Wednesday, 28 September 2011


(this is adapted from my book Believing Bullshit - compressed version of the chapter of the same title)

Bush’s gut

Notoriously, during George W. Bush’s presidency, Bush’s gut became the oracle of the State. Bush was distrustful of book learning and those with established expertise in a given area. When Bush made the decision to invade Iraq, and was subsequently confronted by a skeptical audience, Bush said that ultimately, he just knew in his gut that invading was the right thing to do. As writer Rich Procter noted prior to the invasion:

Now we're preparing to invade a country in the middle of the most volatile "powder-keg" region on earth. We're going to toss out our history of using military force only when provoked. We're going to launch a "pre-emptive" invasion that violates two hundred-plus years of American history and culture. We're on the verge of becoming a fundamentally different kind of nation - an aggressive, "go-it-alone" rogue state - based on Bush's gut…

The invasion went ahead. A few months later, Senator Joe Biden told Bush of his growing worries about the aftermath. In response, Bush again appealed to the reliability of his “instincts”, as Ron Suskind here reports:

''I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,'' [Biden] began, ''and I was telling the president of my many concerns'' - concerns about growing problems winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields. Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. '''Mr. President,' I finally said, 'How can you be so sure when you know you don't know the facts?''' Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator's shoulder. ''My instincts,'' he said. ''My instincts.'' …The Delaware senator was, in fact, hearing what Bush's top deputies - from cabinet members like Paul O'Neill, Christine Todd Whitman and Colin Powell to generals fighting in Iraq - have been told for years when they requested explanations for many of the president's decisions, policies that often seemed to collide with accepted facts. The president would say that he relied on his ''gut'' or his ''instinct'' to guide the ship of state…

How did Bush suppose his gut was able to steer the ship of state? He supposed it was functioning as a sort of God-sensing faculty. Bush believed that by means of his gut he could sense what God wanted of him. But how reasonable was it for Bush to trust what his gut was telling him?


Many would say “not very”. Philosopher W. K. Clifford, for example, famously insisted that

it is wrong, always and everywhere, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

People who believe despite not possessing good evidence that their belief is true are being downright irresponsible, thought Clifford. This quotation is often used to condemn those who believe in such things as the Loch Ness monster, angels, fairies and even God. Such beliefs, it is suggested, are not well-supported by the evidence. So it is wrong for people to believe them. So it was wrong for Bush to believe what he did, in the absence of good evidence.

The idea that it is, at the very least, unwise to accept claims for which we possess little or no supporting evidence is certainly widespread. Richard Dawkins, for example, writes:

Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Let’s call the view that we ought not to accept any belief not well-supported by evidence evidentialism. Is evidentialism true?

Probably not. Evidentialism faces obvious difficulties. Perhaps the most glaring is this. Suppose I believe some claim A because I suppose I have supporting evidence B. But now ought I to believe that evidence B obtains? If evidentialism is true, it seems I ought to believe B obtains only if I posses, in turn, evidence for that – C, say. But then I should believe that C obtains only if there is, in turn, evidence for that, and so on ad infinitum. In short, evidentialism seems to entail that, before I adopt any belief, I must first acquire evidence to support an infinite number of beliefs – which, as a finite being, I can’t do. So Clifford’s injunction that I ought not to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence appears to have the disastrous consequence that I ought not to believe anything at all.

How might we escape this conclusion?

Before I address that question, let’s take a brief look at reliabilism, a theory of knowledge developed over the last half century or so would seem to entail that it is at least in principle possible (notice I don’t say likely) that some psychics, religious gurus and so on do indeed “just know” things by means of some sort of psychic or divinely-given sense. They do “just know” these things even if they don’t have any evidence to support what they believe. In which case, perhaps Bush might “just know” what God wants of him by means of his gut?


Here is a simple reliabilist theory of knowledge. In order for person a to know that P,

(i) P must be true
(ii) a must believe that P
(iii) A’s belief that P must be brought about by the fact that P via a reliable mechanism

What’s meant by a “reliable mechanism”? A reliable mechanism is a mechanism that tends to produce true beliefs. My sense of sight is a fairly reliable belief-producing mechanism. It allows my beliefs fairly reliably to track how things are in my environment.

Suppose, for example, someone puts an orange on the table in front of me. Light bounces off the orange into me eyes, which in turn causes certain cells to fire in my retina, which causes a pattern of electrical impulses to pass down my optic nerves into my brain, eventually bringing it about that I believe there’s an orange before me. Remove the orange and that will in turn cause me, by means of the same mechanism, to believe the orange has gone.

The same goes for my other senses – they are fairly reliable belief-producing mechanisms. Blindfold me and put me in a crowded street and my ears, nose will, in response to the sound of car horns and the odour of hot dogs, cause me to believe I am in a crowded street. Move me to a fragrant garden filled with singing birds and those same senses will cause me to believe I am in such a garden. My senses of sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste cause me to hold beliefs that tend accurately to reflect how things actually are around me.

I don’t say our senses are one hundred percent reliable, of course. Sometimes we get things wrong. They are occasionally prone to illusion. But they are fairly reliable.

Let’s now apply our reliabilist definition of knowledge. Suppose someone puts an orange on the table in front of me. I look at the orange, and so come to believe there’s an orange there. Do I know there’s an orange on the table?

According to our reliabilist, I do. The simple reliabilist theory says that if (i) it’s true that there’s an orange there, (ii) I believe there’s an orange there, and (iii) my belief is produced via a reliable mechanism, e.g. sight, by the presence of an orange there, then I know there’s an orange there.

Now here is an interesting conseuqnece of this theory – a consequence very relevant to our discussion of psychic powers and George Bush’s gut. Notice, that, according to reliablism, in order to know there’s an orange on the table, I need not infer there’s an orange there. I need not arrive at my belief on the basis of good grounds or evidence. No evidence is required. All that’s required is that I hold the belief and that it be produced in the right sort of way – by a reliable mechanism.

Reliabilism and psychic powers

Many contemporary philosophers accept some form of reliabilism (though they have developed it in various ways). You can now see why reliabilism might also appeal to, say, a psychic who believes she “just knows” things about the dead.

Suppose a self-styled psychic – call her Mary – finds herself believing that her dead Aunt Sarah is currently in the room with her. Also suppose, for the sake of argument, that Mary really does have some sort of reliable psychic sense, that dead Aunt Sarah really is in the room with Mary, and that Mary’s psychic sense is what is causing Mary to believe Aunt Sarah is present. Then, says our reliabilist theory, Mary knows that Aunt Sarah is in the room with her.

Mary doesn’t infer that Aunt Sarah is present on the basis of evidence. Mary just finds herself stuck with that belief that Aunt Sarah is present, caused as it is by her reliable psychic sense. Yet, says our reliabilist, despite the fact that Mary doesn’t possess any evidence that Aunt Sarah is present, Mary knows Aunt Sarah is there. In fact, were Mary to claim that she “just knows” that Mary is in the room with her right now, she’d be right.

Of course, that they do “just know” such things despite not possessing good supporting evidence is a claim psychics make on a daily basis. So, while few psychics heard of reliabilism, reliabilism nevertheless opens up at least the possibility that these psychics are correct – they do know, despite not possessing any evidence.

“But hang on” you may object. “Even if reliabilism is correct and Mary does know her dead Aunt is in the room with her, that is not something she ought to believe. The fact is, Mary is being downright irresponsible in just accepting at face value this belief that happens to have popped into her head. Clifford is still correct – she shouldn’t believe it. It’s still unwise for her to believe it.”

In her own defence, Mary might now appeal to a further principle. Surely, Mary may insist, if something seems very clearly and obviously to be the case, then, other things being equal, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true. It’s reasonable to take appearance at face value. For example, if it seems clear and obvious to me that there’s on orange on the table before me, then surely it’s reasonable for me to believe there’s an orange there.

This principle does seem intuitively plausible. And it entails that, if it seems just clearly and obviously true to Mary that her dead Aunt is in the room with her, then, other things being equal, it is reasonable for Mary to hold that belief. Whether or not she can provide any publicly available evidence.

Reliabilism and religious experience

Let’s now return to Bush’s gut. Bush believes he can directly know, by means of his gut, what God wants him to do.

Many people believe that they “just know” directly, rather than on the basis of evidence, that God exists and that, say, the Bible is true. Ask them why they believe, and they may give reasons and justifications of one sort or another. But typically, even if such grounds are provided, not much weight is placed on them. Most Theists will say that they don’t believe on the basis of evidence. Rather, they “just know” God exists. They believe they experience God directly, perhaps in something like the way I just directly experience that orange on the table in front of me. To them, it seems perfectly clear and obvious that God exists.

Reliabilism seems to open up the possibility that some people might, indeed, “just know” that God exists. Suppose God has provided us with a sort of sensus divinitatis – a reliable, God-sensing faculty (in Bush’s case, that would be his gut). On the reliabilist view, it seems that a sensus diviniatis could provide such knowledge.

Moreover, a religious person might add, just as, if it seems clearly and obviously true to me that there’s an orange on the table, then it is reasonable for me to suppose there’s an orange there, so if it seems clearly and obviously true to someone that God exists, then it’s reasonable for them to believe God exists. There’s certainly nothing wrong, or irresponsible, about them taking their experience at face value.

This view about religious experience has been developed by several contemporary Christian philosophers, chief among whom is Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga’s version is detailed, but the gist is essentially this, that something like reliabilism is essentially correct, that God has indeed given everyone of us a God-sensing faculty or sensus divinitatis, and that consequently, some of us can know, directly and without evidence, that God exists. Indeed, that God exists is an entirely reasonable thing for such people to believe if that’s very much how things clearly and obviously seem to them even after careful reflection.

Plantinga adds that, if there is a God, he probably would want us to know of his existence directly by means of such a reliable God-sensing faculty. So, if there is a God, then some of us probably do know by such means that God exists.

You may be wondering: “But if we all have a sensus divinitatis, as Plantinga supposes, why don’t we all enjoy such God experiences?” Because, Plantinga explains, in many cases our sensus divinitatis has been damaged by sin:

Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has been damaged.

Assessing psychic and religious claims to “just know”

We have seen how the reliabilist theory of knowledge seems to open up the possibility that some people might “just know” that their dead relative is in the room with them, or “just know” that God exists. We have also seen that evidentialism has been challenged, and that, according to Plantinga and others, it can be entirely reasonable for people to take their religious experiences at face value. Let’s now begin to assess these claims.

In fact, I find reliabilism plausible. I suspect that some version of reliabilism may well be correct. Let me also be clear that I do not rule out in principle the possibility that some people might be equipped with reliable psychic powers, or a sensus divinitatis, or whatever.

I’ll also concede that evidentialism is probably false, and that, generally speaking, it is indeed reasonable for us to take appearances at face value. If it seems just clearly and obviously the case that there’s an orange on the table in front of me, well then, other things being equal, it’s reasonable for me to believe there’s an orange on the table in front of me.

However, I remain entirely unconvinced that anyone who claims to “just know” that the dead walk among us, or that God exists, knows any such thing. Not only do I think the rest of us have good grounds for doubting their experience, I don’t believe it’s reasonable for them to take their own experience at face value either. I’ll explain why by means of what I call the case of the mad, fruit-fixated brain scientist.

The case of the mad, fruit-fixated brain scientist

Suppose Jane is shown what appears, quite clearly and obviously, to be an orange on the table in front of her. Surely then, it is, other things being equal, reasonable for Jane to believe there’s an orange there.

But now suppose the orange is presented to Jane in a rather unusual situation. Jane is one of several visitors to the laboratory of a mad brain scientist with a weird fruit fixation. She, like the other visitors, is wearing an electronic helmet that can influence what happens in her brain. From his central computer terminal, the mad brain scientist can, by means of these helmets, control what people are experiencing. He can create vivid and convincing hallucinations.

The scientist demonstrates by causing one of the visitors to hallucinate an apple. There’s much hilarity as the victim tries to grab for the fruit that’s not there. The visitors are then invited to wander round the lab where, the scientist tells them, they may experience several other virtual fruit. Jane then comes across what appears to be an orange on a table. Now, as a matter of fact, it is a real orange – one that fell out of someone’s packed lunch bag. Jane’s faculty of sight is functioning normally and reliably. This is no hallucination.

Now ask yourself two questions: (i) does Jane know there’s an orange on the table? And (ii) is it reasonable for Jane to suppose there’s an orange on the table?

Intuitively, it seems Jane doesn’t know there’s an orange present. After all, for all Jane knows, it could be one of the many hallucinatory fruit she knows about. But what would a reliabilist say? Well, sight is generally a reliable belief producing mechanism, and sight is what’s producing her belief. So some reliabilists may say that, yes, Jane does know. On the other hand, very many reliabilists say that, while in a standard environment, sight is reliable, it isn’t reliable in other kinds of environment, e.g. the kind of environment in which we will often as not be deceived by visual hallucinations. But then it follows that, because she is in just such an environment, Jane doesn’t know.

Now let’s turn to question (ii), which is the pivotal question: is it reasonable for Jane to believe there’s an orange before her?

Surely not. Given Jane knows that she is in an environment (the mad brain scientist’s laboratory) in which people regularly have compelling fruit hallucinations (indistinguishable from real fruit experiences), Jane should remain rather skeptical about her own fruit experience. For all she can tell, she’s probably having a mad-scientist-induced fruit hallucination.

I draw two morals for religious experience:

First of all, even if reliabilism is true, and even if some of us do have God-experiences produced by a sensus divinitatis, it remains debatable whether such people know that God exists. If human beings are highly prone to delusional religious experiences that they nevertheless find entirely convincing, then, even if, as a matter of fact, I happen to be having a wholly accurate religious experience revealing that, say, the Judeo-Christian God exists, it’s by no means clear I can be said to know the Judeo-Christian God exists, any more than Jane, coming upon a real orange in the brain scientist’s lab, can be said to know that there’s an orange on the table in front of her.

Second, and more importantly, even if it’s true, because of my religious experience, that I do know that the Judeo-Christian God exists, surely it still isn’t reasonable for me to take my experience at face value. For I find myself in a situation much like Jane finds herself in the brain scientist’s lab. Even though it looks to Jane clearly and obviously to be true that there’s an orange on the table in front of her, Jane should, surely, remain pretty skeptical about whether there’s actually an orange there, given that, for all she knows, she might very easily be having one of the many delusional fruit experiences currently being generated in the lab. Jane would be foolish to take appearance at face value. Similarly, if I have good evidence that many religious experiences are delusional – even the most compelling examples – then surely I should be equally skeptical about my own religious experiences, no matter how compelling those experiences might be. I would be foolish to take my experiences at face value.

A similar moral might be drawn about psychic experiences. If most – including even the most compelling examples – are delusional, then it’s debatable whether the psychic can be said to know. However, even if the psychic can be said to know, if they’re aware that many such experiences are delusional, then it surely isn’t reasonable for them to take their experience at face value.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Heythrop College, University of London

If you are thinking of studying philosophy, or have students thinking of doing so, and want to find at more about studying at Heythrop College University of London - get in touch. I am tutor for admissions for the BA in Philosophy.

Heythrop is a small institution specializing in Philosophy and Theology. It's compact and friendly and in a beautiful central London location - Kensington Square.

As I pointed out in recent letter to The Independent, it's also a pretty extraordinary place, offering Oxbridge style tuition but for rather lower fees.

Dominic Lawson ("A Private Sector Oxbridge? Not Exactly" 7th June) rightly celebrates the one-to-one tutorial system, offered by Oxford and Cambridge, which he describes as "the single most valuable aspect of their educational offering". But Lawson is wrong to say the system is only offered by Oxford and Cambridge. It is also offered by Heythrop College, University of London for undergraduate degrees in philosophy and theology.

We award University of London degrees, and have achieved some spectacular results in philosophy, including, in recent years, the highest number of first class hons degrees in philosophy among London Colleges, and also the highest scoring first class philosophy degree.

It's a shame more people don't know about us. Please spread the word!

Heythrop website.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Bullshit alert

I am very irritated by this, and have commented....

The “free market thinktanks” and their secret funders are a threat to democracy

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th September 2011

Nadine Dorries won’t answer it. Lord Lawson won’t answer it. Michael Gove won’t answer it. But it’s a simple question, and if they don’t know it’s because they don’t want to. Where does the money come from? All are connected to groups whose purpose is to change the direction of public life. None will reveal who funds them.

When she attempted to restrict abortion counselling, Nadine Dorries MP was supported by a group called Right to Know. When other MPs asked her who funds it, she claimed she didn’t know(1,2). Lord Lawson is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on climate science. It demands “openness and transparency” from scientists(3). Yet he refuses to say who pays, on the grounds that the donors “do not wish to be publicly engaged in controversy.”(4) Michael Gove was chairman of Policy Exchange, an influential conservative thinktank. When I asked who funded Policy Exchange when he ran it, his office told me “he doesn’t have that information and he won’t be able to help you.”(5)

We know that to understand politics and the peddling of influence we must follow the money. So it’s remarkable that the question of who funds the thinktanks has so seldom been asked.

There are dozens of groups in the UK which call themselves free market or conservative thinktanks, but they have a remarkably consistent agenda. They tend to oppose the laws which protect us from banks and corporations; to demand the privatisation of state assets; to argue that the rich should pay less tax; and to pour scorn on global warming. What the thinktanks call free market economics looks more like a programme for corporate power.

Some of them have a turnover of several million pounds a year, but in most cases that’s about all we know. In the US, groups claiming to be free market thinktanks have been exposed as sophisticated corporate lobbying outfits, acting in concert to promote the views of the people who fund them. In previous columns, I’ve shown how such groups, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, built and directed the Tea Party movement(6,7).

The Kochs and the oil company Exxon have also funded a swarm of thinktanks which, by coincidence, all spontaneously decided that manmade climate change is a myth(8,9). A study in the journal Environmental Politics found that such groups, funded by economic elites and working through the media, have been “central to the reversal of US support for environmental protection, both domestically and internationally.”(10)

Jeff Judson, who has worked for 26 years as a corporate lobbyist in the US, has explained why thinktanks are more effective than other public relations agencies. They are, he says, “the source of many of the ideas and facts that appear in countless editorials, news articles, and syndicated columns.”(11) They have “considerable influence and close personal relationships with elected officials”. They “support and encourage one another, echo and amplify their messages, and can pull together … coalitions on the most important public policy issues.” Crucially, they are “virtually immune to retribution … the identity of donors to think tanks is protected from involuntary disclosure.”(12)

The harder you stare at them, the more they look like lobby groups working for big business without disclosing their interests. Yet throughout the media they are treated as independent sources of expertise. The BBC is particularly culpable. Even when the corporate funding of its contributors has been exposed by human rights or environmental groups, it still allows them to masquerade as unbiased commentators, without disclosing their interests.

For the sake of democracy, we should know who funds the organisations which call themselves thinktanks. To this end I contacted 15 groups. Eleven of them could be described as free market or conservative; four as progressive. I asked them all a simple question: “Could you give me the names of your major donors and the amount they contributed in the last financial year?”. I gave their answers a score out of five for transparency and accountability.

Three of the groups I contacted – Right to Know, the International Policy Network and Nurses for Reform – did not answer my calls or emails. Six others refused to give me any useful information. They are the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Christian Medical Fellowship. They produced similar excuses, mostly concerning the need to protect the privacy of their donors. My view is that if you pay for influence, you should be accountable for it. Nul points.

Civitas did fractionally better, scoring 1. Its website names a small number of the donors to its schools(13), but it would not reveal the amount they had given or the identity of anyone else. The only rightwing thinktank that did well was Reform, which sent me a list of its biggest corporate donors: Lloyds (£50k), Novo Nordisk (£48k), Sky (£42k), General Electric (£41k) and Danone (£40k). Reform lists its other corporate sponsors in its annual review(14), and earns 4 points. If they can do it, why can’t the others?

The progressives were more accountable. Among them, Demos did least well. It sent me a list of its sponsors, but refused to reveal how much they gave. It scores 2.5. The Institute for Public Policy Research listed its donors and, after some stumbling, was able to identify the biggest of them: the European Union (a grant of E800,000) and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation(£86k). It scores 3.5. The New Economics Foundation sent me a list of all its donors and the amount each gave over the past year, earning 4 points. The biggest funders are the Network for Social Change (£173k), the department of health (£124k) and the Aim Foundation (£100k). Compass had already published a full list in its annual report(15). The biggest source by far is the Communication Workers’ Union, which gave it £78k in 2009. Compass gets 5 out of 5.

The picture we see, with the striking exception of Reform, is of secrecy among the rightwing groups, creating a powerful impression that they have something to hide. Shockingly, this absence of accountability – and the influence-peddling it doubtless obscures – does not affect their charitable status.

The funding of these groups should not be a matter of voluntary disclosure. As someone remarked in February 2010, “secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics … it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.”(16) Who was this leftwing firebrand? One David Cameron.

I charge that the groups which call themselves free market thinktanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the corporations and multi-millionaires who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term free market thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by big business.




3. eg


5. By phone, 12th September 2011.





10. Peter Jacques, Riley Dunlap, and Mark Freeman, 2008. The organisation of denial: Conservative
think tanks and environmental scepticism. Environmental Politics, 17: 3, 349-385. DOI: 10.1080/09644010802055576


12. As above.


14. Page 24.



Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Let's move to Sweden

Much current economic wisdom has it that the high taxing, high public spending, highly redistributive, bank-and-finance-regulating countries will be those that suffer most in the current economic crisis. They need to get lean and mean and cut, cut, cut, and free-up their financial sectors to remain economically competitive and healthy. Their economies need "rebalancing". State-heavy, socialist Sweden must surely be having a particularly terrible time, for example.

STOCKHOLM (MarketWatch) — Residents of this capital radiate a sense of well-being and it’s not only because they live in a beautiful city built on 14 islands that draws comparisons to Venice. It’s also because they call home one of Europe’s fastest growing economies.

The success of this export-oriented Nordic nation is noteworthy, because it’s in stark contrast to the debt woes plaguing Greece, Portugal and other southern euro-zone countries. Sweden is a member of the European Union, but it has chosen to keep its own currency. Public debt levels are relatively low and the government expects a budget surplus this year.

Er, so it seems high taxing, high public spending, highly redistributive countries can be pretty economically stable and healthy? I'm confused. At some point I need to spend some time learning economic theory (much of which currently looks like voodoo science to me)...

Monday, 19 September 2011

Quotes needed

I am looking for good, pithy quotes from theists acknowledging that the various arguments for the existence of God are inconclusive or even poor (even though they think that doesn't matter). If you have examples (with sources), could you email me direct rather than stick them here? Email address above. Thanks...

Sunday, 18 September 2011


Another video I made on Finsteraarhorn couple of weeks ago. Can be viewed full screen and in 720pHD for the full effect.

What is the Tory party for - really?

This time round with the Conservatives, it seems to me more obvious than ever that the party is, like the Republican party in the US, in essence nothing more than an organization devoted first and foremost to helping out the very, very rich, and big business, often at the expense of everyone else.

The real expertise of the party lies in dressing up policies designed to favour what the rich/big business perceive to be in their short-term interest as really being about "fairness".

This was masterfully done in the case of the Higher Education reforms, which stuffed the middle classes financially, saved the highest rate tax payers a fortune for generations, offered big business all sorts of opportunities, but dressed it all up as "Why should a postman have to pay for your university education?" That was quite brilliant PR.

Ditto the ongoing cuts which were 50% higher again than even Darling wanted (who was in turn much more pro-big-cuts than Balls and Brown), which were widely predicted to cause a double dip recession for obvious reasons, and which were nevertheless pursued on the basis of very little economic evidence (indeed pursued in the teeth of much historical evidence to the comtrary). Why? Because the very rich saw their opportunity to slash away at services that cost them a great deal in tax.

Now that the economy is in trouble, apparently as a direct result of that slashing away (as are many other economies, for much the same reason), the proposed solution, is of course, to now pump money in to the economy - by, er, cutting taxes for the very rich.

Ditto the NHS reforms. See my earlier post.

That this is the Tory party's ultimate reason d'etre seems to me transparently obvious. They may fiddle around with other policies too, of course. But, when it comes to serious money, that's what they do: stuff it into the pockets of their rich mates.

But perhaps I am in an intellectual black hole that blames Tory self-interest for most things. Perhaps I am being unfair? So set me straight. Can you Tories out there point to some examples where Government policy has been changed in such a way as to introduce a serious financial cost that falls primarily on the very rich and/or big business and benefits the rest of us? Other than when they've had a gun put to their heads?

John Gray: Can Religion Tell Us More Than Science?

From BBC website...

When he recounts the story of his conversion to Catholicism in his autobiography A Sort of Life, Graham Greene writes that he went for instruction to Father Trollope, a very tall and very fat man who had once been an actor in the West End.

Trollope was a convert who became a priest and led a highly ascetic life, and Greene didn't warm to him very much, at least to begin with.

Yet the writer came to feel that in dealing with his instructor he was faced with "the challenge of an inexplicable goodness". It was this impression - rather than any of the arguments the devout Father presented to the writer for the existence of God - that eventually led to Greene's conversion.

The arguments that were patiently rehearsed by Father Trollope faded from his memory, and Greene had no interest in retrieving them. "I cannot be bothered to remember," he writes. "I accept."

It's clear that what Green accepted wasn't what he called "those unconvincing philosophical arguments". But what was it that he had accepted?


If I get time I may go through this paragraph by paragraph, as it's fantastically instructive. However I haven't found time to respond to Randal Rauser yet...

Gig on Tuesday night

I am playing with the Heavy Dexters at the Bullingdon Arms pub in Oxford, this coming Tuesday (20th Sept). It's a pretty good venue in the back room with stage PA, light rig, etc.

By the way our website with demo etc. is here. Available for weddings, bar mitzvahs etc.!

It's on the Cowley Road.

Live jazz plus DJs playing r'n'b, funk and soul
9.30pm-midnight. DJ set till 2am. Free entry
The Bullingdon Arms, 162 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1UE; Tel. 01865 244516.

Saturday, 17 September 2011


Chpt 2 of my book "Believing Bullshit" which you should rush off and buy. New Scientist interview here. Newsweek interview here.

Suppose Mike is involved in a debate about the truth of his own particular New Age belief system. Things are not going well for him. Mike’s arguments are being picked apart, and, worse still, his opponents have come up with several devastating objections that he can’t deal with. How might Mike get himself out of this bind?

One possibility is to adopt the strategy I call Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear is an attempt to unleash an argument that lays waste to every position, bringing them all down to the same level of “reasonableness”. Mike might try to force a draw by detonating a philosophical argument that achieves what during the Cold War was called “mutually assured destruction”, in which both sides in the conflict are annihilated.

There are two main variants of Going Nuclear: skeptical and relativist. I’ll begin with some skeptical versions.


Skepticism about reason

In philosophy, a “skeptic” is someone who denies we have knowledge in a given area. Here is a classic example of a skeptical argument:

Whenever we argue about the truth or falsity of a belief, we apply our powers of reason. But why suppose that reason is itself a reliable route to the truth? We might attempt to justify our use of reason, of course. But any justification of reason that we offer will itself rely on reason. Relying on reason to justify our reliance on reason is a bit like taking a second-hand car salesman’s word for it that he is trustworthy – it’s an entirely circular justification, and so no justification at all! So it turns out that our reliance on reason is entirely unjustified. It’s a leap of faith!

From the claim that our reliance on reason is unjustified, it is seemingly then but a short step to the conclusion that no belief is justified:

But if reliance on reason cannot be justified, then, because every rational justification relies on reason, so no belief can be justified. But if no belief is justified, then, ultimately, everything is a faith position! But then your belief is no more reasonable than mine. Get out of that!

Whether or not this is actually a good argument for the conclusion that no belief is justified is not a question I’ll address here. The point is, at first sight, it does look pretty persuasive. It’s not easy to spot precisely where the argument goes wrong, if, indeed, it goes wrong at all. This means that if Mike’s belief system is taking a beating, rationally speaking, Mike can adopt the last-ditch tactic of employing this skeptical argument. Mike can then admit that his belief might not be justified. But he can insist that his opponent’s belief system cannot be justified either. The skeptical argument offers Mike a wonderful “get out of jail free” card. It allows him to walk away with his head held high, saying, “So you see? In the last analysis, our beliefs are equally (ir)rational! They are both ‘faith positions’!”

You can see why I call this strategy “Going Nuclear”. Once Mike plays the skeptical card, all his opponent’s hard work in constructing arguments against Mike’s position counts for nothing. Kaboom! At one stroke, Mike demolishes them all. He lays waste to every rational argument, bringing every belief down to the same level.

In order for Mike’s opponent to deal with his Going Nuclear, they will now have to refute his philosophical argument. That is a difficult, perhaps impossible, thing to do. They are certainly going to struggle. As a result, any audience to their debate will be struck not only by Mike’s sophistication in employing such a devastating philosophical objection, but also by his opponent’s mounting frustration as they wrestle with the thorny philosophical conundrum Mike has set them. It’s quite likely Mike will be perceived to be the intellectual victor in this exchange. At the very least, he won’t be thought to have lost.

This version of Going Nuclear can be employed in defence of a wide variety of beliefs. Believe in the curative powers of crystals, or that there’s a family of fairies living at the bottom of your garden? If you find yourself on the losing side of the argument, you can always employ Going Nuclear as a last ditch, face-saving strategy.

So what, exactly, is wrong with this version of Going Nuclear? After all, it might be that the skeptical argument Mike has employed really is a good argument. Perhaps every belief system really is as rational as every other. So, if Mike finds himself argued into a corner, why shouldn’t he employ such a skeptical argument?

Because it’s almost certainly an intellectually dishonest ruse. Those who press the nuclear button rarely do so in good faith. Bear in mind that, in such discussions, playing the skeptical card really is the nuclear option. By Going Nuclear, Mike avoids defeat, but only by utterly annihilating the rationality of every belief. All positions, no matter how sensible or nuts, come out as equally (ir)rational.

If Mike is to be consistent, he must now accept that that the Earth is flat, that the Earth is round, that milk makes people fly, that it doesn’t, that astrology is true, that is isn’t – that all these beliefs are equally (un)reasonable. Now of course, Mike almost certainly doesn’t believe any of this. The fact is, he does think reason provides us with a fairly reliable tool for establishing what is true and what isn’t. We all rely on reason in our day-to-day lives – Mike included. In fact, Mike constantly trusts his life to reason, whenever, for example, he trusts that the brakes on his car will work, that a bridge will support his weight, that a medicine will save his life, and so on.

Indeed, those who employ this version of Going Nuclear are usually quite content to rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument. It’s only when the tide of rationality turns against them that they reach for the nuclear button. And of course, once their opponent has left the room, they’ll start using reason again to try to prop up their belief. That’s downright hypocritical.

So this version of Going Nuclear is, in truth, almost always a ploy. Those who use it don’t usually believe what they’re saying about reason. They say it only to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape.

A religious example

The skeptical version of Going Nuclear outlined above crops up quite often in debates about the truth of religion. For example, responding to rational arguments raised against his beliefs, one Orthodox Jew writes:

The belief in reason seems no less a dogma than any other.

Perhaps belief in reason is, ultimately, a dogma. However, if this person relies on reason in every other aspect of their life, and appeals to reason whenever it appears to support their particular religious beliefs, then they are guilty of hypocrisy. Playing the skeptical card is merely a ruse they selectively employ in order to avoid having to admit that what they believe has been revealed, by the standards that they accept and employ in every other aspect of their life, to be false.

Skepticism about the external world

There are several variants of the skeptical version of Going Nuclear. Sometimes a different skeptical argument is employed. Here’s another example.

Suppose a theist finds herself in the losing side of a debate with atheists about the existence of God. Her own arguments for the existence of God have been shown to be weak, and she is struggling to deal with the evidential problem of evil (see 2nd appendix to my introduction) raised by her opponents. As a last-ditch strategy she may try this: admit that her own belief involves a leap of faith, but then add that her atheist opponents make a similar leap of faith when it comes to trusting their senses.

Atheists, after all, believe they inhabit a physical world filled with mountains, oceans, trees, houses and people. But they believe this only because that is the kind of world their senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell and so on seem to reveal. How can they know their senses are a reliable guide to the truth? How can they know that their experiences are produced by a real world, rather than, say, a supercomputer generating a sophisticated virtual reality, as in the film The Matrix? After all, everything would seem exactly the same, either way. So, it seems atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world. But if atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world, then they don’t know that such a world exists. Their belief that there is such a world must involve a huge leap of faith.

Having set up this skeptical argument, our theist may then add that she happens to enjoy, not only sensory experiences, but also a God experience. God, she supposes, reveals himself to her. But then, precisely because she trusts her God experience – she supposes that it is not a delusion but genuinely reveals God – she doesn’t then have to place any additional faith in the reliability of her other senses. Why? Because the kind of God she seems to experience is no deceiver. She can be sure that, if there is such a God, then he will have provided her with senses that are fairly trustworthy. So, for such a theist, trusting her senses does not require any further leap of faith.

In which case, our theist may conclude, for someone who has such religious experiences, belief in God need be no more a faith position than the atheist’s belief in the external world. The two beliefs are actually intellectually on par. It’s leaps of faith all round.

Notice, incidentally, that our theist may make the same suggestion about the atheist’s use of logic and reason. She may say that atheists just assume that their use of logic is reliable – they cannot ultimately justify it (for the reason we saw above). But, because our theist places her faith in her God experience, she doesn’t have to make a leap of faith so far as her use of logic is concerned. Her God would not allow her to be deceived about the reliability of logic.


Perhaps it’s true that atheism is a faith position because any belief about how things stand outside of our own minds is ultimately a faith position (though this is certainly controversial – some philosophers would say we are justified in supposing there is a physical world of mountains, oceans, tress, houses, and so on because that hypothesis provides the best available explanation of what we experience, a better explanation than the Matrix-type hypothesis that it’s all an elaborate computer-generated illusion). However, even if any belief about the external world involves a leap of faith, it does not follow that it is as reasonable for a theist to place their trust in their God experience as it is for atheists to trust their senses.

First of all, note that, while we have no obvious grounds for supposing our ordinary senses are highly untrustworthy, there are very obvious grounds for supposing that such religious experiences are, as a rule, untrustworthy (see “I Just Know!” for details). The content of the religious experiences people report appears very largely to be a product of their culture, and sometimes also the mind-altering practices they tend to engage in, rather than any sort of divine reality.

Secondly, and still more significantly, even if our Theist’s assumption that she is experiencing God leads her to trust her other senses, her other senses then appear to furnish her with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent God. There is, for example, the evidential problem of evil – surely an all-powerful and all-good God would not have created a world of the sort her sense reveal: a world containing so much appalling suffering. So, unlike the assumption that our other senses are reliable, her Theistic assumption ends up undermining itself.

In short, this version of Going Nuclear doesn’t work. The Theist’s assumption that her God experience is reliable appears, on closer examination, to be far less reasonable than the atheist’s assumption that our other senses are reliable. It may be leaps of faith all round, but some leaps are much, much bigger than others.

Beyond Going Nuclear

There is an interesting twist on Going Nuclear popular in certain religious circles – a twist that involves combining Going Nuclear with “I Just Know!”. It runs as follows.

God, some theists maintain, has provided them direct and certain knowledge of his existence. So, they suppose, they don’t have to assume God exists. They know he does (see “I Just Know!”). And, armed with this certain knowledge that God exists, she can then justify her reliance on logic and her senses. The God she knows exists would not allow her to be deceived in her use of logic and her senses. But the atheist, she thinks, has no such justification. So the atheist remains mired in skepticism.

Such a theist might be tempted to respond to her atheist critics by saying, “Ah, you are attempting to using logic against me, but of course, unlike me, you are not entitled to are you?” In fact this is one of the main argumentative strategies of one well-known commenter on various religious and atheist blogs who, in response to any rational criticism of extreme, Bible-literalist brand of theism, typically ignores it, saying something like this:

I submit, that your worldview cannot justify the universal, abstract, invariant, laws of logic, which YOU presuppose in all of YOUR arguments, whereas mine can, and does.

Notice that, though this theist is playing the skeptical card, he is not, strictly speaking, Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear involves bringing all positions down to the same level of rationality. The claim made here is that only the atheist ends up mired in skepticism. Our theist plays the skeptical card in order to undermine the arguments of his atheist critics. However, our theist (he supposes) achieves a literally miraculous escape from skepticism himself. With one bound he is free – saved by the grace of God, whom, he supposes, provides him infallible knowledge of God’s existence, knowledge that can then be used to justify his own reliance on logic.

This way of dealing with criticisms of theism also fails. Whether or not our theist is right to claim the atheist is mired in skepticism, he’s still obliged to deal with the atheist’s arguments and objections. Suppose an atheist appears to have provided what looks like a cogent argument that our theist’s God does not exist, or good evidence that our theist is deluded in supposing that he “just knows” his God exists. For the theist to ignore such arguments and say, “But you are using the principles of logic which you can’t justify whereas I can!” is pure evasion. Whether or not atheists can ultimately justify the principles of logic is entirely beside the point. If the atheist’s argument is cogent according to the principles of logic, then our theist’s beliefs are, by his own lights, refuted. So the onus is still on the theist to show that what he has been presented with isn’t a cogent argument. And of course, if the theist can’t do that, then he’s dumped back in the skeptical swamp himself.


We have looked at two skeptical versions of Going Nuclear, one based on skepticism regarding reason, the other based on skepticism about the external world. However, there are also non-skeptical versions of Going Nuclear. Typically the non-skeptical versions are based on the thought that truth is relative.

Relativism about truth

Relativism is the philosophical view that what is true is relative to believers. There’s no objective Truth with a capital “T” out there to be discovered. Rather, truth is a construction – our construction. There’s your truth, my truth, his truth, her truth. There is, in short, not one Truth, but many truths.

In its simplest form, this sort of relativism says that what is true is what the individual believes to be true. Suppose I believe we are visited by angels. Then, says such a relativist, for me it is true we are visited by angels. If you believe we are not visited by angels, then for you it’s true that we’re not. There’s no fact of the matter as to which of us is actually correct.

Another form of relativism about truth makes truth relative not to individuals, but to communities. Most scientifically-minded Westerners believe that stars and planets have no astrological influence on our lives. But in other cultures it’s supposed that the stars and planets do have such an influence, and that astrologers can use star charts to accurately predict the future. According to this kind of relativist, that the stars and planets have such an influence is false for such Westerners, but true for those other communities. Truth is a social construct. Scientific truth is just one truth among many, all of which are equally “valid”.

Appeals to relativism about truth are popular in certain circles, and might provide Mike with another get-out-of-jail-free card. If Mike finds he is losing the argument about the ability of astral plane therapy to cure disease, he might say:

Well, that astral plane therapy cures disease may not be true for you, but it’s true for me!

The implication is that what’s true about astral plane therapy is a matter of what certain individuals or communities happen to believe about astral plane therapy. Mike’s opponents now not only have to figure out what Mike means by this cryptic remark, they’re then faced with the job of refuting the relativist theory of truth to which Mike has, in effect, signed up. These are complicated tasks that will require time and patience to achieve. In the meantime, Mike’s out the door, leaving his opponent bogged down in the philosophical mire he has created.

Notice that this is also a version of Going Nuclear, because, like the skeptical version, it brings every belief down to the same level, rationally speaking. Every belief is ultimately as “true” as every other.

The absurdity of relativism

It’s worth making a detour at this point to explain just why this kind of relativism is absurd. One reason relativism can seem attractive is that there a few beliefs for which it might, actually, be true. Consider wichitee grubs, for example – the large larvae eaten live by some aboriginal Australians. Some aboriginals consider the grubs a delicacy. Most Westerners, on the other hand, find them revolting (when Jordan, the British glamour model, was challenged to eat several large squirming grubs on a TV programme, she said the experience was “worse than childbirth”).

So what’s the truth about wichitee grubs? Are they delicious, or not? The truth, perhaps, is that there is no Truth-with-a-capital-T about their deliciousness. For those who enjoy the taste of wichitee grubs, it’s true that they’re delicious. For those they don’t it’s false. That’s because the property of being delicious is ultimately rooted, not objectively in the grubs themselves, but rather in our subjective reaction to them.

So, yes, a small band of truths may be relative. But not all (for then, as the philosopher Plato pointed out, the truth that all truths is relative would itself be relative, which entails that, if I believe it’s false that all truths are relative, then I’m right).

One or two people might genuinely believe that individuals create their own reality – that reality is whatever the individual takes it to be. Perhaps actress Shirley MacLaine is an example. She writes

I have learned one deep and meaningful lesson: LIFE, LIVES and REALITY are only what we each perceive them to be. Life doesn’t happen to us. We make it happen.

Such relativist views of reality often crops up in “New Age”circles. A slight variant says that reality is not what we perceive or believe it to be, but what we want it to be. One psychic, concerned about a disagreement between herself and a fellow psychic (who had told her she was about to receive a new “evolved” soul), consulted her spirit guides, who informed her they were both right:

I was told that there is no absolute truth. I was told that ‘truth’ is a very personal, subjective thing. Something that is ‘true’ = a perception or a belief that serves us personally.

My guides then explained this, using the law of attraction to illustrate it. They said:
“You know that your beliefs create your reality and that you can create any reality you want by changing your beliefs. If you focus your attention on something and hold it as a belief, whether you like it or not, you will begin to see evidence of it being true, all around you. Therefore, you must only believe things which feel good to you. Truth is that which feels good to you; that which serves you.”
So, according to my guides:
Truth = something you have focused on, something you decided you want to experience = it shows up in your reality.
Untruth = something you reject, something you don’t want to experience = it doesn’t show up in your reality.

This is an extraordinary quotation (particularly from a website called “psychic but sane”). Initially, it’s suggested that belief creates reality. You should only believe what you want to be true, as whatever you believe (even if its something you don’t want) will become real. But as the quotation progresses, the author seems to switch from the view that reality is what you believe it to be to what we might call the Disney theory of truth – the truth is what you want it to be. In order to make something come true, you need only wish (on a star, perhaps) for it. If your wish doesn’t come true, that’s your own fault: you obviously didn’t wish hard enough. The Disney theory of truth entails that if you get struck down with a horrible disease, then at some level you must have wanted to get ill.

Clearly, the MacLaine-type view on which reality is whatever we perceive it to be can’t be correct. I cannot make it true that I can fly just by supposing that I can. Suppose I jump off this tall building, convinced I’ll soar skywards by flapping my arms. Even if, as I jump, it seems to me I’m flying, the sad fact is I’ll still end up a crumpled heap on the pavement below. Even if I jump off holding hands with my community, every member of which is convinced we’ll fly, we’ll all still plummet to our deaths. To suppose otherwise is, surely, to take the “power of positive thinking” too far.

Before Copernicus, was it true that the Sun really went round the Earth, because that’s how it looked to people? Had Neil Armstrong and enough others believed the Moon was made of cheese, might the Eagle have landed on a sea of Camembert? No. When it comes to whether we can fly by flapping our arms, whether the Sun goes round the Earth, or whether the Moon is made of cheese, how things appear, and how things really are, can, and do, come apart.

The selective appeal to relativism

The view that all truth is relative is supposedly widespread. According to the academic Harold Bloom,

[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

Actually, I doubt that almost every student really believes this. What I don’t doubt is that many students have learned that relativism offers them a useful get-out-of-jail-free card when they find themselves cornered in an argument. They have learned that by saying “Hmm, well, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” they can raise enough intellectual dust to make quick their escape.

This is precisely what Mike does above, of course. Like the majority people who play the relativist card when cornered, Mike doesn’t really suppose the truth is whatever we believe it to be. If pressed, it would almost certainly turn out that Mike doesn’t really accept the absurd view that if he really believes he can fly, then he can. Nor will Mike play the relativist card while the argument seems to be going his way. Mike’s relativism is merely a convenient guise that he selectively adopts whenever he’s on the losing end of an argument.

The relativist version of Going Nuclear tends not to be popular with mainstream religious traditionalists who think that there is but One Truth, and that only their particular religion has it. When such religious traditionalists Go Nuclear, they usually opt for the skeptical version. Relativist versions of Going Nuclear are more popular with “New Age” type belief systems.

The “What is truth?” smokescreen

To finish, I’ll mention a related argumentative strategy. Rather than playing the relativist card, you might, if cornered, simply ask what truth is. Truth is a philosophically thorny notion, and it is by no means clear how to define it. So, if Mike finds his New Age belief system is taking a pasting, intellectually speaking, he could try saying this to his critics:

Ah, you claim these things are true. You think you can show they are true. But let me ask you a more fundamental question - what is truth?

Mike’s opponents will no doubt be disorientated by this sudden change of direction in the conversation and baffled by the thorny philosophical question they have been set, giving Mike enough time to head out the door.

Just this tactic seems to have been employed by Pontius Pilate. When he interrogated Jesus prior to the crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed, "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37). Pilate replied, "What is truth?" and left. As the philosopher Francis Bacon put it in his essay "On Truth":

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

This kind of use of the question “What is truth?” is the intellectual equivalent of throwing dust in your opponent’s face to make quick your escape. When arguments are going our way, we are generally quite happy to say that we have good grounds for supposing that what we believe is true. Only when things start going badly for us does it suddenly occur to us to ask, “Yes, but what is truth?!”

This is not, strictly speaking, a version of Going Nuclear, as it’s not actually claimed that all beliefs are equally reasonable or equally true. However, it’s related to the relativist version of Going Nuclear, in that it involves the selective use of a philosophical puzzle in order to generate enough confusion to make quick your escape.

Friday, 16 September 2011



Unfortunately David Aaronavitch appears unlikely to be available after all (through no fault of his) and so we have arranged a slightly revised programme (that can still be further amended should David prove available).

The new addition is Ian R Crane, a former oilfield executive who is a described as a “Researcher, Writer and Presenter in Deep Geopolitics” where "geographic, economic, social, political and spiritual issues conjoin". Crane’s website notes of his presentations that "once you understand the eventual goal for the global society, then actions in the present, which seem irrational or bizarre, become far easier to comprehend". He will be responding to the other speakers, bringing a different outlook on conspiracy theories. We hope this will produce an interesting exchange of views at the end of the day.

Stephen Law
Provost CFI UK

10.30 Registration

10.45-11.55 Chris French and Robert Brotherton
“Conspiracy Minded: The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories”

12.00- 1.10 Karen Douglas
"A Social Psychological Perspective On Conspiracy Theories"

2.00-3.10 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller
“Truth And The Net”

3.10-4.10 Ian R Crane.
"Conspiracy Theory versus Deep Geopolitics - A Matter of Perception"

4.10 End

Why can I grow new toenails, but not a new leg?

Writing a kids book and need a good resource on this question. Any suggestions...?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Go to Amnesty website...

This does seem important and worth a minute of your time...

Spread the word about Troy's case

This is Troy Davis's last chance.


- 0 physical evidence
- 6 witnesses have recanted their testimonies
- 7 out of 9 witnesses say another committed the murder

There are so many additional doubts around Troy's case. Executing him would be a horrendous and irreversable act of injustice.

We need as many people as possible to let the Georgia state board of pardons and parole know that the world is watching.

Please take a minute to encourage others to take action by emailing them via this page.

Thank you for your support. Go here.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Playing drums with Heavy Dexters...

on 24th Sept straight after Conspiracy Theory Day.

We are also playing at the Bullingdon Pub in East Oxford on Tuesday, September 20 at 10:00pm - 12:00.

Conspiracy theory day - is part of a conspiracy! Come and join...

Just to remind you of this upcoming event I've organized as Provost of CFI UK. One speaker may be unavailable, but should know shortly. I note that some on the internet have this event down as part of a conspiracy. Of which I must be the evil mastermind, mwahahahaha!!!

Example: "So... 'Conspiracy Theory Day' innocent get-together of like-minded folk, or something far darker?..."

"The more I think about this, the more unsettled I become. Look at the backgrounds of those appearing at the event..."

Am anticipating possible disruption from those seeking to tell us The Truth. Not sure whether this will prove entertaining or irritating. Advice welcome. Of course there's opportunity for all and sundry to ask questions.

CFI UK and SPES present


Sunday 25th September 2011

9/11, alien visitation, Jewish cabals and global warming - why are people drawn to conspiracy theories, and what holds them captive? What are the warning signs of a dodgy conspiracy theory? What conspiracy theories are actually credible, and why? Spend an entertaining and informative day with some if the world's leading experts.


10.30 Registration

10.45-11.55 Chris French and Robert Brotherton
“Conspiracy Minded: The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories”

12.00- 1.10 Karen Douglas
"A Social Psychological Perspective On Conspiracy Theories"

2.00-3.10 David Aaronovitch
"Do Conspiracy Theories Have Common Characteristics Over Time And Space?"

3.10-4.10 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller
“Truth And The Net”

4.10 End


Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL.

Cost £10. £8 BHA, etc. £5 students. Booking in advance available at the BHA website HERE. Remaining tickets will be for sale on the door. Please publicize!

Organized by Stephen Law, Provost CFI UK. Media can contact Stephen on think AT



Unfortunately David Aaronavitch appears unlikely to be available after all (through no fault of his) and so we have arranged a slightly revised programme (that can still be further amended should David prove available).

The new addition is Ian R Crane, a former oilfield executive who is a described as a “Researcher, Writer and Presenter in Deep Geopolitics” where "geographic, economic, social, political and spiritual issues conjoin". Crane’s website notes of his presentations that "once you understand the eventual goal for the global society, then actions in the present, which seem irrational or bizarre, become far easier to comprehend". He will be responding to the other speakers, bringing a different outlook on conspiracy theories. We hope this will produce an interesting exchange of views at the end of the day.

Stephen Law
Provost CFI UK

10.30 Registration

10.45-11.55 Chris French and Robert Brotherton
“Conspiracy Minded: The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories”

12.00- 1.10 Karen Douglas
"A Social Psychological Perspective On Conspiracy Theories"

2.00-3.10 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller
“Truth And The Net”

3.10-4.10 Ian R Crane.
"Conspiracy Theory versus Deep Geopolitics - A Matter of Perception"

4.10 End

Telescopes offer evidence of Bible's creation story

At Christian Post.

NASA Telescopes Offer Evidence of Bible's Creation Story, Says Author

By Jeff Schapiro, Christian Post Reporter

Several thousand years ago, long before spaceflight and advanced telescopic technology, a description of how God formed and created the Earth was penned in the Book of Genesis. Today, author Paul Hutchins says that the discoveries of NASA's Hubble and Spitzer telescopes provide convincing scientific evidence that supports that biblical description.

Paul Hutchins is the author of the book, 'Hubble Reveals Creation by an Awe-Inspiring Power,' which offers scientific evidence that the Genesis account of creation is true.

Paul Hutchins is the author of the book, 'Hubble Reveals Creation by an Awe-Inspiring Power,' which offers scientific evidence that the Genesis account of creation is true.

While doing research for a book about the imagination of man, Hutchins came across images of the Sombrero Galaxy. It is about half the size of our Milky Way galaxy and contains about 800 billion stars.

Hutchins told The Christian Post on Tuesday that it was around that time that he asked himself, “If man's imagination is responsible for everything on the earth, then whose imagination is responsible for this galaxy and the whole universe.”

At that time he decided to change the direction of his research, leading him to write his second book, Hubble Reveals Creation by an Awe-Inspiring Power .

He spent two years studying all aspects of the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, during which time he came across in 2004 some discoveries that showed stars at different levels of maturity.

The younger stars, he found, had a “protoplanetary dust cloud” around them, while more mature stars had little to no dust around them.

The cloud left behind by newly formed stars is made up of fine dust particles, which gravity's pull condenses into small rocks, which then crash into each other and “form like snowballs,” increasing in size until they grow into new planets. As this happens, the dust that is floating in space is absorbed by the new planet, clearing the space around it and making the nearby star more visible.

Hutchins' conclusion was that Earth was formed, by God, in a similar way.

The Genesis account in the New International Version 1984 describes the Earth as being “formless and empty” at first, and says that “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” Hutchins believes that if a person examines the Bible in the original Hebrew, they will see that the sun and the stars were already present at this time, before the Earth was totally formed.

The Earth had no form, he says, because the dust cloud had not yet condensed into a planet, and there was no light because dust particles shaded our planet as it formed. As the planet matured, and gathered the dust that had been shading it, though, the Sun became visible and “there was light.”

"It made perfect sense...even though we don't have the details of it, He gave us a brief overview of how the earth was formed,” Hutchins said.

"If He didn't exist then how could these writers of the Bible write this information, thousands of years in advance, and it exactly matches up with what the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes are finding? So my goal is, for people that their faith may be weak...or they're questioning the existence of God, this book will inspire them and reaffirm their beliefs."


[From my new book "Believing Bullshit".]

Let’s now turn to a variant of “it’s beyond science/reason to decide.” One reason why some suppose science and reason are incapable of establishing beyond reasonable doubt that certain supernatural claims—for example, that fairies or angels or spirit beings exist—are false, is that they assume you can’t prove a negative. Indeed this is widely supposed to be some sort of “law of logic.”

For example, Georgia minister Dr. Nelson L. Price asserts on his website that “one of the laws of logic is that you can’t prove a negative.” If Price is correct and this is indeed a law of logic, then of course it immediately follows that we can’t prove that there are no fairies, angels, or spirit beings, or, indeed, that there is no god. We will have established that the nonexistence of God is indeed beyond the ability of reason and/or science to establish!

The fact is, however, that this supposed “law of logic” is no such thing. As Steven D. Hales points in his paper “You Can Prove a Negative,” “You can’t prove a negative” is a principle of folk logic, not actual logic.

Notice, for a start, that “You cannot prove a negative” is itself a negative. So, if it were true, it would itself be unprovable. Notice that any claim can be transformed into a negative by a little rephrasing—most obviously, by negating the claim and then negating it again. “I exist” is logically equivalent to “I do not not exist,” which is a negative. Yet here is a negative it seems I might perhaps be able to prove (in the style of Descartes—I think, therefore I do not not exist!)

Of course, those who say “You can’t prove a negative” will insist that I have misunderstood their point. As Hales notes, when people say, “You can’t prove a negative,” what they really mean is that you cannot prove that something does not exist. If this point were correct, it would apply not just to supernatural beings lying beyond the cosmic veil but also to things that might be supposed to exist on this side of the veil, such as unicorns, Martians, rabbits with twenty heads, and so on. We would not be able to prove the nonexistence of any of these things either.

But is the point correct? Is it true that we can never prove that something does not exist? Again, it depends. If John claims there’s a unicorn in the tool shed, I can quickly establish he is mistaken by going and taking a look. We could similarly establish there’s no Loch Ness monster by draining the loch. But what of the claim that unicorns once existed? We can’t travel back in time and directly observe all of the past as we can every corner of the tool shed or Loch Ness. Does it follow that we can’t prove unicorns never existed?

It depends in part on what you mean by “prove.” The word has a variety of meanings. By saying something is “proved,” I might mean that it is established beyond all possible doubt. Or I might mean it has been established beyond reasonable doubt (this is the kind of proof required in a court of law). Can we establish beyond reasonable doubt that unicorns have never inhabited the earth? True, the history of our planet has been and gone, so we can no longer directly inspect it. But surely, if unicorns did roam the earth, we would expect to find some evidence of their presence, such as fossils of unicorns or at least of closely related animals from which unicorns might plausibly have evolved. There is none. We also have plenty of evidence that unicorns are a fictional creation, in which case, it’s surely reasonable for us to conclude that there never were any unicorns. Indeed, I’d suggest we can prove this beyond reasonable doubt.

In response, it might be said “But you can’t prove conclusively, beyond all possible doubt, that unicorns never roamed the earth.” This is undeniably true. However, this point is not peculiar to negatives. It can be made about any claim about the unobserved, and thus any scientific theory at all, including scientific theories about what does exist. We can prove beyond reasonable doubt that dinosaurs existed, but not beyond all possible doubt.

Despite the mountain of evidence that dinosaurs roamed the earth, it’s still possible that, say, all those dinosaur fossils are fakes placed there by alien pranksters long ago.

Let’s sum up. If “you can’t prove a negative” means you can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that certain things don’t exist, then the claim is just false.We prove the nonexistence of things on a regular basis. If, on the other hand, “you can’t prove a negative” means you cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that something does not exist, well, that may, arguably, be true. But so what? That point is irrelevant so far as defending beliefs in supernatural entities against the charge that science and/or reason have established beyond reasonable doubt that they don’t exist.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Scientists who reject evolution?

This is an excellent video by someone who has put time and effort into exposing a typical bit of Discovery Institute propaganda.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Sally Morgan reported as covertly receiving information on stage


Monday 12th September 2011

Listen Back

"Sue went to see psychic Sally Morgan last night in the Grand Canal Theatre. She was great in the first half but during the second half Sue began to hear somebody talking loudly at the back of where she was sitting. She thought it was somebody heckling but she soon realised that everything he said Sally was repeating on stage. He would say a name like David and she would repeat it onstage. Other callers who were also at the show tell of similar experiences."

Can be heard this week on listen back here (you need realplayer). Scroll down to "Liveline podcast- Psychic".

My thanks to anonymous.

£40 a ticket. "There were people there that were really grieving". Confirms my earlier suspicions. Here's a video of her doing her highly lucrative thing a while ago.


This guy gets it. It's not an anti-religion thing, as he explains very well.

WLC powerpoint?

What does Craig usually use on his powerpoints?

Friday, 9 September 2011


I am just back from Switzerland (midnight yesterday) after great week glacier trekking and climbing in Bernese Oberland. Started at one end of the massif and worked out way across to the other. Got to see the Jungfraujoch where I went sledging with my 5 year old just a few weeks ago while staying in Wengen.

We had a shot at the Finsteraarhorn at 4200 metres, but there was too much snow on the ridge for us to get right to the top in time available. Frustrating but it was a cool day out and spectacular scenery. It was like a Grade 2 Scottish winter climb, not a PD scramble.

Unfortunately I must now get back to work. Here's the first video clip I took high on the ridge visible in the above photo.

Howard on another bit lower down...

This vid shows the route - up the top slanting glacier from the right and up the final rock ridge.

Newsweek magazine article on my book...

Philosopher of B.S.

Sep 4, 2011 10:00 AM EDT

British academic Stephen Law is intent on warning people about the perils of bullshit.

First, a credulity test. Do you believe the Bible foretold the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Or that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy? Or that, despite the fossil record, the world is less than 10,000 years old?

If so, the news is bad. Chances are you’ve tumbled into “an intellectual black hole,” the favored term of British philosophy professor Stephen Law for a mental accident that’s dangerously common and is “capable of sucking people in and holding them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap.” Your wacky belief may seem reasonable to you; be assured, it isn’t.

Now, the good news. Law’s latest work, Believing Bullshit, sets out a spotter’s guide to the standard techniques of intellectual quackery, to help the unwitting among us.

Continues here...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The riots-not-linked-to-poverty fallacy

Did poverty play a significant causal role in the riots?

Those who would prefer this was not true often employ the following argument - they say, "ah, but these other poor people didn't riot, so poverty cannot be the cause."

So for example, David Cameron: "These riots were not about poverty. That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this."

Letter to Newsweek magazine: "Saskia Sassen blames conditions in disadvantaged areas for the UK riots, ignoring urban areas for the UK riots, ignoring that other deprived regions - Glasgow, Tyneside, South Wales - didn't riot."

By the same logic we could also show that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. "Smoking clearly wasn't the cause of Dave's lung cancer. After all, Mary, John and Peter also smoke and they didn't get lung cancer, did they?"

Poverty may or not be a causal factor re the riots (obviously it was a factor), but this sort of logic reveals nothing other than the desperation of those who see the obvious potential link and want to bury it.