Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Atheists reject Christianity not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true"

Here is one of four answers regularly offered by Christians (and others) for the failure of atheists to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief (the other three, as well as a continuation of this one, will be blogged later). Edward Feser gets special mention:

(i) Atheists reject Christianity not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true.

Those attempting to explain atheist non-belief as a product of wishful thinking sometimes quote atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who in his book The Last Word, says:

It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.[i]

But is this the view of most atheists? Surely the Christian message is one of hope. It provides numerous attractive reassurances, especially about death and justice. In particular, it promises that we can be reunited with our dead loved ones beyond the grave, that we and they can live in joy forever, and that people will ultimately get their just deserts. These are appealing beliefs for most of us.

Indeed, that Christianity is not, as a rule, the sort of thing people want to be true is fairly obviously contradicted by the manner in which Christians tend to promote it. They often place at least as much emphasis on how wonderful it would be if Christianity were true as on any intellectual case that might be made in its support.

Wishful-thinking-based explanations for the failure of individuals to appreciate the reasonableness of Christian belief also run into trouble with those tortured individuals who struggle valiantly to keep their faith but lose it nonetheless. Their rejection of Christianity does not appear to be motivated by wishful thinking. Quite the opposite.

Atheists don’t want to believe in eternal damnation

Friday, May 24, 2013

Reposting for Heythrop students - stats on philosophy graduates (and religion too)

If you are wondering what kind of degree programme is likely to boost your general smarts, consider these figures.

Go here. This is one of several graphs from the above article. Based on GRE test performance (Graduate Record Examination) of graduate programme applicants. Quantitative (math) skills on the vertical axis, verbal skills on the horizontal (other graphs include the third component - "analytical writing", at which philosophers also excel, dramatically outperforming all others).

Philosophy graduates are pretty damn smart, the various figures suggest, compared to graduates with other degrees, including most - perhaps even all - sciences (though were they smarter to begin with, or did their degree programme make them smarter, compared to other degrees?). Check the article. Here's the original table of GRE scores of US students completing a variety of degrees.

Notice religion also does very well.

This data suggests (but falls a long way short of establishing) that if we want to produce graduates with general, across-the-board smarts, physics and philosophy are disciplines to encourage [and possibly also that accountancy and business administration should be discouraged (this confirms all my prejudices, I am pleased to say!)].

Note some very weird stats on this graph, such as business administration's woeful performance, doing less well than even "art and performance" on quantitative skills and verbal skills (which is staggering). And accountancy grads less good on quantitative skills than philosophy grads (!) and the worst performers of all on verbal skills. Both business and accountancy are also weak on the analytic writing component.

Of course, as the new business-friendly, market-led Tory vision of degree provision kicks in, we'll probably see philosophy departments up and down the country closing and business administration degrees expanding. Brilliant.

P.S. Just added a second graph comparing analytical writing and verbal. Check out e.g business administration. And where's philosophy?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Correction to Believing Bullshit, chpt 2.

Here's an endnote I am adding to a chapter I am contributing to the upcoming Handbook on Humanism (edited by AC Grayling and Andrew Copson [Wiley Blackwell publisher]). I now realize I got something wrong in chapter 2 of my book Believing Bullshit, so might as well set the record straight publicly. Here's the endnote of the chapter I am now writing for the new book [n.b. YEC = Young Earth Creationism]:

Elsewhere I have said that because Ken Ham’s theory makes no predictions – takes no risks – regarding the fossil record, so it cannot be confirmed by the fossil record. See “But It Fits!” in my Believing Bullshit (Amherst NY: Prometheus Press, 2011). I now realize I did not get this quite right. Were we to start excavating fossils that were clearly stamped “Made by God in 4,004 BC”, etc., that might indeed confirm – even strongly confirm – YEC, despite the fact that YEC does not predict such a discovery. True, such a discovery may not be probable given YEC, but, given the discovery is nevertheless considerably more probable on YEC than otherwise, it would still confirm YEC to a significant degree. 

So here's what I should have said in Believing Bullshit (from the new chapter):

Heythrop College, University of London - my open day welcome talk

I have been teaching philosophy at Heythrop College for seventeen years. This was my first full-time teaching appointment after leaving Oxford. Unlike many academics keen to climb the career ladder - and who consequently tend to migrate from one institution to another at the beginning of their careers - I have stayed put. I have stayed here at Heythrop for my entire career. Why? 

Friday, May 17, 2013

New video on religion and free speech

Jacob Mchangama's excellent short video on religion and free speech is here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Book coming out end of the year (to which I contribute)

The Oxford Handbook of Atheism
Editors: Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s University College)
and Michael Ruse (Florida State University)
Introduction: The Study of Atheism – Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s) and Michael Ruse (Florida State)
Part 1: Definitions and Debates
1. Defining ‘Atheism’ – Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s)
2. The Case against Atheism – T. J. Mawson (Oxford)
3. Critiques of Theistic Arguments – A. C. Grayling (Birkbeck)
4. Arguments for Atheism – Graham Oppy (Monash)
5. Problems of Evil – Michael L. Peterson (Asbury)
6. Atheism and Morality – Erik J. Wielenberg (DePauw)
7. Atheism and the Meaningfulness of Life – Kimberly A. Blessing (Buffalo State)
8. Aquinas and Atheism – Brian Davies (Fordham)
Part 2: History of (Western) Atheism
9. The Pre-Socratics to the Hellenistic Age – David Sedley (Cambridge)
10. The Roman Empire to the End of the First Millennium – Mark Edwards (Oxford)
11. The Medieval Period – Dorothea Weltecke (Konstanz)
12. Renaissance and Reformation – Denis Robichaud (Notre Dame)
13. The Age of Enlightenment – Alan C. Kors (Pennsylvania)
14. The Nineteenth Century – David Nash (Oxford Brookes)
15. The Twentieth Century – Callum Brown (Dundee)
16. New Atheism – Thomas Zenk (Berlin Free)
Part 3: Worldviews and Systems
17. Humanism – Stephen Law (Heythrop)
18. Existentialism – Alison Stone (Lancaster)
19. Marxism – Peter Thompson (Sheffield)
20. Analytic Philosophy – Charles Pigden (Otago)
21. Jewish Atheism – Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown)
22. Buddhism – Andrew Skilton (SOAS)
23. Jainism – Anne Vallely (Ottawa)
24. Hinduism – Jessica Frazier (Kent)
Part 4: Atheism and the Natural Sciences
25. Naturalism and the Scientific Method – Michael Ruse (Florida State)
26. Atheism and the Rise of Science – Taner Edis (Truman)
27. Atheism and Darwinism) – David P. Barash (Washington)
28. Atheism and the Physical Sciences – Victor J. Stenger (Colorado)
Part 5: Atheism and the Social Sciences
29. Atheism and the Secularization Thesis – Frank L. Pasquale and Barry A. Kosmin (ISSSC)
30. Psychology of Atheism –Miguel Farias (Oxford)
31. Atheism and Cognitive Science – Jonathan Lanman (Oxford)
32. Atheism and Societal Health – Phil Zuckerman (Pitzer)
33. Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality – Melanie A. Brewster (Columbia)
34. Atheism, Health and Well-being – Karen Hwang (Center for Atheist Research)
35. Conversion and Deconversion – Ralph W. Hood and Zhuo Chen (Tennessee)
Part 6: Global Expressions
36. A World of Atheism: Global Demographics – Ariela Keysar (Trinity) and Juhem Navarra-Rivera (Connecticut)
37. Western Europe – Lois Lee (Cambridge)
38. North America – Ryan T. Cragun (Tampa), Joseph H. Hammer (Iowa State), Jesse M. Smith (Colorado)
39. Central and Eastern Europe – Irena Borowik (Jagiellonian), Branko Ančić (Institute for Social Research), Radosław Tyrała (AGH)
40. Islamic World  – Samuli Schielke (ZMO, Berlin)
41. India – Johannes Quack (Heidelberg)
42. Japan – Sarah Whylly (Florida State)
Part 7: Atheism and the Arts
43. Literature – Bernard Schweizer (Long Island)
44.Visual Arts  – J. Sage Elwell (TCU)
45.Music  – Paul Bertagnolli (Houston)
46.Film – Nina Power (Roehampton)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My Blackham Lecture next Friday: How Do We Raise Moral Children?

Blackham Lecture 2013: How do we raise moral children? Presented by Stephen Law

What is our best protection against moral catastrophes such as the Holocaust and killing fields of Cambodia? Are such events a product of the collapse of traditional religious authority and the rise of secularism and atheism? Must we either return to traditional religious values and authority, or slide into moral relativism and nihilism? How do we raise moral citizens?

Chaired by Adrian Bailey from Birmingham Humanists, and introduced by Jane Wynne Willson.

Date: 17 May, 2013
Time: 7:00 pm for 7.30 pm start – 9.30 pm

About the speaker:
Stephen Law worked as a postman before first entering university as a mature student at the age of 24. He has a B.Phil and D.Phil in philosophy from the University of Oxford and was a stipendiary Junior Research Fellow in philosophy at Queen’s College, Oxford, for three years.  He is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, Provost of Centre for Inquiry UK, and a member of the Humanist Philosophers Group.

He gave the first BHA Darwin Day lecture “Is creationism scientific?” in February 2002, and also wrote “Sleight of hand with faith”.

Specialist topics include: relevance of philosophy; philosophy and religion; philosophy and children; moral education; creationism v evolution.

Stephen is editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s new popular journal of philosophy Think: Philosophy For Everyone, and the author of a number of popular philosophy books, including The Philosophy Files (Orion, for adults and children 12+), The Philosophy Gym (Headline, winner of the Mindelheim philosophy prize), The Xmas Files and a book on faith schools called The War for Children’s Minds (Routledge). His most recent books include Really, Really Big Questions, for children age 9+ (Kingfisher), A Very Short Introduction to Humanism (2011), and Believing Bullshit (2011).

May 17th, 2013 7:00 PM   through   9:30 PM
Moseley Exchange
149-153 Alcester Road
Birmingham, B13 8JP
United Kingdom

The Meaning of Life: the Alpha Course vs. Philosophy

Extract from my OUP book Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, which references the Alpha Course (it's from chpt 7)
Religion vs. shallow, selfish individualism

Let’s now turn to religious practice. Setting aside the issue of whether God exists, perhaps it might still be argued that religious reflection or observance is required if our lives are not to be shallow and meaningless. Here is one such argument.

It is sometimes claimed, with some justification, that religion encourages people to take a step back and reflect on the bigger questions. Even many non-religious people suppose that a life lived out in the absence of any such reflection is likely to be rather shallow. Contemporary Western society is obsessed with things that are, in truth, comparatively worthless: money, celebrity, material possessions, etc. Our day-to-day lives are out often lived out within a narrow envelope of essentially selfish concerns, with little or no time given to contemplating bigger questions. It was religious tradition and practice that provided the framework within which such questions were once addressed. With the loss of religion, we have inevitably slid into selfish individualism. If we want people to enjoy a more meaningful existence, we need to reinvigorate religious tradition and practice (some would add that we need, in particular, to ensure young people are properly immersed in such practices in school).

There is some truth in the above argument. Religion can encourage people to take a step back and contemplate the bigger issues. It can help break the hypnotic spell that a shallow, individualistic culture can cast over young minds.

However, religion can itself also promote forms of selfishness – such as a self-interested obsession with achieving ones own salvation or personal enlightenment. And of course religion has itself been used to glorify material wealth, by suggesting that great wealth is actually a sign of God’s favour.

Is it true that only religion encourages us to think about the big questions? No. In chapter 1 we saw that there is another long tradition of thought running all the way back to the Ancient world that also addresses the big questions – a secular, philosophical tradition. If we want people, and especially children, to think about such questions, we are not obliged to take the religious route. We can encourage them to think philosophically.

Indeed, as I point out in chapter 6, there is evidence that introducing philosophy programmes into the curriculum can have a dramatic impact on both the behaviour of pupils and the ethos and academic standing of their schools.

Most contemporary humanists are just as concerned about shallow, selfish individualism as are religious people. They too believe it is important we should sometimes take a step back and consider the big questions. They just deny that the only way to encourage a more responsible and reflective attitude to life is to encourage children to be more religious.

If we want to encourage young people to really think about the big questions, philosophy is, arguably, a much more promising approach. The Church of England poses the question “Is this it?” on billboards and buses, promising those who sign up to their Alpha Course “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”. However, when the religious raise such questions, they are often posed for rhetorical effect only. They are asked, not in the spirit of open, rational enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to sign up new recruits. Unlike religion, philosophy does not approach such questions having already committed itself to certain answers (though it does not rule out religious answers, of course).  Philosophy really does encourage you to think, question and make your own judgement – an approach to answering the Big Questions that, in reality, many religions have traditionally been keen to suppress.

Recommendation: If you are interested in exploring the meaning of life, an alternative to the Alpha Course is to get into Philosophy instead. Why not try this?!


Friday, May 10, 2013

Baudrillard - J'accuse!

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Prof Paul Taylor chose for the Radio 3 programme we recorded to be broadcast tonite at 10pm (I am talking about pseudo-profundity and bullshit and pointing a finger at some post-modern thinkers - listen here for a week [I am on from about 14mins30]):

For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been "discovered", and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn't every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades ... the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.

Paul thought this quote encapsulated some deep insight about science (which he illustrated with an example of an actual remote tribe, the Tasaday indians, who had to retreat further into the forest in order to remain an uncontacted tribe [PS correction, I am muddling two tribes here - Tasaday are Phillipino; the tribe that had to retreat were Brazillian], whom people nevertheless then tried to photograph from a plane [Paul has a paper on this here]).

My view is: this quotation appears as it stands to be a combination of a banal observation and a ludicrous falsehood, puffed up into an impressive linguistic souffle and pretentiously topped off with a reference to Greek mythology.


Well, it is true that ethnology, the study of cultures, can sometimes end up destroying (or at the very least changing) the cultures it studies, if e.g. the culture of a remote rainforest tribe.

But this simple point that science sometimes destroys what it studies, by studying it, is not new. William Wordsworth, back in 1798, said:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect
Yes, we do sometimes murder to dissect. I might kill an individual insect in order to study its anatomy.

That we sometimes destroy what we study (in the process of studying it) is true, but it's a rather banal, humdrum point that, as I say, Wordsworth made well over a hundred years before Baudrillard. It's an uncontroversial observation with which we can and no doubt will all agree.

But of course this is not to say that to investigate something scientifically always involves destroying what's being investigated. That's obviously false. Indeed it's a ludicrous suggestion. Someone who studies galaxies does not thereby destroy them. Nor, by dissecting an insect, do I destroy the species knowledge of which I acquire by my dissection.

Yet Baudrillard goes on to suggests every science does ultimately do precisely that - it cuts itself off from and destroys its own subject matter.

However, such is the high falutin, flowery way in which Baudrillard makes the slide from banal observation to ludicrous falsehood that many of us will fail to spot his sleight of hand - that a banality has indeed been replaced by a falsehood. We'll be too distracted by the seductive analogy drawn with Orpheus and Eurypides to spot the conjurer's switcheroo.

By the time we reach the end of the Baudrillard quotation, he's combining words so cryptically it's hard to know what he is talking about. Science's "autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form" Eh? Try translating that back into plain English.

But by this stage it doesn't matter that Baudrillard is drifting into gibberish. In fact it's very much to his advantage. For, once Baudrillard has got you to come as far as accepting the obviously false but nevertheless terrifically exciting skeptical conclusion: "Oh Wow! Yes science does always destroy, cuts itself off from, what it seeks to know, doesn't it?" you are likely to think there must be some still deeper insight contained within his parting gibberish (only it's really, really deep and that's why Baudrillard needs to resort to such convoluted and baffling prose to try to articulate it).

At this point, it's job done for Baudrillard. He can sit back, adopt a sage like expression, and let you start doing the intellectual labour for him.

Of course there may be great insight contained elsewhere in the work of Baudrillard. But I cannot detect anything terribly impressive in the brief quote presented above.

P.S. Notice that the above quotation, unpacked, turns out to be very close to what Daniel Dennett calls a deepity: a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be "earth-shattering" if true.

Pseudo-profundity and Intellectuals - I'm on BBC Radio 3 tonite

I will be on BBC Radio 3 The Verb Tonight discussing "intellectuals" and pseudo-profundity. I had a right old punch up with Prof Paul Taylor (Communications Studies, University of Leeds). But we made up afterwards over cake.

You can here it live tonite 10pm and on the website for a week after that:

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Paul chose for the programme:

For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been "discovered", and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn't every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades ... the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.

I suggested this quotation was a combination of a banal observation and a falsehood, tarted up with a reference to Greek mythology. I read out an edited bit from my book Believing Bullshit: How Not To Fall Into An Intellectual Black Hole:


Pseudo-profundity is the art of sounding profound while talking tosh. Unlike the art of actually being profound, the art of sounding profound is not particularly difficult to master. As we’ll see, there are certain basic recipes that can produce fairly convincing results – good enough to convince others, and perhaps even yourself, that you have gained some sort of profound insight into the human condition.

State the obvious

To begin with, try pointing out the blindingly obvious. Only do it i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y and with an air of superior wisdom. The technique works best if your pronouncements focus on one of life’s big themes, such as love, money and death. So, for example:

We were all children once
Money can’t buy you love
Death is unavoidable

State the obvious in a sufficiently earnest way, perhaps following up with a pregnant pause, and you may find others begin to nod in agreement, perhaps murmering “Yes, how very true that is”.

Contradict yourself

A second technique is to select words with opposite or incompatible meanings and cryptically combine them in what appears to be a straightforward contradiction. Here are a few examples:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

If you’re an aspiring guru, why not produce your own contradictory remarks? The great beauty of such comments is that they make your audience do the work for you. Their meaning is not for you, the guru, to say – it’s for your followers to figure out. Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let them do the intellectual labour.

None of this is to say that such seemingly contradictory remarks can’t convey something genuinely profound. But, given the formulaic way contradictions can be used to generate pseudo-profundity, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.
Sadly ( it’s not just lifestyle gurus etc  who use language in this way)  some corners of  academia are dominated by intellectuals whose writing amounts to little than pseudo-profundity. Strip away the academic jargon and pseudo-scientific references from their impressive-sounding pronouncements and you’ll find there’s precious little left.

Those thinkers often referred to as “post-modern” include more than their fair share of such jargon-fuelled poseurs. So easy is it, in fact, to produce convincing-looking post-modern gobbledegook that a wag called Andrew Bulhak constructed a computer programme that will write you your own “post-modern” essay, complete with references.
I just did and received an essay that begins:

The primary theme of Cameron’s model of neostructural Marxism is the common ground between society and culture. Sontag’s analysis of Debordist situation states that society has objective value. However, Marx promotes the use of Marxist socialism to analyse class. Debordist situation holds that the goal of the observer is deconstruction. Therefore, the subject is interpolated into a neostructural Marxism that includes art as a paradox. Several materialisms concerning semanticist subdialectic theory may be found.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Draft of chpt on Humanism, science reason, skepticism, for comments please

Draft of a chpt for a popular book on Humanism. This is most recent, longer version. Some notes etc. missing. Still pretty rough.

Humanism: Science, Reason and Skepticism[1]

What are science and reason?

Humanists expound the virtues of science and reason. But what are science and reason? And we should we think it wise to rely on them?

By science, I shall mean that approach to finding out about reality based on the scientific method. This is a method that was fully developed only a few hundred years ago. Science, as I’ll use the term here, is a comparatively recent invention, its development owing a great deal to 16th and 17th Century thinkers such as the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

So what is the scientific method? Here’s a very rough sketch.[2] Scientists collect data through observation and experiment. They formulate hypotheses and broader theories about the nature of reality to account for what they observe. Crucially, they also test their theories. Scientists derive from their theories predictions that can be independently checked by observation.

Take for example, the old Aristotelean theory that all heavenly objects revolve around the earth. With the aid of an early telescope Galileo observed that Jupiter had moons that revolved around it, not the Earth. He thereby falsified Aristotle’s theory.