Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Craig/Wolpert debate

I just got back from the UCCF-organised debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Professor Lewis Wolpert on the question "Is God a delusion?" No prizes for guessing where the idea for that title came from. Esteemed BBC journalist John Humphrys chaired the debate and pitched in with half an hour's worth of questions at the end (which took place instead of the speakers' taking questions from the floor).

One of my first feelings as proceedings kicked off was one of disappointment at discovering there were so few atheists there: about 10% of the audience according to the initial show of hands. This disappointment remained as Craig proceeded to thrash Wolpert out of the jam-packed Westminster Central Hall; I just kept wishing there had been even more people there to see it.

As it was, we didn't get a real debate at all. Wolpert was simply appalling. At face value, his two main arguments seemed to be (1) that religious belief can be accounted for naturalistically and (2) who made God, eh? However, implicit throughout was his main argument, something like that which J.P. Holding has dubbed "the argument from serious assertion", namely:
  1. God does not exist.
  2. No, seriously.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

His naturalistic explanations for the origins of belief in the divine and for religious experience were such unmitigated just-so stories that I can hardly be bothered to repeat them; and, in any case, as Craig pointed out, used in this way they are near-irrelevant (I think most theists would welcome the claim that people are somehow neurologically hard-wired to belive in God). It is worth noting that - while each speaker was given 20 minutes for an initial address, 10 minutes for a first rebuttal, 7 minutes for a second rebuttal and 5 minutes for a conclusion - Craig used nearly all of his available time while Wolpert ran out of things to say very early on, and that in every speech Wolpert asked "who made God" and in every reply Craig pointed out that to be God means (in part) to be uncaused and eternal.

Craig, for his part, used his now-standard 5 arguments (Craig's Five Ways?): the argument from the beginning of the universe (and hence, all matter, energy, space and time), the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe, the argument from the objectivity of moral values, the argument for the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts and the argument from personal experience (his testimony). I was expecting to hear some tough responses... and I heard sixth-form arguments. I expected to hear a challenge to the coherence of the divine attributes... and I heard "who made God?" I expected to hear an appeal to a possible multiverse... and I heard a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders as regards the mind-bogglingly small probability of a life-permitting universe. I expected to hear a robust version of the Euthypro dilemma... and I heard a man who first claimed that there was nothing more to morality than biological and social imperatives, then said there were some things that were really wrong, then refused to acknowledge that he had contradicted himself. I expected to hear an empassioned appeal to the problem of evil... and yet only Humphrys seemed in the least concerned with that. Finally, I felt entitled, from such a renowned professor of Biology, to hear a discussion of evolution that went at least slightly deeper than "evolution did it", "there's loads of evidence" and "you're just ignorant".

In sum, I expected to hear some atheistic arguments, and yet all I heard Wolpert do was repeat loudly that "there's no evidence for God at all whatsoever" while refusing to engage with the theistic arguments he had just heard. My question for any atheists out there is: is this the best you can do? This was the Vice-President of the British Humanist Association, after all.

Craig on the radio

In one review of The God Delusion I read it was suggested that Dawkins' attempt would backfire. Inasmuch as it is bringing Christian apologists into the public eye in this country, that may well be the case. Not only do people no longer tend to say "who?" when I tell them about Alister McGrath, but also imagine my surprise, just now, at hearing William Lane Craig on BBC Radio 4's Today programme! Hopefully I'll be able to get his debate with Lewis Wolpert this evening in time.
Right, now I must be off.
UPDATE: Here's that radio snippet.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Some thoughts on materialism, design and intelligence (because, hey, everyone's at it)

With a title like that, and seeing as I feel a bit between camps, how about kicking this post off with a manifesto? As regards the huge variety of life on this planet, I believe...

  1. ..., provisionally, in descent by modification from a common ancestor (evolution?)
  2. ... that this modification is not and was not random, but purposive (theistic evolution?)
  3. ... that the truth of (2) is, at least to some extent, demonstrable (intelligent design?)
The point of this post is not to produce arguments for any of the above; I am neither a biologist not even really an amateur enthusiast in that field. Rather, I just want to lay my cards on the table before beginning, in effect, to muddy the waters.

Let us consider a reductive materialist, the kind of person in whom the words "intelligent design" provoke urticaria, a Mr. Blind P. Indifference. It seems to me that Mr. B.P.I. is, by his worldview, obliged to say that, really, "design" does not exist anywhere of anything ever, including, say, the computer at which I'm blogging now.

B.P.I.: Whaaaa...

Well, I presume that, when the "designer" was thinking about this model, doing calculations and making plans and such, what was really happening was a highly complex series of electrical and chemical processes in that person's brain, themselves all caused by prior conditions and processes, themselves all caused by prior conditions and processes, etc. ad infinitum. All that subjective stuff really supervenes on the physical. It's chance and necessity all the way down, the only difference being in degree of complexity.

B.P.I.: That's all very well, but it won't do to talk as if degree of complexity doesn't end up making a qualitative difference. The human brain itself is such a highly complex and powerful computer - processor of information - that it makes sense to speak of its being intelligent and able to design things. Intelligence is just a function of complexity. MATTER IS MORE FUNDAMENTAL THAN MIND!

OK. So, in that case, with the advance of science [*trumpets sound*] we should, in principle, one day be able to build computers and robots which are, themselves, intelligent?

B.P.I.: Yes, absolutely.

Perhaps, then, you'll indulge me in this thought experiment:
Strong A.I. is, indeed, achieved, and (sadly) something like the scenario in The Matrix or Terminator comes about: machines eliminate all humans and take over the planet. In fact, all trace of our ever having been here is erased. A few hundred thousand years pass and they forget all about us. At this point, would they be irrational to believe they had been designed? Random mistakes will occur in copying programming language and, while these errors are most often disasterous, very occasionally they will actually make better programs...

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Agnostics against Dawkins

I recently noticed a Facebook group against Richard Dawkins, started by a self-described "militant agnostic" who's tired of the man's gaping logical fallacies. Shows it's not just us deluded faith-heads who find him both odious and massively unconvincing.

(Watch out for the swearing on that link, though).

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

A Musickle response to the Blasphemy Challenge

HT: Atheism Sucks! (although I kind of wish they'd change the name of that blog - but then again who am I to talk?)

I mainly put this on here because I thought it was about time I did one of those embedded YouTube video things. He makes some good arguments, though.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Dopey Dave

So, David Cameron smoked weed while at Eton. Or rather, David Cameron will not deny that he smoked weed while at Eton. He also appears to think it intolerable nosiness on the part of journalists to ask him if he did.

On the issue of drugs I am, like most people, somewhere between the two extremes which I will call the Imprison Everyone Brigade (IEB) and the Legalise Everything Brigade (LEB). Cannabis is not as bad as heroin (or cocaine, or ecstasy...), but it is still bad. That an MP has smoked it in his youth is not a big deal, but it is a deal. The fact that the vast majority of drug users harm no-one but themselves prompts my libertarian instincts to say that it would be lunacy to fill our overcrowded prisons with these people. On the other hand, anyone who thinks that cannabis is "no worse than alcohol" needs to wake up. I personally know someone who developed cannabis-induced psychosis, and it would be no exaggeration to say that his mind is broken.

Why this introduction? Two reasons:
1. Cannabis is illegal and, contra Cameron (and Reid), I am interested in what attitude our legislators have had and do have to the law. Unlike the IEB, I would not refuse to vote for someone on the basis that he smoked dope when he was 15. However, unlike the LEB, I would expect at least some expression of regret before I could countenance the idea of him as Prime Minister.
2. The Charles Kennedy affair almost made me want to subject MPs to random substance tests. Failing that, to hear from every politician exactly what he/she has taken when would at least reassure me that they are clear-headed enough now to represent their constituents and serve the public adequately. I don't think I'm being paranoid here.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

John Sentamu gives an answer to everyone who asks him to give a reason for the hope that he has

For an example in dealing gracefully with some aggressive questioning, one could do a lot worse than to follow this example from the Anglican Archbishop of (or for, as he prefers) York, Dr. John Sentamu. The link is a couple of months old, but as I don't make a habit of reading The Independent...

Monday, 5 February 2007

A human rights dilemma for humanists

I thought I'd reproduce here a comment I just made on a post on Victor Reppert's blog:

I remember hearing a lecture on the concept of human rights at Kiel where, after having very briefly dealt with the theistic justification ("this works fine, but obviously doesn't apply to non-believers(!)"), the dude then spent the next hour and three quarters examining and somewhat reluctantly rejecting various attempts to justify talk of human rights without reference to God. In short, they all basically amounted to saying that it's probably mutually beneficial for us to pretend like people have rights - which evidently isn't the same thing.

Consider Article 1 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights

It seems to me that this poses a Euthypro-like dilemma for the atheist: Is it the case that
(a) The UN says that people have 'dignity and rights' because they, in fact, do
or
(b) People have 'dignity and rights' because the UN says so?

If (a), then you're still left with the question of where on earth (if earth...) this dignity and these rights come from. You might appeal to the human ability to reason; however, not only is it far from obvious that being able to reason gives one rights (short of baldly asserting as much), but also this line of argument would either deny human rights to mentally-handicapped people and babies or, in a Singer-esque move, put the latter on an ethical par with chimpanzees, thus losing any idea of human rights.

If (b), then these notions are utterly arbitrary, and would be even if the UN had the power or the will to ever enforce anything ever. In fact, this view really leads to
(c) People don't have 'dignity and rights' after all.

I wasn't a Christian at the time. I remember the lecture so well because it moved me on from wondering why we are moral to why we should be moral.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

England sports teams in 'winning matches' shocker

Who'd have thought it, eh? The very day after the beleaguered England (and Wales?) cricket team, hitherto beaten to a pulp on this tour, had finally managed to win a match against Australia, the rugby team (8 defeats from the previous 9 matches) did likewise and played Scotland off the park at Twickenham.

With World Cups coming up in both these sports this year, hopefully this means we won't be embarassed quite as badly in front of the rest of the planet as I was beginning to fear.