The button that isn’t | Restricted Data
There’s no actual big red button to launch all the missiles. Interesting article on nuclear command and control.
(tags: nuclear icbm button war missiles)
Secular Solstice: Doing good for goodness’ sake – The Washington Post
The WaPo reports on secular solstice celebration. Sounds cool.
(tags: atheism religion solstice)
“Yer a Developer, Harry” – Programming Is Magic
How being a programmer is a bit like being a wizard. Via andrewducker.
(tags: magic programming spells software wizards)
A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing by Christian Caryl | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books
The Imitation Game is pretty bad as history. Via HD on Facebook.
(tags: biography film review turing history war world-war-II)

Robot makes people feel like a ghost is nearby | Science/AAAS | News
You can induce sensed presences by having a robot poke you in the back.
(tags: emotions ghosts robots psychology)
Philosophical Disquisitions: Is there a defensible atheistic account of moral values?
Maybe, or at least, it’s as good as a popular theistic account.
(tags: morality metaethics atheism william lane craig)
Strange Horizons Articles: A Few Questions About the Culture: An Interview with Iain Banks, by Jude Roberts
An old, but recently published, interview with the Iain M Banks. Via andrewducker.
(tags: iain-m-banks culture interview sci-fi science-fiction)

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).

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)

“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.

Like Worms in the Belly of Some Great Beast: Family Values and Crusader Kings II | Ruthless Culture
Civ-type strategy video games encourage the player to see through the eyes of the self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Mentions the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Via Gareth Rees.
(tags: games politics hobbes oligarchy civilisation society charles-stross)
Omniorthogonal: Hostile AI: You’re soaking in it!
Unfriendly AI is already here, in the form of corporations.
(tags: ai corporations unfriendly)
Hume 10 —Atheists Nil
Simon Blackburn on Hume’s Dialogues: "So is Hume himself an atheist? The word does not fit, and he never so described himself. He is much too subtle. 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. And this is Hume’s conclusion."
(tags: religion hume atheism philosophy david-hume simon-blackburn)
Riker sits down | MetaFilter
Commander Riker has a way with chairs. The YouTube video is doing the rounds, but I’m linking to the Metafilter thread as it contains comments from "The Riker Who Mounts the World", as well as links to Wil Wheaton’s take on it.
(tags: chair funny enterprise riker video star-trek)
Bad ideas from dead Germans | Meaningness
"Outside of traditional Christianity, most of what counts as religion and “spirituality” in America nowadays is actually recycled German academic philosophy from two hundred years ago. This might sound absurd, or irrelevant. In this metablog series, I hope to show that it is true, and that it matters."
(tags: german philosophy spirituality idealism)
From Otherkin to Transethnicity: Your Field Guide to the Weird World of Tumblr Identity Politics
(tags: privilege identity-politics tumblr otherkin)

Changing my mind on nuclear disarmament – Charlie’s Diary
Charles Stross argues against renewing Trident.
(tags: trident nuclear disarmament charles-stross war)
Coding, Fast and Slow: Developers and the Psychology of Overconfidence
"I’m going to talk today about what goes on in inside developers’ heads when they make estimates, why that’s so hard to fix, and how I personally figured out how to live and write software (for very happy business owners) even though my estimates are just as brutally unreliable as ever." via Andrew Ducker
(tags: software programming scrum estimation daniel-kahneman)
What Martial Arts Have to Do With Atheism – Graeme Wood – The Atlantic
Sam Harris on martial arts, meditation and atheism: "No one’s ever accused me of being an optimist, but I think reason and intellectual honesty will win. They’re just too useful."
(tags: religion atheism martial-arts meditation sam-harris)
How Not to Die – Jonathan Rauch – The Atlantic
Many doctors aren’t good at having "the Conversation". A doctor uses film to illustrate patients’ options at the end of their lives.
(tags: film ethics death health medicine intensive-care)


I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris. – Roger Ebert

The devout can’t abide such sentiments: in the comments on Ebert’s article (republished by Salon following his death), some of them have chimed in, and kept digging (sorry, I couldn’t resist giving that latter one a well deserved kick). Ebert didn’t call himself an atheist, of course, but clearly saw no reason to believe in an afterlife.


This reminded me of Boswell’s visit to Hume as Hume was dying. Boswell writes:

I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘Mr Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.’ ‘No, no,’ said he. ‘But I shall have been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.’ In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation. Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of my excellent mother’s pious instructions, of Dr. Johnson’s noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history.

It seems Boswell suffered DOUBT (as the archivist at the National Library of Scotland has it) as a chronic sinus sufferer. Visiting an apparently contented unbeliever on their deathbed can’t be good for your sinuses: you’ll get a worldview defence reaction from all those thoughts about death.


I’ve been reading Lucretius after Ken MacLeod’s recommendation. Stallings‘s translation into rhyming couplets is quite jolly:

None’s consigned to the pit, to patch-black Tartarus, below –
Future generations need material to grow.
And they, when life is through, shall follow you into the grave,
As those that came before, no less than you, wave after wave.
Thus one thing arises from another – it will never cease.
No one is given life to own; we all hold but a lease.
Look back again – how the endless ages of time come to pass
Before our birth are nothing to us. This is a looking glass
Nature holds up for us in which we see the time to come
After we finally die. What is it there that looks so fearsome?
What’s so tragic? Isn’t it more peaceful than any sleep?

The death panel: Nagel

The Skepticon atheist Death Panel weren’t quite convinced by an argument that nothing has been lost: Julia Galef quotes Nagel (at around 28:22), who points out that we feel that someone who is reduced to the state of a newborn infant by a brain injury has lost something, even though that person was a newborn infant in the past. So I agree with Nagel (and Yudkowsky, who turns out to be a pretty funny speaker) that death is bad. But Lucretius is also concerned with the people who don’t want their corpse to be cremated because they think it might hurt, or who fear a Hell or somehow experiencing oblivion as being entombed forever: as he and Hume and Ebert knew, such fears have no foundation.

Traffic Waves – YouTube
If you drive at the average speed of the traffic and leave a gap in front of you, you can alleviate traffic jams, apparently.
(tags: traffic waves cars driving)
Salsa Dance Etiquette for Leads: How to Avoid Being Blacklisted When Social Dancing | danceclasschallenge
Also applies to a bunch of other partner dances.
(tags: dancing leading etiquette salsa dance)
Salsa Dance Etiquette for Follows: How to Avoid Being Blacklisted When Social Dancing | danceclasschallenge
Much of this is applicable to other partner dances.
(tags: dancing following etiquette salsa)
Why you shouldn’t believe the Resurrection happened » The Polemical MedicThe Polemical Medic
A nice summary of some good and bad arguments about the Resurrection.
(tags: religion miracles christianity resurrection philosophy)
Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church « Marc5Solas
An American Christian on why they’re losing their youth. Obviously, they’re not going to say "because it’s all lies", but I don’t think an atheist has to support the idea that all de-converts thought very hard about it and left on rational grounds.
(tags: religion christianity de-conversion atheism)
Kevin and Jo videos
Jo and Kevin recap a course they did a couple of years ago, which has some of the same material they taught in Cambridge recently, but in a Charleston context.
(tags: dancing charleston lindy)
Power of Suggestion – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education
"The amazing influence of unconscious cues is among the most fascinating discoveries of our time­—that is, if it’s true." Attempts to replicate some of the classic experiments in psychological priming have failed. Interesting article about the role of reputations in science (as well as about priming).
(tags: priming psychology science)
hot as fuck: bands |
Top tips for bands playing for dancers (and dancers dancing to bands).
(tags: music dancing lindy jazz lindyhop)
Carsie Blanton’s Baby Can Dance – OFFICIAL VIDEO – YouTube
Nice song, cool lindy in the video (almost all lead and followed apparently, there’s no choreography apart from one tiny bit) illustrating that it’s not all about the aerials.
(tags: music lindy lindyhop dance)
European Swing Dance Championships presents: Lindy Hop Bloopers – YouTube
Alternatively hilarious and terrifying. My favourite is the one where they kick the spotter, I think.
(tags: dancing lindy funny aerials lindyhop)

A Logical Argument from Evil and Perfection
“I began this essay by looking at Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil, where we find a suggested form of a successful argument from evil. I made two adjustments to this form: first, by eschewing talk of the proper elimination of evil in favor of its prevention; and second, by bringing in the notions of good-making and evil-making properties. With these changes, I proposed a valid argument from evil. I then noted that, as the other premises seemed unobjectionable, the weight of the argument fell on premise (3), the proposition that “Every evil-making property (EMP) is such that its instantiation is not entailed by the instantiation of some greater good-making property (GMP).” I offered a subargument for this premise making use of the possibility of God’s existing alone, together with his perfection, to show that from the perspective of perfect-being theism, (3) would be true. But if (3) is accepted by perfect-being theists, then the argument from evil succeeds.”
(tags: free-will alvin-plantinga plantinga argument logical theodicy philosophy evil)
From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader –
Small town pastor turns atheist, gets ostracised by Christians, turns to the Clergy Project and now helps run the Recovering from Religion organisation.
(tags: ex-christian de-conversion clergy atheism religion)