Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Interpretation

Geocentricism looks plausible because things seem to rotate around the earth. The sun, moon and stars rise in the east and set in the west. Yet geocentricism has long been abandoned, and the Sun is at the centre of the solar system. One could object that it looks like the earth is at the centre, yet that is exactly what the heliocentric model predicts as well. There's no hidden trick, just a different model can explain the same appearance.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Prime Directive

When I was in Thailand I did a tour of a few of the Buddhist temples in Bangkok. They were amazing to see, gorgeous architecture and artistry. Yet despite the prosperity contained within, outside was a reminder of the poverty many experience. Beggars and street merchants desperate for spare change while a glorious building with a 50ft golden Buddha lay inside. Meanwhile I just wanted to take photos because it's not every day you get to see a 50ft golden Buddha.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Dunning-Kruger

If you don't know what you don't know, then how can you accurately judge your abilities? This is at heart the problem underlying the Dunning-Kruger Effect. And it's not enough just to show someone the right information because they won't be able to distinguish that from wrong information. The only way out is through education, so the question becomes how can you convince someone they need education when they don't know there's a problem to begin with?

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Sherlock

Of the sceptical lessons contained within Sherlock Holmes, the assertion that "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" is a lousy way to do scepticism. You can never get to the truth that way because there are an infinite number of explanations that would need to be considered and dismissed. It's getting the process backwards! A more sensible approach would be to use Occam's razor and stay away from that pesky t-word.

Friday, 27 August 2010


"When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children?" - Bill Hicks

Morning Scepticism: Values

Groups in some way are self-defined by the values they profess to. It's easy to think of examples, in politics say the commitment towards civil liberties. But where this thinking goes astray is when the out-group is defined by what the in-group is not. So if you're against a group that professes child welfare, you must be against child welfare. We're holy, they're unholy. We are rational, they are irrational. The egregious abuse is the hijacking of elements of the human condition as being a product of the group, rather than the group recognising their values are shaped by the human condition.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

So Cool!

A new study from researchers in Canada and Sweden has shown that biosynthetic corneas can help regenerate and repair damaged eye tissue and improve vision in humans. The results, from an early phase clinical trial with 10 patients, are published in the August 25th, 2010 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

"This study is important because it is the first to show that an artificially fabricated cornea can integrate with the human eye and stimulate regeneration," said senior author Dr. May Griffith of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, the University of Ottawa and Linköping University. "With further research, this approach could help restore sight to millions of people who are waiting for a donated human cornea for transplantation."

The cornea is a thin transparent layer of collagen and cells that acts as a window into the eyeball. It must be completely transparent to allow the light to enter and it also helps with focus. Globally, diseases that lead to clouding of the cornea represent the most common cause of blindness. More than a decade ago, Dr. Griffith and her colleagues began developing biosynthetic corneas in Ottawa, Canada, using collagen produced in the laboratory and moulded into the shape of a cornea. After extensive laboratory testing, Dr. Griffith began collaborating with Dr. Per Fagerholm, an eye surgeon at Linköping University in Sweden, to provide the first-in-human experience with biosynthetic cornea implantation.

Together, they initiated a clinical trial in 10 Swedish patients with advanced keratoconus or central corneal scarring. Each patient underwent surgery on one eye to remove damaged corneal tissue and replace it with the biosynthetic cornea, made from synthetically cross-linked recombinant human collagen. Over two years of follow-up, the researchers observed that cells and nerves from the patients' own corneas had grown into the implant, resulting in a "regenerated" cornea that resembled normal, healthy tissue. Patients did not experience any rejection reaction or require long-term immune suppression, which are serious side effects associated with the use of human donor tissue. The biosynthetic corneas also became sensitive to touch and began producing normal tears to keep the eye oxygenated. Vision improved in six of the ten patients, and after contact lens fitting, vision was comparable to conventional corneal transplantation with human donor tissue.

"We are very encouraged by these results and by the great potential of biosynthetic corneas," said Dr. Fagerholm. "Further biomaterial enhancements and modifications to the surgical technique are ongoing, and new studies are being planned that will extend the use of the biosynthetic cornea to a wider range of sight-threatening conditions requiring transplantation."
In my first year of university, I did a subject called "Introduction To The Senses", which was a look at the relationship between biology and information content. While the professor teaching can be summed up by a Futurama quote ("I don't know how to teach, I'm a professor!"), nonetheless the subject contained some really interesting things about how the senses work and some glimpses to the prospects of machine augmentation. That was back in 2003!

When I hear about technology such as this, it really does excite me. Not because I'm hopeful of any of that transhumanism stuff, but because I find the technology fascinating. It's amazing just what we can do with technology already, and this is just at the beginning of an emerging field. So cool!

Morning Scepticism: Anniversaries

The calendar as an artificially-imposed construct on reality, though not without its uses. Yet a lot is made of things like anniversaries, and rounded milestones like decades, centuries, or millennia. The significance of these points in time is at best cultural, the meaning internal. So when a birthday comes around, it's a reminder that we don't need the universal to have meaning.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: False Witness

Some creationists go to elaborate efforts to "disprove" evolution, with thought experiments that clearly show the absurdity that those evil scientists try to force down our throats. Yet despite the likes of Ray Comfort and Kent Hovind clearly showing this absurdity, those dogmatic Darwinists won't budge... And we know the creationists must be right, because there's something about bearing false witness in their holy book being commanded against. So when those evil scientists say it's a straw man, it has to be the scientists lying because a creationist is commanded not to lie!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

An Open Letter To The Greens

Dear Green Party,

Firstly I want to congratulate you on the success this election. Gaining the balance of power in the senate puts the party into a new position of power, and to add to that a candidate in the lower house too. Add to that nearly securing one of the two senate spots in the ACT, it's been an impressive election.

Yet this does not constitute a mandate. While there has been an increase in voter activity, the overwhelming majority didn't vote for you. The party is still seen by many as being filled with left-wing idealists, people who favour ideology over results. The ETS is a good example of this, yes it was insufficient policy but as a result there's no action at all being taken at all.

On the issue of climate change the belief in it is split down political affiliations. This is a shame that what should be a scientific issue has turned into a political one, but this is the reality that you have to deal with. Are you going to be able to work to a solution when many people don't see a problem to begin with?

Climate change is a great example of the need for pragmatism. Right now both major parties aren't going to do anything practical to address the problem, and the fear campaigns about the cost of action will prevent many from wanting there to be action at all. People will take the undesirable implications of anthropogenic climate change as seeking out whatever they can that will claim those undesirable implications as unfounded.

Same goes for policies concerning gay marriage and refugees. There's no point in being idealistic if that's going to stand in the way of making progress on both issues. Both major parties have similar policies on both issues so fighting for them on idealistic grounds isn't going to make much headway. There's no point in token symbolism if it doesn't actually create change.

And creating change is what as the party with the balance of power in the senate you are capable of. Not radical change, but incremental change. As the expression goes, Rome wasn't built in a day. It might mean somewhat isolating a percentage of your base, but it's the only way to really get things done at all.

Right now we need some action, any action really. Because trying to find the perfect solution means inaction. Nuclear has its problems, but is it really worse than pumping CO2 into our atmosphere as we currently are by burning coal? GM crops have some issues, but if it's a technology that can lessen the environmental impacts of farming then why wouldn't it be something to look into?

Again I applaud you on the election result, and hope that you strive to look at solutions that are going to help with a prosperous and sustainable Australia. Because having ideals are useless if they don't translate into positive outcomes. Seatbelts do save lives even if they can't save everyone in a car crash...

Best regards,

Morning Scepticism: True Believers

Psychological theory and clinical research suggests that once people form a particular belief, evidence to the contrary serves to entrench it. It's the fallacy of sunken costs, only on an unconscious level. This is one reason why true believers aren't going to be shaken from their beliefs. The more you hammer them with contradictory evidence, the more they dig their heels in.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Origins

Even if scientists are able to show that through natural processes that life can come about, this doesn't actually answer the question of how life did come about. A strong scientific theory of abiogenesis would be one model that could potentially explain how life started on this planet, but it doesn't show that a creator wasn't involved. The burden of proof is on the one saying there was a creator, it's not the default that needs to be explained away but an idea that needs to be explanatory in the first place.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Credulity

If anything should show how easily the human mind can be fooled, it's Scientology. Not only was this cult started within the lifetimes of many people still alive but it was started by a bad science fiction author. For this people sign their life and their savings away. At least with Mormonism they tied it into an ancient myth...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Unnatural Disasters

When the twin towers fell in 2001, the reverend Jerry Falwell proclaimed it was divine punishment for the US being tolerant of homosexuality - among other liberal vices. As the Victorian bushfires raged in early 2009, Catch The Fire ministries blamed the bushfires on God's wrath for the recent changes in Victorian law on abortion. When the tsunamis struck on boxing day in 2004 there were plenty of preachers giving their take on the events.

These are but three examples of taking disasters and attributing them to divine agency because of issues of morality. It seems a common phenomenon, and not just one that's related to the Judeo-Christian narrative in our present culture. Looking back to myths of different cultures shows the same phenomenon, from the Greek gods to Aboriginal cryptids. It's not just prudish Islamic scholars worrying about the public lack of female modesty...

So when I read stories like Noah's Flood, I see the same phenomenon. There was no global flood, nor was the flood sent by a divine agency to wipe out sinners. Floods happen, they happen due to the same mechanisms that allow for rain. There would still be floods without people to drown, that there are people to drown is incidental to there being a flood.

It's very human to personalise reality, our brains are wired for agency. It's not a bad thing, it's very helpful in some circumstances. Understanding when an agent wants to harm you could be a matter of life and death. But extend these cognitive faculties from a social group to a blind process and they misrepresent it. We have to catch ourselves when anthropomorphising reality because intuitively we can't help it.

Natural disasters are a part of living on this planet. Floods will happen irrespective of the wicked lives people lead. Bushfires will rage with or without changes in abortion law. Volcanoes will erupt without regard to whether homosexual conduct exists. Earthquakes and tsunamis don't hinge on cultures not accepting Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. There will be plagues and droughts and crop failures with or without killing a witch.

It does seem odd in the 21st century that there are still those who look at disasters and attribute divine agency, as if the affairs of humanity are at the whims of the gods and goddesses atop Mt Olympus. Meanwhile people are punished and suffering comes to others because of these moral proclamations - as if the suffering of the disaster itself wasn't enough.

Perhaps a few thousand or even a few hundred years ago, this sort of intuitive reason might have meant something. These days we know better, and by participating in personalisation of indiscriminate forces, real agency causes harm.

Morning Scepticism: Harm

If homoeopathy has no active ingredient, then what's the harm of taking it? The harm is that it fails to do what it's meant to do. Taking a homoeopathic vaccine leaves one susceptible to what a real vaccine would prevent. Taking a homoeopathic cancer remedy doesn't treat the cancer. The harm comes from the reason that one would seek to take it in the first place!

Friday, 20 August 2010

Another Vaccine-Preventable Outbreak

People are being reminded to check their vaccination history before travelling overseas after an outbreak of measles on the New South Wales north coast.

The state's Health Department says five people have contracted the highly infectious illness after contact with a traveller who brought the disease into the area.

Two other travellers have also contracted the disease in recent weeks.

The NSW Health director of communicable disease, Dr Jeremy McAnulty, says people can easily spread the disease if they do not check their vaccination history.

"Measles is a nasty disease and it's highly preventable by vaccination," he said.

"So the message is, make sure you're vaccinated against measles, make sure your children are vaccinated.

"But it's particularly important if you're about to travel overseas, just double check that you're fully vaccinated against measles.

"Sometimes we see outbreaks and we're concerned this one will spread further.

"A lot of travellers haven't been vaccinated fully against measles and then when they come back, if they mix with particularly people who also haven't been vaccinated, then that's what we're starting to see on the North Coast."
Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that those who have already made their mind up about the evils of vaccines are only served to strengthen that belief.

It can't be that they are against something that prevents harm to many, they are good people and wouldn't support something that would lead to harming others. Measles isn't that bad anyway, it's good to get measles right? Protects against it in the future, only serves to make us stronger. And that doesn't address the issue of the ingredients in vaccines. They put mercury in there! And vaccines cause autism, Andrew Wakefield was silenced for speaking the truth while other doctors fabricated studies to support Big Pharma. And they must not forget that this is all part of a government plot to control the actions of the populations...

Pick your rationalisation, because that's what the brain is good at doing in the face of conflicting evidence. Meanwhile vaccine-preventable diseases are creeping back into the community, putting lives at risk. But that's okay, measles or whooping cough is a minor irritant in the fight against... ummmm... actually I have no idea what prompts someone to be anti-vaxx. It just doesn't make any sense.


"How is it even possible to become an expert in nonsense?" - Massimo Pigliucci

Morning Scepticism: Astrology

How does a modern astrologer justify the practice? The wandering stars are merely other orbiting planets as seen from our perspective, the constellations are but the Sun's relative position in the galaxy - there's nothing that could possibly link what we see in the skies to what happens here on earth. Yet the belief still persists and many take it seriously.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Conspiracy Theorists

Trying to fit patterns over evidence is what people do, but that can lead to putting a pattern over data that's not really there. A conspiracy theorist has set up a pattern so that they can never be shown to be wrong - that absence of evidence is proof of a cover-up. So if someone is at the point of taking contradicting evidence as evidence for their belief, how can they possibly be argued out of their position?

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Psychics

Before any psychic gets their own television show or event, it should be mandatory that they first go through the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge (or regional equivalent). That way not only would it be a huge financial windfall for the psychic in question, but confirmation right there that there is validity to the claims. Of course this won't happen because there's more money in the sensation of wanting to believe than wanting to know.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Against Omniscience

Omnipotence is a easy enough logical concept to destroy, because one cannot be all-powerful if one cannot do things that are logically impossible. The question is usually phrased along the lines of "Can God create a rock so heavy he cannot lift it?" The point of the argument is that either way it demonstrates that omnipotence is a property that cannot exist - it is logically incoherent.

But what of omniscience? It is often said that God is all-knowing. Can such a concept as being all-knowing have a similar logical contradiction at the heart of it? I'd argue that it does. The argument goes as follows:
Suppose a being can hold all the knowledge about everything. But to hold knowledge about everything creates a new fact, that there is a set of knowledge that contains everything. And that in itself creates a new fact, that there is a set of knowledge that contains the set of knowledge that contains everything. And so on. So no matter how one wants to encompass all the facts, doing so creates new facts. Thus absolute knowledge can never be reached. Thus omniscience is impossible. Q.E.D.

From this we should be able to reject the possibility of any being claimed to be omniscient a priori.

Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts

While I've been reading plenty of books recently, I haven't really sought to write reviews on them. Mainly because in terms of content I don't have the expertise to judge the content so I can only really say what I enjoyed about it and what I got out of it. Massimo Pigliucci's book Nonsense On Stilts is along those very lines, explaining the ability for there to be scientific knowledge and how as laypeople we can go about discerning it.

The necessity of this book should be self-evident. We live in a culture dominated by science, specialisation means prosperity at the same time as leaving people in the dark about the underlying explanations for all the things that make their life convenient. This is why I'm an advocate for science, I don't need to understand how a television works in order to know that it's a product of the scientific enterprise.

But being a science advocate is not enough, the authority that is given to science means that there are always going to be people trying to give their ideas the perception of scientific legitimacy. And to be able to "tell science from bunk" as the subtitle suggests, this requires an exploration of just what science is. For that, read the book.

Where I see the book's success is whether it's able to actually do what the subtitle suggests: "how to tell science from bunk". And on this I think in part it fails. The book starts out well, giving an account of the demarcation problem and explaining the contentions through both philosophical and empirical accounts. Then by contrasting practical examples of legitimate science, near-science and pseudoscience there was at least there were things to look out for. But where it fails is the admission at the end that really it comes down to expert domains and we as laypeople are meant to rest where the preponderance of experts rest.

This is an understandable position, but doesn't really tell us how to tell science from bunk. Instead it's consensus among experts that we should look for, but only in cases where expertise is relevant. The example in the book was Quantum Mysticism, where being an expert in nonsense isn't an expert at all. And this again requires some knowledge so one can see whether the relevant expertise takes it seriously - in this case it's the quantum mechanics experts. Not the ideal situation really, indeed I have seen pro-science types reject science they don't like because they don't consider that particular discipline of science is actually science.

So how do we tell science from bunk? For the most part we look to experts and see where the weight of expertise lies, which doesn't really solve the problem but tells us where to hedge our bets. But while this doesn't give us the ability to answer the question, it does frame questions of importance such as AIDS denial that does cause harm.

In the context of a sibling society where information is transmitted from person to person irrespective of expertise, being able to tell science from bunk is vitally important. Take something like alt-med, has great transmission from person to person yet very few of us are medical experts and / or have domain knowledge about what's on offer. From the ivory towers, medical researchers can proclaim that homoeopathy is bunk until the cows come home, but how does that help the average person?

We are drawn into discussion of ideas that are well beyond our own expertise because so much of what is science is also part of our lives. Luckily I don't have to render an opinion of the validity of nucleosynthesis much, but I do come across climate change deniers and creationists and adherents of SCAM* with claims passing from person to person left unchecked.

The need for such a book is because we are in a society where expertise is seldom part of the facilitation of ideas. Where is the medical expert when someone talks about SCAM? Where is the evolutionary biologist to step in when a creationist dismisses biology, or the climatologist to counter those arguments against climate change?

As individuals we need to be able to tell science from bunk because our lives are full of people pushing bunk (genuinely or maliciously), and it can't be just more than being a personal barrier. Even if we as individuals aren't transmitters, there are still plenty of transmitters out there. As Massimo makes the case, nonsense harms. Even something like astrology can lead people to make foolish choices. Climate change denial means inaction, creationism weakening science education.

It's for this reason that I think the book is worth reading. Not because it gives a baloney detection kit**, but because it illustrates what our limits are both as individuals and as a species. And through an understanding of science of what science is (and what it isn't), it gives a path to follow in order to get some knowledge - consult experts. Because even if this book does serve to teach us our limits, there is the need for us to be informed enough to hopefully carry the beacon of science in a society where the implications don't match the level of engagement that experts have.

* Supplements, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine
** for that read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World

Morning Scepticism: Framing

It is fast becoming a common claim that the new atheists are hurting the cause for science education because people are bound to associate science with atheism. I find this argument odd for two reasons. Firstly, I can't see many liberal theists become fundamentalists because they picked up The God Delusion and found their current position untenable. And secondly, when people grow up being taught by parents and their community on pain of eternal torment that evolution is evil and wrong it's hard to see how the "new atheists" factor into it.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Mediating Cynicism

Election time in Australia again, and for those who have been living under a rock it really is a petty election. Both parties are out there desperately trying to show that the other is not fit for government, and the issues that the election is hinging around are a joke. In the senate, unless you want number every candidate your preferences are dictated by back room deals. We are run by career politicians who deal in media sound-bytes that seldom reflect how government is really run. And worst of all is that both major parties have almost identical platforms yet there is such a deep polemic undercurrent.

So it is really easy to be cynical, and from what I can see a lot of people are taking that path. And for the most part that cynicism is justified. What I want to distinguish between is that cynicism about particular aspects to a cynicism in the sense of futility and acquiescence about the entire process. While there is much to be critical of and certain aspects are beyond our control, it's hard to deny that a lot of the process actually works quite well.

A victim of its own success
To look at countries like Italy, Thailand, and Fiji there's something this country must be doing right. Instead of having massively corrupt politicians and the country sitting on the verge of dictatorship, we've got two parties that argue over little things. While some candidates are religious, there's little chance of pushing towards a religious obtrusion unlike Turkey, and somewhat in the United States. And forget about the risk of poisoning for our leader (Ukraine), or riots in the street (France), compared to all that endless political slogans and pork barrelling seem mild in comparison.

While it's far from perfect, it's important to remember that things do to an extent work here. While there are quarrels over the state of our healthcare system, it's important to remember that we do have one and those quarrels are over efficacy and efficiency. Funding for schools isn't about the need to have schools or the importance of public education, but where the best bang-for-buck is. The infrastructure here isn't all bad even if there's the lacking of more modern projects such as high-speed rail and telecommunications. There is a lot of waste in government departments, but it's hard to deny that those departments are useless.

Right now the main issues are to what percentage mining should be taxed and illegal migration, issues about economy have largely dried up as the two major parties both tout similar economic credentials and practices. The battle becomes over wedge issues because moral issues are what get people passionate.

Wedge politics and pork barrelling
Each election there are two real battles going on. The first battle takes place in marginal seats, where the results of between 10 and 20 seats show which way the government is going to swing. The second is for the balance of power in the senate.

There's no use for a political party not to focus on those marginal seats. If those seats are the ones that an election will hinge on, then the party that doesn't do so is effectively giving up. Because of that it's only fair to take any policy offered in the context of those marginal seats. Perhaps the internet filter doesn't poll well amount the majority, but does it among swing voters in marginal seats? If so then it's no surprise that it's still being pushed. It's also no surprise that a disproportionate amount of funding goes to marginal seats.

Now the balance of power in the senate makes for a qualifier. As seen in 2004, having a bad leader can have catastrophic consequences so there is at least some check for overall policy. And brought in to play are minority parties, where back-room preference deals can decide the senate composition. But at least there's a state-wide ability for proportional representation with 6 senators where a simple majority has the all-or-nothing in the lower house.

A reflection of us
It's easy to write off politicians for engaging in this sort of behaviour, but what should be the take-home message is that these tactics are done because they work. We can complain that politicians don't believe anything any more, then at the same time dismiss those who do as ideologues. The whack-jobs are those who have ideologies we disagree with - no wonder opinion polls and wedge politics are at the heart of campaigning.

And that's where cynicism is becoming unhelpful, the politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Nationwide policies are framed in terms of the individual because if one party doesn't do it then the other party will. So instead of talking about the National Broadband Network in terms of telecommunications infrastructure it is being argued in terms of personal internet speed. Something is lost when the big picture is being sold in a series of small components.

The proposed internet filter is a great example of this, instead of anyone standing up for the ideal of freedom of expression one of the major parties is putting it in terms of protecting children and the other opposing it on the grounds that it wouldn't work. The leader of the opposition just a few years ago couldn't even trust women to make a choice about the manner by which to get an abortion and tried to keep a particular treatment under his discretion.

Controlled Cynicism
To my mind the cynicism divorces you from the political process, which guarantees that those issues won't be addressed. If those tactics work on the people that matter then there's no reason for politicians to move away from them. Heck, it might be like America were some politicians even pander to the cynicism in order to get elected. I hate big government and want to see Obama's birth certificate before he throws my Grandma into a death camp!

Firstly I see satire as playing an important role because that exposes the nonsense. But that should only ever be a starting point, just as being sceptical shouldn't lead to the denial of any knowledge. If people aren't getting it, engage with them and explain what these tricks are. If the society pushes for a better class of politician then they will be forced to provide.

Morning Scepticism: Cryptozoology

Before going off and trying to confirm a belief in a particular mythological creature, the first step should be a plausibility study. Just as no-one os going to find kangaroos in the Swiss Alps, maybe first checking it against what is already known about biology: cladistics, biogeography, ecology, etc. - the tools are there. So until one can give a plausible biological account and some hard evidence to match, presenting that odd footprint as being made by a Big-foot is just hearing hooves and concluding unicorns.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Vaccination

There are two things that should always be mentioned when discussing vaccines. 1. Vaccines eradicated small-pox! 2. Where vaccination rates are dropping, vaccine preventable diseases are coming back. Surely that is evidence enough that vaccines work! A decision not to vaccinate one's own child not only puts that child at risk but increases the risk of the community as a whole.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Creationism

Biologists and philosophers of biology have been exploring the conceptual foundations and empirical evidence for over 150 years of evolutionary theory, shifts in understanding brought on by critical examination and through massive amounts of observations. Yet many theists (even well-educated ones) seem so quick to pronounce the flaws of "Darwinism" as if it was riddled with mistakes even a child should be able to spot. If the mistakes are so obvious, could it be a flaw in the understanding of those who study evolution... or those wishing evolution to die?

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Euthyphro Dilemma

That someone can have an unreflective idea of right and wrong should be uncontroversial. You can teach someone that murder is wrong without them understanding in the slightest why it is wrong. It would be fair to say that for one to behave morally it is not necessary for them to understand morality. And this should be good enough for a lot of people, just as we don't need accountants who understand the underlying nature of mathematics in order to do their job. They can do it without reflection.

Enter presuppositional apologetics. Instead of being satisfied that people can be moral without needing to account for morality, that morality can only begin with a sufficient grounding. So while one might believe that lying is wrong, by what standard can they justify it? To the apologist any valid justification has to be through God.

The alternative is subjectivism, without something universal to base a standard of morality on, it comes down to the individual to ultimately decide their own right and wrong. More on this is a future post, but for now let's suppose that is indeed the case. If God is the only way of bringing in an absolute standard, then what's the standard?

Again consider the case of lying, the apologist could say that God dictated lying is wrong and that's the end of that. But why does God consider lying wrong? Is there something inherently wrong with lying that displeases God? If so, then why is God displeased? Or is it that God makes the rules so whatever God says goes? If so then would lying be right if God dictated it?

This is The Euthyphro Dilemma[1], which can be stated as:
Is it pious because it is loved by the gods, or loved by the gods because it is pious?
So for the question of whether lying is wrong, does God consider lying wrong because God says it's wrong, or does God say it's wrong because it is wrong? The dilemma leaves two unfavourable positions: morality either becomes arbitrary or a question external to the gods themselves.

Choice 1: arbitrary morality
If what the gods say goes, then it's necessarily arbitrary. Is murder wrong only because God says so? Then if God says murder is right then it's right. Torturing babies? on the whims of the deity the moral status hangs. Stealing from others is perfectly fine as long as God says so.

I can hear the apologist's objections already, it's not in God's nature to desire any of those things[2]. God says murder is wrong because he's good and knows that murder is wrong. And this leads straight to choice 2.

Choice 2: circular morality
If it's in God's nature, then by what standard can it be said to be good? It may be in God's nature that he thinks murder wrong but that says nothing of whether something is right or wrong. If God's nature is perfectly permissive of murder then this mode of thinking would just as well label it good. In other words, if God's nature is good and good is defined by what God says then we hit a point of circularity.

The alternative is to define the terms external to the will of God. That God's nature is good because he embodies as standard for what is good that must be separate from what God is. This line of thinking puts the question of morality external to the gods and thus we don't need God in order for there to be right and wrong.

Now to consider the premise of an apologist accepting this problem (a really long shot) and instead turns it to facilitation. Yes there is a right and wrong, but it takes God to tell us what they are. The universals themselves may exist but as individuals we need God to recognise them.

Yet how could we recognise what is good without a conception of what makes good to begin with? If there is a god out there then how can we be sure that what the god says is good is actually good? Can a Muslim who believes in the divine revelation of Allah be any less justified in right and wrong than a Christian who believes in the divine revelation of Yahweh?

While the apologist might object that the Muslim belief is not consistent while the Christian belief is, it misses the point of the exercise. The right morality just happens to be the one the apologist grew up with. Talk about subjective!

What the Euthyphro Dilemma demonstrates is that there's no justification in appealing to gods in issues of morality. To argue otherwise is to argue that morality is merely arbitrary or fall into circular reasoning.

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma
[2] - From William Lane Craig


"We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." - David Hume

Procreate This!

Since such nonsense is uttered to deny homosexuals the ability to marry, I can only assume that people deny it is out of personal prejudice. The nonsense reasons given are merely masks to hide behind. One of those masks is that marriage is about procreation, a particularly nonsensical argument for a number of reasons.

  1. There's nothing in the social contract of marriage that dictates the necessity of procreation.
  2. There's no upper age limit on marriage despite biological barriers to procreation.
  3. People can procreate just fine without needing to get married.
  4. People can live in a relationship that looks identical to marriage but without the formal registration.
  5. Homosexuals can and do have children.

For those who say marriage is about procreation, does that mean that anyone willing to get married has to a) show they are fertile and b) show that they intend to have children? Does it mean that once the children grow up that marriage can be dissolved without so much as an afterthought?

The argument is a complete non sequitur, it's just not relevant to the question. It's looking for a general biological justification as if an IS implies the OUGHT. The fact that homosexuals still have the ability to reproduce and that many heterosexual couples do not is unnecessarily complicating things.

This is nothing more than disguising prejudice. If as a society there's going to be a recognition of committed consenting monogamous relationships, then there's no reason to exclude on the basis of sexual preference and more than there is on appearance or ethnicity. I think that those who campaign against gay marriage realise this which is why they come up with such absurdities to justify their position.

Morning Scepticism: Spin

There's a video psychologists play where viewers are meant to count the number of times the ball is passed by the children wearing white. Meanwhile a gorilla walks across the screen and a lot of people don't see it. But once it is pointed out to them they can't unsee it. So when politicians engage in spin or overuse a slogan it's like the gorilla video, you can't unsee it and that detracts from the message.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Apologetics

I wonder just how meaningful the concept of God is to those who defend it by employing what is in essence playing word games. While using this kind of rhetorical sophistry might seem intellectually defensible, all it serves to do is trivialise God by reducing the concept to mere trickery. And the oddest thing about it is that this is done by those who take the idea of God the most seriously.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Literalism

A literal interpretation of the bible is still an interpretation. Making claims of authorship, inerrancy, meaning and implications are not objective facts but subjective conclusions. There's a reason it's called faith after all, but The Bible doesn't come with the authority so many claim it to. As a result there are now over 40,000 sects of Christianity, and somehow dinosaurs on Noah's Ark!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: IQ

A general rule of thumb I have is the moment someone starts to justify their position by whipping out an IQ score or equivalent (such as being a Mensa member), that's when I stop listening to them. Being smart isn't authoritative, scoring high on an IQ test just shows you did well on an IQ test. Using an IQ test as evidence just means you have a weak case. Why not stick Ph.D next to your name while you're at it?

Monday, 9 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Experts

Occasionally someone from outside a discipline can come in and make a ground altering contribution, and experts can find themselves going down the wrong path, and experts can and sometimes do have their political and religious beliefs influence their thinking on their particular level of expertise. But even with all that pointing out a grade-school error and alleging a conspiracy is not going to take down well-established scientific theories. If you want to take down a subject you're going to have to train in it, and even then who is the ideologue?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Comment Moderation

Comment moderation has been turned on, apologies for any delay in the immediacy of comments. This action had to be undertaken because of the persistence of spammers. Any comment that isn't spam or the crazy ramblings of the mentally ill will get through. I'm not interested in anything other than finding the easiest way to clean up the garbage.

Morning Scepticism: Self-deception

One thing I've learnt from arguing with creationists online is that what the science says is irrelevant. It starts with the posting of supposed scientific problems, but behind the foil of an empirical question is the existential and ethical implications if evolution is true. So while they may ask a question concerning the Second Law Of Thermodynamics, they are really asking "how can you say there is no God?"

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Socialism

Using the label socialist in order to scare people is kind of silly, it's even more silly when using that label to oppose a service that is in place in nearly every single western democracy. And whatever the Nazi party did has little relevance to whatever the situation now.

Friday, 6 August 2010


"Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes are built according to scientific principals and they work. They stay aloft and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications such as the dummy planes of the Cargo cults in jungle clearings or the bees-waxed wings of Icaraus don’t." - Richard Dawkins

Morning Scepticism: 2nd Coming

Jesus was supposed to have died nearly 2000 years ago, since then there have been those predicting his second coming. Even these days people are still predicting Jesus will return with many dates of the end times still flying right by with the world still in-tact. At what point will people just give up on the idea and get on with their lives?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Education

Education is as much an investment in the future, it's sacrificing resources in order to build the necessary skills that society needs. Migration of skilled labour is taking the investments that other countries have put in and trying to reap the benefits, which is at best a short-term solution to a long term problem. Why isn't there more investment in helping create skilled workers?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Elections

What I'd love to see is election proposals done without the context of a political party. To take away the in-group and out-group in evaluating proposals might actually lead to positions held on the merits of the proposals rather than which side it's perceived to be on. Instead we have two major parties peddling almost identical policies yet such fervour over which party to support.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Tolerance

Tolerance is a good thing, we should be tolerant of the right for other people to believe what they want. But that cannot extend to refraining from criticism. People can hold different political views yet fiercely debate them, get passionate about them even loathe those who support a different party - and that is perfectly fine. Yet when it comes to religion, to speak out and discuss the issues is labelled intolerant, militant or fundamentalist.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Problem Of Revelation

One claim that some make is that absolute truth can be obtained through revelation. Thus if The Bible says that Adam was made from dirt and Eve from one of Adam's ribs, and The Bible is the revealed truth of God, then Adam and Eve must have existed as it is stated in The Bible. God is the only one who can know what happened because God was the only observer who was there, and God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. Sounds at least like a valid argument, even if you reject the premise.

I have a problem with this line of argument, however, not from the problems of a possibility of revelation but the ability to discern between revelation and perceived revelation. I'd express it in the following way:
  1. If an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity could exist, then such a being has the power, knowledge and moral character to give absolute knowledge to any individual
  2. Any revelation of absolute truth would be accompanied by absolute certainty
  3. An individual can have absolute certainty they have had a revelation of absolute truth without needing a revelation
  4. Since one can feel certain they have had a revelation without needing revelation to take place, revelation cannot be trusted
  5. Therefore, revelation cannot give absolute truth

While I don't think (1) is actually possible, it's the premise by which revelation is based. (2) can be justified along the same lines, that God could make someone feel absolutely certain that they have had a revelation. The mental state of certainty must be possible (3), so even without actual revelation one could think with absolute certainty they have had one (4), thus even with the premise of God revelation cannot give that absolute certainty (5). Simply put, we as observers don't have the ability to distinguish between revelation and the belief of revelation.

Historically speaking this should come as no surprise. People from different times, places, cultures and beliefs have claimed the ability to glimpse the divine. Even in modern times there's the secular equivalent that is the alien abduction. Whether it's aliens or gods, the problem is that people can be so sure they have had this experience that it makes it impossible to tell whether someone genuinely had the experience or just the perception of it.

Morning Scepticism: Misinformation

How anyone can defend points of misinformation as helping to make an informed choice beyond me. Reading misinformation makes you less informed, not more so. How can you make an informed choice when it is weighted with false knowledge?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Morning Scepticism: Caring

As a sceptic it would be so much easier not to care. We could laugh off the nonsense and the damage it causes without taking the bad rap that comes with critical examination. To laugh at those who take homoeopathic vaccines, or lose their life savings on the advice of a psychic or life coach. But no, the nonsense harms and sceptics get a bad wrap because of the attitude. It really would be so much easier if I didn't care.