Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A change may do you good.

What happens when the senior minister of one of the largest churches in Canada stops believing in God? It happened to this guy and he wrote a book about it. For most long standing Atheists that would be a pretty short book, i.e. "there's absolutely no evidence for God, the end." but apparently it took Bob Ripley 9 years to make his mind up, good for him, a change is as good as a rest as they say.

Something fishy about theocracy.

If you ever wondered what it was like living in the dark-ages when religion and politics were inextricably intertwined? Speculate no more, just tune yourself into the bonkers news stories that emanate from the theocratic regime of Iran. Just this week we learn about a man being executed (by hanging) for suggesting that the story of Jonah and the whale might be symbolic. The problem for this persecuted citizen of course is that facts are of no consequence when dealing with people who do not value evidence and use superstitious nonsense (which is unquestionable) to justify their petty political grievances. This is what happens when religion is protected and endorsed by a state. 

In the secular west these days we tend to see Religion as a diminishing political force in society, relegated to the private domain (mostly), tolerated, tamed and civilised by 300 years of enlightenment thinking and scientific progress. However, we must never forget how it behaved when it was strong.

Monday, September 29, 2014

No true Scotsman

Actually overheard in a London pub last week..

First man: "gutted that we lost the independence vote"
Second man: "aye, no true Scotsman would have voted no"

This logical fallacy is a very common form of rhetoric that people use to justify a behaviour (or lack of) by appealing to an unfalsifiable and abstract property of something. When it comes to a uniform way of thinking, "True Scotsmen" don't exist of course, the distribution of opinion on most topics in any sufficiently large group of kilted men will vary according to much more mundane factors. It's the intellectual equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and shouting "la la la", a childish way of closing down unwanted debate.

I've heard many other forms of this fallacy, here are some topical examples just from last week.

First Indian: "How can India spend millions on a mission to Mars when so many Indians still live below the poverty line"
Second Indian: "No true Indian would question this great achievement"

First Muslim: "I see ISIS have committed another atrocity on YouTube"
Second Muslim: "yes I saw that too; no true Muslim would do such things"

First woman: "Shocking about those poor babies in Cork"
Second woman: "I know, no true Christian could treat children that way"

Sad Sunday

The weather was beautiful yesterday (unseasonally so) but we weren't a very cheerful family, one of our pet guinea pigs succumbed to a long standing medical condition and had to be taken to the vet to be "PTS" which is vet code around kids for "put to sleep". Events like this always make me reflect on the nature of life, it's easy for us first world 21st century humans to forget that the distance between existence and non-existence is alarmingly short for the vast majority of creatures on our planet; when it comes to realising a potential life span, the balance of probability is not on their side.

A last meal of dandelion leaves in the warmth of a lingering Autumn sun, a 12:30 appointment and all's done.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Understanding the nature of intelligence

I love this cartoon from xkcd, it pretty much sums up my entire career which (simplified) consists of explaining to non computer-literate people (customers, sales people, journalists, friends etc.) why some things are hard for computers to do but easy for human beings to do. The main culprit in this misunderstanding is the fact that, when comparing the difficulty of problems to do with reasoning, people often don't allow for the following fact...

Human "understanding" stands on the shoulders of 4.5 billion years of Biological evolution, 10,000 years of cultural evolution and dozens of years of life experience. Computers, on the other hand, are just boxes of electronic components that can add numbers really, really quickly. To expect similar results from brain processes and computer programs (as they are done today) is simply unrealistic.

Friday, September 19, 2014


I came across this little snippet today; it's the current Arch Bishop of Canterbury talking about his moments of "doubt" with respect to the existence of God (presumably the Christian one!). I've heard other Christians (particularly Catholics for some reason) talk about doubt and many who seem to suggest that "doubt" is the default position of many religious people and their faith is something that ebbs and flows, some even wear it like some kind of badge of honour intimating that the more unlikely and irrational a belief is the more pious they are for believing it! The whole thing felt oddly schizophrenic to me, on the one hand I can see his point, it's a very rational one, i.e. there is no evidence at all for the existence of his God and Christians cannot explain evil in the world; then in one giant leap he arrives at an utterly irrational conclusion.

To someone with a naturalistic perspective on life (like me), his justification for "God" seems to be like adding 2 and 2 and coming up with 18, not only that but then standing on the desk and proclaiming to the rest of the class that this is in fact the correct answer. No matter how you look at it there are far better (more likely) natural explanations for such emotions, especially since people of different (and contradictory) faiths describe the exact same feelings. Welby himself discloses the true nature of his belief in the comments he makes, i.e. that God is simply not evident to him, "why doesn't God do something" he asks and quickly moves on to say that "God is faithful", without evidence, how would he know? He justifies his doubt and presumably Christianity by claiming that Christians "know about Jesus", of course this in itself is somewhat tenuous point; evidence for the Historicity of Jesus is very weak indeed. To me all of this feels a bit like saying I believe in magic but I have no evidence for it and see nothing that suggests it exists, however, I know about Harry Potter, so....

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Its all about perspective

Saw this little cartoon today, it made me smile. Many Christians I know find it incomprehensible that from the "outside" their own beliefs and traditions looks suspiciously similar to the countless "other" world religions that they would take an atheistic view of (i.e. they wouldn't believe), in fact you could say that when it comes to disbelief we atheists simply go one God further.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Calling a spade a spade

I've been watching a lot of stuff on YouTube lately from Islamic apologists trying to convince us that our problems in Syria, Israel and Iraq have nothing to do with Islam, people like Maajid Nawaz and Mehdi Hasan. Today I stumbled upon the most perfect summation of what I think about that assertion, here it is.

"It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled." ~Mark Twain

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Supporting science teachers

Interesting approach to supporting embattled Biology teachers in the religious backwaters of the USA and a musical way of celebrating Darwin day, nice!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Love your enemies?

I was listening with dismay this morning to a news broadcast that featured a couple of Christian liberals banging on about how ISIS was so terrible, so brutal, so cruel and how they must be persuaded to stop being so nasty to people, but what they are doing has NOTHING to do with Islam. So let's get this straight, an organisation that's killing people and acquiring territory in order to establish an Islamic caliphate has *nothing* to do with Islam - are ISIS aware of this bombshell? In the next breath these same liberals will tell us that regardless of whether or not someone actually goes to church or believes any of the pillars of the Christian story (or is even aware of them) then they should be counted as "Christian" so long as they tick that box on the census form.

This is how religious people play tennis without the net!

Fights between groups of evolved primates are seldom over one single thing. The vast majority of them ultimately boil down to the acquisition of power, property, vengeance, wealth or influence or combinations of those things. However, I think everyone would agree “normal” people don't like the idea of death by predator drone or hacking the living head from another human being. Normal people would not countenance such things without a very powerful motive. Unfortunately there always seems to be some prophet or other around the corner to provide one, and the clever psychopaths who invariably lead the charge in these matters use things like tradition, authority, empty promises and violent threats to subvert or destroy the innate morality and survival instincts of their (ideally) sheepish followers. For Stalin it was communism, for Hitler it was racial purity, for Pope Urban it was Gods' will, all essential ingredients to their stories, all key enablers in a rich tapestry of misdirection. Of course, some fights are engaged in by those seeking to prevent, halt or punish pirates and opportunists, such conflicts are often well intentioned and moral however sometimes even those interventions are fraudulent and the real motive is to acquire something by force or by proxy, the problem with human brains is that they are the ultimate in (devious) survival hardware.

So what has Islam got to do with ISIS? Firstly I think it's important to realise that there is nothing special or unique about Islam, it's a religion like almost every other, it makes the same kinds of unjustified (but contradictory) claims as other religions and is clearly based on an unconvincing plagiarising of prior art for the purposes of acquiring Earthly power. This is nothing new, humans have used the promise of heavenly perks and the threats of imaginary hell-fire to control people since the beginning of history and this text-book example is no different. This simple behavioural constant is why Islam is key to this fight; it's an enabler, it facilitates the motivation of the credulous, especially poor, illiterate and (indoctrinated) literalistic populace of that region, it provides "special" sanction to perform immoral acts and a reason to be afraid of not doing so. If Islam had the same status and following as Greek mythology then ISIS would not be using it to motivate their forces. We can argue that they may have come up with something else (like National Socialism) but this obvious fact seems incontrovertible.

People may argue that ISIS is especially brutal or barbaric, but from a practical point of view there seems little difference between decapitating innocents by blade or by high explosive, the end result is the same, any moral distinction seems pedantic. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for taking the fight to ISIS, but we should be clear about their motives and ours. It seems disingenuous to root our objection to ISIS on the basis of their preferred methods of executing their enemies. As a comparison, in the 21 months that ISIS held reporter James Foley captive, Saudi Arabia beheaded 113 people. President Obama visited Riyadh this year to underscore the importance of a bilateral relationship between the two countries.

It should be easy for us to find (substantial) objections to ISIS worthy of motivating some kind of fight with them. First and foremost they promote a totalitarian theocratic system, based on fundamentalist Islamic principles that, like it says in their holy book, should not rest until the entire world is under their heal. Secondly they commit atrocities outlawed by international law, for example, religious persecution, genocide and summary execution of prisoners and civilians. Having stolen billions of dollars as they rampaged through Syria and Iraq they easily have the ability to attack places like London, Paris and New York using terrorist tactics along 9/11 lines. In aggregate these seem sufficient motivation for people to wish for the destruction of this movement, how, who and when of course are very different questions.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Smart or dumb?

Like most people (in the UK) I have been following the Ashya King story as it's been unravelling in the media these last few days, and like many people, I suspect something more than a lack of a favoured treatment is playing out here. The decision today to reunite the parents with their sick child is almost certainly a pragmatic one based on current circumstances but since these circumstances were created by the parents themselves against the advice of medical professionals I can't decide whether these people are incredibly stupid or really clever. On the one hand they are Jehovah's Witnesses and whilst this fact says nothing about how much they love their child it does say something about how gullible and prone to believing nonsense they are, particularly when it comes to shunning life saving medical treatment. On the other hand I would imagine that, as a parent, when you're at wits end and desperate to find something that might help your dying child, then causing a huge media storm and publicising your plight to hundreds of millions of potentially sympathetic parents around the world is a pretty clever social media strategy for helping to get what you want.

I'm sure parents the world over wonder to what lengths they would go if faced with this dilemma, I certainly do! Anyway, regardless of any misguided motives and political fall-out, I wish this little boy well and hope he gets whatever sensible treatment he needs, there but for the grace of Nick Clegg etc..