Sunday, December 28, 2008

Could it be pretty obvious there's no God?


[This is from forthcoming book edited by Russell Blackford, called 50 Voices of Disbelief].

“Let us say: 'Either God is or he is not.' But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question.“ Blaise Pascal.

Like Pascal, many theists believe reason cannot determine whether or not God exists. Indeed, many suppose that, because God, if he exists, transcends physical reality, it is in principle impossible for us to determine whether God exists simply by observing
it. Science, and empirical observation more generally, can provide, at best, a few clues. They cannot settle the question beyond reasonable doubt.

I reject that view. It seems to me that by observing the world around us, we can answer the question of whether God exists. In fact, I’m going to suggest it’s pretty obvious there’s no God.

That last claim may surprise even some atheists. How could it be pretty obvious there’s no God? Surely this is a tortuously difficult and complex question over which the greatest minds have pondered for millennia, without ever reaching any real consensus. How, then, can the answer be pretty obvious?

Yet I think it is pretty obvious. I’ll sketch a case for that conclusion here.

To begin, let’s clarify which God we are talking about. The Judeo-Christian god is the God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is, according to religious orthodoxy, all-powerful, all-knowing, and, perhaps most importantly, maximally good – as good as it’s possible to be. Indeed, we’re told that God loves us as if we were his children.

Those who consider belief in this particular deity at least not unreasonable will typically point to a range of arguments to support their belief. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” they may ask. “God explains the existence of the universe. And God’s existence, being necessary, requires no further explanation. So you see? - God provides the only remotely satisfactory answer to this question.”

Or they may run a fine-tuning type argument, like so: “Only a very particular set of laws and initial conditions can create a universe capable of producing conscious beings such as ourselves. What is the probability of the universe having just these features by chance? Astronomically low. Far more likely, then, that some sort of cosmic intelligence deliberately designed the universe that way. That intelligence is God.

These arguments, the theist will usually concede, may not constitute proofs – but they do show that belief in God has at least got something going for it, rationally speaking.

Trouble is, these arguments are very weak.. The most they establish, if anything, is that the universe has some sort of creator or designer. It is, as it stands, a huge further, unwarranted leap to the conclusion that this creator-designer is all-powerful and maximally-good. These arguments, as they stand, no more support that conclusion than they support the conclusion that the creator-designer is, say, maximally evil (which they don’t support at all).

Things get worse. Not only do many (if not all) of the most popular arguments for the existence of God fail to provide much reason to suppose this particular, Judeo-Christian, God exists, there appears to be very powerful evidence against that hypothesis. I am thinking, of course, of the “problem of evil” (“evil” in this context, covers both pain and suffering, and also morally bad behaviour – such as killing, stealing, and so on). In fact, there are two problems of evil – the logical problem, and the evidential problem.

The logical problem of evil

God, if he exists, is all-powerful, and maximally good. But the existence of such a being is surely logically incompatible with the existence of evil. An all-powerful being could prevent evil existing. Being maximally good, he would not want evil to exist As evil exists, it follows, logically, that the Judeo-Christian god does not.

Notice that the amount of evil the world contains is not relevant here. The argument is that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any evil at all.

The logical problem can perhaps be dealt with by suggesting that God would want to create a maximally good world – a world as good as it is possible for a world to be. And a maximally good world might contain some evil. Why? Because that evil is the price paid for some greater good – a good outweighing the evil. Such a maximally good world would be even better than a world containing no evil.

So, for example, a Christian might claim that free-will is a very great good. True, given free-will, we then sometimes choose to do bad things. But the good of free-will outweighs the badness of those bad things we do, which is why God would still create such a world.

The evidential problem of evil

As I say, the logical problem is that of explaining why an all-powerful maximally good God would allow any evil at all. Perhaps it can be solved. The evidential problem, by contrast, is that of explaining why this God would allow quite so much evil into his creation. Even if we acknowledge that an omnipotent, omniscient and supremely benevolent being might create a world with at least some evil in it, surely there would be no reason for him to create a world containing such extraordinary quantities of pain and suffering?

We can sharpen the problem by noting that God will presumably not allow gratuitous suffering. There must be a good reason for every last ounce of it. But when we consider the enormous quantities of suffering the world contains – including the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering that occurred before we humans made an appearance (including the literally unimaginable horror caused mass-extinction events the second to last of which wiped 95% of all species from the face of the Earth)– doesn’t it quickly become apparent that it cannot all be accounted for in this way?

So, while the logical problem of evil can perhaps be dealt with, the evidential problem looks, to me, a very serious threat to the rationality of theism. It seems that, not only do most of the popular arguments for the existence of God fail to provide much support to the hypothesis that there’s an all-powerful maximally good God, there is also very powerful evidence against the hypothesis. Far from being a “not unreasonable” thing to believe, then, it’s beginning to look like belief in the Judeo-Christian God is very unreasonable indeed.

How do theists respond to the challenge posed by the evidential problem of evil? Often, by constructing theodicies – theistic explanations for the amount of evil that exists. Many such explanations have been developed. Here are three popular examples.

Free-will theodicy

Free may be invoked to deal not just with the logical problem of evil, but also the evidential problem. Here’s a simple example. God gave us free-will. Free-will is a great good. It also allows for certain important goods, such as our ability to do good of a our own free-will. True, God could compel us always to be good, but then we would be mere puppet beings, and so not morally responsible or praiseworthy for our good actions. Good done of our own volition is a far greater good. True, as a result of our having free-will we sometimes do wrong – we steal, kill and start wars, for example. But these evils are more than outweighed by the goods free-will allows.


Character-building theodicy

This is, to borrow theologian John Hick’s phrase, a “vale of soul making” . God could have made a heaven-like world for us to inhabit. He chose not to, because he wants to give us the opportunity to grow and develop into the kind of noble and virtuous beings he wants us to be. That kind of growth requires a struggle. No pain, no gain. Many people, having come through a terrible disease, say that, while their ordeal was terrible, they don’t regret having been through it. For tt gave them the opportunity to learn about what is really important, to develop morally and spiritually. By causing us pain and suffering, God gives us the invaluable opportunity to grow and develop both morally and spiritually.

The laws of nature theodicy

Effective human action requires the world behave in a regular way (for example, I am able deliberately to light this fire by striking my match only because there are laws that determine that under such circumstances, fire will result from the striking of a match). That there be laws of nature is a prerequisite of our having the ability both to act on our natural environment and interact with each other within it. These abilities allows for great goods. They give us the opportunity to act in a morally virtuous way. True, such a law-governed world inevitably produces some evils. For instance, the kind of laws and initial conditions that produce stable land masses on which we can survive and evolve also produce tectonic shifts that result in earthquakes and tsunamis. Still, the evil earthquakes and tsunamis cause is more than outweighed by the goods these same laws allow. We might think it possible to design a world that, as a result of being governed by different laws and/or initial conditions, contain a far greater ratio of good to evil (that contain stable land masses but no earthquakes, for example), but, due to consequences we have failed to foresee (perhaps the absence of earthquakes is at the cost of some even worse kind of global catastrophe), such worlds will, in reality, always be worse than the actual world

Of course, all three theodicies outlined above have weakness. Take the free-will theodicy: it fails to explain so called natural evils – such as the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters. The character-building theodicy also raises such questions as: why hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering? Did their characters need building too?

Still, many of the faithful, while admitting that the evidential problem of evil is not easily solved, may suggest that such moves, taken together, at least do much to reduce the scale of the evidential problem. Enough, at least, to make belief in God not unreasonable after all. They may also, as a parting shot, play the mystery card.

The mystery card

This really is the best of all-possible worlds. Ultimately, the fact that God would allow such horror does make sense. It’s just that, being mere humans, we can’t see how. Remember, we are dealing here with the mind of God - an infinitely powerful and wise being whose plan is likely to be inscrutable to us. Show a little humility! If there is a God, and this is all part of his divine plan, it’s hardly surprising we can’t make much sense of it all, is it? So the fact that we can’t make much sense of it is poor evidence that there is no God.

I now come to the central aim of this little essay, which is to explain why I find these kind of responses to the evidential problem of evil woefully inadequate. Indeed, I believe it remains pretty obvious there’s no such God. I’ll explain why by means of an analogy.

The evil God hypothesis and the problem of good

Suppose that there is no all-powerful, maximally good God. There is, instead, an all-powerful, maximally evil God. His depravity knows no limits, his cruelty no bounds. Call this the evil God hypothesis.

Suppose I believe in such a being. How reasonable is my belief? Surely, very unreasonable indeed.

But why? After all, as they stand, the two popular arguments for the existence of God we examined earlier, provide, as we saw, just as much support for the evil God hypothesis as they do the standard good God hypothesis. As these arguments are widely supposed by Christians, Jews and Muslims to provide significant rational support to their belief, shouldn’t they acknowledge that, as they stand, they provide much the same level of support the evil God hypothesis.

But of course, hardly anyone believes the evil God hypothesis. It’s immediately dismissed by almost everyone as, not just not reasonable, but as downright unreasonable. It’s pretty obvious there’s no such being. But why?

Well, isn’t there overwhelming evidence against the evil God hypothesis - the evidence provided by the enormous amounts of good that exist in the world? Perhaps an evil God would allow some good into his creation for the sake of greater evils, but would he allow quite so much? Why does he allow love, laughter and rainbows, which give us so much pleasure? Why would an evil God allow us children to love, who love us unconditionally in return? Evil god hates love! And why would an evil God allow us to help each other and relieve each others’ suffering? That’s the last thing an evil God would do, surely?

Perceptive readers will have noticed that this objection to belief in an evil God mirrors the problem of evil. If you believe in an all-powerful maximally good God, you face the problem of explaining why there is quite so much evil. If you believe in an all-powerful, maximally evil God you face the problem of explaining why there’s so much good. We might call the latter problem the problem of good.

Despite the fact that the evil God hypothesis is about as well supported by many of the most popular arguments for the existence of God as the good God hypothesis, almost everyone immediately dismisses it as silly and absurd. And rightly so. Why? Because of the overwhelming empirical evidence against it provided by the problem of good.

But now consider these moves that might be made to deal with the problem of good.

Reverse theodicies

Reverse Free-will theodicy

Why would an evil God allow us to selflessly help each other and reduce suffering? Well, evil God gave us free-will. Free-will allows for certain important evils, such as the ability to do evil of our own free-will. True, God could have simply compelled us always to do evil, but then we would be mere puppet beings, and so not morally responsible or blameworthy for our evil actions. For true moral depravity we must freely choose to do wrong. That’s why evil God gave us free-will. It allows for the very great evil of moral depravity. True, as a result of being given free-will we sometimes choose to do good things – such as help each other and reduce suffering. But these goods are more than outweighed by the evil free-will brings.

In addition, free-will also allows for certain important forms of psychological suffering. True, God could have just tortured us for all eternity with a red-hot poker, but how much more satisfying and evil to mess with our minds. By giving us free-will and also weak and selfish natures, evil God can ensure that we suffer the agony of temptation. And then, when we succumb, we feel the torture of guilt. We can only suffer these deeper, psychological forms of anguish if we are given (or are given the illusion of ) free-will.

Character-destroying theodicy

Hick was mistaken: this is a vale, not of soul making, but of soul-destruction. Evil god wants us to suffer, do evil and despair.

Why, then, does an evil god create natural beauty? To provide some contrast. To make what is ugly seem even more so. If everything were uniformly, maximally ugly, we wouldn’t be tormented by the ugliness half as much as if it was peppered with some beauty.

The need for contrast to maximize suffering also explains why evil god bestows upon a few people lavish lifestyles and success. Their great fortune is designed to make the suffering of the rest of us even more acute. Who can rest content knowing that they have so much more, that they are undeserving, and that no matter how hard we might strive, we will never achieve what they have. Remember, too, that even those lucky few are not really happy.

Why does evil God allow us to have beautiful children to love and that love us unconditionally in return? Because we will worry endlessly about them. Only a parent knows the depths of anguish and suffering that having children brings.

Why does an evil god give us beautiful, healthy young bodies? Because we know that out health and vitality will be short-lived, that we will either die young or else wither and become incontinent, arthritic and repulsive. By giving us something wonderful for a moment, and then gradually pulling it away, an evil god can make us suffer even more than if we had never had it in the first place.

Reverse laws of nature theodicy

Effective and purposeful action requires the world behave in a regular way. That there be laws of nature is a prerequisite of our having the ability to both act on our natural environment and interact with each other within it. These abilities allows for great evils. For example, they give us the opportunity to act in morally depraved ways – by killing and torturing each other. By giving us these abilities, evil god also allows us to experience certain important psychological forms of suffering such as frustration – we cannot try, and become frustrated through repeated failure, unless we are first given the opportunity to act. True, such a law-governed world inevitably produces some goods. For example, in giving us the ability to act within a physical environment, evil god gave us the ability to avoid that which causes us pain and seek out that which gives us pleasure. Still, such goods are more than outweighed by the evils these laws allow. We might think it possible to design a world that, as a result of being governed by different laws and/or initial conditions, contain a far greater ratio of evil to good (that contain far more physical pain and far less pleasure, for example), but, due to consequences we have failed to foresee (perhaps the greater suffering will result in us being far more charitable, sympathetic and generally good towards others), such worlds will, in reality, always be better than the actual world.

Of course, if these reverse theodicies fail to convince, then I can always play the mystery card:

The mystery card

This really is the worst of all-possible worlds. Ultimately, the fact that an evil God would allow love, laughter and rainbows does make perfect sense. It’s just that, being mere humans, we can’t see how. Remember, we are dealing here with the mind of God – a being of infinite power and guile. Show a little humility! If there is an evil God, and this is all part of his divine plan, it’s hardly surprising we can’t make much sense of it all, is it? So the fact that we can’t make much sense of it is not good evidence that there’s no evil God.

Many other (if not all ) standard theodicies can be similarly reversed. Should we conclude, then, that we were mistaken? Should we suppose that belief in an evil God is, despite the apparent evidence against to the contrary, not unreasonable after all?

Of course not. The evil God hypothesis remains pretty obviously false. The fact that we can gerrymander such explanations for what looks to be overwhelming evidence against the evil God hypothesis doesn’t show that there isn’t overwhelming evidence against the hypothesis, or that the evil God hypothesis is not, indeed, a very silly thing believe.

Ditto, I suggest, the good God hypothesis. The good God hypothesis, far from being something it’s impossible for reason to determine the truth or falsity of, is, in fact, straightforwardly empirically falsified. It is, to any one with eyes to see, pretty obviously false (the real mystery, I think, is why so many fail to see this).

Perhaps the universe has a creator. Perhaps there is some sort of intelligence behind it. But, even if there is, we can be very sure it’s not the evil God, can’t we? So why can’t we be equally sure it’s not the good God? We may not know what or who did create the universe, if anything. We can still be pretty sure who didn’t.

Of course, those who believe the good God hypothesis will no doubt now try to establish some asymmetry between the good and evil God hypotheses. There are some asymmetries, in fact. But I cannot see that any of them tilt the scale of reasonableness significantly in the direction of the good God hypothesis. Which is why I don’t believe it. Seems to me the good God hypotheses, like the evil God hypothesis, is pretty obviously false.

"Front" lobbying organizations - SOS and the Countryside Alliance

Companies setting up "independent" lobbying organizations might be on the increase, I think. When it was proposed to limit displays of cigarettes in shops, a group called Save Our Shops lobbied MPs (source here):

Over the summer, MPs were inundated with postcards bearing the Save Our Shop campaign logo, urging them not to back the government's proposals, outlined last week by the Department of Health. The cards stated: 'As my local MP, I hope you will protect our independent local shops by opposing this proposal.'

More than 100 MPs signed an early-day motion in Parliament agreeing with the proposal that any plan to sell cigarettes under the counter should be firmly 'evidenced-based', a key message pushed by the Save Our Shop campaign.

But it has now emerged many MPs were unaware the campaign was the brainchild of the Tobacco Retailers' Association (TRA), an offshoot of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, which represents the interests of three tobacco companies: BAT, Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco.


Incidentally, SOS were clearly not well organized because very mixed messages were coming from shop keepers. Some insisted the move would have no effect on kids etc. buying fags, so why hide the fags? Pointless Nanny-State-ism. But others said it would severely damage trade - and threaten shops. So it would severely damage trade by...er.. not having any effect on sales. Hmm.

Another dubious lobbying organization is the Countryside Alliance, which presents itself as defending the interests of those living in the countryside, but seems to do little other than fight to protect fox hunting, which, ironically, polls indicate a majority of those living in the countryside want banned. The website says:

The Countryside Alliance works for everyone who loves the countryside and the rural way of life. Our vision is of a vital, working and thriving countryside for the benefit of the whole nation.

Here we have not a company, but wealthy people who, after a hard week in the boardroom, like to relax by chasing down and disembowelling small animals, putting up and funding a lobbying organization which presents itself as one thing (fights to protect the countryside) but is really another (lobbies to protect their nasty hobby).

I don't see the Countryside Alliance fighting for more rural public transport, or defending local post offices, or anything else that might really have an impact on the quality of life of those living in the countryside. Because the truth is most of the big contributors to the CA really don't give a fuck about ordinary people living in the countryside.

Interestingly, wiki notes that: According to disclosures in the UK Data Protection Register, the CA carries out research on the backgrounds of those it considers to be its opponents.

This might get me on their list.

Info (which seems reliable, though the source is partisan) on who funds and controls the CA here

Background information on the ban of hunting with dogs here.(The Independent).

Anyone aware of other examples of such "front" lobbying organizations?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lying about Santa


[Repeat of an earlier post - as it's especially relevant tonight]

Suppose I visit the wife and seven year old daughter of a colleague who has recently died. Now it turns out that the wife is a Christian, and she has told her daughter that her Daddy is now living in heaven with God and the angels. This is very comforting belief for both the wife and the little girl. Daddy hasn’t gone for ever. He’s merely moved to somewhere very nice, somewhere that they too will go in the end.

Now I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or in any sort of after-life. Suppose that this little girl asks me whether I believe in heaven. What do I say? Do I tell her the truth or do I lie?

Of course, if you happen to believe in God and the angels, you can tell comfortably tell her the truth about what you believe. But if, like me, you don’t believe in any of that, you find yourself facing a dilemma. Do you lie?

I would avoid telling her the truth if I could, perhaps by changing the subject. But I don’t think I could lie. I don’t think I could tell her I believed in God and heaven when I don’t. Even if the result of my not lying is that it shakes her own confidence in her belief.

Which at first sight is very odd, because if she were to ask me whether I believed in Santa and the elves living at the North Pole, I’ll happily lie. In fact, I’ll go out of my way to embellish the fib – by helping her put out Santa’s mince pie and Rudolph’s carrot at bedtime, and then leaving bite-marks in the mince pie and gnawing the carrot once she’s gone to bed.

But if she asks me whether I believe in God and Heaven, I would find it very difficult to tell her what I consider to be a fib. Despite the fact that this little girl derives an extraordinary amount of comfort, and even some happiness, from that lie. Far more, in fact, than she derives from the fib about Santa and the Elves.

Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? Aren’t I operating with a blatant double standard? I’ll go out of my way to lie about Santa and the Elves. Yet I turn into Mr Principle when it comes to lying about God and the angels.

Well, may be not. As children grow up, we create illusory worlds for them to inhabit: little bubbles of deceit. One of these bubbles of belief is about goblins and fairies, another is about Santa and Rudolph. These bubbles soon pop, of course, We can’t sustain them into adult life. But, while they last, they are charming fantasies.

The trouble with the religious bubble, from the point of view of most atheists, is that it doesn’t always pop. Many of us continue to inhabit it throughout our entire lives. And it can dramatically shape our lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

Six arguments for lying to children

1. Educational fibbing. My daughter and I often tell each other fibs. I say, “Did you know that there are fairies living under our garden shed?” To which she responds, but Daddy, why can’t we see them?” To which I answer, “They only come out at night.” To which she says “But then how do you know they are there?” and so on. The more we play this sort of game, the better she gets at figuring out when she’s being lied to.

Lying games are good way of showing children that, armed with nothing more than their own power of reason, they can often figure out what’s true for themselves.

Educational fibbing games can help them develop some intellectual and emotional maturity. They won’t be afraid to think or ask a question. It gives them a course in self-defence that will come in very handy when they are confronted by the corporate, religious and other psychological manipulators and snake-oil salesmen later on.

If we want our children to grow into good truth-detectors, these are the sort of skills we need then to acquire.

2. It makes them happy.

3. Gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it – to really believe - lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.

4. And we can vicariously enjoy their pleasure. Having children around who believe in Santa transforms Christmas – you can half inhabit their kitsch fantasy world for a few days.

5. Useful for controlling behaviour. “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who's naughty and nice”. Santa is watching what you are doing even when Mummy and Daddy are not.

6. “Protecting” them from potentially upsetting or damaging truths.

Three arguments against lying to children

1. They will learn not to trust you. Crying wolf – won’t believe you when it really matters.

2. We are teaching them that lying is acceptable.

3. We can instill false beliefs that may hurt them later in life.

NB I merely present these arguments - I don't necessarily endorse them. And, incidentally, some of the lies we tell we don’t ourselves properly register as lies:

• “You can be anything you want to be!” (cobblers, of course)
• “Looks don’t matter!" (perhaps they shouldn't, but they do)

Podcast possibilities

Nigel Warburton very generously gave me a great little Snowflake USB microphone for my birthday, which he uses to make podcasts. He is expecting me to do the same, now. So shall have to think up ideas. Any suggestions gratefully received....

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pope's end of year speech


Pope Benedict XVI has said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction. Go here.

Thanks to anticant for drawing my attention to this...

POST SCRIPT 24TH DEC: there is a follow up piece here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

McKellen criticises faith schools for religious teaching

Actor Sir Ian McKellen has criticised faith schools, reports the Guardian here.

"It [religion] is the one area where people are not frightened to be openly homophobic," he said.

He is quite right, and of course right that some faith schools are teaching that homosexuality is a sin. Some promote that view exclusively. Others will present it as one of a range of views.

In the print version of this article, it said

"The Church of England said its schools explored the issue of homosexuality, rather than promoted one view of it."

Ibrahim Hewitt of the Association of Muslim Schools said "A faith school reflects its faith in what is taught, but I would expect other views to be discussed as well."

Oh, that's alright then - as long as other views are discussed.

Well no it's not all right.

The truth is that homophobia (I'd prefer to call it "homosexism", as it isn't a phobia) like racism and sexism, involves demonstrably false beliefs, and foul and damaging ones at that. Around the world, homosexuals are still being victimized on religious grounds. In some places, they are executed.

This isn't a dispute over some unresolvable moral conundrum. The homophobes lost the argument spectacularly a long time ago. It is no more acceptable that schools teach homophobic views even as possibilities pupils might like to "explore" than it is that they should present, say, racist views in that way.

Homophobia needs to be kicked out of every classroom. The fact that a school is a faith school is no excuse whatsoever.

This might be a key issue on which to lobby, in fact. If religions are forced to defend the teaching of homophobic views in their classrooms, they'll lose an enormous amount of public support, and may prefer to back down.

Of course, some will say that religious beliefs are "special" and so deserve respect - respect that must be communicated in the classroom. But sexist and racist views don't typically command respect just because they're religiously motivated (and they have both been religiously motivated, of course). Neither should homophobic views.

Friday, December 19, 2008

CFI event at Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

I have arranged for CFI to put on three events at the Oxford Literary festival - two adult events and one for kids.

The biggest event is a debate between myself and Prof. Roger Trigg on Secularism. Friday April 3rd 2pm in the Great Hall at Christchurch. Tickets from Oxford Literary Festival.

Is Britain too secular now?


Is it right that British society be explicitly founded on Christian values? Is there something special about religion - and particularly the Christian religion - that justifies giving it a special, privileged role within our society? Should the state fund faith schools?

Philosopher Professor Roger Trigg believes secularization now threatens the fabric of British society. He defends the view that our freedoms are rooted in a Christian tradition and that, unless our Christian heritage is explicitly acknowledged and valued by the State, those freedoms may be at risk.

Philosopher Stephen Law argues that there is nothing about religious beliefs that justifies giving them such special treatment, and that it’s high time we kicked the church out of our state.

Roger Trigg is the author of Religion in Public Life: Must Religion be Privatized? He is also Senior Research Fellow at The Ian Ramsey Centre, University of Oxford, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick and a former President of the Mind Association and of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion.

Stephen Law is the author of The War For Children’s Minds (which is critical of many faith schools). He is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy Heythrop College University of London, editor of THINK (journal of Royal Institute of Philosophy) and Provost of The Centre for Inquiry London.

Format 10-15 mins presentation by each speaker followed by 30 minutes of QandA.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Strictly Come Dancing - the weird maths

My father in law pointed out something very odd regarding the recent controversy about the BBC letting all three contestants go through without any having to face a dance off.

Normally, if there are three contestants, they get 3, 2 and 1 points for being ranked 1st 2nd and 3rd by the judges. They then get the same depending on how they are ranked by the public. The bottom two then face the dance off and the couple ranked lowest in the dance off by the judges is eliminated.

This time, the judges scored the top two equally, so the scoring was two threes and a one.

But it then became clear that there was no point in the public voting to "save" the bottom contestant from the dance off, as they would inevitably face the dance off.

This is the reason why the BBC said all three should go through (and the votes carried over to next week).

But here is the oddity: even if each couple gets either 3,2 or 1 from the judges, the bottom couple cannot avoid the dance off anyway. Do the maths and you'll see. So the reason the BBC gave for letting all three couples through would have applied anyway, whether or not the top two couples tied. That the top two couples tied in the judges' vote is irrelevant. No one seems to have noticed this (or have they)?

S

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blair says religion should provide "values" for globalisation

From Ekklesia...

Former British prime minister Tony Blair has completed his first semester as a visiting lecturer at Yale University, an experience he says has strengthened his belief that religious faith and economic and social globalisation are partners - writes Chris Herlinger.

In his final appearance on 11 December with students at a seminar he co-taught, and addressing the Yale community, Blair said his time as a part-time academic has convinced him that "globalisation requires values to succeed".

Arguing that the process of "pushing people together" has made multicultural and multi-religious societies, Blair argued that "spiritual capital" and "human capital" now need to link.

That, combined with an increased need for multi-faith dialogue, he told reporters after he spoke, "will in time be seen as a defining question, and perhaps the leading question of the 21st century".

Blair also touted the need for the United States, Britain and its allies to emphasise the efficacy of social values in the fight against terrorism.

"It's the force of argument, and not of arms, that will cause us to succeed," the former British prime minister said in an address at Yale's Battell Chapel.

Blair was an Anglican but in 2007, after stepping down as prime minister, he converted to Roman Catholicism. In a BBC television document after he left office, Blair acknowledged that his belief in God played a "hugely important" role during his 10 years as prime minister.

As a Howland Distinguished Fellow at Yale, Blair has co-taught a seminar on the theme of faith and globalisation with Professor Miroslav Volf, a Croatian-born theologian and the director of Yale's Center for Faith and Culture.

The final session of the seminar, seen by video hook-up, indicated that while Blair did not mind students asking probing questions about the war in Iraq, he held his ground, saying he accepts responsibility for the decision that British forces go to war.

And while acknowledging many things have wrong in Iraq since the 2003 invasion by U.S., British and allied forces, Blair told students he believes the Middle East is still better off without Saddam Hussein at the helm in the country, particularly in a region where, Blair said, some positive effects of globalisation are being felt.

"Do I think today, that looking at the region, it would be better off with Saddam? No I don't," Blair said.

The seminar has been a joint offering of Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Management. Blair has said he expects to return to Yale for an additional two years of teaching.

Blair has formed his own London-based foundation (www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org), to promote interfaith dialogue. He and Yale officials are working on a joint initiative to address issues of religious faith and globalisation. Blair said the current faith and globalisation course might be "spun off" and taught elsewhere in the world.

Though Blair said the emphasis he has made on global respect for religions and that President George W. Bush has made about respecting human dignity are linked, when asked by reporters to comment further on Bush's views of religion and politics, he said, "That's not for me to say."

[With acknowledgements to ENI and Ekklesia. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

Monday, December 15, 2008

British Library Event (II)

I am talking about my book The War For Children's Minds tomorrow evening at the British Library, along with three other authors discussing their books (event sold out, I'm afraid). This is roughly what I will be trying to communicate (taken from an earlier op ed piece I did):

In Britain and Australia, faith schools are currently booming as a direct result of Government policy. These schools are popular. British parents have been known to fake religious commitment to get their child into the right school. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has just confirmed that Australian parents are also abandoning public education in favour of the new, government-subsidized faith schools.

This rapid rise in religious schooling has, of course, been accompanied by concerns, not least of which is that faith schools can be deeply socially divisive. While I share that worry, my greatest concern is that that the smoke generated by the battle over whether religious schools are a good idea has obscured a more fundamental question: a question about the kind of religious education schools offer. To what extent should schools be allowed to encourage deference to authority when it comes to moral and religious matters? To what extent should they be able to suppress independent, critical thought?

Before the 60’s, moral and religious education tended to be highly authority-based. Children were typically expected to accept, more or less uncritically, what they were told. Independent critical thought was discouraged. Sometimes the discouragement was subtle, communicated by little more than the reverential tone with which religious ideas were conveyed. Other times it was more overt. A friend educated in the 60’s tells me she was sent to the headmaster simply for asking why the Catholic Church took the position it did on contraception. Many schools had a Big-Brother-like obsession with policing not just behaviour, but thought too. The same friend tells me that even today, 35 years after her Catholic education was complete, she still feels herself feeling guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief.

During the 60’s and 70’s, Western societies became far more liberal. Individuals were encouraged to throw off the old traditions and authorities and think and judge for themselves. This shift in emphasis, from deference to external authority to moral autonomy, was reflected in the kind of moral and religious education children received.

So what changed? Some educators simply abandoned moral and religious education altogether. Not a good idea, I think. Others, realizing that, when it comes to morality and religion, education doesn’t have to mean indoctrination, developed alternative educational strategies that encourage independent critical thought.

Has this been a good thing? I believe it has. In my book, The War For Children's Minds I point out the growing empirical evidence that schools that encourage collective philosophical discussion about religious and moral questions don’t just raise the IQs of their pupils, they also help to foster emotional and social skills as well.

Still, many social and religious conservatives profoundly resent this liberalization. They have constructed a complex mythology about it. As they see it, Western civilization is suffering from a ‘moral malaise’ the blame for which falls squarely on liberals and the Sixties (and also on something called ‘relativism’). Although they are unlikely to put it in so many words, what these conservatives want above all is to bring deference to religious authority back into the classroom. They want a return to uncritical acceptance of moral and religious belief, certainly in the earlier stages of a child’s education. It is the increasing influence of these conservatives that worries me most.

Let me be clear that there are some excellent religious schools, schools that dare to educate rather than indoctrinate. But far too many, while officially liberal, are busy applying psychological techniques that, if not quite brainwashing, lie on the same scale.

Some don’t even pretend to be liberal. Just the other day I heard the head of a British Islamic school agree that in any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”.

Any school that insists its religion should be a given and never challenged should no longer even be tolerated, let alone receive government funding.

If you believe that such authority-based religious education is acceptable, then let me leave you with a question. Suppose authoritarian political schools started opening up around the country. A conservative school opens in Sydney, followed by a communist school in Melbourne. These schools select on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Portraits of political leaders beam serenely down from classroom walls. Each day begins with the collective singing of a political anthem. Pupils are expected to defer, more or less unquestioningly, to their school’s political authority and its revered political texts. Rarely are children exposed to alternative political points of view, except, perhaps, in a caricatured form, so they can be sweepingly dismissed.

What would be the public’s reaction to such schools? Outrage. These schools would be accused of stunting children - of forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds.

My question is: if such authoritarian political schools are utterly beyond the pale, why are so many of us prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?

The answer, I suspect, is inertia. Authoritarian political schools would be a shocking new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools, Familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel.

I think it high time we got that sense of outrage back.

(from an op ed piece for the Sydeny Morning Herald).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Don Cupitt interview


Interesting interview with Don Cupitt - who is a "non-realist" about God. "God doesn't exist apart from our faith in him".

I wonder what Rev Sam and others think?

I am considering asking Cupitt to participate in a CFI event.

Interview is here - thanks to philosophybites and Nigel Warburton.

Cupitt's classic book is The Sea of Faith.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Atheism is pretentious and cowardly

I only just found this piece from the Guardian June 2007. It makes a number of points along similar lines to the Rev Sam, though I'm sure Sam wouldn't agree with all of them. Some truth in there (towards the end), but not much.

ATHEISM IS PRETENTIOUS AND COWARDLY

THEO HOBSON


For years I wished that the intelligent media would show a bit more interest in religion. Be careful what you wish for. The resurgence of the discussion of religion has come, sort of, but forgive me for failing to rejoice in it. How odd that there seems to be an endless appetite for militant atheism. How odd that anyone over 17 admires these angry ageing men, scowling at us indignantly, and competing with each other in tough-talking God knocking. How odd that they get such an easy press, that their (usually female) interviewers are so fawning. Now it is Christopher "Hitch" Hitchens' turn. Behold the jowly prophet, staring from endless features and book pages, tremendous in his certainty, unflinching in his regard for his own intellectual courage.

Surely Hitchens is a cut above Richard Dawkins - surely his literary mind has more room for nuance? In most things, yes. In religion, no. The same applies to AC Grayling, who is presumably a competent professor of philosophy, but chooses to conceal the fact when in militant atheist mode.

All three are in the grip of an ideology that is pretentious and muddled. Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is. And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness? Both, the atheists will doubtless reply: religion is false and therefore it is harmful. But this is to make an assumption about the relationship between rationality and moral progress that does not stand up. Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of "rationality", will make the world a better place. Atheism therefore entails an account of history - a story of liberation from a harmful error called "religion". This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don't know the answer. Indeed it seems to me that anyone who does claim to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It's a terribly inadequate definition. Dictionaries would do better to leave a blank, to admit ignorance.

In reality, "religion" is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by "religion". For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally. Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class "religious"? What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens' own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, "religion" cannot really be separated from "culture".

The atheist will doubtless call these reflections irrelevant. Yes, there is an affinity between religious worship and various secular cultural practices, he may say, but so what? The issue is belief in the supernatural. Religion, in the full and harmful sense, exists when people cringe under the illusion of a celestial being, and when people propagate teachings that are not true. This leads to superstitious ignorance, and to immoral actions, for example the persecution of homosexuals.

It is here that the atheist ought to tread with very great care, but instead he straps on his clown-sized jackboots, and stomps around. The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation. For he has to insist that religion in general is harmful, all of it, always. He has to show that he has the answer: if people shared his total rejection of God, then the world would be a better place. He needs to believe this. For he finds grounds for hope here. If humanity moves away from religion, things will get better. It's a faith.

So Hitchens calls religion:

"... violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

Never mind that plenty of manifestations of religion are simply not guilty of these charges. Evidence that doesn't fit the system is inadmissible. Likewise he grandly pronounces that there are:

"... four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is the both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."

Never mind that only a tiny proportion of British Christians are creationists; there is no room for such awkward facts in the atheist system. And as for the evil of "sexual repression", well, maybe some day all men will be as liberated as Hitch.

I consider the atheist's desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty. The militant atheist chooses to uphold a worldview of Animal Farm crudity: atheist good, believer bad. He has to believe this; it is his claim to the moral high ground. Christopher Hitchens sounds like a man who is desperate for a big cause, for an agenda that will give him one last chance of some high significance, a last stab at prophet status. By seeking his grand purpose in atheism he exhibits the sort of intellectual timidity he claims to despise.


Comment

This is an ironic piece, because it does precisely what it ends up accusing all atheists of (especially the title): "The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty." Yet Hobson himself does just that. He lumps all atheists together in a simplistic - indeed, caricatured - way, and then generalizes about them - they're all "pretentious and cowardly".

Does Hobson over-generalize? Of course. While some atheists believe what Hobson says all atheists believe, many don't. I am an atheist - I'm sure I'd be classed as "militant" - yet I don't argue religion is more a force for evil than good. Just, for the most part, a load of cobblers.

Moreover, I tend specifically to target one kind of religious belief - belief in the Judeo-Christian God as traditionally understood. Not much ambiguity there. Hobson needs to deal with those arguments, if he believes in what I am attacking (but does he? - he can of course do a "now you see it, now you don't")

Hobson's point about "religion" being vague and thus something we cannot justifiably reject is just wrong - "facism" is also a very vague term, yet I'm sure Hobson would rightly describe himself as being against facism.

But in any case, we can reduce the content of belief in the Judeo-Christian God to rubble without making any generalizations at all about religion per se - the vagueness of the term is, in this case, irrelevant.

This piece is really a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy - can't defend what you believe? Attack the character of your critics!

Thoughts on Oktar and lawyers

Adnan Oktar's lawyer (well, so they claim) has been in touch about my blog. Oktar has succeeded in getting many websites shut down in Turkey, including Richard Dawkins', and also news reports, etc. The entire www.wordpress.com blog system is now blocked in Turkey as a result of Oktar's legal actions.

So now Oktar moves onto my minor blog and asks that where I quote allegations made from the Turkish Daily News and a couple of blogs, I remove the quotations, as the original sources have since been blocked by court order in Turkey. Currently, I am showing the entire Daily News report which the newspaper itself has had to remove.

I asked whether the request was backed by any kind of legal threat and got this rather baffling response in which no threat is issued but there are repeated references to secret masonic conspiracies, as well as satanism, etc. Not really a standard lawyer's letter. I am guessing it is not actually from a lawyer.

So, what should I do? Obviously I'll continue to state that Oktar is a fool, his scientific theories are ridiculous and that Dawkins hilariously reveals just what a nincompoop he is here (indeed, Oktar is a nincompoop even by creationist standards).

Oktar has been found guilty and sentenced to 3 years for "creating an illegal organization for personal gain" (he is out on appeal). On the other hand, is it possible that Oktar has been the victim of smears? Yes, it is. The other allegations also made against him may not all be true. Clearly, his "lawyer" is paranoid to the point of hilarity about sinister masonic conspiracies etc. Yet Oktar really does appear to have powerful, organized enemies in Turkey (as the banned news report even-handedly states). When it comes to the very specific allegations regarding, shall we say, "unsavoury" cult activity, notice that Dawkins and others don't mention them, and indeed they might not be true.

Now a Turkish court has got the websites I quoted from blocked pending legal matters. And these courts are clearly not entirely in Adnan's pocket, because he failed to get The God Delusion banned in Turkey. If a UK court blocked a website on the grounds it contained potentially defamatory allegations, I'd respect that and wouldn't repeat those allegations (not even as quotes) until the matter was settled.

So, though it really galls me to have to admit it, it might be that the fair thing to do is remove the quoted passages. It may be that the allegations I quote are true, but obviously there are some doubts about them (which is why I only reported them, and did not make them myself). So I am removing those specific bits.

So, to repeat - I am removing the bits repeating very specific allegations which are (i) not proven (and so cannot legally be made in Turkey), (ii) open to question, and (iii) would indeed qualify as defamation if untrue. But of course I am retaining, and will be adding to, the stuff that I'm confident is true. Such as that Oktar is a fool and, indeed, a bully in the way he has attempted to silence others...

The irritating thing is that I'll now be thought to have "caved in" - which is a bugger. But it's better that the solid criticism of this bizarre convicted nutcase not be tainted by them being mixed in with allegations that are questionable. Better not to give him the opportunity to claim, correctly, that he has, indeed, been defamed.

N.B. It would make me happy if my website were still banned in Turkey, even after these changes. I just don't want to run any risk of it being justifiably banned in Turkey.

[Post script: Presumably, however, the following passage from the Daily News report [which I'll leave up for today], which simply presents part of a BAV (Oktar's own organization) statement made in defence of Oktar, can't be defamatory:

# It is slander to say that there were cassettes to be used for blackmail. After inspection, it will be shown that the video cassettes and computer disks do not contain any compromising material.
# The claims about sex parties are also slanderous. The female members of the foundation are such virtuous and honorable women that such immoral actions could have no connection with reality.
# The statement denies the claims related to cocaine as well, indicating that Adnan Hoca instilled patriotism and moral values in many young people. The cocaine reportedly found in Adnan Hoca's blood in 1991 was given to him through food and drink while in custody.


I'll check.]

Adnan Oktar - lawyers get in touch (II)

Regarding this previous post, I just received this...

Your publication of the contents of websites that consist of immoral and unjust allegations as well as defamation on your blog means that you are in fact writing these. Intellectual struggle is not carried out through such defamation or slanders, but with scientific methods.

If you would like to carry out a scientific discussion, you may have this debate with my client at any place you like; he may come to your location or you may go to his, but it is not possible to achieve any results through defamation or slander. This kind of behavior does not suit you and humiliates you. There is a psychological warfare waged against Harun Yahya and Science Research Foundation (SRF) by masonic circles in both Turkey and throughout the world. This is implementation of social engineering, and you may find the evidence of psychological warfare waged against the author and SRF on the website www.psychologicalwarfaremethods.com .

Since the author and SRF are struggling against masonry, Darwinism, communism, materialism and satanism, the opposed forces and especially freemasons are making a counter attack with all their means. It is not proper for you to be an instrument to this also.

Would you be pleased if there were a website which slandered and defamed yourself? Definitely you would be disturbed of this situation and would not like it at all. Nobody would be pleased of this.

The request of my client is that nobody insults or slanders another. He aspires for a totally democratic atmosphere where a loving, courteous and peaceful environment is established. Everyone may have different ideas, and religious beliefs, it is normal, but there needs to be a respectful environment. Publishing articles containing insult is inappropriate in the understanding of honesty. By doing so, you are supporting the ones who are waging psychological warfare against Harun Yahya and SRF.

The persons in question who are waging psychological warfare cannot confront Harun Yahya and SRF with their ideas and thoughts. Since they are beaten intellectually, they have recourse to insult and slander.

We would like to inform you that this situation does not comply with morals, respect, the understanding of humanity.

The Philosophy Files 2 - sample chapter

Here's the first chapter of The Philosophy Files 2 (also known as The Outer Limits). (The Philosophy Files was no2. bestseller at the Guardian newspaper in 2000.) Aimed at children 12+ and designed to help them become independent, critical thinkers.


1. Astrology, flying saucers and ESP

Mysterious World


Aisha is slumped in an armchair.

1: ILLUSTRATE AISHA (FROM THE PHILOSOPHY FILES) IN TYPICAL STUDENT HOUSE, SLUMPED READING MAGAZINE. WE CAN SEE OXFORD SPIRES OUT OF THE WINDOW.

She’s idly flicking through the pages of a magazine. Suddenly, in rushes Tom, one of her housemates. Tom has been shopping and is rather excited about a book he’s just bought from Big Al’s Discount Bookstore. The book is called Mysterious World and has a big picture of a flying saucer on the front cover.

2.ILLUSTRATE: TOM IS NEW CHARACTER-GIVE HIM DISTINCTIVE LOOK, E.G. BIG SHOCK OF BLOND HAIR). EXCITED TOM LEAVING BOOKSTORE HOLDING THE BOOK MYSTERIOUS WORLD BY DICK ALAN. WITH UFO ON COVER .

TOM: I’ve got this fantastic book! Take a look. It has lots of great chapters on weird and spooky stuff: ghosts, alien abductions, the prophecies of Nostradamus, the Loch Ness monster, astrology, numerology and palm-reading.

Aisha takes the book and flicks through the pages. She looks unimpressed. In fact she’s rather rude about Mysterious World.

AISHA: Ah yes. I’ve seen it. It’s a load of rubbish.

Aisha passes Mysterious World back to Tom, who seems a little disappointed by her reaction.

TOM: Why do you say that? Shouldn’t you be more open-minded?
AISHA: I am open-minded.
TOM: But there’s plenty of evidence in this book to suggest that there really is a lot of weird, paranormal stuff going on in the world. You shouldn’t be so dismissive.

Like Tom, many people firmly believe in the things discussed in Tom’s book. A great many suppose that by looking to the stars astrologers can predict what will happen and provide us with valuable advice on what we should do.

3.PERSON LOOKING UP AT NIGHT SKY. THE STARS SPELL OUT “MOVE TO SWINDON”.

Some believe in palmistry: they suppose that how your life will go is written into the palm of your hand.

4.ILLUSTRATE: PALM WITH THE LINES ALL LABELLED. LIFE LINE, ETC.

Lots of claim to have seen ghosts. A surprising number think they have been abducted by aliens. And many people believe in extra-sensory perception ¬or ESP – the ability to “see” what is happening, or even what will happen, without our having to use our five normal senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing.

For example, you occasionally hear tales of people who say they “just knew” that someone close to them had suffered an accident even though that person was miles away at the time and there was no normal way in which they could have known.

5.TWIN ILLUSTRATE: (I) DISTRAUGHT-LOOKING WOMAN (LIKE “THE SCREAM”?) SAYING “OH NO! RANDY’S HAD A TERRIBLE ACCIDENT!”. (ii) A BURNING CAR GOING OVER CLIFF WITH FIGURE LEAPING OUT “RANDY” ON WINDSCREEN VISOR).

It seems it must have been some sort of weird, paranormal experience that let them know what happened.

Many people believe in the paranormal. But, of course, there are also many who don’t. Like Aisha, they dismiss claims about astrology, flying saucers and ESP. Sometimes they can be pretty rude. They accuse those who believe in such stuff of being gullible fools.

So what should we believe? Is belief in astrology, flying saucers, miracles and ESP a lot of silly superstitious nonsense? Or might there really be something to it?

How open-minded should we be?


Of course, we want to be open-minded. We shouldn’t just assume that there’s nothing to any of these claims and simply ignore the kind of evidence presented in Tom’s book.
But, on the other hand, we don’t want to be too open-minded. We don’t want minds so open that any old rubbish idea can easily end up lodging there.

6.HUMAN HEAD AS BIG WASTEPAPER BIN (HEAD CUTAWAY ON TOP WITH INSERTED BASKET) PASSER-BY IS CASUALLY THROWING SCREWED UP PAPER BALL INTO THE BIN.

After all, there are so many ridiculous beliefs you might pick up: that the Moon is made out of concrete; that ice is poisonous; that humans have three legs, and so on. If you are too open-minded, your head will soon fill up with junk beliefs.

So let’s be open-minded. But let’s also try to filter out, as best we can, silly or unreasonable ideas. Let’s think hard about the arguments and carefully weigh up the evidence before we allow new beliefs in. That way, there’s at least a fair chance that many of our beliefs will be true.

Belief in weird stuff is popular


Let’s get back to Tom and Aisha. Why is Tom so confident that there must be something to the claims made in Mysterious World?

He begins to flick through the book and comes to a stop at the chapter on astrology.

TOM: Okay, what about astrology? It says here that astrology is thousands of years old, and that some of the world’s greatest scientists – including even Isaac Newton – have believed in it. Millions of people all over the world use astrology and testify that it does work. Even a US President is reported to have consulted an astrologer. Yet you confidently dismiss astrology as a load of old rubbish. How can you be so sure?

Tom is right that many millions of people are convinced that astrology can give them an insight into their future. Many people claim that they really do “fit” their astrological star sign. In fact astrology is now a huge industry. Billions of pounds are spent every year on astrologers. Isn’t Aisha is being far too quick to dismiss astrology as “rubbish”?

She doesn’t think so.

AISHA: Look, I admit that very many people, often very intelligent people, believe in astrology. But the fact that lots of people believe something doesn’t necessarily give us much reason to believe it’s true.
TOM: Doesn’t it?
AISHA: No. After all, lots of people don’t believe in astrology. So you see, either way, lots of people must be wrong.

Believing what we want to believe

But Tom’s point is not just that a great many people believe in astrology. Tom thinks they have good grounds for believing in it.

TOM: But surely the reason so many people consult astrologers and have done for thousands of years is that there’s plenty of evidence that astrology really can give us an insight into the future.
AISHA: So you say. But sometimes people believe something not because there’s good evidence that it is true, but for other reasons.
TOM: Like what?
AISHA: Well, sometimes people believe things because they like to believe in them. The fact is that we desperately want to believe in the weird and wacky. It’s exciting to suppose that there are ghosts and demons, that there are cosmic influences shaping our lives, and that we have supernatural powers.

Liars, fakes and charlatans

Tom admits that he would like to believe that the claims made in his book are true. But, as he points out, that doesn’t show that they aren’t true.

TOM: Okay, we want to believe in the weird and supernatural. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it, does it? And in fact there really is lots and lots of evidence of weird and paranormal stuff happening.
AISHA: Is there?
TED: Certainly. Thousands claim to have witnessed supernatural stuff going on.
AISHA: But many of these people are simply lying!

As Tom points out, it is hardly likely that all these people are lying about what they have experienced.

TOM: Well, yes, some may be lying. But not all. Many people really do believe they have witnessed something miraculous happening.
AISHA: True. But perhaps they have been deceived. There have always been people willing to take advantage of our huge fascination with the weird and wacky. Throughout history there are well-documented cases of tricksters happy to con the gullible by telling them fantastic tales, offering to put them in contact with the dead, selling them “magical” charms, and so on.

7.ILLUSTRATE: MEDIEVAL SCENE IN WHICH PUNTERS WALKING PAST TWO STALLS. ONE CHAP IS SELLING RELICS: “GET YOUR MAGIC CHARMS HERE. GUARANTEED TO WARD OFF EVIL SPIRITS.” ANOTHER CHAP IS UNDER SIGN: “BROTHER MICHAEL – HE TALKS TO THE DEAD!” ANOTHER “LET PSYCHIC PETE CURE YOUR AILMENTS WITH A LAYING ON OF HANDS!”

There’s little doubt that, even today, a huge amount of fraud and fakery is going
on.

It’s easy to fake it


Aisha is correct that there are undoubtedly many fakes and charlatans about.
You have probably seen illusionists performing fantastic feats. The magician David Copperfield flies in front of an audience of thousands, apparently without the help of any harness or wires.

8.ILLUSTRATE: COPPERFIELD FLYING OVER AUDIENCE WITH WOMAN IN HIS ARMS.

Others catch bullets in their teeth and cause people to vanish.

Now, as I say, these people are illusionists. They are happy to admit that they engage in trickery and sleight-of-hand. Yet their tricks are at least as convincing as most supposedly “genuine” cases of the paranormal.

In fact, it’s easy to master highly convincing illusions in just a few hours. A friend of mine recently learnt how to bend spoons. He can even do it without touching them. I have no idea how he does it. Yet he tells me it’s all a trick.

Given that it is so easy to master tricks that are just as convincing as the “genuine” paranormal events, it’s highly likely that at least some of these “genuine” cases are also faked.

Peddlers of tales

As Aisha also points out, there’s plenty of money to be made, not just from faking miraculous events, but from re-telling stories about them.

AISHA: Because we like to believe in this stuff, there’s no shortage of books, magazines, newspapers and TV companies willing to feed our fascination.

9.ILLUSTRATE: BOOKSTAND WITH BOOKS AND MAGAZINES ON WEIRD AND WACKY: ASTROLOGY NOW; PALMISTY FOR BEGINNERS; MYSTERIOUS WORLD; THE LEGACY OF NOSTRADAMUS; MORE TALES OF ALIEN ABDUCTION; THE UFO SPOTTER; DEVELOP YOUR PSYCHIC POWERS, ETC.

Newspapers will always run astrology columns, whether there’s anything to astrology or not, simply because they can sell more newspapers that way and so make more money. Television programmes on the weird and wacky can get huge audiences, particularly if they sensationalize reports of fantastic things happening and give little time to anyone who wants to look at the evidence more critically.

Twisting the tale

Aisha is right that people usually have an interest – sometimes a financial interest – in telling tales of the supernatural. That should lead us to treat their “evidence” with caution.

Another reason to treat such tales with care is that they often reach us third or fourth hand. People may think they are telling the story just as it was told to them. But it’s still easy for the story to become embellished along the way. The storyteller is likely to focus on those aspects of their story that are most amazing, and to play down any features that would make it seem less fantastic. A report of a “strange light in the sky” can quickly become a tale of alien abduction.

10. (WITH “TOM” ON HIS SHIRT) SAYS TO B “ I SAW A STRANGE LIGHT IN THE SKY” B SAYS TO C: TOM SAW A UFO”. C SAYS TO D “TOM SAW FLYING SAUCER” D SAYS TO E “TOM SAW ALIENS” E SAYS TO F: TOM MET ALIENS. F SAYS TO G: TOM WAS ABDUCTED BY ALIENS1”

Aisha sums up her case:

So it seems to me it’s not at all surprising that there are these reports of the weird and supernatural in our newspapers and on television. In fact, given our gullibility, the ease with which we can be taken for a ride, the extent to which stories can evolve along the way, and the huge profits to be made from telling them, you would expect such reports anyway, whether or not there was any truth to them. So the mere fact that there are all these reports gives us little if any reason to suppose they are true.

Is Aisha Right?

Tom’s stars

Tom accepts that many of the reports concerning weird and supernatural goings on probably are unreliable. But he remains convinced that it’s still perfectly reasonable to believe in astrology, flying saucers and ESP.

TOM: Look, I admit that there are fakes and charlatans. I admit that there’s lots of money to be made peddling dubious stories about astrology, ESP, ghosts and so on. But that doesn’t explain away all the evidence we have for these things, does it?
AISHA: It doesn’t?
TOM: No. We also have good, solid evidence.
AISHA: Give me an example of this good, solid evidence.
TOM: Well, my own experiences confirm that astrology really does work. So I don’t need to rely on the testimony of others.

Tom starts to tell Aisha about his recent experience of an astrological prediction “coming true”.

TOM: I’m a Sagittarian. Last Monday I read in the astrology column that I could expect a pay rise. And this week I got a pay rise. So you see, there’s a piece of evidence that astrology works! And this bit of evidence doesn’t come from a dubious source. It’s based on what I have experienced myself.

Many who believe in the power of astrology can point to countless such examples of astrological predictions turning out to be correct. How are astrologers able to make all these correct predictions if astrology doesn’t work?

Making vague predictions

Aisha scratches her head.

AISHA: Let’s take a closer look at your evidence. You say this astrological prediction was in Monday’s paper?

She rummages in the pile of papers beside the sofa and pulls out Monday’s. Then she starts to rifle through the pages.

AISHA: Ah, here we are. “The Great Magica’s predictions for the next week. Sagittarius. Next week brings good news and bad. A friend feels betrayed, and there may be some hostility. Honesty is the best policy. At work things are looking up. You will soon be rewarded for all your hard work.”

11.ILLUSTRATE NEWSPAPER COLUMN “SAGITTARIUS. NEXT WEEK BRINGS GOOD NEWS AND BAD. A FRIEND FEELS BETRAYED, AND THERE MAY BE SOME HOSTILITY. HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY. AT WORK THINGS ARE LOOKING UP. YOU WILL SOON BE REWARDED FOR ALL YOUR HARD WORK.”

TOM: See? It says I’ll soon be rewarded for all my hard work. And this week my boss gave me a raise. The Great Magica knew I would get a pay rise!

But did she? What do you think?

The Great Magica’s predictions are pretty vague, aren’t they? She doesn’t actually say that every Sagittarian will get a pay rise. She says only that there will be a “reward” for hard work. But she never specifically mentions money.

This means that, even if Tom had received a box of chocolates or a day off from his boss, Mystica’s prediction would still have come true.

12.A ILLUSTRATE: .BOSS GIVING TOM CHOCS. TOM’S THOUGHT BUBBLE “THE GREAT MAGICA WAS RIGHT!”

It would also have come true if he had if he managed to sell more cars than usual. That too might count as a “reward”.

12A. CUSTOMER POINTING TO CAR AND SAYING “OKAY, I’LL TAKE THREE”. TOM’S THOUGHT BUBBLE “THE GREAT MAGICA WAS RIGHT!”

In fact, the astrologer’s prediction could be seen as “true” if Tom had received a tip or even just praise from a grateful customer.

12C: CUSTOMER WAVING GOODBYE, SAYING “THANKS FOR ALL YOUR HELP!” TOM’S THOUGHT BUBBLE “THE GREAT MAGICA WAS RIGHT!”

Still, Tom did get a reward for his hard work. And that’s what The Great Magica predicted. The Great Magica was correct.
So did she really know what would happen?

13.THE GREAT MAGICA, FINGER RAISED, SAYING TO THE READER: “SEE! I KNEW!”

How astrology columns really work

No. She didn’t. In fact, astrology columns don’t provide us with any sort of insight into the future. Aisha explains how astrology columns really work.

AISHA: Look, you read the astrology column every week. Every week Magica makes a number of rather vague predications. Now because her predictions are vague – because there are so many different ways in which they could come true – you should actually expect quite a few of them to “come true” just by chance.

Aisha is right. But then the fact that one of the Great Magica’s vague predictions came true this week doesn’t give us the slightest reason to suppose that astrology gives her some strange power to see into the future.

AISHA: Also, notice that the Great Magica made a number of predictions for Sagittarians For example, she said “A friend feels betrayed, and there may be some hostility. Honesty is the best policy”.
Tom: True, she did.
AISHA: But you have just ignored this prediction, haven’t you?
TOM: Er. Yes, I suppose I have.
AISHA: Why?
TOM: To be honest, I forgot about that one. It doesn’t seem to have come true.
AISHA: Right, because you don’t immediately see how it applies to you, you ignore it. In fact, some weeks you can’t find anything in The Great Magica’s predictions that rings true, can you?
TOM: Well, yes, some weeks I can’t. But she usually gets something right!

Aisha is getting pretty exasperated.

AISHA: Of course she does! Because the Great Magica makes loads of vague predictions, she is bound to get a few right just by chance. Readers remember when a prediction comes true – that’s not surprising, of course, because it’s quite dramatic: it seems the astrologer “knew” what would happen! They also tend to forget about the predictions that don’t come true – again, that’s not surprising as nothing happens later on to remind them about the prediction. So you see, by focusing only the “hits” and forgetting about the “misses”, gullible people like you can convince yourselves that The Great Magica has some sort of magical insight into the future!

Let’s do an astrology experiment

Perhaps you aren’t convinced by Aisha’s explanation of how astrology columns work. Perhaps you still think there’s something to it.

If you do, then try this simple test. Cut out the predictions for the twelve different star signs from last week’s newspaper. Make a note of which prediction is for which star sign, and then remove the star signs so that only the predictions are left, like this:


14.ILLUSTRATE: CHOPPING OFF “SAGITTARIUS” FROM TOP OF CLIPPING WITH PREDICTION ON IT.

Then show your friends just the predictions and ask them which prediction is for their star sign.
If the astrologer has any sort of insight into the future, then your friends should have a better than one-in-twelve chance of picking out the prediction that’s for their sign.

But actually, your friends won’t be able to figure out which predictions are theirs. In fact, because the predictions are so vague, they will probably find that most of the predictions have “come true” for them.
Try it and see.

Flying saucers

Tom still thinks that Aisha is being far too quick to rubbish everything in Mysterious World.

TOM: Okay. So you don’t believe in astrology. But surely you’re wrong to be sceptical about all the things discussed in this book. What about flying saucers and alien abductions, for example? Just two years ago, an accountant was taken up into a flying saucer.

15.ILLUSTRATE: ACCOUNTANT BEING SUCKED UP BY FLYING SAUCER.

He reports having been subjected to strange internal examinations.

16.ILLUSTRATE: NERVOUS NAKED ACCOUNTANT ON BOARD CRAFT (STRAPPED FACE DOWN?), BEING SHOWN HUGE ANAL PROBE BY TWO ALIENS.

Then the aliens dropped him off in some woods in the middle of the night.

17.ILLUSTRATE: SAME ACCOUNTANT EMERGING FROM WOODS, BLINKING IN BEAM OF SEARCHLIGHT FROM US-STYLE PATROL CAR, DISHEVELLED AND NAKED, WITH HANDS UP. COPS POINTING SEARCHLIGHT AND GUNS AT HIM. UNNOTICED FLYING SAUCER IN FAR DISTANCE.

AISHA: Hmm.
TOM: Thousands of people have witnessed such things. Thousands have seen flying saucers in the sky. They can’t all be deluded, can they?

Tom thinks it’s totally unreasonable to dismiss all this evidence. Yet Aisha is still sceptical.

AISHA: I don’t think there’s enough evidence to make it sensible to believe that people are abducted by flying saucers.
TOM: But there’s lots of hard evidence too. What about the films and pictures of flying saucers?
AISHA: Many have been exposed as fakes. One of the most famous turned out to be a car hubcap.

18.ILLUSTRATION: GUY WITH CAMERA POINTED AT SKY SAYING TO HIS SON HOLDING HUBCAP: “THAT’S RIGHT SON, JUST FLING IT UP THERE”. CAR IN BACKGROUND WITH MISSING HUBCAP.

And why is it that the pictures are always fuzzy and difficult to make out? Out of all the thousands and thousands of photographs that have been taken of UFOs, why isn’t there even one nice, clear picture of a flying saucer?
TOM: Well, it’s often dark. People are excited. It’s not suprising if the camera shakes a bit. But look, even if the pictures aren’t that great, the people who took them know what they saw.
AISHA: Do they? Let me tell you about the very first flying saucer.

The very first flying saucer

Aisha tells Tom about Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting of the first “saucers”.

AISHA: It was way back in 1947. Kenneth Arnold, an American pilot, was flying his plane in broad daylight. It was a routine flight. Visibility was good. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Then, suddenly, Arnold spotted nine strange flying objects.

19.ILLUSTRATION: PILOT LOOKING OUT COCKPIT WINDOW, SAYING “GEE! WHAT ARE THEY?!” (DON’T SHOW WHAT HE’S LOOKING AT)

On returning to the airfield, Arnold described what he had seen. It wasn’t long before his report of “flying saucers” had been transmitted across the country. The press went wild!

20: ILLUSTRATE: SEVERAL NEWSPAPERS WITH HEADLINES “FLYING SAUCERS” “SAUCERS – ALIENS FROM ANOTHER WORLD?” “THE SAUCERS ARE COMING!”

Soon, others started to see saucers, and of course the rest is history. We’ve been seeing these strange, saucer-shaped craft in the sky ever since. Flying saucers have since been immortalized in countless stories and films, including Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Men in Black and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

21.THE SAUCER IN “THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” ON CENTRAL PARK, WITH GIRL SHOUTING AT THE ROBOT “"GORT! KLAATU BARADA NICTO!".” FOR ROBOT SEE: HTTP://WWW.MOVIEDIVA.COM/MD_ROOT/REVIEWPAGES/MDDAYEARTHSTOODSTILL.HTM

TOM: But if there have been many thousands of reports of flying saucers, many from highly qualified pilots, why don’t you believe they exist?

Aisha smiles wryly.

AISHA: Because I know that Arnold didn’t see flying saucers.
TOM: He didn’t?
AISHA: No. He never say he saw saucers. Arnold said that the craft he saw looked like boomerangs.

22.ILLUSTRATION: NINE FLYING BOOMERANG-SHAPED CRAFT.

TOM: Boomerangs?
AISHA: That’s right. He merely said that they flew like saucers would if skipped across a lake. They sort of bounced along.

23.ILLUSTRATION: BOY SKIPPING SAUCER ACROSS LAKE.

TOM: Oh.
AISHA: But in the excitement that followed the sighting, that particular detail was lost. Arnold was reported as having seen saucers. Now think about it: why have there been thousands of reports of flying saucers since 1947, if what Arnold saw were not saucers but boomerangs?
TOM: Hmm. That’s a good question.
AISHA: What’s more likely? That most of the reports of saucers made since 1947 have been reliable, it’s just that back in 1947 the aliens coincidentally happened to change the shape of the spacecraft from boomerang to saucer?

24. “AL’S SPACECRAFT WAREHOUSE” ALIEN SALESMAN TO ALIEN CUSTOMER (WHO IS LOOKING AT BOOMERANG SHAPED CRAFT) “FORGET THOSE. SAUCERS ARE THE LATEST THING!” POINTING TO FLYING SAUCER WITH “NEW!” STICKER.

Or that all the reports of saucers since 1947 are actually a result of the power of suggestion.
TOM: Power of suggestion?
AISHA: Yes. People saw a distant plane or a cloud or a meteor or a bright star or some other vague light in the sky or merely hallucinated, and, because they expected an alien craft to be saucer shaped, they subconsciously turned what they saw into a saucer.
TOM: Well, I guess that is the more likely explanation.

Tom is right. Our tendency to “see” whatever we strongly want or expect to see has been studied extensively by scientists. The only even half-plausible explanation for the thousands of flying saucer reports made since 1947 is that they are down to the power of suggestion.

Of course, the fact that the accountant who claimed to have been abducted by aliens said he was kidnapped by a flying saucer also tends to undermine his credibility. What is more likely, that the accountant really was taken up by a flying saucer, or that he had a vivid dream, hallucinated or is simply lying?

Surely it’s much more plausible that he is either deluded or else is deliberately deceiving us.

“Seeing” things

Of course, you will already be familiar with the power of the mind to “see” things that aren’t there.

Have you ever laid on your back and watched the clouds scud by? It’s possible to “see” all sorts of things in them: faces, animals, cars, countries…

25.ILLUSTRATE: KID LYING DOWN WATCHING CLOUDS IN SHAPE OF MAN, RABBIT, TRUCK AND GREAT BRITAIN.

…or perhaps you have sat in bed and watched as your dressing gown transformed itself into a hideous creature.

26.ILLUSTRATE: SITTING IN BED IN DARK WITH HIDEOUS HOODED DWARF AT END OF BED.

The more you stare, the more real the creature seems, until you can almost convince yourself it is real.

27.ILLUSTRATE: AS ABOVE, BUT HAVE NOW SWITCHED BEDSIDE LAMP ON AND IT’S A DRESSING GOWN DRAPED OVER A CHAIR.

I have “heard” feint voices in the hiss of my TV set.

28.ILLUSTRATE: COUPLE ON SOFA STARING BLANKLY AT DE-TUNED TV SET THAT’S GOING “SSSSHHHHHEATMORETOASTSSSHHHHEAT
MORETOASTSSSHHHEATMORE TOASTSSSHHH”. “ONE SAYS “IT’S A MESSAGE FROM BEYOND!” THE OTHER SAYS: “EAT MORE TOAST?”

I have also become absolutely convinced I could smell a gas leak, when in fact there wasn’t any gas at all.

The Mars face

In fact, our ability to “see” things that aren’t there partly explains one recent mystery: the Mars face.

29.ILLUSTRATE: FANTASTIC QUALITY PICTURE: HTTP://WWW.MSSS.COM/EDUCATION/FACEPAGE/035A72.MAP.GIF

In 1976, the space probe Viking Orbiter 1 was taking pictures of the Cydonia region of Mars. On the 25th of July it photographed what appeared to be a huge alien face carved into the surface of the planet.

Many people believe that the face is a sculpture created by an alien race in their own image.

30.ILLUSTRATE: ALIEN RULER WITH THE SAME FACE, LOOKING OUT OF SPACE SHIP WINDOW AT MARS, “I WANT A BIG PICTURE OF ME, JUST THERE.” ALIEN MINIONS: “YES, OH MIGHTY ONE! IT SHALL BE DONE!”

Certainly, the face does look a bit reptilian.

But the truth is that the face is actually a rather lumpy hill that, when lit from a certain angle, happens to cast shadows that resemble a face.

There are many thousands of hills, craters and other features on the surface of Mars. You would expect to find, just by chance, one or two that resemble familiar things. And because it is particularly easy for us to “see” randomly arranged blobs and shadows as faces (faces are one of the easiest things to “see” in clouds, for example) it isn’t terribly surprising that a “face” was discovered on the surface of Mars.
So the Mars face is a really result of two things: our ability to “see” things as faces combined with the probability that a face-like combination of blobs and shadows would show up somewhere or other on the surface of a nearby planet.
I’m afraid the Mars face provides little evidence of an alien race.

We can similarly explain why, every now and then, someone cuts open a piece of fruit that appears to contain a piece of writing or an image of someone.

31.ILLUSTRATE: MAN WITH MELON WITH PICTURE OF SADDAM HUSSEIN IN IT, POINTING, SAYING TO WIFE “HEY, THIS MELON CONTAINS A PICTURE OF SADDAM HUSSEIN.” WIFE: “IT’S A MIRCALE!”

Cut open enough pieces of fruit and eventually you are going to find a face-like combination of pips just by chance.

Miracles

Let’s get back to Tom and Aisha. Tom has moved on to the chapter of Mysterious World that focuses on miracles.

TOM: Okay. What about miracles?
AISHA: Miracles?
TOM: Yes. It says here that everyday, fantastic things happen. Statues start to weep. People are suddenly cured of fatal diseases.

Tom pointed to the page in front of him

TOM: Here’s a particularly good example. A couple of years ago, in South America, a train went out of control. It was just about to crash into a station full of people, killing hundreds.

32.ILLUSTRATION: SCARED PASSENGERS ON PLATFORM LOOKING AT TRAIN HURTLING TOWARDS THEM.

But at the last moment the points in front of the train failed, sending it harmlessly off onto another track.

33.ILLUSTRATE: TRAIN PASSES BY PASSENGERS SAFELY. ONE SAYS “PHEW!” ANOTHER “ IT’S A MIRACLE!”

Now how do you explain that?! The points failed at the precise moment the runaway train came along! Obviously, that wasn’t just a coincidence. Clearly, someone or something must have acted from “beyond” to divert the train. There was a miracle!
AISHA: You mean, God, or some other sort of supernatural being, lent a helping hand?
TOM: Exactly!

The power of coincidence

In fact, Aisha is happy to admit that a sort of “miracle” happened.

AISHA: I agree. There was a “miracle”. But only in the sense that there was a very happy coincidence. I don’t see that there’s much reason to suppose that some sort of supernatural being intervened.
TOM: Why not? You can’t seriously maintain this was just a coincidence, can you?
AISHA: Yes I can. It almost certainly was just a coincidence. Look, there are billions of people all over the Earth, each one of which has many thousands of experiences each day.
TOM: True.
AISHA: Now with that many people around experiencing that many things, some are bound to experience some pretty fantastic and happy coincidences. Millions of people will be very, very lucky during their lifetime. Thousands will be stupendously lucky. Hundreds will be so lucky as to be almost beyond belief. One or two will have good luck of such mind-wrenchingly, gob-smackingly awesome proportions that most of us simply won’t be able to believe or comprehend just how lucky they have been.
Tom: Hmm. I guess that’s true.
AISHA: Yet now you point to one case of fantastic good luck and say “See, that shows there must be some sort of supernatural intervention involved!” Well you’re wrong. It doesn’t. I’m afraid you have simply underestimated just how much amazing good fortune we should expect to find in the world.

I think Aisha is right. In fact, what would be truly peculiar was if some people didn’t get stupendously lucky every now and then. That really would be evidence for some sort of supernatural intervention.

Extra-sensory perception

Tom flips forward a few pages and comes to the chapter on psychics.

TOM: Ah. Then what about psychics? There’s a great deal of evidence that they really do have some sort of weird, paranormal power. Even my Auntie is convinced.
AISHA: She is?
TOM: Yes. A few weeks ago, her psychic told her that she had an uncle called “Harold” who had a slipped disk and died of a heart attack. Yet my Auntie had never even mentioned Harold before. How could Auntie’s psychic have known these details if she didn’t have the gift of extra-sensory perception?

Tom is right that this sort of testimony about the powers of psychics is very common. Doesn’t it provide us with pretty good evidence that extra-sensory perception really exists?

Perhaps. But before we make up our minds, let’s look a little more closely at what really happened when Tom’s Auntie visited her psychic.

Auntie’s visit to the psychic

Auntie enters a dimly lit room. The psychic is sat at a table with a crystal ball.

34.ILLUSTRATE: AUNTIE CLUTCHING HANDBAG ENTERS THE PSYCHIC’S ROOM

PSYCHIC: Hello Dearie. Do sit down.
AUNTIE: Thank you.
PSYCHIC: Now I’m getting a name.

The room goes deathly quiet.

PSYCHIC: Henry…or Harold…?
AUNTIE: Uncle Harold?
PSYCHIC: Yes, that’s right! …Hmm…. I’m sensing some back trouble.
AUNTIE: Amazing! He slipped a disc just before he died.

The psychic waves towards the middle of her chest.

PSYCHIC: Am I right in thinking it was trouble here that killed him?
AUNTIE: How did you know? It was a heart attack!
PSYCHIC: Yes, yes. That’s right. He just told me it was his ticker that got him in the end.

Auntie thinks that her psychic knew she had an uncle called “Harold” who had a slipped disc and died of a heart attack.

Certainly, you can see why Auntie believes her psychic has genuine psychic powers. But let’s look a little more closely at what the psychic actually says.

How the psychic fooled Auntie

The psychic begins with a name: Henry. Then she leaves a pause. She gets no response from Auntie, so she tries another name: Harold. This time it’s a name Auntie recognises.

But notice that most people of Auntie’s age are likely to know people with one or other of these two names (try asking ask anyone over the age of 60 whether they know, or knew, anyone with either name – I bet they do). So the fact that Auntie recognises one of the two names is hardly surprising.

Also notice that the psychic doesn’t say that Auntie’s uncle was called “Harold”. Actually, it is Auntie who gives the psychic that piece of information. The psychic merely asks if either name means anything to Auntie.

So far, the psychic hasn’t told Auntie anything at all.

What happens next? The psychic says she senses “back trouble”. But notice how very vague this statement is. The psychic doesn’t say whom this back trouble is supposed to afflict. It could be Auntie’s back that she’s talking about. Or Harold’s. Or some other person known to Auntie. Or it could be a prediction of back trouble to come.
As almost everyone suffers from back pain at some point or another, it’s not particularly surprising that Uncle Harold had back trouble himself.

Also notice that the psychic doesn’t say what sort of back trouble she has in mind. Again, it is Auntie who tells the psychic about Harold’s slipped disc, not the other way round.

So the psychic still hasn’t given Auntie any information. In fact it is Auntie that’s providing all the information.

35.ILLUSTRATE; AUNTIE WITH HANDBAG LOOKING AT US AND SAYING “I AM?”

Then the psychic asks if Harold died from trouble somewhere in the chest area. Notice that she doesn’t claim that he did. She merely asks if he did. And remember that Auntie has already told the psychic that Harold is dead.
Notice that, if Harold didn’t die from trouble in the chest area, the psychic can still stress that she was merely asking, and hasn’t yet made a mistake.

But as almost everyone does die from trouble in the chest area in the end (even diseases of the head and limbs usually kill by travelling to organs in the torso), it was hardly surprising that poor old Harold went the same way.

Notice that when Auntie tells the psychic that Harold died of a heart attack, the psychic claims this was something she knew already. But what evidence is there that she did?

So far, none at all.

36.ILLUSTRATE: AUNTIE IS GETTING UP AND OPENING HER BAG. PSYCHIC IS SAYING “THAT WILL BE TWENTY POUNDS DEARIE. SEE YOU NEXT WEEK.”

I have based Auntie’s conversation with her psychic on some real conversations with psychics. This example illustrates just one or two of the very many techniques that psychics can use to convince people that they have genuinely psychic powers.
Though Auntie believes her psychic knew various details about her uncle Harold, it turns out that it was Auntie who supplied all the information. By making vague claims, asking questions and fishing for information the psychic cleverly managed the conversation to make it seem as if she was actually communicating with Auntie’s dead uncle.

Of course, I am not suggesting that all psychics deliberately trick their customers. Most psychics really believe they have psychic powers. They don’t just manage to convince other people of the paranormal gifts. They end up convincing themselves too.
Perhaps some psychics really do have genuinely psychic powers. But the fact that thousands of people are taken in by this sort of conversation on a regular basis doesn’t really provide much evidence that they do.

The strange case of Clever Hans

Psychics may not just be using trickery to create the illusion that they have paranormal powers. They may also be reading very subtle clues in their customers’ behaviour.

Let me tell you the true story of the horse Clever Hans.

Back in 1888, Hans’s owner decided that he would try to teach Hans maths. After a great deal of careful training, Hans was eventually able to tap out with his hoof the answer to mathematical questions. For example, ask Hans “What is twelve divided by four?” and Hans would tap his hoof three times.

37.ILLUSTRATE: TRAINER “WHAT IS TWELVE DIVIDED BY FOUR” HORSE TAPS HOOF: TAP, TAP TAP.

Hans could perform even without his trainer present. There was no deliberate trickery involved: Hans’s owner believed his horse really could do maths.

Clever Hans soon become world-famous, his abilities baffling both scientists and public audiences alike.

38.ILLUSTRATE: HANS AND TRAINER ON STAGE BEFORE AUDIENCE IN VICTORIAN MUSIC HALL.

So could Hans really do maths?

No. He couldn’t. Eventually, a young psychologist tested whether Hans could still perform if asked the questions by someone who didn’t know the answers. It turned out he couldn’t.

Somehow, Hans was reading tiny changes in the behaviour of his questioners, tapping his foot until some unconscious cue – such as a slight tensing of the questioner’s body – told him when to stop. Someone who didn’t know the answers was unable to supply Hans with these cues, which is why Hans then lost his mathematical powers.
What moral should we draw from this tale? Well, if a horse can learn to read such subtle, unconsciously-given signals, then no doubt a psychic can too. It may be that many psychics have learnt – perhaps without realizing that this is what they are doing – to read the same sorts of cues in their customers’ behaviour.

While impressive, there would be nothing spooky and supernatural about such an ability.

So it turns out that there all sorts of perfectly normal ways in which psychics might convince their customers that they have supernatural powers.

Conclusion

Tom puts Mysterious World down on the coffee table. It lands with a thump.
Tom is feeling rather frustrated. Despite coming up with what seem to him to be perfectly good reasons for believing in astrology, flying saucers and ESP, Aisha remains entirely unconvinced.

TOM: Look, you can’t prove that there are no flying saucers. You can’t prove that there’s nothing to astrology.
AISHA: Well, if you mean there’s some room for doubt, then, yes, I admit I can’t prove we aren’t visited by flying saucers. My point is that there just isn’t anything like the evidence needed to make it reasonable to believe in such things.
TOM: But shouldn’t you be open-minded?
AISHA: I am open-minded in the sense that I am perfectly willing to look at any new evidence that might come along. But the fact remains that there’s very little reason to suppose that we are visited by flying saucers, and so on. The evidence for saucers is extremely suspect. Mostly it takes the form of testimony: people tell about seeing saucers, meeting aliens, being abducted. But there’s plenty of reason to distrust this testimony, isn’t there? In fact, given our fascination with flying saucers, the ease with which we can be fooled, the power of suggestion, the way in which tales can become embellished, and the money to be made from peddling such tales, we really should expect a great deal of testimony anyway, whether or not there’s anything to it.
TOM: But you admit there might be something to it?
AISHA: Yes. It might be true that we are visited by flying saucers. It might be true that some people have psychic powers. But then it might be true that the moon is made of concrete,

39.THE LUNAR MODULE WITH TWO ASTRONAUTS IN FOREGROUND LOOKING DOWN: “GEE, IT SEEMS TO BE MADE…OF CONCRETE!” “SSHH! DON’T TELL ANYONE! THEY’LL NEVER BELIEVE US.”

that French people are really from Pluto

40.ILLUSTRATE: FRENCHMAN IN BERET. SPEAKING TO ANOTHER WHILE POINTING UP TO EIFFEL TOWER: “THEY THINK IT’S JUST A TOWER, BUT ACTUALLY IT’S FOR SENDING OUR SECRET MESSAGES BACK TO PLUTO!”

and that George Bush is Elvis Presley with plastic surgery.

41.GEORGE BUSH IN ELVIS POSE SINGING: “I AIN’T NOTHING BUT A HOUND DOG!” CIA DUDES (SUNGLASSES) IN BACKGROUND SAYING “GEE. WHAT’S GOT INTO GEORGE TODAY?”

It might be true. That’s not to deny that the evidence really doesn’t support any of these claims. So it’s downright irrational of you to believe them. All of them.

Is Aisha being fair?

In this chapter I have given you plenty of reasons for being careful about accepting evidence of weird, supernatural things happening. But it’s up to you to figure out whether there is, after all, enough good evidence to make it reasonable to believe such things happen. Perhaps there is.
What do you think?