Saturday, June 28, 2008

From between the elections

After the first election we were shocked as a nation, it was all so calm, so peaceful. The parliament was won by the opposition, as well as the presidential vote. We foolishly believed that we were getting a new government. And many of us concluded that there was no way that the government and the president in particular, could manoeuvre out of this. He had lost, it was clear, it had to be accepted!

Oh no it did not! We have seen what can only be described as diabolical cleverness and demonic wickedness in the past months. Long delays in announcements, frustrating the work of the electoral commission, miring the issue in court proceedings ..... and then the violence. Slowly but steadily, well planned and orchestrated, the violence has grown. Intimidation has always been one of the political tools of this regime; in this election, it is the only tool. There is one sentence, indeed one word on the manifesto of this election campaign. It is the word “fear”. In past elections votes could be bought, bought with food, bought with promises, bought with land. Now the food has run out, promises are seen to be hollow, land is taken and misused. Now, votes must be coerced, and coerced through violence.

And what is happening? In the rural areas, whole villages are being intimidated, chiefs are being threatened with reprisals by the army should a village support the opposition, people are fleeing homes and living and sleeping in the bush for fear of beatings, rape, pillaging, and the burning of their homes by gangs of youths armed and mandated by the government. Youths are being given ruling party T shirts and formed into mobs, transported to areas other than their home areas and given the go ahead to beat and assault at whim. Rumours are that criminals have been released from prison on the proviso that they fulfil certain duties for the powers that be. Even in the cities violence has come. Commuter omnibuses, minicabs used for public transport are being stopped and the drivers beaten. Passengers have to get out and chant ruling party slogans or they are beaten. People are asked to repeat the party slogan and if they do not know it, they are beaten. A young man witnessed youths stopping a minibus, pulling out the driver and beating him on the street, without reprisal, without police interference. Reports come to our ears daily of acts of torture and oppression and violence, people are rounded up in areas and made to attend party rallies. Abductions happen regularly, murders occur and are unreported. The list could go on and on. And in the midst the government maintains the posture of pretended indignant integrity, hypocritically acting as though their hands are clean and the opposition had better stop the violence.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Man's Too Strong - Dire Straits

I'm just an aging drummer boy
And in the wars I used to play
And I've called the tune
To many a torture session
Now they say I am a war criminal
And I'm fading away
Father please hear my confession

I have legalised robbery
Called it belief
I have run with the money
I have hid like a thief
I have re-written history
With my armies of my crooks
Invented memories
I did burn all the books
And I can still hear his laughter
And I can still hear his song
The man's too big
The man's too strong

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Logic, Dawkins and "A Meaningful World"

When I reviewed "The God Delusion", I pointed out that in actual fact you don't need to read the whole book. In one chapter, Dawkins argues (in quick precis) that God is so improbable that his existence can be discounted. The entire rest of the book - that people who believe in God are deluded - is effectively founded upon this argument.

The problem is that if the premise is wrong, then everything that is built upon it is unsound as well. That is a simple matter of logic. And it turns out that the premise is wrong. This is demonstrated in "The Devil's Delusion", by Berlinski, "The Dawkins Letters", by David Robertson, "Darwin's Angel", "The Dawkins Delusion", and probably in other books and articles as well. The idea that "God is very improbable" firstly is flawed in itself - Dawkins' argument doesn't demonstrate this at all. And secondly, even if God is improbable, that has no bearing on whether or not he exists. Life, Dawkins also argues, is improbable - but it still exists. As opponents of ID are keen to point out in their misrepresentation of the idea of specified complexity, a particular sequence of cards dealt from a pack is improbable - but it still happens.

There may be other ways of demonstrating that the idea of God is a delusion, but Dawkins has not done so. Therefore the rest of what he says has no logical force.

What a waste of paper.

The only interaction I have found with "A Meaningful World" by Witt and Wiker consists of one paragraph being labelled "absurd" by Panda's Thumb (there's a link in an earlier post - I can't bring myself to add unnecessary links to their site). Here is the paragraph.
Strange though it may seem to neo-Darwinists, Darwin’s assumption that the terms species and variety are merely given for convenience’s sake is part of a larger materialist and reductionist program that undercuts the natural foundation of counting and distorts the natural origin of mathematics. To put it more bluntly, in assuming that “species” are not real, Darwinism and the larger reductionist program burn away the original ties that bound the meaning of mathematics to the world and instead leave it stranded on a solipsistic island of the human imagination.
Now, if you read any paragraph out of context, particularly if the context is a complex argument, you will a) think that the paragraph doesn't make much sense and b) fail to see how on earth the writer could possibly come to that conclusion. It can hardly surprise one to be told that this is what the context is actually for. (Doh!)

So I am not bothered by the fact that this paragraph looks absurd, quoted like that. We need a new verb. "Quote mining" is when you pick a quote and use it to support your argument, against the wishes of the author or speaker. This is a specialised version of quote mining - picking a quote and misusing it to discredit the author or speaker.

I think firstly that in the context of the chapter (which is about the interaction of scientific ideas with philosophy) the worst you can say about the paragraph is that it is polemic, but in actual fact is probably fair. And secondly, unlike the foundation of Dawkins' book which was that God probably isn't there, I think that the issue addressed here is secondary to the thesis of the book. The thesis is that the universe is full of meaning and significance. You don't discredit a book by looking at how it deals with secondary issues; you discredit it by dismantling its main argument.

So the challenge still stands. How about a serious attempt to address the issues that "A Meaningful World" contains from an ateleological perspective?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Responses to Berlinski

I wondered where were the responses from the atheist community to Berlinski's book "The Devil's Delusion". I can offer a few. Firstly, on Pharyngula, P.Z.Myers said he didn't want to read an extract of the book that was in Harper's magazine. The fact it was by Berlinski told him all he wanted to know.

Well, you know what? That's what I think when I hear something is by Richard Dawkins or P.Z.Myers. But because the debate is important to me, and it upsets me to admit the answer "no" when somebody says, "Have you read ...?" about something I am discussing, I generally swallow my nausea, and go ahead and read it anyway. That's how intellectual debate works, folks. And perhaps that's why "The God Delusion" has several book-length refutations whereas "A Meaningful World" and "The Devil's Delusion" are uncontested.

Then there's this post. Again, it's not a review of "The Devil's Delusion"; it's a review of the extract in a magazine. Geez, what's the matter with these ateleologists?! "Afraid you might taste something?" Do you not think the damage you could do with a really substantive rebuttal might outweigh the benefit the authors get by way of royalties? Or are you just lacking in confidence that you could do a rebuttal?

Aaaanyway, here's Hrynyshyn on the extract he did bother to read.
This is a writer for whom science's weaknesses are exemplified by its failure to "say anything of interest about the human soul." What a strange thing to say. Seeing as there is no scientific evidence for the soul, why should science have anything to say about it, interesting or otherwise?

In other words, I disagree with just about everything he has to say about the subject. What do you expect when you read of the "four most powerful and profound scientific theories" since the 17th century, but come across no mention of evolution by natural selection? What you do expect when you are told science is but an ideology? That "science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning...?"

Evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, biochemistry — all of no value.
In actual fact, had the writer bothered to actually read Berlinski, rather than the digest version, he would have found out how Berlinski made his case. Still, when the gallery of ateleologists is happy with you wrestling with a straw man, why try harder?

I found (all on my own!) some more interaction with Berlinski, on the British Humanist Association Science Group blog. You can find it here. This is even worse - it is a selection of comments on the flyleaf notes! Why bother with the text? Just say that you don't agree with the conclusions! What a wonderful feat of free-thinking critical thought that was!

Interaction with Wiker and Witt

Opponents of teleology don't believe I have done justice to the critical commentary on Berlinski ("The Devil's Delusion") or Wiker/Witt ("A Meaningful World").

I'll come back to Berlinski another time. Here is some interaction with AMW on Panda's Thumb. Let me get to the substance of the interaction. I'll embolden the bits that are actually response to the text, rather than the culture war that exists between the forces of light and the forces of darkness (whichever side you are on).
... Most of the book is taken up with blaming “Darwinism” for a “loss of meaning” in all areas of life, particularly literature, but also chemistry, mathematics, etc. All in all it conforms remarkably well to the longer-term goals of the Wedge Strategy, which was all about defeating “Darwinism” and then moving on to convert all other fields of academia to the fundamentalist view of the world.

Not too surprising, really, but then I came across this remarkable passage. Witt and Wiker are discussing Darwin’s views on the term “species” and in what sense “species” are, or are not, “real” (an aside: someone call Wilkins to see if they even got Darwin’s view on species right). Their conclusion about the implication of Darwin’s views is somewhat surprising, especially since it comes near the end of the book and appears to be the heart of the argument tying evolution to all of the aforementioned evils. Read it carefully:

Quoted extract and citation

You heard that right – Darwin spent a lifetime studying organisms in captivity and in the wild, and came to the view that “species” are not absolute, unchanging categories – and in doing so, he undermined counting and mathematics.

There is not much more for me to say here because every time I read this passage, I just splutter at the absurdity of what is on the page, and my brain, in an effort to protect its overloaded logic circuits, automatically assumes that Douglas Adams returned from the dead to ghost-write this part of the book in an highly successful effort to make ID look even sillier than it already looks.

Thus, this is the silliest thing I have read this week.
And that's it. Did you notice it? Interaction consisting of a splutter at the absurdity of one paragraph (with no attempt to refute it), and an assertion that the book is all about blaming darwinism for a loss of meaning (with no attempt to demonstrate this from the text). Not much more for me to say? Well, you certainly couldn't say much less!

I have to say that I did come across this page when I was searching for anti-ID interaction with the book, but I wouldn't have wanted to provoke Panda's Thumb by making greater claims for it than it merited. "The God Delusion" is full of half-baked argument - and yet it sold millions and was dignified with about six book-length responses - each of which dismantled it in different ways. "A Meaningful World", which isn't actually about how darwinism takes away meaning, but is about how meaning is present in the universe regardless of the insistence of ateleologists to the contrary, results in a splutter and a wave of a hand.

Seriously, guys. How about, if you are serious in your ateleology, you make a proper attempt to dismantle "A Meaningful World"?

Thursday, June 19, 2008


If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all [the officials]; the king himself profits from the fields. (Ecclesiastes 5:8)
The less money you have, the harder it is to get any, and the less influence you have. This happens on an individual scale, and it happens on the levels of countries. What's the modern equivalent of the king? Perhaps the shareholders of the big corporations.

Note that the fact we shouldn't be surprised doesn't mean that we should be indifferent.

What I find more disturbing is when such things happen and people (including Christians, who ought to know better) don't even see them.

Interesting tie-in with a thought-provoking book set in a post-apocalyptic world that I'm wading through at the moment, called "The Gone-Away World" - about which more when I finish it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oblique joke

From here, but in general circulation.
A helicopter was flying around above Seattle yesterday when an electrical malfunction disabled all of the aircraft's electronic navigation and communications equipment. Due to the clouds and haze, the pilot could not determine the helicopter's position and course to steer to the airport.

The pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, drew a handwritten sign, and held it in the helicopter's window. The pilot's sign said ''WHERE AM I?'' in large letters.

People in the tall building quickly responded to the aircraft, drew a large sign, and held it in a building window. Their sign said ''YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER.''

The pilot smiled, waved, looked at his map, determined the course to steer to SEATAC airport, and landed safely.

After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how the ''YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER'' sign helped determine their position.

The pilot responded ''I knew that had to be the MICROSOFT building because, similar to their help-lines, they gave me a technically correct but completely useless answer.''
The reason for quoting this relates to the evolution/creation/ID debate. Biologically, we are naked apes. Our genetic material is startlingly similar to that of chimpanzees. This message has been drummed into us for at least the last forty years or more. And animals themselves are no more than devices which have developed to ensure the survival of genes.

This may be a very accurate description of what we are. But it is almost completely useless. It tells us little even about love, birth, death and families, and nothing of any use about music, art, cornflakes, the Eiffel Tower, nuclear weapons, Sartre, town planning, Doctor Who, Nectar points or philosophy. And if the light it casts on such matters is so dim, then its value as part of a metanarrative must be considered limited.

The response to Berlinski, Witt and Wiker ...

... from the anti-ID community, is interesting.

Basically, there isn't one.

These are two of the most telling books written from a pro-ID perspective. "The Devil's Delusion" by David Berlinski - with the pointed reference to Dawkins in the title, and which dismantles the arguments of Pinker, Gould, Dawkins and many others - seems to have escaped the attention of Panda's Thumb, and a search on Google garners very little in the way of critical reviews. The same goes for "A Meaningful World" by Jonathan Witt and Benjamin Wiker - no comment from Panda's Thumb.

Why is that, then? Are these the books that opponents of ID would just rather pretend didn't exist? ITWSBT

Monday, June 16, 2008

"The Devil's Delusion" - a review

There were certain lecturers at university – Hans Kornberg springs to mind – whose lectures nobody would miss. It wasn't because they were necessarily the crucially important courses. It was because there was something about the style of the lecturer – his or her humour, perhaps, or delivery – which captivated the undergraduate audience and held it until the end of the course.

Reading this book by Berlinski reminded me of some of those lecturers. Various things about it were captivating. The layers of meaning that can be found in so many of the sentences; the deft way in which opposing opinions are dismantled; the shocking mild political incorrectnesses; the carefully-measured putdowns; the rhetorical interaction with opponents and readers.

Berlinski is writing a book in defence of belief in a god. Nothing unusual about that – Dawkins' book “The God Delusion”, and similar ones, have sparked a whole publishing industry in response, many of which I've already reviewed on Amazon. What is most unusual about this book is that Berlinski is not a religious believer – and yet he is quite adamant that belief in God is not unreasonable. Furthermore, he is substantially better informed – biblically, philosophically, scientifically – than Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris.

He makes his case persuasively. For example, in response to the insistence that “miracles don't happen” by anti-theists, he points out that whilst we can understand the chemical process by which the eye “sees” something, we don't have a clue about what perception really is, and just because it is part of our everyday experience doesn't mean that it is inappropriate to describe it as a miracle. In response to the dogmatic insistence that we are no more than animals, he points out the fact that if that is what we are in biological terms, then it simply demonstrates that biology is telling us nothing useful about what it means to be human at all. He demonstrates that the theories that supposedly prove that God isn't necessary rarely do what they set out to, and say more about the presuppositions of the proponent than about the nature of the universe.

As I read the book, I found myself increasingly puzzled as to why, given his dissatisfaction with arguments against the existence of God, he should not believe in God himself. The dedication – to his father, who was lost in Auschwitz – perhaps provides one clue, and another big clue is provided in the last chapter - “The Cardinal and his Cathedral.” Here he writes movingly of his life in science, and his hope – perhaps a little forlorn now – that despite its failures, science will one day provide a coherent means of understanding the world.

Two quibbles. The first is that the book could really have done with footnotes or endnotes for the many references. The second is that the odd provocative piece of political incorrectness could have been avoided – not because it does any harm in itself, but because it provides his opponents with a red herring card to play against him (to mix metaphors). But the bottom line is that this is an excellent, highly quotable book, which I intend to pass on to many other thoughtful people.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Writer's block

There's things I want to write - but I feel little motivation to actually write them at the moment. Sorry - I can imagine everybody's disappointment!

( ;-) )

Monday, June 02, 2008

"Atheists for Jesus"?

As seems to be the pattern with Dawkins, a mixture of half-truths, half-lies and ignorance. And an "argument that needs to be built up gradually" which takes about a page of A4 - well, how sophisticated that must be!

Time permitting, I'll comment in more detail at a later stage.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Altruism and friendship

The existence of altruism is often thought to be a problem to darwinian explanations of how life came about. "What is the evolutionary advantage in sacrificing your own interests for the sake of other people?" says the unthinking anti-darwinist. "Well that's easy," says the slightly more thinking darwinist. "We share lots of our genes with other people, so our genes are just helping other copies of themselves. And in any case, we behave in a certain way because it is non-zero-sum - the benefit I accrue if somebody helps me is greater than the cost of helping another person because that is how I would like to be treated myself."

It is interesting to realise that this is what the Bible says. In Ecclesiastes 4, it says:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: [more productive] If one falls down, his friend can help him up. [benefit of altruism] But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? [survival strategy] Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. [defensive mechanism]
However, it's worth thinking about this in context. The perspective from which this has been written is "under the sun" - that is, in a context of philosophical naturalism. Imagine there's no heaven, no God - well, if that's the case, then this is my analysis of the world. In that context, this sort of analysis of relationships is the only option that we have. Basically, all our relationships are ultimately self-serving.

But the writer is making this point in a kind of ironic way - he also does this with the problem of oppression, toil and advancement in the same chapter. That's not how we view life. We don't have friends simply because they can pick us up when we fall over - although that may be one of the things that they do. We don't have relationships just to help us survive. That's simply not what humans are like. Yes, you can do an analysis of friendship "under the sun" - but it is profoundly unsatisfying because it simply fails to adequately account for our experience.