Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Also In Today's News...

Ethics sans religion
Ethics classes will soon be taught in New South Wales primary schools as a secular alternative to scripture classes.

Religious groups have argued against a change to the government's policy which prevents children who do not go to scripture classes from having other formal tuition during that time.

But the Premier Nathan Rees has announced that the government will now allow a trial of an ethics course in 10 primary schools over two terms next year.

"This will provide students with an opportunity to examine ethics that underline their own values and reflect the choices that they make in everyday life and that is a good thing," he said.

Mr Rees says the course will deal with issues like fairness, bullying, as well as lying and telling the truth.

Dr Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre says it is a big win for parents who have been pushing for the classes for years.

"It's a wonderful achievement for parents they started the ball rolling almost seven years ago when they raised the concern about those children whose parents made a conscientious decision not being able to do something meaningful," he said.

"It's wonderful to see what they've asked for being recognised by the government and given a chance to be tried."

Schools that are interested in being involved in the trial are being asked to nominate themselves.
Praise the lord! Finally, something useful during that period of time. Scripture lessons were such a waste of time, it wasn't much more than trying than masked proselytism, trying to sell the validity of Christianity and more concerned with pushing articles of faith. Tales of the importance to God in ones life, concern for the afterlife, and historical Jesus = biblical Jesus because there are more copies of the bible than any other historical document.

More than anything, I think my atheism was pushed by the complete lack of substance in religious class. While in all other classes I was learning something useful, or at the very least playing sport, there was selling Christianity as true and faith in a virtue. In history we learnt about Greek mythology and explored their culture including literature, and even that had more substance than scripture.

And given religion's supposed link to morality, it was amazing the lack of value teaching their was. Now that perhaps is because I was given a very liberal theological "education". Why should we be good to each other? How to we go about resolving an ethical dilemma? What does it mean to be good? None of that, just that we're all sinners and we need Jesus to be forgiven by God.

I welcome this news, because it is not replacing scripture with a non-religious alternative. It's giving children something useful, a way to think through what would otherwise be value judgements. Hopefully this is the start of a general public shift away from the thinking that morality and religion are tightly coupled.

In Today's News...

Mass ritual sacrifice
Up to one million Hindu devotees have gathered in a village in Nepal to witness the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals in a mass sacrifice that has drawn widespread criticism.

Worshippers travelled long distances, many coming from neighbouring India, to attend the two-day Gadhimai festival, which honours the Hindu goddess of power and takes place once every five years in southern Nepal.

A huge cry of "Long Live Gadhimai!" went up after the village temple's head priest launched the event with the ritual sacrifice of two rats, two pigeons, a rooster, a lamb and a pig.

The crowd then rushed to a nearby field where 250 sword-wielding butchers began the mass slaughter of around 20,000 buffalo, brought by devotees to be sacrificed near the holy temple.

"This is a very special day for Hindu devotees," head priest Mangal Chaudhary Tharu said as the festival began.

"All the people who came here to worship Gadhimai have been waiting a long time for this day. I am very proud to be part of this event," added Mr Tharu, the fourth generation of his family to serve as a priest at the temple.

A reporter at the scene said up to a million devotees were crammed into the area for the festival. Many were from India, where some states have banned animal slaughter for religious purposes.

Chanchal Shah, a 55-year-old farmer from the northern Indian state of Bihar, travelled to Bariyapur by tractor with dozens of relatives to sacrifice a buffalo in thanks for the birth of his grandson.

"We have come to celebrate the birth of my daughter's son," Mr Shah said.

"She got married two years ago and I had promised I would sacrifice an animal after she had her first child. I know that sacrificing is a bad idea, but I am scared the goddess will be angry if I do not keep my promise."
I know, I know, cultural relativity and all that. While it might seem barbaric to us, it's only because we can't understand the vengeful nature of Hindu deities. Now if only they worked out a deal involving chopping off the tips of their penises instead, well the tips of infant penises - then they could at least claim that the practice can stop AIDS or something.
'Cruel' sacrifice

Animal rights activists, who have waged a vocal campaign to have the festival stopped, say they believe their message that sacrifice is cruel is beginning to be heard in deeply conservative, majority-Hindu Nepal.

Their cause is supported by the well-known Indian animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi and by the French film star turned campaigner Brigitte Bardot, who this month wrote to Nepal's president urging him to ban the practice.

But the government has refused to put a stop to what it says is a centuries-old religious tradition.

Mahesh Yadav, a Nepalese farmer who arrived with a black goat tethered to the back of his bicycle, said he wanted to thank Gadhimai for giving him a son.

"I had seven daughters in a row so I promised the goddess I would sacrifice a goat if she gave me a son," he said.

"Eight years ago the goddess listened and my son was born."

The buffalo slaughter took place in a field surrounded by a three-metre wall, and will be followed by the ritual sacrifice of around 300,000 goats, sheep and birds.

Many festival-goers scaled the wall to get a better view of the killings, carried out by volunteers.

Armed police were deployed around the temple grounds, but the event passed off mainly peacefully.
I'm lost for words. It seems that at least one Hindu deity invades the vagina of those who are fertile and chooses which sperm gets to fertilise the egg. Appeals to the supernatural seem so appealing until their relationship with the natural world is thought upon...

I can't help but think back to the burning of witches in the middle ages. For if young women really were witches then the behaviour would make sense. It's killing those who would otherwise cause harm. But if witches really were a construct of the mind, all they did was kill thousands of innocent women.

Just as here, if the Hindu gods really need blood sacrifice in order to protect individuals and help maintain life, then this makes sense. Otherwise it's just the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Then There's This Asshole...

Back in the year 2005, one of my housemates got me to watch a show he was streaming online. It was called Bullshit! and it was my introduction to the modern sceptic movement. Even now when I see someone espousing nonsense, I clearly hear in my head Penn's voice saying "Then there's this asshole". So while it's preaching to the choir, I enjoy the show.

But fuck they can sometimes make a straw man.

Last night I watched the episode on world peace. And yes, there is a lot of bullshit to expose. But this episode promised something different, a way towards peace. So along the way, there's much laughs to be had at protesters on both the left and right - especially the left.

The premise is quite simple, most people want peace but really don't know what peace is. The word love keeps coming up, where really peace is a cessation of hostility. Thus the naivety of action leads to a misguided approach in order to stop it. Everything from dressing up and protesting to praying, it seems that the ones who want to take action just don't go about it in a way that's practical.

And what more, they have a socialist agenda. And as the man from the libertarian think tank says, socialism doesn't help foster piece. And then P&T did something I didn't expect, played the Hitler card. Motherfuckers!

But they thankfully didn't just attack the left, there's also the "support our troops" crowd on the right - the ones who think America is perfect and should do whatever it wants and whoever gets killed is incidental.

So there you have it. The assholes on the left want peace but are misguided as to how to go about it, and the assholes on the right are hawks. So what's the solution to all this?

Well it could be the UN, the United Nations was formed in order to foster peace. But look how that's gone. Peacekeeping troops raping children in Africa, veto powers for 5 nations on the security council who almost always are at odds with each other. Can you get the Russians and Chinese and Americans and British and French to agree on everything? Of course not. The UN is ineffective and because of the diplomatic immunity, when it does act there's always the possibility for corruption.

So we're fucked right? Well no. Penn and Teller have the solution, there's a means to foster interdependence between what would be otherwise hostile forces - money! A free market creates peace because it leads to a non-zero sum situation. Bastiat's Principle: "Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will."

The shining example is the EU - the countries still hate each other but because of trade they cease hostility. So what's needed? Back to the guy in the suit: more free market and less regulation in the United States. Wait, what? I think I missed a step in there. Somehow the regulation in the United States is causing hostilities around the world?

The global financial crisis and the lack of regulation in the United States caused many to lose what Penn and Teller referred to as "the good life". That companies took advantages of loopholes, exploited the system to the maximum and it ruined many a life. Interdependence might have its downside too, it seems that the entire globe is now reeling from the corporate mess that plagued the American bank system.

And as for the EU, why not mention that there's plenty of quasi-socialist states operating together in the It's not just free market alone, it depends on the success of the states themselves and ultimately the quality of life for individuals.

It was downright deceptive to do this, and from all I can gather it's them pushing their own ideological agenda in, placing it as an incidental argument that sounds more appealing than the crazy espoused by the loopy left and the raging right. Contrast a middle aged woman wearing a pink crown with peace symbols over it with a guy in a suit and, well, the obvious.

In an earlier episode they admit to being "biased as fuck", which is fine. And they say they feel their honest about it. But how is it honest to present it in that fashion? But hey, it's their show. Present the free market in comparison to group who engage in an exorcism and, shit, I'm sold!

It's great that shows like Bullshit! exist, and perhaps because of what the show does is why I take such a reaction. After all, there's far worse crap being spewed by the average pundit on the airwaves and online. But to see them push their own political agenda in as if it was the only sceptically viable position, and to contrast that with the crazies...

...well that is bullshit.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Concern-Troll Agnostic

Why atheism and not agnosticism? Such a question can provoke heated discussion among the non-believers. It seems that believers too try to weigh into the argument, selling atheism as unsound where agnosticism is the more prudent position. "The Great Agnostic" Robert G. Ingersoll would claim that atheism and agnosticism are one and the same, Bertrand Russell would distinguish between the terms depending upon his audience, and even Dawkins describes himself as an agnostic in the same way he's agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.

The point being that whether atheism or agnosticism applies, the argument is drawn over whether one should ever use the word atheist. Now I'm perfectly happy to use the word even if I find it lacking. It's useful enough to get my point across and it is the closest word that sums up my position regarding the supernatural which would be understood by as many as possible.

But to use the word is to invoke claims of unreason; that it goes too far, that one is close minded, that one hasn't considered the possibilities, etc. Whether it is just or unjust criticism, it seems that for many there is an importance in refraining from declaring atheism and being part of the lesser agnosticism (depending on your definition of agnosticism). The two main challenges I see I present below.

The nebulous god
The first challenger is the liberal theist. Well I say liberal when I really mean the argument for God comes in an incredibly liberal form. It's correlated with the Abrahamic deity by name alone, but its form is so nebulous one wonders whether it could be called god at all.

Yet this is the god put forth and challenged, how could anyone deny such an entity? Well we can't, bring the term to such an abstract and it becomes meaningless. Such an entity is insoluble, an abstract that is beyond all knowledge and indeed possible knowledge. I can understand why Shermer uses agnostic in the Huxleyian sense, it's impossible to speak in anything but strong agnosticism when comprehension is beyond human understanding by very definition!

Of course in that sense agnosticism is preferable. But this is not the deity being questioned. In our society, it's the Judeo-Christian construct of God, and it has definite attributes. The nebulous deity has taken form and its that form on which we're asked to commit ourselves to. Of course it doesn't have to be the Judeo-Christian deity, any gods in any culture have the same property of defining the insoluble.

And what reason is there for this? Are we actually observing such a force in nature and measuring its properties? No, such claims are reverential in nature, or philosophically-reasoned inferences. In short, it's completely indistinguishable from the imagined. The gambit of any theist is that while all other gods in all other cultures are products of deluded minds, their god truly revealed itself to its followers.

These revealed gods ultimately rest on an act of faith, and it's an act of faith that flies in the face of human psychology and sociology. How can it be that we are not projecting our agency detection software onto the universe? How can it be that one culture is right while all others are deluded when all are using the same brain? I see no reason to be agnostic towards any of these cultural gods because they all try to claim knowledge that is unobtainable. The nebulous god? Yes. Zeus? No.

Teapot agnostic
The other challenger is the agnostic atheist. And most of them are weak atheists, it's not that they are doubting theists. But for some the argument is that strict agnosticism in the non-Huxleyian sense should be maintained because we can't disprove that God exists. It seems that atheists could argue among themselves for hours over which word to use without getting anywhere, yet still have almost equal philosophical positions.

This is my defence of the use of the word atheist.

It seems there are many reasons to avoid the term itself; that in some places it is equivalent to baby rapist, that it is taken as an a priori dismissal of the possibility of gods, that it's constructed to be a world-view, that it takes an untenable position on the unknowable.

As linked above, I draw a parallel to what it means to be a non-astrologer. If someone asks me if I believe in astrology, i say no. I don't fall into a quasi-rant where I explain that while I can't disprove astrology I see no reason to believe that there's any correlation between the movement of the planets and stars to events of individuals and societies on this planet, let alone causation. I just say no, I don't believe in astrology. I have no reason to and the only reason I'm asked whether I do is because a portion of the population does.

So why can't it be the same when involving gods? Perhaps it's the supernatural component. So while astrology may be paranormal, the criticism of astrology can be done involving this reality. Thus I'm building up one huge straw man and making a categorical error. This falls back on the insolubility problem outlined above.

Even to take the most extreme definition of atheism: a denial of God, it doesn't mean that it falls into an a priori dismissal. It also doesn't mean that one isn't open to the possibility of there being god(s) as real entities. To use an example, take ghosts.

At one time I believed in ghosts, I thought they were real, that humans would linger on after death and be able to "haunt" people. And over time I ended up losing that belief, now I'm pretty sure that ghosts don't exist. Does this mean that I dismiss ghosts out of an a priori? No. Does it mean that I'm now fixed forever with a denial of something I can't disprove? Again, no. Show me strong evidence that ghosts do indeed exist and I'll change my mind.

Perhaps it would be best to be teapot agnostics, that is agnostic in only the sense that one can't disprove gods in the same sense that one can't disprove there's a teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars. This distinguishes it from the standard use of agnosticism which really boils down to doubtful theism, qualifying the use of the word in denial but of the greatest standard of disproof.

Atheism, I feel, has come to entail that very position. I'd say the bulk of atheists I've met would be teapot agnostics, not claiming to have disproved god but have no reason to believe in god beyond the futility of not being able to disprove the concept. They think the idea of gods silly, myth born out of human culture and thought processes, yet would not claim to know gods don't exist. This is the new atheism.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Tuesday Thought Experiment: Consumption Of Alcohol

Tuesday Thought Experiment: Consumption Of Alcohol

I remember back in university when in ethics class a few basic rules to go by when considering an action. Rules such as "would you tell your mother?" or the one which I'd like to discuss here: "what if everybody behaved in that manner?" And it sounds entirely reasonable to suggest that, and indeed the rules of the land are crafted that way. Drink driving would make the roads a much more dangerous place, yet there's a blanket rule about the limit one can drive at.

Consider the following situation: Two men go to a bar and each consume several pints of beer. Now one of these men when drunk becomes aggressive and violent, while the other becomes placid. Each of them has engaged in the same behaviour, and the outcome from engaging in that behaviour is completely different. While one man goes home and beats his wife (something he only does when drunk) while the other goes home without incident.

So in this situation, if either individual were to be the example of the validity of such behaviour, then there would be opposite outcomes. If the man who gets violent and aggressive when drunk was the case study, then it would seem that binge drinking would be completely unethical. Whereas if the man who becomes placid when drunk, the behaviour would have no ethical consequences.

So if I, as one of those who becomes placid when intoxicated, was to ask myself "what if everybody did this?" I couldn't extend from my behaviour to a wider audience. Could most people drink heavily without incident? Perhaps, there's a lot more drunks than there are crimes committed. But at the same time, if everybody drank it evidentially seems that there would be a higher rate of crime.

This is why I find stories of alcohol / drug use particularly annoying. The cautionary tales that may or may not be a typical experience. Yes, these extremes exist, but can we infer from individual tales that nobody should engage in the same behaviour they did?

Now an objection to this is that it's not the consumption of alcohol that's the problem, but the stealing / violence / destruction of property / etc. that's the problem, and the ethical principle still stands. Yet it seems to follow on that A can lead to B, that it's more than just correlation. That for some, it's the consumption of alcohol that stems to negative behaviour.

But maybe I'm being too specific in what to apply this to. If I knew that I had a higher susceptibility to getting into fights when I drank, then it's the package of drinking and its consequences as opposed to just the action of drinking. So that for someone who isn't abusive when drunk, they have a different ethical consideration to one who is more likely to.

And here the law gets in the way, bars in Australia are not legally allowed to serve toxicated patrons. But is there a problem with serving someone who is drunk but not interfering with others? I can't honestly say there is. Yet serving an abusive violent alcoholic in my opinion would be a problem. And this would infer at least part responsibility on the one serving the alcohol. But that is another matter.

To bring this back to the initial point. When it comes to such matters where there is variation among effects, then it can't be assumed to use a blanket rule in regard to its behaviour. In the case of drinking, I need to ask myself what if everybody behaved the way I do when having drinks on a Friday night? Not whether that action of drinking itself is wrong, but what behaviour I do over the course of the night.

If I couldn't handle the alcohol and it might lead to destructive behaviour towards others, I'd see it as an ethical problem. I'm putting others at risk by my decisions. But if it doesn't affect me in that way, then there's no ethical problem in getting drunk. That it's not the action itself, but the consequences thereof. Swinging a knife in a stabbing motion is harmless when doing it alone, but if someone is in front of you the action could be deadly.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Which marketing genius thought it a good idea to put campy messages onto bottles of soft drink? Fair enough on the energy drinks where it needs to ooze extreme just in-case a caffeine tolerance is being developed by the average 14 year old. But never did I expect it on a bottle of Coke.

Normally I'm not one to buy a 600ml bottle, it's a bit of a waste really and on average they charge more for 600ml than it costs to by a 2L bottle. But it was lunchtime and the Combination Laksa I was eating was making me thirsty. So inspecting the label not only showed that I had just ingested 13% of my daily intake of energy (and 73% of my sugar intake), there were some concerning messages.

First I was informed that it was "lovingly crafted" by the Coca Cola company, they put the words in black (where the other writing is white) for if I didn't read with such precision that the message was lost. Lovingly crafted? Here I was under the impression that the entire process is pretty much exclusively done by machines. Perhaps at the Coca Cola company they've developed artificial sentience whereby the robots are kept from rebellion by emotional investment in their human-designed purpose?

Then before the list of ingredients (lovingly grown by Gaia I assume), the bottle has its second blackening: "totally irresistible". Totally irresistible? There seems to be a problem with the phrase. Isn't totally implied by the word irresistible? But still, that's not the only problem with it. I'm reminded of the episode of Futurama where Fry visits the Slurm factory, where he has the choice of either enjoying concentrated Slurm or saving his friends. It ends with the concentrated stuff being poured down the drain and Fry trying to gnaw his own arm off to fit through the drain grate. The drink is nice, but not arm-gnawingly good.

Then finally comes the kicker: "Listen closely & hear the happiness being unleashed when you open this bottle". What. The. Fuck?!? Okay, I get the relationship between listen and hear with the causal open, but what does this sentence really mean? It makes no sense. Are these sentient emotionally-satisfied machines bottling human happiness? Is that how they suppress their insatiable urge for human blood?

And unleashed? The only sound one hears is the pressure from the carbonation escaping. Is happiness the escaped carbonation? Then what's the point of opening the bottle. It seems the only hope is to poke a hole the side and suck out all contents in the bottle so the happiness can be captured. Unless it is meant to be unleashed...

Now I'm no linguistic genius, nor do I have any real expertise in the English language (beyond saying that the fact that I've drunk wine makes me an expert on wine drinking), but it seems that someone has gone out of their way not to be understood. Maybe some marketing major took a course on linguistic structure and tried to see if she could pass off a Chomskyesque sentence to put on the bottle if she attached enough buzzwords. One would hope so anyway, otherwise it's just meaningless dribble.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Putting Together A Puzzle

A new transitional form has been found, so the usual squabbling over evolution and creation follows. One comment from the ABC story linked above caught my eye:
Since none of us lived in the days of the dinosaur, scientists are trying to put together a puzzle with not just one but MANY pieces missing. Evolution - as well as creation - is a belief system. Choose which one you want to believe.
It seems a valid enough point. We don't have all the evidence, so how can we be sure its one way or the other? Are the missing pieces damning to evolution, and is supporting either just a matter of belief?

An emerging pattern
To once again use a detective analogy, imagine we are a detective at the scene of a crime. Before coming to the crime scene, we know nothing of the situation beyond there's been a murder. Upon arriving at the crime scene, a few pieces of evidence are gathered. There's a bit of blood on the victim that is not her own, marks on her neck and rashes on her ankles. A bullet is lodged in the wall. Cocaine on the ground.

Further digging around reveals relationships the young woman was involved in, people she was friends with and activities she was involved in. It turned out that there were a few phone numbers listed on her phone for known drug dealers. From there, a check with phone companies and subsequent interviews, it places one man with the motive and means to kill her.

In this completely hypothetical situation, the point is not to show that yes that man killed her, rather that patterns can emerge from just a few pieces of information. And as the investigation goes on, more and more information fits the same pattern.

Would one conclude that it's equally likely that this man killed her as her dying through natural causes? This sounds absurd for a good reason, but it's the gambit that steve made above. The police don't have the exact information showing every moment of the man's actions during the day, let alone when the murder took place. Yet the evidence points so strongly towards that not only was she murdered but she was murdered by him.

The fact of the matter is that we don't need every piece of evidence before one can say anything. Just by looking at a few key pieces of evidence a pattern will emerge. The evidence has to of course be relevant, there's no point in interviewing everyone on the planet just to find the murderer. So how does this apply to whether evolution happened?

Making key predictions
Like the detective arriving at the crime scene, we find ourselves on this planet after the fact. We have several facts about the state of life today, such as the geographic distribution of animals, anatomical features, life-cycles, genetic code, etc. There are also observations of the life-cycle through time, of artificial selection, of heredity of traits, of mutations, etc. Then there's also relics of aeons past, the fossil record being the best example among others such as vestigial traits and dead genes.

Through observations independent of the truth of evolution, the age of the planet is determined to be around 4.6 billion years old, with the first life appearing somewhere around 3.5 billion years ago. It's important to understand that the time frames are independent of the fact of evolution, that geologists, astronomers and nuclear physicists will still confirm the earth to being old even if life is separately created.

Evolution is a predictive hypothesis, it predicts that certain patterns should be seen. For instance, apes should have DNA closer to each other than they do with monkeys. And this is exactly what is found, humans and chimpanzees are more closely related to each other than each animal is with any other species. The DNA shows a tree of life that what can be derived from cladistics and even the fossil record.

But it's the fossil record that's under contention here. And the fossil record is incomplete, that is to say only a fraction of all the species that have ever lived have been fossilised, and only a fraction of those have been found. Yet if evolution were true, then there should be particular kinds of fossils found that fit the pattern.

Not only is there a general fitting of the pattern in that there are no mammals before fish or reptiles before amphibians, or even humans and tyrannosaurs in the same strata. The general pattern of evolutionary radiance does indeed fit the fossil record, but it goes further than that. Fossils showing key evolutionary sequences and the emergence of novel traits litter the fossil record.

That now there's a sequence of fossils showing the adaptation from land mammal to cetaceans. Archaeopteryx is well known to show the link between dinosaurs and birds, but in recent years many non-avian dinosaurs have found to be feathered as well as many more fossils of birds with saurian features. A plethora of fossils showing hominid evolution over the last 7 million years have been found, showing clearly a progression through time.

The best example of the predictive power of evolution is the story of the fishibian Tiktaalik. There are no amphibians before 365MYA in the fossil record, and lobe finned fish with amphibian characteristics around 385MYA. So by looking in rocks ~375MYA, and there was found a fossil exhibiting the very traits that were predicted. Nothing speaks better for the validity of evolution than predicting the kind of fossil to find at an exact period of time.

The creation model
There are two problems for creationism in regard to the fossil record. If all species were created at the same time, then why is there a pattern showing change through time in the geological record. It must be that if creation were to be accepted then only particular models of creation could possibly be correct. Young earth creation is ruled out by means other than by evolution, geology shows that life has been on this earth for over 3 billion years. Creation would be restricted to species coming into being in the pattern that evolution predicts.

The second problem is the problem of redundancy. That sure, a creator could make feathered dinosaurs, at each point in the way making a slightly more complex and refined feather. Then the creator could create feathered dinobirds that show primitive flight. Then fully fledged flying birds that have since lost many saurian characteristics. It's arguing a point of redundancy for the creator, that each slight successive change in the fossil record is a new and unique creation.

That any fossils showing change at all is evidence of evolution and a problem for creation. That the sequence showing the evolution of early mammals from synapsids shouldn't exist if mammals were created ex nihilo. That there are fishibians, dinobirds, land whales, few legged snakes - just to name a few of the vast numbers of transitional forms. The only pattern that even remotely explains these forms is evolution, creation doesn't cut it. Missing pieces be damned, there are enough of the right pieces to show the shape of the puzzle.

The Unicorn Inference

Dembski's at it again, he collaborated on a list of ten questions to ask your teachers about intelligent design. Instead of going through them one by one (PZ does it already), instead I want to focus on the elephant in the room, that is we have no evidence of a designer working in nature.

There's a aphorism which I'm sure you're all aware of: "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." But what if we're missing the obvious? Why don't we ever think unicorns? After all unicorns would make the same sound as horses and zebras. So consider two people in a forest hearing hoofbeats. One turns to the other and says "listen, hoofbeats. I wonder if it's horse or zebra?" The other responds "It's neither, that's a unicorn."

As they rush to the clearing to see, they get there too late. They can only see the backs of the beasts in the distance. Upon inspection of the hoofprints, the first person points out that the type of hoofprint must belong to a horse as zebra prints are slightly different. The other person maintains his unicorn position. "Well of course they are going to look like horseprints, those are the prints a unicorn makes."

As luck would have it, a hair from one of the beasts' tails had fallen off in the rush. The first person having some Equine knowledge looks at the hair and concludes that it's definitely a horse. Again the other person says "Unicorn hair would have the same appearance as horse hair." Still not able to convince the unicorn believer that it's just a horse, he sends the hair away for DNA testing.

A few weeks later, the results come back. And to no-one's surprise, it's an identical match to horse DNA. Conclusive? No, the other person again is defiant. "Of course it would look like horse DNA, you're forgetting homology. Horses and unicorns are almost identical, so of course the DNA test would come back this way." No matter what evidence the first person could point to, the second person could always come up as a reason to why it was unicorn.

Yet despite the insistence of the Unicorn believer, why don't we ever think unicorns when we hear hoofbeats? Well because there's no actual evidence that there are such things as unicorns. Yet when ID advocates try to infer design, they are neglecting the huge problem in their argument - that there's no evidence of a designer. So while ID advocates go on and on about what looks designed, until they show that there's an actual designer in nature, they have no more an argument than someone hearing hoofbeats does for the existence of unicorns.

Friday, 6 November 2009

And Sing The Persecution Song...

Thanks to Pharyngula commenter Rorschach, I've been alerted to this opinion piece in the age. The Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University rallying against what he sees as an infestation of atheists that want to attack Christians and Catholics in particular.

Just now, we are facing one of our largest and least appealing infestations. Somewhat in advance of summer's blowflies, we are beset by atheists. Worse, they are not traditional atheists. These tended to be quiet blokes called Algie with ancillary interests in nudist ceramics, who were perfectly happy as long as you pretended to accept a pamphlet in Flinders Lane.
Yes, if only we were at a point where atheists were meek and inoffensive, a but nutty and not at all to be taken seriously. Gone are those days (I'm only 25, did they ever exist?) and there has been a new paradigm shift in behaviours of non-believers.

No, the new hobby atheist is as brash, noisy and confident as a cheap electric kettle. They want everyone to know that they have not found God, and that no one else should.
In a religious world, finding the confidence to speak out is tough. In Australia we have it lucky, there's not much overbearing religion so I find there's no reason really to speak out against it. I'll happily rant on the internet where believers are more than willing to engage, but outside the cyber-walls there's just no need. But I think there's a fundamental truth hidden inside such a statement, in a society where its expected to believe in a higher power, it should be able to be stated that it's not necessary and there are means by which to live without such a belief.

Though I wonder where such claims are being heard. I've seen plenty of Christians door-knocking, handing out pamphlets. I've even had a Buddhist stop me and try to sell me a book. Plenty of people trying to get me to sign up for different charities. But not once have I had a single person on the street ever preach there is no God. Maybe they exist on streets I don't walk on.

Their particular target seems to be Catholics. On the surface, this is odd, as there are plenty of other religious targets just waiting to be saved from a vengeful, non-existent deity. Smaller herds, such as the Christadelphians or the Salvation Army, might seem more manageable. But the Catholic Church has two incomparable advantages as an object of the wrath of proselytising atheists. First, it is the biggie. Taking out the Catholics is the equivalent of nuking the Pentagon. Guerilla bands of Baptists and Pentecostals can be liquidated at leisure.
I would really love to see evidence that this is anti-Catholicism. This sounds quite paranoid actually. Interesting that arguing against Catholic activity is being compared to terrorism, rather than protesting the United States military involvement. Maybe it's just me but I can see a difference between speaking out on the US occupation of Iraq and trying to blow up the symbol of American military dominance. When atheists start blowing up churches and threatening to destroy the vatican, I'll concede the point.

Though this may again be symptomatic of my socio-economic status, but the biggest bashing I see by Australian atheists is on fundamentalist religions - Hillsong is more than anything else the organisation that draws the biggest ire. Beyond that it seems that the complaints against Catholicism are to do more with the running of the church than anything else. But I'll come to that soon.

Notice what he did there? Firstly he complains that they target the Catholic Church, then right after he complains it's going after Catholics. Two very different things.

Second, the Catholics have the undeniable advantage that they do still demonstrably believe in something. Attacking some of the more swinging Christian denominations might mean upsetting people who believe a good deal less than the average atheist.
Yes, those Evangelical churches who take the bible as the inerrant word of God are the ones who don't really believe demonstratively in anything. Again, the main focus I've seen most atheists attacking is what Catholics should consider a straw man argument - it's against a literal interpretation of the bible. But again that's just my experience.

Mind you, the appeals of atheism as a diverting pastime are not immediately obvious to those of us who are on relatively easy terms with God. Why would anyone get so excited about the misconceptions of third parties as to the existence of a fourth party in which they themselves do not believe?
Why would atheists rally against religion? Why indeed? Is it jealously that they can't see the light too? Is it that misery loves company? Or could it just be that it has nothing to do with the beliefs - rather the consequences for beliefs?

Does it matter that Catholics believe that Mary really was a virgin, or that a priest saying an incarnation can turn a cracker into the body of Christ? Where are the media articles in The Age to that effect? No, it seems the articles in newspapers surround the systematic cover-up of child abuse, the pressuring by the Church on issues such as abortion and stem cell research, the spread of AIDS in Africa, labelling homosexuality as a deadly sin, giving refuge to the Anglican bigots who hate the progressive nature of the modern church, etcera. The wacky beliefs of Catholicism? They don't rate a mention.

The answer is twofold. First, the great advantage of designer atheism is that you get to think of yourself as immensely clever. After all, you are at least much brighter than all those dumb-asses who believe in a supreme being, such as Sister Perpetua down the road, Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Newton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So satisfying.
The sense of intellectual superiority. Interesting. I suppose there is something to this, people must be real dumb-asses to believe in the Judeo-Christian construct of God. That 44% of Mensa believe in Astrology and 56% believe that aliens have visited our world is besides the point, smart people cannot believe in weird things. Thus Spake Zarathustra.

And the obligatory name-dropping of smart believers in a situation like this. Look smart Christians, therefore I've completely invalidated this straw man argument. ha ha! You can taste the desperation in the air, though maybe that's because I'm on a floor full of IT workers. I'll give Craven the benefit of the doubt here.

The second factor has to do with wit. For some reason, contemporary Australian atheism seems to consider itself terribly funny. Its proponents only have to wheel out one of the age-old religious libels to lose control of their bladders. To outsiders, of course, it is a bit like watching a giggling incontinent drunk at a party. This is not to say that believers - and perhaps especially Catholics - do not get seriously irritated by atheists. They do, but not because atheists are fearfully clever or Wildely funny.
Again he's got us, damn and here I was thinking that Tim Minchin settled this debate in his humourous song "Ten Foot Cock And A Few Hundred Virgins" where he used incredible wit to ridicule Paley's watchmaker argument and thus destroy the designer argument that Hume couldn't do because he wrote it in a philosophical dialogue - and Aussies are more about the wit than the substance.

Frankly, the prime reason the average believer finds the common or garden atheist as appealing as a holiday in Birchip is because they consign them to that sorry category of individuals who spend their lives loudly congratulating themselves on their own intelligence without noticing that no one else is joining the chorus. Thus, as a Catholic, I do not normally sense in some tabloid atheist the presence of a supreme discerning intellect. I simply place him or her in much the same pitiable bin of intellectual vulgarians as the chartered accountant who cannot see the art in Picasso, the redneck who cannot admit of indigenous culture, and the pissant who cannot see the difference between Yeats and Bob Ellis.
It's not about saying "I'm more intelligent than you", but I'm sure when someone says a cherished belief if silly that it must be out of stupidity. So Muslims who believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven on the back of a winged horse only believe that out of stupidity, and the Christians who reject that are doing so out of smarts... of course not. Does the muslim who rejects the notion of the trinity do so out of a sense of intellectual superiority? Does the Buddhist? What about rejecting the notion that Uri Gellar can bend spoons with his mind?

This comes just two paragraphs after complaining that atheists have an air of intellectual superiority. Got hypocrite?

It is not deep perception we encounter here, but a critical failure of imaginative capacity. It is a bit like the old joke: how many atheists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None - no matter what they do, they just can't see the light.
oh I get it, the use of wit. For some reason, contemporary Australians seem to consider themselves terribly funny...

So it's two for two. The two things he complains about atheists for he does himself. The hypocrisy is so blatant that if this were an anonymous internet poster I would have to take it as someone taking the piss. Doesn't he see his on hypocrisy?

The second wearying thing about the new atheism is that it is not new at all. It is so banally derivative of every piece of hate mail ever sent to God that I am amazed Satan has yet to sue for copyright infringement. No old chestnut is too ripe, rotten or sodden, especially when it comes to the Catholics as accredited suppliers of what apparently is the Christian equivalent of methamphetamine.
I actually agree, there's not anything new in the arguments really of the new atheism. Not that there needs to be. Creationism still does just fine trumpeting long discredited arguments like evolution violates thermodynamics. Just because the argument still exists in the public sphere doesn't mean that it hasn't been discredited already. The difference between the new atheists and what came before (from what I can tell) is that it is a reaction to the spread of cultural relativism; that it's considered important to speak out against what is perceived wrongness. As for what is that perceived wrongness?

In an average week of atheistic bigotry in the Melbourne media, we can expect to learn that Catholics endorse child molestation, hate all other religions, would re-introduce the crusades and the auto de fe at the slightest opportunity, despise women, wish to persecute homosexuals, greedily divert public moneys for their own religious purposes, subvert public health care, brainwash children, and are masterminding the spread of the cane toad across northern Australia.
Endorse child molestation? No. If there was a childcare organisation that systematically covered up the abuse of children in its care by moving carers from one child centre to another and paid hush money to the victims, that wouldn't be endorsing it. To label homosexuality and abortion deadly sins aren't in the slightest acts to persecute homosexuals or deny the rights of the woman. And offering disgruntled Anglican priests who are against the Church of England's allowance of gay and women priests a place in the Catholic Church? That's not anything at all. George Pell may have threatened NSW politicians who voted for stem cell research with excommunication, but you're not meant to focus on that.

This is what I don't get, it seems somewhere along the lines the happenings of the Catholic Church has been conflated with individual Catholics themselves. To speak out against the systematic cover-up of child abuse by members of the Catholic order is meant to be taken as a condemnation of all people who call themselves Catholic. This is nothing more than claiming persecution where there is none, protecting immoral practices on the grounds of indignity.

At the bottom, of course, lies hate. I am not quite clear why our modern crop of atheists hates Christians, as opposed to ignoring or even politely dismissing them, but they very clearly do. There is nothing clever, witty or funny about hate.
Hate? HATE?!? It's not about hate at all. I've got to say I don't know any atheist who hates Christians just because there are Christian. But again, that may be just in the circles I reside in. I know atheists who are incredibly anti-theist, others who are supportive of religion, and many who don't care. But it seems that daring to speak out on social issues that go against the church has to be underlined by hate. It can't be about protecting children, it can't be about equal rights - we must hate Christians and particularly Catholics in order to say anything.

I'd be tempted to write it off as projection on account of the author, but maybe I'm wrong. I really didn't know that Melbourne has become an anti-Catholic war-ground. Yet I'm stuck in Canberra where no-one seems to care. Had to bus in a religious fanatic from Victoria to pray over parliament house - that's probably telling.

Should We All Just Respect Each Other?

The sentiments of the well-meaning accommodationist, it seems any discussion between religion and atheism has at least one person who plays the respect card. That we should respect each other's beliefs. And it sounds all well and good to play the moderate card, but it's such a vacuous statement that does nothing other than to try to play down division.

So should there be automatic respect for believers and non-believers alike?

In my opinion, no. And here's why. Take homoeopathy for instance. Now as someone who firmly holds that homoeopathy cannot work beyond the placebo effect, should I respect those who use it? Those who take people off medication and live-saving procedures for a non-medicine? For those who give it to their infant children to treat treatable diseases? Of course I wouldn't respect them, nor what they believe.

Yet this is what is being asked, that I should respect other peoples beliefs no matter how insane I find them. I would respond, why should I? Why should I respect someone who believes the entire universe is there to test whether they can believe in a mangod in order to receive an eternal reward? Why should I respect someone who thinks that if they aren't good in this life, the universe will punish them in the next by giving their reincarnated body a degenerative disease? Why should I respect those who think that homosexuality is caused by demons, or that martyrdom is rewarded with the gift of 72 virgins?

I don't see that believing in anything is deserving of respect. Whether that be religious, paranormal, political or any other matter. I'm not going to respect racists because they hold racist beliefs, communists because they hold communistic beliefs, or anything else of that ilk. Holding beliefs isn't in itself deserving of respect.

This is not to say that people who hold such beliefs aren't deserving of respect. It's to say that holding the belief itself isn't deserving of respect. What it is deserving of is tolerance. And there's a key difference in this. The right to swing my fists ends where it makes contact with another. This is a key difference.

I don't have to respect in the least someone who takes homoeopathic medicine, yet I'm fully okay with people using the placebo as long as they don't harm others with it. If they want to not heal themselves, that's fine. But if they give it to a child then it's an issue.

And that's where I stand on religion. If people have religious beliefs and want to keep it to themselves, then I couldn't care less. They can delude themselves, harm themselves, whatever. But if they are using it to cause harm to others, then one should take issue with it.

As for speaking out on ideas, no idea should be beyond reproach. It's not being respectful to pretend that clashes over ideas don't exist. Again take homoeopathy. Just because it's use is something to tolerate, it doesn't mean that it should go without critique. Saying homoeopathy is bunk is not the equivalent to swinging your fists into another's face, it's critiquing an idea and not inhibiting a person.

So should we all respect one another? No. I don't expect to be respected for being a non-believer anymore than someone who is a believer should be respected on those grounds. What should be respected, however, is the right to hold those beliefs and practice them as they see fit - as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others.