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

Friday, July 31, 2009

The journey begins

Jenny and I have just started our six-week trip to the US and Canada. This is pretty much a pure holiday, which for us means that we'll be attending several science fiction or similar conventions, including the WorldCon (Anticipation) in Montreal next week. I'm heavily booked on panels at the WorldCon, and currently working out what on earth I'm going to say, but am fairly free of responsibilities thereafter. On the other hand, it won't be a holiday entirely even after that, since I owe work on a number of fronts. This includes consideration of a heavy load of material recently submitted to JET (much of it in reply to our call for papers responding to Stefan Sorgner's article on the relationship between Nietzsche's thought and transhumanism).

Highlights of the trip will include finally meeting Udo Schuklenk next week - Udo and I have just collaborated on editing a big (and, we hope, important) book together, but have never actually met in person! All our interaction has been via the internet. Well, we'll fix that when Jenny and I stay with him for a couple of nights in Kingston on the way to Montreal. Another highlight will be catching up with my great buddy Damien Broderick, who lives in Texas these days. We'll be headed to San Antonio from Montreal, and will also spend some time in Austin, where I'll meet Max More and Natasha Vita-More, among others. Later, we'll be visiting Jenny's publisher, Eric Reynolds, in Kansas City, as well as attending DragonCon in Atlanta, where Jenny is fairly heavily booked on the program but I'm completely free to enjoy the convention.

We're currently holed up in Atlanta, where, as I write, it's a warm but rainy summer evening; we're not seeing much of the place but will be here again for several days around DragonCon. Tomorrow we're going to fly to Toronto for a couple of days, and renew our acquaintance with a city that we're fond of.

Hope our Australian friends are all going well, and we'll see you in a month or two.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eric MacDonald on the "privacy" of religious belief

There's a long comment by Eric MacDonald in this thread over at Butterflies and Wheels, where he discusses the supposedly private nature of religious belief. Read Ophelia Benson's opening post, which is useful in itself and provides the context. But then scroll down to this comment, which I'm going to re-post here with a minimum of elision:

Religion is not a very private matter. It is a very public matter, and it is increasingly more and more public. How people make sense of the world, religiously, almost always seeks to impose itself on others.

Religion does not respect boundaries. For a long time it was thought that religion had retreated to the private sphere, but it had not. Religious priorities were still reflected in law and social custom, but as soon as these came to be questioned, and in many cases overturned, religions began, once again, to strive to re-establish the religious "foundations" of the culture. The introduction of an unreconstructed Islam into jurisdictions traditionally dominated by Christianity has led to renewed attempts to reassert Christian dominance.

The same thing is happening with respect to science. It is astonishing and disturbing to see someone with the apparent stature (in the scientific community) of Francis Collins making childish arguments for the consistency of science and (what turns out to be a gasp-makingly conservative form of) Christianity. This should be seen as a very deep cultural crisis. By all means tell religious yarns if you are afraid of the dark, but don't bring them into scientific contexts, as though they had anything of value to offer. They don't. In fact, what they offer, as Jerry Coyne points out, is only a blurring of boundaries.

Religion does not respect boundaries. Like any other form of monolithism religion is quite prepared to mix private and public, empiricism with superstition, law with personal choice. [...] It is a danger to anything that requires critical thinking. There is no place for humility or even etiquette here, whether or not science can or cannot prove a negative. What science can and should say is that it has no need of this hypothesis. In fact, I would hazard the guess that if there is a problem about scientific literacy, this is related to the fact that, for many, religion provides the illusion of knowing already. Making it clear that religion is something private - as private as poetry and considerably less helpful - and that the only reliable ways of knowing involve critical rationality and empirical evidence, might help to separate things that, in public discourse, are too often conflated.

Gould was wrong about NOMA, but he had the right idea. Religion needs to be put in its place. It has no relation to science whatsoever, and, despite its claims to the contrary, no special moral authority. Once this is clearly understood, the religious are free to tell each other stories, if it helps them get through the night. They may even imagine, in private, that they are talking about real things, but there is no reason for others to believe this, and lots of reasons why others should insist, and insist again, that religions must know their limits, and that they should not be taken seriously when they try to speak with a public voice.


Discuss.

Personally, I think that MacDonald has pretty much nailed it. This is just why we can't give religious beliefs a free ride.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A short story competition

I've been asked to publicise this, and it does look interesting. I won't have time to take part myself, but if anyone wishes to ...

=================

Dear Russell

I am sending for your interest details on the speculative fiction short story competition I'm convening. I'd appreciate it if you could also let your own creative networks know about it.

2009 is a milestone as it will be 10 years on 6 November 2009 since the republican referendum was lost. To commemorate this event and to remind Australians what they still don't have the Australian Republican Movement is calling for speculative fiction short stories between 2000 and 4000 words that portray an Australian republican future in a positive light and demonstrate the absurdity of a hereditary monarch as the Australian Head of State in twenty-first century Australian society. Stories must be original and unpublished.

First National Republican Short Story Competition
Due 31 August 2009
1st prize: $611.99
More information and daily blog of creative stimulus material at http://republicanfiction.blogspot.com
E: qld@republic.org.au
Entry fee $11.99
(Cheques or postal order payable to Australian Republican Movement)

Send entries to:
Australian Republican Movement
PO Box 87
Geebung Q 4034

The judges are Queensland author Nick Earls, Brian Matthews (Professor of English, Flinders University), and John Warhurst (Professor of Political Science, Australian National University)

For more information see http://republicanfiction.blogspot.com


Thanks


Glenn


Dr Glenn A. Davies

Queensland State Secretary

Australian Republican Movement

PO Box 87

Geebung Q 4034

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sam Harris on Francis Collins

This op.ed. by Sam Harris in The New York Times, commenting on the appointment of Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health, raises issues worth serious reflection. At the end of the day, I don't oppose this appointment, for reasons that I'll come to, but there's still cause for concern and something slightly absurd about the whole thing.

It's not just that Collins is a high-profile advocate for Christianity, and it's not that religious conviction automatically rules out appointment to high positions in national science bureaucracies. Nonetheless, it's fascinating, and a bit disconcerting, to see what Collins actually believes, in his own words, as contained in a series of slides that he used in a 2008 lecture. Harris quotes from these:

Slide 1: "Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time."

Slide 2: "God's plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings."

Slide 3: "After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced 'house' (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul."

Slide 4: "We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement."

Slide 5: "If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It's all an illusion. We've been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?"


These are not the words of someone who embraces a liberal, non-literalist version of Christianity. Collins believes in a literal creator, in supernatural interference by the creator in evolutionary and human history, and in an objective, supernaturally-grounded moral law. His overall account of the world attempts to blend such ideas with an evolutionary picture of the world, but this creates a contrived and implausible hodge-podge. Note that his claims about free will, the immortal soul, and supernaturally-defined good and evil do not have any scientific basis - they are things that he believes despite his understanding of science, rather than because of it, though it must be noted, in fairness, that they are not plainly in conflict with established scientific findings in the same sense as a claim that the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old.

Wearing my hat as a moral philosopher, I am especially interested in Collins' commitment to an unlikely vision of absolute moral truths that are not grounded in human needs, desires, or interests, but in the commands of a supernatural being. He thinks that we've been "hoodwinked" by anything less. Well, it seems clear enough to me that we are indeed mistaken (though not maliciously "hoodwinked" by anybody) to some extent if we succumb to the frequent error that morality takes the form Collins seems to imagine. Folk metaethics very likely does see morality in this way, but folk metaethics is probably mistaken, whether an almighty law-giving deity exists or not. But what's so surprising about that? It's just one more element of the folk understanding of the world that turns out to be false when subjected to rational scrutiny.

I have subscribed for many years now to what is sometimes called the Antipodean error theory of metaethics (not because it involves errors about the Antipodes, such as the idea that summer is in the middle of the year in Australia, but because some of its leading exponents, notably John Mackie, have been Australian). But this theory in no way entails that morality is merely arbitrary; that we have no good reasons to engage in behaviour that approximates, in many ways, to one or other version of traditional morality; or that we have no good basis to give many moral norms our support (while subjecting others to rational criticism). Thus, I have no problem at all living within a worldview in which the folk metaethical picture proffered by Collins is an illusion. On the contrary, I believe that folk metaethics is ludicrous, and that Collins is jumping at shadows when he worries that it might not be true in the absence of a transcendent and almighty law-giver.

Whether such a law-giver exists or not, we have plenty of reasons to teach children to be kind rather than cruel, to cultivate (in ourselves as well as our children) the capacity to love others, to enact laws that deter individuals who'd use violence as their tool in social and economic competition, and so on. There is no problem in applied ethics or public policy that requires the truth of folk metaethics for us to inquire into it using reason. When we do so, we find plenty of reasons (plural) to identify deontic contraints within which we expect citizens to live, to enact certain laws, to promote certain virtues of character, and so on. Nothing about the rational study of morality suggests that morality takes the form of an absolute "law" such as Collins imagines, or that we are without guidance for our conduct if no absolute moral law exists. In short, Collins is as crude in his metaethics - and in his normative ethical theory - as a Young Earth Creationist is about biology and geology.

Harris alleges that he is not even consistent:

Dr. Collins has written that science makes belief in God "intensely plausible" — the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of nature’s constants, the emergence of complex life, the effectiveness of mathematics, all suggest the existence of a "loving, logical and consistent" God.

But when challenged with alternative accounts of these phenomena — or with evidence that suggests that God might be unloving, illogical, inconsistent or, indeed, absent — Dr. Collins will say that God stands outside of Nature, and thus science cannot address the question of his existence at all.


Now, to be fair, I can't confirm this specific charge against Collins. I don't know whether it is accurate as a description of statements he has made in the past. However, it is all-too-plausible, since it perfectly matches what we see overall from many scientifically-inclined, yet literal-minded, theists: i.e., we see bold claims about the alleged evidence (fine-tuning or whatever) for a transcendent being ... combined with claims that this being is mysterious, unknowable, opaque to human understanding, or even whimsical. The latter claims are made whenever there is the possibility of testing claims about a being with specified powers and psychological predispositions. Of course, it is always possible to "explain" the presence of pain and suffering in the world, the millions of years of nature red in tooth and claw, and the flawed engineering of living creatures, on the basis that God has good but unknowable reasons for all of this. In other words, literalist believers can always play the mystery card. It provides a kind of catch-all pseudo-explanation for anything at all. But for precisely that reason, it can never explain why things are like this rather than like all the possible thats. In other words, it's a sham and a cheat.

Unless we cheat in some such way, Collins' views won't withstand scrutiny. If a "loving, logical, and consistent", as well as almighty, God wished to create beings like us (part of this God's "creative plan", according to Collins), then why spend billions of years setting things up, leading (predictably) to hundreds of millions of years of suffering in the animal world, not to mention the emergence of flawed designs, including the jury-rigged physiology of human beings? Why not just say, "Let there be Homo sapiens!" and have us appear, perfectly formed, and without our current unfortunate design features, such as the weird engineering of the laryngeal nerve? The whole story makes no sense. It's a mystery. We may as well throw our hands in the air.

And there's more. Why is this loving, logical, consistent, almighty being hiding away somewhere, never intruding into our phenomenal reality in any unambiguous way? What is the reason for the so-called "divine hiddenness"? It doesn't add up, and would never be accepted in a court of law or in any everyday thinking about causes and explanations. It's a mystery, they say ... but again, this is a sham and a cheat.

We can always dismiss rational conclusions about the nature or existence of God by insisting that God's ways are not as our ways, that God's goodness is not the same as human goodness, that God acts for mysterious reasons, or even on whim, etc. Fine. But this is not the sort of thing that anyone should actually believe. Rather, it's the kind of contrivance that you endorse when you are already committed to belief in this being - on grounds that are not especially rational, or on no grounds at all but simply because you were socialised into this belief - and you are then determined to hold onto that belief at all costs. It's a desperation move. It is certainly not the kind of belief that you come to by looking at the evidence dispassionately. Instead, it's allowing your preconceived worldview to mould your opinions, rather than starting again from ordinary kinds of evidence and ordinary standards of reasoning.

So what if the fine-tuning argument did suggest that the universe has been designed for life? Actually, this seems a bit odd. It's best understood as a kind of argument to the best explanation:

P1. The physical constants are such as to allow for the development of highly complex things (such as living things).
P2. The best explanation for this is that the physical constants were chosen by a supernatural being.
C. Therefore (probably) the physical constants were chosen by a supernatural being.
Hence, C1. A supernatural being exists

But arguments to the best explanation are only cogent if the best explanation is also a good explanation. It's no use arguing along these lines if the supposedly best explanation is only the best out of a very bad bunch, and we really don't have any good explanation at all. The work of a supernatural being in choosing the physical constants is actually the kind of explanation that we can't count as good, since it relies on something that we've never encountered and which seems to cry out for some further explanation (such as a well-corroborated, or at least testable, theory of supernatural beings, but this is exactly the sort of thing that religious apologists typically will not commit to ... we are confronted, instead, with claims about a mysterious, unexplained, uncorroborated, untestable, unprecedented supernatural being).

And if a supernatural being did choose the physical constants, why act in such a way? If this being resembles the orthodox Abrahamic God, it could have created a far more hospitable universe in an instant.

But let all that go. If we assume that a fine-tuning supernatural designer does exist, the logical conclusion to draw is that it is not a loving being. Rather, it appears to be callous, irresponsible, perhaps even insane by our standards. Yet, believers such as Collins leave themselves no scope to say this, since they are committed to a Christian account of reality in which their particular supernatural designer, the Abrahamic God, must be considered supremely praiseworthy.

Harris alludes briefly to such problems, but he concentrates on a different point that is actually more relevant to the science funded by the NIH:

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

There's the rub. It's one thing to be grateful that Collins is not a Young Earth Creationist or a proponent of Intelligent Design, but science comes into potential conflict with religion at many other points. In particular, the most scientifically plausible understandings of the evolutionary origin of the mind, and of its relationship to the brain and its functioning, cannot plausibly be reconciled with the account offered by Collins - that, at a recent stage of the evolutionary process, God supernaturally granted our ancestors free will, immortal souls, and the moral law. As we discover more about ourselves, this picture is likely to become even less plausible, but is Collins likely to support science that will make these discoveries?

Harris concludes:

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

For all that, I do not think that Collins should be disqualified from appointment as director of the NIH. First, it is unlikely that this one appointment will have significant adverse effects on scientific attempts to understand human nature, and Collins may well find ways to reconcile (at least in his own mind) his Christian image of the world and whatever findings emerge in future from the field of neuroscience. The problem is not so much that biomedical research will be hindered in any significant way by this particular appointment.

Moreover, Collins is clearly qualified for the job, having worked successfully as head of the Human Genome Project. If he were disqualified, we would have to disqualify huge numbers of other people who combine strong scientific backgrounds with religious beliefs. It wouldn't end with the directorship of the National Institutes of Health, but would apply to many other high-level roles in public policy management. Vast numbers would be ruled out of contention. That is just too unpalatable, politically, to be realistic. No doubt there comes a point where a candidate's religious beliefs clash so plainly with established scientific theories that it is untenable to offer him or her a senior post involving science policy. But a great deal of latitude must be allowed before that point is reached. To act otherwise is totally unrealistic and politically unacceptable in any society that gives (even) lip service to ideas of social pluralism, freedom of religion, etc., let alone in the religiose United States of America.

In short, we can't realistically or reasonably protest against Collins as a suitable appointee to head the NIH.

Nonetheless, when we look at what Collins actually believes it becomes clear that it does not reconcile in any straightforward way with the emerging scientific picture of the world. Collins believes things that do not follow from the evidence. Instead, they are speculative claims that are meant to preserve the truth of (a form of) evangelical Christianity, even in the face of evidence. The evidence does not support such contentions as that we possess free will in any theologically interesting way, or that we have immortal souls or access to an objective moral law. It certainly does not support the idea that we were given these spooky things at a late point in evolutionary history by the specific supernatural act(s) of a god.

There is nothing in the observations of evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, and others with relevant expertise, to suggest that our psychological nature or our cognitive and affective capacities have any supernatural origin. On the contrary, there is every prospect that these things have naturalistic causes. In any event, scientists and philosophers quite legitimately look for such causes.

Collins' theological claims do not collide with science as plainly and directly as does Young Earth Creationism. The clash is not so plain, or so likely to be disastrous for scientific practice, that it will undermine his ability to head the NIH. Accordingly, I do not protest the appointment.

Nonetheless, Collins' overall worldview, as summarised in his lecture slides, is that of man with a desperate account of our place in the universe. He appears determined to hang on to a belief in human exceptionalism and a supernatural component to our nature, despite all the evidence. His actual views are a weird mix of legitimate science and traditional evangelical doctrine.

By all means appoint him, since he is qualified for the job, cannot be disqualified on any fair and realistic basis, and may well carry out his duties with distinction if the circumstances suit. I wish him the best. But this discussion shows, again, how difficult it is for full-on religious believers (not deists or non-literalist liberals) to reconcile their theological commitments with real science. The result is ugly and contrived, and it should seem absurd to anyone who doesn't begin with a determination to protect prior theological commitments.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Death of Charles N. Brown

While I was away last week, I missed out on blogging about the death of Charles N. Brown, co-founder and editor of the important (nay, crucial) news magazine Locus. Locus is quite simply the journal of record for the science fiction world. Charles was a good and generous man who made immense contributions to the genre that he loved so much. He had countless friends - and I'm glad to have been one of them, in a small way.

He died peacefully on 12 July, and will be much missed.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sold!



Okay, so we've checked the reports and decided they're okay. We've just signed the contract and sent the deposit money. Everything is falling into place now. The only question is how happy we'll be in Newcastle - sure, our families and some of our other loved ones (yes, you know who you are) live up there, but we also have very dear and much-loved friends (who likewise know who they are) here in Melbourne. So we're just going to have to travel down here a lot, using the profit we've made on this deal.

Right now, I'm giving away Champagne-flavoured kisses. Not that I'm giving them to just anybody.

Life is always interesting.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My schedule at the World Science Fiction convention

Here's my schedule at Anticipation, the world science fiction convention in Montreal in a couple of weeks:

1. When: Thu 12:30
Location: P-513A
Title: Bio-Ethics
Session ID: 104
All Participants: Alison Sinclair, Judy T. Lazar, Laura Anne Gilman,
Russell Blackford, Tomoko Masuda
Moderator: Laura Anne Gilman
Description: Medical experiments, drug companies, cloning, insurance,
bookies and you.
Duration: 1:30 hrs:min
Language: English
Track: Science and Space
AV/Internet request: Microphones / PA

2. When: Thu 19:00
Location: P-516AB
Title: The Future is Artificial, the Future is Intelligent!
Session ID: 121
All Participants: Russell Blackford, Tom Galloway, Kim Binsted, Peter
Watts
Moderator: Tom Galloway
Description: Ray Kurzweil thinks there's going to be a bright future
for AI, Vernor Vinge thinks we're all invited, and Bill Joy isn't so
sure in either case. Why are people quoting the Unabomber Manifesto
during the debate?
Duration: 1:30 hrs:min
Language: English
Track: Science and Space
AV/Internet request: Microphones / PA

3. When: Thu 22:00
Location: P-511BE
Title: I'll Be Back
Session ID: 390
All Participants: Jeanne Cavelos, Niall Harrison, Russell Blackford,
Seanan McGuire
Moderator: Russell Blackford
Description: Who could have guess 25 years ago that “The Terminator”
was starring a future governor of California? Having spawned several
sequels and a TV series this jarring image of a bleak future that
might yet be averted or changed continues to hold our attention. Why
have the “Terminator” films been so influential, and what do they say
about the times that produced them? How does “Terminator Salvation”
fit in?

4. When: Fri 11:00
Location: P-Autographs
Title: Russell Blackford Signing
Session ID: 1254
All Participants: Russell Blackford
Moderator:
Description: Russell Blackford Signing
Duration: 0:30 hrs:min
Language: English
Track: Autographs
AV/Internet request: None

5. When: Sat 12:30
Location: P-512AE
Title: Author Reading
Session ID: 191
All Participants: L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Russell Blackford, Steven
Lopata
Moderator:
Description: Steven Lopata; Russell Blackford; L. E. Modesitt, Jr.;
Duration: 1:30 hrs:min
Language: English
Track: Reading
AV/Internet request: None

6. When: Sat 19:00
Location: P-511BE
Title: Who Watched the Watchmen?
Session ID: 254
All Participants: Russell Blackford, Scott Edelman, Tom Stidman,
Lenny Bailes, Yanni Kuznia
Moderator: Russell Blackford
Description: After many years and false starts the big screen
adaptation of “Watchmen” finally happened. Was it any good? Was it
too faithful? Not faithful enough? Did it make sense if you hadn’t
read the graphic novel? Let’s discuss.

7. When: Sun 12:30
Location: P-513A
Title: I'm Not Scared any More
Session ID: 582
All Participants: Russell Blackford, Stephen H. Segal, Kaaron Warren
Moderator: Kaaron Warren
Description: One problem horror has is that, once it puts a new scary
idea into the discourse, that idea rapidly becomes normalised and,
well, not scary. So what's really scary now, this late in the day?

8. When: Sun 21:00
Location: P-511BE
Title: No One can Hear You Scream
Session ID: 389
All Participants: Cynthia Huckle, Geza A.G. Reilly, Jennifer
Williams, Russell Blackford
Moderator: Jennifer Williams
Description: It’s 30 years since Ridley Scott scared the living
daylights out of us with “Alien.” Was it just a haunted house story
set in space? Was there anything to admire beyond the goo and gore?
Is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) still a heroine for the ages? Let’s take
a look at a key SF film (and its sequels and ripoffs) and see why this
one still causes nightmares.

9. When: Mon 12:30
Location: P-511BE
Title: Genetic Engineering Our Offspring
Session ID: 38
All Participants: Birgit Houston, John Wilson, Judy T. Lazar, Russell
Blackford
, Paolo Bacigalupi
Moderator: Russell Blackford
Description: Surgical modifications, perhaps with controlled
re-growth. Cyborg technology. All standard SF tropes that are now just
around the next corner but one. What will all these changes mean? To
us as individuals? As a society? Will we try to postpone or control
them? Will we succeed? Will we still be human and does it matter? And
what reactions will there be from broader society?
Duration: 1:00 hrs:min
Language: English
Track: Science and Space
AV/Internet request: Microphones / PA

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

House hunt

I don't know whether the link will work forever, but this is the place that we're planning to buy if all goes well (assuming no negative pest report, no getting gazumped by anyone else who is interested in it, etc). It will have plenty of space for visitors from interstate or overseas, as well as for two studies, and for entertaining.

Will report on events ...

Monday, July 20, 2009

More on H.E. Baber's piece in The Guardian

This is adapted from a long comment that I made over at Butterflies and Wheels, where H.E. Baber has engaged with criticisms.

I found the original piece in The Guardian nonsensical, to be blunt, but it makes a little bit more sense now that it has been qualified in the course of discussion. It would have been nice if the original piece had made clear that it was not attacking the (supposed) irrational certainty and aggression of the people who are usually called "New Atheists" (such as Dennett) but that of some of their fans. Using Dennett as an example of a New Atheist, Baber felt free to write:

"New Atheists believe in unbelief. For some reason they think it important to assure their followers in the village that religious belief is not merely false but uncontroversially false and that educated people who profess to be religious believers or claim that theism is compatible with science are out to dupe them."

She concluded:

"I would be very interested in hearing why the New Atheists and their followers believe, with such manifest conviction, in unbelief."

In the thread at Butterflies and Wheels, she now writes:

"Atheism has been the norm in in Academia for decades and currently I suspect most educated people even in the US are at most polite agnostics. Of course I know that Dennett, Dawkins, et. al know that atheism is nothing new. It's the village atheists who rant in the comments section in the Guardian, imagining that they're sniffed out theism in the most unlikely places who think they're onto something revolutionary."

I do agree that there are some people who could be said to believe in unbelief with a dogmatic and manifest sort of conviction: we even have words for them, such as "knee-jerk atheists". There are people who will take what they imagine to be the atheist stance on any possible issue and will never be civil or thoughtful, even when dealing with the most liberal (and possibly non-literal) religionists (and I do agree that some are all-too-quick to accuse others of bad faith).

For an example of mindlessly cheering for the atheist side, when Yoko Ono sued the Expelled people over what I believed to be a very fair use of a small snippet of the John Lennon song "Imagine", many atheists commenting in the blogosphere cheered for Ono by reflex. The main point seemed to be that she was on their "side" - when it would have been better to stop and ask whether this might be a case where intellectual property rights were being pushed too far to the detriment of free speech. They were failing to see the larger picture, and were rooting for Yoko Ono much as one might root for a football team.

I blogged at length, setting out why I thought that the Expelled people should win in court, much as I disliked their general position as opponents of good science and purveyors of clear falsehoods about an academic conspiracy to silence dissent. As it later turned out, the makers of Expelled won the case - using arguments very similar to those that I'd suggested (not that I claim they got them from me!).

So, yes, we do have knee-jerk atheists who are far less nuanced and thoughtful than Dennett, Dawkins, etc., themselves. But that is inevitable. What movement doesn't attract a lot of people who adopt a relatively crude version of its ideas? It's very unfair to write in a way that perpetuates the myth that Dennett, Dawkins, etc., themselves are unnuanced and dogmatic. Any fair reading of their work shows the opposite. If anything, there is now some urgency in dispelling that myth, which is not only unfair but also making it more difficult for the individuals concerned to get a decent hearing, i.e. they have been demonised with some success.

I do believe that religion should be challenged publicly, and I'm frankly amazed at the suggestion that nothing turns on the question of whether the epistemic content of the various religions is actually correct. Much, very much, turns on it. The Catholic Church and other religious organisations claim to be in a position to speak with great epistemic and moral authority. This enables them to pronounce in public on all sorts of issues, including abortion rights, censorship, gay rights, stem-cell research, IVF, and on and on. I can think of no more important issue for public consideration than whether or not these organisations really do possess the epistemic and moral authority that they claim - and which politicians and journalists are all too ready to assume they actually have.

For this and similar reasons, I've become vocal about the issues in the public sphere, including co-editing the forthcoming book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (which H.E. Baber may be interested in reading when it is published soon from Wiley-Blackwell).

I live in Australia, where most of my friends are writers, artists, academics, and the like. In my own social milieu, most people are atheists. It doesn't follow that the churches lack political influence here, or that they receive no deference from the media and politicians. In fact, they receive much deference and exert great political influence. The question is whether that deference and influence can be justified if the churches do not really speak for a God. We need a debate here, as elsewhere, about just how much epistemic and moral authority these organisations should be accorded.

Although I don't encounter much day-to-day religiosity in my current social world, I have encountered plenty of it in my life. Don't assume it's not there because it's not found much among the ranks of university academics (for example). In any event, even in academe there has been a taboo, here in Australia, against strong criticism of religion or the churches.

I didn't see this as a student in the 1970s, but during the 1980s and until very recently, with Dawkins, etc., breaking the ice, it became unacceptable to criticise religion, certainly in any way beyond the most respectful and genteel. Of course, it was still possible to write articles arguing for atheism in professional journals devoted to philosophy of religion, but beyond that the taboo became very strong.

I may be wrong about this, but I see the taboo that developed in the 1980s as part of that decade's obsession with identity politics. The religious of various kinds became groups who had to be treated with total respect, or so it was thought, much like (in my circles) gays and people of colour. However, if that was the justification for shutting up about religion, it was a very poor analogy. In Western societies, the religious are not - like gays or Australian Aborigines - a group that needs special protection. On the contrary, it is often the rest of us who need protection when our freedoms are threatened by legal restrictions enacted by governments that defer to the religious lobby.

In all, Dawkins, Dennett, and others who get labeled as "New Atheists" have performed a public service by opening up a public debate about the epistemic content of religion. I continue to think that much of the reaction to this - much of the distaste, bemusement, whatever - is ill-founded and even nonsensical. It displays a failure to grasp the real-world problem of religion's persistence and its ongoing power and influence, even in supposedly secular societies.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Down with this evil organisation

Nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes you read a news story that really reminds you about the enormity of what people of reason and kindness are up against when they confront so-called "people of faith" ... not the nice, tea-drinking Anglican kind of people, who can often make perfectly good friends and allies, but dyed-in-the-wool, hardline faith-heads who are committed to truly inhuman, miserable dogmas. The kind of people who would force a raped child to have a baby. The kind who who would condemn anyone involved in procuring an abortion for the child. I don't have strong enough words to express my feelings of utter contempt.

So, no, I'm not talking about the touchy-feely Templeton Foundation. I have bigger fish to fry. Speaking of which, I'm not talking about the Loyal Order of Eaglefish.

Down with this particular evil organisation, and with those who rule it; more strength to the arm of anyone with the courage to challenge it. I think that's especially worth saying right now.

He (or she) who hath an ear, let him (or her) hear.

Oh, and while I'm here posting ... pop over to The Guardian for your daily dose of less harmful, but still thoroughly wrong-headed, nonsense.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Faitheists"

I like this word. Congratulations to Jerry Coyne for running his competition over at Why Evolution Is True and choosing such a neat winning entry.

For those who don't recall, or weren't following, Jerry was looking for a snappy word to describe: "those atheists who are nonetheless soft on faith (i.e., atheist accommodationists). ... the kind of people ... who say, 'I am an atheist, but ...'. In other words, the folks who, says Daniel Dennett, have 'belief in belief.' That’s a snappy phrase, but it ain’t one word."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Baggini on belief in belief

Julian Baggini, one of the contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, has written an interesting article on "belief in belief", a phenomenon that he condemns pretty much unequivocally (like me, he allows for exceptional cases where self-belief is necessary; in fact, I'd go a bit further in making these kinds of exceptions to strict epistemic probity or intellectual honesty).

There's a sting in the tale - right at the end, Julian reminds us that we all need to avoid weaknesses of intellectual dishonesty. Atheists need to be careful not to fall into a "belief in unbelief". I'm not sure who or what he has in mind here, but it's true that we need to avoid a knee-jerk atheism that assumes all ills will be cured if only religion will go away. Obviously, it ain't so simple.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More on the house front

We have one place ranked a clear number 1 in our minds as a possibility. Will have a proper inspection of it tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

Monday, July 13, 2009

House hunting

We're spending a few days hunting for a house in Newcastle, where we're planning to move later in the year. We're fairly choosy about location - and other things, too. It has to have enough bedrooms and bathrooms and stuff laid on so we can encourage people to visit and then put them up in comfort ... and we do want people to visit. Jenny, and I, and Felix will all have to be happy with it.

Haven't seen the perfect place yet, but have seen a couple worth thinking about.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jesus and Mo on the relationship between religion and science


I do love the wonderful Jesus and Mo cartoons. I used this one on Thursday during my talk at the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Iran Solidarity

Iran Solidarity

In June 2009 millions of people came out on to the streets of Iran for freedom and an end to the Islamic regime. Whilst the June 12 election was a pretext for the protests - elections have never been free or fair in Iran – it has opened the space for people to come to the fore with their own slogans.

The world has been encouraged by the protesters’ bravery and humane demands and horrified by the all-out repression they have faced. It has seen a different image of Iran - one of a population that refuses to kneel even after 30 years of living under Islamic rule.

The dawn that this movement heralds for us across the world is a promising one – one that aims to bring Iran into the 21st century and break the back of the political Islamic movement internationally.

This is a movement that must be supported.

Declaration

We, the undersigned, join Iran Solidarity to declare our unequivocal solidarity with the people of Iran. We hear their call for freedom and stand with them in opposition to the Islamic regime of Iran. We demand:

1. The immediate release of all those imprisoned during the recent protests and all political prisoners
2. The arrest and public prosecution of those responsible for the current killings and atrocities and for those committed during the last 30 years
3. Proper medical attention to those wounded during the protests and ill-treated and tortured in prison. Information on the status of the dead, wounded and arrested to their families. The wounded and arrested must have access to their family members. Family members must be allowed to bury their loved ones where they choose.
4. A ban on torture
5. The abolition of the death penalty and stoning
6. Unconditional freedom of expression, thought, organisation, demonstration, and strike
7. Unconditional freedom of the press and media and an end to restrictions on communications, including the internet, telephone, mobiles and satellite television programmes
8. An end to compulsory veiling and gender apartheid
9. The abolition of discriminatory laws against women and the establishment of complete equality between men and women
10. The complete separation of religion from the state, judiciary, education and religious freedom and atheism as a private matter.

Moreover, we call on all governments and international institutions to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran and break all diplomatic ties with it. We are opposed to military intervention and economic sanctions because of their adverse affects on people’s lives.

The people of Iran have spoken; we stand with them.

Initial list of signatories:

Boaz Adhengo, Humanist and Ethical Union of Kenya, Kenya
Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Coordinator, Stop Child Executions Campaign, Canada
Mina Ahadi, Campaigner, Germany
Sargul Ahmad, Activist, Women’s Liberation in Iraq, Canada
Susan Ahmadi, Mitra Daneshi, and Furugh Arghavan, Iran Civil Rights Committee, Canada
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Writer and Columnist, UK
Mahin Alipour, Coordinator, Equal Rights Now - Organisation against Women's Discrimination in Iran, Sweden
Farideh Arman, Coordinator, International Campaign in Defence of Women’s Rights in Iran, Sweden
Abdullah Asadi, Executive Director, International Federation of Iranian Refugees, Sweden
Zari Asli, Friends of Women in the Middle East Society, Canada
Ophelia Benson, Editor, Butterflies and Wheels, USA
Julie Bindel, Journalist and Activist, UK
Russell Blackford, Writer and Philosopher, Australia
Nazanin Borumand, Never Forget Hatun Campaign against Honour Killings, Germany
Caroline Brancher, UFAL, France
George Broadhead, Secretary of Pink Triangle Trust, UK
Children First Now, Sweden
Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners, UK
Communist Youth Organisation, Sweden
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia
Count Me In – Iranian Action Network, UK
Thomas Cushman, Founding Editor and Editor-at-Large of The Journal of Human Rights, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Wellesley College, USA
Shahla Daneshfar, Director, Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners, UK
Richard Dawkins, Scientist, UK
Patty Debonitas, Third Camp against US Militarism and Islamic Terrorism, UK
Deeyah, Singer and Composer, USA
Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, Sweden
Tarek Fatah, Author, Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, Canada
AC Grayling, Writer and Philosopher, UK
Maria Hagberg, Chair, Network against Honour-Related Violence, Sweden
Johann Hari, Journalist, UK
Farzana Hassan, Writer, Canada
Marieme Helie Lucas, founder Secularism Is A Women's Issue, France
Farshad Hoseini, International Campaign against Executions, Netherlands
Humanist and Ethical Union of Kenya, Kenya
Khayal Ibrahim, Coordinator, Organization of Women's Liberation in Iraq, Canada
Leo Igwe, Director, Nigerian Humanist Movement, Nigeria
International Campaign for the Defence of Women’s Rights in Iran, Sweden
Iran Civil Rights Committee, Canada
International Committee against Executions, Netherlands
International Committee to Protect Freethinkers, Canada
International Committee against Stoning, Germany
International Federation of Iranian Refugees, Sweden
International Labour Solidarity, UK
Iranian Secular Society, UK
Ehsan Jami, Politician, the Netherlands
Asqar Karimi, Executive Committee Member, Worker-communist Party of Iran, UK
Hope Knutsson, President, Sidmennt - the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, Iceland
Hartmut Krauss, Editor, Hintergrund, Germany
Sanine Kurz, Journalist, Germany
Ghulam Mustafa Lakho, Advocate, High Court of Sindh, Pakistan
Derek Lennard, UK Coordinator of International Day against Homophobia, UK
Nasir Loyand, Left Radical of Afghanistan, Afghanistan
Kenan Malik, writer, lecturer and broadcaster, UK
Johnny Maudlin, writer of Neda (You Will Not Defeat The People), Canada
Stefan Mauerhofer, Co-President, Freethinker Association of Switzerland, Switzerland
Anthony McIntyre, Writer, Ireland
Navid Minay, General Secretary, Communist Youth Organisation, Sweden
Reza Moradi, Producer, Fitna Remade, UK
Douglas Murray, Director, Centre for Social Cohesion, UK
Maryam Namazie, Campaigner, UK
Taslima Nasrin, Writer, Physician and Activist
National Secular Society, UK
Never Forget Hatun Campaign against Honour Killings, Germany
Nigerian Humanist Movement, Nigeria
Samir Noory, Writer, Canada
Yulia Ostrovskaya and Svetlana Nugaeva, Rule of Law Institute, Russia
One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain, UK
Peyvand - Solidarity Committee for Freedom Movement in Iran, Germany
Pink Triangle Trust, UK
Fariborz Pooya, Founder, Iranian Secular Society, UK
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, Afghanistan
Flemming Rose, Journalist and Editor, Denmark
Michael Rubenstein, Publisher, Equal Opportunities Review, UK
Rule of Law Institute, Russia
Fahimeh Sadeghi, Coordinator, International Federation of Iranian Refugees-Vancouver, Canada
Arash Mishka Sahami, TV Factual Producer, UK
Terry Sanderson, President, National Secular Society, UK
Shahla Sarabi, Programmer, Radio Pazhvak, Canada
Michael Schmidt-Salomon, Philosopher, Author and Giordano Bruno Foundation Spokesperson, Germany
Gabi Schmidt, Teacher, Germany
Karim Shahmohammadi, Director, Children First Now, Sweden
Sohaila Sharifi, Editor, Unveiled, London, UK
Udo Schuklenk, Philosophy professor, Queen’s University, Canada
Issam Shukri, Head, Defense of Secularism and Civil Rights in Iraq; Central Committee Secretary, Left Worker-communist Party of Iraq, Iraq
Bahram Soroush, Public Relations, International Labour Solidarity, UK
Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner, UK
Dick Taverne, Baron, House of Lords, UK
Hamid Taqvaee, Central Committee Secretary, Worker-communist Party of Iran, UK
Third Camp, UK
Saeed Valadbeigi, Revolution Road blogger and Journalist, Iran
Karin Vogelpohl, Pedagogue, Germany
Babak Yazdi, Head of Khavaran, Canada
Marvin F. Zayed, President, International Committee to Protect Freethinkers, Canada

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

In good company ...

Here are the speakers for the 2009 Atheist Alliance International Convention, to be held in Los Angeles in early October.

Blackburn on Armstrong

Simon Blackburn has an interesting review of the latest from Karen Armstrong (thanks to commenters at Butterflies and Wheels for this).

Blackburn is a plenary speaker at the AAP conference this week - I look forward to seeing him in action.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Back cover description

50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a unique and thought–provoking collection of original essays that address personal disbelief in a higher power. Drawn from an international cast of professionals in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics, contributors offer carefully considered statements of why they reject the idea of a deity governing the universe and human affairs. Several essays also address such issues as the social role of religion and its alternatives. The responses feature a stunning diversity of viewpoints and tone, ranging from rigorous philosophical arguments to highly personal — at times even whimsical — accounts of how each of these notable thinkers have come to reject religion in their lives. Whether you′re a believer or not, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists offers an intellectually stimulating journey into the possibilities for rational and reasonable people everywhere to live without the crutch of religion.

50 Voices of Disbelief cracks top 4000

Earlier today, we briefly reached an Amazon UK ranking of 3996 (for all I know we may have peaked even higher).

We're falling back again now, but that's a very healthy ranking, especially for a book that won't even be published for a couple of months. The publicity from the interview with Viktor Nagornyy must have had an impact - Ophelia Benson has given the interview a couple of mentions over at Butterflies and Wheels, and the link from Richard Dawkins' site probably helped a lot. Thanks to all concerned.

We peaked at about 100,000 on Amazon the other day. Even that's not bad for a book that won't be published in the US until October. Again, we've slipped back now ... but the signs are hopeful that 50 Voices of Disbelief will attract some interest.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

AAP conference this week

Over the next few days, I'll be at the AAP - Australasian Association of Philosophy - conference, which is being held in Melbourne again this year. Transmission will be intermittent, alas.

I'll be giving a paper on Thursday evening: "NOMA No More!" Attacking the discredited NOMA Principle is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel; however, this particular fishy theory has more lives than Doctor Who, so it's worth taking another shot at it.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Johann Hari reviews Does God Hate Women?

A great review of Does God Hate Women? (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom).

Johann Hari is a true voice of reason - we're lucky to have him. My only complaint is that the bastard is still so young; I see that he turned 30 in January. No, that's not a point against him: I'm just expressing sheer naked envy (and a degree of awe) when confronted by someone who has already accomplished so much, so early in his life. :)

But that's good, of course, since there's all the more time for him to make a huge, positive contribution to our culture.

Johann Hari rocks!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Kate Forsyth on The Priestess and the Slave

Lovely and brilliant fantasy writer Kate Forsyth reviews The Priestess and the Slave. Whoops, she does make an arithmetical error at one point, adding five millennia instead of five centuries - the book is actually set about 2,500 years ago. But all is forgiven. It's a great review.

Don't forget that you can buy The Priestess and the Slave online in various ways ...including via Amazon or (especially for Aussies) from Boomerang Books.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

50 Voices of Disbelief - interview with Viktor Nagornyy

Udo and I are interviewed over here on the Examiner.com website by Viktor Nagornyy.

The bottom line?

Lastly, why should anyone buy it? How will it enrich their lives?

Udo: Honestly, what surprised me most is how many of the contributors took our invitation seriously and divulged their personal reasons for being atheists. I found their essays most enlightening and entertaining. It’s greatly enriching to learn about these well-known people’s struggles that led them down the reality-based path. There are also contributions that are strictly academic and analytical in nature. As a philosopher I appreciate a carefully constructed and expressed analysis. So, in a sense, the mix and diversity of our voices is what makes this volume such a rich anthology.

Russell: What Udo said ... and I want to emphasize the sheer diversity of the book. The contributors don't always agree with each other on such things as the future of religion, or how conciliatory we should be towards its more liberal manifestations. But that just makes the book even more thought provoking.


Please do have a look at the whole interview.