Et hoc dicimus Batman

You might enjoy a proof of Batman’s existence (the comments are good too, if I do say so myself). Thanks to andrewducker for the link.

The discussion on the Euthyphro dilemma, and whether moral value (and indeed, objective truth) is possible if there is no God, continues on my previous entry: Comrade and I are now up to about 50 comments. Feel free to join in.

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Link blog: funny, facebook, pakistan, programming

Pakistani lawyer petitions for death of Mark Zuckerberg • The Register

Proof that the "religion of peace" isn't *all* bad.
(tags: religion islam pakistan facebook mohammed)

19 reasons why God torched Jesus

19 reasons why that huge statue of Jesus in America burnt down: best one: "5) He is resin."
(tags: jesus religion funny fire statue christianity)

The bright side of wrong – The Boston Globe

Article which argues that cognitive biases may be the price we pay for being able to jump to probable conclusions.
(tags: psychology neuroscience cognition rationality cognitive-bias)

The 10 Most Important Things They Didn’t Teach You In School | Cracked.com

From the author of "John Dies at the End". Mostly obvious, but well done.
(tags: education funny cracked life sex)

YouTube – Doctor Who: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Daleks (The Peter Jones-y Edit)

Two great tastes etc. etc.
(tags: video doctorwho dalek hitchhikers science-fiction sci-fi parody funny youtube)

Exploring the software behind Facebook, the world’s largest site | Royal Pingdom

Facebook: evil but still cool.
(tags: development facebook performance php programming server software tools internet)
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Q: When is a person like a rock? A: When there’s no God

C. Michael Patton writes honestly about the day he lost his faith, and how it came back again. One paragraph of his struck me: “My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another.”

It’s a popular line of thought, but so far as I can tell, not well founded. If you think Patton was right, you think that the statements:
1. There is no God.
2. People are of greater moral value than rocks.
are incompatible: if one is true, the other cannot be. But, on the face of it, I see no reason to think that. To make an argument, you’d need to introduce other, related, statements and back them up. (If you spend a lot of time debating this sort of stuff, you’ll noticed I’ve taken a leaf from William Lane Craig’s book. My response is pretty similar to his response to the logical Argument from Evil, where he points out that his opponents have just made statements without showing how the statements are logically related).

I mentioned this in the comments on Patton’s post, and have been discussing it with The 27th Comrade. Comrade makes the weaker claim that “If God doesn’t exist, it is not necessarily true that people are not rocks”. He then goes on to claim that a person’s value can only depend on a transcendent, immutable opinion; and that without God, there can be no objective moral values.

But I see no reason why, if there are moral facts independent of human opinions, they would be defined by the opinions of a (non-human) person. I also don’t see how this makes values objective, since that word usually means “independent of anyone’s opinion”.

On the horns of a dilemma

At this point, I mentioned the Euthyphro dilemma (which I apparently introduced to William: I’m glad someone’s learning something from my ramblings). If God sets what is moral by his opinions, they seem arbitrary: God could have made anything moral by fiat. If God’s moral opinions reflect some other independent facts (as my opinion that “the sky is blue” does, say), while God may well know the facts better than we do, the facts would still be facts if he did not exist.

If you’ve had some evangelism training, you’ll know there’s a popular response to the dilemma, which is to say that goodness is part of God’s essential nature: not external to him, but not something he chooses. Craig adds that we understand what words like “good” mean without reference to God; it is informative, rather than tautologous, to learn that “God is essentially good”. But it seems then that any being which had the morally good properties God is claimed to have would be good, whether or not that being existed. As John D says, “All that Craig is doing is ascribing certain moral properties to God, but it is these moral properties that provide the foundation for morality, not God. He is talking about necessary moral truths, not necessary theistic truths. In other words, morality is still not ‘up to God’, it merely inheres in him.”

Comrade seems to have got diverted by my examples of horrifying things God could have made good by fiat. I was unclear here, and unfortunately I chose as examples some of the horrifying things the Christian God actually does in the Bible, which Comrade then felt compelled to defend (I often run into this problem with theists: with hindsight, I should have avoided the sensitive subject of racism when talking to robhu about complementarianism, but I had trouble thinking of an example of discrimination which evangelicals don’t already think is a good thing). But that wasn’t my point, which was rather that, if morality is based solely on God’s opinion, there’s no reason to suppose that God’s opinion is anything like what we mean by “good” (notice that Craig is cannier here).

Comrade asserts that (edited: if there is no God) we have no basis to judge anything that has evolved as wrong, referring to Orgel’s Second Rule: “evolution is cleverer than you are”. But again, I see no more reason to identify “what has evolved” with “good” than I do to identify “God’s opinion” with “good”. Evolution may be clever, but clever isn’t the same as good.

The psychology of moral arguments

What I take from this is that some people want different things from moral values than I do. Some people just intuitively feel that if there isn’t a God, they can’t get those things. What they seem to want is:

  • Moral values must be “objective”: this means they cannot be pure opinion, unless it’s the opinion of someone they can always trust and who has much higher status than them.
  • Moral values must be unchanging.
  • Moral values must be “grounded”: this word is often used. It’s not clear what it means for morality to be grounded, but it gives us a strong visual image of grounded objects (at least, I assume you’re also seeing a tree with an extensive root system underground), so suppose it does well as an intuition pump. God is supposed to be pretty solid, in non-physical sort of way: I hear he’s a bit like a rock.
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Link blog: science, censorship, media, magic

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: Science/religion compatibility yet again

Another round of the accommodationism debates: "Viewed historically, religion needs to thin out its epistemic content, or to introduce notions of the capricious way supernatural beings act, or to adopt intellectually unacceptable ad hoc tactics of various kinds, in order to maintain a formal compatibility with the scientific picture of the world; the advance of science pushes God into smaller gaps; and some religious views are plainly inconsistent with robust scientific findings. All this reflects a general mismatch between the scientific approach to the world and the religious approach, which follows from (1) the fact that they use different methods for discovering the truth and (2) the methods of science do not, historically and contingently, reach the same conclusions as previously reached by religion."
(tags: religion science russell-blackford philosophy)

You Are Not So Smart

Blog recommendation. Journalist David McRaney writes about cognitive biases and whatnot in a straightforward and funny way.
(tags: psychology science blog cognition cognitive-bias rationality)

Penn Jillette Is Willing to Be a Guest on Adolf Hitler’s Talk Show | Little Gold Men | Vanity Fair

Penn on why he went on Glenn Beck's show, among other things. Hugely quotable: "Well remember, the Catholic League is just one divorced guy in his garage. Or as Teller and I like to say, the Catholic League and his wife. I love that it's called hate speech when you have the audacity to suggest that pederasty and child rape might not be a good idea."
(tags: religion penn-jillette magic media catholicism islamism islam censorship)

Reluctance to Let Go | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

Sean Carroll's last post before taking a break from blogging: "Instead of taking the natural world seriously, we have discussions about “Faith.” We pretend that questions of meaning and purpose and value must be the domain of religion. We are saddled with bizarre, antiquated attitudes toward sex and love, which have terrible consequences for real human beings.
I understand the reluctance to let go of religion as the lens through which we view questions of meaning and morality. For thousands of years it was the best we could do; it provided social structures and a framework for thinking about our place in the world. But that framework turns out not to be right, and it’s time to move on."
(tags: science religion accomodationism atheism)
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LiveJournal, Driving Revenue Inc, and moving my blog elsewhere

LiveJournal are annoying me sufficiently that I’m seriously considering moving this blog to another site. I’d appreciate recommendations for alternative sites or blogging software.

What they’ve done

As jld explains in more detail, LiveJournal are including code from Driving Revenue Inc., an advertising company, in every page they serve (including friends-locked postings). When you move your mouse over a link, the code tells Driving Revenue’s site, outboundlink.me, what the link is. Their site responds with a new link. If you click, your browser ends up where Driving Revenue said to go, which may or may not be where you though you’d end up.

The point of all this messing about is to make money from affiliate links. Some sites will give you money for sending traffic their way. These sites know it’s you sending them traffic because they give you an affiliate code. When you link to that site from your own, you append the affiliate code to the link. Driving Revenue re-writes those links so they’ll make them money instead, and passes a cut to LJ.

If you’ve got a free account on LJ, re-writing links would be fair enough. One of the ways LJ covers the cost of free accounts is through advertising. But I’m paying LJ money so this blog won’t have adverts on it. If they’re going to break that contract, I don’t want to pay them any more money.

Also, even for free accounts, the way LJ/Driving Revenue have implemented this is very dodgy.

Why it’s dodgy

Firstly, this is bad for privacy and security. LJ are disclosing any link you happen to move your mouse over to Driving Revenue, so I hope nothing you link to in your locked entries is confidential. Worse, the way this has been implemented gives Driving Revenue the same authority as LJ: they can more or less do what they like, including stealing your cookies and impersonating you. Even if Driving Revenue aren’t malicious, they are incompetent ( as described below), and security problems at Driving Revenue now potentially become security problems at LJ. LJ went to a lot of trouble to lock down this sort of problem a while ago. Now they’ve given away the keys to the kingdom.

Secondly, Driving Revenue Inc are incompetent. They’ve had multiple attempts at the script now, and it’s still not right. You might have noticed that when you move your mouse over a link on LJ and quickly click on it, nothing happens. This seems to be because moving the mouse starts the process described above, and clicks don’t “take” until it’s finished. On top of this, the script is too zealous. It re-writes links in a way which breaks them (for example, andrewducker recently linked to this article: if you click the link, you’ll end up somewhere random on the same site).

What I might do about it

I’m using Adblock to block the script, so I’m not affected by it, but people visiting my blog are. This isn’t what I’m paying for, so, unless LJ sort it out soon, I’m off. Wherever I end up, I’ll keep reading my friend list here, and I’ll probably cross-post and direct comments to my new home.

The traditional thing to do is to flounce to Dreamwidth, but that seems to be intended for people who enjoy mannerist identity politics and writing about how their fanfiction in which Snape vigorously rogers Harry Potter will inevitably smash the kyriarchy. But seriously, Dreamwidth is in active development and they’re doing some cool stuff, though I’m a bit worried they’ll run out of money. I don’t want to move again, so I’m looking for somewhere stable, preferably under my own domain.

So, I’ve been playing with WordPress, which I’ve installed on the hosting account for my own domain. It looks quite nice. The only downside is a half-hearted implementation of threaded comments: WordPress allows threads up to 10 comments deep and then just stops letting people reply, rather than doing something sensible like folding them. It’s possible to use third party commenting sites like Disqus or Intense Debate with it, though, and those seem to do threading better. Edited: WordPress does “proper” blog stuff like comment feeds and pingbacks, which I’m currently doing with Python scripts and gaffer tape on my LJ, which also gives it an advantage over Dreamwidth.

I’ve got access to scripting languages and MySQL, and I presume there are other blogging packages out there: any recommendations?

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Link blog: probability, community, hardware, video

Visualizing Bayes’ theorem | oscarbonilla.com

Join the Bayesian Conspiracy.
(tags: bayes statistics mathematics bayesian tutorial probability bayes-theorem)

YouTube – John Passmore on Hume: Section 1

A video discussing Hume's ideas on causality, the self and experience.
(tags: philosophy hume enlightenment empiricism video john-passmore david-hume)

python-on-a-chip – Project Hosting on Google Code

"This project's goals are to develop the PyMite virtual machine, device drivers, high-level libraries and other tools to run a significant subset of the Python language on microcontrollers without an OS." Nice.
(tags: python embedded programming hardware microcontrollers avr)

Attacked from Within

"This article attempts to fundamentally rethink what constitutes community and society on the web, and what possibilities exist for their maintenance and reconstruction in the face of scale and malicious users." I've mentioned this one before, but I've seen a couple of things about creating good comments recently, so I thought I'd wheel it out again. Warning: contains links to Encyclopedia Dramatica, which is very much not safe for work.
(tags: community identity social internet moderation reputation kuro5hin)
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The Rich Man and Lazarus

Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Patton wonders why some people believe and others don’t. He hews pretty close to the standard Christian answer that people know there’s a God but don’t admit it because they don’t want to admit to God’s authority (actually, it’s educated Christians who know there isn’t really a God but don’t admit to it).

Moses and the Prophets

I was interested in his discussion of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man ignores Lazarus, the beggar at his gate. The Rich Man ends up in Hell, while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to visit his brothers and warn them, but Abraham (who’s in charge of Heaven and Hell in this story, in a sort of Jewish version of St Peter’s role, I suppose) tells the Rich Man that “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Patton says this illustrates that “we have a much bigger problem than the lack of evidence”.

Well, maybe we do, but we certainly do have the problem of lack of evidence, and the Abraham of the parable is either irrational or encouraging the Rich Man’s brothers to be so. People rising from the dead is strong evidence in a way that merely writing books is not, because many worldviews have books which advocate them and they can’t all be right, and because the fact that your opponents write books isn’t very surprising to a whole load of views. Resurrections, on the other hand, are very surprising to views which don’t predict them.

This, then, is how you should pray

I was listening to the Christian philosopher Tim Mawson on a podcast recently. He thinks atheists should pray to God to reveal himself, which seems fair enough: I’d like to try it if I can think of what would be a fair positive and negative result. Any ideas?

Pre-commitment

Crucially, Mawson agrees beforehand that a negative result is evidence against Christianity, which makes him more rational than Abraham. As I mentioned previously, I’ve been following Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fun bit of creative writing which explores what would’ve happened if Harry Potter had been educated in science and rationality before the Hogwarts people turned up. Mawson’s attitude is a bit like the alternate Harry Potter getting everyone to agree on the significance of possible outcomes before doing an experiment at the beginning of this chapter of the story.

Edited: Speaking of Hell, there ended up being a lively discussion on Hell on one of my previous posts, which you might also be interested in.

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Link blog: funny, science, templeton, culture

Plato’s Man Cave

Shadows on the wall, plus 52" plasma TV.
(tags: plato cave philosophy funny parody)

Why Sex and the City 2 is a science fiction movie

I LOL'd.
(tags: movies review funny future sf scifi sci-fi science-fiction)

Decoding God’s Changing Moods – TIME

You'd think the Abrahamic God would make up his mind — Can he live with other gods or not? What's with the random mood fluctuations?
But the fluctuations aren't really random. If you juxtapose the Abrahamic Scriptures with what scholars have learned about the circumstances surrounding their creation, a pattern appears.
(tags: religion islam history christianity god culture)

God, Science and Philanthropy | The Nation

An interesting article on the history of the Templeton Foundation, the controversial foundation which provides grants to scientists interested in "the Big Questions".
(tags: templeton dawkins richard-dawkins science religion intelligent-design)

Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth – opinion – 19 May 2010 – New Scientist

"…denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There's a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?"
(tags: climate conspiracy creationism epistemology politics psychology religion science denialism denial)
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