Quick Fire Round

New Testament Round

  1. If the rise of Christianity is evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, do you also believe in the tablets Joseph Smith claimed to find because of the rise of Mormonism?
  2. Sathya Sai Baba (died 2011)
    1. Sathya Sai Baba has witnesses to his miraculous healing of others, resurrections and virgin birth (among other miracles). Are you less convinced by Sathya Sai Baba’s witnesses in this modern context than Jesus’ witnesses in the 1st century?
    2. If so, why?
  3. Where did Jesus tell his disciples to go after his resurrection?

Old Testament Round

  1. What does archaeological evidence say about the Exodus of the slaves from Egypt?
  2. Cain
    1. What happened to Cain after he killed Abel?
    2. If you answered “He got married”, who did he marry?
    3. If you answered that the Earth no was no longer fertile for him, how did humanity continue (with his brother dead and him unable to eat)?
  3. How many sons did Abraham have?
  4. What should a healthy person’s lifespan be, approximately?

The Qur’anic Round

  1. Is there a Geographic and literal point on Earth where the sun sets into a murky puddle?
  2. Did Mohammed literally fly on a winged horse?
  3. (If you answered “No” to either of the above) How can you tell the Qur’an is scientifically accurate when it indulges in non-literal descriptions?
  4. What are stars?
  5. Give details on the size and distance from the Earth of the moon and sun.


Why do theologians and sceptics talk past each other on the question of God’s “goodness”? And which have a better point?

The question of whether a God character is “good” has continued for thousands of years. Since Epicurus, since Job. The position of the sceptic tends to assume the idea that humans have some idea of what morality is and approximate ways to benchmark it against God’s actions (either in Books or in nature), but the theologian doubts humanity has any idea what morality can look like. Theologians delegate their concerns on morality to God, being willing to make some conflation between God’s authority and Its morality. The sceptics are woolly and the theologians are messengers.

David Hume made some basic observations in A Treatise of Human Nature about how we face new situations: he observed that we are making moral decisions all the time, seem largely to be in agreement and people can comprehend our thinking. Hume pointed to that consistency as evidence that there is some principle or passion behind it, even if the principle is invisible to induction. Those principles are what we might call our “humanity”. Basic principles, which attempts have been made to condense―”do unto others…”, “first do no harm”―is an innate or a priori structure within us. We have ideas now that such prosocial ideas may be part of our genetic legacy, and we basically know what it looks like.

Morality looks like the intent to avoid harm and effect happiness; it looks like not acting solely for yourself and no inhibiting others ability to make informed decisions; it looks like affection and caring and it doesn’t look like a Semtex vest or an assault rifle. Sam Harris argued that another structure morality comes from is our brain, by being the parchment on which our wellbeing is written thus allowing us to read the effects of an action and talking about having safeguarded wellbeing. (Although, Harris seems to have abandoned his consequentialist moral framework to have far too binary a discussion with Noam Chomsky.)

These structures are easily overruled. We battle our selfish interests against our ethical ones, but we and those around us identify the difference. Selfishness is a separate and identifiable phenomenon. And by identifiying selfishness and uncoupling it from morality, we can avoid the confusion of ‘human nature’ and morality being the same. As we separate the elements of human nature we can start to extrapolate to see what the nature of morality really is.

The point here is that the sceptical and humanist understanding of morality emanates from us; we have structures that allow us to implement justice and evaluate actions. Although the exact nature of these structures is difficult to articulate and still under discussion, the idea that we rest at the core of morality is the point. We rest there, even if morality is relative to our existence or a construct as artificial as tax law. And that gives way to definitions of “good” that theologians just don’t engage with.

Theologians define good as irrevocably emanating from God. Unlike humans, who have core principles but wrestle with selfishness and self-interest and project an imperfect morality, God demonstrates perfect morality. God’s omniscience and perfection necessitates that God is absolutely good. More notably, that one must be perfect and omniscient to be absolutely good, that negates human’s ability to discuss goodness without reference to God. Human approximations to morality through “first do no harm” don’t even have to be close because all human efforts are immediately void. No matter how much God’s actions―known through natural phenomena or particular Books―offend our sensibilities, they are good.

Theologians recognise that it becomes nearly impossible to put content to morality through this definition. Holy wars are permitted and God can command rape, but only if the principles and the exact circumstance interact in such a way that permit it. But we have no access to the principles and so cannot make any judgements ever: we can not know what “good” will look like, we just have an authoritarian reason to believe it exists (based on bad assumptions).

What becomes apparent here is that sceptics and theologians are using the word “good” very differently. In fact, they are basically different words that share a spelling. And that underpins the reason the two groups talk past each other in discussions of morality and God’s nature. If we were to take the theologian definition of goodness―”God’s nature”―and append it to a new word, like “Divoodine”, the discussion would immediately become clear. Goodness and divoodinity clearly are not the same thing. And so the nature of the question becomes one of whether we should respect the good or the divoodine more.

Obviously, if there is no reason to believe in a God then there is no reason to pay any deference to the divoodine at all. But theologians talk on the assumption of a God, so I shall do them the favour of speaking from that perspective: even in a world with a God, why should we prefer the divoodine over the good? Most famously, the answers are to do with the carrot and the stick (Heaven and Hell), God’s immense power or God’s authority based on the fact It is our Creator. The first two are clearly born from fear, and I don’t see that it is worth spending our time on them. The latter is odd; it plays on our sense of goodness to see what deference we owe God for being our ultimate parent (else, it is just more fear-mongering about how a dissatisfied will assume the right to kill us. That also doesn’t warrant our attention when we are discussing what is good; only the attention we can afford it from fear). Even if we assume a God to be real, and our Creator, what respect do we owe this divoodinity, just because It is reflected in such values? Do we owe our parents’ ideas respect, regardless of what those ideas are? No. And trying to guilty us into disregarding goodness for divoodinity is an idea worth ignoring.

The human idea of good, that Hume observed we consistently share and understand of each other, doesn’t need to be respected; it is shared. We already have it and understand it. And we have long understood its benefit to us as a society and as a species.

The Whining Left, Democracy and Politics of the Future

I voted Labour. Everyone I know who actually voted, voted Labour (unless they voted Green, which is not voting). Except, a lot of people I know who voted haven’t told me who they voted for. They voted Conservative. And I think that is the cause of the protests; because the Conservative voters are quieter, no one thinks that’s what anyone voted for. Because the public pro-Conservative voice is so quiet, in the back of many people’s minds is the idea that the vote was rigged some how. Which is was.

I didn’t want The Conservatives to win. And we have a term for people like me in politics: “tough shit”. The Conservatives won, now is time to shut up about ‘not being heard’ and get on with it. Half the people claiming not to have been heard are the Russell Brand audience, and if you didn’t vote you don’t get to complain. If you don’t place an order, you get what you’re given.

An unnerving number of people voted UKIP. In fact, the number of people who voted UKIP has been used as an excuse to block any discussion about other voting methods (anything other than our current first-past-the-post approach). But our current voting system is what rigged our vote. Every other system of voting we’ve taken the time to consider would have lead to UKIP having more power in this government than they actually do. UKIP got a rather staggering 12.6% of the votes, but only got 1 seat (out of 650).

I don’t want UKIP in power, but if I use that as an excuse to keep the first-past-the-post voting then I am intentionally scuppering democracy and preferring a system that exaggerates my voice. Which brings me to the protestors…

Protesting the Conservatives winning is simply a case of wanting yourself to be overheard. The Conservatives won. In any running of the votes, in any system of counting, The Conservatives won. I don’t like it, but protesting it is flipping off at democracy. You don’t get 1.5 votes because you’re a bit angrier.

I know this sounds a little “democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner…” and I do know how that quote ends: “… and liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting that vote.” So, how do we contest the vote? Proportional Representation.

According the BBC, proportional representation would have stripped a lot of the power from the two major parties. Admittedly UKIP would have gotten more seats, but that’s what we voted for (you strange country of mine). But The Conservatives would have been moderated by a greater Labour and Green Party voice, not to mention The Conservatives simply wouldn’t have the same amount of power.

Those of you who are protesting, the Government isn’t listening. Why would it? It knows you are in the minority precisely because they won the election. And with our terrifyingly binary ‘first to get 50% of the seats’ system, we don’t need to protest austerity, we need to protest the way we vote.

I still think we should vote for Google as our political leader. And I’m not joking. Google has the resources to process a lot of data, from a lot of countries over a lot of time. The history of British, French, American, Nordic (and so on) political decisions and consequences could be loaded up and real, scientific data could be produced on how you actually increase wellbeing, improve employment and run a healthcare system. Google has the power to run a country not on ideology, but numbers and cold, pitiless, indifferent numbers.

A vote for Google is a vote for metadata.
I should probably admit to having made this Knowledge Card myself, it is not something Google has actually made. But I think it is possible.

Do Antidepressants work? (Why having “PhD” on the cover doesn’t make it a reliable book)

A friend of mine is going through a hard time: on the verge of divorce, hates her job, suffering through depression. And she’s a really clever woman; a physics teacher, in fact. So, when she told me she had started researching her condition―depression―and found a book by a PhD graduate called The Emperor’s New Drugs by Irving Kirsch that said antidepressants aren’t more effective than a placebo, I was shocked. I mean, I was in a room with a former psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants and found they do work, but that’s just anecdotal, surely?

So I had this strange feeling: a received wisdom about the efficacy of antidepressants which had been attested to by a psychiatrist I knew and a friends’ mother who actually used them and recovered was being challenged by someone I know to be clever citing a book by a PhD whose research was peer reviewed in this area: he’s a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Now what?

Well, the book isn’t peer reviewed, only the research in the bibliography was researched. I didn’t immediately believe that a Harvard Medical School lecturer and PhD would intentionally write a book saying the contrary to what their peer reviewed science said, because Kirsch wouldn’t be able to claim misinterpretation of his own published work.

But, Kirsch’s peer reviewed research does show that antidepressants are more effective than a placebo. The abstract of a 2008 paper Kirsch was an author of says “Drug–placebo differences increased as a function of initial severity”, and that where it matters―the severely depressed―the authors are in no doubt the antidepressants are statistically and clinically significant (this is where it matters because this is where antidepressants are used as a part of treatment; before this, NICE guidelines recommend therapy).

Not only that, but the Wikipedia page about the book talks about the failures of their statistical analysis. (See the Wikipedia page here.)

So, what’s my point? My point is that a book by a reputable sounding person in a scientific field is still only as good as the peer reviewed literature. It would still be an appeal to an authority to accept Kirsch’s book as an authority on the matter, especially as it doesn’t reflect his research, research on the field as a whole or the consensus of doctors in the field working with the best data available today.

Of Atheists and Aliens

A lot of atheists believe in aliens. At least, Dean Smith’s post on the blog Open The Word seems to claim so. Initially I doubted the claim and so I went on a search of reasons not to doubt the claim. A sort of optimistic Descartes-ian fact-finding mission. (I actually gave up on this endeavour until Smith posted a follow-up.) Smith’s post uses David Weintraub’s book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life as a source. The exact statistic in question is this: 55% of atheists believe in aliens. I then tried to find Weintraub’s source for his claim, and it appears that Weintraub’s book is the reference. There is nothing wrong with this―original research is to be encouraged―but I still wanted a closer look at the data.

My mind sort of autocorrected the quoted statistic the first time I read to; I understood the quote as 55% of atheists acknowledge the possibility of aliens. But that is not what general media published and not the stance that Smith defended in his post and comments (now closed). They all maintained the statistic that 55% of atheists held an active belief in aliens. The book is too expensive to buy on the back of curiosity, so I don’t have access to that, so I wanted to look up the actual research. If, as the media and Smith maintain, the idea that 55% of atheists believe in aliens was reached via a piece of independent research for this book, what exactly was the research?

I suspect it was some sort of a survey. And so what I really want to know is what the questions were. If the question was about the acceptance of the possibility then Weintraub’s characterisation of the data representing actual belief is wrong. If, however, the question was explicitly about an active belief in aliens then it seems a little at odds. That oddness may be peculiar to me, as I expect most of my friends to be approximately consistent in how they evaluate evidence and so I expect a person to abstain from believe in God and aliens simultaneously.

It is not impossible to be consistent while believing in aliens and also not believing in God. The two claims―aliens exist and God exists―are not in a state of equal implausibility. Aliens, at least, can be sensibly, robustly and consistently defined as living organisms from another planet. Given that life arose here, it is plausible that it arose elsewhere in the universe as well, especially as the number of Earth-like planets is vast (based on the data from the Kepler space mission, Petigura, Howard and Marcy (2013) to be 40 billion in the Milky Way alone). Even this number does not account for all places with possible life, as life that depends on liquid methane in much colder regions is a plausible hypothetical. Such aliens could either be found or evidence of their metabolism could be gleaned from scanning a viable planet. Alternatively, God cannot be given a sensible, consistent, or robust definition; the definition of a God cannot be made sense of, free of paradoxes, or give predictive hypotheses to test.

I would be very wary of nestling a belief in aliens on top of big numbers and statistics, because the probability of life is still unknown and will be unless/until we understand more about abiogenesis. However, one could still consistently home such a belief in aliens while simultaneously rejecting a God.

Without access to the actual survey Weintraub claims to have carried out, and thus unable to tease acknowledged possibilities from active beliefs, I turned my Descartesian eyes to Weintraub himself: does he have a conflict of interest? David Weintraub is an astronomer at Vanderbilt University Tennessee. There is no Wikipedia page on him, but Vanderbilt University does have some publicly available information on him. He has a respectable list of refereed publications, none of which are about religion or sociology. But his online CV also starts to betray a conflict of interest: in 1998, he won a Templeton Foundation Award in Science and Religion. The Templeton Foundation is reputed as being aesthetically scientific, while funding pro-religious investigations and conclusions. While trying to find exactly what Weintraub got his award for (still not found) I discovered this interview (“Did Jesus Save the Klingons?”) in which he seems to reveal a fondness or Eastern religions. Atheism, though, doesn’t get a mention. I can’t find an explicit conflict of interest, I have found that he is reasonably knowledgeable about religion, sympathetic to Eastern religions and has an affiliation (that I can’t find details about) with a pseudo-openly religious organisation.

In short, Smith’s post citing Weintraub that 55% of atheists believe in aliens is highly open to doubt. The difference between belief and possibility is not cleared up, the survey is not openly available and the author who published this unclear statistic didn’t do so through peer-review and has possible conflicts of interest.

Are science and God Irreconcilable? Another perspective

Science can be seen as a method of creating reasoned knowledge through reliance on evidence, incredulous scepticism and human imagination. Each of these has its own function within the knowledge-creating methods of science. Evidence is probably the most easily recognised cornerstone of science, as evidence directs our thinking and grounds our area of scope. Imagination, perhaps the least recognised of these cornerstones, is required to join the dots of evidence together to form a narrative; without imagination each piece of evidence stands alone and would fail progress or give predictions. Imagination is required for making useful sense of the evidence we have. Here, we must be use to reign in our imagination so that we use the minimal number of lines to connect your evidence, to produce the most minimal narrative to explain the evidence; anything else would be overly creative. Imagination is also required in building and designing experiments in all part of science; here we want a little more creativity, but it can never really uncouple from logic. Incredulous scepticism is also highly important. It cannot be too high, for fear of slipping into solipsism; but it cannot be too low as to allow bad ideas slip through the gaps.

Good science, then, can be depicted as a series of sliders, like sliders on a volume control system, that reflect the traits and attributes of a methodology and its acceptance. For example, in the diagram below, the further to the left each slider is, the better the science is. Therefore the better the knowledge we derive from it is.

Good Science (1)

To better express what each of these sliders might look like, we’re going to have a look at where each slider belongs in the “scientific” approach to claiming that a God exists. Starting with imagination, we can unpick elements of the God proposal that rely so heavily on new existence and therefore heavily on imagination.

Religious imagination (1)

God is unlike anything we know or experience. If the God hypothesis were correct it would involve a new type of existence: one not dependent on matter, energy, thought or the interaction of any of them. God would be pure, independent, immaterial thought. Essentially, a new type of existence would have to be intellectually permitted to make room for a God. So unlike material or conscious existences that we know of an experience, God would be a stand alone and new fashion of being.

There is an irony here in that creationists then refuse to offer imagination to join the dots of the phylogenetic tree, fossil records or biogeography, and many other religious people make similarly limited assumptions about other scientific models that aren’t congruent with their religion.

Next, evidence:

Religious evidence (1)

Not only is the level of evidence low, it is getting lower. Coupled with an excessive imagination, all gaps in knowledge could once be twisted to be evidence for a God. After all, how else do you suppose to explain the diversity of life, without some method of evolution? Such a question couldn’t be answered and was once used to twist a God conclusion into the science. However, that opportunity evaporated with the discovery and subsequently relentless evidence in support of Darwinian evolution. Similar things are happening now in cosmology and cosmogony. Although it is true that we do not absolutely know where our universe came from, increasingly plausible answers are being found. From a new definition of “nothing” to eternal inflation, models without a God keep appearing and so the evidence for a God continues to recede.

You’ll notice the dial doesn’t indicate no evidence for God. There is some, but it’s poor: there will alway be a frontier to science with questions we don’t have full answers to, yet. And there is the frontier that religious “evidence” loses a little of every generation, but still insists on standing (like a house on a cliff’s edge).

Lastly, scepticism. And it follows that if the evidence is poor and the conclusion relies on outlandish and extreme imagination then the believers are not showing a proper level of scepticism:

Religious Scepticism (1)

Really, given that we are used to hearing that this is a matter of faith, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that God is not given any level of scepticism. Believers simply don’t ponder how compatible their God is with the overwhelming majority of evidence from our experiences and science; neither do they wonder the likelihood that today religion has it right when it has a history of losing so much ground.

God Science (1)