Draft of PART of chpt 3. VSI Humanism. For comments please...

Monday, November 30, 2009

The previous chapter provided an overview of several popular arguments for the existence of God, and found them wanting. In this chapter, we will see that there exists, in addition, at least one very powerful argument against the existence of God.

The problems of evil

God, as traditionally conceived by the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has at least three important characteristics. First, God is omnipotent or maximally powerful. God has the ability to create the universe and destroy it again. Being the creator and sustainer of the laws of nature, he is also free to break them by, for example, raising people from the dead or parting the Red Sea. Secondly, God is omniscient. His knowledge is unlimited. He knows even our most private thoughts. Thirdly, God is, supposed supremely benevolent. Indeed, God is often characterized as watching over us as a loving parent watches over his children. God, it is said, is love.

I shall use the term “Theist” with a capital “T” to refer to those who believe in such a.being, and “God” with a capital G as the name of that Being. Small initial “theists”, by contrast, are those who believe in a god or gods, whether or not it happens to be God.

If God has the three characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience and supreme benevolence, this raises a very obvious and familiar challenge to Theism, a challenge known as the problem of evil. In fact, there are two problems of evil: the logical problem and the evidential problem.

The logical problem of evil

The logical problem of evil begins with the thought that the claim:

(1) There exists an omnipotent, omniscient and maximally good God

is logically inconsistent with the claim:

(2) Evil exists

By ‘evil’, here, we mean both suffering and morally wrong actions. The argument runs like so: (2) is true, therefore, (1) is false. Why? Because an omnipotent God would have the power to prevent evil, an omniscient God would know it exists, and a supremely benevolent God would want to prevent it. The existence of evil, then, might appear logically to entail that there is no such being.

Note that the quantity of evil that exists is irrelevant to this version of the problem. It requires only that there exist some, no matter how little.

Many Theists maintain the logical problem of evil does not present an insuperable challenge to belief in God. In response , they typically try to show that an all-powerful, all-knowing and maximally good God might allow some evil for the sake of a greater good.

For example, some Theists believe that God gave us free will – the ability freely to choose to do good or evil. As a result of our acting freely, evil exists. However, this evil is more than outweighed by other goods, including the good of our possessing free will. So, though it might sound paradoxical, this is actually a better world than one lacking free will, despite the fact that, as a result of free will, there exists, say, war and murder. That is why the existence of such evils does not entail that there is no God.

The evidential problem of evil

However, there is another, to my mind far more serious, problem of evil facing Theism – the evidential problem of evil. The evidential problem rests, not on the thought that the truth of (2) logically entails the falsehood of (1), but on the thought that (2) provides us with good evidence against (1). The quantity of evil does now become relevant. While we might concede that God might allow some evil (for the sake of a greater good), surely there could be no good reason for God to allow quite so much?

We can sharpen the evidential problem by noting that God will presumably not allow gratuitous suffering to exist. Presumably, if God exists, he has good reason to allow every last ounce of it.

I recently watched an episode of the BBC TV series Life. At the end of the programme, one of the cameramen was interviewed, and I was struck that he said. He revealed that, after just a few weeks on the job, he was already considering of giving up wild-life photography because he found it too harrowing. This cameraman was struggling to cope with the extraordinary degree of suffering the creatures he was filming were going through. That kind of suffering – appalling suffering, on a vast, global scale – has of course been going on, not just for a few weeks, but for many hundreds of millions of years, long, long before we humans made our very recent appearance.

When we begin to consider the enormous quantities of suffering that exist - including the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering that occurred before we humans made our recent appearance – doesn’t it quickly become apparent that it cannot all be accounted for in this way?

It appears, then, that the claim that the God of classical monotheism exists is straightforwardly empirically falsified. Perhaps there is a god or gods. But the God of traditional monotheism appears to be fairly conclusively ruled out, given the available evidence.


Those who believe in God respond to the evidential problem of evil in a variety of ways. Some maintain there are good grounds for supposing that, not only is there a god, this being does indeed have the properties attributed to him by traditional monotheism. So, while there may be evidence against the existence of such a God, it is at least counter-balanced by this evidence for. I return to that suggestion later in this chapter. Theists may also insist that the evidential problem of evil can, to a significant extent, be dealt with. Many theistic explanations of evil have been offered, including the following four examples:

Simple free will solution. God made us free agents with the ability to choose how to act. Having free will, we sometimes choose to do wrong. Suffering can result. However, free will also allows for certain important goods, such as the possibility of morally virtuous action. God could have created a world populated with puppet creatures that always did as he commands. But the behaviour of such puppet beings lacks the dimension of moral responsibility that makes our actions genuinely virtuous. By cutting our strings and setting us free, God inevitably allowed some evil (such as that done by Hitler). But these evils are more than outweighed by the important– such as possibility of genuinely virtuous action.

The ‘character-building’ solution. According to the theologian John Hick, this world is a ‘vale of soul making’. You will, of course, be familiar with the idea that bad experiences can make us stronger, better people. For example, someone who has suffered a serious and painful illness will sometimes say they don’t regret it, because they learnt a great deal from the experience. By causing us pain and suffering, God furnishes us with important opportunities, including the opportunity to learn important lessons, and to grow and develop morally and spiritually. It is only through suffering that we can eventually become the noble souls God intends us to be.

Second-order goods require first-order evils. God had inevitably to create a certain amount of suffering so that certain important goods could obtain. Take charity, for example. In order for me to be charitable, I must suppose there are others who are in need, and who might benefit from my generosity. Charity is a second order good that require first order evils like neediness and suffering (or at least their appearance) to exist. It is because the second order goods outweigh the first order evils that God permits them.

When offered in response to the evidential problem of evil, such explanations are sometimes called theodicies. Many such theodicies have been developed. Some Theists believe that, even if the evidential problem of evil has not been entirely solved, such theodicies collectively bring the problem down to at least a manageable size, so that we can longer say that that Theism has been straightforwardly empirically falsified.

Still, Theists often acknowledge that it is certainly isn’t easy to explain why God would inflict quite so much pain and suffering on the sentient inhabitants of this planet. So some supplement these various explanations with a further appeal – to mystery. God, they insist, works in mysterious ways. Because God is infinitely knowledgeable and intelligent, his divine plan is likely to be mostly ‘beyond our ken’ But then the fact that the reason for much of the evil that exists is beyond our understanding is not good evidence that there is no God.

The evil god hypothesis

Of course, most atheists consider these various explanations for moral catastrophes and natural disasters fairly hopeless. It seems to many that the sheer quantity of suffering and moral depravity that exists does constitute excellent evidence that there is no such God. To many, it appears fairly obvious that there is no God.

Could it be fairly obvious that there is no God, even given the appeal to mystery and the various theodicies and other strategies Thesists have developed to defend their belief? My personal view is that, yes, it could.

To see why, consider a rather different belief: that the universe was designed and created by an omnipotent, omniscient being. Only this being is not all-good. Rather, he is supremely evil. His cruelty and malice are without limit. How reasonable a belief is this?

Almost everyone considers the evil god hypothesis absurd. It is obviously false. Why? Well, there is, for a start, a great deal of evidence against it. Surely, an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-evil being would not allow quite so many good things into his creation. Why, for example, would such an evil being:

• Create natural beauty, that gives us so much joy?
• Give us children to love who love us unconditionally in return. Evil god despises love, and so is hardly likely to introduce these bundles of joy into his creation.
• Give us healthy bodies so that we can enjoy sports, sex, and so on?
• Allow us to help each other and alleviate each other’s suffering. That, surely, is not the sort of behaviour an evil god would tolerate? He would clamp down on the activity of the selfless Florence Nightingales of this world and, and compel them to cause greater suffering, not remove it.
• Bestow upon at least some people immense health, wealth and happiness?

Don’t these observable features of the universe provide us with overwhelming evidence against the evil god hypothesis? Surely it is fairly obvious that there is no such being, given such evidence? We might call this problem facing the evil god hypothesis the evidential problem of good.

But perhaps we have been too hasty in rejecting belief in an evil god. Notice that we might try to defend belief in an evil god by developing explanations such as these.

Simple free will solution. We are not blind automata, but free agents. As a consequence of evil god having given us free will, we sometimes choose to do good. However, free will allows for certain important evils, such as the possibility of morally depraved actions. God could have created a universe populated with puppet beings that always did evil. But the behaviour of such puppet beings would lack the dimension of moral responsibility that makes actions genuinely evil. By cutting our strings and setting us free, God inevitably allowed some good (such as that done by Mahatma Gandhi). But these goods are more than outweighed by the important evils – such as genuinely morally evil actions - that free will allows.

The ‘character-destroying solution. This is a vale of soul destruction. Why does evil god pepper our world with beauty? To make the dreariness and ugliness of day to day life seem all the more acute. Why does he give us healthy young bodies? Well, yes, he gives us them for a short time, and then slowly and inexorably takes our health and vitality away, until we end up incontinent, arthritic and decrepit. It is so much more cruel to give someone something wonderful and then take it from them than never to have given it to them at all. And of course, evil god makes sure that even while we enjoy good health, we are filled with anxiety knowing it could all be snatched away by a disease or accident. Why does he give us children whom we love more than life itself? Because this allows evil god to inflict greater tortures on us. We can only be made to agonize and fear for our children because we care about them. The more we care, the more we can be made to suffer.

Second order evils require first order goods. Theists may remind us that God had inevitably to create a reasonable amount of good in order that certain important evils could exist. Take, for example, jealousy. Jealousy is an important vice, but it can only exist if there exist people who have good things worth coveting – such as health, wealth and happiness and material wealth. Jealousy is a so-called second order evil that requires certain first order goods. It is because the second order evil outweighs the first order goods that God allows those goods to exist.

Notice these explanations can be supplemented by a further manoeuvre – an appeal to mystery. Evil god works in mysterious ways. Being infinitely knowledgeable and intelligent, God’s diabolical plan is likely to be mostly ‘beyond our ken’. In which case, the fact that the reason for much of the good that exists does lie beyond our understanding is not good evidence that there is no such malignant being.

There are some obvious symmetries between the good and evil god hypotheses. These who believe in a good God face the evidential problem of evil. Those who believe in an evil god face the evidential problem of good. Those who believe in a good God may try to deal with the problem of evil by constructing theodicies, such as the free-will and character-building theodicies, and by appealing to mystery. Similarly, those who believe in an evil god may construct mirror theodicies, and also appeal to mystery, in order to deal with the problem of good. Indeed, mirror theodicies can also be constructed for most other theodicies as well.

How reasonable is belief in an evil god, compared belief in the God of traditional monotheism? Almost everyone recognises that, even given these various ingenious defensive manoeuvres, belief in a supremely evil deity remains absurd. I suppose it is possible that such a being exists. But surely it is overwhelmingly unlikely given the available evidence.

But if that is true, why should we consider belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God significantly more reasonable? If the sheer quantity of good we observe in the world really is excellent evidence that there is no evil god, why isn’t the sheer quantity of evil excellent evidence that there is no God?

Those who believe in the god of traditional monotheism face a challenge. In the previous chapter, we saw that some of the most important and popular arguments widely supposed to provide belief in God with at least a fair degree of rational support actually provide no more support for belief in a good God than they do, say, an evil god. We have seen that the problem of good does appear to provide overwhelming empirical evidence against the evil god hypothesis, not withstanding the various mirror theodicies and the appeal to mystery that might be made in its defence. But then, if those who believe in a good God consider their belief to be, if not “proved” then at least not unreasonable, the onus is surely now on them to explain why their belief should be consider significantly more reasonable than belief in an evil god.

I don’t say this challenge cannot be met. However, I cannot see how, which is why I consider belief in the God of traditional monotheism to be hardly more reasonable than belief in an evil god, the latter, surely, being very unreasonable indeed.

Miracles and religious experience

Let’s briefly consider some suggestions as to how this challenge to the rationality of Theism might be met. One fairly obvious strategy would be to try to provide arguments for supposing that not only is there a creator god, this being is good. While the arguments from design discussed in the previous chapter may not support the good god hypothesis any more than they do the evil god hypothesis, perhaps other arguments do clearly favour the good god hypothesis?

Obvious candidates are the argument from miracles and the argument from religious experience. People regularly pray that someone should be cured of an otherwise incurable disease, and occasionally these prayers are answered. God supernaturally intervenes to perform a miracle. Isn’t such supernatural activity evidence of the existence of a benevolent god, not a malevolent one? Moreover, when people report religious experiences, they generally report a very positive experience, e.g. an experience of something immeasurably loving and good. Again, doesn’t this provide us with at least some evidence that there is not just a god, but a God?

I am not so sure. If I were an evil god, I would not necessarily want people to know I was evil, particularly if, by pretending to be good, I could actually produce more evil.

For example, if I was an evil god, I might appear to two different populations in a “good” guise and perform supernatural miracles to convince each that I was real. If I then tell one population things that contradict what I tell the other, the result is entirely predictable. There will be conflict. Indeed, it will probably be endless conflict of a particularly vicious sort, given each population now possesses good evidence that the one true God is on their side, and that their opponents are deniers of God’s Truth.

So are religious miracles and experiences better evidence of a good God than an evil god? Surely, a good God, knowing the horrendous moral catastrophes that are likely to result from him revealing himself in this way, would avoid doing so. He would ensure there was no such confusion about which religion was correct. An evil god, by contrast, might well calculate that revealing himself in such a deceptive and confusing manner would create a situation in which moral evil and suffering were likely to flourish. So it is not clear that religious experiences and miracles are better evidence of a good God than an evil god. Indeed, we might argue that their actual distribution of these phenomena actually fits the evil god hypothesis rather better than it fits the good. Perhaps it is more reasonable to believe in an evil god than a good God?

Other theodicies

Are there other theodicies that are more successful in defending Theism, theodicies that cannot be mirrored? Other standard theodicies that can be mirrored include, for example:

Semantic theodicy. The terms “good and “evil”, when applied to god, mean something other than what they mean when applied to mere human beings. God, being a transcendent being, cannot adequately be characterized in such human terms. This explains why an action that would be deemed evil if performed by a human (such as inflicting great suffering on an innocent person) need not be evil if performed by God.

It takes but a moments thought to realize that much the same manoeuvre can be used to explain why an evil good would do things that, if done by a human, would be deemed “good”.

It is also possible to mirror the following popular type of theodicy:

Laws of nature solution. In order for moral agents to have the opportunity to act in the world, and interact with each other in it, the world has to behave in a regular way. There must be laws of nature, for example, that determine that when I strike this match, a flame will result. Such laws allow for great goods. For example, they allow me to perform morally good actions - e.g. light a fire to warm a cold friend. However, these same laws of nature also result in earthquakes other natural disasters. These evils are the price paid for greater goods. We might suppose we can imagine a worlds governed by different laws that are better than the actual world – that are earthquake-free, for example – and so we may wonder why God did not create such a world. But such worlds are, in ways we are unable to foresee, always less good than the actual world. For example, while a world governed by different laws might not have earthquakes, it might, as a consequence, also lack the kind of planetary crust on which mammals can evolve. Such an earthquake-free world would, then, be a world without us – and so a less good world after all.

This theodicy can also be mirrored. In order for there to be such great evils as – deliberate, freely-chosen acts of arson and murder – the world must behave in a regular way. There must be laws of nature. As a result of these laws, some goods, e.g. beautiful sunsets, may obtain. They are the price evil god pays for the greater evils. You might think you can envisage worlds governed by different laws that are better than the actual world. But such worlds will always turn out to be better than the actual world.

Evil and The Fall

So many standard theodicies can be mirrored to deal with the problem of good. However, I believe there is at least one standard theodicy that cannot easily be mirrored. St. Augustine tried to explain the natural evils by supposing that they are a result of the Fall. Adam and Eve inhabited a perfect world untroubled by natural disasters and disease; when they disobeyed God and sinned, they corrupted not only themselves, but nature too. Disease, natural disasters and death are a result of this corruption. So these evils are, in effect, a result of free will. Adam and Eve freely chose to sin, and so do we. As a result, we suffer terribly. The suffering would cease if only we stopped sinning.

It is not clear to me that a mirror version of this Augustinian theodicy can be produced. Attempts to construct an even vaguely coherent reverse story about a reverse Adam and Eve, who, by disobeying their evil creator, bring about a reverse Fall, thereby creating natural goods, runs into all sorts of difficulties. It may be that rather different narrative involving an evil god might be constructed to account for natural goods, but it is hard to see how it could mirror the story of the Fall in sufficient detail to qualify as a reverse theodicy.

So perhaps not every standard theodicy designed to defend belief in a good God can be flipped round to produce a reverse theodicy that might be used to defend belief in an evil god.

However, while Augustine’s theodicy appears not to be reversible, it is particularly weak. Adam and Eve never existed. But then their sin cannot explain contemporary natural disasters. Nor can earthquakes be explained as a consequence of our own sin. Earthquakes are produced by the movement of tectonic plates which, given the laws of nature, are going to cause earthquakes anyway, whether we sin or not. And of course, we know that earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, diseases, and so on were occurring for millions of years before moral agents capable of sinning even existed. How, then, can the immense suffering these events caused the earlier inhabitants of the Earth be a result of sin, or of some sort of Biblical “Fall”?

Sye show continues

Sunday, November 29, 2009
I was sent a link to this, for those interested in the never ending saga of Sye TenBruggencate and his "proof" of the existence of God. Hit "sinner ministries' proof of the existence of god" link below or on side bar for 30+ earlier posts on this topic that I wrote during an extended interchange with him last summer (check the literally many hundreds of comments attached to these posts if you really want to get into how Sye thinks and argues). Sye's amazing intial "proof" is available here.

PS. For those interested, my own "presuppositional" proof, parodying Sye's proof by his principle "the impossibility of the contrary" (which turns out to be the key to Sye's proof) is:

My claim: Sye's mind is addled and his thinking unreliable because he was hit on the head by a rock.

Prove this is false, Sye.

Try to, and I will say - "But your "proof" presupposes your mind is not addled and you can recognise a proof when you see it. So it fails."

Ask me to prove my claim and I will say: "But prove to me your mind is not addled, then, Sye". Which you won't be able to, for the above reason. I might then add, with a flourish - "So you see, my claim is proved by the impossibility of the contrary".

And of course I have a good explanation for why your brain is addled, Sye - you were hit on the head by a rock.

Have I proved to Sye that he was hit on the head by a rock? Of course not. Still I might tie Sye up in knots like this: each time he tries to offer an argument that his reasoning is reliable and justified, and/or that he wasn't hit on the head by a rock, I say, "Oh dear, Sye, you are trying to use logic - and you can't do so with justification till you have proved you were not hit on the head by that rock! My proof works!! I win!!" Repeat ad nauseum until he gives up. Then claim victory.

This, in effect, is Sye's core argumentative strategy. The first thing you need to know, before engaging with him, is that he will constantly run this argument over and over and over. But he has many other strategies too, to give him credit. Yes of course it's ultimately all bullshit, but boy he can really construct a complex edifice out of it!

Incidentally, we presented Sye with not one but three atheist-friendly accounts of logic, none of which did Sye refute, or even attempt to refute. Yet he keeps claiming there are none. Some chutzpah.

Draft chapter for comments, please (4.900 words)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Humanists embrace atheism or at least agnosticism. Some believe that belief in a god or gods is not particularly rational or justified. Others go further, insisting that belief in God is actually downright irrational.

Those who believe in God, on the other hand, while maintaining their belief is a “faith position”, nevertheless typically suppose their belief is not unreasonable. Believing in God, they suppose, is not, say, like believing in Santa or in fairies - it is much more reasonable than that. Perhaps God’s existence cannot be conclusively “proved”. But that God exists is, they think, at least a fairly reasonable thing for a modern, educated adult to believe.

But if belief in God is far more reasonable than, say, belief in fairies, what makes it more reasonable? Theists respond to this question in a variety of ways. Some attempt to offer some sort of rational argument for the existence of God.

There are many such arguments for the existence of God. It is of course impossible to do justice to all these arguments in the short space available here. Instead, I will provide illustrations of the two of the most popular kinds of argument for God’s existence, and indicate where humanist critics believe those arguments fall down. I begin with an example of a cosmological argument, and will then move on to arguments from design, including two contemporary versions based, respectively, on irreducible complexity and fine-tuning.

My aim is to provide a brief overview of the some of the problems and objections such arguments typically face.

The cosmological argument: Why is there anything at all?

Most of us have at some time or other looked up at the starry heavens and been struck by the thought – “Where did all this come from? Why is there something, rather than nothing?” This is a profound question – a question worthy of serious contemplation.

Scientists have, of course, developed theories about how the universe began. Currently, most scientists believe the universe began roughly 13.5 billion years ago with the Big Bang – an event with which not just matter and energy, but time and space, began.

However, such scientific answers appear merely to postpone the mystery rather than solve it. For of course we now want to know – but why was there a Big Bang? Why was there - is there - anything at all?

We seem at this point to be faced with a question that, necessarily, science cannot answer. Science explains natural phenomena by pointing to other features of the natural world – such as the laws of nature. For example, ask a scientist why the water froze in the pipes last night, and they may point out that (i) it is a law of nature that water freezes below zero, and (ii) last night the temperature of the water in the pipes fell below zero. That would explain why the water froze. But what explains why there are any laws of nature in the first place? Indeed, what explains why there is a natural world at all?

It is at this point, of course, that God and religion are supposed to enter the picture. God, it is suggested, explains what science cannot – why there is anything at all. The existence of God provides the only, or at least the best available, explanation for the existence of the universe.

While many theists admit that this does not constitute a conclusive “proof” of God’s existence, many believe such “cosmological” arguments – arguments that infer the existence of God as the only, or at least best, explanation of why the universe exists – do at least lend their belief a good deal of rational support.

But what explains God’s existence?

One obvious difficulty with this particular answer to the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”, as it stands, is that by introducing God we appear to have introduced just another “something” the existence of which now has to explained. What explains God’s existence? We have, it seems, merely pushed the mystery back a step, rather than solved it.

A standard theistic response to this objection is to insist that, unlike the natural world, God is a necessary being – something that, by its nature, cannot but exist. So with God, the search for the ultimate explanation of why there is anything at all comes to a satisfying end – there is no need to look behind God for a further something accounting for his existence (and then a further something behind that something that accounts for its existence, and so on ad infinitum). With God, we reach the end of the line.

Other problems with the cosmological argument

The kind of cosmological argument sketched out above runs into several well-known difficulties. I shall outline just three.

First, the argument assumes that the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” actually makes sense. But does it? On closer examination, it is not so clear that it does. But then it does not require an answer. Here is one line of thought leading to the conclusion that the question is actually nonsensical.

Often, when we talk about there being “nothing”, we mean there exists, say, an empty bit of space. “When I say, “There’s nothing in my cup”, I mean that, right now, the space inside my cup is empty. And when I say, “I am doing nothing right now”, I mean that, at this moment in time, I am not doing anything. The spatio-temporal world supplies, as it were, the stage on which such examples of something or nothing might appear.

When we ask, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” we are talking about a much more radical sort of nothing – what we might call absolute nothing. Not only is there no stuff and nothing going on, there’s no time or space in which any stuff could exist or anything could go on. The stage itself has now been removed.

This is a very profound and baffling sort of absence – so baffling it is not entirely clear the notion of absolute nothing even makes sense (it certainly raises some intriguing questions, such as “What is the difference between thinking about absolute nothing, and not thinking about anything?”).

It is tempting to say, “But of course the notion of absolute nothing makes sense. It’s just the notion of what there used to be, before anything existed.” But actually, absolute nothing is not what there used to be. There never was a time when there was absolutely nothing.

However, let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that the notion of absolute nothing does make sense, and that so does the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Our cosmological argument still faces other difficulties.

A second difficulty is this: the notion of necessary existence is by no means uncontroversial. Indeed, many philosophers have struggled, and failed, to make sense of the idea that anything could exist as a matter of necessity. One difficulty is that what is essential or necessary appears ultimately to be a product of our linguistic practices and ways of conceptualizing things.

For example, it is a necessary condition of something’s being a stallion that it be both male and a horse, because that is the definition of stallion. Being both male and a horse are, if you like, built into the concept of a stallion.

So if God, or something else, exists as a matter of necessity, then that would only be because God is defined or conceptualized that way, as something that exists. But of course, neither existence nor necessary existence can be conceptually guaranteed in this manner. If I define Woozle as the human who walked on the surface of the planet Mars in 2010, well then I know that if anyone is Woozle, then they walked on the Mars in 2010. But of course there is no such person as Woozle. No one has yet walked on Mars. And note that I certainly cannot guarantee such a person exist simply by adding existence to my definition like so: Woozle is the person who walked on the surface of Mars in 2010 and exists. Similarly, even if existence were included in the concept of God (and perhaps it is), that would not entail that any such being exists, let alone necessarily exists.

However, even if both these objections can be dealt with, there remain other formidable problems with our cosmological argument, including this: that even if the argument did succeed in establishing the existence of a necessary something-or-other behind the universe, it is, as it stands, a huge and unjustified further leap to the conclusion that this something-or-other is, say, something like a person, a person who listens to our prayers, who has moral properties such as supreme goodness, who performs miracles, and so on.

Our cosmological argument, as it stands, no more supports belief in, say, the Judeo-Christian God than it does belief a supremely powerful and morally ambivalent God, or indeed innumerable other gods and something-or-others. Which, of course, in each case, it barely supports, if at all.

Arguments from design

Let’s now turn to arguments from design (an unfortunate title as the claim that the universe was designed is a conclusion of these arguments, rather than their starting point – “arguments to design” would be better). These arguments begin with the observation that the natural world, or items within it, appears to have certain remarkable features – such as order and purpose. They conclude that, as God is the only, or at least the best available, explanation of those features, God exists.

Perhaps the best-known argument from design is that presented by William Paley in his Natural Theology, published in 1802. Paley argues that, were one to find a complex object such as a watch lying on the ground, it would be unreasonable to suppose that the watch came to exist by chance, or that it had always existed in that form. Given the clear purpose of the watch – to tell the time – and its highly complex construction geared to fulfilling that purpose, it is reasonable to suppose the watch was fashioned by an intelligent being for that purpose. But if that is a very reasonable conclusion to draw in the case of a watch, then surely it is no less reasonable to draw the same conclusion in the case of, say, the human eye, which also has a purpose for which it is exquisitely engineered. That intelligent designer, supposes Paley, is God.

That a biological organ such as the human eye must have some sort of designer was accepted by very many, including even the scientist Charles Darwin, up until Darwin developed his own alternative evolutionary account of how the eye appeared.

The mechanism Darwin realized could account for the gradual evolution of the eye is natural selection. When living organisms reproduce, their offspring may differ slightly in inheritable ways. Plant and animal breeders take advantage of these chance mutations to breed new strains. For example, a dog breeder might select from each generation of a dog those that are largest and least hairy, eventually producing a whole new breed of huge, bald dog.

Darwin’s great insight was to recognise that the natural environment in which organisms are located will, in effect, also select among offspring. Organisms with a chance mutation that enhances their ability to survive and reproduce in that environment will be more likely to pass that mutation on. Organisms with a mutation that reduces its chances of surviving and reproducing in that environment will be less likely to pass it on. And so, over a many generations organisms will gradually adapt to their environments. Indeed, under certain condition, a whole new species may emerge.

Darwin called this mechanism “natural selection”, contrasting it with the “artificial selection” used by dog and plant breeders. Unlike artificial selection, natural selection does not require an intelligent mind to guide the selection process towards a particular end. Selection is now taken care of entirely by blind, unthinking nature.

There is overwhelming fossil and other evidence both that the human eye did, indeed, evolve gradually over millions of years, beginning perhaps with the chance appearance of a single light sensitive cell in an organism living many millions of years ago, and that natural selection is the main mechanism that drove this evolutionary process. In fact, eyes provide such obvious survival value to organisms that they have evolved independently at least forty times.

The discovery of the mechanism of natural selection led Darwin to reject Paley’s argument from design. Darwin wrote:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.

While the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and, later, the theory of genetics (including the theory of genetic drift, another mechanism involved in driving the process of evolution), resulted in a decline in the popularity of arguments from design, such arguments have recently been making something of a come back. Two popular, more recent variants of the argument from design are outlined below.

The argument from irreducible complexity

Some, such as Professor of Biochemistry Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, argue that there are certain features of biological organisms that Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot explain. While Behe accepts that new species evolve and that natural selection plays a role in this, he maintains that some biological systems are irreducibly complex, and so cannot have evolved by natural selection.

By an irreducibly complex system Behe means

a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. P39

Behe uses the mousetrap to illustrate. Take any one part away – the base, the spring, the cheese, etc. – and the entire mechanism fails to function.

According to Behe,

an irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. (p. 39).

It seems there are irreducibly complex systems in nature. Behe provides a number of illustrations, including a certain sort of bacterial flagellum – a whip-like appendage bacteria use to propel themselves. Each flagellum has at its base a kind of molecular motor drive comprising several parts each of which is essential if the flagellum is to work.

Why does Behe suppose that an irreducibly complex system such as this flagellum cannot evolve gradually by natural selection? Because, thinks Behe, there can be no reproductive or survival value to having only a part of the system. So it cannot evolve by stages. And the probability of the entire system spontaneously appearing in a single generation as a result of chance mutation is so low that it is far more reasonable to suppose some sort of intelligent designer lent a helping hand.

Behe’s argument for intelligent design is popular in certain religious circles. Some maintain that because the scientific community is currently divided on the question of whether some intelligence played a role in the emergence of life, the theory of intelligent design should be taught in schools alongside the theories of evolution and natural selection. This suggestion is designed to appeal to our sense of fairness – surely it is only fair that both sides in a scientific controversy should get a hearing?

The truth, however, is that the “scientific controversy” about intelligent design is a myth. There is no scientific controversy. Behe’s arguments have been entirely scientifically discredited.

In fact, plausible natural mechanisms by which all of Behe’s examples of irreducibly complex systems have been constructed. Some were known even before Behe published his book.

As Professor of biology Kenneth R. Miller points out, one of the ways in which natural selection can produce irreducibly complex systems is by combining elements that have previously evolved by natural selection for other functions. Just because part of the flagellum is useless for propelling the organism around does not mean that it is has non-functional. Indeed, we know that some of the components of the bacterial flagellum do have functions elsewhere:

[Behe] writes that in the absence of “almost any” of its parts, the bacterial flagellum “does not work.” But guess what? A small group of proteins from the flagellum does work without the rest of the machine — it’s used by many bacteria as a device for injecting poisons into other cells. Although the function performed by this small part when working alone is different, it nonetheless can be favored by natural selection. REF http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html
From Miller’s contribution to “Intelligent design?” Natural History magazine. April 2002.

In short, Behe’s key claim that having only part of an irreducibly complex mechanism can have no reproductive or survival value for the organism is simply wrong. If you suspect that Miller says this because he is an atheist, think again: Miller is religious. It is not, says Miller, anti-religious bias that explains why the scientific community reject Behe’s arguments:

In the final analysis, the biochemical hypothesis of intelligent design fails not because the scientific community is closed to it but rather for the most basic of reasons — because it is overwhelmingly contradicted by the scientific evidence. REF ibid

The physicist Lawrence Krauss writes…

The dishonesty of [intelligent design] lies in its proponents pointing to a controversy when there really is no controversy. A friend of mine did an informal survey of more than ten million articles in major science journals during the past twelve years. Searching for the key word evolution pulled up 115,000 articles, most pertaining to biological evolution. Searching for Intelligent Design yielded eighty-eight articles. All but eleven of those were in engineering journals, where, of course, we hope there is discussion of intelligent design! Of the eleven articles, eight were critical of the scientific basis for Intelligent Design theory and the remaining three turned out to be articles in conference proceedings, not peer-reviewed research journals. So that’s the extent of the "controversy" in the scientific literature. There is none.

To teach children that there is a scientific controversy about intelligent design would be to teach them a simple falsehood. The fact that schools have taught children this, whether or not in science class, is an educational disgrace.

The fine-tuning argument

Many leading scientists believe that our universe is, in a sense, “fine-tuned” for life. It has been suggested that for life to emerge in the universe, the laws of nature and initial conditions of the universe have to be just so. Had certain forces been slightly stronger or weaker, or certain dimensions or quantities values slightly smaller or larger, life either could not, or would have been very unlikely to, emerge. Here, for example, is Stephen Hawking:

The remarkable fact is that the values of these [fundamental] numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example, if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or they would have exploded.

It is often said that the probability of the universe having such a combination of features just by chance is very small indeed. So small, in fact, that some believe it more reasonable to suppose that some sort of intelligent agent deliberately designed the universe this way. This intelligence, many will add, is God. God supplies a satisfying explanation for what would otherwise be an extraordinarily improbable set of coincidences. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that God exists.

To what extent do these and other observations of the natural world really support belief in God? Hardly, if at all.

To begin with, note that the claim that the universe is significantly fine-tuned is not entirely scientifically uncontroversial.

For example, some scientists believe there may well be a multiverse – a plethora of universes governed by a wide range of different physical laws. If there is a multiverse, then it’s not particularly unlikely that there should happen to exist a universe that has the Goldilocks property of being “just right” for life.

Even if there is only one universe, a number of scientists in any case question whether there is only a very narrow range of physical parameters within which life might plausibly emerge. Physicists including Victor Stenger, Anthony Aguire, and Craig Hogan have studied those universes that result when six cosmological parameters are simultaneously varied by several orders of magnitude, and have found that stars, planets and life are likely within many of them.

According to these physicists it is by no means scientifically obvious that there is only a very narrow set of physical parameters within which life might arise.

But still, let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that the science on which cosmic fine-tuning arguments are based has been established beyond reasonable doubt.

There are many more problems. A key idea on which fine-tuning arguments rely – that we can talk intelligibly about the universe and its basic features as being either “probable” or “improbable” – has also repeatedly been challenged by philosophers (including religious philosophers such as Tim and Lydia McGrew, who have no particular anti-religious axe to grind). REFERENCE

Still, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, both that the universe is significantly fine-tuned for life, and also that it is highly improbable it should have such life-supporting features just by chance. To what extent would this fact support belief in the existence of some sort of transcendent, intelligent being who deliberately designed the universe that way?

Does the transcendent intelligence hypothesis even make sense?

A further objection to the fine-tuning argument – made by Richard Dawkins and others - is that by appealing to a cosmic intelligent designer, we are appealing to a being who must be at least as complex, and so at least as improbable, as the universe he is supposed to have designed. If the complexity of the universe should lead us to suppose it has a designer, shouldn’t the complexity of the designer lead us to suppose that designer had a designer, and so on ad infinitum?

But even if we also set this objection to one side, there remain other, perhaps deeper, difficulties. First of all, it is by no means obvious that the idea of a transcendent intelligent designer even makes sense.

Human beings explain features of the world around them in two main ways. One way is to supply naturalistic explanations that appeal to features of the natural world, such as natural events, forces and laws. The explanations of physics and chemistry fall into this category. The other way is to offer intentional explanations – explanations that appeal to the beliefs and desires or more or less rational agents. Why is there a tree in this spot? Because Ted wanted to see a tree from his bedroom window, and so planted a sapling here correctly supposing it would grow into a handsome tree.

When we are unable to explain something naturalistically, it is, of course, tempting to look for an intentional explanation instead. When we could not offer naturalistic explanations for why the heavenly bodies moved about as they did, we supposed that they must be, or must be moved by, agents - gods of some sort. When we could not otherwise explain diseases and natural disasters, we put them down to the actions of malevolent agents, such as witches and demons. When we could not provide naturalistic explanations for the growth of plants and the cycle of the seasons, we again invoked agents – sprites, fairies, and gods or various sorts.

As our scientific understanding of the world has increased, so the need to invoke witches, fairies, demons and other such agents to account for features of the natural world around us has diminished. However, when we ask: why does the natural world exist at all, and what explains why it has the fundamental laws does? such naturalistic explanations are unavailable. So an explanation in terms of the activity of some sort of transcendent agent can seem attractive, even inevitable.

But does such an explanation even make sense? Suppose I claim that there exists a non-spatial mountain. It’s a mountain – with a sharp summit flanked by steep valleys and crags. Only this mountain is not located or extended in space at all. It does not have spatial dimensions. The mountain transcends our spatial world.

You might well ask me why I suppose there is any such mountain. And if I cannot give you good reasons, you will rightly be sceptical. But actually, isn’t there a rather more fundamental problem with my claim that such a mountain exists? Can’t we know, even before we get to the question of whether there is any evidence for the existence of such a mountain, that there can be no such thing?

For the very idea of a non-spatial mountain makes no sense. My hypothetical mountain has a summit, valleys and cliffs, but these are all features that require spatial extension. A summit requires that one part of the mountain be higher than another. A valley must be lower than the surrounding terrain. The concepts of a mountain, a summit, and so on are concepts that can only sensibly be applied within a spatial context. Strip that context away and we end up talking nonsense.

But if we now turn to the concept of a transcendent designer, does that make any more sense? The concept of an agent has its home within a temporal setting. The concept of an agent is the concept of someone or thing with beliefs and desires on which they might more or less rationally act. But actions are events that happen at particular moments in time. And beliefs and desires are psychological states that have a temporal duration.

Now when we suppose that the spatio-temporal universe was created by God, we are presumably supposing it was a non-temporal agent – an agent that does not (or at least did not then) exist in time. For of course there was not yet any time for the agent to exist in. But if desires are psychological states with temporal duration, how could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And how did it perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed? It is hard to see how talk of a non-temporal agent makes any more sense than talk of a non-spatial mountain.

We might sidestep these puzzles by supposing that God exists, and has always existed, in time. This provides God with the necessary temporal setting in which he might form the desire to produce a universe, draw up a design, and perform the act of creation. But it throws up a host of other puzzles, such as: why did God wait so long before creating the universe (presumably, if God did not have a beginning, an infinitely long time)? And what was he doing in the meantime?

Or we might, as many theists do, insist that talk of an intelligent designer or agent should not be understood literally. They are positing not an agent or designer, but something merely analogous to an agent or designer. But if such talk is to be understood analogically rather than literally, how exactly is it to be understood?

Suppose I claim that there is a non-spatial mountain, because I suppose only the existence of such a mountain can explain certain observed phenomena. My critics point out that the notion of such a mountain makes no sense. I insist they are interpreting me far too crudely and literally. I am talking about something that is merely analogous to a mountain. My appeal to analogy hardly gets me out of trouble, of course, for I now have a duty clearly to explain (i) precisely what my intended analogy is, (ii) how my analogy is supposed to avoid the charge of nonsense that has been levelled at talk of a “non-spatial mountain” understood literally, and also (iii) how this something-that-is-merely-analogous-to-a-mountain is supposed to retain the relevant explanatory powers that a real, spatially-extended mountain would possess. If I cannot supply these explanations, I will likely stand accused of obfuscation and evasion, and with some justification.

The same, of course, goes for those theists who attempt to sidestep the charge of nonsense by maintaining they are being interpreted far too crudely and literally – they are merely invoking something analogous to an intelligent designer. They, too, have much explain. Can they provide the relevant explanations? It is not clear to me that they can. Such appeals to analogy seem to many commentators, myself included, to bring the debate about intelligent design, not up to the level of profundity, but down to the level of obfuscation and evasion.

Why a god? And why that god?

Even if we set all these objections to one side, there remains what is possibly the most damning of all. Which is that it is a huge leap from the conclusion that the universe is the product of an intelligence to the conclusion that this intelligence is, say, the all-powerful and limitlessly benevolent God of love that Christians worship.

As the Templeton-prize-winning physicist Paul Davies points out at the end of his book The Goldilocks Enigma, even setting aside all the other difficulties:

“The other main problem with intelligent design is that identity of the designer need bear no relation at all to the God of traditional monotheism. The “designing agency” can be a committee of gods, for example. The designer can be a natural being or beings, such as an evolved super-mind or super-civilization existing in a previous universe, or in another section of our universe, which made our universe using super-technology. The designer can also be some sort of superdupercomputer simulating this universe. So invoking a super-intellect…is fraught with problems.” P300. The Goldilocks Enigma. Penguin books, London, 2007.

Davies is correct, of course. The even if the supposedly fine-tuned features of the universe did point towards a designer, they no more point towards the existence of the Christian God than they point towards the universe being a computer-generated simulation, or the creation of an earlier super-civilization, or, of course, some other sort of god.

Humanism book introduction, 2nd draft, for comments...

Monday, November 23, 2009
INTRODUCTION – What is humanism?

The word “humanism” has had, and continues to have, a variety of meanings. At its broadest, “humanism” means little more than a system of thought in which human values, interests and dignity are given central importance. Understood in this way, almost everyone qualifies as a “humanist”.

However, as understood by contemporary humanist organizations, the term “humanist” means something more focussed. Those who sign up to “humanism”, understood in this contemporary sense of the term, are embracing a particular sort of worldview that by no means everyone accepts. That worldview is the focus of this book.

So what distinguishes the humanist outlook? It is difficult to be very precise. The boundaries of the concept are elastic. But I think most humanists would probably agree on something like the following minimal, seven-point characterization.

First, humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic. They are sceptical about the claim that there exists a god or gods. They are also sceptical about angels, demons and other such supernatural beings.

Secondly, humanists believe that this life is the only life we have. We are not reincarnated. Nor is there any heaven or hell to which we go after we die.

Third, Humanists reject both the claims that there cannot be moral value without God, and that we will not be, or are unlikely to be, good without God and religion to guide us. Humanists deny that our moral sense was placed in us by God, and generally favour a naturalistic, evolutionary account of how our moral intuitions have developed. Humanists reject moral justifications rooted in religious authority and dogma. They believe our ethics should be strongly informed by study of what human beings are actually like, and of what will help them flourish in this world, rather than the next.

Fourth, humanists deny that that if our lives are to have meaning, it must be bestowed from above by God. The lives of Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa and Einstein were all rich, significant and meaningful, whether there is a God or not.

Fifth, humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy. It is our individual responsibility to make our own moral judgements, rather than attempt to hand that responsibility over to some external authority – such as a religion or political leader – that will make those judgements for us. Humanists favour developing forms of moral education that emphasize this responsibility and that will equip us with the skills we will need to discharge it properly.

Sixth, Humanists believe science and reason are invaluable tools we can and should apply to all areas of life. No beliefs should be considered off-limits and protected from rational scrutiny. The humanist’s scepticism concerning gods, angels, demons, an afterlife, and so on is not a “faith position” but rather a consequence of their having subjected such beliefs to critical, scrutiny and found them severely wanting.

Seventh, humanists are secularists, in the sense that they favour an open society in which the state takes a neutral position with respect to religion, protecting the freedom of individuals to follow and espouse, or reject and criticize, both religious and atheist beliefs. While humanists will obviously oppose any attempt to coerce people into embracing religious beliefs, they are no less opposed to coercing people into embracing atheism, as happened under the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao.

There are a number of other views sometimes also associated with humanism that I have not included here. Note, for example, that, as I have characterized humanism, a humanist need not:

• be a utopian, convinced that the application of science and reason will inevitably usher in a Brave New World of peace and contentment.
• believe that only humans matter, morally speaking. Many humanists believe that the happiness and welfare of other species is also important.
• be a utilitarian – supposing that maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering are all that matter, morally speaking. While some humanists embrace utilitarianism, and almost all believe that happiness and suffering are morally important (who doesn’t?), not all humanists are utilitarians.
• embrace those brands of naturalism that say that the natural, physical universe is the only reality there is, and/or that the natural, physical facts are the only facts that there are. Many humanists, perhaps the majority, do embrace some form of naturalism. Some humanists and humanist organizations even define their brand of “humanism” as involving naturalism. However, the looser definition of “humanism” employed here allows humanists to reject naturalism if they wish. Yes, humanists reject, or are at least agnostic concerning, belief in gods, angels, demons, etc., but that doesn’t require they sign up to naturalism. Take, for example, a mathematician who believes that mathematics describes a non-natural, mathematical reality. This mathematician rejects naturalism, but that does not entail they cannot be a humanist. Or take a philosopher who believes they have established that, say, moral facts, or the facts about what goes on in our conscious minds, are facts that exist in addition to all the natural, physical facts. Again, I see no reason why such a philosopher cannot be a humanist.
• embrace scientism, believing that every genuine question can in principle be answered by science. Take moral questions, for example. Humanists can, and often do, accept that, while scientific discoveries can inform our moral decisions, science and reason alone are incapable of determining what is morally right or wrong. A humanist may suppose that other questions - such as “Why is there anything at all?” – are also bona fide questions that science cannot answer. Humanists are merely sceptical about one particular answer – that the universe is the creation of one or more gods.

In order to refute humanism as I have characterized it, then, it is not enough that one refute utopianism, naturalism, scientism or utilitarianism. Humanists can reject, or at least remain neutral concerning, all these philosophical stances.

Humanists are sometimes criticised for not being “for” anything. They are often caricatured as naysayers, defined entirely by what they oppose. Yet, as outlined here, humanism is clearly for a great deal.

For example, humanism is for freedom of thought and expression and an open society. Humanism is for forms of moral education that stress our moral autonomy and the importance of thinking critically and independently. Humanists don’t just reject dogma-based approaches to answering moral, political and social questions, they are very much for developing positive, rational and ultimately more life-affirming and life-enhancing alternatives.

Humanist thinking is also sometimes caricatured as a hodgepodge of disparate, unconnected ideas – but again this is untrue. Humanism’s focus is on the “big questions”: e.g. of what ultimately is real; of what ultimately makes life worth living; of what is morally right or wrong, and why; and of how best to order our society. While religion typically also addresses such questions, they are clearly not the unique preserve of religion. Such questions also belong to philosophy, and were being addressed in a rational, non-religious way before the appearance of Christianity. What pulls our seven characterizing views together into something like a system of thought is (i) their shared focus on the “big questions”, (ii) a degree of interconnectedness (for example, if you are sceptical about god, you will be sceptical about the claim that our moral sense was placed in us by god), and (iii) the unifying role played by the sixth: these views on the “big questions” are collectively embraced, not as a series of dogmatically held “faith positions”, but because, having subjected the various alternatives to rational scrutiny, the humanist considers them the most reasonable position to adopt.

Finally, I want to say something about humanist antipathy to religion. Clearly many humanists consider religion, not just false, but dangerous. Some view religion as a great evil. But not all. A significant number religious people actually share a good proportion of the views in terms of which I have characterized humanism. They too are secularists. They also accept that a morality and a meaningful life would be possible even in the absence of god. They may also share many of the same goals as humanists. Many humanists are happy to work in conjunction with religious people and organizations to achieve such goals. And of course there are religious people willing to work in conjunction with humanists. Just this week, the Bible Society’s thinktank Theos donated towards a British Humanist Association advertising campaign insisting that children should not be labelled with a religion, but allowed to grow up free to make their own decisions about what religion, if any, to embrace.

This book aims to further explain, and begin to make a case for, humanism, as characterized above.

"Is Catholicism a Force For Good?": Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry vs. Ann Widdecombe and Bishop (1 of 5)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thanks to Blakeley Nixon for this link. Surprising vote at the end. To be fair to the Catholic side: as speakers, Widdecome and the Bishop were pretty awful and entirely outclassed.

Postscript. By the way, for anyone interested in this topic I would strongly recommend David Ranan's Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church, which is at least as exciting as The Da Vinci Code.

The Catholic Herald wrote:

Speaking of how other people may see us, I have been reading a fascinating, if somewhat uncomfortable book called Double Cross by David Ranan (Theo Press). When I tell you that it devotes 350 pages to attacking the Church ... you will understand why I would not recommend it to anyone who is not familiar with Church history and the general cut and thrust of apologetic debate. ... whenever I was able to check references they proved satisfactory. Withal, I found the book salutary. It reminds me how the credibility of the Church has so often been endangered not only by bad individuals but by bad trends. -- Catholic Herald, November 2007

Also see my blog debate with commentators on HIV, condoms and Catholicism - check comments.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Express yourself!

Campaign for Free Expression Essay Contest

The Campaign for Free Expression is a CFI initiative to focus efforts and attention on one of the most crucial components of freethought: the right of individuals to express their viewpoints, opinions, and beliefs about all subjects—especially religion. To encourage free expression and to emphasize the importance of this fundamental right, CFI and its sister organization, The Council for Secular Humanism, are sponsoring this contest.

Free Expression Essay Contest: Students enrolled in an accredited college or university are invited to submit an essay about "The Importance of Free Expression and Its Limits (If Any)." Each entry must address the question of what limits national governments or recognized international bodies, such as the United Nations, may justifiably place on free expression. First prize is $2,000 (USD).

Open to UK STUDENTS, e.g. mine!

* Download Free Expression Essay Contest Rules and get full details here.

For more information about the Campaign for Free Expression, please e-mail info@centerforinquiry.net.

A terrible justification for keeping TFTD exclusively religious

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The BBC Thought for The Day debate rumbles on. I notice that, according to an Ekklesia report, the BBC Trust defended the exclusively religious contribution to the TFTD programme against charges that this failed the test of 'due' impartiality on this ground:

“The requirement of ‘due’ impartiality means that the approach required depends on audience expectations” the BBC Trust report ruled. Since the audience expected a certain range of contributors, then the status quo was acceptable in the Trust's opinion.
[Source here].

But of course, if this is the justification, it is terrible. Impartiality does not depend on audience expectations in this way.

Notice that, if it did, then a racist programme that excluded black contributors would qualify as 'impartial' if the audience did not expect black people to appear.

E.g. an openly white supremacist radio show that banned black people from appearing on it would qualify as showing 'due' impartiality, so long as no one expected black people to be on it, which of course they wouldn't, if it was openly a white supremacist station.

Or maybe 'the audience expected a certain range of contributors' means, the audience believes non-religious contributors ought not to appear (whether or not they think they will appear)? But then much of the BBCs audience does not believe that. So the BBC Trust's justification (if accurately reported) is based on an obvious falsehood.

But in any case, showing 'due impartiality' clearly doesn't mean doing what your audience thinks you ought to do. Otherwise, in a profoundly racist country, a radio show that discriminated on the basis of race would still be showing 'due impartiality'.

The summary report (available here) also says:

The ESC found that, given due impartiality is about what was said rather than
rather than the contributor, the fact that the choice of contributors to
Thought for the Day is limited to those of religious faith does not in itself
amount to a breach of the guideline on impartiality.

Oh, so a show that excludes black people, but does ensure the views expressed are balanced, shows 'due impartiality', then?

The full report is available here, but I have not waded through all of it. I should say, in fairness to the BBC Trust, that, skimming it, I could not find anything to support the precise interpretation placed in it by first of my quotes (from Ekklesia), but then it is massive, and I am short on time...

Read Simon Barrow - a Christian - on TFTD here. Very good.

Illustration - example of an organization showing BBC Trust-style 'due impartiality'?

Thought For The Day will continue to exclude non-religious

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
The BBC Trust announced today:

The BBC Trust today announced its findings on a number of appeals about the broadcast of Radio 4's Thought for the Day and BBC editorial policy on non-religious content.

The Trust found that the editorial policy of only allowing religious contributors to participate on Thought for the Day does not breach either the BBC Editorial Guideline on impartiality or the BBC's duty to reflect religious and other beliefs in its programming.
Go here.

My notes for the McGrath debate

Sunday, November 15, 2009
Here are the notes I used for the debate with Professor Alister McGrath on the 29th October. I ended up only alluding to the second objection as I thought it too technical on the night.

Does the natural world point to God?

Cosmic fine-tuning arguments - that God provides the best, or even a half-decent, explanation of the character the natural world in which we find ourselves - face FIVE main types of objection.

I am going to briefly outline all five. But, I intend to rest my case on just the last two. So the first three will just be sketched out, and are merely for your information only.

FIRST OBJECTION. As Alister acknowledges in his book, the science on which fine-tuning arguments are based is by no means uncontroversial.

For example, some scientists believe there may well be a multiverse – a plethora of universes governed by a wide range of different physical laws. If there is a multiverse, then it’s not particularly unlikely that there should happen to exist a universe that has the Goldilocks property of being “just right” for life.

Even if there’s only one universe, a number of scientists in any case question whether there is only a very narrow range of physical parameters within which life can plausibly emerge.

Physicists including Victor Stenger, Anthony Aguire, and Craig Hogan have studied those universes that result when six cosmological parameters are simultaneously varied by several orders of magnitude, and have found that stars, planets and life can plausibly emerge within many of them.

According to these physicists, then, it simply is not true that there is only a very narrow set of physical parameters within which life can plausibly arise.

But still, let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that Alister is correct, and these physicists incorrect, about the science on which cosmic fine-tuning arguments are based.

SECOND OBJECTION. Even if there is only a very narrow set of physical parameters within which life might plausibly emerge, it doesn’t follow that the chances of the actual universe falling within these parameters is low. In fact, several philosophers reject the suggestion that we can even assign such a chance to the physical universe.

Take Professor Hugh Mellor of Cambridge University, who is an acknowledged expert on probability theory.

According to Mellor, there are two kinds of probability: epistemic probability and physical probability (or chance). Epistemic probability is, roughly speaking, the likelihood of something’s being true given the evidence. Suppose I am looking at a roulette wheel on which I can see the ball has landed on slot 26. For me, the epistemic probability that the ball is in slot 26 very high – I have overwhelming evidence that’s were it is because I can just see it there. On the other hand, the physical probability of the ball being there – by which I mean the chance of the ball landing there given the laws of nature and a certain specification of the conditions under which the ball was thrown into the wheel - is pretty low: only about one in 37.

Now when proponents of fine-tuning, such as Alister, insist the “probability” of the universe producing life is low, they clearly do not mean epistemic probability. The epistemic probability of life is very high – we can see it all around us. So the notion of probability proponents of fine-tuning are appealing to must, according to Mellor, be physical probability.

But then notice that if the physical universe is the only physical universe there is, it cannot have a physical probability.

The universe will only appear to have such a probability if we smuggle in a quasi-physical setting for its creation, supposing, for example, that the cosmological constants were fixed by something like the spin of a cosmic roulette wheel. So, concludes Professor Mellor, the fine-tuning arguments are just confused.

Other philosophers, such as Neil Manson, Elliot Sober, and also Timothy and Lydia McGrew (who incidentally, are religious) concur with that conclusion, for other, independent reasons.

Still, let us also concede, for the sake of argument, that Alister is correct, and these various objectors are all mistaken. Let’s suppose we can talk meaningfully about the chances of the universe having a life-producing character.

THIRD OBJECTION. Even if we concede that the probability of the universe having a life-producing character by chance is otherwise low, that still does not provide any significant support for the suggestion that some intelligence designed the universe that way, if either (i) the probability of such an intelligent being is itself very low (as Richard Dawkins suggests), or (ii) if the very idea of such a being actually makes no sense (as I am about to suggest).

Suppose I claim that there exists a special sort of chair – a chair that transcends physical reality, existing in a non-spatial, non-temporal way. You would rightly be sceptical. Not just because there is no evidence for such a chair, but because the idea of such a chair is nonsensical. In order for something to be a chair, it must have arms, legs, a seat, and so on, and these are features that require spatial extension. The idea of a non-spatial chair is just confused.

But is the idea of an intelligent cosmic designer any less confused? If this designer is the creator of space and time, then he exists, or existed, non-temporally. But how can an intelligent agent exist non-temporally? The concept of an agent is the concept of someone or thing with beliefs and desires on which they might more or less rationally act.

But just as the concepts of chair arms and legs are essentially rooted in a spatial context, and make no sense when applied outside it, so the concepts of belief and desire are essentially rooted in a temporal context, and make no sense when applied outside it.

For example, beliefs and desires are psychological states, and as such necessarily have temporal duration. They are held for periods of time. The idea of a non-temporally held desire makes about as much sense as a non-spatially extended chair leg.

The concept of design is also essentially rooted in the temporal. You draw up a design, and then you subsequently realize it – a temporally ordered sequence of events. If the design does not precede the realization, then it was not designed at all.

So far as I can see, then, talk of some sort of super-agent or designer transcending time and space is just so much gibberish, like talk of a non-spatial chair.

We have taken a concept with which we are familiar – a chair, or an intelligent designer – and projected into a realm where its application no longer even makes sense. That’s not profundity. That’s meaningless twaddle.

But let’s suppose that even this third class of objection – which includes both Dawkins’s objection, and this objection concerning meaningless twaddle - and can be overcome.

Let’s just sweep all three categories of objection to one side. There still remain two more. It is on these last two – the fourth and fifth objections - that I rest my argument that the natural world does not “point to” God.

FOURTH OBJECTION. It is a huge leap from the conclusion that the universe is the product of an intelligence to the conclusion that this intelligence is the all-powerful and limitlessly benevolent God of love that Christians worship.

As the Templeton-prize-winning physicist Paul Davies points out at the end of his book The Goldilocks Enigma, even setting aside all the other difficulties, (I quote)

“The other main problem with intelligent design is that identity of the designer need bear no relation at all to the God of traditional monotheism. The “designing agency” can be a committee of gods, for example. The designer can be a natural being or beings, such as an evolved super-mind or super-civilization existing in a previous universe, or in another section of our universe, which made our universe using super-technology. The designer can also be some sort of superdupercomputer simulating this universe. So invoking a super-intellect…is fraught with problems.”

Davies is correct, of course.

Alister’s supposedly fine-tuned features, even if they did point towards a designer, no more “point towards” the existence of the Christian God than they point towards the universe being a computer-generated Matrix-type simulation, or the creation of an earlier super-civilization.

Which of course they don’t really “point to” at all.

FIFTH OBJECTION. I come now to my final, and most important, objection to the suggestion that the natural world points towards anything remotely like the Christian God.

It seems to me that, unlike the suggestions that the universe was designed by an earlier super-civilization, or superdupercomputer, the suggestion that the universe was designed by Alister’s God is just straightforwardly empirically falsified.

There is abundant empirical evidence that, if even if the universe was designed, it was not designed by the particular deity Alister believes in.

I am talking of course about the evidential problem of evil.

Last week I watched an episode of the BBC TV series Life. At the end of the programme, one of the cameramen was interviewed, and I was struck that he said that, after just a few weeks on the job, he was already considering of giving up wild-life photography because it was too emotionally harrowing – he was struggling to cope with the extraordinary degree of suffering the creatures he was filming were going through. That kind of suffering – appalling suffering, on a vast, global scale – has been going on, not just for two weeks, but for many hundreds of millions of years, long, long before we humans made our very recent appearance.

And of course, we humans suffer too. Consider a not uncommon occurrence [EDITIED: I have removed this second example as touches on matter in which I have some personal involvement and do not want posted on the internet).

Perhaps the universe is the product of an intelligence. I don’t think that’s likely, but even if it were, surely it is pretty obvious that the intelligence in question is not the Christian God of love – in all his limitlessly powerful and benevolent glory.

If you think that’s not obvious, well, consider another possible cosmic designer – suppose there is just one god – a supremely powerful and evil being. His cruelty and malice and know no bounds.

How likely is that? I am sure you will agree it is an absurd suggestion. Why – because it is straightforwardly empirically falsified by the enormous amounts of good that there are in the universe. Why would an evil God create love, laughter and rainbows? Why would he allow us to reduce suffering?

In short, just as, if you believe in a good God, you face the problem of evil, so if you believe in an evil God, you face the problem of good.

Because of the problem of good, it is clearly absurd to suggest that the natural world points towards an evil God.

But then why isn’t it equally absurd to suggest that natural world points to a good God?

Alister’s position, it seems to me, is like that of someone who wanders into a concentration camp, notes the stoves designed to provide meals and warmth and the mattresses designed for sleeping on, and concludes that not only was this camp designed by an intelligence with some interest in sustaining human life, it actually “points towards” a wonderfully loving and benevolent designer

The truth is, not only does the available empirically evidence not point towards the camp having such a wonderfully benevolent designer, it actually points very firmly away from the camp being the creation of any such being.

Ditto the universe.

Really Really Big Questions

My skeptical kid's book Really Really Big Questions was one of the top fifty winter reads in yesterday's Independent (it was number five, in fact):

Go here.

'This is one book I wish I'd written,' admits Joe Craig of Dr Stephen Law's philosophical compendium, which any child over the age of eight should find some treasure in. 'It is definitely worth spending time on every page of this life-enhancing book. Every home should have a copy,' he adds.

The book aims to develop independent, critical thinking about weird and wacky stuff, from fairies to spoon-bending to God. A sort of skeptical primer that aims to be a lot of fun at the same time...

Publisher Kingfisher

How much? Normally £12.99. But currently just £6.49 from amazon uk:

and also from amazon US.

New blog for young thinkers

Tuesday, November 10, 2009
There is a new blog publishing articles by young people aged 16-21 on topics relating to humanism, science, philosophy and atheism.

The url is:


MONSTERS FROM THE DEEP! A Fortean adventure

Friday, November 6, 2009
If you are in the vicinity of London and are interested in Fortean and skeptical topics, do please come to Monsters from the Deep! It promises to be a fascinating journey into the deep sea myths and legends, from the perspective of science.

Registration 10.30-11am. Finish 3pm (QandA session till 3.30pm if you want to stay longer).

No booking required - just show up. Directions here.

SPES/CFIUK present:
An interactive skeptical odyssey – with sound effects! University experts investigate tales of sea-monsters, mermaids, etc.

Saturday, 7th November, 11am-3pm (with good break for lunch) £10.
Free to members of cfi uk, glha, spes, bha, new humanist and subscribers.

Dr Charles Paxton, a scientist from the University of St Andrews, is one of the country’s most qualified cryptozoologists, and he will be running both a lecture and workshop on monsters from the deep – mythical and real. Dr Darren Naish is a researcher at The University of Portsmouth, who will talk about the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’ and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for ’sea monster’ sightings. An interactive skeptical odyssey….

Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall.

Let's be fair...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Erroll Treslan sent me this...