Friday, 31 December 2010


"Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors." - Thomas H. Huxley

Morning Scepticism: Vitamins

With the obesity epidemic and the problems associated with it are a real concern. There are clearly problems with diet. But malnutrition is not one of them. Except in a few rare circumstances taking vitamins is a useless exercise. They do nothing! Yet so much is spent on them. They litter shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies, and there are even stores dedicated to their sale - all of this despite the scientific evidence showing how little they actually do. It seems a simple way to good health, but really it's little more than expensive coloured urine for the perception of doing something right. Whatever problems we have with nutrition in the West, it ain't the lack of it!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Satisfactory Explanations

The universe didn't always exist, so neither did life. Life is on earth so how did life arise on this planet? One possible answer is that it didn't, that life colonised earth from another world. The collection of hypothesises called panspermia are are possible explanations to the question. Life didn't begin here, it came here would be the answer to the origin of life on earth. But as even a creationist would see, this doesn't actually answer how life arose. It's not a satisfactory explanation, even if its true. Likewise when a creationist says that life was an act of divine creation, it's not a satisfactory explanation. It doesn't tell us how life came about or even a mechanism by which it did. Even if it was all created by an intelligent creator, leaving the story there is like saying life originated outside of earth without adding anything more to it.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Politics Of Failure

The political process is so often lamented, that the parties have become complacent and political rhetoric is in the gutter. We blame the media, we blame human nature and those who manipulate it, we blame ideologues and ideologies. This is taken as a failure of democracy and fosters cynicism, but I think another more important lesson can be drawn from it. While there are certain failures that need addressing from time to time, and there's problems with corruption and incompetency, most of the time things run quite smoothly. The debate over gay marriage for example takes place because those fundamental issues are pretty well taken care of. While it might be some form of distraction, in part it's a reflection of the success of a healthy society.

Though it is a bit of a concern just how polemic and divisive such topics can be. Things are running more smoothly than in any time in history, yet we're almost ready to rip out each other's throat over such issues!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Respectful Dialogue

It is often said that a respectful dialogue is needed when it comes to contentious issues, and its easy to see why. But can there be a respectful dialogue when there's fundamental dishonesty in the arguments of one side? Creationists might complain that academia is excluding them, but it's hard to feel sympathy when the same people quotemine statements to make them appear to support their position. Likewise, what good does it do to have a respectful dialogue with someone who argues that vaccination is mass-slaughter? That government healthcare means death camps? A respectful dialogue cannot happen when there's such insanity or dishonesty, otherwise it's going to be one side conceding ground to crazy for the sake of appearing tolerant.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Teleological

The Galileo story is one used to highlight the incompatibility between science and religion, or used to show that scientific ideas eventually get adopted into a religious framework over time - depending on your perspective on things. But the dethroning the Earth from the centre of the Cosmos is nothing compared to dethroning our species as the pinnacle of Creation. 150 years after Darwin published his work on the matter and there's still little acceptance of evolution via natural selection in religious circles, at least according to surveys (In the US, the majority see evolution as "God-guided"). Where we are might have challenged Biblical authority, but how we came to be challenges the very role of God. A creator with nothing to do is not really worthy of the title.

But I think another lesson can be taken away from this cultural controversy. The teleological argument is a very powerful argument indeed, and its no wonder that intelligent theists have shifted from the intricacy of the eye to the relative strength of the strong nuclear force.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Organic

Let's say there's something about organic farming that makes for better food. Why can't these processes be isolated and incorporated into other farming processes? Likewise, if there's something harmful about a particular farming process, why can't that be removed or replaced instead of wishing the whole system to go away? This is one of the problems I have with advocates for organic food, it's so often put forward as a false dichotomy between the worst in industrial farming or organic. It's the same with those who seek herbal remedies instead of conventional medicine, if there's actually something in a herb that works then why can't that active ingredient be isolated and incorporated into medicine? It seems its not a clash of efficacy but one of principle, you either accept organic farming practices or you want to poison earth and the people on it with *shudder* chemicals.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Christmas

I hope you have a very merry Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it.

Friday, 24 December 2010


"If the world were truly a rational place, men would ride sidesaddle." - Rita Mae Brown

Morning Scepticism: War On Christmas

Speaking as a militant secularist*, I don't actually have a problem with Christmas. How people want to celebrate the day is up to them, if they choose to celebrate it at all. It's a culturally significant time of year and really does need to be recognised as such. I wonder what this war on Christmas is, because as far as I can tell, the War On Christmas™ is wanting the day as much as possible to be for everyone. This isn't taking away the rights for Christians to celebrate Christmas in whatever way they deem holiest, but to strengthen that by ensuring that one's religion isn't imposed on others.

*and by militant secularist I mean I write a blog

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Bluetooth

When buying a car, there are many things one looks out for. You'd think the main things would be over the car's reliability and TCO. How efficient is the engine? How often does it need servicing? How easy is it to use? Yet somehow these important features don't play a part in advertising. I recently saw one ad that one of its main selling features in the 30 second spot was that the car had bluetooth and could synch with media devices. To me, that's like seeing an advertisement for a house where the emphasis is on the material the kitchen bench is made out of. It might be energy efficient, spacious, well-constructed and in a great area, but it's really important to talk about how good the benches look - perfect for entertaining purposes.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Misinformed

The difference between being uninformed and misinformed is the difference between not knowing about planets and stars and believing the earth is at the centre of the universe. One can rectify being uninformed by learning more on a given topic, being misinformed however pretty much guarantees not being able to recognise good information. After all, how can you determine truth if its measured against perceived truths?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Drowning Man

If you happen to be walking past a lake and in there you see a drowning man, is it your obligation to help? I'm sure all talk of moral relativism or cultural sensitivity would go out the window in such a scenario, it would almost be unthinkable that there would be anyone out there who would consider such an action as problematic. This is why I think that an isolationist policy for a government is problematic. If there's the capacity to act to save lives and act for a greater good, then it's not really different to the problem of intervening to save the life of someone drowning in a river. Of course killing 20 people and wounding hundreds near a river on the notion of there being a drowning man is a different story.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Experiencing Time

Our experience of time and an objective reference for time are two different things. We can reference a more objective measure like the times around a sun or the number of rotations around the earth, yet subjectively we all know that an hour with friends and an hour waiting pass by differently. As is said, time flies when you're having fun. Perhaps those concerned about longevity should instead of looking at numbers like years focus on leading as boring life as possible, nothing to do and nothing to occupy the time. They might not live longer but it will feel like an eternity!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Truth By Consensus

When it is said the earth orbits the sun, the fact is so pervasive in our society that to deny it is to deny knowledge itself. Yet when it comes to other facts of this nature that don't have a communal consensus, it's dogmatic to hold them as true no matter how strong the case. The earth can orbit the sun, not because the science says so, but because most people do. But because many people deny evolution, to hold evolution as true is to be labelled dogmatic. Yet the fact that many people don't hold something so well-supported as being true means there's more reason to actively try to educate people on the matter, yet by doing that is to be perceived as being a fundamentalist.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Pascal's Wager

If you do believe and God is real then you go to heaven, and if God isn't real then you get the same as if you believed and God wasn't real. But if God is real and you don't believe, you get hell. It seems fairly reasonable on the face of it, but I wonder how many people would really apply such reasoning in everyday life? Would they, for instance, hand over their wallet to a mugger who claimed to have a gun pointed at their head even if both hands were empty. After all, the consequence for not believing if there really is a gun is paying the ultimate price. The gun might be invisible after all, you can't prove that it's not really there...

Friday, 17 December 2010


"There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." - Daniel Dennett

Morning Scepticism: Authority

While anyone theoretically can pick up a book and learn about a particular topic, we are stuck having to rely on experts who have spent decades training and researching that topic. For the most part this is good, because those scientists can push into new territory and see things that can only come with a sufficient understanding. But for us laypeople, we're stuck taking someone's word for it. In this semi-detached state we find ourselves in, we are given a part of the story, something that should be enough to make a compelling case. But in the absence of the knowledge that makes it so compelling, it really shouldn't be surprising that so many people reject particular scientific ideas that don't fit comfortably with them.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: The Child Question

One advantage about being openly homosexual as a youngish adult in a long term relationship has got to be never being asked about when you're planning on having children. Of course homosexuals can and do have children, but the perception of impossibility excludes the question. With a heterosexual relationship will be perceived as possible and even an expectation, even if there are actual impossibilities such as infertility.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Denialism

If there's one book to read this year, it's Michael Specter's - Denialism. But don't take my word for it, watch his presentation at TED and judge for yourself.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Moral Monster

One line of apologetic I occasionally encounter is one of us being morally imperfect, that we have failed to live up to God's standard as laid out in the ten commandments so He has every right to send us to hell. This, I think, is akin to a parent who finds out that their child took a cookie from the cookie jar without asking being punished by getting locked in the basement and brutally tortured for years. It's actually worse than that because hell is an infinite punishment. All we can do is look at extremes like that and ask, what would you think of a parent who did that to a child? Would we call a parent to did that "righteous" as this line of apologetic labels God? Because to me, such behaviour would make a parent a moral monster.

But I hear the objection already, there's a way to avoid such a fate: by believing in the resurrection Jesus as payment. But this doesn't make eternal torture any less morally dubious, it's like the parent locking up and torturing their child unless they pat their belly.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Cancer

Cancer is a disease of mutation, and while certain environmental factors can increase the risk of particular cancers, it's something that can happen to anyone. So while exercise, eating healthy, avoiding too much sun, and not smoking all can reduce the risks of getting cancer, it doesn't eliminate. I think there's a disservice done when cancer is made into a lifestyle disease, it's unrepresentative of what cancer is and it means that people think that cancer is something done to themselves.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Knowing Your Genome

Imagine being born with a hereditary disease that you know you have and puts an absolute upper limit on how long you will live. In that scenario would you wish you didn't know? Yet for those of us who have no known condition, we can have our DNA scanned for key allele variants that could let us know about future problems. And as time goes on, this knowledge will only get better. So the question is do we want to know? Because the knowledge is available, if we choose not to get tested then we could miss something that could help prolong our life. The knowledge could serve as useful, it could just show something unfavourable that can't be treated. Is the bliss of ignorance worth the risk of not knowing something that might actually help to prolong your existence?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Armchair History

Imagine if someone were to say that Hitler didn't really die during World War II but exiled himself to Iraq where he helped in orchestrating the 1948 invasion of Israel. Sound absurd? Of course it is. We know history isn't in the eye of the storyteller but that there must have been one chain of events, that however imperfect our reconstruction isn't amenable to wild unfounded speculation. We need good evidence to back up such claims, making a "just so" account with nefarious motivations dancing in the mystery of facts lost to time is only going to fictionalise what little we know.

Friday, 10 December 2010


"Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one." - Voltaire

Morning Scepticism: Value

We could all name innovative visionaries whose inventions have changed the way we live. My job wouldn't exist if it weren't for numerous visionaries who paved the way for the necessity of such work. Yet it would be a mistake to think that those visionaries are the only people in society producing anything of value, for those great inventions and innovations would come to naught if there wasn't multiple people working together to allow such innovations to have the chance to even exist. The success of a Bill Gates is really the success of everyone. People really should stop using Atlas Shrugged as they would Hustler, the success of individuals in a society is much more a reflection of the success of the society.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Status Symbols

Apparently there's too much household debt right now, and this obviously is a problem. But we are in a society of rampant consumerism, where the ability to consume is as much about having status symbols as anything else. If you can't afford a status symbol then on the promise of paying more in the future there are plenty who are willing to throw money at you to have it now. In an environment such as this, how can we expect anything else?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Video Games As Art

Are video games art? It's a question of what makes art. Certainly games can be visually and aurally stunning, very artistic in manner. But that does not make art. Certainly games can inspire emotion and wonder. But that does not make art. Certainly games can be intricately designed and crafted down to the tiniest detail. But that does not make art. So are games art? I don't know. But if games aren't art, then art is certainly diminished for not including them!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Wikileaks

I really do like the idea of Wikileaks, while individual documents may turn out to be problematic the goal of transparency is at least one way to give accountability to those who normally hide them under more noble aims such as "international security". It's important that such bodies exist, because just covering something up is not a good long-term strategy. Just ask the Catholic Church...

Monday, 6 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Ethical Nutrients

Given that time and time again supplements are shown to do nothing, and in some circumstances even be harmful, can a company call itself Ethical Nutrients? Reminded me of a acupuncture shop at a local shopping centre called Miracle Therapy. "It's just the name of the store, I suppose, and no need for truth in advertising. Might as well call a homoeopathic remedy "cancer cure", after all it's just the name of the product.

On the site, the FAQ asks: "Am I Getting Enough Vitamins?" For almost everyone lucky enough to live in an industrialised country the answer is yes.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Crop Circles

At the pub last week I was asked about what I thought of crop circles. I gave the stock standard skeptic reply - there's no evidence of alien craft and plenty of evidence of people with boards pushing down crops. Though one interesting story I mentioned was of stoned wallabies, the intent was to show that sometimes there are unusual explanations that are still down to earth. That explanation seemed to be more captivating than the people with boards, probably for the same reason aliens are. Unusual phenomena it seems needs unusual explanations!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Lost In Translation

One of my favourite lines from any film is "English motherfucker, do you speak it?" from Pulp Fiction. It got me wondering how one would translate this into a foreign language, to do it literally might miss the meaning. After all "motherfucker" might not have the same connotations in different languages, let alone different cultures. "Englantia, äidinnussija! puhutko sitä?" would be a somewhat literal Finnish translation, but it doesn't pack the punch of the original delivery nor does "fucker of a mother" carry the same profane insult which makes the line so powerful.

"Englantia, kusipää! Puhutko sitä?" was a translation I found on a Finnish subtitle. "Kusipää" translates to "pisshead" but means more like arsehole. If someone called me a pisshead I'd think they're calling me a drunk!

Friday, 3 December 2010


"Teach a man to reason and he'll think for a lifetime" - Phil Plait

Morning Scepticism: Evil

How many truly evil people do you know? Perhaps you could name people who have some disturbing traits, but I'm going to guess that no-one you know is truly evil. I think this is something important to reflect on, when thinking about anything that has to do with agency think about people. I think two things stem from this: first that cartoonish evil is best reserved for comic books, and second if someone does something horrible I'd be willing to bet that its often the case that the horrible action stemmed from an intention to do good. Security measures might seem draconian and malevolent (after all, the government IS spying on its citizens) but I'm betting the reason for it is the perception that doing so would prevent future atrocities. Likewise I think the terrorists aren't evil, but fighting for what they see as the good. Those promoting vaccines and those trying to stop vaccine use are both doing so to protect life, go figure!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Vaccine Preventable Deaths

The nature of vaccine denial, I think, means that no matter what happens those who are vocally opposed to vaccinations will keep their opposition. There are already deaths associated with vaccine-preventable diseases coming back. The response? It's the drug company's fault for making such a horrible dangerous product, despite all the work done showing those fears are misguided.

Those who are arguing against vaccines aren't horrible people, they believe what they are doing is right. They are good people, and good people don't want children to die. So instead they harrass the parents who have lost a child through vaccine-preventable disease, they blame Big Pharma, and still go on about how dangerous mercury is. To do otherwise would be to admit they've in part fuelled a hysteria that has claimed the lives of those they want to protect. More children will die and that will only strengthen a denialist's resolve.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Morning Scepticism: Presuppositionist Logic

  1. Suppose X is the best worldview.
  2. Competitors to X must have weaknesses that need to be highlighted.
  3. Any stated weaknesses of X must be defended, if possible by showing how views other than X fail to account for them.

  4. Therefore, X is the best worldview.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Will

While I agree that to some extent we have control over our actions, the concept of free will is something that is quite problematic. To have ultimate responsibility, then there would have to be some conception of the self akin to a Cartesian model. But we don't have that, we have conflicting drives and desires that make up our will. It's not just as easy as saying that it's their choice, it's true in a way but misleading to talk in such terms.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Productive

Every time I hear about how X many millions of dollars is being wasted away at work through workers engaging in non-work activities I've got to wonder just how they calculate it. It seems there's the blunt figure of time lost equals dollars lost, which I wonder how much quality of work factors in. I know from my line of work keeping people overtime doesn't necessarily mean they get more done. So when figures quoting Facebook are put in the economy's deficit, I've got to wonder if someone using Facebook for an hour makes them happier and that helps productivity then the quoted figures are naive speculation.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Genius

I really wonder about people who think they are a genius. While no doubt geniuses exist and there are remarkable people who will go unacknowledged, it takes quite a lot to think that you are one of them. Perhaps how good the illusion of consistency is in the brain, that you "get it" when everyone else doesn't. It makes sense to you, you see its internal consistency, and no-one else is buying it because they fail to live up to your genius. And what's really more likely, that you have some revolutionary idea that will overthrow the direction of humanity or your just some hack who's convinced otherwise?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Labels

If I were to reject psychic powers because my magic 8-ball said its nonsense, that would be a bad reason to believe that there's no such thing as a psychic. Yet a well-reasoned position on why psychics are deluding themselves holds the exact same appearance as doing so because of a magic 8-ball or because a man in a white coat said so. To get hung up on what the belief is as opposed to why it is believed is leading to arguing the label rather than the argument. One can argue against the position with the most uncharitable interpretation as possible, and sadly this happens all too frequently.

Friday, 26 November 2010


"Theodicy is the philosophical contortion that seeks to justify child sacrifice or the Holocaust or juvenile cancer as a route to a higher order of good in society." - Robyn Williams

Morning Scepticism: NLP

If Neuro-linguistic Programming really did work, and we were able to manipulate others through precise use of language, then what's the difference between using NLP to get sex and rape? Thankfully the technique is dubious at best, but at what point does conversation become manipulation? After all the intent of NLP is an attempt at mind control. If it really worked then the only difference between forcing yourself on someone physically and doing it through manipulation is the brutality of the act. But aside from the apparent consent the acts are indistinguishable.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Representing

The Invention Of Lying was based on an interesting premise, what would a society be like without any sense of the make-believe? The movie followed the idea that whatever someone said was true must be true, but that requires something impossible: a perfect representation of the inner-self. Take a society of completely honest people who can't lie there would still be the need for detecting falsehood as brains aren't perfect. So logically speaking some things would still be wrong.

Of course it's just a movie, and as far as films go I enjoyed it. Had a few laughs and found a few things to think about.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Moral Progress

One reason I'm sceptical of those who say there's no such thing as morality is that there's been great progress in the flourishing of the human condition over the last few centuries. If morality was nothing more than a cultural construct, then there shouldn't be any clear direction to changes through time. Looking back especially over the last few hundred years there's been a clear trend towards improvements in the quality of life for as many people as possible. While there's always more work to be done, the cultural relativistic implications clearly don't match with the data. It's a failed hypothesis in the most fundamental sense as it simply doesn't explain the data and is even contradicted by it.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Godwin

Whether Hitler was in fact an atheist or influenced by Darwin are historical curiosities that don't influence on the validity of either. Yet much ink is spilled over Hitler's atheism despite there being very little evidence to suggest he was and much to suggest he wasn't. I've found one a priori argument used to establish Hitler's atheism.
  1. To be a Christian is to be a good person
  2. Adolph Hitler was not a good person

  3. Therefore, Adolph Hitler was not a Christian (thus an atheist)
Of course when the conjecture is that Christianity doesn't mean someone is a good person, excluding all those who are Christians who do bad things is about as effective as talking about prayer having a 100% success rate when God chooses to answer it. But I don't think for a minute that it matters whether Hitler really believed or not, when the argument is that a society without God leads to immorality Hitler suits just fine.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Sanity Prevails
PARENTS will have the right to ethics classes as an alternative to scripture in their child's school even if the principal and the majority of the school community opposes them.

The state cabinet is expected to approve the introduction of ethics classes to primary schools today after a successful trial this year. They will begin as early as term one next year.

While the classes will be voluntary for schools, the Herald has confirmed that parents who want their children to attend the classes will be able to appeal to the Education Department if the principal opposes them.
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As long as the St James Ethics Centre, which will run the classes, is able to provide volunteers and there is a reasonable number of children to attend them, the department will ensure they are offered.

Students in years 5 and 6 are likely to be the first to be offered the classes, because they are the years in which the trial was run. Eventually classes will be offered in years K-6.
Looking back on my time spent in scripture, it would have been much more productive to be in an ethics class than it would that time in Scripture. All that effort to try to convince me (along with the rest of my class) of the factual nature of Jesus and of the importance that faith plays in life didn't work. Meanwhile I didn't get to study ethics in any sense formally until my third year of university. My sense of morality was pieced together from paternal figures, common sense, experience, intuition and works of literature. While I don't think this is exactly a horrible way of doing it, it would be a shame to not give young people a formalised way of thinking about such issues.

I look at it like language. Yes people can pick it up and do generally fine without formal education. After all language long pre-dates schools. But it would be absurd to think that language lessons are useless, or its systematically imposing one language on students ahead of its culture (even if language is arbitrary and culturally-dependant), language lessons add a proper structure to what we intuitively acquire. While morality could be argued is a lot less culturally-dependant, I think they are analogous at least in the respect of the value of teaching.

Anyway, this is great news for parents in NSW who have children in years 5 or 6 next year. The question of Jesus or the importance of faith is what churches are for, not public schools.

Morning Scepticism: Herbal

It's been said that alternative medicine at works is just called medicine. I there's a very easy indicator of success: the cost. While pharmacies do a great disservice by selling herbal products alongside real medicine, there's a clear difference in cost. Now while it could be taken as Big Pharma profiteering, the difference in price can best be explained by the fact that one works and the other doesn't. I tend to think that the price of herbal pills is a "what do I have to lose?" approach to sales, meanwhile real medicine is priced in such a way that if it didn't work then there'd be no reason to buy it. This might not be always true, but it seems a good rule of thumb.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

For The Love Of Christmas!

Tim Minchin's song White Wine In The Sun is the best summation of what Christmas means to me. And it seems I'm not the only one who thinks so, a cover has appeared on a Christmas CD for charity. And it has caused outrage!
Major Neil Venables said the organisation was disappointed by the song, which was at odds with its Christian ethos, but hoped people would still buy it.
I really don't get that, at "odds" with the Christian ethos? There are a a few jabs at the dogma but at the core of the song lies a message of meaning and the importance of family. This is what I'm repeatedly told is the Christian ethos. Or does it only count if those values are part of the veneration of the silly rituals and superstitions?

The original:

The cover:

Morning Scepticism: Flat Tax

A flat tax would only serve to exacerbate income inequality and has no redeemable features. It's not a fair system as it puts a disproportionate burden on those who don't have disposable income. It's been a nice trick to convince people on lower incomes that the problem is the free-loaders at the bottom rather than those hoarders at the top, the complaints of unfair taxation of the prosperous means putting the burden on those who aren't.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Gamble

I don't gamble, which is to say I don't exchange my money for a statistically-rigged chance of increasing it. But I can hardly pretend that I don't really gamble, even if I limit the scope to finance then I'm gambling with my choice in job. Do I risk instability and financial ruin to chase a bigger pay packet? Is my money better saved or exchanged for quasi-necessities? Is it wise to put myself in great debt for the chance to own a home? Gambling is a part of life, the immorality of gambling to me is putting odds that guarantee diminishing outcomes for the perception of unlikely gain. There's little more pathetic than watching a problem gambler in action.

Friday, 19 November 2010


"The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell." - Bertrand Russell

Morning Scepticism: Charity

For all those who bring up history's greatest monsters as being atheists as proof of the immorality of atheism, do they have to inversely accept that atheism makes people more charitable because the two most charitable men in history have both been atheists? Perhaps an apologist would contend that its because of their upbringing in a Christian society that made them charitable, but by that logic then Stalin's atrocities can be attributed to his time in seminary school.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Only Game In Town

Something I have seen come up a number of times is that atheists argue for Darwinian evolution because that's the only game in town. While theists can believe that God created through an evolutionary process, an atheist doesn't have the luxury of choice. The insinuation is that perhaps the support of evolution isn't for scientific reasons, but to justify a prior-held world-view.

I find this argument deceptive in a number of ways. Firstly it's ignoring the quality and predictability of explanation for its propagation. Second, if the argument were true then we should see parallels in other areas of explanation where this happens. Finally, that it's a misdirection to cover up their own doctrinal commitments.

Triumph of explanation
Consider the following statement:
Atheists need to accept a heliocentric solar system because there are no natural explanations for a geocentric universe.
Such a statement highlights the absurdity of what is being proposed. The reasons to support a heliocentric universe are because of the predictive success of modern scientific advancements in understanding gravitation and the observational data that a heliocentric model is able to explain. Scientists have used this model to land craft on Mars and send vessels to explore other worlds hundreds of millions of kilometres away.

The heliocentric model is the only realistic game in town, I say realistic because anyone could come up with a speculative suggestion about the nature of stars in the sky but we don't take seriously those stories. Evolution by natural selection is much the same, while there are many different possible explanations, it's the Darwinian paradigm that is the only realistic game in town. Not because it's the way to cast off God, but because it through empirical observation and analytic consideration is found to be able to explain life on this world.

Evolution by natural selection isn't the only game in town, but the only realistic one. Through an examination of the fossil record, the genetic code, geographic distribution and comparative anatomy. Through many different experiments on many different facets of biology, including on the addition and removal of various selective pressures. Through analytic contemplation of underlying philosophical considerations. Through all these the modern evolutionary synthesis has been deeply examined and has been found to be triumphant. It's the only realistic game in town for those reasons.

The cosmic competitors
Even if evolution by natural selection is the only game in town for good scientific and philosophical reasons, its propagation might be through atheists who don't understand a thing about it except that its a counter to the teleological argument. That is to say that the assumption that God made life as it is would be an incredibly powerful argument if not for Darwin's idea.

Yet the teleological argument doesn't only exist to explain life, but to explain the cosmos. The seemingly arbitrary values of a number of constants need to be so precise for life to exist that a personal intelligence would be the best explanation.

If this holds true that atheists are just grasping at whatever comes there way then we should see a uniformity in explanation - a tentative hypothesis billed as the only game in town. If there is one that can account for the universe that atheists default to, I can't for the life of me think of what it is. Of course my ignorance is not an argument against there being one but I'd actually be surprised if atheists in general really had sufficient knowledge of cosmology to be able to even comment on the assertion's coherence.

But why does it actually matter? The validity of evolution stands with the evidence for it and the issue is one big red herring. If I were to argue that astrology was nonsense because my magic 8-ball says it's crap, the problems of astrology persist irrespective of my reasoning for it. While my personal attack on astrology would be absurd, the discipline of astrology is neither strengthened or weakened by my argument.

My real rejection of astrology, however, comes from an understanding of what planets and stars are. I reject it because constellations are an artefact of our current position in space-time and there's nothing we know that could even suggest a link between the relative position of planets and stars with events in our lives. We can navigate by constellations, start wars on the position of Mars, but that's not the causal relationship needed for astrology to be valid - it's just us finding a pattern (that's not there) and acting upon it.

When people make a doctrinal commitment to the inerrancy of The Bible and that commitment leads to rejection of any contrary information, then a rejection of evolution can be said to be done out of necessity. Likewise, when those who are crusading not for creationism but to get more people to Christianity could be said to arguing against evolution out of necessity. After all if evolution makes God unnecessary then it's taking away a strong reason to believe. Indeed this is what the Wedge Strategy, just like so many other attacks on evolution indicate, spelled out. Evolution is just the tip of the iceberg in the larger culture wars.

This is why I think that such arguments are projections. There was nothing in declaring myself an atheist to make a commitment to evolution by natural selection. There are atheists who don't think that natural selection works, or that it's insufficient to explain life. The charge of the only game in town is trying to put the focus of doctrinal commitment away from those who have one.

Morning Scepticism: Blasphemy

Blasphemy is far from a victimless crime, for those who commit it put themselves in danger. For those who wish not to hear blasphemy, is it worth not having blasphemy if its achieved through fear of reprisal? A nod might be as good as a wink to a blind bat and not blaspheming out of respect and fear have the same functional outcome, but surely it taints the gesture. For those who are actually seeking respect, that reticence is achieved through fear must only give hollow comfort.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Unicorns

Imagine if any talk of unicorns began with "you can't prove that unicorns don't exist" and that anyone who argued that unicorns were a fictional construct were told such statements are an article of faith. Yet this is exactly what happens if you replace unicorns with God. Because despite how trivial such a statement is, its perceived profundity means that atheism is forever going to be considered an unjustified leap of faith. While you can't prove the non-existence of unicorns, there's absolutely no reason to consider that unicorns exist and good reasons to think otherwise. In other words, absurd until demonstrated plausible.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Art

In combating piracy, I think part of the problem is that its a fight against human nature. To put a price tag on culture is just antithetical to its proliferation. Something that is freely shared has instead a limitation based on affluence and willingness to trade that affluence for the admission of a shared experience. When the same technology that enables the ability mass=produce art also just as easily allows the subversion of it, the containment strategy of fighting piracy is fighting a losing battle.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Unfavourable Support

The argument over global warming is one of science versus anti-science. The scientific issue as it stands is well supported by those who are experts in various aspects of climate science, so to be against it is being unscientific. It doesn't matter if there are tree-hugging lefties who have no idea of the science and are arguing a political agenda, to be against global warming is to be against science and those political ideologues are incidental to the scientific validity. No matter if its a communist or even a terrorist who thinks global warming is true, it's a scientific issue and the beliefs of non-scientists should not matter one bit.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Quantum

The surest way of knowing that a product is crap is that they are advertised with science-sounding words. A computer uses quantum mechanics to work, yet its selling point isn't its harnessing of quantum mechanics. It works and to the consumer it doesn't matter how it works. So it should be a pretty good indicator that a product is bunk is if it is advertised with science-sounding words. Products with good science behind them just work, products that don't try to sound scientific to compensate.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Gym

Gyms are a for-profit enterprise, like any other, and if they can get top dollar then all the more power to them. But there seems something strange about how expensive gym memberships are at a time when there's an obesity epidemic.

Friday, 12 November 2010


"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence" - Napoleon

Morning Scepticism: Modern Arguments

Focusing on what the modern arguments are for the existence of gods to me misses the point. Modern arguments aren't why those beliefs began, and they certainly weren't what convinced people through the ages. It would seem to indicate that the reasons to believe weren't there until recently, yet its meant to be defending the same basic idea. And besides, a homoeopath talking about quantum vibrations is certainly a modern argument but does it really need to be engaged to dismiss homoeopathy?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Healthcare

It might be perplexing that there are those who will call the American healthcare system the greatest system in the world when it has such a high cost per capita and fails to cover such a large number of people. Are they out of touch with the facts? No, because the only fact that matters is America is the greatest country. The logic goes as follows:
  1. The greatest country in the world has the greatest healthcare system
  2. America is the greatest country in the world.

  3. Therefore, America has the greatest healthcare system.
It's not ignorance or dishonesty, just blind patriotism that strives what would sound like absurd statements. To suggest that it's broken is an admission of the country's fallibility.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Sales

If sales people are less useful than the internet for product information, then what's the point of buying in-store that which can be purchased online? We've created sales points with almost no expertise required, the ability to sell is the ability to be polite to the customer and give the pretence of interest. Perhaps this is a good thing, then stores will be purely about price and availability and all those sales people can be replaced by a computer.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Constitution

It perplexes me that Bill O'Reilly would look to a 222 year old document for authority on socio-economic measures. Even neglecting that its no longer 1788 and circumstances have drastically changed, there's over 200 years of intellectual exploration in social and economic theory as well as many different implementations by different countries around the world with varying success. It's like neglecting solar power because the founding fathers did just fine burning wood.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Tower 7

9/11 truthers love to bring up tower 7 as the clinching evidence that shows that the WTC was an inside job. But if someone was trying to pull off the twin towers bombing, why would they blow up something that allegedly doesn't fit with the fireball explanation for the twin towers? The supposed clinching piece of evidence makes the conspiracy explanation seem even less plausible.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Liberal Defence

With the rise of vocal atheism, liberal theists seem to have two separate counters. If the attack is on the beliefs of evangelical Christianity then the response is to label such attacks as caricatures of true faith and complain that it doesn't capture the essence of what God is. Attack the beliefs of liberal Christianity then the response is to question why one would go after such beliefs when it's the evangelical forms that are the problem. When there's an attack on the sense of the sacred why should we expect anything else?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Scientism

Being a defender of science seems to inevitably bring the accusation of scientism - the notion that all truths are scientific. Because to engage in scientism, one defends the notion of gravity despite the testimony of levitation, or insists that the mind is a physical construct despite reports of Out of Body Experiences, or even that evolution is true even though there are creation myths that tell a very different story.

Friday, 5 November 2010


"Nature is neither good nor bad. Nor does nature care about individual life, or even whole civilisations. Life is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and likewise death tends to be a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time." - Lawrence Krauss

Morning Scepticism: Passion

It was the great sceptic David Hume who said "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions". In the desire for rationality it's often forgotten that we aren't perfectly rational beings. And it's a good thing too, passions are what make life worth living. But it leaves the problem for the sceptic of neglecting that we are at the core all human. For a sceptic who fails to recognise this still argues from the passions, but the passions are then an unexamined bias that undermines what they set out to achieve by use of rationality to begin with.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Natural

Far from removing humanity from the natural world, scientific inquiry has made humanity more a part of nature than ever. Not only are we of the same origin as all other life, but we are made of the same stuff as non-living material. Far be it from life being somehow distinct from the universe, it's an expression of it! Yet it seems that this notion is undesirable to some, wanting the universe to be an expression of us rather than us being an expression of the universe. The natural it seems is not enough for those who crave it.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Big Bang

Like evolution denial, the Big Bang is something similarly mocked by creationists. The parallel of "from goo to you" is "nothing created everything", "how can chance build an eye?" becomes "how can chaos cause order?" Yet I wonder just how many take into account the predictive success of the theory, which should be the main criteria for rejecting a scientific hypothesis. Any idea taken on face value can be ridiculed into absurdity but when it comes to science one must engage with the question scientifically, hence why no matter how absurd the notion of a Big Bang sounds that it persists in academia.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Undeserved Wealth

If you're like me, then you're experiencing the US midterm elections through the hilarity that is watching the Teabaggers[1] show just how removed from reality people can be without subscribing to cultural relativism. Wear a flag shirt, write a stupid messages and complain about taxes. And it looks like they're going to stick it to those Washington "elites" who have lost touch with "real America" too!

And while the birthers, those making racist slurs about Obama, and those crazy kooks on the religious right provide much entertainment, it's sometimes hard to remember just exactly what they're outraged against. As much as we like to think we're experts, not all of it can be attributed to the Dunning Kruger effect[2]. Most people aren't sociologists, they aren't political scientists, and they aren't economists. Yet those issues are at the centre of the political discourse. We're impotent to rule on them, to discuss them on their merits, and to make informed decisions. Much has been made of the use of the word socialist, and I think that's key to understanding just where the Teabaggers are coming from.

At the core I think the issue is fairness. The Teabaggers are a group of people who in hard economic times don't want to be paying for the prosperity of others. Bailing out those who took out risky housing mortgages sounds like it's rewarding people for taking risky behaviour. If they didn't want to suffer the consequences then they shouldn't have taken out those loans to begin with[3]. But it goes further than that, as Michael Shermer illustrates in the video link it's about owning the responsibility through being the hard-working person who has to foot the bill for the irresponsible actions of others.

Of course in that respect, the victims would be all those who were put out of work because of the irresponsible actions of people who engaged in irresponsible or malevolent practices. If someone happened to have worked for the company that was bailed out, was it really their risk? And for those who did work that flowed on indirectly from these large companies too, they would all suffer too because of those who were irresponsible. But I suppose that's the way of the system, got to take the good with the bad and if the economy collapses then it's your fault for living in such a place where there was that kind of economy to begin with!

But it's in that outrage where I think we can comment on. Even dogs have an innate sense of fairness[4], and we do too when it doesn't go our way of course[5]. To sacrifice our individual prosperity then it should be for those who are truly needy of it. In Australia we beat up on dole bludgers[6]:
A CURRENT AFFAIR: I work really hard, I pay - half of my salary goes in taxes every week, I promise you that, I work really hard, sometimes too hard.
ACTIVIST: Do you call this working hard?
A CURRENT AFFAIR: Yes, it is hard work sometimes, not all the time. But why should I support you?

Why indeed? It's the sacrificing of individual prosperity for the sake of another's. When it comes down to real numbers it's not very much at all. But that's not the point, it's an affront to our reciprocal altruistic tendencies. It doesn't surprise me at all that there are those who hate the fact that the government is propping up people who don't really need it, that there's a system of middle class welfare that is distributing the funds of some to others. No matter the necessity, no matter the social utility, it's taking someone's hard work and giving it to someone else.

But therein lies the problem with a lot of this rhetoric. It's human to feel cheated, to feel that those who took the risks shouldn't be bailed out. What good is a risk if they have everything to gain and a safety net if they fail? No system is perfect, but when systems that have great utility to focus on those cases where the system is subverted is committing the perfect solutions fallacy. Would it be preferable to see that many people get denied healthcare because there are some people who are poor yet have an iPhone? To remove welfare because there are some that don't even try to get a job yet have nice TVs and can still go drink at the pub?

I think the word "socialist" is a demonic word because it's on face value institutionalising that unfairness. It's not about whether there are individual advantages from certain services being distributed, but that it feels wrong to be paying for someone else's affluence. It's not the wealthy who are the teabaggers[7], they are just regular people. And that's all such outrages needs: regular people. It doesn't matter if people are hypocrites about it, or any matter really[8], it's unfair if other people do it because they don't deserve it. To quote Michael Shermer[5]:
When it comes to money, as in most other aspects of life, reason and rationality are trumped by emotions and feelings.

[1] - They came up with the label.
[2] -
[3] -
[4] -
[5] -
[6] -
[7] -
[8] -

Morning Scepticism: Dead

While many look to psychics or religion for a connection with the dead, it's technology that's able to provide us the opportunity. It started with simple things like art and storytelling, then changed with the invention of writing. Through paper more was able to be left to us and to have a wider reach, then with photographs then the ability to record voice and now video. We can look to myth and magic all we want to communicate with the dead, but it's through technology that the dead can communicate with us.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Reputation

It's come to light that the cover-up of child rape by the Catholic Church was done to protect the good name of the church. Over and over again. So when the scandal broke, it came out not only as priests committing abuse but the Church engaging in a wide cover-up. So not only was there the problem of the Church's good name being ruined by the scandals, but the added reputation-destroying action of allowing such actions to take place over and over again. Is protecting a reputation in the short term really worth the damage it might take later if such systematic cover-ups come to light? And this isn't even taking to account that there's meant to be some sort of link between religion and morality!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Invisible Hand

The link between the free market and the forces of evolution is something I have seen made on more than one occasion, both biologists making the case for evolution through analogy and from people arguing for an unregulated free market. Yet I wonder of those who understand how evolution works if they really want a market run in much the same way. The process is incredibly wasteful, cruel to all but a lucky few, no forward planning, and much contingent on external factors; why would anyone want a society based around such a process? Even if we grant that it can work, the way it works doesn't make it in any way desirable.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Mind Creationism

In the 150 years since evolutionary theory has been in the spotlight, a substantial amount of evidence has been built up showing not only that evolution took place but how it did. Even among those who reluctantly accept this fact, the new battleground is the brain. To follow their logic through, it's saying that evolution might be able to build an eye, but it can't build processing software for that signal. The tiger's dagger teeth are just fine, but a human's brain-designed dagger is proof of a brain designer!

Friday, 29 October 2010


"It's not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It's just that they're shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid." - Matt Taibbi

Morning Scepticism: Coin

If you're uncertain about an important life decision, there's always a coin-flip. Yet if you have lots of coins, you can buy a magic 8-ball for the same purpose. And if you have even more coins you can consult with a psychic. And even more coins will net you a birth chart. The goal is to make that coin-flip seem like it's something more than chance, to obscure the action enough that it's becomes psychologically useful. But it would be a much less expensive exercise and just as useful to just flip the coin, because you still get to keep the coin afterwards.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: ETI

While I think fine-tuning gets causality backwards, let's grant the principle that the laws of physics are that way because they support life. What can we say about how those laws came about? While many people might invoke the supernatural, there's a perfectly natural explanation at hand. What about an advanced life-form in a different universe that arose under different conditions which in turn created our universe for the purpose of making carbon-based life? From our vantage point we couldn't distinguish between a divine creator and an alien one, hence that even if the argument is taken at its own value cannot get to where some people wish it to take them.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Wrong

If people come to beliefs for non-rational reasons (they do), and once those beliefs form they then rationalise those beliefs (they do), then it stands to reason that people see holding beliefs they've come to for non-rational reasons as being perfectly rational to hold. This makes us lousy judges of our own beliefs. So the idea that one could be wrong doesn't go far enough, rather it should be what one is wrong about because chances are that you're not only wrong but wrong about a lot of things. If you're not taking on board the objections of others then you're probably going to be stuck in your own rationalisations.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Raptor-Jesus

Any invocation of the anthropic principle as evidence of a divine creator should be coupled with an explanation of why the principle shouldn't apply to any other life-form that has ever lived on this planet. This is only fair given what we know about evolution, we are a product of the environment just like every other life-form. If conditions weren't right then none of this would exist in its current form, yet who takes that conditions were just right for the existence of velociraptors to mean that there's a Raptor-Jesus?

Monday, 25 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Definition

There is a difference between how we define something and how we conceive it. The question of morality for example is not one of definitions but one of conception. As much as people can argue over different schools of thought, it's still around a particular conception. In this sense it's impossible to define morality out of existence because the concept still remains.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

A Justification For Atheism

Ideas must first be coherent before they can be scrutinised. If I were to ask "do you believe in Quixido?" would it make any sense to comment on the ontological status of Quixido without knowing what Quixido is? When it comes to God we do at least have a fair idea of what the conception of God is. While many would disagree over God's nature, there's at least a general sense by which the concept can be understood. Far from Quixido, God involves a consciousness and intelligence whereby the universe in some capacity represents an expression of that intelligent conscious will, and generally speaking it has some interest in the affairs of humanity.

So an atheist in the very broadest is someone who rejects that notion, it's a descriptor for those who do not think such an entity is a valid one. This is to be distinguished with noncognitivists who have no idea of the concept, and strong agnostics who take such an entity as being unknowable. For myself I tend to fluctuate between atheism and agnosticism depending on the specifics put forward because depending on how God is conceived determines its coherence.

Is God possible?
When it comes to the conception of God as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, the existence of such a concept is seen to be incompatible with the existence of evil. Such a conception of God can be ruled out, and indeed much time and effort has gone into addressing this concern. The problem of evil is justification for being a strong atheist, at least in respect to conceptions of God that involved absolute power and absolute goodness.

Likewise other traits are problematic. To be both omnipotent and omniscient brings contradictions (can God act in such a way that even he won't know about?), as does the trait of omnipotence on its own (can God make a rock so heavy that he can't lift?). These kind of proofs though are at least to me unsatisfying because while they ground God in definition they don't capture the essence of what God is. Someone praying for God to cure their cancer doesn't concern themselves with the paradox of omnipotence, but curing cancer irrespective of limits to such traits is something God is meant to be able to do.

Then there's the problem of the supernatural. Can something supernatural act within the natural world? If something is acting in the natural world what stops it being natural itself? Can something simultaneously be in and outside of time? Can something outside of time experience or be said to have a thought? Such problems would make some conceptions of God impossible too, again grounds for strong atheism.

Is God plausible?
While some conceptions of God can be ruled out a priori and thus we have justification for strong atheism, this doesn't cover the range of different conceptions that could be reasonably called God. Perhaps while not impossible, there's good reason as to why they aren't there.

A weak atheist could state that there's no good evidence for God. While absence of evidence doesn't make evidence of absence, the lack of any good instances of observed intervention count against an interventionist deity. An undetected and undetectable deity is indistinguishable from there being no deity at all. Claims are often made, sometimes miraculous in nature, but these claims have to be put into context of those who claim alien abduction and those who fake bleeding statues and the fallibility of human memory. The reliability of the testimony has to be weighed against the possibility of false testimony. This is the problem of miracles.

A weak atheist could also state the problem of design. While it is said design requires a designer, any intelligent design we know (a pocket-watch for example) comes not ex nihilo but from a complicated designer. The ability to make a watch is something that has evolution both biologically and culturally to allow for such design. "Who designed the designer?" isn't just a witty retort, it's highlighting that a designer doesn't solve the problem of complexity that its being used to explain in the first place.

A weak atheist could also state the problem of physical minds. As far as empirical inquiry into the nature of the world, the evidence clearly points towards mind being an emergent property of physical forces. Altering the brain alters conscious experience. Damaging the brain affects cognition. This leads to problems for the nature of God as well as notions like a soul or an afterlife that are tightly-coupled with some concepts of God.

A weak atheist could also state the burden of proof. While an atheist cannot disprove God they cannot disprove Thor or Ra. Nor could they disprove Santa for that matter, or an alleged china teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars too small to be detected by any instrument. The burden of proof is on the one making the existential claim, because there's an infinite number of things that cannot be demonstrated. A weak atheist would be justified in stating the absence of a good case for God is a good case for atheism.

Is God necessary?
Despite problems associated with concepts of God, there are those who say that it doesn't matter about the problems associated with God or how unlikely it is because God is necessary.

The most common of these is the first cause argument, that natural causes cannot account for existence itself. The notion of a prime mover went out the window with the notion of a clockwork universe, with notions like the arrow of time and causality probabilistic rather than definite. And even if the argument did hold it is at best an argument for deism, but the question of if a natural cause requires a supernatural one, does a supernatural cause require a supersupernatural one?

While the teleological argument is in occasional use for life itself, it is commonly found today in the cosmological constants. In essence, the universe is fine-tuned for life because if some of the variables are off by only an a fraction then life as we know it wouldn't exist. While whether there are any fine-tuned variables is a debate for physicists there's a more fundamental problem with this reasoning. There's no reason to assume that life, and more specifically us, is the focal point for the laws of physics. Evolutionarily so much owed to our existence is a product of contingency that it makes no sense to privilege us more than any other life-form.

The argument from morality is another necessity that could be said to be only the product of a divine being. The most basic objection to this is that evidentially we can see degrees of what we could consider morality in other animals. Morality, evidentially, clearly is an evolved trait and requires no further explanation.

The transcendental argument argues that for absolutes there needs to be an absolute mind. 2+2=4 because God holds it to be true is one such transcendental argument. But this argument holds 2+2=4 could just as easily be true as 2+2=231214 2+2=white. It makes absolutes arbitrary, and if by their nature universal then why bother posit a deity to explain it in the first place?

Is God explainable?
While there are many things wrong with the concept of God, there's something to be said for the cultural and psychological factors that enable belief in the first place.

The first challenge to God is that it's just the construct of our culture. The reason that we're asked about the Christian conception is that we've grown up in a predominantly Christian society. Instead of being asked about the historicity of Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse, we are told about the historicity of Jesus conquering death. No dining in Valhalla for us in the modern western world or breaking the cycle of Samsara, just eternal punishment or reward because of the sacrifice of the Godman on the cross. Furthermore that construction has changed throughout history, the Old Testament has God fighting battles while these days God shows Himself by burning the image of Mary into a grilled cheese sandwich.

But what accounts for the belief itself? We have evolved certain ways of thinking. We are intuitive physicists, intuitive biologists and intuitive psychologists. These processes are important as they allow us to distinguish between different interactions. We are wired for agency and in particular human agency. Even seeing design is something intuitive for a lot of people.

In modern times we have seen the birth of religions, Mormonism is less than a couple of centuries old while Scientology is approaching its 60th birthday. Then there's the New Age movement where not only are there claims of extraordinary powers but personal belief in possessing them. Alien abductions, conspiracy theories like 9/11 being an inside job or the staging of a moon landing, these are part of our culture despite their respective implausibility. New beliefs in crazy unsupportable things arise all the time and some even gather significant support even though there's no good reason for it to do so. In this respect, explaining God belief is just one of the many weird things that permeates in our species without good reason.

Of course being able to explain the cultural phenomenon doesn't mean the phenomenon doesn't exist, but what it does do is take away the sense that the fact that it's so pervasive in and of itself dictates further insight.

The position of atheism is justified for a number of reasons. That there are no good reasons for God is sufficient grounds for weak atheism, and that there are good reasons against thinking that such a construct is likely if it's even possible. Arguments for the necessity of God don't make such a case and sometimes are downright absurd, and the case is made even worse as God is perfectly explainable as a personal and cultural construct without any need for there actually being such an entity. The case for atheism is very solid, and should give any theist pause for thought. The notion that we should all be agnostic in the weak sense seeks to neglect what is already known on the subject, taking one's personal ignorance and projecting it onto people at large.

Creationist Logic

If you've watched Expelled, perhaps you wondered why the only scientific argument really brought up was the origin of life. Or wonder why Creationists spend time talking about just how tenuous the laws of nature that permit our existence are. Nothing to do with evolution you say? Well that's because you're not seeing the big picture.
  1. Evolution explains the diversity of life.
  2. The case for evolution is well established.
  3. Evolution cannot explain the origin of life.
  4. Even if evolution could explain the origin of life, it cannot explain the laws of physics that permit it.
  5. Creationism explains the origin and diversity of life.
  6. Creationism explain the physics that permit life's existence.

  7. Therefore Creationism is a superior explanation to evolution.

And there you have it, creationist logic. The case against evolution these days is the case against evolution taking place to begin with, and from there concluding that God must be involved. And since God must be involved there's no need to posit evolution because God can create in any way He wants. And since there's an account of how God did create as revealed to Moses there exists an explanation. It's so sciency it burns!

Of course if pressed on the science, remember that while evolutionists might be able to explain the complexity of the eye they can never explain the complexity of the cells that make up the eye!

Morning Scepticism: Expertise

To become an expert in anything it takes about 5,000 hours of dedication to the discipline. So to be an expert even in a single field is no lean feat. We have an education system that can teach some of any one field, but never enough for anyone to come away with expertise. It teaches more than what's necessary but not enough to be particularly useful, and really could do more harm than good because people will ultimately be ill-equipped to be a good judge of information yet not recognise that fact.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Merit

The idea of judging by merit sounds good but it's almost impossible to achieve. It's not that merit is unfair, but that objectivity is problematic. Even if you take the notion of genetics out of the equation, there's still bias based on culture, on circumstances, on the discretion of whoever is judging on merit. The pretence of self-determination and the blame that comes with failure is in-part unfounded. This is not to completely dismiss any notion of a merit-based system but to highlight its limits.

Friday, 22 October 2010


"I don't think of the problem as between socialism and capitalism but rather between the suppression of ideas and free ideas." - Richard Feynman

Morning Scepticism: Feedback

When it comes to security, the positive feedback loop of the system makes it really hard to advocate being sensible. Because in effect you're arguing for greater risk, even if that risk is negligible. Not quite sure how full-body scanners actually decrease the threat of terrorism or how not letting children do things without supervision is putting the child at risk, but I must keep reminding myself that security is about the feeling of control. Because however remote, we can't forgive ourselves if a terrorist could have been thwarted by a scanner or a child was abducted.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Tools

Cognitive dissonance theory can apply to so much of life. For example in the workplace, there's resistance to using free tools not for the stated reason of a lack of support, but because they have to justify why they paid huge amounts of money for tools that aren't being used. Otherwise they have to come to grips with the fact that developers think their choice in tools was wrong, and not only wrong but wrong and expensive. And they're too smart to make such a mistake like that, so it must be for support reasons and some bollocks about TCO which makes their choice of tools right.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Astrology

It would have to be out of desperation that anyone would leave important life decisions to some chumps vague interpretation of stars and planets. I can appreciate that life sometimes seems out of control, that there's confusion over what to do and the need for assurance over life-changing decisions. But astrology is pure interpretation and from a really tenuous source at that. How could such a tenuous source of validation be anything other than temporary and fragile?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Why

It's been said in attempts to make science and religion distinct that science explains the how and religion explains the why, but I would content that for a lot of why questions it would be incoherent to ask religion and unrepresentative if they weren't scientific. A simple illustration is sight. To ask "how do we see?" is perfectly accepted in the realm of science, but "why do we see?" will inevitably misrepresent if not grounded in science. To rubbish the why question or resign it to religion would guarantee that the answer won't be of value. It's not to say that all why questions are scientific, but that the distinction between different kinds of inquiry is not so clear.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Lack Of Belief

Morning Scepticism: Dreams

What's not to like about the idea of the American Dream? It's simple, desirable, appeals to the best in people, and hits on the productivity that comes with competition. Unfortunately it drags along the notion that if someone is a failure they deserve to be it. But people seldom get what they deserve, they get what they can negotiate. And while there are always ground-up success stories these exist because they contrast with all those who don't. The limited social mobility is entrenched and because all those who don't succeed in the possibility that they could if only they applied themselves (hah!), are punished for failing to do so. And any ideal that punishes for what is a necessary outcome is a really shitty ideal to hold.

But as far as its memetic success, it's an idea that's able to get people to vote against their own interests for the potential of something better. And that's really impressive, if not somewhat disturbing.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Philosophy Is Dead

When Stephen Hawking says philosophy is dead, he seems to be saying that when it comes to fundamental questions about our reality we are at the point where these questions are now scientific, so to address them philosophically is going to hinder rather than help. It's amazing that people can read a statement like that from a book on cosmology and think it a valid counter to say philosophy is dead is itself a philosophical statement.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Pyrrhic

I wonder if liberal theologians ever feel that in order to defend their beliefs they reduce it to vague abstracts that have no significant meaning beyond the metaphor itself. At what point do they sit back and realise that the notion they profess to revere has been deformed beyond all recognition?

Friday, 15 October 2010


"There is a long tradition of philosophers trying to tell scientists what is and isn't possible, and later scientific developments have often proved the philosophers wrong." - Samir Okasha

Morning Scepticism: Complexity

There's a particular degree of irony in those creationists who dismiss evolution because life is "too complex" because those who say it adhere to a myth that explains that God created man out of dirt and the "breath of life". Nothing about complex biochemistry there at all, which might constitute grounds for falsification right there.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Nothingness

I'm having a failure of language when it comes to describing myself in time. It's all okay until I go back as far as 1983, then I'm at a loss. How can one possibly describe them-self before they existed? It's an incoherent proposition. I'm not the atoms since those come and go, nor anything else of that manner. Does this satisfy the condition that something can come from nothing? If not, then from whence did I come?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Teaching The "Controversy"

I think I've figured out why creationists love the notion of teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, it's because if you just teach evolution then those weaknesses don't come out. So instead of having a public that's educated about the topic, there's a host of creationists who have a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution is and just engage in apologetics on talking points they have been told invalidate evolution. I've found myself time and time again answering the same fallacious objections only to find that the person raising them has no clue as to what they actually mean.

From the outsider perspective, it's actually funny reading creationist lesson plans. Because right there they have the chance to give the children a proper education in what evolution is even if they don't have to believe it, and instead they give a whole bunch of reasons that evolution couldn't work. Surely if evolution was as broken as the creationists make it out to be then a proper education on the subject matter would make those objections glare out. But no, it doesn't work that way. They have to highlight just what is wrong with evolution instead of affording the child to think about the concept and find those errors themselves.

One would be inclined to think that the reason they take this approach is because the case for evolution is so strong. It's an unconscious admission of the apparent validity of evolution because the only way they can teach it is to lie to children about it in the hope that those children won't learn any better.

Morning Scepticism: Intervention

It's understandable that when a loved one is suffering through a life-threatening medical condition that if they are devout they will attribute the improvement to the grace of a benevolent deity. Though I wonder why a benevolent deity would put the loved one through such suffering in the first place. The only rationale is that without the suffering there is nothing to be thanked for, stopping a tumour in its early stages is undetectable but stopping it once it turns terminal is a visible miracle. So what good is a miracle if no-one can recognise it? The suffering therefore is a necessary part of the exercise, the hardship is so the benevolent deity can get the credit.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Elitism

The word elitism unjustifiably gets a lot of flack. There's nothing wrong with striving to the best of your abilities, to not just sit and accept what can be improved shouldn't. We ought to and do want the best; we don't watch a bunch of average people play football rather want the people who have trained for decades and are at the pinnacle of the profession. The problem of elitism is the desire to entrench social inequalities, to take away the notion of merit and achievement and put them to only those who are born of the right ethnicity/religion/gender/etc.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Grandma Gambit

It's often argued that atheists should just shut up for a number of reasons. They hurt the cause of science education, they don't understand faith, they are misinformed, they'll make everyone turn gay and have non-stop abortions, etc. One such argument is the grandma gambit, the idea faith gives a lot of comfort to dear sweet granny and telling her would break her heart. While many take the grandma gambit and perhaps there is reason not to make Grandma worry about your eternal soul, the implications of this argument is that we should treat everyone who has religious belief as if they were old and frail.

While I think grandmas in general are tougher than we give them credit for, most people aren't dying grannies. Any time this gambit is offered it should be shot down by everyone else believers included. Because the insinuation is incredibly insulting, that people can't even handle vocal disagreement on their beliefs. Even beyond the personal insult it's a very condescending view of humanity in general.

But perhaps it's a historical warning, after all much blood has been spilt in the name of religion. But if this is the case then there's even more reason to openly discuss it while in a much more secular and safe environment. Making a stand isn't good idea during the Inquisition, but if it's the case that it there is religious fuelled violence then during a largely neutral time in history is the best time to confront it. Though I doubt most people would take this line of argument.

Rather I think the reason for the argument is nothing to do with the frailty of believers but that discussion could cause doubt among the faithful. And since their religion is the One True Faith™, this is not only going to mean that people turn away but that's at the risk of eternal torment. The consequences are much much higher than can ever be adequately fathomed by the human mind. For the same reason that the Shroud of Turin has the perception of being genuine, because despite all the evidence of it being a Middle Ages forgery if it helps bolster someone's belief in Christ as saviour then the lie by omission is justified.

That's what the Grandma Gambit is designed to do, it's designed to shut down debate. It's a weak case but in a society where religion is a taboo subject to begin with the argument is at least somewhat effective. And if believers who use the gambit want to engage in what essentially amounts to a pyrrhic victory, then let them being the condescending ones. Because no matter why the gambit is used the insulting condescending implications of the gambit are there for all to see.

Morning Scepticism: Relevance

A critique of astrology involving the lack of causal relation between the stars and us, constellations being an artefact of the earth's relative position, and empirical studies show there's no link between star sign and behaviour is don't going to satisfactorily be counted by complaining that the non-astrologer doesn't know what Mars being in ascension signifies. Likewise, could people please stop complaining that atheists don't know theology? It's as irrelevant as a non-astrologer understanding that Leos are passionate or something.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Complex

There's inevitably going to be someone who brings up complexity as a means to talk about contentious phenomena. Sometimes it is to refrain from the responsibility of needing to provide an explanation, such as to wave away criticism of psychic powers because the mind is too complex to understand why psychic powers aren't a good explanation. But there's also a warning, that to take a phenomenon as reducing it to simple explanations could misrepresent it. To highlight the complexity of the brain in order to stop the reduction of "how can matter think?" is not to say that complexity causes consciousness, but a reminder that it's not going to be understood through a simplistic understanding.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A Lifestyle Choice?

We are living in a very artificial environment these days, we have modified the environment in such a way to make it safe and pleasurable. Looking around my humble dwellings I see many products that give comfort, security and entertainment which would be unfathomable to even recent ancestors of mine. While I can reflect on just how far our species has come, it also serves as a reminder of just how much I can control certain aspects of my life. I for a large part choose my lifestyle.

Of course I'm lucky in a way, having been born in a wealthy country with much advanced technology and societal values (cue the cultural relativists) means that I'm able for a large part be self-determined. While my socio-economic status still restricts me in many things, for instance I don't have a solid gold throne, it's still enough that I can make decisions about what I want to do with my life within my means. I say I, but really my decisions are connected to my family, my social group, and the greater society around me.

Because of this, I think, it's often forgotten that we are still natural beings who are limited and in-part controlled by our nature. It's a fact of life that we're going to die, and for most of us it's going to be a slow degenerative process. Likewise we have certain drives and desires, we have to eat for example. One of those drives is sex, and that's why abstinence-only education fails. People have sex and its a fact of life. And sex can mean babies, and babies mean an investment of resources so that the cycle can continue once more.

When I was a kid I wondered why there were some adults who hated children, because adults to be adults by necessity were kids first (I wouldn't have put it that way when I was a kid). It was hating a necessary fact of their existence and that's a very confusing thought for a child to have. Yet now I'm an adult (well, legally) I can see it from a different perspective and at least empathise with that view.

So what does the artificial environment and babies have to do with one another I hear you ask? Babies are something we can to a large extent control through artificial intervention. Contraception is a wonderful thing, it enables people to have sex with a much reduced risk of pregnancy. And for those who don't want children there are more permanent interventions to be had. Our education and our circumstances mean that we can reflect on that choice, so in general people can choose whether or not to have children.

One question I remember from Ethics at university for whether an action was ethical was "what if everybody did this?". For this situation it's tricky because if everyone had kids then the population would experience unsustainable growth and if no-one had children then there would be no replacement population. So in order to make a sustainable population that doesn't spiral out of control it would seem that individuals have to make different choices about how many kids to have.

And that's just it, it becomes a choice. But is it a choice in the same way that's it's a choice like getting a pet or even a couch? If someone chooses to have children then that's their choice, the reasoning goes, but why should I have to pay for parents to help raise their children when my lifestyle choice doesn't get that funding? After all I don't have kids, so shouldn't the government be helping me with getting a kick-arse home theatre system if I so choose? They won't even fund my dog, I have to pay for my dog's food and collar, the reasoning continues, yet parents get government money to feed and collar their children. It's unfair that the government is rewarding people for one particular lifestyle choice (and an annoying one at that) but not mine.

And so the argument goes. If you want children then you should be responsible for it, everything from the act of coitus up until the child leaves home. After all, we can be responsible thanks to birth control. If someone is thinking of having unprotected sex and didn't consider the financial and time investment 15 years down the track, then it's their own damn fault. And even if you don't use birth control before the act, there's post-coital methods like the morning after pill or abortion. And even if that's not enough then you can give the baby up for adoption. So what excuse do people have left not to take responsibility for the child? Why should the government fund that lifestyle choice?

The simplest answer I can give to this line of reasoning is that a dog or a couch can't become a doctor. I can see the value of a dog as a companion animal but I can't see it growing and distributing food. My couch is nice to sit on, but it's not going to write a book or do research. The fact that children turn into adults is sufficient reason to consider the difference between having a child and having a puppy. It by necessity is more than an investment in lifestyle, it is an investment in its long-term survival.

And that's exactly why it cannot be viewed as a lifestyle choice. Because while any individual can choose to have children or not, the more that choose not to have children are putting a strain on the long-term survival of a society. Instead of investing the time and money directly, they are seeking to avoid any sense of responsibility. Taxation and benefits for raising children is an offset of that lack of direct investment, a realisation of the necessity of replenishing a population and working towards ensuring its continuance.

In the west family planning combined with other health and technological benefits already mean that birth-rates are dropped even towards unsustainable levels. Education and in particular education of women has meant that there's already great control, so it does seem odd that anyone would complain about couples having children receiving government benefits. This is why I think such arguments are made about lifestyle costs, because the moment one reflects on the fact that children are a needed continual resource the decision not to have children becomes a selfish one. And worse still it promotes a form of classism, where the poor are demonised and made into scapegoats because they didn't take the adequate steps to reflect the long-term investment that child-rearing is. The fact of the matter is that certain people need help, to begrudge them is absurd and to deny them is both abhorred and a sure way to perpetuate the cycle. It gets to the point where this argument is not about anyone's lifestyle choice but wanting to punish people for doing things they wouldn't do themselves.

As sceptics we are meant to aspire to use our critical thinking faculties, but I think at times this is taken too far. We can forget that our passions are what drive us to use reason in the first place, that voice of impartiality that brings us beyond the subjective and be able to make cases external to the self. Because of that some sceptics shun what it means to be human, taking reason and rationality to the point of abstractness that it misses key points about what it means to be human. Yet reason is what we use because we care and these arguments stem from that fact, and that only serves to reason away what makes life worth living.
"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." - David Hume

Morning Scepticism: Quality

It's not be fruitful and add, it's be fruitful and multiply. And this happens regardless of whether someone holds Genesis 1:28 as a command from God. And multiply we have, in the last 200 years the human population has increased from about 1 billion to nearly 7 billion. There's only a finite amount of resources available and they are being pushed to the limits already, is there really any good reason not to educate on family planning and birth control? We've multiplied enough already, why is the opposition to pro-life pro-choice instead of pro-quality?

Friday, 8 October 2010


"Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)" - Alan Sokal

Morning Scepticism: Spiders

I have a fear of spiders, can't stand the creatures. Even when I know they're harmless or behind glass they still make me incredibly uncomfortable. Even looking at pictures puts me on edge. Despite knowing that there's no real danger, I still can't shake off the phobia. Yet it doesn't mean that from my phobia I conclude there really is something to fear about spiders, that my knowledge is insufficient to validate my intuitions. The reaction shouldn't be a triumph over reason.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Glorious Contingency

Tonight I saw mentalist Philip Escoffey perform. Great show, fantastic show, a show everyone should see!

But enough about the show (go see it), something occurred to me while waiting for the show to begin. Until Monday I didn't even know this show was on. I found out about it, out of all things, by buying a coffee. While I was waiting with my wife for the coffee I happened to see his name on a local magazine, and looking in there I found out he was performing tonight. If I hadn't gone to get coffee, I wouldn't have known this performance was on and thus would have spent this evening doing something very different. It helped that I did know who he was from an appearance on The Skeptic Zone, but the difference between me seeing the performance and not was a cup of coffee.

It's little things like that which remind me how much of my life is beyond my control, and that the most innocuous of events can be the triggers for something much more meaningful. Though there was some bad with the good, getting hazelnut syrup in my long black didn't work as well as I would have hoped it would.

So, ummm, yeah. Go see Philip Escoffey!

Morning Scepticism: Gradualism

When we say knowledge is a cumulative process, it's fairly easily understood what that means. To take one area where I have some knowledge: computing. I didn't desire to learn overnight then woke up with a memory full of tools and procedures, rather it's come through years of use, study, exploration, and communication with others. It's a gradual process. Yet if I were to graph it, there would be points of stasis, points of rapid change, dead ends, and new directions. It would be mistake to conclude that it's not gradual because of these fluctuations in significance and periods of change. Stasis and rapid change is part of a gradual process.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Morning Scepticism: Methodology

One component of the ID movement was to tackle the underpinning assumption of science: methodological naturalism. By including only natural explanations, it was said, science is making a commitment that excludes possible explanations that lie beyond that narrow scope. Yet where are the theoretical constructs and observations derived from a different philosophical commitment that can give better methodological success? They don't exist, the complaint amounts to little more than the ID advocate wishing to inject God into the process, as if "then a miracle occurs" actually explains something.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Limits Of Science - Continuing A Discussion

This is a bleed-over from a discussion started on the blog Debunking Christianity where I am a very infrequent commenter, on a quote from the new Stephen Hawking book: The Grand Design. If you want to see the previous argument follow the link and read the comments. This is in reply to Rob R and now it has turned into a discussion on the nature of science.

You're seeing this in a very black and white way. Some questions are just not scientific to ask, but that doesn't make science inept. For example, I'd say science in principle could explain why we desire for dignity and worth. But that wouldn't give dignity itself. Where does that fit in your view? Science in one sense is very capable of explaining who we are, but in another sense it is not.
I actually don't. The lines are blurry. I grant that science can say some things about who we are. But where it can't, it is regarding the most profound aspects of our existence.
Science doesn't need to give dignity, but that doesn't change that the methodology in principle could explain how dignity is felt, why dignity is needed to be felt, and what purpose dignity serves. What you're asking for is justification, which you're never going to find in science. But that doesn't take away from the point that science can explain who we are.

This other sense, where science just hasn't gotten around to explaining, but is in fact just categorically inept is where philosophy and theology demonstrate their explanatory power (which and thus their epistemic worthiness). So with theology, this isn't merely a matter of a God of the scientific gaps, but a God of a gap in science which is there because science doesn't belong there.
I grant that philosophy has a role complementary to science, even to examine science itself ("There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination." - Dan Dennett), but that doesn't draw away from Stephen Hawking's point about modern cosmology nor does it mean theology has any domain of relevance whatsoever. I wonder what theology as a discipline can illuminate on anything that philosophy can't, or illuminate anything at all for that matter.

and yes, there is overlap here. Since theology has so much explanatory power for who we are, it has explanatory power for the most important profoundly interesting entities in the universe that we have encountered in our immeadiate universally accessible experience... us! conscious passionate valuing beings. And nothing would be worth anything without the subjective beings from whence worth arises. And if theology explains the most important entities universally available to our experience in this universe, you can bet that the universe itself isn't out of the scope of what theology has to say.
Theology can have a lot to say, whether any of it is true is another matter entirely. Take astrology for example, it has a lot to say about people's personalities, about their lives, about the events on earth. Yet we don't take astrology as a serious discipline. Just because people can make predictions about personalities doesn't mean that those personality predictions map to reality. Plenty of people take horoscopes seriously, believe that star sign develops personality, and use birth charts as a means to understand their destiny. We could take that has having great explanatory power - about us! But we don't take astrology seriously, it's for people who don't understand that constellations are merely artefacts of the relative position of the sun in our galaxy and that any patterns seen are imposed by our minds. Likewise those personality traits that are linked to star signs show no empirical merit whatsoever.

Astrology has plenty of explanatory power, yet the discipline suffers from having no plausible account for said explanatory power and contradicting empirical validity. Likewise I'd say anything theology attributes to who we are is taking something that arose in the evolutionary process and claiming it as God-given. The attributes we have got that way because they were selected-for by the environment, mutations that gave a survival advantage carried on. So how can we claim that this falls under theology any more than personality falls under astrology?

But when it comes to the state of love itself, we aren't in the realm of science any more. I don't use science to tell me how to love, I just experience it.
Exactly, but interestingly, you don't even have to go to something as lofty as love to run out the aptitude of science. The mere experience of color is a problematic one. Try to explain to a person born blind from birth how to identify blue and distinguish it from other colors without relying on accidental associations (blue is the color of the sky, or your mother's eyes) if he were to be cured. It's not possible. This linguistic disconnect would even be problematic for hypotheses which are linguistic in nature, yet this aspect of our existence doesn't yield to analysis that can be expressed linguistically in and of itself, but only in how it is layered into our experiences. Associations with wavelengths eye structures and neurologically maps just aren't going to shed any light on that and make it any less non-linguistic. We can only refer to it and label it as experienced. It's not some equation that we can dissect further.
But modern neuroscience is starting to be able to probe experience, it's now opening a frontier and again this would be where it would be important to have a strong scientific background where previously it was a philosophical question.

Though on this issue, one of my friends used to do volunteer work at a science centre. He told me a story of one deaf girl who was with her mother going through a sound and colour exhibition. Because she was deaf they were going to skip it, but he decided to try to explain it to her. Long story short, he was able to help the deaf child understand what it was like to listen to music through analogy and an understanding of the science involved. Of course that doesn't touch on the experience of it, but it does illustrate the relationship between the insight that comes from scientific inquiry and the ability to understand it.

I know what you are saying though and I had a similar discussion with gearheded. I came to the conclusion that science itself uses more than one notion of truth, in our understanding of different paradigms. Scientists do indeed say that newtonian physics is false, yet scientists and engineers will also do research and develope technologies and make predictions on the basis of Newtonian physics and they will not think of their conclusions thinking as wrong at all just because it isn't worked out for greater precision than many of our crude scientific devices (ones that don't have anything to do with quantum or relativistic measurements). And even in daily life, when I for example drive down the road, I don't even give it a thought that my speedometer is wrong just because it is not absolutely precise or that I couldn't even read it to such an absolute sense. I understand that there is a pragmatic notion, but when science advances, scientists are very much interested. And yet, when we want to advance science, we do regard some of these theories as false precisely because they fail to be absolute, because when we do with them what we need to do with physical forumulas, extrapolate and predict, they fail. It's because they are not absolutely true that we look for the next theory that succeeds where this one failed. It is very much a persuit towards absoluteness that scientists like Hawking are seeking a "theory for everything".
I think this suffers from the notion that there is a God's eye view of reality and that's all that matters. What I don't get further is how this is a problem for science, it's the strength of the discipline. Perhaps I don't understand what it's like to take an absolutist mindset to anything, but I really don't get why it's a problem that a discipline has fallibility as part of the process. Relativistic physics didn't so much replace Newtonian physics as show that it has boundaries. Newtonian physics is still used because it works, the boundary cases where it doesn't work aren't relevant to engineers.

Remember that I am defending the use of the word knowledge for science. Not Truth™ but knowledge. You're making the case around a word that I'm not trying to use. Again I think you're trying to see things in a very black & white way.

While we could say that low end sciences are looking for pragmatic truths, extending, high end physics are perhaps really after truths favorable to more of a correspondence theory.
I'm not sure how you distinguish between the two. Think of heat death in our universe, it's an implication that came out of a theory initially done to find the greatest efficiency a steam engine can have. Would work done on thermodynamics count as high end or low end physics to you? Is there some demarcation between the two? The puzzles that vexed Darwin from which evolutionary theory arose didn't exactly stem from trying to solve the big question of being, but his theory certainly does hit on that.

Are you saying that because Newtonian physics has been superseded by Relativistic physics that apples hung in mid-air awaiting the outcome?
I actually don't know that relativity completely replaces everything Newtonian. It would motion wise, we just don't use it because the effects are imperceptible and impractical. Is gravity and general relativity the same way? I suppose. So either that part wasn't superceded or the description of apples falling to the ground can be described with far greater accuracy (albeit an unmeasurable and unpragmatic accuracy).
That's irrelevant to my point. There I was distinguishing between facts and theories, that is to say the explanation for why an apple falls isn't needed to know that an apple will fall.

They're justified through repeated inquiry and empirical validation.
until we run into the experiments where they fail to do what these theories are supposed to do, make predictions through extrapolation and then realize the need to do something more accurate. Well, they'er still useful, but again, for the purposes of high end physics, for the purpose of advancing science to explain the fundamentals of the universe, they turn out to be wrong.
Again it seems you're coming from this absolutist mindset. Either we have a god's eye view, or that we can only ever aspire to it. Why does this straw man come up time and time again? I'll state it clearly. Science does not show absolute truth! It cannot by its own methodology, so even if the was such thing as absolute truth there's no way one could come to it through scientific inquiry. But I'm not defending that position and have already gone to great pains to distinguish from it.

Science works, it's neither merely a pragmatic truth nor a view from a hypothetical vantage point. Facts can be known, theories can be validated. It's just not a matter of avoiding falsification but a matter of being able to make good explanations of how things are.

So you recognize that science is inept on some of the most important issues of human meaning.

I don't get why you need to show science inept at answering non-scientific questions. It's like finding triumph in the view that economics is hopeless at cell division. I explained my position before, science in principle can answer questions of just why it is people feel meaning. In principle, it can explain how the feeling of meaning comes about, how we evolved to be able to feel it, and even why it is important to us. But it can't explain what meaning is - those are questions for philosophy, and it can't explain how it is to experience meaning - that is something we find for ourselves.

That you didn't agree with my interpretation or John's interpretation of Hawking doesn't invalidate the discussion that took place.
The statement Stephen Hawking made I find completely non-controversial, it's obvious what he meant by it. Are you honestly going to say that you can tackle issues of cosmology and the fundamentals of our universe without having a good working knowledge of physics? If so, please illustrate. And as for what John said, I can't say what he meant by it but I would agree with such as statement as I have illustrated already. Of course science can explain who we are, if you try to explain anything about the human condition without looking at our evolutionary history then you're doing it wrong. Yet at the same time the questions you are complaining that science can't answer aren't scientific questions. They make so sense to ask scientifically any more than asking a historian to comment on planetary motion, because after all planets have history too...

I wish more skeptics (if that is your perspective) would get it that science isn't everything to our most important pressing questions.
Science isn't everything, of course it isn't. But to try and illustrate one more time of what I mean. Take music. I listen to music that I enjoy. Now lets say that scientists are able to work out exactly why it is I listen to the music I do: that they can to brain scans on me and see what areas of the brain light up, they can look at my genetic code and brain structure to see what kind of patterns are there. And from a whole host of observations and well-supported theories they are able to tell me exactly what music I like and furthermore can recommend me music that would suit me better than everything I listen to currently. Yet I don't need science to tell me what music to listen to, I do it out of the desire for experience.

That doesn't make science inept, on the contrary science can answer many of the pressing questions. When it comes to why we have the attributes we have: evolution. It explains who we are and where we came from and why we are the way we are, there's just no getting around it. Yet in one sense it doesn't matter where we came from because those tools work fine without that knowledge. An accountant can crunch numbers fine without any knowledge of the philosophy of mathematics or the pressing issues surrounding professional mathematicians. Just as I can have a brain fully (in principle) explainable by science which means I'll live my life much in the same way as my ancestors did. The pressing issues that might be important to me are (in principle) explainable by science, but it hardly matters whether they can be explained or not for practical purposes. Because from my subjective experience it doesn't matter why I feel love or empathy or anger, and it doesn't trivialise my experience whether science can explain it or not.