Friday, June 22, 2007


Contra Grayling Again

Damaris Culturewatch have published part 2 of my two-part review of A.C. Grayling's book 'Against All Gods':

Contra Grayling: A Christian Response to 'Against All God's' (Part Two: Ethical Respectability)

cf. Part One here:

Contra Grayling: A Christian Response to ‘Against All Gods’ (Part One: Intellectual respectability)

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Christianity and Islam, a clash of civilizations?

One for the current 'religion is the root of all evil' approach to religion bashing, from Diarmaid MacCulloch, fellow of St. Cross College and Professor of the history of the church, Oxford University, from his article 'Clash of Civilizations?' in BBC History Magazine vol 8, no 5, May 2007:

'There is indeed a clash of civilizations in the world in the 21st century, but it does not align with a simple conflict between Islam and Christianity. It is a stand-off between social conservatism and the acceptance of radical social change... The world has always been a scary place, and it is particularly scary now. But we do ourselves no favours if our fears lead us to misread how our present troubles have arisen. If we invent clashes of culture on the basis of past traumatic moments like the Siege of Jerusalem, or by frantically over-simplifying cultures of which we know little, then we will look for the wrong solutions to real problems.' (p. 40, my italics.)

Monday, June 18, 2007


Against A.C Grayling, Against All Gods

The first part of a two part review of British philosopher A.C. Grayling's slight (in both senses of the word) new book Against All Gods has been published by Damaris culture watch:

Contra Grayling: A Christian Response to ‘Against All Gods’ (Part One: Intellectual respectability)

Monday, June 11, 2007


Richard Dawkins in Metro Interview

Richard Dawkins features in the Metro newspaper's 60 second interview for Friday June 8th 2007.

Here is the on-line version with some responses:

What is it about God you don’t like?
The God of the Old Testament is a sheer monster. Anyone who denies that simply hasn’t read the Old Testament. In chapter two of the book, I describe him as ‘a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, genocidal, capriciously malevolent bully.’ I defy anybody to disagree with any of those epithets.

Anyone who writes that isn't reading the Old Testament in its fullness, and certainly not in the light of the New Testament, but is simply trawling through it for passages that give an admittedly prima facia 'bad' impression when misinterpreted, read without reference to the culture, and/or history and/or theological context in which they are situated. Dawkins sounds a little bit like a rebellious teenager describing the actions of a parent who: 'Doesn't understand me, never lets me do what I want, thinks they know so much better than I do, say's "you'll understand when you're older"...' What about at least mentioning the Old Testament story where God creates humanity in his image - the foundation of non-racism lacking in at least some twentieth century streams of racist Darwinian thinking?! What about passages where God commands love of stangers and foreigners, or bans the practice of child sacrifice so prevalent among the other tribal societies around Israel, etc? (A major point of the whole Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son strory is that, contrary to contemporary expectations, God was not desirous of child sacrifice. Being asked to sacrifice a human to one's god was nothing out of the ordinary in that cultural situation - being told not to go though with it because the god himself would provide the sacrifice was revolutionary - and forshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the world.) Dawkins' account of the Old Testament is, at the very least, marred by 'data picking'.

Should faith schools and schools teaching intelligent design (that the universe was created by an intelligent entity) be banned?
Any teaching of falsehoods in science classes should certainly be identified and stopped by school inspectors. School inspectors should be looking at science teachings to make sure they are evidence-based science. The teaching of intelligent design in science classes should not be allowed. Still less should it be positively encouraged by government hand-outs of the sort the Tony Blair Government has been doing to such infamous places as the Peter Vardy schools in the North-East.

I don't know of any schools actually 'teaching intellgient design', as opposed to, say, explaining it and allowing students to discuss it along side Darwinism - in the same way they 'teach Darwinism'. Education shouldn't be about indocttrination. As for the requirement that any teaching of falsehoods in science classes should be identified and stopped, I personally believe that Darwinism as a grand theory is a falsehood - I don't think it should be excluded from science classes though! Indeed, what about merely the falsehoods in the evidence presented by textbooks, concerning embryology or peppered moths etc, in defence of Darwinism? Just something to think about: Philosophers of science talk about the negative induction from the falsehood of past scientific theories to the likelihood that present theories are, at least strictly speaking, also false... Dawkins seems to assume that ID is not evidence based science - but its proponents disagree, often having been disillusioned by a previously accepted Darwinian story due to problems with the evidence. cf. Michael Behe.

What’s your view of the Bible?
It’s a collection of miscellaneous writings which were gathered together sometime in the first few centuries AD. It was pretty arbitrary which books got in and which didn’t. The Bible was written by fallible human beings.

Dawkins seems to forget that the 'Old Testament' predates 'AD'. It's BC! His assertion about the arbitrary nature of what ended up in the (New Testament) portrays a startling lack of historical awareness.

Are there some who still maintain it’s the word of God?
The same self-respecting bishops… I’m sure they accept it’s the word of man. I think they’re embarrassed by the fundamentalists who still claim it’s the word of God.

Dawkins unfortunately sees no middle ground between fundamentalists and liberals.

Is there anything in the Bible that you like?
I love the poetry of several books in the King James version. My favourite is Ecclesiastes, which is ravishing poetry in the 17th-century language. One can enjoy poetry just as one can enjoy fiction without necessarily believing it’s true. I don’t mean everybody wearing a clerical collar is mad… many of them are sane, intelligent and nice.

Interesting that Dawkins' favourite part of scripture should be the nihilistically tinged Ecclesiastes.

People assume the Bible is peace-loving. Are they wrong?
A lot of people vaguely recall a few nice bits that were read out at church or school but they haven’t read most of it – and most of it is pretty horrible. For example, in the book of Joshua, the story of the children of Israel taking over the Promised Land has one genocide after another. Tribe after tribe are wiped out with great gore, blood and glee with direct orders from God. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ really means ‘Thou shalt not kill another Jew’.

Rubbish; it meant 'don't murder anyone', where 'murder' means killing without sufficient cause and an express instruction from the creator of all life to take some particular lives can be classed as 'sufficient cause'. Dawkins also overlooks OT passages about caring for strangers and 'aliens' (foreigners).

The idea of heaven brings comfort to many. Is it mean-spirited to attack it?
I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit somebody on their deathbed who is putting their trust in going to heaven and try to disillusion them but it’s odd to use the ‘mean-spirited’ argument to argue the ‘truth’ of religion. Finding it consoling doesn’t make it true.

Absolutely. Finding something consoling doesn't make it true - but then the question didn't attempt to prove heaven from the premise that belief in it is consoling...

Are science and religion incompatible?
There are those who say science and religion are about quite different things: science is about the way the universe works and religion is about moral questions and ‘deep mystery’. I hope we don’t get our morals from religion. As for deep questions such as ‘Where does the universe come from?’, it might be that science finds answers. If science doesn’t answer those questions, nothing will.

I at least partially agree with Dawkins here - science and religion do overlap. I would be more neuanced about ethics, and say that the objectivity of good and evil is grounded in God's necessary and wholly good nature, and that our knowledge of ethics desirves from a combination of intuition, revelation and moral reasoning.

The biggest clash between science and religion seems to be over when Earth was created.
Some people still take the book of Genesis literally and believe Earth is less than 10,000 years old – which is after the domestication of the dog. This is naive creationism. It’s like believing the distance from New York to San Francisco is a mere 7.8 metres. Respectable bishops and vicars don’t believe that for a moment. The true age of Earth is 4.6billion years.

I'm not a young earth creationist, so find little to disagree with here, other than to question the lable of reading Genesis 'literally' and its application the the young earth view. I don't think the question is so much who is reading Genesis literally, as whether who is reading it correctly. Even the most stringent yound earth creationist doesn't read the text of Genesis wholly literally, since, for instance, that would involve thinking that God has a physical voice box!

By using the word ‘delusion’, are you suggesting that believing in religion is like madness?
I don’t wish to come across as saying everybody wearing a clerical collar is mad. Many of them are sane, intelligent, nice people but it is a delusion, in the same way any false belief is a delusion. It’s a mass delusion that is held by many people, which is why it doesn’t appear to be insane. If you confronted a religious person with the beliefs of a rival religion, they would think the other ideas were mad because the beliefs have no connection with the real world. They’re self-evidently dotty but, because each is brought up in their own religion, they don’t see their own beliefs as mad.

Assertion, assertion, assertion...

George Bush and Tony Blair have claimed to ‘hear’ God’s commands. Should they be committed?
They would be committed if it wasn’t the God of the prevailing culture they were ‘hearing’. If they claimed to be hearing the voice of Napoleon, then they’d be committed.

Yes they would, but then the two cases are not analogous. In the case of 'hearing the voice of Napoleon', we know what sort of being Nepoleon is, and we know that he is not the sort of being is possible - or at least plausible - for a contemporary human being to 'hear'. We do not know this in the case of hearing God. Indeed, we surely know that if God exists, then it would be possible to 'hear' God 'speak' to us. Afterall, God is by definition almighty. Hence if someone sincerely claims to hear God, it is at least one possible conclusion to reach that God therefore exists. Or they might be mistaken, but God might nonetheless exist. Just because some loons mistakenly think they are Napoleon doesn't mean Napoleon didn't exist after all.

Does existence without religious faith still have purpose and meaning?
It most certainly does. It has the purpose and meaning that you wish to give it. We’re purpose-driven animals. This is highly rewarding and atheists have it as much as anybody else. The idea that you can’t have purpose in this life because there isn’t going to be a next life is obvious nonsense.

Lets re-pose the question thus: 'Does existence without the objective existence of God still have an objective purpose and meaning?' Let's re-phrase Dawkin's answer more precisely: 'No.' When Dawkins says 'It has the purpose and meaning that you wish to give it' he can of course only mean 'the subjective purpose and meaning that you wish to give it.' Two people could choose to give existence mutually contradictory meanings and purposes on Dawkins' worldview, and neither would be right or wrong. Dawkins is a nihilist, but the vague question here allows him to get away with a vague answer.

Religious believers suggest morality is only possible through religion. Is that patronising to perfectly moral atheists?
It certainly is. It’s also incoherent. People do not get their morals from scripture. You wouldn’t like someone who did because they’d be awful. Only people like the Ayatollah Khomeini do that. Some people may think they get morals from religion but really they are acting out of fear – doing good things only because they are afraid God would punish them if they did bad things. That’s a pretty contemptible reason for doing good. Atheists who do good for genuinely moral reasons are far more moral than those Christians who do good only because they’re afraid of God.

Tired old hat. This Christian at least doesn't claim that morality is only possible though religion or that people must get their morals from scripture or that the only or best reason to be moral is fear. For the umpteenth time: Objective values are only possible because God - an objective, personal and wholly good moral obligator and prescriber, exists. Atheists can know about these moral values as well as the next religious bloke.

Your book has had a lot of angry responses from Christians. Were you prepared for that?
Publishers like a good buzz and negative responses sell books just as well as positive ones. Naturally, I’d prefer the positive ones.

To Metro: There probably have been angry responses from Christians, but why mention only them like this? Why not mention the calm, reasoned responses from Christians like Thomas Crean OP, Alister McGrath, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, or even from myself? And why not mention the poor reviews from agnostic and atheist reviewers like Thomas Nagel, Michael Ruse and Allan Orr? To Dawkins: That sounds a little cynical to me - in my experience of reviews a publisher asks a reviewer to review a book and published that review irrespective of whether it is prositive or negative. While one might expect a religious reviewer to be negative, one might have expected atheists like Nagel to be positive - yet many have not been.

Why do you single out Christianity for attack? Do you see it as a ‘softer’ target than Islam?
Nowadays that’s probably true. Go back a couple of hundred years and it was the reverse. Christianity has been more or less forced to be tamed – Islam is still living in the Middle Ages but I know less about other religions. I was brought up a Christian and I have some affection for the Christian culture, stained glass windows and church music, so I naturally concentrate on Christianity.

Putting the matter this way gives the false impression that Christianity is a) a monolithic entity that b) has traditionally been agressive towards critics, but which c) has mellowed in the recent past. I would have thought it more accurate to say that Christianity began with the instructions to love one's neighbor, and to turn the other cheek, and to live at peace as far as it depended upon the faithful, then got institutionalised and medieval, monolithic and agressive, and then reverted to type some time after the refformation...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Michael Shermer, Miracles and Specified Complexity

An interesting article by Michael Shermer - with commentary...

August 2004 issue Miracle on Probability Street
The Law of Large Numbers guarantees that one-in-a-million miracles happen 295 times a day in America
By Michael Shermer

Because I am often introduced as a "professional skeptic," people feel compelled to challenge me with stories about highly improbable events. The implication is that if I cannot offer a satisfactory natural explanation for that particular event, the general principle of supernaturalism is preserved. A common story is the one about having a dream or thought about the death of a friend or relative and then receiving a phone call five minutes later about the unexpected death of that very person.

I cannot always explain such specific incidents, but a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America.

In their delightful book Debunked! (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), CERN physicist Georges Charpak and University of Nice physicist Henri Broch show how the application of probability theory to such events is enlightening. In the case of death premonitions, suppose that you know of 10 people a year who die and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the 10 people, a probability of one out of 10,512--certainly an improbable event. Yet there are 295 million Americans. Assume, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you. That makes 1/10,512 X 295,000,000 = 28,063 people a year, or 77 people a day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable. With the well-known cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias firmly in force (where we notice the hits and ignore the misses in support of our favorite beliefs), if just a couple of these people recount their miraculous tales in a public forum (next on Oprah!), the paranormal seems vindicated. In fact, they are merely demonstrating the laws of probability writ large.

In the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen roughly once a month.

Another form of this principle was suggested by physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. In a review of Debunked! (New York Review of Books, March 25), he invoked "Littlewood's Law of Miracles" (John Littlewood was a University of Cambridge mathematician): "In the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month." Dyson explains that "during the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on the average, every month."

Despite this cogent explanation, Dyson concludes with a "tenable" hypothesis that "paranormal phenomena may really exist," because, he says, "I am not a reductionist." Further, Dyson attests, "that paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science is supported by a great mass of evidence." That evidence is entirely anecdotal, he admits. But because his grandmother was a faith healer and his cousin was a former editor of the Journal for Psychical Research and because anecdotes gathered by the Society for Psychical Research and other organizations suggest that under certain conditions (for example, stress) some people sometimes exhibit paranormal powers (unless experimental controls are employed, at which point the powers disappear), Dyson finds it "plausible that a world of mental phenomena should exist, too fluid and evanescent to be grasped with the cumbersome tools of science."

Freeman Dyson is one of the great minds of our time, and I admire him immensely. But even genius of this magnitude cannot override the cognitive biases that favor anecdotal thinking. The only way to find out if anecdotes represent real phenomena is controlled tests. Either people can read other people's minds (or ESP cards), or they can't. Science has unequivocally demonstrated that they can't--QED. And being a holist instead of a reductionist, being related to psychics, or reading about weird things that befall people does not change this fact.

Michael Shermer treds where skeptics fear to tred in this article on miracles that I recently came across - the thing is, if Shermer wants to dismiss certain purportedly paranormal and/or miraculous events by appeal to the probabilitic resources available (the law of large numbers) then he opens himself up to the following reply:

'Yes I see that we humans tend to overestimate the improbability of events and therefore find surprising and even "miraculous" events that are in fact not sufficiently improbable to cause problems to anyone who wants to provide a natural explanation for everything; but that seems to imply that there is some degree of true improbability over which such events would count as genuinely para-normal or super-natural; in part at least because, while not impossible given the available statistical resources, they nevertheless outstrip the to-be-expected explanatory powers of those resources by so much. What if I dream about the deaths of twenty (or thirty) friends over the course of twenty days and receive news of their deaths each and every morning? What if I dream of strangers deaths and and see their faces on TV the following evening? It seems that there could in principle at least be patterns of events that could not be shrugged off by saying, "well, that's no actually so unlikely..." If it is true that "In the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen roughly once a month" then what should I think if they started happening to me once a week, or once a day?!'

In point of fact, it seems to me that Shermer is at least implicitly endorsing the "specified complexity" criterion of design detection in this article - for the events he considers exhibit an independent "significant" specification (e.g. having dreampt that someone you know has died
independently of any evidence that they have done so) and a certain amount of complexity (i.e. improbability). Shermer rightly debunks some such claims on the basis that they are insufficiently complex (e.g. a certain number of people correctly dreaming a loved one has died). However, this implies that if a similarly specified event took place at a sufficient level of complexity (and as Shermer points out, while the statistical resources are larger than we often take into account, they are nevertheless finite) - then it should set off our metaphysical alarm bells! What if all the relatives of everyone in the world who dies tomorrow dreampt of their deaths tonight - what would Shermer say about it the day after tomorrow? Would he say: "I know that seems odd at first glance, hard for naturalists to explain, but the law of strong numbers..?'

Time and again skeptics affirm specified complexity as a criterion in the very process of trying to debunk paranormal and supernatural claims. Seems to me that Shermer should be added to this illustrious list (which also includes Richard Dawkins, Massimo Pigliucci and Carl Sagan).

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