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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Off to LA

Off to LA tomorrow! I'm looking forward to meeting lots of people, making new friends, turning some online friendships into real-life friendships, maybe having a beer with some friendly accommodationists, just to show that we "extreme atheists" aren't all that bad, or all that extreme, and so on.

This bash has already been generating a lot of debate. What is an organisation like Atheist Alliance International doing giving an award to Bill Maher, who apparently has some very worrying opinions about alternative medicine? Is the list of speakers too heavily weighted towards men? (As to that, last I counted only about 4 out of about 27 speakers are female, leading one person on PZ's blog to describe the line-up as a "cock forest").

And then there'll be the folks wanting to promote outspoken, uncompromising atheism arguing with those who take a more accommodating line towards at least some kinds of religion. Given my background, you might think I'd belong to the latter group - I was once a student religious leader on my local campus, and I don't assume that religious people are ipso facto bad people; I've said again and again that I don't consider genuinely moderate Christians and other believers to be my enemies; I've also said that philosophical deism cannot be refuted, even though I see no good reason to actually believe in a deist sort of God. I remain, in some ways, a cultural Anglican who also has some experience that gives me an understanding of how evangelicals and pentecostals think, and I don't believe for one moment they are all simply fruitloops (though some of them certainly are that ... or worse).

Notwithstanding all the above, I find myself in the more "hard-line" group that will be represented at the godless bash in LA, since, at the end of the day, I can't accept such claims as that science has nothing to say about religion; that religion is only about such things as morality; that religion has anything of much value to offer, or has any legitimate authority, in the moral domain; or that religion presents a "way of knowing" that gives us reliable information about a supernatural realm. I'm not going to accede to any of those propositions when I think they are seriously mistaken, and even dangerous. I don't accept that this makes me "extreme" or a "fundamentalist atheist". It simply makes me a person who has thought through the philosophical issues and reached some conclusions that I'm convinced are rational and reasonable.

I'm sure that there are people Out There who are far less willing than I am to get along with anyone who professes, say, an eighteenth-century-style of deism or one of the various kinds of politically liberal, non-literalist religion. I'm also strong on the point that separation of church and state cuts both ways - if the religious stop trying to abridge our liberties by influencing the state to pass repressive laws (e.g. against abortion and euthanasia), we'll let them organise internally however they like. Stop trying to bully us with your religious morality, and we'll leave you alone. But the sort of accommodationist line that we've been seeing this year, from so many quarters, goes much further than anything I can accept, and I don't take kindly to the suggestion that my considered views should be censored for some important cause or other.

The issue of accommodationism, in particular, has generated much blogospheric heat in the past few months, so - uh-oh - the temperatures in LA may be quite high this coming weekend.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Doctor's report

I've been griping for some time now what a rotten year I've been having for (relatively low level) ill health in the form of repeated chest infections, the worst of which not only made me lose my voice but knocked me flat on my back for a couple of days when I was in Montreal (nearly a couple of months ago now).

About ten days ago, just before heading off to Newcastle for a week, I had a blood test and a chest X-ray. I met with my doctor this morning and found that, at the time of the X-ray, I had fairly bad bronchitis ... but nothing worse. Although this feels like it's cleared up - I feel fine and it'll be no problem to fly to LA in a couple of days - a bit of prodding with the stethoscope found that there is still some gunk in my lungs to be cleared up.

The blood test showed almost everything to be quite normal and healthy, except my cholesterol level has snuck up slightly and my uric acid level is still too high. My doctor is always imploring me to do something about the latter, or I'm going to end up with gout sooner or later. However, much as I don't want to become a gout-ridden old man when I grow up, it's easier said than done to drive the uric acid level down. When in LA I must try to avoid Jerry Coyne at meal times, knowing his dietary habits, or I'll real be in trouble. ;)

But relevantly to the present issue, there's an indication of allergic reaction to a variety of grasses - ragweed, rye grass, and on and on. So maybe I should never leave the safety of the city, with its nice artificial pollutants. (Unexpectedly, perhaps, last week's dramatic dust storms on the Australian east coast didn't seem to affect me at all.)

We'll be looking into this in a few weeks, when I'm back from my next batch of travels and my doctor is back from a hard-earned holiday that he's starting this evening. It's intriguing, though. I can't make any connection along the lines of "visit the countryside = get sick next day", but I have been travelling out in the countryside a lot more in the last year or two than I would normally, for one reason or other. Stay tuned, and we'll see how this little mystery turns out.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Er, I think this must be Melbourne

Okay, we're back for now. This last week was spent in Newcastle, where we completed the settlement and took possession (as they say) of our new house. We're very excited about this, and have spent a fair bit of time there, i.e. at the new house, as well as with our folks and friends. Somewhere amongst it all, we endured two dust storms, as high winds carried red soil across the country from South Australia and the Northern Territory to the east coast. On the other hand, we missed a minor earthquake in Melbourne while we were away. Also somewhere along the line (actually, the day of the biggest, most spectacular dust storm) we attended a gig at the university bookshop to give The Priestess and the Slave its Newcastle launch, which went very well. Thanks especially to Terry Ryan for his generous and magnificent launching speech.

On Friday night, we went out to dinner with my father, my sister, and her husband for Dad's birthday (which was actually Saturday, but who's counting?).

All in all, it's been an enjoyable but very busy week. There was also a lot of correspondence to deal with this week, in stray moments, much of it emanating from Texas where Damien Broderick's newest project was generating queries (hello, Damien) - I'll explain about that as the project concerned comes to fruition.

Now to collapse for tonight and then face a couple of tightly-packed days before heading off to Los Angeles for a week and a bit. The tightly-packed days include a trip to the doctor tomorrow, to see whether a couple of test results can shed any light on why I've had so much ill health this year. It's probably the wrath of Zeus or some other god that has decided I need punishment for something-or-other.

I'll get back to Australia on 8 October and then have nearly three weeks at home base before the next trip to the US - this time for the World Fantasy Convention. And then we'll need to start organising the big move.

But a lot is happening at the moment, much of it very exciting. If it all works out, we have a wonderful year ahead, but some things are just a little bit in flux, and there'll probably be more of this rather than less in the immmediate future. Still, you wouldn't be dead. :)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Normal transmission resumes soon...

... but not for long. I get home tomorrow night, but will have only a couple of hectic days in Melbourne. Then off to LA for a week!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The problem of Andrew Sullivan

Over here ,an astute reader replies to Sullivan's "let's-change-the-subject" answer to the Problem of Evil. The reader says:

You confused me with your dismissal of the theodicy argument. Here are my two biggest objections to what you had to say:
First, I have never looked at the theodicy argument as an argument against faith, or I should say, all faith. Rather, I have looked at it as an argument against an omnipotent, wholly good God. It does not necessarily deny God; it denies a particular God and, at most, the supposed rational portions of a faith associated with that particular God. Second, the snippet of Blackford’s argument that you presented noted suffering that “took place long before human beings even existed.” Yet your dismissal of the argument rested on your belief that “suffering is part of a fallen creation.” My understanding of the Judeo-Christian “fallen creation” is that it did not occur until – and it occurred only with – the presence of human beings. Therefore, your rejoinder had nothing to do with Blackford’s argument that you presented your readers.

It seems to me that the theodicy argument is an argument from reason. Your argument is an argument from faith. Therein lies the paradox: you cannot counter reason with faith. As I learned this summer from reading Unamuno, the irresolvable conclusions arrived at through reason and through faith lead us to what he calls the tragic sense of life.


Sullivan says that he takes the first point.

Well, lets leave aside the rest of the argument. Sullivan simply has to admit that he has no response to the argument as I presented it.

In a later post, Sullivan complains that Jerry Coyne has been pretty dismissive of his, um, argument. Well, understandably so, since Sullivan has provided nothing of intellectual substance. What is Coyne supposed to do, call the supposed resolution something it is not? It doesn't work, and, nice though Jerry and I may be, we can't say it does when it palpably doesn't.

Sullivan does say,

My own reconciliation with this came not from authority, but from experience. I lived through a plague which killed my dearest friend and countless others I knew and loved. I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.

I'm terribly sorry to read about the death of Sullivan's friend. I can see why this subject may be painful to him. I am terrified of losing the people I love, or any of them, especially if it happens long before their time.

But Sullivan was the one who chose to comment on my post about the Problem of Evil. He can't suddenly expect us to drop the intellectual rigour because something terrible happened to him in the past, though he can, of course, expect our ordinary human sympathy for his loss (and he has it). But he has failed to say anything in response to my argument that makes any rational sense as an explanation of why God has allowed all this suffering, most of it millions of years before human beings even evolved. There is no reason why an omnipotent God had to do things this way, and no plausible reason has ever been given, by Sullivan or anyone else, as to why a loving and benevolent God would be motivated to do so. Sullivan has said nothing even remotely responsive to the problem as I formulated it.

Once again, though, my sincere sympathy for the loss of his friend.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Jerry Coyne on Andrew Sullivan on the Problem of Evil

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne has a good discussion going, after linking to Andrew Sullivan's comments on the Problem of Evil.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The "change the subject" defence of God

As I mentioned during last week's "non-debate" about the Problem of Evil at the University of Melbourne, one favourite response from religious believers, since they have no intellectually plausible solution to the problem, is to change the subject and talk about something else, such as the significance of the cross. My Christian interlocutors then proceeded to do a certain amount of this, as I predicted,

But here's Andrew Sullivan offering a perfect example in response to my most recent blog post on the subject. All very well, Andrew, but it's simply not responsive to the paragraph that you quote from my blog, which seems to me to have gone unrefuted.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Press release from the Wiley site

September 03, 2009
Boston, MA
50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists

Recent religious and philosophical debate from self-proclaimed “atheists” has challenged the ethical, scientific, and political implications behind belief and non-belief, and the potential damage that can be done in the crusade to promote a certain brand of faith. A handful of spokespeople have appeared on the mount in defense of their non-belief, including authors Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), and television host Bill Maher with his film Religulous.

The authors of this collection of original essays 50 VOICES OF DISBELIEF: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, October 2009) come together from varied professions and perspectives to broaden the debate even further and present carefully considered statements on the nuances of personal belief. At this intersection is the overall consensus that religion cannot explain all, or offer a solution to all people, and that science and personal responsibility must play a central role in this discovery.

The contributors do not simply defensively react to the bullying tactics from the religious camp with dogmatic and similar conversion-based tactics, but plainly state their case, revealing an essentially humanist philosophy. They effectively defend their right to proudly practice outside the sphere of organized faith and continue to question the authority presented by these long-standing faith-based institutions.

The internationally-based contributors work in the fields of science, academia, literature, media, and politics and include Peter Singer (Chapter 46: Why Morality Doesn’t Need Religion), Susan Blackmore (Chapter 33: Giving Up Ghosts and Gods), Joe Haldeman (Chapter 30: Atheist Out of the Foxhole), Julian Baggini (Chapter 21: Atheist, Obviously), A.C. Grayling (Chapter 22: Why I Am Not a Believer), Peter Tatchell (Chapter 48: My Nonreligious Life: A Journey from Superstition to Rationalism), and Graham Oppy (Chapter 9: What I Believe).

50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists • October 2009 [UK] • November 2009 [U.S.] • Philosophy of Religion • Hardcover: 1-4051-9045-9, $89.95; £55 • Paperback: 1-4051-9046-6, $29.95; £16.99 • 360 pp

Migrating my website

Bear with me if there are glitches as my website - http://www.russellblackford.com - migrates to a new service provider. If anyone has problems over the next few days ... well, let's hope they are temporary.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Creeping closer to the big move


The settlement of our purchase of a house in Newcastle takes place next Tuesday. We'll be up in Newcastle next week to hand over the purchase money, get the keys, and take a first look at our new prize without all the vendors' stuff in it. We won't actually be moving for some time, and won't even be thinking about the logistics until we get the next batch of overseas travel out of the way. But it's getting closer to the big move.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Barney Zwartz on the Problem of Evil

Barney Zwartz, religion editor of The Age newspaper, has published the written version of his speech to the Problem of Evil forum at the University of Melbourne the other day. Note that I will not be following suit: I judged it more effective to speak without notes. (I had a couple of cards with a few reminder points and quotations scribbled on them, in case I needed them, but made little use of them and certainly did not have any written speech.)

Anyway, Barney's main points don't seem very responsive to the question of why an all-good (in the sense of loving, benevolent, etc., God) would want to permit evil in the form of suffering, or why an all-powerful God would be unable to prevent the evil. In his speech, he claims that no one really believes in a God with these qualities of omnipotence and omnibenevolence, but that is plainly nonsense. The Bible, of course, is not written in such abstract language; however, most Christians (and probably most Muslims and Jews) do, in fact, believe in a God with these superlative qualities. Ask a traditional Christian whether, for example, she believes the power of God is limited, and she will certainly be unwilling to say "Yes." The many people who have suffered enormous anxiety, or even lost their religious faith, over the years and centuries have, in fact, been wracked by doubt as to why a God who is capable of preventing suffering is seemingly not motivated to do so. The nub of it is this: How can a God not motivated to prevent suffering that it could avert with no effort at all be thought of as all-good in the sense of good that has so often been taught? Is this really the goodness of an infinitely benevolent being?

Of course, that's a philosophical question. It's the kind of thing that philosophers think about. But it's a question that relates to the God believed in by many, many people who are not professional philosophers.

Barney Zwartz admits quite freely that he can't answer this question, and that the answers attempted in the past can seem merely glib. It's no use throwing up your hands and saying we don't understand because we are finite. No doubt we are ... but how can there be such a complicated story to understand? It's not as if God has to work with a lot of complex limitations and difficulties, like a movie director with a conceited cast of actors and a tight budget; God is supposed to be omnipotent. If we had some overwhelming reason to believe that this God exists, but could not answer the question, then perhaps we'd be justified in throwing up our hands and saying, "We don't know the answer, but there must be one." But once doubts arise as to whether this kind of God exists at all, that is unsatisfactory. If we think about it honestly, distancing ourselves from our religious starting point (if we do have such a starting point), the honest approach is to admit that there's (1) no plausible answer, (2) no plausible prospect of one, and (3) no reason to be confident that there "just must" be one.

As for the idea that Christians and others have an "infantile" religion if they think it's all about them as individuals, this seems like a very odd thing to say of a religion that offers each individual personal salvation, but in any event it misses the point. The point isn't whether I, Russell (for example), am the centre of the universe, the single focus of God's concern, and should have a carefree life with nothing but happiness. Rather, God is supposed to care in an infinitely loving way about each individual. It's not, "Why does this horrible thing happen to me?" but, "Why is an infinitely loving God prepared to let horrible suffering happen at all, to any human being or any other sentient creature?"

We live in a world in which many creatures, vast numbers of them - human and otherwise - suffer terribly. This has been going on for untold millions of years. It wasn't caused by acts of human free will 6000 years ago - or 100,000 or 200,000 years ago - and there is no plausibility in the claim that all the instances are contributing to some higher good (how could that possibly work?). That's the situation we face. It has nothing to do with individual people having an "infantile" religion.

Note in passing that the free will explanation makes no sense, and Barney Zwartz didn't even try to explain how it might. We could have been created in such a way that we never act cruelly, for example, because free will is not about acting in some random way that doesn't reflect our character. It is about acting in a way that does reflect our character. When we act freely, we get to act on our actual values, after thinking about what we want to do. We want to deliberate without someone threatening us with a gun (for example). But we don't want to act in some way that is not a reflection of our actual values, as if our decisions were made by quantum-level randomisers in our brains.

(Imagine a world where everything in the situation, including everything about me - my principles of choice, values, etc. - is exactly the same as in this world, and yet I make a different decision. I might be a kind person, who makes a kind decision in this world, but in the other world I make a cruel decision. Or vice versa. That's not free will. That's having my decisions determined by a randomness beyond my control, so that my decisions don't reflect how I actually am, whether cruel or kind. In this scenario, there is no guarantee that my decisions reflect the real me, so how can I ever be blamed or praised for them? I may act cruelly, not because I am a cruel person but because of my quantum randomiser. This is nonsense. Why would this have anything to do with free will, and why would an infinitely loving God set things up so that cruel decisions might or might not emerge in this way from kind people? Where's the value in that?)

In any event, most of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, "Let it be so!" That's what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.

Barney Zwartz tried to de-fuse the issue, or dance around it, in various ways, but he freely admitted to having no explanation that was satisfactory. At least that's honest. Someone else might have tried to push harder on the free will defence, the higher goods defence, or some other lame explanation. These explanations do sound glib, as Barney says. In fact, they sound desperate or even intellectually dishonest. Some of them are morally monstrous. They are the refuge of someone who wants to hold onto religious faith at all costs.

The fact remains that the problem of evil is a real one for people with a traditional idea of God. The problem rightly causes many honest people deep anxiety. It assuredly does not involve a God that no one believes in, but the God that most monotheists actually worship, and it has never been satisfactorily solved. Of course, if you don't start by believing in gods at all, or you believe only in limited gods or metaphorical gods, the problem does not arise for you except as a hypothetical scenario. But for people who posit the traditional Abrahamic God, the problem assuredly does arise, and there is no adequate answer.

The intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God. Nothing less will do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Michael Shermer sounding transhumanist

Michael Shermer says: Assuming we don't nuke ourselves into oblivion, or cause our own extinction through germ warfare, the next step in human evolution will be genetic engineering and technology. We will modify ourselves genetically, first to eliminate diseases such as diabetes and cancer and dementia, etc., then we will modify our brains with chemicals and computers, and eventually, in the far future, we will probably become robots that can live an indefinite period of time, slowly and gradually replacing our biological systems with more durable and long-lasting technologies. Our lives will initially be extended by years, then dozens of years, then hundreds of years. Eventually, we may be able to live forever, but now we're in the realm of science fiction, not science, but it's a dream well worth having.

This is from an online interview at the Romanian site HotNews.ro.

On his religious views:

Agnostic is a term coined in 1869 by Thomas Huxley, to mean "unknowable." It is not possible to prove or disprove God, therefore it is a matter of faith, not reason or science. However, there are no behavioral agnostics--one behaves in a way that presumes one either believes or does not believe in God, and in this sense I am an atheist.

A Christian can accept evolutionary theory as God's way of creating life. The theory of evolution is no more of a problem for Christianity than is the theory of gravity. Presumably Christians assume that God used gravity to create solar systems and planets on which life can exist. So evolution may be the way that God created life. This is not what I believe, because I don't believe in God, but if you do believe in God it is the way you can also accept evolution.


Sounding Dawkinslike:

I don't think ID is correct. The universe may not have had a creator. It might have created itself, or it may have erupted from another universe. We just don't know. But in any case, if a creator created the universe, then who created the creator? If the creator is that which does not need to be created, then why can't the universe be that which does not need to be created. God. Universe. These are just words.

All in all, this is a great interview. Worth having a look at it all ... and at Michael's long essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief.

And here he is, yet again, trying out his ability as an actor in a Mr. Deity episode, via Pharyngula.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Karen Armstrong cops it from Albert Mohler

In my previous post, I referred to the recent article by Karen Armstrong in The Wall Street Journal, in which she trenchantly and convincingly attacked the traditional idea of God as a benign, all-powerful creator - the kind of loving, providential, yet all-good and all-powerful God of tradition, the benevolent Father who loves each of us and worries about the fall of every sparow (not to mention the fate of every sperm cell).

Having dismissed this notion of God, she goes on to defend God as a symbol of something else: some sort of transcendent, indescribable something-or-other that doesn't exist in the normal sense - but seems to have some kind of reality as more than a concept - and the contemplation of which (together with ritual or religious exercises) can lead us to become compassionate. It's difficult to get a fix on what this something-or-other would be like, since it is not describable or knowable, and there is some sense in which it doesn't even "exist". To me, this doesn't seem coherent. It sounds lofty, sonorous, and all that, but I can't attach any real meaning to it.

Well, maybe that just shows my cognitive limitations. However, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, will have none of Armstrong's super-sophisticated God. On the Christian site crosswalk.com, he tears into her. To Mohler, Armstrong is just another kind of atheist.

I'm not sure if this is exactly right, since I don't know enough about a transcendent, indescribable something-or-other that has some kind of reality but (in some sense) doesn't "exist" to know whether it should qualify as a god of some sort. I don't quite see how it can, and it's all very baffling, and the question makes my head spin. Still, this much is clear: she is an atheist about the sort of deity that most actual Christians and other monotheists believe in, and I think it's clear that she has good reasons for that, very similar to my own. She, of course, goes further and claims that her understanding of God is the traditional one ... but that's an awfully long bow to draw.

Here's what Mohler has to say about it:

Along the way, Armstrong offers a superficial and theologically reckless argument that comes down to this: Until the modern age, believers in God were not really believers in a God who was believed to exist. Then along came Sir Issac Newton and the "modern" belief that God must exist in order to be God. When Darwin came along to show "that there could be no proof for God's existence," he was doing God a favor -- allowing his survival as a mere symbol.

Yes, that seems to be Armstrong's position on the historical issue: i.e., "What is the tradition of Abrahamic theism really about?" Her position on that is wildly implausible. What were all those heresy trials really about, not to mention the wars and massacres involving those who believed in the wrong kind of God?

Mohler again:

She makes statements that amount to elegant nonsense. Consider this: "In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had -- somehow -- brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis." So she would have us to believe that, in centuries past, cosmology was merely therapy. She simply makes the assertion and moves on. Will anyone believe this nonsense?

Well, yes, some super-sophisticated theologians will believe it, or something like it. Others will argue differently: we used to believe in a traditional sort of God, a benign, all-powerful creator, but now we all know better. No one believes in this God any more. Yeah, right.

I hate to say it, because I sense that I'd like Armstrong more than Mohler if I met them both in person, but it's Mohler who sets the record straight. The God that Armstrong rejects is the one that Christians (most of them) actually believe in and gain comfort from. It is, as Mohler says, Dawkins who best recognises what he rejects.

I almost feel sorry for Armstrong in all this. I don't consider religious people of her kind to be my enemies at all. What's more, she may be a force for good, on balance. However, she's attempting high-wire mental gymnastics that were always going to come to grief. Hers is not a plausible way to defend God ... which is not to deny that it might be a good thing for the world if her version of theism ousted more traditional forms. It might very well be a better world that way. In fact, I'd love to see religion mutate into something innocuous, such as Armstrong imagines it has been in the past and remains in its essence. I'm happy that something like her theological position is taken by lots of nice, genuinely moderate religious people - really I am.

But if she wants to argue for this position about the nature of God, or God-talk, she needs to establish its intellectual merits. It's not enough to argue, implausibly, that her view of the world represents the true, pre-Newtonian tradition. That won't wash. Instead, she needs to tell us more ("us" particularly includes all her religious colleagues around the world). Specifically, why should we actually believe that the transcendent, indescribable something-or-other to which God points is any more real than the traditional sort of benign, all-powerful creator that does the pointing?

It's not enough to think that hers is a nicer idea of God. Maybe it is. But why should we actually give any credence to it?

Monday, September 14, 2009

A nice quote from Karen Armstrong

I like this:

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course — at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful.

For the full context, which I don't like so much, see here. The Wall Street Journal printed separate and independently written articles from Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins on the question, "Where does Evolution Leave God?" Each knew that the other one was writing to the same commission, but neither saw the other's article prior to publication.

Predictably, perhaps, I prefer the article by Dawkins, not only for its substantive content but also because of its typical lucidity. By contrast, I find much of what Armstrong has written unintelligible, perhaps incoherent, and (where some meaning can be discerned) misleading about the history of Christianity and of Abrahamic religion in general.

For all that, this particular quote, which contains most of the first paragraph, states the most important point in the whole discussion. My only quibble is that would have been more accurate to say something like "the diversity of life", rather than just "life", in the third sentence, since evolution is not a theory of how life first began but of how it diversified and developed the kinds of quasi-design that we see in nature.

The fourth sentence, though, is the most salient, and she phrases it well. Importantly, this is Armstrong's own view, not a view that she is attributing to someone else so she can attempt to refute it.

Dawkins himself does not make this sort of point, perhaps because he is not so much interested in whether there is a loving and providential (or "benign") God as whether there is a God at all. I think he underestimates the immense force of the point Armstrong opens with - it does not rule out any kind of God at all, but it is a devastating point for anyone wishing to defend the typical sort of religious belief in a loving and providential, yet all-good and all-powerful, deity, the sort of "benign creator" that Armstrong refers to. The facts about evolution should be sufficient to make literal belief in that kind of God an untenable position for anyone who takes them seriously. Any religious organisation that bases its claim to authority on access to the thoughts and desires of such a God cannot be taken seriously. The political implications are enormous.

I won't always be so kind towards Armstrong, and will have some more to say about this brief Wall Street Journal piece in one or more later posts. But kudos to her for her crystal clarity in stating such a crucial point about the relationship between religion and science.

Note that Armstrong defends a particular (rather mystical) brand of religion. But she does not claim that all religion is compatible with science. Nor does she mince words about the nature of the incompatibility between science and what is (though she does not concede this, of course) the main form of religion that is likely to be encountered in actual churches and mosques. This is from someone who evidently considers herself a kind of theist, even if the God she believes in is something transcendent, and apparently ineffable and impersonal, whose nature she can't put into words (since it's "indescribable"). That part is all murky - even incoherent - but I wish that all non-believers were as prepared to be as clear and frank as Armstrong manages in the opening sentences of her article.

Imagine. If Dawkins had written exactly those sentences - leaving out the "Dawkins has been right" bit, of course - he would have been castigated for them by a gaggle of accommodationist atheists. He'd be "shrill" and "strident". I guess there's still time for Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum to chide Karen Armstrong for her incivility. Quick, before her words become last week's news.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Problem of Evil - event at Uni. Melb.


This coming Tuesday, 15 September, I will be one of four speakers at a session to take place at the University of Melbourne on the Problem of Evil - the difficulty of reconciling the existence of evil in the world (or perhaps the kind of evil, with its actual extent and intensity, origin, effects, etc.) with the supposed existence of the orthodox Abrahamic God, a being that is said to be all-good (in a sense that has something to do with lovingness or benevolence), providential, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. Such a being would appear to have every reason to wish to prevent or eliminate evil, as well as having the power to do so. So, whence the evil? Obviously lots of theologians and philosophers of religion have attempted to provide answers over the years.

It will be held at 1:00pm - 2:00pm in the Copland Theatre, Economics & Commerce, on the main University of Melbourne campus. For those who want more, there's an informal follow-up session afterwards in Union House with some light refreshments + QNA, until 3:00pm.

The other participants are Rev. Dr Peter Adam (Principal of Ridley Theological College), Barney Zwartz (Religion Editor for The Age), and Lyn Allison (a high-profile former Senator for the Australian Democrats). The MC is Catherine McDonald, the co-founder & convener of Melbourne’s Philosophy Cafe. The event is hosted by the University of Melbourne Secular Society.

Do come along if interested. This is intended to be a cozy discussion rather than a debate, and - who knows? - the two theologians may even agree with the two ungodly types (Lyn Allison and myself) that the Problem of Evil is a real difficulty for traditional theists. A lot of theologians seem to think that these days, though they may also have different views as to what the main line of tradition is. Perhaps we'll see some Karen Armstrong style insistence that no one really believes (or should believe) in that sort of God anyway. Then again, maybe we'll get some spirited attempts to justify the ways of God to Man. And maybe Lyn Allison will have surprising views - I don't know exactly what position she takes on this topic.

However it plays out, the event is certain to be illuminating ... and with any luck, entertaining.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Interview with Greg Egan

The new issue (#42) of Aurealis contains an interview that I did with Greg Egan last year (i.e., I was interviewing Greg, not the other way around, much as that might also have been an interesting exercise). If you're going to ask me whether it's available on the net, well, I believe not. You might just have to buy a copy, much as that's a radical thought.

I'll give you a teaser, though. We got into some deep philosophical waters, including when I asked Greg about the various blows to human exceptionalism that have come from science over the past four or five hundred years (beginning perhaps with Copernicus). After some other thoughts on the subject, Greg adds:

... I think there's a limit to this process of Copernican dethronement: I believe that humans have already crossed a threshold that, in a certain sense, puts us on an equal footing with any other being who has mastered abstract reasoning. There's a notion in computing science of "Turing completeness", which says that once a computer can perform a set of quite basic operations, it can be programmed to do absolutely any calculation that any other computer can do. Other computers might be faster, or have more memory, or have multiple processors running at the same time, but my 1988 Amiga 500 really could be programmed to do anything my 2008 iMac can do — apart from responding to external events in real time — if only I had the patience to sit and swap floppy disks all day long. I suspect that something broadly similar applies to minds and the class of things they can understand: other beings might think faster than us, or have easy access to a greater store of facts, but underlying both mental processes will be the same basic set of general-purpose tools. So if we ever did encounter those billion-year-old aliens, I'm sure they'd have plenty to tell us that we didn't yet know — but given enough patience, and a very large notebook, I believe we'd still be able to come to grips with whatever they had to say.

Discuss!

Meanwhile, over on his own site, Greg has posted a fascinating four part trip diary covering his visit to Iran last year. Though his visit, with all its adventures and misadventures, was well before the recent election and subsequent protests, it provides wonderful insight into contemporary Iran. Greg writes with his usual lucidity about how the country seems on the ground ... to an educated and liberal Westerner who has managed to pick up a basic knowledge of Farsi from his work with refugees in Australia. I can't recommend this too highly. Do have a look.

Coming up soon from Greg is his essay "Born Again, Briefly", in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists .

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Home in Melbourne

... but also jetlagged, overwhelmed, generally not feeling great.

But yes, home safely, for all who might be interested. Will make some phone calls, sort out the 250 emails that I'd not deleted when away (of the much greater number I was deleting as I went), but will generally try not to do too much today. Can't even contemplate the mountain of snail mail that awaits after six weeks overseas.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Eugenie Scott's speech at Dragon*Con

I'll be just slightly tentative in this post, since I do not have a transcript of Eugenie Scott's speech at Dragon*Con yesterday (Sunday), and nor did I take notes, other than mental ones. If anyone else who was present wishes to clarify a point, then that is welcome. Still, I think I have a reasonable impression of the points that were made.

To be fair to her, the speech consisted mainly of an attack on Intelligent Design theory, claiming that it is not scientific. I more or less agree with this, though not necessarily for precisely the same reasons. For me, it's enough that ID theory has no genuine research program, is contrived to reach a predetermined outcome, and therefore lacks the very rigorous standards of intellectual honesty that we expect of scientists, etc. It is more like legal advocacy than science - it attempts to put the most persuasive case for a conclusion that is decided in advance. There's nothing wrong with that, in its place, but it's not science. ID's conclusions can in no way be characterised as conclusions with scientific credibility, and the claim that they are can never be relied upon by a public school system that wishes to teach them or to offer them as an alternative to genuine evolutionary biology.

That, however, is not how Scott put it. Still, she must be given credit for what she was trying to do, and she did make some similar points in her own way.

In any event, it was the first part of the speech that worried me. This emphasised the claim that science (Scott said "science", not "reason") is only on way of knowing. The others that she mentioned were personal insight and authority (I don't think she was saying that these three are the only "ways of knowing"). She appeared to be happy to count all sorts of ideas gained from personal insight, perhaps assisted by rituals or drugs, as "knowledge", which is rather odd, since knowledge is, at the least, justified belief. She counted revelation, including the words of holy books, as a sub-set of authority, and explained that the problem is when empirical claims are based on revelation.

Scott also said that science is a limited way of knowing because it can only investigate natural phenomena and can only offer natural explanations for them, and so cannot deal with supernatural claims. She offered no argument for this claim. Indeed, she gave an example of scientific study of truth claims that appeared to refute it. This was a description of a controlled experiment to see whether people really can perform better than chance at dowsing for water. Clearly, if the claim "I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water" is refuted by scientific investigation, it follows, a fortiori, that the claim "I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water by using supernatural means" is also refuted.

The fact is that science has reached a point where it is bad form for scientists to postulate supernatural explanations for phenomena. This is mainly because such explanations have such an unimpressive historical track record (think of preformationist theories of reproduction that depend on an original divine miracle to create an infinite set of tiny homunculi within homunculi, or of diluvian theories of geology that explain rock formation in terms of Noah's flood). So-called "methodological naturalism" is a useful rule of thumb adopted by modern science, and a contemporary scientist who did not adopt it when postulating causes would now be laughed at by colleagues.

However, there is no reason why science cannot offer supernatural explanations. In earlier times, reputable scientists often did this; methodological naturalism was never essential to the definition of "science". Moreover, although modern scientists are (quite correctly) unwilling to postulate supernatural explanations, that does not mean that they are unable to test supernatural explanations when postulated by others. The fact that supernatural explanations have a poor record when tested is (at least part of) the reason why scientists are now so unwilling to postulate them.

Scott's speech was rather long, with no time for questions. It went down well with the audience, and much of its content justified this, but I'd have liked to have seen some challenges to its simplistic claims about scientific epistemology. (She told people with a background in this area of philosophy to "deal [with it]", since she could not give all the detail, but that is hardly satisfactory.)

Alas, none of the speech acknowledged that the problems created by religious thinking - and the acceptance of religious leaders, religious organisations, and holy books as having authority - go FAR beyond those caused when empirical claims are based on scriptural revelation. Of course, those are the problems that Scott is required to deal with at the NCSE, but they are far from the only ones or necessarily the most important ones. Any suggestion that they are is most unfortunate.

This is why, with some regret, I find myself talking about "appeasement". Such speeches effectively say to religious organisations, "You can have all the authority you want (to lobby for banning of RU-486 or whatever your latest problem is) as long as you don't oppose the teaching of evolution."

I know that many rational people don't like the implied comparison of religion, or of particular religions, to Nazism, or the suggestion that goodwilled folks such as Eugenie Scott are selling out to something as evil as Nazism. Nazism was and is a particularly vicious quasi-religious belief system.

But the great organised religions are, collectively, a bigger problem than Nazism these days. When a religious organisation such as the Catholic Church is welcomed as an ally of the cause of reason merely because it takes the right side on one issue, that looks like a form of appeasement. The Vatican hierarchs are not our allies merely because they don't oppose evolutionary theory. The Vatican is the same organisation that teaches that the use of the contraceptive pill, masturbation, homosexual acts, etc., are all very serious "sins". It is anti-rational and authoritarian.

It doesn't hesitate to try to get the coercive power of the state to ban whichever of these "sins" it can, wherever and whenever it can. It is a kind of opportunistic predator in that respect. Most recently, RU-486 was legalised in Italy only in the face of strong Vatican opposition. The Catholic Church continually does all it can to interfere in personal decisions about how we live our lives, and especially about bioethical issues at the beginning and end of life. It does not merely preach its benighted moral views to the faithful, but tries to get governments to enshrine those views in legislation, thus getting them imposed on us by force.

In short, the Catholic Church is a far greater menace to our liberties than a bunch of American fundamentalists whose immediate goal is to undermine the teaching of biological evolution in American schools. Of course, organisations such as the Discovery Institute have a much broader theocratic agenda, but this is precisely what Eugenie Scott will never criticise them for. The only problem, apparently, is that they make empirical claims based in scriptural revelation.

No, that is not the only problem, or the greatest problem. The far larger problem is the epistemic, moral, and above all political authority claimed by many religious organisations. This most definitely includes the Catholic Church, which Scott obviously sees as an ally - even employing a Catholic priest to head the NCSE's faith outreach program.

I am not suggesting that the NCSE enlarge its remit to attack religion more generally. That is not its raison d'etre at all. But it can be neutral about such questions as whether science undermines a large amount of religious thinking, far beyond the claims of creationism and Intelligent Design. It can stop relying on an unnecessarily narrow (and very dubious) view of scientific epistemology, designed to leave as much authority with religion as possible. It can stop selling Gould's intellectually bankrupt principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria on its website.

It's a pity that Scott's talk left no time to debate any of this. Perhaps next year the Dragon*Con organisers will provide space in their program for challenges to the more dubious and dangerous epistemological claims that Scott was trying to sell to us yesterday. Maybe Jerry Coyne would be a good speaker for next year. Put your hand up, Jerry.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Some stray shots from Dragon*Con












Not all the highest quality, I'm afraid, but I hope they give an idea of the buzz. Most of these shots, but not all, were taken semi-randomly while I was just wandering around aimlessly in the Marriott this afternoon. But there's also a shot of Maria Maltseva, plus Jenny and I planning a takeoff in the Tardis, Margaret Downey in action ...

Some photos from Dragon*Con - courtesy of Maria Maltseva





A couple of photos of me with Margaret Downey, and one with Maria Maltseva, from whose camera these all emanate. Thanks to Maria, who posted these photos and others on Facebook.

Immediately prior to these shots being taken, Margaret was giving a presentation at Dragon*Con, in which she played the role of a nurse who can cure people of their superstitions about Friday the 13th, black cats, and so on. In both of the pics with Margaret, I am holding the black cat, and appear to be trying to smother it to death. Poor pussycat! Note, too, the use of an indoor umbrella.

This is all part of the extraordinary diversity of stuff that happens at Dragon*Con, which really is something to behold. It's a blast just wandering around the convention, with its densely-packed array of costumed sf/fantasy/pop culture fans. The average age is much younger than most science fiction cons, and with some great bodies shown off to good effect by the skimpier costumes. I'm talking about both sexes here: the plentitude of attractive young women dressed - or, rather, undressed - as barbarian swordmaidens or as slave Leia, or whatever, provides one of the con's major attractions. But if you're interested in that sort of thing, some of the guys in superhero or Conan-style garb are built.

Meanwhile, I will, of course, remind Margaret Downey's many fans that she has an essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief. Available for pre-order from Amazon, in case you've forgotten.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

New interview with Jenny

This is a great interview with Amy Herring, published in The Daily Dragon, at Dragon*Con.

So far, Dragon*Con is living up to its reputation. The huge lobby bar at the Marriot, where we're staying, was crowded last night with people in various modes of dress and undress, many with some kind of science fiction or fantasy theme. I, of course, was in my lifelike Bill Clinton costume. ;)

I gave up gawking about 1 am, feeling pretty tired.

Earlier in the evening we'd been to an astronomy-themed event put on by the local skeptics organisation in Atlanta. The highlight was meeting Margaret Downey, who turned out to be every bit as lovely as she'd seemed when we were exchanging emails about 50 Voices of Disbelief, in which she has an essay.

Am getting ready to face the day very slowly, but will report later on more events at this extraordinarily crowded and colourful convention.

Edit: Jenny has just performed brilliantly on her first panel - about Neil Gaiman - and we had excellent steak for lunch at Durango's Steakhouse, 230 Peachtree Street (not to be confused with Peachtree Center Avenue ... this city must be very proud of its peach trees.)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Off to Atlanta

We're flying from Kansas City to Atlanta tomorrow (i.e. Thursday, since it's still Wednesday night here in Kansas City). Thanks to Eric Reynolds, who has done so much to look after us for the last few days, including a museum trip today (and the drive to the airport tomorrow). It was especially nice meeting Jim Gunn a couple of days ago, and talking about Delany and other things.

Kansas City, contrary to what might be thought by people who have never visited it, is a beautiful city of lush green parks, gardens, innumerable fountains, and stately old buildings (with, of course, a very modern downtown district that we only ever saw from the road). It's quite lovely, at least under the current circumstances of the rather mild summer the city is enjoying this year.

In Atlanta, we'll be going to the huge media/fantasy/sf/whatever convention, Dragon*Con, which will probably have about ten times as many attendees as the Montreal Worldcon. It attracts something of the order of 30 or 40 thousand people. I find it hard to imagine a convention on that, er, scale (though there's a comics-based convention held annually in San Diego that's even bigger). We're going to meet a lot of interesting people, and it should be a blast, even if it's confusing.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Italy approves RU-486

Italy has recently authorised use of the "morning after pill" RU-486 (it's a bit dubious calling such drugs "abortion pills", as does the article I've linked to).

Predictably, this move was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church, which has been successful to date in keeping RU-486 illegal in various countries where the majority are Catholics. This is yet more evidence that religion is not just about culture, ritual, and personal belief. It attempts to influence government policy, impose its dogmas through the coercive power of the state, and control what we can and cannot do with our lives. Furthermore, a religious sect is not innocuous or "moderate" merely because it accepts the reality of biological evolution. There is nothing at all innocuous or moderate about Catholic dogma or the hierarchs of the Vatican. This is why we should never tire of pointing out that religion lacks the epistemic and moral authority it claims.

We will never get rid of religion entirely, and I would not want to suppress it by force. But we can create a political culture in which it is marginalised.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Blocked in China


I'm, er, proud? bemused? to announce that Metamagician and the Hellfire Club is subversive enough to have been blocked in China. Perhaps you have been, too. (I'm assuming the site I've linked to is legitimate; the folks at IEET certainly seem to think so. But I'm always suspicious, so if someone has reliable evidence to the contrary, let me know so that I can redact this post.)

Of course, if the Australian government gets its way I might ultimately be blocked in my own country, since Rudd and Conroy are still planning to introduce a scheme of high-tech internet censorship - supposedly aimed at child pornography, but known to go far wider, even before the moral panics of the future that would inevitably take us increasingly down the Chinese Road.

So let me just remind my compatriots of the need to fight this measure every millimetre of the way, and at all costs. Nothing is more precious than our freedom of speech, without which none of our other freedoms is safe.