Monday, 21 September 2015

Richard Dawkins on Twitter - nothing to apologise for

The media are at it again.  Richard Dawkins starts to discuss a controversial topic and his tweets are quoted because they seem to be either shocking or putting forward a strident point of view.  Some bloggers do the same thing, often advising Richard to keep quiet or get some sort of advice about what he tweets.

I find the reactions just a bit silly.  Richard Dawkins is an eminent scientist and science educator.  Richard is not a politician. He is not a religious leader.  He is not an elected leader of anything (at least not anything I know about).  He is an individual who is posting his opinions on an open forum.  He posts opinions which are often challenged, and he reads those challenges and sometimes changes his mind.  In doing this he is acting exactly as any supporter of reason should.

There are some who treat Twitter as a global soap-box; a place to make pronouncements, and to preach to the world your view of anything you want.  But that's a real waste.  The power of Twitter is communication, exchanges of views and feedback.  It's a source of much nonsense, of course, but it's also a source of great expertise.

If you want to treat the contents of a conversation by Richard as if they are pronouncements of doctrine then you are the fool.  If you want to get value from Richard's presence, then for goodness sake talk to him.  That's one great thing Twitter enables - conversation.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

What is the middle ground of UK politics?

I have realised that I have no idea what the 'middle ground' of UK politics is. I assumed it meant that we don't really like nuclear weapons, but we'll have them if necessary; we really do like the idea of the NHS; we are generally cautious about immigration, but when there is a crisis we are welcoming; we are pretty concerned about the environment; we distrust those with a lot of money; we are generally keen on Europe, as we know it from holidays; we want a good fair wage for all; we utterly distrust private ownership of railways, and think that at least the possibility of nationalisation is a good thing. We are cautious about money, but good when it comes to charity.

But my impression is that these views are now considered widely left-of-centre by many, even "hard left". I remember the views of the "hard left" in the 80s, and they included universal nationalisation, support for communist states, scrapping all nuclear weapons, workers' collectives running everything.
How did the moderate left end up being now labelled "hard left"? How did nationalising parts of the NHS become mainstream? How did we end up with Labour party shadow cabinet ministers saying that they would match their Tory equivalents when it came to benefit cuts? How did we get so that benefit claimants, many of them disabled or ill, became the target of cuts?
I'm really confused.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Why you can't have evidence for gods being gods.

There are many definitions of 'god'.  I'll start off by making it clear the definitions I'm not dealing with.  I'm not considering 'gods' who are intelligent and powerful aliens who can do things that seem magical (a good example of such an alien is 'Q' in Star Trek).  I'm not dealing with beings who can create a world that seems real to us, such as the Machines in the Matrix trilogy.  I'm not dealing with the version of the Christian god written about by the physicist Frank Tipler who attempts to explain miracles in terms of physics in his book "The Physics of Christianity".   Why aren't I dealing with such gods?  Because they aren't what most believers want gods to be - they can't provide ultimate judgement and ultimate forgiveness; they can't give ultimate meaning; they can't provide eternal bliss or eternal punishment.  What I'm dealing with is beings that have powers that are truly 'supernatural', and that includes the Christian god - the Alpha, the Omega, the creator of all things and the source of all morality.

I have a couple of arguments that deal with the question of evidence for such beings:

1. The argument from complexity.

The Catholic Church insists that their god is ultimate simplicity, but that's just not on.  A being that is infinite, eternal and all-knowing and all-powerful is exceedingly - perhaps infinitely - complex, as that being contains all knowledge, and all wisdom.  This complexity is a real problem when it comes to evidence for this god, as just about anything else is simpler.  This includes vast galactic civilizations that have existed for billions of years.  It includes Star Trek-level cultures that can destroy a world with a phaser bank, and can cure most illnesses with a wave of something that looks like a pepper pot with lights.   So, if you come across what seems like a miracle, or you have some internal mental experience that feels like religious revelation, there are many alternatives of lesser complexity you have to consider before you allow for the possibility of the Catholic god.  The complexity problem has been expressed beautifully by Arthur C. Clarke, who said 'any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic', and by David Hume, who said that claims of miracles are never to be trusted, because there are always simpler explanations.

2. The argument from supernaturalness

The word 'supernatural' is the label for attributes of gods which are 'beyond Nature'.  The problem with this label is that it's never specified what 'beyond Nature' is supposed to mean.  Nature as we know it involves particles like atoms, electrons, photons and so on.  So, presumably, a supernatural being manages to get things done in ways that don't involve any such particles.  But that isn't an explanation of what they are actually doing to perform miracles.  Even if you can have reliable evidence that what is happening doesn't involve familiar particles, that evidence is in no way evidence for 'beyond Nature', it's only 'beyond what we know'.  So, from a practical point of view, evidence for the supernatural is definitely a problem.  It gets worse when we consider that a common definition of supernatural is 'beyond the reach of science'.  This makes evidence for the supernatural impossible by definition.

It's worth at this point clearing up a common misconception.  Sometimes evidence is considered to be supportive of the supernatural, when what that evidence is actually for is a thing that is believed to be supernatural.  For example, a primitive tribe might consider planes flying over their rain forest to be gods.  When asked for evidence of these supernatural gods by another tribe, they point up at a metal machine high above.  Of course, planes aren't supernatural (although I have to say that they feel like magic to me).  What I mean by 'evidence for the supernatural' is evidence that a thing has supernatural nature.

So, whichever definition we choose for 'supernatural', we reach an impasse.  We either have to try and demonstrate that something is beyond Nature, which is impossible, or we have a property of beings that is defined as being beyond empirical testing, so demonstrating its supernatural nature is impossible.

So, gods, by their definitions, are beyond reach of evidence.  No evidence is sufficient to show that what seems like a god or an act of a god isn't some simpler alternative, and according to some definitions, evidence isn't even possible to test a god's divine supernatural nature.