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).

Friday, December 28, 2007

My friends are still left-libertarians

Note that I (the red dot) am quite moderate by the standards of this group; in fact, you can see why I sometimes feel like a nasty right-winger on economic issues. Fortunately, there are a few who are slightly closer than me to the left-right centre line. Even on social issues, where I am definitely pictured as a libertarian, my views are not all that extreme by the group's standards.

Without dobbing in individuals, I'll just say that (perhaps surprisingly? I'm not sure), a couple of the people who came out to the north-east of me, i.e. closer to the centre of the graph, are famous figures in the transhumanist movement.

Actually, this picture suggests a bit of a danger. The positions taken by these people, including me, are obviously not at all typical of the wider community. That doesn't mean we're wrong, just that if we all hang around with people like ourselves all the time we run a risk of losing touch with what the punters think and feel.

Edit: Image updated to 13 January. I also added a little image with just the cloud of dots and not the distracting numbers.

Church and state - at least somebody gets it

Well, two people.

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle about church and state in the pages of The Australian in the past few days, but it was summed up well in yesterday's edition by a letter headed "Separation of church and state are essential to democracy", attributed to Rod and Annabel Crook of Sandy Bay, Tasmania.

The letter points out that, over the long history of religious and other conflicts, democratic political institutions developed, and came to see a separation of religion from the power of the state as essential. Democracies have solved religious conflict by embracing the idea of equal citizenship for all regardless of differences in religious and moral belief, opinion, and practice. This solution requires toleration of such differences and a willingness not to impose practices on others that are deeply unacceptable to them. In a modern pluralist society such as Australia, we have a wide range of religious and moral views in the community, and governments should not be so unwise as to impose a particular view on all, forcing many people to live in ways that they cannot accept.

It follows, for example, that we should be reluctant to compel abortions (even in circumstances where the state's bureacrats, or an electoral majority, would consider them wise) or to criminalise them (even though some people consider abortion to be morally equivalent to murder, and they may sometimes be in the electoral majority). Likewise with euthanasia and many other issues.

This analysis is exactly right. Of course, commitment to such an ideal embodies some beliefs - e.g., that there is value in the political ideas of liberty, tolerance, equal citizenship, and the rule of law. But those distinctively political beliefs are accessible to people from a wide range of comprehensive worldviews.

Unfortunately, some comprehensive worldviews really may be incompatible with modern political ideas. That seems to be the case with extreme, politicised versions of Islam (but I am not at all convinced that Islam itself lacks the resources to embrace liberalism and modernity). It also applies to the dogma espoused by the Catholic Church's ultra-conservative leadership, but not to most ordinary Catholics, who are tolerant enough in my experience.

Certainly, there are folk in the community (such as those to whom the letter responded) who want to have things all their own way, and are willing to bring their particular sectarian views to the table of political debate, with the aim of imposing them through the coercive power of the state. By modern political standards, that is unreasonable and intolerant.

Such people ought to be given short shrift in public debate. They can say what they want, of course, but unless they can translate their views into adequate secular terms the rest of don't have to listen.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Faith versus morality

Sam Harris puts this so well. Here's a quote for the day:

"Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain activities cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.). And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting non-violent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc.). This inversion of priorities not only victimises innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics."

What a lovely summary of the religious morality of misery. Harris is supremely quotable on subjects like this.

To be fair, what faith can do, sometimes, is motivate people to take action that we can all applaud: I'm happy, for example, when religious institutions devote their efforts and resources to looking after the needy.

But whenever we see a specifically religious morality in action, it is likely to be doing something deplorable. The trouble is that specifically religious moralities tend to do two things that are dangerous to moral health: first, they tend to preserve the mores of less enlightened eras, and to treat these as if they were timeless truths; second, they tend to explain whatever is good about morality in general, such as its responsiveness to suffering, on a false basis. As a result, a great deal of whatever is kind and generous in the human spirit is twisted and shriveled when touched by religious faith.

Monday, December 24, 2007

New Year's resolution time getting close

What are your resolutions for next year? I don't think there are too many things that I have control over and can do differently. Obviously, I have a thesis to finish, and I'll just say that I have some big projects that may be in the wings when that's done. But what about things that are more in my own hands?

Well, there's the usual. Over the last long summer break, I managed to take off 15 pounds, or close to it - with great effort, because I was a long way from, like, obese. Since then, I've put back 5 of those pounds. At six foot and 180 pounds, I'm not doing too badly for a middle-aged man, but I'd like to get those 5 pounds off, plus some more. I'd be happier at, say, 170 pounds.

The other thing that comes immediately to mind is that I must finally master PowerPoint, something I've been avoiding for years. I've given many PowerPoint presentations, but I've resisted learning how to put them together myself - back in my city-law-firm period I always had plenty of secretarial help, but it's completely different in academia where I'm currently located. So it's time that I actually learned how to drive PowerPoint, since there's always pressure to use it.

Oh, here's another thing: time to catch up a bit with my mainstream literary reading, and not just my reading in science fiction and fantasy. I'm sort of letting a good grounding in Eng. lit. go to waste at the moment.

That's all that comes to mind for now, but I have a week to think about it. How about you?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Surveillance, privacy, and existential risk

Many of us are horrified by the idea that what we read, what substances (even legal ones) we ingest, who might enter our bedrooms from time to time (even in the most non-sexual circumstances), what odd hobbies we might have ... and on and on ... might be increasingly knowable by our governments, our police forces, or even our neighbours. If we feel that horror, we may be glad of the big-city anonymity that allows us much greater control of how much these things are known about us, and by whom, than was ever possible in small communities. We may want to fight new methods by which governments obtain practical power to snoop on us, collate information, create profiles of our tastes, activities, and thoughts. Even if we trust our current governments - but let's face it, who does? - what about some future government that has a more aggressive agenda of monitoring and controlling its citizens?

This should make it a no-brainer to oppose new kinds of surveillance. But here's the rub. Whether we like it or not, there's a significant possibility that near-future technological advances will increasingly place destructive power in the hands even of small groups of people, even small groups whose members are not immensely rich. If that's the way it turns out, this will intensify the current pressures for more and more surveillance and monitoring of citizens.

I don't especially like this, and I'm not necessarily going to accept it without resistance.

However, whether we accept surveillance creep or not, we can try to agree on one important point. As time goes on, we need more than procedural safeguards against the rising panopticon. Even more important is the need for a society of increased tolerance.

If higher levels of surveillance are likely, perhaps irresistible in the longer term, it is all the more reason to press for a social and legal ethos of far greater tolerance of activities that are not significantly harmful.

This entails a shift in values, away from moralism and paternalism to a more narrowly-focused concern with secular harm to others, especially with harmful actions that might cause destruction on a large scale. Arguably, that kind of shift was taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has not continued evenly since. To some extent, it has actually been reversed. A great deal of sententious moralism has been creeping back into public policy and the law.

With that in mind, we need a transvaluation of values, though not of the sort that Nietzsche demanded. We need to become more tolerant of differences over relatively harmless things and more focused on possibilities of great harm. This should involve scepticism about moral panics and the kneejerk legislation that often results.

So let's have no more laws against well-known social drugs, reproductive or therapeutic cloning, "sodomy", images of scantily-clad people, collecting antiques ... or whatever the latest moral bugbear might be. Let's make absolutely sure that any new forms of surveillance or monitoring that do get developed - perhaps over our vehement protests - are not abused by being used collaterally to catch people for unimportant things. Where such laws exist, let's roll them back.

Surely we can all agree on a simple message: Western societies must stop worrying disproportionally about minor risks and problems, while refocusing on the identification of major risks (involving large-scale destruction) and on what to do about them.

This link is not often made in the press and other media, but it ought to be. The point is true, important, and becoming more and more timely.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Computer-enabled sketching

Here's something that Facebook lets you do. I quite like these sketches. I just sent a whole set of them to the two people depicted here, as a supplementary Christmas present.

Edit: Jenny always has a drink in her hand. :)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

The new TV show from FOX, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, has received a lot of coverage on the net already, even though it won't be premiering until mid-January.

Before I get too many inquiries, I have nothing to do with this show. I'll certainly be interested to see how it compares with my YA/adult-crossover trilogy Terminator 2: The New John Connor Chronicles. If any of my original ideas in the trilogy are adapted, I'll feel flattered, but if anyone thinks I'll be making a big fuss about that (one way or the other) ... well, it doesn't work that way when you're doing tie-in work for media franchises like The Terminator. First, it's often hard in retrospect to identify the provenance of particular ideas among publishers, editors, writers, the creators of the original works, and so on. So while I'm quite proud of my trilogy, I'm certainly not a prima donna about its contents. Second, I have quite limited rights anyway. Whoever owns the intellectual property in the characters is entitled to draw on ideas from all the other people who have worked for the franchise, including little me.

So I'll just be enjoying the show, whenever I end up seeing it. But if anyone sees The Sarah Connor Chronicles before I do, and if it does adapt any of the cool details from my trilogy, make a note of it and drop me a line. As I say, I'll simply be flattered if any of my ideas make it to the TV screen. It was a lot of fun getting to play with these toys - and I do have a special love for the character of Sarah Connor, whose dialogue and action I enjoyed writing for the trilogy - but, of course, they don't belong to me.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

All my friends are left-libertarians

Well, at least that's the trend so far with my "cloud of friends" on Facebook.

As for me, I'm not surprised to find myself right there in the middle of them, though I came out as more economically left than I used to. Then again, I can do the political compass thing a million times, giving answers that vary a bit with my mood, and I always end up in that left-libertarian quadrant: sometimes I'm a bit closer to the center economically; sometimes my social libertarianism score varies slightly; but I'm always very libertarian, socially, and always slightly left of centre, economically.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Family worries

I just want to announce that I will have little energy for this blog for the immediate future. Expect my posts to be brief, though hopefully they will still be interesting enough to keep people reading.

The fact is that my mother is currently in hospital, gravely ill. She was admitted nine days ago, but she has been very sick with a number of problems for the past year. I've just spent a few days interstate, staying at my sister's place, and I think that family worries are going to be my main priority for some time. I also have other responsibilities over the summer break, notably a thesis to finish off and some minor academic duties (just some marking, I think).

Fortunately, I'm not working in a full-time job but more living by my wits ... so I have quite a lot of flexibility, at least outside of the teaching semesters. But writing articles, long blog posts, and the like will have to take a fairly low priority for now.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New article in Colloquy

My article "Rendezvous with Utopia: Two Versions of the Future in the Rama Novels" (about Arthur C. Clarke's award-winning novel Rendezvous with Rama and its less illustrious sequels) has now been published in the on-line journal Colloquy.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Congratulations to Ronny Restrepo and Thomas Hendrey

These guys - both of them regular readers/commenters at this blog - have turned in fantastic performances this year in philosophy at Monash.

To both of you, congratulations on your results.

I'm not sure how many others of my students or former students ever read this. Stuart? Anyone else? I hope anyone else in that category has had a happy outcome now that results have been published.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Blog break!

I'll be back in a bit over a week. Continue the conversation without me.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

More of the same from Somerville - back to the Endarkenment

I'm 90 pages into Margaret Somerville's new book, The Ethical Imagination. So far, I don't think she has said anything of real substance: rhetorical questions here; flowery metaphors there; inflated rhetoric of other kinds somewhere else, or in the same places; inaccurate descriptions of positions in moral philosophy all through the text. Thankfully, this book is shortish. I guess I'll say more when I get further into it or reach the end.

Edit: Okay, I'm now 200 pages in. It's not getting any better. The argumentation is incredibly weak and the whole approach to ethical and legal philosophy incredibly silly. Also, it does not add much to The Ethical Canary, except for a thin discussion of transhumanism. Unfortunately, I won't have time to write properly about this book before going away for a week. Later!

By the way, I love this sculpture.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Wikipedia vandalism - a happy story

Someone at an anonymous IP address vandalised the Wikipedia article on "Russell Blackford" not long ago, deleting some text and claiming that the distinguished writer blah, blah in question is HIV-positive - which I can assure anyone who has an interest in the matter that I am not. :)

You'll be pleased to know that the vandalism was reverted out (not by me - I knew nothing about it) in one minute. So that's a happy story of Wikipedia dealing quickly and effectively with its vandals.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Australian Science Fiction article

I've just received my rather handsome hardback copy of A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900, edited by Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer, which includes my chapter: "Australian Science Fiction". I don't dare look at what I wrote, of course, being ever-fearful of glitches that show up only at the end of the editorial process. But it's a nice book to be in.

Today, I'll be going over my (much longer) article on American science fiction, which I finally completed yesterday. If I'm happy with what I wrote, I'll send it off.

Next, it'll be back to the thesis. I need to wrap it up over Christmas. Back in June, I produced a version that is far, far too long and ambitious. It ran into a lot of problems as a result, and what I now need to do is cut it back to something much shorter and more focused ... not raising problems that it can't solve and really must be left to another study. I think I know how to do that, so my work is there for me. I must actually get that project completed, with the thesis actually submitted, by no later than March. My supervisor and I are currently looking around at examiners (well, he is ... I've merely made some suggestions).

But before that, Jenny and I will be paying an early Christmas visit to our folks and friends up in Newcastle next week. I'll be announcing a blog break shortly, but not just yet.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Islam is not a race

Over the past few years, distinguished British author Martin Amis has been scathing about contemporary political Islam, and concerned about how we should respond to it politically. There is an argument that some of his musings take him too far into the "war with Islam" camp. Some of the statements I've seen from Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and (I now see) Dan Simmons also strike me as too pessimistic about the possibility of Islam finding the resources to take a more liberal direction.

But that said, Amis and company have every right to make the contributions that they do to public debate. If, from time to time, we think they are wrong - or not entirely correct - we should engage with their arguments on their merits, not try to shut them up.

It's tiresome that there's a need to defend Amis from misplaced charges of racism as Hitchens does ably in this newspaper comment, where he responds to an intemperate rant by Ronan Bennett. We really must find a (non-coercive) way to stop people trying to suppress legitimate criticism of ideas by accusing the critics of being racists. I suppose all we can do is hammer the essential points over and over again. And again.

Another good example of the problem is this annoying article by British comedian Chris Morris, who does everything but call Amis a racist (and much of the other commentary on Amis buzzing around the internet does not stop short of that explicit accusation). Morris wonders whether or not Amis' "negativity about Islam" is "technically racist" and seems to conclude that it doesn't matter, since in any event it is "an incoherent creed of hate".

When he says that we need to be able to make distinctions, Morris has a point. Yes, as I've argued before Islam is not monolithic. Let's give the liberal Muslims a chance, if we can. Give them some room to move.

But here's another point: it's about time that debate on these matters in the press and on the internet got beyond people wondering aloud (hmmm, "just wondering") about whether somebody like Martin Amis is being racist when he expresses views on contemporary political Islam. We definitely need to get beyond explicit charges of racism and attempts to stifle strong criticism of Islam, or of any other religious or secular belief system.

Islam is not a race. Islam is not a genetic variation of some kind. It is a belief system. The same applies to its various strands, historical stages and so on. As belief systems, Islam and its particular varieties are fair game for attack, just like any other beliefs that people happen to have. As with many other belief systems, we have reasonable grounds to be wary of it.

Islam is no more immune to scrutiny and attack than communism (or some particular variety thereof), monetarism, Keynesianism, Nazism, Roman Catholicism, Satanism, Randian libertarianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Sikhism, Buddhism, any of the strands of what we call "Hinduism", Shinto, wicca (perhaps of some specific kind), Sartrean existentialism, Scientology, the religious system of the Aztecs, or whatever beliefs were tied up in ancient Middle Eastern fire worship. They are all open to criticism on their merits.

Islam is more worrying than many belief systems precisely because it offers such a comprehensive account of how individuals should live their lives and how societies should be ordered. What we really need right now is not the ongoing attacks on critics of Islam (though reasoned debate with them is always good). We really need to hear more from liberal Muslims about how they are going to reassure the rest of us that they oppose Islam's undoubted theocratic and totalitarian tendencies. How, exactly, are they going to make the distinction between crime and sin, and reconcile Islam with the values of a liberal, secular society? Exactly what resources do they find in their tradition?

We need to hear a lot more about that from Muslim leaders (the same applies to the leaders of other religions, particularly Roman Catholicism with its own theocratic tendencies, but that's a matter for another day).

Meanwhile, racism is not only ugly, nasty, destructive, and cruel; it is also clearly irrational and indefensible. Looking down on somebody for where she fits into some kind of clinal variation of genes and superficial phenotypical traits, such as skin colour, is ignorant and stupid - though it took a long time for people to work this out, and there are plenty around who still don't get it. The very idea of "race" is unhelpful. What clinal variation does exist in the human genome is biologically unimportant.

By contrast, criticising particular belief systems and worrying about how they might motivate the relevant believers are perfectly rational activities. In fact, this sort of criticism and public expression of worry is absolutely necessary. Islam is not a race, Martin Amis is not a racist, and we need the voices of Amis, Hitchens, and others, even if we don't always agree with what they say.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Social networking sites

Does anyone think these are worthwhile?

Not long ago, somebody on one of the many list-serves that I'm on persuaded me that I should create a Facebook account for networking, blah, blah. More recently, I said to hell with it and also created a MySpace account. It's all free, after all. At the moment, though, having had a look around on these sites, I can't actually see a lot that I'd want to do with them.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Well, it's been an interesting election night in Australia

I'm glad of the result overall. It was way past time for a change. We have a new government and a new prime minister. Okay, moving on.

Observations, my fellow Australians? Is our country in better hands? And what did you think of the various performances we were treated to tonight (if you spent all night watching the unfolding drama on TV, as I did) - from Costello, Turnbull, Howard, Minchin, Brown, McKew, Gillard, Rudd ... ? How does this compare with earlier ALP victories? An interesting three years ahead, or are you bored with all the politics of late?

Civic duty done - Australian election

I did my civic duty a couple of hours ago and voted in the Australian federal election. I've voted for a change of government, though without much hope that there will be enormous change to the country even if (as predicted) this happens.

Actually, some continuity will not be bad, if we get an ALP government led by Kevin Rudd. The Hawke and Keating ALP governments of the 1980s and early 90s were noted for sound economic management and fiscal reforms, despite the debacle associated with an economic recession at the beginning of the 1990s. I'm hoping that we will see more years of solid management, if Labor is successful; I'm pragmatic and centrist when it comes to economics, and I hope and trust that Rudd's Cabinet team will turn out to be more in the mould of Bob Hawke's than Gough Whitlam's.

However, I'm anxiously wondering what we might see from (a hypothetical) Prime Minister Rudd on social and cultural issues. Rudd is clearly not as deeply conservative and socially negative as John Howard, but he still strikes me as a very conservative man. We may end up with a somewhat more positive and compassionate government - which would be a very good thing - but I won't be holding my breath waiting for dramatic reforms, even financially easy ones as with gay rights, refugee policy, and some symbolic actions that could be taken with Aboriginal issues.

We'll see. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

On another note, Rudd is slightly younger me. It looks as if, for the first time, I'll be living in a country where I'm older than the prime minister. Now that is a scary thought. Oh well, baby boomers rule.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

New edition of Tangled Bank

There's a new edition of the science carnival, Tangled Bank, over at Jim Lemire's blog, "from Archaea to Zeaxanthol".

Jim has linked a lot of interesting science-related writing from the blogosphere, so go and have a look. I do like Greg Laden's post on how mice evidently use pheromones to avoid incestuous breeding.

Though Greg doesn't go there, this raises the question of whether something similar happens in humans. The most popular theory of incest-avoidance with humans seems to be the Westermarck effect, according to which we imprint on the people with whom we grow up in close proximity - whether or not they are actually siblings - and don't feel sexual desire for them later in life. There seems to be a lot of evidence around that such an effect does happen, e.g. when kids are brought up in collectives. A pheromonal protection against inbreeding, whereby we recognise people genetically similar to ourselves, would be neat, but it doesn't seem like it can be the whole story.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fifteen thousand words on American science fiction

I've been commissioned to write a long - in this case 15,000 words - chapter on American science fiction, for a huge encyclopedic work on American literature more generally. This is quite a challenging task, and I'm still struggling with it ... which is unfortunate, since my deadline passed late last week.

Hopefully, I'll have it wrestled into shape in the next few days.

Part of the problem is that 15,000 words requires almost as much thought as a book - it requires that a lot of detail be given, with names to be named, works to be described, fairly involved choices of relative importance to be made. However, it doesn't allow description of anything in particular to be at the level of detail that's possible in an actual book. Another part of the problem lies in the difficulty of separating out American science fiction from other kinds, especially British (and, although "American" in this context mean "US", it's rather arbitrary factoring out the Canadian writers).

The biggest part of the challenge, though, is that the chapter is supposed to focus as much as possible on contemporary writing, as in just the last few years. That requires difficult judgments about what should be included, what should be discussed at length, etc. History has not yet made any of those judgments. Leave aside the fact that I've found some embarrassing gaps in my reading (which I will not reveal in public), to be plugged as best I can.

Anyway, you now know where I am at the moment - in my study, but trying desperately to complete this assignment.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The barbaric justice of Saudi Arabia

What can you say about this story?

Well, Udo Schuklenk has a bit to say about it, and doesn't mince words. I'm sure the folks who comment at RichardDawkins.net will have some worthwhile observations, too, though the first few comments are a bit off-topic or otherwise disheartening.

The simple facts are that a 19-year-old woman was gang-raped fourteen times in an atrocious attack by seven men. The men were initially sentenced to prison terms ranging from just under a year to five years. But the victim was also punished for violating Saudi Arabia's laws on segregation that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other; at the time of the attack she was in an unrelated man's car.

On appeal, the rapists' terms were doubled but the punishment for the woman was increased to 200 lashes and a six-month prison sentence.

This is an extreme version of traditional Abrahamic sexual morality, of course, but I don't see it as an aberration. There's a kind of horrible logic to it, once you start looking at relations between the sexes in a certain way (don't even get me started on traditional Abrahamic attitudes to homosexuality).

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Fundies Say the Darndest Things!"

I just came across the "Fundies Say the Darndest Things!" site. This will keep any unbeliever or any sensible religious person (I know I have readers in the latter category) rolling on the floor with laugher for hours ... well, if you're not simply overcome with horror.

You're warned: reading and rating all the crazy stuff on the site could become addictive. But have a look anyway.

Cloning monkeys

When I get a minute, I'll comment on this news about the first successful attempt to produce cloned monkey embryos for research purposes. It will very likely breathe some new life into debates about human cloning.

Meanwhile, having written a lot about cloning - including a whole novel about the difficulties involved in cloning a giant ape - I can't resist at least drawing attention to such an interesting development.

The fetal effects of so-called "binge-drinking"

The Journal of Epidemial Community Health has published an important article by Jane Henderson, Ulrik Kesmodel, and Ron Gray, entitled "Systematic review of the fetal effects of prenatal binge-drinking". This analyses the effects on babies of so-called "binge-drinking" by pregnant women, reviewing the large body of academic literature published between 1970 and 2005.

The study considered a wide range of adverse outcomes that might be attributed to "binge-drinking", including miscarriages, still births, intra-uterine growth restrictions, low birth weights, and birth defects. The conclusion of the article is, perhaps surprisingly given the moral panic about this issue, that there were no consistent significant effects on any of these, though there was a "possible" effect on neurodevelopment that would need to be confirmed by further research. Except for that possibility, the study found no convincing effects of any adverse outcomes from "binge-drinking" while pregnant.

Note: I am placing the expressions "binge" and "binge-drinking" in inverted commas throughout this post - except in the sentence at the very end where I use the word "binge" correctly. Why? Simply because these expressions are now used by medical researchers, bureaucrats, and the media in a way that is totally different from both their original meanings and their ongoing popular connotations. On occasion in the past, I've had the experience of complaining about this sneaky shift and have been told in response that, of course, concern about, say, "teenage binge-drinking" is related to serious alcohol abuse, not to levels of drinking that many of us consider moderate, reasonable, and civilised. But there's no of course about it.

In recent years, the prigs, prudes, and puritans who are determined to raise the ... ahem ... moral tone of our society have been redefining the word "binge" - and related words or expressions such as "binge-drinking" - while trying to retain the nasty, blaming associations of the old meaning.

The article by Henderson et. al. also makes mention of this tendency, though in a less blunt manner:

"The definition of a binge has changed radically over the years. In the past, it meant an extended period (usually several days) of intoxication; now it commonly refers to drinking six UK units or more on a single occasion - that is, only two or three large glasses of wine - and, in most studies of pregnant women, it has been defined as five or more drinks on a single occasion."

With that out of the way, what can we draw from the article?

An examination of the entire article does, in fact, show some associations between "binge-drinking" and various birth and post-birth problems, but the authors do not consider these to be of any established importance: the data from different studies are not consistent; any effects seem small and are often not statistically significant; the effects of "binges" as opposed to consistent "heavy drinking" are not easy to separate out, and so on.

Sensibly, Henderson et. al. do recommend discouraging "binge-drinking" during pregnancy since, irrespective of whatever else can be gleaned from the data, there's a possibility that the one-off presence of significant amounts of alcohol could harm neurodevelopment. Although there is little actual evidence of this in humans, animal studies support the possibility. I agree that that is enough to give somebody good reason not to drink significant amounts of alcohol - even amounts that would normally be considered moderate, reasonable, and civilised - while knowingly pregnant or while trying to get pregnant.

But the paper also observes that the risk seems minimal and that it is important not to introduce undue anxiety in women who have occasionally engaged in "binge- drinking", in the absence of a consistently high daily alcohol intake.

The bottom line is that women who know they are pregnant, or who are trying to get pregnant, would do well not to engage in significant social drinking, even of the moderate and reasonable amounts that get referred to, in these priggish days, as the lower levels of "binge-drinking". Women have every reason to continue leading normal lives that involve ordinary convivial use of alcoholic drinks; but if an individual woman is actually trying to become pregnant (and may already be) or knows that she is already pregnant, she has reason not to drink much on any one occasion.

In any event, panic, anxiety, and guilt are best avoided. For example, rushing off for an abortion because you had a small number of drinks on a one-off occasion, before you realised you were pregnant, would be a massive overreaction (even though I'd defend your right to overreact in that way).

Finally, next time you see a wowserish newspaper article - or hear a prude or prig whining on - about "binge-drinking", at least try to establish what definition of "binge" is being used before you accept it at face value. The enjoyment of two or three (or even five) large glasses of wine with a good meal is civilised dining; it is not going on a binge.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Monash wind tunnel (just kidding)

This will amuse only such of my visitors as might be familiar with the Clayton campus of Monash University. To the rest of you, don't bother reading on, as it won't make sense.

Monash's website has a "Did you know?" section, which is currently telling us about the Monash wind tunnel:

The Monash wind tunnel is a unique aerodynamic test facility, being the largest wind tunnel in Australia and capable of wind speeds in excess of 180km/h.

The wind tunnel has a wide range of usage by different industries, including wind engineering (structures and wind turbines), aerospace (Unmanned Air Vehicles), ground transportation (cars, commercial vehicles, trucks and trains) and racing cars (V8 Supercars).

I'm sure this is an important engineering facility, and that "Monash wind tunnel" conveys exactly what is described ... to those who work with it.

I have to admit that the expression has a completely different meaning for those of us who've simply spent large parts of our lives stuggling with the gale force, umbrella-destroying winter winds that blow between the Menzies building and the union building. I initially assumed that the little article was going to be a joke, or perhaps an explanation of the notorious campus micro-weather. In fact, I had to read the whole thing a couple of times to be certain that it wasn't actually a tongue-in-cheek description of the space between the Menzies building and the union building.

Sorry, Monash. Just kidding.

Science, and those pesky "other ways of knowing"

Now and then - much more often than I'd like - I come across a claim to the effect that science is merely "a way of describing the world, among other ways." This bold claim is usually made by an academic in literary or cultural studies, but sometimes by somebody from sociology of science or "science studies", sometimes by a person based elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences. The particular formulation that I've quoted above is due to literary academic Peter Brigg, but he is far from being the only offender, or the worst.

Science, we are so often told, is just one way to understand the world - and the same applies to rational thought in general. There are, so the thesis goes, "other ways of knowing", all equally legitimate, even when they are inconsistent with well-corroborated scientific findings or other products of reason. I suppose that this is attractive because it fits in with a kind of post-colonial angst about reason and the Enlightenment.

Too often, such assertions about the nature of science are supported by vague references to Thomas Kuhn's early book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). There is seldom any analysis of Kuhn's arguments in that book, or of those elaborated by Kuhn's many critics. There is usually little sense that the writer knows that the position asserted assumes a highly controversial epistemological theory. It's a theory that many philosophers of science reject, while real working scientists generally seem to have little patience with it.

A more plausible account of science is as follows.

Science is continuous and consistent with other means of rational investigation of ourselves and the larger reality in which we find ourselves. There is no sharp dividing line between science and philosophy, or between science and everyday reasoning. The philosophical investigation of ourselves, and our world, segues into science as and when it becomes possible to make cognitive progress in certain fields of inquiry through the use of what are known as "scientific" means. These include hypothetico-deductive reasoning, controlled experiments, mathematical modeling, and observations with instruments that extend the human senses.

The boundaries of science are blurred, but that is not a terrible problem because science is part - though an increasingly large part - of the general endeavour that we could call "rational inquiry". It does not stand in opposition to, or in competition with, other components of that wider endeavour. If reality is self-consistent and regular, as it appears to be so far, the methods of rational inquiry will produce convergent conclusions. The ideal is an eventual unification of knowledge.

On this understanding of science, its answers to our questions are provisional, but they are far more than interpretations, or optional descriptions, of reality. Well-supported scientific theories provide our best conjectures about many aspects of ourselves and the Universe. At this stage of human understanding, it would simply be irrational to reject such scientific fndings as that certain diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, that the Earth revolves around the Sun (not vice versa), that our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved from earlier life forms, that DNA encodes for proteins in a way that provides a mechanism for biological heredity - and many others. There is no rational alternative to accepting these theoretical claims that emanate from the practice of science.

I am troubled by the propensity of many academics in the humanities and social sciences (but usually not in the field of analytic philosophy) to pass on wild, highly-contestable claims about the nature of science to new generations of undergraduates, as if these claims were uncontroversial. That is not the case at all.

Well-corroborated scientific findings, such as the proposition that we live within a Solar System (our planet and others revolving in orbit around a star), are not merely descriptions, or interpretations, of the world that can co-exist with equally acceptable non-scientific alternatives. Such propositions make substantial assertions about an objectively-existing reality ... and they are almost certainly true. Propositions that are inconsistent with them are almost certainly false.

None of those pesky other ways of knowing can tell us, with the same authority as science, that our beloved Earth is (after all!) at the centre of the Universe, or that it's the centrepoint (after all!) of our local system of a sun, planets, moons, and other astronomical objects. It simply isn't either of those things. Nor was it created ex nihilo in the last six or ten thousand years. Rather, it has an origin in deep time, over four billion years ago.

AIDS is a viral infection, the moon is not a hollow spaceship, and Tyrannosaurus rex did not live by using its long, curved teeth to crack open coconuts.

There's nothing relative about this. There's no genuine competition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An interesting response to Dr Bari

This letter to the Daily Telegraph (UK) by Dr Taj Hargey seems like the kind of thing we want. His suggestion seems to be that there are resources within what he calls "pristine Islam" for a more liberal practice, more readily capable of accommodating itself to pluralism and modernity. I hope that's true.

Dr Hargey signs himself as "Chairman, Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, Oxford". I have little idea of the politics within British Islam, but I notice he considers Dr Bari's organisation to be a fundamentalist "mainly Indo-Pakistani group". Presumably, there's an interesting story of cultural rivalry behind this, and a google search quickly establishes that Hargey is himself a controversial figure whom some evidently see as a sell-out to Western values and so-called "Islamophobia" ... but this opens up a lot of issues, so I won't go there.

Meanwhile, I see from the other letter on the subject, published in the Telegraph, that someone with the very Anglo-sounding name "Kirsty Thomas" is hoping that her "Muslim friends" can help Britain "regain a sense of decency". Prudes and puritans do come from all sorts of backgrounds.

Freedom from sin? Not if Dr Bari has his way.

I like this long blog post by Aaron Powell, who argues for the superiority of a secular morality without the religious notion of sin.

Feel free to sin away, as long as you do no secular harm!

By contrast, I'm less enamoured with the views of Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, as expressed in this interview. This man is the public face of Islam in the UK, and he's still young enough to occupy that position for a long time, so let's hope for some genuinely liberal Muslim responses to his views.

Dr Bari thinks homosexuality and premarital sex are sinful, believes that Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses should have been pulped, encourages the UK government to ban drinking in public places, and doesn't want his daughter to wear a bikini (though at least he doess't want her in a burka). People should not show enough of their bodies to make others feel tempted, he says. He doesn't approve of stoning for adultery and suggests that this ancient Muslim requirement be read metaphorically - but he hedges somewhat, making the point that it won't be possible in practice to find four witnesses.

I don't know how old Dr Bari's daughter is ... but assuming she's old enough, I hope she's off drinking Champagne on a sunny beach somewhere, dressed in a topless string bikini, while discussing the finer points of Salman Rushdie's novels with her lesbian lover.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Laser beams from my eyes

PZ Myers has claimed to be able to shoot laser beams from his eyes, based on this dubious evidence. Well, perhaps. But he's an amateur compared with some, as demonstrated by this unedited silver-and-gold shot of me with Amanda Pitcairn (corroborated by the less dramatic (until you click on it) pic with Nicole Vincent).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I must use too many big words ...

I use a lot of big words, judging by my blog-readability outcome:

cash advance

I had to run my blog through "The Blog Readability Test". Thanks to Blake Stacey and Brian Swiftek oops I mean Switek (see comments below) for this. And apologies to both of them for my incompetent attempts to paste the above image into comments on their respective blogs.

Meanwhile, via Pharyngula I found this site with the new mascot for the fruit drink Orangina - you can see an incredible French ad up on YouTube if you click on the link. Don't say you weren't warned, though: it's not for the puritanical or the faint-hearted.

Genetics, ethics, and the state - revisited

For the past decade, the public sphere has buzzed with arguments about real or imagined genetic technologies, such as embryonic sex selection, reproductive cloning, and human genetic enhancement - much of the noise prompted by the announcement, back in 1997, of Dolly the cloned sheep. How far have we come in that time?

Perhaps not far enough, when we still have priests and priestesses of the Endarkenment wanting to argue on the basis of yuck factor responses. It can, moreover, be disheartening to find that many of the same old arguments are brought up whenever a new group focuses on the issues, though this recent discussion over at Pharyngula, prompted by an article by John Harris (based on his new book), is heartening in some ways.

First, there is clearly a high degree of openness to new technology in this blog community; and second, some of the concerns raised are rational ones that I share (and do, I think, create some regulatory questions). In particular, contributors are raising the important point that some parents might attempt to use genetic modification in ways that the parents would see as morally good, but which secular rationalists would see as bad - such as trying to make their children more docile or credulous, or trying to control their childrens' sexuality (either by tuning it down in general, if sexual desire is seen as essentially nasty in the miserable tradition of St. Augustine, or by making sure that their children are heterosexual).

It seems to me that these are exactly the sorts of concerns that we should most worry about. I would see such uses of genetic engineering, if they were possible, as morally unacceptable. However, there is then a question as to whether they should be politically unacceptable. It's not good enough to argue that something is immoral and should therefore be prohibited - the state does not get to enforce the "right" morality, but must look for some sort of harm. For good reasons, its public morality is narrow ... and this has to be accepted by people from many ethical viewpoints, including mine.

How, after all, would such genetic interventions differ from things that we currently deprecate but tolerate, such as parents trying to get their children to be obedient, accepting of what they are told on authority, and sexually demure (as well as straight)? If we object to these things to the extent of wanting to prevent them by law - as opposed to arguing fiercely against them - we will need better arguments than I think any of us have made so far. (It's certainly not good enough for us to rely on our own yuck! feelings). This is a worthwhile area for further thinking by secular philosophers and bioethicists.

The discussion at Pharyngula raises some of the familiar arguments about a possible GATTACA divide and the alleged social disutility of embryonic sex selection. I'll ignore the former, as it's an issue that I've often discussed in the past and will return to in the future. But the latter point took me back to my 1999 article, "Genetics, Ethics and the State", where I discussed many of the relevant issues. Some of my reservations about genetic technologies have receded since then, and in particular I want to repudiate the mild opposition that I expressed to embryonic sex selection.

First, I can state in all modesty that the article contains much material that I'm proud of - written in opposition to the widespread consensus at the time that there's something deeply wrong about the relevant technologies, as evidenced (supposedly) by widespread feelings of fear or disgust. Referring to Brian Appleyard's then recently-published views, I wrote the following:

I object to this. If your personal choices and behaviours or mine became fair targets for legal prohibition merely because contemplating them caused fear and disgust to rise in others' throats, that would be the end of liberal society. Many people feel similar emotions when they contemplate homosexuality, for example, or interracial marriage, or many other practices. Appleyard is no homophobe or racist, but it is all too easy for people with irrational, bigoted reactions to imagine that there is some underlying truth, something sound and noble but difficult to articulate, which can "legitimize" their raw emotional responses.

Good for me!

Appleyard goes on to cite a geneticist, William Cookson, as saying that the possibility of parents being able to select the sex of their child "horrifies me . . . although I cannot say why."

My comment?

Thus, to fear and disgust at postulated technologies is added "horror" in a trifecta of unreason. "Cookson and others," we are told, "find themselves with doubts about where their work is leading, doubts that seem irrational and defy analysis." Indeed, such "doubts" do seem irrational, at least when expressed as lamely as this.

Good for me again!

But I would no longer write the following passage in this form:

When we move from the issue of cloning to that of parental sex selection, a more plausible argument can be put for prohibition or some lesser form of discouragement. This argument has nothing to do with the horror expressed by William Cookson and Bryan Appleyard, for it is not immoral or horrifying to attempt to influence the sex of planned child. But it is rational to fear that an inconvenient social outcome would eventuate if too many people did it successfully.

Many would-be parents have preferences about the baby's sex, and they will sometimes try to influence this by methods such as special diets or using acid or alkaline douches. Though none of that is wicked behaviour, its effectiveness for the purpose must be doubtful. Imagine, however, that we had a truly effective technology for parents to choose the sex of their children without going through the trauma of abortion. This might create a serious imbalance of the sexes in our society. It is quite possible that a sufficiently high proportion of parents would choose to have boys that the cumulative effect would create large-scale social problems.

The alleged undesirability of an aggregate result from many personal choices that seem individually legitimate is not usually a good justification to constrain individual choices, commitments and projects. Moreover, this is not like the imposition of broadly-based taxes, which do little, at least directly, to interfere with anyone's life plans. Instead, we are speaking about precisely about such interference and whether it can be justified. Against that, in the particular case of parental sex selection, the aggregate outcome could be so difficult and unanimously undesired that there might be justification on social coordination grounds for the state to interfere.

I'm not objecting to the method of analysis used here. This still seems like the correct way to address such a political issue, so I don't repudiate the passage in toto. However, I'd no longer give even this degree of cautiously-worded sympathy to prohibiting or discouraging embryonic sex selection.

I'll leave aside the situation in such countries as China and India - except to say that, even there, any argument for banning embryonic sex selection will be far from straightforward.

What should the policy be in the secular, liberal societies of the West? I think it is clear that when public policy is developed on the basis of long-term, cumulative, indirect harm (rather than on the basis of banning something that is directly harmful, such as rape or murder) the legislature in the jurisdiction must be held to account for why the relevant law (with its restriction of individual liberty) is needed in that jurisdiction. I don't believe that any Western country could do that with embryonic sex selection. I've been persuaded of this beyond any real doubt by the work of Edgar Dahl, in particular. The research is tending to show that there's no real likelihood of embryonic sex selection leading to a massively inconvenient distortion of sex ratios.

What has been happening in some Western countries is that embryonic sex selection is being banned, not on the basis that it is able to meet a rational public policy test, but on the basis that it shows some lack of moral virtue if you even care about the sex of your kids (perhaps, I suppose ... but I'm sceptical, and in any event it's none of the state's business), or that it is intrinsically wrong, or that it will start us on a slippery slope, or simply because of good old-fashioned yuck factor reactions such as that of Cookson quoted above.

Needless to say, I think these are all very weak arguments.

While embryonic sex selection may not be the most important issue in the world, its recent prohibition by such countries as the UK and Australia is a dreadful precedent. It is a case of governments stopping a practice in the absence of any compelling case that the practice is harmful, and essentially for improper moralistic reasons. It's difficult to imagine a clearer breach of the Millian harm principle (and any plausible principles of indirect harm needed to supplement it).

I now urge anyone reading this to oppose such bans if they are mooted in the jurisdiction where you live. Shine a little light into the Endarkenment.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The new atheism rocks part three

Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for this congratulatory thread ... after "The New Atheism rocks" was linked by the Dawkins website.

As I said in the Pharyngula thread, I never set out to be an "uppity atheist", as Blake Stacey likes to put it. I was happy to be low-key about my lack of belief in deities. Live and let live, etc.

So I used to think, and would still like to think.

I'm just very disturbed at the aggressive way in which religion has been encroaching on public policy over the past decade or so. I first noticed this with the hysterical response when the cloning of Dolly was announced in early 1997, but it's happened with issue after issue, whether it be the Terry Schiavo debacle, gay rights, AIDS policy (particularly the use of condoms), the push to teach Intelligent Design in American schools (which is infecting other countries), the shift in government funding to religious organisations, stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, or whatever other issue you wish to name. Religious conservative views are always in the forefront, and all too often they are politically influential.

We are currently seeing a New Endarkenment.

Contrary to what might sometimes be the appearance, I'm actually quite friendly and conciliatory to genuinely moderate religious folks - though I almost always remember to make clear that this does not include all "mainstream" religionists. In particular, it does not include the current Vatican leadership or its international network of astoundingly reactionary cardinals and bishops. Even the loopier religionists can believe what they like, as far as I'm concerned, as long as they don't try to impose it on the rest of us politically. Let them by all means keep their great queen spiders and talking snakes, their flying horses and armies of monkeys, and all the other creatures in their whole colourful zoo, but let them not loose their theological critters to scratch and play and defecate in our public spaces.

Of course, it's not working out like that: on issue after issue we see illiberal, irrational, miserable policies being pushed by outspoken religious leaders ... and it's well and truly time to push back and challenge religion directly and boldly. As we philosophers like to put it, we have no real choice but to contest religion's epistemic content, its actual truth-claims. That's the message of the article, and I'll go on defending it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Carrier on Flew's "bogus book"

Further to the controversy about the new book "by" philosopher Antony Flew (with "co-author" Roy Varghese), this lengthy analysis by Richard Carrier can be left (pretty much) to speak for itself.

Carrier was in the thick of things when Flew first publicly announced that he was becoming a deist, and had some initial success in talking the ageing philosopher out of it. He now argues, among other things, that Flew could not possibly have written a book in this form, or even signed off on it with any genuine understanding of its content, given the previous history of the whole affair. In particular, Carrier argues, Flew would surely have responded to issues that arose in their detailed correspondence over scientific arguments for deism. There are other indicators that Flew has had little to do with the book - it is, Carrier says, written in nothing like his usual style, and it gives no real indication of Flew's actual, publicly-expressed views about Christianity, which he still rejects (Flew rejects belief in a providential deity or an afterlife).

I'll just say that the claim that Flew is a genuine co-author of this book is currently looking even more incredible. Decide for yourself.

I don't mind this sort of thing so much when an ageing fiction writer lends his famous name to work written substantially or entirely by a younger, more energetic, "co-author", though there is of course an ethical issue involved even there. We all know it happens, unfortunately.

But when what is at stake is whether a renowned philosopher genuinely understands and endorses the arguments attributed to him, on an issue of enormous public interest, in a work aimed straight for best-sellerdom ... well, the implications are enormous if this volume is, in some sense, a fake. Ironically, and perhaps sadly, the controversy surrounding There Is a God will probably boost its sales. I suppose I need to read it myself.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Margaret Somerville is at it again: Shadows of the Endarkenment from Montreal

Margaret Somerville, the Montreal-based high priestess of the ethical Endarkenment, is at it again. This new article in the Ottawa Citizen provides her latest irrational protestations about the imagined evils of biomedical research and innovation.

In this case, Somerville's problem is with the creation of human-animal hybrids, chimeras, or similar entities, even if only for research, and even if they never come to term. As always with Somerville's work, it is difficult to establish - through the miasma of rhetoric - exactly what the problem is supposed to be. This, of course, is typical of the neo-Luddite superstitions that form a blight on contemporary thinking about bioethics and much else.

Somerville defines a number of concepts: chimeras; transgenic organisms; hybrids; and "cybrids".

Chimeras are defined, for her purpose, as organisms that contain genetically distinct populations of cells derived, for example, from more than one embryo - whether an animal and a human embryo or two embryos of the same species. (Notwithstanding this definition from Somerville, the idea is usually that of a creature with cells from creatures of two different species.)

Transgenic organisms are defined as organisms whose genomes have received foreign DNA, e.g. if non-human DNA were inserted into a human embyro. Topical examples are the insertion of human DNA into pig embryos for xenotransplantation purposes (using animal organs in humans) and the insertion of human DNA into mice to study human disease.

Hybrids are created by fertilizing a human ovum with an animal sperm, or vice versa. E.g. a hamster ovum might be fertilised with human sperm to check on the sperm's viability and potency.

Cybrids are a sub-category of hybrids: embryos have the cytoplasm of one species and the nuclear DNA of another. They result from cloning when human nuclear DNA is inserted into an animal ovum. The hybrid embryo contains human nuclear DNA but non-human mitochondrial DNA.

Predictably, Somerville finds this all very yucky and wants us to get in touch with our inner feelings of aversion: "When we consider the amazing array of potential methods for combining human and animal DNA, we should heed our 'yuck' reaction." Later, she adds: "Most people have an ethical 'yuck' reaction to human-animal combinations, for instance, human-animal hybrids. Our moral intuitions tell us that using the human capacity to reproduce with an animal is wrong. We must make sure that intuition is not repressed."

So, what's wrong with this analysis? The first thing to notice is that Somerville illegitimately slips in the word "ethical" in her phrase "ethical yuck reaction". There is nothing that is necessarily ethical at all about yuck reactions. For example, many things give me a feeling of "yuckiness" or disgust, but say nothing whatsoever about ethical issues. Indeed, a rational approach to moral philosophy arguably consists, to quite a considerable extent, in achieving an intellectual distance from such reactions - and in distrusting them as a source of any moral wisdom.

Thus, I have a response of disgust to the idea of eating horse meat; however, I have no such response to the idea of eating cow meat. It is, of course, arguable by vegetarians that it's wrong for privileged Westerners like me to eat meat at all - perhaps because a vegetarian diet is more environmentally sustainable than an omnivore diet, or perhaps because animals that are killed for meat almost always suffer cruelty ... or perhaps for some other plausible reason. However, I find it very difficult to believe that there's anything morally wrong with eating horse meat but not cow meat. If it's morally okay to eat Clover the cow, then I think the same must apply to feasting on her equine buddy Boxer, and I have no rational basis to condemn the folks in Italy and France who are keen to offer me some cheval sauce on spaghetti. It's really just a matter of how I have been socialised.

Something similar applies to homosexuality. Perhaps I'd be better off with a more bisexual orientation - which doubles the number of people to cuddle - but the fact is, as I've said in the past, that I feel a certain degree of disgust at the idea of (say) tongue-kissing another bloke. This doubtless reflects something about my socialisation and/or my genetic makeup, and in no way implies that my friends of both sexes who are more open to homoerotic experience - and who act on that openness - do something morally wrong. The idea is ridiculous. How could my feelings of disgust at being involved with sexual contact with another human male tell me anything at all about the moral permissibility of such activity when engaged in consensually by those who enjoy it? Surely, it is more relevant to ask obvious questions, such as whether they are actually harming anybody.

The yuck factor is a notoriously doubtful guide to anything in morality. It is incredible that there are philosophers, bioethicists, and legal theorists who consider it intellectually tenable to rely on such a guide.

Somerville asks whether the ancient crime of bestiality is based on our fear that a mixed human-animal living being could result, and on our moral intuition against this. If so, she suggests, we should heed that intuition. But surely this is nonsense.

It is easy to imagine that sexual attraction to non-human animals was of no value for our ancestors in terms of reproductive fitness, and may even have had evolutionary disadvantages. Accordingly, it's no wonder if most of us find the idea disconcerting or even disgusting. This might be just as well if actually having sex with non-human animals tends to be painful or dangerous to the animals concerned and to create other dangers, such as those of inter-species disease transfer. It's not that we somehow "know" (how?) that creating mixed species is morally wrong and therefore abstain from inter-species sex. We can be sure that our ancestors, hundreds of housands of years ago, were (mostly) abstaining from sex with other species well before they could articulate such concepts. It's not that we have some deep, unarticulated wisdom that human-animal hybrids are morally problematic ... and we therefore abstain from inter-species sex: we are inclined to abstain from inter-species sex, and to find it rather disgusting, for reasons that long predate morality and are perhaps not fully transparent to us.

With no rational basis whatsoever, except an airy reference to what "most people think", Somerville concludes that it is inherently wrong to create a human-animal hybrid or cybrid. She then asks whether it could ever be morally okay to use gene-transfer techniques for transgenesis. She implies that it is always wrong to transfer non-human genes into human beings, though it is not clear why that should be so (if inserting some stretch of DNA from a non-human animal could make me more resistant to certain diseases, while having no detrimental effect, what could possibly be wrong with it?).

As for the transfer of human genes into non-human animals, she thinks at least three issues are relevant: the nature and function of the genetic material transferred; the amount of that material in comparison with the animal's genome; and the reason for the transfer. I agree that these could be relevant, but mainly because they will give us some information about the likely consequences in a particular case.

Somerville rightly thinks that, all other things being equal, it could be morally okay to insert human DNA into an animal for the purpose of recovering useful drugs from the animal's milk, or to make its organs more compatible with our bodies for the purposes of transplants. However, she rejects the idea of implanting large numbers of human embryonic stem cells into a mouse embryo - fearful of the nightmare of creating a creature of humanlike intelligence but restricted to a mouse's body.

In fact, I also have reservations about creating non-human animals of humanlike intelligence, unless we could be very sure that they could be provided with happy lives. But that consideration tells us nothing about experimenting on mouse embryos. Even if a hybrid human-mouse were born, so what? The scenario that Somerville is imagining is totally unrealistic. There is no prospect that anything faintly like a human-level intelligence would develop in any brain that could be sustained by a body the size of a mouse's. This is jumping at shadows. Or rather, it is implausible rationalisation of an irrational response.

We should stop relying on our feelings of disgust, when it comes to morality; we should stop jumping at shadows, and stop making baseless claims about certain things being "inherently wrong". What is required is a rigorous, dispassionate analysis of the benefits and harms that are reasonably likely if we go down certain experimental paths. If an animal's pain or suffering is involved, we have reason to ask whether the possible gains genuinely make certain experiments worthwhile. Otherwise, the advancement of science and medicine should not be impeded by vague "yuck factor" responses, or half-baked rationalisations of them, such as Somerville's.

The new atheism rocks part two

This post is just to let readers know that my article "The New Atheism rocks" (warts and all) is now available online.

And see here for (alas, so far very limited) discussion on Richard Dawkins' site. Feel free to comment here or over there.

Monday, November 05, 2007

"The Turning of an Atheist"

I can't let this article by Mark Oppenheimer, from the New York Times , pass without comment here, though I expect that just about every blog on the net must be responding to it today.

Oppenheimer has investigated the background to a new book by (supposedly) Antony Flew. Flew was one of the most influential philosophers of religion in the second half of the twentieth century, but at 84 he seems to be little more than a husk of the man he once was.

The position that Flew now adopts is evidently neither atheism nor a traditional religious one, but some sort of philosophical deism. That's fine. It's a respectable enough position to take.

The problem is that it's unclear that he has much understanding of the book's arguments, and he seems to have been in no position to a write new a book on the subject or even to sign off on something patched together by collaborators or ghostwriters. The new book There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind was evidently written by Flew's "co-author", the Christian apologist Roy Varghese, who did shuffle in some material by Flew from emails and an interview. Varghese was clearly responsible for the substance of the book, including its scientific arguments. Another layer of polish was apparently added by an evangelical pastor, Bob Hostetler, who is not credited as an author. In discussion with Oppenheimer, Flew is unable to recall people whom "he" discusses in the book, or to comment meaningfully on their work.

Putting it with distressing bluntness, Flew appears to be suffering not just nominal aphasia and the ordinary effects of old age, but some kind of dementia. His name is on a book that he did not write and scarcely seems to understand. It has been packaged not to advocate the rather anti-religious deism that he's evidently presented in public as recently as last year, but merely to discredit atheism in the services of a group of conservative Christian apologists who have persuaded him to tag along with their project and lend it his famous name.

Flew was once a, well, "notorious atheist" ... but I certainly wouldn't care if, at the height of his considerable powers, he had concluded that some sort of deism is actually the most likely world picture. Maybe he'd even have convinced me - I rather doubt it, but I'm not totally close-minded about it. It's all arguable. In any event, the world could probably do with some high-powered advocates for the philosophical deist position, if only to liven things up.

If he had published a real book before his decline, presenting a powerful and forthright case for deism, it would have been welcome. He doubtless would have made a worthy contribution to philosophical debate.

Even now, if he'd had enough clarity to produce his own book, perhaps with a lot of editorial help, and if it had carried a title and a slant representing what seems to be his real position, this might have been of some value. (Bending over backwards to be fair, it's even possible, if rather unlikely, that Varghese's arguments have some intellectual merit, but that's not the point; he could simply have published them in a book appearing honestly under his own sole authorship.)

I find it hard to imagine the mentality of those who have taken advantage of Antony Flew's situation in this way. If Oppenheimer's reportage is even half accurate, the exploitation of a forgetful old man and his distinguished career is despicable.

This leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America (2004), by Philip Roth was part of my fiction reading last week. Anyone else read it? This is an "alternate reality" (I hate that expression) science fiction novel by a major mainstream author - I always associate him with the notorious Portnoy's Complaint, especially the unforgettable liver scene.

Roth imagines an alternative reality in which the great aviator and notorious anti-Semite, Charles Lindbergh, stood successfully for the US Presidency in 1940. The Lindbergh administration immediately seeks peace and cooperation with the Axis powers, stands aloof from the warfare raging in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, and plots the gradual destruction of Jewish culture in America.

While there is some ambiguity as to how far Lindbergh is committed to a homegrown program of racial extermination, similar to the Nazis' horrific Final Solution, it becomes obvious that he intends to break up the East Coast centers of Jewish community and to destroy all vestiges of Jewish identity through the activities of the ominously-titled Office of American Absorption (or OAA). Dissenters are monitored and harassed by FBI agents, while the administration allows the Ku Klux Klan, local Nazi bodies, and other anti-Semitic organizations to prosper. Out of opportunism or a foolish belief in their ability to soften the administration's excesses, some socially-prominent Jews collaborate with Lindbergh. One senior rabbi is even appointed head of the OAA.


The story is narrated by a version of Roth himself: the "Philip Roth" of the narrative recounts his Jewish family's struggle for survival and dignity during the terrible months from June 1940 to October 1942, as the Lindbergh administration drags the country into deeper friendship with Nazi Germany and increasingly blatant persecution of the Jews. Looking back on this time of tribulation, "Roth" describes all the micro-level agonies within his own small family, while also telling the grand political narrative of resistance to the quasi-Nazi regime (a resistance with its own towering figures morphed from history: deposed president Franklin D. Roosevelt; New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia; and flamboyant columnist and newscaster Walter Winchell).

Unlike Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, The Plot Against America does not present us with the ongoing aftermath of a changed historical event (such as victory for the Axis powers in World War Two).

Instead, its author focuses on a set of events that deviates from actual history over a relatively short period, with suggestions that American history subsequently returned to something like its actual course. The effect is not so much to speculate about what would have happened if, say, Charles Lindbergh had been elected president, but more to remind us just how close to the surface the darkest political stirrings were, even in a country like America, even in recent history ... and to suggest the perpetual vulnerability of decency, civility, and tolerance, even in seemingly urbane and enlightened societies.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Leave Hingis alone - on tennis and cocaine

Tennis star Martina Hingis has announced her retirement from the game after her routine urine samples tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon earlier this year. While she denies having used the drug, she says that she cannot face the prospect of a long, uphill battle to clear her name: potentially years of litigation with appeals and counter-appeals. At 27, and troubled by injuries, she already has difficulty playing at the top level of the sport. This positive test is career-ending for her.

I have no view, one way or the other, as to whether Hingis is telling the truth, though it is not immediately apparent how the drug test could be wrong. In her favour, a hair sample was tested on her initiative and apparently showed no sign of cocaine use, but that is not decisive. I don't really want to get into the technicalities of which tests are reliable, what they demonstrate, etc., because it would merely distract from the more important and interesting issue - why do sports authorities test for such drugs as cocaine in any event? I'm going to stick my neck out here and insist that the practice is unjustifiable.

Some drugs have the following properties. First, they genuinely provide competitors with an advantage in sporting competitition. As a result, if one competitor uses such a drug it puts pressure on others to do likewise. Second, they are dangerous to competitors' health. When you combine these two properties, it means that one competitor using such a drug is pressuring other competitors to do something harmful to their health. In those circumstances, it is quite sensible for those involved in the sport to get together to decide that such-and-such a drug will be banned by the sport, and that using it will thereafter be a form of cheating like any other breach of the code's rules to take unfair advantage. A person caught cheating in that way is, indeed, disgraced to exactly the same extent as any other cheat.

It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone very foolish could use cocaine in an attempt to gain an advantage - a rush of energy perhaps - but it is not seriously conceivable that this would be an effective strategy for sporting success. Playing tennis, or any other sport, under the influence of cocaine in no way puts pressure on other players to do so. In fact, the idea that an athlete such as Martina Hingis played at Wimbledon under the influence of cocaine is just laughable. Presumably what is being alleged is that she used the drug for recreational purposes, some time before the tournament, and that the urine samples contained a residue from that recreational use. On those facts, Hingis would have done nothing to have obtained an on-court advantage, and cannot seriously be accused of cheating. She would be no different from anyone else who has used cocaine recreationally - whether a fashion model, a barrister, a filing clerk, or a carpenter. So why is it any of the business of other players, the officials, or the general public?

The fact is that cocaine does not meet the criteria required for being a drug that it makes sense for the sport of tennis to ban. It does not confer any genuine advantage in sporting performance, and its use by one player cannot possibly pressure the other players on the tour to use it (on pain of being disadvantaged in competition).

Cocaine is, of course, illegal. However, that is a different issue. Its illegality is based on considerations that have nothing to do with any performance advantage that it might be thought to give athletes like Martina Hingis. In fact, I am strongly opposed to laws that ban drugs such as cocaine, whose benefits and dangers are well known. It should be up to the individual whether or not the risks are worth the benefits; for the state to make that decision for us by enacting criminal laws is, for a start, offensively, indeed outrageously, paternalistic. More generally, it is yet another case of the state overstepping proper boundaries of good governance by arrogating to itself the authority to decide the nature of a good life.

If someone decides that she wants to lead a life based around heavy (or perhaps cautious, in a case such as that alleged against Hingis) use of party drugs, then fine. He or she is the proper person to make that decision - not the state or some self-righteous electoral majority that supports it. I may not approve, but I'm not going to invoke the coercive power of the state to overrule her decision about what she does with her own life and her own body.

However, even if the laws against cocaine use could be justified, the underlying purpose of drug testing in sport is not to assist the police in invading the bodies of potential criminal suspects (without a warrant or other lawful authorisation). It is merely to ensure that no one in the relevant sport is using drugs in a way that is genuinely cheating. There is no reason to include cocaine - or any other recreational drug with no genuine performance benefit - on a list of substances banned by any sport, and there is no reason to test for it.

I can imagine that somebody might reply with the claim that elite athletes such as Hingis are "role models", and that society as a whole has an interest in ensuring that such people live squeaky-clean lives so that young people who imitate them will be equally squeaky-clean. I find that sort of claim ridiculous.

I'll waive the obvious point, that it is a joke to think that sports stars should be role models for anyone. There is no reason at all to think that somebody who is gifted in hitting a tennis ball, say, should be exemplary in other way - any more than someone who is very good at laying bricks or spraypainting car bodies or typing up legal documents ... or than someone not so good at those things. Still, there is this fatuous belief in our society that sports stars (but not, say, rock stars or highly-paid journalists) should be squeaky-clean models for kids to emulate. So let that go.

But if Martina Hingis discreetly used cocaine for recreational purposes on one or more occasions, some time before Wimbledon, why does it matter? The public, including whatever little girls might be using her as a role model, wouldn't even have known if not for the drug test. I can almost accept that we want sports stars to be discreet about their various vices and foibles (though only almost ... because where does it end? Are we going to insist, for example, that if you are a sports star you must never have a complicated sex life, or that you must never behave in any way whatsoever that the majority would not wish their children to imitate?). But once we start policing even their discreetly-conducted activities that have nothing to do with cheating at their chosen sports, we are overreaching with no justification whatsoever.

If - contrary to her strong denial - Martina Hingis did discreetly use cocaine for recreational purposes, then good luck to her. It was her choice, the drug should not even be illegal and in any event there was no basis for a warrant to test her, she was not cheating against her opponents ... and really this practice of policing athletes for the use of drugs that are not seriously performance enhancing should stop. Sporting bodies should never have gone down that path.

Hingis isn't even my favourite player by a long chalk - though she's matured in recent years, she has sometimes seemed like an immature brat, as with her notorious "half a man" comment about Amelie Mauresmo in 1999 - but she is in no way disgraced by these latest events.

It's her body. She didn't break the rules to gain an unfair advantage over other competitors. At worst, she broke an unjust criminal law.

Leave her alone.

Friday, November 02, 2007

"The New Atheism rocks"

"The New Atheism rocks" is the title of an article I've just had published in The Australian Rationalist, published by The Rationalist Society of Australia. I'll provide the link when the article appears online.

I confess that I'm not completely happy with how this piece turned out - the editing was rather intrusive, and the first few paras have ended up in a form that I find disjointed, now that I see it in print (some of my paras were moved around). Still, I'd approved those changes thinking they would probably have been okay, and perhaps no one else will notice.

Worse, though, when I began to read I saw that somewhere in the process the Indian word "moksa" (as it appears in the manuscript as I submitted it, and also in the version that was sent to me for approval) had been changed to "motsa". This makes no sense at all, and causes me to look rather idiotic (like someone who is merely pretending to know a bit about Eastern philosophy, and getting it wrong). At that stage, I gave up my first try at reading it ... Fortunately, when I came back to it I noticed nothing else worse than one misplaced comma which was totally my own fault.

Still, the "moksa" --> "motsa" thing rankles. I'd like to know how this kind of glitch happens so often. Over the years, I've grown sick of editorial changes to my work that actually harm it, rather than correcting my occasional typos (such as misplaced commas) and suggesting improvements ... but this is what professional writers often have to put up with. On reflection, the best editor I've had in this respect may well have been Paddy McGuinness at Quadrant. He has a light, deft touch, and his tiny changes are for the better (even if his audience is a very conservative one). Paddy likes altering titles (actually, "The New Atheism rocks" was not my proposed title, either, but it's sort of growing on me); otherwise, anything by me that you read in Quadrant is almost exactly as I wrote it.

In any event, my New Atheism article advances what I consider a strong case that the publishing phenomenon known as, well, "the New Atheism" is a positive development, something to cheer for and celebrate. At a time when too many religious leaders are attempting to incorporate specifically religious morality into law, it is appropriate to ask what intellectual and moral authority they really have. Any such authority must be based on the religious traditions that all these pontiffs, preachers, and pulpiteers represent, and in which they've been trained, but the core truth-claims made by any and all religious traditions are - to say the least - highly doubtful. Religion is a very fragile platform for public policy: it isn't rock, you might say, and it doesn't rock. It's no proper foundation for government and law.

A sharp separation of Church and State might accomplish much, but this idea has its own problems and limitations, as discussed in the article. There are too many grey areas and too many parties that are willing to challenge various of the assumptions that are needed for the separation to work. It's worth defending - it's worth trying to build up the wall - but this is by no means a complete solution.

The time has well and truly arrived to challenge the social taboo against criticising religion, and, indeed, to subject religious claims to sceptical scrutiny from every relevant angle. To the extent that it is doing this - and not just within the academy, but in lively, entertaining books written for a popular audience - the New Atheism does ... yes, indeed ... rock.

A train wreck over at RichardDawkins.net

On a lighter note than usual, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a big fan of Richard Dawkins ... and I love his site, which provides a lot of relevant information and some interesting discussion involving various well-informed people. On the other hand, a few of the regulars there are as stubborn as mules or as crazy as loons. Sometimes both.

Anyway, now and then what starts out as a sensible thread turns into an utter train wreck involving hundreds of not-very-helpful comments. Even sensible commentators get attracted by the wreckage like proverbial moths spiralling into an equally-proverbial flame.

Here is a good example of what can go wrong.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tolerating the intolerant

Having argued that we should not view Islam as essentially intolerant, I now ask, "What if we did?" Or, more generally, what if we identify any particular sect as essentially illiberal and intolerant?

It's all very well for sects A, B, C, and D to draw the conclusion that sect E wants no part of extending liberal tolerance to the others, but that doesn't automatically entail that it's a good idea to start persecuting sect E with fire and the sword. On the contrary, sect E's day-to-day activities are likely to be relatively harmless, and we could not justify criminalising them. The speech from sect E's members will still have value - there are good Millian reasons to extend freedom of speech even to the intolerant (for one thing, it's good for us to have our views challenged). Besides, there will be grey areas; the truth of the matter is that many sects show signs of intolerance, and perhaps none can be thought of as entirely pure if we apply the standards I've been using very strictly. Some public figures, such as Cardinal Pell, live in the grey areas - recall that the Catholic hierarchy gives lip service to a separation of Church and State and claims that its miserable morality - no contraception, no divorce, no stem cell research, no gay rights - has a basis in reason.

It may be that, in practice, there is little more that we should do about sect E, other than complaining and becoming distrustful. However, the overall political circumstances do shift if we come to the conclusion that certain sects (sects that are not so marginal as to merit passing over as irrelevant) are subverting the general ethos of liberal tolerance, or if there is pervasive low-level subversion of that ethos from a variety of sects. I think that, in those circumstances, we'd merely engage in some consciousness raising, but probably take no official action. The consciousness raising might make a member of sect E unelectable as a member of parliament, but there would be no law forbidding her from standing for public office.

But maybe there's more that we could do without abandoning our own values. In Turkey, a political party representing sect E would probably be banned. I don't propose that we'd go so far in Australia or other Western countries, and it probably would not be constitutional in any event.

This conundrum may suggest why it is a good reason to have constitutional provisions to protect us from the sect E's of the world. We may have to extend them a lot of tolerance in practice, even if they haven't signed up to make it mutual, but a strong Bill of Rights could severely limit what they will ever actually achieve.

I'm not sure of the answer to this one, so I'll throw the question open.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What I wish Waleed Aly had said

In People Like Us, liberal Muslim intellectual Waleed Aly spends a whole chapter attacking the idea of a separation of Church and State, and defending Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with secularism. He argues that the separation of Church and State makes no sense from a Muslim perspective, because Islam (or at least Sunni Islam) has no established hierarchy that could be called its "church" and no official doctrine that it could impose through the powers of the state. He is scathing about secularists in way that I find disquieting.

He describes an occasion when he spoke on a panel and was subsequently asked by a number of audience members who pressed him on his attitude to the separation of Church and State. He found the whole idea confusing, thinking it sufficient that if a politician brings specifically religious moral attitudes that are out of touch with the mainstream, then he or she will be electorally punished. In other words, democracy is the cure for any untoward imposition of religious doctrine and morality through state power.

Of course, audience members found this unreassuring, and it's no wonder that a number of them kept pursuing the issue (evidently with mounting frustration at his seeming obtuseness). Later, Aly spoke to one of his interlocutors but evidently still gave her no real reassurance.

What is surprising is that Aly never mentions Locke or Mill in his discussion of all this, and never discusses the principles on which a liberal state - such as Australia - stands. He imagines that the phrase "separation of Church and State" is all about struggles between kings and popes - issues that are of no interest to anyone in the contemporary context. He genuinely seems to have no understanding of what is really at stake in this discussion.

The question is not about kings and popes (though it is certainly relevant to the temporal ambitions of the current pope). It is about how religionists of any stripe can reassure the rest of us that they will not use the coercive power of the state to impose their contentious (and, let's face it, usually miserable) moral doctrines, should they come to command an electoral majority. We are concerned about the tyranny of the majority, not about the attempts of a minority to bring others into line ... for which political hubris the remedy would, indeed, be an electoral one.

Of course, it does not matter whether or not what is being imposed comes from a literal "church". The fear is that politicians who are able, somehow, to command an electoral majority will bring their religions' doctrines to the table and attempt to impose their doctrines on an unwilling minority. This is something that we have good reason to fear. Islam, of course, is a minority religion in Australia, but it may well become more popular in the future and meanwhile there could easily be cases of Muslims entering into alliances over particular issues with other religionists. Aly's interlocutors obviously wanted to be reassured about all that, and Aly failed to say anything helpful.

Unfortunately, the impression has been created by many Muslim leaders that Islam seeks to control all aspects of individuals' lives and does not shrink from using secular power to achieve its aim. We are all well aware of extreme examples in recent history, such as Afghanistan under the benighted Taliban regime. Until that fear is laid to rest, it is quite rational for the rest of us to fear Islam's political ambitions - which is one reason why the word "Islamophobia" is so stupid. A phobia is an irrational fear, but secular Westerners actually have perfectly rational reasons to be at least wary of Islam, as Aly himself fully appreciates and acknowledges.

It's true, of course, that religionists - Muslims; Christians; Hindus; fire worshippers; devotees of Thor, Aphrodite, Baal, or Quetzalcoatl; or whatever - often feel that their religious identity is something "given" rather than chosen, and somehow essential to them. It is not possible for them simply to leave it behind like checked-in luggage when they enter the public sphere.

Fine. That's understandable, but it raises the bleak possibility that they will use the public sphere as a means by which to impose religious doctrines, or specifically religious morality. Some may even see nothing wrong with this - and those are the people whom we have every cause to fear. If the Quetzalcoatlists or the Thorians take this stance, then they stand outside of the Enlightenment compromise ... and just as they can give no guarantee of tolerating the rest of us if they come to wield the coercive power of the state, they have no claim to toleration by us. If that is their attitude, they are outside the Lockean circle, beyond the pale of liberal tolerance.

However, it's way, way, premature to conclude that Islam falls into such a category. As I've written in earlier posts, Locke thought that atheism and Roman Catholicism were beyond the pale, but this has turned out not to be true - atheists can be peaceful and honest citizens as much as anyone, and while the current Catholic leadership appears less and less interested in the Lockean concept as it is understood today, and more and more inclined to impose its views by force of law where it can, Catholics have also made good citizens. The expansion of the circle of liberal tolerance to include a wide range of religious and non-religious worldviews has been a great success story in Western history. There is every reason to think that almost any religious sect can come to value the political benefits of voluntarily joining the circle.

So what should Waleed Aly have said?

Well, he could have said something like this:

"I cannot guarantee that I'll come to the political table setting aside my identity as a Muslim. But I can guarantee you this much: from within my understanding of Islam, I accept the political values of individual liberty and religious tolerance. I do not make the Christian distinction between Church and State, but I realise that what you are really concerned about is whether I understand that I am living in a liberal society and whether I accept the distinction between sin and crime. Yes, I do understand and accept those things. From within my own view of the world, I can see the necessity for tolerance of all views that advocate reciprocal tolerance. I also accept the political need for something like John Stuart Mill's harm principle (we can discuss the details of the 'something like', but I am not using weasel words). I can say unequivocally that it would not be my intention to prohibit behaviour merely on the ground that it is theologically wrong in my understanding of Islam. I will look for clear secular harm before I invoke the might of the state in an attempt to restrict liberty. I will not invoke the superiority of a way of life that is favoured by Islam, and I will respect the right of others to pursue their own conceptions of the good, however foreign to Islam's values. Nothing in my understanding of Islam prevents me acting in accordance with those liberal political values, knowing that I live in a liberal country."

I have hopes that Aly could give that undertaking - or something very like it - sincerely. Elsewhere in his book, he shows that he does value religious tolerance and does understand the distinction between the theological notion of sin and the secular political notion of crime. Many liberal Muslims, perhaps most, could probably give such an undertaking - perhaps with more sincerity than some Christians.

That is what we need from religionists when they enter the public sphere. When Aly was grilled by the audience at his panel session, that is all he need have said.

It would be reassurance enough.