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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Hellfire Club has a rival ... beware the Dark Clan

As revealed at Pharyngula, the source of much evil in this world - drugs, prostitution, evolutionary biology, and all that - has now been exposed.

A useful report is provided by The New Humanist site, unveiling the workings of a nefarious organisation known as "the Dark Clan".

Apparently a couple of Turkish Muslim creationists gave a lecture at University College London, in which they exposed this evil to Western eyes. Oktar Babuna and Ali Sadun Engin claimed that evolutionary science is not only "the greatest deception in the history of science" but also the creature of "a dark clan behind all kinds of corruption and perversion, that controls drug trafficking, prostitution rings". Babuna and Engin have written an entire book on the subject, in case you want to know more. In fact, we might all need to read it in the interests of self-preservation and understanding our enemy.

It's useful to us to have this all out in the open at last. The Dark Clan is obviously a powerful rival to those of us here in the Hellfire Club - one that we weren't even aware of. We'd best make sure we are fully armed with our necromantic spells, cat-like familiars, howling demons, soul-eating sentient blades cast from a dark metal at the dawn of time, and all the rest of our sinister yet effective weaponry, whenever we venture out at night ... because right now I'm damn sure of one vital thing: there's no room for two such organisations claiming the same territory.

This is a turf war, ladies and gentlemen, and I'm not backing down.

Poverty, Ecology, and International Justice

The above title is that of the new subject that I'll be teaching at Monash in first semester, 2008. I have a light load this semester: no lectures to give, or anything else, just three tutorials (plus some marking for the second-year metaethics subject). Although, I must add that two of the three tutorial groups I've been assigned are very large, which will create its own challenges.

So, what is this new subject all about? It's actually part of the university's interdisciplinary program in International Studies, which is mainly run out of the history department. In this case, though, the philosophy department got the gig to design and run a subject, and it's an exercise in applied moral/political philosophy. We'll be spending the semester trying to work out how to solve the twin problems of global poverty and global ecoological damage (more specifically, global warming), without our actions getting in each other's way. Since it's a philosophy subject, the emphasis is not on the technical details of the situation or what can be done, though of course those are relevant, but on what we should do, where the "should" is a moral one of some kind. This will mean, for example, considering various theories of global justice.

Currently, I have only the vaguest views about what should be done. As with all the subjects that I teach, it's a chance to sharpen up my own thinking. There couldn't be two more pressing issues to think about.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ayala's Darwin's Gift

I've just sent Cosmos magazine a review of Francisco J. Ayala's new book, Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion. Ayala considers the theory of biological evolution to be a gift not only to our scientific understanding of the world, in explaining what appears to be the design of living organisms, but also to theology, since it explains how the clumsy mechanisms of adaptation have led to natural evils, such as the cruelty and misery that we frequently observe in the animal world and examples of just plain poor functional design. Ayala thinks that evolution lets God off the hook, since it entails that the world was not specifically designed by a being that intended such natural evils as deliberate features. God is allowed to be at arm's length from the outcomes of His creation.

Can anyone spot what's obviously wrong with this? Bear in mind that the Abrahamic God is supposedly omnipotent and ommiscient, as well as benevolent (and hence, one might assume along with Ayala, not the sort of being that would want such evils to come about).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Roko on transhumanism and atheism

Roko has a nice blog post about transhumanism and atheism on his Transhuman Goodness blog over here.

I made a comment that is long enough to merit repeating here (with additions and some corrections to typos). It may not make complete sense outside of the original context.

On the general relations between transhumanism and the naturalistic worldview, I do think there's some synergy, although I'm a philosophical naturalist before I'm any sort of transhumanist. I don't think that naturalism necessarily leads to a full-on commitment to transhumanism ... more to a realisation that many of the popular objections to it are bogus. In fact, it's possible to be committed to some forms of transhumanism from within at least some religious viewpoints.

It's long struck me, though, that if we see the current human form and its attendant capacities as massively contingent evolutionary outcomes, rather than as the products of a divine plan, we will naturally wonder how they might be improved (improved from the viewpoint of our existing values). A naturalistic viewpoint that emphasises our evolutionary history and the imperfect, jerry-rigged outcomes of evolution, will tend to be friendly to transhumanist aspirations, at least in principle.

On the other hand, I can't imagine transhumanism ever playing the role in my life that religion plays in many people's lives ... and perhaps there I am at least a bit different from some of my transhumanist friends. For me, that role is played by, if anything, relationships, literature, art, and philosophy.

I defend transhumanism up to a point, and I do my best to encourage rational discussion of it ... and I think all this is important! But I'm not focused so much on what transhuman technologies might do for me, personally. E.g. I'm on the wrong side of 50 now and not likely to belong the first immortal generation. It's more the ideas that interest me than something more concrete than I, personally, am going to get out of it.

On the gripping hand, I do thank goodness (but not a deity) that I live in a time when 50 really is pretty much the new 30 ... if I go to the dentist, the orthodontist, the endodontist, the periodontist, blah, blah, exercise a bit, and generally take advantage of everything that modern living has to offer, I'm in a situation, here in a rich and relatively enlightened country, where I can look, act, think, and feel nothing like the 50-y.o.'s of past generations. (Have a look at some 19th century photos and see how blokes in their 40s look, to our modern eyes, like men in their 60s or 70s.) I realise how lucky I am compared to people who lived in less fortunate times, or who live in less fortunate countries or less fortunate personal circumstances, but there's no way that I'm going to object to this kind of social development ... and may it accelerate!

As for naturalism versus the lure of religion ... now I come to think of it, I don't think I ever found the promise of heaven remotely plausible, even in the days when I was supposedly a Christian. I find the naturalistic worlview liberating, because it lets me focus on a rational understanding of the world I find myself in, and on working out what I personally value, not on whatever is taught in some ancient tradition - however much reinterpreted - or ascribed to some imaginary being.

Two increments better

Oh well, I woke up yesterday feeling a bit better ... and woke up today feeling a bit better still. Obviously I'm bouncing back quickly, but Jenny now has a cold. Pfff!

Anyway, which of the zillion critical tasks should I tackle first? The backlog of JET stuff? The difficult thesis chapter that I'm currently bogged down working on? One of the reviews that I owe Cosmos? Or should I do some work on the Huge Secret Project? Maybe I can go and bug PZ at Pharyngula or make a nuisance of myself at Dawkins' site.

I know! I'll use my Facebook account to play vampires and werewolves. Line of least resistance.

Hmmm, I really am such a nerd - Poseidon dammit.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An up and down week here

After arriving back in Australia on Friday night, full of energy, I immediately threw myself into all kinds of frenetic activity. Unfortunately, I may have overdone it - or maybe various stresses finally caught up with me - because, despite the summer weather in Melbourne, I kind of crashed with a wintery sort of chest-infection-plus-cold thing within a few days. I've spent yesterday and today, in particular, sniffling, sneezing and generally feeling miserable and full of self-pity.

I've spent a lot of today in bed, and I really must be a lot better for tomorrow when, again, I need to get out and do stuff. Wish me luck!

I promise thoughts of more significance soon.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Religion and nanotechnology

Now this story is really weird.

Apparently, most Americans reject the morality of nanotechnology on religious grounds. At least that's the inference drawn by Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication. In addressing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on 15 February, Professor Scheufele presented survey results seeming to show the effect of religion on public views of technology in the United States.

In a sample of 1,015 adult Americans, only 29.5 percent of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable!

According to the story, similar European surveys that posed identical questions about nanotechnology produced a very different result. In the United Kingdom, 54.1 percent found nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. In Germany, 62.7 percent had no moral qualms about nanotechnology, and in France 72.1 percent of survey respondents saw no problems with the technology.

Scheufele is quoted as saying: "There seem to be distinct differences between the United States and countries that are key players in nanotech in Europe, in terms of attitudes toward nanotechnology."

The reason that he gives is the role of religion:

"The United States is a country where religion plays an important role in peoples' lives. The importance of religion in these different countries that shows up in data set after data set parallels exactly the differences we're seeing in terms of moral views. European countries have a much more secular perspective."

According to Scheufele, Americans with strong religious convictions lump together nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research as means to enhance human qualities. These religious Americans see researchers "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine.

If this research and the author's analysis are accurate, the effect of irrational thinking on public perceptions of science in the United States is even greater than might have been feared. Admittedly, there may be misuses or hazards associated with nanotechnology as it develops, as with any powerful new technology, but that is not a good reason for holding that nanotechnology in itself is morally unacceptable.

More research surely needs to be conducted to confirm whether the basis for widespread moral rejection of nanotechnology in the US is primarily religious in origin, particularly whether it is based on fears of "playing God". However, the reported research is certainly suggestive of such thinking. If that's correct, we have another example of why popular US-style religion is incompatible with the development of a broad public policy based on freedom, reason, and the advancement of science. It's not necessarily a matter of explaining the situation more effectively: the people interviewed were not ignorant, so it's claimed, but morally opposed to something that they actually did understand.

It appears yet again that the ultimate solution is not more explaining, spinning, "framing", or what have you, even if these are necessary. We need a direct, long-term, unremitting campaign to weaken the cognitive and moral authority of religion. We need to attack the root of the problem by doing whatever we can to create a more rational and sceptical ethos in Western societies, the US above all.

Even the figures from the UK, Germany, and France are worrying. About 45 per cent in the UK did not find nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. Almost 40 per cent in Germany. Almost 30 per cent in France.

Again, nanotechnology will surely create risks, but that does not make it essentially immmoral. So why, in those relatively secular countries of Western Europe, do we still find very large numbers of people who consider it so? Is the quasi-religion of an inviolable nature having an influence here, or is there some other factor that hasn't yet been identified?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Back!

Jenny and I returned to Melbourne last night after a week and a half in New Zealand. Though we needed the holiday, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I'm afraid that I did have to sneak in an hour or two each day of working on the internet - keeping various projects on the boil, including the Journal of Evolution and Technology. The upside of this is that there's not quite so much to catch up on today as there would have been, and coming home hasn't been such a wrench. The downside is that it wasn't a total holiday, but alas I'm not sure I'm capable of that right now.

Never mind, I came back feeling refreshed, and have had a lot of energy today.

One reason I've been especially busy even while away in NZ is that I have a big new project going on, one that I can't really talk about yet for various reasons - and which may still come to nothing despite all the work trying to get it off the ground(I certainly hope not). More later ... if it ever comes to anything.

While away, Jenny and I certainly found the time to do a lot of fun stuff that's miles different from anything in our usual daily schedules: whether taking part in mock-America's Cup races in Auckland, seeing a huge pod of dolphins in the same city, or climbing on the glacial ice at Franz Josef. Then there were simpler things like visiting local wineries around Nelson (yes, visiting wineries is easy, and there are plenty of them near Melbourne, and in theory it's something we like to do frequently ... it just doesn't happen as often as we'd really like) and having a superb French meal in Christchurch on Valentine's Day.

Oh well, I guess life will now settle back to the nearest thing it ever is to "normal". Ha!

Edit: For those who read this and are also Facebook "friends" of mine, I've put up an album of selected NZ photos on my Facebook profile.

Or just go here.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Holiday and blog break

I'm taking a short, but much-needed, holiday in New Zealand - am currently writing from an internet cafe in Auckland.

Saw hundreds of dolphins outside the harbour this morning. This afternoon was spent on a 12-metre (America's Cup) yacht, racing another one ... as paying tourists manned the winches, or ducked from one side to the other, while the boat tacked. Cool!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

New article published at JET - "The Technology of Mind and a New Social Contract"

The Journal of Evolution and Technology has published a new article, this one by Bill Hibbard, entitled "The Technology of Mind and a New Social Contract" .

Hibbard's main concern is with the prospect of super-intelligent beings coming into existence in the future, and how they will interact with the rest of us ordinarily intelligent beings.

Hibbard argues that we currently live in accordance with a social contract that is based on assumptions that we rarely question: that all humans have roughly the same intelligence, that we have limited life spans, and that we share a set of motives as part of our human nature. New technologies will invalidate these assumptions and inevitably change our social contract in fundamental ways.

He suggests that we need to prepare for these new technologies so that they change the world in ways we want rather than lead us stumbling into a world that we don't. In particular he argues for a new social contract between the super-intelligent and the humanly intelligent, according to which super-intelligence will be a privilege that carries responsibility for the welfare of others.

But read the whole thing - and feel free to comment on his argument.