Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Manifesto for Non-Belief

Somebody recently pointed me in the direction of this website.
It contains 17 propositions and some quotes and links around the theme of questioning and challenging the way we think about the world.
I'd welcome any comments on this.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Supernatural

Is this term an oxymoron? I suspect it is. Or at least, I think the worldview it describes is incoherent.

J.B.S. Haldane said;

“Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Which suggests to me the following hierarchy of possibilities:

1) The universe is queerer than we suppose.
2) The universe is queerer than we can suppose (Haldane)
3)The universe is queerer than we will ever be able to suppose
4) The universe is queerer than anything can suppose
5) The universe is queerer than anything will ever be able to suppose

So is 'supernatural' a contingent term, dependent on some specific time and epistemic horizon, or is it a statement of principle?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

An Open Mind

Recently, whilst debating on the Today message board, I have noticed a polarization between those who regard themselves as old school atheists and the so called New Atheists. The former are characterized as 'open minded' whilst the latter are seen as 'zealots'.
I am sceptical about the concept of open mindedness. It might be true that a psychometric index of flexibility of thought, or receptivity to new patterns of information might credibly be formulated and tested. I do wonder whether people can accurately assess this in the course of debate though. For example, are we swayed by irrelevant factors when deciding how open minded a contributor to a debate is? Factors like how much their position conflicts with ours and how confrontational their style of debate seems.
I wonder whether there is a direct correlation between the cognitive flexibility of a person and how open minded they seem to be. My initial thought is that there is not.
What do you think?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Meaning and Purpose

For some theists, the question of the so called 'meaning of life' is related to the question 'what is my purpose'. This is because their idea of meaning is bound up with the fulfillment of god's plan.
The word 'purpose' has two distinct uses:

1) The purpose of a corkscrew is to open bottles. It was specifically designed to fulfil this purpose.

2)My purpose in opening the fridge was to get some chilled water to drink.

Some theists think that in order to have purpose in a truly meaningful sense, there has to be an overarching type 1 purpose that we have been specifically created by god in order to fulfill. My contention is that we can get along fine with type 2 purposes.

So, if we were made to fulfil some plan or higher purpose of god, would that in itself guarantee that our lives would be 'meaningful' in the sense that most people would recognise? Surely it might depend on what god's plan actually is? After all, if it emerged that god created us specifically to be food for a highly intelligent scavenging intergalactic species that were due to pass through our solar system soon, I imagine that there would be muttering in the pews.
The trouble is, Christians don't seem to be able to give us much in the way of a meaningful description of god's purpose.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Faith: Definition Creep

It seems that there are still plenty of people who want to argue that there is no difference between atheism and theism with regards to the requirement and nature of faith.
Sometimes this seems to be due to a naive conception of atheism that claims absolute knowledge of the non existence of god. There are very few atheists who actually think this way in my experience though. Another common reason is the collection of arguments regarding extreme scepticism and the foundations of knowledge. It is argued that we must have faith in, say, the Uniformity of Nature in order to live our lives. Well, an argument can be put for that but it seems to rest on an equivocation to me. Faith in this sense does not seem to bear much of a resemblance to the kind of faith required to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The basis for lack of belief

I recently was asked these questions by Paul:

And you are an atheist because of the "evidence?"
You have evidence that the universe burst into existence due to some natural phenomena?
You have evidence that its delicately tuned laws of physics are a lucky roll of the dice because we are one of infinite universes?
You have evidence that life actually arose from simple chemistry?
You have evidence that a prokaryote has changed into a eukaryote, and you know the chemical pathways?
You have evidence that consciousness, will, emotion, and morality can be produced from complex chemistry?
You have evidence that Jesus didn't actually say what is claimed and rise from the dead?

And then he ended with this statement:
I think there are surely some presuppositions haunting your thinking.

Surely there must be presuppositions to thought. I don't see it as a haunting though. I do see that one presupposition is the notion of the burden of proof. A better phrase might be the burden of evidence. Some of these questions I can answer in the affirmative, others I regard as an attempt to shift the burden of evidence. I wonder if my assessment coincides with anyone else's.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Rationality of Faith

I recently read a paper: The Rationality of Science and the Rationality of Faith, Theodore J. Everett, Journal of Philosophy Vol. 98, No. 1. (Jan., 2001), pp. 19-42.

It made for interesting reading. The main points were:
1) That the prevailing orthodoxy that traditional 'non-scientific' beliefs derive from non rational causes is mistaken.
2)most scientists ought not to believe their own theories.

Everett draws a distinction between 'objective rationality' and 'subjective rationality'. He then argues that it is subjectively rational in most cases for people to believe in their local traditions since for a given individual, the probability that they know better than most other people around them is small. By a similar argument, scientists or intellectuals putting forward new theories ought to realise that the likelihood of them being correct in contradiction to what most of their peers think is also small.
There are some atheists that seem to me to have a simplified view of the nature of, and reasons for belief and faith which is counter productive and hampers dialogue. Some theists also evince a stereotyped view of atheists as being amoral and smug. people like Everett, Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) and Michael Frayn (The Human Touch) are a few of the voices that might serve to counter this polarization.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


What is truth? Recently in the comment sections of this blog it was put to me that truth is a function of language. This may well be right, I suspect that it is. On the other hand this might just put the problem of the nature of truth at one extra remove, since we can say truth is a function of language and then ask: what is language a function of?
If the correspondence theory of truth is mired in circularity because we have to use language itself to describe what the truth of a proposition could correspond to, what is the alternative?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Faith and Reason

I was wondering if anybody could shed light on what I regard as a puzzle. Do those who have faith have to arbitrarily stop reasoning beyond a certain point? In order to interpret what it is one has faith in, reason must be used but that same facility will also tell you that your faith is not based on sound evidence (by definition). So how is that delicate equilibrium maintained? Or is the situation, on closer inspection, no different to how things are for an agnostic like me?Some might want to argue that one needs faith in order to accept Reason without proof and that you can't prove the validity of Reason itself without circularity. However, rejection of Reason is self refuting, so I don't think one needs faith, in the ordinary sense of the word, to accept Reason on a rational basis without proof.
Of course, if your reason leads you to a position which you regard as compatible with your faith position there will be no risk of cognitive dissonance at the interface between faith and reason. But if, as I have, you come to the conclusion that there is no rational basis for belief in any of the religious truth claims, yet you still have faith, how does that work?