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

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Facebook group for 50 Voices of Disbelief reaches 1000 members

Yes, we passed 1000 members today. I never thought we'd obtain anything like that level of support, so thanks to everyone who has joined the Facebook group for 50 Voices of Disbelief. That's thrilling and amazing.

Now, y'all - if you like what you read, don't forget to spread the word.

Edited: to provide link.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy last few days of the second last year of the first decade of the new millennium

In a few days we will reach the end of the "noughties". No doubt about that. 1980 was not part of the 1970s, for example. 1990 was not part of the 1980s. (The '60s were an aberration - depending on where you live, they started in about 1966 and ended at some point between 1974 and 1979.)

Anyway, we are seeing lists everywhere of "best of the noughties", "key events of the noughties", etc., and this is perfectly accurate. It's also accurate to talk about "best of the past decade" ... in the same sense that if we were back in, say, 1995 we could accurately talk about "best of the past decade" ... meaning the years 1986-95 inclusive. A decade is simply a period of ten years.

What we can't say, though, is "best of the first decade of the new millennium" or "best of the first decade of the new century". For better or worse, the twenty-first century and the third millennium AD (or CE) did not begin until 1 January 2001. That's because we use a calendar that goes straight from 1 BC (or BCE) to 1 AD. There is no "Year Zero" in between. Thus, the first ten years AD on the calendar don't end until the end of 10 AD. Again, the first hundred years AD don't end until the end of 100 AD. And the first thousand years don't end until the end of 1000 AD. The twentieth century began on 1 January 1901 and the twenty-first century began on 1 January 2001.

Thus, the first decade of the new century and millenium also began on 1 January 2001 ... and it still has more than a year to run.

This isn't very difficult to understand once it's explained, and it does make some difference to the world. The symbolic importance of various dates could be lost if we didn't apply the calendar correctly. Two examples are very obvious to me: first, the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia took place on 1 January 1901, and hence on the first day of the twentieth century. I'd hate to erase the date's calendar significance unnecessarily. Second, the movie and book of 2001: A Space Odyssey are set in the first (not second) year of the new millennium. There could be many other such examples, and I don't see the point of messing around with this kind of symbolism, just because the big media corporations couldn't wait an extra year to hold a grand New Millennium party ten years ago. I mean, look folks ... the concept is just not that difficult.

It's also annoying being thought of as pedantic and elitist - even somehow undemocratic - if you try to explain it. But all that said, I well recall the famous and apposite lines from William Blake:

You throw the sand against the wind
And the wind blows it back again.

Blake pretty much sums it up. So, let's agree on this much: it's the end of the noughties, whatever else it is. Sigh. Anyone want to make a list?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Singer/radical life extension post

See my post about this over here at Sentient Developments.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

After proud knowledge

Cross-posted at Sentient Developments .

I'm currently reading a book that has been sitting on my shelves, unbroached as far as I can recall, for too many years: The Proud Knowledge: Poetry, Insight and the Self, 1620-1920, by John Holloway (London: Routledge, 1977).

The Proud Knowledge has certain annoying features. One is a generally disdainful or arrogant attitude on the part of the author. He dismisses Robert Southey's then-enormously popular but now-almost-unread narrative poems, The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer, as "ridiculous works" (p. 94) and almost valueless, despite their influence on the likes of Keats and Shelley. Well - perhaps so. I can't say otherwise, since I, like most people these days, have never read them. Perhaps they really are dreadful. But Holloway rather loses my sympathy when he faintly praises Southey's occasional descriptive passages of merit, facility for prosody, and varied style (pp. 102-103), then adds:

But in the main, those two poems more or less fulfilled for their time the function fulfilled in recent times by films in gorgeous technicolour of the Orient, and by science fiction and possibly by a novel like The Lord of the Rings. Scenery, romantic affairs, fantastic travel, cosmic warfare, other grandiose but trifling thrills, make their stock in trade. (p. 103)

Despite its haughty tone, this passage actually makes The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer sound pretty interesting! Maybe their popularity, including with Keats and Shelley, wasn't just an aberration of literary taste. As I read Holloway's description, I start to wonder whether Southey's narratives really are as bad as is commonly assumed - whether they might not, in fact, be pretty good and just waiting to be rediscovered (perhaps by Hollywood screenwriters). Southey was, of course, rendered a ridiculous figure by Byron's satirical attacks (as was Thomas Shadwell by Dryden's at an earlier time). He is best known as a radical-turned-conservative and a literary dunce ... but surely anything worth being compared to science fiction and The Lord of the Rings must at least have suspense and entertainment value.

Nearly as annoying is Holloway's assumption that anyone reading his scholarly work must be fluent not only in English but also French, Latin, and ancient Greek. His pages are peppered with quotations in these languages - without translations. Now, anybody who has read widely in the history of ideas is likely to have picked up some useful Greek and Latin words and phrases, while my French is at least good enough for me to cope easily with many of the shorter quotations. But I am not inclined to struggle, my Babelfish in hand, with solid blocks of literary French whose full significance might well elude a sophisticated native of Paris. I realise that Holloway's attitude was still common in the 1970s among British literary academics, so the book is a product of its time, but it's nonetheless annoying to be told, in effect, that you are not wanted as a reader unless your fluency in foreign languages matches the author's. If Holloway finds it so easy, why not provide his own translations and potentially expand his readership?

All that said, the book is worth a reading. Holloway is dealing with the solitary quest for deep knowledge, undertaken by so many of the English poets from the sixteenth century through to the time of the high Modernists (and perhaps beyond). He offers the insight, obvious once pointed out, that this was simply not a theme in English poetry before the modern period. Instead, the lyric meditations of Donne and his predecessors tended to fall back on a body of generally-available cultural wisdom, associated with Christian doctrine. By Milton's time, this is becoming problematic (even though Milton does attempt to justify the ways of God to Man), and by the time of the Romantics we see great poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley embarking on their own far-flung intellectual quests. Even when the wisdom they bring back resembles conventional religious reassurances, it is hard won through individual experience and insight - often involving epiphanic moments. Objects and events are now observed with a new intensity, by poets attempting to understand them for themselves, rather than being analogised to aspects of the traditional, commonly-available wisdom. The Romantic poets achieve, or affect to achieve, a special knowledge unavailable to more prosaic or city-bound souls - or in some cases they come to see the proud, solitary quest as essentially destructive, as chasing a will-o'-the-wisp that leads only to despair or desolation.

In literary terms, of course, much has been gained by our culture - namely the mighty works of the Romantics and those who followed (among them, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot).

At one point, early in his book, Holloway lucidly expresses what was lost - if "loss" is the best way to describe the subversion of false certainties. Discussing Henry Vaughan's "Cock-Crowing", he observes:

In these facts about the task undertaken by the poem, I see signs of two great convictions which have lain at the heart of civilization over long periods in the past, but do so no longer. The first is, that man [sic] was the primary entity in the cosmos, and that the other orders of creation were secondary entities of which the significance was in the end derivative. The second, that the great and essential truths which map out the human situation do not await discovery, or even constant re-discovery, but have been established long ago, and once for all. The poet's task is therefore to present truth rather than explore it; and the quality of attention which he brings to his experience reflects that guiding fact. (p. 57)

Exactly right. By the time of the Metaphysical poets, these convictions are coming under pressure, but even John Donne (so it seems to me, and evidently to Holloway) is always quick to grasp the traditional, culturally-available knowledge, however much he may rely upon new forms of learning for his ingenious figures of speech. Writing during the Enlightenment, the great Augustans seem to me (though Holloway might not agree with this formulation, since he pretty much skips from Milton to Blake) almost reactionary figures, attempting to hold on to old certainties and values, despite the drift of the times. In any event, the traditional, culturally-available knowledge is losing its prestige throughout the Enlightenment and appears to require defence, restatement, qualification, and some kind of harmonisation with the down-to-earth knowledge of the politically ascendant bourgeoisie.

But of course, it is the Romantics who first valorise the enterprise of poetry as a lonely quest for unique insights: insights possibly reaffirming the traditional dogma, in some ways - or to some extent - but quite possibly antithetical to it. Even in moments when they opposed the moods of their times, the Romantics were products of a breakdown in the long-accepted synthesis of ideas in Christian Europe - as, of course, are we. What's more, there is no going back; and why would we want to, when the new era has produced extraordinary beauties of its own? Without the breakdown of the traditional wisdom - most prominent, perhaps, in the seventeenth century - we would have nothing remotely like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley (or Mary Shelley!), Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, Hardy, Yeats, or poor, nostalgic T.S. Eliot - much less Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, or Ted Hughes ... or even Milton, Dryden, and Pope. This is even before we step beyond the canon of English poetry, into other cultures, other literary domains (such as the science fiction that Holloway evidently scorns), or other artforms.

What comes next remains to be seen. Holloway seems to apprehend the impending close of our era of quests for "proud knowledge" - and he may even be correct, though the arguments need to be made out and examined. Most certainly, however, we cannot return, like contrite runaway children, to a time when ideas of human exceptionalism and received wisdom were unchallenged. "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" as Eliot asked. However we answer, we can only go forward, and there's no good reason that I can see to do so in a chastened or bleak spirit. We have learned much, and we can continue with a fitting optimism.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Contents of Tangled Bank e-anthology announced

Information on the forthcoming e-anthology edited by Chris Lynch. Taken from here:

Tangled Bank Press is pleased to announce the Table of Contents of its first publication.

THE TANGLED BANK: Love, Wonder, & Evolution will launch on Darwin Day, 12th February, 2010.

The anthology, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, is bursting with over 100,000 words of fiction, poetry, artwork, and essays.

An international line-up of nearly 50 contributors includes Sean Williams, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, Carlos Hernandez, Bruce Boston, and Emily Ballou.

For regular updates, visit our Facebook or Twitter pages, or stay tuned to the website. The introduction and a free story will be posted just prior to release.

Thank you to all who submitted!

Love, Wonder, & Evolution


A.M. Muffaz, Finches
Z.S. Adani, A Fistful of Tassels
Brendan Carson, Vaster than Empires
Gerald Costlow, Mercy
Marlissa Campbell, The Proust Effect
Anil Menon, The Uncertain Hour
Jen White, An Ordinary Boy
Douglas A. Van Belle, Detritus of a Second-hand Mind
Anne Lyle, Hopeful Monsters: A Darwinian Fairytale
Ben Francisco, On the Entropy of Species
Christopher K. Miller, The Pigs Are Not Alone
Gitte Christensen, Nullipara
Catherine J. Gardner, The Sound of Sharp Voices
Carlos Hernandez, Confessions of a Voluntary Egg Carrier
Jetse de Vries, The Frog Pool
James S. Dorr, Pets
Chris Lynch, The Feathered Serpent
Christopher Green, Darwin’s Daughter
Michael C. Lea, Orgueil
Kelly Jameson, A Bear Trains a Man
Jefferson Navicky, Map of the Provinces
K.R. Sands, Boy of Bone
Brian Stableford, Creationism
Patricia Russo, Four Corners

Chris Lynch, Introduction
Russell Blackford, Science & the Sea of Faith

Sean Williams, The Origin of Haiku by Means of Natural Selection
Julie Bloss Kelsey, The Selective Pressure of Children
Jeff Schiff, Swim to Saunter
Zenobia Frost, How do you do, Tuatara
Holly Day, Insectile
Magdalena Ball, Expressions of the Emotions
Anne Bryan, Rapunzel & the Double Helix
Phil Boiarski, Pakicetus
Anne Bryan, For Darwin’s Birthday
Bronwyn Mehan, Where the people are more evolved
Susan Beem, Points North
Jim Pascual Agustin, Creatures of Lava Tubes
Elizabeth Schultz, Evolution of the Encantadas
Michelle Leber, Rock Pool, Undertow Bay
Bruce Boston, Ancient Catch
Emily Ballou, The Green Need

Teresa Young
Ernst Haeckel
Chris Rodenhurst
Steven Rhodes
Cat Sparks

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pigliucci on Randi and scientific scepticism

Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci has a useful post on James Randi's recent "sceptical" comments on anthropogenic global warming, which he followed up on in a supposedly clarificatory note a couple of days later.

Before I go on, I should say that I have long admired Randi's work in debunking pseudo-science and paranormal claims, such as those of Uri Geller. If there's anyone I'd like to give a free pass to ... well, it's hard to think of a better candidate. I'm delighted to have an essay by him in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, and I'm reluctant to kick his head over this one issue, however important it is.

That said, it's disappointing to see Randi taking the approach he has to what is, after all, a very important issue where confusion reigns. As Pigliucci puts it: "these waters have been quite muddied already by big corporations who have been actively engaged in public deception about this issue for years, so that public opinion and politicians are already confused enough, almost to the point of paralysis. I really think this was an uncharacteristically bad target for Randi to choose."

Randi's position seems to be that he does not doubt the scientific consensus that the Earth has warmed by about 0.7 degrees Celsius since about 1850. He considers the claim that this warming has been significantly (let's say half or more) the result of human activity to be "likely" or "probable". However, he thinks there is room for reasonable doubt, based on such considerations as the complexity of inputs to climate and on the fallibility of scientists, who can be driven by peer group pressure and other less-than-exemplary motivations. Putting his case as charitably as I can, he seems to assume that the science of AGM is at an early stage and that it is still reasonable to doubt its key finding of significant human contribution to global warming, even though the latter is likely to be vindicated over time.

Randi was initially taken in by the, ahem, somewhat misleading "Petition Project", which collects thousands of signatures from individuals who doubt or deny anthropogenic global warming. He apparently now accepts its dubious provenance and very low probative value. He concludes in his clarificatory remarks:

Again, the importance and the impact of this phenomenon is well beyond my grasp. I merely expressed my thoughts about the controversy, and I received a storm (no pun intended) of comments, many of which showed a lack of careful reading that led to unfair presumptions and interpretations. Will I do it again with other subjects? Without fail, I promise you. This is what human interaction is all about, what makes it important. I've shown that I can make observations on subjects barely within my understanding, while admitting my shortcomings, and provoke reactions that are interesting, constructive, and sometimes furious. That's okay. Language is a means of expressing one's thoughts and opinions without resorting to fisticuffs or worse. This encounter was bloodless, gentlemanly, and civilized.

Unfortunately, that remains problematic. Randi concedes that he is not at all expert (or even well-informed) in this field, but he still wishes to make an assessment that a key finding is merely "likely" or "probable" when that finding is now well-established science, with a strong consensus in the relevant peer-reviewed journals. It has gone far beyond the stage of "interesting conjecture" or even "best-candidate hypothesis".

That does not, of course, entail that the theory is as robust as, say, the heliocentric picture of the Solar System or the evolutionary account of the diversity of life forms (and their appearance of intricate design). These theories are now so well-established and successful, over such long periods, that it is almost unimaginable that their central claims could ever be overturned by future observations. For all intents and purposes, they are as certain as that I am Russell Blackford, typing these words on my desktop computer. AGM is not so well-established as that, but what are we to say, and how are we to act, when it is now the overwhelming consensus of experts in the field who have no vested interest in fudging the results?

I must emphasise that this is not a situation where dubious intuitions or interpretations are relied on to produce convenient "truths" that obtain their real psychological attraction from religious or ideological leanings, or from the idiosyncracies of people's experiences. It is hard science, based on physical evidence and accepted by experts who come from many cultural, ideological, and other backgrounds.

Obviously, research on alternative hypotheses should continue. However, those of us who are not at the cutting edge would be irrational if we did not at least accept a very high likelihood (no use trying to put a percentage on it) that the key scientific claims about anthropogenic global warming are true. Likewise, in the current state of knowledge, policy-makers would be irrational to proceed on any other basis. Perhaps Randi doesn't really disagree with this, but he has worded his two pieces in a way that suggests he might.

Part of the reason this seems to have gone wrong is the very term "scepticism" (or "skepticism" as my American friends spell it). As Pigliucci notes, this term means, in context "a science- or evidence-based approach to the examination of unusual claims, typically in the realms of the paranormal, astrology, alternative medicine and the like." It does not refer to some sort of Pyrrhonic philosophy that doubts all truth claims, based on radical epistemological arguments. Pigliucci concedes that, "More recently, skeptics have expanded their aim to include some controversial issues in science, under the reasonable position that science itself should not be exempt from critical analysis." However, he adds, I think quite properly, the following note of warning:

Fair enough, except that science already has a large number of professional critics: scientists themselves (remember the peer review system?), as well as philosophers and sociologists of science. Moreover, while critical analysis of claims of the paranormal does not really require professional scientific expertise (indeed, Randi’s own spectacular career shows that the pertinent expert is more often a magician, since wannabe paranormalists often employ trickery to fool the public), actual science criticism does.

This seems right. Like anyone else, James Randi is politically free to think and write what he wishes - or at least he should be. But an issue such as AGM is not one where his particular expertise is likely to be helpful, and he should realise this. Indeed, it appears that he does, given his various disclaimers about lacking the relevant intellectual background. He is no better placed than any other intelligent person with a general understanding of science to suggest the conclusion that the "A" in AGM is dubious science. His main reason is the complexity of the global climate system, but it's not as if the scientists concerned are unaware of this complexity or are making pronouncements in ignorance of it.

The whole thing episode goes wrong at the very beginning, when Randi writes as follows: "Though this subject is not one that directly concerns the JREF, I'm very frequently asked if I'll turn my skeptical eye to it. As a year-end fling, I'll give it a try." But why should people be asking him "frequently" to turn a "skeptical eye" on matters of well-established mainstream science? That is not what scepticism is, in the current context. Again, scientific scepticism is not Pyrrhonism.

Randi should not have been tempted. The role that he has carved out for himself does not involve casting doubt on mainstream scientific theory about which he is professedly largely ignorant. If anything, it would make more sense to turn his scientifically-based scepticism to anti-scientific claims that attempt to challenge the consensus ... without actually carrying out studies suitable for publication in the appropriate journals. Yes, he is entitled to have opinions on all sorts of things, but it is unhelpful when he expresses ill-informed ones that are not based on the best current science, but on general speculation about peer group pressure and the like.

Pigliucci sums up the position well, when he writes:

James Randi is a major player in the skeptic movement, and that kind of position comes with responsibilities, one of which is that he really ought not to just wonder aloud about his opinions unless he has put in the time to do serious background reading on the matter at hand. I remain respectfully disappointed.

I agree. What's more, Randi has now done unnecessary damage to his own reputation. His opinions will henceforth carry less weight with reality-based people, and the situation is not helped by his assurance that he will do something like this again in the future, with other subjects. I hope it won't happen that way; we need his contribution to our culture, but in a manner that reflects his real abilities. It's a loss to us all if he dilutes his contribution with pronouncements that merely make it difficult to know when he speaks with a degree of authority and when ... well, not so much.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Helen Razer on internet censorship

Helen Razer tells it like it is over here.

At a time when so many people with power and influence appear to place little value on freedom of speech, I'm gratified to see others whom I like and respect coming out in protest. Helen Razer, John Birmingham, John Wilkins, and others have been unequivocal in their opposition to the Australian government's plan to add a new and dangerous layer of censorship to the internet. We have the beginnings of a political movement here. Let's act on it now.

And let's not relax about this for a moment in 2010.

Once more, the federal government may have the best intentions, if it aims only at censoring child pornography (which is already illegal). I'm not so sure of this, mind you, since many of Senator Conroy's rationalisations seem to go a lot further ... but it really doesn't matter. Even if we adopt the most charitable interpretation of the government's intent, the proposed legislation is a potential disaster with long-term ramifications. The proposed system of forcing ISPs to block websites selected by a government agency is a chilling prospect. Once accepted in principle, then actually established, this system allows future censorship of any category of speech that might elicit moral panic from time to time indefinitely into the future - whenever new restrictions might attract votes.

The effect will be to alter the entire playing field. Once the system beds down, politicians will no longer argue about whether internet sites should be censored by such a mechanism. The issue will become which sites - and some political players will seek a wide range of sites and categories. Nothing can stop the potential scope creep of such a mechanism if it is accepted at all. It is obvious that, in the censorious climate which arose last year, thanks to puritans and prudes at all levels of influence in New South Wales, attempts would have been made to get sites with Bill Henson's art photography on the censored list.

Over time, we could see any number of categories of websites added to the list - gambling sites, sites engaging in robust debate over religious issues, sites advocating the legalisation of euthanasia or certain drugs. To the extent that some abortions are illegal, or might become so, Australians might be denied information about this "criminal activity". The same applies to many other activities that are currently illegal, but clearly would not be if the Millian harm principle were applied seriously.

Already, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) wants to extend the proposed censorship mechanism to a broader range of material than the government apparently has in mind. Even if the current government is unwilling to do deals with the ACL - even if it opposes such initiatives on the floor of the parliament - the implications are obvious, should the balance of political power change more in the ACL's favour.

Nothing can be more important than this issue, since it creates a long-term threat to our most fundamental freedom - the freedom that enables us to challenge not only governments but even hardened public opinion. Without freedom of speech, we are helpless against the pressure of conformity and the political attractions of small-minded populism. Censorship must become a key issue in 2010, and we must insist that no political candidate is acceptable unless he or she stands for freedom of speech and against censorship of the internet.

Clive Hamilton, for example, may be enlightened in some ways, but he is a censor, an enemy of free speech. As such, he is unworthy of our vote. Please do not support any party that puts Hamilton forward as a candidate, as the Greens did recently in the Higgins by-election. As long as the Greens use Hamilton as a front man, do not give them your vote. Make it clear to them that Hamilton is a divisive figure whom you do not support.

No "clean feed"!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A poem for cat lovers ...


Virile lovers and rigorous scholars,
In their fruitful and comfortable years,
Love their strong, sweet cats - their pride -
Who are cool and contained ... much like them.

These comrades of learning and passion,
Seek the frightening quiet of darkness;
Bleakest Erebus would have employed them
As his steeds - if they'd stooped to his service.

As they ponder, they strike noble poses,
Stretched like sphinxes, in deepest aloneness,
Who sleep on in a dream with no ending.

Their athletic loins pulsate with vigour;
And fine little goldenish star-flecks
Glint like sand in their mystical pupils.

— (Loosely) translated by Russell Blackford from the French of Charles Baudelaire [Edited for clarity].

Udo Schuklenk to head panel on euthanasia

My buddy and co-editor, Udo Schuklenk, has been appointed by the Royal Society of Canada to head up an expert panel on end-of-life decision making. This is an intellectual powerful group of people, entrusted to look at such serious and important issues as euthanasia and assisted suicide. They are already copping criticism, even before they report, from religious and moral conservatives.

I wish the panel good luck in its deliberations, and will look forward to seeing its report - which will likely become the state of the art in rational policymaking on such issues.

The panel's full membership is as follows:

Chair: Udo Schuklenk, PhD:

· Professor of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics, Queen’s University

· http://www.udo-schuklenk.org/

· Publications: http://www.udo-schuklenk.org/researchs.htm

Before coming to Canada he worked at Australian, British, German, and South African universities, including Monash University’s Centre for Human Bioethics and at the University of Central Lancashire’s Centre for Professional Ethics. He is currently Joint Editor in Chief of Bioethics and founding editor of Developing World Bioethics. Both journals are listed in major indices including MedLine.


1. Johannes J. M. van Delden, MD, PhD:

Julius Center for Health Sciences, University Medical Center, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands; Chair, Ethical Commission of the Medical Council of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)




2. Jocelyn Downie, S.J.D.:
Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy
Professor, Faculties of Law and Medicine, Dalhousie University


3. Sheila McLean, PhD, LLD, LLD, FRSE, FRCGP, FRSA:

First holder of the International Bar Association Chair of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow University and Director of the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow University.


4. Ross Upshur, MD, MSC:

Canada Research Chair in Primary Care Research and Associate Professor, Departments of Family and Community Medicine and Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto; Director, University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics



5. Daniel Weinstock, PhD:

Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Philosophy, University of Montreal

Professeur titulaire, Département de Philosophie, and Directeur du Centre de recherche en éthique de l'Université de Montréal (CREUM)


Monday, December 21, 2009

The pleasure of the texts

One of the effects of moving to a slightly smaller house with slightly less shelf space is the need to do at least some culling of our book collection. In some cases it's obvious which books can go, but there are many that have been sitting on the shelves waiting to be read - many of which are surely worth reading at least once, but not necessarily worth keeping. Others have been read many years ago. They may be worth reading another time, but, alas, not worth keeping in a home library.

As a result, I'm taking some time to read a randomish array of books that seem like candidates to be culled out of the collection, but nonetheless look interesting (I could easily imagine borrowing them from a library, but I don't necessarily need to keep copies for future reference). This is proving to be quite enjoyable - in an almost guilty way, with a tinge of the erotic overtones of jouissance rather than mere plaisir. Here I am: reading various books that I don't have a specific need to absorb at this moment! Such silky luxury of the mind! It seldom happens to me these days, when I have so many books that I actually need to read and understand, for one reason or other. I'm gaining unexpected - as it were, collateral - pleasures, even from books that I don't especially admire or exactly like.

How interesting, for example, to be able to stop and think just why I find Terry Eagleton's prose so off-putting (at least a couple of his books are off to a new home, I'm afraid). How unexpected to find enjoyment in a late-1970s account of structuralism and post-structuralism that I haven't dipped into since 1981, when I bought it (according to the flattened and yellowed sales docket that was lingering within its pages). This book, Structuralism and Since (ed. John Sturrock) is obviously out of date in respect of developments with post-structuralism, but so lucid in its discussions of Levi-Strauss and Barthes that I've decided to keep it.

And so it goes. I'm looking forward to more little gems.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Humanist on self-censorship

Over at The New Humanist, Caspar Melville has a balanced but strong piece on the decision by Index on Censorship to engage in self-censorship over the Danish cartoons issue. Melville openly acknowledges the safety issue:

Being the editor of a magazine that makes critical and satirical comments about many religions, and having written a book on the subject this year, I know too well what a thorny issue this is - staff safety does matter, as does the question of context. I can't say for sure what I - or my board - would do in these circumstances.

As he adds, however, it is very worrying when

a magazine whose very mission is to oppose censorship, who are publishing a piece precisely about the craven way in which Yale dropped the cartoons from a book where they would have clearly been relevant, on the basis of the possibility of a threat and no more

That is right, of course. We must take safety into account, but as Ophelia Benson also observes in various places (including in a comment on my earlier post, but most especially here), the prospect of violence was theoretical and remote. Furthermore, these acts of high-profile self-censorship merely add to the environment where certain kinds of publication are regarded as controversial ... and just might attract violence. The more responsible approach is one where publication of criticism of political Islam - or even of mainstream forms Islamic doctrine and culture - is considered routine. This includes satire, and it certainly includes straightforward reportage of satirical material produced by others - not attempting to hide what the discussion is actually about.

Every time a reputable, established organisation such as Yale University Press or Index on Censorship acts otherwise, it makes it more difficult for all the rest to act fearlessly. If The New Humanist does find itself in a similar situation at some point, as Melville contemplates, its decision has now been made that much more difficult.

As Ophelia suggests, this kind of action is also insulting to Muslims. Far from indicating respect, it amounts to a kind of profiling of Muslims, as a class, as potentially dangerous and violent. It would be better to have a bit of trust that most Muslims in Western democracies are good citizens of their various countries - just like most Christians, most freethinkers, most Buddhists, most Hindus, most New Age hippies, etc. - and that they can take a certain degree of robust discussion in their stride.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Swiss ban on minarets

It's one thing to raise questions about the truth of religious doctrines or about the moral authority of religious organisations and leaders - something I approve of and encourage. It's another to seek that religious doctrines or practices be suppressed by the coercive power of the state - something that I totally oppose. People should be entitled, in law, to believe whatever seems true to them, without being regarded and treated as criminals. They should also be entitled to act on their beliefs, so long as they don't breach well-justified and fair laws of general application. We obviously need to have laws against murder, so nobody gets to plead her religion to justify human sacrifices to her god. But if what she does is lawful outside the context of her religion, it should be equally lawful inside that context.

As always, there are some grey areas, but we should always look at issues of substance, not mere formality. Take the recent decision in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets. I suppose one extreme justification of this law might be that it applies equally to Muslims and others - it's not discriminatory against Muslims because no one, Muslim or not, is henceforth allowed to build a minaret. But that would be a silly argument. The law specifically forbids an activity associated with one religion: Islam. It unfairly burdens just one religion, and it can't be justified on secular grounds. If the problem is buildings above a certain height, then all buildings above that height should be forbidden. If the problem is with certain loud noises, then all loud noises should be forbidden at whatever times of day are appropriate. Singling out minarets is a clear attack on Islam as such, and hence a breach of the doctrines of separation of church (and mosque, etc.) and state and of freedom of religion.

I see that even the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain has condemned Switzerland's actions. This organisation is fiercely secular, and strongly opposes political forms of Islam. Some of its policies do stray into uncomfortable territory where freedom-of-religion issues arise (e.g. its policy of banning faith-based schools). But it is absolutely correct to state the following: The Enlightenment didn't ban church towers in order to successfully push Christianity into the private sphere. The same must be done with political Islam.

Quite so. Political Islam must be opposed, but that does not justify using the law to harm and stigmatise Muslims, many of whom are doubtless as disenchanted with political Islam as any atheist or freethinker. Again:

Believing in Islam or any religion for that matter is not a crime. Neither is it a crime to have minarets in mosques. What are crimes, however, are groups or individuals using religion to threaten people to death, intimidate them, violate their rights, and discriminate against them. Society has to address these crimes and prosecute those who threaten or terrorise people - not ban minarets!

Absolutely right!

Index on Censorship censors itself

The respected free speech organisation Index on Censorship has chosen to censor itself by declining to publish any of the notorious Danish cartoons of Muhammad to illustrate an interview conducted by Jo Glanville with professor Jytte Klausen, author of a scholarly monograph The Cartoons That Shook the World. Over Klausen's protests, her publisher, Yale University Press, published the book with no illustrations of Muhammad - and hence with none of the cartoons that are its subject matter.

Of course, self-censorship is not state censorship. Individuals or organisations may choose to exercise this kind of discretion for all sorts of reasons, and when they do so it is not the same as if state power forced them to do so, with orders backed by threats of prisons and policemen. The justifiable fear of being silenced and stigmatised by the might of the state is not directly in issue here. In each case, it is understandable to an extent that a relatively small organisation, with limited security resources, has acted out of fear for the safety of staff.

Understandable, but most unfortunate. It is very regrettable when academic organisations, such as Yale University Press, and free speech advocacy organisations, such as Index on Censorship, go down such a path. It all contributes to a climate in which some speech becomes out of bounds as a result of the intolerance of its opponents, a very small minority of whom are violent (like the murderer of Theo van Gogh ... in another episode where Index on Censorship failed to distinguish itself as a consistent defender of free speech).

For more discussion - all of it reasoned and thoughtful - see these pieces, by Sherry Jones and Kenan Malik respectively.

As Malik says of Index on Censorship (of which he is a board member): "After all, we cannot in good conscience criticise others for taking decisions that we ourselves have taken and for the same reasons." How can the organisation consistently criticise Yale University Press, and other organisations that have taken the cowardly path of self-censorship, when it has been just as remiss?

Index on Censorship describes itself in glowing terms:

Index on Censorship is Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression. With its global profile, its website provides up-to-the-minute news and information on free expression from around the world.

Perhaps so, but its credibility is badly damaged every time it takes a stand that undermines freedom of expression, as it has in this case ... and, as mentioned above, not for the first time. Is it worth persevering with this organisation if it can't develop more consistent principles or a bit more spine? Malik evidently thinks so, for now. But all the good will it has built up over the years is starting to leak away like water.

John Birmingham on internet censorship


On the clean feed issue, the way forward is less obvious. This dog of a system has been dreamed up by one of the Ruddbot's own and very much appeals to his Puritan sensibilities. The minute he abandons the filter he leaves himself open to attack from the Mad Monk that he is opening the gate to pedophiles and bomb makers. The fact that accessing, downloading or storing this sort of material on your hard drive is already illegal seems to have passed these clowns by. It is a dangerous issue for wired libertarians because we are very easily framed as defending the rights of child pornographers and whack jobs.

But nobody is doing that. This stuff is already illegal. By all means enforce the law. In fact devote all the added resources that would go into setting up a filter system and funding its bureaucracy towards the existing agencies who police these issues. Building a massively intrusive and undoubtedly inefficient, ineffective and occasionally malign bureaucracy is not a solution to net-based child porn. It's a political tactic to appear as though you're doing something.

The thing to remember about a filter is that once it's in place it can be used to block a lot more in the future. For instance a different government led by, let's say, a very devout Catholic, and depending on the votes of a few thousand Evangelicals in crucial swing states, might very well legislate against abortion. Both as a matter of principle and electoral pragmatism. A filter such as Sen. Conroy wishes to place over the internet would go a long way towards ensuring that anybody who wished to access information about safe abortion procedures was unable to.

Yes, that is well, clearly, and accurately argued. Go here for the whole discussion.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Radio show on "Life Matters"

This morning, I was part of a one-hour program, "The Disbelievers", on ABC Radio National's "Life Matters" program. It was great to get a full hour devoted to this topic. Other speakers on the program included Philip Kitcher, Emma Tom, Jack Dann, and Sean Williams - all contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief. You can download or listen to the program here ... and you can comment about it on the ABC site here (or go here to see what others have been saying; as I write this, there's a thoughtful discussion going on, with some very detailed comments).

I thoroughly enjoyed doing this show. There were some things said by other speakers that I didn't entirely agree with or expect, but that's not really the point. I think they all came across as likeable and interesting, thoughtful and compassionate people. As Udo Schuklenk and I said in the introduction to the book, there's no party line that we expect our contributors to toe ... except that it's important for those of us who reject gods and religious doctrines to stand up and say so, and to explain why.

It's also important that we show we're real people who are engaged with life and with others around us. We're not merely negative - God, humbug! - and we're not leading dessicated and abstracted, or bleak and empty, lives. You can lead a good life - full to the brim with purpose, enthusiasm, and meaning - without buying into religious organisations and thought structures. Everyone on the show demonstrated that amply.

Many thinks to Anne Delaney, the show's producer, and Richard Aedy, the presenter ... as well as to the folks mentioned above and to all the others who took part.

An hour is a long time for a show like this, and (as above) I'm grateful that we were given so much airtime. Then again, with the talent that we had available, plus the high level of audience interest, we could have easily and enjoyably filled a two-hour slot. There was still much more to say, and some interaction among the speakers might have been extremely interesting. I hope they'll follow up with us some time; I'd certainly be pleased to be back.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What about the children?

At a time when the Australian government has announced its decision to introduce a new regime to censor the Internet, it's worth thinking again about the argument that exposure to certain kinds of speech and expression might be harmful to children. The problem is that it is difficult to find evidence as to what kinds of material are actually likely to produce that kind of harm.

I am prepared to accept that the state has an interest in paternalistic protection of children from propaganda for dangerous commercial products such as cigarettes. But what other kinds of harm might be relevant? Before banning speech on this basis, a legislature would presumably need to be armed with studies of what kinds of material produce feelings of distress, shock, nausea, and so on, or even psychological trauma of the kind that could be evidenced by, for example, phobias, withdrawal, or nightmares.

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

What counts as "harm" to children outside the area of distress or psychological trauma might also depend on the beliefs and values of the person alleging the harm. A conventional moralist driven by Augustinian ideas that the body and its functions are shameful might find something "harmful" in any exposure of children to nudity — but such contestable ideas should receive no official support in a liberal society.

By contrast, somebody with very different beliefs and values might consider it more harmful to expose young children to traditional religious ideas. It may be that ideas of gods, devils, spirits, and so on possess a psychological attraction for human beings that is out of proportion to the actual evidence that any such things exist (perhaps because we have evolved with a tendency to over-attribute agency or purpose to the phenomena around us). Children may be especially prone to absorbing such ideas - even though they are neither well-evidenced nor actually true - especially if they appear to be supported by parents or other adult authority figures. As a result, many children may grow to adulthood with false and possibly overly-restrictive worldviews that they cannot easily shed. Doctrines taught to individuals as children can become foundational for them. Hence, even if there is no evidence for the truth of these doctrines, by our usual standards of evidence for other things, it can become almost impossible to shift people from them — or for them to free themselves. So why not ban all images or discussions of gods, devils, and so on, if young children might be exposed to them?

Such a question merits the answer that no liberal society can be expected to adopt a policy of officially deeming the exposure of young children to religious ideas to be harmful. Any attempt to adopt this as a policy would fly in the face of traditional ideas of freedom of religion, which have included the freedom of adults to bring up their children within the sect of their choice. Yet the argument that this actually is harmful appears to be far more cogent than the argument that children are harmed merely from exposure to, say, images of naked human beings, or to much of the wide range of material that can be described as "indecent".

I suggest that, if the state seriously wished to protect children from harm that results merely from being exposed to certain kinds of communications, rather than responding to ill-informed moral panic about the Internet, it would need to conduct extensive psychological and sociological research. Even then, it would have a great deal of difficulty determining an objective standard of "harm" — and if it somehow succeeded, the product of its investigations might well be surprising.

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

Voices of Disbelief on "Life Matters" - Radio National

Tomorrow morning, at 9 am Sydney/Melbourne time, Radio National's "Life Matters" program will have an episode on disbelief based around 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. I'll be a guest on the program, as will some other contributors to the book (Jack Dann, Philip Kitcher, Emma Tom, Sean Williams). I gather that one theme is likely to be what can replace the role of religion (in providing community and a structured understanding of the world) for those who need it. There will be a talk-back component, and the show will go for an entire hour. Do tune in if you have time.

Here's a frequency guide for major Australian centres:

Adelaide 729AM
Brisbane 792AM
Canberra 846AM
Darwin 657AM
Gold Coast 90.1FM
Hobart 585AM
Melbourne 621AM
Newcastle 1512AM
Perth 810AM
Sydney 576AM

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chained to the Alien

My good pal Damien Broderick has a new book out. He modestly describes himself as having selected the material, or some such thing, rather than as being the editor. That leaves the rest of us with material in it as his co-authors, sort of ... but actually, he's done a lot of new editorial work even though it's essentially a reprint anthology.

Entitled Chained to the Alien: The Best of Australian Science Fiction Review (Second Series), the book is exactly what its sub-title says, Damien's selection of the best material from the legendary 1986-1991 incarnation of ASFR. Yay!

Okay, this might be getting confusing, so let's go back a step. In the mid-1980s some Australian science fiction fans with literary interests came to the conclusion, semi-independently, that a really good, regular critical zine was needed here in Australia. Though Van Ikin and Bruce Gillespie were publishing excellent material, in Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature and SF Commentary respectively, their contributions were not regular or frequent. In the upshot, a group of us got together to form a somewhat anarchistic editorial collective to run a new magazine that revived the name and some of the feel of the 1960s zine Australian Science Fiction Review (we used the name by permission and involved people from the 1960s magazine, notably John Bangsund who was given a regular column).

The editorial collective was originally, in alphabetical order, Jenny Blackford, Russell Blackford, John Foyster, Lucy Sussex, and Yvonne Rouseau. Lucy later dropped out, about the same time that Janeen Webb joined, though those events were not directly related. After about six years some of us eventually burned out, but during that period we set the pace as possibly the best zine of its kind in the world. The zine was widely distributed not only in Australia but internationally, and it attracted a subscriber list that was something of a science fiction Who's Who. Our editorial approach influenced other editors, notably those of the much-admired New York Review of Science Fiction, which was founded a bit later than ASFR(2) and is still going strong.

Local science fiction fandom in Australia seemed rather ambivalent about what we were doing - I'm sure that some fans thought we were "up ourselves" - and we only ever won one Ditmar Award for "Best Fanzine". All the same, there was a period when we were somewhat lionised at overseas science fiction conventions for the quality of our magazine.

It's wonderful to see a selection of the work published in ASFR(2) now being released in book form. Damien has written a new introduction and has worked with the authors to make a few modest but deft edits (usually where something was anachronistic or likely to puzzle an American audience [edit: to avoid confusion, the book is being published in the US by Borgo Press]). Some notes have been added, where authors reflect on their contributions twenty or so years later. Unfortunately, we have lost two of the main contributors since ASFR(2) ceased publication - George Turner and John Foyster - while Lucy Sussex apparently has a more jaded view than the rest of us and was not interested in Damien's project. Still, the outcome is a very nice package with something like 80,000 words of the most astute and lively critical writing of the era.

I'm gloating somewhat that the book contains nearly 30,000 words of my own work - which reflects the fact that an enormous amount of my energy went into ASFR(2) during its run, especially in its first three or four years. I twice won the William Atheling Award for Criticism and Review for this material (in 1987 and 1989), and I'm still proud of my work, even though it reads, to some extent, as if written by someone else. Well, in a sense it was - the young literary critic of twenty or more years ago has had a lot of experiences since then; I've doubtless changed in many ways that go beyond the grey hair and a few extra kilos. (Apart from anything else, I've picked up three degrees since then, including a second Ph.D, and have had several books published.)

All the same, these were important and intense years in my life ... but the intellectual contribution that I made during them has been largely lost from view. It's incredibly pleasing to see some of it now reappearing; to be honest, it's actually a bit like getting back some of those "lost" years.

I must, however, admit that this book has a much narrower appeal than 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, the volume I've recently edited with Udo Schuklenk. Unlike the situation with 50 Voices of Disbelief, I can't claim that Chained to the Alien is of general interest and that it should appeal to just about anybody. It does, however, contain a lot of entertaining critical writing, not just by me but also by Damien, by George Turner, Bruce Gillespie, most of the other members of the collective, and many others who made contributions from time to time. Anyone who is interested in science fiction as a field for reflection and study, not just a source of light entertainment, will probably enjoy Chained to the Alien and find much to think about.

This is the work that won us praise from some of the biggest names in the science fiction field (Samuel R. Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Gregory Benford, etc.), and it gives an insight into how science fiction was viewed and discussed during an exciting period.

I hope it finds a new audience.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

No clean feed

Australia's federal government has decided to introduce legislation that will give it potentially sweeping control of information available to Australians via the Internet, using a system of technologically-based censorship. As announced, the legislation will require all ISPs to block material that has been refused classification in other countries (one might ask exactly which countries the government has in mind here). An "independent" body, so we are told, will determine which sites are rated as RC for "refused classification".

Although the government has said that this initiative is not intended to curtail freedom of speech, that is surely an Orwellian claim. Even if the speech that is initially blocked has very little social value, an initiative such as this is open to abuse. If successful, it will enable future censorship of whatever categories of speech might elicit moral panic from time to time indefinitely into the future. Legislatures will have free rein to prevent Australians from viewing categories of material on the Internet whenever this suits populist expediency.

Over time, we could see any number of categories of websites added to the list - gambling sites, sites engaging in robust debate over religious issues, sites advocating the legalisation of euthanasia or certain drugs. Once it's established that we have such a system, the question of which material will or will not be filtered out becomes a live political one, with the potential for future political platforms that involve quite sweeping bans, on the basis of any of the great variety of views as to what is good for us. All sorts of moralising nannies will vie for political power and influence, attempting to control what we are allowed to read and see.

Already, we see a certain amount of jockeying by individual politicians to get additional categories of websites - such as legal gambling sites - banned. The managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Jim Wallace has issued a statement claiming the government's report has "proven the technological principle [of filtering] can be extended to deal with other harmful X and R-rated material on the internet."

There is no limit to the ways in which the proposed system could be expanded as the electoral cycles roll on, and there is certainly no known limit to the kinds of material that can produce panic in the press and the community, as we saw last year when some relatively innocuous artistic photographs by Bill Henson became a focus for absurd controversy. There is infinite scope for "scope creep". Once an initiative like this gets started, no short-term reassurances can be relied upon. Nobody can know where the new censorship system might be driven over time by the many varieties of populists, moralists, and well-meaning (but misguided) paternalists that proliferate in all electorates. It has to be stopped in its tracks right from the beginning.

This frightening development powerfully underscores the need for some mechanism that inhibits the powers of governments in Australia to interfere with the speech and expression of Australian citizens. If, for political reasons, it is out of the question to introduce new constitutionally-entrenched limits on government power to abridge freedom of speech in Australia, then another mechanism must be found if at all possible. Meanwhile, I urge my readers to join in protests against this development. Please oppose it using all legal and peaceful means available.

Settling in ... but still those 80 boxes to unpack

The place is looking a bit less like a bombsite, but we are now tending to slow down on all the unpacking. There are lots of other issues associated with the move, and I'll probably still not be blogging at length for the next few days.

One issue is that I've had to migrate my website a couple of times in recent months. The correct website is now:


Or you can reach this simply from:


While I'm focused on moving and settling in another city I am, however, concerned today at the current situation with internet censorship in Australia. This follows the latest government announcement. Stay tuned for more thoughts on that not-so-small problem.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On the need for defamation law reform

There is a narrow area where the law should protect the reputations of individuals from lies that could ruin their careers or lead to their social ostracism. This is based on the fact that human beings are essentially social animals. If an individual's good reputation in the society where she lives, and on which she depends economically and psychologically, is destroyed, that is a significant injury. Arguably, this should extend to true revelations to the public about individuals' private lives: the mass media can be experienced as intrusive and powerful organisations, capable of oppressing individual citizens, no matter how wealthy or prominent.

All this conceded, the law of defamation in its current form is absurdly overprotective. Beyond the narrow areas where it is legitimate to protect individuals from social ostracism or the unfair destruction of careers, robust public debate should be permitted. This includes the acceptance of harsh criticism and satire - especially when these are aimed at the policies and public activities (not the private lives) of public officials and candidates for public office.

It should go without saying, I hope, that it also includes criticism of ideas, doctrines, institutions, etc., though of course there can be some grey areas, as when a particular individual is closely associated with the policies adopted by an institution.

If you support restoring some balance in the UK jurisdiction - which affects us all, as we can all be sued there if our material is published in the UK - maybe start by having a look here. Then think about signing the associated petition.

You might then want to consider free speech activism in your own jurisdiction. Free speech is under attack from many sides, and there is a shortage of strong, articulate advocates on its behalf.

Latest on the move

Normal transmission on this blog will return eventually, I promise!

We have now moved fully from Melbourne to Newcastle. We had the removalists in on Wednesday, and they came back for some last things - notably the bed we'd slept in - on Thursday morning. We drove up on Thursday, arriving about 9.30 or 10.00 pm, and our stuff arrived on Friday - first of all our furniture and something like 70 or 80 boxes (of which about 60 remain unpacked) 100 boxes (of which about 80 remain unpacked), and then Felix late in the afternoon.

It's now pretty chaotic here, with the furniture in roughly the right places, most of the kitchen stuff and computer stuff unpacked, but most of the rest still in boxes. We don't even have enough shelves for all the books, as a lot were in built-in shelves in our Melbourne place. All this means that I'll be looking on long blog posts as a bit of a luxury for some time to come, and they will be fairly rare (not totally extinct, however).

Over the next few days, we'll work through some more of the boxes, and buy some large items that we decided to replace rather than transport - e.g. we now need a new washing machine. We'll also be catching up with friends and loved ones. It's all exciting, but yes, there's plenty of chaos to try to turn into order.

Edited for recount of boxes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Abstract of paper on radical life extension

The following is the abstract of my paper "Moral pluralism versus the total view: why Singer is wrong about radical life extension", just published in The Journal of Medical Ethics :

Peter Singer has argued that we should not proceed with a hypothetical life-extension drug, based on a scenario in which developing the drug would fail to achieve the greatest sum of happiness over time. However, this is the wrong test. If we ask, more simply, which policy would be more benevolent, we reach a different conclusion from Singer’s: even given his (admittedly questionable) scenario, development of the drug should go ahead. Singer’s rigorous utilitarian position pushes him in the direction of an implausible “total view” utilitarianism when it encounters the problems presented by certain thought experiments. A more pluralistic account of the nature of morality promises to solve these problems, and in this case it reaches a benevolent recommendation on life-extension technology.

I argue that, given the kind of scenario stipulated by Singer, we should proceed to develop the life-extension drug.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Apocalypse now

Removalists arrive in an hour. Packing and loading take place today, except for very some last things in the morning. Truck drives up to Newcastle tomorrow, as do we. Almost time to say farewell to Melbourne, though we'll doubtless still be spending a lot of our time down here for various reasons.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Parliament of the World's Religions - the gist of what I plan to say

I want to make two or three points:

(1) There is no one theory of the good or version of the good life that fits all.

(2) There may be some values that I and/or most secularists stress - kindness, sympathy, reason and science, creativity, individual freedom, tolerance of difference.

(3) But the essential thing is the need for us all, from within our comprehensive views of the world, to abjure the use of state power to impose our contestable views of the good on others. We should stick with persuasion. Secularists should take this view (though they don't always) and so should religious people (though they often do not). This would include freedom of religion but also much more, such as free speech and the Millian harm principle. Reasonable religious people should sign on to a framework of secular political principles such as these. If they don't, they will be regarded as unreasonable by liberal secularists and will have to take the consequences of that.

Monday, December 07, 2009

My considered opinion on Robert Wright's new article in Foreign Policy

I take no delight in the impolite spite of Robby Wright. His screed is in need of some serious mothereffin’ rigour. It’s got vigour, but I figure that it’s not worth a widow’s mite – no! It’s kind of a slow bleed of real thought. It’s caught up short in the nets of error. It’s trite ... a kind of thinking-lite. Yo! An unpedigreed stampede of special pleading for creeds and misdeeds and the seeds of religious terror ... all keyed to mislead. It’s like Wright has smoked too much weed or got too greedy, and now he’s a satellite. An acolyte. A parasite on superstition. So ... he’s turned off the light of reason, looking for a coming season when it gets him a treasonous prize that he jealously eyes, an unrighteous type of commission. His ambition has made him unwise: so now he’s a temporiser, when he ought to be a despiser and a pulveriser. A mighty criticiser. No, no. It’s a hideous sight, a benighted blight that we need to fight without inhibition. If we proceed, we're guaranteed to succeed and lead to its demolition!

What I think of Dick Gross's piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald

I'm feelin' kinda cross when I read that screed of motherfuckin' dross by Dicky Gross. Yeah! It's fairy-floss! It's a total loss. The guy is a tosser. An embosser. His job is a rort. He hasn't really thought. He ought to do some kind of investigation. Haha! Put his mind to some real examination of the motherfuckin' facts. Right now, it's fraught with cracks. It's just too lax.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Aurealis Awards finalists


best science fiction novel

Andrew McGahan, Wonders of a Godless World, Allen & Unwin

Sean Williams, The Grand Conjunction, Astropolis Book Three, Orbit

best science fiction short story

Peter M. Ball, ‘Clockwork, Patchwork and Ravens’, Apex Magazine May 2009

Peter M. Ball, ‘To Dream of Stars: An Astronomer's Lament’, Apex Magazine October 2009

Christopher Green, ‘A Hundredth Name’, Abyss & Apex Magazine #31

Greg Mellor, ‘Defence of the Realm’, Cosmos #25

Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn, ‘Soulmates’ Asimov's September 2009

best fantasy novel

Peter M. Ball, Horn, Twelfth Planet Press

Trudi Canavan, Magician's Apprentice, Orbit

Glenda Larke, The Last Stormlord, HarperVoyager

K.E. Mills, Witches Incorporated, HarperVoyager

K.J. Taylor, The Dark Griffin, HarperVoyager

best fantasy short story

Christopher Green, ‘Father’s Kill’, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #24

Ian McHugh, 'Once a Month, On a Sunday’, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #40, Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative Ltd

Tansy Rayner Roberts, ‘Siren Beat’, Roadkill/Siren Beat, Twelfth Planet Press

Angela Slatter, ‘Words’ The Lifted Brow #5

Lucy Sussex, ‘Something Better than Death’, Aurealis #42, Chimaera Publications

best horror novel

Peter M. Ball, Horn, Twelfth Planet Press

Honey Brown, Red Queen, Penguin Australia

Stephen M. Irwin, The Dead Path, Hachette Australia

Tracey O’Hara, Night's Cold Kiss, HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Kaaron Warren. Slights, Angry Robot Books

best horror short story

Felicity Dowker, ‘Jesse's Gift’, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #40, Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative Ltd

Christopher Green, 'Having Faith', Nossa Morte, February 2009

Paul Haines, 'Wives', X6, Coeur de Lion Publishing

Paul Haines, 'Slice of Life - A Spot of Liver', Slice of Life, The Mayne Press

Andrew J. McKiernan, 'The Message', Midnight Echoes, Australian Horror Writers Association

best anthology

Alisa Krasnostein (editor), New Ceres Nights, Twelfth Planet Press

Keith Stevenson (editor), X6, Coeur de Lion Publishing

Jonathan Strahan (editor), Eclipse 2, Night Shade Books

Jonathan Strahan (editor), Eclipse 3, Night Shade Books

Jonathan Strahan (editor), The New Space Opera 2, Harper Eos

best collection

Deborah Biancotti & Alisa Krasnostein (editors), A Book of Endings, Twelfth Planet Press

Greg Egan, Oceanic, Gollancz

Paul Haines & Geoff Maloney (editors), Slice of Life, The Mayne Press

Robbie Matthews & Donna Hanson (editors), Johnny Phillips Werewolf Detective, Australian Speculative Fiction

best illustated book/graphic novel

Nathan Jurevicius, Scarygirl, Allen & Unwin

Bruce Mutard, The Silence, Allen & Unwin

Emily Rodda & Marc McBride, Secrets of Deltora, Scholastic Australia

Madeleine Rosca, Hollow Fields, Seven Seas Entertainment

best young adult novel

Kate Forsyth, The Puzzle Ring, Pan Macmillan

Cassandra Golds, The Museum of Mary Child, Puffin Books

Glenda Millard, A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, Allen & Unwin

Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan Trilogy: Book One, Penguin

Sean Williams, Scarecrow, HarperCollins Publishers Australia

best young adult short story

Joanne Anderton, ‘Dragon Bones’, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #39, Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative Ltd

Sue Isle, ‘Paper Dragons’, Shiny #5, Twelfth Planet Press

Ian McHugh, ‘Once a Month, on a Sunday’, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #40, Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative Ltd

Tansy Rayner Roberts, ‘Like Us, Shiny #5, Twelfth Planet Press

Cat Sparks, ‘Seventeen’, Masques, CSFG

best children’s novel

Deborah Abela, The Remarkable Secret of Aurelie Bonhoffen, Random House Australia

Kate Constable, Cicada Summer, Allen & Unwin

Jen Storer, Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children, Penguin/Viking

Gabrielle Wang, A Ghost in My Suitcase, Puffin Books

best children’s illustrated work/picture book

Graeme Base, Enigma, Penguin/Viking

Anna Fienberg (author), Kim Gamble (illustrator), Tashi and the Golem, Allen & Unwin

Pamela Freeman (author), Kim Gamble (illustrator), Victor's Challenge, Walker Books Australia

Dan McGuiness, Pilot and Huxley, Omnibus Books

Gregory Rogers, The Hero of Little Street, Allen & Unwin

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Jollimore on Armstrong

First, I tip my hat to Jerry Coyne for blogging about this superb review by Troy Jollimore of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Jollimore dissects Armstrong's work brilliantly, and Coyne's discussion is absolutely right.

Says Jollimore:

She is entirely correct that atheistic critiques aimed at naive strict literalist readings of holy texts can take us only so far. Mocking the angry, cruel, unjust deity of the Old Testament, or reminding literalists that the world is considerably more than 4,000 [Russell: this should be 6000, but that doesn't affect the point] years old, has little force against the moderate, nonfundamentalist faithful. More powerful skeptical critiques, though, do not presuppose Scriptural literalism. They rely on the Darwinian view of how complex life evolved on this planet, or the existence of serious evil and injustice—things that are well-established and pretty much impossible reasonably to deny and, at the same time, extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with any view of God-as-designer/caretaker, or with any other traditional form of theistic belief.

He then says, in response to the idea that religion is not about belief:

Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than “mere” belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient. What must be shown is that religion does not involve belief, and not merely that it involves other things in addition to belief. So long as religious worldviews differ in certain important ways from that held by the nonreligious, one can still complain that that worldview is poorly founded and, to a large degree, implausible.

Perhaps most importantly:

[Armstrong's] rejection of the theistic God, and acknowledgment that the problem of evil cannot be swept away through theodicy, might sound like music to atheists’ ears. And what could any skeptic find objectionable about revelation once we accept Maximus’ view that “[p]aradoxical as it might sound, the purpose of revelation was to tell us that we knew nothing about God”? Surely if this view were widely accepted the most serious problems with religion would simply dissipate. Would people who admitted that they “knew nothing about” God’s will support laws to prevent “unholy” same-sex marriages? Would people who saw God as “that mystery, which defies description” be moved to reject Darwinian views of evolution, contra all the available evidence?

Yes, if religion generally took a non-literalist form that involved such modest admissions of not knowing, together with an unwillingness to impose an oppressive morality via the coercive power of the state ... then I, for one, would have no problem with it. Indeed, I do have no problem with religious people who are like that (as I've said repeatedly on this blog). But that is not typical of religion in the world today. On the contrary, religious leaders typically claim epistemic and moral authority, and they do not hesitate to call on the secular arm to force their miserable, oppressive moralities on others, even non-believers.

The estimable Jerry Coyne is on a roll this week. He's been commanding in his replies to supposedly "sophisticated" theologies such as those of John Haught and Karen Armstrong. Commenting on Jollimore's piece, he says:

Where, I ask, is all the sophisticated theology that we atheists are supposed to have ignored? All the stuff I read — Eagleton, Haught, Armstrong, ad nauseum, is laughable: pathetic attempts to rationalize the existence of God in a world where he not only refuses to exhibit himself, but runs the show as if he doesn’t care.

For myself, I have only one quibble with Jollimore. There is one point where I think he is too quick to dismiss an argument from Armstrong that actually has some force. He quotes Armstrong as saying:

Nor, like Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus, do [the new atheists] face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the means of creating a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work.

Put this way, the argument is surely simplistic. For a start, it is not at all clear that the New Atheists are so naive. Nor is it obvious that "people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work" are stuck with a choice between religion and nihilism and its dreadful "effect" (whatever this is - I wish Armstrong would tell us). On the contrary, many people who are not high-powered scientists or academics, or creative spirits of one kind or another, are able to live happy and meaningful lives without religion, so Armstrong is exaggerating here. Nonetheless, I think there's a legitimate point somewhere in the vicinity.

Jollimore replies:

Richard Dawkins, for one, has written quite movingly, in “Unweaving the Rainbow” and elsewhere, on the way an appreciation of the nature of the universe, as revealed by science, can inspire and inform a sense of wonder and meaning. There is no apparent reason to assume that skepticism must inevitably lead to nihilism. Nor, for that matter, should we assume that a religion based on an ineffable, unreachable mystery of which we know nothing, and which does not even exist in any sense of “exist” that makes sense to us, will be an effective stay against nihilism. Armstrong takes the link between religion and meaningfulness to be too obvious to be worth spelling out. In fact the link is not obvious at all; it is merely conventional - a matter of so-called common sense.

Well, I agree that the link is not obvious, and nor does it apply in every case. Nor, at its worst, need it lead to anything as extreme as nihilism. For all that, I think that we need to take care with this one. Religion can fulfil psychological needs that may be difficult to fulfil in other ways - at least for some people. Writing in another context, about "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus, I put this quite strongly:

The dynamics of our society's cultural development often seem to involve an interplay between those who accept something like the vision expressed in "The Myth of Sisyphus" and those who find it either incomprehensible or too frightening to contemplate. However, those who accept it might ask themselves how society would need to evolve before the absurdity described by Camus could be psychologically tolerable for ordinary people with ordinary problems and commitments.

I stand by that. The full force of existential absurdity may well be difficult for many people to face. There's a risk, of course, that we might patronise these people and offer them religion as a noble lie, something I don't suggest. But we should at least consider their interests, and try to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. Some of us may find it easy to obtain a sense of meaning simply from our human-scale involvements - from such things as loving, and being loved by, important people in our lives. It is understandable, however, if others seek comfort from a view of the world that offers intuitive meaning, unfailing consolation, and transcendent hope, the very things that are not, alas, found in any clear-sighted understanding of the human condition. Camus was right about that.

Of course, Dawkins and Jollimore are correct that science opens up wondrous vistas, but, then again, scientific explanations can easily defy, or defeat, our comprehension. Indeed, there may simply be no coherent way for beings like us to make intuitive sense of the mathematical formalisms of our deepest theories - I'm thinking here of quantum mechanics. It is one thing to be told by Camus that the universe does not suffer or yearn as we do, that it is indifferent to us and alien to our emotions. That's all too true, as far as it goes. It's another to investigate what science has to offer ... and then realise that we cannot understand the ultimate workings of the cosmos at all. On any plausible interpretation of the facts, it's mind-boggling. It leads to psychological vertigo.

Dawkins does a wonderful job of describing the amazing phenomena revealed by science, but his success at this does not prove that the scientific picture should be enough for ordinary people who seek to live meaningful lives within human societies. With great lucidity, he has expressed his delight in the true explanation of a rainbow and in the fact that, "on the time-scale of [a] trilobite" the distant past described in ancient myth and epic is "scarcely yesterday". But although this is important, it can take us only so far.

I don't see any simple or complete answer to the problem. Without such an answer, however, traditional religious views of the world will never entirely lose their hold on large numbers of ordinary people who find science insufficient for their emotional needs.

Of course, I have no respect for the false certainties offered by traditional religion, especially when religious organisations and leaders attempt to impose their views by means of secular force. Too much is at stake for us to succumb to this. The ubiquitous bullying from cardinals, preachers, imams, and god-men is completely unacceptable and must be resisted with all our intelligence and passion. But we must also work - gradually and realistically - towards a world in which religious certainties are not so relevant, and their loss is not so poignant. And we need compassion for religious people who find it hard to let go.

All that said, Jollimore does a superb job in showing how Armstrong's view of religion fails to add up. It provides neither a stable solution to the quest for meaning nor a sustainable political modus vivendi. Indeed, Jollimore points out, the subjectivist element in Armstrong's thinking could even license fanatism and mutual intolerance.

Do read the entire review; despite my one quibble, where I think somewhat more needs to be said, Jollimore is eminently sensible. His is, as Coyne is astute to notice, a valuable voice in contemporary debates about science and religion.

Edit: I see that Ophelia Benson has also blogged usefully about this - perhaps even before Jerry Coyne did.

Friday, December 04, 2009

You too can write like this!

The epistemology of history as such asks to be read as the legitimation of the nation-state. However, the emergence of desire invests itself in the authentication of the gendered body. At the same time, the eroticization of post-capitalist hegemony replays (in parodic form) the systemization of agency, and the eroticization of normative value(s) is homologous with the construction of the image. Accordingly, the logic of praxis invests itself in the fantasy of the public sphere.

Thus, I conclude that (first) the poetics of pop culture asks to be read as the discourse of pedagogical institutions. And (second) it is all too clear that the linguistic construction of desire, which has become so familiar in the modern age, under late capitalism, invests itself in the engendering of the image.


Just go here to learn how to write like that, and you'll be fine.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Jenny's trip report - WFC

Jenny and I attended the World Fantasy Convention, in San Jose, at the end of October, with Jen going over a few days ahead of me. We had a great time, and I can totally recommend this annual convention as a superb place to make friends and do business.

Jenny was one of the judges for the World Fantasy Awards this time round. She says:

"Well, I hope I was a good judge for the World Fantasy Awards 2009. My lovely fellow-judges (Chris Roberson, Delia Sherman, Ellen Klages and Peter Heck, all rather better-known than me) seemed confident that our judging got the special Big Elephant Stamp of Fantasy Approval."

Read on ...

Ophelia Benson on divine hiddenness.

"One compelling reason not to believe the standard-issue God exists is the conspicuous fact that no one knows anything at all about it. That’s a tacit part of the definition of God – a supernatural being that no one knows anything about. The claims that are made about God bear no resemblance to genuine knowledge. This becomes immediately apparent if you try adding details to God’s CV: God is the eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient creator of the universe, and has blue eyes. You see how it works. Eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient are all simply ideal characteristics that a God ought to have; blue eyes, on the other hand, are particular, and if you say God has them it suddenly becomes obvious that no one knows that, and by implication that no one knows anything else either."

Read on.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Pamela Sargent reviews The Priestess and the Slave

I missed this great (if brief) review of Jenny's The Priestess and the Slave when it appeared earlier in the year. Have a look.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Evolutionary arms race

The barfly is involved in a fierce evolutionary arms race against the lounge lizard, much like cheetahs are against gazelles (or perhaps I should have put that the other way around). I just thought I'd pass on this well-known fact for those few who were unaware. Jerry Coyne has never revealed the point on his blog, so the responsibility has fallen on me.

If I were more artistic, I'd create an illustration to make the point more powerfully. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. If anyone provides a suitable one with no copyright issues, I'll reward him or her by displaying it here. (Think of this as a competition if you like.)