Thursday, June 13, 2013

Moving the Semantic Goalposts - some theological sleight-of-hand with words 
(apologies for mixed metaphors) This is a chapter from my book Believing Bullshit:How Not To get Sucked Into An Intellectual Black Hole. It may be of use to anyone teaching religious language at A Level (RS or Philosophy).

Moving the goalposts

The expression “moving the goalposts” refers to a certain disreputable strategy in an argument. Suppose I claim Fred has never been to Brazil. It’s pointed out to me that Fred went to Brazil on his honeymoon. My claim has been shown to be false, but rather than admit this I just switch claims: “Well, he’s never been to Brazil on business.” I have just moved the goalposts. The analogy is with football. It looks like someone’s going to score a goal, but suddenly, at the last moment, the goalposts are moved and the ball misses the target.

We’re all familiar with this sort of strategy. I focus here on a certain kind of example. It involves shifting ones meaning. I call it Moving The Semantic Goalposts.

Moving The Semantic Goalposts has been developed into something like an art form in certain theological circles, where it is capable of producing a kind of Intellectual Black Hole. In truth, comparatively few religious people engage in this sort of tactic, certainly not in the systematic fashion described here. Many rightly condemn it.

Let’s start with an example, which I call effing the ineffable.

"Why Study Philosophy?" Day, June 28th Manchester - I'm speaking

'Why study Philosophy?' day

Title: Why Study Philosophy
Date: June 28th, 2013, 10.15am-4.00pm (followed by optional campus tour)
For: Year 12 students from schools and colleges
To Book: Please click enter your details in the booking form - please note if you are teacher bringing a group of students please complete the bottom section in addition to your details.
This event is completely free to any students wanting to find out more about this fascinating subject. Through a series of interactive talks and workshops, participants will gain hands-on experience of this fascinating area, and there will be plenty of opportunities during the day to put your questions to university teachers of philosophy, students, and even a best-selling philosophy author.
Speakers will include:
So why indeed study Philosophy?
What makes our actions right or wrong? Is it OK to torture one innocent person in order to save the lives of a thousand others? Does God exist? How can we know anything about the world around us? Is my mind just my brain? Should we trust doctors more than homeopaths? What is truth? Is democracy better than dictatorship? Is it rational to fear death? What is time? If you find these kinds of questions interesting, then come along to Why Study Philosophy? and find out more! The event is aimed at year 11 students, whether they are considering studying at Manchester or elsewhere, and whether or not they are studying or have any prior knowledge of philosophy. You can come to philosophy with any academic background: you just need curiosity and an open mind. Philosophy asks – and tries to answer – the kinds of deep and puzzling questions that other subjects don’t answer. So if you’re interested in truth, beauty, right and wrong, justice, the nature of science, how language works, the meaning and value of life, the existence of God, the difference between rational and irrational beliefs … then philosophy is for you.
Developing key skills
When studying for a degree in philosophy, students don’t simply learn about philosophical questions and how philosophers have attempted to answer them. Instead, the focus is on doing philosophy for oneself: thinking through the questions, analysing and criticising existing answers, and trying to think of new answers – and indeed new questions. Students learn how to argue carefully and persuasively, without ignoring other people’s views for no good reason and without relying on the kind of rhetoric we find in the media and in politics. Throughout the day, visiting students will see how philosophy creates graduates with highly developed language and communication skills and exceptional critical and analytical skills. Most importantly, it creates people who can think carefully and creatively for themselves.
Frequently asked questions:
  • Q: Can students book on as individuals and attend the day on their own? A: Yes, you can – all we ask is that you make sure your school/college is comfortable with missing any lectures you’re due to complete on that day
  • Q: Can teachers book large groups on in one go? A: Yes, you can, but you will be limited to booking on a maximum of 15 students.
  • Q: Will there be refreshments? A: Yes, there will. We will be providing some drinks in the morning, a light lunch, and coffee and cake in the afternoon.
  • Q: I still want to know more before booking on who do I talk to? A: Please email for more information, or call 0161 275 8924.
  • Q: How do I book onto the day? A: Please complete the booking form via the link above.
This event has been organised in collaboration with the British Philosophical Association and with support from the Higher Education Academy

Source here.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Centre for Inquiry UK event yesterday: Scientism: Can Science Solve Every Mystery?

An event I organized for CFI. A good, educational time was had by all. Here's Christian Peter S. Williams (left) with atheist Peter Atkins. Videos to follow.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

We don't have an impartial, truth-seeking BBC. We've got a toothless, neutral BBC

Consider: "Profligate Labour, unlike the financially responsible Tories, amassed a huge debt prior to the financial crisis, which is the major cause of our current economic problems."

This thought is everywhere. Tory and Lib Dem spokespeople drop it into their every other conversation on radio and TV. It's been repeated in the Press, on the internet, etc. to the point where it's become a factoid - something everyone just "knows" to be true.

However, Labour reduced the national debt by 22%. It inherited a debt of 42% of GDP from the Tories in 1997. By the start of the banking crisis the debt was just 35%. Here's a Conservative commentator, Ramesh Patel, confirming this. Patel concludes, "The deficit myth is the grossest lie ever enforced upon the people and it has been sold by exploiting people's economic illiteracy".

Also remember that David Cameron pledged to match Labour's spending plans (so much for "profligate Labour, responsible Tories").

Now, this "profligate Labour, responsible Tories" debt myth, if that is what it is, is politically enormously consequential. It's an election changer. It's also providing much of the justification for the heaviest assault on the welfare state since its creation.

If this is indeed a myth, shouldn't a state-funded national broadcasting corporation have a duty to explode it?  Don't they have a duty to educate and inform the public, to "speak truth unto Nation", ensuring that, particularly when it comes to myths that are likely to be election-deciders, politicians and journalists don't get to pull the wool over the public's eyes?

Yet, as far as I can see, rarely, if ever, do the BBC challenge this myth, certainly not in any sort of sustained and determined way.

But perhaps that is the stance that a properly impartial, unbiased BBC should take? It shouldn't be taking sides, right?

Actually, neutrality - not taking sides - is not the same thing as impartiality - providing an unbiased and objective investigation and assessment.

A politically neutral broadcaster will simply provide a forum in which opposing voices are given equal airtime. A politically impartial broadcaster with a commitment to revealing the truth is something quite different. An impartial investigative broadcaster has teeth and may robustly criticise a view. A neutral broadcaster is toothless.

The BBC's failure to challenge the debt myth effectively, given its scale and importance in shaping the political landscape and election results, may demonstrate neutrality, but it does not demonstrate an impartial commitment to exposing the truth and educating and informing the public.

A BBC committed to  revealing impartially the truth on key issues, in a country in which public opinion is heavily influenced by a largely right-wing press, will inevitably have to spend more of its time countering right-wing myths and fibs than left-wing myths and fibs. This will undoubtedly provoke accusations of left-wing bias. But actually, it's what any genuinely impartial broadcaster with a commitment to revealing the truth would do.

However, I fear we don't have a courageous, impartial, truth-seeking BBC. We've got a toothless, neutral BBC instead.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Can Science Solve Every Mystery? - this Saturday June 8th - see some of you there I hope...

Running Order:

11.00-11.40 Peter S Williams
11.40-12.20 Peter Atkins
12.20-1.00 David Papineau
1.00-1.30 lunch
1.30-2.30 panel discussion with Williams, Atkins and Papineau

Centre for Inquiry UK and Conway Hall present

Can science solve every mystery? A scientist, a philosopher and a Christian discuss.

Peter Atkins, David Papineau, Peter S. Williams

Can science answer every question? Should scientists show a little humility and acknowledge there are questions that only religion can answer? Are science and religion “non-overlapping magisteria”, as the scientist Stephen Jay Gould claimed, or is science capable of showing that religion is false, as Richard Dawkins believes? And what, exactly, do philosophers do?

Presented and chaired by Stephen Law (Philosophy, Heythrop and Provost of CFI UK).

Saturday June 8th, 2013

Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square

£7 (£4 students) Free to friends of CFI UK. Book here or pay on door.

10.30am registration. 11am-2.30pm


Professor Peter Atkins (Univ. of Oxford). Chemist, atheist and author of many books including Galileo’s Finger and Four Laws That Drive the Universe:

“Religion closes off the central questions of existence by attempting to dissuade us from further enquiry by asserting that we cannot ever hope to comprehend. We are, religion asserts, simply too puny.”

“Sitting around thinking about the world … [that] is philosophy. And we know where that leads to in understanding. My argument is - nowhere.”

Peter S. Williams (Damaris Trust). Philosopher and leading British Christian apologist. Author of C.S. Lewis vs the New Atheists and A Faithful Guide to Philosophy:

“The existence of scientific laws is inexplicable unless we move beyond science into the realm of metaphysics, postulating a God who intends those laws for a reason.”

Professor David Papineau (KCL). One of Britain’s leading philosophers and humanists and author of Philosophical Devices:

“Philosophical problems are characterized by a special kind of difficulty, a difficulty which means that they cannot be solved, as scientific problems normally are, simply by the uncovering of further empirical evidence. Rather they require some conceptual unravelling, a careful unpicking of implicit ideas, often culminating in the rejection of assumptions we didn't realize we had.”