Friday, 28 May 2010

Naturalism conference

Centre for the Philosophy of Religion, Heythrop College, University of London

Religion and Naturalism

Saturday 12 June 2010

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines ontological naturalism as the assertion that reality has no place for supernatural or other ‘spooky’ kinds of entity.

Much of current philosophy operates within a naturalist paradigm, and therefore starts from a position that seems inherently hostile to traditional religion. How should defenders of religion respond to the naturalist challenge? Is naturalism a coherent outlook, or is it an illegitimate attempt to extend the scope of science to the whole of reality? Is a theistic worldview – in its implications for ethics,for psychology, for cosmology – on a collision course with naturalism? The distinguished speakers at this one-day conference, organized by the Centre for the Philosophy of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London, will be debating an issue that has become central to contemporary philosophy of religion.


To encourage a lively and productive debate, each session has one speaker who is broadly sympathetic to the naturalist outlook and one who favours a theistic position. In each ninety minute session each speaker will talk for thirty minutes and the discussion will then be opened to the floor for thirty minutes. To conclude the
conference, there will be a round table discussion involving all six speakers, with the opportunity for further comments and questions from the floor.

10.00 am SESSION 1: Naturalism and Metaphysics
Paul Snowdon and Keith Ward
11.30 am COFFEE
12:00 noon SESSION 2: Naturalism and Mind
David Papineau and John Haldane
1.30 pm LUNCH
2:30 pm SESSION 3: Naturalism and Ethics
Simon Blackburn and Fiona Ellis
4:00 pm SESSION 4: Reflections and Conclusions
Round table discussion, introduced by John Cottingham


To register please send your full name in an email to with 12 June as header,indicating your fees category (see below).
U of L faculty/students – no charge
Students - £5
Concession - £10
Standard - £20
HEYTHROP COLLEGE University of London
Kensington Square, London W8 5HN
Tel. 020 7795 6600


Monday, 21 June 2010: Is a Secular Society a Better Society?

Saleem Chagtai (Clarity Institute & iERA) & Adnan Rashid VS (Hittin Institute) Dr Ed. Buckner & Stephen Law (British Humanist Association)

Venue: Friends House, Main Hall, 173-177 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BJ


Monday, 17 May 2010

Introduction - first draft for comments please

Here's the most of the introduction the new book on Intellectual Black Holes. Comments please.


Intellectual black holes

Wacky and ridiculous belief systems abound. One cult promises members a ride to heaven on board a UFO. Another insists the Earth is ruled by lizard-like aliens. Even mainstream religions have people believing absurdities. Preachers have promised 46 heavenly virgins to suicide bombers. Others insist the entire universe is just 6,000 years old (extraordinarily, polls consistently indicate this belief is currently held by about 45% of US citizens – that’s around 130 million individuals). And of course its not only cults and religions that promote bizarre beliefs. Significant numbers of people believe in astrology, the amazing powers of TV psychics, astrology, crystal divination, the healing powers of magnets, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and that the Word Trade Centre was brought down by the US Government. There is even a handful who continue to believe that the Earth is flat.

How do such ridiculous views succeed in entrenching themselves in people’s minds? How are such wacky belief systems able to take sane, intelligent, college-educated people and turn them into the willing slaves of claptrap? How, in particular, do the true believers manage to convince themselves that they are the rational, reasonable ones and that everyone else is deluded?

This book identifies eight key mechanisms that can transform a set of ideas into a psychological fly trap – a bubble of belief that, while seductively easy to enter, can be almost impossible to reason your way out of again.

Cosmologists talk about black-holes, objects so gravitationally powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape from them. Unwary space travellers passing too close to a black-hole will find themselves inexorably sucked in. Increasingly powerful motor is required to resist its pull, until eventually one passes the “event horizon” – the point of no return – and escape is impossible. My suggestion is that our contemporary cultural landscape contains, if you like, numerous intellectual black-holes – belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can similarly find themselves drawn in, often never to escape. While those of us lacking robust intellectual and other psychological defences will be most easily trapped, even the most intelligent and educated of us are potentially vulnerable. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers have fallen victim. If you find yourself encountering a belief system in which several of these eight mechanisms feature prominently, you should be wary. Alarm bells should be going off and warning lights flashing. For you are now approaching the intellectual equivalent of a black-hole.

As the centuries roll by, such self-sealing bubbles of belief appear and disappear. Sometimes, many may fizz into existence in one place, because the conditions are just right (an age of superstition). Occasionally, one of these little bubbles may grow huge, perhaps encompassing an entire civilization, before dividing or deflating or popping or being subsumed by another bubble. The greatest threat such bubbles of irrational belief face, perhaps, is the flourishing of a rigorous, sceptical culture that encourages free thought and in which all beliefs are subjected to close critical scrutiny - an "Enlightened" society. However, some bubbles are able to flourish even within such a society.

Aim of this book

The central aim of this book is to help immunize readers against the wiles of cultists, political zealots and other purveyors of intellectual snake oil by, as it were, clearly setting out the tricks of the trade by which such self-sealing bubbles of belief are created and maintained, by revealing how an intellectually impregnable fortress can be constructed around a set of even patently ridiculous beliefs, providing them with a veneer of “reasonableness” and rendering them immune to rational criticism.

Most of us will have at some point experienced the frustration and of trying to change the convictions of someone powerfully committed to a ridiculous belief, and will have come against many of these strategies. My aim here is to provide an overview of eight key strategies, which I call:

1. Playing the mystery card
2. “But it fits!”
3. “Moving the goal posts”
4. Going nuclear
5. ” I just know!”
6. Pseudo-profundity
7. The Amazingly Persuasive Power of Ramified Anecdote (APPRA)
8. Pressing your buttons

In each case I (i) explain the strategy, (ii) diagnose exactly what is wrong with it, and (ii) provide illustrations of how it is applied.

It is worth clarifying seven things at the outset:

1. This book focuses particularly, though by no means exclusively, on religious examples of intellectual black holes. Why, given there are many non-religious examples from which to choose? My main reason for doing so is that while many belief-systems (e.g. political philosophies such as Marxism, New Age philosophies, belief systems involving dubious or bogus medical treatments, and belief systems centred on grand political conspiracies (such as those involving 9/11) also employ various combinations of these eight mechanisms to ensnare minds, religions typically employ a wider range. Historically, the established religions have had a great deal of time and huge intellectual and other resources to deploy in refining their own particular versions of these strategies. They have, as a result, produced some of the most powerful and seductive intellectual black holes. They therefore provide some of the best illustrations.

2. I also want to stress that this book certainly does not argue that all religious belief-systems are essentially irrational. Several recent books have done that, of course. The aim of this book is different. It is not the content of religious belief systems that is attacked here, but the manner in which they are often bolstered and defended. It’s important to realize that any belief-system, including perfectly sensible belief-systems, can be bolstered and defended by means of the same eight mechanisms. To point out that a belief-system is both propped up and defended against intellectual threats by means of bullshit strategies is not yet to show that the content of that belief-system is itself bullshit. It’s worth remembering that many of the same strategies can and have been employed to defend atheistic belief-systems (I’m thinking, in particular, of certain totalitarian atheist regimes). I am not, here, suggesting that atheism is intrinsically any more or less sensible than theism. However, given a belief system is fairly rational, its proponents won’t need to rely on the kind of dubious strategies outlined here in order to bolster and defend it. The fact that many religious people rely pretty heavily on many – in some cases all – of these eight strategies in order to generate the impression that their particular belief system is, at the very least, not unreasonable, would of course be neatly explained by the fact that their particular religious system of belief is, in fact, pretty unreasonable.

3. Third, not only are some atheists guilty of using such strategies to bolster and defend their atheism, some religious people are largely innocent. My aim is not to tar all religious people with the same brush. To say that religion may have produced many of the most dramatic and powerful intellectual black holes is one thing. To insist that every religious person is a victim is quite another. I’m certainly not suggesting that..

4. Fourth, we should acknowledge that those who fall victim to intellectual black-holes need be neither dim nor foolish. The sophistication of some of the strategies examined in this book demonstrates that those who develop and use them are often highly intelligent. They are, in many cases, clever strategies– sometimes very clever indeed. Nor need those who fall foul of intellectual black holes be generally gullible. Victims may, in other areas of their lives, be models of cautious acceptance, subjecting claims to close critical scrutiny, weighing evidence scrupulously, and generally tailoring their beliefs according to robust rational standards. If, after reading this book, you begin to suspect that may yourself have fallen victim to an intellectual black-hole, there’s no need to feel particularly foolish. People far wiser and cleverer than either you and me have also become trapped. Neither need those who create or work to sustain intellectual black holes be particularly bad or deliberately deceitful people. Those who work hardest to sustain intellectual black holes are typically victims themselves. Yes, some intellectual black holes are deliberately fashioned by frauds and con artists. But in most cases, such bubbles of belief are a product of the ingenuity of honest and sincere people genuinely committed to the belief system at its core.

5. Fifth, notice that I am not suggesting that every intellectual black hole will exhibit all eight of mechanisms outlined in this book. Some exhibit some, and others others. In chapter XX, I illustrate how different belief systems employ different combinations of the eight mechanisms, or place different emphasis on them. Belief in a dubious alternative medicine, for example, can be turned into something approaching an intellectual black hole by heavy reliance on just two mechanisms in particular: APRA and playing the mystery card. On the other hand, many religious belief systems employ many of the eight mechanisms – in some cases, all of them. Also note that intellectual black holes tend to be dynamic – the mechanisms used to sustain them are likely to shift and develop in response to new and differing rational threats to the belief system at their cores.

6. It is worth emphasizing that intellectual black holes lie at one end of a sliding scale. The fact is, almost all of us engage in these eight strategies to some extent, particularly when beliefs to which we are strongly committed are faced with a rational threat. And in fact, under certain circumstances, there is little wrong in using at least some of them in moderation (as I will explain). But that is not to say that every belief system is, then, an intellectual black-hole, (in fact, defending a belief system against the charge that it is an intellectual black hole by maintaining that all belief systems are intellectual black holes, and thus no less reasonable/unreasonable, is itself a warning sign that one is dealing with an intellectual black hole – it is an example of the strategy I call “Going Nuclear”). What transforms a belief system into an intellectual black hole is the extent to which such mechanisms are relied upon in dealing with rational threats and generating an appearance of “reasonableness”. The more we start to rely on these kinds of strategy to prop up and defend our belief system, the more black-hole-like that belief system becomes, until a black hole is clearly what we have got. However, even if we have not fallen victim to an intellectual black hole, some of our belief systems may still exhibit an unhealthy reliance on the same strategies.

7. Lastly, like any analogy, the black hole analogy breaks down if pushed too far. There are differences between physical black holes and their intellectual equivalents. Here’s an obvious illustration: a physical black hole is something from which you can never escape, but people can and do sometimes escape from intellectual black-holes. Individuals do occasionally find the resources to think themselves clear of even some of the most seductive and powerful examples.

Other explanations for why we believe

This book examines eight key mechanisms by which belief systems can be transformed into intellectual black holes. It doesn’t attempt to explain why we are drawn to particular belief systems in the first place. Why, for example, is belief in a god or gods, and in other supernatural beings, such as ghosts, angels, dead ancestors, and so on, so widespread? These kinds of belief appear to be universal, and there is some evidence that a propensity or disposition towards beliefs of this kind may actually be innate – part of our natural, evolutionary heritage. The psychologist Justin Barrett (REF XX), for example, has suggested that the prevalence of beliefs of this kind may in part be explained by our possessing a Hyper-Active Agent Detection Device, or H.A.D.D.

The H.A.D.D. Hypothesis

Human beings explain features of the world around them in two very different ways. For example, we sometimes appeal to natural causes or laws in order to account for an event. Why did that apple fall from the tree? Because the wind blew and shook the branch, causing the apple to fall. Why did the water freeze in the pipes last night, because the temperature of the water fell below zero, and it is a law that water freezes below zero.

However, we also explain by appealing to agents – beings who act on the basis of their beliefs and desires in a more or less rational way. Why did the apple fall from the tree? Because Ted wanted to eat it, believed that shaking the tree would make it fall, and so shook the tree. Why are Mary’s car keys on the mantelpiece? Because Mary wanted to remind herself not to forget them, so put them where she thought would she spot them.

Barrett suggests that we have evolved to be overly sensitive to agency. We evolved in an environment containing many agents – family members, friends, rivals, predators, prey, and so on. Spotting and understanding other agents helps us survive and reproduce. So we evolved to be very sensitive to them – overly sensitive in fact. Hear a rustle in the bushes behind you and you instinctively spin round, looking for an agent. Most times, there’s no agent there – just the wind in the leaves. But, in the environment in which we evolved, on those few occasions when there was an agent present, detecting it may well have saved your life. Far better to avoid several imaginary predators than be eaten by a real one. Thus evolution will select for an inheritable tendency to not just detect – but over-detect – agency. We evolved to have (or, perhaps more plausibly, to be) hyper-active agency detectors.

If we do have an H.A.D.D., that would at least partly explain the human tendency to feel there is “someone there” even when no one is observed, and so may at least partly explain our tendency to believe in the existence of invisible agents – in spirits, ghosts, angels or gods.

Now I am not here endorsing this particular explanation for widespread belief in such invisible agents (though I suspect there is some truth to it). The fact is that, even if we do possess an H.A.D.D. that would at best only explain the attractiveness of the content of some of the belief systems we will be examining. Many wacky belief systems, such as crystal healing or palmistry or numerology, involve no hidden agents at all. I mention the H.A.D.D. hypothesis only to illustrate the point that the eight mechanisms identified in this book for turning a belief system into an intellectual black hole are not intended to rival such psychological and evolutionary explanations for why we believe what we do. My claim is that once we find ourselves drawn to a belief system, for whatever reason, then these eight mechanisms may come into play to bolster and defend it.

Note that the H.A.D.D. hypothesis does not say that there are no invisible agents. Perhaps at least some of the invisible agents people suppose exist are real. Perhaps there really are ghosts, or spirits, or gods. However, if the H.A.D.D. hypothesis does correctly explain why we suppose that such invisible agents exist, then the fact that large numbers of us believe in the existence of such invisible agents supplies no evidence that any such agents exist. It will no longer do to say “Surely not all these people can be so very deluded? Surely there must be some truth to these beliefs, otherwise they would not be so widespread?” The fact is, if the H.A.D.D. hypothesis is correct, we are going to likely to believe in the existence of such invisible agents anyway, whether or not they exist. So the fact that they do exist is no evidence that they are real. Of course, there was already good reason to reject such appeals when it comes to beliefs of a religious, supernatural or paranormal character… we know already that
{{NOT FINISHED THIS BIT YETfter all, 130 million citizens of one of the richest and best-educated populations on the Planet believe the entire universe is six thousand years old. If the H.A.D.D hypothesis is correct, then it. …adds a further nail to the coffin of that kind of justification for belief in invisible agents.}}

Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
Another psychological theory that may play some role in explaining why we are drawn to the kind of strategies described in this book is the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort we feel when we hold beliefs or attitudes that conflict. The theory of cognitive dissonance says that we motivated to reduce such dissonance by either adjusting our beliefs and attitudes or rationalizing them.

Aesop’s story of The Fox and The Grapes is often used as an illustration. The fox desires those juicy-looking grapes, but then, when he realizes he will never attain them, he adjusts his belief accordingly to make himself feel better – he supposes the grapes are sour.

How might the theory of cognitive dissonance play a role in explaining why we are drawn to using the kind of belief immunizing strategies described in this book? Here’s an example. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that our evolutionary history has made us innately predisposed towards both a belief in supernatural agents, but also towards forming beliefs that are, broadly speaking, rational, or at the very least not downright irrational. That might put us in psychological bind. On the one hand, we may find ourselves unwilling or even unable to give up our belief in certain invisible agents. On the other hand, we may find ourselves confronted by overwhelming evidence that what we believe is pretty silly. Under these circumstances, strategies promising to disarm rational threats to that belief and give it at least the illusion of reasonableness are likely to seem increasingly attractive. Such strategies can provide us with a way of dealing with the intellectual tension and discomfort such innate tendencies might otherwise produce. They allow true believers to reassure themselves that they are not being nearly as irrational as reason might otherwise suggest - to convince themselves and others that their belief in ghosts or spirits or whatever is, even if not well-confirmed, at the very least, not contrary to reason.

So we can speculate about why certain belief systems are attractive, and why such strategies are employed to immunize them against rational criticism and give them a veneer of “reasonableness”. Both the H.A.D.D. hypothesis and the theory of cognitive dissonance may have a role to play. The extent to which they do have a role to play would be the subject of a rather different sort of book.

Two threats to the rationality of theism

Our discussion will include several examples of how our eight mechanisms are used to deal with intellectual challenges to theism – to belief in God. I will focus on two challenges in particular: (i) the evidential problem of evil, and (ii) the problem of non-temporal agency. Because it is easy to underestimate the power of these objections, it’s worth clarifying them at the outset.

Friday, 14 May 2010

David Roberston quote

I am reading Robertson's The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths. Thought this quote from one of his letters to Dawkins was very interesting:

“Do you seriously think the evidence for the God of the Bible is on the same level as the tooth fairy? You have not, for example, written a book on the Tooth Fairy Delusion. The evidence for God is on a completely different level. I suspect you know that but again in your rhetorical style the sound-bite put-down works so much better. Let me put it another way – if the only evidence that existed for Jesus Christ was the same as that which exists for the Flying Spaghetti Monster then I and millions of others would not believe in him.” p51.

The idea seems to be that if lots of people believe something, well then the evidence for what they believe must be, if not conclusive, then at least much better than that for e.g. the tooth fairy.


(i) I don't remember Dawkins denying Jesus Christ existed.
(ii) When it comes to supernatural, paranormal type claims, the fact that loads of people believe something does not indicate that the evidence for what they believe must be reasonably good. Millions believe they've been abducted by aliens. Millions believe in astrology and psychic powers. And of course millions - hundreds of millions - of Christians believe the entire universe is 6,000 years old.
(iii) Dawkins even comes up with some interesting explanations for why people will hold religious belief whether or not there's any evidence for theism.

There may be devastating critiques of Dawkins but this isn't one.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Witchcraft and the law in Central African Republic

Hex AppealFrom The Atlantic. Ge here. June 2010.

Witches are overwhelming the courts in the Central African Republic. And that may be a good thing.

By Graeme Wood

Snaking around the outer wall of the courthouse in Mbaiki, Central African Republic, is a long line of citizens, all in human form and waiting to face judgment. It’s easy to imagine them as the usual mix of drunks, reckless drivers, and check-bouncers in the dock of a small American town. But here most are witches, and they are facing criminal punishment for hexing their enemies or assuming the shape of animals.

By some estimates, about 40 percent of the cases in the Central African court system are witchcraft prosecutions. (Drug offenses in the U.S., by contrast, account for just 12 percent of arrests.) In Mbaiki—where Pygmies, who are known for bewitching each other, make up about a tenth of the population—witchcraft prosecutions exceed 50 percent of the case load, meaning that most alleged criminals there are suspected of doing things that Westerners generally regard as impossible.

I went to the front of the witch line and asked Abdulaye Bobro, the chief judge, what the punishment was for casting spells. Bobro spoke in an articulate French baritone so rich with authority that I could imagine him flourishing as a crafty small-town defense lawyer, a Central African Atticus Finch, if he were not on the bench.

Bobro’s magisterial bearing was undiminished by his inglorious chambers, which are roughly the size of the reinforced-glass cubes gas-station clerks inhabit in bad neighborhoods. I asked him if he could explain how he reached judgments in witchcraft cases, and he cracked open his filthy, plastic-bound copy of the penal code. Without consulting the table of contents, he found the section on PCS, or the “practice of charlatanism and sorcery,” and let me read along as he quoted from memory the section that dictates a decade or more in jail and a nominal fine for engaging in witchcraft. In practice the penalties were significantly less, because the town had insufficient funds to maintain a jail. But Bobro supported the law’s preservation, perhaps because it gave him so much authority.

The classic study of witchcraft in Africa occurred among the Azande, who inhabit the eastern edge of the Central African Republic. The anthropologist Edward E. Evans-Pritchard found that the Azande attributed a staggering range of misfortunes—infected toes, collapsed granary roofs, even bad weather—to meddling by witches. Nothing happened by chance, only as an effect of spell-casting by a wicked interloper. That sentiment remains widespread among Central Africans, who demand that the law reflect the influence of witchcraft as they understand it. The standard legal concept of force majeure, under which a defendant cannot be held liable for an “act of God,” is thus rendered meaningless.
Click here to find out more!

Foreign human-rights groups have noticed that many of the targets of prosecution are vulnerable types (like Pygmies, or even children), and nongovernmental organizations that exist to encourage the rule of law are embarrassed that the “law” in this case resembles the penal code of 17th-century Salem.

In response, the Central African parliament is considering striking the clause outlawing witchcraft from its books. The parliament is in Bangui, the capital, which sees far fewer witchcraft cases per capita. Even so, most lawyers I consulted there favored keeping the law intact, although they admitted that it fits uneasily in a modern legal system. “The problem is that in a witchcraft case, there is usually no evidence,” said Bartolomé Goroth, a lawyer in Bangui, who recently defended (unsuccessfully) a coven of Pygmies who had been accused of murder-by-witchcraft in Mbaiki. Goroth said the trials generally ended with an admission of guilt by an accused witch in exchange for a modest sentence. I asked how one determined guilt in cases where the alleged witches denied the charges. “The judge will look at them and see if they act like witches,” Goroth said, specifying that “acting like a witch” entailed behaving “strangely” or “nervously” in court. His principal advice to clients, he said, was to act normally and refrain from casting any spells in the courtroom.

Goroth argued that the legal system could not ignore a social fact as firmly embedded as witchcraft is in the republic. And every other lawyer I met not only supported its criminalization, but seemed to believe in the reality of shape-shifting and killing with magic spells. More than one pointed to the elbow when referring to witchcraft, indicating the site in the body where sorcery is said to reside.

I visited Mbaiki’s sole foreign nongovernmental organization, an Italian group called COOPI that exists to promote human rights and the rule of law. The two employees there were both educated Central Africans; the Italian running the office had gone home for a holiday, leaving them in the steaming office with her purring computer and a small stack of Italian books, a translation of The Celestine Prophecy on top.

They acknowledged that the rights of the accused are violated regularly in witchcraft prosecutions, because the charge carries enormous pressure to confess. But they, too, supported keeping the laws on the books, for pragmatic reasons: if people thought witches could hex with impunity, mobs would simply seize the alleged offenders, bring them to a pit, and bury them alive. One said, “If we do not apply laws against PCS, we will apply lex talionis.” That is, the rule of an eye for an eye, as preached in the Bible.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010



CFI UK needs a new logo. Winner gets life membership (free entry to Conway Hall events).

The rules are:

- Your design should be created in vector format, but emailed for judging as a 400x400 pixel JPG or PNG file no bigger than 300Kb in size.
- It must include the letters CFI UK.
- It should reflect the ethos of the Center for Inquiry.
- It should look good in both colour and greyscale, and be suitable for use in the website masthead, letterheads, t-shirts, publicity posters and banners.
- The design must be your own original work, and not contain elements which are subject to third party copyright.

Something with a candle (Enlightenment, Prometheus, etc.) would obviously be suitable, but anything considered as long as it looks cool.

Submit entries to me at think (at)
Deadline June 15th.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Graham Taylor on my footballing performance

Graham Taylor (former Watford and England manager) commenting on my footballing prowess at the philosopher's football match (he managed my team - the Greeks). He was a really great guy.

He gave me two comments. I will leave you to guess which version is more accurate. Also includes opportunity to see Prof. Stephen Mumford semi-naked (with his permission)!

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Philosopher's Football Match Sunday

Date: Sunday, 9 May, 2010
Location: The Harry Abrahams Stadium, Finchley, N12 0PD (nearest Tubes: East or West Finchley)

Gates open 1.30pm.

Commentator: Laurie Taylor.

John Humphrys (Today Prog R4) will be there, as will Terry Jones (Monty Python), Graham Taylor (former England manager)...

The Match kick-off takes place at 3pm and will last 110 minutes in total and thus
with final whistle (allowing for extra time at the referee's discretion!) is at

We anticipate getting 500 spectators on the day, including families, on the day,
and there is extensive media interest as well.

£10 web (collect your ticket at the gate) or £20 on the day. Kids £1.



Philosopher Simon Glendenning voted Most Creative Goal Celebrator 2008-09 season is in goal for Nietzsche Albion, Philosopher Julian Baggini in the back as Nutter Tackler with a strong mid-field duo of Philosopher and Journalist Mark Vernon and Comedian Arthur ‘Schopenhauer’ Smith big fan of the Flat Back Four up front. Philosopher AC Grayling is Manager reported to be banned from the touchline for barracking the fourth official for crass determinism.


For the Socrates Wanderers, we have Comedian Mark Steel Academy Discovery in goal. Tony Hawks is a front runner and Ariane Sharine is sweeper. Ariane Sharine is very much in form while Tony Hawks has been quoted as determined to hack old foe Epicurus off the park. Former Watford, Aston Villa and England Gaffer Graham Taylor is Manager.

I am centre midfield for the Greeks.

Friday, 7 May 2010


Prepare to see the owners of the Mail, Telegraph, Sun, Express, Standard, etc. unleash the forces of hell as they face the distinct possibility of a Lib-Lab deal on electoral reform that would mean that the party of the rich few will never again have a working majority!

I wonder if Labour will really do it, though? For they'll be unlikely ever to get a working majority either. I guess the decision for Labour is: should they sacrifice the Labour Party's chances of ever again being the single party of government in order to lock the Tories out forever (and also ensure our government will in future reflect the country's broadly liberal-left character)? Have I got this right?

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Oh dear....

Front cover of THE SUN newspaper today. And one M Thatcher... I was struck by the similarity. Creepy. Almost as if they deliberately Thatcherized him.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

EKKLESIA: Telegraph chooses to ignore its own poll


Two weeks ago, the Telegraph ran a column by Frank Field entitled: 'Why is there no talk about immigration?'. The answer may have now come to light, as the Sunday Telegraph seems to have failed to highlight findings from its own polling.

In the ICM poll it commissioned, which was released on Saturday night, was a question about an amnesty for illegal immigrants (p10):

Would you support/oppose: Allowing illegal immigrants who have a clean record and have been in Britain for 10 years or more, to become full British citizens?

The findings:

Support: 55%
Oppose: 40%
DK: 6%

The apparent support for the Liberal Democrat policy for a migrant amnesty wasn't mentioned in its reporting. Instead, they decided to focus on the study released by MigrationWatch UK which suggested that more than a million illegal immigrants would be granted citizenship.

This has been followed up in the Telegraph today with a column by Matthew Moore entitled 'Nick Clegg struggles to defend immigration policies' and the Telegraph View piece: 'Nick Clegg amnesty folly'. Source here.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

"Help me, help me!"

Many kids films make a filmic reference to "help me, help me" said in a tiny squeeky voice. E.g. the bloody awful Furry Vengeance that I saw with my kids yesterday. It crops up in lots of kids cartoons too. My kids, and perhaps no one under thirty, has any idea what the reference is to, so today I showed them. Here it is, in case you missed it.

Possibly a mistake - I don't think they'll sleep so well tonight...

Monday, 3 May 2010

The "It's hopelessly impressionistic!" response to the evidential problem of evil

The suggestion that the evidential problem of evil is pretty useless as an argument against the existence of God because it is based on claims about suffering, etc. that are hopelessly "impressionistic" has come up several times recently.

David Hart made the move in response to my contribution to 50 Voices of Disbelief (see this post). And now "Fun with Formal Ideas" runs the same move in a comment on the preceding post.

So it's worth dealing with. Here's the comment on the preceding post (nb by "Eth" commentator means the God of Eth):

"Eth is impressionistic, Stephen, it is not founded in any facts, data or evidence where these may be considered synonymous or statistically significant and relies finally upon a appeal to common sense."

David Hart said:

"Nicholas Everitt and Stephen Law recycle the old (and incorrigibly impressionistic) argument that claims of God’s omnipotence seem incompatible with claims of his goodness."

{POST SCRIPT: as TAM's transcript of the radio prog reveals, Denis Alexander also hints at the "It's hopelessly impressionistic" move. Re. huge amounts of suffering, Alexander says: "we simply are not in a position to measure those kind of things, we can measure certain things in science and so forth but..."}

The objection seems to be that assessments of how much good or evil exists are so subjective and unreliable as to be pretty worthless as evidence. Pain and suffering, for example, cannot be given numerical values, or reliably measured using a calibrated instrument in the way, say, mass or velocity can. Ditto happiness, etc.

Does this really deal the evidential problem of evil a fatal blow?

I don't see why.

The evidential problem of evil (and mirror problem in the God of Eth) is based on the empirical observation that the universe is filled with immense amounts of seemingly pointless suffering. This provides us with excellent evidence there is no all-powerful all-good God, in the same way immense amounts of (from an evil God's point of view) seemingly pointless good is excellent evidence there's no evil God either.

Consider a different scenario - a school run by an all-powerful headmaster whom we never see. But we can see how his school is run. Many pupils are beaten senseless, forced to eat shit, and left physically and psychologically crippled by their experiences. Others have wonderful gifts bestowed on them - great food, education, etc. The distribution of these goods and evils appears to be pretty random.

Now consider two hypotheses - that the school is run by a supremely wicked headmaster, and that the school is run by a supremely good headmaster. Both are pretty decisively ruled out by what we observe of the way the school is run.

Notice that the fact that we cannot give numerical values to the pleasures and pains we observe being dealt out, or place them on some sort of objective, calibrated weighing scale, is largely irrelevant. It does not follow that the argument against each hypothesis is based on evidence that is "hopelessly impressionistic".

If that *did* follow, no conclusions about the moral properties of any individual could ever be drawn on the basis of the pleasures or pains they knowingly inflicted. For the reasoning we used would similarly be based on assessments that were "hopelessly impressionistic"!

The "hopelessly impressionistic" response to the evidential problem of evil is, in short, mere smokescreen.

For the evidential problem of evil and my version of it go here.

What complicates things is that the "hopelessly impressionistic" move is often mixed together with a "no-see-um" move (I think Hart is running a combination of the two - though it's hard to be sure).

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Podcast of myself and Denis Alexander on science and religion

The podcast of my hour long discussion of science and religion with Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute is now available as a podcast. Go here. It was broadcast on Premier Christian Radio on Saturday.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Review of 50 Voices of Disbelief

There's a review of this book (to which I contributed) from David Hart of First Things available here.


By David B. Hart

I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County. This is not because I necessarily think the current “marketplace of ideas” particularly good at sorting out wise arguments from foolish. But the latest trend in à la mode godlessness, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.

Take, for instance, the recently published 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Simple probability, surely, would seem to dictate that a collection of essays by fifty fairly intelligent and zealous atheists would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God. Certainly that was my hope in picking it up. Instead, I came away from the whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings feeling rather as if I had just left a large banquet at which I had been made to dine entirely on crushed ice and water vapor.

To be fair, the shallowness is not evenly distributed. Some of the writers exhibit a measure of wholesome tentativeness in making their cases, and as a rule the quality of the essays is inversely proportionate to the air of authority their authors affect. For this reason, the philosophers—who are no better than their fellow contributors at reasoning, but who have better training in giving even specious arguments some appearance of systematic form—tend to come off as the most insufferable contributors. Nicholas Everitt and Stephen Law recycle the old (and incorrigibly impressionistic) argument that claims of God’s omnipotence seem incompatible with claims of his goodness. Michael Tooley does not like the picture of Jesus that emerges from the gospels, at least as he reads them. Christine Overall notes that her prayers as a child were never answered; ergo, there is no God. A.C. Grayling flings a few of his favorite papier-mâché caricatures around. Laura Purdy mistakes hysterical fear of the religious right for a rational argument. Graham Oppy simply provides a précis of his personal creed, which I assume is supposed to be compelling because its paragraphs are numbered. J.J.C. Smart finds miracles scientifically implausible (gosh, who could have seen that coming?). And so on. Adèle Mercier comes closest to making an interesting argument—that believers do not really believe what they think they believe—but it soon collapses under the weight of its own baseless presuppositions.

Continue reading. Thanks to Dawkins site.

PS If Hart weren't a twit he would have noticed that my particular version of the problem of evil is immune to the "incorrigibly impressionistic" dismissal he used in the above review, for then the problem of good could be dismissed in the same way - which of course it can't. This is one of the many strengths of this particular version of the problem of evil, in fact.