Sunday, 29 November 2009

Waterloo at Wellington for Theists

Another debate organised by Intelligence Squared, this time at Wellington College in Berkshire. The motion was 'Atheism is the new fundamentalism', proposed by Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford and Charles Moore, opposed by A C Grayling and Richard Dawkins. Moderated by Anthony Seldon, headmaster at the school. He's a professor at the College of Teachers. Who teaches them, one wonders. This one was streamed online, so I won't go into too much detail; I think it should be available to watch very soon.

EDIT: watch the debate here.

Outside the venue

Celeb watch; two sightings. Seventies chanteuse, Lynsey De Paul (who'd have thought?) and Jeremy Paxman.

Richard Harries

The very *motion* is an ad hominem response to atheism, in my opinion; rather than address the arguments, cast 'new' atheism (they tend to qualify the atheism) as the new fundamentalism, and consequently dismiss it as worthless. This implicit notion fed through to both Harries' and Moore's opening statements, which addressed what fundamentalism is, and why it's a bad thing (no argument from me there), but also name-called Richard Dawkins, sitting bemused opposite them. Harries called him an 'attack dog' and Moore described a scene in which 'Commandant Dawkins' would have theists all gunned down, presumably for daring to object to rational argument.

A C Grayling

The tenor of both presentations was that atheism, as represented by Dawkins, adopted a *certainty* about the truth that was not justified. I think Harries called it "not allowing for the great 'perhaps'". This seems very odd to me, because faith in god is surely about banishing doubt from one's belief - I blogged on this some time back, prompted by an article by a Catholic priest.

Charles Moore

For me, this is a straw man; whilst new atheist scientists consider that the Christian God is almost certainly non-existent, they cannot discount any god's existent, nor the existence of Russell's teapot, and Dawkins corrected them on this point. Harries made the point that The God Delusion doesn't mention the 'balance of probabilities', but chapter 4 includes quite a discussion on this. Interestingly, Grayling as a philosopher seems less bound by this scientific principle, and happily confirmed his certainty about God's non-existence. This I could only agree with if he's talking about some concept that suffers from non-cognitivism. Which might apply to God.

Richard Dawkins

After many demonstrations of good sense from Grayling and Dawkins, Harries was left grasping at the value of the numinous, as if this was the heart of the matter. Moore complained that such debates never analysed the more complicated ideas that were at issue (this after a question on consciousness, I think). A pretty vacant comment, after he had spoken for a motion that 'atheism is the new fundamentalism', an approach that is *calculated* to dismiss the arguments of one's opponents.

The final score: 363 for, 1070 against, 85 don't knows. Predictable from the feeling I got inside the hall.

Oh, and I said to Jeremy Paxman in the moving throng on the way out, 'Can I ask you how you voted?'. 'Well, there you are then', he replied, cryptically. I should have pressed him, but I imagine he gets fed up with that in public.

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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Garrow and the Gallows

An absolutely splendid series ended tonight on the BBC - Garrow's Law, created by Tony Marchant.

It told the tale of the early career of Sir William Garrow, a little known barrister of Georgian times, whose combative style practically invented the adversarial system. Justice for defendants was rarely served at that time - they often had no representation, and when they did matters of fact could not be disputed and the jury could not be addressed directly. Thief-takers were common and unscrupulous. Punishments were extremely harsh.

With clever and witty counsel, Garrow achieved justice for many lowly defendants. Without him we may not have many of the features that seek to ensure *fairness* in the application of the law. His case transcripts can be read online at the Old Bailey archive. Well worth a browse.

The final episode was a timely depiction of a trumped-up charge brought by the state against an innocent individual - a state seeking to hold on to undemocratic powers at the expense of its citizens. The parallels with the authoritarian actions of the present government were palpable. I suspect this case wasn't based on a real life case, but I could be wrong (I couldn't find it in the online archive). It seemed to me a call from the creators for us all to take more seriously the curbs on our civil liberties being introduced under the guise of protection from terrorism. We must stand up at some point and fight these, before we become as bad as those we are fighting.

The BBC should be making more shows like this. Bravo.

EDIT: An interview with creator Tony Marchant here reveals that Garrow was responsible for coining the term 'innocent until proven guilty'. A remarkable man indeed. A pity that principle has become muddied recently.

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Monday, 16 November 2009

Maher Snubs Shermer

What a weird article from Bill Maher. Throughout 'it's' is spelt 'its'. That's not the worst thing about it, but it's not a good sign. It's a response of sorts to this letter from Michael Shermer.

It's a textbook example of how to get an issue wrong. He says he's a reluctant (fundamentalist?) spokesperson on anti-vaccination, and others are more qualified - is he qualified *at all*? - but then ploughs on regardless. Here's the perfect recipe for scare-mongering a potentially controversial issue.

1) Find something that you know nothing about, but about which you have a vague sense of unease.
Vaccination - check
American diet - check
2) Make sure that lots of people share this sense of unease.
Anti-vax polls - check
No-one likes their 'smartie tube' punctured - check
3) Add some known provisos or grey areas.
Over-vaccination is a bad thing - check
Immune system problems make vax dangerous - check
4) Cite people with personal stories to tell as credible data.
Barbara Loe Fisher - check
5) Cherry pick 'experts' in the minority.
Dr Russell Blaylock - check
Dr Jay Gordon - check
6) Pretend you're just trying to publicise a little known problem.
"I'm just trying to represent an under-reported medical point of view in this country" - check
7) Find something dangerous sounding that can be blown out of all proportion.
Formaldehyde - check
Mercury - check
8) Insist you and your cohorts are not anti-whatever it is.
"Anyway, Ms. Fisher is someone who says she is not "anti-vaccine," but just has a lot of questions about the long term effect of using a lot of vaccines." - check
9) Exaggerate for effect.
"Is it worth it to get vaccines for every bug that goes around? Injecting something into my bloodstream? I'd like to reserve that for emergencies." - check
"If one side can say anything and its not challenged, then of course dissent becomes heresy in the minds of many." - check
"There are consequences to vaccines and antibiotics. Some people want to study that, and some, it seems, want to call off the debate." - check
"Ms. Fisher said 'If we want to create a society that is dependent on shots for immunity -- the same way we are getting dependent on prescription drugs, antibiotics, and surgery -- this is the path we should keep going down.'" - check
10) Deny there is a conspiracy, whilst implying there is one.
"In fact, when Howard Dean asked me that, my response was "I wouldn't call it a conspiracy." Any more than there's a conspiracy for the Pentagon budget to be obscenely bloated and operated largely for the corporate welfare of defense contractors." - check
"Is it conspiracy theory to believe that American medicine too much treats symptoms and not root causes of disease? " - check
11) Disingenuously spread misinformation thanks to one's high profile job.
Chat show - check
Twitter - check
Huffington Post - check

And stir. And stir again. Whatever any experts say, do *not* go back and change the ingredients. That would be too scientific, and wouldn't serve the agenda.

Two more things shock me about this article. One is how *parochial* his attitude is; he needs to get out and about and away from the particular obsessions that Americans have; no doubt there are some reasons to be paranoid in the States, and no doubt there are issues with 'big pharma' the world over. But that isn't an excuse for pretending one knows better than the scientific community, when one doesn't. The second is the suggestion that scientists want to close down any argument surrounding vaccinations. I see no evidence of that; just authorities concerned about know-nothing slebs endangering people's lives.

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Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Why the New Atheists are Bad

There seem to be a lot of articles like this recently. In summary they say something like this:

I want to draw your attention to the evil new atheists that swarm among us.

They refuse to entertain doubt about their beliefs. They are rampant ego-maniacs. They loudly proclaim that anyone who doesn't believe what they say will go to the dogs. Their philosophy leads to conflict and depravity. They are pre-occupied with sex. They are rude and dismissive of opposing views. They are dogmatic and closed-minded. They meet up and worship their community leaders. They follow their leaders religiously. They want to teach our children what to think. They want to direct government policy to their own ends. They want to tell other people they're wrong. They organise and form lobby groups. They want to sell their books. They want people to read their books. They demand money from their followers for merchandise.

You and I as pious theists understand that such behaviour should be the sole province of the religious.

For some strange reason, the things of which they accuse the new atheists are more accurate descriptions of *religious* behaviour. Even if any of it were true (and often it isn't), why do they complain about behaviour in which they indulge?

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Monday, 2 November 2009

Ruse's Seven Deadly Sins

A simply appalling piece from arch-faitheist Michael Ruse in today's Guardian. Not for the first time, I find it hard to understand how an intelligent, educated man (certainly more intelligent and educated than me) could commit such howlers to print. Consider:
First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting.
Fail no. 1. I don't know a new atheist who thinks that; perhaps a reference to where all the new atheists say that or write that would be in order? The closest I can see is Hitchens saying that religion poisons everything; not the same thing, of course, as any 10 year old could surely see, let alone a philosopher.
Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.
Fail no. 2. Just because a first-year undergraduate can ask the question doesn't mean *it has been answered*. The argument is about the inconsistency of the uncaused cause claim. It rests on nothing existing without a cause (we don't know that) and then uses *that* as a foundation for a single uncaused cause, which (guess what?) is shaped like their god, that they've been rabbiting on about for years. Who'd have thunk it? A 10 year old child could see the problem with this logic, let alone a philosopher. dare we be so condescending?
Fail no. 3. Treating claims seriously is not being condescending. Hand waving away atheists who object to religious claims as spoil sports and then claiming some kind of Kuhnian epistemological equivalence *is* condescending. A 10 year old child could surely see this?
I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.)
Fail no. 4. Which is the more likely explanation? The psychological, or the Calvinist? Or the Scientologist? Or the Pastafarian? Come on, don't be so *patronising*. A 10 year old child could *make up* a possible explanation, but that wouldn't make it valid, as she would surely understand.
I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
Fail no. 5. *What* does this tell us? To *where* does this lead us? Knowledge is *tentative* and *doubtful*. What does faith require? Banishment of doubt. What do religions teach? Certainty, through divine knowledge. You've guessed it; a 10 year old child could see the contradiction, let alone a philosopher.
If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?
Fail no. 6. And sinister with it. Is he seriously suggesting that *if* science showed the falsity of religion then secularism would dictate it should not be taught? That it should be suppressed? Unfortunately this is the logical conclusion of allowing epistemological equivalence between knowledge derived scientifically and other 'knowledge', betrayed by his last line; 'Why are their beliefs exempt?' Until fools masquerading as martyrs abandon this nonsensical position then religious knowledge will be allowed to continue in its unjustified position of privilege. Many religions explicitly declare the falsity of religious knowledge; *just not their own*. How does Ruse choose the most valid body of knowledge from the cornucopia available to him? I suggest a 10 year old child could see the problem in Ruse's position, let alone a philosopher.

But, of course, the point of secularism is to protect the right of people to believe what they like, not to introduce thought-crime. If some facts imply the falsity of *anything*, then those facts should still be taught, but the pupils allowed to come to their own conclusions. *That* is surely the aim of the First Amendment?
But don't worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.
Fail no. 7. And finally, it's the rank dishonesty that shocks. As if TGD claims to 'solve all of your problems'. A 10 year old child could read the book and understand *that*, but not, apparently, Michael Ruse.

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