Ambiguity + tortured logic = god

Over time I have become more firmly sceptical (in the true sense of only giving credence on the basis of evidence, rather than refusing to believe even in the face of good evidence, like climate “scepticism”), and this naturally leads to atheism, since there is no good evidence for any of the many thousands of deities that have been dreamt up by people over the ages. I have therefore ended up having the odd argument (mostly online) with people who take a variety of different views. One thing I’ve noticed is that many of the arguments of the religious use vague or ambiguous terminology in the middle of very sweeping arguments.

Wanting to get a better grasp of how to handle such arguments, and to understand the process of argument itself that up until then I’d learned organically, I recently spent a few months tackling a free online course run under the auspices of, entitled “How to Reason and Argue”. I found the course, run as a series of mini-lecture videos followed by quizzes, with longer quizzes at regular intervals and the opportunity to take part in online debates and a variety of Google Hangouts, very useful and interesting, and have been trying to use my new knowledge to be more precise and clear in argument, and also in analysing the arguments of others.

In particular, I recently watched a Cambridge Union Society debate from October 2011 on the following topic: This House believes that God is not a delusion. The debate was between William Lane Craig and Peter S Williams for the motion and Arif Ahmed and Andrew Copson against. Part of the argument for the motion (from Peter S Williams) was a sequence of 3 “logical” arguments for the existence of god, those being the moral, cosmological and ontological arguments. I was singularly unimpressed by them at the time, but didn’t have much opportunity to analyse them to see why. Now however, I have time to go over them a little more closely. The moral argument (with my objections interspersed) follows below. If you have any comments, particularly in defence of the argument or against my objections, I would very much like to hear them! The cosmological and ontological arguments will follow in subsequent posts.

The Moral Argument for the existence of God (with objections)

1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

(Objection: Use of the word “objective” is ambiguous. Does it mean “regardless of context or situation”? If so, then even “it is wrong to kill” may not be an objective moral value, since there are situations in which to kill is arguably the moral course. If it means “universally agreed” then it derives its force from the fact of agreement, a collaborative societal act rather than an externally imposed commandment. Finally, if it is based upon an understanding of how human minds and bodies work, and observations that certain actions cause objectively identifiable suffering or harm, this again does not require an observer external to the universe to provide such objectivity).

(Objection: suppressed premise – it is unclear what properties of a supernatural being would be necessary or sufficient to allow the existence of objective moral values).

2) At least one objective moral value exists.

(Objection: Assertion without evidence, again problematic due to ambiguity of “objective”. However, I am prepared to accept that (depending on the definition of “objective”) such values may well exist, e.g. it is wrong to cause suffering gratuitously)

3) Therefore, God exists.

(Objection: Due to the problems with premises 1 and 2, the conclusion is at best unproven)

Posted in Logic, Philosophy and argument, Religion | 5 Comments

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing – they choose to make it so

I’ve just spent 20 minutes on hold to the self-assessment section of HMRC, waiting to tell them that my late father’s local tax office calculated the tax on his estate incorrectly.  I am unable to speak to the person who made the calculation or indeed anyone at the office in question since although the accompanying letter is written as though from an individual – “I enclose my tax calculation…”, “My calculation shows…”, etc. – there is no name and no signature, and the telephone number is that of a call centre with whom I have had similarly fruitless dealings in the past.

Some years ago, the tax officer dealing with your tax would write to you personally and give you their own contact details so that you could ring up and clear up any problems immediately.  Should the matter be complicated and take more than one conversation, you would always be speaking to the same person, who would know the relevant details and be able to speak to you immediately about the case since they weren’t coming to it cold.

Unfortunately now you speak to an unknown somebody in an unknown location who identifies themselves by their first name only.  You have no chance of finding out who this person was, so if for instance they turn out to be unhelpful and fail to write down the outcome of the conversation in your notes you can find yourself in exactly the same position several months later, when HMRC send you a demand for an incorrectly calculated payment you thought had been corrected months ago, but now including interest and penalties for late payment.  There you are, talking to “Peter” or “Jane”, having to go through the whole sorry saga once again, except that now the automated billing system has kicked in you will continue to receive increasingly hysterical (but automated) letters and you will be told that these cannot be stopped, even if “Jane” acknowledges that you don’t in fact need to pay anything until the situation has been resolved.

I know this change has been made with the aim of increasing efficiency, but it seems to me that relatively small efficiency savings at HMRC are massively outweighed by the hideous extra expense in terms of lost time and wasted effort of all those of us sitting on hold at the other end of the line, then repeating themselves yet again as they bring “Peter” up to speed with the saga to date.

You can tell that the people who made this change don’t do their own taxes, can’t you?

Posted in Efficiency, Politics | Leave a comment

I’m not much of an Elton John fan…

…so when I read this article in The Guardian on 30 December I didn’t pay it all that much attention except to think how cool it is to live in a world where gender and sexual orientation are receding as barriers to having a child. Obviously, having shedloads of cash shrinks the barriers further, and the situation for Elton John and David Furnish is rather different than for most people, but I was still encouraged.

Then I read this letter in the following day’s letters section. Rather a different take on the situation, I’m sure you’ll agree. So much so, that I actually wrote a response. Here’s the email I sent:

Congratulations go to Catherine Pepinster (Elton’s Baby, Letters 31/12/2010) for her last minute entry (which I think rates very highly) into the “Meanest-Spirited Letter of the Year” competition. As I read it, I was increasingly jarred by the alien mindset behind its bitter and twisted interpretation of John’s and Furnish’s motives for having their child. Of course, then I read “Editor, The Tablet” at the bottom of the letter, and all became clear.

She labels what they have done as “prostitution”, but I am not sure what part of the situation makes it such – is it paying for surrogacy? If so, that applies to an increasing number of people: straight, gay, women and men, and generally goes unremarked. Or does it become prostitution only when a man pays? It is also, apparently, “exploitation”, but again, what particularly makes this exploitative? It can’t just be the payment, or I’m exploited every time I’m paid for my work. She claims “there is something disturbing about it”, but then catalogues only a litany of wholly selfish motives for having children which she ascribes to the couple. She may or may not be right about any of those motives, but she clearly does not know, she only thinks.

She claims to be concerned for “baby Zachary”, but if I were him and had the choice, I’d pick John and Furnish over Pepinster as parent any day of the week.

The Guardian did in fact publish it, but I’ve reproduced it below so you can see the edited version they published at the same time as the original:

Congratulations to Catherine Pepinster for her last-minute entry into the “Meanest-Spirited Letter of the Year” competition. As I read it, I was increasingly jarred by the alien mindset behind its interpretation of John’s and Furnish’s motives for having their child. Then I read “Editor, The Tablet” at the bottom of the letter, and all became clear.

She labels what they have done as “prostitution”, but I am not sure what part of the situation makes it such – is it paying for surrogacy? If so, that applies to an increasing number of people: straight, gay, women and men, and generally goes unremarked. It is also, apparently, “exploitation”, but again, what particularly makes this exploitative? She claims “there is something disturbing about it”, but then catalogues only a litany of wholly selfish motives for having children which she ascribes to the couple. She may or may not be right about any of those motives, but she clearly does not know.

So, two questions:

  1. What do you think of the situation? Are you more in agreement with Ms Pepinster or with me?
  2. What do you think of the editing job done on my letter? I think I mostly agree with what they did with it. They removed some of the less streamlined bits, which is fair enough, but I think it lost some of its original character.
Posted in Catholic, Christian, Religion | 2 Comments

And you are…?

"You see that arrangement? That's you, that is."

So, I’m an atheist, I’ve let go of mystical notions such as gods, spirits etc. Therefore I don’t believe I have a soul. Then what makes me me? It can’t be the stuff of which I am made; the atoms, ions, molecules, cells, etc. since they are all being continually replaced, and after all, what would be special about any atom that would change my identity if it was replaced with another?

The only possible answer can be that I am the arrangement of the stuff of which I am made, most particularly, the arrangement of the cells and chemicals in my brain. A scarily minimal thing on which to hang one’s identity, but it fits the facts:

More and more, it becomes clear that personality (to which I think we would all agree identity is greatly tied) is an emergent property of brain function. Specific characteristics in brain chemistry and structure are linked to specific psychological problems or profiles. Neuropsychology is the study of how the two are linked, and it is still in its infancy – the brain is so complex that untangling the huge numbers of processes and linking them to outwardly expressed behaviours is incredibly difficult – but, as usual with science, the more time passes, the more can be explained by a good understanding of the processes involved.

We start life with a brain which has certain formative characteristics. There are many arguments to be had about how much of our personalities is inbuilt and how much a product of our environment, but it is clear that the answer will turn out to be “a bit of both”. For instance, I know that I have continuity with the child I used to be, but I have clearly changed to some extent, with different needs, desires, attitudes and opinions. These have arisen as I have interacted with the world around me, adding to the experiences on which I draw for further interactions in an ongoing feedback loop. I am even part of the environment with which I interact – ever felt guilty about an action and resolved to change? That’s you being your own environment – cool, huh?

Thus, as time goes on, the pattern that is me has grown and changed, while retaining sufficient characteristics to claim a continuing “self”, and when I die, that pattern will break up and cease to exist. The only real continuation is in the effect I have on others who will remain afterwards, and their effect on yet others, etc.

You are an ephemeral arrangement of stardust. So be good to yourself, and try to leave a better environment for all those other arrangements to come.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Dave Connerman strikes again

David 'Call Me Dave' Cameron Arthur Daley
So, before the election:
“Vote lib dem, get Brown”
“The Hung Parliament party…behind closed doors politics…indecision and weak government…dip in confidence…run on the pound…disastrous hikes in interest rates that will paralyse UK plc…A vote for any party other than the Conservatives should do the job…”
“Nick has talked, not tonight, but has talked about 600,000 people having this amnesty, being able to stay. And they would be able to bring over a relative each, so that’s 1.2 million potentially. And all of those people would have access to welfare and housing.”
[Boogah, boogah, BOOGAH! Scared yet?]

After the election:
“We need to work together”
“I am incredibly proud … of the strong and positive campaign we fought. We campaigned for hope, not fear…”
[Um, Dave...]

Not only that, but now there is the “big, open, comprehensive deal”. Come again? Is that the same big as in the “big society” that appears to mean reducing state input and blithely assuming that people will volunteer to pick up the slack? Odd then, that the only thing that is not already in the Conservative manifesto that was offered was a commission on electoral reform, and we all know that that is worth precisely nothing.

I’m starting to think of Arthur Daley now whenever I see His Daveship. “Psst, want to buy an electoral reform commission? Very reliable. Almost never fails to deliver any actual reform. Only costs your support for all our policies. Oh yes, and your principles. Cheap at twice the price!”

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Despair, DESPAIR!

And so, my second outing in the board game War of the Ring (WotR) playing as the leader of the Free Peoples. Not a great result – I admitted defeat with James as the Shadow player on 7 of his required 10 VPs from taking Free Peoples’ settlements, and with the Fellowship a scant 4 steps (out of maybe 18) from their start in Rivendell and with 8 of the 12 corruption points it would take to turn them to the dark side.

James analysed his first few event cards with precision, and started out with a swift push from Mount Gundabad into Rivendell, taking it in short order with a mean combination of cards and dice. This nearly saw the early removal of the Witch King, soon after his early appearance on the board, but didn’t (see below). Meanwhile, I attempted to get the Fellowship well on their way, but they were immediately both Hunted and Revealed. This unfortunately set the tone of the game – only one siege that James set took any length of time to take, the rest falling to a veritable cascade of 6s rolled, and of the 4 moves the Fellowship made, they were Hunted and Revealed every time, 3 by the dice and 1 by a card.

With the Fellowship in such dire straits it was imperative that I should at least threaten militarily, and so when James left Dol Guldur with only 1 defender in order to smite Lorien (which was the one siege that took longer than one or two actions), I attacked with Legolas and his brethren from the Woodland Realm. This also foreshadowed future events, since they failed to take it in 3 attacks, sufficient time for James to bring up reinforcements from Mordor way and then to whittle my troops down. I took Dol Guldur but far too late and with only 1 remaining unit, which then perished ignominiously immediately on the return of the home guard from their successful razing of Lorien.

And so it went. Dol Guldur was my only (nominally) successful siege, although tactically it did not in the end help, since it was immediately indefensible. The other sieges resembled waves breaking on rocks, so swiftly did my troops succumb while making so little impact on the defenders.

Gandalf the Grey played little part other than getting Pippin (back) into Rivendell in time for the siege, with the hope of using a card to slay a minion (the Witch King) using a successful Leadership reroll, which characteristically was not, in fact, successful. Can’t complain too much about that, it was only a 50% shot, but it did form part of a broader pattern. It did allow me to bring on Gandalf the White in Fangorn, where he lurked for the rest of the game, doing me little good apart from keeping his extra dice, but also meaning that James, having recruited all his very powerful Isengard elites in Orthanc, never used them for fear of losing Saruman to Ent event cards. This was a very real possibility since I hung onto two of them!

Late on, there was a brief ray of hope. James scented victory and, slightly imprudently, vacated Minas Morgul completely with a view to sweeping through Gondor, supported by the Southrons who had already taken Pelargir. I had built up an impressively hard army in Minas Tirith and had then moved them to Osgiliath, led by Aragorn and Boromir, where they were poised to strike either South or East, or, less plausibly, North. I had also retained a card allowing me double movement with an army, with no combat allowed. I struggled to restrain my glee as I played the card, neatly sidestepped the equally impressive army in South Ithilien, and strolled through the open gates to take possession of Minas Morgul. This was a complete turnaround – I had 8 units, 2 of them elites, 2 leaders plus the 2 companions in possession of 2 of the required 4 VPs, and with another pair of strongholds (2 VPs each) within 2 spaces. James moved his force of Easterlings into Morannon, hoping to whittle my attacking force down should it make it to Gorgoroth. Nonetheless this was the only game in town for me, so I attacked his small bunch of regulars in Gorgoroth to leave me in striking distance of both strongholds. In one of the few rolls that went in my favour, I took all 5 with a single attack (no fortification there, so rolling 5s was sufficient) and faced a difficult decision – how to split the army? Minas Morgul was sure to be re-attacked by the hordes in South Ithilien, but I also needed to be able to take Barad-dûr. I settled for leaving 4 regulars in Minas Morgul, since they only needed to survive one action from James, sending 2 regulars and 2 elites (to allow for siege continuation) plus the companions to finish off the couple of regulars remaining in Barad-dûr. Unfortunately, the pattern of siege warfare continued, and James immediately retook Minas Morgul with a roll of three 6s and a card giving an extra hit. At that point, with no VPs and neither a military prospect nor any hope for the Fellowship (only 4 spaces along, 8 corruption and no chance of safe havens on their route), I ceded victory to the Shadow.

So, after 4 games of WotR, 2 as the Shadow and 2 as the Free Peoples, what do I think? Well, all 4 games have gone to the Shadow, and that’s even with me making many mistakes as the Shadow, so it would appear to be easier for the Shadow than the Free Peoples. I’ve found it frustrating a lot of the time, and difficult to keep tabs at all times on all the things I should, but I’ve never been bored, always totally engaged. As with all dice games, sometimes the dice can overturn the best-laid plans, and I guess I’ll just have to learn to be more sanguine about that. Certainly James played it well, most of the time using cards to maximum effect and disguising his intentions enough to keep me guessing, while inexorably piling on the military pressure and keeping the Fellowship to an intermittent creep. I just mourn the loss of the game we’d have had with different dice!

Posted in Games, Uncategorized, WotR | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Separation of church and state – obvious or what?

I’ve been in occasional contact with my MP, David Lidington on a variety of issues.  One of these is reform of the House of Lords, particularly in regard to the removal of the bishops of the Church of England.  I’m in no doubt that they should go, and I have some trouble understanding his reasoning for why they should stay.  As I see it, it’s fairly straightforward and the logic goes something like this:

1. Religious beliefs (or lack thereof) must be a personal choice.  Nobody can force you to believe in any particular god or gods, nor can they prevent you.  If there is a state-mandated religion, it ceases to be purely a religion, and becomes a form of state control.

2. Representation in government should broadly represent the population.  If a proportion of the population are religious, then unless there is some specific reason why the religious are drawn towards, or away from, political life, the mix of people in the two Houses is likely to approximately mirror the religious affiliations of the population at large.

3. From 2. above it follows that there is no requirement for extra, specifically religious representation in either House, and that any such representation by definition disenfranchises those sections of the population that do not follow the religions so represented.

I believe Mr. Lidington’s view was that the Bishops were not about representation of the population, but about overseeing legislation, but I think that’s a cop-out - they’re still overseeing legislation on behalf of the population at large, so point 3. above still holds.

So, there you have it – simple really, isn’t it?  Or am I missing something?

Posted in CofE, Politics, Religion | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments