Moving Secularism Forward Conference

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I am speaking in Florida next week (and also Washington - see below). Go here for details of the conference. I'm highly flattered by my ridiculously prominent billing...

Speakers include

Stephen Law | Ophelia Benson | Daniel C. Dennett | Jessica Ahlquist | Pz Myers | Sikivu Hutchinson | Russell Blackford | Elisabeth Cornwell | Steven K. Green | George Hrab | Sir Harold Kroto | Rita Swan | and more!

Here is what I am doing in Washington:

Voices of Reason - Stephen Law: The Evil God Challenge

Monday, March 5th 2012 at 7:00 pm
Monday, March 5th 2012 at 9:00 pm
Busboys and Poets 14th & V - Langston Room, 2021 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 (U St / Cardozo Metro)

The Evil God Challenge is perhaps the most powerful argument against the existence of the Judeo-Christian God yet developed. Stephen Law will present a version that he published in the journal Religious Studies in 2010, and has since developed further. If you want a single, simple, devastating challenge to present to theists, one for which they probably won't have a prepared answer, the Evil God Challenge is a leading contender. It's a version of the old problems of evil - but with a novel and entertaining twist!

Register here

Dr Stephen Law is Senior lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, editor of THINK, a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and author of many philosophy books, including The Philosophy Gym (St Martins Press), A Very Short Introduction to Humanism (Oxford University Press) and Believing Bullshit: How Not To Get Sucked Into An Intellectual Black Hole (Prometheus). He is also the author of the children's book Really Really Big Questions (Kingfisher). Stephen is Provost of CFI UK.

The talk will be followed by a Q & A. Free and open to the public.

Registration required to guarantee admission. Support our programming by becoming a Friend of the Center today!

Magdalen College Oxford last night - THINK week.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Had an interesting debate with Richard Swinburne, Ard Louis and Peter Atkins yesterday evening as part of THINK week. Richard Dawkins was in the audience and contributed quite a bit. Richard D's dislike of philosophy was apparent again, as was Peter Atkins's, so I was for a while fighting for philosophy alongside Richard Swinburne against Richard Dawkins. Religion was also an issue, though, so Richard S and I were also occasional opponents, with Dawkins, Atkins and myself then on the same team. It was fun, and of course also flattering to be in such prestigious company. There will be a video recording available shortly.

My opening statement (correctly anticipating an anti-philosophical tirade from Peter Atkins) is below, if you're interested (though I did deviate a bit from these notes), followed by a brief comment on Richard Dawkins's subsequent criticism of what I had to say.

I am a philosopher. So it will come as no surprise to you that I am going to argue that philosophy is:

(i) a worthwhile activity, and
(ii) that, for many of the most baffling and important questions and puzzles, the armchair methods of the philosopher, rather than the scientific method, is the right approach to adopt.

Many will of course question this. How, they will ask, can you discover ANYTHING of significance from the comfort of your armchair? To find out ANYTHING about the world, you need to OBSERVE IT. You need to collect data, perform experiments, and so on. And that’s just what philosophers don’t do. So philosophy is a waste of time, concludes Peter Atkins.

Well, I agree that if you want to find out about how things stand out there in the world, the scientific method IS indeed the best method to adopt. You are not going to discover much about reality sitting in your armchair, with your eyes closed, having a think.

But, actually, that’s not to say that EVERY significant question or puzzle is best answered or solved by the methods of science.

Some of the most baffling puzzles and questions are puzzles and questions that would appear to lie outside the remit of empirical science and investigation.

Here’s a simple example. You probably look into mirror everyday. They are familiar everyday objects. And yet they generate a baffling philosophical conundrum – one that baffled Plato back in Ancient Greece, and which philosophers are still writing about today.

The puzzle is this: why do mirrors reverse left to right, but not top to bottom?

You might think – well, this is just a scientific question. If we get in all the data and find out how light behaves, including how it is reflected off a mirror, then we’ll have the answer. But actually, even when all the scientific facts about how light behaves are in, the puzzle remains. Light bounces of mirrors the same way whether it comes in top to bottom or left or right.

The correct theory of how mirrors reflect light provides no solution at all to the mirror puzzle.

So what IS the solution? I think that something like this is correct….

Why do we say the mirror reverses left to right? Because when we imaginatively place ourselves where the mirror version of ourselves appears, we see that the mirror persons left hand is where your right hand is, and vice verse. Yet the head and feet remain top and bottom.

But what if you place yourself where the mirror person appears not be rotating yourself around a vertical axis, but on a horizontal axis. Then your feet would be where your head appears and vice verse, whereas your left hand would remain where your left hand appears.

In short, mirrors only reverse left to right if we take for granted a vertical axis of rotation. Take a horizontal axis, and mirrors reverse top to bottom not left to right. There is no asymmetry. The asymmetry has nothing to with mirrors – it’s generated by what we took for granted – one axis of rotation over another.


(i) this is not a puzzle that can be solved by empirical research.
(ii) It’s a conceptual puzzle that requires a conceptual solution. It’s a puzzle that takes armchair reflection to solve.

So not every puzzle is a puzzle that is best solved by empirical investigation. Some of the deepest and most baffling puzzles can, in fact, only be solved by armchair reflection.

In fact, all sorts of interesting discoveries can be made from the armchair. Mathematical discoveries, for example, can be made from the armchair. They can be achieved by pure thought alone – without doing any data collection or laboratory experiments.

We can also RULE OUT certain hypothesis from the comfort of the armchair.

Suppose an explorer claims to have discovered a four-sided triangle on their travels. Should we mount an expedition to go and check whether this momentous claim is correct? Of course not. We can figure out, from the comfort of our armchairs, that no such triangle exists. Triangles, by definition, have three sides. So a four-sided triangle involves a contradiction. It cannot possibly exist.

This is a rather obvious example. It’s obvious that four-sided triangles are ruled out conceptually. They involve a logical contradiction. But sometimes what is ruled out conceptually is NOT so obvious.

Aristotle claimed that objects of different mass will fall at different speeds. A large, heavy metal ball will fall faster than a small, light metal ball.

Back in the late 16thC, Galileo proved that Aristotle was wrong. Some say he did this by dropping two balls off the top of the leaning tower of Pisa. The two balls landed at the same time. Neil Armstrong did the experiment with a feather and hammer on the Moon

But actually, Galileo probably didn’t perform that experiment. He actually performed a thought experiment – one that he describes in his book On Motion. And of course thought experiments can be run from the comfort of ones armchair.

Galileo reasoned like so…

Imagine two balls, one heavier than the other, connected by a string. Drop this system of objects from the top of a tower. If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter ball drags on and slows the fall of the heavier ball. But the system considered as a whole is heavier than the heavy ball alone, and therefore should fall faster than the heavy ball on its own. So Aristotle’s theory, just like the claim that there exists a four-sided triangle, generates a contradiction. Galileo could establish that it is false from the comfort of his armchair.

True, this is a scientist doing a scientific thought experiment, but it illustrates the point that highly significant discoveries can indeed be made from the armchair.

Of course, philosophers need to scientifically literate. Scientific discoveries can be of philosophical relevance. But, at heart, philosophy IS an armchair discipline. And it is none the worse for that.

Philosophy is about conceptual investigation and clarification. Philosophers make conceptual discoveries. I have illustrated how they tackle conceptual puzzles – puzzles that the scientific method just isn’t equipped to solve.

They also probe what we take for granted, our common sense assumptions, sometimes with dramatic results. Philosophers may reveal that what we believe has quite shocking unacknowledged consequences, for example.

This can lead to important breakthroughs. Particularly in moral philosophy. Many of the most important developments over the last couple of hundreds years or so have come about because of philosophical reflection – questioning of, and thinking through the consequences of, some of our most basic moral assumptions and principles.

So philosophy, it seems to me, is not just fascinating, it is also hugely valuable. Blah blah…

Richard Dawkins thought the mirror puzzle and solution was science not philosophy (really? - the last two papers I read on it were in philosophy journals, and I cannot imagine they'd be published in a science journal as they were purely conceptual and involved no empirical claims). Richard wondered why what I do is labelled "philosophy" at all. It's just thinking, he said.

Actually, I don't much care what Richard calls what I do. He can use any label he likes. Relabelling it doesn't mean it's not a legitimate intellectual activity. It seems to be the word that Richard objects to, rather than the activity.

We need to know who funds these thinktank lobbyists

Here's George Monbiot in the Guardian on Monday...for your edification.

Shocking, fascinating, entirely unsurprising: the leaked documents, if authentic, confirm what we suspected but could not prove. The Heartland Institute, which has helped lead the war against climate science in the United States, is funded among others by tobacco firms, fossil fuel companies and one of the billionaire Koch brothers.

It appears to have followed the script written by a consultant to the Republican party, Frank Luntz, in 2002. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

Luntz's technique was pioneered by the tobacco companies and the creationists: teach the controversy. In other words, insist that the question of whether cigarettes cause lung cancer, natural selection drives evolution, or burning fossil fuels causes climate change, is still wide open, and that both sides of the "controversy" should be taught in schools and thrashed out in the media.

The leaked documents appear to show that, courtesy of its multimillionaire donors, the institute has commissioned a global warming curriculum for schools which teaches that "whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy" and "whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial".

The institute has claimed it is "a genuinely independent source of research and commentary" and that "we do not take positions in order to appease or avoid losing support from individual donors". But the documents, if authentic, reveal that its attacks on climate science have been largely funded by a single anonymous donor and that "we are extinguishing primarily global warming projects in pace with declines in his giving".

The climate change deniers it funds have made similar claims to independence. For example, last year Fred Singer told a French website: "Of course I am not funded by the fossil fuel lobbies. It's a completely absurd invention." The documents suggest that the institute, funded among others by the coal company Murray Energy, the the oil company Marathon and the former Exxon lobbyist Randy Randol has been paying him $5,000 a month.

Robert Carter has claimed he "receives no research funding from special interest organisations". But the documents suggest that Heartland pays him $1,667 a month. Among the speakers at its conferences were two writers for the Telegraph (Christopher Booker and James Delingpole). The Telegraph group should now reveal whether and how much they were paid by the Heartland Institute.

It seems to be as clear an illustration as we have yet seen of the gulf between what such groups call themselves and what they really are. Invariably, organisations arguing for regulations to be removed, top taxes to be reduced and other such billionaire-friendly policies, call themselves free-market or conservative thinktanks. But according to David Frum, formerly a fellow at one such group – the American Enterprise Institute – they "increasingly function as public relations agencies". The message they send to their employees, he says, is "we don't pay you to think, we pay you to repeat".

The profits of polluting or reckless companies and banks and the vast personal fortunes of their beneficiaries are largely dependent on the regulations set by governments. This is why the "thinktanks" campaign for small government. If regulations robustly defend the public interest, the profits decline. If they are weak, the profits rise. Billionaires and big business buy influence to insulate themselves from democratic control. It seems to me that the so-called thinktanks are an important component of this public relations work.

Their funding, in most cases, is opaque. When I challenged some of the most prominent of such groups in the UK, only one would reveal its donors' identity. The others refused. Disgracefully, their lack of accountability does not prevent some of them from registering as charities and claiming tax exemption.

The Charity Commission in England and Wales – negligent, asleep at the wheel – is becoming a threat to democracy. These organisations are not trying to restore historic buildings or rescue distressed donkeys. They are seeking to effect political change in highly contentious areas. The minimum requirement for all such groups – whether they are on the left or on the right – is that they should disclose their major sources of income so that we know on whose behalf they speak. The commission is providing cover for multimillionaires and corporations who are funding undisclosed campaigns to enhance their own wealth under the guise of charity, and obliging the rest of us to pay for it through tax exemptions. If that's charity, a police siren is music.

The use of so-called thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic seems to me to mirror the use of super-political action committees (superPACs) in the US. Since the supreme court removed the limits on how much one person could give to a political campaign, the billionaires have achieved almost total control over politics. An article last week on TomDispatch revealed that in 2011, just 196 donors provided nearly 80% of the money raised by superPACs.

The leading Republican candidates have all but abandoned the idea of mobilising popular support. Instead they use the huge funds they raise from billionaires to attack the credibility of their opponents through television ads. Yet more money is channelled through 501c4 groups – tax-exempt bodies supposedly promoting social welfare – which (unlike the superPACs) don't have to reveal the identity of their donors. TomDispatch notes that "serving as a secret slush fund for billionaires evidently now qualifies as social welfare."

[the rest is here...]

Religious vs gay rights

Thursday, February 16, 2012
I am interested in resources and articles (especially of a more intellectually rigorous sort) on how the rights of the religious are supposedly being infringed when it comes to rights for homosexuals. e.g. Christian B&B owners being told they cannot deny homosexual couples a double room, Christian adoption agencies being told they cannot discriminate against gay couples, Christian foster parents told they should not tell children under their care that homosexuality is wrong.

PS this is for an upcoming presentation I have been asked to give at a conference at Magdalen College, Oxford. April 11- 13. Religious Freedom and Equality: Emerging Conflicts in North America and Europe. Sponsored by The Religious Freedom Project, Berkley Center, Georgetown University, and The Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Link here.

I will be in discussion with Prof. John Finnis.


At the Oxford festival - me on drums.

Feedback required please...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
To any teachers out there ....If anyone had ever used my "Evil God Challenge" or other philosophy of religion or philosophy of mind material, in the school classroom, or in some other educational setting, I'd be very keen to hear about it, as it counts as "impact", which I am being assessed on. I'd need to know what material was used, where, when and to how many students.

Or if you can give examples of other ways in which the Evil God challenge has had impact (educational, public, etc.) that I might not know about...

V best


Conference in Florida (CFI)

Monday, February 13, 2012
I am pretty busy in next few weeks...

Moving Secularism Forward

From: 01 March 2012 To: 04 March 2012

Time Zone: Eastern Time (US & Canada)


The Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Council for Secular Humanism will hold their annual conference "Moving Secularism Forward" March 1–4, 2012 at the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida.

At "Moving Secularism Forward", learn about one of Florida's most dramatic church-state battles regarding the Blaine Amendment, and much, much more; including an optional motorcoach excursion to Kennedy Space Center.

Scheduled to speak:

Daniel C. Dennett, Sir Harold Kroto, PZ Myers, Russell Blackford, Stephen Law, Rita Swan, Anthony Pinn, Victor Stenger, Elisabeth Cornwell, Eddie Tabash, Ophelia Benson, Lionel Tiger, Ronald Bailey, Razib Khan, Jamila Bey, Sikivu Hutchinson, David Silverman, Bill Cooke, Steven K. Green, Ellenbeth Wachs, Ronald A. Lindsay, Debbie Goddard and Tom Flynn.

Musical entertainment by George Hrab.

Event Website:

Location: Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport, Orlando, FL, United States

Discussion Tuesday 21 Feb, Magdalen College, Oxford - Swinburne, Atkins, Louis and myself

Tuesday, Feb 21st: Think About Knowledge

7:30pm: Life, the Universe, and Everything - The Quest for Truth

Magdalen College, Grove Auditorium, OX1 4AU

Science is credited as the most effective approach to answering questions. Scientifically derived facts are viewed as truths. But there are also truths to be found in mythology, in historical accounts, in philosophy. As we try to make sense of our world, to answer the big questions, how do we know what ‘truths’ to believe? Which, if any, of these is preeminent? Is there ultimately only one truth, or are there categories of truths? And in our quest for the truth, what sorts of questions should we be asking? Who is best placed to ask them?

Join us as we engage with a panel of distinguished thinkers from science, philosophy and theology as they try to assert that their domain is, in fact, best placed to answer the biggest questions.

Dr. Stephen Law, philosopher,
Prof. Peter Atkins, chemist,
Prof. Richard Swinburn, religious philosopher,
Dr. Ard Louis, theoretical physicist,

Gig Tuesday night with Heavy Dexters

Monday, February 6, 2012

I am playing with The Heavy Dexters tomorrow night at the Bullingdon Arms on Cowley Rd. 9.30pm to midnight. Drums. It's jazz funk...

162 Cowley Road

2011 Morris D. Forkosch Award

Have just heard I am the recipient of the 2011 Morris D. Forkosch Award for Humanist Book of the Year for my Oxford University Press Humanism: A Very Short Introduction.

For an alternative point of view, here's my favourite review to date:

"It is incomprehensible that the editors at the Oxford University Press had such a colossal failure of judgment. I intend to read the upcoming volumes in this series, but I certainly hope that I don't come across books like this one again."