Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pressing Your Buttons (from my book Believing Bullshit)


One way in which we can shape the beliefs of others is by rational persuasion. Suppose, for example, that I want someone to believe that Buckingham Palace is in London (which it is). I could provide them with a great deal of evidence to support that belief. I could also just take them to London so they can see with their own eyes that that’s where Buckingham Palace is located.

But what if these kinds of method aren’t available? Suppose I have little or no evidence to support the belief I nevertheless want people to accept. Suppose I can’t just show them that it’s true. How else might I get them to believe?

I might try to dupe them, of course. I could produce fraudulent evidence and bogus arguments. But what if I suspect this won’t be enough? What if I think my deceit is likely to be detected? Another option is to drop even the pretence of rational persuasion and to adopt what I call Pressing your Buttons.

Belief-shaping mechanisms

All sorts of causal mechanisms can be used to shape belief. For example, our beliefs are shaped by social and psychological mechanisms such as peer pressure and a desire to conform. Finding ourselves believing something of which our community disapproves is a deeply uncomfortable experience, an experience that may lead us unconsciously to tailor what we believe so that we remain in step with them. We’re far more susceptible to such social pressures than we like to believe (as several famous psychological studies have shown[i]).

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pope Joan - National Youth Theatre Production

Dear Stephen,

I’m writing on behalf of the National Youth Theatre to let you know about an upcoming production that we think would be of interest to CFI London as well as your students. Pope Joan will be performed at St James’s Church, Piccadilly and tells the legendary story of the world’s first and only female pope. Controversial, moving and enthralling, audiences can witness an unfolding of unbelievable and prescient events that have profound parallels today.

Playing for a strictly limited season 31 August – 15 September, tickets start from just £12 and can be booked via the National Theatre: http://bit.ly/17fZrIQ

Friday, July 19, 2013

Response to Randal Rauser's response to my response to his shoddy review

Randal Rauser has responded to my suggestion that his review of my book Believing Bullshit was pretty shoddy (though not as shoddy as Martin Cohen’s in the THES). Go here.

Understandable, I suppose. By combining selective quotation, misdirection and quite a lot of bluster, Rauser is quite successful at generating the impression I have been unfair to him.

A preliminary point re not responding to Rauser’s entire review. After disclaimers about what follows being nothing personal, Rauser moans that I only respond to 10% of his review. Sure I did. Because it is, to use Rauser’s own description of it, “bloated”.

I didn’t cherry-pick which bit to respond to. I just started at the beginning of the review and kept going till I felt I had expended enough effort in terms of hours and word count. Given the way Rauser packs in the muddles, misrepresentations, bad arguments, etc. it took me 2,500 words to unpack what was wrong with just the first 10% of Rauser’s review. I stopped at that point. I thought that pretty reasonable and am sorry if Rauser thinks otherwise.

In addition here are another 2,750+ words dealing with Rauser’s defence of just that first 10% of his review. So that’s 5,250 words I have now written (and we know what’s coming next, of course). Looks like full response to Rauser’s review will probably require I write at least 50k words. More than my entire doctoral thesis.

So to business. It seems to me Rauser makes three main points re my response, which I have attempted to gloss below (numbered, in bold).

1. Rauser claims he didn’t misrepresent me, and did deal with my main argument, re Wykstra-type appeals to mystery (if not in his actual review).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Videos from the CFI Conference on Scientism.

Are available on youtube. For some reason I cannot embed them. The links are:


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My response to William Lane Craig's review of my paper on the existence of Jesus

A while back, William Lane Craig responded to an argument of mine that was published in 2011 in Faith and Philosophy in a paper called “Evidence, Miracles, and The Existence of Jesus”. (Craig’s response appears on his Reasonable Faith website here).

In fact, Craig largely ignores the various arguments in my paper, and focuses instead in refuting arguments it does not contain. If you want to read the paper to check, it’s available here.

Richard Carrier has also produced an online breakdown of Craig’scritique of my paper. Worth reading. I reference it a few times below.

Below is Craig’s critique with my comments added in bold. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Richard Carrier responds to William Lane Craig's awful critique of my paper on the Historicity of Jesus.

Richard Carrier has written a very interesting and informative response available here. Highly recommended. My actual paper can be read here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Randal Rauser's review of my book Believing Bullshit - my response

A while ago the well-known Christian apologist and blogger Randal Rauser posted a very long review of my book Believing Bullshit on his blog. You can find Rauser’s review here.

While making a few nice comments about the book, Rauser was generally very negative. He posted the same review on the amazon page for my book and gave the book just two stars.

A negative review is fine, of course. However, Rauser’s review is academically poor (it was written in haste, I suspect).

Such is the length of Rauser’s review that I didn’t, at the time, have time to go through all of it, line by line, pointing out the numerous misrepresentations, muddles and errors that it contains. I told Rauser I would get round to responding.

I still don’t have time to respond to Rauser’s entire review in detail. But, being on sabbatical, I have  devoted a couple of hours to dealing with points Rauser made regarding just the first chapter of the book.

Were Rauser’s review more academically robust and interesting, I might have devoted the many more hours required to respond to the rest of it. But the review is poorly argued, and in any case I suspect no one will bother reading the thousands of words of commentary I would have to produce to deal with the entire thing properly. 

The first chapter of Believing Bullshit examines the dubious way mystery is often appealed to defend belief systems, especially supernatural belief systems (religious and non-religious). Rauser picks up on a later section of the chapter - on the problem of evil and the way in which mystery is sometimes appealed to by theists in order to try to deal with that problem. Rauser writes:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My Plan to Destroy The NHS

I am reposting this post from two and a half years ago (Feb 2011).

It's prompted by the Chief Exec of NHS England on BBC Radio 4 this morning saying - after praising the Government - that the NHS is unaffordable (massive funding shortfall 30bn in next decade).

This prompted a BBC Radio 5 Live phone discussion on "What Should be Cut to Save the NHS?" Various top ups and additional charges were then mentioned by callers.

My Plan to Destroy The NHS

Suppose I am very very rich, and very very selfish. The NHS annoys me intensely. It costs lots in tax revenue to run, and being very rich, I pay proportionately more of my income on it, and of course far more in terms of hard cash, than almost anyone else. I also resent the fact that my business empire is unable to cash in on providing the services that people would buy from my private businesses if the NHS was not there.

BUT, the public loves the NHS, even many Tories are fond of it, and to propose scrapping it would provoke howls of outrage. Plus there's no evidence I can marshal that the public would get a better service if it were provided by the private sector - rather the opposite in fact.

What would I do? Here's what I would do.

First, I'd ensure a team of expert PR run the Tory party - people adept at twisting facts, spinning, and indeed telling bare face lies and getting away with it. And I'd have my private health companies etc. fund them generously.

Next, once elected, I'd get them to introduce phase one: the introduction of a market system in which GPs buy services from NHS hospitals, or anyone else, based on variable price, etc. This can still be called "NHS" because it's still free at the point of use. This would all be justified by lies about how the evidence shows it's more efficient, etc.

This new system allows e.g. my private pharma and health care companies to cherry pick the services that are lucrative and compete with existing hospitals without having to provide the expensive back up necessary when things go wrong (that's all dumped on the old hospitals), offer loss leaders to pull in the more lucrative patients, etc.

What next? At this point I'd get the Tory spinners to start talking about how the NHS is "increasingly unaffordable" (what with the aging population, advances in expensive medical treatment, etc.). I'd have this phrase repeated endlessly in the media, in a mantra like way, until it becomes part of the zeitgeist. It will take time. Eventually, this "problem" will be felt to require a "radical solution".

Once the Tories are back in power, I'd have my PR men talk about the "unfairness" of preventing people from adding their own funds towards what the state is providing to buy a service they would prefer. After all, this increases "choice" and "freedom" and so must be a good thing. And it would bring increased funds into the health care system as a whole. Surely a good thing. Then - the all-important phase two - top ups would be introduced (despite not being on the Tory manifesto on which they were elected). For any ailment you can now choose from a range of treatments at different cost, only some of which the state will fully fund (the cheaper ones). It's your option to make up the shortfall and go for the more expensive treatment among those offered you by your GP. You have that "freedom". Lucky you.

If it's felt this sudden introduction of across the board top ups won't wash with the public, top ups could instead be introduced gradually (the policy already exist for some cancer drugs and could be e.g. extended to more drugs, then all drugs, then to some medical procedures, and so on))

Of course, the plebs will be told the NHS is still, and will always be, there providing necessary services for all. But the "increasing unaffordability" point will be used to justify a "necessary realism" about what, precisely, the state can ultimately fund. This will be used to justify the growing top up system.

Phase three: state funding is then reduced more and more. Topping up becomes more and more unavoidable if you want half decent medical treatment. More and more people take out health insurance to cover differing levels of top up, and so more and more have less and less of an emotional stake in protecting what's left of state-funded treatment. There's less and less resistance to further cuts.

Rich people like me cash in on the boom in health insurance. I'm now making enormous profits on both sides of the equation - supplying pharma and medical services, and supplying insurance services. And I am now paying less and less tax too.

Eventually, state funded treatment will be a third-world-level rump relied on by perhaps just the poorest third of the population. Fuck 'em. My wealth has increased astronomically.

Well, that's what I would do. Of course it couldn't be done in one go. It would require several Tory terms, probably with some Labour periods intervening, so I'd have to make sure that whatever is achieved at each stage is very hard to undo.

Of course this is a nightmare scenario. Hopefully it's not the path on which we are actually embarked. I'm probably just being paranoid. But every now and then it crosses my mind. After all, what I called phase one is just being completed.

If this is really where we are headed, then expect to hear lots more about the "problem" of "increasing unaffordability" that requires "tough" and "radical" solutions. Then, later - probably not in this parliament, and probably not from mainstream Tories to begin with, but from e.g. self-styled mavericks writing in The Spectator - some hints that a general top up policy might be part of the solution. At the very least, expect recommendations that top ups be introduced for a wider range of drugs, etc. But you won't hear this from ministers until phase one is complete, as that might give the game away.

POST SCRIPT. I just googled "NHS top up payments" and found quite a lot on the Labour introduced cancer drug top up policy. Including this from Janet Daley at The Telegraph - go here. Daley is exactly the sort of person I had in mind when I mentioned "self-styled mavericks".

Follow up piece here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Wittgenstein reading Group - Heythrop event tomorrow

On Friday July 5th at 4pm, Dr. Daniele Moyal-Sharrock will be joining the Wittgenstein Reading Group at Heythrop College to answer questions relating to her paper 'Logic in Action: Wittgenstein's Logical Pragmatism and the Impotence of Scepticism'. This is a real privilege and a chance to engage with one of the finest contemporary interpreters of Wittgenstein's philosophy. For more info (including a copy of the paper) email Adrian Brockless:  a.brockless@heythrop.ac.uk.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Heythrop College - Open Day welcome speech

Welcome speech

I have been teaching philosophy at Heythrop College for seventeen years. This was my first full-time teaching appointment after leaving Oxford. Unlike many academics keen to climb the career ladder - and who consequently tend to migrate from one institution to another at the beginning of their careers - I have stayed put. I have remained here at Heythrop for my entire career. Why?

The answer lies in what I discovered when I arrived here. I quickly discovered just how unique and valuable an institution Heythrop College is.

We are small, which means that students and staff are known to each other. This is no vast and anonymous academic factory. This is a friendly place populated with familiar faces.

We are also a specialist college focussing on just philosophy and theology.

Wander the corridors of Heythrop College and you’ll find people deep in conversations about philosophy and theology. Irrespective of their religious belief - or lack of religious belief – all the students and staff at Heythrop are bound together by shared, deep interested in fundamental questions about reality, morality, and the human condition. Despite our obvious differences, we form a closely-knit intellectual family.

Coming straight from Oxford, I also very much valued Heythrop’s Oxbridge-style one-to-one tutorial system and the opportunity it gives students to really explore a topic with someone who knows it inside out. When the New College of the Humanities was announced, Dominic Lawson wrote in the Guardian newspaper that what the New College was charging 18 thousand pounds a year for was, in essence, the tutorial system offered by Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Lawson said that the Oxbridge tutorial system was "the single most valuable aspect of their educational offering". But Lawson was wrong to claim that the tutorial system is only otherwise available at colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The tutorial system also form a significant part of Heythrop College’s undergraduate programmes.

Heythrop is a hive of intellectual activity and world-class research is being done, but when I arrived soon learned that the staff also have that rare quality: they actually enjoy teaching. And they are skilled at it too.

These two facts - the fact that we offer an Oxbridge style tutorial system, and the fact that staff here really enjoy teaching – show themselves in the results our students achieve. Yes, we are less well-known than, say, Kings College London or University College London, and so we have more modest entry requirements. Nevertheless, our students do exceptionally well in their final exams. In fact, Heythrop actually has been known on occasion to achieve a greater number of first class honours degrees in philosophy than its other, better-known sister colleges.

And of course, if you take your degree at Heythrop, you will be graduating with a degree awarded by the University of London, which is one of the most prestigious and respected universities in the world.

Heythrop is a unique and valuable institution. And philosophy and theology are unique and valuable subjects. Of course these are “challenging times" for humanities degrees.

As a philosopher, I am obviously concerned that, as fees increase and the economy flatlines, prospective students with a passion for philosophy may find themselves drawn by the siren voices of those who say philosophy is an impractical, “head in the clouds” subject of little relevance to real life.

Yet the irony is that, by choosing the subject they love, philosophy students are also choosing one of the most career friendly degrees. The skills it fosters are highly transferable and valued within, for example, the business sector.
In support of this, consider the GRE exam scores of those pursuing fifty different science and humanities degrees in the United States. The GRE exam is sat in the third undergraduate year, and has three parts: verbal, quantitative (mathematical) and analytical. How do philosophers fare?

Out of fifty science and humanities undergraduate degree programmes, philosophy ranks first on the analytic component. No surprise there you might think. You’d expect philosophers to be great analytic thinkers.

But philosophy also ranks first on the verbal component of the GRE exam. It outperforms English, as you see on this graph.

Notice also how well those studying religion do on these tests.

Philosophy also ranks first out of all humanities degrees on the maths component (with only maths-heavy science subjects scoring better).

Philosophy also ranks first out of all fifty degree programmes on the law school entry exam.

Philosophy graduates are smart all-rounders. They possess a wide range of highly transferable skills that employers value. Do spread the word about that, please.

Heythrop is an extraordinary place and it’s time the college received the recognition it deserves. That is something we are now working on vigorously. Heythrop is one of British academia’s best-kept secrets and we are going to ensure that it is a secret no longer.

Next year, this college is, believe it or not, 400 years old. Our 400th anniversary gives us an excellent opportunity to promote and celebrate this college. I very much hope to see many of you here to celebrate our anniversary with us.

If and when you join us, you will discover, as I did, just how unique and valuable an institution Heythrop College truly is.