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

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Let's try to be strategic

I guess this is an impossible demand. It may well be that my allies on particular issues don't actually share my overall worldview, and can't be expected to agree with me on an overall strategy. Nonetheless, whatever any of us are attempting to achieve by way of advancing the cause of freedom and reason, let's at least try to go about it strategically.

That doesn't mean hiding some of what we believe, as with the framing strategy of advancing the credibility of science by hiding any anti-religious views we have when we're talking to the faithful. We shouldn't hide who we are or what we believe. But it does mean identifying what we actually stand for and then defending it in a principled, consistent way.

We are better off doing that than being blown about by every wind of expediency in particular situations that arise day by day. For example, I will defend the freedom of speech of my opponents because part of what I want to do is advance the cause of free speech. I can't do that while making exceptions for people whom I dislike. If I see someone I dislike, or disagree with fundamentally, being denied her freedom of speech, I will defend her. I'm not going to respond to the situation emotionally on the basis of my attitude to her or the views that she wants to express.

This is totally different from a strategy of hiding my own worldview. To hell with that.

My worldview is a naturalistic one. I'd be happier if more people shared it, or at the very least, tempered their supernaturalist beliefs with an element of doubt and self-criticism. For me, defending the life of freedom and reason includes promulgating scepticism about religion (though it goes far beyond that; for example, it includes working out the naturalistic underpinnings of morality).

As previously announced, with my pal Udo Schuklenk, I'm even editing a book designed to promulgate scepticism about religious doctrine, to the extent that I can without having the fame and clout of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens: working title, once again, Voices of Disbelief, to be published by Blackwell in 2009.

(The idea for this book was Udo's, incidentally. So while I think of it, I should thank him publicly for coming up with the idea, thinking of me as someone who could help, and getting such a fine publisher on board with us.)

The bottom line is that I yield to no one in my concern to fight againt unreason, rather than appeasing it. But, strategically, it's always going to be better to go about that fight in an intellectually principled way than to judge every day-to-day issue by whether taking a particular stance that day will put you on the side of the "good guys" or the "bad guys". I see the latter happening all too often in the current culture wars, in which knee-jerk atheists often forget their principles and won't give any credit at all to genuinely moderate religious folks, and won't concede that their real enemies - the fundamentalists and theocrats, and the Vatican-based cult of misery - can ever be in the right on any day-to-day issue at all. It doesn't work like that. Sometimes even our enemies will be denied freedom of speech, for example, and when that happens we should defend them.

My plea is that we all try to think like strategists, rather than responding to every issue that arises on the basis that the "bad" guys must be in the wrong every time on every issue. Or that it's fun to gloat when our opponents are in trouble (even though it sometimes is fun to gloat a little). Or that anyone who disagrees with us on anything must be one of the bad guys. It just doesn't work like that.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like The Atheist Tapes hosted by
Jonathan Miller. Colin McGinn, Denys
Turner (the token theist)Richard
Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, and the
renowned Daniel Dennett. Surprising
to me was that the Millers sounded
so deep and that Dawkins was more
like fools gold seeding the entrance to a mine. I live in Santa Cruz which is a New Age Mecca so that I've had issues with cultists who think of themselves as select insiders. I see no point in engaging theists who a priori hold
no priority for evidence and who
value faith as much as critical thinking. You won't feel impelled
to have debates with theists once
you realize that your efforts are
like trying to make a silk purse
out of a pig's ear.

Russell Blackford said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure whether you're agreeing or disagreeing with my post ... or are you sort of "just saying"? If the latter, that's fine.

I agree with you that it can be futile debating people who have radically different prior commitments. E.g., a committed enough theist will take any otherwise-successful argument against theism as a reductio ad absurdum of its premises (no matter how well-founded they might seem to you or me) rather than as a sound argument for atheism. A good case in point is the way that orthodox theists will adopt all sorts of contrivances to avoid the force of the Problem of Evil. The outcome is that the Problem of Evil is not a fully successful argument against orthodox theism - nothing is, if full success means that you can persuade all comers.

I think the most you can do is demonstrate to people who are less committed that they are likely to end up somewhere very uncomfortable if - no matter what - they hold on to their theistic beliefs. The committed ones often don't care about that and, yes, getting into debate with them is probably a waste of time.

Brian said...

to fight againt unreason
Thet's larnin fer ya.

Russell, you make fine points. I can understand why there is a lot of knee jerk atheism, but all it does is make the David Robertsons of this world appear reasonable. Which is counterproductive to say the least. Anyway, I'll shut up before an atheist posse strings me up. ;)

The Barefoot Bum said...

I agree with your sentiments. My only quibble that "strategy" doesn't seem quite the right word to label them. Strategy is how to win the game, but your comments seem to be about which game we want to play, a higher-level concern than mere strategy.

If our game is simply to discredit a particular movie, then diminishing fair use is a great strategy, especially if it has a good chance of working. If our game is to discredit some particular religions, then all sorts of strategies prevent themselves.

But the game I'm interested in playing concerns improving the quality of our thoughts and ideas by improving how we think, and how we learn and teach thinking. This sort of game is obviously diminished, not advanced, when we take a position that may hurt an instance of bad thinking (i.e. Expelled) but harms a crucial method of good thinking in general (i.e. further restricting fair use).

The Barefoot Bum said...

Correction: ... then all sorts of strategies present themselves.

Russell Blackford said...

The game I'm playing is the advancement of freedom and reason, though I have a specific (if difficult to define) conception of what that means. Part of it is about getting religion off our backs, but not all forms of religion are all that bad. My religious friends (hi, folks!) tend to have worldviews that don't bother me greatly because they are consistent with secularism. I certainly don't consider all people with some kind of religious or New Age worldview to be my enemies.

OTOH, I've come to the view, over the years, that those of us who reject religious belief should stand up and damn well say so, defend our views in public, and encourage others to do likewise. Whenever we hear from the fundies, or from the cult of misery, or even, sometimes, when we hear from the genuine moderates (when one of them is trying to tell the rest of us how to behave), I can't help thinking, "You have no authority, mate. Your claim to intellectual and moral authority comes from your position in a hierarchy dedicated to promoting a false worldview."

Of course, if they can put actual arguments for their views they are as entitled to do so as anyone else. But there's no reason for us to accord them any deference because of the source.

Besides, they usually don't put anything much like an argument; they just make pronouncements that they expect us to accord more respect than if they came from someone else. My view is that we should look at those pronouncements with suspicion, rather than giving them any special respect.

So, yes, part of the game is debunking the claims of religion. But that's not the ultimate game. The ultimate game is all about encouraging (and actually leading) a life that accords with good secular values, such as (this is not a complete list) reason, science, individual liberty, creativity, joy, kindness and compassion, and a proper degree of pride.

Debunking something like Expelled is important, but it's a small part of what's needed, not an end in itself.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Like I said, Russell, I agree with your sentiments. My criticism is not substantive, only literary.

Russell Blackford said...

No worries. Just thought I'd give some sort of explanation.

Anonymous said...

I'm attracted to your website because I liked Metamagical Themas by Hofstadter and SF. It seems crucial to study Evolution as an Atheist seeking a sensible alternative to Creationism.
There are also ideas floating about
that superficially look scientific
but are postmodern style romances.
"Thus, if Moravec and Tipler are correct, the hardware capacity to run a human-level mind-program is almost available even now and will ultimately be available not only in high-powered laboratories but also in the devices sold to ordinary households."
The hardware part is true. But there has been no progress made on
developing a human-level mind-
program which alludes to analogies
and finding patterns. Yudkowsky is
a cult leader albeit he has pitched
his spiel for a geek audience. He
has no more evidence for his claims
than other religions which all started as cults painting reality
with hopes of immortality. I think besides evolution, that an in depth
study of AI helps put 'who am I' into perspective. I think that this
pov may not be well received but
I've been encouraged by 'who reject religious belief should stand up and damn well say so, defend our views in public, and encourage others to do likewise....' The things is that those who are not
exercising critical thinking when
they form and steadfastly hold to
their beliefs often don't see that
their belief has no factual basis,
they are willing to handwave when
they like the future promise of some belief. Moore's law has been
holding true but there never has
been an intelligent in the sense of
a self-aware program. 55 years ago
there was no such program and now
there is still no such program.
It may be that human memory and cpu speed are necessary for a Turing Test passing program and that can
be reached, but hardware is by no
means sufficient and hardware is not an explantion of how some program metamorphosizes into a new
state of being, consciousness. So
SI is in the same boat of religious
cults, no evidence, no scientific causal explanation of how "Let there be Light" computes into some
algorithm. textonyx at gmail dot co

Russell Blackford said...

I'm a bit of a sceptic about the aims of the Singularity Institute, myself, though the proof of the pudding will be in the eating I suppose. But what does it have to do with the topic of this thread?

Anonymous said...

But what does it (SI) have to do with the topic of this thread?

From "Let's try to be strategic"

"My worldview is a naturalistic one. I'd be happier if more people shared it, or at the very least, tempered their supernaturalist beliefs with an element of doubt and self-criticism. For me, defending the life of freedom and reason includes promulgating scepticism about religion (though it goes far beyond that; for example, it includes working out the naturalistic underpinnings of morality).

RB: I'd be happier if more people shared it, or at the very least, tempered their supernaturalist beliefs with an element of doubt and self-criticism. ... The bottom line is that I yield to no one in my concern to fight againt unreason, rather than appeasing it.

SH: I think all religions appeal to
the supernatural, requiring a suspension of disbelief, placing critical thinking on hold, invoking
magical thinking for guidance. So
I don't count just beliefs in a
personal God, or an impersonal God,
as religions. Faith healing, TM,
Scientology, Catholicism etc. were
all birthed as cults and it is their retained cult aspects which
are morally pernicious. It isn't
encouraging parishioners to bring
in food to feed the homeless from
their food bank which has earned
Catholicism enmity, but torturing
scientific "heretics" and religious
wars; using the tenets of their religion to justify what would normally be defined as sins.
Transhumanism can be twisted by zealots into a religion because it promises ending the fear of death
with consciousness preserved for
eternity, the same promise other religions offer. Transhumanists might want to consider their belief
a philosophy, essentially the same
claim Eastern religions try to make. Singularists try to ride the
coattails of Transhumanism but they
are a radical fringe element closer
to a unicorn with a horn which purifies water than to augmentation
which has some basis in computer assisted mathematical proofs. Our
society suffers from religious addiction and romance addiction with the attendant symptoms of magical thinking replacing critical
thinking. I saw your post as a snapshot of your overall views and
interests, not at all narrowly confined. So I included ideas from another of your hats: In early 2008 I was appointed by IEET as editor-in-chief of its flagship on-line journal, The Journal of Evolution and Technology.
http://jetpress.org/v17/hibbard.htm
Abstract: "The progress of biology, neuroscience and computer science makes it clear that some time during the twenty- first century we will master the technologies of mind and life. We will build machines more intelligent than ourselves, and modify our own brains and bodies to increase our intelligence, live indefinitely and make other changes."
SH: This article is dated 2008, so
I am assuming you approved it. It
seems not a scientific paper with
visionary aspects, but yet another
thinly veiled religious promise of
'life forever lasting'. The paper
exceeds the scope of what can be
extrapolated from current (mostly
hospital tested) technology, like predicting from the invention of the lightbulb, the invention of a
computer. He quoted Kurzweil and
Moravec, a far cry from Minsky and
Aaron Sloman. The paper did present
a decent explanation of game theory
and its tit-for-tat cooperation
strategy as a basis for morality.
These are the issues I thought about when reading your blog. If
you don't think they are relevant,
then I'm no sure what you are going
to say that is new in "Voices of
Disbelief"? I don't know, maybe
the message needs to be repeated and I don't see it because I'm already in the choir. Like Huxley
and Gould I'm technically agnostic
and think no God is not provable,
so god remains a very remote idea.
Indefinite life is supernatural at
this point because every physical
thing or process within the universe is thought to be finite.
Only the infinite transcends time,
so that belief requires evidence.

Russell Blackford said...

No, I'm still lost. You're raising issues that are quite remote from anything I had in mind when I wrote my post. However, you raise issues that are interesting in their own right, so when I get a minute I'll post something that might be more suitable to use as a thread about transhumanism.

On that subject, however, you should not assume that anything you see in the Journal of Evolution and Technology represents my personal views (unless you see that I wrote it myself). My aim is to edit a journal that is full of lively and rigorous debate. Whether or not I will succeed in that task will have to be assessed over a period of years. But the one thing you should never do is quote anything written by another author on the assumption that I agree with it.

First, the material going through the pipeline at the moment is being worked on by me (quite hard), but was all selected before I took over. There's quite a backlog. But, second, more fundamentally, publishing only papers that I agree with would not be the way to edit a good and interesting journal. I will be encouraging a wide range of viewpoints, and will largely be deferring to expert referees on what gets published and what doesn't. There will almost certainly be articles that I passionately disagree with. If you are expecting me to act in some other way, you will in fact get a very odd impression of what my own views are - apart from anything else, many pieces in JET are likely to contradict each other.

There will still be a pro-technology bias, I suppose, and Leon Kass already has plenty of other forums where he can publish ... but beyond that there'll be no party line. Submissions can come from anyone with a rationally argued view about issues relating to "evolution and technology" in the sense that is meant.