On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland

The Christian blogger Anthony Freeland has invited me to debate the topic of whether morals are objective or subjective. Anthony has written the first post, arguing that objective moral values and duties do exist.

I’m arguing that morals are subjective, and will structure this post as a reply to Anthony, though elaborating on my wider views at times (for more of which see these three posts). To start with, I’ll concur with Anthony’s definition of the terms. Subjective morals derive from and are dependent on human feelings and opinion on the matter. Objective moral values and duties need to be independent of human opinion (though, as below, more broadly they need to be independent of the feelings of any sentient being). Continue reading

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On Discovering a Planet and the Art of Writing a Press Release

tran_snapOne notable aspect of research into extra-solar planets is that both the media and the wider public are very interested. The first press release that I ever wrote, on the discovery of the first planets by our Wide Angle Search for Planets collaboration, back in 2007, ended up in TIME magazine as number 6 in their “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries” of the year. But the days of easy publicity for merely discovering a planet have passed. With astronomers worldwide having now found over 1000 exoplanets, it is getting harder to find a new angle when writing a press release.

Exoplanet transit

Our WASP project uses arrays of cameras to monitor millions of stars in order to look for tiny dips in their light caused by a planet orbiting in front of them. This requires a huge data-processing operation and the need for sophisticated search algorithms to look for the transit events.

WASP camera array

The big problem is that the data, being obtained looking through Earth’s atmosphere, are hugely noisy. In the end, we need a human to help out the computer algorithms and make a judgement about what is likely to be an actual transit event. And that requires looking at lots and lots of light-curves of lots and lots of stars.

When I got an email from a 15-yr-old schoolboy — Tom Wagg — saying that he was keen on science and asking if he could join my research group for a week of work-experience, I figured that a bright 15-yr-old would be as good at that sort of pattern-recognition task as the best computer algorithms. So, I trained him up by showing him all the planet-transit dips that we’d already found, and set him the task of finding more of the same in our extensive data archive. Continue reading

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What is the point of scientific peer review?

peer-review-thumbnailIn order to publish in any scientific journal worth publishing in, ones paper must pass “peer review”. This consists of the editors asking one or more experts in the field to review the paper in order to spot errors, recommend improvements, and opine on whether it is of sufficient merit to publish.

Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, has written an article in the Times Higher Education arguing that “the process has little if any benefit and lots of flaws”, and that “peer review doesn’t work” because most of what is published in scientific journals “is plain wrong”.

He tells the story, when at the BMJ, of deliberately inserting multiple errors into manuscripts to see how many reviewers found them. Many of the reviewers missed many of the errors.

This raises the question of what peer review is actually for. Smith states that “Peer review is supposed to be the quality assurance system for science”, that aims to reassure readers “that they can trust what they are reading” (added emphasis).

However, no working scientist actually “trusts” scientific papers, all scientists read papers in a sceptical way, knowing full well that much of what they are reading will turn out to be wrong. “The” quality-assurance system for science is not what happens prior to publication, but what happens after publication. That is when the real peer review begins, when the community can read and think about and criticise a paper. Continue reading

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Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

scientism A common criticism of science is that it must make foundational assumptions that have to be taken on faith. It is, the critic asserts, just one world view among other, equally “valid”, world views that are based on different starting assumptions. Thus, the critic declares, science adopts naturalism as an axiom of faith, whereas a religious view is more complete in that it also allows for supernaturalism.

This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.

Any part of this web of ideas can be examined and replaced, if replacing it improves the overall match to reality. Even basic axioms of maths and logic can be evaluated, and thus they are ultimately accepted for empirical reasons, namely that they model the real world.

This view of knowledge was promoted by the Vienna Circle philosophers such as Otto Neurath, who gave the metaphor of knowledge being a raft floating at sea, where any part of it may be replaced. As worded by Quine: Continue reading

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joins those trying to silence secularists

With only 50 days until a UK General Election I’m running out of parties to vote for. On solely economic concerns I’d likely vote centre-right Tory, but Cameron’s government has been giving full rein to evangelical Christians such as Local-Government Minister Eric Pickles, who seem to regard the non-religious as second-class citizens whose feelings don’t matter.

The Conservatives’ whole pitch is aimed at UKIP-voting Christians with no sign that they want the vote of the non-religious. They rejected humanist marriages, which would cost them nothing, just because they see it as a minority concern. Behaving to type, they are pushing through a bill enabling Christians to impose prayers on Local Council meetings, even though 55% of the public don’t want such prayers, with only 26% in favour.

Labour are little better of course. They could readily sink the council-prayer bill if they wanted to. And in 13 years of office up until 2010 they did much to promote and entrench “faith” schools. With Opus-Dei-member Ruth Kelly as Education Secretary, they renewed the legislation that compels school children to worship the Christian god, while their flagship legislation, the 2010 Equality Act, contained a specific exemption allowing state-funded schools to continue to discriminate over religion. Continue reading

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Are a quarter of British Muslims really extremists?

I hope not to write again about Islam for a while, having already written three pieces since the Charlie Hebdo killings. I aim that this will be the last for a while.

But, suppose that, in a poll of British UKIP voters, a quarter had shown support for violence to achieve their ends. You can bet that the BBC would broadcast that statistic with the highest condemnation, painting the whole UKIP party as extremist.

Well, in the BBC’s poll published today, out of 1000 British Muslims who were asked, two hundred and forty four disagreed with the statement that “acts of violence against those who publish images of the Prophet Mohammed can never be justified”. Scaled to the British population that is 800,000 Islamic believers who think that violence against those who merely draw cartoons can indeed be justified.

How did the BBC present this finding? Its headline was “Most British Muslims ‘oppose Muhammad cartoons reprisals’.”. Is the idea that most Muslims are not violent now sufficiently remarkable that it becomes the headline? Are we so used to the idea that Muslims are violent that saying that they are not so is now news? Or is this spin, aimed at avoiding emphasis on the fact that a whole quarter of the British Muslims are sufficiently extreme that they do indeed accept violence against what is mere speech?

Note the BBC’s word “reprisals”, which didn’t feature in the actual wording of the poll. “Reprisal” means the “act of returning an attack”, and its use implies that violence is somehow an equivalent retaliation to drawing a cartoon. Continue reading

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The Chapel Hill shooting, Craig Hicks’s anti-theism, and The Guardian’s biases

In the heightened tension of multiple shootings related to religion and free-speech there is sometimes a tendency to claim that vocal atheists can be just as “extreme” as the Islamists. In Craig Hicks, murderer of three innocent people who were Muslims, perhaps there is the proof?

The Guardian certainly thinks so. In an editorial published yesterday, The Guardian says that the Chapel Hill shooting was an “act of terrorism” and that Hicks’s target was “freedom itself”, in this case the freedom to be a Muslim.

We should and do unreservedly condemn the murders of Deah Barakat, of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the youngest only 19. If the act was in any way related to the atheistic views of Craig Hicks then we unreservedly condemn it. If the motive was unrelated to religion we again condemn it.

The Guardian thinks it knows Craig Hicks’s motives, but does it? Hicks has been described as “an angry, confrontational man who constantly harangued residents about where they parked their car and the noise level at the condominium complex where they lived”. Hicks was also an advocate of the right to carry guns, which on occasion he brandished to neighbours.

The families of those murdered regard this as a hate crime, directed at the victims because they were Muslim. They may be right. Hicks’s wife, though, has denied that the motive was religious. Mental health issues have been suggested. Many people are gunned down in gun-toting America each year. The fact that the victims were religious is not sufficient for concluding that the motive was religious. Continue reading

Posted in Human Rights, Religion, Secularism | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments