Monday, 31 October 2011

Economic quackery: the entirely illusory "skill" of the traders

A bit more on economic quackery. This is from an article published yesterday. The associated book by Kahneman looks very interesting. I previously noted this suspicious "skill". It's non-existent character is increasingly well-documented. But incredibly well rewarded!

Mutual funds are run by highly experienced and hardworking professionals who buy and sell stocks to achieve the best possible results for their clients. Nevertheless, the evidence from more than 50 years of research is conclusive: for a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than like playing poker. Typically at least two out of every three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year.

More important, the year-to-year correlation between the outcomes of mutual funds is very small, barely higher than zero. The successful funds in any given year are mostly lucky; they have a good roll of the dice. There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not – and few of them do – are playing a game of chance.

The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.

Some years ago I had an unusual opportunity to examine the illusion of financial skill up close. I had been invited to speak to a group of investment advisers in a firm that provided financial advice and other services to very wealthy clients. I asked for some data to prepare my presentation and was granted a small treasure: a spreadsheet summarising the investment outcomes of some 25 anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years. Each adviser's score for each year was his (most of them were men) main determinant of his year-end bonus. It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them and whether the same advisers consistently achieved better returns for their clients year after year.

To answer the question, I computed correlation coefficients between the rankings in each pair of years: year 1 with year 2, year 1 with year 3, and so on up through year 7 with year 8. That yielded 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years. I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero. The consistent correlations that would indicate differences in skill were not to be found. The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.

No one in the firm seemed to be aware of the nature of the game that its stock pickers were playing. The advisers themselves felt they were competent professionals doing a serious job, and their superiors agreed. On the evening before the seminar, Richard Thaler and I had dinner with some of the top executives of the firm, the people who decide on the size of bonuses.

We asked them to guess the year-to-year correlation in the rankings of individual advisers. They thought they knew what was coming and smiled as they said "not very high" or "performance certainly fluctuates". It quickly became clear, however, that no one expected the average correlation to be zero.

Our message to the executives was that, at least when it came to building portfolios, the firm was rewarding luck as if it were skill. This should have been shocking news to them, but it was not. There was no sign they disbelieved us. How could they? After all, we had analysed their own results, and they were sophisticated enough to see the implications, which we politely refrained from spelling out. We all went on calmly with our dinner, and I have no doubt that both our findings and their implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on as before. The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in their culture. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people's livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide base-rate information that people generally ignore when it clashes with their personal impressions from experience.

The next morning, we reported the findings to the advisers, and their response was equally bland. Their own experience of exercising careful judgment on complex problems was far more compelling to them than an obscure statistical fact. When we were done, one of the executives with whom I had dined the previous evening drove me to the airport. He told me, with a trace of defensiveness: "I have done very well for the firm and no one can take that away from me." I smiled and said nothing. But I thought: "Well, I took it away from you this morning. If your success was due mostly to chance, how much credit are you entitled to take for it?"

Cognitive illusions can be more stubborn than visual illusions. When my colleagues and I in the army learned that our leadership assessment tests had low validity, we accepted that fact intellectually, but it had no impact on either our feelings or our subsequent actions. The response we encountered in the financial firm was even more extreme. I am convinced that the message that Thaler and I delivered to both the executives and the portfolio managers was instantly put away in a dark corner of memory where it would cause no damage.

Why do investors, both amateur and professional, stubbornly believe that they can do better than the market, contrary to an economic theory that most of them accept, and contrary to what they could learn from a dispassionate evaluation of their personal experience? The most potent psychological cause of the illusion is certainly that the people who pick stocks are exercising high-level skills. They consult economic data and forecasts, they examine income statements and balance sheets, they evaluate the quality of top management, and they assess the competition. All this is serious work that requires extensive training. Unfortunately, skill in evaluating the business prospects of a firm is not sufficient for successful stock trading, where the key question is whether the information about the firm is already incorporated in the price of its stock. Traders apparently lack the skill to answer this crucial question, but they appear to be ignorant of their ignorance.

Britain's harmful "quack" economic cure

Editorial from the New York Times, Oct 14th.

For a year now, Britain’s economy has been stuck in a vicious cycle of low growth, high unemployment and fiscal austerity. But unlike Greece, which has been forced into induced recession by misguided European Union creditors, Britain has inflicted this harmful quack cure on itself.

Austerity was a deliberate ideological choice by Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, elected 17 months ago. It has failed and can be expected to keep failing. But neither party is yet prepared to acknowledge that reality and change course.

Britain’s economy has barely grown since the budget cuts began taking effect late last year. The most recent quarterly figures showed the economy flat-lining, with growth at 0.1 percent.

New figures released this week reported Britain’s highest jobless numbers in more than 15 years. Independent analysts expect unemployment — now 8.1 percent — to keep rising in the months ahead. The government has kept its promise to slash public-sector jobs — more than 100,000 have been lost in recent months. But its deficit-reduction policies have failed to revive the business confidence that was supposed to spur private-sector hiring.

Drastic public spending cuts were the wrong deficit-reduction strategy for the weakened British economy a year ago. And they are the wrong strategy for the faltering American economy today. Britain’s unhappy experience is further evidence that radical reductions in federal spending will do little but stifle economic recovery.

A few years of robust growth would go far toward making swollen federal deficits more manageable. But slashing government spending in an already stalled economy weakens anemic demand, leading to lost output and lost tax revenues. As revenues fall, deficit reduction requires longer, deeper spending cuts. Cut too far, too fast, and the result is not a balanced budget but a lost decade of no growth. That could now happen in Britain. And if the Republicans have their way, it could also happen here.

Austerity is a political ideology masquerading as an economic policy. It rests on a myth, impervious to facts, that portrays all government spending as wasteful and harmful, and unnecessary to the recovery. The real world is a lot more complicated. America has no need to repeat Mr. Cameron’s failed experiment.


Incidentally, here's a report about that Observer letter penned by 100 leading figures (incl economists) telling Osborne he needs a Plan B - Plan A has caused disaster (as was widely predicted).

Here are my thoughts on the "quackery" charge. As I've mentioned previously, the one thing to ask about any major Tory economic policy is: "Cui bono?" - who, primarily, benefits? And the answer is always exactly the same: the very rich and/or big business (or at least what they perceive to be in their self-interest: obviously it's not in their interest to screw the economy as they appear to have done).

I am open to persuasion that some right-wing economic policies are in the best-interests of the nation. But I can't see there's much evidence to support any such policies. At best, the evidence leaves it unclear whether any given preferred right-wing policy is better (and I notice that quite often the case "for" turns out to be articulated by people from "think-tanks" that are, in effect, little more than PR companies for the rich/big business guys that fund them).

Once we apply the "Cui bono?" test, it's very hard to avoid the conclusion that what primarily drives Tory economic policy is not evidence, per se, but what the rich and powerful perceive to be in their self-interest. Who, of course, ain't necessarily even that bright.

The "evidence" is then gerrymandered and cherry-picked to justify their preferred policies. Those who question it are accused of "outdated" thinking.

That is, indeed, quackery.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Thanks for all the feedback re WLC debate

Apologies if I do not respond to every comment. There have been a lot.

I'm genuinely grateful for all the feedback - positive and negative. I want to believe what's true, of course. So counter-arguments are to be welcomed - especially if they're good ones!

Apparently I will burn in hell for all eternity for failing to believe in Craig's God, if he exists. So would prefer not to get this wrong.

I'm in Sweden for a few days from tomorrow, so won't be posting much if at all.


I was asked to prepare some questions for Craig for the Q&A session at the end. In fact I was never given the opportunity to ask any. But I had prepared a couple. Here they are:


You claim to just know in your heart, with utter certainty, that God exists and Christianity is true.

I want you to imagine that you have become President of the United States. Imagine also that there’s a red button on the table.

You know that pressing the button will bring about a nuclear holocaust, unleash unimaginable horror, and bring about a nuclear winter that will render humankind extinct with a decade or two.

It now suppose it seems to you that God wants you to press the button. In fact it seems as clearly and unambiguously true that this is what God wants you to do as it seems true to you that God exists.

My question is: what would be the reasonable thing for you to do, and why?

[p.s. I am pretty sure Craig would say "Press the button". Which is worrying. Let's hope he never stands for office.]


You believe that every human knows in his or her heart that your God exists. So there’s no excuse for unbelief.

So am I just, well, lying when I say “There is no God”, and when I tell you I have no such inner knowledge? For, according to you, I'm telling you something that I know not to be true, right?

Follow up point: If I know God has not made himself known in my heart, but Craig’s God is one who makes himself known in every human heart, then I can know immediately that Craig’s God does not exist.

Prof Craig says he just knows his god exists. It turns out, that, if he's right, I can just know he doesn’t!

Sunday, 23 October 2011


Help needed. I quickly need some examples of celebrities buying into or endorsing, e.g. miracles cures, new age philosophers, psychics, mediums, ghost stories, homeopathy and other alt. medicines. Any examples and/or links of celebrity woo v gratefully received. Bigger the celebrity and the more recent the better.


My remaining notes from the Craig debate

Here are my remaining notes prepared for the debate on God's existence with William Lane Craig. These anticipated Craig's likely responses to my attacks on hos moral and resurrection arguments. I didn't really use this stuff on the night, except a little in Q&A session at the end. Notice I was also ready for the ontological argument.



It doesn’t follow from the fact that we are animals that we are not special. We can still be, and are, special in all sorts of ways.

Unlike other animals we can write poetry, contemplate the great questions of philosophy, derive a profound sense of meaning and enjoyment from great works of art. We are rational agents capable of reflecting on the moral consequences of our actions.

In fact, it’s this last difference between us and other animals that explains why they’re not morally responsible but we are – why lions can’t murder, but we can.

I’m not insisting this fact is also sufficient to make us objectively morally significant. But Professor Craig has not explained why it isn’t.


This is an obviously fallacious argument. Just because two roads end at the same destination doesn’t entail that it doesn’t matter which one we take. It doesn’t follow from the fact that we inevitably and permanently die that it doesn’t matter how we live. It does not follow from the fact that it doesn’t matter to how the universe ends how I treat you to, that it doesn’t matter how I treat you.


This is to overlook the fact that the appearance of immense gratuitous suffering, plus the assumption the appearance is reliable, immediately delivers the conclusion there’s no God, while the appearance of objective moral values, plus the assumption that the appearance is reliable, does not immediately deliver the conclusion there is a God. You need the further premise that if there’s no god there are no objective moral values. And that premise is (i) not obviously true, (ii) very widely rejected by moral philosophers, including even Christian philosophers. So, if we’re going to start trusting appearances, appearance is far more of a direct threat to theism than it is to atheism.

In addition, there’s a pretty good evolutionary explanation for why the appearance of objective moral value can’t be trusted.


Craig us here assuming that if we are collections of molecules then that’s all we are. But of course we are much more than that, even on a non-theistic view. We are collections of molecules that can write poetry, contemplate the great questions of philosophy, derive a profound sense of meaning and enjoyment from great works of art. We are also rational agents capable of reflecting on the moral consequences of our actions.

This, many philosophers would say, explains why we are special, why we matter, even if a mere glass of water does not. I cannot see how Professor Craig yet succeeded in showing this view to be wrong.



Well, yes, obviously it isn’t. My UFO reports come directly from first-hand eye witnesses. Craig’s Biblical reports do not. My UFO story involved hard supporting data – a blip on a radar scope. Craig’s story lacks any such hard data. The reports I referred to came from police officers – trained eyewitnesses with no ideological axe to grind. Craig’s reports come via wide-eyed true believers about whom we know almost nothing.

Yes, of course there are differences between the cases. Pointing that out does nothing to undermine the moral I drew.


True. But that’s entirely to overlook the fact that I explained why our inability to come up with an intuitively plausible-sounding mundane explanation of such reports doesn’t give us much reason to suppose a miracle happened.


Sure it may be hard to explain why early Christian would die for their beliefs if those beliefs weren’t true. But followers of even ludicrous new cults often go to their deaths – consider the followers of Heaven’s Gate and Jim Jones.



It’s possible a maximally great being exists.

…Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

This argument has no force at all against the evidential problem of evil. In fact, ironically, it actually serves to reinforce my conclusion. For if I can use the evidential problem of evil to show there’s actually no god – that the conclusion of Craig’s ontological argument is false - then the validity of the argument entitles me to draw the further conclusion that’s it’s not even possible that god exists!

So my thanks to Professor Craig for furnishing me with an argument that serves actually to amplify my conclusion – allowing me to move from: there’s no god to: necessarily, there’s no god.

FOLLOW UP: I suppose Prof Craig might say: but there’s intuitive support for the first premise that it’s possible that a maximally great being exists. Such a being is conceivable. There’s no logical contradiction involved in supposing such a being exists. And that’s good reason to suppose such a being is metaphysically possible.

But as anyone familiar with developments in philosophical logic over the last half century can tell you, conceivability or imaginability provides no guarantee of metaphysical possibility. For example, though they are actually identical, it seems conceivable that the evening star is not the morning star. Yet, if they are identical at the actual world – and they are - then they’re identical at every possible world in which they exist. So, despite the fact that I can imagine or conceive of them not being identical, it’s not metaphysically possible for them to fail to be identical.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Brief sketch of my overall argument in the debate

Some have said they struggled to follow my line of argument in the William Lane Craig debate. So here’s a brief overview (check my closing statement too)

[post script - after presenting the evidential problem of evil] I asked Craig to explain why belief in a good god is significantly more reasonable than belief in an evil god - given an evil god is absurd (and Craig agreed it is absurd).

Most people will happily conclude there’s no evil god purely on the basis of the evidential problem of good (whether or not there are other reasons to reject the evil god hypothesis). So why isn’t the problem of evil similarly fatal to belief in a good god?

After all, most standard methods of explaining away the evil can be reversed to explain away the good. E.g. appeal to an afterlife and playing the sceptical, God-has-his-ultimate-reasons-of-which-we’re-ignorant card.

Now Craig, quite amazingly, actually chose to play that sceptical card on the night, endorsing the (highly counter-intuitive and, by him on the night, pretty much unjustified) claim that observation of the the world can give us no grounds at all for supposing there's no evil god (or good god).

But note that that STILL doesn’t help Craig at all, so far as explaining why it’s more reasonable to believe in a good god rather than an evil god (the latter belief being absurd).

The point is this: whether or not Craig plays the sceptical card, he’s still left having to explain why belief in his good god is very significantly more reasonable than the obviously absurd belief that there’s an evil god.

Now, the only arguments he gave to support his specific good god hypothesis were his moral and resurrection arguments. But those arguments, as he gave them on the night, weren’t nearly good enough, if my criticisms were correct (if you unsure about what my criticism were, then check them here and listen to the Q&A where I explained them in more detail) (however, it’s also clear quite a few people didn’t understand them – especially my criticism of the resurrection argument, which is actually a bit more sophisticated and thought-through than it might first appear. It's original, has never been addressed by Craig before in any of his books nor in any debate I've heard, and I'll probably publish it as an academic paper. But, as I say, it seems many in the audience only heard, "Blah, blah, UFOs, blah, blah!").

Notice by the way just how much intellectual heavy-lifting these two arguments had to do to show belief in Craig's god is reasonable. They had to raise his god hypothesis up to being reasonable from a starting position of being downright absurd (i.e. level pegging with the evil god hypothesis). So they had to be really good arguments! It's pretty clear they weren't, especially not as Craig presented them on the night.

So, it appears Craig failed to explain why belief in his good god is significantly more reasonable than the absurd belief that there’s an evil god.

I think quite a lot of people actually grasped that point, and so have switched to “But what about a deist god, then”? Someone actually shouted that out during my closing statement.

Well, I went this debate with one aim – to undermine belief in one specific god: Craig’s.

The debate was “Does God exist?” And both Craig and myself understood “God” to be defined, in this context, as his all-powerful and good god.

I think an impartial observer will find it pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that I won in terms of the arguments given on the night (though of course you might say I still lost the debate in terms of presentations skills, rhetoric, and so on; and you might still think that, given other arguments, the issue remains far from settled, or even that it can be settled in Craig's favour).

Some thoughtful Christians are being fair-minded and generous enough to say I won the arguments on the night (e.g. apologiapad: "Bill Craig loses a debate!") - which is good of them.

PS This all followed the evidential problem of evil argument, of course.

PPS. Many - incl even some atheists - have the mistaken impression that atheists need to come up with an account of moral value if they are to defeat Craig's moral argument. That's obviously not the case. In fact, it's a big strategic mistake to even try. The onus is not on me to come up with an account. It's on him to show his premises are true. His argument for his first premise (rejected even by Swinburne) was, in effect: "This evolutionary account of moral belief fails to make the belief true, so no atheist account of what makes them true can be given". That's an obviously fallacious inductive argument. But that's actually all he gave on the night.

PPPS I am out of the country for a while from tomorrow am....

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Notes for responding to Craig's possible criticism of my evil god challenge

Finally (having provided all my other notes in postings below) here are my notes prepared for whatever Craig might have said in response to the evil god challenge. You can see I prepared for a much wider range of moves than he actually made. In fact, this is where I was weakest. I floundered a bit. I did nail him on his silly "evil proves there is a god" move (which he later acknowledged is not really a good objection to the problem of evil). But I failed to nail Craig him on the "earthly happiness" move, despite having it down here. Nor did I explain clearly enough that even if Craig did accept (as he did, amazingly) that there's no observational evidence at all against an evil god or good god, he is STILL stuck with the challenge of explaining why belief in a good god is more reasonable belief in an evil god, the latter being absurd (all Craig had left were his moral and resurrection arguments, which I did then go on to demolish). I should also have picked up on Craig's weak appeal to Wykstra (so weak I missed it was even supposed to an argument). The Wykstra quote is easily dealt with by pointing out it shows only the possibility of some long term higher value, not it's non-improbability given the observational evidence



Even if it could be shown that an evil god is impossible while a good god is not, that would not deal with the evil god challenge that I set Prof Craig. For it remains the case that, irrespective of whether an evil god is impossible, the amount of good that exists would clearly be more than enough in any case to show that belief in such a god is downright unreasonable. But then why isn’t the amount of evil we observe more than enough to show that belief in a good god is downright unreasonable?

In short, the claim that an evil god is impossible, even if correct, does nothing to show that belief in a good god is any more reasonable than downright unreasonable!


This is just to overlook the fact that problem of evil can be set up without buying into the concept of evil at all. As an atheist, I don’t require the existence of evil to run the argument. Indeed, I can be a moral nihilist and deny the existence of both moral good and evil. All I require is the existence of, say, hundreds of thousands of years of extraordinary, untold gratuitous suffering. Craig’s God won’t unleash gratuitous suffering, whether we choose to call it evil or not.


Prof Craig suggests that the evils we experience in this world become easier to understand for a theist once we remember that we can each look forward to an eternity of bliss in heaven. That will more than compensate a young child for her rape and murder.

Well, as I already pointed out in my opening speech, such an afterlife explanation can also be run by someone who believes in an evil god. They can insist that goods we experience in this life will be more than adequately outweighed by the horrors of spending eternity in the company of the supremely malignant deity. As the same explanation can be run in defence of each god hypothesis, it fails to make belief in a good god more reasonable than belief in an evil god.


Well, I haven’t assumed that earthly happiness must be God’s ultimate aim. But earthly pain and misery will surely be of some importance to Craig’s God. Craig’s God, is after all, good. He’s compassionate. He’s supposed to care about suffering. So he’s not going to unleash untold horror over hundreds of thousands of years for no particularly good reason. He must have a good reason. And how plausible is it that there is such a reason?


Prof. Craig argues our failure to discern god’s reasons is not a good reason to suppose he does not have them. Perhaps, in some way we cannot fathom, they contribute to our eternal salvation.

Well, as I pointed out in my opening speech, much the same reply can be made by someone who believes in an evil god. Evil god is also omnipotent and omniscient, so of course his reasons are also likely largely to be beyond our ken. Those goods that seem gratuitous with regard to the aims of an evil god may not be gratuitous at all. Show a little humility. Don’t presume to know the mind of evil God.

If this sort of sceptical smokescreen doesn’t succeed in salvaging belief in an evil god, then I fail to see why it salvages belief in Craig’s good god either.


But of course, despite the truth of chaos theory, we can still predict the weather pretty accurately. While a butterfly wing can cause a hurricane – that doesn’t stop us successfully predicting long-term general weather patterns. We know it’s likely to get hotter over coming decades for example. So, ironically, the butterfly wing example if anything confirms the extent to which we can still predict long term general outcomes, despite the fact that small events can have big consequences.

Let’s also remember that even if such unpredictability did entail that we can’t reasonably rule out the existence of Craig’s god on the basis of the evil we observe, then it would also entail that we cannot reasonably rule out the existence of an evil god on the basis of the good we observe. So Craig would still not have succeeded in showing that belief in his good god is any more reasonable than belief in an evil god.


Prof. Craig mentioned Alston’s six “cognitive limitations” which are supposed to show we can’t know God doesn’t have sufficient reasons for unleashing hundreds of thousands of years of horror. The problem with Alston’s argument is it would succeed in showing that we can’t know an evil god doesn’t have sufficient reasons for unleashing a very great deal of good. So it’s quite useless in establishing that belief in a good god is more reasonable than belief in an evil god.


So, Professor Craig has produced a range of moves designed to neutralize what appears to be overwhelming empirical evidence against his God.

The key point to notice is this: [most/all] of these moves work just as well to neutralize the overwhelming empirical evidence that exists against an evil god. So they do nothing show why belief in his god is any better supported by the evidence and arguments than belief in an evil god.

In short, Professor Craig’s responses to the problem of evil entirely fail to meet the challenge I’ve set him.



If it’s true that we can’t weigh up good and evil effectively, then it might be true there’s far more good than evil, making a good god much more likely.

On the other hand, if we can’t weigh up good and evil effectively, it also might be true there far more evil than good, making an evil god much more likely.

So even if it were true that we can’t weigh up good and an evil effectively, that fact would fail to lend any more support to belief in a good god than it would an evil god.


Well, even if it was true that the good god hypothesis was significantly simpler, that would have little effect on it’s reasonableness relative to the evil god hypothesis. If two hypotheses have little supporting argument, and both face powerful disconfirmatory evidence, pointing out one is simpler than the other hardly raises it’s credibility by very much. So Craig’s appeal to simplicity, even if correct, fails to show the good god hypothesis is significantly more reasonable than the evil god hypothesis.


This objection misunderstands my argument. It doesn’t require there be more evil than good, or even at least as much. There could be less evil than good but still sufficiently vast quantities of both that there’s more than enough to justify both the conclusion that there’s no good god and the conclusion there’s no evil god.

My closing statement

From yesterday's debate with William Lane Craig. I removed a few phrases from the beginning. My opening statement and my refutations of Craig's moral and resurrection arguments are posted below.

As we look back across the hundreds of millions of years of sentient life on this planet, we find suffering on a stupendous scale. For example, we humans have - over many hundreds of thousands of generations before before either Jesus or the idea of Prof. Craig’s god were known to us - had to watch a third to a half of our children die painfully in our arms. Immense suffering and horror are built into the fabric of the world we are forced to inhabit.

My contention is this suffering constitutes powerful evidence against Professor Craig’s god. Even many Christians acknowledge it constitutes a very powerful intellectual threat to their belief.

I’ve challenged Professor Craig to explain why, given this mountain of evidence, belief in his God is supported by the evidence and arguments. Why, in particular, is belief in his good god better supported than belief in an evil god, which is clearly absurd.

Professor Craig has failed to meet this challenge.

He tried to explain that mountain of suffering, of course.

He appealed to the promise of an after life.

He also played the mystery card – insisting that God has his good reasons for unleashing hundreds of thousands of years of horror – it’s just that we don’t know what they are.

I pointed out these explanations can be used just as effectively to deal with the evidence against the evil god hypothesis. So obviously they fail to show that belief in a good god is better supported than belief in an evil god.

Professor Craig offered three arguments for god, of course. But only two were even relevant to meeting my challenge. The arguments he did offer for his good god were, at best, remarkably weak.

He offered a moral argument, of course. But such moral arguments are rejected by vast majority of moral philosophers. Even Richard Swinburne thinks Craig’s moral argument fails.

Professor Craig’s particular version has a highly dubious first premise – that if there’s no God, there are no objective moral values – a premise for which Craig failed to provide a decent supporting argument.

But even if Craig he could show that the premise was true, he would hardly have succeeded in showing that belief in his god is reasonable after all. For of course, when placed next to a mountain of observational evidence that there’s no such god, his moral argument merely generates the conclusion that there are no objective moral values. A conclusion that, while counter-intuitive, can’t just be assumed false.

Craig’s other argument was his resurrection argument, which is, frankly, almost comically flimsy. Even many Christians – including Alvin Plantinga, consider it terribly weak

So let’s not lose sight of the weight of argument and evidence on either side of debate. There is a mountain of observational evidence against Craig’s god. He has signally failed to explain that evidence away.

He offered a couple of arguments for his particular God, but they turned out to be at best, well, weedy. Indeed, both have high-profile Christian critics.

So it’s clear where the balance of probability lies.

We may not know why the universe exists. But we can quite reasonably rule certain answers out, such as that an evil god created it. We can, for much the same sort of reasons, quite reasonably also rule out the suggestion that Professor Craig’s good god created it.

Opening speech - Craig debate

The opening speech from my debate with William Lane Craig last night. My criticism of his moral and resurrection arguments are posted immediately below. Interestingly, Craig ran only three arguments instead of the usual five - those two and his cosmological argument. Possibly he dropped the fine-tuning argument because it would be as irrelevant as his cosmological in dealing with the evil god challenge. Possibly he dropped the appeal to his personal experience - "I just know" - because of this.

My thanks to the organizers of this debate for the invitation to take part – I’m genuinely honoured to share the stage with Professor Craig.

We’re here to debate the question “Does God exist?” We’ve just heard various arguments that are supposed to justify an affirmative answer. I’ll address those arguments in the first rebuttal period.

I’m going to devote my opening speech to sketching out an argument against the existence of God. There are many such arguments. I’m going to make things relatively easy for Prof Craig by sketching out just one.

It’s an argument with which I’m sure you’re familiar. It’s often called the evidential problem of evil.

There’s a great deal of bad stuff in the world. There are moral evils: the terrible moral deeds we do. There are also natural evils – such as natural diseases and disasters that cause humans and other creatures immense suffering.

Let’s start with animal suffering. I recently watched a documentary about Komodo dragons poisoning, tracking for a week or so, and then, finally, when their victim became too weak to defend itself, disembowelling and eating alive, a water buffalo. The cameraman said this had been his first ever wildlife assignment, and it would probably also be his last, because he just couldn’t cope with the depths of suffering he had been forced to witness.

Each day, millions of animals are similarly forced to tear each other limb from limb to survive. And this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. This might, in many ways, be a beautiful world. But it’s also a quite staggeringly cruel and horrific world for very many of its inhabitants.

Perhaps some will dismiss all this animal suffering by saying, “But they’re just animals. They don’t ultimately matter.” I wonder if they’d say the same thing if took a red-hot poker to their cat.

Then there’s human suffering. Take, for example, the psychological suffering a parent must go through who has to watch, helpless, as their young child dies slowly of starvation or an agonizing disease.

The consensus among population experts is that, over the sweep of human prehistory - hundreds of thousands of years - the parents of each generation have had to watch, on average, between a third and a half of their under-five children die, usually from disease.

Kenneth Hill, Director of the Hopkins Population Centre at John Hopkins University, writes (and I quote)

“over the long haul of prehistory, the probability of dying by the age of five for females was probably no lower than 440 per thousand live births, and was probably no higher than 600.”

That’s to say, on average around half of literally millions of generations of girls never made it beyond their fifth birthday.

This appalling suffering and death was not something these children and parents brought on themselves.

Unavoidable, unspeakable horror on an almost unimaginably vast scale is built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves forced to inhabit.

So now here’s the argument. If Professor Craig’s God exists, then these hundreds of thousands, nay, hundreds of millions, of years of horror must, ultimately, be, well, all for the best!

For an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God: (i) will know about, (ii) will have the power to prevent, and (iii) will desire that the world not contain, any pointless, gratuitous suffering. If Professor Craig’s god exists, there must be, not just some reason, but an entirely adequate reason for every last ounce of all this suffering and horror.

But surely, as we look back across the aeons, we witness suffering of such depth and magnitude that it becomes highly implausible that it can all be fully explained away.

In which case, it looks like very powerful evidence against the existence of Professor Craig’s God.

Now, interestingly, a similar argument can be run against an alternative god hypothesis I want you now to consider.

Suppose that, after a bump on the head, I become convinced that the universe is the creation of a single, all-powerful designer. However, I also believe this being is evil. There’s just one god and he’s cruel and evil as it is possible for him to be.

Who believes in a creator like that?

Hardly anyone outside of a mental institution.

Yet notice that this evil god hypothesis is as well supported by, say, Professor Craig’s cosmological and fine-tuning arguments as is belief in his good god hypotheses.

For those arguments fail to provide us with any clue at all as to our creator’s moral character.

Yet, still, I’m sure you consider the idea of such an evil creator absurd. Why?

Well, one obvious reason for dismissing the idea is that our world is clearly not the sort of world an all-powerful and maximally evil being would create. Take a look at it. Yes, it contains suffering. But it also contains a great deal of good. Far too much for it plausibly to be considered the creation of such an evil being.

Why, for example, would an evil creator intent on maximizing evil give us beautiful scenery to enjoy?

Why would he allow people to reduce the suffering of others, sometimes quite selflessly? An evil god would want to maximize suffering and prevent morally virtuous behaviour. So surely he’d clamp down on, say, Mother Theresa’s activities straight away. And he’d destroy all the hospitals.

Why, you might also ask, would an evil god bestow on some people immense health, wealth and happiness? David Beckham, for example, who leads a charmed existence.

And why would an evil God give us children to love? Evil God hates love. Surely the last thing he’d do is populate the world with bundles of joy.

So, you might think there is, on the face of it, overwhelming observational evidence against the evil god hypothesis.

I’m sure some of you have spotted that what we’re looking at here is, in effect, the evidential problem of good. If you believe in a good god, you face the problem of explaining why there’s so very much bad stuff in the world. Similarly, if you believe in an evil god, you face the mirror problem of explaining why there’s so very much good.

So why, we might ask, if the problem of good is fatal to the evil god hypothesis – and it is – is the problem of evil not similarly fatal to the good god hypothesis? If one hypothesis is pretty straightforwardly falsified by observation of the world around us, why isn’t the other?

Now, as you know, Christians have cooked up some pretty ingenious explanations for all the bad stuff. Let’s look at a few such explanations, beginning with free will.

Some Christians try to explain certain evils by saying that, being good, god gave us free will – the ability to make free choices and act on them. Why? Because god wants to allow for the possibility of moral goodness. God could have made us puppet beings [act] or automata that always did the right thing. But puppet beings lack moral responsibility. Their good behaviour, if compelled, would not be morally good. So God cut our strings. He set us free. As a result, some of us choose to do evil. That’s the price god must pay to allow for moral goods.

I’m sure you’re familiar with that sort of explanation. But now notice that someone who believes in an evil god can mirror it with a free will explanation of their own. Evil god gave us free will. Why? To allow for the possibility moral evil. Evil god could have made us puppet beings that always did the evil thing. But puppet beings lack moral responsibility. Their bad behaviour, if compelled, would not be morally evil. So evil god cut our strings. As a result, some of us choose to do good. That’s the price evil god must pay to allow for moral evils.

You can see that I have taken one standard Christian theodicy and just flipped it round.

Here’s another example of theodicy flipping. Some Christians try to explain some pain and suffering as the result of the operation of laws of nature – laws that are nevertheless, on balance, supposed to be good. So, for example, a Christian might argue that, without a law-governed universe in which the effects of our actions can be predicted, we can’t morally interact with each other. Suppose I see you cold and hungry. In order to help you by lighting you a warming fire and cooking you a much needed meal, I need to know both that by striking a match I will create a flame and that wood burns to release heat. Unfortunately, these same laws of nature have a downside – they entail that there will, occasionally, be spontaneous forest fires that cause suffering. That’s the price god pays for greater goods.

But again, someone who believes in an evil god can produce a mirror explanation to account for goods. In order to allow the very great evil of my burning down your wooden house with you and your family inside, they may say, I need to know both that by striking a match I will create a flame, and that wood burns. Such laws of nature are required for such very great evils to exist. True, these same laws have good consequences. They allow people to cook each other warming meals, for example. That’s the price evil god pays for greater evils.

We can similarly flip round the familiar Christian suggestion that the pain and suffering we endure are there to allow us to grow and develop morally and spiritually.

Yes, evil god wants us to suffer, do evil and despair. To that end, he introduces various goods into the world.

But then why, you may ask, would an evil god allow a few people, such as David Beckham, to lead a charmed life? Why, to make the rest of us feel worse, of course. To invoke feelings of jealousy and resentment in others. To motivate crime.

Why would an evil god pepper his creation with some beauty, which we enjoy? Why, because he requires a contrast. In order to fully appreciate the drab dreariness of day-to-day life, we need to BE reminded now and them of how much better things might have been.

Why would an evil god give us children to love? Because it’s only if we truly, unconditionally love someone that we can made to suffer as deeply as we do when evil god kills them slowly before our eyes.

In short, someone might conclude, this is not, as many Christians suppose, a vale of soul-making. It’s a vale of soul destruction – engineered by an evil god intent on crushing and breaking our spirits so that we bow out in agony and despair. As so very many of us do.

While not all standard Christian explanations for evil can be reversed in this way, most can. Take, for example, explaining evil in terms of god’s mysterious ways. A defender of belief in an evil god can adopt the same ruse, putting the good we see around us down to evil god’s mysterious ways. After all, evil god is omnipotent and omniscient, so of course his evil plans are likely to be largely beyond our understanding! Just because certain goods appear to us to be quite gratuitous given the aims of an evil god gives us no reason to suppose that they really are gratuitous.

Don’t presume to know the mind of evil god!

Moreover, just as some Christians maintain that whatever horror we experience in this life will be more than compensated for in the next, those who believe in an evil god can maintain that whatever goods we experience in this life will be more than compensated for by the far deeper, unremitting horror of the next.

Clearly, despite these and various other ingenious manoeuvres that might be made in defence of belief in an evil god, it remains the case that there’s far, far too much good stuff in this world for it to be the creation of such an evil deity. We can still, on the basis of what we observe around us, reasonably conclude there’s unlikely to be an evil god.

So my question is: if the evil god hypothesis can, solely on the basis of observational evidence, be ruled out as highly unlikely, why can’t we similarly rule out the good god hypothesis?

True, we may not know the answer to the question: “Why does the universe exist?” Perhaps we’ll never know. It doesn’t follow that we can’t reasonably rule certain answers out. Obviously we can quite reasonably rule out the evil god hypothesis. So why not the good god hypothesis?

Why suppose, as I assume Prof. Craig does, that the good god hypothesis is, not just a bit more reasonable, but very significantly more reasonable, than the evil god hypothesis? For remember, the latter hypothesis remains downright absurd, notwithstanding such appeals to evil god’s mysterious ways, and so on?

That’s the challenge I am setting Professor Craig tonight. To explain why belief in a good god is, on the basis of the available evidence and arguments, not just a bit more reasonable than belief in an evil god, but very significantly more reasonable.

How might Professor Craig respond to this challenge? He has given his arguments for his particular god of course. I’ll examine those next.

He may also try to disarm the problem of evil, perhaps by invoking a smokescreen of scepticism and mystery. He may say, “Well, we just can’t presume to know, regarding all the horror we see around us, that God lacks adequate reasons for it.”

But as we’ve just seen, we can use the same sort of smokescreen to defend belief in an evil god. We can say: “We just can’t presume to know, regarding all the goods we see around us, that evil god lacks adequate reasons for them.”

Professor Craig can’t, by means of such a smokescreen, show that belief in his good god is better supported than belief in an evil god.

It will be interesting to see how he thinks it can be shown to be better supported.

My criticisms of Craig's Moral and Resurrection arguments

This is what I used against Craig's moral and resurrection arguments for the existence of God in last night's debate. His only other argument was the cosmological, which I ignored as irrelevant to Craig's showing that his good god exists as opposed to say, an evil God (for which a "cumulative case" based on the cosmological argument could also be based, and which we all nevertheless know can be justifiably rejected on the basis of observational evidence) Craig pretended that this was an amazing concession that it was a good argument and that my view was deism was true!


Let’s start with Craig's moral argument. It runs:

If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore, God exists.

The vast majority of philosophers reject this argument. Take, for example, the Christian philosopher Professor Richard Swinburne of Oxford University. Swinburne says, “I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.”

So Professor Craig is putting up against a mountain of evidence against what he believes an argument that even one of the world’s leading Christian philosophers finds utterly unconvincing.

If Professor Craig wants, nevertheless, to run his moral argument, the onus is clearly him to show that its premises are true. Both are highly questionable.

The first premise is, again, rejected by the vast majority of moral philosophers.

So what argument does Professor Craig offer for supposing it is, nevertheless, true?

He points out that an evolutionary explanation of why we believe rape is objectively morally wrong wouldn’t make rape objectively morally wrong.

Well, so what? We all knew that. That doesn’t show that that belief isn’t or cannot be true, given atheism.

Remember, the onus is on Professor Craig to show that no atheist-friendly account of the objective truth of moral claims can be given. The fact that evolution provides no such account very obviously doesn’t entail no such account can be given.

The onus is on Professor Craig to show that all such atheist-friendly accounts are wrong – even the ones we haven’t thought of yet. And don’t forget, as theists regularly do, that they needn’t even be naturalistic accounts.

So far, Craig has shown one atheist-friendly account is wrong. Well, as I say, we knew that already.

What of the second premise of Craig’s moral argument? Objective moral values exist.

This is undoubtedly a belief that just seems obviously true. But of course that doesn’t guarantee it is true.

Yes it seems like there are objective moral values. That isn’t a belief we should abandon easily. But it’s by no means irrefutable.

After all, we have a powerful impression that the Earth doesn’t move. It really, really doesn’t seem to move. But if we’re given powerful evidence that it does move, and it’s also explained why it nevertheless seems like it doesn’t, then the rational thing for us to believe is that our initial, highly convincing impression was wrong.

The moral is, even if Professor Craig could show his first premise is true, he can’t deal with the problem of evil by just digging in his heels and saying, “But look, it really, really seems to us as if there are objective moral values, so there must be a God.”

When placed next to the problem of evil, Craig’s argument does little to undermine the problem. Rather, it just combines with it to deliver the conclusion that there are no objective moral values.

That conclusion would be further reinforced by an evolutionary explanation of why it would still seem to us that there are objective moral values even if there aren’t.

Now I don’t doubt Professor Craig doesn’t want to believe there are no objective moral values. Hey, I don’t want to believe it. But this isn’t an exercise in wishful thinking.

So, even if its first premise were true, Craig’s moral argument still hardly offers much of a riposte to the evidential problem of evil.


Let’s now turn to the resurrection argument.

It turns on claims made in the New Testament: that there was an empty tomb, that there were independent eyewitness reports of Jesus alive after the crucifixion, and so on.

The claim is that the best explanation of these alleged facts is that Jesus was resurrected by god. You should always be suspicious of arguments to the best explanation in such contexts.

Let me tell you a UFO story from 1967. There were reports of a strange object appearing nightly over a nuclear power site in Wake County. The police investigated. An police officer confirmed “It was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant.” The next night the same thing happened. The Deputy Sheriff described a “large lighted object.” The County magistrate saw, and I quote, “a rectangular object, looked like it was on fire… We figured it about the size of a football field. It was huge and very bright.” There was, in addition, hard data: a curious radar blip reported by local air traffic control.

Now, what’s the best explanation for these reports? We have multiple attestation. We have trained eye-witnesses – police officers – putting their reputations on the line by reporting a UFO. We have hard, independent confirmation – that blip on the radar scope. Surely, then, it’s highly unlikely these witnesses were, say, all hallucinating, or lying, or merely looking at a planet. Clearly, by far the best explanation is that they really did see a large, lighted object hovering close to the plant, right?

Wrong. Here’s the thing. We know, pretty much for sure, that what was seen by those police officers was the planet Venus. Journalists arrived on the scene, were shown the object, and chased it in their car. They found they couldn’t approach it. Finally, they looked at it through a long lens and saw it was Venus. That radar blip was just a coincidence.

What does this show? Every year there are countless amazing reports of religious miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and so on. In most cases, it’s easy to come up with plausible mundane explanations for them. But not all. Some remain deeply baffling.

So should we believe in such things, then?

No. For, as my UFO story illustrates, we know that some very hard-to-explain reports of miracles, flying saucers, and so on are likely to crop up anyway, whether or not there’s any truth to such claims. That 1967 case could easily have been such a baffling case.

So, let’s suppose that Biblical documents written a decade or more after the events they report, written exclusively by devotees of a new religious movement, not even by first hand witnesses, detailing events for which there’s pretty much no independent confirmation, constitutes really, really good evidence that there was an empty tomb and that the disciples did report seeing the risen Christ.

Is that, in turn, good evidence Jesus was resurrected?

Evidence supports a hypothesis to the extent that the evidence is expected given the hypothesis is true, and unexpected otherwise.

The absolutely crucial point to note is this: we have good reason to expect some baffling, very hard-to-explain-in-mundane-terms reports to crop up occasionally anyway, whether or not there are any miracles, gods or flying saucers. So the fact that an otherwise baffling, hard-to-explain case has shown up provides us with little if any evidence that a miracle happened.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Please support...

Go here. I think this is very well worth supporting, though I personally think the emphasis should be very much on the giving, compassion, etc. and not on the being godless (otherwise it makes it seem like it's a donation made to make a political point; "Here take this - that'll show those darn Christians!"). Though of course I do see there are good reasons for demonstrating the godless can be compassionate, generous etc. too. Here's the blurb...

Non-Prophet Week is the AHS's annual charity drive, and will be running on the 7th-13th of November this year. There will be a variety of events at many universities with AHS societies, all over the UK and ROI.

AHS President Jenny Bartle said: "Non-Prophet week is run to prove that non-believers are just as charitable as religious people. For too long have people believed that the religious have a monopoly on caring. This is wholly untrue, which is why we are encouraging our members to get out there and do something for a good cause!"

This year Non-Prophet Week is only a week ahead of Children in Need, which is why we have chosen to support it. Bartle commented: "Children in Need is a great humanistic cause, and it is wonderful to see so many people enthusiastic to help the futures of young people. Members of AHS societies raised £2700 last year and our target this year is £4,000. I would be very proud to see us donating this much to such an important charity." Not all money will go to Children in Need, as the choice of charity is up to those raising the money, but all charities will have a humanitarian and secular ethos.

There will be an events tracker on the Non-Prophet week website, recording all the sponsorships, live events, sales and general AHS socials going on during the week. Bartle added: "We are going to see a lot of inspired events throughout the week, although my personal favourite is probably still plain old selling brownies! We expect to see over 70 individual events across our whole membership, which will mean there is something for everyone to enjoy."

Sunday, 2 October 2011

William Lane Craig vs me, October 17th

Promotional video for the upcoming William Lane Craig tour (I'm his first opponent, of course). The feel is a little like a boxing promo. "William Lane Craig! Undefeated Heavy Weight Champion of The World! Against - some other guys! Come watch Craig smash his atheist opponents! Those that aren't too cowardly!"

I like it (the video I mean). All good knock about fun.