Thursday, 30 July 2009

Simon and the Skeptics

A few weeks ago I wrote about science journalist Simon Singh and his run-in with the British Chiropractic Association.

Simon’s currently on a tour of Australia as part of the 2009 Festival of Ideas, doing meet-and-greets, promoting his books and talking (in a limited way) about the BCA libel case.

This evening he spoke to the Victorian Skeptics about some of the topics from his book Trick or Treatment, focusing particularly on homeopathy and its somewhat ridiculous underlying theory.

I was hoping that we might get one or two homeopathists or chiropractors popping up for a bit of an argument, but no such luck. It was largely a case of preaching to the converted so it was a very entertaining, but far from controversial, evening.

Having been a huge fan of Simon’s for years (ever since The Code Book and Fermat’s Last Theorem … I’m such a maths nerd), after the talk I bucked up the fanboy courage for a quick chat.

I can’t remember what we talked about (fanboy, remember?) but it did happen. I’ve got the photo to prove it.

Alpha Nerd and Beta Nerd Simon’s the one with the cool haircut.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Your Cut-Out-And-Keep Guide to Agnostic Atheism

Atheist Yesterday over lunch with some immediate and extended family, the topic of religion came up. I confess I may have been the instigator in this case.

Over the course of the discussion the comment was made that atheists (particularly that awful Richard Dawkins character) can’t really call themselves “atheists”, because you can’t prove there isn’t a God.

This is a very common view and in fact, probably the single most common “refutation” of atheism out there.

Unfortunately it’s a nonsensical argument, based as it is on the erroneous conflation of atheism with philosophical materialism.

Most atheists don’t claim definitively that there is no God. This is particularly true of someone like Dawkins who, as a scientist, values empirical knowledge. That kind of absolutism just doesn’t wash under his philosophy.

In precise terms Dawkins (and I would include myself in this camp too) is what you might call an agnostic atheist.

This is of course harking back to the original definition of agnosticism, being the acceptance that certain things, particularly the metaphysical, are inherently unknowable.

One’s position on agnosticism is completely separate from what one happens to believe about the metaphysical. It should be clear that agnosticism and atheism are no more mutually exclusive than agnosticism and theism.

To illustrate the point I would like to propose the following simple numbering system:

TheGridGroup 1 is where you’ll find most religious believers, as it includes anyone who claims God is both knowable and known (usually just by them).

Group 2 houses your scientifically-minded theists and pretty much anyone who studies the philosophy of religion and somehow manages to remain a believer.

Group 2 is significantly less populous than Group 1 and a constant source of irritation to Group 3 (where you’ll find the vast majority of atheists) because it’s often trotted out in defence of religion under the pretence that that’s where most believers sit.

They don’t.

Finally Group 4 (containing your hardcore philosophical materialists) is largely empty. And because there’s hardly anyone in there, trying to refute atheism by targeting this lot is a bit like trying to kill a lion by clipping its toenails.

I respectfully request that all future religious discussions clearly indicate which of these four groups is being discussed.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Religion is Immoral

Atheist When I see stories like this I'm reminded why I reject the notion of religious belief.

Members of Iran's feared Basij militia forcibly marry female virgin prisoners the night before scheduled executions, raping their new "wives" and making it religiously acceptable to execute them …

Question: Who would claim this is moral behaviour? Answer: Those who committed this atrocity.

And in their own twisted little context, they’re right.

After all, under strict Islamic law, the greater immorality would be to execute them as virgins, so raping them prior to execution is the greater moral act.

And this, dear friends, is what religious belief does.

It tells us our natural and evolved sense of right and wrong can’t be trusted. It tells us our moral sense comes from without, bestowed upon us by an all-knowing God. It tells us to deny our innate sense of justice and submit to a greater will, even if we don’t understand it.

Of course in practice that “greater will” is the Word as interpreted by the priesthood and clergy.

If we’re lucky, the clergy in question will trust their innate sense of justice and selectively promote the truly good messages from their scriptures. We see this, for example, in Christian ministers who leave out the bits about burning in hell and concentrate on Christ’s social justice message.

But all that’s happening then is that the religious message is being manipulated to ape the simple message of humanism. The religion becomes subject to the person.

If we’re doing that, then why bother with the religion at all? If the message has value, then all this supernatural window-dressing is just a distraction.

And it can be a dangerous distraction, because sometimes we’re not so lucky.

Combine that “greater will” instead with a dictatorial theocracy and a brutalised culture, and all of a sudden the person becomes horribly subject to the religion.

The person is considered nothing more than a tabula rasa for the clerical moral code. The individual’s sense of right and wrong is rendered wholly irrelevant.

And before you know it, raping virgins is perfectly OK.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Discrimination In Religious Schools

Melbourne Grammar School Chapel Tower A review of Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act has made some interesting recommendations.

At the moment, religious schools in Victoria have the right to discriminate on the basis of faith. For example, a Muslim school can refuse to employ a Jewish cleaner or a conservative Christian school a woman who is unmarried and pregnant.

A parliamentary review has recommended broadening the definition into “core” and “non-core” roles, so discrimination would only be applied to roles where it actually matters. Under this model the school chaplain can’t be a Satanist but it doesn’t matter so much if the maths teacher is (although he does go on about pentagrams a fair bit … ).

People running religious schools obviously think it’s a bad idea. And I agree.

This is just too one-sided. Even now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find any number of atheists teaching in Christian schools, where their atheism is overlooked just because of their teaching ability.

This proposal takes us in completely the wrong direction. We should give more discriminatory power to these schools, not less.

In fact, let’s go the whole hog. Religious schools should be obliged to only employ people who share their faith.

Before being appointed, applicants must prove their allegiance by swearing on their particular holy book and passing a detailed examination on the tenets of their doctrine.

All staff must be monitored constantly to ensure their behaviour is in line with the appropriate religious doctrine. Any breaches of protocol, whether on school grounds or in the person’s home, will result in immediate dismissal.

Of course religious schools might struggle to retain staff under such a regime, and student numbers would drop off as teaching standards fell.

And Government funding would have to be cut because they’d now be straight religious institutions rather than educational institutions.

And in fact, after a while we’d probably see very few religious schools remaining.

That’d be a shame.

But keeping the schools’ religious values pure is obviously critically important, so surely that’s a small price to pay.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Framing Darwinism

Atheist An article by Professor of Theology Tom Frame on “Questions Darwinism cannot answer” is an excellent example of the kind of muddled thinking religious believers tend to display when talking about evolution.

The first clue is the use of the word “Darwinism”, an epithet used almost exclusively by believers with a philosophical axe to grind. The intention is to portray evolution as just another religious belief.

The next clue is passages like this:

A dedicated Darwinian would welcome imperialism, genocide, mass deportation, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilisations and infanticide.

Apart displaying his gross ignorance of what evolution means, Mr Frame is trying to paint atheism as an immoral position and, by an implied false dichotomy, promote religious belief as the noble alternative.

But all that’s just a sideshow. The real point of the article is summed up in these oh-so-wise words:

Such science is also inhibited from asking whether life has any meaning, as this would require stepping outside the processes that led its practitioners to the point of questioning. Evolution might account for the story of life's beginnings and progress, but it cannot explain its origin nor cast any light on its destiny.

I’ve got a news flash for you, Mr Frame. Religion, for all its pomp and imaginary circumstance, cannot explain any of these things either.

It’s trivial to observe that there’s more to the human experience than science, let alone evolution. But promoting religion as some kind of answer to these ill-defined questions is just smoke and mirrors.

Religion is not an answer. It’s a process of comforting ritual and invocation of myth and throwing meaningless feel-good words at the question to pretend you've answered it.

Real answers come from observation, from verification, from defining the questions carefully and gathering the evidence. None of these things have any place in religion.

And what’s all this about destiny?

Our destiny doesn’t come from without, as Mr Frame wants us to believe. It comes from within. We are its authors.

We can choose to take responsibility for our actions and set our own path, or we can abdicate that responsibility to an imaginary higher power.

We can strive to be an enlightened society that seeks to understand its place in the universe, or we can cling to ancient myths and the fleeting comforts they bring.

Guess which one I choose.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Simple Diary Entry

It’s been ages since I’ve written a simple diary entry; a piece free of those distracting pictures, free of philosophy and free of celebrity deaths.

The original intention of this blog was to bang on about what’s been happening in my life. Sometimes it’s nice to get back to basics.

Such things require no research at all. Not that I do all that much.

And I don’t need to spend hours scouring Google Images for those distracting pictures.

Back to the diary.

This week was pleasantly bisected with a day off on Wednesday, the intention of which was to hale and heartily greet the Foxtel man as he installed dozens of channels of entertainment goodness.

Unfortunately it was not to be.

The installation will require a certain amount of drilling holes in walls and digging up the garden, all of which was apparently beyond the capability of the man telling me this.

This was particularly annoying, because Wednesday also saw the departure of my lovely wife overseas on a business trip for two weeks.

My plan had been to spend her absence wearing a serious groove in the couch watching documentaries and repeats of Star Trek. If all went well I’d be starting to get over it by the time she got back and wouldn’t mind so much as we devolve into a diet of Fashion TV and E! News.

But alas, it was not to be.

So what am I to do now? Dunno. Might as well write a blog.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Myth of Scientific Conspiracy

I love a good conspiracy theory.

Mayan Rocket In times past I’ve been fascinated, bemused, irritated and appalled (sometimes all at once) by everything from Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods and those wacky 9-11 truthers to the idea that the Mayans had rockets and the moon is an alien spaceship.

And don’t even get me started on that Timecube guy.

Dissemination of conspiracy theories has been both helped and hindered by Web 2.0, as both proponents and debunkers are just a few clicks away.

For the moment it looks like the debunkers are winning, but I suspect conspiracy theories will always be with us.

But where do they all come from?

Fox Mulder Big Government conspiracies got a boost in the 1990s, as US hegemony expanded and it became very easy to believe we were being lied to. In the 2000s the whole idea came crashing down once it became clear that we were being lied to, but it was incompetence not conspiracy at the core.

And still no secret alien technology in sight.

Big Farmer Big Government conspiracies seem to have shifted now to Big Pharmaceutical and Big Oil, as profit takes over from political power as the assumed driver. As conspiracies go though, these are a lot less interesting. Big companies doing whatever they can to make money? It’s not quite Spaceship Moon is it?

Big Science gets a run as well. This is a particular favourite of anyone whose wonderful new Theory of Everything has been rejected by the scientific mainstream.

The list of Big Science conspiracies is endless.

Jesus and His Pet DinosaurEvolution? Young Earth Creationists will bang on for days about how it’s a scientific conspiracy to keep the real truth hidden … the truth being that those fossils are all less than 6,000 years old and were actually placed there by Noah’s flood.

Entropy? It’s a lie foist upon the public to hide the existence of perpetual motion machines that could provide free energy to whole world. (An obvious cross-over here with Big Oil).

And emissions? It’s all those left-wing scientists blinded by their green ideology wanting to shut down the factories and throw everyone out of work.

And they’re just the ones starting with ‘E’.

But here’s the thing. Here’s why the whole notion of scientific conspiracy is preposterous.

Scientists are not in cahoots.
They’re in competition.

When any new scientific idea is thrown into the ring there'll be a phalanx of scientists trying their damnedest to kneecap it before you can say phlogiston.

And why? It’s not to be malicious. It’s because that’s how science works.

Ideas that withstand the onslaught are accepted and became the basis for further learning. The ideas that fall are simply discarded.

And you might notice the ideas that fall are also the source of most of the conspiracy theories.

After all, it’s much easier to blame the Masons and the Illuminati and the cabal of Big Scientists than to admit your idea doesn’t really have any merit.Freemasons For Dummies

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Dead Pool 2009 – June Update

Celebrity Dead Pool now has its own blog!
Find it at Celebrity Dead Pool 

We’re halfway through the year and it’s been an absolutely bumper month. We’ve had celebrities and other notables tragically dropping off the perch left right and centre.

With no time to mess around let’s get straight into it, starting with one late-reported death from May.

Danny La Rue On the 31st of that month we bid a final ta-ra to entertainer Danny La Rue, a pioneer of the drag scene and one of the men responsible for bringing the whole men-dressing-as-ladies thing out of the underground and into the mainstream.

On the 2nd of June fantasy author David Eddings passed away at the age of 77. I’d probably have something more interesting to say about him if I’d read any of his books. I haven’t. But I’m sure they’re tops.

On the 3rd we lost Australia’s last surviving veteran of World War I, John Campbell Ross at the very respectable age of 110.

David Carradine Also on the 3rd we bid a fond farewell to actor, notorious bad-boy and all-round legend David Carradine at the age of 72. If you’re gonna go, there are worse ways than with some random hooker in a sleazy Thailand hotel room. Just sayin’. Rest in Peace, Grasshopper.

On the 12th we witnessed the spooky death of Johanna Ganthaler who, having just survived the ill-fated Air France Flight 447 on June 1 by missing the flight, was killed in a car crash in Austria.

Seriously, it’s a story worthy of a film. Oh wait. It’s been done.

Des Moran The 15th saw the daylight assassination of Des ‘Tuppence’ Moran, patriarch and last surviving member of the Moran crime family.

On the 17th John Houghtaling, inventor of the Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed, a fixture of mid-priced hotel rooms last refurbished in the 1960s, died a very wealthy man at the age of 92. There is no truth to the rumour that his fortune was all in quarters, nor that he vibrated for fifteen minutes after he died. It’s all scurrilous and very silly gossip.

On the 19th Tomoji Tanabe, up until his final moments the world’s oldest living man, died of heart failure at the age of 113. Henry Allingham of the UK, also 113, takes his place as the oldest living man in the world. But not the oldest living person. There’s like ten chicks ahead of him.

(I wonder if all these supercentenarians know each other? They should start a facebook group. If I were suddenly made the oldest man in the world by the death of the previous incumbent I know I’d want immediate notification).

Lorena GaleThe 21st saw the tragic death of actress Lorena Gale, best known for her role as the wise priestess Elosha on Battlestar Galactica. (<battlestargeekout> Although one might question the wisdom of plying the President of the Colonies with hallucinogens. </battlestargeekout> Still … Lorena Gale … awesome lady.)

Ed McMahonOn the 23rd American TV announcer Ed McMahon passed away at the age of 86. A fixture of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Ed’s famous catchphrase “Here’s Johnny!” was usurped by an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson in 1980’s The Shining. That’s got nothing to do with his death. It’s just kind of interesting.

Finally, as previously mentioned (and covered by one or two other sources) the 25th saw the deaths of both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

So it’s been a helluva month.

We’ve also seen some significant movement on the dead pool scoreboard, with no fewer than five people tipping the tragic passing of Michael Jackson.

As Mr. Jackson was 50 at the time of his death we award 50 points each to Benn, Eliza, Rob, Russell and Ty. Sadly Farrah Fawcett’s death does not result in any points, as she passed away from the illness she was suffering at the beginning of the year.

And with that, our scoreboard looks like this:

Ty 64
Benn 64
Eliza 50
Rob 50
Russell 50

Tune in again next month.

I hope for the sake of our remaining beloved celebrities that it’s a quiet one.