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

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The hottest day I've ever experienced

I guess it's worth recording these things.

The temperature here today passed 44 degrees Celsius - that's well over 110 Fahrenheit for all of you guys who think in the Fahrenheit scale. This is the hottest day in Melbourne since a long time before I was born, let alone lived here in Melb (the record was actually back in 1939), and I'm sure I've never experienced a day this hot anywhere else. When I was a kid, back in Newcastle where I grew up, and we still thought in Fahrenheit in Australia, there were sometimes heatwaves with day after day over 100 degrees, but never a day that hit 110 degrees or more. In more recent times, I've experienced 43 degree Celsius days. But this has got to be my personal record. Some other cities in Australia hit even higher temperatures at different times in the last few days.

So I guess I have a good excuse for the lethargy that I'm feeling at the moment as I sit here with sweat dripping.

Crackpot of the day

I think I'll provide examples of amusing crackpots writing to the freedom of religion exercise. Here's a good one.

Do bear in mind that such naive submissions, even if not taken seriously, accumulate to give some impression of current community anxieties. So I encourage the sensible readers of this blog (yes, I mean the sensible ones!) to have their say. It shouldn't be too difficult now that you have until the end of February.

****

Edit: I've now read almost all of the submissions that have been published so far, and I must observe that the standard really isn't high. But a few are worth reading, like this one.

Teaching for first semester - "The ethics of global conflict"

I've just accepted some part-time teaching for first semester this year, starting in a month or so. I'll be taking three tutes in a subject called "The ethics of global conflict". It's a very timely issue to be examining in an undergraduate course, so I'm really looking forward to sinking my teeth into this one.

The course description says: "When, if ever, is warfare justified? What about humanitarian intervention? What about violent revolution and terrorism? Why should civilians be protected in conflict? This unit will introduce students to theoretical approaches to the ethics of conflict that will allow them to answer these difficult questions. It will also serve to introduce students to basic ideas in moral and political philosophy. No background in philosophy is required: merely an interest in rational argument applied to global conflict."

In second semester, I'm planning not to take on any teaching, as I want to spend a lot of time overseas. Where life will lead me after that is entirely unknown, so this may be my last stint of teaching for awhile.

Submissions to the review re freedom of religion and belief

The submissions going in to this review are now gradually appearing on the site. Without singling any of them out, I suggest you go and browse them. You'll be glad you did because you'll get some laughs - there are some real crackpots.

The deadline for submissions has been extended from 30 January to 28 February, so, fellow Aussies, please do take the time to make a submission now that it's opened up a bit. At the very least, support the idea of freedom of speech, because one outcome of this review could easily be new laws that chill legitimate criticism of religion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Russell in the wars

I've been having a problem with my right hand over the last three months, and it hasn't responded much to physiotherapy. After some ultrasound scans the other day, it now turns out to be an early case of Dupuytren's contracture - yet another of those delights that you can develop in middle age (hollow laugh). It's nowhere near as bad as the case illustrated in the Wikipedia article I've linked to, but it'll get worse and I'll eventually need an operation to get it fixed. Just what I needed. Not. But at least it's nice to know it's something diagnosable and sort of fixable.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bombs away!

Well, apropos of my previous post, I spent the day tinkering with that submission to the Human Rights Consultation ... and have now sent it off. Bombs away! We'll see what it accomplishes, if anything, but it was worth the effort to get so much research done. It won't go to waste.

Meanwhile, for a bit of daily religious nuttiness - go here. In a sense, I can understand this. There's actually a kind of logic to Indonesian Muslim leaders telling their faithful not to practice Hindu chanting. Hinduism is a rival brand.

I merely observe that we sometimes think that religion is all nice and forget that the religions of the world are involved against each other - as well as against reason-guided people, to borrow a phrase from Udo Schuklenk - in a struggle of ideas. Just as long it's only ideas, not swords, guns, and explosives, I'm happy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Submission accomplished

Well, almost. I've completed my submission to the National Human Rights Consultation - all 55,000 words of it. That's the equivalent of a small book written over the past five weeks or whatever it's been (in which time I also wrote a 24,000 word submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission freedom of religion project; to be honest, though, there's considerable overlap between the two documents).

This year will see the publication of Voices of Disbelief, and I'll be doing whatever I can to publicise it (e.g., giving talks everywhere I can, in Australia and overseas, in the second half of the year). I'll also be looking for a publisher for my thesis on human enhancement - which may lead to a lot of rewriting if I find a publisher who'll have faith in me.

Over the next year or two, I also have the ambition of writing a book about freedom of religion, relating it to other fundamental political freedoms, such as freedom of speech, and to liberal principles such as the harm principle. Writing these two lengthy submissions gave me the impetus to do a lot of research on the issues (and to recycle whatever words I could from older publications, in an effort to get it all together quickly). I also think it was important for someone to address the issues at length, and with as much rigour as possible, from the kind of Millian liberal viewpoint that I take, but which is seldom defended explicitly by anyone else in public debate in Australia.

There are many topical issues that potentially fall under the heading of freedom of religion. Should we have religious vilification laws? If so, what should their content be? What rights (and what protections) should apply if private individuals want to use religious law, such as Sharia law, to settle their commercial disputes? Or their marital disputes? Should these practices be regulated or even banned? What do we think of claims by Catholic doctors and pharmacists to exemption from laws of general application relating to, say, carrying out abortions or selling contraceptives?

I know of only two really comprehensive, recent books on the subject - one of which is by two evangelical Christians (Ahdar & Leigh) and the other by a liberal Jew (Martha Nussbaum). As I said, these are good books, full of useful scholarship. The Ahdar and Leigh book contains excellent technical analysis that even someone hostile to their religious viewpoint should look up if they want to deepen their understanding of the legal aspects. But my selection of issues would be a bit different from either of the books I've mentioned ... there's a lot of room for scholarly work by someone who looks at the issues with a more cynical eye.

If any publishers see this post before I'm in a position to put some kind of proposal together, you know where to come.

Meanwhile, my submission to the National Human Rights Consultation will be accomplished when I actually send it off. That might be tomorrow. At the moment I'm just checking through it all, looking out for typos and infelicities. Then it'll be bombs away!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Anyone for tennis?

I love this time of the year in Melbourne. In the hot summer sunshine, the city becomes a giant carnival as the Australian Open tennis championships capture imaginations, spare time, and TV ratings. For two weeks, every conversation is full of the names of tennis stars, and no one even gets too upset when the local hopefuls get knocked out by the superstars of the men's and women's tours. In fact, everyone seems to be full of joy and goodwill.

Jenny and I managed to get along to a couple of days at the Open this week, in between all the work she is doing and my stint as a guest blogger for George Dvorsky (which was great, by the way ... at least from my point of view). We just bought ground passes, rather than tickets for either of the two big arenas, but that was enough to let us watch some of the most exciting players in the world, including Marat Safin in his second-round match (before he unfortunately encountered Roger Federer in the third round).

It's one thing that I'll miss big-time if (or really, when) we leave Melbourne.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Deriving "ought" from "is"

I often see it claimed that you can't derive an "ought" from an "is", and I have some sympathy for that view, which is often referred to as "Hume's Law". But I'm reminded by a discussion on Facebook, where I just chipped in, that Hume's point was more subtle.

His complaint seems to be that many philosophers go along piling up "is" statements; then you notice that somewhere along the way they've slipped into "ought" language. But how is that possible? As we'd put it in modern lingo, it seems that no number of statements using the copula "is" can ever (just as a matter of propositional logic) entail a statement with the copula "ought". So it appears that, if these philosophers have arguments that are valid (just as a matter of propositional logic), then they must be relying somewhere on one or more unstated premises that contain "ought". But, I take it Hume is suggesting, such premises are likely to be controversial. Accordingly, we shouldn't be persuaded by the arguments of these other philosophers.

But I think it can be taken a bit further when the famous passage in Hume's Treatise of Human Nature is read in the context of the entire meta-ethical discussion that precedes it. It appears that Hume believes you can derive an "ought" from an "is" in some cases. You can't do it as a matter of propositional logic, but if you understand the meaning of "ought" you can do it as a matter of semantics.

Compare the following:

Premise: Foo is a bachelor.
Conclusion: Foo is male and is not married.

Given the meaning of the word "bachelor", this deduction is perfectly valid. It's a matter of semantics - of meanings - not a matter of using the rules of propositional logic, such as modus ponens, modus tollens, etc.

Hume seems to have a similar idea about how we ground "ought" statements. For Hume, the meaning of "ought" is such that the following (or something like it) is a valid argument:

Premise 1.: Professor Snark has a desire for chocolate.
Premise 2.: Professor Snark believes (or should it be "correctly believes"?) that there is chocolate in the cupboard.
Conclusion: Professor Snark has a reason to go to the cupboard to find the chocolate.
Further conclusion: All other things being equal, Professor Snark ought to go to the cupboard to find the chocolate.

I.e., for Hume to say that somebody "ought" to do something is just to say that they have a reason to do it, or perhaps a reason that actually prevails over any contrary reasons that they might also have.

And we can then look at various kinds of "oughts". Perhaps, for Hume, a moral ought is a reason that is based not just on any old desire but a desire for the welfare or the non-suffering of others, a kind of sympathy for others' pain. Thus, Hume would probably accept something like this as a valid argument.

Premise 1.: Jill Bloggs sympathises with the suffering of Joe Sixpack.
Premise 2.: If Jill Bloggs stops the torturer stretching Joe Sixpack on the rack, Joe Sixpack's suffering will be relieved.
Conclusion: Jill Bloggs has a (moral) reason to stop the torturer stretching Joe Sixpack on the rack.
Further conclusion: Jill Bloggs (morally) ought to stop the torturer stretching Joe Sixpack on the rack.

Obviously, things get a bit more complicated than this. What if Jill doesn't feel any sympathy Joe? We might still want to say that she ought to do what she can to prevent his torture. I think that Hume, at least in his later work, realised that it gets a bit messy, and that the above analysis might be too simple. But he'd still insist that somewhere along the line the various kinds of "oughts" that we recognise will always involve something like a desire and that moral "oughts" will always involve something like sympathy (or desire for another being's non-suffering).

This is all putting the point in modern language, and of course I don't know exactly how Hume would phrase things if he had absorbed modern ways of discussing such issues, but I'm confident that he'd consider the above to be at least a reasonable first approximation of his position. His real point is not to say that "ought" claims are totally ungrounded, but to say that we need to understand the character of "ought" claims and to see how they can't be grounded in just any old "is" ... but must be grounded in certain contingent features of human psychology such as desire and sympathy. He'd insist that morality could never motivate us unless it were grounded in desires (in a broad sense) as well as reason.

Although the theory says that oughts can be grounded, and are not just mysterious, it's importantly a subjectivist theory. Hume doesn't think "ought" claims are altogether ungrounded, but he thinks that they are grounded in the desires and so on that people actually have, so some reference will need to be made to those people and their psychological characteristics. There are no objective "ought" statements in the sense of "ought" statements that are true, totally independently of the psychological characteristics that various human subjects actually have. On the other hand, he thought we were sufficiently similar psychologically to be able to reach agreement on what people (morally) ought to do in various situations. He'd have loved the modern idea that there is an evolved human psychology that underpins our responsiveness to other human beings and our sympathy towards any creature that we can imagine suffering pain.

I happen to think that the views that I've attributed to Hume are more or less correct, but that's not such much my point. My point is more to emphasise that Hume was saying something much richer - more subtle and complex - than just the fact that you can't, as a matter of propositional logic, deduce an "ought" statement from an "is" statement.

But, of course, he realised that too.

On the baggage of transhumanism

Over here for this one!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Look at these anti-abortion morons

Over at the Unreasonable Faith blog, Daniel Florien posts a YouTube video in which anti-abortionists are asked a very simple (and fair) question: If they want abortion to be a crime, what penalty do they propose? One after another, they flounder, unable to give an answer that is even coherent in most cases. One young woman has a few more-or-less coherent remarks that lead her down an uncomfortable path of claiming that maybe it should be life imprisonment, depending on whether the woman understood what she was doing. The rest of them make no sense at all. In all cases, they are embarrassed by the question and unable to discuss it with any confidence.

As Florien comments, they are not able to take their beliefs to their logical conclusion because they know it would be absurd and unfair.

By and large, people who want abortion to be illegal are simply idiots who have a view that is unworthy of your respect (though they have every right to express it of course). The video provides nice evidence of this, just in case you needed it.

How to avoid a spiral of nonsense; or, the transhumanists strike back

Sorry, guys, you have to head over to Sentient Developments to read this one.

Freedom of religion and belief - submission sent

Last weekend, I actually did finalise and send off my submission to the current project on freedom of religion and belief (being conducted under the auspices of the Australian Human Rights Commission). I can't think of many more important issues for our Western societies than what kind of freedom is granted to belief of various kinds. The more I've been looking at this issue, the more I conclude that there have been tendencies to make it include both too much and not enough. The tendency to make it include not enough comes from the pressure for only "nice" beliefs to be given freedom. I say that, absent some compelling justification, we should be free to believe whatever we want, not just whatever nice ideas we want. This dovetails with freedom of expression - we should be free to express our beliefs, not just nice beliefs. For example, it used to be popular in fundamentalist Protestant circles to believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the "Whore of Babylon", described in the Book of Revelation. I'm willing to bet that there are still plenty of fundies who believe that. It's a particularly stupid doctrine, and certainly not a nice touchy-feely one. But they are free to believe it, and should also be free to express it.

At the same time, there's a tendency to make the doctrine include too much. You can believe whatever you want, express it, conduct your rituals, and so on, and there should be no limit to what beliefs, doctrines, organisations, rituals and so on are protected. Except it's not a get-out-of-jail free card if you break secular laws that have general application. If the objects used in your rituals attract sales tax or the GST, you must pay it when you purchase your paraphernalia - just like everyone else. If your rituals involve human sacrifice, you'd better modify them, because religion doesn't exempt you from the ordinary law applying to murder. If you practice as a medical doctor, then you are in a position of power vis-a-vis your patients, which requires that codes of medical ethics be put in place to protect patients from doctors who, for example, want to impose their own morality on their patients' lives. You must follow the code of ethics, even if some aspect of it conflicts with your religion.

I'm not against some reasonable flexibility in the laws to accommodate people who might be seriously disadvantaged for any reason, religious or otherwise. Moreover, part of the problem is that there are so many laws around that cannot be justified at all - they look particularly harsh when they cause problems for people with religious beliefs. But the solution isn't to extend the political principle of freedom of religion; it's that the state should stop enacting and enforcing laws that don't have a clear, legitimate, secular justification in the first place. In the criminal sphere, legislatures should stop enacting prohibitions that can't be justified against the harm principle (and some cautious, principled extensions of it). All of these principles - freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the harm principle - are consistent with each other, and indeed they dovetail nicely. But that's on the assumption that we give them all full effect while not making any of them do work outside what they actually cover.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's inauguration - and what was that about science and non-believers?

So far, I've only heard a radio extract of Barack Obama's inauguration speech - though a fairly long one played on the ABC. He really is an awesome orator, isn't he, but what's with the cheesy music in the background?

Never mind, the substance is what counts, and much of it was inspiring. I liked the contemptuous references to putting away childish things - quoting scripture back at the outgoing Bush administration - and to following false prophecies promises ("prophecies" would have been better).

So far, I have a good feeling about this new president. Despite all his stupid decisions, Bush was obviously not an idiot (yes, I'm serious: it's all too tempting to characterise these people simply as idiots), and he had a certain rustic charm before things got tough and he had to make some decisions. But then we were treated to the horrible spectacle of eight years of America acting like a bull in a China shop. Worse, this was actually popular with the US public for a long time, before it finally sunk through to Joe Sixpack and his dawg that their country had lost its way in a complex and fragile world.

Well, the new president just shines with intelligence, doesn't he? It's hard to imagine him ever making a totally crazy political choice like the decision to invade Iraq. Not to mention the decision to let things go to hell in Afghanistan, where the original war may or may not have been justified, but at least had something to be said in its favour ... if only there'd been follow-through to build Afghanistan as a successful democratic nation and not let the goddamn Taliban back into the frame.

Well, a blundering regime has gone. Blundering, and sometimes evil - anyone want to recall its resort to terrifying, excruciating, and mind-destroying forms of torture to try to extract information from opponents? Here's to the new regime, and may it meet its daunting challenges. Here's to the impressive Mr Obama and his feisty secretary of state, Hillary Clinton - whatever anyone has against her, she's another very smart person, and it doesn't hurt that she's as tough as they come. Good luck to them in grappling with the problems of America and the world. They'll surely need it, but I can't imagine a team more likely to face up to the task and leave the world better than they found it, when they hand over the reins of power in four, or let's hope eight, years time. If I were a praying man, my prayers would go with them, but they can have my hopes, and a certain confidence that they're at least the right people for the world's biggest and hardest jobs.

Speaking of which, I really could have done without the continual invocations of God at the inauguration ... but I guesss that's how they do things over there on the other side of the pond. It's not going to change in my lifetime, even if Aubrey de Grey helps me extend it a little, so I reckon I just have to grin and bear it.

I'm told - and I now see references here and there on the internet - that Obama said something positive about science and something conciliatory or inclusive about non-believers. That, I think, is about the best that we can hope for from an incoming US president.

If anyone can point me in a direction where I can see more precisely what he did say on those topics, I'll be very grateful.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Freedom of religion at Sentient Developments

I'm currently writing a series of solid posts trying to nail down the idea of freedom of religion. Go over to Sentient Developments and have a look!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Busty virgins upset Chilean clerics

It's been reported that Chilean clerics are upset by a fashion show in which a designer has dressed his models in garb suggesting traditional presentations of the Virgin Mary.

I take especial delight in the following announcement from the country's Episcopal Conference, which has just the correctly-weighted mixture of religiose pomposity and post-this/post-that gobbledegook:

"We look on with special pain and deplore those acts which seek to tarnish manifestations of sincere love toward the Virgin Mary, which end up striking at the dignity of womankind by presenting her as an object of consumption."

Surely that sentence should be eligible for some sort of award. If it doesn't already exist, perhaps it ought to be established. I suggest it be called "The Chilean Episcopal Conference Prize for Moralistic Obscurantism". But maybe somebody out there can do better. The caps I've used don't make a word, or anything, so use your imaginations to improve on it.

Not content, of course, with expressing their "special pain", the local Torquemadas of the Cult of Misery mounted (unsuccessful) legal proceedings in an attempt to stop the show from going ahead. All of which shows that freedom of religion and belief is fine with the Cult of Misery as long as it means their freedom to call on the apparatus of the state to you make you conform to their religious beliefs.

Is it any wonder that I get worried at the idea of a Catholic priest, however good a bloke he is, being in charge, here in Australia, of a committee to work out what rights and freedoms Australians ought to have. I'm sure Frank Brennan has many fine qualities, but even urbane and compassionate foxes aren't put in charge of hen houses.

My latest plug for Sentient Developments

Don't forget to check out Sentient Developments. I'll be guest posting there starting today - but first to get some sleep. Let's leave it a few hours, shall we?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No one wants parallel importation

At the moment the Productivity Commission has 59 submissions up on its site about the issue of ending restrictions on parallel importation of books. Mine is there somewhere.

I think I counted 3 out to the 59 that supported the idea. Maybe I'm wrong and there's actually 4 (in fact one was sufficiently oblique that I couldn't work out what it was really saying).

It will be fascinating to see how this pans out. There's going to be some free trade bias at the Commission, of course, but then again, I have a strong free trade bias myself, and I even found reasons to worry about and argue against a change in policy. It looks like there is almost no support for a change of policy, as a matter of fact, and plenty of reasons have been set out in the more substantial submissions as to how and why a change could be culturally harmful. I mean cultural harm on a scale that will outweigh any small economic gain.

The submissions going up on the site are running about a week behind. I imagine that quite a lot more will have gone in over the last week, with the deadline on Tuesday. I'll eagerly read the rest of them when they become available. I'm betting that the ratio won't change much and that in the end there will be twelve or fifteen submissions arguing against the change for every one that favours it.

So, will this proposal be dropped like a hot potato or will whoever is behind it press on? The sooner there's certainty the better, because Australian publishers must currently be sitting on manuscripts, worried about what a change of policy might mean for their operations.

By the way, since I've published most of my work of any significance overseas, and have never had a book with an Australian trade publisher, this doesn't really affect me. Indeed, if I were thinking about it from a purely selfish viewpoint, I might even benefit slightly from the proposed change - it would make it easier to get books by me published overseas - of which I hope there will be many in the future - to Australia straightaway.

But I'm not a typical case, and I'm not worried about myself. My concern is that it looks like the current arrangements really have helped new Australian authors over the past decade or two. I think this is the clinching argument: why go from a system that has a good record of nurturing talent to one that is likely (when you analyse it) not to do as well?

The atheist bus

There's an advertising campaign going on in the UK at the moment involving buses with signs that say:

There's probably no God.

Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.


I love this slogan. It makes the point well - it expresses the position of religious sceptics since the time of Epicurus, one of my philosophical heroes. Epicurus didn't deny the existence of beings whom he identified with the Greek gods, but he saw them as ultimately being material creatures, though much more powerful and fortunate than we are. To Epicurus, the gods are serene, beyond emotions such as jealousy, and uninterested in creatures like us. They do not lower themselves to intervene in human affairs (contrast the jealous deity of the Old Testament). For all practical purposes, Epicureanism was an atheistic philosophy. The Epicureans' slogan would have been: "There's no heaven or hell, so stop worrying and enjoy the life you have." Of course, their idea of how to enjoy your life was surprisingly ascetic - cultivate your garden, relish the company of friends, and treat yourself to simple pleasures.

The atheist bus message is in response to religious messages on buses that ask us to worry about whether we're "saved" or not, and about what's going to happen to us after death. It's a nice, gentle riposte. I love it, and I think Ariane Sherine, who came up with the whole atheist bus campaign, deserves huge congratulations.

Of course, a message like this breaks a powerful taboo. Generally speaking, there's a taboo in our society against criticising religion, let alone taking out commercial advertisements with an anti-religious slogan, however moderately phrased. Well, let's break this taboo by all means. The coverage that the campaign has been receiving, with headlines all over the world, shows just how unexpected and dramatic such a mild message in support of atheism can be. Imagine if they had dropped out the word "probably"! This was actually imposed on them in the approval process, but it improves the message, I think, by giving it a kind of laid-back, matter-of-fact tone.

Among the many issues that have come up is that a bus driver objected to driving one of the buses. So what do you do in such a situation? I'm not going to suggest that bus drivers should have a right of conscientious objection to driving buses with advertisements for products that they dislike or perhaps even consider morally abhorrent. Where does it end if you go down that path? Some will object to advertisements for various meat products, some to advertisements for sexy clothes, some to ... well, God knows what (as it were).

Can Muslim taxi drivers refuse to drive you home from the airport if you're carrying your quota of duty free alcohol? Can Catholic doctors refuse to perform abortions, even if it's necessary to save a woman's life? The possibilities go on and on, and we shouldn't be too quick to give everyone who claims to have a moral or religious scruple the right to decide what work they will or will not do. In some cases, their employer has every right to demand that they carry out the requirements of the job. In other cases, it goes beyond that: there's a strong public policy necessity to avoid people picking and choosing. E.g. a pregnant woman is in a vulnerable situation; she needs to be confident that hospital staff will not even contemplate putting her life at risk if something goes wrong. If an emergency abortion is needed, the doctors and nurses mustn't hesitate to act.

But what about this incident under discussion, the one about the atheist bus? Here, an employee has been caught up in an unusual, unexpected, and newsworthy situation. As a Christian, this particular driver has become upset because he was directed to drive one of the buses with the atheist message. Should a manager simply dismiss him from employment for refusing to carry out a lawful and reasonable direction? How reasonable would it really be to insist on the direction without looking at alternatives (such as allocating another driver to drive this particular bus)?

Having worked in managerial jobs in my time, not to mention spending quite a few years of my life doing quasi-legal industrial relations work (acting as an advocate in industrial tribunals) then having worked for awhile as a lawyer in a major firm, mainly doing employee and labour relations law, maybe I look at this a bit differently from the way some people seem to. From an employee relations, union relations, and public relations perspective, I think that a manager who dug in and insisted, then summarily dismissed the employee if he didn't drive the bus, would be crazy.

Given the unusual circumstances, such an insistence on managerial prerogative would be widely seen as unreasonable (perhaps not by the "some people" I referred to, but certainly by a lot of folks out there in the media-devouring public). It would be a PR disaster for the bus company and the campaign ... and, depending on the law in the jurisdiction concerned, the company would very likely find itself on the back foot in attempting to defend an unfair dismissal claim.

As it happens, the company acted quite moderately and leniently. In my view, the relevant manager was smart about this one ... or took smart advice.

Over at Richard Dawkins' (very useful) site, however, the majority view is that the Christian bus driver should have been dealt with very harshly. Basically sacked on the spot. Perhaps I made a mistake in getting involved in an argument about this, because after awhile you can feel as if you're bashing your head against a brick wall.

My feeling is that my fellow atheists are often so exasperated by what they see (rightly, I think) as the continual solicitude given to religion that they can lose perspective and be tempted to some unwise actions. Or at least to sounding off on the internet in defence of those sorts of actions, which is a lot easier. The beauty of the internet is that everyone has a say but no one has the responsibility. Fortunately, the atheist bus campaign itself hasn't worked like that: its gentle, laid-back approach has been one of its great pluses. It's getting publicity without presenting a confrontational message.

Oh well, maybe I'm wrong after all ... since so many people disagree with me. Maybe I'm just feeling exasperated.

Or just maybe an employer or a campaign that has this sort of problem would be better off coming to me for advice on strategic issues than to some of the more gung-ho posters on Dawkins' site.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Reminder: blogging at Sentient Developments

This is your reminder of the day that I'll be guest blogging for a week at George Dvorksy's wonderful high-traffic blog, Sentient Developments, starting Monday. In parallel with my announcement here, George has made an announcement over there (thanks, mate).

Come on over and have a look. We can make some good things happen. And check out Sentient Developments, anyway: it's one of the best blogs around.

Freedom of religion and belief

I did a twelve-hour shift yesterday to finish my submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission project on freedom of religion and belief. Honestly, I did intend to stop at some point but there was one more task to do, and then another, and another one. You know how it is. So thanks to Jenny for being understanding that I was in the zone yesterday ... and for bringing me the glasses of water and the macaroni, while I forgot about things like eating and drinking (but how am I going to return the favour when she gets into the more intense sequences of the fantasy novel she's working on)?

I'm surprised to see that I managed to write a fairly tightly-worded submission of nearly 24,000 words in three days. Admittedly, I had a lot of words lying around already in quite good shape that I was able to paste in. Anyway, at least I hope it's tightly worded: I may have been losing my judgment by last night after I spent yesterday writing a lot of them, revising the whole thing twice, re-reading Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, and reading the second half of the Commission's 1998 report on the same subject.

I'll read what I've written again today, or tomorrow, and see if it makes sense.

What struck me during this exercise is how much our religionist friends want to distort what is essentially a negative right against the state - the right that the state will not try to suppress your beliefs or impose someone else's beliefs on you - into a positive right that everyone else will go out of their way to nurture your religion of choice. This seems to mean that we are not even supposed to criticise your beliefs, must "respect" them (however silly they sound), somehow provide the resources to guarantee their survival, and be upset if some beliefs die out, etc.

Worse, all of this seems to creeping into international law and a lot of popular and academic thinking on the subject.

Sorry, but I'm not buying it. There are good reasons why people should have religious freedom in the sense that the state shouldn't tell you what religious beliefs to have or not have. We don't want to bring back the days when supposed heretics were burned at the stake (when Locke talks about fire and sword being brought against people, he is, of course, speaking quite literally ... that's how they did things in those days). But - I'm sorry - that doesn't mean I have to like your religion, or hope that it will persist, or think that it does good on balance, or even that its doctrines deserve any respect.

I won't vote for a government that will burn you at the stake (or lock you up behind iron bars, as we prefer to do to people in these more civilised times). I'll probably even be polite to you about your religious beliefs, because I'm not the sort of person who's out to upset the folks he deals with face to face. But if you imagine that your prophet of choice went up to heaven in a flaming chariot or rode around on a flying horse, or you think that the evil in the world was caused by the (literally) fiendish plot of a talking snake that danced about on its tail in the original Edenic paradise, or you've convinced yourself that a wafer of bread is simultaneously the flesh and blood of your demi-god or quasi-god ... well, great. I won't go out of my way to upset you, but I won't take your ideas very seriously, and I won't think it sad if a time ever comes when no one believes in that stuff anymore.

What's more, if you start trying to suppress criticism and satire, or if you vote for a government that wants to impose your moral code on me with fire and sword (sorry, I mean iron bars and guns), then I'm not going to go around saying how nice and quaint your ideas are. You have your freedom; I have mine. I want to keep it like that.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Guest blogging at Sentient Developments

Next week I'll be doing five days of guest blogging at George Dvorsky's wonderful blog, Sentient Developments. For those who don't know, Sentient Developments is a much more ambitious and popular blog than this one, with 15,000 page hits per month. It presents itself as: "Transhumanist perspectives on science, philosophy, ethics and the future of intelligent life."

Go and check it out - George has a very classy blog over there, and it's going to be difficult to reach anything like his standard of posting. Still, I'll put my thinking cap on and do my best ... and we'll have to see what happens.

In fact, you could do worse than bookmark Sentient Developments, as long as you don't become so caught up in following it that you forget to read Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another submission to write

If you are an Australian, secular in orientation, and opposed to the use of state power to enforce religious morality, please consider making a submission over here: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/frb/frb_2008.pdf.

You'll have to be quick because the deadline is 31 January. Go and write!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Homeowners no more!

Jenny and I are no longer homeowners - as of today, we are tenants, a situation we haven't been in for many, many years.

Yes, today (well, actually yesterday since it's now after midnight) was the settlement day on the sale of our house. We now have a lot more money in the bank, and we are renting back this place for the next 11 months ... so there's no immediate impact on our day-to-day lives. It feels just a bit funny, though, and we've loved this house. It will be really strange when we finally leave it after 20 years.

Now we need to plan the next move. As the year goes on, we'll be looking for cheaper real estate interstate, among all our other plans for the year. Onward!

Monday, January 12, 2009

This postmillennialism nonsense

Wikipedia succinctly defines postmillennialism as "an interpretation of chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation which sees Christ's second coming as occurring after (Latin post-) the 'Millennium', a Golden Age or era of Christian prosperity and dominance."

Many of us who have encountered evangelical Christianity are more familiar with premillennialism: the idea that Christ's second coming will predate the eventual establishment of the Millennium. In this kind of thought, Christ is typically imagined as appearing during a time of great tribulations (as every historical era, including our own, imagines itself to be) and rapturing the faithful up into heaven - leaving behind the unbelievers. However, there are many variations on the theme: some premillennialists imagine a time of even worse tribulation after the second coming; different thinkers draw on different theological traditions dating back to ancient times; and so on.

There's a huge body of best-selling Christian literature that explains or exploits premillennialist ideas, most famously the novel Left Behind and its sequels. When I was young, Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth was a popular premillennialist text. I was taught in Sunday school that the second coming was likely to be in the 1980s, a "generation" after the recreation of Israel. Pity it didn't work out like that.

Postmillennialists see a duty to reform society along Christian lines to build the utopian age that is, as they understand it, prophesied in the Bible - particularly the Book of Revelation. Since they want to usher in this utopian age by human efforts, theirs is an eschatology of works and progress. It's easy to see that Nazism and Marxism contained concepts of history closely analogous to this - but it is too clever by half to say that these belief systems just are postmillennialist. They are not, because they don't have anything to say about the the second coming of Christ at the end of the millennium. Though they envisage apocalyptic events, posit quasi-religious views of the unfolding of history, and are clearly influenced by Christian thought, they are not themselves Christian sects.

It is even more strained when any system of thought at all that envisages progressive improvement in the human situation is labeled postmillennialist, as if any such ideas make sense only in the context of Christian religious doctrine. Though Christian views of history may have made it easier to imagine a direction to history, we have another very good reason to do so: the observable facts of scientific and technological change, with their implications for society. Whatever else we might think about progress, science really does gain greater insight into the nature of our world and technology really does become more powerful. Somebody who thinks that we can use the increasingly powerful science and technology at our disposal to improve the human condition does not need to be motivated by religion. Nor does the plausibility of her position stand or fall with the plausibility of religion itself.

That's an important point to make, because critics of technological meliorism (in its various guises) often adopt a kind of world-weary cynicism, in which technological meliorism is dismissed as just another kind of religion, and just as likely to be wrong as the supernaturalist doctrines of real religions. That's clearly a mistake.

These people could make a much weaker claim: one that is far less ambitious but more likely to be correct. This is the point that, after two thousand years of Christianity, we have become primed to see history as having a direction, and some folks may have become over-optimistic (both about what will happen and about their capacity to predict it). Perhaps this is right, but the fact remains that we have a perfectly rational, independent basis to expect further improvements in science and technology and to be able to use them to produce improvements to, say, human health and comfort and the human life span.

Transhumanist thinking is particularly vulnerable to the suggestion that it is something like apocalyptic Christianity - and therefore just as likely to be false. But that argument is just wrong. The most that can be said is that the apocalyptic aspect of the most extreme kinds of transhumanism may have a psychological appeal - for some people - that is out of proportion to the strength of its actual arguments. I don't doubt that there's some truth in that claim, and that it provides a reason to examine transhumanist arguments of an extreme kind (such as those predicting a near-future technological Singularity) with a degree of scepticism. Nonetheless, the arguments ultimately stand or fall on their own merits, not on the merits of Christian doctrine.

It's particularly annoying when Michael Ruse (in The Evolution-Creation Struggle)wants to brand any progressive element in the thinking of modern scientists as postmillennialist. No! No, Professor Ruse, postmillennialism is a doctrine (with a number of variants) taught by some Christians. But you don't need to be a Christian of any sort to believe that science and technology are becoming more powerful, or to plan ways of using them in an attempt to improve the human condition. There are non-religious reasons to be impressed by the advance of science and technology. Accordingly, the postmillennialist/premillennialist contrast that Ruse relies on in examining the clash between evolution and creationism is unnecessary and misleading.

I am actually a sceptic about the supposedly coming technological Singularity, an idea that Ruse doesn't get around to discussing. It looks just as likely to me that we are somewhere on the steeper part of a technological sigmoid curve - but who knows? My point is that you can't shoot down arguments, such as those of transhumanists, by drawing an analogy with a quite different set of ideas that is based on a quite different set of arguments ... arguments that you believe to be bad.

More generally, you can't do the following. You can't take a way of thinking, X, that bears some superficial resemblance to another way of thinking, Y, which is grounded in a quite different set of arguments ... then observe that way of thinking Y is religious (and is grounded in whatever arguments support the religion), and conclude that way of thinking X is religious (implying that it stands or falls with the general plausibility of religion). I see far too much of this kind of fallacious reasoning, and it's starting to get annoying.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ruse gets it wrong

I'm something of a fan of the philosopher Michael Ruse, whose work over the years in defending reputable science against creationist pseudo-science has been immensely valuable. I've also been impressed by Ruse's analysis of ethical theory in the context of what we know about the natural world, and I admire the clear way in which he explains complex philosophical ideas. Ruse is one of the good guys.

But I'm just finishing his 2005 book The Creation-Evolution Struggle. More on this tomorrow, perhaps, but what I find bizarre is the author's insistence on structuring the debate as one between two "religious" viewpoints, one based in biblical literalism and often a premillennialist apocalyptic vision, the other based in a kind of postmillennialist progressivism. We have, he says, "no simple clash between science and religion but rather between two religions."

The arguments for this are very unconvincing, even though Ruse offers quite a lot of detail about the historical context in which Darwinian evolutionary theory arose and the twists and turns in how it was received. While that's all interesting, he wants to define "religion" as if it means no more than a worldview that involves moral ideas or has social implications. His understanding of the nature of religion is so broad that it makes no distinction between (on the one hand) philosophical systems and (on the other) traditional bodies of belief that are associated with certain cultures and handed down from one generation to the next. According to this, Epicureanism, for example, was also a religion. It's difficult to know what worked-out philosophical system would not be religious. But the whole point of these systems is that they are alternatives to religion as it is normally understood; they are attempts to understand the world on the basis of rational inquiry rather than traditional teachings, faith, or mystical experience.

Yet Ruse makes no distinction between a coherent worldview based on reason and one based on faith in the truth of a holy book or the wisdom of a tradition of teaching such as that of the Catholic Church. Nor does he distinguish between a worldview based on empirical investigation of the world that presents itself to us - and which posits no supernatural beings, entities, or forces - and one that is based on belief in (or visions of) gods, ghosts, and demons.

It is, of course, sometimes difficult to distinguish exactly what is and is not a religion. Is Scientology a genuine religion? How was Nazism, with its apocalyptic vision of a thousand-year Reich, its mysticism, its commitment to irrational ideas of blood and race, its rituals and symbolism, its infallible leader (with a kind of holy book in Mein Kampf), and its comprehensive understanding of the world and attempt to control people's lives not a religion?

What about Marxism and its historical variants (think of Mao or Pol Pot)? These look very much as if they are at least analogous to religion, with their visions of an inevitable path for history, their eschatology of future struggles and triumphs leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and eventually to the withering away of the state, and so on. They even had their holy books - Das Kapital and others.

Again, are the many currents of Hinduism really the same kind of thing as Christianity? Was the pagan syncretism of ancient Rome, a tolerant set of state practices and popular superstitions with no official theology, at all analogous to Abrahamic monotheism?

It's not clear that we have a good, clear concept of what we really mean by religion.

But I can be confident of one thing. The worldview of someone like Richard Dawkins is not a religion by any plausible measure. There are no supernatural forces or beings here. Nor is there a comprehensive account of the world, or an account of how we should all live our lives. There are moral implications but nothing like the elaborate Jewish law or the Hindu notion of dharma. There is no socially-binding body of organised beliefs and rituals and symbols, no priestly hierarchy, no holy text that is believed true for all time. The works of Darwin are admired for their insights and historical importance, but are not imagined to be cutting-edge knowledge of the world. There is really no point in talking about such a worldview as a "religious" one.

If we start to do so, then we are committed to calling any recognisable worldview at all "a religion", and we still need some new distinction between (1) those "religions" that involve the supernatural, faith in traditional teachings and holy books, priesthoods, comprehensive moral codes, restricted prescriptions for life that are binding on believers, etc., and (2) those "religions" that don't have these things. But Ruse is insistent on seeing the views of Dawkins as religious, in their way, apparently because Dawkins draws certain moral and social implications from his understanding of the natural world, and because of an element of awe at the universe that he often expresses. That's a very thin understanding of what religion is like.

At times, particularly towards the end, Ruse's book almost reads as if it were written primarily with the aim of annoying Dawkins, who is not only seen as promoting a kind of religion but is also portrayed in a way that makes him sound far more extreme and far less reasonable than he actually is. Anything snarky that Dawkins has since said about Ruse pales in comparison to this 2005 book.

My verdict: clearly written, with some good information, but overall quite a disappointment. Michael Ruse can do a lot better than this.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rights and freedoms in Australia

There's still a lot of time for you to make a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee about rights and freedoms in Australia. The last date for submissions is not until 29 May 2009. All the same, I plan to submit my submission far earlier than that.

I now have a pretty good first draft - still a bit messy on the screen, but basically there. This version weighs in at 47,000 words. I want to do a bit more research around the edges, which will maybe take me a couple of weeks, but it probably won't lead to huge changes, so I'm guessing the final version will be 50,000 words long.

How much notice will be taken of my views? Who knows? I'm not all that optimistic, but am using the exercise partly as a way to straighten out a lot of my thinking on these issues, and to get it all in one place ... irrespective of what effect it will have on the Committee's deliberations. Still, if I were on such a body I would be taking notice of any detailed submission that is thoroughly backed up with case citations, bibliography, etc., as well as addressing many controversial issues, from the treatment of David Hicks to the treatment of Bill Henson. I also have some positive recommendations to make, although (let's face it) these obviously won't carry the same sort of weight as recommendations from, say, the Attorney-General's Department or from major lobby groups.

Still, this is a chance for all of us to have our say on what rights and freedoms matter to us, and on how they might be protected. As I see it, no thinking Australian should pass up the opportunity to say at least something about these important issues - whether or not you happen to agree with my (arguably eccentric) views.

If you are sufficiently interested, and if I know you well enough, I can send you a copy of my developing draft. That would give you something to work with, even if you totally disagree with me on every issue! I am arguing throughout for a Millian liberal position, as you might expect; I think that the state should expand our area of freedom essentially by getting out of a lot of areas where it enacts penal legislation. However, there's a lot more than that to what I want to say.

Much of my argument is about the real dangers of populist politics: why governments find it all too tempting to demonise individuals or groups who are out of the mainstream, whether we're talking about asylum seekers or individuals such as Henson who are privileged in many ways but easy to denounce as "pseuds" (or worse). Democratic elections provide some check on the draconian use of government power, but not so much if the government is pandering to mainstream fears and prejudices.

In those circumstances, there's often bipartisan support for illiberal policies and dangerous laws. Differences among the major parties are then likely to be matters of detail and emphasis. But the question is, "What can be done about it?"

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bad anniversary

It's now one year to the day since my mother died - a bad anniversary. I'll be taking things very easy today.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

I see nothing wrong with the Adelphi Charter

Can anyone tell me what's so bad about the Adelphi Charter? To me it looks unexceptionable. It seeks a balance between the policy underlying intellectual property, on one hand, and other important rights, freedoms, and policy considerations on the other. In the hands of giant media corporations, which are placated by governments, intellectual property is often taken far beyond its original justification (creating property interests in certain resources that are not scarce, in order to encourage innovation) and is treated as an end in itself. Thus, we often see abuses of intellectual property rights. They need to be balanced by a robust doctrine of fair use and they should not be allowed to extend unreasonably.

I ask my question because a number of parties in Australia objected to the appointment of Ms Louise Sylvan to take part in the Productivity Commission's review of restrictions on parallel importation - partly on the basis that she was a signatory to the Adelphi Charter. In my view, this objection was misconceived.

Ms Sylvan has no legal conflict of interest even for the other reason given - i.e., that in her one-time role as CEO of the Consumers' Association she once gave her public support to the Association's policy of ending the restrictions. People such as judges and individuals conducting public reviews are required all the time to deal with issues on which they have previously expressed views. In this case, the views don't even seem to have been expressed as Ms Sylvan's private ones but as views that she was required to advocate in her official capacity. Anyone who has been involved in the process of lobbying or in the process of courtroom advocacy (or both) knows that public support given to certain views in your official capacity need have nothing to do with what you think privately. During my career I was called upon many times to advocate many positions about which I had private reservations. It's the nature of such jobs.

When it comes to being appointed to conduct a government review, the issue is not whether you once expressed a view on the topic - either a private view or a view that you were obliged to advocate in your official capacity. The question is whether there is any basis to believe that you are incapable of taking a disinterested approach to the issue. E.g., do you or your loved ones stand to benefit financially from one outcome or the other?

But even if there were something in this complaint, the complaint about the Adelphi Charter astounds me. The Adelphi Charter is entirely innocuous as far as I can see. What am I missing?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

If you read Australian books, read this

I'm a fiscal conservative, free trader, blah, blah, but I also care about the health of the Australian publishing industry and the vibrancy of the local literary community.

Accordingly, I've made a submission to the Productivity Commission's current study relating to restrictions on parallel importation of books. I'll try to remember to provide a link to my submission once it's published on the Productivity Commission's site.

Meanwhile, have a read of the issues paper. It may contain material that infuriates you if you're an Australian professional writer - on the other hand, I've been a public servant, and I know something about the policy making process and the exigencies of working within it. I think this is actually a very good paper that covers the pros and cons clearly and with good balance.

If you feel strongly about the issue, exercise your democratic right to make your own submission - but hurry, because submissions are due in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

What about the children?

Would-be censors often justify themselves by claiming that certain kinds of material are harmful to children, and so must be kept out of public sight. It's worth thinking about this before we simply accept it at face value.

Such would-be censors tend not to provide evidence as to what kinds of material are actually most likely to produce harm if children see them. I accept that the state has an interest in paternalistic protection of children from propaganda for dangerous commercial products such as cigarettes, but what other kinds of harm might be relevant to public policy?

Before banning speech and expression on the basis of ... well, "What about the children?" ... a legislature would presumably need to be armed with studies of what kinds of material produce feelings of distress, shock, nausea, and so on, or even psychological trauma of the kind that could be evidenced by, for example, phobias, withdrawal, or nightmares, if children see it. There is no evidence that merely "indecent" material has such effects (as if young children are not already fascinated by "poo jokes" and the like — without seeming to suffer any ill effects as a result).

While more needs to be known, I suggest the following as a first approximation. The kinds of speech and expression that are likely to produce distress, or even psychological trauma, if shown to young children might include depictions of cruelty to animals, depictions of sympathetic human or animal characters being killed, and supernatural threats (such as threats of hellfire or divine vengeance). Obviously, it would difficult to frame legislation that is directed at protecting children from exposure to this sort of material, though classification codes that offer advice to parents, rather than attempting to ban speech and expression outright, may be of some value in this respect. Furthermore, it's not obvious that using an age such as 18 would be appropriate if the idea is to protect young children from distress or psychological trauma: i.e., it's not at all clear that any particular material is likely to have such an impact on, say, teenagers, any more than on adults.

Of course, what counts as "harm" to children outside the area of distress or psychological trauma might depend on the values of the person alleging the harm. A conventional moralist driven by Augustinian ideas that the body and its functions are shameful might find something "harmful" in any exposure of children to nudity — so think of all the "harm" suffered by children whose parents belong to nudist colonies or frequent Bondi Beach! But such contestable ideas should receive no official support in a liberal society.

By contrast, somebody with very different views may consider it more harmful to expose young children to traditional religious ideas. This argument actually seems more powerful. It may be that ideas of gods, devils, spirits, and so on possess a psychological attraction for human beings that is disproportional to the actual evidence that any such things exist (perhaps because we have evolved with a tendency to over-attribute agency to the phenomena around us). Children may be especially prone to absorbing such ideas — even though they are neither well-evidenced nor actually true — especially if they appear to be supported by the authority of parents or other adult authority figures. As a result, many children may grow to adulthood with false and possibly overly-restrictive worldviews that they then cannot easily shed: the ideas in these worldviews may lie close to the foundations of a particular individual's belief system. Such an individual might never shed these ideas, including, perhaps, overly restrictive moral ideas that go with them. Or she might succeed only after a period of great mental torment. So why not ban images or discussions of gods, devils, and so on, if children might be exposed to them?

Such a question merits the answer that no liberal society can be expected to adopt a policy of officially deeming the exposure of young children to religious ideas to be harmful. Any attempt to adopt this as a policy would fly in the face of traditional ideas of freedom of religion, which have included the freedom of parents to bring up their children in their own faith. Yet the argument that this actually is harmful appears to be far more cogent than the argument that children are harmed merely from exposure to, say, images of naked human beings, or to much of the wide range of material that can be described as "indecent". I suggest that, if the state seriously wished to protect children from harm that results merely from being exposed to certain kinds of communications, rather responding to ill-informed moral panics, it would need to conduct extensive psychological and sociological research. Even then, it would have a great deal of difficulty determining an objective standard of "harm" — and if it somehow succeeded, the product of its investigations might well be surprising.

In all the circumstances that I've referred to, concerns about harms to children merely from exposure to certain images or ideas justify only a relatively minor role for the state. It may have a significant paternalistic role in protecting children from advertising for dangerous products such as cigarettes. Beyond that, it can establish systems that give assistance to parents in making decisions about what material they should allow their young children to watch, read, or access on television and the Internet, but it is questionable how much genuine good the government can really do where the Internet is concerned. There is no substitute for parental supervision, and concerns about Internet nasties should not be used as an excuse for censorship of communications between adults.

Cool consideration of these issues strengthens, rather than weakens, the case for freedom of speech, and, indeed, for its constitutional protection.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Hadley Rille's page for The Priestess and the Slave

Check out the page, on the Hadley Rille site for Jenny's forthcoming book, The Priestess and the Slave. Looks pretty, eh? The final cover art is going to be wonderful.

The publication of the new book - Jenny's first one by herself, but I'm sure it won't be her last - is something to look forward to a bit later this year.