About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, June 30, 2019

New op-ed piece published by Arc Digital - "Philosophy Is Not Ideology"

This op-ed piece, "Philosophy Is Not Ideology", was published on 21 June 2019, over on the Arc Digital site. Check it out!

Except in the discipline’s most technical areas, however — areas such as formal logic and the philosophical study of semantics — disputes among philosophers seldom converge on anything like a stable consensus. These disputes run into problems of ambiguous, conflicting, and incomplete evidence, conceptual confusion, and a diversity of bedrock assumptions, intuitions, and values. It is therefore typical, rather than unusual, for philosophers to maintain opposed ideas even after honest and strenuous efforts to find common ground. This is well known within the discipline, and in the past, such considerations have obtained far more consensus from philosophers than any suggested answers to big philosophical questions. Thus, philosophy’s tolerant disciplinary norms reflect the practicalities of philosophical inquiry.
The point of the article is not, however, to claim that all is well within the discipline of philosophy. On the contrary, it expresses concern about internal challenges to philosophy's disciplinary norm of fearless, open inquiry. Having examined a couple of cases of this, including the Tuvel affair, I conclude on a worried note:
In the past, philosophy has survived, and maintained its integrity, in the face of external pressures, including hostility from church and state. It is not clear, however, that philosophy as an academic discipline can survive the tactics of ideologues working from within.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A new review of The Tyranny of Opinion - on the "Babbling Books" site

This review of The Tyranny of Opinion on the "Babbling Books" blog is one of the best yet: it's kind, and also very perceptive. The author "gets" where I'm coming from, what I'm arguing about, and what I'm objecting to.

Please read the whole thing, because it really is a thoughtful review with many thoughtful observations. The discussion thread that follows is also surprisingly good, with civil, thoughtful exchanges of views. As a taste, however, the review concludes:

Blackford is extremely balanced and tries to at least understand all sides. He presents the arguments of many people and groups that he criticizes and is often at least partially sympathetic to them. Many other critics of the phenomena described here have become fierce opponents of social justice movements and the left in general. That is not the direction that Blackford takes. In fact, in many ways he is more liberal and sympathetic to social justice causes than I am.

Blackford offers possible solutions. He makes some suggestion as to what social media platforms and even government can do. More importantly, he calls for people of all political and social beliefs to stand together to resist this nastiness and suppression of speech. He provides a list and commentary on other books that discuss this topic as well as a list of worthy books that have been the subject of these suppression campaigns.

I tend to shy away from books such as this that are very tied to very current events. As I have written in other posts, I usually read books that I consider to have universal appeal and that will be relevant far into the future. I made an exception here for various reasons. It is a topic that I am very interested in. It relates in all sorts of ways to other issues that I delve into in this blog. In terms of the book, I found that the first half was a universal examination of various issues, such as free speech, conformity, liberalism, etc. The second part did focus upon current events however.

It seems to me that this is an important book. I think that anyone interested in the general discourse on politics, social issues, art, etc. will find a lot of value here. No matter where one falls on these issues, the future of discussion communication affects us all. Even those who might disagree with Blackford will likely find him a nuanced thinker who makes a real effort to at least understand those who he disagrees with. I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in these topics.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet" (An oldie but a goodie)

This piece was originally published over on The Conversation. Check out the whole thing if you haven't read it before.

Near the end, I write as follows, in a way that goes against much conventional wisdom:


[I]t’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility - or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.

In other cases, you - or I - might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)

In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.

When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.

If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little - or arguably nothing - wrong.

As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public - perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark - it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.

To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.

Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.

When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019


This is a very pleasing review by Helen Dale. She concludes: "[Blackford] writes gorgeously, guiding the reader through a great deal of material with expertise and, sometimes, élan. It is a lesson in how to argue, and how to think. The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism is an exceptional book. Anyone who engages in political debate should read it."

Monday, January 14, 2019

Australian Book Review reviews THE TYRANNY OF OPINION

The Tyranny of Opinion is Australian Book Review's book of the week this week, highlighted in its electronic newsletter. The journal has published the book review, by Ceridwen Spark, online. This is a wonderful review, and I couldn't be more pleased.

The review concludes: "Blackford’s book exemplifies how things might be if only we would all stop shouting at one another and learn to listen."

I'm expecting to see some more reviews soon. I know that there are reviews forthcoming in the immediate future from Quillette and Free Inquiry.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Where to begin in studying philosophy?

This thread over at Leiter Reports, back in August 2018, was a useful discussion of the question. Commenters chewed over what might be a good syllabus or reading list for a law professor with a budding interest in philosophy.

Some comments and suggestions didn't appeal to me, but some suggestions of philosophy books and other materials seemed very useful. Even for someone who has studied philosophy quite deeply, it's interesting to see a range of perspectives on what might count as the basics. It's also a bit frustrating to see how some people with undoubted expertise consider stuff to be central that I would be inclined to think rather peripheral and esoteric, while other similarly expert people evidently have different conceptions again of what philosophy is all about.

Still, in a world with ample time it would all be interesting to track down. I'm sure I'd be a much more rounded philosopher and thinker if I read (and genuinely considered) more of the material that I just described as peripheral and esoteric.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Jerry Coyne defends anti-accommodationism at The Conversation

Jerry Coyne has published this useful piece at The Conversation, briefly setting out his case against the religion-science accommodationist position (i.e. the position that religion and science are, in some sense, straightforwardly compatible). He followed up with a post about this on his Why Evolution is True site.

As a reminder, I sometimes write for The Conversation, via its Australian set-up (my profile is here). In January 2016, I wrote a piece for The Conversation on this exact topic, entitled "Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion."

(My preferred version can be found here, if you have access to Academia.edu. However, there is little difference: I've merely reworded some phrasing about Stephen Jay Gould that caused unnecessary, unintended, and unexpected offence.)

This piece responded to (and acted as a sort of review of) Jerry's excellent book Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. You can, perhaps, detect subtle differences in our approaches, but we're on the same wavelength here. I've long argued that science has a tendency - logically, psychologically, and historically - to undermine religion, which I understand in much the same way as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

It is also true that the humanities have tended to undermine religion's authority as they've explored the historical provenance of particular religions, not least Christianity.

As for what counts as a religion, I think "religion" is inevitably a fuzzy concept. The boundaries between religions, political ideologies, and various other worldviews are not sharp. Some ideologies show many of the trappings of religion. Indeed, they show many of the worst features of monotheistic religions in particular: their identification of orthodoxies and heresies; their reverence for certain figures and demonization of others; the psychological transformations they can produce, often leading to zealotry; and their intolerance of dissent.

Nonetheless, we can describe the phenomenon of religion in a way that tracks most people's intuitions. See, for example, my discussion of religion on pages 5-10 of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State and the short discussion of religion and ideology on pages 101-103 of The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism.

In The Tyranny of Opinion, I describe religions in this way (p. 101): "Religions are (very roughly) systems of belief and practice that include otherworldly or supernatural elements of some kind: they involve belief in something that transcends the observable world or eludes empirical inquiry. Further, religions teach that there is an otherworldly dimension to human lives, and that this has at least something to do with how we ought to act in this world. Religions almost always involve rituals of some sort, and they typically include moral norms that are given a supernatural or otherworldly rationalization."

In recent years, I've become slightly less concerned about the claims of religion - and about religion's threats to our liberties - as I've become more focused on political ideologies and their dangers. Nonetheless, debates about religion and its value, and about its intellectual and moral authority, will not go away any time soon.

To be sure religion itself is slowly fading in Western countries (and some others), as Jerry notes in his post at Why Evolution is True, but my fear is that many people who are turning away from religious faith are turning to other belief systems that offer comfort and the sense of meaning that comes with claims to esoteric knowledge, while showing authoritarian tendencies. That, in fact, seems to be a danger with any belief system except the most open-ended and individualistic. Even if religion eventually goes away, as is clearly happening in Western and Northern Europe especially, there won't be an end to the struggle against authoritarian systems of belief.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Interview on Wikizilla site

I've done an interview on the Wikizilla site (a site devoted to giant movie monsters, including Kong) about my 2005 novel Kong Reborn. We get into lots of interesting issues about the 1933 King Kong movie, Skull Island, the big gorilla, the characters in the movie and my novel, the craft of writing this sort of fiction, etc. Check it out!