15 December, 2010

Going through the gears

The Antikythera mechanism is the world's oldest known computer (150–100 BC). Various parts of this intricate cog-based instrument were discovered in a shipwreck back in 1900-1901, although the purpose of it, to accurately predict astronomical positions, was not determined until many decades later.

From a recent article in Nature:

Two thousand years ago, a Greek mechanic set out to build a machine that would model the workings of the known Universe. The result was a complex clockwork mechanism that displayed the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets on precisely marked dials. By turning a handle, the creator could watch his tiny celestial bodies trace their undulating paths through the sky.

The mechanic's name is now lost. But his machine, dubbed the Antikythera mechanism, is by far the most technologically sophisticated artefact that survives from antiquity. Since a reconstruction of the device hit the headlines in 2006, it has revolutionized ideas about the technology of the ancient world, and has captured the public imagination as the apparent pinnacle of Greek scientific achievement.

Now, some clever big kids have reconstructed it...

With freakin' LEGO!!


03 December, 2010

Evolutionary morality - what's the problem?

Seriously, what is the issue that theists have with a non-devine account for morality? Let's settle this once and for all (he said naively).

Here is what I see as a perfectly rational account for evolutionary morality. The overall explanation is one of empathy and the so-called 'Golden rule' - treat others as you would like others to treat you. It is important to stress that this 'rule' is not the type of law that a theist would claim is prescribed from a deity. That is, we don't have to follow the golden rule, but most of us choose to because we can see the consequences of what would happen if we did not. For example, I wouldn't like it if someone stole from me, so I don't steal from other people. On the basis of this, I consider stealing to be wrong. When the majority of a population consider stealing to be wrong, the consensus usually becomes what is known as 'morality'. This still allows for a minority of a population to think differently - a thief might think it is OK to steal, or might think it is wrong but will do it anyway.

This leads us to moral relativism. More on this later, but first I want to get back to the evolution of morality...

All social animals have to co-operate to survive. This means that the survival of the herd is crucial for the survival of the individual. Any member of a population of social animals that ventures out on its own has a poor chance of survival - be it an isolated deer in a field or a lone mountaineer in the Alps. This is not to say that they cannot survive - some might - but in general there is safety in numbers.

Where'd they go?

Genes promoting co-operation and empathy, therefore, would be selected for in a social population, and through trial and error the 'golden rule' would unintentionally take hold. A population in which the 'golden rule' wasn't followed wouldn't sustain itself for very long, as its members would either kill each other or be killed by predators due to a lack of co-operation.

An interesting theory on the roots of morality and the Golden rule comes from game theory. This can be simplified (*extremely simplified*) into a game called the Prisoner's Dilemma. Here is a synopsis of the game from Wiki:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (co-operates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

So the choice is to defect or co-operate. In a one-off situation, the obvious answer seems to be to defect. But it gets more interesting when, rather than being a one-off situation, the game is played continuously with previous actions remembered by the participants (as would occur in real life situations). The longer the game is played, a pay-off matrix emerges and the more likely it is that the participants will develop a strategy in which they actually co-operate most of the time, as when they defect, their opponent will simply retaliate in the next round.

Richard Dawkins has a chapter on the relationship between game theory and morality in the Selfish Gene. In it he explains how the above game can be applied to social animals in a 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' type of way. Animals with the capacity to remember past events will reward those who co-operate and punish those who defect. This leads to a situation where the majority of a population will be co-operative, as they want to avoid the harsh penalties imposed on those who defect. From this interplay, co-operative behaviour (which loosely means 'being nice') becomes the norm and is considered to be 'moral'. Of course, if the vast majority of people are co-operative, then isolated incidences of defective behaviour can be rewarding, but it is ultimately unsustainable as the co-operative masses will retaliate. Importantly, all of this behaviour is still directly related to the Golden rule and is a consequence of the individual's desire to survive.

Evidence that co-operative behaviour with occasional retaliation is the optimal social standpoint is given by the computer program Tit-for-Tat that was entered into the iterated prisoners dilemma (IPD) tournament, a competition devised to develop the best strategy to win at repeated playing of the prisoners dilemma. Many complex computer programs were entered in the tournament, but Tit-for-Tat won using a very simple strategy:

It was the simplest of any program entered, containing only four lines of BASIC, and won the contest. The strategy is simply to co-operate on the first iteration of the game; after that, the player does what his or her opponent did on the previous move. Depending on the situation, a slightly better strategy can be "tit for tat with forgiveness." When the opponent defects, on the next move, the player sometimes co-operates anyway, with a small probability (around 1–5%). This allows for occasional recovery from getting trapped in a cycle of defections. The exact probability depends on the line-up of opponents

The story of Tit-for-Tat is well worth a read.

Based on the Tit-for-Tat program, the overall qualities needed to be socially successful are being nice, forgiving and non-envious but retaliating to defective behaviour when necessary. When you think about it, these qualites are exactly what any successful social animal possess:

- Unless provoked, the agent will always co-operate

- If provoked, the agent will retaliate

- The agent is quick to forgive

- The agent must have a good chance of competing against the opponent more than once.

Tit-for-tat, eventually...

Game theory, therefore, provides an intriguing and plausible reason for why humans are predominantly moral beings, and have the capacity to co-operate and forgive. Of course, none of this means that they have to be co-operative, although we have devised laws to punish those who are not. This is because there are no absolute moral laws; instead, there are evolutionary behaviours that allow populations to reach a sustainable equilibrium.

Which brings us back to moral relativism.

A typical theistic response to the idea of moral relativism (the position that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truths) is to propose an emotionally-charged situation and claim that the moral relativist cannot claim that it is absolutely wrong. A common example is torturing or raping children. I have heard many theists claim that I can't say that torturing children is absolutely wrong. That may be true. But I can say it is wrong according to my moral standards because I would not like to be tortured, and so I imagine other people also don't like to be tortured (the fact that they are children is irrelevant - torture is torture).

It's a difficult subject to talk about, but one can imagine a hypothetical scenario in which torturing a child is acceptable, if, say, the alternative is that 100 children will be tortured. Horrible, I know, but I am simply making the point that emotionally-charged scenarios are not necessarily a fool-proof approach to tackling moral relativism. They do not actually have much substance other than to cloud the mind of an undecided observer in a debate.

However, if theists insist on using these types of emotionally-charged scenarios (and they do), then they can easily be used against the notion of divinely-inspired morality - a nice example of Tit-for-Tat in action! This is because if morality is simply the reflection of the nature of a deity, then it is dependent on something, and so it cannot be absolute. It is, in fact, completely arbitrary as the deity could have any number of whims or characteristics, which would automatically become entrenched in morality (see Euthyphro's dilemma). For example, if God (being omnipotent) decided tomorrow that child torture was morally good, would all Christians embrace it and actively engage in it? I very much doubt that they would. Why? Because morality exists apart from God.

Human morality came about through the evolution of social behaviour. That theists want to ascribe something as wonderful as morality to an unproven deity is just another example of how religion tries to fix what ain't broke.


17 November, 2010

Michael Behe lecture

Intelligent design proponent Michael Behe is giving a talk in London on Monday 22nd November as part of his tour of the UK. From the ad:

200 bones. 600 muscles. Millions of nerves. Billions of cells. Trillions of organisms all working together to make one body - you. But how? An accident of evolution?

Book now for the 'Darwin or Design?' tour featuring US scientist Prof. Michael Behe and hear why he claims to have discovered evidence that life is really designed - findings that have rocked the scientific world.

The 'Darwin or Design?' national tour starts Sat 20th November. See and hear the scientific case for Intelligent Design from its leading voice - Prof Michael Behe.

Ask your questions live from the floor - engage personally with Mike Behe.

I'll be there. I would like to hear his comments on the following:

1) Behe claims that intelligent design is falsifiable, in that if someone can show how an 'irreducibly complex' system evolved in a stepwise fashion, then intelligent design would be proved incorrect. But this seems unlikely to me. If someone showed how the flagellum evolved step-by-step, Behe could simply say 'OK, the flagellum wasn't intelligently designed, but the immune system was'. In other words, he can always move around and point to another supposedly irreducibly complex system to support his argument. I think this refutes the notion that intelligent design is falsifiable.

2) If we base our knowledge of design on human design, as ID proponents do, then we must base our knowledge of intelligent designers on humans. So if ID is true, this means that intelligent designers (humans) are themselves designed by a intelligent designer. But crucially this 'earlier' intelligent designer is subject to the same criteria and so must also have been designed. This inevitably leads to an infinite regress of designers and a continual begging of the same question. I expand on this point here.

3) Behe claims that a system is irreducibly complex by the following:

By irreducible complexity I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning

The problem is that this isn't evidence of intelligent design. It is actually predicted to happen by evolutionary theory. These ‘irreducibly complex’ systems CAN evolve through step-by-step neo-Darwinian evolution. Herman Muller described the process back in 1918. For example, take a relatively complex system that performs a function. Next, gradually make that system more efficient and sophisticated by step-by-step addition of new “parts”. Then, remove some of the earlier redundant “parts” (as happens in evolution) thus increasing efficiency. You now have a more complex system than the previous one, however, if you were to artificially remove a “part” of this new system, it would cease to function. As you should be able to see, this does not mean that it couldn’t have evolved.

Here is an analogy...

Imagine a river with three stepping stones forming a rudimentary bridge. The stones constitute a system with a function. If you add a long piece of wood across all three stones it is now a slightly more complex system, still with the same function. The middle stone can now be removed without loss of function, and this newer (slightly) more complex system is more efficient in that you can walk across it rather than hopping from stone to stone. If you now remove any of the other parts of this system, ie the wood or the two outer stones, it will lose its function, and thus the bridge can be termed irreducibly complex. However, it came about in a step-by-step fashion (which includes removal of redundant parts) without loss of function.


Edit 01/12/10

I was unable to attend the talk but PaulJ has provided a report.


11 November, 2010

Black Magic Fail

In 2008, an Indian man called Sanal Edamaruku agreed for a famous tantra master to try and kill him with 'black magic' on live TV. The event was apparently watched by millions of people in India, many of whom live in fear of this type of black magic. Scheduled programs were dropped to allow for the live pictures to beamed across the country. As described by Edamaruku:

He boasted that he was able to kill anyone by mantra and tantra within three minutes. I grabbed my chance to put him in check and offered myself for a test. Caught on air, he couldn't escape without losing face – and his high-profile clientele. So our unprecedented experiment began.

As you can see, the tantrik tries lots of different methods and Edamaruku just stands there and laughs...

Following the failure to kill his volunteer, the tantrik suggests that he is invoking a god to protect himself. Edamaruku just laughs this suggestion off and explains that he is an atheist. The tantrik, clearly grasping at straws at this stage, claims that the black magic must be done at night, and so Edamaruku calls his bluff and offers his services again...that very night.

With no way to escape, he upped the stakes and agreed to perform the "ultimate destruction ceremony" that would kill me dead sure. With ratings soaring, the programme overran, rolling on and on in "breaking news" mode. The channel announced another round of our epic battle for the night show.

Not surprisingly, the black magic had NO effect whatsoever. Most importantly, millions of people saw that a superstition they had grown up believing to be true was actually a load of nonsense.

Part of the success of this event was the fact that the tantrik clearly believed in his abilities and so agreed to demonstrate them on live TV. Unfortunately, most practitioners of pseudoscience are less eager to directly test their claims in such a mainstream way (although a few have tried, and failed). Perhaps they know if they did so, the results would be similar to the above.


04 November, 2010

Conservation of Information - meh!

This post is an expansion of a comment I left over at SMRT a while back. The topic was 'information' and whether or not it can be considered as a measurable quantifiable 'thing'. As stated by WEM in the OP:

There are a bunch of conservation laws (energy, momentum [angular and linear], electrical charge, etc); simply put, the value of X in a closed system will be unchanged no matter how that system changes.

It seems to me that Christian fundamentalists are trying to get "Information" added to the list. Although the devil's in the details (re. the definition of "information", whether a system is open or closed, etc), the idea is that it requires an external agent (ie. God) to introduce information to a system.

So is the total amount of information conserved? Is information an objective 'thing' that can be used by Creationists as some sort of proof for their God?

Here's my take on it...

Since different people can glean different information from the exact same source, this means that the very existence of information is subjective. It is fallacious to say that 'the information is there, you're just not seeing it', because that would leave open the possibility that there is additional information present which nobody has seen, and hence this refutes the notion that there is a quantifiable amount of information in the first place.

There could always be more information.

If two people are watching a documentary, they are taking in information. However, if one of them falls asleep before the end, the amount of information in the universe will be less than what would have existed had they both stayed awake. Thus, it is impossible to assign a tangible value to the amount of information in any system at any time, and so it is also impossible to definitively state whether it has increased or not - the amount of information might have increased for one observer but decreased for another.

The following scenario shows what I mean...

Two men watch a library and all its original contents (no other copies) burn to the ground. The first man observes a loss of information as hundreds of thousands of original books are incinerated. Most people would probably agree with this man. However, the second man, who is not interested in literature, observes an increase in information because he is an arsonist and has thus gained plenty of information from the experience. Who is to say that more information was lost than gained? What if 2 arsonists gleaned information from the fire? Would that mean that twice as much information was gained? If so, what if a billion arsonists were watching? By increasing the amount of arsonists watching, at some point in theoretical space more information would have been gained than lost. The same can be demonstrated the opposite way too, meaning information is subjective and can't be quantified or said to have definitively increased or decreased.

I'm not claiming that this example proves anything - I don't know enough about this subject and I imagine the definition of information is fuzzy at best. However, it does seem to suggest that information is not an objective thing that can be used to prove the existence of a God; eh sorry, I mean of an Intelligent Designer.


02 November, 2010

Richard Feynman is awesome

I can't believe I've never seen this interview until now. I recommend that anyone with even a passing interest in science (mainly physics and a bit of chemistry and biology) should watch it. It's basically everything you wanted to know about in school, but they never taught.



Rubber bands:







Stars 2:


Thinking 2:


28 October, 2010

Religious intolerance rife in the USA

This cannot go on. Shame on all you non-Christian Americans. I imagine the Buddhists are particularly oppressive.


22 October, 2010

Useful links for exposing Sye TenB

I've put together some links to particular comments from Sye in which he has made inconsistent or just down right silly claims. These should prove useful to expose the absurdity of his worldview and presuppositionalist argument.

1) Sye contradicting himself and lying all in one go

Sye always says that his worldview is proven by the 'impossibility of the contrary'. I challenged him to refute my position that the Invisible Pink Hammer was actually the real omnipotent omniscient creator of the universe and could reveal things to me for certain and he replied:

"Although I do not believe that it would be possible, I have never claimed that it would be impossible, I am simply challenging you to formally debate our respective deities and revelations from same. You are unwilling to(for obvious reasons)." [Bolding mine]

I think the inconsistency between 'impossibility of the contrary' and 'I have never claimed that it would be impossible' is clear for all to see. And by stating the latter, he is simply lying. Indeed, many others have similarly requested that he refute all possible alternative worldviews, and yet he never does - he simply asserts that they are refuted.

2) Sye being a hypocrite

Sye refuses to address claims that his opponent does not actually hold, as they are just 'wasting his time'. Of course, when I proposed the Invisible Pink Hammer worldview, it was to illustrate the problem with his argument - that he cannot refute my position without also refuting his own. In this sense, I was adopting a hypothetical situation which showed the absurdity of his argument. Sye wouldn't play (for obvious reasons). But of course when he can use this type of argumentation to his advantage, Sye will use it, as he does here in a debate with another Christian.

Opponent [talking about the position that Sye does not hold]:
"Since this is an argument that anyone could easily make, you should be able to easily find me someone who has, in fact, made it. Even internet hack atheists don't make this argument."

"I’ll make it then John, and you refute me. Here goes: “Perhaps someday there will be a naturalistic explanation as to why a body which was dead for 3 days came back to life.” There ya go John, refute me."

What a complete hypocrite. For further details on this particular incident, see here.

3) Another example of Sye lying

Over at Dawson's blog, Sye's website got an 'absolute' trouncing (pun intended). You'd think Sye would go through Dawson's criticisms and point out all the errors, but alas it seems that he didn't have the time:

Sye TenB said...
Maybe someday I'll have the time to read all that.

Perhaps a debate is in order sometime. What say?

AUGUST 27, 2010 9:17 PM

When Dawson responded and asked him to reconsider, Sye replied:

"Erm, cause I don't have the time to take right now...I will be away all week, and simply do not have the time to sift through such a long post. It's not like I haven't heard these criticisms before, or that you have not heard the resolutions, so I don't feel a pressing need to answer them. As I said, perhaps when I have the time I will get to this."

So he didn't read the post, or even have time to 'sift through' it, and yet he knows exactly what all the criticisms are?

Another lie.

Sye does try to squirm out of this by claiming that although he stated that he didn't have time to read it - "Erm, I skimmed it. Same ka ka, just more words."

So, he didn't have time to 'sift through' it, but he did have time to 'skim' it...!!?? Right. This smells of something. It smells real bad.

4) Sye admitting that an omnipotent omniscient being could, if it so desired, fool him into thinking he is certain

Sye's whole worldview relies on his claim that God can reveal things to him for certain. The trouble is by admitting the above possibility, he has also admitted that it is possible he is being fooled into simply 'thinking' he is certain. Here are the relevant quotes:

I asked:
”As for my claim that an omniscient omnipotent being fooled you into thinking you are certain. You have yet to confirm or deny that this is a possibility. You really want to deny it is possible but you know you can't because this would be denying what an omnipotent being can do, a position you yourself claim is absurd.“

Sye replied:
"Not at all, I do not address it because it is IRRELEVANT. OF COURSE an omnipotent omniscient being could do this, and He could also reveal in such a way that we can be certain that HE has not! (Quote mine away)." [Bolding mine]

The fact that an omnipotent omniscient being could do this automatically negates any claims to certainty as delivered by said being. Because of this admission, Sye can never know whether certainty is being revealed or not.

5) Sye admitting that his interpretation of the bible is not infallible

Everything Sye knows about God comes directly from scripture. So his claims of certainty are derived directly from bible passages. And yet here he admits that his interpretation of the bible is not infallible:

" Reply by SyeTenB on August 16, 2010 at 4:04pm
...I have never said, nor do I claim that my interpretation is infallible, it is merely my claim that God can make us certain about some things, like the fact that He exists. I have never claimed that my interpretation of Romans 1 is infallible, but your argument against it is making me want to :-)"

Surely to be absolutely certain of anything, your interpretation of it must be infallible. In short, since Sye's interpretation of the bible is not infallible, his whole argument could be wrong, since it comes directly from the bible.

6) Sye admitting that he doesn't know how God reveals certainty

In order to know for certain that certainty is being revealed, Sye must know exactly how this is happening. Otherwise, it is simply impossible to know it with certainty. Here Sye admits that he doesn't know, and even if God told him, he wouldn't understand the explanation:

by SyeTenB » Sat Aug 22, 2009 12:40 am
"No, I would not call it an ‘illusory feat.’ I am more of the position that even if God did explain it to me, I would not be able to understand it."

This admission reduces his absolute-100%-logically-certain-proof-style of argumentation to mere faith. He doesn't understand how God reveals certainty, so he has to take it on faith that he does.

7) Sye making inconsistent claims

Sye likes to claim that a non-believer's position is inconsistent with their wordlview. Here is an example of Sye being inconsistent.

Sye said to Paul Baird:

You still don't get it Paul. I do not claim that the argument fails, you do. Problem is without an absolute standard of logic NO ARGUMENT CAN FAIL, and your claim is refuted.

But later he changed his mind to say:

The claim may or may not be true, but your attempt at justifying knowledge of its truth is refuted since you cannot account for truth.

So in one comment he asserts that his opponent's claim is refuted, and in another he says that it might be true. And he expects us to take his position seriously?

Please let me know if I've missed any of Sye's other stupid and/or inconsistent statements and I'll add them to this thread...


19 October, 2010

TAM London Day 2

After a night on the beer, Day 2 of TAM London started off with a lot of water and coffee...

The first talk of the day was by Marcus Chown, who gave a talk on the "Top 10 Bonkers Things About The Universe" (much of which is covered here). For instance, all the matter that makes up the human race is actually only the size of a sugar cube - by virtue of the fact that the majority of an atom is empty space. Also, time isn't constant as it is influenced by gravity. The closer you are to a strong gravitational force (i.e. large mass), the slower time actually goes, meaning someone at the top of a staircase is ageing faster than someone at the bottom. Oh and he ended with a space montage to the sound of Ziggy Stardust. Nice.

DJ Grothe then gave probably the only talk of the weekend that was solely about skepticism. He issued a bit of a rallying call and encouraged everyone to be more active, in setting up skeptical blogs, sceptical meetings and so on. So I'll dedicate this post to you DJ. Happy? :-D

Today's panel discussion was hosted by Rebecca Watson and was on "Technology and New Media". The panelists were Gia Milinovich, Kate Russell, Neil Denny and Martin Robbins (who live blogged the whole conference). They spoke about blogs, podcasts, twitter as well as 'old media' and the vast differences between them.

Melinda Gebbie was the next speaker and she was interviewed by Rebecca Watson about her new book, Lost Girls, which is basically a pornographic story made from the point of view of women. She wrote the book to fill a niche that she explains exists because almost all pornography is currently made from a man's perspective. As one of the questioners said, basically porn with a plot then. This segment didn't seem to have much to do with skepticism though, as one blogger points out here.

The last talk before lunch was one I was really looking forward too. Unfortunately, Stephen Fry couldn't make it and the consolation was a pre-recorded interview with him and Tim Minchin. It wasn't bad, but to be honest, Minchin (understandably) isn't much of an interviewer (it was more of a two-way conversation really) and whoever edited the footage needs to be sacked. So I was a bit disappointed but it was interesting to hear his opinion on skepticism and his mastery of the language was evident on several occasions.


Graham Linehan was interviewed by Jon Ronson straight after lunch, an encounter that was always likely to be entertaining. Although the subject matter of Twitter did provide for some interesting discussion (and several very funny videos), I was hoping to hear a bit more about Linehan's experiences writing Father Ted, Black Books, etc. Down with this sort of thing...

The next speaker was guaranteed to get a good reception. PZ Myers talks about tone and how "we shouldn't gratuitously obnoxious, we should be purposefully obnoxious." His talk was good but the highlight was the Q and A session. The organisers gave him a bit longer than other speakers as it was obvious a lot of people would want to ask questions. And PZ is in his element when he has to think on his feet. His answers were always engaging, concise and appropriate. Oh and did I mention that I met him. Just in case here's the pic again...


The last talk of the weekend went to Alan Moore, creator of comic book franchises such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta. I have to be honest, I was struggling as this stage, the previous night was really catching up with me. Moore proceeded to recite a poem about the town where he grew up that seemed to go on for at least 20-25 minutes. Not the best end to the weekend in my opinion (then again, I'm not a comic book fan).

And that was it! Randi closed the conference and everyone said their goodbyes. All in all, it was an Amazing experience and I would recommended it to anyone who is interested in skeptical thinking and general science. Or if you just want to have 3 nights on the beer in a row.


17 October, 2010

TAM London Day 1

I'm just back from TAM London. It was amazing alright. Here's a brief summary of Day 1...

(photos from various TAM London Facebook members - cheers!)

Richard Wiseman was the host and he did a great job all weekend, breaking up each talk with a few jokes or a magic trick. My favourite was probably this:

I've just signed up to Reincarnation Weekly. It was a bit expensive - £200 - but then I thought, what the hell, you only live once

Susan Blackmore was first up. She spoke about her journey from being an avid believer in the paranormal through to becoming a skeptic. She talked us through some of the experiments she did on paranormal activity and ESP, including when she debunked a series of ganzfeld studies. Her talk was very interesting and she is a good enthusiastic speaker. She is also known for expanding on the theory of memes, although she didn't go into this aspect of her work.

Next up was Richard Dawkins. He gave a lecture entitled "Evolution: The New Classics" in which he proposed the idea that evolutionary mechanisms tie into to almost all other aspects of education and are important for many seemingly unrelated subjects, including engineering, computer science, etc. I was glad that he came up with new material for the talk as I had been worried that he might just rehash the same old stuff we've all seen him say a million times. So I was impressed, although I heard a few other participants say otherwise. Dawkins doesn't really engage with the crowd much and comes off a bit robotic so this might have disappointed some people.

Cory Doctorow gave a talk about copyright law and related issues. This area isn't of great interest to me so my mind tended to wander a bit but he is a great speaker and I would recommend going to see him talk if this is your thing.

Adam Rutherford was next up and his talk was very entertaining. He mostly spoke about his experiences in the Alpha Course, a program which attempts to re-educate and re-convert Christians who have fallen away from Christianity. He spoke of how they use airy fairy language to make points about Christianity and regularly use strangely conceived metaphors and analogies about the Bible including, apparently, several references to Frodo and Lord of the Rings!


First up after lunch was Andy Nyman, who is probably best known for being the co-creator of all of Derren Brown's TV shows and live performances (or at least this is how I know of him). He was interviewed by Richard Wiseman and spoke a bit about his work with Derren, but most of the time was spent discussing Ghost Stories, which is a live horror play he created. I haven't seen it, but am planning to go soon.

Paula Kirby came next and gave a talk about the political manifesto of the fundamentalist Christian Party. It was quite entertaining, especially when she read out some of the more absurd statements - and there were plenty of those to choose from, e.g. “The fact that we’re not allowed to hit children any more is the root of all crime in society”. Nuff said.

A panel discussion discussing Skeptical Activism was then hosted by Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science. The panelists were Simon Singh, David Allen Green (who blogs as Jack of Kent) and Evan Harris (Lib Dem politician). This was an interesting discussion and there was a lot of talk about alternative medicine. Indeed, in the Q&A session, Jonathan Ross's daughter, Honey, informed the room that her school gives out homeopathic remedies to the kids - a revelation that stunned many of the crowd.


The last official talk of the first day was actually an interview of James Randi by comedian Robin Ince. This was a great end to the day and Randi told some stories about how he messed with Uri Geller and Peter Popoff back in the 70s and 80s.

Randi then presented two JREF awards - one to Ben Goldacre and a special one to a 15 year old boy called Rhys Morgan with Crohn's disease who managed to take on the dodgy drug companies and get an alternative remedy called Miracle Mineral Solution off the market, because it was basically just bleach. Brilliant!

The evening event with Tim Minchin and friends was optional and I went along. It was very funny and they premiered Tim's new short animated video Storm - trailer below.

Sorry for the short synopsis but if you want more see the Guardian Live blog here. Day 2 (and some photos) to follow...


16 October, 2010

PZ Myers....and me....and beer!

TAM London starts today. I went to register yesterday evening in the Hilton Metropole, following which I sauntered up to the hotel bar. Who was standing there, but only PZ Myers!

We spoke over a beer for about 15-20 minutes. Really nice guy. I mentioned to him that he had linked to my blog in the past, with respect to my email debate with Casey Luskin. Actually, PZ also left a comment here on another thread.

Anyway, good start!

I also saw Randi, sporting a full length black cape and hat. Nice.



11 October, 2010

Anyone going to TAM London...?

I'll be there. Let me know and we can meet up for a drink...


10 October, 2010

When in Rome...

Visit the Vatican.


08 October, 2010

Spammers are getting plain lazy

I've posted before about those email scammers who try to convince you that you've won some lottery you never entered or need your help getting large sums of money out of a central African country. You know what the email usually entails, a convoluted story and a plea for help.

Well, it seems they are getting lazy. Check this one out that just came into our work email address:


I am Mrs Stella Ethan, a Christian. I have picked you for an inheritance, Everything is available. Please contact me for more details. Private contact email: mrs.stallaethan@jpwind.com

They're just not putting the same effort in these days, huh?


05 October, 2010

Flight of the Conchords Yo!

Just found this live show filmed in Amoeba Records in New York...

Here are a few of my favourite FOTC tracks:


01 October, 2010

A reply to homeopath Sheelagh Behan

I recently co-authored a letter to the Irish Times in response to a letter from homeopath Sheelagh Behan, in which she offered a defence of homeopathy following an earlier anti-alternative medicine article by Paul O'Donoghue (founding member of the Irish Skeptics Society). The letter wasn't published and so I have posted it here instead.


Sheelagh Behan's defense of homeopathy (letters, 17th September) uses some fairly common strategies employed by homeopaths to bolster their art, but she fails to actually provide any compelling reasons to endorse the prescription of water for medical conditions more serious than dehydration. Her arguments can be summed up as a combination of the fallacies; i) appeal to the people, ii) appeal to authority, and iii) pseudo-scientific language.

i) Yes homeopathy is widely used; so were leeches, but no matter how many people used them they were never more effective than a placebo. Science is not a democracy - it relies on reproducible experimental evidence.

ii) Regarding the two studies actually mentioned; the first, a study of E. coli in Dutch piglets was published in a journal entitled "Homeopathy", an outlet unlikely to critically examine homeopathic hypotheses. The second, namely Luc Montagnier's study of electromagnetic signals from DNA in water did not even directly test the power of dilution but instead attributed an effect to dilution following a *filtration step*. Indeed, unfiltered bacteria gave no signal at all when diluted, in direct contrast to the central tenet of homeopathy. Also, the electromagnetic signals reported following filtration were mostly unaffected by dilution rather than enhanced by it, and the authors make no claim to have shown a mechanism for homeopathic efficacy. All in all, their results might be true, but using Occam's razor one would first need to rule out simpler explanations, such as the filtration process introducing a contaminant that may emit the signal. (Edit: see here for a thorough rebuttal of Montagnier's study)

iii) Lastly, hormesis, the belief that a little poison is good for you, is neither widely accepted in toxicology nor does it validate homeopathy's second principle of so called "potentization". It is closer to Murphy's law (which isn't a law) or the 80-20 rule (which isn't a rule) than to any scientific law and it does nothing to prove there is any trace (or memory) of the original "remedy" left after so many dilutions. If there are such traces (or memories), then patients would also receive the effects of whatever else the water has previously diluted.

While people in any free society should have the right to seek whatever treatment they prefer, they should be completely informed as to what they might be paying for, whether directly or through health insurance premiums. Homeopathy makes claims that its treatments are more effective than a placebo and, therefore, does not reliably inform patients and the public.

As Dara O'Briain says, when alternative medicine works, it simply becomes *medicine*...


30 September, 2010

How Ireland compares to other Eurozone countries

A nice overall comparison of the economies of the Eurozone countries can be found here, although it hasn't been updated since June 2010.

All this on the day that our finance minister, Brian Lenihan, announced that the support for Anglo Irish Bank would cost from 29.3bn euros to a "stress scenario" bail-out of up to 34bn euros ($46.4bn; £29.2bn). The cost would push the Ireland's fiscal deficit to 32% of gross domestic product (GDP).



24 September, 2010

The Atheist's Nightmares!!!


By the way, I'm sure you've all seen these before but in case you haven't, the above videos are for realz. Yep.

The only possible response:


18 September, 2010

I expect you to die!

Saw this over at SMRT and laughed. Lots.

"You spin me right round, baby, right round, in a manner depriving me of an inertial reference frame. Baby."

(Hat-tip to Quasar at SMRT)


14 September, 2010

When a complete moron meets an absolute idiot

Irish politicians can be stupid, like Dermot Ahern. Or very stupid, like Willie O'Dea. But occasionally they are so stupendously stupid that it defies all belief....

Meet Conor Lenihan (our complete moron).

This man is the Minister for Science, a position you might think entails encouraging the best in science and rational thought. Why then, you might ask, did this complete moron agree to attend the launch of "The Origin of Specious Nonsense", an anti-evolution book by a crank called John May (our absolute idiot)?

Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with idiots launching books, but I do have a problem with a highly-paid public servant - who is supposed to be the Minister of Freakin' Science - actively promoting it. The fact that he eventually withdrew from the launch is irrelevant. He should have never even flirted with the idea. Hell, he should have been fundamentally opposed to it to begin with!

Let's have a quick look at what he almost gave an official Irish government stamp of approval to. From May's website:

Eh, what? H2O is oxygen. Oh and evolution doesn't explain astrophysics, THEREFORE IT'S WRONG!!!!!! TAKE THAT EVOLUTIONISTS!!!!!

His painfully stupid '15 tennis ball' analogy shows his complete ignorance of evolution, probability and large numbers. As I explain here (scroll down to no 12 on the page), his error is that he is predicting in advance what the outcome will be - all balls to land in a circle in correct order. This is not analogous to how evolution works so he is simply attacking against a strawman. The balls have to end up in some orientation, just as life had to evolve in some way. In fact, it is actually evolution deniers who believe that life improbably *poofed* into existence fully formed. May is so stupid that he doesn't even realise his astronomical numbers argument goes against his own beliefs.

But not only is the subject matter laughable - it is full of grammatical errors. Indeed, he is clearly unimpressed by the modest comma and yet he can't seem! to! fit! quite! enough! exclamation! marks! in! (hmm, a true sign of a scholarly genius?). Bad grammar is no crime of course, but along with the basic language used in his book (see here for a sneak preview), this suggests that May is less than proficient in the brain department (fittingly for a friend of Minister Lenihan it would seem). For example, take these quotes as attributed to May in the Irish Times:

In publicity material for the launch of his book on the theory of evolution, Mr May accused “Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C Dennett, et al” of having sacrificed reason on the altar of Chance, Mutations, Randomness . . . Mr May called on “the world’s atheists, scientists, evolutionists plus tens of millions of their duped followers” to stop pretending they had “any facts whatsoever to support the greatest deceit in the history of science”.

No facts! Eh, try here and here for starters.

Furthermore, with respect to the bolded phrase above, an acquaintance of mine who is a notable Irish physicist and accomplished debater mused...

We used to get first years to work the phrase "sacrificed [noun] on the altar of [another noun]" into their debates as a kind of an in-joke in debating circles. It was such a hackneyed cliche that it would be a silent nod to older debaters from other teams that these were freshers and to go easy on them.

Speaks volumes.


13 September, 2010

If Facebook had always existed

In the beginning...

5,600 years later...

249 years later...

[More here]


08 September, 2010

Arguments for the existence of God

Here I will list arguments for the existence of God and my responses. If you have an argument that I missing please post it as a comment and I will add it to the list. The description of each argument is taken from Wiki or here. I don't claim that any of my responses are novel and I haven't read any deep philosophical thoughts on these issues. They are just my thoughts. If you disagree with anything, feel free to let me know.

1) The cosmological argument argues that there was a "first cause", or "prime mover" who is identified as God. It starts with a claim about the world, like its containing entities or motion.


-This argument depends on the idea that everything and anything that happens must have a cause. The trouble is that if this is asserted, then it must necessarily also apply to God - what caused God? If the argument is that God does not need a cause then it is inconsistent to apply that criterion to everything else - a fallacy called 'special pleading'. If God does not need a cause, then perhaps energy/matter does not need a cause and might have existed in some form prior to the big bang. Indeed, I have posted before about the possibility that energy/matter has always existed.

2) The teleological argument argues that the universe's order and complexity are best explained by reference to a creator God. It starts with a rather more complicated claim about the world, i.e. that it exhibits order and design.


-This is the classic argument from design and has been brought to the fore in recent times due to the Intelligent Design movement. There are many flaws to this argument (which I discussed in detail with Casey Luskin here) but the simplest is that it is simply an argument from ignorance. The proponent can't think of how a complex system could have come about and so concludes that it must have been designed by God - 'Goddidit'. Of course, we do know how complexity comes about in many cases, such as in a snowflake or a crystal lattice - through purely natural processes. Computer simulations like Avida have shown that, given enough time, a simple program can generate incredible complexity.

-Also, there are many examples of bad design in biology, which is at odds with the concept of a perfect creation by an omnipotent designer.

-A further issue with this argument is that it results in an infinite regress. If God is capable of designing the universe, it stands to reason that he is of sufficient complexity to require design. So who designed God? Perhaps another God - but then who designed him? Etc.

3) The ontological argument is based on arguments about a "being greater than which cannot be conceived". It starts simply with a concept of God. Avicenna St. Anselm of Canterbury and Alvin Plantinga formulated this argument to show that if it is logically possible for God (a necessary being) to exist, then God exists.


-This is a very weak argument - essentially that if God is perfect, then he must exist as to not exist would be considered 'less' than perfect. Firstly it is begging the question since the existence of God is already assumed in the first place.

-Also, this 'proof' can be used to 'prove' the existence of anything, as famously shown for Gaunilno's Perfect Island. If you can conceive of anything that you consider to be perfect, then it must exist. This clearly shows the failings of this particular argument.

-It is similar to using Curry's paradox to prove the existence of something, i.e. "If this sentence is true, then God exists". They are nothing more than word games.

4) Arguments that a non-physical quality observed in the universe is of fundamental importance and not an epiphenomenon, such as beauty (Argument from beauty), love (Argument from love), or religious experience (Argument from religious experience), are arguments for theism as against materialism.


-These types of arguments have no solid foundation as they are completely subjective. Beauty and love are fuzzy concepts that mean different things to different people, while religious experience, by definition, is a personal phenomenon. These arguments might, therefore, be considered compelling to an individual, but they are not persuasive as all-encompassing reasons to believe in the existence of God. If beauty is evidence for God, does this mean ugliness is evidence against God? Similarly, if the sudden recovery of a terminally ill patient is evidence for God, then a healthy person dropping dead is surely evidence against God? It doesn't work only one way.

-The claim that beauty and love are transcendental is also weak, as different degrees of 'love' are known to be simulated in people on recreational drugs, strongly suggesting that they are products of purely physical processes involving hormones.

-Furthermore, religious experience cannot be trusted for the simple fact that most testable declarations based on revelation turn out to be false - most notably end-of-the-world predictions.

5) The anthropic argument suggests that basic facts, such as our existence, are best explained by the existence of God. The conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different the universe would be empty, or even non-existent.


-This is also known as the fine-tuning argument or the Goldilocks argument. Firstly, according to some scientists the properties that are spoken of as being fine-tuned do not necessarily have to be as they are. But even if we grant that they must be as they are for this particular universe, it is conceivable that different parameters would simply result in a different universe (whether we can comprehend this universe or not).

-To take the example of life, we have adapted to live in the conditions that exist - not the other way around. An analogy is to imagine pouring water into a glass. The water fills the glass according to whatever shape the glass is. However, an anthropic glass proponent might suggest that the glass was perfectly designed to hold the shape the water assumes in the glass - no other shaped glass could accommodate it in that specific shape. So everything in the universe, including life, has adapted to the conditions inherent to the universe.

-Perhaps there are (or have been) many universes and this is the only one we can exist in. If so, it is not surprising that we find ourselves in this universe asking these questions.

6) The moral argument argues that the existence of objective morality depends on the existence of God.


-Proponents of this argument contend that an absolute standard of morality, God, is needed in order to know what is right and wrong. This fails on several levels. Firstly, there is Euthyphro's dilemma: "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good (meaning it is independent of God), or is it morally good because it is commanded by God (meaning it is arbitrary as God could make anything good)?"

-Secondly, it is only assumed that there is an absolute moral standard, not actually demonstrated. Different cultures have had different morals over the years, so moral relativism is an alternative. A typical counter to this is that this means that child rape is not absolutely morally wrong, putting the moral relativist in the awkward position of having to agree as they believe in no absolute moral standards. This is simply an attempt to insert an emotionally-charged subject into the debate. It can also work in reverse - if God decided tomorrow that child rape was morally good, would all Christians embrace it and actively engage in it? I doubt that they would - this shows that morality exists apart from God.

-So if morality doesn't come from God, where does it come from? The obvious answer is through the evolution of a social species in which the majority live by the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated). How else could we survive? A society in which lying, murder, rape, etc are considered morally good by the majority would never thrive. This doesn't mean that the reverse society (i.e. our society) cannot harbour individuals with bad morals, but just that the majority need to be morally good.

-Finally, there are many thought experiments on morality which show the inconsistency of claiming that there is an absolute moral standard.

7) The transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG) suggests that logic, science, ethics, and other things we take seriously do not make sense in the absence of God, and that atheistic arguments must ultimately refute themselves if pressed with rigorous consistency.


-This is probably the argument I have the most experience in dealing with, mainly through my discussions with Sye TenB. This approach, also known as presuppositional apologetics, is fundamentally flawed because it is dependent on the idea of absolutes and certainty - two things that the proponent demonstrably does not have. Indeed, despite making claims of certainty, the proponent cannot even prove that they exist for certain.

-This approach is simply a device in order to 'win' debates by pointing out inconsistencies in a non-Christian's 'worldview' using engineered circular arguments. The proponent will resist all attempts to critically examine the problems with their own 'worldview' because this would be putting God on trial. Convenient!

-For further reading on the failings of TAG see Presuppositionalist Nonsense Parts I, II and III.

8) The will to believe doctrine was pragmatist philosopher William James' attempt to prove God by showing that the adoption of theism as a hypothesis "works" in a believer's life. This doctrine depended heavily on James' pragmatic theory of truth where beliefs are proven by how they work when adopted rather than by proofs before they are believed (a form of the hypothetico-deductive method).


-This argument is completely subjective and is in no way an argument for the existence of God. There are many 'believers' who find that their belief or religion doesn't work out and leave their faith. So if this argument has any merit, then these reconverts have to be accepted as evidence against God. This contradiction highlights the failings of this approach.

9) The argument from reason holds that if, as thoroughgoing naturalism entails, all of our thoughts are the effect of a physical cause, then we have no reason for assuming that they are also the consequent of a reasonable ground. Knowledge, however, is apprehended by reasoning from ground to consequent. Therefore, if naturalism were true, there would be no way of knowing it—or anything else not the direct result of a physical cause—and we could not even suppose it, except by a fluke.


-The fact that humans can reason is self-evident. Any attempt to disprove that humans can reason must use reason in the disproof. It can be said to be axiomatic, as I have argued here for other concepts such as perception and truth. Since we must use reason to make any argument, this means it is pointless to try and argue that God is the necessary precondition for reason. If this was so, one should be able explain this without using reason. To put it simply, reason is not contingent on God, but the very concept of God is contingent on reason.

10) The modal cosmological argument, the argument from contingency, suggests that because the universe might not have existed (i.e. is contingent), we need some explanation of why it does. Wherever there are two possibilities, it suggests, something must determine which of those possibilities is realised. As the universe is contingent, then, there must be some reason for its existence; it must have a cause. In fact, the only kind of being whose existence requires no explanation is a necessary being, a being that could not have failed to exist. The ultimate cause of everything must therefore be a necessary being, such as God.


-This fails for many of the same reasons that the cosmological argument fails. Also, on what basis can it be asserted that the universe might not have existed? This is an unjustified premise for this argument. I have argued before that there is no reason to suspect that nothingness ever existed (so to speak).

11) Pascal’s Wager is an argument for belief in God based not on an appeal to evidence that God exists but rather based on an appeal to self-interest. It is in our interests to believe in God, the argument suggests, and it is therefore rational for us to do so.


-Pascal's wager is the eternal hedge bet. The idea that you are better off believing in God just in case he does exist is a bit of a 'last resort' approach. If God is omniscient, he will know that you don't really believe in him and you are just hedging your bets.

-Plus, I don't see it as being as simple as just believing in God. According to most Christians you have to dedicate your whole life to him. Screw that - that's no hedge bet, that's a life sentence.

12) The argument from improbability explains that it is mathematically virtually impossible for the chain of events to have happened, that must have happened, in order for us to be here. This impossibility points to an omnipotent creator.


-This argument, made famous by Fred Hoyle's flawed 747 and junkyard analogy, suffers from a lack of understanding of probability and large numbers in general. I agree completely that it is virtually impossible for this reality, including biological life, to have *poofed* into existence almost exactly as it is now. But this is not what most nonbelievers believe happened - this is actually what many theists believe! The error here is that the proponent of the argument is predicting in advance what the outcome will be. It is also virtually impossible to win the lottery, but people win it all the time. Is this a miracle, or is it just inevitable given the large numbers of people who buy tickets? So the thing that is actually virtually impossible is to predict who will win the lottery in advance, not whether or not someone will win it.

-Another good analogy is that of a sequence of 52 cards. Imagine the odds of a particular sequence of 52 cards coming up (8.06582E+67 to 1 apparently). That is virtually impossible! Now deal out a deck of cards. Is the sequence that appeared impossible? No, of course not - the cards had to be dealt in some order, just as the universe (and life, once it appeared) had to evolve in some way.

[This is my 100th blog post. Hurrah!]


02 September, 2010

Stephen Hawking ends speculation

Prof Stephen Hawking has roundly rejected the notion that he accepts the role of God in the creation of the universe. This was previously asserted by some creationists due to the following passage from A Brief History of Time:

If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we should know the mind of God.

It was clear to most people that Hawking was using poetic licence here, not actually talking about a literal God. But that obvious fact doesn't stop some from using the quote for their own means.

Anyway, confusion over...

Citing the 1992 discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun, in his new book, Hawking explains:

That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions - the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass - far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.


Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing... Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist... It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Good man Steve.