Thursday, December 28, 2006

The 'Courtier's Reply'

This pretty much sums up my view on criticisms that I've read to Richard Dawkins' book, "The God Delusion".

The criticism that people are not worshiping the god that Dawkins attacked is addressed from the outset in his book (p.36):

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise - as sure as night follows day - turn up in a review: 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.' The old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

That the very criticism that Dawkins takes great pains to address so early on in his book is, for me, a very good demonstration that his detractors have either not read the book, or - more likely - have deliberately set out to misrepresent his position.

Let's be quite clear what the sophisticated theology that Dawkins (and myself) have apparently failed to address must do:

  • It must demonstrate the existence of a god or gods. If it fails to do this, then anything else is idle speculation and deserves no more respect than speculating as to the colour of the emperor's new clothes.
  • Erm.. Well, that's pretty much it really. One would presume that were the existence of a god demonstrated as a fact, then one would then be able to address the nature of god directly, in much the same way as we can - for example - deduce the composition of stars.

The argument that a detractor of religion should not be taken seriously unless they have read all the "sophisticated" theological arguments before the existence of a god can be demonstrated is silly. Stranger Fruit says:

Whether The God Delusion offers evidence for a serious engagement with the philosophy of religion is a question for another day.

But the very point being made by PZ Meyers is that you cannot seriously engage in a theological question. It is a nonsense subject. One can no more seriously discuss the nature of god than one can debate the process by which (for example) telepathy or astrology works. In order for one to discuss the nature of a phenomena, it must first be demonstrated that such a phenomena is real.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Interesting junk mail

I received an interesting piece of junk this morning: interesting because it succeeded in combining my disgust at psychics, my disgust of junk mail (this happened to be the paper kind), and my contempt and disgust at cons.

This particular con purports to come from a "Gayle Winters, Clairvoyant of international standing - Life Energy Advisor". She can't be much of a clairvoyant if she wasn't able to forsee that I wouldn't send this straight on to the ASA (after blogging about it first, naturally).

It all begins with very normal new-age mumbo-jumbo

John, it's disgraceful that people still make you hollow promises, announce hypothetical winnings at games of chance, predict Happiness, Love and all the rest... and yet nothing changes in your life. Today I, Gayle, am going to offer you something concrete and more substancial! Here is the proof...

This is the kind of thing I like to hear: this woman LIKES me - and she's not even my fiancé! Wow. I hope she's not offering me the concrete and substancial things my fiancé offers - I don't think I'd get away with that...

I'm going to take care of you personally in a completely unique way

Um. That's not going to involve... you know... that outfit is it - I know my fiancé won't forgive me for that.

I'm going to provide you with direct and immediate help that is quite different from what you have been offered to date.

Kinky - looks like it will!

These aren't just empty words. Here is the proof! I am immediately do two Major Gestures for you:

Woohoo! I can think of two right away


John, first of all, I am going to send you a CHEQUE WITHIN 7 DAYS! It will help you immediately while waiting for the better days that are coming. YES... you have read correctly. I am going to send a Cheque to you in Hampshire (don't forget: the Great Money Gift amounts to a £10,500 cheque)!

Damn! Just a damn cheque. Looks like my up-coming marriage is safe after all. But hey! A cheque for 10-and-a-half-grand, which will be sent to me in only 7 days? Well, granted it would have been nicer had it arrived a few days earlier, then the Christmas shopping would have been a little more extravagent, still at this time of year more than any other we all know that it's the thought that counts, isn't it. And, given that this is from a clairvoyant, she's obviously realised the money savings I could make on the Lego StarDestroyer at Hamley's during the January sales. So it's still pretty cool.

As I was carefully studying your file, I...

Woah. Wait a minute. The joy has just gone out of this occasion. This wierd woman is keeping a file on me? I thought government was out of hand, but why the hell would a clairvoyant need a file? Where would they get their data? What data? Is psychic information subject to the Data Protection Act? If so, where do I send my complaint? What information does the supernatural hold on me? Damn it! Isn't the law supposed to protect us from this kind of abuse?!

..."saw" right away that you needed quick and effective help, especially in the financial area. You already know that my goal has always been to help the most vulnerable ones.

That's libel damn it - and a clairvoyant of all people should know it! The IT industry may not pay me as much as an MP but it isn't that bad.

On the back of the envelope (literally - and on the inside) was this damning destruction of my faith in this woman:

2/ The awarding of the winnings is submitted to a random draw game with a winner and losers.
5/ The winner will be drawn amonjgst all the registered participants for the £10,500 prize and with the same deadline on 31/12/07
12/...To participate by duly completing and returning the participating voucher before the deadline and to be drawn as the winner. Once these conditions are met, the winner will be contacted free of charge by recorded delivery within 2 months after the deadline.

Erm.. squeeze me? Baking powder? I thought this woman wanted to help me! I thought she was a clairvoyant who would know that I'd send this to the Advertising Standards Agency the moment I opened the letter!

She promised me a CHEQUE IN 7 DAYS! But the 31st of December is 10 days away - and 2 months is even longer than that!

Please tell me she's really a clairvoyant that knew - the moment she openned my "file" - that I was a skeptic, and a cynical one at that, who would know that she was a fiction of an con-artists imagination out to scam me, trying to get me to part with a paltry £10 in the promise of a return of £10,500. Surely she knows that I'm not the kind of sucker she was hoping to persuade by her promises.

Oh yeah - an appropriate complaint has been made to the ASA.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jesus Camp

This is just sick. The main video is in seven sections long - if you can bear that much.

They're just kids for crying out loud!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Evolution "Defined"

Since I've mentioned the strange image in the "Left Behind" game, I thought I'd spend a few moments to comment on the tripe served up in the text.

There's a deception occurring in the popular media about so-called "proof for evolution." The deception is this--"micro-evolution",a scientific fact, is used to prove "macro-evolution," an unsubstantiated theory.

I should first begin by apologising to anyone who has brought an irony-meter with them. Unfortunately most warranties don't cover statements from creationists, and my insurance certainly doesn't cover them. I'm not entirely certain as to why the author of this statement chose to use the term "popular media" to describe the arena where the alleged deception is supposed to be occurring: if there were a deception occurring of the nature described then it would be a world-wide phenomenon, and most certainly could not be restricted to the "popular media". Nevertheless, it is useful to note the concession in the statement: an acceptance that "micro-evolution" is a proven fact. Where the game developers have gone wrong is in assuming that micro-evolution (which they later define as dog-breeds, and the like) is the sole reason that "macro-evolution" is true.

Macro-evolution equals genetic changes that transform one "species" into another. For example tree shrews that eventually become the primates-humans and apes.

I have to say that reading this statement was something of a relief; it's certainly a whole lot better than the usual "man descended from monkeys" tripe one normally hears from the creationism crowd. I'm confused as to why the developers chose to place the word "species" in quotes; unless they're denying that species exist..

Is it scientifically credible to use the genetic changes within a species to argue that these same mechanisms can progressively transform one species into a more successful and adapted new species? Next time you hear a report about more evidence for evolution ask yourself whether micro-evolution is being used to prove macro-evolution.

In a word? Yes! Of course it's credible! As an example of micro-evolution, the developers use the example of a two dog breeds: a pit-bull and a poodle. These are two remarkably dissimilar dogs. Apply the two core principles of evolution: small genetic mutations and natural selection, add a sufficient amount of time, and you have macro-evolution. This is the problem with the lack of imagination shown by creationists: they forget about the sheer volume of time involved. Which brings us to:

While you're at it, have you considered all the other evolutions that must take place before you even get to organic and macro-evolution? Little things like cosmic, chemical, and stellar and planetary evolution. If you are going to believe in evolution you need to look at the complete picture.

I cannot possibly disagree with this statement. I'm half-wondering whether the game developers were deliberately planting a "these creationists are nuts!" statement, whilst trying to get the game past some half-asleep censors.

Stellar, cosmic and planetary sciences are absolutely fascinating, and give the student a much greater understanding of the time involved in forming complex systems from simple laws. Stellar evolution gives rise to the whole world of chemical elements we find occurring naturally in the universe. Study of planetary evolution hopes to provide answers to questions regarding the proliferation of life within the universe. Even having a basic understanding of these processes shows just how likely biological evolution is compared to the rather dull solution offered by the creationists.

But why stop at the seriously interesting topics? Look at all systems that evolve. In my own field of computer programming it is reasonably certain that a complex system that works did not come in to existence from scratch but has been artificially evolved from earlier, simpler, systems. HTTP took over from Gopher, GUI's from text-based systems, text-based systems from tele-type systems, and so forth. Evolution of one sort or another is all around us, and is constantly happening. CD players, laptops, USB memory sticks, broadband, blue tooth. All these systems evolved - artificially - from something simpler. Each underwent their own form of selection. The only difference between technological evolution and biological evolution is that the biological system competed in a natural system.

Micro-evolution is the only phase of the process that's been observed and documented. The other required phases of evolution are assumed and largely unsupported.

Wrong! One does not even need to look at the fossil record or grasp the vastness of geological time to see just how wrong this is. One doesn't even need to have an awareness of what Dawkin's describes (in the Blind Watchmaker) as "circle species". One simply needs to turn on the television and watch a few nature documentaries. Why suppose - for example - that seals are an evolutionary end-point? As mamals they're remarkably well adapted to water, but they're no whales. Penguins are flightless birds that now use their old wings to power sleekly through the water, whilst being chased by seals. Again: why presuppose that they're an end-product of evolution? We are simply looking at a snap-shot of the evolutionary process, and we can see on television our very own "transitionary-fossils" that paleontologists milena from now will be hunting.

Sir Arthur Keith, a famous British scientist said it well: "Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it only because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable.

It is a common tactic of creationists and evolution-deniers to quote mine scientists, and I originally was convinced that the quote would have been taken out of context. It was with much surprise that I found that - rather than being taken out of context - the quote is actually a figment of the imagination. Sir Arthur Keith simply never made that statement. So what did Sir Arthur Keith really think of evolution?

The Origin of Species is still the book which contains the most complete demonstration that the law of evolution is true. Sir Arthur Keith, introduction to Origin of Species

Not looking good...

And why should each of the islands have its own peculiar creations? Special creation could not explain such things. Sir Arthur Keith, introduction to Origin of Species

Oh dear. Doesn't look like Sir Arthur Keith held that position at all.. Score one for "lying for Jesus(tm)".

Evolution is a process that every programmer should be familiar with it, and I have to admit to finding it peculiarly distasteful when a fellow programmer doesn't get it. Evolution is a simple process: it has simple rules which are applied for a sufficient time to give rise to complex systems. This is something that every programmer and computer systems designer should be striving for in their own systems. Evolution exists everywhere: in the natural biological world, in cosmology and in technology. There is something perverse about suggesting that only one form of evolution - and one for which such an abundance of evidence is available if one is only prepared to look - should so raise the ire of the religious because it doesn't fit in with what a book written several thousand years ago says. That's just dumb.

Left Behind?

The BBC is reporting that the "Left Behind" computer game is causing a bit of a stir. This game is the first video game by christian game makers "Left Behind Games" - of the Left Behind book fame - and - from the accounts I've read - is mediocre at best. But that's okay, good computer games are hard to write which is why games such as RockStar's "Bully" cost so much money and take so much time to make; and I can certainly see a niche market for christian computer games, just as there are niche markets for christian rock, and christian diets

The complaints, however, are not about the quality of the game but that:

"It's about religious warfare. The way to win is to convert or kill. You have both the Inquisition and the Crusades,"

It has to be said that as this is a computer game, I'm not overly concerned that a computer games manufacturer would have included violence in it. I very much enjoy playing violent computer games; I personally think that the Grand Theft Auto series is one of the greatest computer game franchises ever built, and I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of RockStar's "Bully". I think, then, that calling for the Left Behind game to be banned from WallMart's shelves because it is violent is exactly as unfair as organisations calling for Bully or Grand Theft Auto to be banned. Somehow I doubt that were there to be a sudden spate of killings that the Left Behind game would be blamed, but that's hardly the fault of the game manufacturer.

However - and there's got to be a however - The accusations as levelled against the game are, nevertheless, true in regards to large populations of American evangelical christians:

And that message is the "dehumanisation of the feared other - Catholics, Jews, Muslims, the wrong kind of Protestants, people deemed to be sinners", he says.

But this is what religion does. Each religion believes that all religions except for its own is damnably wrong, and that the misguided followers of the other religions should convert or be damned to hell. Quite why this argument should occur when each religion's holy books are supposed to be the literal word of their god is quite beyond me, but nevertheless that is what each religion teaches.

In discussions about religion, the religious leaders have recently been talking about inter-faith harmony, and whether this religion or that religion is a religion of peace; yet each religion damns the followers of the other religions to hell for not seeing the apparent self-evidence of one interpretation of a book. Is it really that surprising that a game coming from such an organisation should make this aspect of religious life all too painfully clear?

"Anybody who is not a follower of Jesus is the enemy," he claims.

That statement, from a person trying to have the game removed from WallMart's site, could ironically just as easily have come from the lips of a christian evangelist, or a catholic priest, or a Jehovah's Witness. That statement is uttered - in one thinly guised form or another - throughout the UK every week from - The Flying Spaghetti Monster alone knows how many - pulpits. Once again, it should come as absolutely no surprise that a christian organisation has placed this message clearly in their game.

These are revolting messages, and messages and ideals that should be repugnant to most moral, right-thinking people, but these are the messages of religion.

As an aside, whilst going through some of the reviews (principally to see what weapons you could use...), I came across this image from the game. Have a look.

people of other faiths could play it and not know it's Christian," [the games author] says.=

Sadly, that is probably only too true.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Even the Guardian is at it

The Guardian as created a Creationism special podcast, interviewing the ironically named Truth in Science who distributed "intelligent design" material to all the schools in Britain.

The Guardian uses the term "controversy" twice in the text there; let's be quite clear about this: There is no controversy over the teaching of Evolution. The only controversy is that created in the minds of the religious who are upset that the facts of nature do not appear to match their dogmatic view of christianity - that their god, not evolution, created the diversity of life on this planet.

The belief in intelligent design - that some organic processes are too complex to have arrived at by evolution alone - is not just wrong, it is also both intellectually lazy, and - worse - boring

There is nothing interesting in the view that life was created by an intelligent designer whose attributes are deliberately left un-spoken. It only shifts the problem. If intelligent life created life, then what created the intelligent life to create life? What process did it go through to create life? How did it itself evolve, or come in to existence? These questions would be interesting if they were posed, and the existence of a creator really was necessary, but they aren't. Intelligent design quite deliberately avoids these questions like the plague (one presumes, incidentally, that the intelligent designer must necessarialy also have created plauges).

What about another hypothesis: the unintelligent designer? Or the deliberately negligent designer? The psychopathic designer? Surely these would be attributes better placed on an entity that deliberately created the brutal and harsh life that we actually observe. If a designer is ever shown to be necessary for abiogenesis, then I don't think attaching the label "intelligent" to it does the english language any favours. Perhaps just the Blind Watchmaker

Friday, December 8, 2006

Product of the year?

One of the problems of working from home, is watching appaling day-time television, and - worse - even more appaling adverts. One of the more appaling adverts if for a shampoo product 'Herbal Essences' which - the advert triumphantly informs us - was "voted product of the year 2006, by 12,000 consumers".

This initially sounds pretty impressive. 12,000 people have tried various products and decided that Herbal Essence was clearly the best shampoo on the market, right? Right?

This would be a rather boring blog if its first entry was to say that Herbal Essence is the best shampoo on the market, now, wouldn't it.

At the bottom of the final show in the advert is a link to the Product of the Year web-site, which was just begging to be visited by someone who is bald, and therefore has no use of hair-care products.

The site is somewhat bizzare, as it appears to be, principally, a corporate product - not something one would normally expect to be pointed to by a shampoo advert - and also strangely revealing as to how someone would win the award. The process appears to be:

1) To get your product nominated, you send in an application form. Any product that has been launched within the past 18 months can be nominated. Note that it is the company manufacturing the product that nominates it for an award

2) The product of the year jury then draws up lists of finalists, and determines which category your product would go in to should yours be selected. There's just one catch. If your product goes forward, it costs you £3,950. No, there's two catches: every year the categories available change, and - the website assures us - each category will contain between 2 and 6 entries.

3) Now the real part - the public votes! Yay public! There is, however, a catch. According to the site, a questionnaire is sent out to some 20,000 people of which - last year - 12,593 responded. There's some discrepency here too: The choosing the winners link assures the would-be product of the year winner that the questionaire will be sent to "more than 12,000 households", from which 60% can be expected to respond. Quite how this tallies with the earlier 12,593 I'm not certain.

Now here's the clever part: The questionnaire contains "colour photos of all the products in each category with an explanation of what they are used for and why they are innovative".

In other words, Herbal Essence is voted product of the year, by people who have not necessarially ever used it.

Oh.  And there's just one more catch: If you win, it'll cost you another 11 grand to advertise
the fact.