Light, by Sebastian: Had to get this off my chest.

Analogy - Helpful in the explanation of point A in terms of point B, where B is a more commonly understood point. But the use of an analogy, however effective, does not consist of proof of correctness of the original point A; or even evidence for it. Analogies can often sound good but can be way off the mark. In this particular case the whole God idea is so vague a notion almost any analogy could be concocted to explain God.

My personal analogy is that God is an invisible pet. I love my cats, I talk to them, communicate with them and can have quite complex conversations. I work from home, alone most of the day. My family are removed daily, though unlike Sebastian's women they reappear each evening, fortunately. But, I have an inner drive to talk to someone. It's often myself, but also my cats. I get great inner satisfaction from that. Some find solice in the company of machines - the Tamagotchi 'pets' of a few years ago. We have an inner yearning for companionship and communication, as do many animals. Along the evolutionary trail humans have picked up imagination. We've used that to invent God as a perfect companion, who listens without complaint, anywhere any time - the perfect Tamagotchi. We can even delude ourselves that our own answers to our own problems have been provided by Him. Inventing human companionship in anything is easy. Anthropomorphism rules - ok?

I have no evidence for this. I've based it, rather loosely, on what little I've read in popular books on psycology, evolution, biology, etc. I might even have read it somewhere explicitly, and using the great power of imagination convinced myself it's my own idea.

I could also be convinced by steelman's God. I'm a Manchester City supporter - I'm currently in purgatory, waiting to be saved by Thaiksin Shinawatra. I'm certainly having my faith challenged. I know there are very convincing arguments why I should watch Manchester United instead, but like any good theist, I'll listen, digest, ignore, and plod on regardless.

Sebastian's rejection of the 'tooth-fairy' myth is rejected simply because it's not his myth. I may well have belived in fairies, Santa, God, The Lone Ranger, or any other myth, when I was a kid. But to suggest that anyone who discovers that they are myths would "fall into a state of lifelong depression" is a little presumptuous. I find it liberating to know that somewhere, sometime there could be an answer to anything, just waiting to be discovered. The fact that I don't and can't know everything isn't a problem. I'm happy to search for answers on the understanding that I won't necessarily find them. I have no need for God. Quite the opposite - I find God to be an unsatisfactory answer to anything, a cop-out.

Maybe in the past God and religion have provided apporpriate stop-gaps, until other ideas became more acceptable and the arguments clearer. Phlogiston provided a pretty good explanation for combustion, until oxidation supplanted it, but it's still a passable analogy if you don't know of or ignore evidence against it.

Despite all that's said about the scientific method, plenty of research begins with a hunch, or an unsubstantiated hypothesis. The scientific method comes into its own in evaluating evidence to support or reject the hypothesis. So far the God hypothesis has zero evidence in its favour. Plenty of imagination and analogy, but zero evidence. Cold fusion is an attractive idea that has had its proponents from time to time, but as yet no repeatable un-falsified evidence, so there aren't many supporters of it. Alien abduction is another unsubstantiated popular myth, that thankfully has been debunked pretty thoroughly - but that doesn't mean the evidence against it is conclusive, and so there are still people out there that believe in it. Similarly, the evidence against God is low - non-existent - we only have Ocham's Razor, but since we apply that to the tooth-fairy and other myths, why not to the God myth.

I would suggest, though it's only my own crack-pot hypothesis with no statistics to back it up, that most religious people believe in God because they haven't thought about it enough, don't understand the arguments (re Sebastians response to the barefoot bum), or are persuaded by charismatic intelligent con-men; and many of those con-men do a pretty good job of convincing themselves. Many don't even believe in order to fill this internal desire that Sebastian speaks of. Most believe because they were indoctrinated, out of tradition, out of fear (see Law, Dwakins, etc). That's my understanding, based on the deplorably inadequate sample that consists of the few personal friends and relatives I've discussed it with, and on reading the ideas presented in print, in documentaries and on the internet by supporters of theist arguments. Statistics, for or against, anyone?

Thursday, 14 June 2007

The Problem with Faith

Following on from my previous blog, I think the crutial point is faith.

I think Stephen is right in that any point of view can be a faith ( - Faith topic), and that's certainly the case for most, if not all, religions. And I personally know at least one person for whom atheism is a faith. She has no interest in any arguments one way or the other, and certainly has no interest in science, but believes herself to be endowed with ultra reliable common sense, to the extent that she believes the whole God business is nonsense. It's as if this faith of hers has grown out of some dissatisfaction with religion and all its trappings, a discomfort in the presence of religious people and proceedings. And I detect a similar discomfort in the absence of religion, or in the company of atheists, in some religious people. The opposing point of view is dismissed out of hand, with little discussion. Whichever way you lean this is a pretty insecure faith.

The faith expressed by professional theologians and serious theists appears to be much stronger, both in intensity and in the degree of thought put into it. I think that this is the type of religious faith with which atheism is competing; but which atheism? Not the atheism promoted by the feeble faith atheists - the faith atheism that theists attack, but scientific atheism. And this scientific atheism isn't a faith, though it is a belief system.

With the strong theological faith, when all the trappings are stripped away, when all the arguments of reason against it have been put forward and dismissed, what is left is pure and absolute faith. An explanation is not required. That's it. No argument.

Science based atheism isn't that. And in not being that, it isn't a faith, or not a strong faith. Science based atheism relies entirely on empiricism at its base. And in that it is, and will always be, open to doubt and question. I don't mean the personal doubt that one might have in any belief system, but an underlying inherent doubt in the system itself. Every currently understood 'fact' upon which all science is based is ultimately in doubt. The limitations of its tools of deduction and induction are often pointed out by the faith followers, and rightly. Most arguments are circular and nothing is conclusive. There is no absolute - though for practical reasons it may often be convenient to act is if there is.

But not only all that; there's another element of the science that is at the heart of science based atheism: the requirement for Popper's falsificationism. Science, and scientific based atheism requires this. Not just now, to ensure that for some current theory to be valuable it must be falsifiable, but in perpetuity. No matter how far into the future we look, no matter to what extent we evolve, whatever answers we find, there will always be something we don't know, or cannot know at that time.

To put it simply, I have no absolute faith in my current belief in science based atheism, but I do believe it, because all the current evidence I have tells me it's the best choice for a belief system.

So, does God exist? Theist faith tells me he does, but gives me no reason to believe it, so why should I. Science merely tells me he probably doesn't, but gives me very good reason for believing he doesn't.

Neither point of view has any baring on the existence of God. He exists or he doesn't, irrespective of which belief system one follows.

And, his existence or not has little consequence for the two belief systems. If God doesn't exist then it won't matter to the religious. They can go on believing and they'll never know. As each draws his terminal breath that'll be the end of him. And for the scientific atheists there's not even the satisfaction that we haven't yet been proved wrong, because our position will remain the same - he still might exist. An if he does exist, there's no change for the faithful - they knew it all along. If they find he exists I hope there won't be too much gloating, as that would imply they weren't as sure as they've been saying they were before his existence became evident. And for the scientific? Maybe no longer strictly atheists, since being true to our principles we should be happy to accept the new evidence - just not absolutely.

The Problem of Evil

I've read Stephen Law's view on the Problem of Evil and other arguments for the atheism. In particular, this article:

"Why would a benevolent God do, or allow...?" Why wouldn't he? If God exists, there is no reason to suppose he has any regard for our interpretation of good and evil. As atheists we often argue that there is no good or evil, just things and events - the good or the evil being some human interpretation. So why should we then suppose there is a problem of evil at all? Shit happens, as they say.

Theists can conjure up any explanation they like to explain the problem of evil, and over the centuries they have manufactured many, so it's pretty useless labouring the point. Yes, it might cause them some minor embarrassment, but it doesn't take much effort for them to rationalise (sic) away any objections. They already have magic on their side, so the the problem of evil argument isn't going to win them over.

Stephen says:

"So it seems to me that there’s little evidence to suggest that God does exist. Indeed, the problem of evil provides powerful evidence in that He doesn’t."

I agree with the first sentence. I strongly disagree with the second. The problem of evil presupposes rationality in the theist position. There isn't any. I also agree with Ockham's razor, as descibed by Stephen - pick the simplest hypothesis. But Stephen then goes on to put this valuable tool to one side with:

"But the fact is that atheists don’t need to appeal to Ockham’s razor to justify their belief that there is no God. They already possess a very powerful justification for believing that there is no God the justification provided by the problem of evil."

It's not that powerful a justification - it's irrelevent. It's Ockham's razor that trumps the problem of evil, not the other way round.

There's no evidence for, and so no good reason to believe in God.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Facebook Applications

I recently joined facebook, which is currently facelessbook for me, until I can post a reasonable mug shot that won't offend the religious, or frighten young children, old ladies or those of a sensitive disposition.

I recently joined facebook, which is currently facelessbook for me, until I can post a reasonable mugshot that won't offend the religious, or frighten young children, old ladies or those of a sensitive disposition. My social network so far consists of my son and his friend. Am I a recluse, or simply unpopular. Time will tell.

I had a look through the applications there, and found so much junk it took some time to find anything of interest. They're mostly natty little games and social nutworking widgets that look novel when you see the first of that ilk, but are usually discarded five minutes after you start to use them.

The only ones I've found I can use are Causes, an advocacy toy, and one of the "places I've been" mapping apps. If you spot any app that you could really use over time and that isn't some five minute marvel, please let me know.

I hadn't looked at these apps until I read Marc Andreessen's new blog, June 12 2007, as referenced in Adam Herscher's blog, June 12 2007 - two blogs worth following.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

God Botherers...

...where would we be without them? This blog is hell on earth: - Your not kidding! And get the rant about Columbus Day.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

This would amuse Dawkins

From the American Christian Fiction Writers' overview statement at

"From airport newsstands to Newsweek, Christian fiction continues to grow in popularity, resonating with readers looking for both faith and fiction." ... my italics.

Following in the great tradition of the authors of the Bible then.


I've no idea why I find the 'Next Blog' link so interesting, but I do. Even non-English blogs. There are a few nut-cases out there though, which I suppose is enlightening in itself.

Man City Progress

Liverpool figured fowler is not what he was?

Can't believe we lost money on dystin when there were willing buyers last year. An what's with the portsmouth move? him and james have a thing?Lots of free moves - is it more than usual?

This deal is taking its time. Won't be much time left for a new manager to be appointed and for him to build a team over the summer. Could be dodgy up until christmas, unless more young players are blooded and do well.

And Barton is still playing up asking for loyalty money. If he's done for assault he could be playing with an electronic ankle protector come the start of the season, with alarms going off when he goes over the line to take throw-ins and corners.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

In the beginning...

... I had no idea why I'd started this. Just trying it out from google.