Archive for the ‘Scepticism’ Category

Boris Criticised by Own Party for Cynical Decision to Join ‘Out’ Campaign

February 23, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political also has a very interesting piece about Boris Johnson’s decision to join the ‘Out’ campaign. Mike points out that until a couple of weeks ago, BoJo appeared to be in favour of Britain remaining in Europe. He was certainly in favour of Turkey joining it. Now apparently he’s decided to put all that behind him. Mike writes

Soon after Boris Johnson declared that he would campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, we were all reminded that he had campaigned for Turkey to become a member, so he was already guilty of double-standards (why want them in, and us out?) but more was to follow.

We have since learned that Mr Johnson has been hoping an ‘Out’ vote might lead to further renegotiation with the other EU countries, leading to a settlement for the UK that would make him happier.

(Or – as most of us surmised – he thought joining the ‘Out’ brigade might endear him to Tory backbenchers, or at least enough of them to ease him into Number 10 after Cameron slings his hook.)

This has earned Britain’s own tousle-haired buffoon (I wonder – are he and Donald Trump clones from the same genetic laboratory?) a swift rejoinder from Dave Cameron, who has told him that it’s going to be a straight case of Britain either being in Europe or leaving. There is no plan for renegotiation.


This debacle shows BoJo for what he is: a demagogue. If he genuinely wishes that a vote to leave Europe would result in a second referendum, and further negotiations to revise the conditions of Britain’s membership so that we remain in, then he’s simply supporting the ‘Out’ campaign as a kind of political utilitarianism. He’s really in favour of membership, and always has been, but he hopes he can use it to frighten the EU into granting concessions. It’s a dangerous game to play. The danger is that by that time, the EU could be so sick and tired of us, that they can’t be bothered to indulge us, and will just simply say, ‘Well, be like that. Go away then!’

And I think Mike’s right. This is all about trying to enhance BoJo’s standing within the party, as the ‘man of the people’, and the populist candidate against Cameron. It really does look like he’s angling for backbench Tory support. In a Classical simile that Boris should appreciate, he’s rather like the Greek philosopher Carneades. Carneades went on an embassy to Rome. There he decided to give a talk on ‘virtue’. In the morning he argued for it, and in the afternoon, he argued against it. It was part of the attitude of the Sceptic school that knowledge could never be absolute and information was always provisional. And Carneades was also a bit of a wiseacre, who liked to show off how clever he was by arguing contradictory positions. Boris is basically doing the same thing here. It’s nasty, and shows that one thing Boris is not and will never be, is a statesman of the mould of Solon or Pericles.

Secular Talk on Iran’s Execution of Children as Young as 9

February 1, 2016

I’ve made it clear on this blog that I’m neither an atheist nor a secularist. I’ve reblogged quite a bit of material from the atheist news show, Secular Talk, because I’ve agreed with their political comments. This is another such piece about the judicial murder of children in Iran. And I agree absolutely.

Kyle Kulinski reports that Amnesty International have said that Iran has executed about 160 children this year. This includes girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15. In one case, a thirteen year old boy was sentenced to death for raping two other boys. In court, however, he retracted his confession, stating he had been coerced into giving it by the police. Two of his victims also retracted their statements, saying they two had been forced to make them by the cops. Children have been executed by the state because of drug smuggling. Many were denied legal representation during their trials. He recognises that while this is horrific and wrong, other countries also apply the death penalty, including Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where they use beheading, a particularly horrific method.

Kulinski states he believes there should be a global ban on the death penalty, because of the dangers of executing the wrong people. He states that there are some people, who are so heinous that he doesn’t feel there’s anything wrong in executing them. I’m sure most people understand the sentiments. Looking at the monsters tried a Nuremberg, most people would probably say they deserved to dance Jack Ketch’s jig. But too many other people, who were innocent, or whose crime did not warrant the severity of the death penalty, have also been sent to the gallows.

And children should not be executed, as they’re still growing and developing. It’s still possible to rehabilitate them. There’s also the argument that some young offenders may genuinely not know what they’ve done, or be as responsible for their actions as a grown adult.

Kulinski makes it clear that he includes America in this global ban. And he is clearly appalled at the horrific botched executions in his homeland, which have taken place when the new ‘humane’ poison has not worked. He describes instances where men have died in agony, frothing at the mouth, after living on for about half an hour, long enough for their hangmen to have called the execution off. And he makes it very clear that he regards the executions for sorcery and witchcraft stupid.

Secular Talk on Alex Jones Rant about Elite Marrying Horses and Sacrificing their Children

January 20, 2016

Okay, I’ve put up several pieces tonight discussing just how nasty and rapacious the rich are. They are deeply selfish, and seem to have a profound psychological needs to inflict harm, degrade and impoverish those lower down the social hierarchy. And all while declaring that it’s all for the public good, and to encourage people to strive harder to better themselves. Or some other such rubbish that should have gone out with the 19th century.

On the other hand, some of the expressions of the increasing alienation between rich and poor have become extremely bizarre, like the growth of the Conspiracy counterculture and its belief that the rich are truly Satanists, or have made a malign pact with evil space aliens. Or both. One of the main figures on the conspiracy fringe is Alex Jones, who is prone to making some really bizarre rants about the depravity of the elite and super rich. In this piece from Secular Talk, Kyle Kulinski discusses one of the great man’s rants which truly scales the heights of high weirdness. I offer for your entertainment this piece in which Jones states that everyone knows that the elites marry horses, dress up in werewolf costumes, demand to be worshipped, sacrifice their babies and finally nuke themselves.(!?)

Some of this seems to be a mangled memory of the worse traits of the Roman emperors. Caligula made his horse a senator. The ‘Great Beast’ in the book of Revelations may well refer to the emperor Nero. Nero when he was a young man, used to wander around the streets of Rome with other dissolute aristos, dressed up as an animal. He would then pick fights, wounding and killing, and raping women. It’s memories of the bizarre and depraved acts of the ancient world, which colour Jones’ views of the Bohemian Grove ceremony, where they symbolically slay ‘Dull Care’, as a real, human sacrifice. I don’t think it is, and when the ceremony was shown on Jon Ronson’s programme, Secret Rulers of the World, in which he examined the Conspiracy culture in the US, it seemed to be very obviously a mannequin, no more sinister than your average Guy Fawkes figure.

But it does prompt Jones to spectacular rants like these.

The problem is that although Jones is something of a buffoon, who goes way over the top, sometimes he’s exactly right. He hates war and the way the globalists have impoverished his country. He just thinks it’s all the fault of liberals, while the truth is, it’s all being done by Conservatives, following the logic of the free market, which he so vigorously defends.

Popper and Xenophon on Science, the Gods, and the impossibility of Certain Knowledge

October 12, 2013

Bryan Magee, in his book on the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, notes that one of Popper favourite statements on the nature of science was from the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Xenophon. Xenophon wrote

‘The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.’

It’s a truly sceptical statement. Xenophon believed that the gods purposely did not reveal all knowledge to humanity, deliberately leaving it to humanity to find things out for themselves, in order that they could have a deeper understanding of the cosmos. However, human knowledge is, in the last analysis, ‘a web of guesses’. They are actually attempts by the human intellect to understand the universe, but not true knowledge itself. In fact the nature of the universe is such that people wouldn’t understand the truth about the universe, even if they were accidentally to stumble upon it.

The astronomer John Barrow said something similar in his book, Theories of Everything. Barrow was arguing against the view of Stephen Hawking, and repeated in the popular press and science journals, that we could have a final ‘theory of everything’. He argued that the nature of the universe was so complex, and some of the events that created the modern cosmos, such as the symmetry-breaking in which the original superforce broke up into the separate forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, were so random, that a theory of everything would be so general that it would actually explain nothing. Or else it would be so complex, that it would need another theory to explain it in turn, and so not actually be a final theory of everything. And so despite the claims of Stephen Hawking, the final truth about the universe, expressed into the kind of equation you put on a T-shirt, like the Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer ‘What’s 6 x 9? 42’ in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, will remain forever elusive.


Bryan Magee, Popper (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1975) p. 28.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism

June 9, 2013

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the classic anti-religious texts. Hume was an agnostic sceptic, rather than an atheist materialist. Published after his death in 1779, the Dialogues are a sustained attack on Natural Theology. In them, Hume attacked the idea of the universe as a machine, and suggested other, organic metaphors. The universe could have grown instead like some kind of vegetable. He also criticised the idea that the features and characteristics of animals were proof of the existence of a Designer. He argued instead that an animal with a particular set of characteristics would have to follow a particular lifestyle or die out. This did not, however, show that those features were designed, or that the animal was intended to pursue this particular manner of existence. He also argued that the immense suffering in nature also argued against the existence of a benevolent deity. He also argued that the regular operation of natural laws also did not show that they were grounded in God’s will. He also argued that miracles were so highly improbably that they should not be accepted, and that if they did exist, they were not necessarily proof of God’s existence as every religion had them. As for the origin of religion itself, in his unpublished book, the Natural History of Religion, he believed that the original religion of humanity had been polytheism, the belief in many gods. This was in stark contrast to the Deists and orthodox Christians, who believed that the first religion had been monotheism. He also saw all religions as leading to fanaticism, and attacked religious virtues as being useless to society.

Hume’s Arguments not Accepted at Time, Criticism by Joseph Priestly

Hume’s Dialogues are considered by the majority of scholars as totally destroying the arguments for the Almighty’s existence based on nature. This is, however, very much a post-Darwinian view. Matt Ridley, in his collection of texts on evolution, places an extract from the dialogues in a section entitled ‘Philosophical Consequence of Evolution’. At the time it was felt that Joseph Priestley had decisively refuted Hume’s arguments in his 1780, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Priestley stated that

‘With respect to Mr. Hume’s metaphysical writings in general, my opinion is, that, on the whole, the world is very little the wider for them. For though, when the merits of any question were on his side, few men ever wrote with more perspicuity, the arrangement of his thoughts being natural, and his illustrations pecularliarly happy; yet I can hardly think that we are indebted to him for the least real advance in the knowledge of the human mind.’

Regarding Hume’s ideas on how humans form concepts, Priestley believed that they had all been refuted by Hartley’s Observations on Man, which Hume didn’t appear to have read.

‘He seems not to have given himself the trouble so much as to read Dr. Hartley’s Observations on Man, a work which he could not but have heard of, and which it certainly behoved him to study. The doctrine of association of ideas, as explained and extended by Dr. Hartley, supplies materials for th emost satisfactory solution of aolmost all the difficulties he has started, as I could easily show if I thought it any consequence; so that to a person acquainted with this theory of the human mind, Hume’s Essays appear the merest trifling. Compared iwth Dr. Hartley, I consider Mr. Hume as not even a child.’

Priestley was also highly critical of the quality of the arguments for the non-existence of God advanced by the character of Philo in the Dialogues. According to Priestly, the character of Philo advanced ‘nothing but common-place objections against the belief of a God, and hackneyed declamations against the plan of providence’.

Priestly was also unimpressed by Hume’s argument that analogies from animals and plants could also equally be used to explain the cosmos. Hume had suggested that if the universe were an animal, then comets could be viewed as this creature’s eggs. Priestley said of this

‘Had any friend of religion advanced an idea so completely absurd as this, what would not Mr. Hume have said to turn it into ridicule. With just a smuch probability might he have said that Glasgow grew from a seed yielded by Edinburgh, or that London and Edinburgh, marrying, by natural generation, produced York, which lies between them. With much more probability might he have said that pamphlets are the productions of large books, that boats are young ships, and the pistols will grow into great guns; and that either there never were any first towns, books, ships, or guns, or that, if there were, they no makers.

How it could come into any man’s head to imagine that a thing so complex as this world, consisting of land and water, earths and metals, plants and animals, &c &c &c should produce a seed, or egg, containing within it the elements of all its innumerable parts, is beyond my powers of comprehension.’

Hume’s Argument on Organic Nature of Universe Scientific Nonsense, According to Priestly

Priestly even suggested that this view of the origin of the cosmos was based on ignorance, not science.

‘What must have been that man’s knowledge of philosophy and nature, who could suppose for a moment, that a comet could possibly be the seed of a world? Do comets spiring from worlds, carrying with them the seeds of all the plants, &c that they contain? Do comets travel from sun to sun, or from star to star? By what force are they tossed into the unformed elements, which Mr. Hume supposes everywhere to surround the universe?> What are those elements: and what evidence has he of their existence? or supposing the comet to arrive among them, whence could arise its power of vegetating into a new system?’

Priestly had possibly missed the point about HUme’s organic analogies. They were not serious suggestions, but intended to show that the machine metaphors used for the universe were only one of several that could equally be used. Nevertheless, Priestly showed that these metaphors were just as, if not more vulnerable, to criticism as those which likened the cosmos to a machine.

Hume’s Spokesman for Design Champion of Science in these Debates

Most of Hume’s arguments against religion and the evidence for design in the universe are philosophical, not scientific. He does use Newton’s suggestion that the cosmos was permeated by an ether to argue that it was movements in this, rather than the actions of the Almighty, that resulted in the effects of gravity. Despite this it is Hume’s character, Cleanthes, who idealises and defends science. Cleanthes states that ‘The true system of the heavenly bodies is discovered and ascertained … Why must conclusions of a (relgious) nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason?’

Hume’s Empiricism also Used to Attack Not Yet Verified Scientific Concepts

Furthermore, Hume’s agnosticism could act against scientific investigation. Hume believed that just because two events were seen to occur together did not mean that one caused the other. Hume did not wish to attack science. He was an empiricist, and this attitude that no concepts should be accepted unless they were directly experienced could be used against scientific ideas as well as religious, if taken to extremes. Atoms and genes, for example, were theoretical suggestions long before they were verified by science. These concepts would have had to be rejected if the standards of evidence Hume levelled against religion were applied to science. Those secular scientists that did not believe in them frequently attacked them on the basis that such ideas were exactly like those of religion in their lack of a sound scientific basis. The great 19th century chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, stated:

‘I do not want chemistry to degenerate into a religion; I do not want the chemist to believe in the existence of atoms as the Christian believes in the existence of Christ in the communion wafter’.

Refutation of the Argument against Miracles and Other Arguments

As for Hume’s arguments against miracles, they have been refuted by the secular, agnostic philosopher Earman. Earman’s article attacking them was called ‘The complete Failure of Hume’s Arguments against Miracles’. Hume’s arguments against design in the cosmos have also been attacked by Robin Attfield in his Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006). Attfield argues against atheism from a theistic evolutionist perspective.

As for Hume’s argument that monotheism originally arose from polytheism, this has been accepted by theologians as not actually affecting the truth of the Christian revelation. I was taught it at my old Anglican church school. There is another theory that the original religion was monotheism. This is based on similarities to Judeo-Christian conception of the Almighty in other cultures, and by the fact that rather than developing into monotheism, the number of gods in polytheist religions actually increases over time.

Conclusion: Hume’s Arguments Philosophical, Not Scientific, and Could be Used Against Science

Thus Hume’s arguments against religion have been attacked in turn, and were largely not based in science. Joseph Priestly, who was a scientist as well as Unitarian minister, attacked them for their lack of a scientific basis. Indeed, Hume’s empiricism, when taken to extremes, could and did occasionally act against scientific discovery, as Berthelot’s rejection of atoms shows.


John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991).