Article in The Hindu

Friday, March 30, 2012
Article about my Evil God Challenge in The Hindu, India (circ 1.5 million approx, so good for research "impact") Original here.

Why must God be good?

In this talk, Philosopher Stephen Law weighs the arguments for and against a belief in an all benevolent Creator.

Here is a question most of us would have asked at one point of time or other: “If God is all powerful and all good, then why does evil exist and exist to the extents that it does?” Philosopher Stephen Law breaks the question into two kinds of problems: one he labels as the logical problem and the other as the evidential problem. The first finds it hard to reconcile a God to the evil and suffering in the world and the second wonders how an all powerful, all good God could make a world so full of suffering. The evidential problem deals with the quantity while the logical problem deals with the existence of any evil at all. Law further says we could confine ourselves to understanding evil as suffering, something which troubles anyone and everyone.

“The real problem of theists is the evidential problem. In terms of the logical problem, it would do to show that the all powerful all good god may create some suffering to make the world a better place to live in. But the evidential problem still does not find an answer because would a God create a world with so much suffering in it? This seems to be overwhelming evidence against God.”

Law makes a difference between what is reasonable and what is proof. He says beliefs can be measured over a scale of reasonableness. They range from the highly plausible to the impossible. “So,” says Law, “the question is not so much as to whether God exists or does not exist. We cannot conclusively prove it either way. Even if cannot prove it, it would be possible to say whether the belief in God is highly reasonable or whether it is highly improbable despite not being disproved. So proof is not the issue. It is a matter of reasonableness. It wouldn't do to say it is a faith issue and atheism is just as much a faith issue as theism.”

Law says that the most persuasive argument for the existence of God is the one which says there must be some sort of intelligence behind the Universe judging by its design, for it is most unlikely that all this has come about by chance. “If this is a good argument, which I do not think it is, what conclusions can we draw about the personality or moral character of that Intelligence? The answer is really none at all. What reason do we have to draw the conclusion that the Supreme Lord is all benevolent and compassionate? None at all. Similarly other arguments about the creator do not reveal anything else about his personality. One of the most popular is the free will version to explain suffering. It says God gave us free will and has not made us like puppets. We unfortunately choose to do wrong things, wage wars, cause suffering, etc. But this fails to explain a great deal of suffering, the natural suffering, produced by, for example, natural disasters. There was an earthquake in Pakistan where hundreds of thousands of children were trapped in a school and died. How would you explain this?” Law goes on to enumerate the different natural disasters over time that have close to annihilated life on earth.

“We could consider the hypothesis that there is an all powerful all evil God. But there is just too much of good things like rainbows and ice cream for the Supreme Being to be all evil. So if you believe in a good God you have to explain why there is so much bad stuff and if you believe in a bad god you have to explain why there is so much good stuff. On the scale of reasonableness I place the evil God very low down. But that is exactly where I place the good God too. A slightly less unreasonable belief would be that there is some sort of intelligence which is both good and evil, some good days and some bad days.

Tomorrow at Waterstones bookstore Oxford, with Nick Cohen

Wednesday, March 28, 2012
One of three events I am doing tomorrow in Oxford. The other two are a talk at 10.00am on Believing Bullshit and a debate 4-5pm with Lord Richard Harries, chaired by David Aaronovitch, both at the Oxford Literary Festival, Christ Church College, Oxford.

Censorship in an Age of Freedom: The Debate
Nick Cohen, Stephen Law

You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom
Thursday, 29 March 2012, 7:00PM
TICKETS NOW ON SALE INSTORE £4 or £2 with a Waterstones Loyalty card

Join us in store for an evening of lively and vital debate with Journalist Nick Cohen and Philosopher Stephen Law. It has become the accepted wisdom that we are living in an age of unprecedented freedom, but in world of super-injunctions and media self censorship, where you can risk your life by writing a novel or drawing a cartoon how free are we really?
Further details: 01865 790212

Why a degree in Philosophy may be a better bet than a degree in Business administration

This previous post bears repeating in the current economic climate...

If you are wondering what kind of degree programme is likely to boost your general smarts, consider these figures.

Go here. This is one of several graphs from the above article. Based on GRE test performance (Graduate Record Examination) of graduate programme applicants. Quantitative (math) skills on the vertical axis, verbal skills on the horizontal (other graphs include the third component - "analytical writing", at which philosophers also excel, dramatically outperforming all others).

Philosophy graduates are pretty damn smart, the various figures suggest, compared to graduates with other degrees, including most - perhaps even all - sciences (though were they smarter to begin with, or did their degree programme make them smarter, compared to other degrees?). Check the article. Here's the original table of GRE scores of US students completing a variety of degrees.

Notice religion also does very well.

This data suggests (but falls a long way short of establishing) that if we want to produce graduates with general, across-the-board smarts, physics and philosophy are disciplines to encourage [and possibly also that accountancy and business administration should be discouraged (this confirms all my prejudices, I am pleased to say!)].

Note some very weird stats on this graph, such as business administration's woeful performance, doing less well than even "art and performance" on quantitative skills and verbal skills (which is staggering). And accountancy grads less good on quantitative skills than philosophy grads (!) and the worst performers of all on verbal skills. Both business and accountancy are also weak on the analytic writing component.

Of course, as the new business-friendly, market-led Tory vision of degree provision kicks in, we'll probably see philosophy departments up and down the country closing and business administration degrees expanding. Brilliant.

P.S. Just added a second graph comparing analytical writing and verbal. Check out e.g business administration. And where's philosophy?

HowTheLightGetsIn Festival at Hay in 2012

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Limits of Science Event [50001]
Saturday 9 June 2012
The Limits of Science

Rupert Sheldrake, Stephen Law, James Le Fanu

No one can doubt that science is our most powerful means to intervene in the world. But does science uncover the ultimate nature of the world? Or are there things it cannot fathom? Do we hide from the limitations of science or are we attracted by the inexplicable because it makes us feel more human?

Controversial biologist and author of The Science Delusion, Rupert Sheldrake, physician, Telegraph columnist and historian of science James Le Fanu debate the limits of knowledge with Think editor, commentator and philosopher Stephen Law.

Tickets here.
Earlybird: £5.00
Standard: £7.00
Full-price: £9.00


Today's BBC 1 Big Questions

Sunday, March 25, 2012

From about 43 minutes on "Do we need religion to create a moral society?" I start it off and finish it up too. It will be up for a week.

BBC 1 Big Questions

Saturday, March 24, 2012
I'll be on BBC 1 Big Questions tomorrow, 10am (clocks go back btw). Do we need religion to create a moral soceity?

PS oops no, clocks go forward. Thanks anon.

What is the Conservative Party for? The cui bono test

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Can anyone think of anything the Tories have done in this parliament (economically, I mean) that has not been about financially benefiting the rich and/or big business (i.e. their backers), typically with the result that the resulting financial burdens are loaded onto those lower down the economic scale? I can't.

I thought I'd discovered an example a couple of days ago when I heard that the Government were helping first time buyers with an assisted deposit scheme. "Finally" I thought, "Some evidence that the Tories are not only interested in helping out their rich mates. I am after all being cynical in suspecting the Tories are only about the rich and big business." But of course it turns out the scheme is only for those buying new build homes. It's actually a way of helping out the construction industry, and was probably suggested by industry lobbyists.

Can anyone reassure me by coming up with a significant economic policy introduced by this Government that was not about trying to help the rich and big business, often to the financial detriment of the rest of us? NHS reform, students loans and HE reform, pensions, tax, child benefit, removing national pay scales for teachers, etc. etc. Sadly, I can't think of a single example.

If we apply the cui bono test to this Government, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that, behind the window dressing, the Conservative Party is really little more than an organization for redistributing wealth to the benefit of the wealthy. I don't want to think that, for various reasons, not least because it makes many of my Tory-voting friends mugs. I can still be a liberal lefty even if it's not true. But it does seem to me to be true - so by all means go ahead and correct me...


Take the plan to flog off the roads announced yesterday. This is presented as being about getting Britain the infrastructure it desperately needs. But cui bono? Who benefits? The big companies who'll buy the roads up, of course. Who else?

The roads still have to be paid for (someone has still got to pay for the improvements), but the wealthy will now pay very much less than they would via a progressive system of taxation. Those down the income scale will now be paying more, with the poorest having to paying the highest proportion of their income. Either that, or else they must abandon the decent roads to wealthier folk.

ThinkCon 2012 - Saturday, March 17, Cambridge

Friday, March 16, 2012
ThinkCon 2012
Part of the Cambridge Science Festival
Richard Wiseman, Helen Keen, Michael Brooks and others...

Saturday, March 17 2012 at 11:00AM

McCrum Lecture Theatre
Benet Street

Richard Wiseman, Helen Keen, Michael Brooks and others...

What's the talk about?

Tickets Price: Free for talks or £6 for food. Tickets can now be puchased/booked from WeGotTickets

11:00am Lewis Dartnell
12:00pm Iszi Lawrence
1:00pm Stephen Law
3:30pm Martin Robbins, Jane Gregory & David Whitehouse
5:00pm Michael Brooks
6:00pm Helen Keen
6:45pm Richard Wiseman

The Evil God challenge cartoon

Saturday, March 10, 2012
Someone has taken the time to do a very nice animation based round my Evil God Challenge paper, and even added some good points of their own....

Glenn Peoples on evil god challenge

Thursday, March 1, 2012
Glenn Peoples has a podcast on my evil god challenge here. It's been there a while but have only now had a chance to listen to it. It's very good as an explanation of the challenge. Glenn is a patient, clear expositor...

I have commented and had a brief exchange with Glenn in the comments section if anyone's interested...