Tag Archives: Critical Thinking

The Cenk Uygur Files

This is becoming such a regular occurrence that it makes you worry about the guy. Hold that thought …. nope, when he’s so malicious in the treatment of his targets my sympathy is not with him, but with them – including Sarah Palin, FFS!

Yes, the voices of reason are actually defending Sarah Palin . Strange? No – when someone is being genuinely misrepresented it does your own case no good if you leave that out there. This is where Cenk and other Regressives go off the rails: the demonisation and misrepresentation they call out in others is exactly what they engage in themselves.

So, the evidence: Cenk’s victims. Continue reading The Cenk Uygur Files

The Quran – Polysemous or Duplicitous?

I’d like to address the bull shit that is passed off as reasons for thinking the Quran is a fine book, that it represents a religion of peace, that it’s all for freeing slaves, that blah blah blah … you know the score.

As an example, I’ll use a recent comment made to excuse Islam and the Quran. Continue reading The Quran – Polysemous or Duplicitous?

Denise Cummins – Would You Trust Her?

This is the TL;DR summary of Cummins at work. Full details here.

  1. Cummins writes an article I think misrepresents Bloom.
  2. I criticise that, I think without hysteria. I don’t especially make Blooms case, but point out what I see as a misreading of it. I even open with a questioning stance, in case I’m missing something.
  3. Cummins responds with what I think is fair to call an overly defensive moralising agenda driven reply with what amounts to the accusations of immoral motives for criticising empathy; a non-too-well disguised ad hominem loaded comment. She responds in a similar fashion to others, more condescendingly to some.
  4. I call out her rhetoric in a follow up comment.
  5. Cummins deletes that comment of mine.
  6. Cummins doctors her comment to remove much of the ad hominem content.
  7. I comment on the doctoring, in the comment stream. That comment soon vanishes.
  8. I write again, this time sticking to the points about Bloom, addressing the doctored comments in 6.
  9. Cummins responds calling my now vanished comments ‘hysterical rants’, citing a ‘normative’ comment policy that she doesn’t stick to herself.
  10. Cummins closes comments.

That smacks of intellectual dishonesty to me. Continue reading Denise Cummins – Would You Trust Her?

Those Spiteful Atheists

Some stupidity like this is doing the rounds:

1) Being an atheist is okay. Being an atheist and shaming religions and spirituality as silly and not real is not okay

2) Being a Christian is okay. Being homophobic, misogynistic, racist or otherwise hateful person in the name of Christianity is not okay

3) Being a reindeer is okay. Bullying and excluding another reindeer because it has a shiny red nose is not okay

Continue reading Those Spiteful Atheists

Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.

Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015

What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?

The first question was a reasonable one, while the rephrasing is philosophically futile. The term ‘fittingness’ is one of these profundities that is dragged out when emotionally charged woo is being concocted out of a straight forward question. Continue reading Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is unsupported – equally unsupported no matter what the Supernatural metaphysics may be: gods, ghosts, fairies, wizards, …. But let’s go with the fantasy.

The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any historical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the resurrection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, goblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.

Just to throw a spanner into the works, have a closer look at the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Hypernatural Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all Supernatural creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see the Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes an obvious invention of imaginative minds.

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown. Whatever the origins of our universe and any other, when or if they become known to us, they will be investigated, theorised about, and will take their place in our expanding field of Natural knowledge.

The strong nuclear force is something we discovered, or invented, or modelled, however you want to put it. It is now used to explain the interaction between particles in the nucleus of atoms. It was not once Supernatural and then suddenly Natural. Rather, it was once an unknown Natural phenomenon and is now a known Natural phenomenon.

Stating the Bleeding Obvious

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the matter of philosophy, such as that of consciousness, the origins of the universe, theism, one of my biggest bugbears is when philosophers tell us something is obvious – and by philosophers I do include professional ones, for which the mistake is almost unforgivable. If it were all obvious we wouldn’t be having philosophical discussions, as we’d all be of one mind, one faith, or none. The game would be over.

Some of the more ‘obvious’ uses of the word that are clearly mistaken in my view is when the lovely Jehovahs Witnesses stand at my door, look around and say, “Look, this is all so wonderful, it’s obvious there must be a creator.”

The opposite is to claim a view to be ‘absurd’ (or perhaps what is meant is that it is ‘obviously absurd’), as when Muslim Hamza Tzortzis, scourge of the debating scene, says things like “..and this would lead to an absurdity as it would imply that the universe created itself.”, when first, there’s no such necessary implication from his argument, and it’s not as if he knows what  is absurd or not, or what is obvious or not, in the matter of the creation of universes. This is probably the most common flaw in attempts by Muslims to ‘prove’ God exists – they feel their assumptions are obviously true.

Atheists philosophers aren’t immune to it. In a discussion with scientist Peter Atkins, the philosopher Steven Law tried to point out that empiricism wasn’t important in some cases, because it was obvious, for example, that if Peter Atkins claimed to have something stuffed up his jumper it would be easy to just look – which sort of makes you wonder what a professional philosopher thinks empiricism is. What Law thinks is obvious is not so much so in the end, and I wonder that he doesn’t get that. What happened to the critical thinking he promotes so assiduously?

And proponents of free-will and the nature of the self are probably the biggest culprits, including atheist Raymond Tallis, in that they feel that how humans experience personal subjectivity is an obvious indication that it’s a real representation of human nature; when most of them know full well that feeling that ‘something is the case’ in matters at the edge of our understanding does not imply that it is obviously true. Many proponents of free-will will happily admit that many other illusions are illusions despite how it feels, but their particular feeling that they have free-will is obviously correct. It’s obvious their double standards are absurd (oh bugger!)

There are countless examples of proponents for some idea or other claiming it is obvious, when the argument itself belies that claim. Where we are of quite different world views it’s even more important to avoid that mistake. What may be patently obvious to me as an atheist, about the nature of the world, clearly isn’t obvious to most theists; and the obvious presence in God in the lives of theists is clearly not so obvious to atheists.

Questioning what is obvious to ourselves is probably the most difficult thing we do. We are challenging our inbred reliance on intuition to examine what might be counter intuitive. Nit picking is essential in this task, and if you have someone tell you something or other is obvious, then that’s the point to challenge – pick that nit. And if you find yourself claiming something is obvious, you need to think deeper about what it is you find so obvious.

Surely all this is obvious, isn’t it? Do I really need to state it?

Duglas Adams (h/t Dawkins)
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on a gas covered planet going round a nuclear fireball, and think this normal, is obviously an indication of how skewed our perspective is.

Update: Frank Jackson interview by James Garvey

“I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious.”

A shameful example of how personal preconceptions and bias have not only been abandoned by a philosopher, but how it has produced thirty years of paper and megabytes and neuronal confusion. Another example of how philosophers deal with the obvious.


Confirmation Bias

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Confirmation bias is such a tricky one that it requires persistent vigilance.

Scientific American for November carries the story based on Marc Hauser’s problems, the nature of which hasn’t been made clear yet. Some suspect fraud, but the more generous view is confirmation bias.

Two factors make combating confirmation bias an uphill battle. For one, data show that eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence,they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias and to wrong-headed conclusions, unless they are perpetually vigilant. Second, the mounting pressure on scholars to conduct single-hypothesis-driven research programs supported by huge federal grants is a recipe for trouble. Many scientists are highly motivated to disregard or selectively reinterpret negative results that could doom their careers. Yet when members of the scientific community see themselves as invulnerable to error, they impede progress and damage the reputation of science in the public eye.

The very edifice of science hinges on the willingness of investigators to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong.

The best antidote to fooling ourselves is adhering closely to scientific methods. Indeed, history teaches us that science is not a monolithic truth-gathering method but rather a motley assortment of tools designed to safeguard us against bias.

As astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife and co-author Ann Druyan noted, science is like a little voice in our heads that says, “You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.” Good scientists are not immune from confirmation bias. They are aware of it and avail themselves of procedural safeguards against its pernicious effects.

[my emphasis]

At least it’s reassuring that scientists are keeping an eye on each other, given the difficulty of keeping an eye on oneself. It’s about the best we can expect. And given this is the case, it illustrates the paucity of any ‘other way of knowing’.

More on Marc Hauser here.

Harris, Religion, Rape

The Harris religion and rape issue is inflaming opinion, still. This particular storm is about the comment he made in an interview with Bethany Saltman in 2006, and this particular sentence:

“I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”

The Beginning

But let’s go back to where it started, with his book, Letter To A Christian Nation, 2006, which prompted the Saltman interview.

Naturally, for religious people that haven’t read the book but who like to pick up on the nasty things atheists say on their journey to eternal damnation in the next life, then the whole concept of comparing their precious religion with rape is pretty shocking. And it looks like Harris has handed them a stick with which they can give him a damned good thrashing.

Trouble is, in their rush to read only the bad, they miss the point. Here’s the section from the book where rape is first raised.

“As a biological phenomenon, religion is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past. Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now. There is, after all nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”

Here Harris is clearly using it to point out that because something has natural origins we don’t have to think it acceptable behaviour now. It’s used as an analogy.

But it’s an analogy that many religious people don’t get. And because they don’t get it they’ve come over all of a froth, because of the dreaded word ‘rape’ – such a taboo word.


My pop-psychology point of the day is that religious people are so used to selective reading when it comes to their holy books, so used to interpreting anything they read in order to give an affirmative bias towards their religion and a negative bias against anything that challenges it, that they are simply confused by analogies, not knowing when to read something literally and when to interpret it as an analogy, or even how to figure out what work the analogy is doing.

Here’s a case in point. Suem wonders why there is so much outrage over Xola Skosana’s sermon that included ‘Jesus with HIV analogy‘.

Suem asks,

“Don’t people understand that analogies and metaphors are not meant to be definitive statements”

No they don’t!

They don’t get The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or fairy analogies. Here the point of the analogy is not to liken God to the obviously ridiculous FSM or fairies.

The FSM analogy is about the reasoning that gets you from some hypothesis, such as there is a God, or there is an FSM, to a full explanation, a theology, and even descriptions of characteristics of this hypothetical entity, without any evidence whatsoever.

The whole point of picking obvious nonsensical entities as the object of belief is to show that the same reasoning or faith that gives you God can give you these others; and so the reasoning and the faith is a flawed way of acquiring truth about the entity.

So, similarly, the point of Harris using ‘rape’ in this specific case in his book is to show that the analogous aspects of religion and rape is that because they had evolutionary advantage at some point doesn’t make them beneficial now. Here rape is not meant to be analogous to religion directly.

Symbolically it’s like this:

A has some aspect X
B has some aspect X

A is religion.
Where B is rape, X is the past evolutionary benefit of religion and rape.
Where B is the FSM, X is the poor reasoning about theology of religion and the FSM.

So, here’s the argument.
A has aspect X, and is therefore good.
But B has aspect X, and B is clearly not good.
So, having aspect X is no indication of B or A being good.

The religious could save a lot of unnecessary argument if they took the trouble to figure out what the analogy is about.

The Harris – Saltman Interview

As if the religious hadn’t got hold of the wrong end of the stick already, Harris gives them another excuse to fume. And fume they do.

Here’s the 2006 article in which the next scene in the melodrama takes place. (Here’s a pdf).

Let’s have a look at what else he says before we get to the crutial point. Though many religious people might disagree with many of his points, there are some who do see his issues with religion when it comes to the more fundamental flavour. Here’s how it goes towards the end of page 1 of The Sun web site version:


Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?


It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.

Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.

Note that both genocide and rape are given as examples. Clearly Harris is referring to the analogy, as I described it above. Being a natural human behaviour does not mean that it has any benefit now.

But Harris isn’t saying benefit can’t be derived from religion. To go back to the book, Letter To A Christian Nation, Harris knows full well that some people do derive benefit from religion:

I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying. I do not wish to denigrate any of these experiences. I would point out however, that billions of human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences – but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of nature

So clearly, despite what some critics claim, he doesn’t see all religious experience in the same light. But his main point is that overall it is detrimental to society.

I’ll skip ahead slightly in the interview, past the offending words, just to make it clear Harris isn’t a baby eater.


Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. …[some details about specific problems]…Now, these people are not evil. They’re just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world’s misery.


If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn’t something else take its place?


Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable

See, he recognises some religions aren’t so bad.

…I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.

[page 3]


So you see Buddhist meditation not as a religious practice, but as something that can yield results.


Clearly, there are results to any religious practice. A Christian might say, “If you pray to Jesus, you’ll notice a change in your life.” And I don’t dispute that. The crucial distinction between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Western religions is that with Buddhism, you don’t have to believe anything on faith to get the process started.

Harris Hates All Religions?

Again I need to emphasise the fact that Harris does distinguish between degrees of religious fundamentalism and the associated harms. Remember that when we get to the crunch statement.


Do you think that there is such a thing as a peaceful religion?


Oh, sure. Jainism is the best example that I know of. It emerged in India at more or less the same time as Buddhism. Nonviolence is its core doctrine. Jain “extremists” wear masks in order to avoid breathing in any living thing. To be a practicing Jain, you have to be a vegetarian and a pacifist. So the more “deranged” and dogmatic a Jain becomes, the less likely he or she is to harm living beings.
Jains probably believe certain things on insufficient evidence, and that’s not a good idea, in my opinion. I can even imagine a scenario in which Jain dogma could get people killed: I don’t actually know what Jains say on this subject, but let’s say they became unwilling to kill even bacteria and forbade the use of antibiotics.


…They [evangelicals] have a great fear that unless we believe the Bible was written by the creator of the universe, we have no real reason to treat one another well, and I think there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. It’s just fundamentally untrue that people who do not believe in God are more prone to violent crime, for instance. The evidence, if anything, runs the other way. If you look at where we have the most violent crime and the most theft in the United States, it’s not in the secular-leaning blue states. It’s in the red states, with all their religiosity. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas.

Now, I’m not saying that we can look at this data and say, “Religion causes violence.” But you can look at this data and say that high levels of religious affiliation don’t guarantee that people are going to behave well. Likewise if you look at UN rankings of societies in terms of development — which includes levels of violent crime, infant mortality, and literacy — the most atheistic societies on the planet rank the highest: Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark. So there is no evidence that a strong commitment to the literal truth of one’s religious doctrine is a good indicator of societal health or morality.

So, just to emphasise the point again. Harris does not see all religions as being as bad as each other. Harris does see people gaining some benefits from religion, though he thinks there are better ways. Harris does not think religion is the cause of all evil. Harris does not think all religion is evil. Nowhere does Harris actually call for the forced curtailment of religious belief. In all of this he is making very straight forward arguments about what he finds wrong with religion.

The Evil Atheists

Of course no discussion about religion is complete without a comment on the evil that atheists do. And nearly every religious person gets this point wrong. Saltman is playing devil’s advocate here of course.


Atheism doesn’t always go hand in hand with reason and compassion. Look at the destruction and violence caused by atheist ideology in China and the old Soviet Union.


What I’m really arguing against is dogma, and those communist systems of belief were every bit as dogmatic as religious systems. In fact, I’d call them ‘political religions’. But no culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs. Whenever people start committing genocide or hurling women and children into mass graves, I think it’s worth asking what they believe about the universe. My reading of history suggests that they always believe something that’s obviously indefensible and dogmatic.

And just to re-state the point made countless times, none of this was done in the name of atheism. Atheism isn’t a dogmatic belief system that anyone does anything in the name of. And atheists are not claiming religion is the cause of all ills, or that all atheists are whitere than white. So, can we drop this red herring.

The Magic Wand of Harris

OK. Let’s get to the main point. The offending place is top of page 2.


Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?


I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.

Now, given the context in which the original analogy was used, this is just an extension of that. Here’s the analogy:

A causes an amount of suffering.
B causes an amount of suffering.

Here A is rape, and B is religion. And on his assessment religion causes more harm than rape.

So, if he could wish away one of them he thinks the best option would be religion, as removing it would reduce harm the most.

Note that this is a simple thought experiment, wishful thinking, and as such has no specific bad consequences.

For example, if it clearly was a magic wish that did the trick he’d no doubt want all the currently religious people to be simply non-religious – so it’s not as if he would be causing more suffering by removing religion, the newly non-religious wouldn’t feel they were deprived of religion.

And, since rape sometimes occurs during religiously inspired genocides, and since some religious leaders use their status as a cover for sexual abuse and rape, then removing religion would remove some rape.

And we could still carry on trying to stop rape, so it’s not as if Harris is condoning rape. It just happens to be an unwanted human behaviour that he uses in an analogy.

There really isn’t that much to this statement after all, given the context. It’s ridiculous how many religious people have tried to get mileage out of it since he made it.

A More Literal Comparison

But what if he was to have meant it to be taken seriously. Is religion worse than rape? You’ll have to ask Harris yourself, if you still think he’s the son of Satan for uttering the words ‘rape’ and ‘religion’ in the same breath. But here’s my understanding of what he said and how to interpret it, should you want to take it as a literal intention by Harris.

1) Individual rape can ‘harm’ one victim at a time. I’m not aware of any person being able to rape more than one person at once. This is basically a one-on-one act. Annually (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics) it might be 500,000 a year, accounting for unreported rape.

2) Nuclear weapons or biological weapons can ‘kill and harm’ hundreds of thousands or millions at a time. It might take more than one person to achieve this, but the ratios are still pretty high: one-to-hundreds-of-thousands, or one-to-millions.

3) Extreme religion probably has the highest potential for (2) currently.

4) All religions, by setting faith above reason, are self affirming systems that can, under some circumstances, provide the right framework for (3), and hence (2). That framework of extreme religions exists now, and this has been a self-evident fact since 9/11. Some small number of people with religious motivations killed thousands of people, directly and in the aftermath. And 9/11 was the catalyst for a war that kill even more. 9/11 is still invoking religious hatred now at ground zero. That’s before we get to the many conflicts around the world that are going on now that have a religious element, if not done in the name of religion. Harris covers plenty in his book.

Note to liberals: the extensive use of reason on top of faith is not a get out of jail card. Faith plus speculation is a poor move. It just happens to be a really bad move in the hands of terrorist fanatics.

5) The same applies to all dogmas that affirm their beliefs and aren’t subjected to sufficient scepticism. So, it’s not just religion Harris is objecting to. But currently religion is the most dangerous in his view.

Again, a note to easily offended moderates and liberals: just because you’re pretty harmless doesn’t change the fact that religion in the wrong hands is dangerous.

6) Bonus point: without religion there’s no RC church, which reduces the number of rapes and abuses a little. And since many of the genocidal wars around the world also include rape, then if removing religion could reduce the number of such wars then there’d be less rape anyway.

7) Harris isn’t calling for or expecting the abolition of religion – some people have mistaken his statements here for that. Harris believes in freedom of religious belief. His statement was hypothetical wishful thinking. His point being that if it were possible for religion to suddenly vanish, that would be a better outcome than if all men suddenly stopped raping.

Now I know some people don’t like it when we try to evaluate relative harms, when we try to be objective about them. They find something distasteful and taboo about even considering it.

Here’s a response to Harris,

I would like to ask Sam Harris what personal experience he has of rape.

Why is this relevant? What is my experience of rape or being the victim of a suicide bomber? None.

Another question to Harris,

And I wonder how it would feel to have been subjected to rape and then to hear a statement such as Harris’s?

– Or how it would feel to have your family taken by a suicide bomber or abducted and beheaded by terrorists, or killed leaving his place of work, or blown up in an Irish pub.

These are very one sided questions. Do we have to experience every suffering to have any regard for the sufferer? What do you think human empathy is all about? what do you think it is that has been driving your own morals all this time? God?


Having read Letter To A Christian Nation, and the interview with Saltman, I don’t think Harris has said anything particularly controversial. Dispite that being my opinion, of course Harris may well have made the statements specifically to be controversial. Maybe his remark about being inflammatory was calculated. You’ll have to ask Harris. But on first reading it I hadn’t noticed anything particularly bad about it – just a rhetorical flourish. I’m often surprised how the religious, who survive on emotive language, don’t particularly like it when their religion is the target.

We can take any version of his rape statements: analogy of natural evolved benefit no longer being beneficial; a thought experiment, a wish, that religion wasn’t present; or a more literal calculation of least harm. Each interpretation of Harris’s words are really not that controversial – except to the extent that the religious like to find fault with Harris.

Harris, throughout his book and interview is quite gracious about the people of religion. He sees their particular problem as being that they have been misguided by religion. He simply dislikes the principle of religion and faith that can provide a framework for fundamental atrocities.

So, here are the words again:

I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.

Out of context I guess they could be misconstrued. And the problem is they usually are taken out of context – when seen in a blog, referencing another blog, taken from an article, that short changes the original source. And comments are made on the basis of the sentences here, or the fuller paragraph given earlier. But I see them as quite harmless in context, particularly the wider context of the book and the interview.

Irrational Science Denial

TED Video: The danger of science denial:

People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion; they’re even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what you’re not entitled to? You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.

There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted. But here’s the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we’re not that good at doing that.

Now, we love to wrap ourselves in lies. We love to do it. Everyone take their vitamins this morning? Echinacea, a little antioxidant to get you going. I know you did because half of Americans do every day. They take the stuff, and they take alternative medicines, and it doesn’t matter how often we find out that they’re useless. The data says it all the time. They darken your urine. They almost never do more than that.

Well, I think I understand, we hate big pharma. … So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of big placebo. … But, you know, it’s really a serious thing because this stuff is crap…

And you know what? When I say this stuff, people scream at me, and they say, “What do you care? Let people do what they want to do. it makes them feel good.” And you know what? You’re wrong. Because I don’t care if it’s the secretary of H.H.S. who’s saying, “Hmm, I’m not going to take the evidence of my experts on mammograms,” or some cancer quack who wants to treat his patient with coffee enemas. When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS.

Watch for more.

Psychology of Belief

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of a scientific world view versus faith, with Lesley over on her blog. To clarify my view, basically how I get to my world view, I’ve added a couple of posts on this blog:

Contingency of Knowledge – How I get started, about what I can know.

Human Fallibility – Why we have to be careful about what we conclude.

Lesley has responded today with this post on Human Fallibility.

The distinction I would make, between our two positions, is as follows.

What Lesley is describing are the effects of actually believing, some of which are good, but others bad. The problem is that choosing to believe on faith leaves people open to persuasion or even indoctrination, and the way that goes, good or bad, seems to be the luck of the draw. If it goes the wrong way then faith can be used to justify awful behaviours.

The other side of the distinction between religion and a scientific approach is that the critical thinking that is promoted on the science side encourages self-analysis to an extent that faith doesn’t – some Christians being exceptions rather than the rule.

As a result of this, another bad effect of faith is that it provides justification for avoiding the effort to think too much. This can be carried over to other areas of human interaction, where it’s easy to let a view on marriage, sex, law, education, or politics, be so guided by one’s religion that it’s natural to just decide on the basis of what your own religion or you local or personal spiritual leader says. But this is often disguised by the fact that some critical thinking does go on, but only within the framework of the faith – the faith trumps reason.

Further, though each religion may recognise the existence of other religions it tends not to scrutinise them too publicly, too critically, particularly in a multi-cultural society like ours, because, I think, that there is genuine apprehension about exposing it’s own inconsistencies. This leads to an odd form of cultural relativism within religions that is somewhat like the left wing secular cultural relativism – where for the latter, you say anything goes, and for the former, you keep quiet about uncomfortable differences because of the uncomfortable similarities. We end up with daft compromises, like Rowan Williams on Sharia, in order to maintains one’s own privilege.

Here is a guide that demonstrates potential problems with thinking processes, with particular reference to belief in God. It’s a little bit geeky, but if you can get through it, it should shed light on what I think is wrong with religious thinking.

Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Informational Influence

Psychology of Belief, Part 2: Insufficient Justification

Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Confirmation Bias

Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Misinformation Effect

Psychology of Belief, Part 5: Compliance Techniques

Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations

And, here’s another quick guide.

Top 25 Creationist Fallacies

Like all theories based on psychological research there are often controversies and new research results, but generally these modes of influence on thinking are well recognised, and identifiable in much religious discourse. Some of the above are also associated with logical fallacies in reasoning.

Of course this requirement for critical thinking applies to our side of the debate too. We too are human and not immune to error, and have to listen to criticism fairly.

Human Fallibility

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

From my previous post, on the contingency of knowledge, I’ve arrived at the point where our working model is that we think with our minds and we have senses to sense the natural world.

But on closer examination, by our minds, these senses appear to be fallible, so we concoct methods for gaining confidence in particular sense experiences. On even closer examination we discover that our reasoning and other cognitive faculties can also be fallible, so we take steps to account for that observation too. So all we can do is construct experience and look for multiple ways of confirming what we experience to gain confidence in it, to give credibility to it, to compensate for the fallibilities. When we do this rigorously we call this science. Science gives us the best and most reliable explanation of our cognitive and sensory experiences, accounting for and accommodating for our fallibilities the best it can.

Note that this is an entirely inductive experience, from the particular to the general. It is true that induction lies on top of no firm and absolute foundation. An inductive argument indicates some degree of support for the conclusion but does not ensure its truth. So, just to make it clear, none of this is offered as a proof! Of anything.

For any of the detail along the way we might use deductive reasoning, which is often thought to be more thorough than induction, more concrete. This does not mean that deduction is always the better choice. Deduction is fine if you construct a valid argument; and if you have true premises then you have yourself a ‘sound’ argument, the most sure argument there is. But it’s an illusion to think you can have a sound deductive argument at the limits of philosophy, in metaphysics – you can never be sure your premises are true! Why? Because all we have are our thoughts and our senses – we have no prior premises and arguments upon which to build our starting premises. So, if someone tells you they have a proof that, say, God exists, it’s baloney, because it always relies on presupposition, and the presupposition can’t be guaranteed to be true. If someone wants to offer you ‘evidence’ for God, that’s a different matter and should be treated seriously.

We are fallible human beings. The very best we can do is accumulate data, examples, lots of them, and compare them and subject them to any tests we can. We create hypotheses, of which Richard Feynman said they could just as well be guesses. Any old random guess won’t usually do – we could be here forever checking every possible hypothesis – something some theists think atheist are claiming (and what Pirsig mistakenly thought was a problem, in ZAMM – more of that in another post). Of course we base hypotheses on prior experience that appears to work. This is induction and science in action.

Science concludes (this means best explanation so far, not we’re absolutely certain) that according to our senses and reasoning there is a physical world out there. It gets a bit quirky sometimes – e.g. quantum physics – but so far nothing has been found to refute this tentative conclusion. I mean, really, nothing! You have to consider what it would mean to refute this. You would have to find something that isn’t physical. This is a tall order. Before sub-atomic particles were figured out the world was still physical. Discovering the sub-atomic particles didn’t introduce some magic into the universe – it was simply that we discovered something we didn’t know was there before, but is still considered part of the physical universe.

This is what will happen with any ‘paranormal’ effect or ‘energy’ that might exist. If it exists, then when it is found, that is when there is evidence of it, then it too will become a part of our physical description of the universe. The reason the paranormal is ridiculed so much isn’t because we know it to be false absolutely, it’s that fantastic claims have been made, but no evidence has been found to support them. Astrology? No evidence.

Evidence is the route to discovery and the support and maintenance of ideas and theories and facts. No evidence? Then it might as well not exist. Not, you note, that it doesn’t exist! Science is not saying anything in particular does not exist. It only says to what extent there is evidence to support an idea or the existence of something. If we can’t see it, taste it, feel it, etc., then we might as well act as if it doesn’t exist, even if it does, for how can we tell the difference. We can happily go about our daily lives as if the speed of light does not have a limit, because in our daily lives we never reach that limit.

We can also ignore God as an entity because whether he exists or not makes no apparent difference. This means that despite the fact that theists can’t prove God exists and atheists can’t disprove it, it’s irrelevant, because there is no evidence, and that’s sufficient.

Many theists realise this and no longer require the existence of God as an entity ‘out there’ – See Rob Bell (h/t Lesley’s Blog). But that doesn’t mean theists have dealt with the problem of human fallibility in relation to faith. I’ll get to that in another post.

Contingency of Knowledge

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

I’m an atheist who is an atheist as a consequence of where science leads me – my atheism is a working conclusion rather than a presupposition, and certainly not a faith. I’m occasionally asked how I get to that point, so this is where it starts.

I like to take the track credited to Descartes and his Cogito[1] – I think therefore I am; or, if I’m thinking I can only conclude that something is doing the thinking, and that something I’ll call ‘me’. I’m not claiming this as a proof that I exist, but I am saying that it is the only evidence available to me that I exist. Feel free to criticise this; but it would be helpful if you could provide an alternative that is as all invasive as the experience that I am having of thinking.

I’m not sure what it would mean, what the consequences would be, if I were to say I am thinking but it’s not me, it’s something else thinking these thoughts, or, that my thoughts are an illusion (but what is it that is having the illusion of thinking), or that there is no thinking going on full stop.

So, based on this thinking experience, I accept the experience that is ‘thinking’, i.e. I think. I’ve had some people tell me this is my presupposition, but I don’t think it is, I think it’s a direct experience that I can’t refute.

Next I notice some senses, some apparent external inputs from some apparent external world – I see objects and people, I hear them, they appear to respond when I talk to them. Is this a phantom world created by my mind? Is there only thinking? This solipsism is a distinct possibility, I can’t deny it. Trouble is I can’t for the life of me tell the difference between the solipsism of imagined senses and real actual senses. Since that’s the case I’ll continue from here by choosing the arbitrary path – that my senses are real inputs from the external world, external to my thoughts. It’s important to realise that this is an arbitrary choice because I can’t tell the difference, I can’t refute solipsism.

Form there, through these senses, imaginary or real, I accept the discovery of other people who appear, according to my senses, to have the same experiences – at least that’s what they tell me. Not being able to refute any of this my basic working model, my working philosophy, is that we all exist and interact as our senses show us and our cognition (mind) understands us. This experienced world is the one we know as the physical world, or natural world, that applies to all of us.

At this point we can’t say to what extent our mind and senses report on the real, actual, universal, ultimate reality (or whatever you want to call it) that’s out there. We can’t even be sure there is such a thing. So note again the contingency of our position: we only think that we have a mind, and with this thinking mind we think that we have senses, but can’t be certain, and if we do have senses we think that they show us something of reality, but we’re not sure, and we don’t even know if this reality exists. But despite how contingent, how flaky and inadequate this position is that we’re in, it’s all we’ve got!

Next, I want to cover how humans deal with thinking about stuff in the light of these limitations: Human Fallibility.

[1] Cogito – Note I don’t consider too many of the options that Descartes does, because I can’t figure out what to do with them. And since nobody else takes us any further than this I am left to take from it what I’ve stated above.

Secret Agents

In many of the arguments about God and mind-body dualism there is the underlying notion of agency, or of an agent – an entity that has some autonomous control of its actions, some intent (i.e intentionality). If we can challenge the notion of agency then we can take a different view of the universe.

Dualists have an appreciation of the mind as something distinct from the physical brain. This dualism may be adapted to create the similar notion of the soul, as used by religions. The mind or the soul is the agency that to some extent or another exists or emerges out of the human brain and body; and familiarity prevents us accepting that we are totally physical entities.

This notion of mind, soul, or even self, conscious self, identity, seems to be a natural instinct that on the face of it appears difficult for the physicalist to explain. What seems clear to a physicalist, particularly one that also accepts Darwinian evolution as a satisfactorily explained process, is that this notion of agency has been projected, extended, by human creative imagination, to hypothesise the existence of gods. But from the physicalist evolutionary point of view there seems little doubt that this God is made in man’s image, not man in his. God is a construct of the human imagination.

If we imagine and follow the developmental and evolutionary path, from physical inanimate objects, to the first replicators, through simple life forms, lesser animals, mammals, primates, and on to man, it is clear that there is no evidence of any mechanism, or any intervention, that suddenly switches on or enables agency. Agency, like free-will, and consciousness, are illusory, so the physicalist hypothesis goes. They are simply hypothetical models of complex systems in action. The fact that we, in the complex biological process of responding to our environment and our current inner physical (chemical and electrical brain system) state, respond as if we are agents, as if we have free-will and consciousness, is merely an efficient mechanism that helps us to operate.

Watch the video clips of the ‘insects’ created by Robert Full’s and other teams. I challenge you not take an inner or explicit gasp as you inevitably look on these machines as being alive in some crude sense – that is your agency recognition system kicking in and recognising agency where there is none. We recognise agency in ourselves, in other animals, in some robots, in cartoon characters, in toys. We are built to perform this recognition of agency.

Did I say “We are built to perform this recognition.”? See? “We are built…” We are not built, in the active sense that someone built us. That’s precisely the point. We can’t help but think in this way. Richard Dawkins did the same throughout his book The Selfish Gene – his actual words, the title, imparted apparent agency upon genes, when of course this is precisely what he didn’t intend. We use phrases implying agency all the time, even when that’s exactly what we are arguing against. The phrase “We evolved (intransitive) to do …” itself could be interpreted as “We actively, through our own will, evolved (caused) ourselves to do …”, or as “We were evolved (transitive) by the agency of Evolution itself to do …” Our language is so evolved to inherently assume agency we have to resort to quite contrived language to describe the physicalist view without agency. So, when talking about something I do, to make it clear there is no intention and free-will in my action I have to resort to words like, “This complex responding organism (me) responded in such a way…”

Agency is a vehicle that gets us through the journey of life efficiently and quickly. But we need to get out of this vehicle now and then and ruminate in the grass, stroll through the woods, take in the view. Once we park agency on the road side we can proceed to walk carefully through life examining in more detail the arguments that tell us that agency is all there is, and just suspend that notion. Simply review the arguments as if there is only physical stuff; put agency to one side.

Some theists will happily tell you how necessary God is to explain the physical universe – he’s the first cause, he’s infinite, etc. But let a physicalist propose that the universe might be infinite, or that there might be multiple inanimate universes, with no agency, and the theists will ask how this is possible. They will raise paradoxes that physicalism appears unable to explain. But there really is no difference between any hypothesised cause of the universe, whether it be theistic or physicalist – except for the presence or absence of agency. Both theists and physicalists have to struggle with the fact that they don’t know what lies beyond the known; we don’t know if it’s infinity all the way or not; it’s hard enough to be sure that the concept of infinity has any significance, any reality. So, the only difference between any proposed God creator and an equivalent non-theistic beginning is the presence of God as the agent.

But if there is no concrete evidence for agency’s instantiation, no evidence of it springing into existence, then there is really no argument for it existing outside the universe, as God. And since we are the only agents we do have evidence for, if we figure we are complex stuff but not agents, then there is no known concrete evidence of agency anywhere.

Now, having said all that I’m still happy to use terms like agency, free will, consciousness, mind, etc., as creative notions, as convenient models, for complex physical systems and processes, like ourselves. I’m happy to say “evolution built us this way” without any teleology implied. It’s how I’ve evolved to think, so I can’t help it.

Wager On An Atheist’s God

Getting bored with arguing with theists, I thought it might be easier if I just give up and join the club. I’ve been trying to find a God hypothesis that comes close to working for me. There are none out there that completely satisfy my needs.

Though I’m not prone to believing God stuff without evidence, from my point of view it is legitimate to concoct hypotheses and check them against what my reason and senses tell me. Here’s one.

There is a God. He created the universe as we have come to know it through our senses, reason and science. He wanted nothing more than to create a universe to see what would happen. He is not omniscient, so he was curious. Being alone, but otherwise a good scientist, he is very hands-off and observational.

Jesus Statue
“Look, I know you don’t exist, right, … but if you did …”

Continue reading Wager On An Atheist’s God

God On My Mind – BBC

This new programme from the BBC pulls together some strings from evolutionary biology and neuroscience to attempt to explain religious and other beliefs.

I think these programmes will only be available to UK listeners, but if I can find a transcript I’ll put up a link.

From the programme information…

Part 1: Evolution:

We are programmed by our genes to believe in supernatural powers and to obey moral codes. Is this because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage? Iranians, Scandinavians, Papuans, chimpanzees, twins and wedding rings offer some startling answers.

Part 2: Neurology

Almost half the population claim to have felt the presence of a power beyond themselves. But what happens in the brain during religious experiences? If magnetism can produce visions, then what price mysticism and meditation? What’s the difference between sainthood and schizophrenia? And why are many believers convinced that God speaks to them in their dreams?