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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).

God, yesterdayMetafilter wonders whether God exists, or more specially, whether that William Lane Craig chap has good arguments for the proposition1. I missed it all kicking off, so only contributed at the end.

By the point I noticed it, the thread had got into people talking bollocks about induction (mainly the sort of nonsense I examine below, but also including atheists who just don’t get what the problems are). I think the tactic Stephen Law calls going nuclear must be in some apologetics manual somewhere, because you certainly see a lot of it about. So, this is how I’d respond to that:

All this induction stuff is very interesting, but let’s go back to shivohum’s original comment.

This uses a standard Christian apologetical strategy (one that Craig has used himself) in response an atheist’s to use of a naive evidentialism to discount religious claims. If an atheist says “All reasonable beliefs require evidence, there is no evidence for God, therefore belief in God is unreasonable”, the clever apologist will ask “All reasonable beliefs? Really? What evidence could there be for your belief that all beliefs require evidence?” They will then go on to point out that it seems we all have to accept some unevidenced beliefs (induction is a good example for the apologist because it’s pretty hard to see how we would get evidence for belief in it without making a circular argument, as Hume knew, but Cartesian doubts about the external world are also popular). “Aha!” says the apologist, “you see, we all rely on faith, and my belief in God, angels, demons and whatnot is just an article of faith, like your belief in this induction thing you’re so fond of. We’re not so different, you and I.”

The atheist’s evidentialism is pretty naive and they probably deserve that sort of response, but still, there seems to be something wrong with equating the rejection of fairly radical sceptical positions with belief in God. I think Chris Hallquist has it right: “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

That is, religious beliefs do seem to be the sorts of things that require evidence, as even Christians agree if you ask them what it’d take to convince them of the truth of some other religion. If a Christian were to say, “no, but, you see, it’s only Christian beliefs which are like rejection of Cartesian doubt”, we’d just say “riiiiight“. OTOH, if it’s not just Christian beliefs which are now OK because we all have to rely on faith sometimes, why not be a pagan, Muslim or Pastafarian instead?

I followed up with another comment explaining why Craig gets (admittedly grudging) respect from atheists2. I also talked about what I think is the shakiest point of the Kalam argument: where Craig needs to show that the transcendental “cause” must be something like a person: he says mathematical concepts don’t have causal powers (a recent Mefi may disagree) but then wants to argue for that the best explanation is a person who lacks several of properties of all persons we encounter (not material, not existing in time) and has properties unlike that of any persons we encounter. If we’re allowed to do that sort of thing, why not just say that there’s at least one mathematical concept with causal potency? Or even that there’s maybe more than 2 kinds of transcendental thing, for all we know? Someone must have written a paper about this, right?


  1. In reality, we all know God exists, otherwise who’s writing that Facebook page, eh? Checkmate, atheists. 

  2. You’ll see atheists explaining that Dawkins was right not to have a debate with Craig because Craig supports genocide (by which they mean the Biblical massacres like the one recorded in Numbers 31). This is silly: Dawkins will not debate with Craig because Dawkins would lose, horribly (note that one can concede this and still remain an atheist). Dawkins’s refusal to dance with Craig is prudent, but let’s not see it as some great moral stand. 

As you might have worked out from my previous post asking for solicitors, I had a spot of bother getting my deposit back from my former landlord. This is now sorted out to my satisfaction, but it was pretty stressful while it was going on.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would offer these lessons for tenants. This is what helped me, but isn’t legal advice.

  • If you have agreed to move out early and get the cleaning done ASAP because the landlords have new tenants they’re desperate to get moved in to the place (presumably because the new tenants might go elsewhere otherwise), you have leverage. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have agreed to surrender the keys and the tenancy until I got as much deposit back as I thought was reasonable. We took the landlord’s word for it that we could give have the agency do an inspection (where I gave them back the keys) and then get our cleaner back in the same day to resolve any issues the inspection found (which the cleaner’s guarantee provided for), allowing the new tenants to move in the following day. What actually happened was that the agency didn’t issue their report until the next day, and then the landlord said our cleaner could not go back in after the tenancy ended because of spurious reasons, and proposed to charge us for getting their own cleaner in instead.
  • Thanks to Sylv, I found out about Shelter’s helpline, which was useful.
  • If you’re told you have to dry clean curtains, check the tenancy agreement to see whether it’s an explicit requirement. In our case, it wasn’t. Shelter advised me that unless we’d specifically damaged the curtains (say by spilling something on them), we couldn’t be required to dry clean them.  We were also advised that the same applied to carpets, but had those cleaned before getting that advice.
  • I found that the agency’s final “checkout” report was much more detailed than the initial inventory. If I ever rent again, I will scrutinise the property much more thoroughly, looking for dust in hidden places (like behind the radiators and on lampshades), as well as any marks. The person who does the checkout will spend at least 2 hours over it for a 4 bed place. Do likewise when checking the inventory when moving in. If possible, get hold of the checkout report from the previous tenancy and see whether any of the items raised there still apply.
  • When you negotiate with the landlord in writing, remember to mark emails as “without prejudice” if you don’t want it to be admissible in court or in an alternative legal means of dispute resolution (note that “without prejudice” isn’t magic: check the conditions on it in the linked article).
  • If landlords take a deposit, they must use one of the tenancy deposit protection schemes, and tell you which one they used. These schemes have a dispute resolution process which you can make use of if as an alternative to court action (it’s both quicker and cheaper than using the Small Claims Court). In my case, the threat of this process was sufficient to get the landlord to considerably reduce the deduction. Actually using it looks reasonably simple, and you can do it online. The starting assumption of the dispute resolution process is that the tenant is innocent until proven guilty, so it’s up to the landlord to supply evidence that the deduction is reasonable.

Can anyone recommend one? One of those free 1 hour consultations would be nice.

Also, if anyone’s got any experience in taking action to get your deposit back, I’d welcome the benefit of your experience. I’m not going to give details in a public forum, but you can get in touch privately (paul AT noctua.org.uk or Facebook PM me or something) if you want to get into specifics.

Back in August, Clark at Popehat did a slightly confusing posting on how some atheists are confused about rights because they speak as if rights exist while also saying that nothing but matter exists. Clark seems to be one of those theists who thinks that gods are be required to exist for objective rights to exist, but he doesn’t really say why he thinks that. (The real trick in all these arguments is specifying quite what you mean by “objective”. I enjoyed John D’s quote from Richard Joyce: “So many debates in philosophy revolve around the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity that one may be forgiven for assuming that someone somewhere understands this distinction.”)

I argued that Clark had got materialism wrong. Someone asked how any atheist can avoid the conclusions of Alex Rosenberg. I slightly facetiously replied “by not being an eliminative materialist”, but I can do better than that, I think. Rosenberg gets a lot of counterargument from people who are avowed naturalists and philosophically respectable. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for an atheist, especially one who isn’t an expert on philosophy, not to share Rosenberg’s conclusions.

Typically, Christian apologists ignore any distinction between varieties of naturalistic worldview (see Luke M’s interview with John Shook) and go with something like “if atheism is true, we’re nothing but matter in motion, chemical fizzes like soda spilled on the ground”. They then make an argument which uses the fallacy of composition to “show” that properties which matter and energy don’t have can’t be real on atheism (by which they mean some kind of materialism). This is all bunk, but pretty popular bunk, at least in the blogosphere, if not in philosophy journals.

Finally, I got into Yudkowsky’s belief in moral absolutes, which is interesting as Yudkowsky’s an atheist. Massimo P had a post about that back in January, where he sort of disagreed with Yudkowsky but then actually seemed to agree with him if you stripped away the layers of words a bit. My most significant comment on that is here. Yudkowsky’s transition from what looks like mathematical Platonism to the claim that morality is absolute deserves a post of its own, which I might get around to at some point. There’s a lesson for atheists, though: atheist appeals to evolution as a moral justifier are confused. Evolution might be a (partial) answer to “why do I care about X?” but not “why should I care about X?”

I haven’t had much time for proper blogging lately, but I’ve been commenting elsewhere a bit, so I’m doing a series of short posts about that in an attempt to get back into the proper blogging habit.

Cambridge Vintage Night

I went to the inaugural Cambridge Vintage Night recently, so I was interested to read what Anthony thought of it and to stick my oar in:

One odd thing about this event was that I wasn’t quite sure what it was trying to be: it wasn’t quite advertised as a lindy event, but it was advertised to the local lindy hoppers (on Facebook) and it started with an introductory lindy lesson. There was a reasonable contingent of people from the various lindy scenes around Cambs, but we were outnumbered by muggles. I think everyone complaining about the music being too fast is a lindy hopper and so they mean “too many fast songs for (sustained) lindy” (which I’d agree with). I’m not sure what the non-dancers thought of it. The other Paul (who, if he’s who I think he is, runs a fun local event outside Cambridge, he’s probably too modest to say) has some good points on how you welcome in newbies at lindy events. There are plenty of people in Cambs who know how to do events like that if that’s what you want your event to be.

Playing for lindy hoppers is a different thing from playing from people who’ve come to bop around while wearing flapper dresses (there’s nothing wrong with the latter, of course). Lindy hoppers do turn up to things where there might be suitable music and make what we can of it without feeling hard done by if it doesn’t work out. But if you’ve sort of positioned it as a lindy thing and then it doesn’t work, the people who came thinking it was a lindy thing will be annoyed (hi Mark!)

Richard Dawkins is in the news again, for his twits on Twitter pointing out that Trinity College has produced more Nobel prizewinners than Islam. While he accepts that Muslims were great shakes in the Middle Ages, they haven’t done much science lately, apparently. By saying this, Dawkins has caused a bit of a stir.

Dawkins futher explains his views in a post on his site.

Dawkins is right about science in the Muslim world

Neil deGrasse Tyson makes Dawkins’s point at greater length. The Islamic world has long since lost its former scientific glory. Tyson puts the blame on Al Ghazali and a switch from inquiry to accepting “revelation”1. A much more extensive article on the decline, in the form of an interview with a Turkish physicist, makes the point that the Golden Age mixed the precursors to modern science with a lot of other weird stuff (but shurely this also applied in the West?)

Whatever the reasons, it seems Dawkins is right to say things ain’t what they used to be. Contra Nesrine Malik, he didn’t make the statement out of the blue, but rather, as part of a debate on the role of Islam in the birth of science (see this previous twit, for example). Everyone thinks science is a Good Thing2, so both Muslims and Christians like to claim credit for fostering science. Dawkins’s stuff about Nobel prizes should be read as “what have you done for us in the last 500 years, then?”

That’s racist!

(Edit:)Writing before Dawkins posted about Nobel Prizes (end of edit), Alex Gabriel says that some of Dawkins’s twits are racist statements.3

What sort of thing is a “racist statement”? It seems it’s something that encourages prejudice (a fault of reasoning) which can lead to discrimination (a moral fault), all on the grounds of race. However, it then doesn’t seem to follow that we ought never to make “racist statements”, because it all depends on how much encouragement we’re giving.

The best thing I’ve seen written about the interaction between criticism of Islam and racism is Russell Blackford’s piece in Talking Philosophy. Blackford says that “opponents of Islam who do not wish to be seen as the extreme-right’s sympathizers or dupes would be well-advised to take care in the impression that they convey”. I agree with Gabriel’s point that Dawkins’s support for Pat Condell and talk of “barbarians” and “alien” stuff shows Dawkins’s failure to take care here. But I see the EDL re-tweeted some of Dawkins’s twits about Islamic science, and I don’t think that implies Dawkins should not have talked about that. As Blackford says “After all, there are reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism, secularism, etc. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to opportunists.”

Gabriel also says that it’s unacceptable to single Islam out for criticism. I don’t see any reason to think that. People may have legitimate reasons for singling out Islam: perhaps they know a lot about it (because they are ex-Muslims, say) or perhaps they think it is more harmful than other religions. Dawkins himself famously doesn’t single out Islam, usually leading to taunts of “you wouldn’t dare say that about Muslims” when he criticises Christianity4. So a criticism of Dawkins on those grounds seems to be either false or a “why aren’t you also addressing these evils?” sort of criticism (which is bad, as this expert guide to epistemic rationality could tell you).

9781118038048_p0_v1_s260x420Twitter is for twits

Finally, all of these people (including Dawkins) are foolish for taking Twitter spats seriously. The 140 character limit on twits precludes serious discussion, so it’s either for telling your friends what you had for lunch today, or getting your hit of self-righteous rage by swapping telegrams with people whose views you violently disagree with. The whole thing could fall into the sea tomorrow and nothing of value would be lost, John Donne notwithstanding. If Malik found that reading Dawkins’s twits hashed her Eid mellow, there’s an obvious solution.

In conclusion: the only legitimate use of Twitter is to link to blog posts. Get off my lawn.


  1. Though this comment seems to be a counterpoint to that 

  2. Believers like point to bits of their scripture and claim that verse is, if you use the eye of faith and squint a bit, actually a correct scientific statement that the authors could not possibly have known by mundane means, which proves that God revealed it. Oddly, God did not see fit to reveal that germs cause disease. 

  3. If you’re in Internet social justice fandom, you carefully avoid saying “Jones is a racist”, rather, you say “Jones said X, and X is a racist statement”: it’s like the “hate the sin, love the sinner” thing I remember from my evangelical days. While the evangelicals and social justice fans are rightly trying to avoid ad hom arguments or giving the impression that they are not themselves sinners, I think the two share the same difficulties. 

  4. The jargon for that sort of taunt is “fatwa envy”

Rebecca Brightly did a couple of posts on connection and sexism in lindy recently. I found it via the discussion on Reddit.

Brightly’s stuff is getting so much comment because it combines thoughts on how to enjoy dancing more (which is good) with an Internet-feminist deontology (which is wrong, as any respectable consequentialist could tell you). She’s now at the Defcon 3 stage of talking about “de-railing”, deleting comments, and closing down threads when people disagree with her premise. So I thought I’d put my response here.

Context: in partnered dances, there are usually two roles: one person leads, another follows. Quite what each role entails is a settled question for some dance cultures and a matter of intense mass debating in some corners of others. Traditionally, the leader is a man and the follower is a woman.

Brightly seems to say that followers should take more initiative while dancing, in part because this will combat sexism. Now read on.

Stuff I agree with:

In lindy, (most of?) the really good leaders can handle the follower initiating movements, and (most of?) the really good follows do so. You can tell this is true because there are so many videos of it on YouTube.

If you’re both into it, this can increase the fun, and is therefore a good thing.

The tradition that the man leads and the woman follows arose out of a sexist (and homophobic) culture.

Having the tradition enforced (whether by teachers or by the disapproval of other dancers) such that people feel they cannot choose to dance the non-traditional role limits fun and is therefore bad.

Stuff I’m not convinced there’s much reason to believe:

Everyone should be taught both roles from beginning of their dancing career (the premise of the Ambidanceterous blog).
Everyone should learn both roles.
(I mean these either for a categorical or hypothetical “should”, Kant fans, with the hypothetical being “if you want to be a good dancer”).

The mere fact that the traditional association between roles and sexes is still common today is a moral wrong that ought to be righted.

Stuff I disagree with:

There’s a moral duty for followers to take the initiative more and for leaders to learn to deal with that. This duty arises because:
1. The idea that follows should not initiate movements is sexist.
2. There’s a moral duty to eliminate anything which could be labelled “sexism”.

I disagree with 1 and 2 jointly and severally.

2 is the Internet-feminist deontology I mentioned. It’s usually either just asserted (as Brightly does) or advanced by deploying the worst argument in the world. As commenter Devonavar says, it’s not clear that there are bad consequences of having non-initiatory followers, so even if it is sexist, it’s not clear we should care, or at least, that we should care more than we care about other stuff, like having fun (we can reasonably assume that some people dance like that because they enjoy it).

1 is correctly challenged by commenter Josephine, who identifies the problem as the enforced association of roles with sexes. At most, the idea that followers should rarely initiate is indirectly sexist while the enforcement continues, but seeing as the enforcement does more harm, why not just work on that directly?

We went to Cyprus for a week recently. While there, we went on a “VIP Catamaran” trip which was sold to us by the holiday company, Thomson. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what we’d been lead to think it would be by Thomson’s advertising. Thomson’s response hasn’t been very good, as you’ll see. If anyone has any ideas about what to do about this, I’d be glad to hear them.

A web search shows that Thomson have had complaints going back to 2006 about the number of people on the trip. I wish we’d found that before we booked. I hope I’ve got some Google juice and that’ll mean more people find this and consider whether the trip is worth the money.

All aboard

The advertising said that “numbers are strictly limited, so there’s plenty of room to sunbathe on the rigging nets” and “there’s room to stretch out”. It also said “there’s snorkelling gear and canoes too”. The accompanying photograph shows a fairly sparsely populated boat.

What you actually get is a coachload (I’d say at least 50 people) on a boat which certainly doesn’t have room to fit everyone on the nets. The people who get off the coach and to the boat first get those and stick their towels on them. The rear half of the boat has a shaded area with some tables, so we sat at one of those. Someone nearby started smoking. We moved. A whole bunch of people near where we moved to chain smoked through the trip. By then other people had expanded into the space we’d been sat in before. So we got treated to a nice bit of passive smoking, as well as ash blowing onto our clothes and towels. I’d guess we were one of the few, if not the only, non-smoking groups on there. We couldn’t have expected everyone not to smoke, but the density of people on there meant we couldn’t get a space away from it.

The canoes turned out to be 2 canoes. The crew told people to share them, but this wasn’t very realistic given the number of people on the boat and the duration of the swimming stops.

They also play pretty loud dance music during the portion of the cruise when the sail isn’t up.

By the end of it we were fuming at having paid 70 quid each for the privilege of being in a nightclub before the smoking ban came in.

Customer service

We were glad to get back to the shore. That evening, we saw Chris, the Thomson rep, at the Sunrise Pearl hotel, and told him we weren’t happy with the way the trip had been sold and we wanted a refund. As soon as he heard we wanted a refund, he began to stonewall. He said that a refund was not available as we’d had the trip. We pointed out that it was impossible to get off until the end of the trip. He told us that we couldn’t expect the boat to have the same number of people on it as the photograph, and that he hadn’t mentioned numbers in his presentation on the excursions (which he gave when we arrived). He said that “I said there were canoes and there were canoes”. I told him I’d blog about this, and I’m as good as my word (unlike Thomson, alas).

Chris said he’d investigate our claims the following day. When we went back the next evening, he said he’d spoken to some people on the trip from other hotels, who had been perfectly happy with it. When we asked what the extra money for the “VIP” cruise was for (when compared with the other catamaran excursion), he said it was for the open bar and better food, but didn’t mention the extra space and “more relaxed” stuff mentioned in the Thomson advertising. His investigation hadn’t gone as far as actually finding out how many people had been on the boat that day. When we told him that we weren’t happy with his lack of concern, he offered us a bottle of wine. We initially accepted it but later that evening rejected it as it’d have to go in our hold luggage on the flight the next day, and we didn’t want it to break. (I also wasn’t sure whether accepting it would prejudice a future claim for our money back).

When we asked what the official complaint procedure was (but only when we asked), he filled in a web form. As a result, I got an email telling me that “My team are fully trained and empowered to resolve your complaint and I hope you’re satisfied with the outcome and that we’ve taken every step to resolve it fully. If you feel this isn’t the case, then please review the solution with your Holiday Advisor as we will not contact you again about this matter.” Super.

Now what?

As a result of this, we won’t be buying from Thomson again. It’s a shame as the hotel was really good, but there are other good hotels. In these straitened times, I’m quite surprised the company thinks they can get away with service like this.

I’m not inclined to let this drop. If anyone knows what our options might be at this point, I’d be interested to hear them. I’m aware that the Advertising Standards Authority might take an interest, that I might have some recourse because I bought the trip on a credit card (although it may be complicated by the fact that Thomson were acting as agents for the company who ran the cruise, whose name is on the credit card receipt), and that we might be able to use the Small Claims Court (though I’m not sure whether they have jurisdiction as we bought the trip in Cyprus). Anyone dealt with anything like this before? What’s my next move here?

8856bff18d7ac166b097e64a71f2ca83A friend on Facebook linked to Louise Mensch vs Laurie Penny on the “check your privilege” thing. He went on to say he hadn’t come across that phrase, and wondered if it’s anything more than thinly veiled argumentum ad hominem. I done a comment, which seemed long enough to blog:

It’s jargon from the Internet social justice warrior subculture, as far as I can tell, so if you haven’t heard it, hang out on Tumblr, LiveJournal or bits of the feminist blogsphere (or, you know, don’t). It’s becoming more mainstream, if those articles are anything to go by.

The injunction to “check your privilege” means different things at different times. Sometimes it means “you are not in a position to know that”. For example, if I claimed “there is no homophobia in Cambridge”, someone could rightly point out that I’m not that likely to be a victim of homophobia, so I should probably ask some gay people for their opinions. Saying that continues the argument by undercutting my claim.

Sometimes it does seem to act as what Suber calls “logical rudeness“, that is, saying “CYP!” insulates a theory from argument by attributing some fault to those who do not believe it, stopping the argument about the theory by switching it to an argument about the unbeliever. As Suber says, though, it’s not clear that there’s a general duty to respond to would-be debunkers of theories we hold, and claiming that, say, feminism is nonsense because so many feminists are fans of privilege checking is itself rude. However, Suber doesn’t seem to address the point that, if we’re interested in having accurate beliefs, we should debate those with the strongest counter-arguments: our rudeness should not allow the opposition to conclude we are mistaken, but it should worry us.

Using “CYP!” a single line response (on Twitter, or in a comment box, say) is just blowing off steam or cheering for your team, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t actually mean anything other than “yay for us and boo for you!”

Edited to add: There’s some more discussion of this over on Liv’s journal. Read the comments too.