Link blog: science, relationships, epistemology, biology

Hegemonic Heterosexuality
“hegemonic heterosexuality is the vast cultural conspiracy to describe all heterosexual relationships as the unending war between stupid people and crazy people.” Good observation of the view of the world promoted by TV and film. Via auntysarah.
(tags: psychology relationships sex)
The Apologist’s Turnstile
“the idea that no particular level of knowledge is needed to assent to a religion, but an impossibly, unattainably high level of knowledge and expertise is needed to deny it. In the minds of many believers, the entrance to their religion is like a subway turnstile: a barrier that only allows people to pass through in one direction.”
(tags: apologist epistemology religion atheism)
Cancer is just as deadly as it was 50 years ago. Here’s why that’s about to change.
“We spoke to cancer experts to find out why the death rate from cancer hasn’t changed in the past 50 years — and we learned how genetic therapies could transform cancer treatments tomorrow.”
(tags: medicine biology science genetics cancer)
How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism – Maarten Boudry
“In recent controversies about Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), the principle of methodological naturalism (MN) has played an important role. In this paper, an often neglected distinction is made between two different conceptions of MN, each with its respective rationale and with a different view on the proper role of MN in science. According to one popular conception, MN is a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN). Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science. (Provisory MN or PMN). Science does have a bearing on supernatural hypotheses, and its verdict is uniformly negative.”
(tags: creationism intelligent-design religion science naturalism philosophy)

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)

Is the Creator good?

… since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. — St Paul, Epistle to the Romans

Suppose the existence and fine-tuning of the universe are best explained by a creator. Well, OK, but what sort of creator? Looking for the best explanation for things is clearly a reliable way to proceed: once we’ve settled the question of design by this method, we had better follow where it leads.

For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself, as we have already taught you, nor by the devil, a statement one cannot possibly make, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate. — Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora

What goes for the Law goes for the world too: it’s a mixed up sort of place, containing both good things and bad things. While other explanations are possible (just as, say, it is possible, though of course unlikely, that the universe somehow arose without a creator), Ptolemy‘s explanation seems the best one: the creator is not perfect. Not evil either, though, just… middle of the road. Doing the best they can, perhaps.

Is it impossible for someone to create universes if they aren’t perfectly good? Could even a very technically skilled person be a bit of a dick? It seems odd, then, to suppose that the creator has the traditional attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness, and so on.

… as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject. I am Sceptic enough to allow, that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such attributes as you suppose; but surely they can never prove these attributes. — Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

There’s an argument, which you may occasionally hear made by William Lane Craig, that we’re not a position to know that the creator doesn’t have sufficiently good reasons for allowing bad stuff to happen: he (according to Craig, the creator is a “he”) is said to move in mysterious ways, after all. Unfortunately, as John D relates, this makes it hard to see why we should intervene if we see someone suffering: who are we to say what good may come of it? Moreover, if our understanding of bad and good outcomes is so suspect, how are we then in a position to know that the creator is good?

He may be fully convinced of the narrow limits of his understanding; but this will not help him in forming an inference concerning the goodness of superior powers, since he must form that inference from what he knows, not from what he is ignorant of. The more you exaggerate his weakness and ignorance, the more diffident you render him, and give him the greater suspicion that such subjects are beyond the reach of his faculties. — Dialogues, again

Perhaps someone could appeal to a sacred book to show that the creator is good. Still, these things seem open to interpretation: we’d best leave Craig and Ptolemy to argue about the details of their shared scriptures. In any case, we’d need convincing that the book was a reliable source on the subject.

Perhaps, in the absence of external evidence, someone could come to a strong inner conviction that the creator is perfectly good. But it seems this sort of confidence can cut both ways. As Chris Hallquist writes, “If there is any actual case where we are confident that divine inaction is incompatible with perfection, then we must conclude that God does not exist.” (It seems that “God does not exist” might be a little hasty here, but we’d best leave Hallquist to argue with Ptolemy on that score).

Given all this, it seems odd to me that so many people confidently assert that the creator is good. We rightly prefer to believe that our instruments are broken than that we have disproved the Law of Gravitation, but it’s interesting to test our limits: if you are such a person, is there any such case you can imagine which would convince you to change your position? If not, why do you trouble yourself with evidence about the creator’s moral character either way? It would seem better to just accept that some people have one conviction about the creator, and some another. On the other hand, if we do look to the evidence, it seems that what we observe is best explained by a creator who is imperfect, and possibly indifferent.

Book: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume

Bored with new atheism? Why not try the old school? David Hume‘s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a classic refutation of the Argument from Design. These days, evangelists are again turning to design arguments, notably the Fine-tuning Argument. Perhaps this argument is enjoying its day in the sun because it embraces and extends physics, in the way discussed previously, rather than suffering from the lack of respectability which attends arguments from design in biology. In any case, Hume’s book is as relevant as it ever was.

The book is quite short, and the text is freely available online, but still, I prefer the old-fashioned dead trees format. The Penguin classics edition only costs a few quid and has a handy forward and footnotes explaining what’s going on.

Talking about religion down the pub

The book is a dialogue between three friends: Philo, a sceptic, whose arguments many commentators identify with Hume’s own views (although exactly what Hume did think about religion isn’t clear, as in the 1700s you still had to be a bit careful about criticising religion); Cleanthes, a design proponentsist; and Demea, who believes God is beyond human understanding and is unimpressed with both Philo’s scepticism and Cleanthes’s anthropomorphisation of the deity. In modern terms, Philo sounds like an atheist (albeit a closeted one), Cleanthes an orthodox Christian who is persuaded by the design argument, and Demea a sophisticated theologian.

These three have a wide-ranging conversation, observed by Pamphilus, the narrator, a young man staying with Cleanthes. It’s fun to watch: John D over at Philosophical Disquisitions writes: “I always like to imagine myself a participant at the after dinner conversation imagined therein. Nothing can beat that: good food, congenial surroundings, intelligent companions and intelligent debate”. Once you’ve got the hang of the slightly antiquated language, the rhythm of it is itself enjoyable to read. Hume can write, a talent not common to all philosophers.

Designed by who?

As Alex Byrne’s article says, Hume’s arguments on cosmology are stronger than Dawkins’s in The God Delusion, though Hume was at the disadvantage of not knowing about biological evolution. Erik Wielenberg’s Dawkins’ Gambit, Hume’s Aroma and God’s Simplicty (which I first saw either at Common Sense Atheism or over at ex-apologist, so thanks to whoever it was) compares them in more detail, paying particular attention to Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument, and also favours Hume.

The arguments themselves are neatly summarised by John D. To be even briefer, Hume casts doubt on both the inference that the universe is designed, and on the inference to the identity of the designer (or designers: as Philo says, if we’re basing our argument on an analogy to human design, don’t many builders make a house?). In a diversion into the argument from evil, he also questions how someone could come to know that God is maximally good: certainly not by observing the world, it seems.

But to get the full effect of the book, you should read it (otherwise, you might find, like me, that your arguments from summaries are riposted by a counter-argument that Hume himself anticipated). Recommended.

Link blog: religion, lolxians, homosexuality, funny

YouTube – Charlie Brooker – How To Report The News

Every news report you've ever seen.
(tags: news video funny journalism parody bbc media charlie-brooker)

The Devil Rides Out | Features | Fortean Times

Dennis Wheatley: "virtually invented the popular image of Satanism in 20th-century Britain, and he made it seem strangely seductive. If the appeal of Black Magic in popular culture was ultimately erotic, then this was largely due to Wheatley’s writing, with its reliable prospect of virg­ins being ritually ravished on altar tops." Via Metafilter
(tags: satan satanism occult magic dennis-wheatley devil fortean-times)

Tales of a Wayward Classicist: Latin Tattoos

Latin tattoos gone wrong. Probably SFW, shows a lot of skin (obviously) but no rude bits. Via Stoat.
(tags: tattoo funny latin language)

Luke on reformed epistemology and moral realism : The Uncredible Hallq

Nice: "A better response to Plantinga is just to point out that belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened 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."
(tags: philosophy plantinga hume descartes alvin-plantinga epistemology religion reformed)

Signature in the Cell | The BioLogos Foundation

Darrel Falk, a Christian and a professor of biology, finds problems with the science in Stephen Mayer's "The Signature in the Cell". Via Jerry Coyne.
(tags: evolution intelligent-design science religion creationism dna rna stephen-meyer darrel-falk biology discovery-institute)

The ex-gay files: The bizarre world of gay-to-straight conversion – This Britain, UK – The Independent

Indy journalist goes undercover to Christian counsellors who try to cure him of Teh Gay. Apparently, gayness can be caused by Freemasonry: who knew?
(tags: psychology uk homosexuality quacks lolxians religion)

Harriet Harman defends equality legislation following Pope’s criticism – Home News, UK – The Independent

No pot pourri, as Ian Paisley would say.
(tags: pope catholicism catholic bigot homosexuality religion lolxians)

Link blog: funny, religion, atheism, stephen-meyer

Why It’s So Tricky for Atheists to Debate with Believers | Belief | AlterNet

Greta Christina lists some "heads I win, tails you lose" arguments against atheism: not criticising serious theologians, fatwa envy ("you wouldn't say that to Muslims"), "atheism is a religion" and so on.
(tags: religion atheism argument debate abiogenesis greta-christina)

Airbrushed for change –

Remixed Tory campaign posters. I like Hoodie Cameron.
(tags: politics funny uk government election david-cameron conservatives tory)

Stephen Meyer’s Bogus Information Theory

Criticism of Stephen Meyer's "The Signature in the Cell" based on Meyer's mistakes in information theory (or rather, the way he uses a made up definition of "information"). HT to Leonard Richardson, who rightly says it's a good introduction to what "information" does mean, regardless of what you think of Meyer's book.
(tags: information shannon entropy mathematics maths kolmogorov signature cell stephen-meyer intelligent-design creationism)

Pat Robertson is not unchristian

"This Jesus dude, and the new testament in general, is not all sweetness and light and "love thy brother" though those things definitely appear in more abundance than in the Old Testament. But still, according to the Gospels, Jesus spoke more about hell than about any other subject."
(tags: haiti pat-robertson hell christianity religion jesus)

Know Your Godless Heathen Positions

"It has become common, especially for the critics of atheism, to conflate atheism, materialism, naturalism, evolution, and natural selection. Then, an objection to one of these positions is taken to undermine all of them. This would be a mistake since there are several distinct positions here that the atheist may or may not also accept. And much of the energy that has been expended to knock them down is wasted because several of them turn out to be compatible with theism. Let’s clarify:"
(tags: science philosophy atheism matt-mccormick materialism naturalism evolution)

Russian Commuters Treated to Free Roadside Pornography

According to FOX News, "traffic jerked to a standstill". Via comp.risks.
(tags: funny traffic russia road porn pornography)

Link blog: religion, dualism, francis-collins, discovery-institute

Substance dualism

QualiaSoup has a new video up, a short argument against substance dualism (the idea that consciousness arises from separate kind of mental substance outside the physical world).
(tags: consciousness philosophy dualism qualia)

Theodicy III: Primo Levi versus Francis Collins

Jerry Coyne has been reading Francis Collins's "The Language of God" as well as Levi's works on Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, he doesn't find Collins's theodicy very convincing.
(tags: theology religion jerry-coyne francis-collins)

Rowan Williams’ choice | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |

Andrew Brown kicks some righteous ass: "Under Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. The church that would jail them both for life, and would revile and persecute their defenders, stays snugly in his bosom. Not even the Archbishop's remarkable gift for obfuscation can conceal these facts forever."
(tags: homosexuality politics uganda uk religion christianity anglicanism rowan-williams)

Discovery Institute: The Mask Falls Away

The IDers at the DI go bonkers about the Climategate emails: "A cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media concubines have conspired to lie about global warming. The reasons are obvious: power and money. … I’m not sure that the scientific community can or will respond to this debacle in a courageous or ethical way. The ID-Darwinism debate clearly demonstrates that venality and shameless self-interest, as well as a toxic leftist-atheist ideology, runs very deep in the scientific community." I'm adding "toxic" to my standard "neo-sceptical strident fundamentalist neo-atheist" spiel.
(tags: lolxians climate global-warming intelligent-design discovery-institute)

Link blog: philosophy, morality, science, video

Why the Big Bang Singularity Does Not Help the Kalam Cosmological Argument for Theism — Pitts 59 (4): 675 — The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Paper on whether the Big Bang supports theistic arguments for creation ex nihilo, and particularly the Kalam argument. Notably, the author points out that if the singularity in the past requires a Creator, surely singularities in the future (such as black holes) require a Destroyer.
(tags: science religion creationism kalam bigbang big-bang Singularity philosophy)

August and Everything After (San Francisco, 2004)

Adam Duritz singing the Counting Crows song whose lyrics are on the album cover of August and Everything After (but which doesn't appear on the album itself). There are a couple of live versions of this: this one's better because the crowd aren't yelling through it.
(tags: counting-crows adam-duritz music)

Gastronomic Realism—A Cautionary Tale

Loeb's charming paper comparing Moral Realism and Gastronomic Realism (the idea that some foods are simply better than others, independent of individual tastes).
(tags: philosophy morality food realism gastronomic don-loeb system:filetype:pdf system:media:document)

“The Collapse Of Intelligent Design”

Ken Miller demonstrating why ID is not backed by evidence. Miller's a Catholic, not a neo-sceptical atheist neo-rationalist.
(tags: ken-miller intelligent-design id evolution creationism science biology dna)

Don Loeb – Moral Irrealism

Philosopher Don Loeb in conversation about moral irrealism, the view that there are no moral facts independent of our beliefs about them. Touches on whether introducing a God would help moral realism: Loeb thinks not.
(tags: philosophy morality atheism don-loeb)

Mr. Deity and the Identity Crisis

"any time anyone's said anything comprehensible about the Trinity the Church has declared it a heresy." – Gareth
(tags: funny video religion christianity trinity mr-deity)

The Non-Expert: IKEA by Matthew Baldwin

A walkthrough of the various levels of the IKEA game: "As you continue through the main SHOWROOM you will see groups blocking the walkways while chatting and others moving against traffic. These people should be killed immediately."
(tags: funny humour culture parody games ikea furniture shopping)

David Nutt: Governments should get real on drugs – opinion – 04 November 2009 – New Scientist

David Nutt's opinion piece in New Scientist.
(tags: drugs science badscience government law medicine politics david-nutt)

A life changed by evidence

Series of videos by a former evangelical Christian explaining why he became an atheist. Well produced and informative stuff. The chap makes a palpable effort to show how he was a Christian and how, for much of the time before his deconversion, he thought the things he was learning could be incorporated into Christianity rather than working against it.
(tags: video youtube de-conversion christianity evangelicalism bible morality)

Darwin award

Jerry Coyne has an article in The New Republic. It’s notionally a review of new books by two Christians who defend evolution against creationism, whether it be traditional young Earth creationism, or creationism’s more recent adaption to a major predator (the US court system), intelligent design. One of the Christians is the biologist Kenneth Miller, who testified against the IDists in the Dover School District trial; the other is Karl Giberson, a physicist.

Coyne argues that, while there are Christians who are accept evolution, this does not mean that these things are compatible (“It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers”). Having dismissed IDists’ attempt to have the definition of science extended to religion, and the God of the liberal theologians, a god who almost nobody actually believes in, Coyne moves on to address Miller and Giberson’s attempts to harmonise science and religion. He does so with civility and directness:

<lj-cut text=”Good bits”> (Note: The links below are to places where we’ve discussed similar ideas before; they do not form part of Coyne’s text)

[According to Miller] God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature.

In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky.

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

He concludes that:

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

Coyne does, I think, over-commit himself to one particular answer to the Fine Tuning Argument (just as Dawkins does), and he mis-states what the Strong Anthropic Principle is, but overall the article is excellent, and you should all read it.

There is a difference between creationisms (like YEC and ID) which contradict well established scientific theories, and Miller and Giberson’s efforts to argue that God did it but carefully hid his tracks (or that God set things up so that intelligent life would arise on Earth, though Coyne argues that this argument is contradicted by science to some extent). With YEC and ID, we’ve good reasons not to believe them. With a God who carefully hides his tracks, we must instead ask how we’d know if we were wrong (we might also ponder the arguments from God’s silence). The problem with Miller and Gibson is not facts but method.

If we accept a proposition merely because we can’t show it’s wrong, we might believe all sorts of things, so why credit the Christian God rather than my particular favourite deities? It seems that Miller and Giberson’s theories start from the conviction that God did it and work backwards to an explanation which is not directly contradicted by current science. As we saw when talking about biblical inerrancy, there’s always a logical way to make that sort of thing work; yet to do it is unskillful, the opposite of the fourth and seventh virtues in the Noble Twelvefold Path. In science “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”


According to the Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog, the Intelligent Design people (specifically the Discovery Institute) are getting interested in neuroscience (see also part 2), attacking the idea that consciousness has a physical basis and advocating Cartesian dualism.

This seems to have been rumbling away for a while, but people are writing about it at the moment because New Scientist noticed.

You can write a long article on what people have thought about consciousness, so what’s the problem with the IDists joining in? First, neuroscientists are objecting to IDists’ claims that scientific experiments prove things that those experiments don’t actually prove. As Amanda Geffer of New Scientist points out, experiments that show therapy can alter brain function don’t prove that the immaterial soul is acting on the brain, merely that the brain isn’t indivisible, so parts can act on other parts. The therapy described reminded me of mindfulness therapies, and of Yudkowsky’s recent reflections on Which Parts Are “Me”? (Everything I am, is surely my brain; but I don’t accept everything my brain does, as “me”).

Novella also objects to IDists quote-mining (I’m shocked, shocked I tell you) from philosophers like David Chalmers in order to bolster their claims. Novella says that Chalmers does not argue for an immaterial spirit, so it is a mistake for those who do to claim him for their side. IDists could quote Chalmers if they wanted to argue that there is a hard problem of consciousness, but it would be dishonest to quote him in support of their proposed solution, or indeed to say that the hard problem Chalmers speaks of has anything to do with evolution.

Edited to add: Chalmers discusses the New Scientist article on his blog, and doesn’t sound very impressed with the theists’ efforts to recruit him for their cause. The Chalmers link came from Chris Hallquist, whose blog I recommend.

Is this IDists’ new strategy after they got planed in the Dover judgement? A while back, I mentioned that they might need a new way around the establishment clause in the US Constitution. I’m not sure this can be it, as consciousness isn’t on the curriculum in most schools, but it does fit in with the wider strategy of looking for ways to undermine physicalism.