Monday, 31 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Emperor

The role of the aides to the emperor is to serve the emperor. That the emperor is naked is a trivial observation, for what is an empire without an emperor? That there are voices willing to call the emperor naked and thus undermine the emperor's authority means that the hecklers must be silenced. An aide might attempt to throw a robe over the emperor, or hide his nakedness behind a curtain. But if the emperor is unwilling to be clothed, what else can an aide do but try to quell confirming rumours? It also helps if the aide is convinced that the emperor is, in fact, clothed.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Familiarity

All of us are very familiar with moral decision making, it's a part of who we are. We don't need to think through why something is wrong - it just is. And chances are that if we had to think through a moral decision, we'd be rationalising our position. Trying to think things through in moral frameworks is an alien enterprise for most of us, yet it's so important that we do. Because without it, we're at risk of having our moral intuitions pass through unexamined.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Evo Psych

There seems to be two different kinds of criticism levelled at evolutionary psychology. The first is a criticism that evo psych proponents make "just-so" stories after the fact, based on assumptions about the potential environment our ancestors lived in. While some of these assumptions might be accurate, the level of accuracy touted is overstepping the bounds of what the inquiry can offer. The second kind of criticism is that evo psych is defiling humanity, forcing people into stereotypes, and used to justify sexism and racism. That second kind of criticism makes the first kind of criticism harder. So instead of striving for good science, the battle becomes over what does it mean to be human - and in such a reductionist way too...

Friday, 28 January 2011


"In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms." - Stephen Jay Gould

Morning Scepticism: Self-Reflection

It's amazing the number of times a creationist will have a defeater argument for evolution which shows a complete misunderstanding of the process. Questions like "has a cat ever given birth to a dog?" or "where are the half-human half-monkeys?" or "How can the eye come about by chance?" These questions are just so far off the mark, that it's hard to even dignify them with an answer. Perhaps we could ask our own question in rebuttal.

"What's more likely: that every biologist and philosopher over the last 150 years who have spent their careers studying on the subject have missed such an elementary error, or that you might have misunderstood the process?"

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Phobia

If someone has a fear of flying, I don't think that fear is going to go away by dispelling the reasons for such a fear. For us who don't have a fear of flying, the fear seems absurd. After all, tens of thousands of planes make it safely to their destination each day, and statistically you're more likely to die in a car crash than in an aircraft. But knowing that isn't going to work. It might help, but there's a reason it's called a phobia.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Philosophy Of Religion

When I hear arguments around the existence of God, I really think I must be missing something elementary. Take JL Mackie's Evil and Omnipotence, a paper that details the incompatibilities with the notion of an all-powerful deity and the evidential existence of evil. When I read something like that, I just can't get passed the notion of ascribing omnipotence to begin with. That it's incompatible with a world containing evil is the least of the worries. Yet there are plenty of philosophers who take these kinds of arguments seriously, so I'm fairly sure the problem is on my end. What am I missing?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Facts

On the matter of whether vaccination is a good idea, both individually and on a societal level, is a question of both science and politics. Not being trained scientists, most of us just aren't trained to properly evaluate the evidence. Yet the public controversy surrounding vaccines is one centred around facts - whether or not vaccines are harmful, and specifically in the case of autism. Because most of us aren't trained to know whether the information is good or not, it seems to be rejected on grounds of association. There are many who already seek "natural" alternatives, the distrust of the medical establishment is high. As such, the evidence is tainted by its association with Big Pharma and is rejected on those grounds.

This just mean rejecting unfavourable facts, and unfortunately no amount of data is going to change that.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: SLoT

Creationists often make the claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. The claim is that entropy means that everything tends towards disorder, so how could evolution make order out of disorder? My standard response is "what does the physics of heat have to do with DNA replication?" But of course that doesn't really satisfy the underlying quandary. Nor does saying that the earth is not a closed system, because the problem isn't with thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is just a way to have the underlying incredulity at order springing from chaos sound like it's contrary to nature. The problem is with the notion of design sans designer, and it's unfortunate that the question is asked in such a way that merits a scientific answer - because the scientific answer is not the answer to the question being really asked.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: God as an Explanation

"Let's suppose there is a being that is all-powerful - it can do anything. And suppose it's not only all-powerful, but all-knowing too - it knows everything. And suppose that this being just exists. That's God. Now how can you atheists say that such a thing didn't create the universe? It has the ability, the knowledge and the position to be able to do so."

When it's put like that, atheism does seem unreasonable. However, what reason do we have for those suppositions to begin with? The problem is the unreasonable premise, and on that note the only reasonable position is to reject the conclusion.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Culture

Culture doesn't impose from the top-down, rather culture is the pattern of horizontal transmission among a sufficiently large portion of a group. Calling it culture is a much easier way to describe it, but unfortunately it leads to the problem of ascribing people beliefs based on the perceptions of that culture. This is not to deny the power of transmission of information as a means of shaping someone, but that it sometimes goes too far. There's quite simply no mechanism to explain it. Culture is an emerging pattern, thus at best serves as a guide. After all, we don't treat people in our own "culture" as monolithic representations of cultural ideals - just as people.

Friday, 21 January 2011


"Faith is a cop-out. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can’t be taken on its own merits." - Dan Barker

Morning Scepticism: Causation

In a materialist world, it's material that does all the thinking. Thus its material that makes the decision. Thus any sense of free will or responsibility is an illusion. But an illusion to what, exactly? The question highlights the absurdity of the thinking. How can it be an illusion if there's no you to be fooled? It seems to be that you either own the fact that you are material, or abandon the idea of the self.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Affirmation

If the only thing that matters is getting other people to believe the same thing as you do, then most conversation is pretty pointless. You don't really need to learn anything, beyond what will bring people around to your beliefs. It would seem strange to make something that would be conducive to community or to informing those who already share a similar disposition. All of that would look like wasted effort. The value of belief becomes solely the societal prevalence of that belief, and to heck with all of those who might thing that there's more to a belief than affirming it.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Nihilism

One powerful intuition about the world is that in death is nihilism. Since we don't exist any more, why should we care about the future? And since no matter what we do we'll end up dead, why care about the present? On the face of it, being good and acting in a meaningful way seems a futile endeavour. Yet is chasing love a futile endeavour because love fades? Is the pleasure of food, music, or sex worthless because of the fleeting nature of the experience? Friends come and go, achievements get superseded or forgotten, does that detract from the need for friends or the satisfaction of achievement?

The nihilistic gambit is the gamble that because death is an inevitability that we are already dead. Anyone who actually thinks like that might as well be...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Dragons

To say a dragon has wings would be as non-controversial as saying an elephant has tusks. Yet elephants have wings is a statement of fact, it's something empirically verifiable or falsifiable. Dragons don't exist, or at least as far as we are aware. So while a statement about the nature of dragons can seem just the same as talking about an animal, they are in very different ontological categories. Forest that's been been damaged by something large would count as evidence for elephants, yet a fire would not count as evidence for dragons. The conceptual of a dragon may be able to breathe fires, but there's no link between dragons and real fires. It's giving a construct an explanatory power that hasn't been established.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Wine Experience

In learning a little about the experience of wine, I've learned that psychology plays a big role in the experience. The perception of quality as indicated by the price can change the experience. That initially got me concerned, and I now whenever possible try to taste a wine without knowing how much it costs. But upon thinking about it, I can't understand why. It shouldn't matter whether the experience of good wine is a psychological trick or something that comes from the way the wine interacts with your senses. Is an experience somehow less significance if its influenced by culture and the desire for status? I'm glad personally that I can get wines I like for about $10-$15 a bottle and I don't think that there's much value in buying more expensive wines. But if people get their pleasure from the status of drinking an expensive wine, I can't see the problem with that. There's no intrinsic value to the wine by which the experience should be judged, the value comes from the perceptual experience - including psychological factors.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Spam

While I know the dangers of opening spam email, occasionally I take a look in my spam folder at the kind of thing that constitutes automatic filtering. While no doubt some is garbage, it's interesting reading the genuine sales pitches that clearly are frauds. Sometimes it really doesn't take a lot to sucker people in, the promise of vast wealth at a minimal investment seems to override the basic incredulity of the premise. This is why critical thinking is such an important idea to get out there. With a few simple heuristics, it gives basic protection from what could really cause harm.

There might be a sucker born every minute, but why should we be fatalistic about it? A few words might mean the difference between being suckered in and being critical.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Predictions

My "psychic" predictions for 2011:
  • This will be the ~1980th year that Jesus doesn't come back
  • The Large Hadron Collider won't destroy the earth
  • Children will die from vaccine-preventable diseases
  • Natural disasters will be interpreted as the wrath of a divine agent
  • Duke Nukem Forever will finally be released

Friday, 14 January 2011


"One understands nothing about creationism unless one understands that it is meant to be a system of ethics. That is why the assault on evolution has always included a lengthy history of moral judgments against evolution." - Hector Avalos

Morning Scepticism: Mercury

With the focus of the anti-vaccination movement on the link between mercury and autism, why aren't they putting effort into stopping the fish industry? After all, we ingest much more mercury from eating fish than what anyone gets in a vaccine. Yet sushi bar owners don't get the harassment that vaccine proponents do, even though vaccines help save lives. The best you could say about sushi is that it helps save palettes.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Adult Smoking

I really don't get how someone could take up smoking as an adult. What's the appeal?

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Designer

Creationists often charge that a design necessitates a designer. But I think they have this backwards. A watch may have a watchmaker, but watchmakers don't exist ex nihilo. To get a watchmaker takes so much R&D, both in terms of developing an organism capable of making watches as well as all the knowledge required in order to build a watch. In other words, the designer is designed.

Design doesn't necessitate a designer, but a designer necessitates design.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Validation

There are some who say that when you die, if you haven't accepted Jesus as the Son Of God, then you will suffer for eternity. The implication of this view being that it doesn't matter what you do in life, salvation is only obtained through belief. So those who talk about justice are really saying that justice is believing the right thing. So justice, it seems, is nothing more than validating someone else's belief. It doesn't matter about being a good person, or refraining from causing intentional harm to others. What matters is sharing in the belief that others do.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Shooting

When a massacre takes place, it's a bit concerning that anyone as their first step would go into damage control regarding the guns. Multiple people are dead, including a nine-year old girl, and there are people worried that this will mean the Big Bad Liberals are going to make them part with Charlene. It's a pretty messed-up way of thinking. "Another shooting, quick lock up the guns before the those whining treehuggers take them away!"

It's like the anti-gun lobby is a big powerful entity, while the pro-gun lobby is one tragedy away from losing the battle to arm oneself with anything more than a pointed stick...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Witnessing

One persistent apologetic is the rhetorical question of "where you there?" For almost everything, we answer no. We weren't there when our parents conceived (at least not to be able to witness it), so how can we know that we were conceived? Can you say you weren't delivered by a stork?

Perhaps a simple thought experiment should illustrate the absurdity of the question. Imagine coming home and finding the door broken and open. Upon going inside, you see a mess. Drawers are sticking out and items are everywhere. Furthermore, many valuable items have gone missing. Since there were no eyewitnesses, are you saying that you're at a complete loss as to how to explain what you see?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Contrarian

Being a sceptic, in part, is adhering to a particular way of thinking about the world. That is the understanding of reality through science and critical thinking. Often that will mean being a contrarian, but it's important to distinguish between being a contrarian and being a sceptic. Those who believe the moon landing was a hoax aren't exactly following the evidence, even if they are questioning the official story. You can be sceptical without being a sceptic, sometimes the official story is what the preponderance of evidence points towards.

Friday, 7 January 2011


"A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand." - Bertrand Russell

Morning Scepticism: Image

If there's anything that says God is made in our image and not the other way around, it's Anglo-Jesus. Jesus is portrayed as the best-groomed Woodstock attendee, which might fit well with our perceptions of what such a character ought to be, but it's hardly fitting for someone kicking around Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Intention

Giving explanations in terms of intentionality is something humans are really good at. Yet sometimes this goes badly wrong, and elaborate stories are constructed that sound plausible solely on the notion of intentionality. Evil shadow figures in government are a good example, the notion of a puppet government and a new world order is just absurd practically - yet it fits so well with ascribing motive. It's so easy for us to think that way that we must take extra care to see past motive and look at evidence.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Tone

While it's all well and good to have a dialogue conducted in a respectful tone, why should a lack of one detract from the argument? Surely it's the argument that's important, and that can be presented irrespective of tone. Imagine if biologists responded to creationists "I'd love to tell you how the eye evolved, but I'm not going to say anything until you stop linking evolution with the holocaust." While it's a perfectly legitimate complaint about tone, it's not showing anything other than the absence of a case.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Umpire

In sport, the referee or umpire is there as an impartial observer, one who can objectively as possible look at what goes on and apply the rules. But they aren't exactly ideal observers. They have their own pressures, their own biases, their own failings of the senses, and can make mistakes. In other words, they're human. But the game is meant to be played to a certain set of rules and the trappings of being human is not what an outcome should turn on. That we have technology now that can assist in playing to a certain rules is not destroying the purity of the game but trying to make the umpire's role as objective as possible. After all, people don't watch sport for the umpiring.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Convenience

For years I lived a dishwasher-free existence, so washing dishes was merely a nightly event. I didn't mind so much, it wasn't so annoying. But in the last two places I've lived, I haven't had the need to do it anymore. Both had dishwashers, so cleaning dishes became a matter of stacking and putting away, while the cleaning was done by a machine. Though now I'm not sure whether it's a good thing. The dishwasher uses more water, more electricity, doesn't do as good a job, and the current dishwasher is rusting stainless steel. If it weren't so gosh darn convenient, I'd go back to doing it by hand!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Tu Quoque

There's plenty of things that can lead to increased risks when driving. While drinking and using a mobile phone are cracked down on and things like fatigue and being a poor driver are not, it's no excuse to drive drunk or use a mobile because other risk factors aren't clamped down on. It's akin to defending yourself in a murder trial by pointing out that the prosecuting lawyer cheats on his wife and taxes.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Morning Scepticism: Mind Matters

One reductio ad absurdum often argued against materialism is the question "how can matter think?" It seems an intuitively obvious point after all, thoughts and emotions are very different to rocks and chemical reactions. Yet much work has been done in uncovering just how "matter thinks", while the discipline is still in its infancy there's already much in the way of promising results. Yet in the absence of matter thinking, what is there on offer? Let's say the cognition is done by an immaterial soul, how does it process information? How does it make decisions? How does it store memories and respond to physical causes like drugs or magnetic fields?

How does matter think? By the intricate arrangement of complex structures firing in patterns. The real question is how does non-matter think?