Link blog: stephen-law, belief, philosophy, atheism

Just why can’t we atheists see that religious belief is reasonable? Some religious answers
“Why do we atheists reject religious belief, and consider it irrational? Here is a survey of some of the explanations that have been offered by the religious. They’re not good. “
(tags: atheism religion philosophy stephen-law belief rationality)
Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Link blog: nearest, work, nhs, politics

Imaginary Positions – Less Wrong
One I’d missed: Yudkowsky’s post on rounding to the “nearest cliche”.
(tags: cliche nearest eliezer-yudkowsky rationality)
The world is not falling apart: The trend lines reveal an increasingly peaceful period in history.
Steven Pinker argues we should look at trend lines rather than headlines.
(tags: statistics war politics violence world steven-pinker)
A Pasta Sea: Elijah and the Apologist of Baal
1 Kings 18 re-imagined as if Baal had a William Lane Craig on his side. Fun times. “A Pasta Sea” is a good name for an ex-Christian blog, too.
(tags: bible apologetics ahab baal elijah funny parody)
A&E in crisis: a special report – Telegraph
“As the NHS faces its worst winter in years, Robert Colvile provides an in-depth, first-hand account of the pressures facing the health service.” Interesting: combination of people unable to see a GP quickly enough and hospitals unable to turf old people to social care quickly enough. Targets sometimes provide perverse incentives.
(tags: nhs health healthcare medicine hospital)
Free exchange: Nice work if you can get out | The Economist
Why the rich now have less leisure than the poor. Via WMC on FB.
(tags: leisure work economist)
Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Link blog: politics, problematic, clapping, gchq

Satanists want to use Hobby Lobby decision to exempt women from anti-abortion laws
This is win. Hail Satan, and His only Son, Harry Potter.
(tags: satanism abortion law)
Harry Connick Jr & French Rhythm Accents – YouTube
Harry Connick Jr sorts out the audience’s clapping (from 1&3 to 2&4). Can you spot how? Genius.
(tags: music clapping afterbeat)
Between the Hammer and the Anvil: On Countering The Ukip Cri-de-Colon
Author shares my frustration that Labour apparently has no balls: “Every unchallenged Question Time assertion that people aren’t allowed to talk about the topics that they are themselves talking about on national television at that very moment. Every word from the party’s self-appointed detectors of the legitimate feelings of thick-headed bellends. All of it has been leading to precisely this point, at which politicians explicitly talking about sending them back are seen as engaging in respectable conjecture, and posting a picture on the internet is a sackable offence.”
(tags: ukip politics immigration racism labour)
Why Are All The Good Guys Always Taken, Gay, Dead, Or Available? | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source
“When you finally do come across one of the good guys out there, why does it always turn out that he’s either taken, gay, dead, or available?” Via Phil.
(tags: dating funny parody onion)
“Everything is problematic” | The McGill Daily
“Perhaps the most deeply held tenet of a certain version of anti-oppressive politics – which is by no means the only version – is that members of an oppressed group are infallible in what they say about the oppression faced by that group. … Let me give an example. A gay person is typically much better acquainted with homophobia than a straight person. Moreover, a gay person has a much greater stake in what society does about homophobia, so their view on the matter is more important. However, there is nothing about the experience of being gay in itself that enlightens a gay person about the ethics of sexual orientation. To take a dead simple case, you don’t have to hear it from a gay person to know that homosexuality is ethically just fine.”
(tags: politics feminism activism culture rationality problematic)
Top Level Telecommunications: INCENSER, or how NSA and GCHQ are tapping internet cables
Cornwall is the centre of GCHQ/NSA’s taps on undersea cables. This blog post puts the picture together from a bunch of sources. Via Bruce Schneier.
(tags: gchq cornwall cable interception nsa undersea)
Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Link blog: jazz, foxtrot, aaron-sorkin, ballroom

A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies – Less Wrong
Yvain/Scott Alexander on why it might be a bad idea to continue to espouse a belief in God, the Devil and whatnot while having a sort of private understanding of what that means, even if that understanding is more palatable than the original theology.
(tags: psychology religion rationality hitler)
The Definitive History Of The West Wing
(tags: west-wing aaron-sorkin television politics)
The Fox Trot in the Jazz Age – YouTube
What they called Foxtrot in the 1920s was rather different to the modern ballroom version.
(tags: dancing foxtrot jazz)
Jazz Age Ballroom Dancing (“The Modern Dances”) | Mass Historia
A set of web pages on the Jazz Age ballroom dances.
(tags: 1930s 1920s dance jazz foxtrot ballroom)
Take The A Train
The AABA structure of “Take the A Train” illustrated in a neat little presentation which tracks the music.
(tags: jazz music)
Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Link blog: television, management, jobs, psychology

Are you paid to look busy?
Do people with useless jobs secretly resent those with useful ones?
(tags: jobs money management work employment)
Interview with the Game of Thrones linguist
There are a few Easter eggs in the Valyrian stuff. Fun.
(tags: television game-of-thrones language)
What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds? : May 2014 : Contributoria – community funded, collaborative journalism
Are we rational or rationalising? Depends on the context.
(tags: psychology bias rationality argument persuasion logic)
Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

I get mail from Neo, but he’s not cool like in the Matrix

Someone calling themselves “Neo” from the Skeptic Arena emailed me on the subject of my previous article, sending me a Word document with his replies in. I pointed out that emailing Word documents around is a bit odd, showed him where the comment box is, pointed out that he didn’t seem to have read the previous post properly, and went on my way.

Neo wasn’t content with that, and has now featured our conversation on his web site as a another Word document. Publically posting private emails is rude, but seeing as Neo has done it, he’s lost the right to complain about the following. I’ve replied to selected points below the cut, but you can see the whole thing in all its glory on Neo’s site, if you’re worried I’m being a bit too selective.

If you’re short of time, here’s what you can learn from this:

  • Atheists aren’t necessarily more rational than anyone else. Some of them write green ink emails to other atheists.
  • Arguments are not soldiers: it’s not rational to attack an argument merely because it’s for the opposing “side”.
  • Some people take this to the next level: they confuse mentioning an argument with using it, and attack the person mentioning anyway. Here’s a Christian example, and another atheist example, both directed at me. If both sides argue with me, I’ve achieved perfect balance in the Force! (edit: actually, one is directed at Yvain and I just pointed it out).

Cut for detail

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Link blog: funny, peter-enns, exam, newspapers

Shock and Law | The Tab Cambridge
"The Red Tops are blowing the law exam way out of proportion, says CHRIS ROWLANDS. He’s seen things you can’t even imagine."
(tags: law funny newspapers cambridge-university exam)
National Trust – Nature’s Playground » The Click Design Consultants
I saw these signs in local National Trust places recently: they look like they’re nasty prohibitive ones but they’re actually encouraging you to hug trees and sit on the grass and stuff. A bit twee but fun.
(tags: signs funny national-trust)
The Biggest Challenges to Staying Christian
Peter Enns asks his Christian readers for the biggest challenges to staying Christian, and then tells them to be "trans-rational". Adam Lee comments.
(tags: religion de-conversion christianity atheism peter-enns rationality)
Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Bad arguments about agnosticism

“It’s arrogant to claim to be an atheist, since you can’t know that God (or gods) does not exist. It’s much more intellectually respectable to be an agnostic.”

I’ve come across that sort of claim in a couple of places on the net recently. What could it mean? Time for another post in the series on bad arguments.

Bad argument: Atheists must show beyond all doubt that ChristianGod or MuslimGod doesn’t exist

Perhaps the speaker is some sort of conventional believer, like a Christian or a Muslim or whatever. They think that it’s up to someone calling themselves an “atheist” to demonstrate with that the Christian (or Muslim) God doesn’t exist, and do it so convincingly that there’s no possibility that the atheist could be mistaken. It seems the theist is either saying the atheist has got something wrong, or saying that nobody should call themselves an atheist.

Say that an atheist thinks that the Christian God probably doesn’t exist. The theist might claim that the atheist has acted wrongly in ignoring Christianity’s claims on them, because this is only “probably”, not “certainly”. But the theist’s claim relies double standard, since nobody else is held to that standard of certainty before they’re allowed to act on a belief (the conventional theist certainly isn’t). Possibly what’s going on here is that the theist thinks the atheist should be more like them: it looks like there are believers who argue the mere possibility that their belief is true justifies their continued faith. I’ve talked about the “virtue” of faith and discussed whether God might be fond of soft cheese before, so I won’t go into that again here.

(The famous atheists who are often called arrogant don’t claim certainty, of course.)

Perhaps the theist doesn’t think the atheist has been unreasonable (given the atheist thinks it’s unlikely that God exists, it’s fair enough that they don’t go to church or whatever), but thinks that people who haven’t attained certainty shouldn’t be defined as “atheists”. Luckily, the theist doesn’t get to define atheism.

Bad argument: An atheist must deny the existence of anything that anyone has ever called a god

“Well, I’ll say it simple: a god is someone with enough power to say ‘I am a god’ and make other people agree. Mortal wizard, lich, emperor, dragon, giant, leftover bit of chaos… it doesn’t really matter what it is underneath. What matters is that it has the strength to enforce its claims.”
– Rebel Theology, from Tales of MU (Tales of MU is basically “50 Shades of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, so be advised that some parts of the book are sexually explicit, although the linked chapter isn’t)

If The Man’s definition of a god is the one we’re using, it’s much more likely that there are gods (pretty certain, in fact, since people have probably convinced other people of their godhood at various points in history).

Spot the godThere are people who identify gods with love or the feeling they get from looking out into the night sky or with the quantum vacuum (trigger warning for physicists: linked post contains quantum woo-woo). In these cases it seems fine for the self-described atheist to say “that isn’t what I meant” or “I don’t dispute that those things might/do exist, but it seems silly to call them gods”.

Some statements which look as if they’re claims about the existence of gods end up saying nothing more than an atheist might say, with some god-talk tacked on purely as decoration. As Simon Blackburn’s lovely (and short) piece on Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has it:

Philo the sceptic says that we cannot understand or know anything about a transcendent reality that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature, while the theists like Demea say that we cannot understand or know anything about the transcendent reality, which is God, that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature. Since the inserted clause does not help us in the least, the difference between them is merely verbal.

Cleanthes, the intelligent design theorist in the book, says that complete mystics are “atheists without knowing it”. Since some sophisticated theologians, like Hume’s Demea, call themselves theists, perhaps Cleanthes is a bit presumptuous. You can see his point, though: it’s odd that someone might be called a theist though they only differ from an atheist in calling some mysterious thingy “God”. Perhaps we should be a bit more resistant to the idea that anyone can “identify as” anything: that way lies Tumblr.

But we perhaps we shouldn’t assume that even people who go to church and say the Creed are assenting to a set of propositions (previously) or that their expectations of what will actually happen differ from those of an atheist (previouslier). If we still call those people theists, why not Demea?

Anyhoo: Philo and Demea are both agnostics (“we cannot … know”) about something, but just because Demea has called it “god”, it’s not clear that Philo couldn’t justly claim to be an atheist (though in the book, he doesn’t, of course).

Good argument: you can’t know what’s out there

Philip Pullman said:

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This seems fair enough. But often criticism of atheists is phrased like this:

Bad argument: you can’t know that there isn’t an X out there

where “an X” is some particular thing which would be hard to detect, like an immaterial being who made stuff but then doesn’t intervene, say. The problem with this is that the speaker hasn’t got enough evidence to even suggest X. Sure, we can’t rule out X, but what about Y or Z or a vast number of other possibilities? Why mention X as something special to be agnostic about? Often it’s because X looks like a god from a conventional religion, tweaked to be even less detectable. But that’s no reason to think that X is especially likely to exist. The error here is called privileging the hypothesis.

To anticipate a possible objection: a lot of people saying “I believe in X” may provide evidence to differentiate it from Y and Z. But we need to be careful about what X is here, as the range of things that people refer to as “god(s)” is pretty wide. Some gods (the conventional theist ones) have a whole lot of believers but have good arguments against their existence, so claims that an atheist who accepts those arguments should call themselves agnostic about those gods seem to be you must prove it beyond doubt arguments. “I believe in gods which are invisible gremlins in the quantum foam: you can’t show that those don’t exist” is privileging the hypothesis.

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Fear and faith: Derren Brown and the Confusion

Glen Scrivener, who blogs at Christ the Truth, recently watched Derren Brown’s Fear and Faith programme. In it, Brown apparently converts (or at least induces a religious experience in) a staunch atheist, a biologist called Natalie. Brown used this as a jumping off point for an argument that we don’t need to invoke a god to explain religious experiences. Glen’s posting argued that the existence of fakes doesn’t disprove the existence of the genuine article.

Blah blah blah Bayes

I commented that Brown would go too far if he claimed that an ability to reproduce religious experiences means there’s no God, but he could use it to negate the value of religious experience as evidence for God’s existence. If it is trivial for people who aren’t God to produce such experiences, then they are about as likely to occur in a world without God as they are in a world with a God, so they aren’t good evidence. Glen tried a variant of the Argument from Wife, saying that his belief in his wife’s existence is not invalidated because of his feelings about her. But this doesn’t work, since he presumably saw and heard her and so believed she existed prior to having feelings for her, so the causality isn’t backwards, as it is when Christians point to feelings from God as evidence for God’s existence.

Then I watched the programme on Channel 4’s website. In it, we see Brown convert Natalie in what looks like a church, with 15 minutes of chat about her father and tapping on the table to “anchor” certain feelings. He leaves her alone (except for the cameras, of course) for a bit, at which point she stands up and bursts into tears, speaking about how sorry she is and wishing she could have had this feeling all her life. Well, that about wraps it up for God, right?

Hang on a sec…

Something’s gone wrong with everyone’s argument here, and I probably should have spotted it before I watched the programme, because I’ve written about Derren Brown before. Can you spot it? Have a think for a moment, then read on.

Christian and atheists alike were assuming that Brown can convert someone in 15 minutes with NLP (and then arguing about what that means for God-belief). We’ve been taken in. It was a trick! Nobody can really produce a conversion experience in 15 minutes in the way we’re supposed to believe he did. Brown’s tricks don’t work by using NLP (because NLP doesn’t work so dramatically, if indeed it works at all, which I rather doubt). Remember, the bit at the end of the trick where he shows you how he did it using NLP (though he never uses the phrase) to implant suggestions in people’s minds is itself misdirection, part of his act.

I should have realised that, because I’ve had a similar conversation about Brown before, with an NLP believer on Less Wrong. See also Ferretbrain’s Derren Brown is a Liar and this discussion on the show: pjc229 has it right.

The bit at the end with the moral of today’s episode

That little “something doesn’t make sense” feeling is something you want to train yourself to listen to: as Saunt Yudkowsky says, your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. At the point where someone claims to be able to produce religious conversion experiences after 15 minutes of chat about fathers and tapping on the table, you should be feeling confused; not trying to defend religion as if the story Brown’s telling really happened and you had to explain how it doesn’t really threaten Christianity, or attacking religion as if Brown had shown it was bunk (these are like Yudkowsky trying to defend the paramedics in his story).

I must congratulate Brown on getting me seriously debating whether he’d provided a contribution to the psychology of religion, though. The man’s a genius. I wish I knew how he did it (pjc229’s suggestions about what Natalie saw not being what we saw must have something to do with it, I guess).

(None of which is to say that there aren’t satisfying psychological explanations for religious experiences which remove the need to invoke gods, of course, just that we shouldn’t go to magicians for that kind of evidence).

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr