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Category Archives: Philosophy

I haven’t posted in some time. It hasn’t been because I haven’t anything to say, but because I have starte actually saying it. My brother B and I had been wanting to start up a podcast for some time, but with the arrival of my niece and nephew things got put on the back burner. I didn’t want to start things up on my own, but when a new homeopathy store opened up and started advertising on Facebook, I could no longer wait.

It was at this time that I put out a cattle all to my Center for Inquiry friends and was pleasantly surprised to receive numerous requests to be involved. We made our first recording a little after Xmas and we’re getting set to record our eighth episode tomorrow evening.

So what’s the podcast about? Well, the vision I have is quite broad. Essentially, it involves discussing topics anywhere that evidence-based thinking can be applied. This can involve public policy, woo woo, religion, science, education, etc. There are many great podcasts out there about atheism (The Non-Prophets, for example) or applied skepticism which exclude religious claims (e.g., The Skeptics Guide to the Universe), but almost none that make no distinction where critical thinking gets applied. (The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Skeptics with a K.)

As I like to say, I am an atheist for the same reason that I am a-reiki, a-homeopathic, a-yeti, or a-quantum healing. I see no difference in any of these claims or the requirements they need to meet before acceptance is justified. However, religion is a big component of the podcast for the simple reason that it pervades so much of society. I wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn about it except for one thing: Beliefs inform actions and believing in things without the requisite evidence often lead to harm, not to mention that it is an impoverished way of living. The universe is amazing enough without diminishing it by making up far less interesting stuff about it.

A case in point (which I would like to make into a podcast topic): a recent crime bill passed here in Canada increases prison time and takes funding away from programs which may help make inmates productive members of society when released. There is not one shred of evidence that increasing prison time makes society any safer or better off. Quite the opposite, in fact. But such thinking arises from and panders to an electorate with a religious conservative point of view that is demonstrably false. This is not how public policy should be created and does real harm to society.

The topics we discuss are as relevant to the Canadian prairies as possible (or at least nationally). There are already podcasts out there which ably cover the tribulations south of the 49th parallel. But topics which are of interst to everyone are covered as well, though we give them a decidedly local flavor.

In the first seven episodes we have talked about Xerion Homoeopathie (a Calgary purveyor of magic sugar pills) and their dissemination of anti-vaccination nonsense, the effectiveness so-called ‘liberation’ therapy as a proposed treatment of multiple sclerosis (which has a very high incidence in the prairie provinces), the absence of secular education in the town of Morinville (just north of Edmonton), and in the episode we are recording tomorrow we have an interview with rock star cosmologist Lawrence Krauss about science education and why the non-religious are labeled “strident” (or worse) just for daring to question religious claims. His new book A Universe From Nothing (which I guiltlessly plug here) is a great companion to the viral YouTube video of the same name.

Come visit us at the Legion of Reason and give us a listen, or you can find us on iTunes.

It’s getting tougher and tougher to find the time to blog, and I really wanted to get this one out. A while ago I was part of a discussion course entitled “God, Atheism and Morality” that used Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape as a back-drop, as well as Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality. Though Holloway still has some religious baggage to unload that keeps his goal of a morality that encompasses humanity out of reach, he’s a Christian (an Anglican bishop) who largely gets it. There are problems with Harris’ book as well, but as Matt Dillahunty notes he provides us with a language for discussing these issues.

I wish I had kept up with the class in my blog. Throughout the coarse my view of Harris’ book changed significantly. For instance, I agree with Massimo Pigliucci’s view that Science can not determine the values we should hold, but I think Massimo undervalues Science in evaluating the effects of values we do hold. Harris bizarrely never mentions the application of the social sciences to this evaluation, and I have a hard time seeing how a reduction of morality to the neurosciences can have anywhere near as much value as some of the work that Gregory Paul has done. But while I have mixed feelings about the contents of The Moral Landscape, Harris opened up a dialog that needed opening.

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ABSTRACT. Ravi Zacharias wrote a book. Good for him. It’s called The End of Reason, and it is aptly named. For those looking for logic and reason in believing in a God, I suggest looking elsewhere. No one but those seeking to entrench their bias will find anything other than tired, old and debunked arguments filled with logic fallacies that no grade schooler would be fooled by. Arguments from consequences and false dichotomies abound. It is supposedly an answer to the New Atheist books. In particular, to Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. If so, it is an answer to a question no atheist asked…

In this first of two parts, I go over some of the bad reasoning up to and including his discussion of cosmological arguments.
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Dualism is the philosophy of mind where the mind is nonphysical and independent of the physical brain. While the idea goes back as far as Zarathustra, it is Descartes’ formulation which is usually what we mean when we speak of dualism. Descartes believed that the mind is made of an immaterial substance and is the seat of consciousness, while the brain is where intelligence resides. Of course, this postulation of an immaterial substance accounting for the mind is without basis and, like the ether, never verified.

In researching what I hope will be an interesting blog on the placebo effect and ran across a paper by M. Beauregard. The same Beauregard that wrote a sophistry-laden book with Discovery Institute hack Denyse O’Leary called The Spiritual Brain (I refuse to provide a link to Amazon to legitimize that kind of dreary crap – the overview printed on the jacket alone was enough to make me nauseous). You can already see Beauregard’s bias in a review entitled “Effect of mind on brain activity: evidence from neuroimaging studies of psychotherapy and placebo effect.” The presumption that the mind is a separate entity from the brain is obvious from the title. He’s under the mistaken belief that phenomena such as the placebo effect can be explained by mind-brain duality. I suppose it can, but it is totally equivocal with the explanation that the mind and brain are inseparable.

Just because the two explanations are equivocal in and of itself doesn’t mean that dualism is wrong. Rather, it is the spectacular failure of dualism to explain certain other phenomena (which I will get to) that does. I find it difficult to believe that Beauregard is unaware of these problems and is being selective about where he invokes it to avoid having to deal with what I see are insurmountable problems for dualism. The problem for people like Beauregard is that while dualism and monism both explain phenomena such as the placebo effect, other phenomena, such as personality alterations following brain injury, can only be explained by monism.

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How many times have we seen this argument on the internet? Those that use this argument are often frustrated because they think that those they are trying to convince don’t get it. The problem is, we get it just fine – we know that it is a bad argument. And that’s why those of us that don’t accept this as an argument are ourselves frustrated with it.

The argument usually goes like this: 

Question: How does one explain ‘X’?

Expected answer: I don’t know.

Conclusion: Then there must be a god.

It sounds ridiculous when written that way, yet that is pretty much the typical usage. 

What do people who make use of this argument use as ‘X’? Anything they perceive (and are often wrong) that Science has yet to explain. ‘X’ can be the origin of life (abiogenesis), development of moral behavior, the origin of the universe, etc. ‘X’ can even be an illusion, like ‘X’ = the fine-tuning of the universe to support life. But it is life that was shaped to the universe it found itself in. Those that claim that the universe is somehow life-friendly haven’t yet heard of the ways in which the universe is trying its hardest to kill us! It’s nothing personal – it’s just that the universes is anything buyt hospitable to life as we know it.

The argument has several fatal flaws and I will deal with each in turn.

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I’ve blogged on this before – a perception of a relationship between the two is purely imaginary. The arguments of those which make the claim fall into two classes: a) the bible (or more generally, religion) is what keeps them from raping and murdering and the only slightly more sophisticated claim b) that it is a supernatural being that supplies our moral sense. Neither stands up to scrutiny.

Let’s look at the first. These people scare me and I want nothing to do with them. If religion is the only thing standing in the way of these people committing violence on their fellow humans, they will indeed commit these acts. History is replete with examples of religion being no bar to bad behavior, and religious ideologues are as bad as every other ideologue who valued ideology over the welfare of their fellow humans. 

This idea that being religious makes one a better person, besides being a false elitism, does not stand up to any scrutiny. The US, arguably the most religious of advanced western nations, has the highest rates of nonviolent and non-lethal violent crime, homicide, adolescent suicide, teen pregnancy and teen STD transmission. One of these days I will present my case that religion is indeed the root cause of the last two. Briefly, abstinence-only programs, which studies have been shown time and again to be an spectacularly failed strategy (for one example, see reference 1), are myopically championed solely by religious organizations. They seem only to serve at maintaining their ridiculous fantasy that teens don’t have sex, at the great cost of depriving teens from critical information about contraception and STDs. Religion is simply not a bar to these acts, and indeed, I posit that the actions of the overwhelmingly religious supporters of abstinence-only nonsense are themselves unethical.

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In our species, this offshoot desire to answer the Burning Questions has resulted in what Daniel Dennett calls ‘premature curiosity satisfaction’. Like other premature events, it is actually undesirable. The more philosophically minded believers realized the need to create arguments to buttress their presupposition that God exists. This is not an admirable methodology. Certainly, in my vocation, such a procedure where the conclusion is the starting point rather than the end point is more than just frowned upon. It leads to rationalization, which becomes quite apparent in the many philosophical arguments.

I am a metaphysical naturalist. I used to consider myself a methodological naturalist, but I came to realize that admitting the possibility of something outside of a naturalist universe in the utter absence of any indication that such is the case is intellectually dishonest. So I have taken the plunge and gone all the way. This does not mean that if extraordinary evidence that there is some phenomena which can only be explained outside of naturalism that I would not change my position. But in the complete paucity of extraordinary evidence to the contrary, to consider anything outside of naturalism in order to explain phenomena is a complete waste of time.

As such, I am no fan of philosophical arguments unsupported by empirical evidence. Science has a habit of squashing them like grapes in a winery. Nicholas Everitt, when writing a book on arguments for the existence of God, gave up and just titled the book The Non-existence of God. As he describes, there are simply no good philosophical arguments for the existence of deities.

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